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AWAKENINGS

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Everything hurt.

Steve Rogers had endured many beatings in his life. He had withstood bullies, Nazis, HYDRA’s most elite corps, and a guy with a head as red and evil as the devil himself. He had been pummeled with fists, shot at with technologically advanced weapons, and endured countless explosions aimed at or near him. Yet he still couldn’t recall a time when his body hurt this much—except maybe the day they pumped the serum into him, but he rarely let his mind dwell there.

Fighting to keep his heavy lids from fully closing, he gazed out the car window in an exhausted stupor at a New York City he barely recognized. He would heal. His body would recover. It just might take a little longer this time. Fighting a nearly unstoppable Chitauri army could really take it out of a guy, even if the guy was Captain America.

A loud belch, followed by a moan, drew his attention away from the window. He looked across the limo to the seat opposite him.

“Damn, that doesn’t taste nearly as good coming out as it did going in,” Tony Stark announced shamelessly.

“Doesn’t smell real good either,” Bruce said drolly beside Tony, waving his hand, his face scrunched.

“Sorry,” Tony responded, though he didn’t sound sorry. “Not sure shawarma agrees with me.”

“Ya think?” Bruce shook his head before leaning it back on the seat where it had been resting tiredly before Tony’s expulsion.

“Happy,” Tony called toward the front of the car to the half-closed partition behind Steve’s head. “Might need to stop for some bi-carb or something.”

“Right,” Happy responded, coughing exaggeratedly before the partition closed fully with what sounded like a pointed snap.

“No need to get snippy,” Tony grumbled. “Gonna begrudge a guy a little gas? I just helped save the Earth, jeez.” He shifted in his seat, resuming the position he had been in for most of the ride, his head snuggled into Bruce’s chest. Without his eyes reopening, Bruce’s arm found its way back around Tony’s shoulder. They both looked as beat as Steve felt. Tony’s face was cut and bruised, battle scars from his recent brush with death. Steve felt certain more bone-deep bruises and abrasions lay beneath Tony’s filthy, torn blue jeans and dark shirt with the words Black Sabbath printed across the front. The battle had been intense enough to leave physical evidence on both Steve and Thor. No doubt Tony Stark’s body was red, white, and blue—not to mention purple and green—under his clothes.

Steve wasn’t sure why his mind kept dwelling on what Tony looked like under his clothes. He also wasn’t sure why this intimate bond Tony and Bruce had formed bothered him so much—yet it did. He had kept his gaze fixed out the window for most of the ride, especially after Thor, Clint, and Natasha had each been dropped off in turn, leaving only the three of them now in the limo as they headed towards the Brooklyn Bridge.

Tony’s unpleasant after-effects aside, it had been nice, their little shawarma dinner, though Steve had been too exhausted to eat much. They were all ravaged, conversation almost non-existent. They had sat together in the off-beat little eatery, a bleary-eyed, battered team, yet a team all the same. A victorious team at that. Steve hadn’t realized how much he had missed the camaraderie of a team until that moment; the unspoken bond between a group of diverse individuals who had come together for a common goal, sharing an experience no one else would ever comprehend. Words weren’t needed in such a situation. They had fought together, protected each other, saved the world. And then they broke bread together, nursing their wounds, taking comfort in the simple sound of each other chewing, tangible evidence they had survived. Yeah, it had been nice. Steve hadn’t shared a meal with anybody, let alone people he considered friends, since—more decades than he wanted to count.

It was over now, though, each of them going their separate ways. Well, except for maybe Tony and Bruce who looked content to stay in each other’s company a while longer. The limo had dropped Thor at the underground SHIELD base in Manhattan where Loki was being contained until the Asgardian could transport his wayward brother back to wherever it was they came from. Clint had asked to be dropped at an address in the village, but en route Tony and Natasha exchanged serious glances, Tony mouthing something about someone needing to tell Clint.

Steve realized belatedly they must have been referring to Agent Coulson. With all that had gone on, it was doubtful anyone had had the opportunity to brief Barton on Coulson’s death. Barton, Natasha, and Phil were all part of SHIELD. No doubt they went way back together. The pang of grief Steve felt every time he thought about the tragedy that had befallen the good man he knew all too briefly had to pale in comparison to what Natasha and Fury, and soon Barton, would be dealing with over Agent Coulson’s loss. Hell, even Tony had taken it hard, much harder than he let on, and Tony didn’t look to bond too closely with anyone.

Except Bruce, his new best friend.

Steve jolted at the bitter voice in his head. Where did that come from?

“Hey, come to the apartment with me tonight,” Natasha had suggested to Clint after Thor took his leave from the group. “It’s closer and I don’t know about you, but I’m beat.”

Clint grinned tiredly. “Not sure you can classify that hole where you hang your extra set of leather pants in between assignments as an apartment.”

“You’ve slept in worse,” Natasha countered.

“Can’t argue there.” Clint, who was on the other side of Tony, leaned forward, trying to get a good look at her in the dim light of the limo. Steve had felt Natasha flinch beside him, but he was certain it was indiscernible to anyone else. “Slumber parties aren’t exactly your style. You okay?”

“It’s been a hard day for everyone,” Steve interjected, trying to help. This wasn’t the kind of thing Natasha was going to want to tell Clint in the limo, in front of everyone, after such a physically and emotionally grueling day. “It’s good to have the support of teammates.”

“He’s right,” Tony chimed in. “Bruce and I are heading back to Stark Tower for a mammoth pillow fight. You want in?”

Steve turned his head toward the window, not wanting to risk anyone catching his sour expression. Clint gave what passed for a laugh in his depleted state and said, “Inviting as it sounds, I think I’ll skip your pillow fight and go with Nat.”

So Clint got out with Natasha in what looked to Steve to be a very rough neighborhood, though he had no doubt she was perfectly safe there. Clint threw an arm around her as they staggered like wounded soldiers across the street towards a row of seedy buildings, quickly disappearing into the darkness.

