I. Steve's vision is swimming. He's running through the forest, but it's getting hard not to knock into a tree. The soldiers are behind him. They're out of ammo, Steve's almost sure—they would've shot him by now otherwise—but it's not of much help to him now, if he falls.
He wills himself to keep going. He turns right, tries to loose them. He pushes himself off the trees trunks as he runs. The wound in his arm keeps bleeding.
There's a shot. Two.
He stops moving, and waits for the pain to register.
“Well,” someone says. “That looked close.”
It's with some effort that Steve understands someone must've shot his enemies. He turns to where the voice comes from. A man Steve's age stands to his left, his blue eyes amused. Steve must be in a sort of a dazed shock.
He can't even make himself check the man's clothes, see what side of the war he might be on. He can't move.
He passes out.
He wakes up next to a fire, his own jacket draped over him. The sky is dark, the forest little more than shadows of trees. Despite the fire, he's still cold, but it's an improvement over his situation a few hours ago, that's for sure. He wants to move closer to the fire, but he stops himself. He has to learn where he is first—or, more importantly, who started the fire. The mere fact that he's alive says that whoever it was, probably has good intentions, but it never hurts to be careful.
Trying not to move too obviously, he looks around. He sees the man who saved him sitting on the other side of the fire, scribbling in a notebook. This time Steve sees he's got a blue uniform jacket of his own. That's probably why he helped him, Steve muses. He decides it's safe enough.
"Thanks for the help," he says, sitting up. Pain flashes in his arm at the motion, and he doesn't quite manage to stop a hiss escaping his mouth.
The other man turns his head to face him. He's got a ridiculous moustache that still somehow looks attractive on him. "I patched you up best I could," he says, "but you'll need a few days off."
“Thank you,” Steve repeats stupidly. He raises his hand as if to touch his arm, but instead touches it to his neck, feels for the chain around it, feels immediate relief when he finds it. If he'd lost it . . .
"No problem," the man drawls. "That pendant you wear is nice.” So he noticed what Steve was checking for. “Your gun, however, is shit."
Steve instinctively reaches to his belt, but there's no point, the stranger is lifting it up from the ground next to him.
He waves the gun. "This. You're lucky it didn't jam on you."
Steve straightens up, ignoring the pain. "Served me well enough."
"I can see that, Irishman. Or will you give me a name?"
The other man flashes him a grin. "Nice to meet you. Tony Stark."
His ramblings about the gun suddenly make sense. "The Tony Stark?" Steve asks to make sure.
"You won't have to use such a shitty gun again," Stark promises. "Now sleep. I'm better with machines than people."
“So what have you been doing here all by your lonesome?” Stark asks when they eat supper. It's his food, and tastes much better than what Steve's gotten accustomed to during the war.
“I could ask the same,” Steve says. “You're not a soldier.”
It's not a question. Tony Stark is too valuable to put him in the field. Steve's brigade doesn't get the newest weapons, but he's heard praise for Stark guns often enough.
Stark flashes him a smile. “No, but I'm a good shot.”
“And I'm grateful for that.” Steve chews his meat for a while. “I was on recon,” he says. "I got separated from my men, I was trying to get back."
Stark nods. “I wouldn't have expected Confederate soldiers here,” he says. “I was on my way back to New York.” He doesn't offer any more explanation of what he was doing here, and Steve doesn't ask. He'd been lucky to run into Stark when he did; he won't question it.
“We were going there for restocking,” Steve says. "They should be there by now."
“Irish Brigade?” Tony asks.
“However did you guess.”
Tony laughs, good-naturedly. “Fair enough. We're going in one direction, then.”
It's always good to have company, but the warmth Steve feels at Stark's words seems like more than just gratitude for companionship.
He stares into the fire. The flames jump, the smoke going up in grey twirls; the wind playing with it.
"Although I should insist on staying here another day," Stark speaks up again after a while. "I don't want to have to carry you."
"I'm fine," Steve protests. He's not going to be a burden.
Stark shoots him a look. "I'm not in a hurry," he says. He nods his head in the direction where he left his notebook. "I can do my work here as well as in my office, for now." He hesitates. "Maybe better. No one here to bother me."
"Except me," Steve smiles at him.
Stark laughs again. "You're rather kind of a pleasant distraction." He smiles too, easy and inviting, and Steve feels hot all over.
He gathers his thoughts. "Not sure about that," he answers, and continues before Stark's smile has a chance to waver. "You won't even let me walk."
Stark shakes his head, looking amused. "Fair enough. But that means you will stay and rest."
"Guess I have no choice, Mister Stark."
"I could say I like hearing that title, but no," Stark says. "Call me Tony."
Tony. Steve tries it out in his mind. It's—somehow more. It strips away one of the layers of distance between them, and Steve thinks he should be careful.
"Tony," he says aloud. "Call me Steve."
"I hoped you'd say that." Tony tilts his head, and he's watching Steve with some interest.
Careful, Steve thinks again. But Tony doesn't invite carefulness, quite the contrary. Steve wants to take that leap. More than that, Steve wants to trust him.
He's a mere soldier in a war, and Tony's their main weapons manufacturer. There's no place for trust here.
Except, Steve thinks as he touches the bandage on his arm, somehow there is.
Tony's eyes snap to his arm at that. "Sorry," he says. "I'm sorry, that must still hurt, I shouldn't be—"
Steve's confused for a split second before he understands—Tony's just seen him touching the wound on his arm, the wound Tony's dressed, he must've thought Steve was in pain and not considering . . . It's not important what he was considering.
It's an easy out, but Steve doesn't want to take it. He stays silent a bit too long, clearly, because Tony looks at his face and then back at his arm and asks, "May I", and Steve has no idea what he means, but he nods anyway.
Tony moves to his side quickly. He touches Steve's arm softly, and it doesn't hurt, but it makes Steve shiver. His fingers are cold.
"Sorry," Tony whispers. "I just—" He carefully looks at the bandage he made. "It's not bleeding through," he says. "I'd look at the wound, but if it's not bleeding it probably is fine, and I think it'd be better to redress it in the morning." For all that he speaks quickly, there's weird hesitation in his voice.
Steve feels guilty for worrying him this much. "I'm fine," he says. Tony looks doubtful. "Really, I am. I just—I got lost in my thoughts."
Tony squats in front of him. His eyes are very blue. He looks serious, more serious than Steve's seen him yet. "And I hope the thoughts were about me," he says, just a flicker of humour passing over his face, "but you are injured and you do need sleep."
The moment of—whatever it was—is over, clearly, but just as clearly it is not closed. They might return to it.
Steve thinks he'd like that. And for now, he will listen to Tony and sleep.
"Good night then," he says.
"Good night, Steve," Tony replies.
II. The battle in Kirksville is hard. It's bloody and ugly. Steve's only ever wanted to help people, not fight those who could've been his neighbours. It's been two years, but he's still not quite used to that idea. Maybe he never will be. He's not sure he even wants to.
They win, and he's not badly injured by the end of it, but he's dead-tired, and not really in a good mood.
He doesn't notice Fury until he almost walks into him, and then he belatedly straightens and salutes.
“Rogers, you okay?” Fury asks.
"Yes, sir." He's not hurt. His mood doesn't matter. He's still standing, which means he's more than okay. Not everyone is that lucky.
“We've got a shipment of supplies coming in—mostly medical supplies. Stark insisted on that, since they couldn't get here in time to give us weaponry for the fight anyway.”
“So I'm on the warehouse duty,” Steve comments. "Sir."
“Go make sure everything's in order there,” Fury says, and that's it.
Stark, though . . . So Tony was thinking about things like sending them more bandages than guns, after the battle? A strange notion for an arms-dealer, but not one Steve's surprised by, not after their last meeting. He's weirdly relieved that that Tony, caring and worried about people, was not just a one-time thing.
