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Wish We Could Be Like That

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---
Perhaps unrequited love
Is so much better than this--
This love behind bolted doors
And peppered with midnight trysts.
Drunk with these stolen moments,
You will never know my pain.
I’m just your dirty secret;
Maybe I’ve no other name.

-(c)emeraldine087
---

It was Steve Rogers who used the flip phone first, calling Tony Stark in the goddamned middle of the night and the former didn’t even talk, only breathed quietly as if signaling to Tony to start shooting his mouth off first. But the genius-billionaire didn’t. He’d held his ground that time and just pointedly listened to the silence on the other end of the open line until the connection was severed.

Granted, two months later when the flip phone rang again, it was Tony Stark who first spoke to the person he’d assumed was his former Commanding Officer on the other end of the line. “If you’re just going to breathe in my ear, Rogers, I suggest you stop calling me. I already get less than welcome phone calls from Ross, and I surely don’t need one from you. Oh and I’m holding the vibranium shield hostage in a vault in my workshop, and you’re not getting it back by breathing into my ear, that’s for fucking sure,” Tony had said before he viciously pressed the END CALL button on the ancient phone that the Captain had gifted him with.

Three weeks thereafter, it was Steve Rogers who had texted first to the same bloody phone as if he had not learned his lesson from Tony’s one-sided rant and most basic Fuck You; Stop Calling Me. There were only five words on the outdated LED—have you forgiven me yet? Tony had been sorely tempted to reply with a resounding and all-caps NO along with the most petulant emoji available in the pathetic excuse for a phone, but he’d held himself back. Tony was fucking tired and miserable. By then, he’d had almost five months to stew on their conflict and its repercussions. He’d had enough time to think about the merits and demerits of his and Cap’s respective positions on the Sokovia Accords and Cap’s BFF’s trespasses against the last living member of the Stark family.

Tony was loathe to admit that he may have been brash in his actions in Siberia, having been blinded by repressed grief and rage at the fate of his mother, in particular. But a part of him was secretly thankful for Cap’s persistent intervention to keep Tony’s hands untainted with Barnes’ blood. Though Tony was 99% sure who Steve was really trying to protect in their three-way battle royal, Tony was still glad that while he had a lot of blood on his hands, none of it were the former sergeant’s.

Halloween saw Tony Stark being magnanimously first when it came to being quietly resigned after having gotten another silent call from the only person who could contact The Phone®. And he felt like he had every right to be. The Sokovia Accords was no longer the document that it used to be: the wick of the epic battle between two factions of The Avengers. Stark Industries Legal Team had seen to the Accords’ amendments to give the superhero response team enough elbow room for discretion. It was Tony’s way of trying, yet again, to find some sort of middle ground with Steve and the rest of the Avengers who had thrown their lot in with him. It was Tony’s own brand of apology if Starks were even known to grasp the concept of saying sorry to someone else.

Funny because there wasn’t really a team to speak of. Natasha had vanished after her tussle with T’Challa; Rhodey was busy with physical therapy; Vision was preoccupied with being morose; Peter was busy with exams and projects and shit and whatever the fuck it was that pre-pubescent high school kids were busy with nowadays; and the rest of the team were (presumably) in Captain America’s company, enjoying the renegade life.

Tony and Ross had been in some kind of stalemate for the longest time now (read, ever since The Raft had been broken into and Tony had just stood by to let it all happen by happily putting Ross on hold for five hours which had to have been some kind of record): Ross wanted Tony to build a new team that the UN Panel could scream orders at while Tony wanted the Sokovia Accords amended to provide the nonexistent new team elbow room to exercise discretion. And with both men bullheadedly resolute in their respective positions, Tony was only too happy to play physiotherapist to Rhodey while learning to knit because there was no way in blue blazin’ hell that Iron Man was going to be the one-man lapdog for the UN Panel, called into action whenever those old geezers saw fit. They could collectively suck Tony’s dick for all he cared.

So there was no response team; there was no Iron Man; there was Ross and his team’s questionable process of throwing people sans trial in a prison in the middle of godfucking nowhere; and there was The Phone®. So of course, Tony had just tiredly moaned into the receiver: “I’m tired of all this bullshit, Rogers. If you’re gonna go back home; then just get the fuck back home already. Nathan’s a handful and he misses his dad. Laura’s just about ready to scalp Clint if he doesn’t go home as soon as possible. I should know; I’m here right now, celebrating Halloween with them when it should be their fucking father taking them around the neighborhood for fucking candy…”

Steve had ended that Halloween call without a response. Tony just fumed. But he didn’t throw The Phone® as he should have done the moment he’d had it.

At the very least, Tony was not the one who succumbed first and asked that they meet! That was Steve! Steve had called one ordinary afternoon in early November sounding all formal and shit and requested for a meeting with Tony—somewhere neutral, somewhere they could talk without being recognized and tattled to the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force or some agency that was infinitely worse. Tony had not bothered appearing coy and agreed immediately. They had scheduled to meet on Thanksgiving in Adelaide, Australia. Why Australia? Tony didn’t bother asking, and Steve didn’t bother justifying.

It was Steve who had first uttered the word Sorry when they had met in Adelaide as scheduled. Tony didn’t know how it was possible to be self-confident and apologetic at the same time; Tony guessed that that was what made Steve uniquely Steve—to be both sorry and not sorry for how things had turned out for all of them. If Steve was waiting for Tony to say the S-word, too, he didn’t show it. And he certainly didn’t try to guilt-trip Tony into saying it either. But Tony had felt like he didn’t need to. The document he had wrangled out of the US government and out of the UN more than made up for the lack of S-words out of Tony Stark’s snarky mouth.

“It’s an exoneration from the US government… For all of us… And—and for Bucky?” Steve had asked in disbelief, barely looking up from the document as if averting his eyes from it would make it a mere figment of his imagination. “Tony… did you—?”

“It wasn’t very difficult to get. It’s not like I had to sleep with all of the Senators and the President for its issuance. I had the backing of an African monarch after all.” T’Challa’s backing—now, that was all on Steve. And Tony had to admit that it oiled more gears and opened more doors than he initially anticipated.

“But, you didn’t—“ You didn’t have to. Tony could’ve bet his billions that that was what Steve had wanted to say, so Tony had headed the Captain off.

“I didn’t do it for you; I certainly didn’t do it for him.” That Spencer woman was correct in that there was a correlation between generosity and guilt and maybe he was wading through a lifetime’s worth of guilt, which was why he was stretching himself thin every which way to find redemption. No—Tony had procured this document for Tony. To exonerate himself. To recognize that for all their differences, Steve had a point. And this was the absolute closest that Rogers was going to come to an apology from a Stark.

And maybe there was something else, too. Some other driving force to getting everyone else’s slate wiped clean. It was another thing that a Stark would sooner go to his grave than admit: he was lonely; and he wanted his family back. Maybe they could never be the way they used to be, but this document was a start.

So in the grand scheme of things, it was actually Tony who had first extended the olive branch of peace and reconciliation. It remained to be seen whether Steve would accept it. After all, it was Steve who had refused to budge despite Tony’s persistent offers of compromise during their conflict. “You can go home, if you still consider the compound your home. No one’s going to arrest any of you. It’s not an offer that comes with conditions either,” Tony had said, shrugging. “You can go home or not go home; I really couldn’t care less.”

“I can’t leave him, and he had chosen to go back under.” That had been the extent of it. There was no gushing thanks, no commitment to return, no nothing. Just that Barnes had gone back in cryo and Steve, for the nth time, was choosing him over Tony and the practical invitation to crash back in the Avengers compound. Tony had not been shocked and hurt. He had probably gotten used to it. There were only so many times that someone you considered a friend would choose another, more cherished friend over you before you finally got a fucking clue.

Tony had gone back States-side 48 hours later unsure if the trip halfway around the world had been worth it.

But it was after Adelaide that The Phone® had ceased to be just an outdated gadget with no evident purpose whatsoever aside from being a sore reminder of their conflict. Because after Adelaide, the once rare and wordless calls and short texts had begun to evolve into occasional calls and texts. Calls and texts that friends would exchange. Calls and texts that Tony and Steve had once exchanged before things went to shit.

It was surprising at first until it wasn’t.

Christmas morning brought all of The Avengers home, sans Steve. Wanda had cried into Vision’s chest. Sam had enveloped Rhodey in a bear hug. Clint had nodded at Tony in acknowledgment. Even Natasha was back and gave Tony a small smile before the latter vanished into his workshop like it was just another ordinary day. But it wasn’t if the small smiles on Tony’s face for the rest of the day had been any indication. But no one needed to know that.

It was Steve who first extended his Yuletide greetings to Tony through The Phone®, casually asking also if the rest of their friends were able to make it home like maybe they had forgotten the way or got waylaid somewhere or worse, got arrested, contrary to the mandate of the document that supposedly exonerated all of them. Tony had casually returned the Captain’s greetings and was even bold enough to ask if Steve was celebrating the hols in the company of an iced-up Barnes, oblivious in his cryopod. Thankfully and mercifully, Steve had not been his usual uptight self and took that as a joke. Maybe it was because it was Christmas…

Steve further shocked Tony when, while they were making small talk, out of the blue, the Captain had mumbled: “I miss you, Tony…” And Tony was rendered uncharacteristically speechless, not wanting to come to terms with the fact that he, himself, had been thinking that for the longest time as well. It was just Steve who had vocalized it first.

He could’ve brushed it off, treated it as a joke and casually steered them back to more mundane Yuletide topics, but he didn’t. “Me too, Steve,” Tony had murmured back, uncaring anymore whether there was any silent judgment oozing from the other end of the phone line. When are you coming home? You can come home, you know. I want you to come home. You belong here. Tony had been thinking it, but he’d said none of it. They’d merely said their melancholy goodbyes and cut communication. Until next time.

Tony would deny it with his dying breath, but it was actually him who’d first articulated that Barnes going back under was a fucking terrible idea. It was Tony who called first that time around because, well, he felt like it. He had needed someone to rant to who wasn’t close to home because home was a nasty place right now—what with Pepper openly dating some fucktard and everyone else was looking at him funny, like he was going to spontaneously combust or burst into tears in the middle of the communal kitchen. And the conversation ever so casually had turned towards Barnes’ predicament; Tony didn’t even know how that had happened. “Icing him back up is not going to return his brain to normal. Once he’s defrosted, nothing will have changed; all he’d done was stave off the nightmare that was the Winter Soldier programming,” Tony had said, absent-mindedly. He was on hands-free call with Steve while fixing the coding of some program he was developing for SI in his personal workshop in the Avengers compound.

