Actions

Work Header

all this devotion (i never knew at all)

Chapter Text

She meets him in Budapest. Budapest, where he stands across an empty plaza on a moonless night and trains an arrow on her chest, and though she is dressed in an Alexander McQueen gown and has no weapons he is not fooled by her. He knows that she is a weapon, complete and whole unto herself.

She meets his eyes, and something moves within her and settles into place, tumblers turned by his key. They are both Dominants, and somewhere out beyond this dark square and this moment there is someone waiting for them, for their loving guidance, who will not be complete without them. They are meant to be together- Natasha and this man and the person who is yet unknown- and she sees the knowledge dawn in his eyes. He lowers his bow, sheaths his arrow.

Natasha crosses the plaza in moments, catches him about the back of the head as he settles rough-hewn hands upon her hips, and they embrace. Kiss. Feel out the empty space between them where another body will one day rest.

"My name's Clint," the man finally gasps against her ear, when they settle.

"You know mine."

"Yeah. Want to hear you say it, though."

"Natasha. Where is ours?"

Clint blinks, bends forward to rest his forehead against hers. Over his shoulder she catches sight of a man in a suit, a mild expression, but her attention is for Clint, for the iron will of his voice when he swears, low and rough against her lips,

"I don't know. But we'll find them. We'll find them and we'll make them so happy, keep 'em safe."

"Yes."

-

She meets another man, in a dark and dank house.

Bruce Banner blinks at her when she rises to meet him, and Natasha's heart skips a beat. For a moment she hopes-

But no, this man is not submissive. The shudder of her heart is the same wild recognition she felt in Budapest, not the possession she one day hopes to feel, and she steps back, momentarily unbalanced. He is similarly discomfited, but they manage to complete the transaction, though neither of them can win the upper hand against each other. They are immovable objects, splintering against one another, bereft of water to smooth their edges.

After they pick up his meager belongings and take a seat on the plane, Bruce is the first to broach the subject. No true shyness in this man.

"Did you feel that, in the house?"

Natasha was born for lies, but she cannot lie to this man: not about this. "Yes. You and I: we're bonded Dominants."

He laughs, though without humor, and rolls his head back against the interior fuselage to stare at the ceiling. "Like it wasn't enough to be a freak of science, now I have to be part of a rare bond configuration. Wonderful."

Natasha swallows, unused to the regret she knows she will feel when she reveals this. "Rarer than you think."

His gaze flicks to her. He raises a brow. "How so?"

"There's three of us. Myself, you, my- my partner, Clint Barton."

The air is hot, and very close. Bruce leans forward. "Three Dominants. You didn't mention a sub. Our sub."

Natasha takes a breath. "We don't know who they are. We haven't found them yet, though we've tried." They've gained something of a reputation around SHIELD for making eye contact with anyone and everyone, searching, for restlessness, for the electric tension of Dominants in too small a space, itching for someone to ground them.

Bruce drops his head into his hands, pushes his fingers into his hair. "I- I hoped. There's this empty part of me, that's always been there, and when I saw you, I hoped-"

"I know, Bruce." His name is beautiful in her mouth. "I hoped, too."

She reaches for him, and he comes to her, willingly. They kiss, and it is good, and it is wonderful, and it is not enough.

-

She sits in the infirmary beside Clint, after Coulson-

After Coulson.

"Clint. Have you-" she hesitates, and the uncharacteristic silence makes his attention snap to her, hold, "-have you felt anything... different, in the bond?"

His eyes narrow, and he goes inward. His hand goes rigid in hers.

"Fuck," he breathes. "Bruce, Cap and Thor?"

"Yes."

He thuds his head back into the headrest of the chair and laughs. "Fucking seriously? I thought it was bad when it was just you and me, and now there's five of us? What the hell, are we supposed to get five subs too? Besides, what about Stark?"

Natasha frowns. "I'm not sure. He's open about his status as a sub in the press, but I don't..." she waves a hand, "I don't read him that way. I should feel his dynamic, acknowledge it, but he is like a void." She's resorted to similes. She hates being so imprecise.

"Huh. Do any of the others have any ideas where to look for the poor bastards that'll be our subs?"

"No, and I don't think there will be five subs for us. Bonds are supposed to be stable. I can't imagine a ten-person relationship being so." She tugs at the bond within her, at the spot where it spreads and links to the others, and though it is stable, though she smiles at its existence, there is still nothing centering them.

"Yeah, well, bonds are supposed to be between three people at the most, and look how that turned out."

"Clint." She narrows her eyes.

"Yeah?" He grins at her, scarred and rugged and pale, and she loves him.

"Stop being realistic."

He laughs, and tugs her down to kiss him, and though she is happy to, she knows they both are wondering where to find their missing piece.

-

Steve doesn't mind the twenty-first century, really. Subs' rights have made amazing progress, and even when he thinks how brightly Bucky would have shone in this time where there were no limits on his abilities, it has ceased to wound as much. There's more food and more variety, more information, just... more.

More bond configurations, too.

It's dinner time in the Tower, and he's got one hip against the counter and is watching Bruce do something aromatic and wonderful with rice and chicken and cream. A gentle prod at the bond informs him that Natasha's sitting in the living room, Clint's perched atop the entertainment center, and Thor is in the kitchen with them, measuring out spices for Bruce.

Of all the things he's been most surprised by in this new time, the relationship he's fallen into is the winner.

"What's cooking?" Clint wanders in and hooks his chin over Thor's shoulder to watch him start mixing spices. "Smells Indian."

"Chicken tikka masala," Bruce says, and at his glance Steve hands over the fork and butcher's knife so he can begin shredding the meat. He likes being useful, even if it's only as a glorified gopher. "It takes a while to cook, and I'd be lying if I said it was healthy, but we fought well today and I think we deserve a reward."

"Or you're bribing us." Natasha enters the room with her novel in hand, stretches onto her tiptoes to kiss Steve - and how strange that is, to be surrounded by physical affection - and helps Thor carry the condiments to Bruce.

"I confess I can be bribed by such savory dishes," Thor confesses with a sheepish grin. "My appetite makes it easy."

Bruce laughs and holds out a spoonful of rice for Thor, who tastes it and pronounces it delicious.

"This is a sickeningly domestic scene," Tony says from the doorway, his voice laced with that strange mixture of irony and humor that Steve is still trying to decipher. "I saw you kiss Steve, Natasha. What's this, all the Avengers got together and decided to try a polyamorous relationship and I wasn't invited?" He saunters into the room, his hair wild and grease streaked down one cheek, and steals a bit of rice from the pot. "All five of you?"

Steve realizes, suddenly, that they haven't told him. With moving into the Tower, and learning to function as a team, and as a bonded unit, it can be easy to forget, sometimes, that there is a team member who isn't part of them, especially when none of them can read him as sub or Dom. He clears his throat.

"We're a bonded unit, Tony."

Tony's gaze glances across each one of them, incisive, then swings back to Steve. He raises a brow. "Five Dominants?"

"Yeah," says Clint. "Trust me, it's weird to us, too."

"No sub?"

"Unfortunately not yet." Bruce stirs the pot and scrapes some rice off the sides. "We haven't managed to find them." He manages a weak smile. "It's very frustrating."

Tony cocks his head and meanders to the kitchen table. "Well, my resources are at your disposal. If you're going to do anything illegal, tell me first so I can help set up the proxies- relax, Steve," he tosses an insouciant grin Steve's way, and Steve shuts his mouth with a glare. "I figured there was something going on, since I never saw any subs hanging around up here, and I knew you guys were all Doms."

"You're a sub, right?" Clint says with an appalling lack of manners. "It's just that none of us can get a read on you, and-"

Tony's smile freezes over. His tone is light, as it always is, but there is ice beneath the veneer. "I am a sub, yes. Much to the Board of Directors' and others' displeasure."

"Do you know why we can't-" Clint cuts off with a grunt as Natasha kicks him beneath the table.

"Why you can't read me?"

“Yeah.”

Steve quietly mourns the complete lack of stealth Thor and Bruce are displaying, their attention obviously turned to the conversation happening behind their backs.

Tony, for his part, answers, tone clipped, “I presented as a sub early in life, and my father and his investors believed that learning to hide that fact would be necessary were the company to succeed.”

“But you’re not-“

“Not the company?” Tony grins, and there is ugliness in it, sharp-edged and glittering. “To my father, I was. So I spent most of my childhood enrolled in quote-unquote ‘orientation therapy’ boarding schools until I went to MIT at fourteen. Trained me to suppress it.” He leans the chair back on two legs and reaches for the fridge to snag a beer, his shirt riding up to expose the flat of his belly, the line of hair arrowing into his jeans. He snaps opens the beer against the table. “Didn’t actually allow my orientation to have anything to do with my relationships until I started working with Obadiah Stane.”

At that name, Natasha goes stiff.

“I hadn’t realized you and he were in a relationship,” she says, careful, formal. “It was not in your file.”

“We hid it well. Or rather, he hid it well.” Tony takes a long swallow of beer, and Steve finds his attention riveted to the sinuous curve of Tony’s neck, heat curling in his belly. “I would’ve been over the moon to show everybody how Obi and I were together, but he didn’t want to.” Tony rolls the beer bottle between his hands and stares down into its neck, and there is something unaccountably old and sad and tired in him, something that Steve has never seen in him before. “He didn’t want me to be publicly acknowledged as submissive. Not when the company was at stake. Was really fucking confusing, let me tell you, to have him yelling that I had to be dominant in public and then crawl and lick his boots in private. Of course, the problem could have all been solved had he not been an orientationist fuck and realized that I could run the company just fine as a sub, but…”

“Where is this man now? I had not heard of him before.” Thor inquires.

Tony glances up at him, and his eyes are dark and terrible in the arc reactor’s glow. “He got me captured in Afghanistan, had me tortured, stole my arc reactor, and tried to kill me.” In the frozen silence he drains his drink and sets it down with a thunderous click. “So I killed him.”

“Oh,” Bruce whispers.

“Yeah. ‘Oh.’ So you’re not going to get a read on me except in very specific circumstances where I choose to let you, and after ten years of orientation therapy and more of Obi it takes a hell of a lot out of me to fight that conditioning.”

Steve doesn’t know what to say, how to respond to this awful revelation of just how damaged Tony has to be, and glancing around he can see that no one else does either. He can’t imagine Howard, the Howard he knew, forcing his child to be trained to lie to everyone around him about his orientation, to be so nonchalant about the deep wound in him.

“So can you do it now?” Bruce asks, tentative, looking ready to flee the room if Tony takes the question the wrong way. “So we could see?”

Tony shrugs. He looks so comfortable, in his worn T-shirt for a band Steve’s never heard of and patched jeans white at the knees, and Steve almost doesn’t want to know, to push him out of that comfort. “I mean, yeah, I could. I don’t do it often. I’m a really awful sub, you know, and it’s not often worth letting people read that part of me when they might end up saddled with me. They fucked the sub part of me up, dear old Dad and Obi. It takes me forever to fall into subspace, I have a terrible time staying down, and when I come out of it-“ he winces, shakes his head, “-it’s not pretty.”

“We would still see it,” Thor says. “I have never heard of this ‘therapy’ you speak of, I would enjoy knowing if there are changes in how I sense your orientation.”

“Okay, if you’re sure.” Tony glances around, and at everyone else’s nods or shrugs he offers them an expression approaching a smile and drops his head back. He takes a few deep breaths that rattle in him, a strange metallic sound at the end of each breath – something to do with the arc reactor? – and then, all at once, in some strange moment, it’s as if a fortress falls, a wall breaks, a cloud moves aside.

A key, turning in a lock.

“Tony,” someone chokes out, and it takes Steve a moment to realize that it’s Clint, Clint half-started from his chair, face bloodless, hand outstretched.

Bruce drops the spoon.

Natasha’s lips part.

Thor lets out a deep rumble of possession, and thunder booms in a cloudless sky.

Steve forces his fists to uncurl, the raging fire in him to quiet as every ounce of him screams to lunge across the room and take Tony, that beautiful infuriating man, theirs, into his arms.

Tony opens his eyes and glances at them, and as he pales, as he shoots to his feet and backs up, it’s like a gate slamming shut, or a shadow blocking out the sun.

Natasha lists to one side in her chair as Bruce makes a panicked noise, and Tony says, low and fierce and harsh,

“Oh, fuck, no-“

And flees the room.

Chapter Text

"JARVIS, initiate lock-down on the lab. Only Pepper is authorized to enter." Tony stumbles into his workshop and collapses onto the cot he spends, oh, five-point-five out of every seven nights on, when he actually remembers to sleep.

"Certainly, sir. May I ask how long you plan to remain down here so that I can order sufficient meals?" JARVIS sounds concerned, but not pitying, not condescending, and fuck, Tony loves him.

Tony shoves the heels of his hands into his eyes and half-curls into himself on the edge of the cot, the bright crisp pain of the arc reactor casing's bottom edge pushing against his spine centering him. "Fuck, I don't know, J, I need time to- to process this. Let's start with two days and go from there."

"Very well, sir."

Butterfingers, You, and Dummy scurry up beside him, You helpfully proffering a shake the little guy had made in some sort of attempt at comfort.

"Thanks, You. Put it on the welding bench, I'll drink it in a bit. Dummy, start sweeping the area beneath the fabricators, Butterfingers, get the welding equipment ready." His eyes ache. His spine aches. His chest - well, his chest always burns. He just feels so raw, so exposed, like a stripped wire, and it's going to be so hard to build his walls back up.

But he'll do it. He sinks deeper into himself - and goddamnit, he hates the whole metaphysical bullshit aspect of orientations and bond configurations the most - to peer at the bond. People tend to describe it in metaphors they understand - flowers, ponds, buildings, blah blah blah - and he's always gone for the engineering ones. His end of the bond has always been a stunted, twisted, broken thing, a beautiful engine corroded and rusting into nothing without ever getting the chance to roar, with tattered wires extended and waiting for connections that will never come. The few times he's encountered people he knows are compatible, their bonds' attempts to complete the connection had always run headlong up against the walls Tony has been taught how to make out of isolation, out of telling himself in every breath, 'You need no one, you depend on no one, you will not be weak,' and so the few Doms he may have liked had turned away or walked by without ever knowing what they'd missed.

For the first time since Obi, he sees his end of the bond trying to complete itself, trying to twine with the others, and he remembers his training, makes a blade out of the days and nights the poor bastards like him had sat in the group room and learned to cut their weaknesses out of themselves, and snaps the bonds, bends back the wires, erects vast minefields and cyclopean walls.

He comes back to himself, hunched on the cot. His throat is bone-dry and burning. His bones ache like someone's poured ground glass into the marrow.

"Sir?"

"Yeah, J?" His voice rasps his throat bloody on the way out.

"The other Avengers. They've been asking me for information on you since you came down here. Captain Rogers says you've done something, they can sense it, and they need to speak to you."

"I. No." He shoves himself to his feet, and thank God for Dummy, who swoops into place beneath one hand and steadies him as he trips to the welding bench. "There's nothing to talk about. There was a problem. I fixed it."

"Forgive me for saying so, sir, but I don't think they will find that comforting."

Tony snorts, throws himself into the chair and slides his welding goggles on. So they don't find it comforting. So they don't like it. He's saving them a hell of a lot of pain now by heading this catastrophe off at the pass, and if they're a tenth as smart as he thinks they are, they'll understand.

"Give me two hours to work on this repulsor housing so I can calm down, JARVIS, and then call Pepper. Tell her I need to speak to her in person, as soon as she's available."

"Of course. Is there anything you would like me to tell the others?" JARVIS hesitates, and that's so uncharacteristic that Tony cuts off the torch and lifts his head to stare suspiciously at the nearest camera. "They are being rather vociferously demanding in their desire for further information."

Tony swallows. He doesn't know how to handle this, what to say, how to process the insane panic swelling in his chest at the idea of giving anyone control over his life, at how he will inevitably be found wanting in their sight. His heart beats too fast. Blood pulses in his ears, and when he breathes it rattles the shrapnel shards in their homes, nestled against his heart and embedded in his lungs. He's sliding towards a breakdown, and it takes all he has to say, "Don't tell them anything. I've handled the problem. That's it."

JARVIS subsides into silence, and Tony bends himself to the work. It seems like only the blink of an eye later that he startles out of his trance to the feeling of Pepper's hand on his shoulder.

"Pepper!"

"Tony." She looks beautiful, as she always does, and for a moment Tony is breathless with the same sick, sad longing he always feels when he looks at her, when he remembers what they had been to one another. She spins him around and falls into her own chair, kicking off her Salvatore Ferragamo shoes. "I came as fast as I can. What's happened? Why are all the others skulking around the elevator?"

He drops the torch on the bench behind him and sits forward, trying and failing to meet her eyes. "The Avengers, the... others."

She frowns, and it's the same old argument that he's an Avenger too, he shouldn't separate himself from them so much, rising in her eyes. He forestalls it with a raised hand.

"They're all Doms."

"Yes?" She grabs his hand and brings it down, grips it hard, and the touch centers him, allows him to bring his gaze to hers and hold it. "We knew this."

"They're bonded. They're a unit. I saw them in the kitchen and they told me they hadn't found their sub, and they wanted to know why they couldn't read me, and I told them, about Obi, and Dad, and-"

Pepper's expression is shading into alarm, and she makes a decision and slips her hand around the back of his head, pushes his head down between his knees, and he shuts up, sits there, sucking in breath. "Tony, you're hyperventilating, and I- I need you to calm down. I can't stay calm for you when you're this afraid, so please, just breathe, and when you're ready, tell me again."

God, he loves her. Even when she's holding him down it doesn't feel like her exerting her dominance over him, like her picking him apart. He would mourn that, if he could, because the fact of her never feeling able to dominate him broke them up, but he can't, and isn't that just fucked?

"Can you tell me?"

"Yeah," he wheezes, and she lets him up. "They wanted to know what I was like when I fought down the conditioning," he bites out, cold and crisp and clear, "so I did."

"Tony-" Pepper starts, and there's a dawning terror in her eyes.

"And we're compatible, we started to bond, and they want me, and I've already torn down the bond but I don't know what else I can do, Pepper."

Pepper inhales, closes her eyes. Her fingers tighten on his hand.

Why couldn't he have been her sub?

He knows, of course, why not. Pepper is dominated by the drive to protect, absolute and immutable, and she could never have borne watching him go out on every mission into a place where she couldn't protect him, couldn't help him.

"All right," she says. "Help me go through this, piece by piece. All of them, Thor, Clint, Natasha, Steve, Bruce, all of them started to bond with you? They want you as their sub?"

"Yeah. And I think they're serious about it. They didn't stop the bond from their end, and JARVIS said they were pissed when I broke it."

"God, what a mess," she whispers. "Okay. They know about Obi, about what your father did, about how hard you find submitting?"

He swallows, nods.

"Do you want them?"

That's the crux of the matter, the fucking beating heart of the problem. Tony glances aside to stare at the chest in the corner of the workshop, where he keeps everything Obi left to him in his will, the last insult: the collars, the toys, the restraints. He's always meant to destroy them someday, but just never got around it. Maybe it's him being a masochist, taunting himself with the memory of what he can never have.

"I'd... I'd be lying if I said unequivocally yes or no," he starts. "We get along well. If it were purely a matter of personal and physical compatibility, I'd say yes."

"But?"

"We're the Avengers, Pepper. Earth's last line of defense against aliens and psycho gods and things that go bump in the night. Say we get together, it works out for a while, then I can't handle it, or they can't, or just one of them can't. I know we're professionals, even if Legolas tries to hide it, but I don't think anyone could truly and honestly say that breaking up wouldn't affect our battle readiness."

Pepper bites her lip, looks aside. Because he's right, in the way he's always right about the awful things, the dark things, and just once he wishes he could be right about something good. It isn't enough to want something for himself, when to have it endangers everything, and some part of him laughs at the fact that here, now, he's learned moderation. He's learned how to give.

"I'm right, aren't I? Why this can't work. I'll go tell them, and sure, they might be sad, but there's got to be other compatible subs out there. I'll help them find them with my amazing technology, problem solved."

"I think," Pepper says, slow, gazing at him like she's not sure how he'll take it, "that you might be their only sub."

"Statistically-" he turns to grab the closest table and do some calculations, and Pepper grabs the edge of his chair and pulls him back to face her.

"Statistically there is no such thing as a five-Dominant bond. Statistically you should be dead. Statistically none of you should exist."

"Well-"

"Tony! Shut up and listen to me."

He shuts up.

"Think about it. What other person in the world could accept them? Do you honestly think anyone else could look at two assassins, a soldier, a- a monster, a god, and be happy to be theirs? Who wouldn't run screaming?"

"I'm sure I can find somebody in the vast shitpile of the Internet who'd be ecstatic," he snaps, and she doesn't flinch.

"You're afraid. I know." She leans their heads together and whispers, a secret, a knife, "I am, too. But you're less afraid than anyone else might be, and maybe that's the key. Maybe that's why it can only be you."

He jerks away, half-snarls, "I'm not afraid." Fucking ridiculous. He flew a goddamn warhead into space, he walks with gods and monsters, he is the farthest thing from afraid it is possible to be.

Pepper arches her brow. "You're building an armor to take on the Hulk. You came back from meeting Thor and designed five more suits that could take him on."

Like that, yeah. Okay. The suit had carried him against Vanko, against Obi, against every fucking thing the world could throw at him, and then he ran headlong into Thor and Bruce and SHIELD and suddenly his armor was a toy. The world had changed. Standards had changed, and he had to keep up, even though in his aching heart he knew he never could.

"So much for being a futurist," he mutters, low and bitter, remembering the forest when Thor swung his hammer into him and smashed every concept of his own strength into the dirt.

"I never wanted you to be a futurist," Pepper says, "because it led you to the suit. I hated the suit. I hated that those people in Afghanistan, that Obadiah, made you so afraid that you felt the need to keep such a thing, to hide yourself away, to keep making more."

Tony glances at the suits, shining and armored and armed, his fear and his mortality weaponized. She's right, like she always is. Ever since Afghanistan, since he was thrust into the grinding jaws of his own mortality, his own frailty, the horrific emptiness of his life up to that point, he's been afraid. So fucking afraid, at the rotten core of him, beneath the suits and the wit and the arrogance.

"And I hate even more that you can't trust the world to be safe. That you can't trust the people around you to be safe. That none of us could ever make you feel safe, no matter how we tried, and you had to turn to armor for it."

"I'm sorry," he forces out through a tight throat, and Pepper shakes her head.

"No, don't apologize. The fault was ours. We couldn't give you what you needed, because you never felt safe enough to be submissive around us. Even me."

He would say sorry, if he could, if 'sorry' was ever enough to make up for the hurt he's caused her.

"Tony," she says, cupping his face, leaning her forehead against his, "this is what I need you to understand." Her voice is thick, her eyes red-rimmed, and her fingers tremble against his cheekbones. "Why we would never have worked out. I couldn't bear to watch you lose yourself to the suit, always going where I couldn't follow, but I could never ask you to stop, to not be Iron Man, because I love you, I love you too goddamn much to keep you from the thing that gives you purpose. I love you too much to ask you to change yourself for my sake."

He squeezes his eyes shut and presses a kiss against her palm, and here, this is how it ends, this is how the locks click shut on them, on what they might have been. "Pepper," his words shudder, "if you had asked, I would have."

She kisses his forehead, and her whisper burns. "I always knew." When she draws away, her smile is watery, and her voice steady. "If you want them, and they want you, I- I think they could be good for you. I think they could accept you, in every aspect, in the way I never could. They might be able to make you feel safe. To love you, and guide you.

"But only if you want them. Only if they're willing to treat you with as much care as you deserve. If you don't, and if they don't respect that," her eyes snap green fire, "I will ruin them, and SHIELD. Not because you need me to, God knows you could do far worse, but because I want to."

"I love you." How fucking lucky is he, to have someone like her on his side?

"I know." She lets him go and sits back in her chair. "Now. Tell me what you're working on and whether we can monetize it."

Tony grins and snags her chair to yank her up beside him, and shows her everything.

Chapter Text

The chicken tikka masala is ruined. Bruce stares at it and doesn't see, breathing steady as he tries to force down the enraged howl of 'mine' resounding in his head. Tony had run from them, had fled them, and in the minutes afterwards they each had felt that fragile new hope growing within them wither and die as Tony tore apart the link between them.

It's the closest Bruce has come to tears since the accident. Natasha, of all of them, had cried. Not much, but Bruce knows her, knows how jealously she guards the hope of one day being trusted by a sub, and the fact of finding one and then having that hope yanked from beneath her has rattled her far more than he thought. Thor had given into anger, low, harsh curses like the sound of calving glaciers rumbling out of him, and Clint had been still, silent, lost.

They tried the elevator, and JARVIS told them no. Said that Tony said that there had been a problem, and he had fixed it.

Steve had gone white. “’Problem?’” He’d echoed. “This- we’re not a problem, JARVIS, we can’t fix anything if he won’t talk to us!”

“Be that as it may, Captain, Mr. Stark has said in no uncertain terms that no one is allowed into his workshop.”

And now they're here, in the kitchen, mourning the loss of something that died before it could begin to live.

"Bruce, come on." Clint grabs him by the shoulder and leads him to the table, pushes him into a chair. "We'll order some take-out."

“I don’t want take-out,” he says, though he knows he sounds petulant. “I want-“

“Tony, I know, so do I and so do they. But he’s down in the lab, and we’re up here, and if I make it through the vents to him then he’ll know we don’t honor his wishes and we’ll all be up shit creek without a paddle.”

“Why did he flee?” Thor asks. Bruce has never seen Thor look so defeated, and he never wants to see it again. “Are we so distasteful?”

“I don’t think it’s that,” Clint says while Natasha orders something for them all from the best greasy spoon in town (Tony had told them about it, and Bruce’s heart aches). “I think… he’s afraid.”

“Of us? Why?” Steve, of course, because only Steve is so fundamentally good that he could be confused by anyone fearing them. “We only want what’s best for him.”

“Yes. But other people who have wanted ‘what’s best for him’ included his father and Obadiah Stane.” Natasha is calm now, steady, waiting, a weapon in the hand ready to be thrown. She places the phone back in its cradle and props one hip against the fridge, arms crossed, eyes on the door. “He has no experience with what we might want from him, or he from us, outside of Stane, and Stane has tainted his conceptions.”

“Besides, there’s the whole ‘held captive for months in Afghanistan’ bit. That was another time he was out of control, and it came with a side dish of torture and death. So add that to the pile.” Clint drums his fingers on the table, admits, “I mean, with Loki, if I were a sub and that was my experience of giving over control, I would be terrified at the prospect, too.”

“I’m just shocked that he would go instantly to destroying the bond.” Bruce fiddles with the frayed take-out menu on the table until Thor reaches over and presses his hands flat so he can’t work himself up anymore. “When he put his walls down, it was- for the first time since the accident I could see hope for something better, something good, and then he took it away.” He laughs. “God, I sound like I’m blaming him. I’m not. I just-“

The click of Pepper’s heels on the floor makes him cut off, and they all turn to see her in the doorway. Her eyes are rimmed with red, she stinks of the workshop – ozone and metal – and to her credit she doesn’t shrink from their gazes, merely comes into the room like she owns it and takes a seat at the island.

“Tony told me what happened,” she says without even a ‘hello,’ her voice even, impossible to read.

“How is he?” Clint blurts. “Is he okay, is there anything we can do?”

“He’ll be fine. He just… has a lot to process. He didn’t expect this; with his history, for him to be able to bond with anyone is improbable.” She tilts her head, looks at them, and something in her expression shifts toward pity.

Bruce is suddenly acutely aware of how wrecked they must all appear.

“And you all?” Pepper asks.

“Not so well,” Steve answers for them all. “He was here, he was open, he was-“ he gestures helplessly, “-ours, and then he was gone, and the only thing I got from him before he broke the connection was that he was afraid.”

“Yes. He is.”

“Of us?”

Pepper’s lips press tight, go pale. “Not necessarily. Of… what you represent. The loss of control. Pain. His own weakness. You’re all superhuman, in your own ways, and since he met you for the first time he’s had to confront the fact that there are some things his genius can’t beat.” She glances upwards at where JARVIS’ cameras are located, then seems to come to a decision and plunges ahead. “He is acutely aware of the fact that outside of his suit, he is fragile, and any one of you could hurt him.”

“We would never.” Thor half-rises from his seat, blue eyes fiery.

“I know. I think he knows, too, intellectually. But the thing about Tony is that he’s far too locked in his own head, and what he knows intellectually doesn’t necessarily correspond with what he knows in his heart.”

“You’re saying he doesn’t trust us,” Clint says, and Bruce has never been so thankful for the archer’s bluntness.

