So Tony had been planning this conversation for a while now.
For a couple of years actually, on and off. He'd first started thinking about it when he turned sixty, but that had been planning for the future. He'd still been on board back them. But a couple of years ago he'd started putting more thought into it and making plans and writing out speeches and... yeah.
He'd given himself a deadline and that deadline was coming up. His sixty-fifth birthday was that weekend and Tony had plans that had nothing to do with cakes or parties or open bars. And he was nervous, but it had to be done.
So he'd made the plans to sit down and talk to Steve, one-on-one in a safe place. He had contingency plans in case Steve didn't react well, or if something happened and Tony changed his mind for other reasons, but as the date approached Tony was more or less determined to see this done.
And then the goddamn Doombots.
Literally hundreds of them descended on New York the Tuesday before Tony's birthday and the next forty-eight hours were lost in a whirlwind of melee combat and exploding robots.
They fall back, regroup, wait to see if there's a second wave coming. Doom is swearing up and down that he isn't responsible, blaming Hydra insurgents who pilfered his armory. Tony mostly believes him if only because Doom would have come up with something smarter than trying to conquer the island of Manhattan if he really wanted to start a war.
They were holed up in the lobby of an evacuated hospital. Hawkeye had disappeared up to the room to keep watch, taking Spider-Girl and Miss America with her. Speed was pacing the perimeter, moving so fast the suit could barely keep track of him, and Billy (Tony never used his codename, the kid picked the stupidest codenames, Wanda really needed to have a talk with him one day soon), Hulkling and Power-Girl were still out there helping Ms Marvel check the downed bots to make sure they've all been completely deactivated.
Cap was on the comms, checking in with Nick Fury Jr (speaking of stupid ass codenames...) and coordinating with the SHIELD troops out in the field. Spider-Man was sitting on the admissions counter, his heels banging against the wood. He'd taken off the cowl – secret identities are so passe these days – and he was rolling his head from side to side.
“You look like shit,” Tony said. He released the seals on the faceplate and it retracted back. The air was humid and too warm compared to the climate-controlled recirculated air in the armor, yet it still somehow felt fresher.
“You look like shit,” Peter said without heat as he rolled his shoulders. “I am too old for this shit. I'm gonna be fifty next year, did you know that? My kid is running rings around me out there. She actually caught a car that one of those fuckers threw at me while my back was turned. I am half so proud I could burst and half humiliated that I'm being shown up by a nineteen-year-old.”
Tony grinned. “Let's be real, Pete. Anna-May's been running rings around you since she got her powers.”
“She was born with powers, Tony.” Peter narrowed his eyes. “Oh, fuck you.”
Tony laughed. “She's running rings around all of us geezers, if it makes you feel any better.” He arched his back, as much as he could in the armor. They'd been going almost two days straight with only a few stolen breaks and he'd never felt his age as much as he did right then. His back ached, his joints ached, his head was pounding and he was thinking wistfully of hot tub jets, king-sized mattresses and silk sheets. If he could have Steve in all three of those it would be just about perfect, but he was so tired he couldn't even get worked up about the idea. God he was getting old.
“SHIELD says they're only showing scattered resistance,” Steve reported. He pulled the cowl back and ran a hand through his hair. “Ground troops are dealing with the last few and the Fantastic Four are taking control of the clean-up.”
Tony was fine with that. Valeria Richards would know how to safely dispose of the deactivated bots and the rest of her team were heavy-hitters who could easily handle any last-minute surprises. “Are we on stand-by?”
Steve shook his head. “Fury wants us to set up a patrol pattern just in case, but we can start sending people in. Hawkeye says she can coordinate patrols and we've already got enough volunteers to get us through the night.” He leaned in to brush a tired kiss across Tony's mouth. “War Machine's pulling out and Pepper says she's sending in Rescue and the Iron Brigade to search for people trapped in the rubble.”
“Emily's almost as good in the armor as I am,” Tony said. “She'll be all right.”
“I'm sending you and Spider-Man back to the Tower. Check in with Carol, but I want you both on at least sixteen hours stand down.” He paused for a minute, as if expecting an argument, and Tony was briefly disheartened to realize that he couldn't offer one. There would have been a time he'd have refused to leave the field as long as there was fighting to be done, refused to leave his husband's and teammates' side, but that time was gone. He was sixty-four years old and running on adrenaline and energy gels and two days with no sleep. He was already operating below average.
“All right.” Tony rested one of the gauntlets on Steve's hip, stole another kiss. “Promise me you'll head in soon? You've been on your feet as long as we have, and even you need to rest.”
Steve had just turned fifty, looked like he was forty and acted like he was still twenty-five. The serum kept him strong and almost ridiculously healthy but it wasn't the fountain of youth. He was slowing down too – just nowhere near as fast as the rest of his age group.