And then there were three.

Steve kept his eyes fixed out the window, not wanting to look at Tony and Bruce who were getting what could only be described as snugglier as the trip dragged on. Happy had apologized for all the detours, but it wasn’t his fault. Many of the streets in Manhattan were closed off due to alien destruction. The Chitauri had left quite a mess in their wake. It was going to take a long time to put everything right. Steve was anxious to help. Just not tonight. Tonight the smallest bump the limo rolled over sent waves of pain through his aching body.

He tried to close his eyes, wanting to block out broken buildings, crushed cars, sidewalks covered in glass, smashed alien vehicles, and billows of dust and smoke. In his mind’s eye, he saw a simpler Manhattan, one he used to visit as a kid before his mother died. Manhattan was an awe-inspiring place to a kid from Brooklyn, only a bridge away and yet it was like entering another world.

His whole life was another world now, only there was no bridge to lead back home.

He must have dozed off because the next thing he was aware of was the limo stopping and Happy calling to him. “You’re home, Cap’n.”

Steve opened his eyes, disoriented, trying to reconcile the word ‘home’ with the non-descript apartment building SHIELD had moved him to after he broke out of their headquarters. More than once he had needed to refer to the little hand-drawn map stashed in his wallet to find his way back to this place.

“Thank you, Happy,” he said, sitting up. Before he could even locate the door handle in the huge vehicle, which was bigger than the room he had shared with four other boys in the orphanage after his mother died, the door opened from the outside, Happy greeting him with a smile.

“Is there anything else I can do for you tonight, Cap’n?” Happy asked amiably. He was a nice man.

“No, I’m good. Thank you for the ride.” He called a quick goodnight to the limo’s other passengers without glancing at them, not wanting to see what position they had gotten into while he was asleep.

He dug into the pockets of the leather jacket he had shrugged on over his filthy Captain America suit, hoping he hadn’t lost his keys. The sound of the limo door opening and closing behind him caught his attention. He was surprised when Tony ran up to him calling, “Hey, Cap.”

He turned, able to make out the look of concern on Tony’s dark features even with one street light out. “What’s wrong?”

“What you said to Clint earlier. You know, about the support of teammates? You’re welcome to come back to the tower with us. You don’t have to stay here by yourself.”

Tony was making a genuine effort to be nice and Steve was grateful, which only made him feel guiltier about how much the term us bothered him. “I’ll be fine. But thanks. And thanks for the dinner. It was nice.”

Steve had half expected Tony to argue. Tony argues about everything. But instead, he just nodded. He looked defeated as he turned to head back towards the limo. It had to be the exhaustion, Steve told himself, but he knew it was more. He owed Tony a lot more than a lame thanks. “Hey,” he called, reaching for Tony’s shoulder to stop his retreat. He was caught off guard by the distressed wince. Surely he hadn’t grabbed him that hard? “What’s wrong?” he asked. Tony started muttering nonsense about being fine and waving him off, but Steve wasn’t fooled. Without bothering to ask permission, he slid his fingers under the collar of Tony’s long sleeved tee-shirt, easing the material towards his shoulder as he peeked beneath. The flesh on Tony’s collar bone, shoulder, and the part of his arm he could see was viciously bloodied and bruised. “Aww, Tony, you gotta take care of this.”

“No worries, Captain.” He patted Steve’s hand and shooed it from its grip on his shirt. “This isn’t my first dance.”

“Huh?”

“It just means I’ve got it covered back at the tower. Superhero first-aid to the max: ice packs, heat wraps, whirlpool, masseur, the works. Another good reason for you to come. You’re looking pretty beat-up yourself.”

“Kinda got a built-in first-aid system,” Steve reminded, though a lot of the stuff Tony had listed sounded nice.

"You sure? Plenty of room in the hot tub.” Tony waggled his eyebrows and made an obscene grin that caused Steve to blush. Tony Stark was incorrigible, though he’d come to realize it was a big part of his charm.

“Another time,” Steve said, not wanting to sound ungrateful.

“Suit yourself, Rogers.”

The clipped tone told Steve he’d managed to offend. Had to be about more than this, though. No doubt Tony was responding to the Steve who had been such a high and mighty jerk back on the Helicarrier. He needed to fix this and needed to do it now, pain and exhaustion be damned.

“Look, Tony, I want to say something before you go,” he began sincerely, desperately searching for the right words. “I owe you an apology. A big one. I misjudged you. I said awful things and clearly I didn’t know what I was talking about. I was wrong. I’m very sorry.”

Tony’s features softened and he waved his hand as if to make this uncomfortable conversation go away. “Everyone was tense on the Helicarrier. We all said stuff we shouldn’t have. My foot spends more time in my mouth than on the ground. I gave as good as I got.”

“Doesn’t matter. The stuff I said to you was mean and judgmental. I had no right being self-righteous and cruel. I’m truly sorry.”

“You really are the All-American good guy, aren’t you?” Steve wasn’t sure if he was being mocked, but Tony’s expression seemed sincere.

“And you, Tony Stark, are a true hero. You are a remarkable man. I know you don’t think of us as soldiers, but I was proud to serve with you today. It was my honor.”

Um, well, yeah, thanks,” Tony sputtered. It was interesting seeing Tony Stark truly flustered, no smooth stream of words coming out a mile a minute. Steve liked it, though he had grown very fond of verbose Tony as well. He didn’t feel he had adequately made up for the mean things he had said, or come close to expressing how highly he had come to regard this man, but he hoped at least Tony understood he considered him a friend.

“Anyway, it’s late. You’re exhausted. You better get going,” Steve said, though he really didn’t want to part. Something about Tony had gotten under his skin right from the beginning, though at first he had mistaken it for animosity.

“Right,” Tony nodded, still looking uncharacteristically awkward. “Good night, then.”

“Good night.”