Steve had been silent, no doubt digesting Tony’s opinion, but didn’t say anything in response to it. They’d both said their hasty goodbyes before ending the call, not having resolved anything. Tony had not expected them to. Barnes was not Tony’s concern after all. There were still days that Tony felt like he wanted to avenge his mother’s death and hunt Barnes down, strike while he knew Barnes was defenseless. But of course, Tony knew that Steve was going to be there, guarding his dear friend like a watchful sentinel. And yet, there were also days when Tony felt pity for Barnes—pity and sympathy. Because it must be hell to still be living a life that was not and never going to be your own.

On Valentine’s Day, it was Steve who had called, broached the topic of Barnes again and asked for Tony’s help for the first time. Tony initially thought he had misheard Steve, but before he could ask for a clarification, Steve had requested again: “You’re the most ingenious person I know, Tony. I cannot help Bucky by myself, and T’Challa… T’Challa is not—not you. I don’t have anyone else who can possibly help me help Buck. I need your help—please…”

And Tony didn’t really know how to deny Steve any help. He had wanted to gloat, to pile on the guilt until Steve’s skin was crawling with shame. But for some unknown reason, Tony couldn’t. He could feel the hopelessness, the entreaty, in the Captain’s voice, but rather than feel sorry for himself that he was again playing second fiddle to Barnes, he treated it as an impersonal mathematical equation that needed solving. He had, before him, a supposedly insurmountable problem, but he was a rich, resourceful, persistent genius. If there was anyone who could solve this equation, it was Tony.

“If I’m helping Barnes, I’m not flying halfway around the world to do it. You’re coming home,” Tony had insisted, half-heartedly expecting Steve to resist. But there was just the usual silence on the other end of the phone line. “Both of you.”

So it transpired that nearly a year after their conflict exploded in their faces, Steve finally went back to the Avengers compound with Barnes’ cryopod in tow. It was Steve who had first smiled at him, showed any sort of reaction, really. Tony was anticipating that it was going to be awkward at best, but amusingly, it wasn’t. It was easy to accept the hand offered to him in greeting; it was easy to smile back at his former teammate with a lopsided grin; it was easy to reinstate Steve into their little band of misfits’ dynamics. Not like nothing had happened. But more like, despite everything that had happened…

Working closely with Steve, Wanda and a veritable army of psychiatrists and deprogramming experts, Tony had found it soothing. It harked back to his previous dynamics with Steve: they would still argue sometimes; they would still disagree, but this time around, there was a newfound esteem and mindfulness to talk and use their words and communicate to overcome any misunderstanding. Tony had learned to listen now, and Steve had learned to be flexible.

The first time that Barnes had undergone the defrost sequence with the attention of a battery of psychological professionals and under the watchful observation of both Steve and Tony was brutal to say the least. This was what Tony had warned Steve about. Barnes had already been conditioned so well for the past seventy years that, in the end, there was no need for the HYDRA mind-wiping machine anymore upon waking up; the former asset’s mind had already pretty much wiped itself clean of vital memories without external interference.     

Barnes was like a blank slate—a very violent blank slate; he’d had to be tranqed temporarily and relocated to the Hulk room in the compound so he wouldn’t be a hazard to anyone, including himself. Even with just the one arm, the former HYDRA asset was a force to be reckoned with. It disturbed Tony to no end how that episode broke Steve, who’d had to endure losing his best friend anew.

That time, it was Tony who first comforted Steve with half-hugs, meaningful pats to the shoulder and silent, nonjudgmental company that even Tony was surprised he could be capable of. “You need to be strong for him, Steve. We have a long way to go,” he had reminded Steve with as much reassuring comfort as he could muster. It was no longer in Tony’s mind to begrudge Steve for not having been around when it was he who had needed comfort in the aftermath of their conflict; bygones were supposed to be bygones, after all. No matter what, Tony was going to be the bigger man this time.

Tony and the army of psychology professionals came to an agreement to utilize a modified version of the Binarily Augmented Retro Framing or BARF to help with Barnes’ deprogramming. Tony was going to have to reconfigure and modify the device to suit Barnes’ particular needs and it couldn’t be utilized immediately because they would still need to determine the extent of what the former HYDRA asset could remember, but at least they had a battle strategy, so to speak. Now, if they could only stop Barnes from redecorating the Hulk room with his fits of extreme violence, everything would be copacetic.   

They had developed a routine: breakfast before Tony fell to bed exhausted and Steve was to go on his morning run around the compound; afternoons with Barnes, the doctors and Wanda; evenings in the workshop for Tony to get some work done on the BARF modification and everything else that was on his plate, and Steve to unwind by drawing; late nights with Steve padding off to his room for bed after a mumbled ‘good night’ and ‘see you for breakfast’. There was, blessedly, no superhero work for the two of them as the rest of the team were kind enough to pick up the slack given Barnes’ precarious situation and Tony’s ongoing pissing contest with Ross and the more bullheaded members of the UN Panel.

The routine could pass off as something eerily domestic, but Steve and Tony didn’t have any complaints. They both had time for what they believed was most important after all: Steve had time for Bucky; and Tony had time for his engineering and inventing.

To this very day, though, it was unclear who had first fallen in love with whom between Steve and Tony.

What had been clear, however, was that on the day that Tony’d first realized that he might be a tad in love with the blonde ex-army was the same day that they had made their first big breakthrough with Barnes who had suddenly remembered one strong, stark and very emotional memory:

That, once upon 1933, Bucky Barnes and Steve Rogers had been head over heels in love with each other.

-0-0-0-

Barnes clung to Steve like a drowning man would cling to a lifebuoy in the middle of the ocean while bawling and sobbing so wretchedly that any person witnessing it, no matter how hard-hearted, would find themselves undeniably upset. Tony considered himself a stoic, callous sonofabitch who wasn’t supposed to have any sympathy for the man who had assassinated his parents in cold blood, but even he was upset at the way Barnes gripped Steve and practically coated the latter’s shoulder with tears, snot and dribble while howling over and over again: “You died in my dream, Stevie; you died, and you can’t die—you can’t! I love you so much, Steve. I love you so much; please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave; I love you so much!”

Tony stood with his arms across his chest outside of the Hulk room, looking into what was a tender and supposedly private moment between Barnes and Steve. It was the first time that Barnes recognized someone—anyone—and actually asked for them by name, so Tony had to make a spur of the moment decision to break protocol and let Steve in there to try to soothe the otherwise inconsolable former HYDRA asset. And lo and behold, declarations of love and recollections of a torrid but secret affair were the first things out of Barnes’ mouth along with the howling grief due to a supposed nightmare where his beloved had died.

Steve looked wretched, too, but seeing as there was more pity rather than mortification in those sky-blue eyes, Tony could say that Barnes’ memory was an accurate one instead of a mere delusion. It actually explained a lot of things—a fucking lot. So that was why Steve was hell-bent on saving Barnes when the latter was accused of bombing the UN Summit in Vienna; so that was why Steve turned his back on all his friends on the word of one amnesiac, brainwashed former assassin who had shot at him and left him for dead; that was why Steve nearly moved heaven and hell coming between Tony and Barnes in Siberia when Tony was hell bent on killing his parents’ murderer. Because they weren’t just best friends. They had a history that was far more intriguing and meaningful than that: they had been lovers!

The genius-billionaire didn’t know how long he had been on the outside looking in, probably glassy-eyed and far more contemplative than he had any right to be. He could hazard a guess why he was feeling the way he was while looking at the heart-wrenching episode within the reinforced room. But he wasn’t sure if he was ready to put it into identifiable emotions and tangible words—certainly not now when so many things were just beginning to make sense and an already complicated situation just became a shitload more problematic.

Steve looked up to meet his gaze and there was something like a mixture of fear, misery and unspoken plea churning in the deep blue depths. Which Tony just responded to with a soft half-smile—hold the surprise, sadness and accusation—before turning around and leaving the super soldiers to further reacquaint themselves and probably pick up where they left off in their star-crossed romance.

He wasn’t expecting Steve to keep to their routine, not with Barnes bawling his eyes out and clinging to his rediscovered lover from way back when, but Tony was almost surprised that when he looked up from delicate soldering work, the Captain was sitting on the workshop’s couch with his back tense and his face inscrutable. The ex-army was wringing his hands together on his lap, but he had opted not to occupy himself with drawing as he was wont to do. Now that didn’t bode well for them at all if they were to try discussing what had gone down in the Hulk room earlier that day.

“Why didn’t you tell me that you used to be together?” Tony asked, making a conscious effort not to sound accusatory or sullen about being kept in the dark about the Captain and the Winter Soldier’s true relationship.

“I didn’t tell you because we weren’t,” Steve replied, looking a bit crestfallen. The Why he seemed crestfallen, though, still eluded the other occupant of the workshop.

“He certainly has a different opinion,” lobbed Tony back, turning his attention back to the rudimentary parts of a prosthetic arm he was trying to build for their patient.

“It was against the law during that time.” Steve finally allowed himself a bit of relief from the tension by leaning against the back of the couch.

“Only both participating parties needed to know they were together. No one else needed to know, so it shouldn’t matter if the law prohibited it,” said Tony, stealing a glance at Steve from out of the corner of his eye.

“That’s the thing—we never were together. Not like that,” Steve reiterated, clarifying the situation. “We had feelings for each other back when we didn’t know any better—we were…kids—stupid kids. And we were always together. So I told him I like him, and he told me he liked me back. We kissed…sometimes. We hid in the alleys and in deserted areas to hold each other. We slept on the same bed to keep each other warm most nights. But nothing happened beyond that; we never labeled ourselves to be that

“A week before he was to ship out, we talked about it. And we agreed that there was no future for us, and that we were better off as friends—brothers, really. And that was it. He said he wanted a family, and so did I and that was the end of that. Even while we were together with the Howling Commandos, we never talked about it again, except to joke about it. We were stupid kids, and we used to be the only two people in our own little world. But when we grew up, saw the world, saw the horrors of war—we left that where it was,” Steve explained. Tony didn’t know why Steve saw the need to explain so in depth to him… “I don’t know why that memory surfaced now, but I have to set things straight with Buck.”