Pepper nods. “Not that way. Not the way you want. But you have to understand, it’s not about you. He doesn’t trust anything or anyone in the world to be safe, other than JARVIS and the bots, and he doesn’t know what it is to feel safe, not after Obi came into his home and stole the reactor. Why do you think he has suits in every home he owns?”

“Pepper,” Bruce says. “Do you think… we have a chance?”

“Maybe. If you don’t push him too hard, and listen to him, and respect his boundaries. If- and this is the most important thing I will ever tell you- you don’t treat him any differently on the field. Outside the tower, on the battlefield, if you exert your power over him, he will never trust you. He’s fought hard to be where he is, and if you try to tell him what he should do with his suits or his company-

You’ll lose him, completely.” She sighs, and offers a tired smile. “And he is an adult, and more than capable of making his own decisions, so I’m not going to say anything more.”

“Understood,” Natasha says, chin lifted, like this is a mission briefing. “When will he emerge from the workshop?”

Pepper shrugs. “He’s had a bit of a breakthrough on miniaturizing repulsor housing, so it could be a while. JARVIS will take care of him.”

Dark waters roil in the back of Bruce’s mind. He should be caring for Tony. They should. But it’s not their place, not yet, maybe not ever.

“If that’s everything, I’m going to head home.” Pepper slides off the chair and heads for the exit, but pauses at the threshold, cuts a glance at them over her shoulder. Her eyes glitter like emeralds, and are just as warm. This is a woman who rules the tech world, who has taken the company Tony gave her and made it the apex predator in the world economic sea, and Bruce wants, very badly, never to be on her bad side. “Be careful, all of you. I care for you, but my highest loyalty is always to Tony, and if you harm him, I will end you.” A flat statement of fact before she turns and leaves the kitchen behind, and takes all the air in the room with her.

Clint, as always, speaks first. “So. We still doing this?”

Bruce fights down the impulse to snarl at the implication that they wouldn’t, that any of them would abandon Tony when he’s hurting and afraid, but as he looks closer at Clint he sees the tense muscle jumping in the archer’s jaw.

Clint doesn’t want to abandon Tony. Clint wants to be told that it’s okay not to, when he comes from a world where everyone operates under the assumption that when the time comes, they too may be abandoned for the greater good.

Natasha takes Clint’s hand, their fingers curling together in a lovely picture. “Yes, Clint. We are.”

“Aye,” Thor says.

Steve nods, and finally, so does Bruce.

They might not know the end of this road, but they’ll walk it just the same.

-

It’s very late, the windows streaked with rain, when Tony comes to them, appearing in the doorway and trailing the smell of smoke and ozone. He’s just showered, and his damp hair sticks up in black tufts, the collar of his T-shirt wet, and Steve tenses at the sight, at how much he wants to taste the hollow of Tony’s throat.

The conversation cuts out. Clint places the video game controller aside carefully, and Thor closes his book of Langston Hughes (apparently he finds the resemblance of poetry to Asgardian sagas comforting).

“We weren’t expecting you back so soon,” Bruce says, peering at Tony over the edge of his physics journal. “Pepper said you’d had a breakthrough.”

Tony waves a hand in the air. “Small one, not very interesting, and it’ll be a bitch to mass-produce, though if I can get it working it might allow the Helicarrier to make turns without requiring the entire airspace of fucking Rhode Island to do it in.” He lingers in the doorway, then enters the room and drops onto one of the available couches, seeming unconscious of the way their gazes all follow him. “So. I suppose we should talk about the pachyderm in the room.”

“Pachyderm?” Thor inquires with a look that suggests the Allspeak must be malfunctioning.

“Elephant. Midgardian expression. The fact that my metaphysical bullshit and all your metaphysical bullshit apparently want to get together and make an Intro to Philosophy class.”

Thor doesn’t look as if this is clearing up anything for him.

“The bond,” Tony finishes. “Or the attempt at one, which will not be happening again.”

“Are you sure?” Natasha says from where she’s curled in an armchair, feet tucked beneath her sweatpants. She looks unruffled by the verbal punch to the gut Tony’s delivered, and thank God for it, because Steve doesn’t think he has the will to speak at the moment. “You don’t even want to try?”

Tony gives her a sardonic stare. “Need I enumerate all the reasons that would be a terrible idea, starting with the fact that we are Earth’s last line of defense? There’s a reason there are fraternization regulations.”

“Not in SHIELD.” Clint turns to face Tony completely, and Steve has to laugh at the sad irony of it all, that they’re supposed to have all the answers, the power, and yet they’re sitting here begging their potential sub to give them that power. Which, yes, is the way it’s supposed to work, but it doesn’t make it any easier. “And I gotta say, it’s pretty amazing to have you be the only one caring about regulations.”

“Wait.” Tony frowns. “You… don’t care? Even Steve?” His incisive gaze snaps to Steve, and Steve wants, so badly, so much it terrifies him, to show Tony how to kneel, how to slip into being a sub without fear, how to trust him, and he can’t, and it guts him.

“A regulation that tries to keep me from you is a regulation I am entirely comfortable ignoring,” Steve manages.

Tony’s fingers dig into his own knees, white-knuckled, and Clint makes a distressed noise but doesn’t move from his sprawl on the floor, unwilling to end this moment. Tony swallows, his gaze darting among them. “You. You can’t still want this. Me.”

“We do, Tony. We are not cowards, to be scared off by your history,” Thor says. His eyes blaze white-blue, and it is so easy, sometimes, to forget that he isn’t human. “I have waited for you for centuries, and only if you tell me that there is no hope will I cease.”

Tony jerks up from the couch and strides to the bar, where he makes himself a drink with what is, in Steve's opinion, far too much alcohol. But none of them have any control over Tony- not yet- and trying to exert it now will only drive him away.

He isn't meeting their eyes. He just gazes out at New York below, the bright lights strung out and small like seed pearls cast across black velvet, and sips his drink, and only someone as skilled with body language as Steve could spot the tension in his rigid shoulders.

Silence stretches between them. Steve glances at the others, all of whom are watching Tony with different levels of expectation. The click of glass on marble makes him turn back.

Tony's drained the glass, set it aside, and now he speaks to the dark outside the window, his thumbs hooked into the pockets of his pants.

"I wasn't expecting that." In the glass, his reflection's mouth twists in something too empty and sad to be a smile. "And I feel sorry for you."

"Why?" Natasha's question is immediate.

Tony sighs. "So we're compatible. So your DNA tells you you need me, that I'm a good partner, that I have what you need. Trust me, if there's anything I've learned about DNA-" he rolls his shoulders in an irritable twitch, "-it's that your body betrays you. It's weak. It fails. You shouldn't trust it, not if it tells you I'm your best choice." He half-turns, then, glances at them over one shoulder.

"I'm cranky and selfish and obsessive. I need too much from the people around me, too much attention, too much love, too much physical contact. I don't listen when I should and talk when I shouldn't. As for health reasons we shouldn't do this-" his laugh breaks Steve's heart, "-I can't lie on my front because the reactor puts pressure on the front of my spine if I do. I can't have my knees against my sternum, same reason. I lost thirty percent lung capacity when they vivisected me, to say nothing of the fact that most of the upper right chamber of my heart is compressed against the core. So if you get me too wound up, I'll pass out, and that just ruins it for everybody."

Tony turns fully, jaw firm, and even as he recites his own list of horror there's no self-pity in him, no demand for understanding, just the pitiless will of a man who has built himself, flawed as he is, into something better than human. "The arc reactor housing is a lot better than a magnet and a car battery, for a whole host of reasons, but it doesn't change the fact that half my chest has been hacked up. Yinsen was a great guy, great doctor, but in the conditions he was working in he wasn't able to pay as much attention to pain management as he wanted."

For a moment Steve can hear Tony's teeth grind against each other.

"I'm in constant pain from the way they made him botch it. A whole fucking swath of nerves in my chest cavity that haven't gotten the memo that hey, surgery's over, we survived, you can stop telling me that I'm cut open on a rock slab in the middle of fucking Afghanistan any time now."

Bruce inhales. Green tinges his skin. "They've never found treatment for you?"

Tony shrugs. Bitterness swamps his voice. "I've been to the best pain doctors in the country. I've tried everything, and everything that works stops cutting it after a while. Even Fentanyl."

"That's for end-stage cancer patients," Bruce says.

"Yeah, well. It worked the longest out of everything, then I stopped responding." Tony doesn't even sound upset: just accepting. Accepting of the fact that he has to exist in constant pain, in constant hallucination of... of vivisection. "All that to say that if you wanted to do anything painful to me- flogging, bloodplay, predicament bondage- my pain threshold has been artificially heightened so much that I'm a really fucking bad judge of when pain crosses the line to harmful."

Clint cocks his head. "Is that why you're always checking out of medical against advice?"

Tony glances at him, and there is nothing in his eyes. "One reason, yeah. I'm going to be in pain whether I'm in or out, might as well be at home working."

Thor shifts in his chair. "None of these reasons seem sufficient to dim my affection for you, Tony."

"What, that I have the personality of a sack of pissed cats and a list of medical problems as long as my leg?"

“None of it,” Thor says, all thunder in his voice, the weight of centuries. “Let us try, Tony. This bond is not permanent for Midgardians, yes? You can break it if you wish?”

“Already proven that, big guy. You said Midgardians. What about Asgardians?”

Thor shakes his head. “Permanent. On Asgard, the completion of the bond is an oath.”

Tony stares at Thor. “And you would still want me, even knowing what I’m like? That my end of the bond is fucked up and broken, and it might not work between us?”

“Yes,” Thor says, no hesitation.

“And the rest of you?”

They all nod, and Tony’s shoulders slump. He sighs, and when he looks at them there is something approaching warmth in his expression.

“You’re all fucking insane, but- if you still want me in all my ridiculousness, then. Okay. We can try.”

Steve feels the bond settle back into place, warm and comforting and beautiful like every artwork he has ever loved, and he gets up with the others, and they go to Tony, and it feels, fragile as it is, like a worthy beginning.

Chapter Text

Clint slouches deep into the cushions of the couch and grunts only a bit as Thor's feet land in his lap. It's the day after Tony, finally, for once, let something fucking good happen for him, and now they've actually got to talk about it. Because Clint is so fucking good at talking. Still, he's not irresponsible, and it'd be seven kinds of hell if any of them tried anything with Tony without discussing it first. Safe and sane and consensual, that's them.

"Hey, JARVIS, can you tell Tony we'd like to talk to him?" Bruce looks up at one of the cameras, and JARVIS responds,

"Of course. He's just returned from his meeting with SI executives and will be there momentarily."

Tony strides into the room in his usual 'fuck the world' fashion, taking off his sunglasses, shutting them with a flick, and tucking them into the pocket of his suit. His gaze flicks over them all, his expression closed, tense.

"What's up?"

"We thought we should probably hammer out the expectations for this," Clint starts, and twists to pick up a cushion, "-so if you'll kneel-"

Before he can even finish the sentence Tony's gone crashing to his knees on the wood with an awful echoing crack of bone. It's violent, and pain tightens his expression for a second before he stuffs it down and settles onto his heels, gazing downward.

Steve winces and Bruce starts from his chair.

"-on this cushion," Clint finishes, too late. "Tony? Look at us."

He does, wary.

"Did Stane tell you to kneel immediately no matter where you were?" Natasha says.

Tony swallows, glances at each of them. His fingers curl into his palms. His voice betrays no fear, no hesitation, but the question is enough. "I'm allowed to speak?"

"I didn't think anyone could stop you," Clint says, and immediately regrets it, but Tony's grin warms him through.

"Obadiah didn't let you speak?" Thor sits up, eyes flashing, and Mjolnir rocks atop the coffee table. "I would find this man in Hel and demand he explain himself."

"Already killed him, and I don’t think he was Nordic pagan. But yeah, those were his rules. He said 'kneel,' I did it immediately as long as we were in private. I didn't meet his eyes, and I didn't talk. I could shake or nod my head, but that was it."

Clint tosses him the cushion, and Tony catches it, then looks at the rest of them for permission. They nod, and he slides it beneath his knees and settles down onto it with a sigh. He still doesn't look comfortable, still tense, still wary, and Clint wishes he could fist his hand in Tony's unruly hair and pull his cheek against Clint's thigh, hold him there until he settles into it. "Thanks. How exactly is this going to work, by the way? You guys all agree on some rules, you have separate rules I follow when I'm only with one of you, both? Because I have to tell you, remembering a list of changing regulations in my off hours isn't exactly my idea of a good time."

Bruce sits forward, elbows on his knees, and laces his fingers beneath his chin. "Why don't we start with your rules for us?"

Tony blinks. "If you want."

"We do."

Tony relaxes a bit, brow furrowing in thought. "I'm okay with saliva, semen, blood in small amounts. Other bodily fluids, absolutely not."

He glances at them, like his preferences need their approval, like they might take it at anything other than face value, and Clint wants to find a punching bag and beat it into the wall. He settles for nodding encouragingly.

"I don't like humiliation." Tony's expression goes glacial. He looks away. "I don't like being told that I'm stupid, or slow, or not trying hard enough. I got enough of that from my father and Obi."

"Oh, Tony," Steve says, his expression so pained Clint can barely look. "We'd never do that to you."

"I don't like Daddy kink. Some people have tried it with me, thought it'd be a healing experience or whatever, and I get why they thought it, but it doesn't work for me." He shrugs, half-hearted, and finally looks back at them.

"This is the most important bit. It might be a deal-breaker on our little trial period, I don't know. If it is, no harm, no foul." He hesitates, and their silence encourages him to finally spit it out. "I can only submit to you in private, in the Tower. Not out in public, not on the battlefield. Your power over me ends at the entrance to our home."

There's a long silence. Clint glances around the room for the others' reactions, because, for all that he understands Tony's perspective, the idea goes against everything their society says about how relationships work: that a relationship means nothing when either party decides they can just opt out of it. He can't lie, the idea of being in public, or in a debriefing, and seeing Tony being self-destructive or putting himself down, and being unable to stop him or help him: it rankles.

"Would you be willing to renegotiate that term at a later date?" Natasha asks. "After you've grown comfortable with our dynamic? I wouldn't call your desire to be private a deal-breaker, but I would like, at some point in the future, to try dominating you in public."

Tony shifts on the cushion, drums his fingers on his knees. "Would it help if I explained why I'd have such a hard time with it?"

"Yeah," Clint says.

"Okay. I mean, there's the whole thing of how I have a hard time submitting at all. It's a struggle for me, and when I'm down there I feel very-" he flushes, avoids their gazes, "-exposed. I'm not comfortable with that feeling, and doing it in public, I read it as a threat. Everyone's a threat. It's part of what they taught us. That we have to hide that part of us, because we will be manipulated. And I was the heir to a multi-million dollar company, so of course they spent a lot of time on that with me."

Steve growls, and Tony glances at him with fond, ironic regard. "Calm yourself, big man. It's over. And I guess the other thing is-" Tony pauses, and his eyes go unfocused, "-how many of you ever heard of Rosalind Franklin?"

Clint has no idea, and it's only Bruce that tilts his head and says, "The DNA researcher?"

"Yeah. Long story short, she was a researcher at King's College, London, who did a lot of imaging work with DNA molecules. She figured out the double-helix structure, and the images that she took got passed to Watson and Crick, who used them in their paper that announced the discovery of DNA. Watson and Crick got all the credit and Nobel Prizes, and Franklin got nothing. She died young, and even today most people don't know about her."

"Forgive me my confusion, Tony," Thor says, "but I don't understand the connection."

Tony smiles, and it's a terrible, sad twist of an expression. "There's a reason I don't talk much about my mother. She and my father met at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Dad was working on the engineering of the bombs, she was employed as a 'computer' to do these really long and boring calculations on the punch-card machines they had back then. It was the closest she could get to real cutting-edge science, because she was a sub. She was intelligent: a genius when it came to nuclear physics, same way my dad was with engineering. Anyway, she ended up finding a mistake in the calculations they'd made in preparation for the Trinity tests. Even though the scientists weren't supposed to tell the support staff what they were working on, she knew, and just by looking at pure numbers devoid of much context she understood that Trinity was going to be stronger than they thought. Just before they took the prototype out to blow it up she found my dad, some guy she didn't know, and forced him to look at the calculations."

"Impressive." Bruce leans forward, the maniacal glow of 'science' in his eyes. "So she saved Oppenheimer and all the rest."

Tony shrugs. "I don't know about 'saving' them. She never put it that way. But she did find a crucial flaw in the programs they were using for predicting radiation output that would have doomed the project if they hadn't found it. Anyway, Dad was impressed, because good fucking God, a sub doing that? So he starts wining and dining her, and she goes along with it, because Dad could be charming. Plus, you know, he was the first Dom to ever think her intelligence worth something. They get married the day after the bomb falls on Nagasaki, and my mother, who thought that my father would support her in her ambitions to develop hydrogen bombs... she found out the hard way that what he thought was impressive, even cute, in an unclaimed sub, he wouldn't tolerate in his wife. So even though she contributed massively to the successful creation of the bomb, even though she liked to tell me that the bomb and I were brothers and she was the mother of the atomic age, she never got one solitary fucking ounce of credit.

"So she drank, and took pills, and when I presented as a sub and my dad decided I should be sent away, she agreed, because she never wanted me to be prevented from succeeding the way she felt she had been. I didn't 'come out' as a sub until after they both died. I figured it was the last thing I could do for them."'

Tony shifts on his knees and winces. "Permission to change position? I wouldn't usually ask, but my knees aren't what they once were."

"Granted," Bruce says, and Tony gives him a grateful smile and drops into a cross-legged position on the cushion.

"So that's my reasoning. I would be open to discussing it more in the future, if you want to. Right now, it would be... difficult. There's a difference between people knowing you're a sub and displaying it in public. Like I said, if that's a deal-breaker for any of you, no harm, no foul."

"Fine with me," Clint says, and the others concur.

Tony frowns, searches their faces, and Clint's chest aches a little more at the confirmation that Tony still doesn't trust them to be honest with him. Still, he doesn't belabor the point, only moves on to the next.

"As for bondage, leather's alright, metal isn't. I like rope." His eyes darken, his voice going smoky. "Pretty much anything you do with rope, I'll enjoy." Tony leans back on one hand, and the cloth at his groin pulls tight over a semi-erection that makes Clint's mouth water. "Those are all the rules I can think of. If you have any questions," he shrugs in a languorous roll of his shoulders and gives them a narrow smile, because if there's anything Tony knows it's that he always looks good, "I'm an open book."

"Any edgeplay?" Bruce perches at the edge of his chair like a hawk waiting to dive, predatory intent etched in every line of him.

"Knives are fine, if I can see them. I like fireplay, if any of you do that."

It turns out none of them have any experience, but Natasha offers without hesitation to learn, and the badly-hidden shock melting into gratitude on Tony's face makes Clint want to snatch him up and tie him to his bed and never fucking let him leave, never let him back out into a world that could make him think that Doms offering to learn something for his sake is bizarre.

"How about pain?" Clint asks. "Play piercing?"

A shiver ripples over Tony's skin, and it takes him a moment to respond. "Yes."

"Blindness?" There's sparks flickering on Thor's fingers where they're digging into the couch, and if they don't all calm down soon Clint is going to have to go get the hose.

Tony takes a moment to think about it. "Not combined with earplugs or bondage at first, but open to renegotiation later."

"We think that immediately going to a scene with all six of us together would be overwhelming, so our plan was to each do a scene with you, over a week or two, and if that works and if you're comfortable, maybe moving forward from there? Expanding it to a 24/7 thing while in the Tower?" Steve looks, if Clint's honest, adorably excited about the entire thing; Tony's his first sub, and while the Captain had a lot more experience than most people would think - he was a soldier, after all, and soldiers tend to pick up knowledge - he's confessed that he can't wait to try a scene with someone who belongs to him.

Tony nods. "Fine with me."

Natasha, who's been still, moves to place one delicate foot on the floor, drawing everyone's attention. "There is one thing we've been remiss in covering. Safewords."

The mood changes instantly as Tony sits up straight, shoulders rigid. His mouth twists in derision. "Don't need them. We're all adults, and I'm not some shrinking sub on prom night. Whatever you throw at me, I can handle it."

Natasha's expression is sadder than Clint has ever seen it, and he knows he doesn't look much better. "Tony," she says, "Antosha, it isn't about how much you can take. It never has been. We know your strength, and our concern for safewords isn't about demeaning that, or you; it's for us. We cannot move forward unless we are all assured that you can say no if you need to, and that you will respect us if we safeword. Even if you came to us with a long string of Doms behind you, I would still want safewords, Antosha."

Tony remains stiff, and Clint almost holds his breath, hoping that this isn't the hill Tony's chosen to die on. It takes an age before Tony bends, and his nod is surly.

"Alright. The standard 'red, yellow, green.' Who goes first and when?"

Thor rises from his seat and crosses the room to Tony in two great strides, sinking to one knee in front of him. "That would be me, svass," Thor rumbles, low and dark, reverberating in Clint's chest, and reaches out to curl one massive hand around Tony's neck and draw him forward into a hard kiss. Tony leans into it, but keeps his hands down, and when Thor draws away, he's blinking and breathing hard.

"Tonight, my quarters," Thor says. "I look forward to seeing you in my bed."

Chapter Text

It's later than Tony meant it to be, when he finally washes up at Thor's door, but it's taken him so long to work up an ounce of calm that he can't really feel bad about it. He shifts his weight from one leg to the other, drums his fingers on his thigh, takes a few deep breaths that make his chest ache, and then finally raps on the unassuming door.

Thor swings it open immediately, and how fucking great is that, that he's probably been waiting here for Tony and wondering whether he was going to show at all? Apologies swell in Tony's throat, and then Thor reaches out, circles his wrist in one massive hand, and draws him in.

Tony takes a moment to glance about the room. He hasn't been in it since he approved the interior decorator's work, but it warms his black little heart to see how much Thor's made it his own. The windows are drawn, the only light a warm lamp in the corner casting the whole room in gold. There's a stack of books by the low bed, Mjolnir atop the simple wooden headboard, paintings and knicknacks from Asgard strewn on the walls and shelves, and there's Thor, who takes up every room he's in, in T-shirt and sleeping pants, delighted smile lighting up his face.

"Be welcome," Thor says, and pulls Tony into his arms, cups his chin in one hand and tilts him up into a kiss.

Tony pours all his pent-up anxiety and energy into it, grabs onto the back of Thor's shirt and hangs on for dear life, stretches onto his toes because Thor is basically the fucking Empire State building. Thor can kiss, which shouldn't be a surprise, but he's taking all of Tony's need, the way he catches Thor's lower lip between his teeth and bites just a little bit, without a whimper. It's been so long since Tony's been touched in this context, and this is so goddamn good, the heavy warmth of Thor's hands on his chin, his waist. Right now everything is warm and wonderful and joyous, and the wonder of it all soaks into his bones, eases the omnipresent pain.

Thor's grip tightens on Tony's jaw, and he eases him back and away, ignoring Tony's petulant noise. He's staring into Tony's eyes, all patience and puzzlement. "You're anxious tonight, svass," he observes, and there's no judgment in it.

Tony could fucking weep. "It's... been a really long time," he manages, and hates the near-crack in his voice.

Thor sweeps his other hand up Tony's spine, curls it about the back of his neck, heavy and comforting. "Shall I help you settle?"

"Please."

Thor looks him up and down, including the arc reactor yet not lingering on it, and then lets go of him and steps away, and Tony finds himself swaying towards him and making a low noise of want.

"Peace," Thor says, and pulls a silvery fur of some sort off the end of his bed. He folds it into a cushion and drops it on the floor before the overstuffed armchair he's claimed as his reading spot, if the empty mugs and dog-eared Wells by the chair are any indication. Thor takes a seat and beckons Tony over with a crooked finger, and Tony goes. How could he not, when Thor looks at him like that, his gaze a shock to every inch of exposed skin, his mouth bruised and curled in a commanding smile?

Tony halts just before the fur, and Thor says, "Strip and kneel, Anthony, and after I've eased your burden, we can discuss tonight." Like he's some feudal lord, and Tony his loyal vassal.

This part is always the hardest. Tony looks good. He always has, has always been the most handsome guy in the room, but that was before the reactor, and the scars, and the nights he's seen revulsion in a partner's eyes. He can't muster the energy to make this a show, not when in some ways the audience is still unknown. His fingers fumble at the fly of his jeans, cold and trembling - anxiety, fucking anxiety - but he gets them open, shoves them down his hips, kicks them to one side. He's not hard yet, hard to be when stress hormones are running riot through the system, but Thor doesn't comment, so he pushes his briefs off as well.

Thor sinks back in his chair, rests his ankle on his other knee, and meets Tony's eyes. Like it's so easy for him, to just sit there and watch, to order Tony around like he's some fucking child, like he can't handle himself.

Tony's frozen, fingers curled about the hem of his shirt, and his heart thunders in his ears. Pain lances through his chest, and he yanks the shirt up and over his head to cover the twitch in his cheek, tosses it aside and stands in the middle of the room, fingers balled into fists and staring at Thor like he can fucking burn a hole in Thor's head with his eyes.

Maybe he should stick some repulsors in the suit's eyes, be like Superman.

His chest is a vise. His lungs and his heart strain against the thick white ropes of scar tissue that spider out from the reactor and dig in invasive webs between his ribs. He can't stop shaking or get a handle on his breathing. Fucking pathetic.

Thor's gaze flicks to the thick animal fur on the ground.

Tony goes to fling himself down, but Thor forestalls him with an upraised hand.

"Hold. I would not have you hurt yourself. Gently."

It takes a lot out of him not to grind his teeth in instinctive resentment, but he does it. The fur doesn't feel like anything he's ever touched, thick and somehow warm with its own heat. He settles, Thor's attention a living thing on his skin, and stares at his own knees, bruised and dirty against shining silver. His breathing wheezes. He fucking hates this.

Thor's hand settles in his hair, fists at the back of his head. The pain is a momentary warm throb, new and pleasant in its novelty against the backdrop of constant ache. Thor spreads his legs, hems him in between powerful thighs. He tenses, spine prickling with the urge to pull back, but Thor pulls him sideways and into his left leg with inexorable strength, and he has to fight the urge to fling out a hand, to trust Thor not to let him fall.

"Good," Thor says, low, warm, like he sees something in Tony worth being loved.

Tony hangs there, supported by Thor's solidity, and slowly, painfully, lets the tension seep from his neck, tries to fit his side to Thor's calf, the side of his face to the broad expense of his thigh. Cloth is soft and warm against his cheek, and the smell of Thor - ozone and sweat and something alien - makes him want to close his eyes and luxuriate in it. His temples spike with the threat of a migraine, with how he'd usually grind his teeth at the merest hint of submission.

"Now you're angry as well," Thor says, and there's still no annoyance in him. "What vexes you?"

Tony rolls his shoulders, pushes back into Thor's hand to feel the way Thor stands his ground. It's good, this lack of control, and everything in him should hate this, and he doesn't, and he's even more infuriated that he doesn't. "I'm not supposed to like this. This makes me-" he half-snarls, involuntary, and fights the urge to stand up and stride from the room, but then the choice is taken as Thor's other leg closes about his shoulders and traps him, "-weak, useless. You could do anything to me if I let myself go."

"No, I could not." Thor's grip on his hair gentles, powerful hand slipping down to press at the hard knots of tension at the base of his skull. "They taught you wrongly. There are some who might treat you thus, such as this Obadiah, but I would not. I would have you only in the ways you accept and wish it, and so would the others. You are a gift, Tony, and only those who deserve nothing of such trust would misuse it."

Tony exhales all the air he's trapped in his lungs - it's hard to remember to breathe, when he starts freaking out like this - and leans hard into Thor. "Okay. Yeah." Maybe someday he'll convince himself to believe it. Thor hits a stubborn knot and he groans in gratitude as it dissolves, peering up at Thor through his eyelashes.

Thor's gazing down at him, something possessive, and, and fond, and grateful in the lines around his eyes, and Tony wishes he were better, easier, gentler.

"Cease," Thor says. "You're perfect as you are."

"You reading my mind?" Tony mumbles, daring to lift one arm and drape it over Thor's leg, list into him.

Thor allows it, his laugh soft and low. "No. I merely know you."

Tony grunts and closes his eyes. There's a flash, the smell of dampness and the sound of dripping water. His shoulders go tight, and he hangs there for a moment, trapped in indecision between opening his eyes or letting his muscles stay contracted, but then Thor takes that choice away by running one thumb over his shoulders and digging deep to persuade the knots to unwind. Tony shifts on his knees, fights to allow his shoulders to drop, his breathing to slow.

Thor waits. Because he's Thor, and near-immortal, and for whatever godforsaken reason he thinks Tony's worth his attention.