Steve watched Tony walk back to the limo, noticing he was favoring one leg. He hoped the superhero first-aid stuff Tony had at his tower would be able to help him feel better. As banged up and hurting as he was, though, Tony still looked pretty damn good for a guy who should have been dead. Those agonizing moments, when Tony lay lifeless on the sidewalk, had been pure hell. Steve had felt his insides turn to ice, as if he had been plunged back into the Arctic with nothing but cold, despair, and hopelessness surrounding him.

He watched as the limo drove off, thankful Tony was inside, battered but still breathing. Finally locating his keys, he entered the building and walked up the stairs to his third floor apartment.

He should have been happy to be home, free of Helicarriers and Tesseracts and aliens, only he wasn’t. The familiar pang of loneliness returned. It had taken a brief respite the day Director Fury gave him his mission, but the mission was over now. Steve sank into the sofa, grabbing one of the cushions to bury his face in. He needed to shower, to change, go to bed. Instead, he hunkered deeper into the pillow, desperate to drown out the agonizing quiet.

~0~0~0~

It wasn’t until the persistent banging roused him did Steve realize he had been unconscious, face down, on the lumpy couch for—how long? He had no idea what time it was, though daylight streamed in through the dingy blinds that hung unevenly over the lone window. At first he thought the loud pounding was in his head, which still hurt pretty good, but belatedly he realized it was his door.

“Okay,” he grumbled as he pushed himself up. “I’m coming.” As he staggered towards the door, he wondered why he still felt so ragged. Usually, when he got enough rest, his body naturally rejuvenated. Of course, the ‘enough rest’ part remained in question since he still didn’t know the time. When he yanked open the apartment door, he was more than a little surprised to see Tony Stark standing on the other side, dressed neatly in a clean suit and, despite his bruises, looking far perkier than he had a right to.

“Tony?” Steve muttered, confused. “Didn’t I just say goodnight to you?”

Tony grinned a charming smile. “And now it’s good morning, though technically it was good morning then, too, considering what time we dropped you here.”

“What time was that? What time is it now?”

“For a super soldier, you look pretty rough, there, Cap. They did explain to you about indoor plumbing and showers, right?”

“What do you want, Tony?”

“For you to answer your cell so I don’t have to make two trips to Brooklyn in the same eight-hour span.”

Steve tried to remember where he had put the SHIELD-issued device, but he was coming up empty. “I, um, still have a little trouble working that thing. Sorry. Were you trying to call? Is something up?”

“Thor and Selvig have gotten the Tesseract stable enough to make the jump to light speed or whatever Thor is going to do to transport Loki the hell off this planet,” Tony explained as he brushed past Steve, inviting himself in. “Thought you might want to be there for the big bon voyage.”

“Wouldn’t miss it.” Steve closed the door and made his way to the small kitchen in search of juice. “The sooner Loki is gone, the safer this world will be.”

“What the hell is this place?” Tony pronounced from the center of the tiny living room as he looked around in disgust. “Where hope goes to die? I feel like I’ve stepped into an old Twilight Zone rerun. No wait, they didn’t even have TV when this stuff was in style. Are you kidding me?”

“SHIELD’s idea. Their way of trying to make me comfortable.” He thought bitterly about the original room they had housed him in, complete with antique radio playing an old baseball game and the SHIELD agent dressed in 1940s nurse’s garb. He couldn’t bolt fast enough from the carefully designed prison. This was their follow-up attempt to stash Captain America somewhere intended to feel like familiar surroundings for a man out of time. Steve polished off the contents of the juice container as he joined Tony near the couch. “I hate it. Feel like I’m part of a museum exhibit.”

“More like the zoo. ‘Come see Captain America in his natural habitat.’ This is truly depressing. You can’t live here,” Tony declared, waving his hands as if he could wipe the dismal scene away

“It’s what I have for right now. What difference does it make?”

The look on Tony’s face was incomprehensible to Steve. For a long moment, Stark remained speechless, which was an odd circumstance. When he did finally speak, Tony changed the subject entirely. “We need to get moving. Shower. Shave. Put something on that doesn’t have Chitauri guts and shawarma stains on it. Unless you’re telling me the clothes SHIELD provided for you are as old as this furniture?”

“I think I can find something that won’t offend you.” Steve took in Tony’s appearance again. Expensive grey suit. Tie. Crisp shirt. Only the rubber-soled shoes, rather than more formal footwear, stood out in the eccentric Tony Stark way. “How is it you look so snappy? You couldn’t have had any more sleep than I have. Probably less, since you drove all the way back here again.”

“Because I’m the master of looking good despite being trashed. I’ve had years of practice. Need a few pointers?”

Steve stepped nearer. Without his Iron Man suit, Tony was regular flesh and blood. He didn’t have any special healing powers. So how could the bruises so visible hours ago have muted this quickly? “Are you wearing make-up?” Steve exclaimed upon closer inspection of Tony’s face.

“Cover-up is not make-up.” Tony sidestepped. “Not in the way you mean.”

Steve shadowed him, reaching for Tony’s shoulder. “What about. . . ?”

Just as he had when they were standing in front of the limo, Tony winced and twisted against his touch, then jumped several steps away, again trying to put distance between them. “What you can’t see, doesn’t matter. It isn’t there. Don’t you know that?”

“Which means you’re still covered in bruises. Did you have any of this looked at? What about your head?” The Hulk had kept Tony from crashing to the ground and cracking his skull open, but it was a far cry from a soft landing. In two steps, Steve covered the ground Tony had opened between them, his hand sliding into the thick mane, fingers finding one helluva lump.

Ow!” Tony protested, though he didn’t flee this time.

“Sorry.” Steve gentled his touch, measuring the swollen area with his fingers. “You need a doctor to look at this. You could have a concussion.”

“I’m fine. Are you done, Nurse Rogers?”

Tony shuddered, which was queer because Steve knew he wasn’t hurting him this time. He was being too careful. Despite the deriding nurse crack, Tony didn’t make to move away again. Steve drew his gaze from the back of Tony’s head to his eyes. He was wearing tinted sunglasses, which masked how bloodshot and tired his eyes were. What they didn’t hide was the unguarded expression belying the chiding words. It was about then Steve took notice of how good Tony smelled.

