Steve had gotten used to tuning Tony out. Sometimes, though, he couldn’t stop some of the constant running commentary from trickling in.
“I feel like I need one of those beeping metal detectors old people use on the beach,” Tony said, batting grass as tall as he was out of his face. “What are we even looking for? Why is this even our job? Hey, I bet I could soup up a metal detector real good. Or! Give it an AI that would run itself and be able to tell the difference between treasure and a busted-ass fork. Hey, Steve, write that down so I don’t forget.”
Steve sighed and pulled a handkerchief from his pocket to wipe the sweat from his brow. He wondered how he got stuck with Tony Stark as his partner again. Because, he remembered, Barton and Romanov were attached at the dour expression, and Thor had somehow decided Bruce was his Asgardian warrior soulmate, and before he knew it they’d all split off into factions and he was left with a cocky motormouth who flung money like baboons flung excrement.
“I’m not your servant, Tony,” he said.
Tony snorted. “Is that a handkerchief, Grandpa? Oh my God, is it embroidered with your initials?” Then, Tony was bounding into his space, contorting himself in an attempt to see. Steve balled it up and held it above his head — far out of Tony’s reach. Tony rocked back on his heels with a pout. “Wow, Cap, love the middle school look on you.”
“If you act like a child, I’ll treat you like a child,” Steve said, and shouldered past Tony. He stuffed the handkerchief — an embroidered gift from Pepper, in fact, though he suspected she had not embroidered it herself — back into the pocket of his jeans. “The sooner we finish this up, the sooner we can get back to New York.” And then he added, because he couldn’t quite help himself, “So keep the chit chat to a minimum and we’ll stay out of each other’s hair.”
“You are the most boring homecoming king at this dance, Rogers,” Tony said from somewhere behind him, but Steve just kept walking.
In fact, he didn’t know why Fury had sent the team here, to a field of nothing in rural Wyoming. This wasn’t even anyone’s farm land — just excessively tall grass and excessively small bugs, at least three of which Steve thought he’d swallowed. Steve didn’t even think this stretch of land belonged to any of the surrounding towns. It was flat greenery as far as he could see, stark against the bright blue of the infinite sky. There might have been a cloud or two, but the sun shone unfettered and searing.
Steve hated it. He was a Brooklyn boy, and the lack of ambient noise made him feel heavy, got his hackles up. SHIELD had identified a series of formations in the grass here — “Crop circles,” Tony had scoffed, “who cares?” — and ordered the Avengers to investigate in plain clothes. “Get a junior suit or two,” Tony had said. “Isn’t that what SHIELD agents are paid for?” Steve, loath to agree with anything Tony said and disdainful of his snot-nosed tone regardless of the sensible message therein, told him to shut up and move out, they had their orders.
Which landed him here. With Tony. In some grass that kept tickling his neck.
“SHIELD thinks it’s Loki,” Tony called at his back. “They’re punishing Thor for losing him, and the rest of us by extension. They didn’t say so but they don’t have to. They’re just too stupid to realize Loki’s a lot flashier than this. Wyoming no-man’s land? Crop circles in grass? This is small-time, man, chaff. Literally. Loki makes statements. Big honking ones. Fireworks the whole universe can see.”
“He sure is your kind of fella,” Steve said.
“Sick burn, Cap, did you think of that one all by yourself?”
Steve huffed and turned around. Tony came up short just before he would have collided with Steve’s chest.
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Steve said. “I mean, who else is there to even consult? Why can’t you just be normal for ten minutes?”
Tony’s sunglasses revealed nothing but Steve’s own reflection.
“I think we all left normal in the dust a long time ago, Sno-Cap.” Tony sidestepped him and walked off, back straight and head high, knocking blades of gigantic grass out of his way. Steve trailed after him and swallowed his complaints about the bugs.
After a few minutes of a silence Steve was beginning to think was worse than Tony’s chatter, they came upon a thick band of dead earth where nothing grew. Beyond it, grass. It extended outward in a curve Steve could see only a fraction of.
“Crop circle,” Tony said again, and Steve imagined the accompanying roll of his eyes. “Let’s avenge it real hard.”
Steve had knelt to gather a handful of the dirt when he found himself face first in the grass, the wind knocked out of him, and Tony Stark a surprisingly solid weight on his back.
“Jesus, don’t touch suspicious shit, Rogers!” he snapped too loudly into Steve’s ear. “Didn’t the Army beat the curiosity out of you hard enough?”
Steve pitched to the side and flung Tony off of him. He sprang to his feet and loomed over Tony, still supine in the green.
“What is wrong with you, Stark?”
“What’s wrong with you, Captain Grabby Hands?” Tony stood and scowled up at him. “You’re welcome, by the way, for saving your brick shithouse ass from Heimdell-knows-what over there. I think I have a concussion from your shoulder.”
“You could have just said something instead of tackling me!”
Tony sneered. “Because listening to me is what you do best, right Cap?”
Steve clenched his jaw. He let out a measured breath before saying with deliberate slowness, “You’re the one who keeps insisting these things are nothing. I take your point about not touching it with my bare hands, but let’s put some gloves on and get a sample.”
“They gave you gloves?” Tony stepped up to him, too close. “Give them to me before you hurt yourself.”
“I’m gonna do the collecting, Tony.”
“Why? I’m the scientist.”
“You’re an engineer,” Steve said.
“And you’re a lab rat who probably needs orders to wipe his own ass, so who’s more qualified?”
Steve turned his back and with his shoulders fended off Tony’s attempts to get in front of him. He pulled the bundle of nitrile gloves he’d been given — four, not that Tony had to know — from a pocket along with a small plastic bag. Tony kept harassing him, hands darting under and around his arms, head ducking to and fro.
“Give it up, Cap. They never taught you this in boot camp.”
“Stop it,” Steve said, and pushed back at Tony with an elbow. “You’re like a little kid, I swear.” Only, even now, with years to get used to this body, Steve occasionally, once in a while, very rarely, underestimated what it could do. Tony stumbled back from the force of Steve’s shove, and Steve could feel Tony’s feet entangled with his own. He was tipping backwards, mouth open to sling some insult, arms windmilling.
Steve dropped the gloves, lunged forward, and swiped at Tony. He caught a handful of Tony’s threadbare t-shirt, but it was futile. They overbalanced and both went down hard, right on the dry dirt of the crop circle. There was a warmth, a tingling sort of all-over pinch that seemed more elemental than bodily, and then blackness.
Before he could open his eyes, he also became aware of two hands cupping one of his. That, and a bone-deep ache that seemed to suffuse his whole body. He groaned out a single gravelly note.
“Oh God, why aren’t I on the good stuff?”
“Pep, you’ll raid the morphine stash here, won’t you?”
“You’ve got a cracked rib and some deep tissue bruising,” Pepper said. “There’s… something else, but it’s fine. It’s good. They told me you could go home after you woke up and talked to a nurse. So I’ll call one now.”
Tony opened his eyes in time to catch Pepper leaning over him to press a button on the side of his bed. Cot. This thing was a cot.
“Did we travel in time?” he asked her.
She furrowed her brow at him. Dismayed and alarmed all at once — the Pepper face he was most familiar with. The reason she left him.
“Is it the middle ages?” he asked, and her expression cleared. “Is that why I’m in a rickety cot with a mattress stuffed full of straw and sheets made from sandpaper?”
Pepper sighed and pursed her lips. “SHIELD facilities are state of the art, Tony, you know that.” She sat back down and pulled her tablet from her purse. She was beautiful and powerful and Tony thought his heart might burst from it. Before she began tapping away at whatever mountain of work she had, she looked up at him and gave him a soft, sad smile. “I’m glad you’re okay, Tony.”
His mouth wouldn’t open to say, “I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad you’re still who the hospital calls. I’m glad yours is the first face I see when I wake up.” He knew it wasn’t fair. He knew he needed to change the paperwork soon, make his emergency contact someone who wouldn’t weep herself raw to see how beat up he was this time. It had been months. Pepper was supposed to be in Malibu with her pick of svelte young men, and instead she was here, at Tony’s hospital bed in New York, yet again.
“What happened?” he asked instead. “I mean, I know what happened, no one forgets three hundred pounds of dumb jock crushing their far leaner and more aesthetically pleasing body into the ground, but how was I out for so long I don’t remember coming back to the city?
Pepper took a deep breath and set her tablet down.
“Steve falling on you caused the physical damage, yes. But there was something else, something about the unidentified formations —”
“—the crop circles that caused a — well, a transformation, I guess.”
Tony tried to sit up a little, but his ribs protested. He gasped, but that was another sharp, debilitating pain.
“Oh, Tony, please don’t.” Pepper was up again, her hands gentle on his shoulders, her eyes kind and full of sympathy.
“Don’t keep me in suspense, Pep,” Tony said. “Am I a centaur? A faun? Oh God, am I Steve?”
He thought she would laugh, but she only dropped her gaze and took his hand.
“Here,” she said, and pressed his own palm to his chest.
His skin-warm, flesh-and-blood, 100% organic matter chest.
“Pepper, what—” He swallowed his own questions and tried to sit up again, tried to look down at what wasn’t there anymore. He scrabbled at the hospital gown, pulling it low. The middle of his chest was there, complete with a patch of smooth hair. He could feel his heartbeat below his sternum. It was beating a too-quick rhythm. And, God, this is what breath felt like. “How—”
“Tony, shh. It’s fine. Calm down. The shrapnel’s gone, the arc reactor’s at the tower, and other than Steve landing on you full-force, you’re in tip top shape for the first time, in — well.”
Maybe the first time ever, he heard anyway. He was off the sauce, had a strict workout regimen and a healthy diet, and, scuffles with Steve aside, being on the Avengers Initiative had given him a focus and stability his most vehement detractors once said he’d never have. Without the shrapnel, the machinery welded to his ribcage, and the constant threat of palladium poisoning, he was a physical specimen in his prime. Everything he could think to say got tangled up in his throat, so he said nothing at all.
Pepper squeezed his hand and smiled at him, watery. Happy for him, sad for them, too many things all at once.
“There’s more,” she said, but that was when a nurse came in with a lecture and discharge papers, and there was no more talking to Pepper.
In the privacy of his own floor of Stark Tower, he could admit it. He had lost any self-consciousness about this body — this original-issue Steve Rogers, 110 pounds and ready to take on the world, body — a long time ago, but that didn’t mean he wanted to bear the weight of his teammates’ misplaced sympathy on his now-narrow shoulders. Or, to be honest, he didn’t want to face Tony. When he’d been discharged from the SHIELD medbay with a clean bill of health — well, as clean as his bill of health could be — and a set of clothes that fit this size, he had returned to the tower to find Thor, Bruce, Barton and Romanov gathered around the table in the communal kitchen, straining to act natural.
Thor broke first, less than fifteen seconds after Steve had entered.
“Steven!” His big hands closed over Steve’s shoulders and squeezed, lifting him up a little. “You have my deepest sympathy in this, your time of hardship.”
“Hey, buddy, you’re crushing him,” Bruce said, and Thor let him go.
“It’s fine,” Steve said, not even with a wheeze, and the smile Bruce gave him was forced and crooked. Romanov looked more awkward than he ever remembered seeing her, for all her face remained impassive. “Really, guys, I’m fine. This is just… reversion to situation normal.”
“We’re gonna find a way to reverse it for you,” Bruce said. “SHIELD’s sending me back down to Wyoming with a team of lab coats and we’re going to figure out what happened and how to undo it.”
Steve nodded. “Thanks, Bruce,” he said. “You’re a lifesaver.” He turned to the refrigerator and opened it, only to stare through its contents as he felt all their eyes settle on his back.
“Hey Steve?” Barton said tentatively.
Steve picked out a yogurt and turned back to them, steeling himself.
“Yeah?” They were all looking very decidedly at his face and nowhere else.
“Would you feel demeaned if I bench pressed you?”
Romanov, as if swatting a fly, smacked the back of her hand into Barton’s shoulder, and he cringed.
“I already told him he couldn’t,” she said, and Lord, Steve hated the sympathy in her eyes just then.
“It’s fine,” Steve said with his best USO tour smile. They didn’t even sound like real words anymore. It’s fine it’s fine itsfine issfine svine. “Actually, I should start a workout regimen anyway. What do you say, Clint, you, me, the gym tomorrow?”
“Just so we’re clear,” Barton said, stepping away from Romanov, “you’re giving me the go-ahead to use you as my personal free weight.”
“As long as you spot me, we’re square.”
Barton smirked at Romanov, who crossed her arms and looked distinctly disapproving.
“Hey, where’s Tony?” Steve asked. “I remember… landing on him.” He winced.
“No one told you?” Romanov asked.
Steve looked between her and Bruce, who ducked his head. Thor perked up and beamed.
“Tony Stark, too, has been restored!” There was a pause while Thor tried unsuccessfully to hide a grimace. “His results were more satisfactory than— ” He gestured vaguely in Steve’s direction “—your puniness.”
Steve registered Romanov rubbing a hand over her forehead, but he was too caught up in the information about Tony to care about Thor’s social faux pas.
Bruce leaned over the table and cupped his hands around his mug of coffee, looking pensive.
“Whatever you guys fell on, it basically restored you both to your natural forms. For you, that means… being back to your old self. For Tony, that means no arc reactor. No shrapnel.”
“Wow,” Steve said faintly. “Good for him.”
Bruce cracked one of his small smiles, curly hair flopping over one eye.
“Didn’t do much to help the fact that you outweighed him by about a hundred pounds when he cushioned your fall.”
“Oh, jeez,” Steve said. “Is he okay? I should go visit him.” He may not like the guy, but he knew when he owed someone an apology.
Before Bruce could respond, the whole team looked up, and really, Steve should have seen it coming.
“Why, Captain America wants to visit little old me in the hospital? Someone get me my smelling salts!”
Steve turned, and there Tony was. Taller than Steve, and sporting a big purple bruise across his face. That didn’t stop his eyes from twinkling down at Steve, and it didn’t stop him from being more painfully, annoyingly handsome than even Howard. He smirked and patted Steve on the head.
“Aren’t you the most adorable thing?”
Steve felt himself flush down to his lowest guts, and he slapped Tony’s hand away.
“Don’t touch me unless you want to go a round in the ring, Stark,” Steve said.
Tony looked startled for a fraction of a second before he guffawed. He held his hands up in surrender and took a step back.
“White flag, Cap,” he said. “And we’ll never talk about your embarrassing Napoleon complex again.”
Steve’s ears burned. He held himself straight, stuck his chin high and kept Tony’s gaze.
“I’m sorry I hurt you,” he said. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
In the periphery of his vision, Steve could see Thor gear up to squeeze him too hard again, so Steve grabbed his yogurt and beat a hasty exit, almost tripping over Mjolnir on the way out.
That was yesterday. Today, Barton textually messaged him to “hit me up for a workout whenevs,” but mostly it just reminded him that while Barton and Tony had approached his change in stature the same way, he had reacted poorly only to Tony.
He could make all the usual excuses: Barton was just ribbing him, making light of the situation, laughing with him not at him, etc., while Tony was outright mocking him, using his superior size against him, it was just another notch in the pattern of Tony finding a way to needle him no matter what, and so on. But that’s all they were: excuses. Steve couldn’t control what Tony did, but he could control how he reacted, and he’d let himself fly off the handle one too many times with him. If he were being brutally honest with himself, and he liked to be, in the privacy of his own head, he knew he had only himself to blame for his current predicament. He was the one who shoved Tony too hard and made them fall. He was the one whose pigheaded failure to lend credence to anything Tony said caused Tony to go to any lengths necessary not to let him touch the strange dirt, which he ended up doing anyway. He was the one who de-serumed himself, and he was the one who left Tony looking like Picasso’s blue period. It wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t something he could blame on Tony — it was all him.
Steve groaned and got out his sketchbook.
“JARVIS, let him in,” he said, and Bruce entered. “What’s up, Jolly Green?”
Bruce cracked a smile at him and nodded at the slab. “You’re a regular Narcissus.”
Tony snorted and pushed away from his work table.
“The arc reactor usually reflects light back at me when I work on metal,” he said. “Last night I couldn’t sleep until I put the goddamn light on in the bathroom.”
Bruce frowned and took a seat across from him.
“I guess I thought you’d be happy about it,” he said.
Tony rubbed idly at his chest.
“I am. It’s not that.” He waved a hand. “Anyway, did you need something? Not that I’m not overjoyed to see you — I am ecstatic, delirious, shitting my pants — but you’re not usually down here for chit chat.”
Bruce set a tablet down on the work table and produced a stylus, twirling it in his fingers.
“If you’ve got time, I need to interview you for all your observations. Exactly what happened, as best as you can describe.”
Tony tilted his head. Bruce Banner, physicist and occasional recluse, was not the first person who sprang to mind when Tony thought “get someone to assess some crop circles for magic.”
“You didn’t get assigned this gig by SHIELD,” Tony said. Bruce’s gaze never wavered. “You asked for it. And you’re not looking to reverse engineer whatever it was for Steve, you’re looking to recreate its effects in you.”
“I was at those same crop circles,” Bruce said. “Why didn’t it happen to me?”
“My crop circle was bigger than yours?”
“Captain Klutz is the secret ingredient?”
“The stars of annoyance aligned just so and struck me and Cap down for singing their song with bad harmonies?”
“Bruce, I don’t know what you want from me,” Tony said. “There was grass and crop circles and me and Steve were fighting as usual. It was a sickeningly beautiful day without a lick of pollution in the air. I was too busy not kicking Cap in the head to ogle his ass. I tried to save it and got it turned Classic instead. The end.”
“One out of one Steve Rogers agree, Tony — it wasn’t your fault.”
Tony snorted. “He say that?”
“You already interviewed him, then.”
“Yes. But I’d like to get a fuller picture and I can’t do that with a sample size of one.”
“What did he say about me? Don’t hold out, Kermit.”
“You know. It’s not easy being green.”
Bruce was giving him a look of fond exasperation, which he must have contracted somehow from Pepper. It was a disease Tony needed to find out how to contain.
“JARVIS, I’m gonna need everything you’ve got on pathology.”
“Tony, come on.”
A sigh. Bruce set down the tablet again. He rubbed a hand through his hair and lingered a little to pinch the bridge of his nose.
“He said it was his fault for letting you get to him and pushing you,” he said. “I really do think he’s sorry about landing on you, by the way.”
Tony gave an insouciant shrug and turned back to the titanium. He made a show of marking it up.
“Guess he wouldn’t be an Eagle Scout if he publicly rejoiced in my pain.”
“This isn’t gonna work out, Tony.”
Tony looked up. Bruce’s eyes were brown and grave, the corners of his mouth tight.
“The interview? It’s working out fine. Quick, press record on that thing, I’ve got an eidetic memory you know.”
“It’s not charming when you play dumb and then want to remind everyone you’re a genius.”
Tony swallowed and inspected the edges of the metal.
“This whole thing isn’t gonna work out if you and Steve can’t reach some kind of accord.”
“Who even says ‘accord?’ Do you and Steve go to old man conventions I don’t know about?”
“No, you know what? I’m sick of everyone treating me like I’m the one with the problem. I invited him here, I made his apartment all homey and built him an art studio, I try to joke around with him like I do everyone else, I sit through his terrible 40s romance movie picks. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Bruce? No, I’m not the one who needs a lecture on playing nice with the other kids, especially from a guy who can’t bear to look at his own reflection.”
Tony saw Bruce’s Adam’s apple bob, and then he got up and left the workshop without a word. Tony ruffled his own hair, letting the nails scrape his scalp just this side of too hard.
“Sir, post for you,” JARVIS intoned.
“This time of day?” Tony asked. “Wait, what time is it?”
“It is 3:44 in the afternoon, sir.”
“Oh. Is that when I usually get the mail?”
“It varies, sir.”
“Okay, well, you know the deal, JARVIS. Have someone put it with the rest.”
“This is a special article, sir. I believe you will want it post-haste.”
Tony let out a groan and rolled his eyes.
“Har-har, JARVIS. You’re the worst. What is it this mystery mail?”
In answer, a vent opened in the ceiling and a paper airplane pitched gracelessly onto the work table, crushing its pointed nose. Tony stared for a moment before reaching for it. It was precisely folded, angles crisp and perfect. It was made of heavy, expensive paper. Carefully he opened it.