Tony looked at the other man; and he knew his face was scrunched in this Are you for fucking real? expression. “Did you see him this afternoon, by any chance? I mean, I know you were there and everything; you were even in the same goddamn room with him, holding him while he wailed into your neck and said he loved you over and over. He called you by name! And did you even see the way he looked at you, clung to you like an octopus? And despite that you would still risk driving him back into mindless violence, erasing the first real breakthrough we’ve had since defrosting him this time, and for what? To set things straight with him by breaking it to him that, really, you weren’t together like that?

“Need I remind you, Rogers, that you were the one who wanted to move heaven and hell to get your friend back, but now you have no qualms about setting back whatever minor progress we’ve been able to make? He needs to remember these things by himself otherwise we’re no better than HYDRA, mapping out his past for him. We may as well program him ourselves into the person you want him to be instead of the person that he is,” argued Tony, occasionally thumping his precision screwdriver against the tabletop as if that was going to help him get his point across.

“What are you asking me to do, Tony?” Steve asked, quietly. Resignedly. As if he already knew the answer to the question he had just asked.

I’m not asking you to do anything, Steve,” Tony retorted, frustrated. “I’m just laying out the goddamned ballpark for you. This is what we have in our hands. This is the current situation. The question is: what are you prepared to do to help in your friend’s recovery?”

“I don’t want to have to pretend to have a relationship with Bucky only because it’s the only thing he remembers right now and he seems to have stubbornly latched on to the idea. I love him, but I don’t love him like that,” Steve bullheadedly reasoned, appearing for all the world like he was being forced against his will to kick puppies and stab babies.

“How hard can it be? I mean…you did love him like that once, right?”

“That was over eighty years ago, Tony—“

“—it’s not like pretending to be in love with someone you did love once is going to interfere in your current love life—like, maybe if you explain really nicely, Agent Carter’s not going to be all that jealous?” Tony teased to make light of the present circumstances, smiling at Steve through mischievously pursed lips.

Rolling his eyes, Steve smiled despite himself and shook his head. “Sharon and I aren’t together.”

“Well—you did kiss her that one time,” Tony bantered back, remembering the story that Steve had ever so casually told him about his short-lived involvement with Sharon Carter during their conflict.

“Tony, she had just risked her job, smuggling our gear from lock-up to help us. It was the least I could do,” reasoned Steve but visibly coloring with the reminder of his Lothario move.  

“I don’t remember you kissing me when I gave you the document exonerating you in Adelaide, and that helped you plenty,” joked Tony, his amber eyes dancing in the LEDs of the workshop. Steve colored a deeper red, if that was even possible.

Schooling his face back to a semblance of seriousness, though, Tony added, “Seriously. It’s just probably a temporary thing, Steve. Before you know it, the rest of his memories will break the dam, and…you’ll be in the clear to go after your own heart.” Tony said the last five words in a sing-song voice, complete with a dramatic clutch at his own chest and pouty lips.

Steve reduced his eyes into slits in mock irritation before throwing a dirty rag he had just found jammed in the folds of the couch at Tony and standing up to leave. “I’ll go check on Bucky then. Don’t forget that it’s Movie Night tonight; you can’t stay here and science until morning.”

“Gotcha!”

But before Steve could clear the pneumatic doors, he turned around to look at Tony again, hesitant and anxious. “If you tell me that everything’s going to be all right, I’ll believe you,” said Steve, seeming like a lost child looking for affirmation again.

“It’s going to be alright, Steve,” assured Tony, his eyes going soft and fond. “Hey, at least he will no longer be erupting in fits of violence; you can probably even try to take him to Movie Night later if he can tolerate diva-Clint.” Tony smiled at Steve for real, this time to further assure his friend. Tony would’ve wanted to do more than smile at him—probably give him a hug, a kiss to the temple—but he stayed put. There was no use acting on what he thought he was feeling at this time; Steve was already obviously tormented by Barnes’ situation, Tony didn’t want to have to join the fray.

Hours later, instead of consigning what he thought he was feeling to the recesses of his subconscious that was more equipped with handling denial, Tony got even more confused as he sat in the common area for their weekly Movie Night.

When before he usually sat beside Steve on the couch, tonight it was Barnes who was plastered close to Steve’s hip, so Tony made his way to the armchair farthest away from the floor-to-ceiling windows, sitting askew from the couch but generally facing their eye-popping, big-ass TV in the form of a laminated glass wall that followed the same basic principle as Tony’s ultra-slim StarkPhone.

It was Rhodey’s turn to pick a movie and surprisingly, or not surprisingly depending on whose perspective it was, he picked a romantic comedy with a muttered explanation about rom-coms not being a trigger for present company (read, Barnes). And Tony had to suffer through The Wedding Singer for the fourth time since the genius-billionaire knew it was one of his best friend’s go-to rom-coms. It was all well and good if that was the only thing Tony had to suffer through, but he also had to bear with Barnes giving Steve googly-eyes and force feeding him popcorn kernels with absolutely love-struck blue-gray eyes.

No matter how many times Tony forced himself to keep his eyes looking towards the TV, he could still catch the live-action romance on the couch to his right. And he didn’t know why but it gave him painful spasms in the area of his diaphragm. Or maybe he did know why, but he flat-out refused to recognize it—that…feeling that had been bubbling in that part of his body where his arc reactor used to be and at the base of his skull. He didn’t know when it all began; all he knew was that it was there. That fucking feeling.

That fucking fluttering in his stomach whenever Steve smiled at him, or laughed at something he’d said. Whenever Steve handed him his mug of coffee in the morning or brought him muffins from his morning runs outside of the compound. Whenever Steve complimented him or bantered with him or just sat quietly in the workshop with him. That feeling.

Somewhere down the road from their bitter feud that tore their family asunder to their mutual forgiveness, rediscovery of their friendship and acknowledgment that they were at their strongest when they were together, Tony Stark had fallen in love with Steve Rogers.

The realization caught Tony so unawares that it felt like being whipped with something eerily resembling Thor’s hammer in the face. And the brunette actually froze where he sat on the brink of choking on his own saliva as he kept himself from bolting out of his seat and locking himself in the workshop for the foreseeable future.

And what was he doing here barely three meters away from Steve while his former amnesiac lover/not-lover tangled limbs with him and force-fed him popcorn? Tony thought that he must be a class-A masochist to want to endure this.

So he kept his eyes forward and his head steady, breathing through the furious pounding of his heart and the sensation akin to having a rib speared in his lung, while he made a vow to himself: Steve must never, ever find out. Because Tony was supposed to be an unfeeling bad-ass who wasn’t supposed to give anyone any opportunities to break his heart.

And as things stood between them, Steve was already the current record holder for that. Tony’s dignity could only take so much.

-0-0-0-

It was an inconvenience, to say the least, harboring secret feelings for Steve while watching the latter pretend to play house with Barnes. But he was Tony fucking Stark and he didn’t do pining, so he soldiered on, one day at a time, immersing himself in work on equipment upgrades, building a prototype temporary prosthesis for Barnes in the same mold as Rhodey’s lower extremities exoskeleton, and reconfiguring the BARF, keeping to his established routine while steering clear of both Steve and Barnes as much as he could. He would still go to the Hulk room in the afternoons out of habit, but it was more to discuss with Barnes’ doctors to ask them if they’d made any more progress on memory recovery rather than to watch Barnes gaze ever lovingly at his beloved.

Not that Barnes still hung out in the Hulk room, no.

Ever since the former HYDRA asset’s recovery of the memory of his supposed loving relationship with Steve, he was no more violent than a basket full of kittens and was even already given clearance to hang out in other areas of the Avengers compound, save for the training room where the presence of knives, weapons and other combat implements might trigger the more particularly nasty memories before everyone was ready for them. Bedtime saw Barnes in Steve’s quarters where, presumably, the two shared a bed as was expected of lovers.

And that just…wounded Tony. Cut him deeper than he was ready to own up to. But he kept to the program. If things were completely up to him, he would take his feelings for Steve to the grave with none the wiser.

With Barnes practically hanging on to Steve like a second skin, the latter’s routine suffered for it. They would still see each other in the communal kitchen in the mornings for breakfast, but then Barnes would be there too, spoon-feeding Steve with egg or pancakes or waffles or whatever shit it was they’d cooked and it took nearly all of Tony’s newfound reserves of restraint not to gag or blanch or, really, show any kind of reaction whatsoever. It was not supposed to affect him, after all, even if Steve and Barnes started screwing each other atop the dining table in front of him.

Afternoons used to mean a trip to the Hulk room, but as Tony was the only one still religiously going to the Hulk room sans its previous occupant, he really couldn’t care less where the lovebirds spent their afternoons.

Unfortunately, Tony couldn’t do much steering-clear-of-the-lovebirds when Steve knew exactly where he would be in the evenings, and Tony didn’t want to be scared out of hanging out in his own workshop. So basically, that was the only place where Tony’d have to grit his teeth and suffer through more of Barnes giving Steve the sexy eyes.

The first few times were rough because Tony felt like having a heart attack all the damn time. He didn’t know which part of the three of them hanging out together in his workshop was the most unbearable: the way Barnes kept looking at him like he couldn’t quite figure out who Tony reminded him of; the way the two super soldiers always gazed at each other as if the rest of the world didn’t exist; or the way he sometimes caught Steve staring at him like he was the only person that existed in the whole universe, especially when he fitted Barnes with his temporary prosthesis to help with his balance, at least until Tony could come up with a better one that would interface with the user’s nervous system much like the old one did, if not better.

To a casual observer, he and Steve were just really good friends, and he and Barnes were in the process of becoming good friends as well. Sometimes, it was even easy to forget that he had romantic stirrings for the Captain. And he would focus on those instances like a laser to try to convince himself that he could go back to how things used to be between him and Steve. He would be lulled into a false sense of security that he could forget about this madness when, really, he should know better.