There's anxiety in him still, a deep tight knot in his chest at the idea of being known so completely. For now he can ignore it and let most of his fear drop onto Thor's shoulders, confident that Thor can carry the weight.

"I'm sorry I'm so difficult," he says instead, and Thor's grip tightens. Thor shakes him, just a bit, and Tony huffs out a breath and opens his eyes to glare at Thor.

Thor's staring back at him, a deep furrow between his brows. "I would not have you otherwise, Anthony. The best treasures are those you must fight to win, not those acquired easily. Their rarity makes them all the more valuable. I find your submission worthy, not because you find it easy, but precisely because you find it difficult. Because you rely on me to help you win it." He leans down and takes Tony's mouth in a bruising kiss, licking into him and refusing to let him reciprocate, grip tightening to the point of pain when he tries and easing when Tony lets him take.

Tony digs his fingers into his knees when Thor draws away, beard rasping against his stubble, to keep from reaching for his cock, filling now and drawing a damp smear across his belly.

Thor pins him with a dark stare, the color of his eyes like an approaching storm. "Do you understand now, Anthony? Or must I heat your arse with my hand until you promise not to misjudge yourself so?"

Tony holds back his whine with an effort, shifts on the furs. "That... would not be a punishment."

Thor smiles slow, says, his voice rolling across Tony's skin and leaving him shivering in its wake, "Trust me, Tony. I know my strength well enough that I can have you begging for me to stop or pleading for me to continue. If I will it to be a punishment, it will be."

Tony's eyes go, near-unwilling, to Thor's free hand atop his knee, square, long-fingered and heavy. Okay, yeah. He can see that.

"Now. Is there anything else I can do to help you fall?" Thor inquires. He lets go of Tony's hair and lounges back in his chair, and Tony watches the cloth of his sweats draw tight over one of the most impressive cocks he's ever seen and feels sick with longing. And, yes, avoidance of the question, because it's been a long time since he's thought about it, and the idea of telling someone how to manipulate him, in so many words, still jars.

He licks his lips, and feels a thrill of power at the way Thor's gaze goes straight to his mouth. "Some pain helps. A little sensory deprivation. You mentioned blindfolds, earlier?"

"I did." Thor looks at him, thoughtful, then smiles his disarming grin and nods, half to himself. "Very well. Here is what I propose. I will blindfold and clamp you, then take you atop my lap and plug you. I have some toys which are hot and cold, so I may play with that pretty cock of yours. I will ask that you not move, though I will not bind you. And after you have come, I will carry you to my bed and fuck you. Are you amenable to this, or have anything you wish to add?"

Tony stares. "Well, now that you've taken the surprise out of it," he manages, though Thor's grin doesn't dim at his attempt at sarcasm.

Instead, he leans down and takes Tony's mouth again in a kiss so sweet Tony's eyes burn. He pulls back and whispers, "I would not have you harmed for any treasure in the nine realms, Tony, and especially not by my hand. In the future, perhaps, when we have built trust between us we will not discuss it so, but that is not this day. If you accept this plan, tell me your safe words."

Tony inhales, then blows out a long breath, meeting Thor's eyes. "Red, yellow, green. Can I add something?"

"Of course." Thor straightens, seriousness shading his expression.

"I took some pain meds before I came, but if I have any breakthrough pain, I'll say yellow. There's a packet of pills in the back pocket of my jeans with the instructions on them. Once I have a dose in me, it'll take about ten minutes for them to kick in, but I should be good to go after that." He fights not to cringe as he speaks. He's used to his partners, the few he's taken since Afghanistan, looking at him either as a drug addict or some sort of pitiable child too incompetent to consent when he's medicated, never mind the fact that he's far more reasonable when his pain is semi-manageable than otherwise. It's one of the reasons he can be so cranky, when the choice is between being gutted with phantom pain or looked at as a kid.

Thor merely nods. "I understand. I shall get them now so I may have them close to hand. Stay where you are." He rises from his chair, steps around Tony, and disappears behind him to find his cast-off jeans. His shadow grows tall on the warm cream-tinted walls, colored pale gold in the lamplight, and Tony fixes his gaze on it.

It's easier not to tense when he can see the shadow, can predict what Thor is doing even when he can't see him. In the dark, in the cave, there had been pain, often unpredictable, and the fear has worn its way into his muscles, his bones, rises now to tighten his chest. The shadow bends, picks up the jeans, goes through his pocket.

Breathe in. Count backwards from five. Breathe out. Count.

The shadow moves again, and Thor comes back in front of him, pills in hand, and sets them on the side table. He settles back into his chair and picks up something black and soft and tasseled from the table, stretches it between his hands: the blindfold.

Tony's gaze darts to it and stays there. He forces his hands to relax.

"Steady," Thor whispers, as he reaches forward and the blindfold slithers about Tony's head, tightens over his eyes.

Breathe. This is not the cave, with its shadows and its serpents, the wind moaning cold where it slices through rock. There is no bucket rimed with ice. No rope leaves his hands aching.

Thor says something, but it's not Thor, it's Fahd and Iskandar, making their way at dawn and dusk through the caverns. They could be coming with bad coffee and worse lamb, to ask him in their halting ways about his life back in America, about the world he knows that they never will, or they could be coming with rope, with the bucket, with the jumper cables and the car batteries. That'd been the worse part, that he'd never known whether they would be kind, would be hurtful, and even through all that there had been moments when he'd felt such stabs of pity for his jailers-

He'd killed them anyway. Fahd's blasted face, the stench of roasting meat-

He jerks up from his position on his heels, and Thor's hands drop from where they cup the back of his head to his shoulders, but they rest lightly, don't force him, wait for him to choose.

He lets his head fall to one side to trap Thor's hand between his cheek and his shoulder. "Thor. Thor, talk to me."

"Aye." Thor's voice pierces the dark, the memory. He turns his hand over to cup Tony's cheek, his thumb warm against the heavy thunder of Tony's blood in his temple. "Easy, astin min. Calm. You are so good for me, and so pleasing where you kneel on my furs. Were I a warrior in my own halls, I would keep you thus, my treasure only. I know this is hard for you, and I'm so proud of you, to have you try so hard for me. Settle, svass, slow your breaths."

Tony listens, and for all that he's sneered at the idea of being so easily calmed by words, letting his mind- which is, after all, the only thing of worth he has- fall into thrall to someone, the damned thing is that Thor's words work. He shudders, and the images of broken bodies, bloody abstractions, disappear from the darkness before his eyes. Slowly, painfully, forcing his jaw to relax, he eases back down onto his heels.

“All right.” He squares his shoulders, and though this isn’t exactly the sort of battle most people think of, in some ways he’s won a victory here, and Thor will be his reward. “I’m ready.”

Chapter Text

Thor's hands leave him in the dark. He shifts. Something metallic rattles against something else, the sound sharp: a chain against the table. He struggles to keep his hands open, relax into the dark, into trusting Thor.

Fingers trace the edge of the arc reactor, the sensation tangled, strange, mangled nerves firing and the signal getting jumbled up. It's not bad, not good, but piercing, incites a muscle low in his side to spasm, and so he whispers, "Yellow."

A pause. Thor's fingers draw away. "Pain?"

"No. It's just- it doesn't hurt, but it's intense. I don't know how to interpret it."

Thor makes a low sound of understanding, circles the callused tips of his fingers towards one of Tony's nipples.

Tony arches his back into it, sighs a little as the scratch of Thor's fingers is replaced by the brush of his hair. Warmth coils at the base of his spine, draws tight as Thor's hand is replaced with his mouth, the rough scrape of his beard, hot beyond human potential and near-electric. He half-lifts a hand, forces it back down.

It's hard not to beg, as Thor kisses and pinches and sucks until he's panting with it, shivering with the urge to roll his hips down into the furs to get some friction. The constant ache of his chest dims, dulls, subsumed beneath the novelty and the joy of... feeling good, for the first time in so long. He is impure metal and Thor is the forge, finding the dross in him and separating it out, casting it away.

The clamps settle onto him, the pressure warm and deep, and drag another noise out, a long exhale that gives way to a whine. His cock jerks, paints a damp trail across his belly. He hears himself. There's a moment of bone-deep horror at the sheer vulnerability of the noise, of him giving in like this, at what he must look like. The image of himself that springs to mind is vicious: himself, all his scars in high definition-

Then Thor reaches down, hands warm and firm about his elbows, and lifts him up and astride his thighs without even a grunt of effort. It's dizzying, the physical presence of him: the warmth radiating from him, the smell of sweat tinged with alien fire. The press of his thighs against the bottom of Tony's cock inflames him. He settles his hands gingerly atop Thor's shoulders, and when Thor doesn't say anything, leaves them there.

Tony rocks forward, encounters Thor's bare skin. The shirt must've come off at some point while he was blindfolded. Yes, this is good- he can be useful like this. He kisses the dip of Thor's neck, noses down into the crinkle of hair across his chest, dares to try his teeth against the hard ridge of a collarbone.

Thor is relaxed beneath him, one hand heavy about the back of his neck. A sigh rumbles in Thor's chest, against Tony's lips. Encouraging. Tony marks his path up over the strong line of Thor's neck, nips at his jaw, finally finds his mouth. He hesitates, then- Thor doesn't come off as traditionalist, but the last thing he wants to do is overstep some boundary-

Thor's lips part, and the dull warmth of the clamps sharpens, grows bright as Thor pulls at the chain, urges Tony forward into his body.

Tony takes it as permission, licks into Thor's mouth. Thor's letting himself be kissed, letting Tony take the lead, but the fucking massiveness of his shoulders, the coiled strength beneath Tony's hands, make it all too obvious that Thor can take charge at any moment. He's like some massive cat, heavy-lidded and rumbling, content to let the kitten play at being a lion. Tony shivers at the image, but it's a good one, safe, in some strange ways.

The pressure on the chain eases. Tony sits back. "Good?" He hates himself the moment he asks the question. God, so fucking needy, like every bad stereotype of a sub that needs reassurance every five seconds and can't order a goddamn meal without checking in first.

Thor's voice, deep and dark as storm clouds, is edged with tension. "Very good. A question, astin min."

"Yeah?" Tony draws his legs up, folds them so he's kneeling on the chair, most of his weight on Thor's legs. He's a massive guy, he can take it.

"If I were to hold you like so-" Thor demonstrates, wrapping an arm that feels solid as rebar about the bottom of Tony's ribcage, "-as to hold you upright, would that harm you?"

Tony breathes deep. His ribs expand against Thor's arm: warm, immovable as stone. "Mm, no. It should be all right, just don't hold me too tightly."

Thor urges him forward and up, and Tony goes up onto his knees, steadies himself with his hands on Thor's shoulders. Something rustles to his left, he stiffens, and Thor takes his mouth in a brutal kiss, the first updraft of fear tamped down again.

Something metallic, warm with body-heat, already slick, traces down Tony's spine, slips down, catches at his rim.

Oh. Tony's thighs tremble with the urge to sink down. He shifts. The arm wrapped about his waist tightens a bit, and his cock brushes against the back of Thor's forearm, the strange sensation of his hair making Tony gasp. He is suddenly aching with emptiness, a new, sweet pain, and he swallows, tightens his grip on Thor's shoulders, mouths blindly along Thor's temple, tasting sweat. It assuages the need, though not totally.

"Ah," Thor says, and there's such affection in his voice. "I knew you would be thus, so desirous. Bear down." The plug enters him easily. It's not big, Tony's taken more, but it's solid, heavy, with no yielding. He tightens about it, moans in mingled pleasure and dismay, because it's long enough to make itself known, short enough to not reach his prostate. Probably a stainless steel core, maybe electroplated.

Tony drops his head to Thor's shoulder, toes curling, and huffs out a laugh against his lover's skin. "What's the metal?"

"Uh. I admit I did not save the box." Thor clears his throat, tacks on, "But I can find it again online if you wish it, Clint showed me where. If it is important to you, I shall-"

"It's all right." Tony grins, turns his head, bites at the corded tendon in Thor's throat. "I forgive you, though important lesson: always save the packaging." He makes to sit back down, waits a beat for Thor to object, and then settles atop his thighs once more when Thor allows it. Thor's cock, heavy, hot, and massive, slots into place beneath him, and Tony imagines getting it inside him with naked greed.

"I shall record this wisdom in my saga," Thor says solemnly. Tony imagines him rolling his eyes.

"'And yea, in the divine saga of Thor it is written, 'let no being dispose of the packaging of kinky toys for their nookie,''" Tony snickers, and feels Thor laugh with him, rumbling into his bones. His eyes itch with something that might be tears for a moment, and he confesses, "I love that we can laugh at stupid jokes even in scene. Obi never found much funny."

Thor bumps the plug within him, Tony gasping, and says, "Why would we not laugh together? I love all parts of you, and would not have you change yourself. I would give you joy, and is not laughter joy?"

"Obi made a big production out of it," Tony says. "I think he thought that if we both didn't take it deadly serious, it meant I didn't respect his dominance. Thus, all the rules."

Thor scoffs, lets go of the plug. More noises from the left. "If this man thought he had to compel your respect by treating acts of love like a cause for mourning, he deserved none. Your respect for the others and I as Dominants should not be compelled, but given freely."

The words are a punch to the gut. Tony squeezes his eyes closed beneath the blindfold. He sucks in a breath. It's a wrecked, wretched sound, because somehow, only now, is he beginning to recognize the barest outlines of the magnitude of his loss. He can't think about this yet, maybe never, and only manages a nod.

The noises cease. Thor noses at the damp hair at his temple. His voice is dark, deep, sets shivers beneath Tony's skin. "Remember, Tony. Don't come." His arm tightens, just a bit, about Tony's waist, and Tony wonders what it's for-

Something hot and silky, wrapped about Thor's hand, suddenly curls about his cock and he bucks into it with a shout, digging his fingers into Thor's shoulders. It feels like fur, or velvet, but how could it be so warm- his questions shatter as Thor's hand tightens about him, the god stroking upwards slow, hard, and steady.

Tony grunts as Thor repeats the motion. It's been so long since anyone touched him this way, and it's a fucking war to keep still, to not plunge headlong into orgasm.

Thor keeps touching him, building him up with such terrible patience. There’s no pattern to it: a tug on the clamps, a bruising kiss on lips, shoulder. Tony rocks up into Thor’s hand and sighs, moans, the feeling like flying, like the earth rising beneath his feet. He's shaking with it, with the certainty that one more stroke and he can crest the peak-

Thor pauses. The heat disappears.

"What-" Tony starts, and then cold encases his cock and he howls. The impulse to jerk away is stilled by Thor's grip on him. The motion jogs the plug within him, and lightning flickers up his spine. He shivers, ducks his head into Thor's shoulder and moans,

"You bastard. Do your sagas mention you're an utter sadist?"

Thor laughs and strokes with whatever the cold thing is he's holding. "No, though they do mention the legitimacy of my parentage."

Intellectually, whatever the thing is can't be that cold, it just feels like it because of how warm Tony was before, but it feels like absolute fucking zero. He fights down a whimper.

Mercifully, after an age, the cold is replaced by the warmth, and Thor starts to push him back towards climax. Tony groans, frustration coiling in his belly, and clings to Thor's shoulders like they're all that solid in the world.

He doesn't know how many times Thor repeats the pattern, only that he's started chanting profanity.

Thor stops for a moment to let him catch his breath, and Tony gathers what's left of the tattered remnants of his mind to ask,

"What the hell are those?"

Thor laughs against his shoulder. "Something from Asgard."

"If you say it's magical inexplicable metaphysical bullshit, I will do something terrible to Mjolnir," Tony threatens, though the ire in the words dies away as he rocks up into Thor's grip with a grunt.

"Oh." Thor bites, sucks, and Tony shudders. Thor pulls away, makes a pleased sound at what is probably a pretty incredible mark, and continues, "Then I will say nothing."

Tony throws his head back with a groan. Thor's arm, solid about his waist, holds him up, anchors him through this storm of heat and cold and the exhaustion of trying, so damn hard, to give himself over to this. It's all he can do to hold back, and then- the silken heat disappears, replaced by the cold, and he makes a high-pitched keen he will never ever fucking admit to and digs his fingers into Thor's shoulders. "No. Seriously, what is it?"

Thor says nothing for a moment, but a motion indicates he's moving. There's a new, steady pull on the clamps, and Tony moans, twitches backwards, then forwards, stops. It- he doesn't know which way to go, anymore, but- he doesn't have to know, and he breathes out all the tension in his back and just... lets it happen. The pull loosens. He sags into Thor's grip. Sweat slicks the expanse of skin Thor's arm touches.

"In Asgard," Thor says, his voice very close, the cold smooth tunnel of whatever he's holding so blissfully tight Tony could weep, "we have a moon and a sun, much like yours. They move across the sky, though in Asgard, the moon is pursued by the great white wolf Hati, and has ever been so. His kin, Skoll, chases the sun, and when I was young, the Warriors Three and I went in search of the wolves."

"Where did you find them?"

Thor removes the cold, reapplies the warmth, and Tony chokes on a breath. "We traveled west, across the oceans to the place where the sun goes down, and waited there for Skoll. He approached, diving towards the waters as the sun plunged past us and into night, and the Warriors Three and I managed to pull a tuft of fur from the end of his golden tail. Another day, we went east to find the moon, and as Hati climbed past us into the dark with the stars as his stairway, I grasped some fur from his side."

"I want to see these things when you're done," Tony manages. "If I could replicate it, it'd revolutionize refrigeration."

Thor laughs, deep, full-throated, and that's what Tony loves about him, so fiercely his heart goddamn aches with it: how honest he is, how much he feels things, how little he hides it. He's not naive, nor unintelligent: just pure and unflinching, and it seems like humanity lost that faith so long ago. There's no cynicism in him, no artifice, and Tony, who is all artifice, all flash, and so little substance of his own, hungers for it.

"Hati and Skoll are not for Midgardians to comprehend, I fear," Thor says. The heat- Skoll's fur- disappears. Thor's hand, now, callused, warm, real, stroking him with just the right amount of pressure, all confidence.

The blindfold is wet with Tony's sweat, and involuntary tears of frustration dampen it further about his closed eyes. The plug is a constant tease, so close to where he needs it and so inexorably far away, and-

He doesn't have to make this happen. He doesn't need to struggle for this. Right now he... he doesn't have to fight, for anything. Thor promised him he would come, that he would be safe, and he doesn't have to do anything but let it.

It's a revelation of a sort, and he lets the knowledge swallow him, feels the last of the tension depart him on his next breath as he drops his head forward onto Thor's shoulder and sighs. His arms go lax about Thor's neck. He could almost sleep. There's an ache, in his chest, low in his belly from where he's been denied, but they're distant, unimportant things. A heavy hand cups the back of his head, and Thor says, low, voice heavy with pride and something that might be love,

"So good, svass. Now."

Then his knee presses up and in against the base of the plug. His hand tightens and strokes upward. The clamps fly off, and it all just takes Tony apart.

It's flight and falling, the darkness before his eyes revealing light, something broken being reforged. He might be screaming. It's exquisite pleasure so keen it borders on pain, a scalpel so sharp it's painless. The only thing holding him together is the weight of Thor's arm about his hips.

He falls back into his body. He's collapsed against Thor's chest, panting, his heart thundering, his limbs utterly lax, and his mind a blank, white, empty thing. The plug's been removed. He aches, hollow, an empty vessel. Something hums in his ears. It takes him a moment to recognize it as Thor's voice, whispering,

"So good for me. So beautiful. I'm so proud of you, beloved."

A hitching sob tears out of him. He feels like he's been flayed. Like he's on an operating table, broken open, all his secrets exposed to light.

Thor's embracing him. Rocking him, like some sort of child.

And Tony's weeping like some fucking kid, as his brain chemistry takes a swan dive into awful. He's pathetic. This is pathetic. He stiffens, and Thor's arms tighten.

"Svass? Are you with me?"

"God damn it," Tony croaks. "I'm sorry. I- I hate getting this emotional-"

Thor sighs, stills. "There is nothing to apologize for. I'm honored you would allow me to make you thus."

Tony coughs and sniffles. His stomach is a black pit. The arc reactor's pain is dulled for a moment as endorphins run riot, and even the momentary relief from pain is a blessing, gives him clarity enough to mutter, "Yeah, well. I'm an ugly crier."

"Never ugly." Thor kisses him on the forehead. "May I remove your blindfold?"

Tony nods. Thor's fingers feather across his cheekbones. The blindfold loosens, falls away. He blinks his eyes open, sandy with drying tears, to see Thor studying him, face set in mingled affection and intensity, sculptural in the low lamplight. There's concern in the furrow of his brow.

"Is this usual for you, Tony?"

"Yeah. Like I said, I come down hard. It's- part of it is being free from the pain for a bit." He manages a half-smile. "I'm a lot of work."

Thor settles his massive hands on Tony's hips and sits back, completely unconcerned with Tony's come splashed across his chest. "What would you want from me? How can I make this easier for you?"

Tony glances down. It's easier not to look at Thor, to betray the weak needy core of him, to say, quiet, "Being touched helps. Sex helps. You mentioned, earlier..."

"Aye. That I did. Hold on." Thor lifts him without a grunt and carries him to the bed, unloads him onto the sheets, watches Tony's graceless sprawl with naked pleasure. "Stay there. I will return momentarily." He disappears into the bathroom, and Tony gazes at the ceiling. His mind is all... fucked, static-laden, slow. He doesn't want to speak. Words don't seem enough.

Thor returns, wipes him down with a warm cloth, tosses it aside, and strips out of his own sweatpants. The bed dips beneath his weight as he reclines beside Tony, presses worshiping kisses across Tony's throat, against his eyelids.

Tony sighs and tangles his fingers in Thor's hair, and Thor lets him. It's hard to believe, even now, that such massive, square hands can be so gentle, but they are, dipping into him, slick with lube, persuading him open. Tony rocks down into the touch, slow, his body still fixed in lassitude, and Thor watches him with reverence in his darkened eyes.

Tony's starting to shiver from the fall into sub-drop, just a bit, as Thor lines himself up and presses inward, and then he's covered, sheltered, in heat and solidity, Thor's body against his a comfort. He holds onto Thor like he's all that's left in the world, and does his level fucking best to ignore the sneer in his head that's left of Obadiah.

Thor braces his forearms beside Tony's head and bends down to kiss him, moaning into the meeting of their lips. His hips hitch inwards, then he settles into stroking in and out, steady, piston-like, the muscles of his ass and thighs flexing where Tony's calves and heels rest.

Tony stares up at him, helpless, for once with nothing to say. Small sounds break from his lips on every push inward, and Thor stares at him like they're all he's ever wanted, like Tony is, somehow, here, enough.

Thor's beautiful, like the best of art, his face lit by the arc reactor's frigid glow and still warm with affection. He's the first person Tony's seen that looks alive beneath the terrible glare of his own parody of a living heartbeat.

Tony gasps, rises, borne upwards on slow, steady arousal. He's not a young man anymore, and while nobody's ever complained about his stamina, it's never been this quick before. He hitches himself closer to Thor, digs his heel in, gasps something incoherent. A wire draws taut within him.

Thor shudders, his pattern breaking. He grunts. It sounds like glaciers calving, mountains falling. His face tightens, teeth digging into his lower lip, expression etched in stone, his hips grinding inward against Tony, like he can bury himself there and remain. He drops his head to Tony's shoulder and breathes raggedly, whispering something in harsh syllables Tony can't understand, and then kisses him again. "Thank you," he says against Tony's mouth, and then shifts his weight onto one arm so he can reach down for Tony's half-hard cock, coax him into full hardness.

Tony whines, and Thor gazes deep into his eyes. He tries to close them, to turn away, but Thor makes an unhappy noise and so he stills, stares back.

"So good," Thor says. Quiet, fierce, like something sacred. "Come now, Tony. Give it to me." He tightens his grip on Tony's cock, strokes, and Tony, helpless, obeys.

-

Tony comes back to himself just for a moment as something warm and wet swipes across his belly, murmurs unhappily.

Thor says something from behind him, rolls him onto his side and pulls him close, even worn and weary as he is, his eyes sandy with dried tears, his heartbeat a lie.

This.

This might be something worth keeping. Something worth fighting for.

Chapter Text

The thing with revelations is that it's often hard to make them stick, and Tony is a more slippery customer than most. Learning from his mistakes is never one of his strong suits, and the thing with Thor-

It had been a mistake.

(Logically he knows: this is sub-drop, this is a prolonged panic attack, how he behaved up there isn’t a reflection on him, he isn’t weak. Logic can go fuck itself in this instance.)

The worst part about his sub-drop- out of many worst things- is that he never knows how it’ll go. All those stupid lifestyle magazines, the ones about ‘how to snag the best Dom for you’ and ‘diet your way into corsets they’ll love,’ they all talk about sub-drop like it’s easy and predictable. Eat something sugary, stay warm, cuddle with your Dom and everything will be full of fucking rainbows and fairy farts.

Sometimes he gets shaky and weak and wants attention, affection, contact; sometimes he’s cranky and hides; sometimes he dives straight down into a panic attack like he’s doing right now, because he was weak. He allowed himself to give in, to be made to bend to Thor’s will. Allowed Thor to reach into the awful rotten core of him and gut him like a fish.

(There is a red flash behind his eyes, and he remembers, because he will never be able to forget, the sight of Yinsen looming over him, his heart in his hands, sprouting shrapnel like poison flowers. Through the bitter white haze he’d been surprised he had a heart.)

After that he wakes up on the floor of the workshop. There’s vomit on the floor. His throat is a raw wound.

He tries to take a shower. It goes okay, until he… lapses, forgets where he is, remembers a cave. A bucket. Obadiah, who knew.

He goes to work. This, the bending of metal, the soldering of wires, the reassuring solidity and permanence of engineering, he understands. This, he can be useful at, without being weak. Without compromise.

There’s a chest in the corner, bleeding memory into the air.

He can’t bear to open it.

(He can’t bear to throw it away.)

-

Clint stares up at the entrance to the vents and contemplates the complete fuckery of the world.

Thor had wandered into breakfast two days ago exalting the night he and Tony had spent together, describing in what Natasha called iambic pentameter Tony's beauty, how hard he tried to submit. The pentameter lasted until Clint punched him, and then Thor, grinning at his own trolling, started talking normally.

It'd all been good, wonderful even, to hear how well it had gone. And it'd stayed great until they realized that Tony had disappeared.

And now it's two days later, and Tony hasn't come out of his workshop once. The others have all gone down, one by one, and returned with hangdog looks of defeat, since Tony hasn't emerged. JARVIS has been stubbornly uncooperative.

Movement in the corner of his eye makes him swing about in time to catch Steve freezing at the elevator entrance, a tray of- Jesus Christ- sandwiches and Coke in glass bottles in his hands. Where do you even find Coke in glass bottles these days?!

"You going down there?" Clint inquires.

Steve shrugs. "I thought he might be getting hungry, is all."

Clint goes to him and pokes at a sandwich. It oozes peanut butter and grape jelly onto the plate with a disappointed slopping noise. "PB&J? Really?"

Steve looks offended. "It's what my mother made for me when I was feeling low."

"Oh. Okay." Clint just doesn't get the whole parent thing, he really doesn't, but the idea of having somebody make sandwiches for you when you're feeling sad has a nice ring to it. "But I think we should leave him alone."

"He's upset!" Steve draws himself up. He looks like a propaganda piece, his chin thrust forward obstinately, brows drawn together. "Can't you feel him? How much he hates himself right now?"

Clint's brow twitches. "Yeah. I can. I can feel every metaphorical stone he's throwing at himself, and yeah, I want to help him just as much as you all do, but listen to me: he doesn't want to be helped right now, and right now we have to respect that choice. Some subs don't want to be around other people while they're dropping, and if that's what he wants, then that's what he should get. Us hanging around the workshop and wringing our hands about the poor wittle sub who needs his big strong Doms to swoop in and save him from himself isn't going to make him feel better."

Steve's All-American shoulders slump. He sighs, and Clint feels like a complete fucking jackass. "I just want him to feel better, is all."

Clint leans in and kisses him over the tray, soft and sweet. "I know. We all do. But I don't think this is the way to go about it."

Steve's hands loosen in their death grip on the tray and he nods. "Okay. But now I have these sandwiches I don't know what to do with." His grin is teasing, and it makes Clint's heart skip a few beats.

"I'd be happy to eat them." Clint grins. "Off you."

Steve flushes red, but his voice is steady. "Just not on the kitchen table. Or my bed, I just washed the sheets."

Clint says nothing, just grabs Steve's hand and starts towing him towards his own room.