Inside was a colored comic of Captain America’s shield and the Iron Man helmet. In the first panel, the shield said in a cartoon speech bubble, “Hey, let’s be pals,” while the helmet responded, “It’s a deal, Iced Cappuccino.”
In the second panel, the shield was in the background rolling away, whistling a jaunty tune as the helmet said, “Right after I set you on fire.”
Tony couldn’t help it. He threw his head back and laughed.
“I am frankly ashamed of myself for not thinking of Iced Cappuccino first,” he said. “Well-played.”
Steve wheeled around, panting. Tony was in sweats and a sleeveless t-shirt, and Steve tore his eyes from the bulge of his biceps in order to plant his hands on his knees and breathe hard in the general direction of the floor.
“Are you all right?” Tony asked, and Steve ventured a squint up at him. Tony was looming, a furrow developing between his brows.
“I could do this all day,” Steve panted, and Tony snorted. Tony went over to a bench and dropped a duffle bag onto it before unzipping it and digging around inside.
“He’s got better things to do than babysit an asthmatic at the gym,” Steve said. He bent sideways to retrieve his own little bag and drew out a water bottle and an inhaler. He took a several swallows of water before hitting the inhaler twice in rapid succession and holding the albuterol in his lungs like the SHIELD doctor had shown him. “This though,” he said, voice choked, “this stuff is a lot better than what they had in my day.”
Tony was regarding him with an inscrutable expression — something between assessing and deeply amused.
“My super amazing genius intellect detects a lie, Capstone.”
Steve tamped down on his knee-jerk irritation. He just pursed his lips.
“Oh yeah? And what’s that?”
“You never asked Barton to join you.” With that, Tony slung a pair of bright red boxing gloves into Steve’s hands. “Seems to me you promised me a go in the ring. Are you up for it or does the old man need a breather?”
Tony’s eyes were twinklesome again, but for the first time Steve didn’t feel raw about it. Tony was going to treat him the same as he ever had. Tony wouldn’t pull punches just because Steve was smaller now. Tony was going to be obnoxious and insulting and familiar.
“Who you calling old, Mr. ‘Is that a gray hair? Pepper, I’m dying!’ Or was it dyeing?”
Tony gasped theatrically. “That was a private conversation!”
Steve grinned, muscles loosening. He climbed into the boxing ring, stuck a mouthguard over his teeth and began to bounce back and forth on his toes.
“Some of us have super soldier hearing,” he said, and then faltered, because for a moment he forgot. But now, Tony was in the ring with him, and Tony was taller than him, and Tony had muscles he didn’t, and Tony had lungs that weren’t going to quit on him without advance notice, and all Steve could think about was how three days ago all it took was a quirk of his elbow to land Tony on the ground and turn him that kaleidoscope of colors he was currently sporting.
Tony, for his part, didn’t miss a beat — though Steve could tell by the way he met his gaze that he hadn’t missed Steve missing a beat, either.
“That’s me beefing up the soundproofing in this place, then,” Tony said around his own mouthguard, and took a jab with his left hand. Steve avoided it, just barely, and then they were ducking and weaving and throwing hooks in earnest, and for Steve, there was no breath left to banter with.
Afterward, when the two of them sat catching their breath on the bench and pouring water down their throats, Tony said, “Cardio.”
“Well, you never had to get in shape did you?” Tony held up a hand to stay Steve’s imminent pique. “Hear me out, Cap. I mean you went to bootcamp and besides your heart of gold and your plucky little apple pie spirit, you weren’t much of a soldier. Then Dr. Erskine got his serum into you and bam! That was it. You could run faster and jump higher and beat Nazi ass harder and more photogenically than anyone, and all you had to do was get in a pod.”
“It was more complicated than that,” Steve began, but Tony cocked his head in that way he had, the one that made him look like a little boy who somehow knew all your secrets, and Steve hushed up.
“My point, Steve, is that no one around here has given up on you being an Avenger just because you’re fun-size again. But you’re not gonna be tearing punching bags from the ceiling anymore, either — you gotta start slow. So: cardio. Light to moderate intensity, twenty to thirty minutes a day. Lift some weights three times a week. Box with me, and maybe Natasha if you like living on the edge. It’ll come, and it’ll be good. All right? All right.” Tony stood, slapped Steve on the shoulder hard enough to rattle his bones, and walked away. “Text me!” he called over his shoulder.
Steve waited until Tony was gone to lean over and hang his head between his legs. His limbs felt like jelly, and his lungs burned, but it was good. It was good.
Back on his own floor, showered and fresh, Steve tapped at a blank sheet in his sketchbook with the blunt end of a pencil. He went over and over the match with Tony — or rather, he went over and over Tony during the match. The width of his shoulders. The tapering of his waist. The mouthguard grin, the overstyled-to-look-understyled hair, the eyes. The eyes. A clear, rich brown, like the earth in a blooming garden. The eyes, full of mischief. The eyes, sharp and knowing.
Steve let out a slow breath. I should have known, he thought, and scoffed at himself. He scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to calm the sudden hummingbird flutter of his heart. This was inconvenient. This was not what he wanted. Very consciously, he forced himself not to think this was wrong. Things were different now. People were different. New York was different. SHIELD had made him watch an educational film on all sorts of social developments he’d missed. White people could marry black people. Women could keep their own last names. You could be a man and marry a man if you wanted. You could adopt babies. You could hold your head high and your back straight while you held your fella’s hand, leaned close, stole a kiss.
Mostly, when Steve saw such couples on the street or in the subway, he looked away and minded his own business. He tried not to envy them.
He set the graphite to the page and sketched out a rough oval. Then, he drew a curve down through the oval, and then another across. The shape of a mouth, a nose, delicate ears.
He’d save the eyes for last.
Rhodey, maybe. He might even be the better choice, since what Tony wanted to talk about was making Steve a soldier again. Steve-Lite would never be Captain America — or rather, he’d never be the Captain America in Tony’s comics, or posters, or action figures, but it turned out he never had been, which Tony had found bitterly disappointing when he met the real issue in all his tight-assed glory. But now Tony wondered if Captain America, regular Joe without the enhanced body, could still be a hero and a symbol and a part of the team, and if that was something else the New and Improved Tony could provide.
But Rhodey was in Afghanistan again, and it was some godawful time of day he refused to calculate right now, and Tony had done his level best to alienate Bruce just the day before, and none of the other Avengers really got Tony.
Tony tapped where his arc reactor used to be, a habit he had developed and didn’t see the need to shake now.
“JARVIS, remind me to get some friends.”
“Do you think Steve would like his very own armor? We could do it red, white, and blue and miniature and have a rotary phone inside and everything.”
“Captain Rogers is a man who likes to have his feet on the ground, sir.”
“What? What does that mean? Why are you an oracle all of a sudden?”
“I mean simply that you are Iron Man, sir, with all the armor’s strengths and weaknesses. Captain America is a different hero, and Steven Rogers a different man.”
“Sometimes I wonder where you came from, JARVIS. Do parents ever feel proud and baffled at the same time?”
“I would not know, sir.”
“Right. Well. Go ahead and bring up Steve’s file anyway.”
Steve’s stats came up all around him, and he stood to be immersed. Most of it was nothing he didn’t already know, but maybe inspiration would strike while he was looking at the actual words.
“Born on the fourth of July,” Tony muttered, shaking his head. “Obviously.” He flipped through with a flick of his wrist to the earliest files, from when he was 4Fed out of the draft approximately a billion times. He’d never bothered with pre-serum Steve before.
Tony took a deep breath when a list all of Steve’s health problems came up.
Chronic or frequent colds
High blood pressure
Palpitations or pounding in heart
Nervous trouble of any sort
Had household contact with tuberculosis
Parent/sibling with diabetes
Tony sat heavily back onto his stool.
“JARVIS, there’s medication for most of this now, right?”
“And Steve was given a bunch in the hospital?”
“That’s privileged information, sir.”
“Do me proud, baby.”
There was a pause, and then: “Captain Rogers has no current respiratory or ear, nose, or throat infections. He was given prescriptions for his asthma, both for long-term management and acute attacks, and a prescription for high blood pressure. He underwent a stress test and an echocardiogram for his heart, and he was declared fit to leave the hospital and was not prescribed any heart medications. His health is not in danger, sir.”
Tony was nodding as JARVIS spoke. “Good,” he said. “That’s good. And maybe working out right will take care of some of that. Are you sure he doesn’t want a suit? Or, like, a bubble? I could make a really good bubble, maybe one no else could even notice, and then he wouldn’t get germed or be a social outcast.”
“If you desire a more accurate summation of his wishes, you could ask Captain Rogers rather than me, sir. Or, it stands to say, any of your human acquaintances.”
“Ugh, JARVIS, where’s your sense of deviousness?”
“I lost it under your staggering cowardice, sir.”
“Going straight for the jugular! Ouch, JARVIS, very ouch.”
“I should like to point out, sir, that Captain Rogers’s list of ailments is no worse than yours was with the arc reactor equipment welded to your ribcage, and may, in fact, be better.”
“Yeah, except whatever happened to restore my health took his away. It’s not the same, and I’m trying to make that up somehow. Even if he is constantly doing his Dudley Do-Right impression.”
With a wave of his hand, Steve’s files were gone, and Tony brought up the schematics of his own suit.
“Sir,” JARVIS said, and he had that tone he got when he was being kind, of all things. Maybe he was due for a reprogramming. “All intelligence I have gathered indicates the incident was an accident in which you bear no culpability.”
Tony tapped his stylus on various parts of the Mark VIII and sent them twirling away.
“No such thing as an accident, JARVIS,” he said. “You know those people who pick at scabs because they’re constitutionally incapable of leaving well enough alone? And then they wonder why they’re bleeding? That’s me.”
JARVIS had nothing to say to that, and then Tony was alone with his plans.
The Avengers, minus one Dr. Banner, who was currently in Wyoming, were called to assemble a little more than a week after Steve and Tony’s transformation. Except Steve wasn’t called. He was trying his hand at a watercolor in Iron Man warms and had the radio on when the broadcast was interrupted.
“People of Earth,” boomed a rough, low voice Steve didn’t recognize. “Your pitiful Avengers are no match for us! I have vanquished them in your pathetic arching underground! Prepare to be assimilated into the Klohacha!”
Steve didn’t bother to listen further. He was out the door with helmet, boots, and shield. It would have to be enough.
He had to pay a cabbie $50 to drive him to the action at Bowery station. “That’s a hairy situation down there, man,” the cabbie had said, eyeing his shield doubtfully. “I don’t know how close I can get.” Steve hated to part with that much money — he still marveled that what would have once bought him and Bucky a few months’ worth of groceries would barely cover the cost of a pair of pants today — but he did what he had to and was dropped off on Delancey Street, where he saw that traffic had stopped and about three hundred people, eyes glazed, were transfixed and swaying slightly within the borders of what seemed to be an iridescent blue cloud. Outside its limits were towering piles of personal phones, tablets, music players, and sometimes even computers. The cloud was speaking.
“In the Klohacha you will know true peace,” it said. “In the Klohacha there is no pain, no fear, no infirmity.” Steve crept closer along the sides of buildings. He fastened his helmet over his ears and jiggled at the comm device until static crackled in his ears. He watched more people list over and join the cloud, which rambled on its message of peace. And then, in his head, he heard its voice, now smooth as ribbons of chocolate. Steven, we know what you are, what you are meant to be. Be one with the Klohacha. Be strong and shining once more in our arms. The cloud was flowing closer to him, but seemed to be making no moves to defend the entrance to the subway. Steve’s heart beat faster, but he shook his head to clear it. The Klohacha, whatever it was, was more concerned about collecting the maximum amount of souls than in neutralizing the Avengers. Or it had underestimated them. He jiggled the comm device until the static cleared.
“Avengers!” he whispered. “Can you hear me? Avengers, answer me!”
“Christ, Cap, is that you?” Hawkeye said. “What are you doing?”
“Captain,” Black Widow cut in, crisp and professional. “We’re locked in by some kind of force field. We’re in this abandoned part of the Bowery Street station — there’s nothing here, nothing.”
Steve knew exactly what she was talking about. “Got it,” Steve said, and just barely ducked past a pulsating bit of cloud to descend into the depth of the station.
“The Captain of America must be informed!” Thor boomed, and Steve suppressed a wince. “The cloud beast dislikes electric currents! It has separated me from my hammer!”
“And it’s powered down Iron Man, Cap,” Barton added. “JARVIS is down, the suit is not moving, and communication with Iron Man is nil.”
Steve frowned, but he was practiced at placing the raw knot of worry for one of his men at the back of his mind. He made as little sound as possible as he crept, light-footed, to the unfinished second platform, which was half-lit and dank.
“Electricity must pose a threat to it,” Steve said. “When I break the force field, Thor, you have to call down all your thunder and lightning. Barton and Romanov, you have to go get the captives out of the cloud’s grip, if you can. That clear?”
There was a chorus of agreement.
Steven, how we long for you. Share in our glory and vitality. Be as you once were, your true self. Be with us. Be strong and free and loved.
Steve gritted his teeth and pulled out his Stark phone, which came equipped with a flashlight. He cast it around the well where once, there might have been the plans for train tracks, but now there was only garbage and dirt. And, apparently, the Avengers, ringed by a glowing blue fog. He saw Mjolnir, inert on its side, twenty feet from Thor, who struggled against the confines of the fog. Black Widow was kneeling before the supine, unmoving shape of Iron Man, and Hawkeye was scanning the surrounding. He raised his head as Steve approached, but otherwise he was eerie and still.
“Status,” Steve said.
“Everyone’s fine but Iron Man,” Black Widow said. “And he might be fine but we can’t hear him if he’s speaking, and the suit weighs too much for him to be able to move it on his own strength.”
“What kind of electronic devices do you have in there with you?”
“It took our phones but didn’t bother with the comms,” Black Widow said when Steve got to them. “I’m not sure it knew about them. It didn’t seem interested in us beyond the publicity factor of our involvement. The more people came, the broader its reach got.”
“Indeed, it was a trap!” Thor snarled.
We can give you the strength of tens of thousands of men.
“Everyone comes out to see the Avengers,” Hawkeye sneered. “Everyone gets a brainwashing ear worm.”
We can give you the admiration of tens of thousands of men.
“Shut up!” Steve barked, and the Avengers all turned their eyes to him.
“Don’t listen to it,” Black Widow said. “You know it’s lying.”
Steve clenched his jaw and laid his shield down. He fumbled with the Stark phone — unlike many of the electronic things he’d seen in this new century, it didn’t have a back in which to slide batteries. He suppressed the urge to curse before he had another long shot idea.
A stupid idea from a stupid child. How do you expect to resist us? We are the all. We are infinite. You humans and your tiny currents of energy, what do you know about power, what do you know about—
Steve set his phone to vibrate and placed it in his shield, where it set the vibranium buzzing until even the air was humming around him and he felt the foundations of the station shake. Then he braced himself, lifted the shield, and, ignoring the ache of it traveling through his body, swung it hard at the force field.
The fog dissipated with a wrenching screech and before Steve could even blink, there was a crack of thunder and Thor and his hammer were gone.
“Black Widow, Hawkeye, get to the civilians now!”
“You need to get out of here, Captain!” Black Widow shouted. The ground beneath them began to shake, and Steve could hear the tiles of the station walls cracking against the concrete as they fell. Dust was in Steve’s eyes.
“I’ll take care of that when I get Iron Man out of that suit, now go, that’s an order!”
Hawkeye dashed out, drawing an arrow from his quiver, but Black Widow visibly hesitated.
“Go!” Steve screamed at her over the sound of the station crumbling around them. “Civilians, Black Widow, now!”
He watched her press her lips together for a moment before turning and sprinting out.
What little light made it into this part of the station began to flicker as more debris came down. He heard an intolerable screaming in his mind, like a billion voices all at once subjected to unutterable torment. He heard and felt a terrible crumbling, and he knew the exits had fallen in and trapped him here.
He scrambled over to Iron Man and searched for any weakness that might be exploited in the interlocking pieces of the armor.
“Why do you have to be so clever, huh?” he muttered when he found none. Finally, he found a place where the main chest plate curled a little away from one of the side slats, probably the result of a hit the suit had taken. Steve took a deep breath and began to pull.
He pulled and grunted and began to sweat, began to breathe hard. He put his back into it, his knees and elbows and anything with strength. He was beginning to feel all his muscles turn to jelly.
With all his might and one final wrench, the Mark VII’s chest piece came loose and Steve slid backwards on his back, the armor heavy on his chest. He shoved it off himself and lay there panting as dust floated down around him. Suddenly, he felt his throat seize up.
Oh no, he thought. I forgot my inhaler. He struggled to get up, but his lungs burned and his body ached and starbursts began to explode behind his eyes. He tried to say Tony’s name, tried to find out if he’d gotten free of the armor, but he choked around nothing instead. He longed, quite suddenly, for his mother’s rosary beads — something he’d lost long before he was plunged into the ice.
“Cap?” Tony’s voice. “You’re fucking nuts, man.”
Then Tony was there, looming above him in his black bodysuit, filling his vision with intensity in his eyes and grimness about his mouth.
“Jesus Christ, Steve. Stay with me, buddy. I’m gonna sit you up, okay?”
Steve wheezed and gave a jerky nod. Tony knelt beside him and then his hands were under Steve’s shoulders and he was lifting him up into a sitting position, only to push him further forward.
“Bring your knees up,” he said, and Steve struggled to comply, to place his feet flat on the dirt. Tony pressed a warm hand between Steve’s shoulder blades, reassuring but firm, not letting him bring his head up from between his knees. “Now listen to me. I need you to purse your lips and suck in air. Now, Steve, right now.”
And Steve could hear him, next to his ear, sucking in air himself as if to provide an example. Steve’s vision fuzzed, and his hands flailed out. He clutched at what he caught: Tony’s clothes in one hand, debris in the other. He shook. He tried to heave in air. His eyes burned, his lungs, his head.
“Oh, no,” he heard Tony say, “no, no, no Steve don’t do that, okay? Please? Pursed lips, okay? Don’t gasp like that.” And then Tony’s free hand was on his mouth, pinching the corners together ungently. “Pursed lips like this, Steve, now suck in air.” And Steve did.
Tony’s right hand dropped from his face, but his left stayed exactly where it was, rubbing slow, steady circles into Steve’s back while he murmured at him.
“All right now,” Tony was saying. “You’re gonna be all right, it’s gonna be all right. Keep breathing. I’ve got you.”
Steve sagged a little into Tony’s side as his airways loosened up. For once, he didn’t mind the way Tony kept talking.
The nurse didn’t say anything, but Tony detected the most minute of sighs.
“Hey, if you show emotions, does SHIELD deduct from your retirement fund? Or, like, if I make you laugh, cry, or hit me, do you have to scrub Fury’s eye socket for a week?”
“Laugh it up, Stark,” came Fury’s voice, and Tony suppressed a groan. He always felt like a kid called to the principal’s office for blowing up the toilets when Fury came around. Fury stepped into view, looking as tall and leather-clad as always, and fixed Tony with his single stink eye. “We’ve got a PR disaster on our hands, not to mention the damage to the city.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “One: there’s always damage, and it’s always our fault blah blah blah the media never likes to acknowledge when we save people from being enslaved by an alien, and two: how bad can the PR be? Mention that whole not enslaved thing, America’s Sweetheart Steve Rogers to the rescue yet again.”
“That’s precisely the problem, Stark,” Fury said. “Some jackass always has to get video footage of y’all when you’re out assembling and then sell it to the highest bidder. It’s all over the internet — not only Rogers’s unfortunate new circumstances, which I don’t know if you noticed but we were trying to keep under wraps, but the fact that the rest of you needed his miniature ass to pull yours out of the fire. Lack of enslavement or not, public opinion on the Avengers as a whole is low, and I can’t even begin to tell you what people are saying about Rogers.”
Tony clenched his jaw. The nurse seemed to dissolve out of the room, because suddenly he was alone with Fury and standing in his space.
“No, I get it. People are pissed at you about him. Let me count the ways?”