Because everything was so not fine when Tony accidentally walked in on Steve and Barnes sucking face in the communal kitchen one morning. To say that that scene put him off getting any breakfast for that day was a fucking understatement; he was this close to swearing off breakfast, and eating for that matter, entirely. He pirouetted on his heels, tucked tail and practically ran back to the workshop as soon as his brain registered what it was he was seeing. Tony only hoped to whomever it was he still prayed to that Steve didn’t see him and the devastated expression he was 100% certain was undeniably plastered on his face.

He was quick to decide to fire up the Audi, drive to midtown to hole up in his penthouse suite in the re-christened Stark Tower where he stayed for the next three days, attending meetings and signing paperwork for Pepper like a good boy. Pepper actually confronted him if he was dying again because his behavior was decidedly not normal for him.

He should have known that his present peace of mind was not going to last because on the fourth morning in the Stark Tower penthouse, he woke up to Steve sitting quietly on the foot of his thousand-count Egyptian cotton-covered, king-sized bed.

“Jesus Steve! You couldn’t have woken me up?!” Tony gave a start and nearly brained himself against the bed’s head board. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“Are you avoiding me?”

“What?”

“You heard me,” Steve said, shrugging.

“I heard you, but I don’t understand what could possibly give you that idea,” Tony reasoned, rubbing his face down to get rid of the last remnants of sleepiness. “I had some SI work to do so I drove here.”

“Liar,” accused Steve with a deadpan face. “I talked to Pepper and even she was wondering what made you come and stay here. Are you avoiding me, Tony?”

“No! I’m not avoiding you; why would I be avoiding you? I just had…stuff to do and…stuff to think about, which I couldn’t really pay attention to what with the fraternity house that the compound’s become,” Tony replied, which even to his ears sounded weak and unbelievable.

“Is it because you saw me and Buck kissing in the kitchen?”

Busted… Now, Tony needed to try to salvage the situation…

“Steve, you’re not making sense. Why would I be avoiding you just because I saw you and Barnes kissing? Barnes is still convinced that you’re in a romantic relationship and that’s what people in a loving relationship do,” said Tony, wringing his hands under the blankets. He was afraid that Steve could actually hear the thundering of his heart in the grave-like silence of Tony’s penthouse bedroom.

Steve raked a hand through his blonde hair, his face crumpling into a frustrated scowl. “I don’t think I can keep doing this, Tony—“

“—it’s not going to be permanent! I’ve discussed this with his doctors and we’re trying to map out the memories he’s been steadily recovering. FRIDAY is helping me calculate his rate of recovery, and pretty soon we can already give the modified BARF a test run—“

“—I can’t keep lying to him and lying to myself!—“

“—you’re the one who wanted to help him, and the least you can do is grit your teeth and do this for your goddamned friend!” Tony yelled, his anger getting the better of him. Licking his lips, he threw his hands in the air in surrender. “Look, I want to help you help him because I’m your friend, and this is my own way of helping myself heal from the past, let go of my rage and forgive him because he was a victim just as much as my mother was. If a selfish, snarky sonofabitch like me can do this, what is it about this situation exactly that you can’t handle?” If only Tony could tell Steve exactly how this situation was killing him little by little… Tony could almost imagine it, how fucking funny that would be: Hey Steve, you can keep lying to your friend and let him keep thinking that you’re lovers, you can; it can’t be that hard because—hey—I’m in love with you and have to suffer through having to see you in the arms of another every goddamned day and I can’t even tell you what I feel for you, but you don’t hear me harping about it like a brokenhearted piece of shit. I take it with as much grace and quiet resignation as I can because I’m a masochistic asshat. So, if I can do this, so can you—go, fight, win!

That sure silenced Steve, alright. Tony could barely hear him when he spoke again. “Bucky’s like an abandoned puppy right now—afraid and clingy, and you’re right in that I can’t leave him hanging in the air when he needs me the most… But, Tony, I’m in love with someone else. And all I can think about the entire time I’m with Bucky is how much I’d rather be with them. Only I can’t…”

Oh yeah, tell me about it, Tony thought, keeping himself from sobbing. He didn’t have anything for Steve. He hadn’t had anything for himself for the past couple of weeks; he’d be fucking kidding himself if he’d try to give Steve any kind of advice regarding his personal issues. Throwing the blankets off himself, Tony strode towards his bathroom to splash water on his face and brush his teeth to feel marginally more human.  

“So who is she? Do I know her?” Tony asked upon coming out of the bathroom, wiping his face against a small towel. He’d reached an all-time low, right here. He wanted to know who the person he was in love with was actually in love with while they were sleeping with super soldiers they had once been in love with, like where was his self-respect when he just kept on giving Steve more and more bullets to shoot him with?

Steve didn’t answer but just breathed a long-suffering sigh before standing up to leave Tony’s room. “Please stop avoiding me and come back to the compound—“

“For the last time, Cap—Jesus—I’m not avoiding you! I’ll be back in the compound this afternoon,” Tony reassured, following Steve as the latter was about to step through the threshold. “Hey—keep your chin up, big guy. If she truly loves you back, she’ll understand and be supportive of you,” he said, lightly knocking his fist against Steve’s chin with as much jovial air as he could muster given Steve’s long face.

That was probably the wrong thing to say because the next thing Tony knew, Steve had him pushed up against the wall perpendicular to the door by the neck of his shirt with Steve’s lips hungrily devouring his. Tony’s eyes blew themselves wide open in shock as Steve practically inhaled him like a dying man on life support system.

“For a genius, you could be so bloody stupid sometimes,” Steve murmured against his lips before devouring them again with even more gusto.

Oh! Oh…

They were so fucking screwed.

-0-0-0-

Steve was in love with him, too.

Steve Rogers was fucking in love with him, Tony Stark, too! It was taking his genius brain a long time trying to process that glorious information. The fact that Steve held his hand the entire time that they drove back to the compound was not helping his mental processing any. It was like a dream—a dream he could wake up from any minute now and feel miserable over. Despite it feeling so surreal to him, Tony couldn’t keep himself from feeling giddy—giddy happy, like he wanted to stand on top of the highest building in New York and scream at the top of his lungs:

He was fucking in love with Steve, and Steve was in love with him, too!

After everything they’d been through, the war that nearly tore them apart for good and the long way to reconciliation that they traversed, it really was like a dream that they could find themselves here.

But of course, Tony’s happiness was short-lived when they returned to the compound to find that Barnes’ doctors had locked him back in the Hulk room because he had gone completely mental upon waking up to find Steve gone and no one could tell him where Steve went so he just lost it.

Steve’s room was thrashed; the Hulk room, with all its heavy-duty furniture was putting up a fight against the storm that was a pissed-off super soldier with a cybernetic prosthesis, but some of the smaller pieces of furniture were already as serviceable as fucking firewood; three doctors were sporting injuries of varying seriousness; Clint was about ready to shoot Barnes with a tranq arrow through the eyeball; and Barnes, himself, had a bloodied flesh arm, a cut on his eyebrow and a combination of blind rage and pitiful misery on his face. He was also screaming Russian gibberish interspersed with Steve’s name and threats of torture methods more colorful than the last.

“Go,” Tony urged him with a nod towards the caged beast inside the Hulk room. He knew that the revelation of a couple of hours ago was too good to last, and they were staring reality in the face again. “He needs you,” continued Tony, glad that he said it without choking on his words and feeling for all the world like he was the antagonist in this story.

Steve met his eyes, looking both apologetic and miserable. This was the reality of their situation: It was Steve who wanted Barnes well and recovered, but Barnes was trapped in this one monumental memory of being in a loving relationship with Steve, which they needed to indulge at least until more of Barnes’ memories make it to the forefront of his consciousness, but they didn’t know until when they’d have to wait for that breakthrough; and in the meantime, Bucky was a hazard to himself, to others and to any progress he was making unless Steve was the Steve that Bucky remembered.

Tony was a selfish man, but he really wanted to make Steve happy by helping Barnes; and he wanted to help Barnes to ease his own guilt and prove to himself that he was already free from the shackles of the past. So even if he wanted Steve for himself so badly, he could be mature enough to step aside and bide his time. Until Barnes was truly recovered, he could wait and bear everything with the quiet grace of someone who, for their beloved, could learn to love without conditions.

He didn’t try to steal one more look, not a second longer than the reassuring touch between friends. If he did, maybe he wouldn’t be able to let go. So he turned his back from the glass window of the Hulk room as Steve entered to console a violent Barnes. He could be mature enough to step aside, yes—didn’t have to mean he would torture himself by watching.

“Oh my god, Steve! Please don’t do that again… I didn’t know where you were… Please don’t leave me. I was so scared that you’d left me because it’s against the law to love me…” Barnes was howling as Tony collected himself well enough to walk away without a backward glance.

He couldn’t work that night. He just stared at a hologram of a suit upgrade for an hour and a half but he couldn’t work. His mind was swimming with thoughts of Steve and Barnes. He knew he should be happy; he got what he wanted—Steve loved him back. But until Barnes was better, they may as well love each other in secret.

Besides, Tony didn’t have the balls to make Steve choose. Because Steve may love him now, but Barnes… Steve had gone rogue for Barnes, abandoned his friends for Barnes, waged a war with Tony for Barnes. Their—Steve and Barnes’—relationship transcended time and all sorts of shitty circumstance imaginable. Even with Steve’s confession that he was in love Tony, he still couldn’t be entirely sure that Steve would pick him over the former sergeant.

Tony would rather not find out. He would not make Steve choose.

Hell—even Tony wouldn’t choose Tony, if it came right down to it! He couldn’t make a relationship work with a map, detailed instructions, a GPS and a fully functioning AI; there was no way he could make one work right now—even if it was with Captain fucking America! He couldn’t make a relationship work with Pepper, and she already knew everything there was to know about him—the good, the bad and the downright ugly—that there were no expectations anymore, but even that went down in a fucking blaze of glory.

Maybe there was nothing to be ecstatic about in this current turn his life had taken after all…

With the ear-splitting noise of his thoughts, Tony finally conceded defeat that there was no way in hell he was going to get any work done tonight, so he had everything saved and padded up quietly to his room. Halfway there, he seriously considered setting course for the garage to get the Audi and drive to midtown again. Life had been so uncomplicated while he was there; all he’d had to contend with where tall piles of paperwork. He knew he could handle paperwork bloody fucking better than he could handle this!

