Steve is usually more careful than this. He knows how to tell if someone is watching him like they shouldn’t be, knows to pay attention to who’s shadowing him, but he’s cold and he’s tired and he’s not sure how he’s going to pay the rent this month, nevermind food or art supplies, and he lets his guard slip, just a little.
A little is enough, and he has time between the hands landing on his shoulder and elbow and the first hit to his gut to curse himself. He lands hard on the dirty cement, his palms slipping in refuse as he fights to get his breath back. He manages one wheezing sucked-in gasp of air before a boot catches him in the ribs and sends him tumbling into the wall, banging his temple on brick and causing white dots to spark across his vision. Steve rolls onto his back, his hands up to protect his face, and feels hands start to pat him down, under this thinning, threadbare winter jacket. Steve feels a frisson of anger shoot through him, making his face hot and his knuckles shake, and he twists to find bare skin, bites down hard enough for a male voice to yelp and then swear--and then punch Steve in the side of the head, jarring him into near unconsciousness.
Steve clings to the last strip of vision he’s got, the black tunneling around it, and is just barely cognizant of a sound repeating over and over, a muted hiss-boom, and metallic clicking and whirring, like machines in a factory, like gears rolling against each other that are in need of an oil.
“Hey,” someone says, and Steve feels himself being pulled into a sitting position. Someone taps against his cheek, harder and harder. “Hey!”
Steve opens his eyes. There’s a man holding him upright, with dark hair and dark eyes and a smirk that strikes Steve as deeply irritating, even concussed and lying in a garbage strewn alleyway.
“Ha,” the man says gleefully, “I just saved your ass. I totally and completely just saved your ass for the first time. The bet is settled, Cap.”
Steve tries not to swallow his tongue. “What bet?” he asks, and the man’s face falls a little bit. “Who are you?”
“I’m Tony,” the man says. “Can you stand or what?”
Steve bristles. “Yeah,” he says, and manages to lurch halfway to his feet before his knees buckle and the man--Tony--has to catch him.
“Some things never change,” Tony mutters, and slings an arm around Steve’s shoulders to support him. They half walk-half stagger along to the sidewalk, Steve’s feet dragging on the cracks in the uneven pavement.
Steve’s ribs are on fire and he can feel his pulse in the roof of his mouth and his head feels like it’s been filled with matted tangled wool, but he manages to pull his thoughts together enough to mumble. “Thank you, thanks.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tony says. “if you could pull yourself together to give me some directions, that would be good.”
“Where are we?” Steve asks, and Tony props him against the side of a building, pries his eyelids up and peers into his eyes.
“Hm.” he says. “The Lower East side.”
“I was hoping you would be slightly more specific,” Steve says, and Tony grins. The streetlight behind him flickers dully, and the white of Tony’s teeth gleams briefly.
“I’m unfamiliar with the area,” Tony says delicately, and seems to be laughing at a joke Steve doesn’t know. “more than I thought I’d be.”
“Right at the next street,” Steve says, squinting around, “then... left. We’re not far.”
“Jolly good,” Tony says, and snickers at the weird look Steve throws him. “Come on, Rogers.”
They make it to the door of Steve’s building, and even through it to the foot of the stairs before Steve falters and tugs at Tony’s arm to sit on the bottom steps. “It’s a bit of a climb,” he pants.
“How many flights?” Tony asks, leaning casually against the banister. It gives off an ominous creak, and Tony straightens quickly, his eyes gone wide. Steve smiles, and then realizes the answer to his question.
“Four,” he mutters. Tony tilts his head at him, appraising.
“Right,” he says briskly, “this will be a nice change of pace.”
“What?” Steve asks, and then squawks in protest, because Tony has swept him up into a bridal carry and is striding up the stairs like he carries sickly teenagers up buildings on a semi-regular basis. “Let me down,” Steve snarls, twisting, and Tony grunts at the shifting of his weight.
“Knock it off,” he snaps, and his bare forearm slips against the nape of Steve’s neck, damp with sweat. Steve takes a second to aim and drives the heel of his foot into Tony’s chest. He hits something completely unyielding, something metallic, and Tony makes a surprised noise as he drops him.
Luckily for Steve, he lands on a landing and merely bruises his tailbone, a pain that ranks nowhere near the thumping ache in his ribs and the pounding in his head. “I can walk,” he says, struggling to stand, and Tony watches him placidly as he manages it, slowly, painfully. “I don’t need help,” Steve says defiantly, and Tony smirks.
“After you,” he says mockingly, and Steve grits his teeth as he drags himself up the stairs, one by agonizing one.
By the time he reaches the top floor he’s soaked in a cold sweat, wheezing and gasping, and he falls against his own front door in an attempt to catch his breath. “I,” he pants, giving up the pretense of dignity, “I need--”
“Oh?” Tony asks, leaning one shoulder casually on the wall and folding his arms over his chest. “Do you need me to do something? That can’t be right, you don’t need help.” Steve’s scathing reply is interrupted by a violent asthma attack, and he can do nothing but gasp and retch and feel his lungs spasm empty and his throat rip up from the inside.