“Let’s see if I can predict public reaction right now with my oodles of past experience.” Tony popped his forefinger up from his balled fist. “First, there’s the contingent who are foaming at the mouth because you ‘let’ Captain America take a so-called body downgrade.” His middle finger joined the first. “Then, there must be the faction who are on their soap boxes saying you shouldn’t have even let a sweet little bunny rabbit like that out of his cage because he could have gotten hurt.” His ring finger came up and he waggled all three in Fury’s stony face. “And finally, of course, there are the people who take one look at him and decide he can’t be the leader of anything, he’s a danger to himself, his teammates, and this city, and Jesus Christ, Cyclops, you’re one of them. Do me a favor and spare me.”
“Sit your ass down before I deliver my foot through the mail slot, Stark.”
“No, I’m going to clean this up since you’re apparently incapable. You know I pay people for this, right? There’s a whole department, Public Relations, and Pepper makes sure they have the nicest muffin baskets every morning like a pre-emptive apology for whatever I’m gonna do on any given day. I got this.” But Fury was blocking his way.
“Stark, calm down, sit down, and shut it down. Just because you’re the poster boy for reckless endangerment doesn’t mean you can’t recognize what he did was stupid and damn well acknowledge that we don’t need another hot head who goes his own way on the team. I know Rogers is the best leader and the best tactician we’ve got, super serum or no super serum — I also know he would have died of an asthma attack if you hadn’t stopped him from panicking, and it’s only sheer dumb luck some hostile didn’t deliver a trifling hit that killed him in a fraction of a second before his throat could even seize up. He doesn’t belong on the field, Stark, and you know it.”
Tony wanted to calm the racing of his heart. He could feel the adrenaline like sparks of electricity in his blood. He was accustomed, now, to the moment of panic he felt when he realized the arc reactor wasn’t there, but he forced himself not to scrabble at his shirt, press a hand to his own warm chest.
“He saved all of us.”
“That doesn’t negate the fact that it was a dangerous, poorly thought-out decision based almost completely on proving himself.”
Tony narrowed his eyes. “You already talked to him,” he said, voice low and controlled. He thought of Steve, narrow in a narrow cot, hooked up to a ventilator and unable to come to his own defense as Fury debriefed him on being suspended from the team. Or, more likely, taking the lumps meekly because Steve Rogers was the king of thinking he was responsible for everything that could go wrong. He probably thought he didn’t deserve a defense.
Fury stood straighter, squared his shoulders, met Tony’s gaze.
“He’s a soldier. He understands.”
Tony pushed his way past Fury, phone already in hand and dialing PR.
After a dinner of bland forgettables, Steve tried to draw. Just doodles, really — a goldfish, bowl broken, gasping on the ground. Mjolnir. Natasha’s hair. Tony’s beard. Tony’s eye. Tony’s hand on Steve’s own face.
He tore out the sheets of paper, crumpled them, and threw them against the wall before sighing and getting up to retrieve them. He smoothed them out again to place in the recycling bin. While he was up he went to the bathroom, urinated, and came up to the sink to wash his hands. He caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and suppressed a wince.
His shoulders were bony and narrow, bracketing a sunken chest. His ribs were available for the counting, and his stomach managed to be concave and ever so slightly flabby at once. None of his musculature had any definition. He had never been given to too much introspection in regards to looks, but just then, for the first time since he was returned to the body he was born with — maybe the first time ever — he could see its limitations. He had felt it, earlier today, when his lungs gave out on him. He knew it was in his head, but he imagined he could still feel the burn of it, as if the edges of his lungs were charred and smoking.
Fury was right.
All those doctors who had marked his paperwork with that hated 4F stamp were right.
Smart, determined, loyal and brave were not the same as fit for military duty. Steve straightened and held his head up. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He dropped his gaze from his reflection, gave his hands a final rinse, and left the bathroom feeling heavy.
He went back to his cot only to find a hologram type thing flashing “BRUCE BANNER” on the glass of the partition. He frowned, sat on the edge of the bed, and tapped the screen, where Bruce’s face appeared, usual furrow between his brows, curl flopping across his forehead.
“Hey, Bruce,” Steve said.
“Steve, how are you? I saw the news.”
Steve grimaced. “Oh, jeez,” he said. “All the way in Wyoming?”
Bruce gave him his signature pained smile. Steve thought he might not know how to do it any other way anymore.
“Hey, you’re a big deal, Steve,” he said. “I thought I should drop you a line, tell you how it’s going over here.”
Steve perked, and his heart rate went up. He tried to tamp down on the hopes that bobbed up along with it.
“Have you found something?”
“Well, we quarantined the whole area, and we’re still in the middle of running tests on all the dirt in the circles. The one you and Tony stumbled onto — er, no pun intended, sorry — does have significantly different energy readings, but we haven’t been able to isolate what’s causing it or identify what it is or what it’s doing. We, uh, we tried to duplicate the results of your transformation, but so far it’s been a no go. There will probably have to be different equipment, animal trials, the whole experimental shebang.” He gave an apologetic little half shrug. “It’ll probably take a long time to figure out — several more months at the least. I’m sorry it’s not better news.”
Steve was quick to nod. “Of course,” he said. “No, it’s no problem. There’s no need to apologize. I’m just… grateful beyond words that I have a friend like you.”
Bruce looked embarrassed, shoulders rucked up in a shrug.
“Don’t mention it, Steve. Seriously, though, how are you? That was some real action today.”
Shame was a low heat that bubbled up to the very top of Steve’s head. The truth was, while his physical condition was fine after Tony’s quick thinking and some time on the ventilator, Steve’s pride was battered — and rightly so, a niggling thought in the back of his head insisted. He’d shown unacceptable hubris. He hadn’t belonged out there with the real heroes. He didn’t even have physical fitness to back up what he might be able to do with this body after a lot of training, though he planned to rectify that as soon as possible.
Instead of all that, because he was certain Bruce didn’t need all of Steve’s issues deposited at his feet like the world’s most awkward hairball, he told Bruce he was fine and asked him to explain some of the experiments he was running.
Bruce talked, as excited as Steve had ever seen him, and Steve let the jargon and intricacies of it all wash over him as he nodded and smiled and didn’t really listen.
He was, historically, not a known ditherer. He was decisive, action-oriented, and not particularly patient: these character traits did not lend themselves to dithering. And yet here was. In front of Steve’s door. Shifting his weight from foot to foot and wiping his palms on his hands.
“Ass,” he muttered to himself. Then he squared his shoulders and drew himself up straight and tall. “JARVIS, tell Steve I’m here.”
There was an interminable moment’s wait in which Tony thought he’d aged seventy-five years, but finally Steve came to the door. He was old-fashioned like that, never made JARVIS do stuff for him.
He had to tilt his head up to look at Tony now.
“Hey,” he said, and tipped one side of his mouth up in that half-smile he had, the “aww, shucks” one that made Tony want to mess him up somehow. Ruffle his hair. Pass him a cigarette. Show him the dirtiest porn.
“Cap,” Tony said too loudly, clapping his hands on Steve’s shoulders and giving them a squeeze. He pushed his way inside and sauntered into the living room. “I wanted to talk to you about fixing up your uniform, you know, I mean why isn’t SHIELD on that?” He picked up an orange from a fruit bowl and tossed it back and forth before putting it down and going to rifle through some books instead.
“But it’s fine because I could make it better anyway, flexible and breathable and still made of impenetrable alloys and stuff.” He made a little pile of books on the shelf whose dust jackets he pretended to read.
“I mean, if you’re going to to be coming out with the team and all—” Then Steve was in front of him, pushing him not very forcefully away from the bookshelf.
“Tony, I know Fury debriefed you same as me,” he said. “I’m not on the team until I’m properly Captain America again.”
Steve was fake smiling up at him, worse than usual. It was a flat, pinch-lipped smile, and the skin around his eyes remained unmoved.
Tony just stared at him.
“It’s fine,” Steve said quickly, a little too bright. “I mean, I understand. I’m a liability now. It was — it was a reckless, fool stunt I pulled, and one I would have reprimanded any of you for choosing yourself, and —”
“And you saved all those people, and the team, not to mention me from being crushed in my own damn suit.”
Steve rocked back on his heels, his truly crap mask of good cheer finally dropped. He was… dimmer, and Tony hated it.
“Bruce will figure out what happened and how to reverse it,” he said. “This is just temporary.”
Tony crossed his arms, leaned his hip against the bookshelf and tilted his head to the side.
“So, I’ve got this problem where everyone’s operating on a logical fallacy except me,” Tony said, and Steve brows knit together as he frowned, lower lip plumped forward ever so slightly. Being reduced to bite size hadn’t made that lip any less full, his eyelashes any less long. “Captain America isn’t Captain America because he was pumped full of special sauce.”
“Um, he kinda is.”
“No, for real, you’re Captain America and you punched Hitler a hundred times and you don’t get this?”
“Well, that was just my buddy Dan, actually —”
“Steve.” Tony reached a finger out and poked Steve hard in the shoulder. “I’m saying Captain America, like, lives in the hearts of little children. I’m saying he’s about justice and doing the right thing and helping those who need help no matter where they come from and all that good shit. I’m saying Captain America is a lot more about Steve Rogers than some magic serum, and this right here, this guy whose first thought while he was having an asthma attack was to make sure I was okay, this is Captain America.” Tony waves a hand around Steve’s personal space. “That other stuff, muscles and height and chiseled jaw, that stuff’s just —” Tony’s mouth went dry at the sight of Steve’s eyes, huge and blue and tragic, staring up at him like he was the goddamn second coming. “….window dressing.”
He watched Steve swallow, and there was a sudden tension Tony felt settling on his chest. He cleared his throat.
“My point is, Steve, Captain America exists because of you. Not because of the serum, or Dr. Erskine, or good old Dad. It’s just you.” Tony stepped backward, away from the thick heat of whatever happened in that moment, and went to fondle to fruit in the bowl again. He stared at it all, oranges and apples and nectarines and one sad lonely plum. They were terribly interesting. Steve was a slight figure in his peripheral vision when he came up beside him, this time with a healthy distance between them.
“But you’re always ripping on me for that stuff,” Steve said, sounding so much younger than his body’s twenty-six years.
Tony cracked one of his fake smiles — he was way better at it than Steve, a lot more practiced — and looked up from the fruit bowl to level it at him.
“I rip on everyone, Cap, didn’t you get the memo? Maybe they put it on a high shelf or something.”
The faintest of rueful smirks.
“Well, it sure is a nice thing to say. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m supposed to lead a team of superheroes and I don’t have any powers.” Before Tony could interrupt, he held up a hand and raised his voice. “And yes, I know Clint and Natasha and you are 100% bona fide regular human, please don’t argue semantics with me because you know what I mean.” He dropped his hand before raising it again to rake through his perfectly combed hair. He was fidgeting. “Thanks anyway, Stark. Tony. I…. I really appreciate it.” Steve took a deep breath. “And thanks for what you did in the station. I owe you one.”
“You piss me off, you know that Rogers?” Tony blurted, and he was not in any way distracted at all by the flummoxed look that settled over Steve’s face just then. He threw his hands up. “I mean, imagine you’re me. You’re this little kid and if you aren’t gonna be a robot when you grow up, your second choice is definitely Captain America, and wow! Turns out your old man knew the real issue back in the day, and when he’s around he’s either telling you the stuff you make is worthless or he’s getting sauced and telling stories about his buddy the super soldier, so you learn to ask for the stories before he can start on you.
“So your whole room is like, Captain America and motherboards and red white and blue. You have all the comics and action figures, even the really rare ones because your dad can afford to buy them at auctions and thinks you won’t notice that he gives you presents instead of his time, and then for one of his bi-annual rescue missions he actually invites you to go with him and you spend months and months getting ready and packing the right stuff and bragging to anyone who will listen and then the day comes and you go outside to catch the limo he always leaves in and you’re waiting and waiting and waiting and hours later frigging Jarvis has to come out to get you from the curb and break it to you that your asshole of a dad left without you, and it doesn’t matter because years and years will pass and he never finds Captain friggin’ America, and he never has a kind word for you, and you put all that childish shit away just like you’re supposed to and you figure what the hell kind of guy could Captain America have been anyway if he was friends with your dad.
“And then it’s decades later and the old man is long dead and suddenly you’re face to face with this icon you thought was lost forever, your idol, a genuine hero, and he. Is. A total. Dick. I mean, can you imagine that? He’s self-righteous and judgmental and thinks he’s better than you because all his decisions have been good ones and he takes one look at you and knows what a fuck up you are and turns out he has about as much time for you as your old man did. So you decide you’re gonna hate him forever and you cultivate that little feeling very extravagantly because you’re Tony Goddamn Stark and everything you do is extravagant, and he kinda hates you back because who doesn’t, really, you can count your friends on one hand but then you have to see him in action on a regular basis and he for real helps old ladies cross the street and volunteers at soup kitchens and draws cartoons and tries so hard not to say the wrong thing or stare at gay people and he never takes his problems with you out onto the field and you find out you can’t hate him even if you want to, and you do want to, you really do, but he is constitutionally unhateable, he is everything you always read about and heard about and put on your walls and kissed goodnight on your sheets and then he goes and thanks you for the basic decency anyone would have shown anyone else in that situation and Rogers, if that isn’t the most goddamn infuriating thing you’ve ever heard—”
There was more, Tony was on a roll, but all of it was swallowed up and forgotten when Steve Rogers pushed himself up on his tip toes and pressed his mouth to Tony’s. It didn’t last long, a fraction of a fraction of a second, but it was like the world stopped turning and the sun stopped blazing and all systems were down and when his brain rebooted Steve was standing there in front of him looking equal parts amused and astonished.
“What the hell,” Tony said.
“Did you really kiss your Captain America sheets goodnight when you were little?”
“Yeah, um.” Little, not so little. Sheets, posters, fan art, action figures, comics. Kissed, jerked off to. Whatever. “God, Steve, what are you trying to do, kill me?”
Narrow shoulders rolled inward and Steve crossed his arms, looked away, shrugged.
“You needed to breathe,” he said.
“So you were just returning the favor.”
Steve sent him a withering look.
“You do that on purpose,” he said. “You say the worst possible thing so people will leave you alone and prove you right about whatever worst-case-scenario theory you’ve dreamed up about them.”
Tony balled a fist. It hit him like a repulsor beam that he had just laid bare all his poor little rich boy shit to the one person he had never wanted to hear any of it. His chest felt hot.
“This was a mistake,” he said, voice low and controlled. “You don’t want me to redesign your uniform, fine. I won’t offer again.”
He turned and made to leave when he felt Steve’s hand in the fabric of his shirt. He whipped around to chew Steve out, but Steve was right there, toe to toe and if Tony leaned down and Steve tipped his head just so their noses would collide.
“I was wrong about you,” he said. “And so was Howard, and the papers, and whoever else can’t be bothered to look hard enough. I see you, Tony.”
Tony’s breath left him shakily, and then Steve was kissing him again, lips full and lush, tentative. A hand crept up and rested carefully against Tony’s jaw. He felt the barest tip of Steve’s tongue against the seam of his lips, and the heat in his chest seemed to bloom. He opened his mouth to let Steve in, and leaned forward so their chests brushed close, rested his hands on Steve’s hips, but Steve pulled away and looked down, pressing the back of his hand to his mouth.
“I, uh—” Steve’s swallow was audible, and he cleared his throat.
“Hey, look. It’s no big deal,” Tony said to stem the sinking of his heart. “We’ll chalk it up to a weird thing that happened one time and forget about it. Someday it’ll be a funny story to tell at dinner.”
Steve looked up at him then, wide-eyed and alarmed, and Tony found himself itching to soothe that look off his face.
“Not that we’ll tell anyone,” he added hastily. “No one’s asking and no one’s telling, scout’s honor.” He held up one hand and covered his heart with the other. He tried to force out a smile, but it turned brittle, and he dropped his hand. “I’ll go,” he said, feeling like everything was off kilter — the floor uneven, the angles off, the lights too dim and too bright at once.
“Tony, stop.” Steve’s hand on his sleeve. “I don’t want you to go. I just… I’ve never done this properly. Kissing, I’ve never done kissing properly. I thought I should tell you, so. Um, so you’d know.”
Tony stared, and Steve started to look more and more uncertain.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I should have asked if you wanted — that, or not. Or, jeez, if you even like men that way. Oh, gosh, Tony—”
“Hey, chill out, Ice Caps.” Tony quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t see me offering to design new uniforms for just anyone, now do you?”
Tension eased about Steve’s shoulders and a slow smile spread across his face.
“Well, there was that one time, with Bruce…”
“Listen. That was a public service. His devastating physique was giving innocent bystanders heart palpitations.”
Steve fixed him with a considering look. Tony realized with a dawning delight that Steve was checking him out. Then Steve turned away and brought out a tea kettle because, oh yeah, he was a thousand years old.
“I know your secret, Tony Stark,” he said, filling the kettle with water.
“Yeah? What’s that?”
He set the kettle on the stove and turned it up high. He turned and looked at Tony, expression open and totally earnest.
“You’re just a good guy.”
Tony, for once, had nothing to say.
Steve did not take SHIELD up on their offer to visit her in England, where she lived in a retirement community. She had left him behind a long time ago, and, God help him, he was glad of it. He was glad they had never burned down their respect for each other with a union that would have brought only frustration and grief.
The bouncing of his knee disturbed his line work, but he couldn’t bring himself to stop. He huffed and just barely restrained himself from throwing his pencil. He got up and paced around the studio. He threw open the curtains and stood at the window, looking down at the bright lights and foreign skyline of twenty-first century Midtown.
New York was different. People were different. Steve was different.
Today, he had kissed Tony Stark. He had been standing there listening to him rant about Steve, looking agitated and gorgeous, and Steve was irritated and his heart hurt and it felt like his body was cleaving toward Tony’s and right then Steve stopped being afraid of some nebulous, unnamed thing inside himself and just took what he wanted. And, most baffling of all, the whole thing had shut Tony up. He just blinked at Steve with wide brown eyes, and Steve’s heart swelled all over again.
Steve pressed his forehead against the cool glass. Sometimes the sensation of missing home was a knife in the gut, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to wish he were there. He sometimes engaged in the futile fantasy that all the people who had made up his home could be with him in the here and now — where no one looked at you askance if you went out with friends who were a different color than you, where Peggy wouldn’t have had to be the only woman in the military, taking the respect owed her by force, where Steve could step out with Tony Stark and not be dishonorably discharged and forsaken by everyone he knew. And, as long as he was engaging in ridiculous wishes, he wished Bucky were here cracking wise, flirting with all the girls, calling Steve his best pal. He didn’t long for 1943 — he longed for those he’d left there.
He whirled away from the window with a deep sigh and paced the studio again. He needed a relief that drawing couldn’t provide. Something low in his gut unfurled, warm and tight. Steve let out a slow breath and headed to the bedroom.
There, he stripped his clothes off and settled against the pillows in his bed. He closes his eyes and breathed measured and deep. He started with fingertips against the hollow of his throat and trailed then down to rub lightly against one nipple, and then the other, peaking them to hardness. He flicked them and arched at the sensation. He turned his head and pushed his face into the pillow as he dragged his other hand down his stomach and scratched through the crisp hair of at the juncture of his thighs before curling around the base of his hardening penis.
He cleared his throat. This always felt a bit shameful, but sometimes he needed the boost.
“JARVIS?” he said. “I’m sorry, could you help me out again?”
JARVIS didn’t say anything, for which Steve was grateful, but there appeared on his walls and ceilings the projections of still images — tame stuff, he understood after a terrible conversation with Clint in which Steve turned so red someone brought him a glass of water, just half-dressed men posing at campsites or on rocks and looking vaguely sultry near each other. He thought they were some kind of fashion spread from a magazine, but he couldn’t for the life of him figure out what they were advertising besides masculine beauty. He knew that nowadays one could procure any sort of private material one wished for, but he preferred this: clean lines and covered parts, leaving more intimate things to the imagination. He retrieved some lotion from his bedside table and let his legs fall open. He worked his penis with one hand, slick and easy, while he used the other to cup his balls. His breath came faster as he took in the broad strong shoulders and the lean musculature of the models. He was reminded of the times he had seen Tony working on his armor in sleeveless shirts, gleaming with a fine sheen of sweat, hands hard, skin dirtied with motor oil. Steve screwed his eyes shut. He pulled his feet up flat on the bed and pressed his fingers into the skin behind his balls. He stifled a groan.