-

Later, much later, he drops by the entrance to Tony's workshop. The large metal doors remain firmly shut, so he parks himself by the speaker and says,

"I had a talk with Steve and the others about leaving you alone. I get the need to go to ground sometimes. So." He shrugs. "Just wanted you to know that we'll be ready for you when you decide to come out, but take all the time you-"

The doors slide open. He's never been one to turn down an invitation, so he strolls in. The workshop's in its usual state of organized insanity; the robots zoom about doing their things, although Dummy's wearing a dunce cap, there's about twenty half-finished shakes in virulent shades of green scattered about the place, and off to one side is Tony, bent over a workbench. Sparks fly.

Clint sidles nearer, and as he steps to the side he can see what Tony's working on: new arrow shafts.

"Katniss," Tony says, flipping off the arc welder and spinning around on his chair. His goggles hide his eyes. "Thanks."

“No problem.” Clint nods at the arrow shafts. “Those for me?”

“Yeah.” Tony grins. “A little thank you gift for being the one to stay out of my hair. Want to see what they do?”

Oh, hell yes. Clint swings a chair beneath him and takes a seat, leaning forward over the bench.

“Okay. I figure you need a way, sometimes, to get a bomb to stick from a distance without tipping off anybody by the arrow shaft being there. So I made these: arrow shafts that’ll remain stiff as long as they’re in the quiver and while they’re flying, but that’ll collapse into particles too small for the naked eye after they stick. Watch.”

Tony hurls the arrow shaft at a wall – it flies badly, but then again Tony’s not an archer by any means – and it sticks, quivering. A second, and it bursts apart into nothing, invisible. The grin Tony turns on Clint is more than a little maniacal.

“It’s an alloy that locks into a solid configuration as long as there’s an electrical charge running through it. Cut the charge, and it disperses into gas.” He turns his attention to the arrow shafts on the workbench. “Unfortunately the alloy’s too expensive for mass production, but I thought you might like to see what I could do with it in arrows.”

Clint can't think of anything to say for a moment, then clears his throat, manages, "They're amazing. Thank you." That someone would take the time to think of these things, to watch him, the way he works, the tactics he prefers, and to make these arrows for him-

It's incredible. It's strange, and a part of Clint flinches at the reminder that for most people it wouldn't be.

Tony pushes the goggles up, reveals his eyes. They're rimmed with red, and his expression, though the smile seems easy, is drawn tight. "I hoped you'd like them."

Clint nudges Tony with his elbow, manages his own smile. "Make some EMPs to go with them, then we'll really be talking."

"As if, EMPs are so one-note," Tony sniffs, then winces: a small thing, a twitch, but Clint spots it with a spy's attention to detail. He almost reaches out to touch, to comfort, but he wouldn't make Tony feel backed into a corner: not when he knows what this man, of all men, can do when forced to become a wolf.

"Throat hurt? Drink too much spinach shake?"

"Dummy and You have this ridiculous idea that because I ate shakes when I was wrapped up in creating the second Iron Man suit I therefore want shakes any time I'm in the workshop."

"And yet," JARVIS says, "you haven't programmed it out of them." There's affection in the AI's voice, hidden by the thin layer of irony.

"Course not," Tony says. He frowns, offended by the very idea. "I designed them to learn, and I'm not going to take away that freedom. They're not meant just to build."

"That freedom is why they love you, sir," says JARVIS, and Dummy, dunce hat askew, pops up from behind the car elevator and makes a noise of agreement.

Tony's expression shades into something fond, and open, and so goddamned beautiful Clint would keep him, just like this, safe and calm and happy, if only he could. But then Tony glances back at him, and there's something evaluating in his eyes, a question Clint doesn't understand. There's something, an image, roiling over the bond: a bird, hovering, unsure whether it's safe to land, whether the ice will crack.

Clint cocks his head in silent question.

"I had a panic attack," Tony says, abruptly. "Part of the sub-drop, and then had a flashback to Yinsen installing the electromagnet." He drums his fingers on the arc reactor, unconsciously. "Threw up. Tried to take a shower, had another flashback."

Clint blinks, unsure again, what to say, how to respond to this.

Tony waits, a beat, two. He leans back in his chair. The bird falls. It's a withdrawing, a closing, an expected disappointment.

"Waterboarding?" Clint says, and maybe that's the wrong thing, maybe he shouldn't just blurt it out, treat Tony's being tortured like a normal topic of conversation, maybe he's just fucked it all up-

"Yeah," Tony says, and there's appreciation in his voice, the unclenching of his fingers on the chair back. "Several times. After I came back-" his gaze is direct, jaw set, as though he's daring Clint to mock him, as though Clint ever would, "-waterless shampoo and I became real good friends. Then Obi decided he didn't like it, didn't like not being able to fuck me in the shower, and-"

He looks aside. His throat bobs, and he takes a hard, deep breath.

"Tony," Clint growls, and Tony rocks back in his chair, startled out of whatever waking nightmare has him. "I know what being waterboarded's like. I understand how long it stays with you. And you only need to tell me what Stane did to you if you want to. You only need to tell me, anytime, anywhere, what you want to, okay? The last fucking thing I want is to drive you into another flashback because you think you have to talk about it to make me happy."

Tony nods. He continues, his voice slow, dark, an awful undertow, "He said that my love for him should be stronger than my fear. That I had to prove it.”

Clint covers Tony's hands with his, leans in to rest his forehead against Tony's, cold and clammy, squeezes his fingers. He will hold him here, to earth, with every goddamn ounce of his strength if he has to.

“He turned the shower on and said I had to stay in there until he told me otherwise. I begged him to tie me, to make it easier, but he said no. He said that if he tied me it would make it meaningless. That if I didn’t go inside we were over.” He’s looking past Clint, and all hell is reflected in his eyes. “So I proved it. I went in there and even though I puked and scratched myself until my legs looked like raw meat I proved it.”

Clint surges forward at that, can’t not, lifts Tony out of his chair and onto Clint’s lap, surrounds him. Tony is his, all of him, inside and out, the most perfect gift Clint will ever be given, and Clint's had so damn little good in his life that he'll fucking slaughter anyone who tries to take the few perfect things he claims.

Tony grunts, jerks, but settles, arms linking behind Clint's neck. "What's with the sudden He-Man impersonation?"

"Just. That I didn't find you sooner. That I didn't get you away from him sooner." Clint turns his face into Tony's neck, kisses him to feel Tony's heartbeat, thready as it always is, against his lips, to know he's still alive, still here. "That you had to go through that, through Afghanistan without any training."

Tony sighs and tucks his head over Clint's. His chin is so sharp it's practically a weapon. "About the only way you would've gotten me away from him was if I knew you before I knew him, and considering he was at my birth, that was never going to happen. Besides, you know-" Tony half-shrugs, "it could've been worse. In the grand scheme of things, I've got nothing to complain about."

Clint rears back and gives him his best 'say what' face, and Tony stares him down.

"I'm serious. I was born into unimaginable privilege. Even if I hadn't inherited my parents' intelligence I would've been well taken care of. My dad wasn't the best father, sure, but he never hit me, and my mother cared about me. Even when they sent me away it was out of what they thought was love. Sure, I went through a lot in orientation therapy, and Obadiah manipulated me, but-"

"Says the man whose Dom tried to kill him," Clint says.

Tony snorts, and Clint loves that in him, how he refuses to back down. When he finally does lay down, finally gives in, Clint can be damn sure that he won that fight fair and square.

"One of my Dominant's brother pretty much sold them both into indentured servitude in a circus. Another's mother died when he was young, and then he ended up torn away from every fucking thing he knew and told to live. One of my Dominants was raised in some sort of horrific training simulation to be a spy. One had a dad who was such a mean drunk he murdered his own wife and beat his son half to death. One got tossed out of his home by his father and betrayed by his brother." Tony's eyes are dark, and clever, and piercing. He looks like an old picture Clint once saw, of Daedalus laboring over the labyrinth: that same terrible intelligence, so far beyond them all. "So really, Clint, on the whole, I'd say I'm the luckiest out of us all."

Clint has a few things to say about that, but he settles for humming a few bars of Ben Folds' 'The Luckiest' against Tony's throat.

Tony pauses for a second, then sings along, and for a moment, everything is perfect.

"Not," Tony says after a bit, "that the He-Man thing isn't tremendously attractive. With guns like those-" he pats Clint's biceps appreciatively, "-I should've figured you'd be a manhandler."

Clint pulls back. "Me Clint," Clint says, a smile tugging at one side of his mouth. "You Tony. You want-"

"If I'm Jane then JARVIS has to be Cheetah." Tony grins.

"Only if you procure an elephant for me, sir," says JARVIS.

"Make a note: your Christmas gift, elephant."

Clint frowns. "The Tower's pretty great, but I don't know where you'll stick an elephant. Maybe clear out that corner over there?" He nods at a corner taken up by the strangest thing in the workshop: a massive case, wrapped in brown leather, locked. "What's in that thing, anyway?"

Clint regrets his words immediately, as Tony's expression shutters, the light dimming in his eyes. Dark rooms in an empty house.

"After Obadiah died," Tony says, calm, empty of feeling, "it turned out that everything we used together was willed to me. The collars, the ropes, the toys, the needles and knives, the electro-stim kit, it's all in there. I just haven't gotten around to throwing it away."

There's an impulse to snarl, to demand that those reminders of someone not in their bond had Tony be burned, be broken, twisted apart, but Clint holds it back. He's so goddamn proud of himself when he says,

"I don't think it's the best thing for you to have all that shit cluttering up the workshop, but I also don't think it's my place to tell you what to do in your shop."

See, Coulson. He can be a good Dom, after all.

Tony stares at him for so long that Clint starts to fidget. "What? I got peanut butter on my face?"

"No." Tony's voice is brisk, but the bond thrums with a nauseating mixture of awe and deep sadness, a sense of chances lost. "I just- every time you guys do that, be so nice to me, or allow me to laugh in a scene, it reminds me of everything I've missed. Everything that Obadiah never wanted. He would've ordered me to burn it, you know, no matter what I thought. But then-" he ducks his head into Clint's shoulder, tightens his arms around Clint's neck, fingers fisting in the worn cloth of Clint's shirt, "-it wasn't like he was all bad. I remember those moments, too." One leg drops to the floor and he turns the chair to face that leather box, the half-rusted lock. "There's a part of me that still misses him."

"Yeah." Clint kisses Tony's temple, tightens his arms about Tony's ribs, feels scar tissue rough and ridged beneath his palms. "I know the feeling. Barney was an asshole, but that wasn't all he was. You can miss the good parts of people, you know. Doesn't mean they weren't mostly mean fuckers."

"It would've been easier if Obi had been flat out evil."

"When have our lives ever been easy, Tin Man?"

"I don't know, we managed to come out of the Chitauri invasion all right, Paris."

"If I'm Orlando Bloom, will you be my Miranda Kerr?"

Tony leans back and flutters his eyelashes outrageously. "Only if Thor can be Brad Pitt."

"I think we're stretching the metaphor." Clint turns them back towards the workbench, and Tony catches sight of the arrow shafts and then goes silent. His expression dims. He lets go of Clint and sits back, scrubbing a hand through his hair, and Clint wants to draw him back into the safety of his arms.

Tony stares down at his hands, thick-knuckled, scarred, perfect. "Most subs, you know, when they're growing up, they learn all this shit about how to serve, how to find ways of serving they enjoy. Dressing their doms, or cooking, or something. I was never allowed to learn how I could serve. How I might like to serve." His mouth twists in something sad and thorny, and Clint wants to kiss him, to make him smile. "So all the ways I serve, they're the ways pop culture says are dominant, because that's all I know. Paying for things, giving you guys a home..." he trails off, and hands one of the arrow shafts to Clint. Their fingers touch along the cold metal of the shaft.

Clint gazes into Tony's eyes. They're dark, and very deep, and so lost.

"Making you weapons. That's the only way I know to serve you." Tony's lips press together, white with pain. "I'm sorry I don't know more."

Clint sets the arrow aside, cups Tony's face in one hand, brushes a rough thumb over his cheekbone, across the bruised eyelids that fall shut.

Tony makes a soft sound, half-unconscious, and leans into Clint's hand, as though the same hands that have killed hundreds are worthy of trust. He turns into it, kisses Clint's palm, tongue a wet pink flicker of heat across his skin.

That Tony would apologize, after all this, for not serving better, for not knowing more- a man who's been kept from that knowledge-

It's a tragedy. Clint's throat is clogged with something wet and ugly. "You already serve me in all the ways I could ever need," he says, and takes Tony's hand in his free one, draws it up to his own mouth to kiss. Marks the nicks and bruises and calluses with his lips, tastes gunpowder and steel. "If you want to offer me more, hell, yes, I'll take it gladly, but the last goddamn thing I would ever do is make you feel bad for not knowing something. And if you ever want to try serving me in other ways, we'll talk about it and figure out what works, okay?"

Tony says, eyes still shut, whisper-quiet, "I don't know how I got so fucking lucky to have people like you."

Clint wants to scream, settles instead for, "It's not luck, Tony. It's the way your relationships were supposed to be all along."

Tony's face twists, half-crumpling, but his voice is steady when he says, "Yellow."

Clint brings his other hand up, frames Tony's sharp features in his fingers. "What happened? I'm sorry, I didn't-"

Tony shakes his head and leans forward. So slowly, like molasses flowing, and Clint holds still as he does in a nest, barely breathing, until Tony's against his chest, and for all that he weighs about the same as Clint he feels so fragile right now, so thin. That he's allowing Clint to see him like this is insane. "Don't tell me that," Tony says. "Whatever else you want to say, fine, but I- I can't take knowing that right now, that I was supposed to have had this and had Obi instead for twenty years."

Clint's throat is swollen shut. He ducks his head and kisses the top of Tony's, and manages, the sound cracked and quiet,

"Okay. Okay, darlin'."

Tony melts into him, all his rigid angles softening, and Clint holds on, anchors this wild and beautiful thing in his hands to earth, to him.

Time passes, and then Tony sits up, looks at Clint with blurred and tired eyes. "Do you want to join me in the shower?"

That he would make such an offer, after that confession, tears Clint's heart to pieces. He isn't quite sure what's going on, what this means, whether this is a scene, but he says, "Sure," and decides to figure it out as he goes. He stands and lets Tony lead him into a bathroom he hasn't seen before, all frosted glass and reflective metal, a shower large enough for five people.

Tony leaves him standing in the middle of the room to go start the water, and then returns to Clint. He looks Clint up and down, and then says, "May I undress you?"

'Oh.'

"If you want to," he says, and then realizes he's treating this way too flippantly as Tony folds down onto his knees and presses his lips to the toe of Clint's left boot. The long line of his spine is a mountain range beneath the white wifebeater, rising and falling with long, slow breaths.

He's beautiful, on his knees, and while Clint's never had a boot kink Tony might make him develop one. He waits a beat, then twitches his toes.

Tony sits up and undoes the laces in silence, all that terrible intelligence narrowed onto this single task, onto Clint, and Clint is breathless with how honored he feels. He braces his hand on the offered shoulder and steps out of his boots, and Tony sets them aside, returns to slide his hands up over Clint's jeans, the pressure setting Clint's skin alight.

Tony rises onto his knees and presses his face to the fly of Clint's jeans, sighing. His breath curls warm and wet over Clint's cock, which is starting to take an interest in the proceedings, and Clint cups the back of Tony's head in one hand and pulls him into himself. The pressure makes his knees quiver.

Tony bends with it, catches the tag of Clint's zipper between his teeth, and glances up in question.

"Go on," Clint says, and the naked fondness in his own voice startles him. "Show me how good you are."

Tony undoes the fly with nothing but his mouth, tugs the jeans and boxers off Clint in one smooth motion and folds them beside the boots. He returns once more, a bird to the nest, and gazes at Clint's cock, dark and wet and straining. His tongue darts out to wet his lips.

Clint stifles a moan and settles for grabbing Tony's hair instead. "Not yet. Get us both naked and maybe I'll let you have it."

Tony jerks away from the grip, but not to escape: his face relaxes into something approaching bliss at the pain. With grace Clint envies he rises to his feet and pulls Clint's shirt off, and then as Clint watches appreciatively he strips, though with not half the same reverence he gave Clint.

They're both scarred up, but somehow when Tony looks at Clint there's only worship in his eyes. And for Clint's part, the arc reactor and its marks are things to be proud of.

Clint lets Tony lead him into the shower, bends his head so Tony can wash his hair with some sort of shampoo that probably costs more than he makes in a month. Tony does the job quickly, efficiently, and then goes to his knees once more, like that's the only place he wants to be.

Maybe it is. Maybe this is about proving something else, or the same thing: that love is stronger than fear.

Clint washes Tony's hair for him as Tony wraps his arms around Clint's waist and rests his head on Clint's abs. He shakes.

"So good for me, darling," Clint says, and curls his hand around Tony's throat as he tilts his sub's head back into the water with the other, blocking the spray from hitting Tony's face.

And Tony just goes with it, in perfect trust, his steady breaths a blessing. Steam billows, shrouds them both from the world.

"What do you think about going upstairs?" Clint says as he nudges his foot into Tony's hard cock, stroking Tony's wet hair back from his face with a hand. "I have some rope and needles, if you're up for it."

Tony stares up at him, his eyes less hollow, more present. He nods, and leans forward to press kisses to the ridge of Clint's hipbone, and whisper, "Green," into the valley of his stomach, the scars there from when Clint attacked SHIELD.

So much trust, overlaying the marks of the trust Clint lost to Loki, and it's such a goddamn priceless gift.

Chapter Text

Clint follows Tony into the elevator and leaves their clothes behind. Tony hits the button for Clint's floor, half-turns, and then Clint's on him, forearms braced on either side of Tony's head against the wood, his hips against Tony's, their cocks brushing together.

Clint stares into Tony's eyes, unblinking, predatory, and Tony glances down, away.

"Eyes on me."

Tony looks back, expression set, the struggle obvious in the hard lines of his face. Fear stings bitter over the bond, and self-recrimination too. His breath stutters against Clint's lips, but he holds the connection.

Clint rewards him, slides his hands down over Tony's shoulders, spans his chest with its heavy load and straining heart. Fits his fingers to Tony's thighs and hoists him up, Tony's legs tightening about his waist, rolls his hips up into the cradle of Tony's body. He'd rut off him right in the elevator, come all over his pretty thighs, leave him wrecked and wanting.

Tony gasps, eyes heavy-lidded, and lunges into Clint. Their mouths clash. Clint's fingers dig into Tony's skin and Tony jerks, bangs his head into the elevator wall, rocks up against Clint's belly, and that small defiance only inflames Clint more.

The elevator doors open, and Clint carries Tony out, through the living room and into his bedroom, drops him onto the bed. Tony sprawls across his dark sheets and blinks up at him as Clint looms at the end of the bed, chest heaving, and consumes every detail of his sub, his boy, his to break apart and put back together. His mouth red, kiss-swollen, his hair a riot, flush spreading from his neck onto his chest, his cock - even his cock is pretty, goddamn - curving up, and Clint wants to drop down and devour him.

"Stay there. Don't touch yourself," he says, and Tony nods. The silence is freaking Clint out, just a bit. He bends to kiss Tony, gentler now, and as he pulls back asks, "You're really quiet. Is this normal for you?"

Tony blinks, half-frowns, gaze turning inward. "Yes." The bond is dark. Shuttered. But that’s the way it’s been, really, thus far: a void with cracks of dim light shining through, and though Clint wants more than anything to press, to question, he can't. Can't force Tony to talk about something that still has its claws in him.

Clint releases Tony's hair and straightens. "Still up for a scene?"

"Green."

"Okay. Kneel up. I'll be back in a sec." Clint goes to the bathroom for a container of sterile sharps, bandages, antiseptic. All of it goes onto a tray, covered with a towel, and while he washes his hands and forearms he stares at himself in the mirror and has to laugh.

He'd gone so long without this, had almost given up hope of ever finding his sub, the one who would give so he could take. He's wanted to do so many things for so long, enact his sadism on someone who'll meet it, and him, joyfully, and now he can. Now, in his room, in his bed, he has Tony fucking Stark, the smartest, mouthiest, most stubborn fucker he's ever known, and Tony is so goddamn beautiful in his willingness.

Sometimes luck comes to you, and you have to be ready to meet it when it does. He drags out a box from the closet, full of hemp rope he's dyed with his own hands, and flips it open to pull out several coils in different colors.

Ropes slung across his shoulders, soft with overwashing, he takes the tray in his hands and returns to the bedroom, where he has to pause for a second and take in the tableau.

Seriously, he's so damn lucky. Tony's gotten JARVIS to turn the lights down low and darken the windows, the light washing him in gold, picking out the flat of his belly, the hollows of his hips, sparking deep blue in the fall of his hair. He meets Clint's eyes, and over the bond there's a strange, tangled mix of terror and desire that rises up in Clint's throat and leaves him choking.

No sub of his should ever feel that scared, that ungrounded, and he places the tray of needles on the bureau and lurches across the room to fall onto his knees on the bed before his sub.

Tony looks at him, unsmiling, and Clint curls one hand around the back of Tony's throat, feels his pulse hammering there.

"What's wrong?"

Tony swallows. "I. I don't want you to pierce around the arc reactor. And I-" he sucks in a hard breath and stares at Clint, into Clint, and Clint would do so many awful things to fix this, "-I don't want to have to stay silent, when it hurts."

Clint cards his fingers through Tony's hair, and his heart breaks, just a little. "I would never touch the reactor without your permission." He manages a smile. "And I wouldn't want you to stay quiet; your reactions are half the fun." A pause. "Are you sure you want to do this?"

Tony nods.

Within himself, Clint touches the bond, but it stays dim, quiet, fogged, and it's wrong, so wrong, it's nothing like he was told to expect. But maybe the scene will help strengthen it; that's half of what they're for. Scenes build trust, trust builds bonds, so on and so forth.

Clint pulls away and goes to pick up his longest coil of rope, dyed a dark royal blue. He undoes the binding with a few flicks of his fingers and shakes it out. He turns to look Tony over, and Tony looks back, expectant, still, hands resting palm-up on his thighs.

"Come stand here," Clint says, nodding at the space in front of him.

Tony comes, and as Clint finishes the first few knots and settles the first loop over Tony's neck, he can feel Tony trembling. Damn it- he wants his boy nervous, sure, but not this much, not unable to control his own body.

"Hey, hey-" he tugs Tony close to him with a hand on the rope and kisses him until his hard edges soften, until the only sounds he makes are whines, whimpers, low moans rising in his throat.

Though it seems Tony wasn't kidding about how much he likes rope; he is a heated bar against Clint's stomach, and Clint has to still him with a hand on his hip to keep him from rubbing off against Clint. "Not yet. We still have a long way to home base."

Tony grins, and for all that it's a damn cliche it's like a sun breaking through clouds. His voice is smoky, playful, and Clint adores it. "Should I tell JARVIS to start playing Meatloaf, if you're going to go for the baseball metaphor?"

"Only if you want me to puke, and that'd ruin the whole sterile safe sex thing I've got going."

Tony opens his mouth to make another crack, and Clint gives him a look. It's one of the most gratifying feelings in the world to see Tony Stark shut up when he wants, though Clint would never be fooled into thinking that he'll ever get Tony to shut up outside this context.

He makes another knot just above where the scars of the arc reactor begin, and then stands back for a second to think. The last thing he wants to do is place any pressure on the arc reactor; he's seen the X-rays, and the bone around the arc reactor housing is so porous it's like looking at an eighty-year-old lady with osteoporosis. "I've done some research on unconventional bindings, and let me tell you, it's damn hard to find something that doesn't rely on upper torso bindings. I've got a few ideas to try out, but I need you to tell me if you have any joint pain or you can't feel anything, understand?"

Tony cuts a skeptical look at him, and Clint thrills at the challenge. "More pain than my usual?"

Clint tightens his fingers around the rope and pulls Tony off-balance, just to make a point, and then snaps his fingers and points to the floor, and-

The bond slams into darkness, a howling void.

"Yellow," Tony says, and there's an edge in his voice, rock and ice and nothing, nothing human. He is metal, unbending.

Clint drops the rope, stumbles back, raises his hands in instinctual pacification.

"Sorry," he says. "Sorry. What did I do?"

Some warmth returns to Tony's expression, but there's eons of pain in his voice as he answers, "I'm not a dog. Don't point like that. Obadiah did. I'll kneel if you ask me, but- the pointing, the snapping, it doesn't take me to a good place."

Clint nods, and wishes he knew what to do; Tony's worth it, and he'd have some terrible words for anyone who said he wasn't, but being in a relationship with him can feel like running through a minefield where the only person who knows where the mines are died a long time ago. "Okay. I'm sorry, I didn't think that you'd find it humiliating."

Tony shakes his head, offers a small smile. "No big deal. It's my fault, too, I should've said it was one of my triggers."

Clint steps back in, uses the rope to pull Tony forward into a kiss. It's more to reassure himself than anything else, but Tony comes willingly, brushes his fingers through Clint's short hair, and it's that, more than anything, that lets Clint know that things are still okay.

He steps back and rotates the rope so the end of the loop is facing forward, the rest of the rope falling down Tony's spine, and nods at the floor.

Tony sinks to his knees and watches, head tilted, as Clint finds the length of bamboo he's put aside in the corner and brings it back over. It's about five feet long, sturdy, the ends filed down.

"Never seen that used as a material before," Tony says, and then bends his head forward as Clint places the bamboo above his shoulders to measure it. Should fit, with a little to spare. He glances at what Clint's doing out of the corner of his eye, then says, "Actually, I have an idea. If that's okay."

Clint drops the bamboo on the floor and goes to his pile of ropes, separating out a few, holding one in his mouth as he ties a knot in the end. He glances up at Tony and mumbles, "'Course it's okay." Why anyone would want to play with someone passive, who never offered any ideas or had any opinions, is just beyond him, and Obadiah must've been one sick fuck if he thought that was fun. "Shoot." He takes Tony's left arm and starts wrapping his wrist in thinner light blue rope, this one less worn so as to itch just a bit, knotting with every turn so the rope becomes a sturdy cuff.

Tony's eyes go dark. "If I eyeballed it right, and know what you're doing, you'll have enough space left to tie my ankles to it, if you make the rope long enough."

Clint grins, and gives Tony back his wrist, only to take the other one and repeat the process. He ties two more cuffs, one on each elbow, these with thicker ropes, and Tony watches, his breathing ragged, his cock thick and needy.

"I love a participatory sub," Clint says, and Tony nearly flinches, but then offers a shy, small smile. "All right, arms up." Clint stands, picks up the bamboo bar and settles it just below Tony's shoulders, taking up the rope going down his back and tying it around the bar to hold it in place. He takes Tony's hands and moves them in behind the bar, so it's held in the crook of his elbows, and binds his wrists to it with tight knots between cuff and bar.

Tony's head falls forward. There's tension in the line of his back, and Clint forestalls it with a hand curving about his throat, pulling Tony's head back into his thigh. Tony stares up at him, his eyes huge and dark in his pale face.

"You're mine," Clint says, low, as serious as he has ever been. "You're mine, and that means you're safe. I will never hurt you beyond what you want, or beyond your ability to bear. I promise, you're always safe with me. If you need to stop, or you need me to get you your pain meds, just tell me. I will always listen."

Tony swallows against Clint's hand, and shuts his eyes, and Clint finishes the ties, binding Tony's elbows to the bar. "Come on, up," he says, and helps Tony get to his feet, swaying just a bit. Tony relaxes onto the bed with a sigh, though it can't be too relaxing with the bar beneath his back.

"Can I see what you're doing?" he asks as Clint draws the dangling dark blue rope between his legs.

"Sure," Clint says. It's silly to be so pleased by Tony wanting to see what he's doing, but the fact that he finds Clint's work worthy of watching is pleasing. He stuffs a pillow beneath Tony's head. Tony gets what's happening immediately, and to the sound of his low, heartfelt curses, Clint brings the rope up, ties a knot about Tony's balls, and another about the base of his cock, uses up the rope on a series of beautiful diamonds binding Tony's cock.

Tony doesn't kick, though his legs are free, and that just makes Clint's whole night- hell, his whole damn year.

It's the work of a few minutes to fashion more rope cuffs about Tony's ankles, get him to bend his knees, and tie his ankles to the bamboo, with enough length to be comfortable, yet not enough to move.

"Try those out."

Tony gives it his best effort, arching his back, all his muscles cut out in stark relief beneath his skin as he twists, pulls against the bar, gets nowhere. He falls back against the bed, panting, and lets his head loll back, and then relaxes into the ropes, letting them hold him, his eyes drifting shut.

Clint, because he's an old, foolish romantic, leans over and kisses him, then gets up. "I'm going to go wash my hands one more time and glove up, and then we'll get started. The door to the bathroom will be open, and I'm going to have my eye on you in the mirror. If that's not okay with you, we can call up one of the others to watch."

Tony's smile is a lazy, languid thing, his movements slow and testing, not so much to escape as to feel out the boundaries of his capture. "JARVIS'll keep an eye on me."

