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Closing the distance

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Thunderbolts, seriously, Tony?” Steve asked as soon as they were alone—or as alone as they could be with security cameras in the corner and guards just outside the door. Steve was only surprised Tony’s security detail even agreed to leave. The time when Steve and Tony were teammates was gone; Steve and everyone else who refused to sign the Superhero Registration Act locked up, charged like villains.

“You refused my pardon,” Tony drawled, still focused on his tablet. Steve wasn’t sure why he even pretended, it wasn’t as if he needed it to work with Extremis. Then Tony looked up, and briefly glanced straight at the camera, his eyes going dark. Then he set the tablet away and straightened. “We’re alone,” he said, finally setting his eyes on Steve.

He looked tired. His suit was impeccable, of course—because Tony always took great care of his armour, no matter if it was hard metal or soft wool—but his shoulders were slumped, his eyes bloodshot. He reached up, loosened his tie, almost as if he still trusted Steve enough to show any kind of weakness near him, and Steve had to face the dangerous fact that no matter how angry he might’ve been, he still loved Tony.

Tony tilted his head questioningly, or maybe in invitation, and Steve shoved his doubts aside, crossed the room, kissed Tony.

“I’m not sure the public would approve, President Stark,” he whispered against his mouth, and Tony just pulled him closer, hungrily kissed back.

“Screw the public,” he said.

“Just me,” Steve corrected him, digging his fingers into Tony’s arms.

Tony laughed breathlessly.

It was almost as if they hadn’t fought each other to death barely months ago.

Almost.

Steve stepped back, but kept his hands on Tony’s arms. “I could’ve killed you,” he said.

Tony averted his eyes. “I wanted you to.”

It wasn’t news. It still hurt.

“And now you’re here,” Tony continued, “on your own wish, really. So will you at least agree?”

“To be a Thunderbolt,” Steve said flatly.

“I can’t very well name you the Avengers,” Tony said.

Steve didn’t deserve to be free, but being out of the prison occasionally, on sanctioned missions—he could do more good this way. And it wasn’t just his decision. If he refused, none of his friends would be let out. He slowly moved his hands to cup Tony’s face.

“Okay,” Steve said.

Tony broke into a smile. “I have your gear ready,” he said.

Steve couldn’t even be annoyed Tony had started planning before ever asking him. He knew there was only the one answer possible, and Tony’s job was to foresee it.

Then Tony sighed. “Or I could—

“Don’t push it,” Steve said.

Tony nodded, hesitated for a moment, then leant forward and kissed Steve again.

That was better than talking, in Steve’s opinion.

***

Some missions were normal. Official. What he’d gotten used to as an Avenger. He didn’t have his shield anymore—and Tony had looked so guilty when apologising for it—but he understood, and, in a way, agreed. He didn’t deserve it anymore.

He brought down villains and solved situations deemed too dangerous for the normal teams—but somehow, President Stark often found his way to the fighting Thunderbolts, aiding Steve.

Some missions, well.

“Mister President,” Steve said, raising his hand in a lazy salute.

“Captain,” Tony answered. “So glad you agreed to be my security detail this weekend.”

Steve sauntered closer to him. “Someone has to check if you’re resting enough.”

“I’m not sure you have resting in mind,” Tony told him, pulling him in by the uniform when Steve was close enough.

“I’ll definitely make sure you won’t leave bed,” Steve answered and captured Tony’s mouth in a kiss, swallowing any reply there might’ve been.

(Sometimes, he really acted the bodyguard, and it was always nerve-racking; because Tony’s armour might’ve been close, but he wasn’t wearing it on conferences or during public conventions, and all it would take was one sniper.

Sometimes, Tony went out in public without Steve, and that was even worse, watching Tony on the shitty TV in their cell, seeing all the possible dangers around him, knowing he wouldn’t be able to save Tony.

Tony would laugh and say he didn’t need protection, if he knew.)

***

One day, Steve got hurt, Loki’s spell going straight through all his protective layers.