A palm cradles his jaw, and he’s pulled forward into a loose embrace. Something plastic slips between his teeth and Tony’s voice murmurs in his ear, “On three, one, two, three, inhale.” The plastic thing hisses and Steve sucks in a breathe, a real one, and the oxygen makes his head swim in the best possible way. “Again,” Tony says softly, “one, two, three, breathe.”
Steve leans his forehead against the blunt jut of Tony’s shoulder and sucks in lungful after lungful of air, leaving damp patches on Tony’s shirt, which is surprisingly soft. Steve thinks distantly that Tony must be rich, to have a shirt that falls so softly against Steve’s cheek. “I’m okay,” he says finally, and stands under his own power, puts space between them.
Tony snorts, but turns his back to Steve and starts fiddling with Steve’s doorknob. “After you,” he says, offering Steve back his key, and Steve blinks.
“How did you--”
Tony grins. “I’ve got magic fingers,” he says solemnly, and then laughs at his own joke.
“I don’t understand you,” Steve says flatly, but leads the way into his traincar apartment, cramped and tiny and smelling like wet rot. He has to put his full weight behind his hands to creak the faucet open, and it drips murky water onto his fingers, into his palms. He wipes at the cake of dried blood that stretches down from his temple until it’s mostly gone, presses his thumbs into his eyesockets to dull his headache.
Behind him, he hears Tony close and lock the door, amble the comically short distance from the entryway to the sink. He turns, still flicking droplets from his face and fingers, and sees Tony stomp decisively on a cockroach.
“So,” Tony says, wiping his shoe on the creaking floorboards. “do you sleep on the left or on the right?”
Steve wakes with every muscle screaming in agony and a twisted sour taste on his tongue. He coughs, tries to lick moisture back into his mouth and stands, stooped over like an old man, his bare feet freezing against the floor, and stops. Memories of the night before trickle through his mind and he frowns. There’s a rumpled sheet twisted up on the floor and he stares at it until he hears the floor creak and looks up to see the man--Tony-- coming through his front door, juggling two wrapped parcels.
“Hey,” he says, and tosses something at Steve’s chest. Steve’s hands come up a second too late and it bounces off his chest as he grasps at it, tumbles to the floor. He flushes, and Tony laughs, not unkindly.
“Nice,” he says. “how’re you feeling?”
“I’m fine,” Steve bristles, and half falls half slides to sit on the floor. “I don’t have a table or any chairs,” he says. The thing wrapped in white slippery butcher paper turns out to be a bagel with salmon schmear, and Steve devours it almost three bites.
“Well that hasn’t changed,” Tony says, and settles down across from him, taking neat even bites of his own bagel. “Shit you weren’t kidding about these.”
“What?” Steve asks, swallowing down the ache in his chest he gets from eating too fast. “How do you know my name?”
“You told me,” Tony says, and becomes suddenly interested in licking schmear off his fingers.
“No I didn’t,” Steve says, almost one hundred percent certain.
“Did,” Tony replies petulantly, and waves a hand in the air like he’s physically dismissing Steve’s words. “you were just all... concussed. So you don’t remember. You’re welcome, by the way.”
“Oh,” Steve mutters, staring at the floor. “yeah. Thank you.”
“No problem,” Tony says cheerfully, looking around for a trashcan. There isn’t one, and Tony shrugs before balling up his paper wrapping and tossing it casually into a corner. “Don’t mention it.”
Steve scowls at him. “Who are you?”
“I already told you,” Tony says impatiently, “don’t be tedious, Steve.”
“Right,” Steve says drily. “Well, I have to go to work, so,” he drags the last word out, staring pointedly at the door. When he finally swings his gaze back around Tony is beaming at him guilelessly.
“I’ll amuse myself,” he says.
“I’d rather you leave,” Steve says, and Tony affects the most ridiculously contrived expression of misery.
“But Steve,” he says tragically, “I saved your life.”
“You just said not to mention that.”
“And I meant it,” Tony says, standing briskly, “anyway. Why the hell is it so cold in here?”
“My heat is broken,” Steve says, stretching out the kinks in his spine. “My landlord keeps saying he’ll get it fixed, but I can’t affor--he just hasn’t gotten around to it, I guess.”
“On it,” Tony says, “also, don’t worry about dinner, I got it.”
“No--” Steve says, but Tony has already swept out the door, whistling. Steve stares at his front door for a beat. “I’m scared,” he tells his empty apartment.
When Steve drags himself home later that day, up the long climbing stairs and through the rotted front door, Tony is sprawled on his mattress, his dingy lumpy mattress lying flat on the floor with the curves of the springs showing.
“This shit is uncomfortable,” he bitches. Steve groans, and Tony quirks a smile at him. “Oh sorry.” He clears his throat dramatically. “Golly gee Mr. Rogers!”