"Okay." Clint doesn't feel precisely easy about leaving his boy by himself, even though he's in the next room, but JARVIS is more than capable of handling it. He washes his hands in the hottest water he can stand, pulls on the black doctor's gloves he keeps for moments like these. The snap of the gloves makes him shiver. Maybe he's developing a medical kink. He ought to talk to Bruce about that.

Tony watches him as he comes back in, and he's so beautiful, trussed up in Clint's ropes, the blues so contrasting against his skin, that Clint just has to stop for a moment. "Aren't you pretty," he says, and Tony, knowing full damn well what he looks like, arches the long vulnerable line of his throat and preens.

Clint gets the tray of sharps and takes a seat on the bed beside Tony, balancing the tray atop his crossed legs. He sweeps one hand over the flat of Tony's belly, tugs at the ropes binding Tony's cock - Tony groans low and rolls his hips up into Clint's hands at that - and reverses course to feel Tony's shoulder, his bicep.

Tony gazes at him, his eyes dark, but still far too present, too thinking. He looks content with the situation, but Clint doesn't want him content, he wants him ecstatic, gone on endorphins. Clint's going to have to push him down, as far as he can go.

He rests his hand on Tony's throat, enough to feel his pulse: thready, because of the reactor and his bad circulation, but not fluttering. "Anything you don't want me to go near? I'm not going anywhere near major veins or arteries, so if you want me to do anything near the hips or neck, that's not happening." He's a sadist, yeah - he gets his kicks on hurting willing partners - but he refuses to go beyond Tony's boundaries, or to do anything that hurts him on a permanent basis.

Tony nods toward the arc reactor. "Nothing near that. The nerves are all fucked, I don't know how well they'd respond to this."

Clint frowns, slides his hand down to rest his fingertips just at the top of the scars. "Help me map out where the nerves go wrong, just so I know." Under Tony's direction, he feels out the space: a swath about a half-foot square, ragged at the edges, and the worst part is that the fucked bits don't even correspond with the scar tissue. While Clint's a risk-taker, he's not in this context.

"This might be a weird question, Tony, but would you be okay if I marked the edges? Just so I know. I don't have your memory for this-"

"It's fine," Tony says, smiling, and the thin beams of light behind the void that is their bond strengthen.

Clint grabs a marker from his desk and bends to the job with a will, though it's a bit difficult when your canvas keeps breathing and twitching-

"Tony."

Tony grins at him. "I'm ticklish, and unless you're going to tie me tighter, I can't control that."

"I have one thing I can tie tighter," Clint says, eyebrow raised as he casts a significant glance between Tony's legs.

Tony shuts up, and for the rest of the time it takes Clint to scribble the edges of the bad nerves he resists squirming, though when Clint signs his own name off to one side of the arc reactor he says some very mean things about Clint's romantic bent.

Clint puts the marker on the nightstand and sits back to contemplate. Biceps are easier to pierce, but the way Tony's tied makes it near-impossible, and he can't have him lie on his front to access his back. Maybe some other time he can try suspending him, though it'll be difficult to find a suspension rig that doesn't rely in part on a chest harness. Still, that's for later. Now is just him, and Tony, and what they give to each other.

So he draws the towel on the tray back to reveal the sharps and antiseptic.

Tony's gaze darts to them, and he doesn't breathe for a moment. There's a war on his face.

"You can say no," Clint says. They can always find something else to do.

But Tony shakes his head, and relaxes into the ropes and the pillow, and that's it. For somebody with his history, to trust Clint so unhesitatingly-

It makes Clint want to collar him right now, show him off to all and sundry, how good he is, how trusting. Instead, he reaches for the thin, paler skin on the bottom of Tony's right arm, a few inches up from the elbow, and swabs it with antiseptic.

Tony swallows, shifts, stares at Clint, but doesn't say no.

Clint's mouth is bone-dry. He uncaps the first needle in his teeth, lets the cap fall onto the tray.

Tony flinches at the sound, but leaves his arm in Clint's grip. As Clint pushes the needle through the skin of his triceps, threads it into him and out again, the most intimate thing he has ever done, Tony breathes out, hard, a long exhale. Pain tightens his expression.

Clint lets the needle go, picks up the next. He builds a ladder up the back of Tony's arm, of metal and bright plastic, the smell of antiseptic sharp in the air, and Tony takes it, sweats and sighs and shifts but never says no. He's the most guarded person Clint's ever known next to Nick Fury, and he's giving this to Clint, allowing Clint to see him in pain, to cause him pain.

"Yellow," he rasps as Clint finishes the set on his arm. There's sweat darkening his hair, and a glazed sheen to his eyes.

Clint pauses, sets the tray aside. "Yeah?"

"Feeling a bit faint." He is looking a little pale, and his pulse, when Clint presses his fingers to his throat, races. Probably a stress reaction: he's mentioned fainting when he gets too wound up.

"Okay. I've got some juice in the fridge. Do you think you can eat something?"

Tony closes his eyes on a sigh. "Yeah."

Clint rolls off the bed and pads over to the mini-fridge Tony installed in every bedroom, because apparently being forced to walk to the kitchen for a drink or a snack is just not on. He finds some stupidly fancy orange juice and a container of grapes, and brings them both back to the bed.

Tony cranes his head towards the juice, and Clint tilts it enough for him to sip it slowly until it's gone, then feeds him grapes, one by one. Tony takes each one delicately between his teeth, laps at Clint's fingers, and the only thing it does is make Clint want to kiss him or fuck him or both.

There's something farcical in the whole thing, that he's just tied this man up and stuck needles in him and is now feeding him, but really they're both two sides of the same coin: that he needs to care for people. He needs to know that people trust him, and when your profession consists of killing people, trust is hard to come by.

"Thanks," Tony says, after they've finished the snack. Color's returning to his face, and his erection, which had flagged, returns.

"Any time," Clint says, and then has to go put on another pair of gloves, since these are sterile in no way, shape or form. He returns to the bed and settles on Tony's other side, running his hand through Tony’s hair. "Are you okay to continue?"

Tony nods, and Clint begins again. Each needle startles him, shows him something new of Tony: the small flinch of Tony's muscle, the tremble where he almost turns aside, the change in his scent as the endorphin rush begins to hit. The terrible brightness of his blood, though Clint is good enough at what he does that there's almost none of that: a few drops, and no more.

He builds the lines of needles up the backs of Tony’s arms, and sits back to take the picture in. Tony’s eyes are closed, his breathing slow, deep, and regular, his cock hard in Clint’s ropes. When Clint reaches out to run his fingers lightly over the needles, Tony shifts, makes a low noise of want.

“Tony?”

“Feels good,” Tony manages, voice thick, slurred. “Different sort of pain.”

“Okay,” Clint says, grinning so hard his cheeks hurt at how calm Tony is, how steady and trusting, how he’s let Clint put him down there. “Don’t talk anymore, I don’t want to pull you up just yet.”

Tony arches into Clint’s other hand when it brushes over his cock and makes a sound of agreement. There’s no artifice in him now, no calculations in how to be what Clint wants; this is just him, stripped down and honest. His cock leaps in Clint’s fingers as he curls his hand about it, presses the ropes into Tony in a tease.

“So good,” Clint says, and Tony opens his eyes to offer a blurred smile.

“Your face is good,” he mumbles in response, and Clint laughs, can’t even muster annoyance at how he’s already broken Clint’s orders.

“Just for that,” he says, and rakes his nails down over Tony’s ribs, leaving red welts behind. Tony yelps but leans into the pain and the naked trust in the motion makes Clint’s heart beat wrong.

He loosens the ropes about Tony’s cock with a few flicks of his fingers. Tony gasps, twists in the ropes, heels digging into the sheets. He’s so beautiful Clint wants to keep him here, just like this, but that’d endanger Stark Industries and they can’t have that. He strokes Tony off, slow, hard, and watches a flush he wants to lick spread down over Tony’s chest, goosebumps rise on his arms. The bamboo creaks under Tony’s struggle to fuck Clint’s hand.

“No.” Clint tightens his grip just enough to border on painful. “You come off my hand, or not at all.”

Tony slumps back into the bed, opens one eye enough to give Clint a baleful glare.

Clint, grinning, reaches forward and runs his fingers along both the lines of needles, stopping at the end of one and giving it a firm twist as he strokes Tony hard and long one last time.

Tony twists, lets out a shocked shout, his mouth slack and bitten and beautiful, his cock jerking in Clint’s grip. Clint wants to make him do it again immediately, make him come until he’s whimpering and twisting and begging, but they haven’t discussed that, so instead he just drops his hand to his own cock, lunges up, and kisses Tony hard, biting at his lips, until he comes all over Tony’s stomach.

He hangs over Tony for a long moment, panting, gazing into Tony’s dark and fogged eyes. When he scoops their mingled come up on his index finger, Tony leans up to suck the gloved finger into his mouth.

“Jesus Christ.” Clint’s cock makes a valiant effort to rise again. “You’re gonna kill me, Tony. You’re so goddamn good.”

Tony gives him a smug look that suggests it wouldn’t be a bad way to go, and then closes his eyes and relaxes as Clint undoes the bamboo and the ropes. He wiggles his fingers and toes when Clint asks, but seems happy to lie there otherwise, not even moving when Clint pulls the needles out, one by one, and drops them onto the tray. The brush of a towel across his belly gets an annoyed mutter, but nothing else, and Clint can only smile at him, at how hard he tried, how good he was.

Clint goes to the bathroom to strip the gloves off, toss the ropes into the laundry basket, and drop the needles into the sharps container. When he returns, Tony’s sprawled out across the left side of the bed, the marks of the ropes red on his skin.

Clint climbs into the other side of the bed and waits for a bit, unsure what Tony needs- a hug, to be left alone? The answer comes as Tony rolls onto one side to face him.

“You keep telling me I’m good,” Tony says. He pins Clint with a steady gaze, and Clint feels tiny and naked and bewildered beneath those incisive, far too knowing eyes. “All of you. You keep telling me I’m good, and I’m worth all the shit you put up with.”

Clint looks back, and wants so badly to reach out for him. “You are good. You’re worth it. You’ve always been worth it.”

Tony swallows. His fingers shake where they lie curled beneath his cheek. “You all- these scenes- make me remember Obi. I’d dealt with Obi, I killed him, I’ve done the talk therapy to deal with it, and the bond was all good, all scarred up and scabbed over, and even if there was a void, even if it hurt, I didn’t have to think about it anymore-“ his teeth flash in a terrible, mocking smile, “- and then you all come marching in with your- your bonds and your patience and you keep thinking that I’m good, that I’m worth it-“

Clint doesn’t know what to say, has never known what to say. He settles for the truth. “You are.”

Tony cuts the air with his other hand. “If I’m so goddamn good, why didn’t Obadiah want me? Why couldn’t I ever be enough for him?” He draws in a ragged breath. “I tried. For twenty years I tried to be what he wanted, to be his perfect sub even though he knew exactly what they did to me in the orientation program, he knew how much it hurt to give in to him-“

Clint is paralyzed. More than anything he has ever wanted, he wants Tony to stop talking, to stop battering them down with the ghost of Stane.

“I tried,” Tony says, calm, flat, “to be good for my parents. For Obadiah. For the program. And nothing I ever did was ever enough, for any of them. So how do you know I’ll be enough for you? Any of you?”

“We want you to be good,” Clint says, wishing he knew more, could speak better, “because you want it, not because you think it’s what we want. This only works if both of us want it.” He offers a hand to Tony. “As for being enough- we know you, who you are beneath the suits and that awful mask you put on in public, and we love you, and you will never not be enough for us.” He sighs. “Now, would you come over here?”

The bond is a gaping, raw wound between them, but it might still close.

Tony rolls over and into him, and Clint holds onto him like he’s the only solid thing left in the world. Because that's all he can do. Because maybe love is not enough, to mend the broken places in Tony.

Chapter Text

For a few days, things go as normal. Tony manages to have a nice, easy drop for once in his life, which is good since there's a board meeting where he needs all his wits about him. Doom shows up demanding to fight Reed Richards (someone should really talk to him about appropriate ways of expressing a crush), but unfortunately for him the Fantastic Four are busy doing something off in space (because going back to the place that fucked them all over is such a great idea), and so the Avengers get called in.

Luckily, it's a fairly easy fight. Would've been easier if Tony hadn't been so on edge, waiting for one of them to order him, to grab hold of the thin, stretched thing that is their bond and twist it and him into submission. But they treat him as though everything is normal, the only time anyone gives him a direct order being Steve telling them all to cut the chatter on the comm lines-

So now he feels guilty for not trusting them. He wants to trust them, to believe in them, but he's never been capable of that after Obadiah. Rhodey and Pepper are the only ones he believes in, fully, whole-heartedly, and he wishes he could extend that to the other Avengers.

But he can't, and the bond feels rotten and weak, and somehow whenever they look at him it's like a knife to the heart, and they know, they have to know-

One morning, they're at breakfast, and he's flipping through his newsfeeds on his phone when a sudden silence clues him in. He looks up in time to see them all avert their gazes as Steve stuffs his old-fashioned paper newspaper beneath his plate. Too slow. Tony sees the headline: 'APA declares 'orientation readjustment' programs harmful after spate of suicides.' It chills him with memories.

He retreats into machines and mania. He designs a few new aircraft chassis, a VTOL system that actually works better than the stupid fucking Harrier's, starts work on a new app ecosystem for the upcoming line of StarkTech. The shakes You brings him are tasteless and cold and sit like rocks in his stomach, but they keep him alive. His arc reactor hurts, more than usual, more than it ever has, and the steady pain makes time expand into an endless waste. He drives the sense-memories away with pounding bass and drowns the rage boiling in his gut with alcohol.

Somehow, none of it's enough: to drive the memories away, to make him fit his skin, to shape his mind into something he can bear to inhabit.

Then, a silence.

He turns around from his drafting board to see them all. Natasha, draped over the hood of his Maserati; Clint by the door, his eyes bruised with sadness; Thor seated backwards in one of the chairs, arms folded over the back, his mouth, meant for smiles, grieving; Bruce slouched on the couch, eyes flickering acid-green; and Steve beside him, hand hovering in the air over his shoulder, like he's afraid to touch in case Tony crumbles into ash.

"Tony," Steve says, "what's wrong?"

Tony blinks, lists to one side as exhaustion decides to give him a slap across the face. He's aware he must look a fright. "What time is it?"

"Ten-thirty in the morning," Bruce says. "You've been down here two days."

"I'm sorry." Steve takes his hands, crouches before him, his eyes so earnest Tony could puke. "I didn't think that news story would-"

"Do you know," Tony says, the words dragged up out of him, ripping his throat raw, the pain of the arc reactor a living thing, "what they did to us?"

There's a long, agonized silence. So thick he could reach out and touch it.

Bruce shifts on the couch, and his voice, gentle as it always is, still has a roaring undercurrent of fury within it. "Tell us."

Tony grins, and even that small motion guts him. "They would strap us in chairs and attach polygraphs to us to measure our heartbeat and respiration. Then they'd show us porn – really bad porn - shot from the viewpoint of the sub, and every time we reacted positively-" he stiffens instinctively, a flinch he's never learned to suppress, "-they'd shock us. It's called aversion therapy. Sometimes they'd give us ipecac, and we'd vomit until there was nothing left but blood and bile." He laughs, and can't stop laughing, even as he chokes out, "This one time, there was a girl. So kind, the gentlest person you'd ever want to meet. She went down easy, loved being who she was, wanted nothing more than to serve and care for others. She used to hold the rest of us at night, when we cried. They thought that her being so kind, so gentle, so giving meant that she could be exploited. That she was 'intrinsically disordered.'"

The wood of the chair back splinters and crumbles beneath Thor's fingers. Steve's face is white, his eyes glittering like twin shards of ice, but he stays before Tony, gazes up into his eyes.

"They wanted to make her dominant. So they put a whip in her hand and made her stand over another girl and whip her until her back bled, because they told her that if she didn't hurt that other girl, that they'd do worse."

Tony stares down at his hands, caught in Steve's. He feels, more than hears, Natasha step towards him. Her hand settles cool and comforting on the back of his neck.

"She did it. How could she not? And when she did, they gave her back everything they’d taken: her clothes, her books, permission to call her parents." He lifts his head and grins. It’s a wretched expression. “She called them and then hung herself.” Each breath shudders in his lungs. “That’s what they did. Some of what they did. There was worse.”

"To you?" Natasha says, all the emptiness of a tundra in her voice.

Tony shrugs. "No. The Stark name was good for something after all. The most they did to me physically besides the usual aversion stuff was make me watch when they beat other kids into the dirt or made them run until they collapsed." He extricates his hands from Steve's grip, lifts one hand and jabs his thumb into the space between his jaw and his neck, keeps pressure on until the agonizing tension in his muscles that crowns him in migraines gives way. "I'll tell you what they did do, though."

"Does this have anything to do with your difficulty in dropping?" says Bruce.

Tony favors him with a smile. "Knew there was a reason I liked you. Got it in one, green bean. They knew how to put subs down. So they'd put us down, as deep as we could go, until..." he pauses, caught in the memories for a second, then shakes himself, forges on.

"Until we didn't have any defenses left. You're Doms, you don't get it. Every little thing is amplified; if you look at us a certain way, or fail to say something we thought was a routine, it gets blown up until it's all we can think about. Praise is a narcotic, and even the hint that you might be angry is- it's like being punched."

"Anyone who's truly angry in a scene doesn't need to be there," Bruce says. His eyes shine bright green, predatory, but his voice is even, human.

"Tell that to them." Tony drums his fingers on his thigh until Steve grabs his hand and presses it flat. "They'd put us down, and then tell us we were weak. Worthless. That anyone could do anything to us, as pathetic as we were, and they'd let them. Anyone who wanted to bond with us would want us only as trophies, or house slaves, and that as long as we were subs, we would never control our own lives. Then they'd show you all these lovely pictures and films of subs being abused, which is just fucking great to see when you're twelve." His smile is a wreck. "When you've been emotionally flayed, and your parents have put you there for your own good, and all these adults are telling you it's wrong to be who you are-

Well, it's pretty easy to subconsciously attach horrific endorphin drops to subspace when you've got all that baggage."

Thor shifts uneasily on the chair, and his tone is tentative. "So then, when you're out of sorts after a scene-"

"Yeah." He has to admire the handlers, even all these years later, for the beautiful, brutal efficiency of it. "They made us believe it, so strongly that even twenty-five fucking years later that fear's still inside me, inside us all. No matter what anyone tells us, no matter all the therapy you go to, there's always a part of you still in the program." He laughs, and Clint flinches. "So if you look at it the right way, none of us made it home."

Steve, still crouched on the floor, his knees not even shaking, tilts his head. "You've been drinking," he says, and though his forehead creases in a frown he doesn't start sermonizing. Thank God for small mercies.

"Sorry if I don't fit your stereotype of what a good sub should be." He wrenches back and away, and Steve finally lets him go. "All those asshole programmers thought they were doing good. They really and truly believed that they were fixing us, making us better, repairing the cast-off. They'll keep believing it until the day they die, no matter how many kids they tortured, how many sad-sack adults are trapped in relationships they don't really want but were told they should. They'll never be punished, because they're smart, their schools are on foreign ground, so what they do isn't technically a crime.” He cuts off, grinds his teeth, says, low and dark and fierce,

“They ruined so many lives and they'll never get back a tenth of what they did to us. I'm forty goddamn years old and I can't escape what they did to me. So forgive me, Captain, if I'm a little angry." A 'little' doesn't even begin to describe it: it tightens his muscles into bowstrings, leaves him shaking with it, his heart a sudden, terrible roar in his ears.

Steve shifts. “I get it, Tony. You’re angry. But when you’re upset, why don’t you ever come to us? You always hide, and the rest of us are left with the bond screaming at us about how upset you are, and there’s nothing we can do to make you feel better.” He swallows. “It makes us feel like you don’t trust us, and every time you hide the bond-“ he makes a frustrated gesture, “-it gets weaker.”

Rage ignites like the beautiful horrible plume of a nuclear bomb. His face is numb with it. Even the pain of the reactor is swept away by his fury.

Steve flinches.

Tony shoves the chair away, uncoils to his feet. “I told you,” the words spit like bullets, “that there was only so much I could give you. That I’m fucked up.” He sucks in a hard breath. His lungs hit the edges of the reactor and scream. “The bond is fucked up. It always will be.” He gazes down into Steve’s eyes, and whatever Steve sees in him makes Steve falter, sit back. “They ripped my end of the bond up and salted the earth. They made goddamn sure that the only trust I will ever be able to give is to those who don’t want me. That I can’t bend without breaking.”

“Tony-“ Bruce says.

Tony wheels, snarls, teeth bared. “What? You want to ask me for something else I can’t give? Want me to lie down while you piss on me? Want me to bleed for you? Want me to turn over my heart to you?“ He snatches at the reactor, fits his fingers into it, yanks it out-

The room is silent, everyone’s gazes locked on the reactor, its pale light, the dark hole in his chest where his lacerated heart beats, maimed and weak. His fingers shake. Black clouds the edges of his vision.

“Tony-“ Natasha takes a step forward.

Tony laughs, shoves the reactor back into place. “I told you what you get with me. You said you were fine with it. If you’re not, that’s fucking fine. Because I don’t need you.”

“Of course you don’t,” Bruce says, and his expression is pained and calm and somehow gentle, and Tony hates that gentleness. “We’re all here because we choose to be. You’re too strong to need anyone, and that’s good, that’s the way it should be.”

Steve stands, but steps back, leaves Tony his space. Thank God, because Tony is fragile and furious and wants more than anything to flee, but he can’t, he tried that, and they’ve hunted him down, brought him to ground-

“Tony. The bond- it doesn’t need to be the way it is.” Steve hesitates. “Before- the moment when you took down your walls, before you realized that we were compatible- it was clear, it was strong.” He pauses. “It was beautiful.”

“So you’re saying I do this to myself.” Strange, how angry he can be, how hate can be piled on hate.

Steve shakes his head. “Not consciously. I’m saying that they’ve convinced you of it, and with enough work- if we could help you learn to trust us completely- that maybe the bond could be strong, the way it was meant to be.”

Tony laughs, the sound ruined, rusty, dead. Trust. Of course. Fuck. He strides forward, elbowing Steve out of the way, past Natasha and Bruce and Thor, towards the corner where the chest is.

“Tony,” Clint takes a step forward, shuts up as Tony flings an arm back. The pieces of the gauntlet from his latest armor fly across the room, snap onto his hand, wrist, forearm.

“You want to see what trust bought me?” He reaches for the rusted padlock, the back of it still enameled with Obi’s initials, and crushes it into powder. Tears the chains off with savage twists of his wrist, flings them aside. They hit the wall, crater it, slide to the floor. He can feel the others, their shock, their horror thrumming in his chest, and it only drives him on. He wrenches open the chest and lets the contents spill forth onto the ground.

“There. That’s what trust pays.”

He stares, unwillingly, at the spread of metal and chain and leather before him. Cock rings, some with spikes on the inside; a humbler (he remembers when Obi attached it to him, then whipped him, and the pain had forced him to move- he’d pissed blood for days); a bullwhip, its tip crusted in blood; a set of expensive knives, silver-handled; manacles; gags (Obi had once left his favorite in Tony’s mouth for two days when Tony had the temerity to say he needed to eat before a scene); a leather strap that he’d liked to tie about Tony’s throat and tighten until Tony blacked out; a modified taser; a pear-shaped device of four leaves that expanded when someone turned the screw at the bottom (he’d liked to put it inside Tony, stretch him until he almost tore); thumb screws; speculums; a full array of whipping implements; sounds of every shape and size; an electrostim kit; a prong collar.

They move, and he tenses, can’t not.

Thor stoops, picks up the pear, and it looks so small in his massive hands. Curious, he twists the screw, and as it unfolds he drops it, makes a sound so small and horrified Tony’s heart near-breaks.

Bruce touches the prong collar, finds the scabbed blood on the inside, the remnants of skin. His skin flashes green.

Clint kneels, picks up a small black box, flips it open. His expression doesn’t change when he recognizes the bamboo splinters inside, but he snaps the box shut, flings it aside.

Their anger fills him up, surges red and white and terrible, and he stumbles back, hits the wall.

He feels the sudden snap of their attention to him as an assault, a shock to the senses.

“Oh, Tony,” Natasha says, and the pity in her voice makes him flinch.

He digs his nails into the concrete. The pain centers him. “I don’t need your fucking pity.”

They won’t stop looking at him like he’s something small and weak and fragile, and he-

“I survived. Obi, his Afghani buddies, Vanko- they couldn’t kill me. No matter what they did to me- they vivisected me, waterboarded me, made me suffer for them- I’m still here.” He grins, and it’s bitter, merciless, feral. “I’m here, and they’re not, because I killed them. So-“ he hates himself, the note of pleading in his voice, “so stop fucking looking at me like that! I’m not weak. I’m not breakable. Nothing you do to me will break me-“

“Tony,” says Steve, and there’s such appalling sadness in his voice, “why would we want that?”

Tony can't breathe. “I don’t know. I don’t know why any of them did. But just stop acting like I’m fragile, because I’m not.” There’s a suspicious itching behind his eyes, “I don’t need to be handled with kid gloves. Captain.” The anger fills him, and there’s so much he’s never been able to fight, so little he could do in those caves, in Obi’s arms, in those gilded prisons claiming to be schools-

He can tear a building to pieces with the armor, and yet when it comes to his own body, his own desires, there’s nothing to fight, no victory to win. He’s in so much goddamn pain, and he can’t make it stop; his own body betrays him. He brims with anger, and there’s nothing to direct it at, and he doesn’t know what to do, because they just won’t go, won’t leave him to his own pain and grief-

“The rest of you,” he hears Steve speak through the dim red haze, “leave. I’ll handle this.”

They do.

Steve takes a step towards Tony. His expression is set, focused, terrible in its intensity. “Tony. Tell me your safewords.”

Yes.

Tony stares him down. “Red. Yellow. Green,” he says, and his words fall between them like a challenge, a dare.

Steve nods. “All right.” And then he moves.

Chapter Text

Tony stands before the elevator, armor pieces dropping from his hand. There’s sweat beaded in his beard, his hands curled into shaking fists.

“Tony,” Steve says, taking a step forward. “Please talk to me.”

Tony glares at him with utter defiance, lip curled in a snarl, eyes snapping black fire. He’s beautiful, and Steve wants to hold him down, force him to give in, to ease him down into sub-space until that pain etched in his face lessens.

“I- I don’t want to talk,” Tony says, and there’s so much confusion and anger and despair in those simple words. “I can’t.” He looks fragile, in this moment, despite the swell of muscle in his arms as he clenches his fists tighter.

Steve takes another step forward. In some ways, it feels like being trapped in here with a wolf. “If you want me to go,” he says, calm, hiding his hope, “you have your safewords.” A pause, before he adds, quietly, “But do you need me to go?”

Tony’s eyes flicker about the workshop. He opens his mouth, closes it again, and it’s a tragedy to see him silent.

“I think,” Steve says, coming closer now, almost close enough to touch, “that you don’t need me to go. I think what you need, right now, is someone to keep you here, with us.” He reaches out, settles his hand on Tony’s shoulder, tight and trembling beneath his fingers. “Trust me to know what you need. Please.”

Tony’s eyes don’t focus. They’re looking inward, some place dark, some place beyond time, but he doesn’t fight as Steve draws him into his arms, walks them both back into the elevator and hits the button for his own floor. He stands in Steve’s embrace, shaking, and Steve can only tuck that proud head beneath his own chin and hold on.

The elevator doors open, and Steve walks him back to the bed, lowers him down, Tony going with it, limp. Steve curls down over Tony, his back a shelter and a shield, and bends his head, mouth beside Tony's ear. He says, low, savoring the shudder it gets him,

"How can I help you?" Steve whispers into the scant space between them. "I'll do anything, just tell me what you need."

Tony flinches down into the bed, and Steve moves off, away, leaves open a straight line to the living room and the elevator beyond. Tony's eyes are shut tight, his breathing shallow and fast, and Steve aches for him. He doesn't know what to do, whether to touch him, and Tony's fingers are digging into the covers, groping for solid ground like he's afraid of being thrown off into space.

Steve toes off his shoes and socks and stretches out on the bed beside him, propping his head up on one hand. "Do you want me to put you in the corner so you can calm down?" Corner time seems simple, a break so Tony can concentrate on something else, but Tony shakes his head and rasps,

"No. Not a good idea. I'm... kind of panicky at the moment. Haven't slept, so that doesn't help, and the memories, they won't shut up. It'll give me too much time to think." His eyes open and he glances about before finding Steve, clenched jaw and furrowed brow relaxing marginally. "No bondage. I'm too edgy."