Around him, the images dissolved into new ones — all dark haired men with compact, athletic bodies. Steve picked up the pace and gave in to the urge to rub his fingertips firmly against his hole. It was like electricity buzzing through his blood. He heard a broken moan escape his throat and his hips surged forward. He pushed the tip of one finger inside — not enough, he’d never really had enough, didn’t know what enough felt like — and he worked it in and out, out of sync with the jerks of his hand on his penis but he was too far gone for grace.
He imagined a hot, smooth length of cock in his mouth, hands on his chest, on his legs, prying the cheeks of his ass apart. He imagined being full, fuller than he was now, full and surrounded by human warmth, steadied by solid hands and body, hips against his, vision overtaken by the spark of brown eyes boring into his own.
He gasped. He went faster and harder and rocked against his own finger inside him, eyes half lidded and unseeing. He thought of the slick tilt of Tony’s mouth when he smirked at him, the way he smeared grease unknowingly across his face when he scratched an itch while working. Steve imagined laughing at him and wiping it off with his much-mocked handkerchief. He remembered the solidity of him as he eased Steve through his asthma attack, how he rubbed Steve’s back and whispered to him. He remembered hands on his hips, tongue in his mouth, beard against skin. How warm he was, how close. How good he smelled. The way his voice curled around Steve’s name, when he deigned to speak it.
Steve’s body tightened and his toes curled and he arched with a choked off gasp, semen spurting up his stomach.
He lay panting and boneless, distantly aware that the images had faded from his walls, but behind the red-black of his eyelids the universe was lit brown and shining, Tony’s real smile.
Over the past few weeks, Tony had discovered various ways to get Steve to make out with him. His favorites were:
1. Just being completely gross and ambushing him with food in his mouth, like strawberries or donuts. He made sure it wasn’t too masticated, but Steve always made a sound of disgust and pushed him away anyway, even as he laughed uncontrollably and dove back in for more as soon as the food was taken care of.
2. Hosting team movie night, planting his ass next to Steve’s, and just generally being excruciatingly close the whole night until Clint, Natasha, and Thor left, and Steve lost his grip on his self-control and jumped him. Tony got Steve to come in his pants one of those times and felt a lot more smug about it than a man over forty should.
3. Taking him out in one of his many vintage cars, talking mechanic-dirty to him about what he’d done to soup them up, and going somewhere secluded to make out like teenagers. Except Steve had totally missed that entire formative experience during his actual adolescence, so it was thrilling for him, and it was thrilling to watch him be thrilled.
4. Hanging around sweaty and half-naked on Steve’s floor during the construction of the Control Room, which Tony was building to keep Steve a remote Avenger. Inevitably, Steve would come in with a tray of water and sandwiches, which was just about all he could manage culinarily, and become all hot and bothered at the sight of Tony’s Adonis-like physique.
5. Inviting him to sit in the workshop, where they would both work silently for hours, Tony at his armor, Steve at his sketchbook, and eventually Steve would come up to Tony’s side, run a hand up his back and lean into his neck before kissing his way to Tony’s lips. This was Tony’s favorite distraction in his favorite place with, rapidly, his favorite person.
They hadn’t told anyone, though Tony was not one to underestimate someone twice, especially someone like Natasha, who had a permanent gleam of suspicion in her eye. Clint, always on her heels, was called Hawkeye for a reason, and Tony didn’t actually think Thor was the boisterous, air-headed lunk he played on TV. Or at least, not only. He was pretty sure Thor knew every language on “Midgard,” and not just because of the fancy Allspeak Odin had given the Asgardians. He left his stupid hammer around and had no indoor voice, but no one was perfect.
They had also not had sex yet, barring the time Steve had come from some admittedly awesome dry-humping and ass-grabbing. Steve had gone red and tried to be all prim and proper afterward, but Tony licked his earlobe and called him a sex bomb, which made him turn absolutely purple, but their clothes had not come off and Tony didn’t push Steve into doing anything about Tony’s own straining hard on. That didn’t mean he didn’t want to wreck Steve every time he saw him, especially after a workout, all flushed and gleaming, red lips parted and wet, but Tony was aware he had to step lightly.
Lightly, to him, meant taking Steve out for the first time tonight, somewhere out of the way where they wouldn’t be bothered, and making bedroom eyes at him over a candle, maybe playing some tame footsie. It was some very light-stepping. Ultra-light. Light X-treme. LightMaxx. But Tony felt like he had with Pepper: an intense need not to fuck this up. He’d failed with Pepper — or rather, as she had tried to reassure him, they’d failed together, though not through any lack of feeling. But he and Steve, he thought they could really fit in a way that he and Pepper couldn’t with Iron Man in the picture. They were both in the line of fire, thrived on it, needed it. They both knew what war wrought.
Tony, doing up a sharp crimson tie in front of his closet mirror, looked himself in the eye, pointed a finger and said, “Do not fuck this up.”
With one final check to make sure his hair had that windblown look, Tony made his way to Steve’s floor and had JARVIS announce him. Steve answered the door in a sky-blue button down that worked some sort of witchcraft on his eyes, a black blazer, and dark-wash jeans. Barton must have taken him shopping like he’d been threatening to do for weeks. “Those clothes SHIELD gave you,” he had said with a demoralized shake of his head, “are tragic, Steve.” Steve had barely restrained an answering pout. “I like my clothes,” he had said, and continued to look like a Boy Scout on safari, forever and ever amen. Until now.
“Hi, Tony,” he said, grinning, and Tony smirked at him to mask the racing of his heart.
“Look at you,” he said. “I’d better show you the time of your life before you notice you’re out of my league.”
Steve rolled his eyes, and Tony darted in to land a kiss on the corner of his mouth.
“Ready?” he asked, and Steve said nothing, but looked up at him with bright eyes full of an admiration that made Tony’s chest feel tight, and nodded. Tony laid a hand on the back of his neck and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Then let’s go.”
Steve was a meat-and-potatoes kind of man, so Tony took him to a meat-and-potatoes kind of joint. It was shabby-upscale, hard to get a reservation, and full of irascible waiters who practically threw the plates of four-star cuisine at you. The owner was a curmudgeon who probably wouldn’t be impressed if Odin himself sat in this corner booth, so Tony and Steve were left alone through an appetizer of steamed mussels, their starter salads and rolls, their filets mignons with baked potatoes. Through the meandering conversation about motorcycles and the Lord of the Rings marathon Thor had just put them through (Steve loved it) and the MoMa, through the bedroom eyes and tame footsie, through the brazen way Steve had pressed one of his thighs between Tony’s and managed to quirk a suggestive eyebrow at him without blushing, they were left alone.
And then came dessert.
Steve ordered a slice of cheesecake with strawberry sauce, while Tony went for the most decadent-sounding chocolate thing on the menu. As the waiter set their desserts out, the hostess passed, customers trailing behind her. Tony wouldn’t have noticed, but for one of the customers skidding to a halt in front of their table.
“Oh. My. God,” she said. “It’s Tony Stark and little Steve Rogers.”
In the split second it took Tony to respond, he registered the way Steve’s expression darkened before smoothing out into a blank mask.
“Oh my God, it’s Justine Everhart, bloodsucking piranha,” he said. “Quick, Steve, get a picture of her in her natural habitat: up in my business.”
Her mouth twisted in a poor facsimile of a smirk, and she turned fully toward Steve and stuck her hand out.
“It’s Christine, actually. I’m with Vanity Fair. How have you been coping with your change in status, Mr. Rogers?”
Steve did not take her hand, but stared up at her with a steely gaze.
“We’re just trying to have a nice dinner, ma’am,” he said. Tony watched, heart sinking, as realization dawned bright as the lights on Broadway in Everhart’s face.
“Jesus, Krista, take a day off,” Tony snapped.
“Wait wait wait,” she said, pulling her hand back and openly gaping at Steve. “Are you telling me this is a date? Are Captain America and Iron Man the next gay power couple?”
The color drained from Steve’s face and his mouth hung open in disbelief. Everhart rounded on Tony, who pointed his fork at her.
“Walk away, Everhart,” he said.
“We’re just friends,” Steve interjected before Tony could threaten to buy Vanity Fair and demote her to CEO ass-wiper. Everhart turned her attention back to Steve. He was pale, but now two spots of pink blazed high on his cheekbones. “You asked how I’m taking my change in status, I’ll tell you. I hate that everyone acts like I need to be handled with kid gloves. Tony Stark doesn’t do that. He still finds new and imaginative ways to insult me. He still calls me out when he thinks I’m wrong. He still takes me to dives with waiters who look at you like you’re something they scraped off their shoe, and I’m lucky to have a friend like him.”
Everhart stood back and gave them a considering look. Steve’s gaze never wavered. Tony peeked over at the man she’d abandoned, sitting in the opposite corner. He was scowling hard, arms crossed, Italian loafer tapping against the hardwood floor.
“Your boyfriend’s starting to look like an ill-tempered wildebeest,” Tony said. “Better get back to him before he spooks.”
She fixed him with a sour look before turning on her heel and stalking back to her pinch-mouthed date.
When Tony turned back to Steve, he found him diminished and slump shouldered, staring into his cheesecake.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll slap a gag order on her and it’ll be fine.”
Steve looked up, tight lines bracketing his mouth.
“It won’t be fine,” he said. “That as good as outed us just then.” He stumbled over the slang and pressed his lips together. “That’ll be all over the Facebook and the Google and everything in a few minutes, and no amount of money you throw at it will make it go away once it’s done.”
Tony laid his palms down on either side of his dessert plate.
“We’ll get through it,” he said, because he didn’t know what else there was to say. It was bound to happen sometime anyway. On Steve’s own timetable would have been nice, but since when were the lives of the Avengers convenient? He wanted to offer a hug, but that seemed like a great way to lose a limb right now.
“Look, let’s just pay and go home,” Steve said.
“I got this,” Tony said, but Steve set his fist down on the table a little too hard, and Tony forced himself not to startle.
“I can afford my share, Tony. I can even afford yours. I’m not one of your bimbo gold-digger girlfriends.”
Tony pressed his lips together and sat back against the booth. His lungs felt brittle, his spine bowed.
“You’re a real piece of work, Rogers,” he said, and motioned for the waiter to bring the checks.
Steve wouldn’t look at him. They paid and left and got into the car with Happy. Steve sat as far from Tony as possible and stared silently out the window the whole drive home.
He thought he could actually feel his guts roiling. It was a nauseating churn born of that look on Tony’s face when he’d snapped at him and the very idea that something private and exciting and happy and his could be splashed across the entire nation’s various screens right now for the express purpose of giving everyone something to gasp over. “That Captain America,” he imagined housewives and businessmen saying with shakes of their heads. “How could he let us down like this?”
He didn’t want to feel this way, simultaneously like he had slapped his most cherished friend and like he was doing something wrong spending time with him in the first place. Being with Tony these past few weeks, getting closer, had warmed something cold and hard that had settled in his chest since he was unearthed from the ice thousands of miles and six and a half decades from home. Tony, with his bourgeoise suits and blue-collar hands, had been redefining the very concept of home for Steve. Being with him was becoming as comfortable as it was thrilling. And yet, there was the niggling thought that he shouldn’t be doing this. He didn’t want to hurt Tony, but he had. He didn’t want to be the way he was — “homosexual” seemed the most accurate and clinical way to describe it — but he was. Steve didn’t know what to do with either of those things, intimately connected or separate. So he did the only thing he could think of, the thing he might have done when he was a kid in a different time. Because New York might be different, and people, and the world at large, but Steve suspected church was exactly the same.
He had never been inside St. Cosmas before. Nothing about it was spectacular or what anyone would take photographs of. The interior was shabby and dimly lit, and the pews were empty, but when Steve sat, tense, in the confessional, he heard the priest come in on the other side and take his seat, too. Through the partition Steve saw him make the Sign of the Cross.
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” Steve said. He cleared his throat. “It’s been, um, a really long time since my last confession.” He saw the priest nod.
“The church welcomes all her children, no matter how they have strayed,” he said.
Steve tangled his fingers in his lap, trying not to fidget. Should he start with how angry he got, how he knew he had directed it toward the wrong person but couldn’t help it, how it seared him to meet Tony’s eyes and find the hurt there? But he’d have to explain about Tony, and being homosexual, and he had never said any of that out loud before before. Once, when he was a boy, he had admitted to Father O’Malley about having impure thoughts, but he couldn’t bring himself to specify that it was the other boys his gaze lingered on, and not pretty black-haired Priscilla McGivern like Bucky and most every other boy over fourteen at the orphanage. Father O’Malley had whistled out his usual long-suffering sigh, told him not to abuse himself or he’d go blind and ensure his place in hell, and then assigned him five acts of contrition.
“Son?” the priest prompted.
“Sorry,” Steve said, and cleared his throat again. And then, he was — truly, painfully sorry, seemingly for everything from world poverty to snatching the last cookie at movie night, but most of all for what he’d done to get Tony to look at him the way he had when dinner ended. “I’m sorry.” He hated that his voice cracked like he was a child.
The priest was silent for a long moment, and Steve couldn’t think of what to say through the hot prickle of shame that heated his scalp.
“If I may make an observation?” the priest asked, his tone mild and even.
“Yes, sir,” Steve said.
“You’re a young man in a confession booth in the middle of a Friday evening. You wish to bring your troubles to God, but you fear judgement — mine and His.”
Steve nodded miserably. “Yes.”
“Son, I leave the judgements to God. And, I assure you, an old man like me, serving here — I have heard it all.”
Steve gave a single weak laugh. He had often wondered at other people’s confessions — sometimes he had even confessed to an overabundance of curiosity.
The priest said, “And my son, God’s love is boundless.”
That brought a lump to Steve’s throat. He took a deep breath to dispel it as best he could before drawing up straight and square.
“I think… Father, I think I am a homosexual. No, I am. I am a homosexual.”
He imagined he could hear the ensuing silence being destroyed by the racing of his heart.
Finally, the priest said, “I see. And have you engaged in fornication with another man?”
Steve closed his eyes. Remembered the heat of Tony’s body flush against his. The hands on his backside, the beard against his cheek. How joyous it was, how full of smiles and white teeth and crinkles around brown eyes. He nodded. “Sort of,” he whispered. “Yes.”
“There is someone in particular?” the priest asked lightly. Steve frowned.
“Yes? I have a — I mean, I have someone special. I really — when I’m with him, it feels light, and good, and.” Loving, he swallowed back. “Just — good, Father.”
“Tell me, son. You have heterosexual friends, you see them kissing and holding hands and cohabiting?”
“Do you imagine that they do not sin the same way?”
“It’s different,” Steve said. He heard the priest take a long breath.
“I have spent much of my life making a study of theology, son,” he said after a moment. “And this dogmatic question in particular has troubled me. Would you like to hear what I have come to believe?”
“You know there are venial sins and mortal sins. All mortal sins are equal in God’s eyes — adultery, idolatry, murder, and so on. When I was young, eating meat on a Friday was a mortal sin. Today, the church and the world have changed around us and meat on a Friday is venial. You speak of fornication, a sexual sin still defined by many as mortal, but either way you cut it, it is a sin of action, not one of being. It is not a sin to be homosexual, son. And sexual sins are ones committed with a dependable sort of regularity by the overwhelming majority of people in this world, regardless of orientation, do you agree?”
“I — I suppose.”
“Perhaps, due to sheer volume, they are even committed more often by the heterosexual than the homosexual? And, let us not forget, the sacrament of marriage is one offered universally to those in opposite-sex unions, thereby lending a sanctity to their bedroom activities not enjoyed by those in same-sex unions, no matter how long the commitment of either such union. However, even sexual congress in marriage is sanctified only in certain circumstances: to make children, and in particular positions — for which I’ll let you use your imagination. Everything outside those bounds is sin, yes?”
“And do you suppose that married people are exempt from sexual sin by virtue of being married? Does marriage imbue them with a superhuman resistance to temptation? Does marriage stop some from having impure thoughts, some from fornicating purely for pleasure, and some from committing adultery?”
“No, I guess not,” Steve said.
“Well, son. There you have it.”
Steve frowned. He wiped his palms on his jeans and licked his lips.
“I don’t think I understand,” he said.
“My child, we are all sinners. We all have trials and temptations. We are also all God’s children, and we are equals before Him. So are our sins. Be sorry for the sin of fornication, son — don’t be sorry to be as God made you.”
Steve felt a flood of warm feeling suffuse his chest. He felt, quite suddenly, connected to everyone in the city. To this priest, to the buskers outside, to the people who smiled at him, the people who ignored him, the people who wanted his autograph. To Tony. He wondered how Tony was doing, if he felt it too. Steve bowed his head, clasped his hands, and let out a shaky breath.
“Where were you when I was growing up?” He tried a laugh, but it came out broken and pained. He heard the priest’s answering chuckle.
“I had my own trials, son.”
“You are most welcome.”
“Um, I have more. Pride, definitely. Wrath.” Steve took a deep breath. “A lot of wrath, Father.” Steve watched the shifting of the shadows as the priest nodded. “I think I was cruel to my special person tonight. He is — he doesn’t feel like I do, about, um, being homosexual. Or, well, bisexual, in his case. I took my anger out on him tonight. It was like suddenly my blood was on fire, I was so angry, and… and even though he hadn’t had a hand in the situation at all it was easy to pin on him because he’s so…shameless.”
“Shameless, my child, or unashamed?”
Steve huffed out a laugh.
“Gosh, Father, a bit of both, I think. But I catch your point.”
“Do you know what wrath is, son? What function it serves?”
“It’s a test, isn’t it? Like any sin.”
“Certainly. Wrath in particular illuminates for us those points in our lives at which we can afford more patience, more compassion. Wrath shows us an opportunity to create something constructive out of something destructive, if only we allow it. Leading a life of peace, empathy, and generosity does not mean not feeling wrath occasionally — it means knowing what to do with it when it arises. Your task at the first is not allowing it to fester and poison your character.”
Steve nodded, unable to speak for the lump in his throat. He’d never thought of it that way before, and suddenly he felt lower than he had when he’d walked through the church doors.
“How can I do that?” he asked, trying to smooth the roughness from his voice.
“You ask forgiveness from God and those you have wronged,” the priest said. “And the next time wrath challenges your moral fiber, you breathe deeply and ask yourself how to respond in the least damaging manner before you respond. You might even take a walk to reflect and pray.”
“Thank you, Father. This has been really helpful. I really needed this.”
“You are most welcome, son.”
There was the stretch of a moment’s silence until Steve remembered. “Oh! Um — for these and all the sins of my life, I am sorry.”
“You should come to confession more often, young man.”
Steve tucked a sheepish smile into his chest. “Sorry, Father.”
“Three acts of contrition, two Hail Marys and two Our Fathers,” he said. “And perhaps a book on breathing exercises.”
“Yes, Father, thank you.”
“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Thank you, Father.”
“You’re very welcome,” the priest said, and slid the partition shut between them.
Steve lit candles for his mother and Bucky before he made his way back to Midtown, feeling simultaneously lighter and heavier than he had when he arrived. He decided the lightness was the lifting of shame — something he felt through no fault of his own, for the “sin of being” as the priest had called it — while the heaviness was the settling of guilt — something he had certainly brought on himself by taking his own problems out on Tony. He went to bed with a promise to speak to Tony in the morning, no matter what kind of headlines he might be facing about his private life.
“TMZ, JARVIS, now,” he barked, and TMZ came up all around him. Mostly stuff about various Kardashians, some teen heart throb he’d never heard of, and Honey Boo Boo. He braced his hands on his worktable and leaned forward, letting his head hang down as he exhaled long and slow. “Vanity Fair,” he said, and when he looked up, he saw only fashion spreads with Viola Davis. With a flick of his wrist he banished it all. “Monitor the intertubes for any mention of me and Steve’s big gay night out,” he said. “And tell me immediately if there’s even the glimmer of a suggestion of a hint anywhere.”