Steve gets to the train station just before the train arrives. There aren't any markings on the boxcars—probably for the best. There's not telling what will get attacked these days, but a train that had the Stark Industries logo all over it would be a sure bet.
A man jumps out of the first car the moment the train stops. Steve recognises Tony—tired, pale, with his goatee closer to an actual beard, but definitely Tony.
“Fancy meeting you here,” Steve says before he can stop himself.
Tony turns to him then. A small smile appears on his face, but it does nothing to hide how stressed and exhausted he looks. “The least I could do was make sure you're all right.”
What is he going on about? The least? “You're helping the soldiers everywhere," Steve says. “Your weapons—”
“And what about here?” Tony asks calmly, spreading his hands wide. “You didn't get them. When we met, your gun was shit, and I doubt the rest of your brigade is any better off—or some other unit; I didn't know it'd be you here. Preparing new weapons will take time, but bandages, this I can help with immediately. So if the choice is between some general yelling at me about it—even though we won here—and not getting these here, well. Here I am. I hope it'll help.”
His notebook is sticking out of his pocket. He looks like hasn't slept in ages. There's a sort of manic energy to his every gesture that Steve associates with sleep deprivation. It's like he actually argued with the generals, got on the train himself, and designed new guns all the way here. One man can only work so much, Steve thinks. “You need rest,” he says, because it's obvious.
Tony sighs. He looks sad. “I don't have time for that.”
“Let me help,” Steve offers. "I have to unpack the supplies, that's my job anyway, and I have nothing to do until we're back in New York, so . . .” He's not even sure what he's offering. He just knows he doesn't want to leave Tony alone.
Tony shakes head. “Believe me when I say there's nothing else I'd rather do, but—I'm not going back to New York. I have to meet some of your generals in field.” He winces. “Explain why some of their ideas just aren't plausible. That'll be nice. At least the train goes there and I can avoid riding horse for hours.” It's more like he's babbling to himself than really talking to Steve, but Steve doesn't mind. Tony's obviously on his last legs, and Steve hates to see it—but it's good to see him like that, too, to see that here's an industrialist who cares about more than just his money. Their first meeting showed Steve a glimpse, and now he's certain.
“Okay,” Steve says. “I'll handle things here. Just tell me what's in which car, and then you can catch an hour for yourself.”
Tony looks at him like he's trying to guess why Steve offers him that, like the idea that Steve just wants to take care of him—like he did of Steve—doesn't even appear in his mind.
Finally he nods. “Thank you, Steve,” he says seriously. There's none of his jokes and smiles here, and Steve misses them—but there's something in how Tony trusts him to do the job well that makes him smile anyway.
Steve relays the information on what to do with which supplies to his soldiers, and then sets about helping them himself. It'll be quicker this way, and he doesn't want to stand around while men just as, if not more exhausted as he is work.
When Steve's done with unpacking—a dull job—and has made sure the field doctors are well-supplied, he sets out to find Tony.
He finds him still on the train, in the first car. He's pale, asleep huddled over his notebook like he was trying to work before exhaustion won out.
Steve takes a deep breath. He reaches out and shakes Tony awake. He should speak to Fury, and better Steve wake him than anyone else.
Tony's awake and alert in seconds flat. "That's a nicer view than what I usually wake up to," Tony drawls.
"Why, Mister Stark," Steve says, drawing out the title playfully. "I just spent two days on a battlefield—I'm worried about the view from your bed."
Tony laughs. It sounds honest this time. "Come and make it better," he suggests.
So they're right where they left off. Steve's pretty sure he doesn't mind. There's something about Tony that makes it hard to pull away.
"I would," he says, and he thinks it's too soon to admit that.
"But I just told you I'm leaving New York," Tony finishes for him. Steve almost jerks away. He hadn't—he'd forgotten that, for a short while; he'd wanted to see what Tony would say. Tony sighs. "Right. Generals are decidedly less fun." Then he looks at Steve and smiles honestly again. "Good thing we're bound to be in New York at the same time again."
Steve smiles back. "Deal."
It's a promise. He wants to see Tony again. He's pretty sure Tony wants to see him, too.
III. Tony's gone back to New York. There's one big advantage—he's definitely safe there, surrounded by troops and probably in the middle of the most secure building in the city—but Steve misses him. He misses his voice, his laugh, his eyes. He misses waking up at night to find someone next to him—sure, there are all his fellow soldiers, but no one is Tony.
And they're all expecting him to be happy to be out of the baby-sitting duty, as they called his assignment. His new brigade is a mix of soldiers from all backgrounds, meant for more careful operations. He was happy to hear his task was to protect Tony Stark at his trips inspecting weaponry in the field, but even then he had to hide it, pretend to complain.
He's letting his hand run free over the rough paper and he doesn't realise what he's sketching until he actually looks and sees Tony's face. He thinks he shouldn't be surprised—but he should check himself more often. This is dangerous. There are men in this camp that wouldn't hesitate to lynch him without trial.
The portrait is nothing like the real Tony. Steve knows he's a decent artist, but for all that he has good memory, it's not the same as drawing with a model. He also suspects that even if he asked Tony to pose for him, he wouldn't manage to capture him on paper, not really. Too much about Tony is in his movements, barely restrained energy, the way it's obvious he's always thinking.
Tony's too busy to waste his time posing, anyway. The army needs his inventions, and Steve would rather he rested when he has time—but the idea of him sitting still, just letting Steve draw him, the idea of being able to freely look at him still takes Steve's breath away.
“Hey,” Sam calls. “Did you meet a lady the last time you were in New York?”
Steve flinches. “No,” he answers, shutting his sketchbook.
Sam tilts his head. “That's a yes if I've ever heard one,” he says.
“No,” Steve snaps. He—no.
Sam's look turns sympathetic. Steve has no idea what he imagines—maybe the daughter of a general, maybe something else entirely—and he hopes this is the end of this conversation.
Tony's a good friend. Sometimes, in his worse moments, Steve still wonders why a man of Tony's position would pay any attention to a random Irish officer. But Tony—Tony's way more than a good friend. And Steve is fine with that. More—more is always on the table, but they don't seem in a hurry to reach for it. Steve wants it, but he's enjoying what they have now too much to want to change it.
“You can talk to me, you know,” Sam says quietly.
Steve feels a pang of guilt. Sam only means well, but he has no idea what he's asking. “Yeah,” he lies. “But there's no one.” It feels bad in his mouth. Tony isn't no one. Steve cares for him in a way he can't explain. That more . . . He's not sure they need it. They have everything that matters already. Steve glances at Sam. He's assembling his gun, and it doesn't help Steve take his mind off Tony. “What?” he asks. “Are you so intent on the topic because you've met someone?”
Sam laughs. “I wish,” he says. “But I won't be getting any love letters anytime soon.”
“That makes the two of us,” Steve tells him. He's gotten a bunch of letters from Tony—normally short, just asking, heard about a battle, how are you, and Steve knows them for I'm worried, please write to me soon, be safe, Steve.
Sam nods with the air of a man who's entirely unconvinced and knows better anyway.
Sam shrugs. He inserts the magazine with a click. “Man, these Stark guns are good,” he says. “I suppose we have you to thank for that.”
Steve tightens his grip on the pencil. The sudden topic change was meant to put him at ease, he knows that. He forces himself to smile, doesn't think of Tony's hand in his as he led him through the factory. “My natural charm,” he says, and Sam laughs.
Tony isn't a soldier, but even before talking to Steve, he knew what was necessary and what was just a stupid idea. And whatever is there between them, it doesn't matter when Fury sends Steve as a liaison. Tony can be the very picture of formality, and Steve appreciates that. "He knows what he's doing," Steve says after a while.
"What, are you saying you got the best job after all?" Sam jokes.