"We don't have to do anything," Steve says. "If you're not in a good frame of mind-"

"I'm fine."

Steve resists the urge to point out the insanity of that comment, considering the previous sentences.

"Besides," Tony grimaces and looks away, up at the ceiling, the late morning light falling on the dark circles beneath his eyes, "I screamed at all of you, defied you, treated you badly, treated myself badly by drinking. There has to be punishment for that."

"No, there doesn't," Steve says instantly, and Tony's gaze sharpens into a glare cold enough to cut.

"You're not getting it. The whole point of this is that when I fuck up, because I'm human and I will, you punish me and then it's over. I'd prefer a half hour's spanking and it being over with and done to having my bad behavior hanging over my head. What's worse, one punishment or a week of you resenting me for not apologizing well enough or me resenting you for feeling like you're lying when you say it's okay and don't mean it?"

"Is that something Stane did?" Steve reaches out, hesitating, and Tony rolls his eyes and moves to Steve's side, throwing one arm over Steve's chest. The arc reactor presses cold and hard against Steve's ribs, thrumming even through his shirt.

"Yeah. Whenever he was angry about something, truly angry, he'd start dredging up all this shit from the past, small arguments, and then he'd say that because he never punished me for those at the time that now he would." Tony's eyes go dark and distant, somewhere Steve can't touch, somewhere no one can follow. "So, punishment days with him were bad. That's why I'd rather have you punish me and get it over with."

His instinctive reaction is to deny Tony again, to insist that honest fear and emotional scars are nothing to be punished for or ashamed of, but he knows Tony. Tony is obsessive, with all the baggage, good and bad, that comes with it, and left to his own devices he will keep thinking about his mistakes, building them up into larger and larger sins. It seems better to cut that off at the pass.

Steve kisses Tony's temple. "All right. I will. But not today, some other time. As for the drinking, it's your life. As long as you're not endangering your life or others by... I don't know, being drunk in your workshop and doing reckless things, I'm not going to order you to stop."

"But- you'll let me know, when you're doing it, what you're doing it for? And it'll be over after that?"

As far as Steve's concerned, it's over now, but Tony doesn't seem the type to be comforted by that. Strange for a man who seems to live by no rules other than his own suddenly revealing himself to be so hidebound, but maybe that's what he needs: stability, guidance, rules. "Yes. Always. If any of us ever punish you for anything, it's only with your consent, and you will always know why, when, and how. After it's done, the matter's closed."

Tony takes a deep breath, and some of the tension in his spine loosens. "Okay. That... sounds good."

"What were you doing? The arc reactor thing - what were you trying to make us understand?" The jolt of fear as Tony had yanked the reactor out and held it there, the dark hollow of his chest - Steve never wants to feel that, see that, again.

Tony shifts, closes his eyes, brings one hand up to curl in his own hair. His lips are bitten raw and red. "Right now it's- I-" he struggles, and his hand tightens, twists, "-I don't fit my own skin. It feels too small, and my mind is too big for my head, and I can't-" his face is pale, sweat-slick, pain in the furrows of his brow, "-I can't get out of my own thoughts. I've got a lot of shit up there."

Steve grabs the hand twisted into his hair and guides it down, holds Tony's arm against the mattress with a loose grip about his wrist. "Okay. Is that normally what you do, when you feel like this?"

A sigh. "I was stupid. I was trying to provoke you."

Steve keeps his voice soft, empty of judgment or feeling. "To do what?"

Tony grunts, opens his eyes, makes as if to roll away, escape the conversation, but Steve tightens his grip just a bit and Tony falls back onto the bed with a snort. "We have to talk about this?"

"Yes."

"Sometimes, when I'm edgy like this, not- not fitting, and I can't get out of myself, my memories, I need to fight back. Hard. Yelling, wrestling, being brought down, the whole nine yards."

Steve blinks, but really, it's not so surprising. People as locked in their heads as Tony sometimes need something they can't intellectualize or escape, even when they don't truly want to escape, to be brought back into their bodies. "So playing at non-consent. This wouldn't... remind you of Stane, would it?"

Tony frowns, expression clearing after a moment as he gets what Steve's driving at. "What? No, no, absolutely not. Because with Obi, it didn't really matter whether he had my consent or not. With you guys, I know it matters, and that you respect my safewords, so there's a hell of a lot of difference." He sighs. "Besides, you keep asking me to trust you. Trust me to know what I can handle."

Steve lets go of Tony's wrist, slides his hand up over arm, shoulder, neck, curls it in Tony's hair, and pulls his head back and down into the mattress, exposing the pale arch of his throat, Clint’s bite mark deep red over the tendon. "I don't think Bruce or Natasha or Thor would be up for that, but Clint and I?" He smiles, sharp, edged with affection, "Trust me. We'll be happy to fight you down as much as you need us to. All you have to do is ask." He laughs. "Hell, I think Clint would like it."

Tony grins, and there's something dark and strange in it, the two of them sharing this moment, wolves against the world. "I know I'd like it."

Steve rolls onto his stomach and forearm, bends to kiss him at that honesty, can't not, hand slipping from Tony's hair to lay along one sharp cheekbone, thumb brushing over the hollows of his eyes.

Tony yields, easy as anything, following Steve's lead, moaning into Steve's mouth. His body sinks down into the covers, tension leeching out with each sweep of Steve's mouth.

Steve ends the kiss, draws back with a nip to Tony's lower lip. "Question."

"Shoot," Tony says, voice lazy, slurred, rough with slow-burning need.

"Do you need me to fight you down right now? Because I-" Steve hesitates, "-don't really want to at the moment. I have a cane and flogger under the bed I can use, but right now, I'm not in the head space to hurt you, not after what you showed us in the workshop." At Tony's confused stare, he hurries on, "I mean, I can, if that's what you need, that's what I'm here for-"

Tony gets a hand up and claps it over Steve's mouth. "Steve. Calm down. Do I need it right now? No. Will I probably need it at some point in the future? Yes." He looks at Steve like Steve's a revelation, something mythical and wondrous. "Sorry. I'm just- really confused at the idea of you... not wanting to do something I might want, and... and asking."

Steve snorts, and Tony jerks his hand away with an annoyed sound and wipes it on the covers. "What, like the bond is going to tell me all your kinks?" Steve says. “Dum Dum Dugan had a foot fetish that his sub didn’t have. He used to tell us the time he asked her for the first time if she could use her feet on him and she looked at him like he was mad. She did it, though; it was something he liked, and even though she didn’t see the point she liked making him happy.”

“It’d be easier if the bond made sure we had compatible kinks, too,” Tony grumbles. “How inefficient.”

“I know, instead we have to communicate. How horrible.”

Tony laughs, and rolls onto his side, stretches up to kiss Steve. He draws away, smiling, and the shadow in his eyes has faded. “Any orders?”

Steve thinks for a moment. “Sit up a bit.” He pulls Tony’s weatherbeaten Ramones T-shirt off, grinning at the riot it makes of Tony’s hair, and throws it to one side. “Lie back down, arms above your head.”

Tony goes, sprawls in a vision of bronze and mahogany against Steve’s dark sheets, and watches with hazy, dark eyes as Steve pulls off his jeans and underwear in one go and tosses them aside. His ankles are incongruously delicate, and Steve presses a kiss to the jut of one.

“Here’s the game,” Steve says, looking up Tony’s body.

Tony looks back, gaze alive with interest, but leaves his hands where they are. The arc reactor shines bright on the angles and planes of his face.

“I’m going to explore you. You have to stay still, no matter what I do, and every time you move, that’s one more time you have to come. Sound good?”

“Take pity on an old man, Rogers.”

Steve grins and makes to pinch Tony’s thigh, and when Tony, groaning, fights the urge to move away, he changes the motion to a caress. “That’s not yellow or red.”

“Green, you pedant.”

“Remember,” Steve says, “Stay still.” There is so much of Tony to know, to claim: the thin, ticklish skin at the backs of his knees, the hitch in his breath when Steve kisses a patch of scar tissue atop one shin, the muffled snort when Steve presses his thumbs into the hollows of his hips, the twitch and sigh when Steve bites gently at the line of his throat.

“What’s this?” he asks, stroking a thin, white scar that cuts across Tony’s stomach.

It takes Tony a moment to return to himself, and when he does, he blinks. “Oh. Machete.”

Steve says nothing. What can one say to that? He leans up, kisses each inch, and Tony’s lazy smile shakes. His sub’s hips rise, shifting in the prelude to rolling away, but Tony fights down the urge, though his fingers have curled into themselves.

“That’s one,” Steve says, and Tony rolls his eyes theatrically and groans.

“And this?” A patch of thickened skin, marbled red and white, below his left nipple.

“Gas burn. My own fault.”

Steve kisses that, too, and when he glances up at Tony again, those dark eyes have softened. Something tremulous and tender is in the line of his mouth, the shadows beneath his eyes.

“This?” A warped red line, low on his ribcage, that meanders like twisting rivers.

“Kni- ah,” Tony’s words dissolve as Steve traces the line with fingers and mouth, and he half-twists as Steve approaches his cock, red and wanting, and bypasses it entirely.

“Two.”

“Oh, no.”

“Yep.” Steve grins, and kisses him again, cupping the sharp angle of his jaw in one hand to control the kiss.

Tony lets him, lies quiescent and lax, responding to Steve yet not initiating, and the sweetness of him burns.

“Onto your side,” and Tony gives him a suspicious stare. “That doesn’t count. Game’s over.”

Tony moves, and Steve slots himself in place behind him. “You can move if you like,” he says, and then presses a line of sucking, nipping kisses down Tony’s spine, over the rise of his tailbone-

“Steve, what-“ Tony starts, and then he gasps, low and wanton, as Steve cups his ass in both hands and separates him, leans in to breathe hot and wet across that tiny entrance. “Oh,” he says, languid now, and sighs. “Oh, that’s-“

Steve licks, slow strokes with the flat of his tongue, easing him into it. It’s hard to stay focused when he has to lie with his hips canted into the bed to get some pressure on his own erection, but he manages, and the soft, needy noise Tony makes as Steve opens him, delves into him, is reward enough.

He is hot clinging velvet inside, salt and musk and desire, and the roll of his hips back into Steve is tidal, an undertow. Tony gropes back over his own hip, grasps Steve’s hand, holds on as if Steve’s the only thing holding him here.

The first orgasm seems to take Tony entirely by surprise. He gasps, a punched-out, stripped noise, and clenches, going rigid for a moment. Lassitude settles on him again, and he falls back into the sheets with a moan.

Steve gives him a moment. “Ready?” While he waits, he digs out some lube from beneath the mattress, slicks up the fingers of the hand Tony isn’t holding onto for dear life.

“Mm, yeah.” Tony sounds absolutely hammered, his words slurred, but he squeezes Steve’s hand, and that’s enough.

Steve slides two fingers into him, and Tony takes them easy, smooth, hitching back onto Steve’s hand with a moan. The third slips in without fuss, Tony’s body accepting it as though he’s been waiting for Steve’s fingers his whole life, and Steve says,

“I think you could take four. Maybe, some day, my whole hand.”

Tony tightens up on him with a high sound, and Steve laughs. “Yes,” Tony slurs, “Please.”

Steve finds that small, swollen spot, and presses, and Tony’s legs go rigid. His spine snaps straight, and his fingers scrabble against Steve’s. A yelp breaks free, resolving into a mumble of “Yes, fuck, right there-“

It takes him a while to rise again, but Steve is patient, steady, and he has no problem entertaining himself with Tony’s whines and the smooth ripple of his spine as he rides Steve’s fingers. Steve leans up to check, and there Tony is: flushed red, sweaty, his free hand curled into the sheets, eyes blown dark.

Steve points his fingers and presses hard, steady, and Tony jerks, comes again, mouth falling open, eyes blind. He makes no sound, the breath knocked from him as the wave rolls through his body, and falls back into Steve like he’ll never get up again.

“So good for me,” Steve says, leaving him be while he brushes his teeth, cleans his hand, the bed.

Tony latches onto him the moment he lies down, arms about his shoulders, head tucked into his neck, and Steve lets him. It can be nice to be needed. They nap for a while, though Steve is awake in time for Tony’s waking: a long, slow stretch, a yawn, eyes blinking open.

“You’re all right?”

Steve can’t stop smiling. “I’m fine. You?”

“Good.” Tony sighs, and reaches beneath the sheet to touch Steve’s hip. "You all do better than Obi on that front. What you say or do, you mean. Half the time when he said he was fine, he didn’t mean it."

“Why’d you stay with him?” Steve blurts, then winces. Great. Like this is the time to ask that question. Like there might ever be a proper time. He waits with bated breath for Tony to snap something flippant, to roll over and leave the room, but Tony, as always, is a surprise.

Tony rolls to face him, and gazes at him with incisive, dark eyes: Howard’s eyes. “I hate that question,” he says after what seems an age.

“Sorry. Sorry, you don’t have to answer if you don’t want to-“

“No. I should.” Tony sighs, and for a second he seems gone again, somewhere else where Steve can’t touch him, where no one can reach him. “I hate it because there’s never a good answer. There’s never an answer that satisfies people as to why a smart, wealthy man with all the world before him would choose to stay with someone who hurt him.”

“Any answer you give would be enough for me,” says Steve, and Tony half-smiles.

“So noble. All right. Part of it was that people have this picture of abuse, where it’s a hundred percent of the time someone’s being evil and hitting the victim twenty-four-seven and, I don’t know, threatening their cat until the victim gets mad and burns the bed with him or her in it.”

“I- is that… a real thing?”

Tony laughs. “No, no, it was this awful movie on Lifetime. Sorry, I didn’t mean to confuse you. But that’s the thing, is Obi wasn’t cruel ten percent of the time, or even five percent. The times when he would be angry and hurt me were few and far between, and I always believed him when he said he was sorry, that he’d change, because for months or years at a time, he would. You got to remember, Steve, we were together twenty years.”

“So… there were good times?” It seems impossible that someone who owned the things Steve saw in that trunk could be kind, could be good.

“Of course,” Tony says, frowning and looking at Steve as though he’s said something exceptionally dim. “I mean, I know it doesn’t fit your – let’s face it – black and white concepts of morality, but he could be nice. Very few people in this world are a hundred percent evil to everything and everyone. He was a great cook,” Tony smiles with the memory, “and he used to make the best breakfasts the morning after scenes and feed me in bed. Or when I was a kid, and my dad and mom were out at charity things that I didn’t go to, he’d come over and we’d tinker together, and then he’d make pizza from scratch. Before I hired Pepper, after my parents died, it was Obi that kept me from self-destructing.”

Tony shrugs, the motion jarring the sheet, which falls back, the arc reactor shining bright. “Which was another reason. I had a lot of good memories associated with him, and if I acknowledged that he was abusive, those memories seemed… devalued. Unreal. And, you know, my parents loved him. You know how my dad was. He poured his heart into his friends.”

Fifty years of fruitless search, for a man Howard had known only briefly. “I’m beginning to understand.”

“My dad loved you more than you’ll ever know,” Tony says, suddenly grave. “You were… everything good about humanity to him. Everything he wanted to be but couldn’t. He loved you, and he loved Obi, and it seemed impossible to me when I was younger that my father could know you for who you were and yet miss the darkness in Obi.”

“He could have,” Steve says. “Believe me, I’m no better than anyone else.”

Tony tilts his head. “Better than Obi.”

“God, I’d hope so.”

“Anyway. I suppose the last part of it was fear. Obi was… the most stable thing I had in my life. Everything else changed, constantly, but I could always go to Obi’s place and know exactly what to do, where to go. Obi said he could make me the perfect sub, could help me get over what the schools did to me, and I thought he could. Even though he couldn’t, even though it hurt, I valued his confidence. His belief that I could be perfect, and not broken. As time went on, he just became-“ Tony gestures, frustrated, “-part of me. I didn’t know how I’d ever find anyone who treated me like Obi did, like I was valuable for something beyond being Tony Stark, and it just seemed easier to stay than to go, restructure the company, possibly be revealed.”

"No one knew? It seems like it'd be a hard thing to hide."

“Not until he stole the arc reactor and I told Pepper. The fact that we were together was SI’s most guarded secret.”

“Oh.”

Tony, seeming to decide the conversation over, pushes himself closer to Steve, curling to rest his head in Steve's lap, baring the vulnerable back of his neck.

Steve strokes his hair, works the knots out of Tony's shoulders and neck with patient hands, and this is good.

Tony murmurs unintelligible things, tosses an arm over Steve's thighs and hugs himself closer, the arc reactor a cold circle of shining light against the outside of Steve's leg.

This moment, right here, with Tony, his sub, naked, comfortable, trusting, his to break and comfort, is enough. For all the horror of his waking into this world that makes so little sense, to know his team, his lovers, is worth it.

Steve closes his eyes for a moment, hand cradling the curve of Tony's skull, and finds the bond, a thread of light, strong, immutable, a blessing.

Chapter Text

Natasha has never been one to show her exhaustion - except when required to draw in a mark or extract pity - but right now, she can admit that she is hideously, terribly tired. An overnight flight to Bulgaria disguised as a flight attendant on the mob boss' private jet to ingratiate herself with him, a novice handler that had less than a percent of Coulson's skill, a difficult assassination and egress, and an even longer flight back, this time in economy class posing as her handler's wife to throw off pursuit: all that is enough to exhaust even her.

Then debriefings, and a preliminary after-action report in which she enumerated in great detail every tiny thing her handler did wrong, and she has never been so glad to see the Tower's lights.

She hikes her gray sweatpants up to keep them out of the puddles and swings her backpack onto one shoulder, trudging into the elevator and stabbing at the button. Her head falls back on a sigh. She wants a meal and a drink, and a nap, and a shower, in precisely that order.

The elevator doors open on her floor, and she has a knife in her hand before she even registers the identity of the person in her living room.

Tony leaps up from his kneeling position by the coffee table and hurries across the room to take her backpack and stow it in the closet. "Natasha - Mistress," he corrects himself with a wince, "-I'm sorry, maybe it's too forward of me, but I could feel you were anxious and I wanted to help."

Natasha blinks and follows him to the coffee table, falling into her overstuffed couch with a sigh. There's food on the coffee table: scrambled eggs (they don't look particularly appetizing, but it's the thought that counts), two slices of toast with the Ukrainian jam Natasha likes, and a hot toddy.

Tony, kneeling beside her in a rumpled suit, stares at her, near-vibrating with anxiety. He opens his mouth to say something, thinks better of it, closes it and glances down, and Natasha loves him, this ridiculous, clever man, the way she thought she never could, the way the Red Room took from her.

"Antosha." She rests one hand on his head, draws her nails lightly across his scalp to watch him shiver. "This is lovely, thank you."

Tony's shy smile is a gift. The eggs, less so, but Natasha eats them anyway, grateful for Tony's skill at conversation. It's nice to not think about the job, and hard to think about anything else but Tony when he's describing his latest business deal and losing himself in his own metaphors.

The hot toddy, of course, is perfect, and Natasha sips it with one hand and strokes Tony's hair with the other, enjoying the hesitant trust he gives when he bends to rest his head on the couch beside her. The vulnerable sight of his neck gives her an idea.

"Would you remove your clothes?"

Tony twitches, squints at her, but she says nothing.

"If you want me to." He rises to his feet, unbuttons his shirt, exposes the arc reactor's glow and the innumerable scars that make him who he is, that leave Natasha fortunate to have him. His slacks and underwear he shucks in one go and leaves draped over the back of a chair, and then stands, one knit-together expanse of skin and bone, fidgeting, so terribly uncomfortable in his own skin when the person watching matters.

Natasha stands and beckons him with a finger, turning towards her bedroom. "I'm still cold. Bulgaria isn't pleasant this time of year. I'd like to sleep, and I want you to keep me warm." She flashes him a tired smile. "Consider it a reward for your thoughtfulness."

Tony lights up at that. "I'm glad you liked my food. I'm very bad at gift-giving, I always go too extravagant, but I didn't want to just buy you dinner somewhere-"

Natasha strips out of her sweats and sinks onto her bed, the best bed in creation; Tony's turned down the sheets, his handiwork obvious by the trace of polyvinyl shavings from his latest project scattered on the carpet. "You gave me this mattress, Tony. That's enough of a gift. And besides, your service is worth more than any physical object."

He's standing in the doorway, watching her, with a smile Natasha is hard-pressed to quantify as anything other than goofy.

"Come here."

Tony crosses the room in a few quick strides and sinks into bed beside her, bicep rolling smooth as he props his head up on one hand and smiles down. His mouth is soft with drowsiness and adoration, contentment gleaming in his eyes.

Natasha rolls to press her back into his chest. The arc reactor is cold against her spine, but his hand, which she brings over her side to rest on her breast, is warm, and callused, and alive. The hair on his legs tickles the backs of her thighs, her calves, and his beard, when he bends to rest his face on his neck, scratches, though pleasantly. She's wrapped up in him, warming her through and chasing the cold of Bulgaria out of her bones, and though she can't hear his heartbeat, will never hear his heartbeat, his heart is still working.

Is enough.

"Thank you," he mouths against the curve of her neck. "Thank you for this."

She tightens her fingers about his hand in reply. It takes her a moment to gather herself to speak, when he is thanking her for such a simple thing, for allowing him to serve.

"You're welcome," she whispers into the darkness. "And thank you."

-

She wakes with a luxurious stretch, the smell of the dark, strong coffee beans Tony insists on having fresh-ground every morning trickling into her nose. Her mouth tastes awful - how tired was she, if she forgot to brush her teeth? - and her skin is sticky with old makeup. Shower time.

Natasha pads into the bathroom for a quick shower to get the sweat and grime of the mission off her and pulls up short. Tony's been in at some point while she slept and left her usual post-mission clothes folded neatly by the door: gray yoga pants, a pale blue shirt, her slippers.

Natasha would never let anyone but her team see her wearing these clothes, comfortable and worn and human, and the fact that Tony's watched her enough to mark these as her favorite for the days after missions makes her smile. She takes a quick shower, luxuriating in the water pressure, and steps out in a cloud of steam. The toothbrush is waiting, already loaded with toothpaste, so she brushes her teeth with one hand and finger-combs her hair with the other. It'll have to air dry today; when not on active duty and spraying it or dying it within an inch of its life, she tries to let it rest.

Dressed and refreshed, she goes into the kitchen, lit with the buttery glow of morning. A cup of coffee awaits her on the island, next to a plate of her favorite croissants from the hole-in-the-wall two blocks over and some fresh strawberries. There's a note propped on the plate; apparently there's some dire R&D crisis at one of Tony's subsidiaries he has to go attend to, so he'll be back later.

Still, so far, a perfect morning. Natasha curls up on the couch with a book and her breakfast.

After a while, Clint arrives, bruised to hell and back, his left wrist splinted. The bond sings with his pleasure at seeing her.

"What happened to you?" Natasha eyes him over the top of her book. "I thought you were supposed to be guarding the South Korean delegate in town.” She sets the book down and waves him to a chair. "Besides, everyone got jealous because it was supposed to be a cushy assignment."

Clint rolls his eyes. "Cushy? Fuck that," he says around a mouthful of strawberries. "Have them get shot at by two North Korean agents angry over fishing disputes, and then have them tail that stupid delegate while he visits all the fancy brothels he insists he's attending to perform necessary business deals, and then they can talk about easy assignments."

"Would you rather seduce and assassinate the crime lord?"

"Hm. Yeah." He ponders for a moment, then grins. "Only if I can kill my handler if he screws up the way yours did."

Natasha snorts, mood soured by the mention. "I'd insist Fury fire him if it wouldn't get me in trouble."

"What was he, one of those 'I must prove myself' doms?" The sarcasm dripping from Clint's voice more than conveys his opinion of the whole thing.

"Yes. I'm a handler for one of SHIELD's best assets, better make her understand that I'm to be obeyed, so on and so forth. Since I am obviously incapable of following orders otherwise."

Clint slouches. "Think any of them actually know that the best handler SHIELD ever had was a sub?"

Natasha smiles, the expression fond, tinged with grief. Coulson. "I think he'd be proud of us, Clint."

Clint tips his head to one side. His eyes flicker with old grief and acceptance. "He would. I know he would."

They pass a companionable day together, reading, talking, sparring some; Steve's out teaching his painting and exercise classes at a nearby veterans' hospital, Bruce is in the lab doing some delicate experiments, and Thor's at his twice-weekly meeting with some doctoral students in history from NYU who want to pick his brain about the Dark Ages. It's one of the best days Natasha has had in ages.

-

Late that night, Natasha looks up from drafting her full after-action report to see Tony at the elevator doors. His shirtsleeves are pushed up, jacket lost somewhere, expression tired.

"Hello, Antosha," and at the pet name some of the tension worn into his stance eases. Here, he doesn't have to think if he doesn't want to, and his grin of relief is small, but there. "Leave your briefcase there and come sit with me."

"All right." He gives in easy, crossing the room to clamber onto the couch beside her, resting his head on her shoulder with minimum complaint. The loose weight of him is a comfort, the lassitude of someone who doesn't plan to go anywhere soon.

"Dinner? There's some of Clint's leftover stir-fry in the fridge."

"Mm. No, I ate at the lab - ordered in some sandwiches and coffee for the team as a 'good job, guys' thing."

Natasha sets aside her laptop and re-situates them so they're lying down, Tony stretched out along her side and his dark head on her belly so she can run her fingers through his hair. The easy trust he's giving her is a delight, the low rumble as she hits a good spot a pleasure. "Ah, yes. I read your note this morning. What was the problem?"

"Self-esteem crisis," he says, expression rueful.

"I don't know if I'd consider self-esteem problems a research and development crisis."

"Oh, this is a special R&D lab. It's where the Ho Yinsen Scholars go." Tony notices her expression of polite confusion, and his face lights up with that amazing intensity he only gets when he's talking about something he truly loves, the face so few get to see. "After Yinsen saved me in Afghanistan, I set up a scholarship program for students, mostly minorities, who have ideas to change the world, so they can get a bit of a leg up. We don't care about age, where you were educated, or how much; the criteria is do you have a feasible idea and construction plan for an invention that can help mankind, and are you willing, once it works and can be mass-produced, to distribute it at cost? Every year we pick five, and they can access all of SI's resources to make their idea work." He sighs and stretches, an irritable frown wrinkling his forehead.

"This team's run by a young woman. She's twenty-three and is heading a team of scholars who're working on creating a chemical compound to soak up excess carbon dioxide from the world's oceans to stop acidification."

"She sounds wonderful."

Tony snorts, but Natasha can see the fond twitch of his lips. "Aisha's got a good head on her shoulders. Really. But she's young and doesn't come from MIT or any of those schools, so when things don't go right she gets frustrated, thinks she's stupid, and wants to let the 'more experienced' people on her team take over. Which, no, because this is her project, and I keep telling her that science isn't about getting it right on the first try, it's about failing over and over and getting back up."

"It's a hard lesson to learn."

"Yeah. But she'll figure it out. All the Yinsen Scholars do, eventually. And anyway, I didn't have to do much - thank god, because I'm a terrible chemist - so I just kind of stood around and offered pep talks and a sounding board. Besides, they're my ducklings, and I'm not going to let them fail because they think they're stupid. I don't pick stupid people to invest in." Suddenly, he seems fierce, a wolf circling the den.

Natasha can't stop herself from smiling. "Your ducklings, Antosha?"

He grumbles and shuts his eyes. "Well. Like all my employees. I want them happy because happy employees make me more money."

"Right. Of course."

Tony shifts again, tense now. "I hate to say it, but I do have some emails to write. May I get my tablet?"

"Of course, if you'll make me a Cuba Libre first."

There's a flicker in Tony's expression, a settling. There's a weight in the way he holds her gaze, the acknowledgment that he obeys her order because he wants to: not because she forces it from him, or because he feels he must follow society's dictates. This is Tony trusting her, continuing his faltering journey back into a dynamic that has brought him little but pain. Natasha watches him go to the island, the intense focus in how he selects the best lime and slices it precisely in half, the near-machine perfection of his ratio of rum to soda.

Some might find the wait for a simple drink annoying, but Natasha is no fool. There are many men and women out there who have had Tony's words, his kisses, his easy sensuality, his extravagant gestures of affection. There are far fewer who have had Tony prepare them a drink with such devotion.

He carries the drink toward the couch, and then, hesitating, slides to his knees on the carpet, offering the tumbler in both hands.

Natasha smiles, the expression breaking free of her control, and strokes his hair with one hand as she takes the drink with the other. The first sip confirms it to be a perfect Cuba Libre, the best she's ever had - as though Tony would give her any less.

"Very good, Antosha."

Tony half-slumps, as though the tension of waiting for her approval was all that kept him upright, and leans into the couch, daring to insinuate his head into her lap. He's trembling: slight, but there.