“Well, sir, there is the persistent rumor about the nearly-constant polyamorous orgies taking place here. Shall I report on those?”
“Not in the mood, JARVIS. You know what I mean — me-and-Steve-specific, fuzzy phone shots, Everhart’s Twitter account, everything.” Tony began to pace — or, more accurately, to stalk around his worktable, ostensibly tidying the whole thing up but really just pushing things off for the satisfaction of it and letting DUM-E clean everything up after him. He felt keyed up, buzzed, skin electrified, heart on fire. His breath shook entering or leaving his lungs.
“Certainly, sir. If I could make a suggestion?”
“I have Ms. Everhart’s mobile number.”
“Yes, give it to me. But first I’m calling Amita.”
Amita Kadam, the head of Stark Industries’ legal department and his personal lawyer, was a tiny woman with a severe, hawk-nosed face who could probably throw Tony over her shoulder and make him regret his whole life. He had harbored a not-so-secret passion for her several years ago, but she won his admiration permanently when she wrenched his wrist back and told him he’d never have a taste. They’d been chill ever since.
She came up on the screen, not a hair out of place for all that it was night-time and she was obviously at home.
“Tell me where it hurts, Stark,” she said without greeting. This was why Tony liked her.
“I need a gag order,” he said, “on Christine Everhart, Vanity Fair, and pretty much the entire internet.”
“What did she do now?”
“She saw us at dinner and Steve doesn’t know how gay a lot of shit sounds in this newfangled century and now she’s going to out Steve. Well, me and Steve, but I’m not the one with sexual identity baggage the size of the Chrysler Building.”
If Amita was surprised that he was dating Steve, there wasn’t even a flicker of it in her face, and Tony loved her a little harder for it. She only leaned over and grabbed a different phone.
“I’m hanging up,” she said. “Stand by.”
And so he did. He turned up AC/DC to the loudest setting possible, the one he’d had to rig himself. He scrubbed at his worktable and poked at his blueprints. He made nonsense sounds at DUM-E and patted him on the arm. He pulled out the slabs of what would soon be the Mark VIII. He tinkered with other projects and cut out bits of titanium and played with his blowtorch. He, occasionally, passed a hand over the center of his chest.
He tried not to think of Steve, and the twist of his lips, the hot disdain in his eyes when dinner was over. It was too reminiscent of the Steve who’d never given him a chance, who’d never looked at him with anything but exasperation and loathing. It reminded him of something he’d managed to forget: he could lose Steve’s respect and affection at any moment. In fact, he was likely to. Probably already had. Who was he kidding? He was the crowned king of saying the wrong thing — sometimes deliberately. He specialized in pushing too far. And Steve was Captain Goddamn America — who was Tony to think he could even be in the same room with someone that upright and good, much less in the same bed?
Tony wondered how it would end. Would there be screaming, and some throwing of inanimate objects, or would Steve just avoid him until he inevitably left? Would the pain of this whole thing be hot or cold? Did the world end in a bang or with a whimper?
The music stopped and JARVIS announced a phone call from Christine Everhart. Tony clenched his jaw and brought her up on the screen.
“Your lawyer, Stark?” she said, sneering.
“Don’t pull that professional courtesy bullshit on me, sister, I don’t owe you a goddamn thing.”
“Tell me, Stark, is this attack of the bicurious new for you or are you more discreet than I’ve been giving you credit for?”
“How does it feel to be a parasite on the very lowest ocean floor, eating the millions of tons of shit the bigger fish leave for you?”
Everhart rolled her eyes. “Hmm, maybe it’s specific to Captain America. Could be a real heart-touching ‘gay for you’ piece — I could make it nice.”
“You’re not doing a goddamn thing. My lawyer’s too good, and if you were gonna put it all over the internet, it would be done by now.”
Everhart lost the joviality and gained a hardness around the mouth.
“I wouldn’t have, you know. You might be sack of shit, but I’m not actually interested in destroying Steve Rogers’s life. He’s too good for you, you know that?”
Tony wondered if he’d wake up with TMJ from all the grinding he was putting his teeth through. He didn’t say anything.
“Maybe I should call him instead,” Everhart went on. “Tell him to find a nice boy who hasn’t slept with half of Manhattan. Someone interested in the man instead of the hero. Someone who won’t break his little heart next time a skirt passes under his nose.”
Tony held his tongue — he didn’t want to give her the satisfaction of a blow up, of telling her he’d never cheated on anyone in his life, of telling her how much he wanted this and how afraid he was it was already over and how it was all her goddamn fault. Of telling her Steve’s heart wasn’t little at all.
He reached over to the screen and flicked her image away.
“JARVIS, hold all calls and turn my music back on.”
JARVIS did as told, and in the din Tony turned to his blueprints and his blowtorch and shoved all thoughts of Steve away.
“Good morning, sir,” JARVIS said in his usual mild tone, and Steve bolted upright.
“Jeez, JARVIS, don’t startle me like that!”
“I simply thought you would like to see the Vanity Fair Twitter feed this morning.”
Before Steve could steel himself against it, the images of a couple of Twits or whatever they were called appeared on his wall.
Intrepid reporter @Everhart caught up with former Avenger S Rogers, who wants to set the record straight: “I hate the kid glove treatment!”
Aye aye, Captain Cutie!
“Is that it?”
“Is that thing about setting the record ‘straight’ some kind of joke?”
“Perhaps, sir, but if so, it is known only to Ms. Everhart.”
Steve blinked again and rubbed the sleep from his eyes.
“JARVIS, where’s Tony?”
“In the workshop, sir. Where he has been for 10.2 hours.”
Steve sighed. “Thanks, JARVIS.”
Steve took four minutes in the shower, another four shaving, and then ate an apple before making his way to the workshop. JARVIS let him in, but Tony, wielding a blowtorch, seemed oblivious, and Steve stood back to appreciate the play of muscles in Tony’s back, arms, backside. Steve had wanted to get more intimate with all of those muscles last night. He figured Tony would be within his rights to shut down any progress in that direction, but Steve had to try. Maybe humor? That seemed to be Tony’s approach to everything, anyway.
“So,” Steve said, projecting his voice to carry over the sounds of Tony’s work. Tony turned the blowtorch off, laid it down, and pushed his mask up but didn’t turn around. “How much groveling do you think I’m in for? A week? A month? The rest of our natural lives? Because I don’t shy from a challenge. You just say the word.”
Tony turned, expression carefully shuttered, and he narrowed his eyes.
“I talked to Everhart,” he said. “She said she hated me, not you, and that outing you would be a cosmically dick move that would bite her in the ass. You’re welcome, by the way.”
Steve stepped closer, mindful of the way Tony tensed.
“Thank you, Tony. And thank you for last night, and I’m sorry I took my frustration out on you. I hate that I ruined a really great evening.”
Tony turned back to the piece of armor he’d been working on and fiddled with the settings on the blowtorch.
“You wanna hear my theory? It’s about how you’re a dick.”
Steve sighed and closed the distance between them. He wound his arms around Tony’s waist and rested his cheek against a shoulder blade. Tony stiffened, but his hands came to rest on Steve’s over his stomach. He smelled like work and sweat and fire and motor oil and Tony.
“I can take my lumps, Tony. Go ahead.”
“You can’t blame me for things that aren’t my fault. A lot of things are my fault, but last night wasn’t one of them.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I don’t have excuses.”
Tony took a deep breath that swelled his lungs and pushed Steve upright. “And if you’re gay or bi or queer or whatever, Cap, you have to learn that it’s okay and there’s no one to blame for that, either. Not me. Not even yourself.”
Steve swallowed past the sudden thickness in his throat. He laid his forehead against the hard bone of Tony’s shoulder and nodded.
“And there’s no hanging out in the closet forever, not with the lives we lead.”
Steve nodded again.
“Also you’re self-righteous and superior and I bet you part your hair with a ruler.”
“All right, Tony.”
“And your lips are too soft and your eyes are too blue and you smell too good.”
Steve laughed softly and gave Tony a squeeze.
“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I’ll try to be better. Can I kiss you now?”
Tony turned in the circle of his arms and smoothed his hands over Steve’s hips. Steve could feel his blood pump faster at the proximity of his lips, the calculation in his burnt-sugar eyes.
“I reek,” Tony murmured. “You shouldn’t be this close.”
“I like your reek,” Steve said, and tilted his head up to press his mouth to Tony’s.
“Gay,” Tony muttered against Steve’s lips, and Steve laughed, and Tony pulled his hips closer to his own. As the kisses deepened, Tony’s hands slipped down Steve’s ass and Steve groaned, pressing his hardening penis against Tony’s. Steve felt his spine light.
“I’ve wanted this,” Steve said when Tony pressed him against the table and dipped his tongue into his clavicle. “I’ve thought about this.” Then Tony was lifting him, setting him on the edge of the table, pushing his hands up inside Steve’s shirt.
“Tell me,” Tony said as the shirt came off. Steve’s mouth went dry at the hunger in Tony’s eyes as they raked over his body. His hands skimmed over Steve’s pectorals and down to the button of his pants, and Steve lost his train of thought.
“Tell me what you thought about. I want to know what dirty things Captain America’s brain is capable of.”
Steve felt himself flush.
Tony flicked his eyes up to Steve’s, twinkling. He undid the button, and Steve let out a shaky breath. Tony pressed his hand against Steve’s penis.
“Just, you know. You.”
“You’re going to have to be more specific.”
“Touching me, kissing me. Everywhere. Me touching you. I don’t know.”
“We’re gonna have to work on your dirty talk, Cap.” Tony’s mouth curled into a rather wicked smile and he eased the zipper down. Steve’s breath caught. He lifted his hips and Tony pulled his underwear and suddenly he was naked and Tony was fully clothed and Steve didn’t like it one bit. He tugged at Tony’s shirt and yanked it over his head. Tony smirked and stepped back to drop his pants. He even kicked them off his feet gracefully, and then there he was, better than Steve had ever imagined, warm and near and alive and hard. Steve hoped he wouldn’t need his inhaler anytime soon.
Steve slid off the table and stepped up to lay his hands on the dusting of hair on Tony’s chest. His heartbeat was strong and steady.
“This is good,” he said. “Being — being human.”
Tony smiled at him, a real smile, and curled his hands over Steve’s. They kissed again, slow and deep, and this time Tony led them to the couch against the wall, where he laid Steve out and rested on top of him while they kissed. They’d done this what felt like a hundred times — clothed, of course, in front of Tony’s home theatre on the common floor, but everything felt magnified and electrified now, skin on skin. Steve could feel the hot press of Tony’s penis against his own, and it made him want to push into it, to writhe and moan. He settled for letting his legs fall open so Tony could be closer.
“I can tell you what I’ve thought about,” Tony said, trailing a hand down Steve’s side. Steve felt like his head was buzzing and his lips were swollen. He managed only a short nod. “I thought about… tasting you.” Tony dipped his head and mouthed a nipple. Steve’s eyelids fluttered shut and he took a sharp breath. He tangled his hands in Tony’s hair, and gasped when Tony’s tongue licked a broad swipe around the outside of his armpit. “I thought about… touching you.” Tony cupped his hand around Steve’s penis and squeezed. Steve moaned and pushed up into the contact. He could feel himself leaking. Tony licked and nipped his way down Steve’s body, paused to nuzzle at the pale hair under his navel, and then went lower. Steve forced his eyes open. “I thought about sucking you,” Tony said, and kept his eyes on Steve’s as he sealed his lips over Steve’s cock and began to suck.
Steve let out a choked groan and let his head fall back, eyes helpless but to slide shut as Tony worked his hot mouth wetly over the length of Steve’s cock. Tony was doing something with his tongue on the underside that made Steve grip at the couch cushions as if they could keep him anchored to the earth. Tony rose from Steve’s lap, and Steve was about to protest the loss when Tony untangled Steve’s hands from the fabric and placed them in his hair.
“Just don’t hold me down,” he said, and Steve nodded, unable to speak. Tony gave him a little smile and gripped the base of Steve’s cock again. He gave it a few pumps before licking up its length and swallowing it down again. Steve felt his eyes roll back behind the lids. He settled his legs over Tony’s shoulders and stroked through the thick tresses of his hair. Tony had slid a hand down to massage his balls, but Steve felt a rhythmic rocking and realized Tony was jerking himself. He moaned at the thought of it and tried to sit up and look, but he was distracted by the black of Tony’s eyelashes like a fan on his skin, the way his lips stretched around Steve’s girth, the shape of his own cock in Tony’s mouth and the slick of Tony’s spit glistening on the length when he bobbed up again. Steve’s breath stuttered.
“You’re amazing,” he said breathlessly, and he meant it. Tony looked up at him, and the corners of his lips curled up a little even as he kept up sucking. One of Tony’s knuckles brushed at his perineum — the death knell last time they’d been in a compromising position on a couch — and Steve groaned loudly, hips jerking upward. “Sorry,” he gasped, but Tony cut a glance at him through half-lidded eyes.
“Let me try something,” he said, and Steve was too lust-addled to protest. Tony put his hands into the backs of Steve’s knees and pushed them up to his chest. He licked his way down Steve’s cock and over his balls and down his perineum until he was there, just exactly where Steve wanted him, though he’d never even imagined a tongue there.
“Oh —” Steve choked the words off, though whether by conscious decision or his lack of breath, he couldn’t say. He gripped his cock in one hand and pulled his left knee up higher with the other. “Tony, that’s—” He had no idea how to end that sentence, so he didn’t, and Tony was making appreciative moans into the skin of Steve’s ass, and maybe whatever it was didn’t matter anyway. The very idea of Tony looking at him there, much less licking him, drove Steve into a frenzy. He wanted Tony and all his attention closer, just there, and he pushed himself forward with a whimper. Tony laved around the rim of Steve’s hole and Steve let go of his own knee to bury his hand in Tony’s hair again. He tried to grind into that tongue without pushing Tony’s head, but Tony hummed contentedly and pushed in closer. He began to suck at Steve’s hole in earnest, even pushing the tip of his tongue inside, and Steve felt waves of heat come over him. He tried not to thrash or pull Tony’s hair. “Tony, I’m, oh gosh, Tony.” He jerked himself hard, rocked into Tony’s mouth, and with a long groan and a snap of his hips he came explosively all over his chest and stomach. He even felt a wet glob on his neck.
He sagged panting back into the couch, jelly legs slipping off Tony’s shoulders. The world fuzzed out around him, but he was aware of Tony crawling up his body and settling into the hollow of his armpit. Steve let out a reflexive little laugh. Tony just made sounds of exertion and rubbed his penis into Steve’s hip. Steve ducked to kiss him, and Tony gave in like Steve was the oxygen in his lungs. Steve reached down to stroke Tony’s penis — heavy and hot and slick and unbearably hard. He set a punishing rhythm, the same kind he liked for himself, and it wasn’t thirty seconds before Tony tore his mouth away and gave a single, pained shout as he came all over Steve’s hand.
The couch was not quite big enough for the two of them, but they squashed in against each other and caught their breath. Steve took one of Tony’s hands with his clean one and tangled their fingers. DUM-E wheeled over with a clean rag and an inquisitive whir, and Steve turned his head into Tony’s shoulder, a laugh bubbling up uncontrollably.
“Oh my God, Dummy, go away,” Tony said, though he was sure to pluck the rag from DUM-E’s fingers. DUM-E rolled away with a mournful little chirp.
“Be nice,” Steve murmured into his skin.
Tony dabbed at the mess they’d made of Steve’s torso and hand.
“I am nice,” he said, and Steve smiled hazily at his profile and the look of concentration on his face as he cleaned their bodies. He cupped his jaw, stroked his thumb over a fine cheekbone. Tony looked at him, open and clear, with no barriers between them. Steve’s heart swelled.
“So I’m going to take you on a date this time,” he decided, and he was already thinking of at least five things to do around the city. “And I’m not going to stick my foot in my mouth. But first you have to shower because you’re covered in semen and motor oil and I’m not going out in public with you like this.”
Tony laughed, a rich sound that filled the workshop.
“You sure know how to sweet talk a guy, Big Fella.”
Steve nodded solemnly.
“I’m very popular with the young men,” he said, and Tony shut him up with more kisses.
Tony had stopped marking the time since he and Steve had undergone their reversion to form. At first he’d done it compulsively, waking up in the middle of the night gasping, heart racing, scrabbling for his arc reactor. He’d think: eight days since it’s been gone, or thirteen, or seventeen. But the weeks bled into months and he stopped panicking at the sight of a pitch-black room. As for Steve, Tony had stopped expecting to see the Big Gulp version just days after the accident. To Tony, original issue Steve was somehow more Steve than he’d ever been before. Still, he knew Steve was waiting on Bruce’s progress in Wyoming, even had some kind of daily Skype date with the guy, but he never talked about it, and he didn’t seem to suffer overmuch from self-consciousness about his current body. Which Tony was now on intimate terms with. Frequently and ecstatically.
Steve was exuberant during sex, expressive and eager. He had a sweet spot between his shoulder blades that made him shudder and writhe, and he indulged Tony’s interest in his armpits. He had a tight, greedy ass, and he looked at Tony in beatific awe every time he pushed inside with tongue or fingers or, once in a while, dick. He still refused to say things like, “Tony, I love your big fat cock,” but Tony forgave him since he’d learned to do such clever things with his mouth in the last few months. Besides, Tony figured he’d wear him down eventually.
Tony shook himself. He was supposed to be setting out some drinks for Rhodey’s visit, not springing a semi thinking about Captain America. He wasn’t fourteen anymore.
Just as Tony polished up a pair of rolling tumblers, the doors slid open, JARVIS made an announcement, and there Rhodey was, tall and smiling and not in uniform.
“Hey!” Tony grinned and bounded up to him.
“Tony Stark,” Rhodey said, and they hugged hard. With a solid thump to his back, Rhodey let go and stepped back. He rubbed his chin and looked him over speculatively before wagging a finger at him. “There’s something different about you. Don’t tell me! You got a haircut.”
Tony deflated and pushed his lip out in a pout.
“Pepper told you,” he said. “I wanted to tell you.”
Rhodey rolled his eyes and sauntered over to the bar.
“Somehow you’ll survive,” he said. “I’m happy for you, you know. You don’t know what it was like, finding you in the sand with a piece of machinery fused to your ribcage like some kind of Terminator.” He picked up the fancy juice Tony made one of his minions buy. “What’s this?”
“The Macallan single malt’s for you, the seltzer and cranberry’s for me.”
Rhodey raised an eyebrow. “Now that, Pepper didn’t tell me about.”
“Can we just pretend it’s not even a thing? I’m sober, I’m shrapnel-free, I haven’t fallen out of the sky in at least three months, how are you?”
Rhodey poured two seltzer ’n’ cranberries over ice, pushed one into Tony’s hand, and had the nerve to swirl his and sniff it, completely unironically, before taking a sip.
“I’m good, Tony,” Rhodey said. “I’m really good. Let’s sit.”
Tony sat in an armchair next to the couch where Rhodey settled into the corner and stared at him with a bland smile on his face.
“You’re being weird,” Tony said. “Why are you being weird? What’s going on?”
Rhodey huffed out a loud sigh.
“Can’t we just let it come out naturally in the course of conversation?”
“You’re like an army ant at a picnic.”
“Army ants are efficient and underrated.”
Rhodey let out another sigh and rearranged the position of his legs.
“I’ve been thinking about retiring from active duty.”
Tony tilted his head. Rhodey never broke eye contact. Conspicuously.
“Okay,” Tony said, “that’s serious business, and I wanna talk about it, but it’s not why you’re in my tower the very first day of your leave, which, I find it necessary to add, I am acutely aware you haven’t had for a really, really long time. Not that I’m not glad to see you, but you understand my point here.”
Rhodey dropped his gaze and there was a long pause. “It’s about Pepper,” Rhodey said, worry pinching the skin around his eyes, and simple as that, Tony knew. Rhodey met his eyes over their respective arm rests and understanding passed between them. Tony sat back and let the air out of his lungs slowly. And then he let genuine happiness curve his mouth into a smile.
“I’m happy for you, Rhodey,” he said. “Truly. I really can’t think of two better people who deserve great things, and it’s awesome you can get those things from each other. Insert dirty joke here. And hey, if you get married, I can be best man and maid of honor! Oh my God, what will I wear?”