“I'll be right behind you,” Steve promised, brushing another kiss over Tony's mouth.
Tony hummed into the kiss. “Tell the team that the kitchens in the Tower are at their disposal. I'll get one of the domestic bots up and running so everyone can eat.”
“Free food,” Peter said in a dreamy voice. “It's almost worth watching you two make out.”
Tony grinned. “You were there for our honeymoon, Peter. You'd think you'd be desensitized by now.”
Peter rolled his eyes as he pushed himself off the counter with less than his usual grace or energy. “It's like watching your teachers make out.”
“Hot for teacher,” Tony said, stealing another kiss while Steve laughed silently at him. Tony had never thought he'd find laugh-lines sexy until he saw them on his husband of almost twenty years. “All right, Spidey, let's pack it in, you can help me-”
The explosion blew in the front doors of the hospital, slamming Tony against the counter with enough force to snap him almost in half. The faceplate snapped into place just as his head cracked against the counter and he bounced, hitting the ground hard as paintchips and splinters rained down on them, dust billowing through the air and a thunderous ringing shrieking in his ears.
He coughed and the movement sent knives through his chest and his skull simultaneously. Awesome. “Steve!”
He could hear the sounds of fighting, somewhere past the ringing in his ears. He heard the rattle of machine gun fire and the piercing shriek of the energy blasters. He braced his hands on the floor and shoved himself up to his knees even as he heard Hulking shouting and saw the bright pink flare of Billy's magic bolts. The kids were fighting back.
The HUD was tracking energy signatures and Avengers comms; six hostiles in the hospital parking lot, all of them matching Doombot energy specs. He could track the others – the whole team was moving, so no one was hurt too badly, not if they were still fighting. In fact, the only comms not moving were the three of them in the lobby. He staggered to his feet, scanning the room around him. “Steve, Peter!”
“Incoming!” Peter's voice cut through the internal comms and Tony swung around just in time to catch the rocket that burst through what was left of the hospital doors. He hit the jets and blasted outside, carrying the rocket into midair, as far away from his teammates as he could.
He pitched it up just as it exploded and the shock blast slammed him back down to earth. He hit a car and it crumpled beneath him with the shriek of bending metal.
It took him a second to get moving and that was exactly how long it took Steve to get to him. “Tony!”
He waved his husband off. “I'm fine!” His back was screaming at him and the pounding in his head wasn't getting any better, but he would live. “Help the kids, go!”
Steve grabbed his hand and hauled him to his feet. “The kids are fine, it's under control.” He hooked one arm around Tony's neck and pressed his forehead to the faceplate. “Jesus, Tony. What have I told you about flying missiles into the sky?”
“At least it wasn't a nuke this time,” Tony said. He scanned the area but it looked like Steve was right. The hostiles were already down and the kids were gathered by the blasted out hospital entrance, looking like they were spoiling for another fight. God, Tony couldn't even remember being that young.
“Don't joke,” Steve said. He clasped his hand against Tony's arm for a moment, then visibly made himself let go. “All right. Flare ups like this are going to happen. Nothing's changed. You and Peter head in. I'm going to check in with Hawkeye and Ms. Marvel and I'll follow you.”
Tony nodded, closing his eyes as his head swam. “Deal. But if you're not sliding beneath the covers in exactly one hour, I'm coming back out after you.”
Steve smiled at him, his hair mussed and his face streaked with sweat and dust. “Warm up the sheets for me.”
For a moment Tony was tempted to reach out for him, to grab his hand and keep him there at Tony's side. He wanted to tell Steve to come home now, so Tony didn't have to leave his husband on the battlefield, so Tony didn't have to admit to anyone, including himself, that he wasn't able to protect Steve the way he once had. He was struck with the sudden, sharp certainty that something was going to happen, that Steve was going to get hurt while Tony was soaking his old bones in a hot bath and Tony would never be able to forgive himself.
It passed, but it left a sour taste and Tony knew this was what it was going to be like from then on. He'd learn to live with it, he had to, but he could already see a lot of anxious, sleepless nights in his future.
He made a mental note to talk to MJ. She's survived being a super-hero wife for twenty-five years. Maybe she could give him some pointers.
“Yo, Spidey! Haul ass if you want a ride back to the Tower!” Tony ignored the way Steve rolled his eyes at him. “One hour, Cap. You need to rest too.”
“One hour,” Steve repeated.
Tony waited till Spider-Man had gotten a good hold, then took off, heading back to the Tower as quickly as he could without making Peter yell at him.
From below he could hear Steve calling for the Avengers to assemble, and something in Tony's chest twinged with regret and relief.
He set them down on the roof and sent Peter off to his room. The Tower was empty – he'd evacuated his employees and the Avenger families as soon as the Doombots were spotted incoming – and it felt dark and a little unwelcoming as he shed the armor and walked down to the living quarters.