Steve knows he did, but that doesn't matter. "Nah. Still a hell of a lot of documents to fill and running to and fro with them. It's just Stark's the least problematic part."
"Uh huh," Sam says.
"Whatever," Steve says. "I've two days free and you want to talk about duty."
"Clint's in love with his new rifle," Sam says with a grin.
Steve groans. "Really?"
"Sorry, man, I couldn't stop myself."
"So how was your assignment?" Steve asks pointedly.
"Eh, you know, after a few rounds some point assembling and disassembling these—" he points at the guns "— became fun. I haven't found a single faulty one. Repetitive, but easy. Could be worse."
"But all day in a warehouse," Steve says with compassion. He knows how Sam loves to be outside. They keep joking he's adopted a falcon, but the fact remains—the bird comes down for him and just for him. It's practically the unit's mascot at this point.
"Yeah, that was a pain," Sam admits. "At least now we're out of there."
"Till the next call," Steve says. He prefers the quiet of the camp to being called to a battlefield again. He will go—he swore his oath. But it doesn't mean he has to like it.
He reaches up to the shield pendant on his neck. His family is long gone—but if nothing else, he'll keep Tony safe.
He doesn't need anything else.
"Hey," Sam says. "We'll be fine. No need for prayers."
"It's not—" Steve stops himself. He's not in a mood to explain he wasn't praying, not then. It was . . . too private.
"Sorry," Sam says. "I know it's whatever gets you through this. I just don't like to see you worried. You were so optimistic when this started."
"And so were you," Steve answers.
The war changes people. Sam will never be as carefree as he used to, and neither will Steve. It's on them what they'll do with that change.
He reaches for his pendant again and thinks of Tony.
IV. Steve walks around Tony's factory with an honest curiosity. It's not so much about what they're building, though—he's busy watching Tony.
Tony's different here. He's always seemed open and rather proud of his inventions, yes, but here, in his factory, where his laboratories and workshops are, he's almost bouncing with excitement.
“I design a lot,” Tony says, “but what I really like to do is build. Engines.” He shakes his head, his expression shifting to something almost sad. “Not much time for that now. It's weapons and more weapons.”
“You're helping hundreds of people,” Steve says, and Tony smiles at him.
“Yeah. Yeah I am.” Steve already knows him well enough to know there's a but at the end of the sentence, because Tony always thinks he can do more.
“You helped me,” Steve reminds him, and Tony's smile grows that much more honest.
“Best decision of my life, wasn't it?" Tony's said similar things before, but always as easy to wave off jokes. This—this sounds serious, and he shakes his head almost immediately after saying it. "Come on, there's something here for you.”
Steve raises his eyebrows in a silent question.
"It's a surprise. Well, not really, you'll see. Come on."
Steve smiles and follows Tony. He likes spending time with him. That much isn't a secret. He wouldn't mind . . . more, and he knows Tony wouldn't either. They've danced around it every time they've met, and Steve is fine with that too.
He likes Tony. This, perhaps, is even more dangerous.
“Mister Stark, this area is off limits,” a soldier says. Steve looks around. He'd stopped paying attention to their surroundings, focused on Tony as he was, and now he understands they've reached a security checkpoint. “The general said—”
“He's my guest, let him be,” Tony snaps, and then he grabs Steve's hand and leads him to the back of the warehouse.
"Won't it be a problem?" Steve does his best not to look back over his shoulder, not to turn Tony's grip on his hand into a more mutual (and more damning) hand clasp.
"You're a Union soldier, my Irish friend," Tony tells him. "And this is my factory."
He pulls Steve further in, to a small room, and opens it with a key from his pocket.
“I've worked on this the last few times I've been here,” he's saying. “It took me some time, but I promised, didn't I?”
Steve wants to ask, but then he sees it—a small revolver, similar to a Starr, and yet the barrel and stock look different. There's a small star on the handle. He has no doubts that the gun is meant for him. Because of an off-hand promise Tony made when they met, and with a pattern he saw once, on Steve's pendant, and somehow he'd understood the symbol itself was important to him.
Steve doesn't know what to say. The pendant is a cold weight of metal against his chest. He focuses on that for now. He wants to touch the gun, pick it up, see how it feels in his hand but he's not sure if he's allowed to just yet.
“Go on,” Tony says quietly, like he knows what Steve's thinking.
Maybe he does, on a deeper level; how else could they have ended up here?
Steve lifts the revolver—it fits his palm perfectly, and it's very light, but the balance is right.
“We have a range if you want to try it,” Tony offers, but for now Steve just looks at it. It seems . . . elegant, like a piece of art and not a tool of murder, and only Tony could've done that.
Steve doesn't need to fire it to know that the recoil will be minimal, and he doesn't need to fire it ten times to see it'll never jam. He will, because he itches to use it, see what Tony's imagination prepared just for Steve, but—first things first.
He looks at Tony, and only now notices how Tony doesn't quite meet his eyes. “Thank you,” Steve says. He only notices the shade of surprise because he was waiting for it, instinctively.
Tony must know it's a very good gun. What was he afraid of?
“It's perfect,” Steve says, and Tony finally smiles again, full of himself as before.
“Told you,” he says, and Steve lets him have that, doesn't ask about the surprise.
“It should be quicker, too—” Tony starts explaining the mechanisms, takes the revolver from him to better point out its features, and Steve learns he likes watching Tony like this, enthusiastic and inspired and happy with what he created.
Steve thinks it must be similar to how he feels after finishing a painting—how he felt; he hasn't had time for more than quick sketches since the war started. Tony is an artist in his own way and it's obvious.
"Can I ask you a question?" Tony looks uncertain. He's running his thumb over the little star in the revolver's stock.
Steve's pretty sure he knows the question already, and it's the one he hasn't really answered since arriving on this continent. But here, with Tony . . . "Always," he says.
"That pendant you have—it looks like a shield."
"Good memory," Steve says. Tony has only seen it once, weeks ago now.
"Well, I was thinking about you a lot," Tony drawls, as if it's a joke, as if nothing here is serious or important or—
Everything between them is important, Steve thinks. They've met a handful of times, and he remembers the exact colour of Tony's eyes, and Tony just gave him an incredibly well thought out gift expecting nothing in return. They keep running into each other, as if the world doesn't want to separate them, and it's a stupid notion, but Steve likes it, anyway.
"Your question?" Steve reminds him.
"It's just—why a shield?"
"Other soldiers have their girls' pictures, you mean? Or mothers'. Or a saint's medallion."
"It's a family heirloom," Steve explains quietly. "A shield with a star."
"Why?" Tony asks quietly.
"It's a long story." Steve hesitates. He's pretty much decided to tell Tony, but . . . Tony is a man of science. He might not understand.
"You don't have to tell me," Tony says. “I—”
"I know, Tony," Steve interrupts. "But I want to. I just haven't told it in a long time."
Tony nods. He doesn't say anything.
"It's an old story," Steve says. "About my grandfather's ancestor. Middle-ages Europe was full of wars. And this man just wanted to save his family. He found faeries—they're tricky, the legends say. Might grant you your wish or destroy you."
"Might be the same thing," Tony speaks up.
"Yes," Steve agrees, surprised Tony would say that. "But my ancestor—he's said to have been granted his wish. He didn't want power, and he didn't want weaponry—he just wanted an indestructible shield. And he got it. The fairies said it was from a star metal, hence the decoration. He survived the war. His line somehow survived till now. I got the pendant."
Steve waits for the inevitable—you don't believe it, right?—but it doesn't come.
Instead, Tony nods and smiles at him. "It's a beautiful story," he says. "And it got you here. I'm glad. My family—we don't have anything like that." He goes silent.
Steve isn't sure what to say now. He knows it's not the place for joking, and he feels Tony doesn't really want to talk about it. Instead, Steve picks up his new gun. "You said there was a range here?"