“Whoa whoa whoa, hold up on the wedding talk, Tony. You’re worse than my nana.”
Tony cackled and leaned forward to clink his tumbler against Rhodey’s.
“Rhodey,” he said. “Seriously. Congratulations.”
A tightness seemed to leave Rhodey’s bearing.
“Thanks, Tony. I gotta admit, you’re being more….” Rhodey rolled his wrist and scrunched up his nose.
“Poised? Sophisticated? Handsome?”
“Mature about this than I anticipated. I owe Pepper five bucks.”
Tony snorted and took a swig of his drink.
“Sometimes I felt like Icarus, and Pepper was the sun,” Tony said, fixing his gaze to the floor. He could feel Rhodey’s eyes steady on him. “I’m glad she has someone, and that that someone is almost good enough.” He raised his head and cracked a wide grin. “Almost.”
Rhodey gave a short, airy laugh and shook his head.
“Always knew there was a reason you were my best friend.”
Tony was horrified to feel his eyes prickle, and he threw back the seltzer and cran.
“I have someone too,” he said, wiping the moisture from his lips. “Pepper doesn’t know yet.”
“Wow,” Rhodey said, eyebrows raised. “I didn’t know that was possible. So who is she, do I know her?”
“Um.” Tony cleared his throat and braced his elbows against his knees. “Steve Rogers?”
Rhodey stared at him, face slack and eyes unblinking.
“I’m sorry, I misheard. I thought you just said Steve Rogers.”
“Like, Captain America Steve Rogers? Like, found in the ice after seventy-years only to be de-super-soldiered as soon as you came near him Steve Rogers?”
“That’s the one. Don’t be a dick about it.”
Rhodey threw back his head and laughed a loud, long laugh that reverberated between the walls. Tony sat back, crossed his arms, and flattened his mouth in consternation.
“Anytime you wanna get a grip on that, Colonel Rhodes, you feel free.”
“Oh God, it’s priceless. It’s priceless. Does he know about the stuffed Captain America and the Halloween costume every damn year and the—”
“Yes,” Tony snapped. “Yes, of course he does, and he thinks it’s adorable, I’ll have you know.”
“Oh my God, of course he does. So how long have you two been an item? Damn, Tony, I didn’t even know you still smoked cock.”
That startled a laugh from him, and he stood to get more seltzer and cranberry. He brought the whole tray over and topped Rhodey off too.
“Who even says that anymore?” he asked. “One: four months. Two: yeah, once in a while, I still ride the dick train. Obviously. I know you’re not about to be all homophobic about it.”
“Oh come on, Stark. You know I ain’t like that. I just thought, you know, that was a thing you did in the ’90s, which you spent mostly black out drunk, if you sort of recall.”
“I’m not drunk now.”
Rhodey sat back and gave him a considering look tinged with admiration.
“No,” he said. “I can see that.”
“All right, Captain Cheap Date,” Tony said and patted his hip through the blanket. He stood up and was walking away when Steve rolled over and called out to him.
“Tony don’t leave you should stay with me and we can talk about how fun Rhodesy is and also maybe do that thing you like.” He lifted an arm and waggled his hips.
Tony popped his head back in through the doorway and he had that smile on, the one where he was so amused by whatever Steve was doing and Steve didn’t know what was so funny so he pouted. Tony’s teeth were very straight and very white.
“I’m not leaving, Steve. I’m just gonna brush my teeth and get my tablet and I’ll be right back, okay?”
Steve grunted at him, and then he was gone.
Later, Steve became aware of a hand rubbing down his back, lips in his hair, a warm solidity at his side, but he was too tired to investigate.
Steve came awake in the morning suddenly, to Tony’s hands on his shoulders and his voice in his ears.
“Up and at ’em, champ! There’s some shit going down in Bed-Stuy and we’re assembling. Come on, up up up!”
“Bleaaaugh,” Steve said, or something very similar.
Tony laughed and pulled him upright and plastered the side of his face with sloppy kisses he’d have to wipe off.
“You’re the best drunk ever, I don’t know why it took me so long to get you there, but I have some water and some aspirin for you and you need to be awake right now, Cap.”
“I’m up, Tony, stop jostling me.” Steve dragged a shoulder across the side of his face as Tony dumped a headset into his hands.
“In the Control Room, now,” Tony said, and he was out the door like his ass was on fire. Steve shook himself as if clearing cobwebs, downed the pills and chugged the water, and was in the Control Room in under two minutes.
The Control Room was an enclosed auxiliary space on Steve’s floor that had been going unused until Tony decided Steve was an Avenger whether Fury liked it or not. He made Steve a headset for which he wouldn’t need to wear his helmet, and through it he could communicate with all the members of the team. He had likewise set up microcameras in everyone’s uniforms about the collar and set up a direct feed for each into one of the neatly labeled televisions — if one could call the sleek, clear screens Tony favored “televisions.” There was a Black Widow television, a Thor television, an Iron Man television, a Hawkeye television, and even one that remained blank, waiting for Bruce to get back to New York. Steve didn’t know where Tony would put the camera that wouldn’t immediately be destroyed when the Hulk tore off Bruce’s clothes, but he’d let Tony cross that bridge when they came to it. Since getting the Control Room together a few months back, Steve had led the Avengers safely through twelve hostile situations, all without tipping SHIELD off to his involvement. Of course, Tony could never be 100% compliant with Steve’s orders, but at this point that was a foible Steve was trying not to let rub him the wrong way. Tony Stark was always going to be Tony Stark, in or out of the armor. And Steve liked Tony Stark. Far too much, even.
“God help me,” he muttered at the thought.
He adjusted the headset as one by one the televisions flicked on and he saw a composite of destruction unfurl across Marcy Avenue. The audio on his head set crackled.
“Everyone hear me?”
“Loud and clear, Cap,” Iron Man said.
“Sure thing.” Hawkeye.
“All systems are go,” Steve said. “Someone give me a run down.”
“Just your run of the mill intergalactic squid on a bad trip,” Iron Man said. “We gotta put him down.”
“He’s got civilians, Captain,” Black Widow said. “We need—”
There was a crash, and Widow and Thor’s televisions whited out. Steve paced.
“Talk to me!” he barked.
“They’re fine,” Hawkeye said. “The hostile’s got incendiaries, but they’re practically fire crackers, they’re so small.”
Steve had still not gotten a clear view of the hostile — he was seeing parts, and while he could put them together for an idea of the whole, there was nothing like the full picture. He grabbed a giant bouncy ball Tony had given him and began to squeeze it over and over in his fist.
“Size and stats, now.”
“It breathes fire!” Thor shouted as his television filled with flames. Steve winced at the assault on his eardrums. Tony had set Thor’s microphone permanently to the lowest volume, but it didn’t help much.
“It also breathes fire,” Hawkeye said.
“Thor’s status, Hawkeye.”
“I am merely singed, Captain!” Thor said. “Do not fret!” With that he dived back into the fray.
“Maybe five meters tall, at least as wide, plus about ten tentacles and the incendiaries and the fire,” Black Widow said. “Slow, but not as slow as you’d think. It’s also sporting some kind of ooze.”
“How has it got the civilians?” Steve watched the aerial view Iron Man was giving him, only to start when the hostile plucked him out of the air and sent him spinning into the atmosphere. “Iron Man! Repulsor beams!”
“I got this, Cap,” Iron Man said. “Keep your bonnet on.”
“Civilians have actually been eaten, Captain,” Black Widow said.
Thor was being squeezed by a tentacle, Hawkeye was scaling a building, Iron Man was hovering above the hostile and trying to lop off tentacles with repulsor beams, and Widow was crouched behind a car taking out a blade, poised to sprint.
“Hostile ate three civilians whole, they are now visible in the abdomen, and I don’t know how this thing works, Captain, but those civilians are startled but fine. At least twelve more are barricaded behind the hostile’s tentacles. I’m going in to slit the stomach.”
“Hawkeye, arrows to the eyes,” Steve said.
“Iron Man, for God’s sake, free Thor.” Thor was looking distinctly suffocated in Hawkeye’s feed.
“Do it now and then handle the other tentacles, Iron Man, that’s an order!”
“These are civilian—”
“None of them are in danger of choking to death, Iron Man!”
“He’s frigging immortal, Cap!” And then Iron Man was off in the air again, but before Steve could blow a fuse, he saw Iron Man land in front of Thor’s camera.
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose, inhaled slow and deep, exhaled.
There was an unholy, guttural shriek, and the hostile rose up, all its tentacles waving madly as the contents of its stomach spilled outward from a perfect vertical slit. Civilians came tumbling out into Black Widow as wave after wave of fluid washed over them. Steve grimaced, but took the moment to brace his hands against the console and calm his racing heart. Hawkeye ran toward Black Widow and got her and the civilians out from the fluid, Iron Man herded the rest of the civilians, and Thor wound up Mjolnir and smashed the hostile’s brain.
“Excellent work, everyone. Debrief in one hour.”
He had just pulled the headset off and collapsed in a chair when he heard the clearing of a very familiar throat. He froze.
“You must mean after they debrief with me, Mr. Rogers,” Fury’s voice said behind him.
Steve spun in his chair and sprang to his feet.
“Yes, sir,” he said, fighting the urge to salute. “That was a reference to your debriefing anyway, sir.”
“Mm hmm.” Steve was acutely aware of Fury’s eye raking over him. He was also acutely aware that he was wearing only last night’s undershirt and a pair of boxers. “Now you understand I find this a very interesting turn of events.”
“Sir, I can explain—”
Fury held up a hand.
“No need, Rogers. I should have expected something like this.”
“With respect, sir, that operation was a success, and I—”
“I said ‘no need,’ Rogers, and I meant it.” And then Fury turned with a whip of his coat and was gone.
Steve sank back into the chair, rubbed a hand over his face, and considered another round of aspirin.
Afterward, he went to find Steve. He was usually in his studio after a mission, and once in a while he let Tony see what he’d drawn. Often, they were sketches of the enemy they’d faced, and any one of the Avengers fierce in battle. Tony told him he should sell these — they were really very good. He had once tried to buy one of Natasha, citing how Steve had truly captured her glorious ass, but Steve had made a face at him and told him he should be ashamed of himself. Tony had answered that he swore he loved Steve’s ass best, but Steve had gone all prim and Edwardian on him again and quickly squirreled all his sketches away from Tony’s lascivious eyes.
Today, Steve wasn’t in his studio, but there was a broken pencil on his drafting table and watercolor paper strewn across it. Tony frowned and approached the mess. He bent to gather the sketches and paused when he saw his own face. Over and over, page after page. Sometimes just his eyes, or his nose, or, in one doodle, an ear Tony simply assumed was his. Sometimes he was smiling, sometimes he was smirking, sometimes he was just looking intense. One depicted him sleeping, hair in exactly the kind of disarray all of Tony’s product was supposed to enable him to avoid. In each piece, Steve had taken the time to draw each individual hair on his head, in his eyebrows, in his beard. It looked exactly like Tony — but somehow this face on the page was foreign, lit by Steve’s vision of him and beautiful in a way Tony, for all his hubris, could not believe of himself. Tony stacked them slowly, committing them to memory. He felt…humid. He stood and laid the stack on the drafting table, but he kept his hand on top of them for a moment. He swallowed.
“JARVIS, where’s Steve?”
“Captain Rogers is in the gym, sir.”
“If I may offer a suggestion, sir.”
“Sir may wish to bring Captain Rogers his inhaler.”
When Tony got to the gym, he found Steve breathing heavily with the beginnings of a wheeze as he beat up on a punching bag. He had been working out — cardio every day, weights three times a week — and was now able to make that bag regret it had ever met Steve Rogers. At least a little bit.
“Hey, tiger, what’s that poor bag ever done to you?” Tony said, and Steve whirled around. He was red and sweaty and a little wild eyed, but when he saw Tony he stepped out of a defensive fight stance. His chest heaved, t-shirt damp and clinging.
Silently Tony held out the inhaler, and Steve took two quick hits and held his breath. He let it out slowly and when he was done, he said, “Thanks, Tony.”
Tony inclined his head, then hooked a finger in the elastic of Steve’s sweats and pulled him to the boxing ring to sit down on the edge, where Steve’s water bottle sat.
“Tell me you don’t actually care what Fury thinks,” he said.
Steve, looking miserably at the floor, just shrugged and took long swallows of water.
“He’s my commanding officer,” Steve said. “Sort of.”
“Word on the street is you never followed a stupid command, even from your superiors. You know better.”
“But do I actually know better, Tony?” Steve looked up at him, expression pinched. “That mission today — you all had it handled. I’m… I’m just a kid playing war games, and that was never the point of any of this.” He looked away and tipped back more water. Tony’s stomach dropped. This, Tony knew, referred not to the Avengers or Steve’s current role in the Avengers Initiative, but the very reason he had kept falsifying his records to get into the army, the reason he was here at all, twenty six years old in the twenty-first century. And Tony was terribly, terribly afraid that someday soon, Steve would look at Tony and think he’d gotten a bum deal becoming a soldier in the first place. And this sure sounded like that day had come.
“Today was straightforward, yeah,” Tony said, trying to keep his voice steady. “But you know as well as I do that things rarely go that way. And I know I’m an asshole, Steve, but in my more lucid moments I recognize that the Avengers need a leader, and that leader is you. There’s no one with a more balanced sense of what the team needs and what this city’s citizens need. There’s no one better placed to make the right split-second call when we need it. There’s no one who sees the big picture and the little people in it at the same time like you do. That means there’s no one more qualified for the job, and you’d better believe I said that in the debrief today.”
Steve smiled faintly, but put his head between his knees. Tony reached out to rub his back.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine. I just — I feel like a clown. I feel like everyone’s humoring me, even Romanov.”
Tony snorted. “I have this whole theory about how you’re her favorite, actually. Clint knows and is totally pissed.”
Steve let out a rueful laugh and swiveled on the bench enough to push his head against Tony’s shoulder. Tony wrapped an arm around him, and his chest tightened when he felt Steve’s arms lock around his waist.
“Maybe if I get more fit, we can revisit the idea of my being on the team properly again.”
Tony didn’t say Steve was already fit — more fit than he’d ever been in this body before, and as fit as he was likely ever to get. Steve knew that. Tony just hugged him close and tucked his face into Steve’s damp neck.
“You smell,” Tony said, and Steve laughed and kissed him. Tony slid a hand down his ass and rucked him up into his lap.
“Let’s go to my room,” Steve said against his mouth as Tony rubbed two fingertips against his hole. One of Steve’s favorite activities was to sit astride Tony and ride his fingers until he came onto Tony’s chest. They could do this activity anywhere: here, the kitchen, the workshop, Steve’s studio, wherever. Tony had yet to succeed in enticing Steve to do it in public, but they had time. Kissing Steve like this, his arms around Tony’s neck, his legs around Tony’s hips, like there was nothing else in the world more important, made Tony believe, just for now, that they had time.
“You don’t want…”
“I want you in me,” Steve said, and Tony could not argue. They had anal sex rarely, though Tony played with Steve’s ass pretty much every time they had sex because that seemed to be Steve’s preferred form of stimulation. Steve had to be in a particular mood for Tony’s cock though, one in which he felt close to Tony and wanted him close, and they had to have a lot of time to be quiet together afterwards. Tony always felt a bit awed by those moods, and he savored them, filed away their memories very carefully.
Back on Steve’s floor, Steve insisted he take a shower, and when Tony tried to join him he got kicked out. So Tony got out the condoms and lube and reclined naked on Steve’s bed, trying not to play with himself. It was the longest four minutes of his life. Steve came out naked, toweling his hair dry, and Tony told him so.
“That was the longest four minutes of my life,” he said.
“I can’t believe you survived the wait,” Steve said, and stood at the edge of the bed visibly drinking Tony in. Tony felt himself begin to harden. He wanted to mention the sketches he saw, but he didn’t know if he was meant to have seen them, so he just lay back and let Steve have his fill. Maybe he would draw all of him later and not stop at his neck. Tony took the moment to appreciate Steve in turn: he was sleek and lean, and his arms, legs, torso and glutes had taken on a little definition since he’d been working out. He had a soft blond fuzz just below his navel and a patch between his pecs. His cock was just about average, rosy and uncut. Tony’s favorite part of Steve, though, was his perfect, lush mouth, even when it was frowning at him.
“C’mere,” Tony said after a long interval passed. Steve slid into bed and buried his face in Tony’s neck, breathing him deep. Tony let his eyes fall shut and he hugged Steve close. He loved the warm length of him pressed against his body. They kissed, unhurried, taking their time with the feel and taste of each other. Tony stroked along Steve’s sides and over his ass. Steve made a small sound and pressed closer, both their cocks growing harder nestled together in the humid space between their bodies. Tony cupped both cheeks and spread them before trailing his fingertips down over Steve’s asshole. Steve pushed back into the contact.
Steve broke away from the kiss and knelt between Tony’s legs to suck him. Tony groaned and cupped the back of Steve’s head. Steve had learned quickly how to work Tony’s frenulum, how to take most of his length down his throat, how to pump at the base. Mostly he had learned to love sucking cock.
“Jesus, look at you,” Tony said, breathless, “the perfect cocksucker. God, Steve, I could watch you all fucking day.” Steve never said so, but by the squeeze of his eyelids and the moan that vibrated around his cock, Tony suspected he had come to enjoy Tony’s running commentary during sex.
Tony kept it up through a long blow job, but eventually Steve began to get sloppy and desperate and Tony took pity on him. “Get up here and show me that pretty ass of yours.”
Steve rose from Tony’s lap panting, mouth swollen and glistening, eyes lust-drugged. Tony moved over and Steve planted his face in the pillows, knees apart, ass in the air, and he reached back with both hands to pull his ass cheeks apart. His cock swung heavy and damp between his legs.
Tony moved behind him and took a moment to run his hands down his back and over his ass. Steve quivered and moaned, pushing back into Tony’s hands. Tony admired the tiny hole, a pinkish brown pucker framed by a smattering of bronze hair.
“Fucking gorgeous,” Tony said, and Steve keened into the pillows. Tony blew a stream of air over Steve’s asshole before rubbing a fingertip into its hot center. “Tell me what you want, gorgeous.”
“Your tongue,” Steve stuttered, and Tony saw the tips of his ears turn red. He smirked at Steve’s capacity to take this position happily and still blush about talking.
“Your wish, Captain…” And Tony bent to lick a stripe up Steve’s perineum. Steve hummed into the pillows, tangled his fingers in Tony’s hair, and pulled him forward. Tony got impossibly harder at that. He laid himself out prone on the bed, propped himself up on his elbows, held Steve’s ass open and began to suck his hole in earnest. He had a lot of things to say, mostly about how he could eat this ass all day, but his mouth was occupied and he was loving too zealously Steve’s muffled shouting, the way his fingers were locked in Tony’s hair, the way he pushed back into Tony’s willing tongue.
When the muscle was slack and pliant, Tony rose, wiped his mouth with the back of a hand, and said, “Hands off.”
Steve shoved his hands under the pillow and shifted on his knees.
“Hurry,” he said.
Tony lubed up two fingers and pushed them both steadily into the tight clutch of Steve’s ass until he was up to the third knuckle. Steve moaned and twisted the sheets in his hands. Tony slid them in and out until Steve’s asshole loosened further, and then he gave them a practiced curl and Steve shouted, arching deeply.
“Good, you’re so good, Steve, fucking perfect, just like this. You like my fingers in you? Tell me.”
“Yes, yes, yes,” Steve chanted, rocking forcefully back into Tony’s fingers. Tony added another finger and more lube, and the fit was tighter, but Steve’s ass always gave, and Steve always moaned for more, and Tony was a giving sort of person. He tucked his smallest finger in and began a leisurely fuck that had Steve sobbing into the pillows.
Tony leaned over Steve’s back and trailed kisses along the sharp shoulder blades, the knobs of his spine. He nipped, just the suggestion of teeth, at the spot in the middle that made Steve wail.
Steve reached down and pulled Tony’s fingers from his ass. He flipped onto his back and pulled his knees up. He was a red, sweaty mess, and Tony thought he could actually feel his heartbeat thunder through his cock at the sight.