But he knew it was a lost cause—he couldn’t stay away from Steve any more than he could bear Steve being in bed with Barnes and not with him.

He was tossing and turning in bed three hours later when he heard the door to his room open and close almost imperceptibly. A couple of heartbeats later, he could feel a body slide in bed with him and wrap their strong arms around his torso.

It was Steve. Of course, it was. Who else could it be?

“You shouldn’t be here,” Tony grunted, trying to keep the sullen out of his voice. He didn’t flinch from the embrace nor did he pull the arms closer to him; he just lay there, unmoving.

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” Steve murmured against the shell of Tony’s ear, tightening his embrace as if he could convey everything he wanted to say to the brunette with just that touch.

“What if Barnes wakes up in bed without you?”

“He won’t,” Steve answered. “Doesn’t mean I have to be beside him all through the night.”

“What are we doing here, Steve?” Tony turned in bed so he can stare into Steve’s blue eyes even in the gray of the wee hours of the morning.

I’m sleeping with the one I’m in love with. What are you doing?”

And Tony succumbed, like the weakling that he was. He enfolded Steve within his own arms, his head tucked in the crook of Steve’s neck, and he was finally able to sleep.

When he woke up three and a half hours later, he was alone in bed.

-0-0-0-

Never in a million years did Tony think he was going to be walking in the shoes of The Other Woman. But this was what it felt like. He felt like Steve Rogers’ dirty, little secret. The one he would lie with and hold during the wee hours of the night; the one he would kiss when they thought no one was looking; the one he would share stolen glances and secret smiles with. But never the one Steve would hold hands with during Movie Nights; not the one he would cook with and eat beside; not the one he would spend most of his day with; not the one for whom he would plump pillows for and he would tuck into bed for sleep.

Funny how it was Tony that Steve was in love with but only the two of them knew about it. They didn’t trust the team knowing because they didn’t want it reaching Barnes in any way, and they’d felt like they could do away with a lot of hassle and explanations and meaningful glances if no one else knew about them—not even their closest friends in the team, Sam and Rhodey.

It could be argued that it was advantageous for Tony that no one but the two of them knew about their relationship because then, if it were to go down in flames because of his shortcomings—and it was almost a certainty that it would—he didn’t have to contend with judgey teammates guilt-tripping him about having trampled on Captain America’s heart.

Things became a million times worse when an expose piece came out in Vanity Fair about the Epic Love Story of Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes which had all started because they had been photographed in a particularly tender moment while sharing a morning run outside of the Avengers compound.

Tony actually wanted to hire a mercenary to take out a hit on Christine Everhart after that. They had a team meeting in the living room prior to Movie Night to discuss the article because Barnes was freaking out that he and Steve would be arrested now that the public at large knew about them.

“It’s actually not a big deal anymore, James. Homosexuality and homosexual relations are no longer against the law. They even sanction same sex marriages in all US states now,” Sam explained casually while the others murmured their assent. Tony refused to contribute his two cents’ worth to the discussion but contented himself with looking at Steve and Barnes’ entwined hands from out of the corner of his eye.

Now that the super soldiers’ ‘relationship’ had been outed to a more open-minded public and unless the memory that they had agreed to keep things platonic between the two of them was recovered by Barnes by way of breakthrough, Steve was in for the long haul and was, for all intents and purposes, Barnes’ boyfriend.

Tony wanted to smack himself in the head in self-chastisement. He’d contributed to this convoluted set-up between the three of them, did he not? Was it not Tony who practically pushed Steve to indulge Barnes in the latter’s partial memory about being romantically involved? Was it not Tony who adamantly refused to make Steve choose between being with him and helping with his friend’s recovery? And now this… Tony was becoming less and less relevant in the picture. If he couldn’t make Steve choose before, all the more reason that he couldn’t do so now that the proverbial stakes just jumped a hundredfold.

“The PR team has compiled a collection of the more notable comments to the article all over various social media, and you guys are getting predominantly positive feedback. A lot of people are particularly interested about your long and colorful history, which is—like—a hundred times more romantic than your average love story. The LGBT community is very supportive and a lot of special advocacy groups are taking notice of you,” Natasha relayed to the group while thumbing through stuff on her tablet. “This could only reflect positively on the PR and public acceptance of The Avengers. What do you think, Tony?”

God—he really didn’t want to have to give any sort of opinion on the matter. He was afraid that the moment he opened his mouth, Natasha was going to sense that something was wrong, and she would fall upon him like a hellhound to a rotting corpse.

“Sure. This love story presently coming to fold can only reinforce Cap’s actions during the conflict over the Sokovia Accords last year. Everything ties up nicely,” Tony opined with a casual lift to his shoulders, fighting down the lump that had formed in his throat. No one wanted to be the killjoy to bring up the storm they had all weathered last year, but Tony didn’t want to be a hypocrite because it did tie up so nicely—like a pretty blue satin bow.

The only thing that didn’t fucking make sense in all of this was the fact that Steve was actually in love with Tony and not with Barnes.

Tony saw Steve cringe ever so slightly for the reason that he must have felt the irony that the brunette injected in his statement. Tony hoped, though, that Steve heard none of the pain.

Everything would’ve been so much simpler if Steve and Barnes had been in love with each other and Tony was nothing more than the guy that made upgrades on Barnes’ cybernetic arm and kept Steve occasional company. Tony would just be the Best Man in their wedding, and that would be that. But no. Their situation was a lot more craptastic than that.

Then, it crossed Tony’s mind again. He could always trudge the path of making Steve choose: if he wanted to help Barnes, he could just help Barnes and leave Tony out of it; or if he wanted to be with Tony, he needed to break Barnes’ heart before the latter could recover that crucial piece of memory and that might set the former sergeant back weeks, if not months, in his recovery process, affecting Barnes’ teetering psyche in ways none of them—not even the psych experts—could be entirely sure of.

But he was doubtful because he was afraid it would end with him being the number one casualty.

They watched The Emperor’s New Groove after their little discussion with Tony being more immersed in his own headspace than in the movie or in the little romantic display on the couch to his right. After almost two months of this, this…charade, Tony had actually learned to live with the near-constant pain in that area where his arc reactor used to sit and hotness behind his eyelids. He was so intent on keeping himself together that he almost didn’t notice when Barnes suddenly crumpled into himself, screaming while clutching at the side of his head.

Tony jumped out of his seat and with a, thankfully, steady voice instructed FRIDAY to alert Barnes’ doctors in their quarters about the emergency. He was single-minded in relaying the situation to a doctor he was able to get hold of through the communications array that he nearly missed it.

“You didn’t catch me, Stevie. You let me fall. You let me fall in that ravine. And you didn’t even come back for me. It was there that they found me—HYDRA. I thought I’d died, but they found me… I wished I’d just died. I wish I’d just died when you let me fall…”

Tony wanted to punch Barnes in the face when he saw the absolute horror, guilt and remorse on Steve’s face. The latter’s blue eyes had gone glassy and his jaw was clenched so hard, it was a wonder he had not broken any teeth yet. He was hesitant to touch Barnes, too, reaching out his hand but pulling it back at the last instant. Steve just let Natasha handle Barnes.

Steve twisted around, no doubt searching for Tony, and when they found each other, Tony’s heart nearly broke with the absolute anguish on Steve’s otherwise handsome face.

It was then that Tony knew for certain that he couldn’t be so cruel as to make Steve choose. Steve needed to atone for what he thought he owed his friend, and Tony, in turn, just…loved Steve too much to abandon him in his hour of need.

Tony would just have to try harder to bear the brunt of the pain. As always.

That night, Steve left his bed where a heavily-sedated Bucky lay sleeping and went to Tony, and they made love for the first time while Steve cried, begging Tony to stay with him, to be more patient. Their love would have its chance. There would come a time that they would be together for all the world to see and feast its eyes on. They just have to be a bit more patient with Bucky, but someday…

The brunette woke up at first light to find Steve gone. As always.

-0-0-0-

“Don’t do that,” Tony scolded Steve, yanking his hand back from the fringes of Steve’s fingers that were trying to find his. “Someone might see.”

They were walking around the small-town fair/carnival that was set-up ten miles from the Avengers compound. Tony wanted to get some fresh air, see what the hullabaloo was about, and Steve invited himself to accompany Tony instead of waiting for Barnes to finish a scheduled session with his doctors.

They had actually never done this before, hung out in public, or just hung out where more than a pair of eyes other than theirs could see them. Steve had been pestering him to do something like this—go shopping together, have dinner, catch a movie or just shoot the breeze somewhere—but Tony thought they were too conspicuous: Captain America and Iron Man, out and about—people were sure to talk, what with their past quarrel that got the media in a frenzy for some time and Tony’s continuous war-waging with Ross and the more bullheaded members of the US government and the UN Panel, they were sure to have more than just a couple of pairs of eyes—behind long-range zoom camera lenses, particularly—following them around.

Also, the genius-billionaire thought they wouldn’t be able to keep their hands to themselves when they were together like this. And he was right!

“Am I not allowed to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public?”

“But I’m not your boyfriend, am I?” Tony retaliated in jest, though he knew that his joke was without its usual fire behind it. “I’m just the guy you sleep with after your boyfriend’s fallen asleep in your room.”

“That’s not who you are to me at all,” Steve corrected him, stuffing his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and turning to his companion casually. “You’re the guy I’m madly in love with, the guy whose smile can turn my knees to Jell-O, the guy whose understated kindness never fails to warm the cockles of my heart, the guy whose hands and fingers can set my skin blazing with fire when he touches me, the guy whose tongue is so sinful, he—“

“—you are so not helping; you know that?” Tony interrupted, practically grappling with the strongest urge to blush and preen at Steve’s words. If a paparazzo caught them like this—with Tony blushing a bright puce and giving Steve the tamest sexy eyes—there was going to be hell to pay.

“Are you getting tired of me, Tony?” Steve asked out-of-the-blue while they were seated on a park bench, eating hotdogs and perfecting the appearance of just two friends shooting the breeze. There was even considerable space between them that could sit two more people.

Tony froze mid-bite and lowered the hotdog he was eating on his lap. Furrowing his eyebrows, he threw the question back at Steve: “what are you talking about?”