Natasha sets her drink aside and pets his shoulders, knotted stone beneath her fingers, the strong column of his neck, until he eases. Few people in this world would be so relaxed, knowing who she truly is, and yet he is. She's never believed in bonds bringing people together into perfect relationships - the prickly one she's in now, trapped with bad memories and clashing personalities, disproves that - and yet there is some kernel of truth to it, for Tony is perfect like this. He is exactly what she needs: devoted, trusting, intelligent, someone who knows her and the ways the Red Room broke her and yet finds her worthy of submission.

"Go get your tablet," she says, urging him away. "Crawl," she adds on a whim, wanting to see how he responds, the strong line of his back beneath his shirt.

He flashes her a smile and turns to get his tablet, heedless of his expensive trousers and the carpet.

Natasha relaxes into the couch and enjoys the way he moves, the shift and roll of muscle beneath the fine cloth of his shirt, the playful curl of his mouth as he picks the tablet case up between his teeth and carries it back to her, feline and proud. She drops a hand to his neck as he settles beneath the couch and curls up with his emails and simulations, and keeps it there for a while, typing out her own expense report one-handed.

It's a small sacrifice for his pleased, still-small smile.

-

"Tony," she says. His name is strange on her tongue. There are so few people she calls by name and allows to live.

"Yeah?" He flops his head back onto the couch from where he's sitting on the floor, tablet on his knees, and blinks up at her, pupils large in the dim light of her living room.

She aches for him, all of a sudden, rumpled and tired and worn as he is. She rests her finger on the frown wrinkle between his eyes, smooths it out, sits back. "Are you doing anything that can't be set aside for a bit?"

"No. JARVIS, save that file, will you? Store it on the auxiliary server so R&D can access it in the morning."

"Right away, sir," JARVIS says, and Tony thumbs off his tablet and sets it on the coffee table in front of him, beside Natasha's Cuba Libre, beaded with condensation. He half-turns onto one hip, gazing up at her from his spot on the floor between her legs, and when she reaches out to cup one rough cheek in her hand he turns enough to brush a kiss across her palm.

Like this, patient, waiting on her word, anticipation and concern that she refuses to allow to become fear in his expression, she regrets what she wrote in that report, so long ago. She had been foolish, stupid, to be drawn into Tony's warped perception of himself, to allow herself to believe him narcissistic and incapable of empathy. It's not that he's a bad team player; it's that he's had so few experiences of what a team is.

"Take off your shirt, turn around, fold your arms on the coffee table, and rest your head on your arms."

He frowns. That incredible mind of his is already ticking into overdrive, trying to anticipate, and Natasha slides her hand up his cheekbone and into his hair, tugs. "Tony. Don't try to anticipate my actions. Just obey."

"I always anticipate," he says, shrugging helplessly. "I try to be what everyone needs or expects before they even know they do." His smile is a tragedy. "Sorry."

She uncoils from her position on the couch and leans down, brushes kisses - honest kisses, truthful touches, and she wonders at herself, at her own ability to contain these - across his lying mouth, the trembling fans of his eyelids, the faint blue lacework of his blood at his temples. "No apologies. You have always been forgiven. Just obey. Just let me care for you."

He swallows, and does as she asks, bares his back to her who can kill him a hundred different ways. Bares the delicate black tracery of palladium scars knitted into his shoulders. Lays his head down on his folded arms, and as she lays one hand atop his neck to study the contrast between their skins he trembles. He has the corded muscle of a laborer, not the false pretension to athleticism of cold gyms and personal trainers, and scars fleck his forearms, his hands. His breath clouds on the varnished wood. So much trust: to know her and her ledger, complete and entire, and bare himself to her; to not hide his own flinches, though she can and has ruined men with tells far more subtle than those.

Natasha swings her legs off the couch to bracket his broad shoulders with her knees, to hem him in.

He tenses.

She turns, reaches for the bottle of oil she placed in the couch cushions, and pours some into her hand, the scent of sandalwood suffusing the air, waits a moment for the oil to warm, and then sets to work. There are so many knots in him, iron scars of too much labor, bending over computers, forging a new world.

She starts with the top of his neck, smooths oil down over his cervical vertebrae and onto the hard mountains of his shoulders with steady pressure, working out the scars she finds.

He huffs out a breath, and while his body eases beneath her hands his voice is no softer. "I should be doing that for you, Natasha. All I've done today is talk to some employees, you had to write up twenty different reports. What’d you do? Clint said something about a mob boss-"

"Yes. I assassinated him." She runs her thumbs down the deep rivers of muscle on either side of his spine, finds a spot that feels near-calcified, recalls that a Doombot nearly smashed in the armor there. She could not protect him then. "And I've never held with 'should.' If I want to care for you, I can."

He makes a noise of protest, but his fight is fading. The knot breaks. He moans, presses back into her hands, and falls.

She can do so many things to him, vulnerable and quiet beneath her fingers. The fact that she does not even contemplate violence is a triumph, a repudiation of all the Red Room tried to make her. Arousal pools within her belly at his passivity, how easily he allows her to move him, and she imagines all that intellect turned on her, on fucking her exactly how she pleases. When his shoulders move smooth beneath her hands, and the silvered scars of him glisten with oil, she strokes her hands hard up the back of his neck, the juts of bone there, to cup his jaw and tilt his head back.

He blinks up at her. There's too much awareness in him, a refusal to sink into trusting her, but that's all right. She doesn't expect so much of him yet.

She bends to kiss him, and he gives in so gracefully, allowing her to guide him, learning how to respond to please her best. The need to please trembles in him, and Natasha spares a thought of fierce gratitude that the universe has brought him to them, who will neither crush him nor try to take what is not theirs to control, not until he gives it. For all his power and intelligence and wealth, at heart he is still a man, and men can be bent, can be broken. She would not break him, not for anything in the nine realms.

"I would," he whispers against her lips, "really, really, really love to move this to the bedroom right now, mistress."

She draws back, feels his throat bob against her hands as he swallows a protest. "Giving me demands already, Antosha?" She softens her words with a smile, the brush of her thumb over prickly stubble.

"A suggestion." His fingers dig into the carpet to avoid touching his cock, straining beneath the black fabric of his trousers. "A suggestion I'd be really grateful if you granted."

"Hmph." She stands, leaves one hand twined in his hair, and tugs him after her to the bedroom. "All right. But you're going to have to earn the venue."

Tony, scrambling beside her, manages to flash a leering smile. "I can't wait."

Chapter Text

"Clothes off, on the bed." Natasha lets go of Tony's hair, and he - clever, good man - doesn't rise from his knees as he strips and climbs onto her bed. She pulls off her own clothes and tosses them aside into the hamper, then looks over her conquest, heat pooling in her cunt.

Tony watches her with appreciation etched across his face, eyes dark, lips red and swollen from their kisses. His cock, a lovely size and shape, is something she wants to take inside her immediately, can imagine filling her up in all the right ways. His hands are tangled in the sheets to keep from reaching for her, or himself, and she approves. She's always liked the bondage of the will over physical restraints; restraints take away choice. Keeping himself still out of desire to please her is a choice, and one she will reward.

"Tell me what you want," she says, resting one knee on the bed, one hand by his shoulders, leaning - looming - over him. Her breasts swing heavy in the air, nipples drawn tight and tingling, and his gaze darts to them and back to her face. There's some calculation there, his mind working overtime to figure out what to say to please her-

She slides one hand into his hair and curls her fingers into a fist, close to the roots to keep from yanking too hard, and jerks his head down into the pillows. "Tell me what you want. Now." Her voice cracks out into the still room.

He gasps, neck arching. His hands twist in the sheets. "I want to taste you, I want to make you come - show me how to make you come -" His begging is beautiful.

Natasha swings one leg over his broad chest and settles one hand on the headboard, looking down at him between her thighs. His beard scrapes the delicate skin on the insides of her knees, but the red burn it leaves behind will be a lovely reminder. The wet heat of his breath against her makes her shiver. She can do so much to him like this, can have him exactly how she pleases.

Even when she's fucking men and women for the mission, even when they say they want only to please her, she can never be honest with them about what she wants, always focuses on giving them exactly what's necessary for the objective. Here, she can be selfish. Here, Tony wants her to be selfish. She grins, hungry as the lean wolves of the taiga.

"You want to make me come, Antosha?"

"Yes, please - can I touch you?" He strains up, nose just brushing her, hands half-rising off the sheets.

"No," she says, firm but not cruel, and pulls his mouth up into her cunt with her grip on his hair. "Soft at first, more to the left."

For a man who trafficked in war for so long, he can be gentle. He parts her as delicately as he might handle something precious, licks at her in soft, broad strokes. The flick of his tongue over her clit makes her rock down into him on a sigh, the long muscles of her thighs quivering, and he notices it, the clever man he is.

Natasha spends long minutes enjoying him: the rasps of his inhalation through his nose, unwilling to take his mouth from her for even a moment, the pulse and fullness of his tongue within her as he curls it inside, the tremble of his muscles as his desire burns hotter. She eases her fingers in his hair and strokes it back from his forehead, the better to see him, vulnerable here as he's allowed to be in so few places in this world. They are more alike than she'd realized, that first moment they'd met, with him all brightness and thunder. He'd been dying then, struggling to leave a mark on the world, to be something other than just Tony Stark.

He will never have to worry about someone knowing him as more than Tony Stark again. She knows him now. His eyes have drifted shut, his expression relaxed. The muscles of his jaw roll as he works her with single-minded devotion, and the sight of him makes heat gather low in her belly, her limbs beginning to tingle.

"Harder now. Suck."

He seals his mouth about her and bends to the task with a will, his mouth hot, drawing her down into him, coaxing her higher. Tension draws tight, then tighter. Natasha lets her head loll back, rolls her hips into his face to get more pressure, and he takes it without complaint.

It takes her a while to reach the crest, always has, but Tony is dedicated, all his fierce intelligence bent on discovering what makes her tremble, tighten, sigh. He betrays no impatience like so many of her other lovers, focused on their own gratification, remains here in the moment with her, enjoying the journey as much as the destination.

Natasha is so lucky to have him. Far more fortunate than she deserves, than she could ever deserve, and if she told him that he'd tell her she is more than he deserves. They're a strange pair, the two of them -

She comes on a moan, a long, slow roll of heat and light that drowns out the room. Her fingers tighten on the headboard and in Tony's hair, but as she comes back to herself, he's made no complaint, merely lies still and silent, eyes open now, gazing up at her as he waits for her command.

Really, such a good man. She tells him so, and watches in quiet fondness as the thin skin around his eyes crinkles in a smile.

"Would you like a reward?" she asks, and rises onto her knees to give him space to speak.

His beard and lips and nose gleam with her mark. He licks his lips clean in two long swipes and says, hoarse, "If you think I deserve one." His words are slurred a bit from his tired lips and tongue. "I could go again if you want."

If he chose, he could never work for any reward, any tangible thing, in his life again. The fact that he doesn't is proof enough of his affection.

Natasha sits back, pauses just before making contact with his stomach to ask with raised brow if it would harm him. He is her most precious possession, a jewel finer than any she's ever worn or stolen, and she wouldn't harm him for the world.

He shakes his head, so she settles her weight, the soft trail of hair reaching his navel a tease, and reaches back to tangle her fingers with his. "Would you like to fuck me?" It's a good offer; she's never been one of the fortunate women who gets off from penetration alone, and to give this to Tony, while not a sacrifice by any stretch of the imagination, is a gift.

Tony surprises her once more. He frowns, because he is so ridiculously perceptive, and Natasha has never known what to do with people who see her so truly. "I mean, yeah, of course I do, but I want you to feel good. If it's just for me-"

"Antosha." She quiets him with a finger to his lips. "Anything you do makes me feel good, because you are good." So few people in this world have told him he's good and meant it. His brow creases, and she will tell him he is good a thousand times, if only so one day he will not question it.

"And trust me, I have ways of making fucking good for me." Tony's the sort to worry about whether or not she's feeling as good as he is the whole time, and if she doesn't reassure him now he'll never get around to asking for what he wants. She reaches for her nightstand and pulls out her favorite vibrator.

Natasha's nervous, annoyingly so; some of the few partners she's taken as herself look at her inability to climax via penetration as some sort of insult to their virility, or worse, a challenge. She has never liked feeling like something to be won.

Tony narrows his eyes at the vibrator, then takes it and inspects it with gimlet eyes. "Okay. Obviously you've got a good eye for these things - this one's decent, has good quality materials - but if you'll let me, I'll make you something custom."

Natasha's breath leaves her in a surprised laugh. Only Tony. She takes it back and kisses him, smiling. "You're welcome to, Antosha. Now. Fucking? Yes or no?"

He settles his hands on her hips and rolls his own up into her. Muscle shifts between her thighs. "Absolutely. I do love a woman who can cut to the chase."

She rests one hand on his throat, draws her nails across the thin skin there, and reaches into her nightstand for a pair of nipple clamps, connected by a silver chain. "Hands above your head. Keep them on the headboard, and if you pull them away, I stop."

He hisses and shivers as she closes the clamps about his nipples and hooks her finger through the chain. The links slither across his skin, clink where they hit the arc reactor. His eyes are open, his expression awed: it is lovely to have him like this, stripped down and vulnerable, naked in every sense.

With the other hand, she reaches behind herself, grasps him, hot and thick in her hand, and rises, then falls, taking him inside her in one long glide. He fills her just as she thought he would, an insistent, warm press, a delicious pressure.

Tony groans, eyes slipping shut, head pressing back into the pillows. The tendons on his neck cord. His fingers curl about the headboard, and his hips jerk, forcing Natasha to balance herself for a moment. He grunts as she pulls the chain, eyes opening to fix her in place with silent question.

"This might be your reward," she says, leaning forward, cupping his rough cheek in her free hand, "but don't think you're allowed to have it as you like. When I pull the chain, you thrust. I loosen the pressure, you withdraw. And if you come a single second before I tell you to, I'll leave you here, hard and wanting, and you can just finish yourself off. Understood?"

He bares his teeth at the challenge. "Yes."

She pulls the chain, rises onto her knees.

Pain tightens his expression, but he gets his feet beneath him and surges into her in one long thrust.

She laughs, delighted and surprised at his strength, and drops one hand to his shoulder to keep herself steady.

He grins, fierce, and withdraws as she loosens the chain. His hands are plastered white-knuckled against her headboard.

Natasha is instantly empty, clenching around where he'd been, but her dissatisfaction is nothing compared to the agonized pleading on Tony's face, the twitch of his fingers, yearning to settle on her hips. Part of her wants to keep him just like that, test the depth of his devotion, but she isn't so cruel as to set him a test she is unsure of his success at. She twists the chain, and he whines at the cruel press of metal on his nipples but obeys, pushing back into her, relentless.

Time expands. The twitch of her fingers on the chain control him as effectively as any bridle might guide a horse, and finally Natasha is getting fucked just as she likes. He moves like a well-oiled engine, smooth, sinuous, and for all the rumpled nature of his red-faced, wild-haired self, his intelligence sparkles in his eyes, fixed on her. His thrusts begin to falter, and when Natasha comments on it, his jaw tightens and he digs his heels into the mattress. Natasha is so lucky to have such a devoted sub, willing to run himself to the edge to please her.

Though he whines at every pull, grunts with every surge, gasps broken-hearted when she orders him out of her, he obeys. He obeys because he chooses to, not because she has broken him into it, and she holds that as a shield against the Red Room and her past.

She is Natasha Romanov, and for all her sins, this man loves her, trusts her so much that he turns over all his power into her hands.

Tony's gone quiet now. His muscles shake with exhaustion, yet he still moves as she wants. His eyes are blown dark and hungry. His mouth hangs slack, crimson where she's bitten at his lips, and she would devour him, would keep him just like this, stripped, vulnerable, all hers to cherish and hurt, to protect against the terrible world.

Yet she can't do that. She has only this. This moment in her bed, where she is his everything, his mistress, his.

"You've done so well," she said, and releases the chain.

He falls flat to the bed and gazes up at her, trembling, worshipful, then turns his head to one side and kisses her wrist, her hand where it rests on his shoulder. For once, there are no words, no jibes with which to defend himself.

She bends to kiss him, settles her hands on the clamps, loving the anticipatory coil of him. "When I pull the clamps off, you can move however you like," she whispers against his mouth. His gasps for breath fill her ears.

"Green, green, please," he manages in a broken rasp, and then the words dissolve into a yelp as she yanks them both off. He lies there a heartbeat, shocked, expressionless, his nipples red, bruised, and then just as Natasha begins to question whether she's pushed him too far, he moves.

He rises in one consuming wave, arms coming up off the headboard to wrap about her, and rolls her onto her back. His eyes glitter, ravenous, and Natasha can only grin at him, recognizing the animal in him. He plants his hands on the mattress to either side of her head, muscles cording in his arms, and lunges into her, thighs flexing beneath her feet. He grunts with every thrust, and Natasha can only throw her head back and gasp for breath around her laughs. His expression is stunned, animal, utterly gone.

She presses her vibrator against her clit until she comes on a laugh.

Natasha envelops him in her, provides him a place to rest, even as she rakes her nails down his back. She made him this way, animalistic, needing, broke him down into desire, all anticipation and cunning and worry gone, and this is all the power she will ever need, the best thing in life.

"Come on, Antosha, lyubov-"

With an agonized sound, he stiffens, slumps onto her. His heart pounds against hers. His beard tickles the side of her throat where he's tucked his face, hiding. Hot tears dampen her skin. He trembles, fine shudders like a nervous animals, and takes one deep, gasping breath. A sob tears the air.

She shushes him, strokes her fingers through his sweat-soaked hair, runs the other up and down his spine. He's beautiful like this, exposed to her, willingly vulnerable. She brings her legs up over his, cradles him in her body as he cries, and calls him the words she once thought she would never get to use.

Beautiful. Good. Devoted. Pleasing. Hers.

-

Business trips are annoying. He's spent a week in Shanghai with Pepper, assisting her in a corporate take-over of several manufacturing plants, and by the end of it - when everyone keeps coming to him for answers even though he directs them to Pepper every time because he's just head of R&D now, thank you, and happy with that - he's about ready to dive into three - or four or five - fingers of whiskey. Even getting a picture of the rest of the team draped half-naked over each other in front of a roaring fire with Clint, behind the camera, giving a thumbs-up only makes it marginally better.

"That's nice of them," Pepper says from where she's sitting across from him in the back of the limousine. "I was worried about that."

Tony glances at her, raising a brow, and thumbs his phone off. She'd seen its reflection in the rear windshield. Sneaky. "What, that we're all hideous dorks in private?" He yelps as she feigns winding up to smack him, and then grins, adding, "You know me, you should know that."

"No," Pepper says. She glances down at her tablet to verify something. "I'm just glad that they sleep with each other is all. I mean, I know your history-"

"Sheer volumes of sex-"

"-and your strange bond configuration," she says over him, frowning, "-and I'd think that having you be the sole focus of five other people would get tiring after a while."

"Very true." Tony stretches, surprised at how his neck or back still refuse to pop with tension. Natasha's better at massage than he thought she'd be. "Nah, they're all with each other too. They just don't have a power dynamic going."

"Kinky."

"Very. I've walked in on Clint and Thor and Natasha all going at it before."

He's got a beast of a headache. His reactor scars are aching - travel always aggravates his lungs, and the smog in China was disgusting. By the time they drop Pepper off at her building, he's glad to see her go, if it means he can sit in the back and concentrate on his pain. He takes a few pills for his pain and contemplates taking a Fentanyl patch, but this pain isn't that bad yet. His phone rings.

"Steve."

"Tony." The warmth of Steve's voice is like Fentanyl all by itself, an easing of the steel band around his chest. "How was Shanghai?"

"Boring but necessary. I'm almost home."

"Good." Steve's voice drops, becomes low, edged with something raw. "Get in your private elevator. Be naked by the time you come to my floor."

Oh. This is interesting.

"Why?"

"A week or so ago, you said you needed to be punished for defying us and drinking too much. It's time."

Tony freezes. The lights and sounds of New York slide past outside the car windows, but in here it's silent and dark, and at home Steve is waiting with a cane. He could say no. He can always say no.

"You can say no," Steve says.

But he won't. Because Tony is blessed and cursed with self-awareness, and an abundance of guilt about the people that matter, and he shouldn't have screamed at his lovers. He shouldn't have treated himself as though he doesn't matter by drinking near to the point of blackout. And even if they don't care, even if they are capable of moving on without resentment or guilt, he isn't. He is obsessive and takes on far too much, and spends half his time running from himself, and the ritual of punishment makes him able to give that up.

"I know," he says. "I'll be ready, sir."

There's a short silence. He wonders if Steve was hoping he'd safeword.

"All right. Good." Steve's voice is gruff. "We love you."

"Yes," is all Tony can say, and then he hangs up, and then the rest of the drive, the entering the Tower, the stripping in the elevator all pass in a blur. The door opens on Steve's floor, and he steps inside and folds onto his knees, chest pressed to the carpet, nose to the floor, eyes closed.

Someone's hand cups his chin and lifts his head, and he opens his eyes to see Bruce there, rumpled as ever.

"Hi," Bruce says, smiling, and kisses him, pulls him upright, passes him to Thor - a hug and a consuming kiss that leaves him breathless - then to Clint - a heavy hand on his ass, a bite to his lower lip - Natasha - she kisses him slow, soft, dazes him- and then he's given to Steve.

Steve strokes his shoulders, his sides, his legs, as though checking he's come back in good form, and Tony can only stand, silent, trembling, overwhelmed.

“Remember,” Steve says, looking into his eyes, and Tony would pull away, crack a joke, can hardly bear to be known so deeply, “we have no power but what you give us.”

"Yes," he says, because he can't say anything more. Words, vast torrents of them, pour through his mind, but he can't hold onto any of them; they slip through his grip like water. His headache has receded now, and when the endorphin spike comes it'll ease further, washed away in the tide of adrenaline.

Over Steve's shoulder, he watches the others go, then turns his attention back to Steve. He's curious, despite himself. Curious to know how his new lovers will punish him, whether they'll think him too weak to handle it, refuse to give him the punishment he needs in favor of a light spanking, something barely worthy of the name.

Steve is still, expression controlled. There's something hard and assessing in his eyes that makes Tony want to bare his throat.

"Go to the door."

He goes.

-

"Hands on the door. If I have to chase you down, you'll feel it for a month."

Tony mutters something and does as he's told for once, allowing Steve to pull out the chest he keeps beneath his bed. Steve sets aside a heavy flogger and a thin rattan cane, then pulls out a set of black leather cuffs, some rope, and nipple clamps connected by a thin chain.

When he gathers it all up and turns around, Tony's where he left him, exposing the vulnerable expanse of his back pitted with shrapnel scars, muscles honed by hard work in the forge. He startles as Steve touches him, but says nothing, keeps his jaw clenched as Steve buckles the cuffs about ankles and wrists.

"Too tight?" Steve checks with his own fingers, but he doesn't know Tony's body yet, and he doesn't want to harm Tony's hands.

Tony shakes his head.

"All right." Steve clips Tony's wrists together and draws them up, tying a rope about the clip and then feeding it through the standard hook above the door frame. His ankles, Steve leaves with a short length of rope between them, just enough for Tony to stand steady with.

Tony hisses, his eyes blue flames, as Steve lets the clamps close about his nipples, dusky rose and tight in the cool air. One knee nearly buckles as Steve flicks a clamp, then hooks his fingers through the slim silver chain and ties it to another rope, running from the hook above the door to the rope between his ankles.

He sets Tony back against the door and goes to collect his other tools, taking a moment to survey the situation.

Tony's back is drawn tight, his dark head bowed. His hands are curled into fists above the cuffs. The bright morning light paints the hollow of his spine, the rise of his hips, the pits of his scars in sharp relief.

"You're beautiful," Steve says, unexpected even to him, the words raw with honesty. "Trusting me like this."

Tony makes a ripped, wrenching sound, something approaching a sob, and tries to take a step back, to deflect Steve's words, and then yelps.

Steve sighs. He almost orders Tony to take the damn compliment, but the words click against the back of his teeth. He toes off his boots and socks, strips out of his shirt and hangs it over the back of a chair, and then stands behind Tony, flogger in one hand.

Tony breathes hard. The muscles of his back and shoulders roll in tiny waves as he tries to figure out the boundaries of his confinement, how far he can move without pain, one hip jutting as he shifts his weight, and just as he begins to settle into it, to find comfort, Steve strikes.

There's no warm-up. The hail of hard, thudding blows he deals are the warm-up for the cane waiting on the bed. He doesn't aim for artistry, or even spacing, or patterns where the falls have welted skin: only covers every inch of skin between Tony's thighs and his shoulders with hit after hit of unwavering force.

At the first hit, Tony startles, jerks, nearly loses his balance as the ropes tug on the clamps. By the third, he's found his balance again. His hands clench about the rope above the cuffs, and he holds there, steady, like a mountain cut out against the sky. Though his knees threaten to buckle, and the clamps must be an agony, he doesn't flinch. Doesn't try to escape. Doesn't even look back: only stares straight ahead, sweat blackening his hair and running in rivulets down his reddened back.

He doesn't cry out, or moan, and only Steve's senses, the pinnacle of human perfection, allow him to hear Tony's voice:

He's snarling. Low in his chest, wordless, near sub-sonic, the sound of a man staring straight down over his own edge. The shift of him, the steady rocking back into the blows, is even worse.

Steve doesn't want to wonder, and can't yet not, if this is the sound Tony made in those caves, under knives and water, in darkness and silence and the knowledge that sometimes love and strength and smarts weren't enough, could never be enough, to protect the ones you loved, to keep your own heart.

He pauses for a second.

Tony's back is one uniform raw shade of red, though Steve hasn't broken the skin anywhere. There's bruising rising, and Tony's going to have trouble sitting for the next few days or week, but nothing permanent.

It takes Tony a moment to realize the absence of pain, and he gasps, a terrible sucking sound, and lets himself go. His knees cave, and he hangs from the cuffs for a second before the tug of the vertical rope running to the clamps draws him upright again. He fights for his balance, finds it again, and stands, waiting, breathing hard and harsh, dark head lowered, animal in his silence and shudders.

Steve is overwhelmed, all over again, by such fierce pity his chest feels like to break. He wants, so badly his hands ache with it, to go over and cut Tony down, hold him close, ease him down into a better place, but that's not what Tony wants, what he needs.

For all that Steve holds the flogger, could order Tony to do nearly anything, they both know the fragility of their shared illusion of Steve's power.

Steve sets the flogger aside and picks up the cane. Rattan, an inch wide, with enough give to be bent near ninety degrees, it's the nastiest thing he owns. Used improperly, it can flay. Used enough, it can kill. He hates using it. The last time was with Bucky, the night before he went hurtling into ice and nothing; Bucky had come lurching up out of a nightmare and nearly murdered Dum Dum Dugan, and nothing Steve or Dum Dum or anyone had said had made him feel better. Steve ended up taking his supposed guilt out on his hide, and that had solved it, until the morning.

He steps in closer and lifts the cane, laying its tip across Tony's ass. This, unlike the flogger, can only be used in a very specific space: buttocks to lower thighs, and no more. Any higher risks injury to spine or kidneys, any lower the knees.

"You know what this is," he says, level.

Tony's nod is a wretched thing, mechanical and slow.

Steve waits a second for a safeword, then continues, "I'm going to beat you until you break. I'm going to go hard, and fast, and the only person who controls when this stops is me."

He doesn’t wait for an answer, only steps back and slashes the cane into Tony’s skin.

Tony lunges forward, howls as the clamps yank, and then yells again as the pain crests, and Steve strikes once more, building it up, pain on pain, blow on blow.

Tony’s voice begins to shred. His face, what glimpses of it Steve catches, is red and wet with tears, his lips bitten raw. His thighs and ass bear purpling lines, evenly spaced, and his knuckles clench white about the ropes. When he catches his balance again, hanging off the ropes, his knees tremble. This is him, weak, allowing himself to be made weak, to be seen in pain, and Steve is honored and horrified at once.

Steve shifts his grip and lays down another line, this one at a diagonal, crossing all the previous ones.

Tony howls, high-pitched with true pain, his muscles spasming as he twists and gets nowhere, and then goes utterly limp. His hands go lax. His knees give out, and he crumbles, hanging from the cuffs. That dark, proud head falls forward, and the air is full of nothing but the deep, gulping sobs of a man in agony, humbled, submitting, in control of nothing.

Steve throws the cane aside and is across the room in two strides, getting one arm about Tony’s waist, the other busy undoing the cuffs and removing the clamps. The rush of blood to abused skin makes Tony whine and sag, and Steve holds him up. The bruises are a heated bar against the inside of his arm.