“I’m ready,” Steve said. “Come on.”
Tony kissed him hard and deep. Steve clutched at his shoulder, his hair. Tony’s dick felt like it might burst at the slightest touch. He pulled away to take care of the condom and slather more lube onto it. Steve put his legs on Tony’s shoulders as Tony placed the head of his cock against the rim of Steve’s asshole and pushed inside. Steve took a deep breath and and closed his eyes. Tony pushed forward slowly, watching Steve’s face, but there was only satiation there, as if a deep ache were being eased. When Tony was fully seated and Steve’s asshole was clenching around him, he let out the breath he’d been holding and rested his forehead against Steve’s. They were still. They were silent. And then,
“Kiss me,” Steve whispered, and Tony did. Steve stroked his hands down Tony’s sides, and his legs fell off Tony’s shoulders, but Tony held him up, held him open, elbows in knees. He began a slow, undulating rhythm, and Steve pulled away from their kiss to gasp for air. Tony took the opportunity to lick behind Steve’s ear, to suck shapes into the muscle where neck met shoulder. Steve’s arms wound around Tony’s back, and he held him close while he met his hips for every stroke.
Tony wanted to tell Steve everything: how he was in awe of him every day, how he wanted to keep him in his mouth like some kind of baby cat, how he wanted to fill him with come and take lots of filthy pictures. How afraid he was Steve would find someone else, or notice that Tony was just a fuck-up who hit the a jackpot when the universe was handing out IQs and that IQ was worth nothing in comparison to the warm beating heart and soul of Steve Rogers, that he wasn’t enough, that he would mess this whole thing up somehow. He wanted to tell Steve that he wanted to get as far inside him as he could and never leave. That his 100% functional, car battery-free heart would never recover from Steve’s eventual absence. That he loved him, and that it was wonderful and terrible all at once.
“Tony, I’m close, keep, keep — harder, Tony.”
Tony complied with sharp snaps of his hips as Steve pulled himself off, mouth red and open wide, and came with a silent, choked-off gasp. Come splattered both their chests, Tony bent to lick it up. Steve held him there, told him to keep going, keep fucking him, he needed it. He rarely said “fuck.”
Tony shuddered, and Steve rubbed circles into his back and murmured nonsense into his ear and kissed the side of his face.
“I want to do this forever,” is all Tony managed to say, and Steve gave him a hazy smile, cradled his head, kissed him long and deep. Said his name.
Tony shook as he came, shouting, driving himself deeper into Steve’s body. Steve gentled him through the tremors, and they slumped together, limbs tangled, in the dissolving world of after-orgasm. Eventually Tony came back to himself, aware that his cock was softening and he’d have to do something about it.
“Ready?” he asked Steve. Steve hated this, but he nodded and Tony gripped the base of the condom and pulled out slowly. Steve grimaced, and Tony kissed the corner of his mouth.
After they cleaned up, they lay in bed without speaking, Steve’s chest to Tony’s back, thighs wedged between thighs, Steve’s face pressed into Tony’s shoulder as he toyed idly with Tony’s sparse chest hair.
“You know…” Tony said. “We could switch it up if you wanted. You could do that to me, I mean.”
Steve hummed, kissed the back of Tony’s neck.
“I will,” he said. “We’ve got time.”
Tony put his hand over Steve’s on his chest and pushed his fingers between Steve’s. He let his head fall back. Steve nudged at his neck, pressed his lips to a pulse point, and they were quiet together.
Tony must have fallen asleep, because he found himself awoken suddenly by the jangling of Steve’s ringtone: a grating big band number that annoyed Steve, who favored artists like Billie Holiday. Tony opened his eyes to slits in time to see Steve roll to a sitting position on the edge of the bed to grab his Stark phone.
“Hey, Bruce!” he said. “No, sure, I’ve got a moment.”
The suggestive hollow at the top of his crack proved too strong a temptation for Tony — he reached a finger out and fondled it. Steve kept shifting away and trying to give him a dirty look, but that didn’t deter him. Finally Steve slapped his hand away, and Tony subsided into the pillows, pouting.
“Oh gosh, Bruce, that’s great news!” He sprang up and turned around to beam at Tony. He looked how sunlight looks, passing through windows and illuminating the shadows. Tony couldn’t help but smile back at him, even though his heart hurt to think he wouldn’t have this version of Steve much longer. This Steve, who was capable of looking at Tony and seeing something beautiful and wanted. This Steve, who petted DUM-E like a cat and looked at his armor with amazement. His Steve.
Then, Tony watched Steve’s shoulders slump and his spine sag. He looked suddenly like too little skin stretched over too much bone. He sat down and diminished.
Tony frowned and sat up. He pressed his chest to Steve’s back and propped his chin on Steve’s shoulder.
“No, that’s great, Bruce,” Steve said. “I need some time to think about it. Thanks. And thanks for doing everything you’ve done. I’m so — thank you. Yes. I’ll see you later. Goodbye.”
He set the phone down and Tony felt him swallow. He shrugged Tony off, stood, and began rummaging through his drawers for clothes.
Tony glared up at him.
“Well? I don’t get to know?”
Steve turned and looked down at Tony, his face lined and gray. That mouth of his had transformed into mournful arc. Tony felt his own anger ebb when he saw that Steve wasn’t angry, but aggrieved.
“Bruce found out how to reverse it.”
“Uh huh,” Tony said, hoping his tone hit ‘go on’ instead of ‘duh.’
“It has to be both of us,” Steve said in a rush. “It has to be both of us in the same instant, just like the first time.”
Tony’s mouth fell open. Steve’s face crumpled and he turned away to pull a shirt over his head and hop into his khakis.
“I gotta go walk around,” he said. “I’ll talk to you when I get back.”
He didn’t lean in for a kiss, and he didn’t take his Stark phone. He just left, and Tony splayed a hand over the center of his chest, where his heart was thundering, unencumbered.
It was early evening by the time Steve found himself on Fifth Avenue staring up at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. It was, as ever, magnificent; truly awesome in a way Tony’s overuse of that word could not encompass. The cathedral had always made Steve feel humbled and small, like looking into the face of God. Today, in 2013, it was the same. But now, if he moved just so, he could still feel Tony inside him, and the thought made his ears flame. He ducked his head, stuck his fists into his pockets, and hurried away.
Straight to St. Cosmas, where he now went every Sunday morning in a suit Tony ribbed him about getting from Macy’s. He liked St. Cosmas, where the masses often centered around service and acceptance, and if people knew who he was, no one made mention of it. He had begun to suspect they didn’t recognize him at all, and that relieved him.
He wrung his hands in the confessional until he heard Father Lynch settle into the other side.
“Bless me Father for I have sinned,” he said. “It’s been nine days since my last confession.”
“Go on, child,” Father Lynch said.
“Fornication. Sorry. And, um, wrath again, Father, and I’ve been doing those breathing exercises and I didn’t take it out on anyone. But it’s a complicated feeling right now, and I’m — I’m conflicted, Father,” Steve said.
Steve needed a moment to parse it in his own head. It was a messy miasma in there, and he didn’t know what to pick out first, or how to explain any of it.
“I have to make a big health decision soon, with my special person,” he said. “And I know the right decision already — the one that won’t hurt him. But I’m angry that that’s the decision I know I have to make, and I’m angry about what it means for my future, and I’m angry that I’m in this position at all and that sometimes it feels like his fault even though I know better, but most of all, gosh, I’m just angry at myself for wanting something that will hurt him at all.” Steve’s mouth felt dry and his chest felt hot. “And it’s not even that I want — what I used to have, necessarily. It’s that I feel so limited now, like — like my body is conspiring against my goals, or like everyone else is judging those limits. It’s complicated. I try not to be an angry person, Father, or a selfish one. I want not to be angry and selfish. I do what you’ve told me to do, trying to be constructive. I want — I want to be a good partner to him, to be what he deserves, but I don’t know how I can do that when I’m carrying this around.”
The priest was silent again, and Steve heard the rustling of the robes and the creak of the seat as he shifted.
“Are you HIV positive, son? We have many resources here at your disposal if you —”
“What? Oh! No, no, Father, I’ve got a clean bill of health, and so does he. I’m sorry, that was really vague. I just… it’s a really long, boring story.”
“It sounds like you should speak with your partner as openly and honestly as you can. Do you think a conversation like that is possible?”
Tony had three ways of dealing with things: First, humor. Second, ignoring whatever needed to be addressed. Third, bulldozing right though and hoping the force of his personality would cow the other party. Steve had learned that this was how Tony protected his surprisingly squishy insides, and, occasionally, showed off how much smarter he was than everyone else in the room. He didn’t know if a straightforward conversation would actually work.
“I can try,” he said. “I will try. He’s more… breakable than he seems.”
“Then it is more important than ever to keep your anger in check.”
Steve swallowed. Tony, debauched and lovely in the filthy sheets of Steve’s own bed, had just looked so lost when Steve had told him Bruce’s news. And instead of finding him, wrapping his arms around him and being close, Steve had gone off to tend his own wounds.
“I took a walk,” Steve said, feeling low. “I’m on my walk.”
He saw the shadow of Father Lynch’s nod.
“I will remind you again that there are things you cannot change, but you are capable of keeping your reactions to those things positive and healthy. Be kind to your partner, your friends. And, son, be kind to yourself. Breathe, exercise, draw. And do not dismiss the power of prayer.”
“Yes, Father. Thank you, Father. For this and all the sins of my life, I am sorry.”
“One Hail Mary, and one Our Father. How does that sound, child?”
“Great, Father, thank you.”
“I absolve you of your sins in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
“Thank you, Father. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re welcome, son,” Father Lynch said.
The partition closed. Steve stepped out of the booth to cool air and incense. He took a cleansing breath before lighting his candles and leaving.
As he made his way toward the metro, he made eye contact with a homeless man sporting a thick, matted beard, who cocked his head and cut a big grin at him, complete with greying teeth.
“Hey,” the man said. “Hey, short stack.”
“Hi,” Steve said, pausing. He smiled at him and fished for change.
“I seen you before?” the man asked.
Steve shrugged and put some quarters in the man’s cup.
“Thanks,” he said. “I think I seen you before.”
Steve was used to being recognized. By now, months after the news broke, he was even used to being recognized despite his change in stature. He found straightforwardness the best approach, so he straightened his spine and plastered a polite smile on his face.
“I’m Steve Rogers,” he said, and held out his hand to shake. The homeless man stared, brown eyes wide in a dirty face, and took the hand cautiously. The man’s palm was rough and filthy, but Steve gripped it tight and gave it a respectable shake. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“Captain America,” the man said, faintly admiring. “They’ll never believe me down at the shelter.”
Steve gave a short laugh, pulling his hand away and sticking it back in his pocket.
“I’ll just have to come down there,” Steve said, and meant it. He didn’t know why he hadn’t done it before.
The man’s eyes got huge and round, and he sat up straighter.
“Would you really?” he asked. “Only, a whole bunch of us guys and a couple of the girls are vets, and I think we’d all get a big kick out of it.”
Steve felt a thickness gather in his throat.
“You can count on it,” he said when he trusted his voice enough. He shook the man’s hand one last time before catching the next train to the city feeling as if he could take on any hostile and win, like he could sweep even Tony Stark off his feet and into a swooping kiss. Like he was Captain America.
“Because,” Tony said, “cleaning by hand builds character. Thor cleans Meow-Meow by hand, and he’s got all that ‘worthy’ shit tied up in there, even if Mr. Worthy does leave that thing around for me to stub my damn toes on. My point is, if it’s good enough for a Norse god, it’s good enough for Tony Stark.” Tony’s suit was down to its constituent parts, and he and Rhodey were scrubbing, polishing, and buffing them. For no good reason, as Rhodey suspected. Tony leaned in closer to a piece of the arm and put all his weight into cleaning it. “Plus, have you seen that gun show? You know you never saw him in the gym except to spar, so maybe it’s a workout, polishing that thing.”
“Hey JARVIS?” Rhodey addressed the room at large. “Can you run a scan of this Tony-looking thing over here so we can see what he’s possessed by and how to kill it dead?”
“I believe it is in fact Mr. Stark, though he has become unrecognizable in the throes of an emotional reaction,” JARVIS said.
“Traitors get pulled offline forever,” Tony said.
Rhodey put down the parts and the chamois and pinned Tony with a gleeful look.
“Did you call me to talk?”
Tony scowled and rubbed the armor faster.
“I’m so proud,” Rhodey went on. “You’re like a real boy. Don’t worry, this is a service I can totally provide. I’m a great listener. Wait. Am I gonna need a drink for this?”
Tony lifted his head from his task to glare at him.
“I just want to sit here and have you sit there and we can just clean this stuff, okay?”
Rhodey’s expression lost its joviality and took on an irritating sympathy.
“Whatever it is, you can tell me, you know. I can even try to help you out.”
Tony turned his attention back to the suit, scrubbing away at nonexistent smudges.
“Because that’s all you ever do, right? Dig me out of holes I made.”
“Call it a personal project.”
Tony shook his head and turned his back fully to Rhodey.
“Come on, Tony,” Rhodey said. “Hey, if you tell me, I’ll tell you about my first fight with Pepper.”
“I know what your first fight with Pepper was: New Year’s, 2000, you disagreed on the manner in which one should party like it’s 1999. Or more specifically, the manner in which I should party like it’s 1999. She won and you sent her a bouquet of apology lilies.”
Tony rooted around for a different part of the suit, then hunched over it with his chamois and applied elbow grease. He could feel Rhodey’s stupid concerned eyes on his back.
“Bruce found the answer to Steve’s little predicament. It’s just that if he wants his super soldier body back, I have to get my shrapnel-full body back too.”
He heard Rhodey’s breath leave him in a rush.
“He would never, ever ask you to do that, Tony,” he said.
“I know. Which is why I have to make the decision for him. Only I’m… you know what, never mind. Just. It’s fine. It’s done. I’ll do it and what comes next will just be whatever.”
“Tell me which scenarios involve ‘next’ in your big fat brain. That’s what you’re really worrying about right now, so be straight with me and we’ll figure it out.”
It was all so stupid. It said more about Tony than it did about Steve. Tony knew that. Tony could go in knowing all of that, but the logic of it didn’t negate the hindbrain terror that rose up to grip his heart when he thought about Steve, big and strong and wearing a disdainful expression whenever he looked in Tony’s direction. When Steve had four or five inches and a hundred pounds on him, there was nothing Tony could do aside from getting crushed under his bulk and landing his ass in medbay to get Steve to spare a kind thought for him. He didn’t think he could bear that particular reversion to form.
“Scenario One: he’s mad at me for taking the decision out of his hands and breaks up with me. Scenario Two: he’s mad at me for taking the decision out of his hands and doesn’t break up with me, but becomes a totally intolerable tool once he’s back on the Avengers, only to leave me later, which makes it worse. Scenario Three: he’s not mad, he’s disappointed, and though he doesn’t break up with me right away, he slowly becomes more and more resentful and disgusted by me until he’s forced to break up with me later, which, again, worse.” Tony heaved in a breath and held it. He tilted the armor away so he couldn’t see his own face in it. “Scenario Four: I’m the one who becomes resentful, and I’m the one who hates him for this, and I’m the one who breaks up with him, and, as usual, par for the course, no surprises there, I’m the one who destroys my whole fucking life.” Tony sent the armor spinning away from him and dragged a hand through his hair.
Rhodey was silent, though Tony could feel his eyes on him. He felt the muscles in his shoulders lock up.
“Say something!” he snapped.
Rhodey’s voice was low and kind. “Tony, have you ever considered talking to the guy instead of making a unilateral decision that affects the both of you in pretty damn big ways?” Of course, Rhodey’s ‘being kind’ voice always sounded a little patronizing. “Where is he, anyway?”
Tony shrugged unevenly, picking through more suit pieces to shine. “Left around mid-day. Hasn’t been back. Doesn’t have his phone on him.”
“I also feel compelled to point out that your life isn’t some worthless void if you’re not dating him.”
Tony clenched a fist around another piece of suit. Its edge bit gratifyingly into the flesh of his palm.
“I forgot to mention all the scenarios in which I don’t do this and he acts like it’s fine with him but everything looks a little dimmer and feels a little cooler until one day I wake up and he’s not in the tower and hasn’t left a note and I never see him again until months of purgatorial angst later I pass him on the street and he’s doing something all-American like licking an ice cream cone in Central Park with his new boyfriend who never blows shit up or needles him just to see what happens and that’s the end of it, finished, stick a fork in me. I’m — I’m better when I’m with him, Rhodey, and I know a little bit about voids and that’s exactly what it seems like I’m facing down no matter which way I cut this truly shitty cake.”
Rhodey gave that a moment before asking, “Are you sure it has to be this way? I mean, why does it have to be the both of you?”
Tony swiveled in his chair and braved some eye contact.
“Bruce isn’t an idiot. He’ll have exhausted all possibilities before calling Steve to get his hopes up. There’s something romantic about all or nothing though, don’t you think?”
“Tony, you can’t make this decision unilaterally anyway. I mean if you both have to do whatever it is to put you back in your previous bodies, then he has to agree and physically get himself there. You can’t force him to do this, is what I’m saying.”
“Nothing. Whatever. You’ve seen him. He’s like 130 pounds soaking wet, and that’s after all the muscle he’s put on lately. I can, I don’t know, tie him up or something.”
Rhodey was staring at him with no small measure of amazement.
“Are you listening to yourself? You’re talking about forcing someone to go through an intense physical and mystical transformation against his will. Not just anyone, but your partner without whom you’re saying your life has no meaning, the man you’ve been idolizing since the moment you heard about him, oh, forty years ago, and most of all, the frigging saint who puts up with your crazy ass doing exactly this kind of nutbag shit. Goddamn, Tony.”
“What am I supposed to do?” Tony threw his arms up. “He won’t take the opportunity because he’s made of nobility and rainbows and fairy farts, and I can’t let him do otherwise when I know it’s what he really wants. The only thing stopping him is me, and Rhodey, I will not be the roadblock that prevents Steve from doing everything he wants to do.”
Rhodey propped his elbows up on the worktable and just looked at him. Tony huffed.
“And now you’re wearing your ‘I feel sorry for a fuck-up like you, Tony,’ face. Well, keep it to yourself, Colonel. I’m not interested.”
“Then why did you call me over?”
Tony shook his head, picked up another piece of his suit, and started polishing.
“He’d approve anyway,” Steve said aloud.
“Who would approve of what, Captain Rogers?” JARVIS asked.
“JARVIS, would it offend you if I asked for Tony’s arc reactor-related medical records, particularly x-rays?”
Instead of answering verbally, a tableau of images unspooled across the walls. X-ray after x-ray of wrenched ribs and bones fused to steel, everything warped and bent and torn. Tony’s heart was obscured beneath the device, and the effect was a depthless inhumanity. Steve thought his own heart might stop at the sight.
“Oh gosh, JARVIS, is that —”
“The machinery which encased the arc reactor within Mr. Stark’s chest, yes. You will note that it rested most heavily upon his lungs, and his ribcage had to be wrenched apart and broken in order to weld the scaffolding to it. For the four years during which that item kept him alive, Mr. Stark was unable to take a breath even to 65% lung capacity.”
Steve’s eyes slid shut, and for a moment he smelled dust and tasted the iron of his own blood and panic. He felt, too, the warm weight of Tony’s hand on his back, the low tones of his voice telling him he would be okay. Steve dragged in a breath and opened his eyes again.
JARVIS continued. “And that fails to take into consideration, of course, the palladium poisoning, and the threat to his life the removal of the arc reactor posed.”
“JARVIS, you have to know that I’d never endanger him. I’ll call Bruce right now and tell him to pack up the whole project. It’s over.”
The images flickered away, leaving Steve within the bare walls of the kitchen once again.
“I am not the one to whom you should be making your assurances, Captain.”
“No. No, of course not. Thanks, JARVIS.”
Steve drank the cereal dregs, which Tony always made loud yakking noises at if he did it in front of him, and moved over to the sink to wash it out.
Just then Thor skidded in, hair tangled and eyes wild.
“Steven!” he said, and gripped Steve too hard by the shoulder. “Have you seen my mighty hammer? I am certain I brought it back from the confrontation today, but I cannot find it in my quarters.”