V. Tony hisses when Steve pokes at the wound in his arm.
"Your own damn fault," Steve says without a shade of empathy. What was Tony thinking? He was safe, the enemies didn't even know he'd been there, why did he have to run into the crossfire?
"He was aiming at you." Tony's voice is weirdly serious, and then he winces as Steve moves his arm to get a better look at the wound.
"I noticed," he replies curtly. "You were lucky the bullet just winged you."
"Doesn't feel lucky," Tony murmurs. He reaches to his right and feels around. Steve sighs and hands him his flask. Tony throws his head back as he drinks.
"You can't just run through the middle of a firefight," Steve says.
Tony doesn't answer. Steve thinks he's still drinking, but when he glances at Tony's face, it's screwed in pain, blood on his mouth. For the first time, Steve wishes Tony was drunk already. He hates seeing him in pain.
"I'm sorry," Steve whispers. “You know we have to get this wrapped up.”
"I had to do that," Tony lets out moments later, quiet. There's sweat on his forehead. Steve reaches for the bandages and starts wrapping them around Tony's arm. He's not a medic, but he can manage a field dressing until they find one.
"You bloody didn't," Steve growls. He takes a few steadying breathes. He can't pull the bandage too tight. He finishes with it before he continues, "You're not even a soldier, you shouldn't have been there—"
"He was aiming at you," Tony repeats, grabs at Steve's arm and holds it almost painfully. "You have to understand." His eyes are wide and shining, almost feverish, and there's so much intensity in his voice Steve's not sure how to answer him.
It's Tony's left arm. Steve has noticed him writing with his left hand when he thought no one was looking, he knows he prefers it—and he concentrates on that, and not how close to Tony's heart the bullet came.
He takes a deep breath and carefully pries Tony's fingers off his arm, holds his hand instead.
"Don't do that again," he says. "I can't—"
Tony leans in until they foreheads touch. "Don't get yourself in such a bind again," he replies, and Steve closes his eyes and focuses on his proximity.
“I wish,” Tony says, “I wish there was a way I could keep you safe. Always. And—he was aiming at you, and I wouldn't have made my shot in time, I had to do something.”
“There were others there. Clint's the best shot I know.”
“I had to do something,” Tony repeats.
“Tony,” Steve says seriously, catching Tony's look, holding it, his hands never leaving Tony's arms. “And if he killed you—what exactly did you expect me to do then?”
Tony looks down. “It's not the same,” he whispers. “I couldn't—everything would be better, Steve.” He's slurring his words. Maybe the alcohol is starting to work, but he must be in pain. He's not a soldier. And Steve has no doubt that despite the pain and the drink, despite how easy it would be to write his words off now, to excuse them because of the circumstances, Tony meant every single word he said.
It's scary, but it's not surprising, and maybe that should be the most worrying thing here; that it isn't surprising, because it's just an echo of Steve's own sentiment.
He hates being away from Tony, but he likes it when Tony is in New York, because there at least—Tony is safe. But is he ever really?
It's dangerous, what they're always at the edge of having.
“Come on,” Steve says. “You're injured. Try to get some sleep?”
Tony's still looking at him like he's the only thing in the world that matters. “I'm—”
“You took care of me when we met,” Steve reminds him. “And—I'm very grateful it was you. Not just because you saved my life.” This is also dangerous, but—they both have known it to be the truth for a long time. “Let me return the favour.”
Something softens in Tony's expression. “I didn't know you then,” he says. “I'm glad I do now.”
Steve knew that already, but it still makes him catch his breath to hear it said out loud. He didn't expect that. Not now, maybe not ever. He checks Tony's forehead, and sure enough, he's warm to the touch. Steve hopes it'll be better till the morning, because he's not sure when they could reach a doctor.
They keep the truth unspoken, and Tony's usually very good at it. It's better that way.
But now he's looking at Steve, almost hurt, and . . . “Me too,” Steve admits. “And I don't want to lose it. Please, just rest.”
He takes a doubtful look at Tony's spare shirt. There's no point in forcing him to put it on now. He pushes Tony backwards, gently, and Tony goes. He settles on his right side, keeps his left arm still. He doesn't close his eyes, watches Steve, as if waiting for him.
Steve hesitates. He knows—his people let them be, because Tony was hurt and none of them are medics either but they knew crowding on injured soldiers never helps; still, they'll expect Steve to leave the tent at some point.
Steve doesn't want to leave Tony alone. Tony's still looking up at him, his eyes half-lidded, and now it seems like he's expecting Steve to go—and scared of it.
Not really a decision, then. Steve gets up, looks out of the tent. “Sam?”
“Yeah?” Sam jogs to him. “Do you need anything?”
Steve shakes his head.
“Boy, am I glad he's stepped in that,” Sam says.
Steve tries not to wince. “I owe him a lot,” he says. “He's asleep already; I'm knackered. Sorry, I don't think I'll be joining you with the cards tonight.”
Sam gives him a long look, and then nods. “Sure. That was a trying day. I'll tell the guys to let you sleep.”
“Thanks,” Steve says, and hides back into the tent. He binds the entrance together, just in case, and then he sits next to Tony, carefully puts his hand to his ribs. Tony's got goosebumps, and Steve belatedly pulls a blanket over him. It's not very good quality, or very soft, coming as it did from army provisions, but it's better than nothing.
Tony's hand finds his wrist and he holds on tight. Steve doesn't move.
Eventually, Tony's breath evens out. Steve doesn't leave the tent for hours.
He can't lose this.
VI. It's the war. It's always the war. Anything can happen. It's the war.
It's the war. It will always be the war. Everything will happen. It's the war, and Tony is dead, bullet straight through his heart.
Steve sits up with a gasp. It takes him a moment to get his bearings back and by the time he does, the dream is a faded memory, one he can't quite summon and doesn't really want to. He and Tony are sharing a tent. He's supposed to be Tony's security detail, but Tony insisted he sleeps. They're in the middle of the camp, and Tony's a good shot—probably better than Steve, really—so it's safe enough.
Tony is up. Tony is usually up, poking at his weapons or scribbling in his notebook, and sometimes Steve worries about that. They're on the road now, but he's rather certain Tony doesn't sleep any more often in New York. Sometimes, like now, Steve's just grateful. He doesn't always wake up like today, but he's drifted back to consciousness from nightmares before, and it always calms him down to see Tony safe, working on his projects.
Tony glances at him. He doesn't put his notebook away, but he does close it. "Bad dream?" he asks. There's no mockery in his voice, but Steve takes a moment before he nods. For all that they've seen each other a lot, they haven't actually spent so much time this close, and it's a new situation for both of them.
Tony opens his mouth as if to say something, but then he shakes his head. He pushes the notebook—an important one with weapons designs, Steve knows—away, and moves closer to Steve. Slowly, very slowly, he reaches out, and Steve's not sure what he's planning to do, but he's not worried. He's never worried, when it's Tony. He knows Tony will never hurt him.
Tony touches his forehead, briefly, his fingers cold, before he pushes Steve's hair out of his face and gently cards his fingers through it. His other hand cups Steve's cheek, and he doesn't move it, he just holds him like that, close and safe.
Steve's breath catches.
“Shhh,” Tony says in a soothing voice. He moves closer to Steve, and gently pulls Steve up, until his head rests in Tony's lap. He cards his fingers through Steve's hair again, and Steve thinks he's never been more comfortable in his life.
And then Tony starts singing. Steve almost jolts when he recognises the song, but he's too relaxed in his position to try and change it, too content to ask just how Tony knows Irish lullabies. Tony keeps his voice down, and messes up the pronunciation, but the melody is clear.
Steve falls asleep to Tony's soft touch and voice.