“I was kind of hoping you were going to turn out to be a fictitious result of my head injury,” Steve says glumly.
“Yeah,” Tony says, “I actually get that a lot.”
Steve strips off his coat, overheated, and then stops. “Why am I warm?”
“Yeah,” Tony says, “I fixed your heat. No big. Also, I had to break into your landlord’s apartment to steal his tools and I’m too lazy to break back in so that’s them in the corner.”
Steve stares at a small pile of screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers and a hammer lying against the wall. “I’m not dealing with this right now.”
“Excellent life strategy,” Tony says. “I’ve been telling y--the world that for years.”
“What are you wearing?” Steve asks, and Tony grins.
“I thought I’d be out of luck but whatta you know, Champion started making these bad boys in 1930.”
“Right,” Steve says, and sighs.
“Chinese is in the roachtrap you call a kitchen.”
“Great,” Steve says.
Steve works from home the next day, bent over the tiny drawing table drawing panels, and Tony disappears at odd intervals, returning with real coffee, warm sandwiches greasy with thick cut bacon and gooey with cheese.
“Where are you even getting this?” Steve asks through a mouthful, and Tony rolls a shoulder at him.
“Ask me no more questions,” he says with a waggle of his eyebrows, and leans over to look at the pages layered over Steve’s workspace. “What’s this?”
“Comic book panels,” Steve says. “Look, here.” Tony slides a little closer, warm against Steve’s back, and he smells like dark oil, expensive grease, leather. “See these panels are spaced far apart, to show more time between each scene. And these, these over here, these are slanted to show something is off, something is wrong on the page.”
“Lemme see you draw one,” Tony says, sliding down to sit crosslegged on the floor, and Steve smiles. His ruler is scarred and pitted and stained with ink, but the marks are carved clearly into the edges and it’s familiar against his palms as he lines it up, and the tip of his pen makes the most gorgeous sound as he skates it across the paper, and Tony sits silently and rapturously, watching Steve draw squares and lines and rectangles across the page.
Steve gets used to Tony, used to the way he’ll tilt his head at something in Steve’s apartment, ban him from the room for two hours and make his faucet suddenly spout clean water, clear as crystal, make the coffeemaker he dug out of a dumpster in a rich neighbourhood work with barely a hum, make his toilet flush with twice the power and half the water.
“You should take the bed,” he says at night, lying in the curved shape that doesn’t let the springs dig into his back. “you’ve been buying food, fixing up the place.”
Tony shifts on the pile of blankets he’d suddenly appeared with the second morning he’d slept over, his arm propped behind his head. “I owe you,” he says. “And it’s nice, taking care of you. I’ve always liked it.”
“You make no sense,” Steve says, his eyes fluttering closed.
“We could both take the bed,” Tony says, his leer evident, and Steve smiles as he falls asleep.
Tony is loud. He talks constantly, taps his fingers on the floor, the walls, himself, Steve’s knee and Steve’s shoulder. He hums while he works, while he cleans, songs he promises that Steve will know ‘eventually.’
Tony is only ever quiet when he watches Steve draw. He stares at the long lines of Steve’s fingers, the bumps of his knuckles, and holds his breath to hear the sound of Steve’s pen on paper.
“Did you always want to be an artist?” he asks one night, shifting as patches of his back go numb on the floor, and Steve makes a murmuring noise from the mattress.
“I like drawing,” Steve says, in that weird space where he’s just sleepy enough to answer without thinking about it. “I want to be a soldier. I want to help.”
“Nothing could stop you being a soldier,” Tony whispers, “not if you really want to be.”
Tony has nothing except the clothes he bought when he disappeared one day, nothing except a single black briefcase with a chrome combination lock built into the double handles. The briefcase is impeccable, no scrapes, no scuffs, and gleams dully where it lies against a wall, untouched.
One day Steve declares his want for pot roast, brown gravy, real mashed potatoes and vegetables that haven’t wilted, and Tony is so struck by Steve asking for food instead of protesting that he can buy his own that he almost forget his coat in his rush out the door. Steve kneels next to the case, his hands outstretched, and bites his lip.
The pads of his fingertips leave oily smudges on the chrome as he flicks through the numbers, and the case beeps its displeasure whenever he pauses. He sighs after a full minute of fussing idly and just as he decides to leave it well enough alone the edges of the case glow a dim, muted blue, an electric blue, like a crackle of lightning, and he’s leaning forward to get a better look when he hears the thumping that is Tony taking the stairs at a jog and he throws himself backwards and makes himself ignore the case.
Steve loves the city after it rains, like all the grime has been scrubbed off, like the gutters have been flushed and unblocked and everything is new and clean and ready for another day. The city during the rain is less interesting, and Steve sits inside watching the water run down his dingy little windows and listening to the pingpingping of droplets falling through the cracks in his roofs and landing in his buckets and pots and pans.