“I mean, we’re spending time together in public for the first time since we became a couple and I can’t even bridge three yards to hold your hand,” Steve said, mild frustration lacing his otherwise calm voice. “We stay in the same house; we eat on the same table, and we can’t even tell each other how much we love one another. We share the same set of friends that we sit with on Movie Nights, watching the same movies, and we can’t even tell them about us. We can’t talk their ears off, gushing about how great each other is or how we complete each other,” continued the Captain, not paying his food any more mind. “I guess I’m just…anxious? That maybe you don’t feel as strongly about me now compared to when we started out because we lack the affirmation that proper lovers need once in a while.” Steve turned to meet Tony’s eyes for the first time since he started talking.

Languidly licking his lips and cocking his head, Tony considered first what to tell Steve. “I…don’t know what to say to reassure you.” He guessed there was no harm in being truthful. “But I know in my heart that nothing has changed between then and now. Maybe we’re not…a conventional couple.” At this, the corners of Tony’s lips quirked into a fleeting and small smile that he knew Steve caught. “But, relationships are not just about holding hands or touching each other in full view of other people or—or hearing your beloved wax poetic about you to others. I know where we stand, and you know that I support you. It takes more than this to drive me away,” Tony finished, smugly. And he was absolutely certain he meant every word.

“I love you, Tony. I hope you never forget that,” Steve said, his eyes cast down at the half-eaten food on his lap. To the genius-billionaire, the Captain looked like he had just proclaimed his undying devotion to a hotdog sandwich.

Tony felt a lump form in his throat with Steve dropping the L-bomb on him in the middle of a small-town carnival. Not that Steve had never said those words to him before because Steve had. Many times. Tony could see it with every secret look, taste it with every stolen kiss, feel it with every clandestine touch. That was the primary reason why Tony hung on to Steve, hung on to their secret relationship. For all his bad-assery, Tony Stark was utterly, hopelessly, undeniably in love with Steve Rogers. He might have never actually said the L-word to Steve yet. But Tony felt like he didn’t need to. His uncharacteristic magnanimity and deep well of understanding for their current set-up already spoke for themselves. 

“We’re supposed to be enjoying ourselves, and you look way too despondent for your own good,” observed Tony, getting up from the bench and crumpling his hotdog sandwich wrapper into a tight ball before throwing it in a nearby bin. “Come on, win me some stuffed animal in the Whack-A-Mole booth, soldier.” Tony cocked his head back to the carnival booths with soft amber eyes in invitation.

In the end, Steve had won a big stuffed toy dolphin and a small Captain America plushie. He had wanted to give Tony the dolphin but it was too conspicuous and harder to explain to their friends back at the compound. So instead, Tony took the plushie off Steve’s hands and put it in the pocket of his black leather jacket.

“I won this for you in the carnival. I hope you don’t mind I accompanied Tony. I needed some air.” Steve made a ceremony out of offering Barnes the stuffed dolphin back at the compound with a relaxed, almost genuine smile. “How did the session go?”

“As well as could be expected. This is swell, Stevie. Thank you,” Barnes said with bright eyes, accepting the dolphin with a perfunctory kiss to Steve’s lips that still caused a dull throb against Tony’s chest. Maybe that was something he could never really get used to—having to see the one you loved be kissed by someone else. At least, he was pretty much certain that his face remained passive through the display. He was Tony Stark after all—he was nothing if not a great thespian.

The former sergeant was still fussing and gushing over the stuffed animal that he didn’t notice Steve give Tony a glance pregnant with meaning and sentiment.

I love you, Tony. I hope you never forget that.

Tony hadn’t; he couldn’t. Because the pain of that love had become a constant in his life, he had learned to live with it.

He walked away from the scene with heavy footsteps and the plushie soft against the hand that was shoved deep in his pocket.

-0-0-0-

It was Barnes’ first gala. Everyone else was tense, even Steve. But Barnes apparently wasn’t as easily fazed, even with the threat of memory triggers left and right.

Everyone was dressed in their best finery for the charity event that was organized for the purpose of inviting pledges for the various advocacies who had asked the help of The Avengers to lend their popularity to raise money and awareness. Stark Industries and the team’s own PR people were all for the idea and the great clamor via social media was more than enough to sway the UN Panel to turn a blind eye to the affair.

They expected record-breaking pledges, overwhelming attendance and participation of high profile people from all walks of life and all facets of society, good food, free-flowing drink. And dancing. The dancing was precisely what made Barnes more excited than daunted for the whole she-bang.

“Oh come on, Stevie! Dance with me,” Barnes urged Steve who was standing like a stiff sentinel by the bar, preferring to request one alcoholic drink after another from the bartender even though he knew full well he couldn’t get drunk. Tony was doing a circuit by the bar, accompanied by Natasha who was his date for the evening, when he heard Barnes pressing the Captain for a dance. Tony’s smile froze on his face when he heard it. Dammit! To think that up until that moment, he was actually having a nice time…

He didn’t think he was going to have that much fun hanging out with Nat, so it was a surprise when he found himself enjoying the redhead’s company for the evening. Since Tony couldn’t very well spend the night with the person he really wanted to spend it with, he contented himself with the prospect of finding a degree of normalcy for the first time in months. Galas and smooching with the media and people with cold hard cash to spare for good causes were Tony’s thing after all. And, for a while, it was great to be back in his element again instead of having to think about his complicated life.

But there they were. He wished he had not walked past the bar all together. He didn’t know it was possible to feel so miserable in the middle of a party or so alone in the midst of a crowd. But he did. He never wanted to be with Steve—dance with Steve—more than he did now. However, they were still playing their little pretend game for Barnes’ benefit, so it was not to be.

Tony was getting restless; he had been for a couple of weeks now—a couple of weeks of a seeming impasse when it came to any major progress on Barnes’ condition. Wanda had been put fully on board now to try to coax out more repressed memories by using her enhancement directly on Barnes, but the latter was wary of her so she seldom participated. Mostly, it was just doctors—talking to doctors until a minor memory was unlocked. Tony was all for utilizing the modified BARF at this point, but contrary to his position, the doctors were all in agreement that it was too fast, too soon.

Of course, they would think that; they weren’t in Tony’s shoes, were they? They didn’t have to watch the one they loved, day in and day out, cavort with another while they watched helplessly on the side, keeping as deadpan a façade as possible through it all.

Not to be an asshole and lose whatever precarious grip he had on himself, Tony didn’t push his position any more than any curious man of science would. And he didn’t talk to Steve about it. He just…kept it all in. He and Steve never discussed their curious situation again since their romp in the carnival. They made a conscious effort to keep their conversations light and superficial, if they even made conversation at all in between their hungry kisses and desperate lovemaking in the dead of night in the absolute privacy of Tony’s bedroom.

Tony distractedly brought the flute of champagne to his lips as he watched Steve try to downplay Barnes’ insistent requests to dance. Like a homing device, Steve sought him out in the crowd and even from a distance, Tony could see the dread and longing warring in the clear blue eyes. The genius-billionaire cast his eyes towards the tall windows so as not to clue the other man to what he was feeling.

He never wanted to cry so much than he did now. He should be the one dancing with Steve, not Barnes! He should be the one to push Steve’s blonde fringes out of his sapphire eyes; he should be the one those beautiful smiles were directed at; it should be his body enclosed in those powerful arms as they waltzed around the room… His fingers tightened around the neck of the champagne flute while he grappled with his emotions. The dimming golden light of the room and the elegant tapestries were beginning to melt in a mosaic of his unshed tears as he watched Steve lead Barnes to the center of the dancefloor.

A young lady in a flowing goddess-style, tiffany-blue dress was on the microphone, singing to the accompaniment of nothing but the melancholy notes of a piano:

“Why can’t you hold me in the street? /  Why can’t I kiss you on the dancefloor? /  I wish that it could be like that /  Why can’t it be like that? /  Cause I’m yours.”

“Let’s dance, Tony,” Natasha invited in her sultry voice, tearing into Tony’s thoughts; he had almost forgotten that she was still there, standing beside him. Placing his flute on the nearest flat surface, he held Natasha’s hand and led her to the dancefloor, not a few paces away from where Steve was swaying self-consciously with Barnes in the subdued and dramatic light of the ballroom. Pressing Natasha’s body flush against him, they started swaying to the music as well.

The genius-billionaire wanted to keep his eyes downcast and focus on nothing else but the feel of Natasha’s body against his and the soft-flowing piano notes, but there seemed to be a magnet pulling his head and eyes towards where Steve was.

And the expression on Steve’s face and the shimmer of pooling tears of longing and boundless apology in those blue eyes just about killed Tony—a dagger straight to the jugular that decimated him. Steve looked just as destroyed as Tony felt that the latter wanted to weep into Natasha’s styled hair.

“Why can’t I say that I’m in love? /  I wanna shout it from the rooftops…”

Everything was so fucking unfair! Maybe it was Steve who was unfair because he was the one who wanted to help Barnes; maybe it was Tony because he was too afraid to make Steve choose so they dealt with the status quo. All the brunette knew for sure was that every moment they didn’t spend with each other when they should was like a knife to the heart—permanently wounding and possibly something they might never recover from.

Biting his lower lip to keep him from showing any other perceptible reaction, Tony steered Natasha so that his back was turned towards Steve. But even then, he could feel Steve’s scorching eyes on his shoulder blades, making his body warm and cold at the same time, his skin crawl and tingle all at once.

Tony was off the dancefloor, mumbling flimsy excuses to Natasha and heading to the john as soon as the last note was sung. He needed to compose himself better than what alcohol could offer him at the moment.

He stood in front of one of the urinals in the blessedly empty restroom, furiously yanking his trousers’ zipper down to relieve himself, but he knew that the heaviness was not in his bladder but in other parts of his anatomy, the existence of which he didn’t want to acknowledge right now. Pressing his forehead against the cold tile wall, Tony wept silently. Hot tears escaped down his cheeks, but he kept his mouth shut and his sobs well-stoppered in his throat.

This wouldn’t do; this wouldn’t do at all. He was fucking Iron Man! Weakness was for wusses only. He was no wuss. He had killed and avenged; he had stared into the eyes of his mother’s murderer without batting an eyelash. And Steve was all it took to break him into a million, tiny shards.