When he wakes up, Tony's lying next to him. He's got his arm over Steve's waist, and Steve's back is to Tony's chest, and Steve really doesn't want to move. He's still more asleep than not, and Tony being next to him is just right. There's nothing Steve wants to change.
Tony snuggles into him, and that's even better.
But then Tony tries to sit up, and Steve mutters something intelligible.
"I know you're awake," Tony says quietly. "Don't pretend you're not."
"Sorry," Steve says. "You were working on something important, I shouldn't have distracted you."
"Not so important," Tony says easily and honestly, and something in Steve's chest tightens.
They—they started out flirting, but what they have now is . . . something Steve can't, won't name. He barely even thinks about it; Tony's just always—there. Either next to him or at the edge of his consciousness. Tony's his constant. He's pretty sure he's Tony's.
Steve slowly turns around. He wants to give Tony time to stop him, but he doesn't, and then they face each other, just centimetres apart.
Tony's breath is warm on Steve's face. He doesn't want to kiss him—or at least, not right now, not yet. But he wants to look at him, see his blue eyes, see his mouth curl up in a little smile no one else gets to see.
They've never done this, never stayed quite this close, but he knows it's all right.
Tony leans forward until their foreheads touch. He's smiling, and Steve knows he is, too.
"They call me a futurist, you know," Tony says quietly.
"You are." Steve's seen Tony's designs. "You're brilliant." His breath is messing up Tony's moustache.
"Yeah, yeah, I am," Tony agrees, because he's never had a problem with admitting to his genius. "And yet, I never foresaw this."
"But it's a good thing," Steve says. Tony's arm is over his waist again, keeping him close. He's comfortably warm. He knows he'd be cold without Tony there. That the life without him would be like living inside an ice cube. Frozen, and alone, and afar from everything.
He needs Tony now.
He's a bit startled at the realisation, but then Tony's talking again.
"It's very good," Tony agrees, quietly. "And I am a futurist," he says. "But now—you're always there, Steve. I can't think of a future you're not in."
"I'm not going anywhere," Steve promises.
He can't promise that, not during the war, and they both know it, just as they both know he's not talking about physical distance.
Tony buries his face in Steve's neck, and Steve pulls him close, as close as possible, and they lay like that for a while.
It's still dark out. Steve feels Tony fall asleep again, when his muscles relax and his breath evens out. It still astonishes him how much Tony trusts him and how easily he shows it. Hopefully it just means that Tony knows Steve will never hurt him either.
Steve runs his hand up and down Tony's back for a while, gently, until he feels sleep pull him in again.
They wake up still pressed to each other, and it's probably the best morning Steve's had since before the war started. Tony sits up and yawns, and Steve puts his hand on Tony's arm and hauls himself up. He's rested, much more rested than usual—and Tony looks better, the shadows under his eyes are less pronounced.
"So," Tony says. "I should sing more often?"
"Always," Steve replies, and then kisses him on the cheek.
Tony's still touching his cheek minutes later, and Steve smiles, softly.
VII. Steve witnesses Tony seeing a Union soldier shot by a weapon of his own making, and sees how pale Tony goes immediately. His aim is steady as he returns fire, wounds the soldier who just shot Alan, but afterwards, when the Confederate scouts are either dead or fled and they all have a moment to breathe again, he disappears without a word.
Steve follows him, and finds him clutching a flask to his chest even as he's bent in half, throwing up under a tree at the edge of the field.
"It wasn't your fault," Steve says. He thinks it must've been the first time Tony's seen someone harmed and not helped by his weapons—someone who he was supposed to have helped, anyway; Tony had killed the soldiers chasing Steve months ago, and neither his aim nor reaction afterwards were those of someone killing for the first time.
"Tell that to Alan," Tony manages to answer. "He'd be alive, if it wasn't for me, for my damn guns! How many others did I kill like that?"
It's war. Tony can't control who gets his guns. They might've gotten it off someone's body, for all Steve knows. And Tony's guns are good, but they're not the only ones out there—the soldier would've had a different piece, Hammer perhaps, but Alan would still be dead. But Steve knows the pride Tony takes in his weapons, the joy when he can help someone with his inventions—and of course Tony takes the blame just as easily, even if no one but himself puts it on him.
Steve stays with him, silent, and doesn't say anything when Tony finally straightens up and goes straight for the flask again.
He puts a hand on Tony's arm, a wordless support, half expecting Tony to shrug it off, half convinced Tony will tell him to go to hell. Tony does neither, but he also doesn't stop drinking, almost desperate.
Maybe that's what scares Steve the most: that Tony lets him see that.
That night it's Steve who sings to Tony, his voice barely a whisper, careful not to alert anyone else.
"Figures you'd know it," Tony mutters. He's on his back, his bedroll a few feet away from Steve's, but he's gripping Steve's hand almost to the point of pain. He should be drunk, but maybe there was less of his whiskey in the flask than Steve had thought, because Tony still seems terrifyingly sober—thinking about Alan, no doubt.
Steve stops his singing for a moment. "The question is, how do you know it?"
Tony lies with his eyes wide open, as if he doesn't quite want to sleep. "My nanny," he explains after a moment. "No idea what any of it means, but . . ." He trails off, squeezes Steve's hand even tighter for a few seconds. A memory of comfort, Steve guesses. Quiet moments and reassurance.
"Survive the war and I'll translate it," Steve offers.
He gives a moment's thought to the idea that it's not a question if they will be together at the end of it—they have to be. He doesn't doubt that for a second. It still feels weirdly like an oath, like something too intimate to offer.
"Deal," Tony answers, and finally closes his eyes.
Steve sings again, not quite under his breath, half-crooning.
He knows the song well; he doesn't really have to think about it consciously. Irish was his first tongue, after all. He can focus his attention on Tony, the stressed expression on his face, on how pale he looks. The flask, refilled with alcohol, is within reach. It's his gun that's nowhere in sight.
The words roll off Steve's tongue easily, and he never lets Tony's hand go, like a lifeline.
He's afraid that if he lets go, Tony will just—disappear. He certainly looks like he wants to.
Steve waits until he's fairly certain Tony has fallen asleep to pull his blanket up to keep him warm—and then he takes off his pendant and closes it around Tony's neck instead. "Be safe, Tony," he whispers in the night, and doesn't add, from yourself.
The war is coming to an end, they can all feel it—but the toll it's taking on Tony is worse and worse, even if he rarely sees it up close.
Steve watches Tony shift uneasily under his cover, and starts singing again. He'll get his own rest on another night. This is more important.
Tony settles to his voice.
"I have to fix it" are Tony's first words in the morning.
He winces as he sits up—he must be hungover—and Steve isn't sure if he wants to ask what Tony's talking about.
But he owes it to him to do so. "Fix what?"
"Alan," Tony says, his voice full of pain. "I—I should've—why don't any of you have some armour? They got it right in medieval times and I couldn't have thought of that?"
"Alan's death wasn't your fault," Steve says again, though he knows there's no point.
"It was. You're at more risk because of me—I thought my weapons would protect you." He looks disgusted with himself.
"You gave us all a better chance. I'm alive thanks to you. That's a lot." Steve wills Tony to believe him.
"A weapon to end the war, you say?" Tony muses, and Steve hasn't said anything like that, and for the first time since they met, he's afraid of what's going through Tony's head.
"I should get back to New York," Tony says. He's usually a bit sleepy in the morning, but now he's full of a manic energy Steve associates with him inventing. It seems darker than usual, now. "There's—so much to plan and test."
"You said you planned better without distractions," Steve reminds him, because he desperately doesn't want Tony to get separated from him, lost in his dark thoughts and the flask.
He's seen that happen in other men. He won't let Tony go down that road.
"I need my labs." Tony's shaking his head. Then he suddenly looks down to his chest, and back at Steve. "Steve?"
Tony's got his hand closed over Steve's pendant on his own neck. "Why did you . . ." he sounds uncertain.