“Sit here,” Tony says, patting the floor next to him. “I want to show you something.” He picks up the case from the floor and Steve’s breath catches in his chest. He sits next to Tony with their shoulders brushing and watches Tony’s fingers press in the right numbers, undo the latches, ease it open.
He pulls out a notebook, quicksilver fast, and Steve only catches a glimpse of the rest of the case, something red and gold and metal. “Give me your pen,” Tony says, and Steve digs the nub of a pencil from a pocket.
“Yeah,” Tony says, “now look.” Tony starts to draw, differently from how Steve draws, long lines and spirals of mathematics Steve has no hope of ever understanding, but he sees it, he sees that there’s something just outside of what his mind is capable of grasping and that it is complex and otherworldly and beautiful.
“This,” Tony says quietly, graphite smudged on his hands, “this is called string theory.”
“Steve,” Tony whispers, and his hand shakes Steve roughly. “Steve, wake up.”
“What’s wrong,” Steve mumbles, sitting up and rubbing at his eyes. “What time ‘s’it?”
“Extremely late,” Tony says, “and very early. C’mon.”
“Are you crazy? I have to go in tomorrow.” Tony latches onto Steve’s shoulder and starts to drag him out of bed.
“Play hooky, Rogers, come on.”
“Fine,” Steve mumbles, “but I want you to know I hate you.”
“I’m used to it,” Tony says, “get dressed.”
Tony leads him through the sleepy parts of the city that never sleeps, the parts where the noise flattens out at a dull rumble and there are patches of undisturbed snow for Tony to kick up sheets of powder into the backs of Steve’s shoes. Steve pushes him in the side, playful, and Tony bumps into the wall, rebounds to pick Steve bodily off the ground and tossing him into the side of the dumpster, bruising Steve’s hip and making him laugh.
“Where are we going?” he asks, and Tony shrugs.
“Fuck if I know. I hope you can remember how to get back to your place.” He grins, and Steve laughs, suddenly and brightly, the loudest laugh he’s ever had, with his entire body, standing underneath a blown out streetlamp during the coldest winter night in New York City, Tony’s palm sweaty in his palm, and he feels abruptly, painfully alive.
He pushes Tony hard in the chest, sudden enough to knock him off guard, and throws his arms around Tony’s neck. Tony staggers, leaning backward to compensate the shove and then pitching forward with Steve’s weight hanging from him, and Steve leans his head up and crashes their lips together.
Their teeth clack together, painful, and Steve’s bottom lip gets caught between them. He tastes blood, and then the overly bitter coffee Tony likes, the lemon of the soup Tony had for dinner. Tony’s arm cradles the small of his back and for a full ten seconds, crushing the length of Steve’s body against his, and he pushes Steve back against the wall and pulls away.
“Ssh,” he says, very softly, “you don’t know this yet, baby, but we have time.”
Steve resists the urge to wrap his legs around Tony’s waist and grind their hips together. “Don’t call me baby.”
“We have years and years of time,” Tony breathes, and kisses Steve again, impossibly gentle, before pulling away and smiling down at him. “God I love being taller than you.”
Steve flushes, his ears going hot, and laces their fingers together. Tony laughs, yanking Steve against his side and placing the flat of his palm on the small of Steve’s back, two of his fingers just slipping below Steve’s waistband.
Steve wakes up and Tony is gone.
And then years and years and years later Steve opens a file and sees Tony’s face, his mouth tilted in a familiar smirk, and then on the other page, a robot in red and gold with blue lightning coming from his eyes and his mouth and his palms. He reads the entire file while hardly breathing, lets out a huge blowing exhale and then reads it again.
There are five other files lying to the side he needs to get through, including his own, but he’s drawn to Tony’s, again and again, the pictures that trace him all the way back to his childhood, the facts about his life Tony never told him. There’s Tony looking impossibly young at his graduation, in a dark suit at his parents’ funeral, smirking off the front page of a cheap tabloid magazine. And he’s excited, he’s so excited to see Tony he can hardly stand to not get in a car and drive to the address printed in block letters in the file.
And he meets Tony and Tony is an asshole and Loki is escaping and he doesn’t have the time to wonder why this Tony doesn’t have as many white hairs at the temples or the curving burn scar just under the swell of his jaw, why this Tony doesn’t know him or even seem to like him.
The best Steve can figure it was some kind of lie, the same way Natasha tried to convince him he was in a forties era hospital when he first woke up, and that pisses him the fuck off. He’s not the person I thought he was, he tells himself, and tries to forget the way his Tony’s eyes used to crinkle up when he smiles.
He has a single, terrible, Tony level flippant thought before Hulk roars Tony back into consciousness, and it’s that Tony’s last heroic act stands in defiance of the words he’d thrown into Tony’s face just a couple of days earlier.
Steve’s room in the Avenger’s mansion is clean, and neat, and filled with so many gleaming chrome appliances he thinks the mirror hanging on the wall is highly redundant. Outside he hears construction crews during the night and during the day the long mournful bagpipes of funerals from the first responders who were killed by Loki’s army, and everything is that long, awful slow interval between the sweet rush of a battle won and the stiflingness of everyday life.