“I’m sorry,” Tony says, slurred. His face is lax and stunned, wiped clear of calculation or thought, and he gazes up at Steve with tear-dark eyes like Steve is a revelation. “Sorry.” He clutches at Steve like he’s unsure he’s real, and the blatant vulnerability of him, naked and hurting and needy, hits Steve like a punch to the gut.

“You’re forgiven, you were always forgiven.” Steve turns them towards the bathroom and half-carries Tony into the ridiculously opulent room. The others are in the bathroom, Bruce in the tub with Natasha, Thor and Clint leaning against its sides. The tub's already filled, and Steve hands Tony over to Bruce, who cradles him as he sinks down into the water, flinching and hissing at the touch of warmth on his marks.

"Hey," Bruce says quietly, shifting his grip so as to hold all of Tony's curled form within his arms. "There's our good boy." He runs his fingers through Tony's sweat-damp hair, craning his head enough to see the marks Steve's left behind. They're deep, though not enough to scar, and Steve's been careful; while there are weals rising purple across Tony's ass and thighs, none of them bleed. "Very precise," Bruce says, voice empty of judgment. "They'll heal cleanly."

Steve ducks his head, embarrassed that he did this, that he could hurt Tony, and what the hell does that say about him-

A cuff across the back of the head nearly knocks him flat, and he whips around to stare at Thor, who gazes back, unrepentant.

Draped over Thor's shoulder, Clint looks amused, the bond humming with his approval of Thor's actions.

"Stop your self-flagellation," Thor whispers. His eyes burn. "You did what Anthony wished for, no more. If he had not desired it, he would have said so. You are a good man. Believe in that, if nothing else."

Steve closes his eyes, takes a deep breath. Thor's right. He's just suffering the effects of dom drop. He reaches out and settles a hand on the back of Tony's neck, where his hair curls dark and soft against his skin, and holds it there, taking comfort in how Tony presses back into the touch.

Tony burrows his face into Bruce's neck, one arm curling limply about his shoulders, and shakes. The endorphin spike from the caning is ending, then, and bringing his body temperature down with it. The water and Bruce's own furnace-like temperature should be enough to keep him from true cold.

Natasha moves, slim white hands cupping water and letting it trickle down over the fading red marks of the flogger and the purple lines of the cane, puddle in the deep pits of his scars.

"Guys?" Tony's voice is scratched, raw, smoky, muffled against the side of Bruce’s neck.

"Yeah?" Clint says, resting a hand on Tony’s shoulder.

"I'm sorry."

Bruce closes his eyes, and turns his head to kiss sweaty hair. "It's all right. It's okay. It's over."

Tony shifts. His wet fingers curl in Bruce’s hair. He groans as battered muscles stretch. "I want it- what Obi did- to be over. I don’t want the memories anymore,” he says, and his voice cracks.

For all his strength, and all his skill, and all his love for the shattered man in their keeping, Steve can think of nothing to say, no promises to make.

Bruce slips his hands up Tony's back, over his broad shoulders, cups that sharp jawline in both hands, and tilts Tony's head back.

Tony blinks at him with red-rimmed eyes, then turns enough to look at the rest of them, and the stunned surprise at their presence in his gaze breaks Steve’s heart.

"We'll help you end it, what Stane did to you. We'll help you overcome it, and we'll stand beside you with every ounce of our strength and all our love, but Tony-" Steve hesitates, "-you have to trust us. We can't stand beside you when you leave us no space to stand in."

Natasha says, "You're already perfect in our eyes. What Stane did to you, what the schools did- it doesn't matter. You don't need to be perfect, or a better sub, or any of that. We want you as you are."

Tony blinks again, sucks in a hard breath. His expression crumbles, and Steve realizes all over again how few people have ever told this man that he is wanted as himself, not for money or fame or power. Tony lurches forward into Bruce, and though he doesn't weep, doesn't say anything, the shudders that wrack his frame tell all they need to know.

Chapter Text

Bruce finds Tony in his workshop, upper body hidden beneath his Bugatti.

"You, crescent wrench, five-eighths," Tony says, voice near inaudible over the crash of some death metal that sounds vaguely Norwegian, and Bruce scrambles to one side to get out of You's way as it scurries past, crescent wrench in its claw.

Bruce squats by the car, moving easy from his morning yoga, and waves to Jarvis. Music dampened, he leans down to peer at what little of Tony he can see: mostly a filthy T-shirt and the faint shadow of his head. "Hey, Tony."

"Put a hand on the Veyron and I will murder you. I just waxed it." Tony knocks his knee into Bruce's, which takes a bit of the sting out of his words.

"By which you mean you had You and Dummy do it, I assume."

"They are but extensions of my will," Tony drones, doing something violent that involves a lot of metal screeching, then hits a button on the sled.

"So like graduate students." Bruce grins as Tony appears.

"That's an insult to Dummy and You," Tony shoots back, pushing himself upright and dusting off his shirt. A cloud of dust of indeterminate origin wafts into the air and is immediately sucked away by what Bruce privately suspects to be the most powerful HVAC system known to man. "At least Dummy and You don't require sleep."

"Oh, the benefits of not being biological."

"Many and varied." Tony turns to grab a bottle of water and takes a long drink. His throat moves, pale and long, and Bruce yearns to kiss that pulse beating blue beneath the skin. He offers the bottle to Bruce. "What's up?"

Bruce reaches out, closes his fingers over Tony's, gaze intent on Tony's. Calluses rasp against his skin, and Tony's fingers go slack beneath his. Tony's mouth softens, his eyes alight. Water droplets slick his lips, shine in his beard.

"Now?"

"Yes," Bruce says, and stands, pulling Tony up with him, flattens his hand and draws it up Tony's arm to slide it about the back of his neck and tug him forward into a lingering kiss. He's thorough about it, patient, cataloging every little response, the way Tony rocks forward with a huff of breath, dropping the water bottle to clutch at Bruce's hips. Bruce's glasses fog up, yet he can see Tony's eyes, dark, wanting. Feel the bruising press of his fingers on his hips.

"What do you want?" Tony murmurs against his mouth.

Bruce settles his other hand on Tony's ass, warm through his worn jeans, tightens his grip. His fingers dig into skin and muscle, press against Tony's entrance.

Tony's knees weaken, grip slack on Bruce, and his mouth falls open on a soft inhalation.

"I want you to come until you're dry," Bruce whispers, dropping his head to mouth at Tony's throat, savoring the graceless way Tony drops his head back to let Bruce worry at the thin skin over his pulse. When he pushes a thigh between Tony's, Tony jerks, a full-body shock, gasps and ruts against his leg. Bruce pulls back. "I'm going to make you come over and over, until you're sobbing with it, begging me to stop yet not wanting me to. I'm going to fuck you raw."

Tony drops, just like that, to his knees on the floor of the workshop, hands skating down over Bruce's stomach, a brief pressure on his cock, to wrap about his thighs. Tony looks up, his eyes dark, mouth bruised. Hair a mess, engine oil smeared across the sharp cut of one cheekbone, and Bruce has never loved anyone so much as he loves this man at this moment, offering himself so honestly. "Green. Please."

"Good boy," Bruce says quietly, and Tony smiles, glances down and away. "What is it?"

"I want to make you happy. I want to give you what you want, more than anything. But I don't know if I can." Tony offers a weak smile. "The spirit is willing, the flesh weak."

Bruce's heart melts, just a little, at the naked admission of how scared Tony is of failing him, the depth of his devotion. He curls his fingers about Tony's chin, stubble rough, and holds Tony's gaze, keeps him from looking down or away. He speaks gently, with a trace of steel. "That's what you're not getting, Tony."

Tony frowns, and Bruce forestalls his words with a finger to his lips. "It's not about whether you can or can't. You don't have that choice anymore. You don't have to give me what I want, all you have to do is let me take it, because I will. You don't have to worry about coming as many times as I want you to. I will make you."

Tony's eyes drift shut, and he shudders.

"And for the record?" Bruce adds. "You always make me happy."

Tony smiles, a small, private expression, and butts into Bruce's hand.

"Go on into my lab. Take off your clothes and hop up on the table on your back. I'll be in in a few minutes." Bruce nudges him, then follows at a sedate pace, stopping off for a moment to shut off the death metal. When he enters his lab, the glass doors sliding shut behind him, he has to stop for a moment and smile to himself. He spent so long afraid of himself, afraid to let anyone get too close, terrified to unleash his dominant urges, and yet Tony's here.

Tony's done exactly as he asked, and lies sprawled on the medical table with his heels drumming in the stirrups. He shoots Bruce a measuring glance, and the slow clouds in his eyes make Bruce feel stronger than the Hulk. Bruce's dressed in rumpled khakis, an old MIT t-shirt, and one of his lab coats, sleeves pushed up above the elbows. He's slouchy, not exactly in-shape, graying and unkempt, and yet Tony looks at him like he's the hottest thing on two legs.

"Good." Bruce takes a seat on his rolling stool and pushes himself over to the bottom of the table, between Tony's bent legs. It's the work of a few seconds to extend the stirrups so Tony's legs are held open. He's utterly exposed, half-hard cock lying along one sharp hipbone, entrance visible in the mirror attached to the table. "Comfortable?"

"Yeah." Tony's glancing around, curious now. He tenses as he spots the tray next to Bruce, covered with a plain black cloth. "What's the plan?"

Bruce lays one hand on Tony's leg, squeezes in reassurance. The response isn't unexpected, not for someone whose medical experiences have been of doctors unable to treat his pain. His other hand flips back the cloth, revealing a shining metal speculum, several packets of medical lube, and a small plastic probe with metal electrodes at the end.

"Oh," Tony says faintly. Tony's eyes have gone dark. The paper on the table crackles as he shifts. "You're going to open me up."

"Yes." Bruce grins. "With my fingers, first, work you until this slides up nice and easy into you, no pain." He lifts the speculum, flicks his thumb against the screw to open the blades halfway. "And I'll hold you open wide, exposed, pink and slick and shining, so I can just slip my fingers in. You'll have no choice, because you're not stronger than metal, and no matter how you squirm or tighten you'll still be exposed to me. And after I've got you wide, that's when this comes in."

Tony cranes his neck to see the probe. He's flushed at the chest, sweat beading along his hairline, and his muscles tense and release beneath Bruce's fingers. "It's not a vibrator. Some sort of sensor?"

"No." Bruce takes his hand away from Tony's leg, lifts the probe and touches it to his own forearm. The jolt forces his fingers to flex, punches a hiss between his teeth. "Electricity. They've found it useful in inducing orgasm in men with spinal cord injuries. It'll be instant, powerful, beyond your control. With this, I can make you come whenever I want. As many times as I want. You'll have no choice."

"Fuck," Tony whispers, gaze riveted to the innocuous white plastic thing in Bruce's hand. He's not looking away, not rolling off the table, and Bruce can taste the hope in his own words when he says,

"If you're okay with this, tell me your safewords. I'm only going to stop for those. 'No,' 'stop,' all of that, I'll ignore."

Tony drags his gaze away from the probe to meet Bruce's eyes. He looks half-gone already, expression some mix of trepidation and desire, a man who wants something and fears it in equal measure. He works his jaw, then whispers, "Yellow. Red."

"Promise me," he says, leaning over to look Tony straight in the face, "that if you feel anything wrong, anything strange or painful, that you'll say your safewords. This is serious play, and if I hurt you, I'd be devastated."

Tony blinks, as though surprised, still, and then stretches up to knock his forehead against Bruce's. "Promise, Jolly Green. That's the last thing I ever want to do." A pause. "Can I."

"Tell me," Bruce orders, resting his hand on Tony's shin and curling his fingers about his leg, hinting at too much pressure.

“Before we start, let me just take something. I've been in one position for a long time, the arc reactor doesn't agree with it. And I can't concentrate on what you're going to do to me if I'm concentrating on the reactor."

"Of course." Bruce stoops and digs through Tony's pockets for the blister packet of pills, reading the prescription info as he pops out two pills, and tips them into Tony's open mouth. He holds a water bottle up for Tony to seal his lips about, and Tony holds his gaze as he does it, gaze hooded, smoldering.

Tony pulls off the water bottle with a loud pop, and says in a low voice that drips grateful submission, "Thanks. Will you…”

“Yes?”

"Restrain me, please," Tony manages, like it physically hurts to ask, and the rawness in his voice makes Bruce pause, knocks him out of his headspace a bit.

"You're sure?"

Tony huffs, irritated. "Yes. Because I trust you, and I know that if I ask you to untie me or stop, you will. Even if they didn't, you will, and that's- it's good. It helps me. It fixes the fear in me."

And, well, what can Bruce say to that? He fishes the medical restraints out of their drawer - standard-issue, he's never needed them - and wraps them about Tony's wrists, ties them down, does the same to Tony's ankles in the stirrups, and with every tie Tony sighs, goes a bit looser, quieter.

Bruce checks the restraints with two fingers between the cloth and Tony's skin, then sits back on his stool. He slides over to the sink to wash up, then slides back and snaps some medical gloves on as loud as he possibly can, the momentary sting worth it for the way Tony jumps and shivers.

"Ready?" he asks, tearing open a packet of lube and squirting some on his fingers.

Tony swallows, nods. "Yeah."

"Remember," Bruce says as he reaches forward, Tony tightening reflexively at the first touch of his finger, "You don't have to make it happen. I will. Just lie back and let me do this."

"Yeah, okay, easy for you to say," Tony grumps, though he does lie back when Bruce flicks him a glance and a raised brow.

"Breathe for me," he says instead, stroking his index finger over that tiny pink furl of muscle, feeling it contract and relax with every pass of his finger. As Tony exhales slow, Bruce curls his finger in and up, until it's sinking inside Tony, whose toes curl against his feet, his eyes slipping shut as he grunts. He's hot inside, tight, and for a moment even Bruce, who knows so well the ways the body can adapt, can't imagine fitting his fingers, much less a speculum inside. He corkscrews his finger, pulls back and pushes in, patient. It's almost meditative, this task, this slow persuasion of Tony's body to let him in. He's cultivated patience, and now he's grateful for it, because this is something that can't be forced.

"If I'd known this was what we were going to do," Tony says, shifting, "I'd have worn a plug or something. Thor's got some."

Bruce retreats, slicks up again, pushes in again with two fingers, and watches Tony's brow furrow, the way his mouth goes slack when Bruce twists his fingers inside him. For all his masks outside the Tower, all his glibness and armor of custom Savile Row suits, here he is nothing but honest. The flush at his throat and the deep roar of his blood tell all tales.

"No need," he says quietly. "I like this better. I can feel your heartbeat, you know. Every question I asked you, I'd know when you told me the truth." For emphasis, he spreads his fingers inside Tony, feels him quivering and finding no purchase.

Tony whines, eyes flying open, and jerks at the restraints. He stares at Bruce like he's not quite sure what to do, whether he should say something, and to have Tony Stark silent is worth everything.

Bruce stares back, calm, certain, and Tony lies back down. A small victory. A victory nonetheless. He spends long minutes working, until Tony's trembling, sweaty, slick and yielding around his fingers.

"Bruce," Tony finally pushes himself half-upright, hair flopping into his face, "please just get on with it, seriously, I'm-"

He cuts off into a gasp that sounds like it's been wrung from him as Bruce slides a third finger inside him, hooks them forward, and pushes. That gets a liquid moan, Tony's back arching, his cock red and straining. Bruce massages his prostate, paying attention with half a mind to the loud creak of the restraints as Tony pulls at them and gets nowhere.

"If you think you can give me orders in this, Tony, you're mistaken." Bruce meets Tony's gaze, half-angry and half-wanting, and grins. "Keep pushing me and you'll find what I can do with you. Imagine me doing this-" he rubs his fingers again over Tony, and Tony swears and twists, "-for half an hour or more. Pushing all your come out, so you never get to orgasm. It just flows out, and that's it. All tease, no fulfillment."

Tony bares his teeth. "You wouldn't." For all that Bruce would be - is - leery of what Tony could do to those he's truly angry at, right now he looks as threatening as a wet kitten, trussed up and red-faced and impaled on Bruce's hand.

"I would," he says calmly. "But not today. Another time."

Tony groans and flops back, and Bruce, suppressing a smile, continues to work, patiently curling and twisting his fingers, opening Tony wider. He’s loose now, slick with lube, tightening up on a moan every time Bruce pulls back to add more as though he can’t bear to lose the pressure and fullness. Bruce toys with the idea of tucking a fourth finger in – Tony’s certainly loose enough for it – but he’s been at this for nearly twenty minutes.

He reaches for the speculum with his left hand, keeping the right curled inside Tony, just nudging at his prostate. The clatter of metal against metal makes Tony lift his head to stare at Bruce with glazed eyes.

“Now?” he rasps, almost pleading. Bruce’s fingers are no longer enough.

Bruce answers by sliding his fingers out and replacing them with the speculum. He has to suck in a breath at the sight of Tony’s entrance stretching pale and taut about the metal, and press the heel of his hand against himself to get some temporary relief.

Tony moans at the intrusion, a raw sound, and clenches, though finds no purchase. That such an intensely private person is letting Bruce do this, open him up to peer at all his secrets, stare at his most intimate places, is- well, it's an honor, and a heavy duty, and the best thing he's ever known. Very few people trust Bruce Banner anymore, certainly not in this context, and it seems only people as half-mad as the Avengers would, or could, give him this.

He places his thumb on the screw and begins to crank the prongs wider.

Tony tenses, wraps his fingers around the straps holding the cuffs to the bed, and holds on. Each turn of the screw elicits a whine, or a deep breath, and halfway there Bruce takes his hand off the screw and rests it on Tony's thigh, tense and shaking, and checks.

His head is arched back into the pillow, tendons standing out in his neck, eyes squeezed tight. It looks like the face of a man in pain, though his cock has only softened slightly, lying along his hip.

"You're all right," Bruce says, quietly, comfortingly. "You're doing so well for me."

Tony half-opens his eyes, catches Bruce's gaze. "Done?" he slurs. He's relaxed at the sound of Bruce's voice, his knuckles easing about the medical restraints.

"No. Halfway there," and Bruce feels awash in some strange mixture of amusement and affection as Tony's eyes widen and he thumps his head back into the pillow. It's a good pillow, though, and Tony can't hurt himself. There is something of a sadist in him, an urge to push and see how much someone can take, to surprise them with their own capacity to endure. "If you want to stop here, we can. You're just wide enough for the probe." He glances down at the mirror and the upside-down vision of Tony impaled on his instruments, held open and vulnerable. Pink and slick and yielding to whatever Bruce wishes. "But I think you could take more. I wish you could see yourself, how beautiful you are. Maybe someday I'll take a photo for you."

Tony swallows. He stares at the ceiling, his chest heaving as he takes deep, controlled breaths. Sweat trickles along his hairline down to the pillow. He shifts, groans as the motion jostles the speculum inside him, and closes his eyes again.

Bruce strokes his leg and waits, half-certain certain of the answer, because Tony is a thrill-seeker, and devoted, and doesn't like to say no to the chance to be pushed by those he loves.

"All right." Tony works his jaw. "Keep- keep going. All the way."

"My good, brave sub," Bruce says, and adores how Tony's mouth twists in an involuntary smile, the instant easing of tension in his muscles. "Thank you."

The second half is the hardest. Bruce spends long minutes waiting for Tony to loosen enough for him to turn the screw one more time, but it's worth it for Tony's gasps and whines, the way he struggles to endure the dull pain of being stretched open for Bruce. Because he wants what Bruce wants, and gives himself gladly. A few times Tony says no, and Bruce widens the prongs anyway, just to hear the way Tony's 'no' trails off into an inarticulate moan.

And then, finally, he has him. Bruce groans and surges up to kiss Tony's slack mouth, and Tony clumsily tries to reciprocate, all of his attention on the speculum.

"God, you're so good," Bruce breathes against his mouth, and Tony shudders, tries to stretch up to kiss him harder but Bruce pulls back to torment him. "So sweet. I love you like this," and he traces his thumb about the edge of Tony's entrance, tight and so hot even through the latex glove. Hooks it just inside, edge nudging against the speculum's prongs.

Tony swallows, stares right into his eyes. Lets him see all the pleading, the smoky veil of subdrop, the place beyond thought. Lets Bruce glory in the fact that he put Tony there, that Tony, for all his anger and history and all of the threat that lives in Bruce's every cell, trusted him to do it.

"Thank you," Bruce says. He has to clear his throat. "Thank you. So much."

Tony's gaze sharpens, just a bit, that incisive intelligence surfacing for a moment, and he turns his head just enough to kiss the inside of Bruce's wrist where his hand rests on the table. His lips are soft against Bruce's pulse, the place where poisoned blood runs close to the surface. Bruce's spent so long running from intimacy, friendship, love, all because of what the Hulk has made him, and yet at this moment it seems worth it for the chance to know Tony.

Bruce kisses him again, learns every nuance of him, then draws away. He runs one hand along Tony's body, cups his half-hard cock and strokes it back to life, then sits down on the stool again. He strips off his gloves, slippery with lube, and pulls on a fresh pair before picking up the probe.

It's a slender white thing, unassuming. Tony's not even looking at it; he's relaxed into the bed, mind coiled into itself and submerged into subspace, and he barely even moves as Bruce slips the probe inside him.

Tony shouts, tries to jerk away, but the restraints hold. His muscles lock rigid. His cock jerks, and he comes all over himself. Untouched, instant, just like Bruce said.

"Holy fuck," Tony slurs, eyes wide. He looks at the come splashed across his stomach, caught in the thin trail of hair beneath his navel, and takes a deep breath. "I don't-"

Bruce, sadist, reluctant to give him too long to settle, flicks the probe on again. Control sings beneath his skin. He can make Tony come with the flick of a button, can break through any notion of control and force him, and God, Tony's letting him.

Tony arches off the bed, held down only by the restraints, coming only a few thin white drops that trickle down the side of his cock. His stomach contracts, and he falls back onto the mattress with a raw sound.

"God," Bruce says, near-vicious with wanting and delight, "I wish I could show you this, I could make you feel what I feel when I look at you."

He touches the probe to Tony's prostate, holds it there, pressing in, until Tony comes dry and begins to struggle. The medical restraints hold. They're well-built, and will leave only faint bruises behind. Tony's red-faced, his eyes wide, luminous with something that might be tears, and he looks at Bruce with worship and fear combined. It makes Bruce feel near-godlike.

"Again?" he says, smiling. "You have your words."

"No. No. I really don't think I can-"

"I know you can," Bruce says, cheerful, and turns the probe on.

Tony yells, and comes again. And again. Until he's lying there, spattered in his own come, limp and pushed to the edges of his own limits, too far beyond gone to even think of struggling. His chest jerks up and down as he sobs for breath. He barely twitches as Bruce slides speculum and probe out at once and sets them aside. His eyes are wet, and he rolls his head on a low moan as Bruce undoes the restraints.

Bruce unzips his slacks, fishes his cock out, and rolls on a condom with shaking fingers. He has to strain not to come at just the touch of his own hand, he's so overwrought. Blood thunders in his ears. Then he stands between Tony's legs and slides into him, easy as anything. Loose, slick, yielding, just taking everything Bruce does without a whine.

Tony moans, manages to hook one leg about Bruce’s hips, and lies there, passive, open, moaning with every thrust.

Bruce feels himself tightening, a thin boiling strand of light running from his limbs into his core, and rises up onto his toes, fucks inward one last time, and comes on a heartfelt groan of “Tony.”

Tony sighs. His leg falls from around Bruce’s hips to dangle in the air, and he turns his head away, closes his eyes.

Bruce pulls out, disposes of the condom and hurries back to Tony’s side. “JARVIS, lights at thirty percent, up the temperature to seventy-two.”

Responsibility weighs heavy on his shoulders as he gets his arms beneath Tony’s knees and shoulders and half-carries him, half-staggers, over to one of the bunks Tony installed in all the labs. He gets them both beneath the covers and pulls Tony into him. Tony tends to get cold after scenes, and that was an intense one.

Tony tucks his head into Bruce’s shoulder with a loud snuffle and flops one arm over Bruce’s ribs.

“You okay?” Bruce whispers.

Tony makes a sound like ‘mmmfff’ and flails his hand at Bruce’s face in a gesture that obviously means ‘shut up.’

“Okay, then,” Bruce says, smiling, kissing Tony’s sweat-damp hair where it sticks in wild tufts against his face. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

-

Tony doesn't go into work for nearly a week, and it is awesome. He spends most of his time on his stomach – because damn, that speculum and probe left him aching in a good way- on the floor of his lab or living room tinkering with an upgrade to the suit's coating, gets an email from Aisha that they've made substantial progress on the sequencing for the compound and a picture of her in her bacteria-print hijab pointing at the electron microscope with a giant smile, replies with far too many exclamation points and ironic emoticons, and has a wonderful time.

"What’s got you so thrilled?” Bruce says from the corner of the living room, where he's bent backwards into some yoga pose Tony could never do, "I haven’t seen you raiding the bar."

"Oh, this is all natural. Trust me, I've had enough drugs in my life to know I'm completely sober." Tony waves a hand, regrets it as his wrist complains from all the typing he’s done today. The sight of Bruce's loose yoga shirt riding up to expose the thick trail of hair beneath his navel is a good distraction. "I'm just pleased with how you guys handled me, is all."

Natasha, next to Bruce, copies Bruce as they move to the next pose. "Were you afraid we wouldn't handle you properly?"

"Well." Tony rolls onto his side, slithers to Thor's feet, and slings an arm about Thor's ankles, pleased as punch when Thor's hand settles on his head and gives him a good pat. "Not really you guys, in particular. It's more that I've seen the stereotypes that go along with-" he almost falters, "-abuse survivors."

Thor settles his hand on the back of Tony's neck, and when Tony twists to glance up at him, Thor's looking back, expression one of understanding without pity. "You feared we would treat you as fragile."

"Yes! Thank you, Thor." Why people tend to look at Thor as the big lunkhead of the team is beyond Tony, especially when Thor has this ability to just look at people and know what to say. "Half the reason I didn't tell people is that when somebody knows you've come from a bad situation, they automatically treat you differently. And I get that they're responding naturally - somebody's been through something terrible, you want them to be okay even when you're not sure how to do that - but you - we - we don't want everyone to walk on eggshells all the damn time."

It’s really the first time he’s included himself in that sad, monolithic category.

Natasha and Bruce drop into camel pose; Thor keeps petting him with magic fingers; Clint nods, half-muting the television; Steve keeps fussing with his charcoal. He loves them, he really does, the way they just get him, they listen to what he's saying and yet don't make it a federal fucking issue, and as a public figure that is so goddamn rare.

"You guys handled it well. You treated me like I was capable of taking punishment, or of deciding to take the punishment you decided on, and that made me feel." He pauses for a moment. Feelings aren't his strong suit. "Normal, I guess. Like you didn't think I was some delicate object that has to be protected. I can handle my own business, and you guys understand that."

Steve peers around the edge of his sketchbook with a fond smile, one brow raised. "Tony, if we tried to protect you by grounding you from missions or giving you a few light smacks when you really fuck up, you'd hate it."

"Damn right I would."

Thor snorts. Clint gives him a fond glance and goes back to his football game, and Bruce wobbles in his camel pose and nearly crashes into Natasha, who steadies him with one hand. Steve nudges Tony with his foot and hands him a green shake without comment on how he should be getting his vegetable intake in another form.

The lights flicker red.

The mood in the room changes instantly. Winding tight, fierce, like a pack of hounds waiting for the word.

“Commander Fury has directed me to inform you of a sighting of Doctor Doom in San Francisco,” JARVIS says into the sudden silence. “He requires you there in all possible haste.”

“Let’s go,” Steve says, scrambling off the couch, shakes and sketch book and remotes all falling to the floor, and in what feels like seconds they’re all suited up and either in the Quinjet or on the edge of the Tower.

Tony waits for a moment beneath the telecommunications spire, one last venomous whisper of doubt raising its ugly head – what if they don’t want him out there, what if they want him to stay in the Tower like a good little sub – and then he decides:

Fuck doubt. Fuck Obi. He is Tony goddamn Stark, and he will not allow himself to be ruled by the past, by Obi’s sickness. Not anymore.

He’s better than that.

They’ve helped him know that.

“You coming?” Natasha says over the communications system, and Tony grins. He launches off the tower, laughing, and outraces the Quinjet in seconds. As he passes, Clint flips him the bird.

“Hey!”

“Methinks Clint is jealous he cannot fly,” says Thor from just behind him.

“Oh, he so totally is. You guys will never know the joy Thor and I know. Sucks to be you.”

Yes. He loves them, and this feels normal, secure, something he can trust. They have a long road to walk together. The rest of their lives. He doesn't know what it'll bring, whether they'll end in fire and glory or in bed, aged, comfortable, but he knows this -

He can't wait to find out with them.