"I wanted you to have it," Steve says honestly. "Anything can happen here, and . . ."
"It's important to you," Tony says carefully. “Family heirloom.”
"So I know you'll take a good care of it," Steve says. He feels hot and cold at the same time. The pendant means a lot—a lot he doesn't let himself think about. But the one thing Steve wants to protect right now is Tony.
"It's a shield," Tony whispers, like he read Steve's mind, or maybe he was thinking about something else entirely.
He changes trains at the next station, headed back to New York. It's the last Steve sees of him for a while.
VIII. He knocks once on the door of the Stark Mansion. He's here as a liaison officer, again, but he knows it'll be personal first and foremost.
He's not sure what to expect. To fall into the same not-quite-relationship they've had? They have always managed to, and it was never even a question, but something did change in Tony that night when Alan died of a Stark gun. Steve's worried.
"Welcome, Captain Rogers," Jarvis says when he opens the door. "Master Anthony is awaiting you in the library."
"Thank you," Steve says. He's not sure what Jarvis knows, and doesn't really worry about it. He knows the way, they've met here a few times already, and Jarvis doesn't offer to accompany him. Steve goes slowly, still trying to guess what to expect.
Finally, he opens the library, and Tony's there clearly waiting for him, leant against a reading desk, and Steve forgets about everything else.
Tony looks better than the last time Steve saw him. He's got a nice shirt on, his bow tie neatly tied. He's, and Steve's been trying to avoid this word, but there is no other, beautiful.
He walks straight to Steve. "I missed you," he says, quietly, honestly.
"I always miss you," Steve answers equally honestly. Tony looks around them briefly before slowly catching Steve's hand and lifting it, until he presses it to his own chest. Steve lets him do that, but he doesn't understand—until he feels something hard and oval under Tony's shirt, and understands it's his pendant.
"Thank you," he whispers. Tony just smiles, a bit sadly.
"I'm sorry it's like that," he says. "They always want more weapons." He seems haunted. "I told them I had a liaison already, you, and I hope you don't mind. I just wanted to see you. So much."
Something's changed. They—they never said these things, these words used to be obvious. But Tony's bad at asking for what he needs, so Steve nods. "I know," he says. "I wanted to come, but—Fury needs me for the war, too, and he wouldn't have let me leave if you hadn't asked.”
Relief flickers over Tony's face.
Steve suddenly knows that whatever happens now, tomorrow will be different. Suddenly, he wants to be the one to shape it.
He steps closer to Tony, inside his space, giving in to the impulse he's been resisting ever since they met. This close, he can feel Tony's body heat, he thinks he can hear his heart beating.
Too close. Steve can't breathe comfortably, but he doesn't want to step back. Tony's expression is a hopeful, but there's doubt there too, like he's waiting for Steve to push him away.
Steve wonders if that doubt would have been there if he'd done that a month ago, if he'd made a move then instead. He wonders why he waited. It's so obvious now, that they were always going to end up here, just the two of them and the charged air in between.
There's maybe an inch of space between them, and it's not enough, and it's too much.
It's a foregone conclusion, in a way; the only question is which one of them will reach out first, and for all his certainty, and after two years of the war, it's still the scariest situation Steve's ever found himself in, there's more to lose here than he's prepared to lose.
Tony cocks his head to the left and is looking at him, like he knows everything Steve's thinking, and a part of Steve still expects him to back away any minute now, to realise they've gone too far and never speak to him again—
“Don't punch me,” Tony whispers, and kisses him.
His lips are chapped, and his moustache tickles against Steve's skin. He reaches up and brushes Steve's cheek with his fingers, almost timid, and his fingertips are hot to the touch.
It's as if something breaks in Steve at his touch. He doesn't hesitate. He wants to feel Tony, all of him, and he sneaks his hands under Tony's shirt-tails. Tony's too thin, Steve can feel all of his ribs, but at the moment, it doesn't matter. He's ticklish, Steve learns as Tony breaks the kiss with a desperate chuckle.
"Stop," he gasps out. "Stop, you can't—"
Steve does stop, if only because he has other ideas. They've had two years of flirting and careful touches, he's allowed to be impatient. He's not the only one feeling that way, it seems: he feels Tony's hand pulling him in by his belt loops, his fingers inside his trousers, touching Steve's waist and just teasing lower.
Steve wants all of it.
"I knew I wanted you—I knew you wanted me—and still, I always hesitated," Tony whispers. "But it's . . ."
It's been two years, and the war's still not over, and what if you won't be there at the end of it? Steve can finish as much in his head, because it's exactly what made him cross this line now.
It's unavoidable, and it's perfect.
He kisses Tony this time, because they don't need more words, not here.
Tony tastes like whiskey and metal, but his hands around Steve still spell home.
Whatever changed in Tony these last few weeks, it wasn't how he feels about Steve, and Steve's relieved, and kisses him again and again, never wants to let him go.
“Bedroom,” Tony says, reaching to grab Steve's hand. Steve nods, breathless, and lets Tony lead him from the library, a few doors down the corridor.
When they finally strip, Steve's pendant on Tony's naked chest looks just right, like a part of Steve is always with him.
When Tony runs his fingers over the scar on Steve's arm, the one he got when Tony saved his life, Steve kisses him again to silence any words. That moment was worth everything; it brought them here.
When Tony whispers Steve's name in a breaking voice, all but coming apart under his hands, Steve feels almost dizzy.
When Steve breaks under Tony's touch, it's just perfect.
He holds Tony close and doesn't want to let go ever again.
"I should've asked if you wanted a guest room first," Tony says after a while, and Steve laughs and kisses him and he's happier than he's ever been, all his worries so stupid in hindsight.
IX. Steve boards the first train to New York after the news reaches his brigade. It's a rickety supply run, but nothing like a lack of proper seats is going to stop him now.
It's over. It's been four years, four hellish years, but now the war is over—and Steve knows exactly what to do.
He has to see Tony.
The last battles were both bloodier and safer—for the Union troops, anyway. They had Stark machine guns—Steve refused to use any of them—and Stark made body armour, which Steve wore gladly. He's pretty sure he guessed correctly which of Tony's terrific inventions Tony meant to be used.
Maybe he should've fought harder for any excuse to see Tony earlier.
He shakes his head. It's done. It's done, the war is over, and he has a promise to keep, if nothing else.
He's on the train with Sam, but they don't really talk. He knows Sam's going to see his family, his nieces whom he doesn't really know.
Steve doesn't have any siblings, and his parents are long dead. He thought his family was Tony. He hopes it's still the case.
When the train finally arrives in New York, they step out together and share a handshake.
"You're a good soldier, Sam," Steve says. "Thanks for everything. And good luck."
"You too," Sam answers. "You're going to Stark." It doesn't sound like a question. "Steve, I'll say it this once—you're not being subtle. You might want to be, out in the wide world. But—well, I really hope you'll find what you're looking for with him."
He walks away before Steve can reply—ask when he learnt; thank him again? He's not sure.
He tries to keep Sam's warning in mind as he walks through the city, retracing the steps between the train yard and the Stark Mansion again, and maybe for the last time.
Jarvis lets him in without a question. "Master Anthony is in his studio," he says. "He's—he should be happy to see you, Captain."
Steve wonders at the hesitation in Jarvis's voice. "Thank you," he says, and jogs up the stairs. Tony's house is certainly beautiful, but Steve's never had time to appreciate it, and today is no different.
He lets himself in without knocking. Tony's back is to him, there's a bottle on the table.
"Happy end of the war?" Steve risks.
Tony huffs a laugh. "Yeah. Did they use my weapons to just kill everyone from the South?"
“Even if they did, that still wouldn't be your fault," Steve says.
"I gave them the means to commit a genocide."