“Do you want me to be done?”

Where the hell did that come from? What’s wrong with me? I must be more tired than I thought.

Before Tony could answer, the cellphone in his jacket pocket began squawking. Despite the irritating noise of the crazy music Tony favored, neither of them moved for a long moment. It was Steve who actually sidestepped this time, getting a grip on himself, yanking his fingers from Tony’s hair where they had been absently massaging the lump. Tony shook himself, the soft expression fleeing. “Yeah,” he answered sharply as he placed the small object Steve still had a hard time fathoming was a telephone to his ear. “I know. We’ll be right down.” Stuffing the phone back in his pocket, Tony finger combed his hair in the spot where Steve had been touching. “This thing is going down soon. Traffic still sucks. We need to step it up.”

“Was that Happy?” Steve assumed the limo was parked outside his building like last night.

“Nah.” Tony was wandering about, frowning at the depressing furniture and sparse trappings in the room. “After last night, he needed a break. Drove myself. That was Bruce. He’s waiting in the car making sure it’s not up on blocks when I get back. My own personal Hulk anti-carjacking system. No offense to this quaint neighborhood they stuck you in.”

Bruce was waiting for him? Of course he was. They drove here together. Why wouldn’t they? They had been in the same place. Together. “Right. Um, listen, I don’t want to hold you up. It’s going to take me a while to get cleaned up. Tell me where you guys are going to be and I’ll meet you there.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. Make your ablutions march, soldier. My car is way faster than the subway.”

Steve didn’t bother to point out he wasn’t sure what ‘ablutions’ were. A quarter of the things people of this day and age said to him were hard to decipher, but with Tony the percentage was always higher. “I’ll take my bike. That’ll be plenty fast enough.”

“Bike as in motorcycle? Is SHIELD really too tight to provide you with a car? They certainly aren’t burning the budget with this apartment.”

“Wouldn’t matter if they got me a car,” Steve shrugged. “It’s not like I know how to drive. Especially not the kind of vehicles I’ve seen here.”

Tony looked flabbergasted. “You don’t . . . I mean, even before—”

“Before, I was a poor kid from Brooklyn who barely had enough money to eat one meal a day. There sure wasn’t any dough for a car, or any place to go where I needed to drive one. Things were different back then.”

“And in the army?”

“That’s where I learned to ride the bike. At least those haven’t changed. Well, the basic mechanics haven’t. The look is a whole other thing.”

Picking up his jaw, Tony responded, “Yeah, I keep forgetting. It’s gotta be very weird for you.” Tony actually looked sympathetic.

Steve laughed. “Yeah, us older fellows have a lot to learn.”

Tony grinned back. “I was kinda out of line with that crack.”

“You were just being you.” It had irked Steve at the time. Now, not so much. “Besides, I’ve been called worse.” Looking down shamefully, he added, “I think I called you a lot worse.”

“Old news.” Tony waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t apologize again. Makes me feel like I should reciprocate, and I suck at apologies.” Clapping his hands, he urged, “Come on, wash, dress. I don’t want to miss the banishment.”

“Okay. But I really do want to ride my bike. There’s a pad on the table. Just write down where we’re meeting and I’ll see you there.”

Tony’s expression, his body language, everything changed. He became stiff, guarded. “Fine.” He stomped toward the table, scribbling viciously before slamming the pencil down so hard it bounced and hit the floor. “There you go. Later, Captain.”

Steve hadn’t meant to offend. He just couldn’t stand the thought of another car ride with Tony and Bruce. What the hell was that about? He liked Bruce. He liked Tony. The fact that he didn’t like them together was a stupid reason to be rude to a friend and teammate. “Tony, wait.”

It was too late. Tony was already gone.

And yet the smell of him lingered in Steve’s dreary apartment long after the door closed.

~0~0~0~

“You still didn’t tell him?” Parking his bike, Steve noted the tense look on the faces of Natasha and Tony as he came upon their whispered discussion. They were both glancing toward Clint, who was preoccupied, staring in the direction of the SHIELD vehicle from which Thor was emerging with a captive Loki in tow.

“I didn’t have a chance,” Natasha responded defensively, voice low. “I wanted to tell him, but we both passed out pretty much the moment we got inside. He’s made the assumption Fury has him locked away in an endless post-disaster debrief and I didn’t correct him.”

“That’s great.” Tony was annoyed.

“If you can do better, be my guest.”

“Guys, this isn’t the time or the place,” Steve cautioned, again looking towards Clint. Even behind the dark sunglasses, he could tell Barton’s icy stare toward his former captor was lethal. “Probably not the best time to let him know Loki murdered his friend. We don’t want this to get ugly in the middle of Central Park.”

“Friend?” Natasha spat the word disdainfully. “You guys don’t have a clue, do you?”

“Clue about what?” Tony demanded.

Bruce drew nearer. “Showtime, everybody.”

Their conversation was cut short by the task at hand, but Tony whispered something in Natasha’s ear before going back to his car to retrieve the brief case that held the object of so much destruction. Steve couldn’t help but stare in disgust at the Tesseract. He meant it when he told Fury they should have left it in the ocean. The device—and Loki—had caused horrible damage and devastation. They were only lucky it wasn’t worse. It was a relief to see it disappear, along with Thor and his wayward brother, into flames of blue light. Good riddance.

The group began to break up after that. Clint was at Natasha’s elbow, so there was no chance for her to explain what she had meant earlier. He doubted Tony would leave it alone, though. As he walked toward Tony’s fancy sports car, he reached to accept the handshake being offered to him. Seemed a small gesture after all they had shared together, but Tony’s hand was warm and his smile genuine. There was no trace of the sour mood Tony had been in when he stomped out of Steve’s apartment. Watching Loki be ejected from the planet seemed to have left everyone in good spirits.