He activated one of the domestic bots and set it to work in the kitchen, preparing for the Avengers and SHIELD agents who would need to eat now that the worst of the battle was over. He stood in the kitchen for a long moment, listening to his ears ringing, breathing past the ache in his chest and his back and the pounding in his skull.
Then he gave the bot its orders and retreated to his room.
He turned on all the lights, lit the suite that he and Steve had shared for more than twenty years as bright as day. He kicked off his shoes, stripped out of his clothes. He was leaving a trail behind him as he walked to the bathroom, and he made a mental note to care about that as soon as he'd had at least ten hours of sleep.
He glanced wistfully at the hot tub but he suspected that if he got in he wouldn't be able to get out again. He was pretty sure he wouldn't drown – JARVIS was still activated and would find some way to wake him – but he also knew Steve would frown at him if he came home and found Tony passed out in the tub. So he turned to the shower instead and turned all the jets on high heat and full blast and let them pound some of the ache out of his bones.
He heard movement out in the main room but it was too early for Steve to be back, so it must have been the bot. He stuck his head under the spray and quickly lathered up, washing two days worth of sweat and grime out of his hair, then rinsed himself off. He wrapped himself up in one of Steve's giant robes and wandered out of the bathroom.
Dinner was laid out on the table in the main room, and the smell made Tony's mouth water. He checked the time and thought about waiting for Steve, but the smell of warm bread and homemade chicken soup annihilated his good intentions and he practically inhaled his share.
That's how Steve found him, half asleep and dozing on the couch, just under an hour later.
Tony grumbled as Steve slid one arm behind his shoulders, the other beneath his knees and lifted him off the couch. There was a time he would have complained but that was long years in the past. Now he just turned his face into his husband's throat and enjoyed the feeling of being held.
Steve climbed onto the bed and gathered Tony up against his chest as he lay down. Tony was dimly aware of Steve easing the bathrobe off his shoulders and tossing it aside, of the blankets being tugged over him, of Steve quietly ordering the lights off.
Tony listened to the sound of Steve's heart beating beneath his ear. “Did you eat?”
Steve kissed the top of his hair. “I did, thank you.” He was running his hands up and down Tony's back, soothing circles that eased some of the tension that still lingered in his muscles.
He smelled like soap and toothpaste and there were still a few droplets of water on his neck and shoulders. He felt warm and strong. He'd come home safely, even without Tony watching his back.
Tony opened his eyes and looked at his hand,where it lay on Steve's chest. His skin was darker than Steve's, and his hands were covered in dozens of little scars and burns from years in the workshop. Steve was unmarked, the serum erasing his wounds almost as fast as he got them.
Tony's hands looked like they belonged to a man in his sixties. Steve's body was still strong and healthy and younger than his years.
“I'm done,” Tony said into the darkness of the room. The curtains were closed and the arc reactor was covered by the blankets. “After this- I'm done, Steve. I'm stepping down from the Avengers.”
He could feel his husband tense beneath him, felt Steve's arms tighten around him. “I'm going to be sixty-five this weekend,” he said quickly. “It's a good retirement age – I'm talking to Pepper about stepping back from SI a little too and just – I'm tired, Steve.” He dragged in a breath, blinked against the burning in his eyes. “It's a good time. The kids are – they're not kids anymore, actually, which just really emphasizes how long I've been at this. And they're good, they're ready to step up. They're going to be amazing, I can't wait to see what they do. I'm going to stay on as a consultant, I already talked to Hawkeye about her taking over as my replacement. You and she will make a good team, I think. You'll complement each other.” The idea of never working with Steve again burned but he'd known going in that this wouldn't be easy.
But staying would be worse. His heart and lungs were already weak and the longer he stayed in the business the weaker they were getting. He'd had a heart attack five years ago – a minor one, and induced by an alien energy weapon more than normal wear and tear, but that had put the thought of retirement in his mind. He couldn't keep going till he killed himself. Or worse, until his subpar health and physical condition got someone else killed.
He woke from nightmares that he was out there, trying to fight his way to Steve's side, but his back gave out or his heart and all he could do was watch as whatever nightmare construct his subconscious came up with that night killed his husband while Tony lay there helpless.
The armor could only carry him so far. And it was carrying him now, in a way it hadn't when he'd first built it.
“I hope you aren't... disappointed,” he said quietly. “I know we haven't talked about this. I should have-” He closed his eyes again. “But I've made up my mind. This was my last mission as an Avenger.”
He was prepared for anything. Steve's disappointment, anger – he didn't really know what to expect. The Avengers had been such a huge part of their lives for as long as they'd known each other. What if Steve felt let down or abandoned? What if he didn't think they'd have anything in common if they weren't saving the world together?