"Yeah," Steve says. He unbuttons his shirt as he walks closer to Tony. The body armour Tony designed is under it, a mix of metal and a tough fabric Steve can't name. "And the means to actually protect people, too."
Tony's eyes turn wide. "Did you—"
"I had a nasty bruise for a few days," Steve admits. "But I wouldn't be here if not for you. Twice."
Tony tilts his head. Light catches on something on his neck, and Steve realises Tony still wears his pendant.
"I love you," Tony says. After all these years, it's obvious, but said aloud like that it seems like a profanity. "And I thought I was helping. But I was just giving everyone means to hurt each other. More and more."
"No offence," Steve says, "but lots of people people can make guns. No one else thought to give us protection."
Tony shrugs. He doesn't seem like himself. He hasn't been himself since Alan got shot, and it's almost painful to think of how naive and optimistic he must've been before that.
Steve shouldn't have let him disappear after that.
Steve isn't sure how to talk to him now. He walks closer to him, presses a chaste kiss to Tony's lips. Tony kisses him back, but then he steps away, and just his hand closed around Steve's wrist like a vice says he doesn't want him to leave.
"I was so stupid," Tony says aloud.
He'd only been twenty when the war started, same as Steve.
"The war is over," Steve says. "What now?"
Tony takes in a breath that sounds like a sob. "I don't know."
Steve wants to hug him. He wants him to be the Tony Stark he met that first night in the woods, happy and flirtatious and so open. The Tony he fell in love with.
He still loves him, of course; but—he's not sure that matters anymore. Everything is different now. Tony's changed, is still changing, right before Steve's eyes, and Steve's not sure how he fits into Tony's life anymore. "I promised to translate a song," Steve offers.
Tony shakes his head, almost viciously. "No," he says. "Not yet. Please."
It's like he thinks that one promise is the last thing keeping them together.
Steve nods slowly. "I wouldn't leave you," he says, because it's important that Tony knows that, "but—tell me when you want to hear it."
Tony nods. "I'm sorry," he whispers, and Steve doesn't ask what for.
He looks over Tony's arm and sees his desk, full of scribbled over papers. The bits he can make out look like medieval armour.
Steve knows Tony will never be able to save everyone, just as he knows that Tony will never accept that.
Tony leans in and kisses him again. It takes Steve by surprise this time, but he wraps his arms around Tony, keeps him close. Tony pushes the shirt off Steve's arms, and if this is where he's going . . .
Steve doesn't have any hope that sex will fix everything—or anything, really. But it's easy comfort, it's the closeness that they both need, and he's not going to push Tony away.
Steve has many scars, and none of them has he gotten since he started wearing Tony's body armour prototype. Nevertheless, Tony kisses every one of them, runs his fingers with care over his ribs, presses his whole palm to the scar on Steve's arm that brought them together.
Tony never moves to takes the pendant off, the shield with the star always on his neck.
It feels like a goodbye, and Steve wants to laugh at his younger self who—just half an hour ago—really believed there was a happy ending for them. That it was just the war keeping them apart. That only death could really separate them.
They fall asleep together. Steve wakes up first and he's glad for that.
Stop killing yourself, he scribbles on a piece of paper and puts it next to the bottle of whiskey. He gets dressed, presses a kiss to Tony's eyebrow, half hoping he'd wake up. Tony doesn't.
Steve walks out.
He leaves New York. There's nothing but Tony there for him, and Tony—they're better off apart than together. It's obvious now.
X. It's a cliché, but Steve feels as if time slowed down.
There are other people around them. It's a busy street in Chicago, after all. He's not even alone.
It doesn't matter.
Tony's there, just a few metres away, and even after months it takes Steve's breath away to see him. His moustache is neatly trimmed, and his bespoke suit fits him perfectly. It doesn't hide how empty his eyes look.
"Bucky," Steve says. "Go back to Dugan."
"Go. Back." Steve doesn't look at him. He's too afraid that Tony will run away if Steve turns his head. He hears a grumble, and he can only hope Bucky actually listened and didn't just hide behind the corner.
He walks up to Tony.
"And he was . . . ?" Tony asks quietly.
"Just a friend," Steve answers. It's the truth. He's a little amused that after all these years, Tony apparently still can get jealous—but then he tries to imagine Tony with a different person, and it's not something he likes to think about.
"Ah," Tony says. "I didn't expect to see you here."
"Would you have left?" Steve asks.
Tony's expression turns sharp. "I wasn't the one who left," he snaps.
Steve looks around them carefully. No one's paying any attention to them—yet. A busy street is not a place for this conversation.
Tony seems to catch his meaning. "My hotel's across the street," he says. Steve follows him without a word. Tony's sober this time, but he's not happy. Whatever he's doing here, he hasn't managed to fix whatever it was that hounded him. Steve wonders if he should've stayed and immediately pushes the thoughts away.
He's never really stopped thinking about Tony. That doesn't mean he could've done anything to help, and not destroyed them both.
The hotel looks expensive, the staff uniforms all neatly pressed and trimmed with gold braid. Tony's room is spacious and lusciously decorated, mahogany furniture and green silk everywhere. Steve doesn't like it, and he doubts Tony does either. The furniture is too heavy somehow, he feels crowded.
Tony closes the door behind them.
As soon as the key turns, Steve kisses him. He didn't plan to—but what did he expect? He hasn't seen Tony in months, and he—he still loves him.
Tony kisses back, slowly and almost carefully. It's sweet and long, and it doesn't turn heated. They step away from each other easily, only their hands tangled together.
"You left," Tony repeats.
"I didn't get the impression you really wanted me to stay," Steve says.
Tony shrugs. "Maybe. Maybe not. I—I'm not actually angry about that."
"And I'm not sure it was a good decision," Steve admits.
Tony seems amused. "Here we are, the most decisive men in the history."
"I missed you," Steve says.
"I missed you too," Tony answers. "But you know that."
"How have you been?" Steve asks, and he never would've thought they'd end up catching up like this. Like casual acquaintances. Almost strangers.
"You don't really want to know that," Tony says. "I wish—no."
Steve strokes his thumb over Tony's hand. "We could—at some point."
"Not now," Tony says.
"Not now," Steve agrees.
Tony still has things to deal with. Steve has just started to get his life together after the war. He loves Tony, he always will. They'll wait for each other. They have that comfort now, if nothing else. And then, maybe, they'll try this together thing again.
Tony tilts his head in the direction of his bed. "You did promise me a good distraction."
"Just a distraction?" Steve asks with a smile. It's not like he doesn't want Tony. But the last few times they've met, they've always fallen in bed together, and maybe if he'd tried to talk to Tony instead then . . . He can't fix that, and he thinks that walking away now might break something else between them.
He loves Tony. Why can't it be that simple?
Tony kisses him now, quick and easy, and he's smiling with invitation, looking almost like he did more than five years ago when they'd first met.
"You don't have to seduce me now," Steve tells him. "I'm already yours."
"Oh, but that's half of the fun, Captain Rogers," Tony says, his eyes laughing. He looks happy now, and Steve can't remember the last time he saw him like that.
He remembers what Tony said when they met, and leans in. "Whatever you wish, Mister Stark," he whispers into Tony's ear, and Tony's breath catches.
This time it's easy and they laugh as they kiss each other, touch each other, joke and smile. It's good. Steve comes whispering Tony's name into his chest, and Tony bites on Steve's shoulder to keep himself quiet.
It's good. It doesn't change anything. But Steve saw the pendant that Tony still wears, and Tony kissed the scar at his arm again.
They don't sleep this time. Steve sings, and Tony watches him, almost sad.
"One day, I'll ask for that translation," he promises.
"Yes," Steve agrees. "And then I'll stay."
He gets up. He kisses Tony again, but presses him down, doesn't let him get back up.