“Where exactly did you think I was going to sit if I had ridden with you?” Steve asked, eyeing the two-seater sports car.

“I was hoping on my lap,” Tony said with a twinkling smile.

Steve had no idea what to make of the tawdry remark, though he did feel his own hand begin to sweat in Tony’s. “I’m pretty heavy,” he ended up responding lamely as their handshake finally dropped.

"I’m stronger than I look,” Tony bantered back. “Listen, when you’re ready to move out of the mausoleum, call me. You don’t belong in a place like that. Stark Tower is currently under renovation, courtesy of Loki and his scaly friends, but it’s going to be better than ever. Plenty of room for you if want it. You could have your own room, your own wing, your own floor, whatever you like. Think about it.”

“Tony, I. . . .” Steve didn’t know what to say. It was a generous offer. He hated the Brooklyn apartment. For a place intended to make him comfortable, all it really did was remind him every day what a misfit he was.

“Steve, you moving in, too?” Bruce asked as he approached the car, toting the bag Natasha had just handed him from her car. “That’s great. Tony’s promised to reinforce the floors and walls, so the Other Guy won’t be able to do too much damage.”

“Yeah, good idea. It’s good. Real good,” Steve stammered. “So, you’re staying? Here? In New York, now, then, right?”

“For now.” Bruce smiled shyly. He was as quiet as the Hulk was loud. “Been running for a while. Hiding out. Guess you can’t really run away from yourself, right? Be nice to belong somewhere for a change.”

“Sure, sounds great,” Steve said sincerely. As hard as it was to be himself, he figured it had to be a lot harder being Bruce. He felt for the guy. Lucky for him, Erskine’s version of the serum worked as well as it did. Still, Steve could empathize with the idea of not belonging.

Tony clapped his hands together, looking quite pleased. “Great. So we’ll go home, pick up a bigger car and then we can swing by your hellhole—I mean, charming apartment—and get your stuff. If there’s anything there you even want.”

“Yeah, no, this isn’t a good day for me.” Steve started to back away. “I’m going to need to think about this for a while.”

“What’s to think about? Hellhole. Penthouse. Hmmm, what to do?”

“It’s not that.” Steve didn’t want to piss Tony off twice in one day, but he sure as hell wasn’t ready to commit to being a third wheel to the best buddies. Not until he could figure out why it got under his skin the way it did. “I really appreciate the offer. It’s very generous and I promise to think about it. I gotta run.” Steve made a break towards his bike.

“Okay, we’ll talk. Call me.” Tony made a face. “You do know how to work the cellphone, right?”

“Sure. Yeah. Almost.” Steve climbed on his bike, trying to pretend he didn’t see the way they smiled at each other as Bruce slid into Tony’s car.

Knock it off, he told himself. Whatever this was, it was crazy.

He revved up his bike, eager to ride. It was a beautiful day. Loki and the Tesseract had been sent back where they belonged. His body had finally healed itself enough for him to feel good again.

Beyond that, he didn’t want to think at all.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Turns out there wasn’t a lot of time for thought anyway. Steve had enjoyed the feel of the wind in his hair as he rode his bike on this beautiful day. It was freeing to just ride, no destination in mind. For a little while, he was able to not think at all, which was great. Too much had been going on in too short a time. He had worked so hard to bring himself up to speed for the mission, his brain literally hurt. Studying was never his favorite thing, something he often left for the last minute, winding up cramming all night on the eve of the exam. Cramming seventy years’ worth of history, technology, and culture in a few weeks after his awakening had been daunting to say the least. Then came the mission. The physical and mental challenges over the last few days had tested the limits of even a super soldier. Steve had half a hope of some much needed R&R as he sped through the park, maybe a chance to let his emotions catch up to all the startling changes in his world.

Problem was, once he rode out of Central Park, reality hit him like the icy slap of the Arctic Ocean. Yes, the Battle of New York had been won, but like any war, the collateral damage remained. Manhattan was a mess. Emergency Service personnel were everywhere; firefighters battling lingering flames, construction teams trying to clear debris from the streets, police doing everything from crowd control and traffic safety to pursuit of looters who were trying to take advantage of the widespread power outages. HAZMAT teams, Con Edison workers, news crews, ambulances, and emergency vehicles of every kind clogged the streets. The National Guard had been called in as well. There were clouds of smoke still billowing over midtown. In the midst of it all were the citizens of New York City, many still wandering with confused and devastated expressions, trying to reconcile what they had witnessed yesterday. He overheard many saying how it was like ‘something out of a movie.’ They didn’t make movies like that in Steve’s day, but he certainly had to agree having aliens invade from the sky was a pretty surreal event even for a jaded New Yorker.

The island of Manhattan bore little resemblance to the one he remembered, but Steve was still a New Yorker in his heart, and he wanted nothing more than to help put his city back together. For as long as he could manage, he planned to do so as Steve Rogers, not Captain America. Tony had already warned them last night about the way the media would be after the Avengers like ravenous bloodhounds. It had already begun. Steve heard some of the non-stop reports on the radio in the limo and also in his apartment this morning. He’d caught a few glances at storefront television screens yesterday, spied some newspapers on the stand with blaring headlines. It was only going to get worse. Director Fury had ordered them all to lay low. Problem was, Steve Rogers wasn’t good at walking away from a fight and right now, the borough of Manhattan was fighting to get back on its collective feet.

Dressed in dull pants and work shirts—not a hint of the red, white, or blue in sight—Steve spent the next five days doing everything and anything he could to help without attracting too much attention to himself. He logged a lot of time on stairs, bringing food and supplies to elderly or disabled folks on the highest floors who were basically trapped while the power continued to be repaired and the elevators were out of service, sometimes carrying folks down when necessary. He volunteered with various groups, doing everything from glass sweeping, to unloading supplies and helping unblock roads and entranceways by pushing cars and debris to the side. He helped small businesses rebuild walls, replace windows, rehang signs. He even ran down a few looters, much to the dismay of the police who thankfully bought his explanation that he was so fast because he had been a sprinter in college.