He wasn't prepared for the way Steve's arms clenched around him painfully tight, the way he clutched Tony to his chest and curled around him almost possessively. “Thank god,” Steve breathed into his hair and then he pressed his face against Tony's shoulder and sobbed, “Oh, thank god.”
“Steve?” Tony cupped one hand around the back of Steve's neck. “Hey. Sweetheart, what-”
Steve turned his head and caught Tony's mouth in a kiss, deep and hard. Tony kissed him back, following Steve when his husband pulled away and taking a second, gentler kiss that lasted for several long heartbeats.
“Please don't change your mind,” Steve said. He still had his arms wrapped around Tony's back, holding him so he couldn't move, cradled against Steve's chest. “Please don't.”
“No.” Tony combed his hand through Steve's hair. “No, I've been thinking about this for a while. I'm not going back out into the field again.” Maybe if another Chitauri situation came up, something where it was literally fight or die, but even then he could probably be of better use staying at HQ and working on weapons. “You're not disappointed?”
Steve made a disbelieving sound, his breath a puff of warm air against Tony's temple. “Disappointed?”
“I know the team is important to you.”
“You are important to me,” Steve said flatly.
“Yeah, but.” Tony squirmed in Steve's grip, tried to sit up and look Steve in the face, but Steve didn't loosen his hold even a fraction of an inch. “Look, we've been doing this as long as we've known each other. I understand if my decision to step down affects things between us.”
“I'd have quit the team five years ago if I thought I could have talked you into going with me.”
Tony froze. His chest felt tight. He put one hand on Steve's chest and felt his heart racing beneath Tony's palm. “You wanted to quit? But the team is – you always said being an Avenger gave you a purpose.”
“It still does. I love being an Avenger. I'm proud of what we do.” Steve kissed the top of Tony's head. “But I'm fifty years old and I've been a soldier for more than half my life. I've never taken a vacation that lasted longer than two weeks. I've been on call for one disaster after another and I've watched the man I love throw himself into danger for twenty-five years.” He raised a hand to Tony's face, traced his fingers over Tony's cheek, along the curve of his jaw. “I've been Captain America for most of my life, Tony. And I've loved it. I've been proud of it. But I'm fifty years old and all I want-” His breath stuttered for a second and he pressed another kiss against Tony's hair. “All I want is to be your husband and to grow old with you.”
“I didn't realize.”
“I never said. I know what the armor means to you. I know how proud you are of being Iron Man, of helping people. I'd never take that away from you.”
“I just-” Steve's fingers stroked Tony's jaw. “Please don't change your mind.”
“No.” Tony could barely hear himself. “No. I won't.” He pressed a soft kiss to Steve's mouth. “I promise. I'm done. It's time for Iron Man to retire.”
Steve sighed, shaky and relieved. “Thank you.”
“What do we do now?”
“Tomorrow I'm going to tell Danvers and Hawkeye that I'm stepping down. I'll stick around, keep an eye on the kids while they handle clean-up. You're going to sleep in because you look like shit.”
“I love you too,” Tony said dryly.
Steve kissed him. “I want to buy a house. We don't have to stay there all the time but I want – something for us, something where it's just me and my husband and we can sleep in as late as we want and cuddle on the couch in the middle of the day and have sex on the kitchen floor or the porch or the balcony without worrying about a dozen roommates walking in on us.”
“Okay. Done. That sounds – that sounds amazing.”
“I want to go on a vacation. Not right away, but when you can arrange to get away from SI. A second honeymoon. I want four weeks, no Avengers comms, no work, no supervillains.” Steve cups Tony's face, runs his thumb over Tony's bottom lip. “Just me and my husband until we're so sick of each other's company that we end up begging Pepper or Fury to find us something to do.”
Tony nodded. “You're going to stay on at SHIELD?”
“As a consultant only. I've been talking to Nick Jr about this for a while now. He knows this is coming. I'll help run mission briefings, advise on combat strategy – but they'll call me in on specific cases, it won't be a nine-to-five.”
Tony pressed his mouth to Steve's and drew in a ragged breath. “You want us to buy a house.”
“I want to grow old with you,” Steve whispered. “I want to make love with you without having to listen for the comms. I want to take a vacation and know it's not going to get cut short because of a Hydra attack. I want to hold you every night and know you're safe with me. I never want to see you throwing yourself at a bomb or a missile or walking into enemy fire. I never want to have to listen to static on a comm and pray that I hear your voice again. I don't want to worry that I'm going to die in the field and leave you before I absolutely have to.” His kiss was deep, invasive, and when he drew back his chest heaved against Tony's. “Promise me you won't change your mind.”
“I promise, Steve.” Tony let his forehead rest against Steve's as he caught his breath. “I promise, we can have all of that. We've got years left, sweetheart, for just you and me.”
Steve didn't answer, but the tension had eased from his chest and he wrapped his arm around Tony's back again and held him close as they finally slid into sleep.