Clearing his throat forcefully, Tony angrily wiped the tear tracks off his cheeks with the cuff of his suit. He was so involved in removing any evidence of his momentary weakness and trying to compose himself that he didn’t notice someone come into the restroom.

“I’ve dreamed of dancing with you,” Steve confessed, leaning against the counter of ivory sinks with his hands pocketed in front of his trousers. He tracked Tony wordlessly as the latter made his way before a sink to wash his hands.

Tony didn’t know how to respond to that so he just held his tongue, choosing instead to rinse his hands, close the tap and dry his hands with paper towels silently. He was, plain and simple, too drained to maintain any banter with Steve, playful or otherwise. He walked towards the restroom’s exit, giving Steve a wide berth, but the blonde headed him off by moving towards the door himself and twisting the lock closed.

“What do you want from me, Steve?” Tony asked, exasperated.

“Dance with me,” requested Steve, stepping closer to Tony. “I may not be able to dance with you out there, but that doesn’t mean I cannot dance with you…”

“Steve—“ Tony was reproachful.

“Please, Tony,” murmured Steve, already trailing his hands up the brunette’s forearms to guide him to wrap them around Steve’s neck. “Please.”

As if it was contrived, another slow song started out in the ballroom and bled into the restroom through small speakers mounted in the ceiling, and Tony pressed his body flush against his secret lover’s, closing his eyes.

Not a day went by that he didn’t question what madness it was they were trying to pull, but just as often, Steve would remind him that, whatever it was, it was fucking worth it. Steve was worth it. Loving Steve was worth it.

“How many times a day do you tell him that you love him?” Tony asked as if from nowhere. Though the question, and its answer, could only add to the thorns already pierced in his chest, he wanted to know—maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was to reassure him—again—of Steve’s affections.

“Tony, I don’t think—“

“Just answer me,” the genius-billionaire urged softly, resting the side of his face against Steve’s jaw and tightening his embrace. They kept swaying to the music from the ballroom.

“Once or twice.” The answer was absent-minded. Steve seemed to only answer it for the sake of answering it. “Aren’t you going to ask me if I mean it—when I tell him I love him?”

“I know you mean it. Why else would you help him so tirelessly if you don’t?”

Steve was silent after that; Tony knew the other man was relishing their stolen moment as much as he was. The brunette closed his eyes again, focusing on the heat from Steve’s body, on the rise and fall of their chests, on the fit of their limbs. 

“I want to always be with you. Someday… when Bucky is better, we will be.” There was an unspoken promise in there, somewhere. Tony hummed, not trusting himself with words.

Alone in the veranda some time later, away from the sounds of the party that was still happening inside, Tony’s thoughts were still immersed in that last thing Steve said to him—his mind was probably clinging to it like a lifeline—when Natasha sidled up to him like smoke.

“You’re an idiot; do you know that?” Natasha said curtly.

Of course, she knew. Tony didn’t bother asking how. Maybe he and Steve had been too obvious after all, or maybe Natasha was just too observant for her own good. That was both the beautiful and the scary thing about the former Red Room-trained assassin. “So tell me something I don’t already know.”

“Say something to him.”

“I can’t.” I love him too much was the follow-up to that, but Tony kept his mouth shut. And Natasha, bless her soul, seemed to hear and accept the unsaid statement in Tony’s silence.

“Tell me what’s going to happen to you if one day, Steve wakes up, realizes that he’s still actually in love with Barnes after all these years and decides to leave you,” challenged Natasha.

“That’s nothing I’ve never encountered before—coming in second to Barnes,” Tony said, controlling the sudden urge to giggle in hysterics. “I’ll deal with it. That’s what I always do: I deal.”

“I worry about you, Tony. Don’t think that I don’t,” said Natasha, cupping Tony’s cheek in her palm almost fondly.

“I know,” assured Tony. “Hey Nat, remember when you once accused me of being incapable of letting go of my ego—not for one bloody second? I think this is me proving you wrong,” joked Tony, in an effort to make light of the conversation.

Natasha surprised him by actually enveloping him in a comforting embrace. “I stand corrected,” she murmured against the shell of his ear.

-0-0-0-

It was the day after the gala, but Barnes must have been thinking about springing this on Steve—on everyone, really—for some time now. Because he had a ring ready and everything—

“Will you marry me?” Barnes asked, looking up at Steve while he was down on one knee. “I researched about it and New York honors same sex marriages now—so different from when we were kids and thinking about marriage. So what do you say, Stevie? Will you do me the honor of being my husband?”

Everyone in the communal kitchen was howling and catcalling—their dinner forgotten—except for Tony, Natasha and Steve, himself, who looked every bit the shocked ‘proposee’. Natasha’s face seemed like it was set in stone while Tony couldn’t really tell how his face must look like to an observer; all he knew was the pain in his teeth from clenching his jaw too hard and the emptiness in the pit of his stomach when you’ve just had the floor disappear from right under you.

This time, he flat-out refused to meet Steve’s eyes, which, he would hazard a guess, was desperately seeking his out. No, he kept his eyes downcast and his hands enclosed in tight fists at his sides.

“Natasha can be my Best…Lady and Stark or Sam can be your Best Man. What do you say, doll face?” The genius-billionaire hated how such love oozed from that persistent voice.

Yeah—no… Tony would have to be a masochist of epic proportions to be the Best Man in Steve’s wedding to someone else!

Say no, say no, say no, say no… Tony repeated like a mantra under his breath. But he still refused to look up to meet Steve’s or Natasha’s gaze. He didn’t want to look at Steve’s pleading eyes, looking for Tony’s permission, his understanding, his trust that this was not a permanent thing, but just something to keep Barnes optimistic about his recovery while they waited for him to recall his more vital memories.

But who was Tony kidding? This was no longer just that—fake relationship was not in the same league as marriage!

“Yes,” Steve answered still in the same breathless tenor as a flushed ‘proposee’.

It was with that one word that Tony’s universe shattered before his downcast eyes. For all his restraint from making Steve choose, Tony’s worst fears still came to pass. And it was as if he could see clearly for the first time in months, understood unequivocally what he needed to do…

This was all his fault. It was he who had pushed Steve down this road at the start. And he let Steve believe that he was okay with everything when he wasn’t. He was a bloody fucking coward, and there was no one else to blame for how far this had gone but him.

Well, he was going to finish it. Once and for all. He was going to deal as he had always done.

Before he was aware of it, his legs had carried him out of the communal kitchen and into the side stairwell where he could hear even the echoes of his deep, calming breaths. He holed up there for he didn’t know how long, sitting on the steps, hesitant to return to his room where he was dead certain Steve would be waiting for him. But he didn’t have anything for Steve at the moment, so he stayed in the stairwell until he was sure the rest of the compound was already deeply in slumber.

When he could no longer put off returning to his room because he was so damn tired, he made his way to it and was greeted with the image of Steve pacing the breadth of Tony’s bedroom like a caged tiger. His eyes were wild and on the puffy side, so Tony guessed he might have been crying. Before Tony could say anything, Steve wrapped his arms around the slighter man and hugged him so tight that it bordered on painful.

Tony pried Steve’s arms off, leaned back to look at his lover and his wrecked state before leaning back in to kiss him as deeply and as thoroughly as he could. He didn’t really want to talk; there was nothing to talk about anymore. So he just focused on providing Steve pleasure, if only for the last time…

“Make love to me, Tony,” Steve murmured, peppering the side of Tony’s face with kisses while Tony’s hand was leaving a trail of warmth down his abdomen, down, down… “I want to feel you inside me, in every part of me—hard and deep, that I won’t be able to forget you—the feel of you, the feel of being owned by you,” Steve groaned against Tony’s bruised and glistening lips.

The genius-billionaire gave the Captain what he asked for. Pleasing Steve, worshipping Steve’s body gave him a distraction from what he had steeled his resolve to do.

Tony stayed awake until the gray light of the morning when Steve surreptitiously kissed his bare shoulder before leaving the warmth of Tony’s bed. The brunette didn’t even flinch.

Breakfast that morning was a happy affair attended by the members of the team who happened to be home. Clint, who was home in the farm for the week, was the only one missing. Steve’s face was pinched and tense, and surprisingly, so was Barnes’ while everyone around them talked about the forthcoming wedding. Steve, though, still took it upon himself to hand Tony his morning coffee mug. If Steve’s fingers lingered just a millisecond more against Tony’s than what was proper, the brunette didn’t give any overt reaction.

“So Steve, who are you going to name as your Best Man? Not to pressure you or anything, but I gotta have sufficient time to look for some nice threads if it’s me. Or is it Tony?” Sam teasingly asked. “Whoever you choose is okay, man. Tony probably looks better in a tux, but I would think it’s in my personality to throw a meaner Bachelor Party, you know?”

Before Steve could even open his mouth to say anything, Tony cut him off. “I’ll let Wilson have this one. It’ll be hard for me to coordinate with the grooms from all the way in midtown.”

The raucous conversation died a quick death after that. “Wait… Wha—?” Sam began.

“Midtown? What the hell—?” Rhodey asked with furrowed brows.

“—are you talking about, Stark?” Natasha asked at about the same time that Rhodey did while the rest of the team fell in a hush around the dining table.

“I’ve decided to move back to Stark Tower. You guys know that Product Launch is gonna be in a few weeks for the new line of StarkTech laptops and the prosthetics division is going to go full blast soon. I can’t focus on R&D from all the way over here; they need me to be hands-on for the upcoming projects,” Tony explained to his incredulous audience. “Besides, with me and Ross still at it in our pissing contest, I’m grounded and can’t go out on missions anyway, so it makes no sense for me to be here 24/7.

“Don’t worry about your exoskeleton, Rhodey. I can still go here every couple of months or so for your upgrades and maintenance—for everyone’s gears’ upgrades and maintenance. The BARF is pretty much done, but I still have a week before I move out to make the final touches on it. As for your cybernetic arm, Barnes, I’ll also upgrade it within the week so you won’t need it looked at so often,” Tony assured everyone. Again, he adamantly refused to lock gazes with Steve. He pretty much knew what he would find there anyway.

Tony spent the rest of his day in the workshop to avoid Natasha’s penetrating glares, and Bucky must have been with his doctors because Steve barreled into his workshop with single-minded focus sometime around early afternoon.

“You’re not going anywhere,” said Steve in his full-on Captain America voice.