For the most part, he went unnoticed. There was too much bedlam going on to pay heed to one guy, especially when he wasn’t wearing a mask and tights. It was only when he visited some injured children in the hospital that he was recognized, but the kids were more than happy to keep his ‘secret identity’ secret, especially after he swore them in as honorary Avengers.

Not long after, however, he faced a situation better suited for Captain America than Steve Rogers. Late in the week a crane collapsed, part of it crashing into the unoccupied building being worked on, the other half—holding a heavy cement block—dangling over the north side of a school building full of kids. Emergency personnel were scrambling to evacuate the school before the metal gave way, dropping crane and cement block onto its roof, but there was no guarantee they were going to succeed in time. Suddenly, keeping his identity a secret wasn’t nearly as important as making sure no one got hurt. Steve ran around the base of the crane looking for the best place to climb. Unlike the flag pole in training camp, there didn’t seem to be a way to bring this thing down without going up. If he could get high enough, he could probably hold on to the dangling half long enough for everyone to get to safety—or he might come crashing down with it, but it was a chance he was willing to take. Just as he made ready to begin his assent, he heard the collective gasp of the gathering crowd. At first he thought it was toward him, but when he turned and found everyone staring upward, his eyes drew to the sky as well. There, against the backdrop of blue sky and white clouds was a familiar red and gold blur.

“It’s Iron Man!” people yelled.

Yep, it was Iron Man all right. First he flew a circle lap around the tottering crane, which could have been assessing, though Steve was pretty sure was a bit of preening as well. Steve watched as Iron Man flew closer, taking hold of the metal monstrosity and pulling until he actually lifted the crane and block, flying them back toward the empty building. Once the school was out of harm’s way, Iron Man safely detached the cement and began snapping the metal into smaller pieces, setting the pieces into a neat pile on the ground in back of the building. It took several minutes: flying up, getting another piece, flying back down.

While the crowd’s attention was focused skyward, Steve darted around to the back of the building. By the time the last piece of broken crane was laid atop the pile, he was beside it, waiting.

“Showoff,” he chided.

Iron Man walked toward him, facemask lifting to reveal Tony Stark. “You never call,” he complained in a pouting voice. “I’ve tried calling you. I waited for you to call me.”

“Yeah, about the phone. In truth, I don’t know where it is.”

“No worries. It’s not like I didn’t know where you were. Been keeping a low profile, there, eh, Rogers? Me, I’ve never been a low profile sort of guy. It’s quaint, though. Very old-fashioned. Like you. Gotta warn you, if you want to keep your identity under wraps, being seen talking to me isn’t the route to go. I say we hit Facebook in the next five minutes . . . if not sooner.”

Tony was talking a mile a minute, but Steve didn’t mind. He had missed it. He had missed Tony. He had missed his team. He had been distracting himself with the work at hand, but it all came flooding back the minute Iron Man’s mask lifted and he saw Tony’s grinning face.

“What do you mean, you knew where I was?”

“I’ve kinda got a creepy stalker thing going. It’s actually a lot less seedy when you do it with the high-end, state of the art technology I invented. Anyway, it was obvious you wanted to do this your way after being forced into our little team of misfits. I figured you needed your space. Not everyone’s a media whore like me. But everybody’s been helping out. It took me a day or two to get back in the game—you were right, about the head, by the way. Little concussion thing, no biggie.”

“No biggie? Concussion? Wait, did you—”

Tony briskly cut off Steve’s concern. “The Hulk has been underground, mostly under cover of darkness. A lot of heavy lifting needed to put the subway tunnels back in shape, so that worked out. Thor’s back, too. Cut the god family reunion short to head back here and try to clean up some of his brother’s mess. He’s picked up almost all the alien carcasses and disposed of them in some makeshift Asgardian Recycling Center. I’m just glad I didn’t draw alien guts duty. Yuck.”

“But Director Fury wanted us to lay low.”

“This is low . . . well, for us. Oh, and about that five minutes. It’s more like forty-five seconds, tops.”

Steve could hear the crowd making their way around the building. In their midst he knew were dozens of reporters, cameras, cell phones. He could have easily outrun them, remaining anonymous, not getting involved in the hailstorm of attention they would quickly be barraged with. He remembered how much he hated being little more than a dancing monkey used to promote the sale of war bonds, and that attention would pale in comparison to this. Nowadays there were televisions, computers, Internet, smart phones, tablets. Tony was right. They would be on the Facebook in no time. He had seen this Facebook. The whole thing was distasteful to him.

Still, he stayed put.

“We’re a team,” he stated simply. “A guy sticks with his team.”

Tony’s grin was amazing.

A second later, the mask snapped back into place and he literally set himself like a shield between Steve and the oncoming throng. Cameras flashed, microphones came out of everywhere, reporters nearly got into a wrestling match to get closest, there was even a helicopter with a hanging camera flying overhead. Tony handled it all like the practiced pro he was. Steve had to do little but nod. Anytime someone aimed a question his way, Tony deflected it, made a humorous remark, or said something outrageous to get the attention focused back on him.

Tony had a way of talking a lot, yet saying very little. He left SHIELD out of it, downplayed the Avengers, kept the spotlight on Iron Man while leaving the rest of the team with as much anonymity as was possible considering the situation. He talked more about rebuilding the city than he did about the aliens who destroyed it, giving away no classified secrets and certainly making no mention of the nuke that was launched at Manhattan by the so-called good guys, a situation of which they seemed thankfully ignorant. Without missing a stride, Tony managed to sign several autographs for eager kids and diffuse a few hecklers while still talking smoothly. Steve was interested to learn through several reporters’ questions how Stark Industries had been footing a big chunk of the bill for the clean-up and restoration of Manhattan.

