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Three months now of being caught up in this ever-tangling thing between them, three months of not giving it a name or setting parameters around it or even so much as acknowledging it aloud, because it’s raw and too much and they’re both too wary still of so many things, but not so much of each other anymore.

Four months, and Steve still calls him Stark every place that’s not a bed.

Five months, and Tony’s never called him anything, not anywhere, but Rogers or Spangles or Captain or Old Man or sometimes crueler things meant as jokes or as barbs, and Steve still smirks when he does it, or rolls his eyes, or ignores him.

Pretends it doesn’t hurt.

Because that’s not what this is, and he doesn’t get to saddle Tony with expectations they’d never spoken of, never shared. Steve knows what this is, and he tells himself it’s enough. It is, in its way; it’s better than cold sheets spreading out wide across an expanse of bed he only barely fills up, and it’s better than the long hours of night ticking by entirely in silence.

They don’t talk, not really, but there’s plenty of noise at least.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Six months, and Steve’s fingertips know every dip and rise of muscle sculpted over Tony’s body, could identify him even in pitch-darkness, and his mouth knows the beat of his pulse, and his tongue knows the taste of him, the scotch always on his lips, the copper tang of endless nicks and scrapes, the salt and bitter of him spilling down Steve’s throat as his fingers clench into Steve’s hair, stinging, tugging, trembling.

Seven months, and Steve keys up merely at Tony’s presence now, proximity lashing his blood that much quicker through his veins, making his nostrils flare and his hands twitch for contact.

He wonders if it’s the same for Tony, and then curses himself for it, because it’s not. That’s not how it is between them, and Steve’s got to stop trying to remold it into something different in his own mind.

Most times, they come together, a clashing fury of hands and lips and teeth and reeling intensity, and it drowns out the echoes in Steve’s head for long enough that, when he goes back to his own suite and curls up under his own cold, unrumpled sheets, he can sometimes get to sleep without the past playing back on a loop, same lost faces, same lost voices, same failed grip, same forgone dance slicing into his soul over and over again.

Sometimes it plays anyway, while he dreams, and he wakes up disjointed, with drying tears drawing the skin of his cheeks tight and itchy as he heaves breath into lungs that feel steeped in hot lead.

Sometimes, he wishes he didn’t have to wake up ever again.

But it’s alright, this thing with Tony. It’s enough.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Eight months, and Steve’s bleeding out on the battlefield, huge hulking piles of rubble everywhere around him, smoke choking through his airway and spots jiggering through his vision, and the sky is steel-grey except where it’s bursting orange with counter-fire, and the comms are a deafening chatter of white noise in his ears, and all Steve can think in these final moments is how ugly everything is, how purposeless, how chaotic and irredeemable, as the blood slides thick and hot out of the corner of his mouth.

Someone’s wiping it away then, startling Steve so much that he jerks against the broken concrete and then wails silently at a fresh wave of pain. Tony. It’s Tony cased in red and gold, Tony snatching off his faceplate like it’s burning him, ripping off a gauntlet so roughly that it’s sparking and hissing and gone, and he’s wiping the blood off Steve’s face with his hand bare and warm against Steve’s cheek, and the look on his face when he says Steve, voice fraying all around the edges of it, come on, don’t, you have to stay with me…you can’t, you’re gonna be…Steve, Steve no, please…

Steve thinks maybe not everything is as ugly and irredeemable as he thought it was after all.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Ten months, and Steve’s laughing into the nape of Tony’s neck because Tony, sweaty and gasping beneath him, face-down in the mattress with Steve pinning his arms and his legs and all the rest of him too, is trying to convince Steve in a very serious, very breathless rasp that someone needs to call a code on him, because he is done, he has never been more done in his whole life, he has ceased breathing and he’s pretty sure his heart has only got a few more thumps left in it, and can’t Steve show him any mercy?

Steve laves a stripe up Tony’s spine, tongue flicking between his shoulder blades as he snaps his hips and wins another whimpering protest from Tony.

Steve wonders if Tony can feel the grin on Steve’s lips when he leans in to nip at the side of Tony’s jaw and tells him that no, he doesn’t suppose he’s feeling very merciful tonight, and surely the old man’s got one more round in him yet.

After, when they’ve both caught their breath again and lie sated and entwined amidst a hopeless knotted mess of sheets, Tony’s fingers find Steve’s where they’re curled loosely against his thigh and slot in, squeezing. Tony’s thumb traces absent patterns on Steve’s palm, and Steve thinks that the sigh that leaves Tony then might sound a lot like contentment.

When Steve sits up and swings his legs over the edge of the bed, ready to find his clothes and gird up his resolve to retreat back into his own suite and his own head and his own indelible memories, Tony’s fingers tighten and tug him back.

“Stay,” he says, and tugs again.

And Steve does.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Eleven months, and Tony is scrabbling with his feet against the mattress, shoving his shoulders up against the headboard with a dull thud, sucking in air like it’s the first fucking time he’s ever had oxygen, coming awake all in thrashing jagged pieces as Steve watches, not touching, not making a single sound, not even so much as a breath drawn inward, with his hand clapped over his own mouth.

Steve can pinpoint it, the exact second when Tony realizes where he is; he freezes and goes silent as the knowledge dawns that whatever horror he’d been in the midst of was just a nightmare memory and nothing real.

For one knife’s-edge moment, his face crumples, but then he must realize that Steve is there, still a new fixture here in Tony’s bed in the low grey light of early morning. His eyes snap to Steve’s and hold them, hard as flint and flashing full of something vast and untamed, before his whole expression goes carefully blank.

Steve only gets as far as parting his lips and leaning forward, just infinitesimally closer because he wants to say I know, before Tony wills his fingers to unclench from the sheets and kicks up out of the bed. “Got an early meeting,” he says crisply, not looking back at Steve as he makes his way into the bathroom and cuts the water for the shower on. “Go back to sleep.”

Steve can’t, but he pretends to, because he doesn’t know how to break down what he can’t beat with fists, doesn’t know how to be enough in these moments, to be what Tony needs when all pretense is gone and it’s down to bared souls and the pasts that haunt them both.

*** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** *** ***

Twelve months, and Steve wakes up disjointed, shaking, seeing fingers slipping through his red-gloved hand every time he shuts his eyes, and his cheeks are hot and wet as he wrestles the air into his lungs.

And Tony presses up against him from behind, aligned with him from shoulders to toes, and he’s wiping the tears off Steve’s face with his hand bare and warm against Steve’s cheek, pressing soft kisses between his shoulder blades and into the nape of Steve’s neck.

Steve braces himself for derision, the stabbing little epithets, the laughter that will surely follow.

“I know,” is all Tony says, just a soft breath right against Steve’s ear, and then, no pause, no hesitation, just like instinct, “I love you. I know it’s not enough, not to make up for—but I do.”

All the air rushes out of Steve in a sharp huff, and for a long tenuous moment, he’s too full of something poignant, formless and rooted deep, to speak. He finds Tony’s hand where it’s tracing his jaw, and he laces his fingers in and tugs until Tony’s arm is wrapped around him. “It is. It’s enough,” he says then.

He can feel Tony tense behind him, can feel how his shoulders hitch up at some private frisson that works its way through all his limbs as his arm tightens around Steve. He’s very still then, even as Steve turns inside the circle of his arm to face him and skim his hand up over Tony’s side, over his shoulder, until he’s cupping the side of Tony’s throat in his palm.

“I love you, too,” Steve says right against his lips, and kisses him, and means it.