He woke up in a hospital, his hands secured to the rails of his bed, Tony asleep at his bedside.

“Doesn’t the President have better ways of spending time?” Steve asked in a rasping voice.

Tony sat up with a jolt, and the relief on his face was palpable. Then his mouth twisted in a smile, his eyes going black for a brief second as the TV switched itself on.

LIVE NEWS, it said, and Tony was there, talking about the relief efforts and the Maria Stark Foundation, and—

“You sent an LMD?” Steve asked, instead of the question that he really meant, is it you here or no.

“Don’t tell my advisors,” Tony muttered, touched Steve’s hand gingerly.

“Your secret is safe with me,” Steve said, and drifted back into unconsciousness.

***

Sometimes Tony talked about the SHRA and then Steve wanted to punch something. The worst thing was, he knew Tony hadn’t believed in all of it. Or maybe, the worst thing was how parts of it did work. If anyone got hurt because of their identity being leaked, Tony kept silent on the topic, but what Steve heard about was: young superpowered teens were trained, no longer scared of their powers. There were no more incidents like Stamford. People felt safe again.

But Tony was always pale, looking tired, and Steve knew it was only thanks to Extremis or plain make-up that he didn’t have dark shadows under his eyes.

Steve’s hands twitched and he never knew if the others thought he wanted to hit Tony or hug him.

(Keep him safe, never let him go; make sure no one hurt him again.)

***

Steve saw Tony disappearing on screen, and he felt like his heart stopped beating for a split second before he recognised the teleportation energy.

Then he could just wait for news—any news.

But when Rhodey showed up to give them their orders, Steve knew something was up.

“What’s wrong?”

“Tony got kidnapped. He’s locked in an unstable dimension,” Rhodey said, his face ashen. His arm was in a sling, which explained why he wasn’t already after him himself. “Everyone says it’s a suicide mission.”

Steve’s throat was dry.

“Aren’t those our job anyway,” Peter quipped.

Steve couldn’t force himself to say anything while he was putting his uniform on, or later, while they were led to the portal.

He had to save Tony.

He saw Tony in his armour first, swaying on his legs, clearly exhausted. He was fighting Ares along with a group of other villains—probably alternate versions of them. It was obvious he wouldn’t have held up much longer.

Good thing Steve was there, then.

“Who on Earth—” Tony said.

“Who do you think?” Steve finally said, and together, they attacked, pushing Ares and the others off Tony. It was quick, but brutal; by the end of it Steve was breathing heavily, you have to protect Tony going through his mind.

They won, because this was what they did. They were heroes. They protected their own.

Except, Tony stood in that artificial pose that meant he locked the suits joints so he wouldn’t fal down.

Steve stepped to him. “Come on,” he said gently. “I’ve got you.”

“That you have,” Tony admitted, releasing the joints, and then Steve caught him as he fell, lifted him up, armour and all.

Tony pushed off his helmet and leant his head on Steve’s arm.

Steve could breathe again.

***

“Your sentence is up tomorrow,” Tony said, after his usual play of disabling the security cameras when he visited Steve.

Steve swallowed. He knew it would be, with all the years he worked off as a Thunderbolt—but he wasn’t sure he was ready for it.

He had almost killed Tony. He had levelled New York. He deserved to be in that cell.

“Come on,” Tony said. “I miss you. We’ll be able to see each other every day.”

“We can’t go public,” Steve said. Now even less so than years ago, before the war.

Tony’s face faltered. “We can,” he said carefully, “if you want.”

Steve stared at him. He hadn’t expected this. “No,” he said, because it was true; he didn’t mind. “But thanks for the offer.”

Maybe in the future, when Tony wasn’t the president anymore, and the world have forgotten about Steve almost killing him—maybe then they could come out, together. But Steve didn’t mind secrets if they kept him closer with Tony.

“So?” Tony asked. “Just a quick welcome home party before we reinstate you as an Avenger?”

Steve let himself smile. “Okay,” he said. “Fine.”

Tony grinned, delighted, and okay, maybe it was high time Steve came back to him for real.