Ultimately, it was Tony who cut the impromptu press conference short on his terms, since there was a good chance those reporters and photographers would have stood there all night poking and prodding if he had let them. “Well, folks, it’s been nice chatting with you all, but I’m sure you understand that the Captain and I have a lot more work to do to help get this wonderful city back on its feet. You ready, Cap?”

Steve wasn’t sure what to be ready for. “Um, yeah?”

Tony stepped closer, asking in a voice low enough for only Steve to hear, “You’re going let me give you a ride this time, right?”

For a stupid moment, Steve looked around for one of Tony’s fancy cars, or his limo, but then it hit him that Iron Man’s mode of travel was not a four-wheel vehicle. The words clench up, Legolas echoed in his mind along with the vision of Iron Man whisking Hawkeye up into the sky. Steve’s stomach did a backflip, churning with two parts excitement and one part sheer terror. Of course, being left here alone to fend off the reporters wasn’t particularly appealing either. He chose Tony.

“Sure,” he responded, his voice sounding more confident then he felt, as if this was something he did every day. Then again, most of the things Steve did since the day they pumped the serum into him were pretty bizarre. What was one more? He trusted Tony, didn’t he?

It wasn’t like Tony gave him much time to change his mind. The Iron Man face mask, which had been raised at one point during the interviews when Tony wanted to get the attention focused off Steve and back on him, snapped shut, the suit making a revving sound. Steve expected to be lifted like Clint had, causing him to worry that his jacket would tear against the force, since he didn’t have a sturdy quiver harness strapped to his body for Tony’s metal fingers to grab hold of. Instead, Tony’s arm wrapped securely around his waist, pressing his back to the full of Iron Man’s front. There was a gasp of excitement from the ground, and then they were sailing upward, the people below getting smaller and smaller.

Steve closed his eyes as Iron Man continued his ascent. He wasn’t necessarily afraid of heights. This was just a little much. It was kind of like car sickness and the Coney Island Cyclone wrapped up together. After a few moments of flying straight up, Tony turned them horizontal. He had a moment’s panic, imaging his weight being too much and Iron Man’s grasp giving way to send Steve crashing face first back to Earth, but it was a ridiculous concern. He’d seen Iron Man in action. Away they flew, Tony’s hold secure, though not painful.

“How you doing, Cap?” It was the mechanical Tony voice. The Iron Man voice.

Steve didn’t answer. The gush of wind in his face was hard enough to withstand. He wasn’t about to open his mouth. Tony kept talking, as if he understood the conversation was going to be one-sided. “It takes a little getting used to.” Iron Man’s other hand came up as a shield, blocking some of the wind from Steve’s face and eyes—though he still didn’t open them. “Don’t worry. I’m not going too high or too fast, but that’s probably hard to tell from your position. You gotta admit it beats sitting in rush hour traffic or cramming into the subway. Thanks for hanging in with me down there with the reporters. I know how much you hate that sort of thing.”

If Steve were venturing to talk, he would have said it really wasn’t anything since Tony had done all the work. Instead, he wrapped his own arms around the iron one, needing the extra security. He didn’t believe Tony would drop him. It was just more prudent to hold on. Tight.

“We’re almost there, Steve.” Tony’s voice was still mechanical, but somehow it managed to sound reassuring. “Crossing the East River now.”

Steve scrunched his eyes closed tighter. He hadn’t felt comfortable looking down before and he sure didn’t want to do it now, over a huge body of water. Too many bad memories there. This isn’t the Arctic, he reminded himself. And you’re not going down.

They flew on in silence for a bit and Steve became more uncomfortable. This was tolerable when Tony’s voice was there, but in silence, in the darkness behind his lids, the constant wind starting to feel cold against his skin, things became very uncomfortable very quickly. A sensation he generally kept at bay in the corner of his mind threatened to break free and take hold. He squeezed Tony’s arm hard with both hands. He knew Iron Man’s suit was strong, but he was pretty strong himself. Surely Tony could at least feel the grip.

“So, yeah,” Tony started jabbering, getting his message. “The renovations at the tower are coming along great. You need to come by and see it.” Tony droned on about different floors and what they would be and how he would enhance them and a lot of technical stuff Steve didn’t really understand. Didn’t matter. Tony’s voice was what mattered.

It was nice.

Sometime in the middle of the wordy description of the elaborate elevator system, Tony turned them vertical again and they were descending. Steve’s feet landed very gently on the ground and it was good to feel solid earth beneath them again—though a little part of him was disappointed their flight together was over already.

He opened his eyes slowly and it took a few moments to orient. When his vision did clear, he didn’t recognize his surroundings. “I didn’t want to drop you too close to home,” Tony clarified. It was his Tony voice this time. The mask must have gone up. “The longer you can live without reporters on your doorstep, the better. It’s only a few miles north from here. I figure you can make that on your own, right, old timer?”

Steve’s mouth needed a minute to form a grin. His face was a little cold and wind-burned, but it would heal quickly. “Yeah, I think I got it.” Running a couple of miles was something Steve could do in a blink. So why did he feel so unsettled about Tony leaving him here and not at his apartment? He realized Tony’s arm was still wrapped around his waist, his own hands holding fast. Something about that soothed his unease. Blinking to clear his vision more, he saw they were in a deserted lot. At least no reporters had tracked them yet. “Thanks for the ride,” he offered, trying to come up with something to say.

“Anytime. Take a minute. Make sure your legs are steady.”

“Right.” Steve’s legs were already steady, but he still made no move to disconnect from Tony’s supporting hold. His back remained pressed to Iron Man’s front, so when Tony spoke, it was right against his ear.

“I was thinking I would drop you here, then go home, slip into something less iron, maybe meet you at your hellhole in about an hour with pizza? You will have dinner with me, right?”

The plan sounded wonderful, which made Steve feel pretty lame. He tried for casual. “Sure. It’s the least I can do after you gave me a ride home.”