“Hey,” Tony says, “you wanna spar?”
Steve likes to spar with Tony because he doesn’t have to pull his punches. Natasha is fast and strong and smart, but if he lands a full force punch on her body she’ll be out with broken ribs for at least a month. With Tony in the practice suit Steve can toss him around the mat with every bit of strength he’s got and Tony will roll back to his feet and lob a slow moving beam of energy at Steve’s face without a wince.
“I mean,” Tony says in that deep mechanical rumble, “I have to pull my punches but what’re you gonna do? I need a veritable god to be my match and Thor is busy.”
“My only goal is to hit you right in the face,” Steve says with the utmost sincerity. “my only goal in life.” He dodges a sloppy, over telegraphed punch and catches Tony in an augmented armbar, a hard movement that would snap a normal person’s arm in half at the elbow but only makes a rivet in Tony’s suit creak a little. He does it again and the suit makes a twisted torture noise, and then Tony reaches over with his other hand and throws Steve into the wall with two fingers, hard enough to knock another hole in the plaster.
Steve staggers to his feet and finds Tony leaning casually against some weight equipment, his fingers stroking his faceplate in mocking consideration. “You think you can punch through something I manufactured?”
“I will punch you in the face so hard that plate is going to end up embedded in your jaw,” Steve says, grinning. He hops up lightly on his toes and bounces, sweat dripping down the back of his neck.
“You’re all talk, Rogers,” Tony teases, and Steve jumps up to push off the wall and hit Tony so hard over the head with his shield that the sound echoes.
Six months after the formation of the Avengers, Thor discovers the earthly wonders of bagels, and starts to compose raptous, epic odes in their honour, speaking of the tender yet chewy yeasty insides of the New York Bagel Company.
“There was this place,” Steve tells him one morning, blowing the steam off the top layer of his coffee, “in Brooklyn, when I was a kid. Best bagels in New York.” Thor looks thoroughly intrigued, and Steve throws him an apologetic look. “Sorry, Big Guy, but that place is long gone.” A memory hits Steve like a truck, Tony stepping through his front door holding two bagels wrapped in butcher’s paper, grinning, and Steve swallows hard, staring down at his coffee.
A hand comes into his field of vision and steals his coffee away. “Hey,” Tony says, “you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Steve says, and then scowls. “give me that.”
“You snooze you lose,” Tony says, batting at Steve’s reaching hands, “take it like a man, Steve-o.”
“Call me Steve-o again,” Steve threatens, and Tony is turning with that familiar smirk when the alarm goes off and Clint starts speaking through the earpiece dangling in Tony’s ear.
The alarm is for an idiot who’d managed to get his hands on one of Loki’s little blasty sticks and ran to the nearest bank with it. Bruce sticks his head out of the SUV long enough to hear the SWAT team leader’s assessment and announces he’s going to find a coffeeshop and a bookstore, preferably in that order.
“Just one guy?” Natasha says it like it’s a personal affront to her resume. “Fine, whatever. Let’s do this fast, Rogers.”
“I can handle this,” Tony says cheerfully, “I wanted to test these new miniature missiles anyway.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, shaking himself out of his own head. “not on your life, Stark. Let me see those blueprints again.”
“Well,” Tony says, brushing bullet casings off his shoulders. “I think that went well.”
“Ow,” Clint groans, as Natasha shoves his shoulder back into place, “fuck you very much, Stark.”
“Don’t be a baby,” she says, and pats him on his good shoulder. “go ice.”
“Yeah,” Tony says, “I’m so sorry I knocked you out of the way. Next time I’ll let you get fried.”
“Maybe,” Clint says with exaggerated helpfulness, “next time you could throw me onto something soft instead of into a brick wall.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” Tony says. “Can we do Chinese? I’m feeling Chinese.”
Steve sits down hard, panting. He presses fingers to just below his collarbone, high near his shoulder, and winces at the sharp pain that lances through him. There’s a rip in his suit, he realizes, and he pulls at the edges of it even as it disappears under a fresh wave of blood.
“Cap?” Tony’s face appears in his field of vision, the eyes of his facemask glowing faintly. The faceplate retracts with a muted snap and Tony crouches in front of him. “Steve?”
“Ow,” Steve says, feeling surprised, and pitches sideways as his vision blacks out.
Steve wakes up in a hospital bed.
“I tried to make them do it up like they did when you first defrosted,” Tony’s voice says. “No one lets me have any fun.”
Steve groans. “I’m sorry my injuries are so hard on your instinct to behave as inappropriately as possible at any given moment.”
“Thank you,” Tony says, “I appreciate that. Ice chip?”
“Yes please,” Steve says pathetically, and opens his eyes. Tony is sprawled in a chair with his feet on Steve’s bed, eating something out of a foil bag that crunches between his teeth.
“I don’t actually have any ice chips,” Tony says. “would you like a crackerjack?”