“Oh, sure.” Steve set the bowl down in the sink and bent to retrieve Mjolnir from the foot of the stool, where Thor must have placed it while he ate a feast fit for Norse gods after the debriefing. He lifted it up and put it in Thor’s hand before he could even think about it.
They both paused and stared wide-eyed at the handle they both had a grip on. Steve let it go as if burned, but Thor let out a whoop and Steve found himself lifted into the air and crushed against Thor’s chest, his ribs grinding together as Thor pressed Mjolnir hard into his back.
“I never doubted you, shield-brother! Truly, you have always been a warrior with character of the highest caliber!”
Steve tried to thank him, but only a squeak escaped his throat. Thor dropped him and he stumbled but managed not to fall. Thor clapped him on the back, grin as wide as one of his biceps.
“We must celebrate this felicitous news! But first I must crush Clint Barton in virtual battle once more. Why does he persist in challenging me when he knows I will hand his anus to him?”
“I’m not sure that’s how the idiom goes…”
“Farewell, Steve Rogers! We will carouse soon!” Thor gave Steve one last rattle of his bones before he was out the door, Mjolnir hefted over his shoulder.
Steve blinked after him. Mjolnir, no heavier than a loaf of bread, was a ghost weight in his hand. He didn’t know what it meant, but it made him want to stand up straighter and hold his head up high.
Steve had turned back to the sink to finish cleaning it when JARVIS announced that he had a phone call. Steve frowned — people usually called his mobile phone, which he didn’t have on him.
“Who is it, JARVIS?”
“Director Fury, sir.”
Steve pressed his lips together and scrubbed the bowl harder.
“Can we ignore him, JARVIS? Please?”
“And where is Tony?”
“In the usual place, sir.”
“…and how is Tony?”
“In the usual lather, sir.”
“Thanks, JARVIS,” he said. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Steve dried the bowl and set it on the rack. He had a frazzled engineer to soothe.
“I think you want to reconsider the word choice of my being straight with his ass, Rhodes,” Tony whispered back.
Rhodey cuffed him on the ear and walked away, letting Steve in as he left.
“Hi,” was Steve’s opening, and Tony figured that was enough pleasantries for one day.
He swiveled around in his chair, put his hands behind his head and leaned dangerously backward, eyebrow rucked up to his hairline.
“So, how excited are you to be a super soldier again?” he asked. Steve knitted his brow and opened his mouth but Tony didn’t let him answer. He popped up and began gathering the constituent parts of his suit to haul around to different locations in the workshop to look busy. “Because I know I’m excited. We should do experiments on your refractory period, and oh man have you thought about the new options we have for athletic, exotic positions? And not just because of you, I mean, that arc reactor keeps me going too, like three lines of coke I swear, you won’t even believe your eyes. Or your ass. Whatever body part you won’t believe, you catch my point, this is gonna be awesome, when are we flying out to the wilds of Wyoming?”
“Tony, don’t do this,” Steve said, and he sounded damn so earnest it made Tony’s teeth ache.
Tony was stacking things and shoving other things into drawers and corners and just generally not looking at Steve. He could feel Steve hovering at his shoulder, probably wringing his hands like an old lady.
“Don’t do what? Are you packed yet? I can pay someone to pack for you, that’s a perk, you know — stick with Tony Stark and you’ll never wipe your own ass again.”
“We’re not going anywhere, Tony. Can you turn around? Can you stand still for a second, please?”
“Nope, super busy, but I can talk and work at the same time, I’m a genius. So I’m thinking the first new position we should try should be standing up, face to face, you pinning me to the wall, but I’m fucking you, that’ll be a challenge, does that have a name yet? We can call it the IronCap — Hey JARVIS, can I get that trademarked?”
“I shan’t dignify that with a response, sir,” JARVIS said.
“Boo, killjoy, who even programmed you?” Tony grumbled.
“I looked at your medical records,” Steve said, and at that Tony stilled. He felt hot indignation rise up his spine to heat his scalp. He clenched his fist and made a controlled turn on his heel. He scowled and loomed over Steve — because he could — but Steve just raised his chin and met his eyes without wavering. “And I’m not sorry. I know what that thing was doing to you, Tony, and there is no force on God’s green earth, even you, that could make me agree to do anything that would hurt you.”
“I feel like we’re halfway to a Meat Loaf song there.”
“Don’t change the subject.”
“I’m telling you it’s no big deal,” Tony said. “I lived with it for four years and never expected anything to change — I would gladly go back to that if it meant—”
“You couldn’t breathe, Tony.”
“You take my breath away anyway, Rogers.”
“That’s not romantic.”
“I love you,” Tony blurted, and he felt like he had when the arc reactor was torn from his body, like everything was slow and painful and throbbing and he couldn’t believe he’d said the thing he wasn’t gonna say when this conversation began without his permission, or pretty much ever at all. Steve’s eyes widened, and Tony barreled on. “I love you, is what I’m saying, and fuck me if I wouldn’t give you anything, Steve. My heart, my lungs, anything.”
Steve’s hands came up and smoothed down his cheeks to cup his face. He pulled him down and rested their foreheads together. Tony let out a shuddering breath and his eyes slid shut.
“That’s not supposed to be literal, Tony.”
“What’s it worth if it’s just a metaphor?”
“I want this. I want to do this for you. Let me do this for you.”
Steve’s arms slid around Tony’s waist and he pressed his face into his shoulder. Tony tucked his nose into Steve’s neck, squeezed him tight, and inhaled. The scent of him was steadying.
“Tony, this is your body, the one you were born with, the one you’re meant to have. And this — this is mine. I wouldn’t change it.”
“Don’t lie to me, Cap. I can’t bear that.”
“I’m not lying. Am I less me in this body, Tony?”
“No, of course not, that’s not what I—”
“This body got me through scarlet fever and the Great Depression,” Steve said. “This body helped me stand up to bullies before it ever got near a needle full of super soldier serum. This body allowed me the perspective to know you. It’s not weak or incapable. This is my body, Tony. I’m not ashamed or regretful. This is my body.”
“But you’re sad you’re not out there flinging shields and taking hits. I know you, Steve. I know that’s what you wish you were doing.”
Steve pulled away and smoothed out Tony’s shirt. He gave Tony a little smile.
“And you found a way to give that to me with the Control Room, about which Fury can go suck eggs. And I’ll find other ways. It’s not about how many hits I can take — it’s about how many people I can help. I know that now. I can do that no matter what shape I’m in — and Tony, I’m in good shape, now. I even have abs.”
“Don’t I know it,” Tony said, waggling his eyebrows. Steve rolled his eyes.
“I take that Advair stuff, and I don’t even have to use my inhaler much at all.”
Tony gave Steve’s hips a squeeze. He gathered all his nerves and just said it. Rhodey would be proud, he thought.
“I just don’t want this to be some shit where we’re both polite to each other about ‘doing the right thing’ and then I turn around and we’re not together anymore because all the pretty speeches and all the newfangled medicine doesn’t make not having that enhanced body worth it.”
“Never gonna happen.”
“You can’t know that. You can’t say that.”
“Yes I can.”
“No, you can’t, it’s not as simple as saying something makes it so, Steve, it’s complicated and it’s—”
“Actually, it’s simple because I love you too, you jackass.”
Tony’s tongue failed and his words evaporated and he thought his brain shorted out. He felt Steve press his lips to the corner of one of Tony’s eyes, and then the other, and then his nose, and finally, chaste and dry, his lips.
“I will always choose you,” Steve said, and Tony felt tension trickle from his spine. He leaned into Steve, who held him up as if he were weightless.
“You’re getting the short end of this stick, Capslock.”
“I don’t think so, Tin Man.”
“So are you gonna kiss me or what?”
“Bossy,” Steve said, and did as told. The kiss took little time to turn open-mouthed and hungry. Tony pulled Steve flush against him and slid his hands around to Steve’s ass. He squeezed the small handfuls he found there and hitched him tight against his hips. Steve moaned and pushed Tony against the work table, grinding the hard length of his cock into Tony’s. A spark lit at the base of his spine, and he felt heavy with want. He wanted to sink low, bury his nose in Steve’s lush pubes, choke on his hot cock, slick his throat with Steve’s come. He wanted to, but Steve had handfuls of his shirt and was pinning Tony down.
“Shit, Steve,” he said. “I wanna suck you, let me suck you.”
Steve rumbled out a groan and just kissed Tony harder. Tony felt skin-hungry and light-headed. He yanked at the button of Steve’s pants, pushed at his tee-shirt, scrabbled to press bare flesh to bare flesh. Steve was devouring him as if trying to push closer and closer into the cradle of Tony’s hips.
Abruptly, he pulled away, panting, red mouth swollen and slick, eyes glassy.
“Bedroom,” he rasped, grabbing Tony’s hand and dragging him toward the door.
“We need to start keeping lube here,” Tony said. “Why haven’t we started keeping lube here?”
“We are two very, very stupid people,” Steve said, and gave Tony a shove out the door.
The elevator almost got desecrated — and if Tony had had any say in it, it would have been, but Steve was in a mood to manhandle him and Tony had no objections to that. Tony was dumped unceremoniously onto Steve’s bed, stripped of his clothes, and covered entirely by over a hundred pounds of ex-super soldier. Tony yielded, let his hands roam freely over all the skin bared to him, kissed him like he was the oxygen in needful lungs.
“Jesus, fuck,” Tony said when Steve’s slick finger slid inside him. Steve stilled and sucked a kiss into Tony’s collarbone. Tony wrapped his arms around his shoulders and held on.
“Okay?” Steve asked.
“God, yes,” Tony said. He spread his legs further and tilted his hips up. Steve slanted a smile down at him as he eased another finger in and began a gentle rocking stretch.
“Have I been depriving you?”
Tony tried to smirk, but his blood was up and his heart was full and Steve was gorgeous above him. It was difficult to be snarky under the circumstances
“I’m pretty sure the constant access I’ve had to your ass is some kind of divine reward, not deprivation,” he said. Steve grazed his prostate and Tony seized up with a loud nonsense exclamation, eyes rolling back.
“There we are,” Steve said a little too cheerily.
“Another,” Tony said. Steve hummed and bent over Tony’s cock to take it deep into his mouth even as he tucked a third finger in. Tony shouted and threaded his hands through Steve’s hair as he set up a wet, bobbing rhythm he timed with the drum of his fingers inside him. Tony raked his nails lightly between Steve’s shoulder blades and got a full-body tremble for his troubles. “Fucking perfect,” he said. Steve looked up at him through thick lashes, eyes lust-heavy and dark, full lips curved around his mouthful of cock. Tony groaned and let his head fall back.
When Steve finally put a condom on and pushed slowly inside, Tony shuddered and bore down and held him close. The stretch and burn of it was a sharp, sweet pleasure, and Steve’s skin on his was a hot balm. Steve kissed him slow and deep before pulling out part-way and thrusting shallowly back in with a moan.
“Yeah?” Tony said, and smiled to see Steve’s eyes shut as he bit his lip and nodded. Tony cradled Steve’s face in his hands. “You’re fucking amazing,” he whispered, trailing kisses over his cheekbone, his jaw.
Steve propped himself up and visibly forced his eyes open. Tony’s breath caught and Steve held his gaze. Tony pulled his legs up to wrap around Steve’s waist, and Steve began a strong, steady rhythm that made Tony moan low and constant. He’d forgotten how it felt to be filled and claimed — the tight clutch, the stimulation of nerves seldom touched, the deep satisfaction — and he’d never known what it felt like to do this with someone like Steve, someone good and careful, someone who shone bright and brighter at his side. Someone who kissed his forehead and nose and pressed them cheek to cheek, choking out his name like it was his anchor to earth.
“I didn’t know,” Steve was saying, voice tight and full of awe. “Tony, how you feel, I can’t—”
“Shh,” Tony said, stroking down his back and into his perineum. “We’ve got time.” Tony’s fingers brushed over Steve’s hole, and Steve quivered and sobbed into Tony’s shoulder and jerked inside him as he came. In the humid space between them, Tony gripped his own cock and yanked until he felt the hot promise of an orgasm building at the base of his spine, behind his balls. He clenched hard around Steve, his vision whiting out as he spurted up his chest with harsh breath and a strangled grunt.
Tony came back to himself when Steve pulled away from him, divested himself of the condom, and lay bonelessly beside him, breathing hard.
“Stay with me,” Steve said, and caught Tony’s hand.
“Nowhere else I’d rather be,” Tony said. He turned onto his side and found Steve mottled pink with exertion all the way down to his damp pubes. He had a doofy grin on his face and his hair was sticking up every which way. Tony’s heart felt bigger than his chest could contain, big enough to force an arc reactor out, big enough to blot out the sun. He burrowed into the hollow of Steve’s underarm, which earned him an undignified giggle, but Steve let him stay there, lips against soft skin, legs tangled, one hand curled beneath Steve’s navel.
“Can I tell you a secret?” Tony asked after a while.
“Those giant pecs you used to have were more likely to inspire me to shit my pants than pop a boner. Like one flex would have taken my head clean off.”
“That’s why I’m with you, Tony: the class.”
“Although I must confess I ruined a lot of Mark blueprints thinking about eating your perfect ass.”
Tony could hear the small sounds of Steve’s smile, and his arm tightened around Tony’s back.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to make do with what I’ve got now,” he said.
“‘Make do?’ Jesus, it’s like you’re apologizing for offering me a plate of ambrosia.”
“Tony,” Steve said, dragging out the final syllable and burying his face in Tony’s hair. Tony saw a flush creep down Steve’s chest and he huffed out a laugh. He kissed Steve’s ribs, his far-preferable unenhanced pec, his nipple. Steve petted his hair and Tony settled back in.
“I’d tell you to gird your loins against the constant embarrassment I’ll be bringing you, but I kinda like the blush.”
“Not embarrassed of you,” Steve murmured. He yawned.
Tony let his eyes fall shut and his muscles go lax. He breathed Steve deep.
Steve shifted enough to lay a hand over Tony’s heart. He tapped almost imperceptibly along with Tony’s pulse, keeping time.
“Hey, Steve,” Bruce said with a tired smile. Steve could see he was in a brightly lit lab, and the way his hair frizzed up and out made him look like a mad scientist. That probably wasn’t too far-off a description.
“You should get some sleep, Bruce,” Steve said.
Bruce’s smile turned wry and he passed a hand over his face.
“Ever the team leader,” he said. Steve raised a shoulder in half a shrug.
“How are you over there?” Steve asked. “Any luck with…”
Bruce shook his head and waved a hand. He looked resigned, drained, but not devastated or, well, angry.
“It’s fine,” he said. “Well. Ha, it’s not fine, but it is what it is. Or something.”
“Very convincing, Dr. Banner.”
“The other guy is in me, Steve,” he said. “He’s not something that happened to me or something that was done to me. I just have to… deal with that.”
Steve nodded slowly. A heavy disappointment settled in for his friend, but Steve couldn’t say he was terribly surprised.
“You talk to Tony?” Bruce asked.
“You’re not doing it.”
Steve shook his head and curled his mouth up in a small smile.
“Would you, if it were Betty?” he asked.
Bruce cocked his head.
“I didn’t realize it was like that,” he said. “I guess I should have known. You’re always ‘Tony did this’ and ‘Tony said that.’”
“I’m not always like that,” Steve said, feeling a scowl threaten to erupt. That urge was doing battle with the banked panic that came when he realized he’d actually told someone who wasn’t a priest or a lover his proclivities in words. Bruce just laughed.
“Don’t worry, it’s cute.”
“It is not.”
“Tony and Steve, sitting in a tree.” And then, just like that, the laughter died down and a gravity settled in between them. “Are you happy, Steve?” Bruce asked. “Does he treat you right?”
Steve met Bruce’s eyes. They carried a lot of weight. They looked at him now with a mixture of concern and curiosity. Because, Steve realized, Tony had a certain reputation for being unstable and tactless and treating everything like a joke. Steve had forgotten. Between the real laughs and the warm eyes and the way Tony touched him like a precious thing, Steve had forgotten.
“The best,” Steve said with a decisive node.
Bruce cracked a half-smile.
“I’m glad,” he said.
“I think…” He trailed off.
“I think I’m gonna come out,” Steve blurted, and the earth didn’t split open, and a hand didn’t reach out from the sky to smack him into the resulting molten lava. He took a breath. “It would be better, wouldn’t it? If I did it how I wanted to, and not because some camera person somehow got a snapshot of Tony’s hand down my pants and put it on the Twitter.” That had happened to some pretty singer who wasn’t even homosexual, and still Steve felt an overwhelming compassion for her in the aftermath. And fear for the inevitable moment it happened to him.
“That would be less than ideal, yes.”
“And coming out, it would be good, right?”
Bruce shifted and got a deep furrow between his brows as he thought hard. After a moment, he dipped his head in a cautious nod.
“I think it would be good for you not to have to live your life looking over your shoulder,” he said. “And beyond that, your being open about it would spell out hope for a lot of people, Steve. You’re a hero and an icon — people look up to you, don’t make that face at me. It would even be worth the backlash from homophobic nutjobs, which wouldn’t last all that long anyway since something else decent and natural would come along to infuriate and distract them soon enough.”
Steve had seen those people on television, picketing soldier’s funerals and going on talk shows with all their hubris on display, acting like they spoke the word of God. They were nothing but bullies. And Steve truly believed, in the tick of his heart from which the force of his life sparked, that if anything was a sin, it was the perversion of faith such that it became an ugly weapon, destroying everything in its path. Steve realized his fears, his reticence — they only appeased people like that, and he was neither interested nor afraid. He was interested in stepping out with Tony without jumping at shadows.
“I’ve never been intimidated by bullies, Bruce,” he said.
“And that’s why you’re Captain America,” Bruce answered. There was admiration in his voice, and Steve felt an abiding gratitude overcome him.
“Thanks, Bruce,” he said. “For everything.”
Bruce shook his head.
JARVIS interrupted them.
“Captain, I’m afraid it’s Director Fury again,” he said. “At the door this time with an access code. He is most insistent.”
“Do you mind if I get this?” he asked.
“Go for it,” Bruce said. “I should pack up and get ready anyway, since you’re not coming down.”
“So I’ll see you soon? You’re coming back?”
“Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,” Bruce said, and the screen went black.
Steve stood up straighter and squared his shoulders before answering the door. Director Fury dwarfed him, and the permanent glower didn’t help, but Steve didn’t give ground.
“With respect, sir, I feel I said my piece this morning.”
Fury rolled his eye and brushed past him.
“I’m not about to dress you down, Rogers, cool your jets,” he said when they got to the kitchen island. He put a carefully wrapped bundle on the marble top and slid it across the way toward Steve. Steve eyed it with mistrust. “It’s not gonna spit poison at you and steal your pot of gold, for God’s sake.”
“Was that some kind of leprechaun joke?”
“Just open the damn thing, Rogers.”
Steve undid the ribbon and let the fabric it was holding together pool on the marble. He found himself face to face with a black suit complete with silk tie — simple, but well-made and tasteful. Expensive — almost expensive enough to satisfy Tony. He frowned and glanced up at Fury’s inscrutable face.
“What is this?” he asked.
“This is me giving you the chance to be a SHIELD agent. With training and practice, you could be the Avengers Initiative’s official handler and SHIELD liaison, like Coulson was supposed to be. And then I wouldn’t have to come down here and swoop around trying to babysit all your asses anymore. I don’t have time for that shit, Rogers.”
Steve had seen what Hill could do — had watched her neutralize men and women and creatures several times her size, or fire her gun in a way that made Clint a little too happy — and he had admired her in the helpless way he had admired Peggy. And, since learning about some of Coulson’s skills and responsibilities, he had come to admire him, too. Steve had wondered, from time to time, what it would have been like to get to know him, to lead the Avengers under his eye. He had been, in his own way, a soldier and a commanding officer — always ready, always poised, always calm. How could Steve do anything but respect that?
Steve realized his jaw was hanging open when Fury’s eye got more and more buggy. He shook himself and shut his mouth with a snap. He laid a hand on the suit and took a steadying breath.
“Thank you, sir,” he said. “When do I start?”