"I'm glad I met you here," Steve says honestly. "And—wherever it will be, I'm looking forward to meeting you again. I still love you, you know."
Tony smiles weakly. "Yeah. See you, Steve. Good luck."
Steve gets himself dressed and leaves. He thinks they might yet get a happy ending. They might see each other at a time that will finally work.
"Who was he?" someone asks as soon as Steve leaves the hotel.
Steve turns around. "Bucky? I told you to go to Dugan!"
"Yeah, and Fury said you'd end up in his hotel, so."
Steve sighs. He likes Bucky a lot—even if he wishes he were a bit older. He's not even twenty. He didn't fight in the last war—he doesn't really know what it means to have to fight for your life like that.
Still; there's a little town out west that needs a new sheriff, and since it was Sam who recommended it to Steve, he's going to get there and take a look around. It should give him time to teach Bucky in what he wouldn't learn on a street. He'll make a good deputy, with a little training.
"I wish you hadn't followed me," Steve says.
"He might've been dangerous, you know," Bucky says.
"Not to me," Steve smiles. "Never to me." He hesitates. "It's Tony Stark. I thought you'd recognize him, to be honest."
"Tony Stark," Bucky repeats.
"I won't get you a rifle," Steve says.
"It's not that." Bucky's gaze is a bit unnerving to Steve. "Tony Stark. Really?"
Steve remembers Sam's warning about not being subtle. But he'd only wanted to talk to Tony, and . . .
"I don't—it's not any of my business, I know that," Bucky says. "But you didn't see your own expression when you saw him."
"Leave it, Buck," Steve says. "Nothing changed. We're going to Timely. To—Stark doesn’t factor here."
"Maybe he should," Bucky mutters, but Steve glares at him, and he shuts up.
Steve hopes for new things in Timely, not more ghosts of the past.
XI. Steve's doing his nightly check up. Timely's usually a calm little town and he likes it here—but he still checks it every night for disturbances. He's almost at the end of his round when he notices someone approaching, a ways off across the desert to the east—but still close enough to see it's a human shape against the starlight and not a large coyote. They're going slowly, and they must be aiming for Timely—there's nothing else out here. They also must be hurt, or out of their mind, to attempt such a journey at night, without a horse. Even the trek from the river is too long for a lone traveller without a ride. Timely is in a desert, and the sand doesn't get any safer when the sun goes down.
"I'll go get them," he says to Bucky. "Go wake up the doctor."
Time is important here. His horse is ready, like always during his patrols. He mounts it and rides into the desert, towards the lonely figure. Their step isn't steady, and he's expecting them to fall down at any moment. When Steve reaches them, however, he freezes. His horse skittles away, and Steve calms her down, runs a hand over her neck, still staring ahead of him.
Of course it's Tony. Who else could walk into his new life so easily? Steve jumps off his horse and kneels next to Tony, still a bit disbelieving.
But it really is Tony.
It's Tony, and—judging by how he smells, he's drunk. He's also hurt—he's cradling his left arm to his chest, and his sleeve is wet with blood.
"Oh, Tony," Steve says. “You survived the war with barely a scratch. What did you get into now?”
Tony flashes him a smile before passing out.
Steve catches him before he hits the ground, and then he lifts him up in his arms. Cradling Tony to his chest to give him some warmth, he runs to Banner's house as fast as he can without jostling Tony too much.
Bucky gives him a knowing look, but keeps quiet, and Banner just nods and takes Tony in. He promises to send Steve updates and all but physically kicks him out.
Steve sits down on the stairs, because he thinks he couldn't walk home if he tried.
He finally sees Tony again, and he's not sure what to think. He's never expected it—he hasn't expected not to see Tony ever again, not really, but he didn't expect him here, in Timely, hurt like that.
He doesn't move from there for a long time. He doesn't think he sleeps, but then he jolts when Bucky drops a newspaper at his lap. It's not from Timely; he must've ridden up to the train station for fresher news.
A mother and her children shot dead with Stark guns in a town upriver. The father admits to the crime. But the reports are conflicting, and the journalist references someone else, too—a person rumoured to have been trying to stop the father, the carnage when that hope was lost.
It's perhaps more than Steve wanted to know, but it does answer one of the night's mysteries, at least.
And now Steve knows this: Timely has just gained a new citizen. Because Tony will stay here, even if he doesn't know that yet.
He writes a short message to Tony and asks Banner to put it on his bedside. He's not sure Tony's even conscious, but he doesn't want to go there unless Tony asks for him. He's not sure Tony will. He hopes so.
They could do what they couldn't do in Chicago.
They could start again, here.
It's days before Tony wakes up—days which Steve spends at Banner's door, driving him crazy, or in Dugan's bar, being refused more drinks. He's grateful Bucky is there to do what's actually Steve's job—but Steve really can't focus on anything else when he doesn't have to be on duty. Tony's injuries weren't that bad, but Steve can't help worrying anyway.
If he found Tony again just to have him die here . . .
It's not possible.
"He'll be fine," Bucky says.
"Yeah," Steve says. He won't entertain the other possibility.
Steve turns to see Bruce leaning over him. "Yeah?" He was nodding off, he's not completely awake yet.
"Seems you were right, to live on my doorstep. He's asking for you."
"Thank you!" Steve gets up and takes the stairs two a time.
"The first door on the right!" Bruce yells after him, and Steve just keeps going. He slows down when he reaches Bruce's second floor, where he knows he keeps the occasional patients who need to stay overnight.
First on the right. It looks just like any other door in the building, so unassuming. As if Tony wasn't there.
Steve takes a deep breath, and opens it.
Tony's very pale. There are bandages peeking out from under his white shirt—Bruce's, probably. Steve scans the room quickly and finds it—his pendant is safely set on the nightstand.
“Years after the war ends, and I'm still killing people I've never met,” Tony says. “And I can't save them, even if I'm standing in the same room.”
"Tony," Steve says. It hurts him to see him like that.
"It's been years, and my weapons—they still kill." Tony sounds anguished.
"Yeah," Steve nods. "So give yourself smaller goals. Timely needs help too. Stay here."
Tony's always been very intelligent. He gets what Steve's not saying. "With you."
"With me," Steve agrees.
"Because now is a good time?"
"You ran away," Steve says, "and found my town. Take it for what you will, but we won't get a better time."
"At least it's not the war," Tony jokes.
It'll get better, Steve wants to say and doesn't. He reaches out and takes Tony's hand into his, and they stay like that.
The night Bruce deems Tony fit enough to leave, Steve takes him home. They know it won't stay like that—Timely is quiet enough, but people will talk, and neither of them needs that. Tony is going to transfer his funds, get his own home, maybe work as a smith.
The important thing is this: they'll stay together.
Tony drinks too much, but for now, Steve doesn't comment. They have a lot of catching up to do—but he knows what caused this particular bout of drinking. And it's not as if Steve asking, yelling, begging or even threatening him would make him stop. It's on Tony. It's on Steve to catch him, if Tony falls. This is what he's learnt in the time apart.
"So this is it?" Tony asks. "Ten years later, in a godforsaken village . . ."
They're both different men now.
"I'm not a good idea," Tony says. “For you.”
"Because I'm such a catch for you," Steve snaps. "Come to bed."
Tony doesn't argue. They lie, pressed to each other, still clothed. They kiss once, and it's nice, but it's not about sex tonight. It's about closeness and proximity, about being together again after years spent separate. Maybe it was fate that led them here. Or just dumb luck.
Steve missed Tony every day—and now he's here.
Tony's restless. It's in his heartbeat, in a way. Steve takes a deep breath, and starts singing the lullaby, feels Tony settle against him more comfortably.
After, Tony holds his hand almost gently. "Will you translate it for me?" he asks, his voice shy, as if he fears the answer.
"Of course," Steve says, and he does.
And then he stays. They both do.