“Okay,” Steve says, and Tony’s fingers brush his lips as he feeds him kernel by kernel. Steve smiles. “They taste the same,” he says, and Tony digs further into the foil bag until he pulls something out and laughs.
“Look,” he says, leaning in close. Steve can smell the cologne he uses, and it’s the same smell that lingered in his apartment, on his pillow after Tony left so many years before. He holds out a glossy print of paper between two fingers and grins at Steve. It’s a coloured comic of Captain America, his shield lifted in a salute. “You’re my prize.”
“Help,” Tony says, ducking into Steve’s quarters, “hide me.”
“Get out of my room,” Steve says without looking up, lounging on his bed with a sketchbook in his lap, and isn’t even surprised when Tony ignores him to flop facefirst into Steve’s mattress, inches from Steve’s hip.
“Wharrugoin,” he says, and Steve flicks him in the ear. Tony flops his head to the side and speaks again. “What’re you doin?”
Steve shrugs, and twists away as Tony paws at the spiral binding of the book, laughing as Tony headbutts his leg playfully. He lets Tony win, rollling away triumphantly with Steve’s book in his fingers. “Hey,” he says, surprised, “it’s us.”
“Just doodling,” Steve says, flushing as Tony brings the pages closer to his face, graphite sketches of Tony flying in smooth curve, Natasha arched in a flip, the long lines of her body graceful and sure, Hawkeye pulling a taut bowstring to his ear, Bruce bent over a microscope with loose hair and barefeet.
“It’s good,” Tony says finally. “Where’s you?”
“I don’t like drawing myself,” Steve says, and Tony produces a pen out of nowhere, flips to a clean page and runs his fingertips over the blank space.
Tony draws in quick harsh lines, too rectangular to be artistic, more like a schematic than a sketch, but Steve watches himself appear on the page, tall with a straight spine and a comical glower. “It’s your ‘take our training seriously, Tony’ face,” Tony tells him, and Steve laughs.
“Tony,” Pepper’s voice calls from the hallway, “you can run, you can hide, but I have control over your budget.”
“Shit,” Tony sighs, and ruffles Steve’s hair before he goes, Steve shoving at him as he tries not to laugh.
Later Steve goes to doodle the view from his window, bare tree branches and oily black crows, and realizes the sketch of Tony has been ripped out, a jagged scrap of paper still attached to the binding where it used to be.
Steve birthday passes in a pleasant day of non-activity. He gets wishes from the team and an expensive gift from Pepper via Tony, who attempts for nearly two minutes to convince Steve he picked it out himself before shrugging and agreeing to thank Pepper on Steve’s behalf.
Steve wakes at midnight to the sounds of someone slipping into his room. “Hey,” Tony says in a harsh whisper, “come on.”
“Tony,” Steve sighs, exasperated, but shrugs on a worn out hoodie and shoves on his shoes, shivering in the chilled hallway and blinking as his eyes adjust to the dark, shuffling along semi-blind with Tony’s hand on his elbow.
The door to the stairway bangs when it opens and closes, and Steve halfheartedly nods at the guards who throw him salutes. “Take a break,” Tony tells the pair standing on the roof, and they look to Steve before slipping through the door and taking up post at the top of the stairs. Tony hops up on the edge of the ledge, grinning and wobbling on purpose to make Steve glare and pull him down by the sleeve of his long sleeved tee.
“Tony,” Steve sighs, and Tony turns away, fiddling for a second with a paper bag before firing up his mini-blowtorch with a click and lighting a single candle in the center of a cupcake.
“Ta-daa,” Tony says. “We’re doing one as to be sensitive to your advanced age.”
“It’s pink,” Steve says, and Tony smirks.
“Let’s face it, Rogers, you’re a little girly.” He ratchets his voice up to shrilly and shrewish. “What about the innocent people, Tony, what about the maids, Tony, don’t blow up buildings for fun, Tony.”
“Your life is so difficult,” Steve says drily, and huffs out the candle with a single exhale, his breath rebounding off Tony’s palms and coming back warm against his face. “Gimme.”
“It’s buttercream,” Tony tells him, settling down crosslegged on the gritty gravel surface of the roof and pulling a full bottle of vodka from beneath a pantleg.
“This is a dry base,” Steve says through a mouthful of cake and thick whipped frosting.
“It’s the cheap stuff, darling,” Tony says flippantly, and tosses the cap away into the darkness. He takes a long drink and pulls a face. “very cheap.” Steve stretches out beside him, using his arm to cushion his head, and Tony’s face appears in his field of vision. “You can’t possibly be skygazing. The cityshine is way too bad to see anything and it’s cloudy.”
“I’m cloudwatching,” Steve says, and Tony snorts, offers him the bottle. Steve sits up and takes a long easy drink, the neck and lips of the bottle warm from Tony’s hands and mouth, from his tongue.
“Happy birthday,” Tony says quietly, and his breath huffs out white, mixes with Steve’s and dissipates into the sky.