“You can’t stop me,” replied Tony, indifferently looking at a holo-screen to continue with his coding work.

“He’s getting better—“

“Oh I don’t doubt it.”

“Then why are you doing this? You’re giving up on us…on me,” Steve accused, his pitch rising a bit. “I thought—don’t give up on us, Tony. You said you love me—“

I love you!” Tony interrupted in a yell. “I love you. That’s why I’m giving up on you,” he whispered. So much for him saying the L-word to Steve for the first time…

“You’ve grown tired of waiting,” Steve said. Wow, was it that evidently written on Tony’s face? But it wasn’t that; Steve was wrong.

“No, I’ve gotten used to waiting. How can you grow tired of something that’s become second nature to you?” Tony smiled at Steve, wistfully. “I’ve waited for someone like you my whole life, Steve. Now, I’ve found you and been with you, but I’m still waiting. I’m still waiting for me to matter to you as much as you matter to me—“

“You’re the one who wanted me to pretend to be in a relationship with Bucky—“ Oh so, this was what they’ve been reduced to? Passing the blame, pointing fingers… Well, Tony was done with it.

“—I did, didn’t I? Yup, that was me—“

“—if you had problems with it, then you should have told me. You should have said something—“

“—because I was the coward who didn’t want to make you choose between Barnes and me!” Tony hollered, finally rendering Steve speechless. “Because I didn’t think you would choose me. So I just let you help him. It was painful to watch you be with him when you were supposed to be with me, but I took it all in stride, holding you to that promise that when Bucky was recovered… someday…

“It’s my fault because I didn’t think it would go this far. Maybe I should have said something—how much it was hurting me. Maybe I should have made you choose earlier then we wouldn’t be here. But see… I didn’t make you choose. But you still did,” Tony pointed out, finally meeting Steve’s gaze squarely.

“Tony, please—“ There were tearstains on Steve’s cheeks now. Tony wasn’t certain when the blonde had started crying.

“I’m kinda used to it now. Doesn’t mean it still isn’t painful, but I can deal with it,” Tony guaranteed Steve with as much confidence as he could muster. “I didn’t make you choose. Doesn’t mean I can’t.”

-0-0-0-

Three days before Tony was to move out of the Avengers compound to return to Stark Tower, the genius-billionaire was brought out of one of his deep science zones by the knock of a cybernetic arm against the laminated, black-out glass of his workshop. It was Bucky Barnes, looking awkward but resolute in trying to catch the engineer’s attention.

“I was going to ask Steve to bring you down here soon so I can start working on those massive upgrades for your arm,” Tony said by way of welcome to the dark-haired super soldier. “So where’s your better half today?”

If Barnes slightly cringed at that, Tony pretended not to notice. “He’s training with Sam and Vision. Flight sims, I think. So can you work on the arm now or maybe I should just come back later?”

“Yeah, these can wait,” Tony said, gesturing towards the contraption he was currently working on and, motioning for Barnes to sit on the swivel chair nearest him, said, “take a load off, Barnes.”

Ten minutes into working with the arm, the genius-billionaire realized that this was the first time he had been alone with the former HYDRA asset since his cryopod had been shipped from Wakanda to the Avengers facility. In-between working with convoluted wires and screwing minuscule parts together, Tony sized up Barnes from beneath the curtain of his lashes. Barnes no longer had the desolate look he sported of old—when he was first awoken. There was a softness about his eyes now, reminiscent of the former sergeant who, if the old news reels were to be believed, was quite the ladies’ man.

They’d had a session before, along with Barnes’ doctors, when the latter had first remembered carrying out HYDRA’s directive to assassinate Tony’s parents. Barnes looked properly contrite, and Tony found that, in actuality, he no longer felt anger and homicidal rage towards the former assassin after a long time since he’d first found about the real cause of his parents’ death—there was just pity and sympathy. Here was a man who had been used, turned into a weapon against his will, after having given his life for comrade and country. In the end, it was quite easy for Tony to forgive Barnes—Bucky.

Tony couldn’t also find it in his heart to be angry at Bucky for how his relationship with Steve had turned out. It was hardly the man’s fault that he was tabula rasa when he had come to. Steve’s decision was Steve’s, and Tony’s was Tony’s; Barnes had nothing to do with how they mucked it up.

Bucky cleared his throat in preparation of starting a conversation. “So… Sam thought we should have a particular color motif for the wedding. Steve picked blue and silver.”

Tony thought Bucky could’ve done with a better topic, but like a champ, he just let it roll off his back. “Blue and silver’s nice. It could’ve been worse; at least it’s not red, white and blue,” he said cheekily. So much for making conversation…

Bucky then began a litany of Steve-related stuff, unknowingly rubbing salt in Tony’s wounds, but the latter, focusing on the tech in front of him, tuned the former sergeant out.

“You actually hide it better than Steve does,” Bucky observed, bringing Tony out of his self-imposed stupor.

“Excuse me—what?”

“I said you hide it better than Steve does,” Bucky repeated for the engineer’s benefit. “He’s in love with you. And I think you are in love with him, too. Either you just hide it better or I just know Steve better.” Bucky shrewdly bored his blue-gray eyes into Tony’s brown ones.

Tony almost choked on his own spit at that.

“I remember our pact. I remember that we mutually decided to just be friends—brothers, actually. We were all the better for that decision.”

“When—?”  

“That night after I proposed.” Bucky said the last word with air quotes. “I just woke up in the middle of the night, alone, on Steve’s bed—and I could remember that decision as well as the past few—months, really. I didn’t want to confront Steve about it immediately. I wanted to observe first. Because, the truth was, I’ve been noticing the sadness in him, but seeing as I can only remember him… a certain way—I refused to pay it any mind. That’s when I noticed you and him during breakfast, and it hit me.”

The brunette had to hand it to Bucky; he sure knew how to render speechless an otherwise motor-mouth genius, who had an opinion about everything.

After a considerable period of silence which Tony abused to finish tinkering with the mechanical arm, he breathed a deep sigh, stared at Bucky and weighed what his next words were going to be. “So what’s next? You still gonna marry him?”

“What?! No! I ain’t marrying that punk! It’d be like incest,” Bucky said with a shudder. “We’re better off as friends. Besides, I think you’re good for him—smart, mouthy wiseass that you are.” Bucky patted his upper arm once.

“I kinda already burned that bridge. Who knows if he’ll still take me back when I already told him that I’ve had enough?” Tony shrugged.

“Have you, though? Had enough. Because I think you still carry a torch for ‘im. What you did—I have a feeling you don’t do that for just any ol’ person. Unless you care deeply about ‘em,” Bucky reasoned, his Brooklyn brogue beginning to be more defined the longer he sat there, talking to Tony. “Just let me talk to him, break it to him that the wedding’s off. And you can pick up right where you left off.

“There ain’t many happy things in Stevie’s life, but I can tell having you in his life is one of ‘em. You deserve to be happy, St—Tony, so don’t deny yourselves the chance,” Bucky advised, like the old, wise man that he really was underneath. He stood up from the stool and made to leave the workshop and Tony to his thoughts.

“Don’t think for one second, though, that this means I’mma let up on my shovel talk. Because this ain’t nowhere near as fun as that one’s gonna be,” Bucky called with a casual wave of his metal arm as he crossed the workshop’s threshold.

-0-0-0-

Tony was in his bedroom, unpacking what possessions he had that he had already unceremoniously tossed in moving boxes in preparation for his move back to Stark Tower—the move that was moot now, apparently. He didn’t want to have to test the extent of Bucky’s patience if Tony were still to go ahead and haul his ass out of the compound and out of Steve’s life.

He curiously stared at the thing that was at the bottom of the box he was trying to empty: it was The Phone®. He wasn’t aware that he had packed it up with every intention of bringing it with him to Stark Tower.

He guessed Bucky was correct after all. If he was packing that damn flip phone, it meant he had every intention of hanging on to Steve despite all of the heartbreak and the waiting and the secrecy and everything else.

“Please tell me this means you’ve reconsidered moving out,” Steve piped up like a ninja from the door, startling Tony a bit.

“I must have been kidding myself thinking I could really leave when all the while I subconsciously carted this ghastly contraption along,” teased Tony with a huff, tossing the flip phone to the Captain, which he caught effortlessly and studied in silence with an inscrutable expression.

“Have dinner with me,” Steve insisted from out of nowhere. “In the most public place we can think of.”

Tony smiled lopsidedly. “I don’t know. Do you think that would be a good idea with you being on the rebound and all?”

“No one’s more ecstatic about getting dumped than I am,” Steve bantered back, the corners of his lips twitching into a smile that he was still trying to tame. “But you can never tell, I might still need cheering up or something. And dinner will be a good start.”

Tony stood close in front of Steve, invading the latter’s personal space. “Why do I feel like we should establish some ground rules first?”

“Agreed,” Steve murmured, leaning even closer towards Tony. His lips were flush against the shell of Tony’s left ear.

“I have full hands and lips access no matter how many people are around,” stated Tony.

“I’m your plus one in all galas and charity balls where you dance with me and only me,” negotiated Steve.

“No secrets.”

“No second-guessing. I need your full trust. Your full trust, Tony, that I will always choose you.” Steve cupped Tony’s face in his palms and bored his blues into Tony’s honey-golds. “Always.”

“You’ll be the last thing I see before I fall asleep and the first thing I see when I wake up,” added Tony.

“Anything. Everything. Just say yes,” Steve urged, ghosting his lips over Tony’s.

“Yes.” And they kissed. Like they were kissing each other for the first time. “Wait, what did I exactly say yes to? Dinner, right?” Tony asked cheekily, tearing his lips away from Steve’s.

“Does it matter? You could’ve said yes to an offer of domestic partnership or marriage, you never know.” Steve brushed the brown fringe from Tony’s forehead and peppered it with fond kisses.

“You and I both know I’m not the marrying kind.”

“Not yet. But you’re definitely boyfriend material, and I’ll take it. I’ll take you any way I can, Tony, if you let me.”

“Steve Rogers,” Tony smirked, raking a hand through Steve’s hair playfully. “I choose you,” he said, standing on his tippy-toes and throwing his arms around Steve’s neck to give the blonde a kiss that he hoped conveyed everything that mere words couldn’t.

 

-0-FIN-0-