Terrorists bomb Stark Industries on Valentine’s Day, failing to collapse the top level but killing fifteen people. Steve is sitting in the mess, spinning a spoon in his fingers and thinking about nothing at all when a Natasha-shaped blur goes by the door at a full sprint and the alarms go off.
Steve is organizing the evacuation with the police and SHIELD, painstakingly restoring order to the chaos of screaming and shouting and fiberglass dust falling from the broken windows when Hawkeye thumps a hand on his shoulder, eyes tight above the mask filtering the air in his mouth.
“It’s Stark,” he says, very faintly muffled, and Steve follows him. Tony is crouched near a pile of rubber, a laser from his arm burning steadily in a widening circle. “He’s gonna bring it down,” Hawkeye says grimly, “Natasha went to get something to brace it.” He disappears down a hallway, wires and florescent lighting sparking and flickering, and Steve walks over glass to shake Tony hard by the shoulders.
“Tony,” he halfshouts, “wait until we brace it, come on. Fire department says they full evacuated the upper floors.” Tony says nothing, but Steve looks closer and sees his hands are shaking, visible through the armour, and Steve rings his thumb and forefinger around Tony’s wrist, feeling residual heat from the laser, and pulls Tony’s arm down. The laser powers off with a neat hiss and Steve watches Tony’s chestplate remain perfectly still even as he hears Tony breathing hard and fast.
“Pepper,” he says finally, sounding half strangled. “I can’t find her--she wouldn't leave until they were done, I know she wouldn't.”
Steve waits, listening to the drone of the fire alarm in the building and the answering wails from outside. He hears footsteps in the hallways, Clint and Natasha, and the rasp of wood dragging on the floor. “Okay,” he says softly, pressing his palm to the metal of Tony’s suit until it warms under his skin.
“Okay,” Tony answers, and they stand in utter stillness for a second, and then Natasha and Clint come through the door at a run and Steve moves to help them, Tony’s laser snapping back to life.
Steve visits Pepper in the hospital, lurking awkwardly in the doorway watching Tony grin as he holds her blackberry just out her reach, propped up on a hospital bed with her arm slung in a cast and a angry red mark held close with black thread stretching down from her hairline to her jaw. Tony laughs as she swats at him, a bright happy noise, so different from the broken way he’d said her name when they’d found her, and Steve smiles reflexively.
“Captain Rogers,” Pepper greets, and Tony turns, still grinning. Steve shuffles in, suddenly feeling bashful, and sets the flowers by the window, the crinkly paper rustling as he fumbles. “Thanks for the rescue,” she says, and releases Tony hand to pat Steve on the wrist.
“No problem,” Steve says, and Tony puffs up indignantly.
“I helped, you know,” he says, and Pepper rolls her eyes, shooting Steve a commiserating smile.
“Yes Tony,” she says dutifully, and he deliberately boots up her email, smirking as the beepbeep of new messages echo from the tinny speakers and Pepper’s eyes slit threateningly.
Natasha raps on the door with the tips of her knuckles and Steve turns. Natasha has washed the grime from her face and her shines brightly in red ringlets falling loose around her face. She’s wearing makeup and a pantsuit in muted colours, boots with three inch heels. She smooths the front of herself nervously and glares at Steve when she sees him noticing.
“Oh please,” Tony says, displaying both rare insight and the ability to ruin it immediately, “let me stay and watch.”
“Get out, Tony,” Pepper says, and he sighs dramatically.
“I know where I’m not wanted,” he sniffs, and Steve rolls his eyes.
“I doubt that,” he says drily, and laughs when Tony bumps hips with him playfully on their way out the door. Just as they pass over the threshold Natasha punches Tony in the bicep with one knuckle extended, making him yelp and drop the blackberry, which Natasha catches neatly.
“Cheater,” Tony hisses, but Steve latches onto his wrist and drags him out the door. The last thing he sees is Natasha presenting the phone to Pepper, looking nervous, and the soft smile that curves at the corners of Pepper’s mouth. “Hmph,” Tony grumbles, and then brightens. “Let’s get tapas.”
Tony disappears into a hole in the wall restaurant that Steve eyes with more than a little wariness and comes out with two large paper bags smelling like meat and spices and fresh baked breads. Steve stoops a little to take one from him, his stomach rumbling, just as Happy pulls up in a dark car Steve hasn’t seen before.
“How does he do that?” Steve wonders aloud, and Tony smirks.
“He is the reckoning all limos deserve,” he says, and ducks into the backseat without upsetting the bag of food. They eat with their fingers, perched on custom leather interior, Tony shoving food through the partition at Happy every ten minutes, wiping his hands on the seats as Steve stares, appalled and licking the shine of oil and grease off his fingers.
Steve dreams of the Tony Before, lying close to him on his shitty cramped mattress, his hair on Steve’s pillow. He dreams of Tony’s fingers around his hips, skinny like they used to be, Tony’s neat scruff against his neck.
He wakes hard, and panting, and curses as he stumbles to the bathroom for a cold shower.
Tony comes to the briefing holding an icepack to the meaty part of his palm, and Steve pays attention to Fury with half a ear, staring at Tony’s hand. Fury delivers some snarky one lined insults and swoopes out of the room, his coat swishing behind him, and Tony spins in his chair to face Steve.
“Spar?” he offers, but Steve shakes his head. He reaches out without thinking, pulls the ice away.
“Um ow,” Tony says, but Steve stares, because that thick welt, slightly curved burn scar is familiar, he knows it. “burned myself doing repairs,” Tony says when Steve stays silent, “careless but it probably won’t scar.”
“Yes it will,” Steve says automatically, and then stands so abruptly his chair falls behind him. “I have to go,” he blurts, and flees.
Three hours later Steve slouches into the doorway of the lab where Bruce is bent over something highly technical, murmuring to himself. “Hey,” he mumbles, and Bruce looks up with an easy smile.
“Tony stepped out a while ago,” he says. “Pepper called, something Stark Industries related.”
“That’s fine,” Steve says, “I came to talk to you.” Bruce raises an eyebrow.
“Yes,” Steve says, “about--about time travel.” Bruce straightens up and nods.
“Come on in,” he says, and Steve does.
Tony disappears three nights later, Bruce knocking at Steve’s door just as the sun creeps over the horizon, looking worn and tired and giving him a quiet smile. He’s holding two mugs of astonishingly terrible coffee and they sit on the edge of Steve’s bed until the sun is bright in the sky and the coffee is gone.
Steve comes back from the gym wiping sweat from his neck and collarbones with a towel to find Pepper standing in the middle of his room, head tilted and eyes closed.
“Ms. Potts,” Steve says, freezing just inside his door.
“Not so very long ago,” Pepper says, her eyes still closed, “Tony told me I was all he had.”
“Pepper,” Steve says, gutpunched, and she looks at him with clear eyes.
“Not true,” she says, “not even then, but less so now, I suppose.” She takes a deep breath, and in her impossibly high heels they’re at the same height so as she breathes she straightens until she’s looking down on him, tall and strong and unblinking.
“He’s a lot of all I have, Steve.”
Steve flexes his fingers, one by one, into a fist and relaxes them. “Me too,” he says finally, and Pepper brushes cool lips across his cheek in a kiss, her hand curled across the nape of his neck. Her heels click all the way to the door, and Steve hears the murmur of Natasha’s voice, the hitch in Pepper’s breathing. He closes his eyes until they fade away.
Tony comes back six days later, stumbling into Steve’s room at three in the morning. He clicks the light on and Steve sits up, the sheets pooling around his waist, his chest bare. Tony fake leers at him. “Nice.”
“Tony,” Steve says, blinking, and Tony sits on the bed beside him.
“You could have told me yourself,” he says quietly, “instead of Bruce mumbling cryptic bullshit while shoving an inhaler in my pocket and throwing me through a portal.”
“I don’t have an excuse,” Steve says, because he doesn’t. His hand hovers over Tony’s back, and Tony stretches, groaning.
“God your bed sucked,” he said, and Steve chokes on a laugh.
“It really did.” Steve hesitates. “How--how was it?”
“You were different,” Tony says, listing sideways, “but--the same.”
“So were you,” Steve says, and Tony sighs. Steve bites the bullet, pulls Tony against his side and lays them both down on the bed.
“Yeah,” Tony mumbles. “How mad is Pepper?”
“More at me than you, I think,” Steve says and Tony wiggles a little.
“Better you than me,” he says, and his breathing evens out. Steve curls a hand over the jut of Tony’s hip and lets his head fall against the knobs of Tony’s spine.
Steve wakes up to an empty indent in the side of the bed, Tony gone and feeling like he’s done this all before. Then the door creaks open and Tony comes in, whistling jauntily and juggling something wrapped in foil.
Steve takes a deep breath and grins. “Bagels.”
“Not as good,” Tony says, “but it gives you an opportunity to complain about the good old days.”
“Kids these days,” Steve says, and Tony’s eyes crinkle up when he grins. Steve looks down at the food in his hand and sets it aside with a deep breath. “Tony,” he says, and steps deliberately close to him.
Tony goes quiet, his own bagel falling to the ground. Steve watches his pupils dilate. “Don’t waste food,” he says, and kisses Tony with his eyes open, watches until he sees the second that Tony gives, when his eyelashes flutter against his cheeks and his mouth opens under Steve’s.
Tony pushes back at him, and Steve stumbles backwards, one hand buried in Tony’s hair. They break to breathe and Steve pants a little, staring at Tony with wide eyes. “Huh,” Tony says.
“I’m glad you saved me,” Steve says quietly, and Tony grins, a palm against Steve’s ribcage.
“You paid me back,” he says, and tumbles them onto the bed, his arc reactor glowing in time to the beat of his heart, the pulse Steve can feel against his tongue in the roof of Tony’s mouth.