“Great!” Tony sounded a little ‘high-school-boy-just-got-a date’ excited, too, which was weird. What was wrong with both of them? A moment later, he sounded more laid-back and Stark-like. Maybe Steve had just imagined the other? “I mean, it might take an hour or two. I have a lot of calls to make and a few things to check on in the lab. But I’ll be by at some point.”

“Yeah, I’ve got things to do back at the ‘hellhole,’ too. Whenever you get there is fine.”

“See you later, then.”

Steve heard the mask lock back into place and the revving sound kick in. “Um, Tony?”

“Yes,” the mechanical Tony voice answered.

“You probably need to let go before you take off again, otherwise the whole riding me home thing gets nullified.” Steve reluctantly loosened his own grip.

“Good point.” The hold around Steve’s waist and chest slackened and Iron Man took a step backwards to separate them. He didn’t like the feeling. His body had already recovered from the vertigo, so the unsteadiness he felt standing on his own had to be in his head. Shaking it to clear the crazy thoughts, he turned, facing Iron Man for the first time since they’d landed. “Thanks again for the ride.”

“My pleasure.” The voice was robotic and the eyes looking at him were just slits of light through a mask, not dark brown orbs that put chocolate to shame. Still, there was a hint of emotion in the reply.

Or maybe the flight just shook up my brain.

In a flash, Iron Man was up and off. Steve craned his neck, watching until the red and gold blur was far out of sight before turning toward home. He ran extra hard, hoping the exertion and the extra sweat would clear his mind of errant thoughts.

~0~0~0~

Steve had time to shower, put on clean clothes and straighten the apartment—not that it required much attention. There were few possessions and he was neat. Besides, he spent little time here. He was eager to get out into the city every morning to pitch in, but he was also relieved to leave the colorless surroundings of this fabricated home behind. Tonight he wished he could make it a little less dreary. He turned to the computer they had given him. In the short time he had been using it, he had learned a lot, especially during those first days here when there hadn’t been anything else to do. He knew enough to get the music to play. Music would be nice. What kind of music was the dilemma. He had only ever heard Tony listen to what sounded more like noise than music to Steve’s ear, and he didn’t think he could stand it for too long. He certainly wasn’t going to bore Tony with a station called oldies, though the music of his day was probably older than even the oldies on the stations he considered. He settled for pop, the description claiming to be ‘today’s hits.’ Seemed appropriate enough for someone still learning to live in today’s world.

Music chosen, he sat on the couch to wait. He considered the large stack of books on a shelf near the window, trying to figure out which one to flip through in order to pass the time. SHIELD had provided him with an abundance of material to help him catch up on the decades he had missed: files, booklets, pamphlets, a computer full of information, and all manner of textbooks, with the option of requesting more when needed. While he dutifully went through their large assortment of materials, his favorite place to seek knowledge had been the central branch of the Brooklyn Public Library at Grand Army Plaza. Most of the books on his shelves had been borrowed from there, and he had spent countless more hours poring over material within the walls of the library itself.

The only way to get books when he was a kid was to go to the library. He had always found libraries to be quiet, comfortable places where he could lose himself for hours. The Grand Army Plaza branch was under construction throughout his childhood, and he would go by the site often, trying to imagine what it would look like when the building was completed. He got to go inside once in 1941, not long after it opened, thrilled to find it lived up to the magical hopes he had held during all those long years of waiting. Today, the library was more spectacular—and huge. He was excited to find it was still there, on the same corner of Flatbush Avenue, and awed by how grand it had become in his absence. The library, along with the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and Prospect Park—all close by—were places Steve had spent a lot of time after his awakening. Sure, they had undergone massive changes in the decades since he last visited them, but at least they were still here, havens of familiarity amidst the foreign terrain.

He had begun paging through a book about the Vietnam War when there was a knock at the door. He slammed the book closed a little too excitedly, nearly smashing his fingers inside. After tucking the tome back on the shelf, he headed to the door, trying to convince himself there was no need for all the excitement. He was surprised—and maybe a tiny bit disappointed—not to find Tony on the other side as he threw open the door. Instead, Thor stood, his face gleaming with a brilliant smile as he bellowed, “Steven, my friend!” loud enough to echo through the halls and down to the first floor.

It was a good thing the voice was familiar because nothing about the rest of Thor resembled the man—no, ‘the god’ would be the appropriate term—he had fought beside. Instead of his magnificent warrior armor and flowing cape, Thor was dressed in blue jeans and a tee-shirt, his flowing blonde locks tied back in a ponytail, a hairstyle men sported these days Steve had been interested to learn. Steve blinked a few times to comprehend the image. Thor looked like a regular guy, albeit a very stunning regular guy. No amount of casual clothing was going to mask the intense blue eyes and brilliant gold of his hair, or the magnificent posture and carriage of the Asgardian. He carried bundles in both of his hands, but that didn’t stop him from throwing his arms around Steve in a fierce, brotherly hug. “I have missed you!”

Steve wasn’t accustomed to having his breath squeezed from his lungs, or the integrity of his ribcage threatened from a simple hug, but then, this was Thor—nothing about him was simple. “I missed you, too.” It hadn’t even been a week, but Steve realized the words were true. “What are you doing here?”

Pulling back from the bear hug, Thor held up his bundles. “I have come to enjoy the company of my SHIELD brother. The television revealed you today beside Iron Man. I took this as the sign you had ended your seclusion. I trust your contemplative days did you well.”

“Yeah, I guess, sure.”

“I, too, seek solitude after an intense battle,” Thor informed as he entered. “Then comes time for celebration. I believe this is the Midgardian ale of choice.” Thor yanked out cases of beer from his sacks, placing them down so heavily on the coffee table, the legs on the old thing bowed.

“Sure, beer works. It doesn’t have any effect on me, but no sense letting it go to waste.” Steve pulled a can from the case. Remembering the instruction he’d received from the SHIELD babysitters, who Fury had assigned to him for several days before he balked and threatened to disappear completely if he wasn’t left alone, he attempted to open the can. Unfortunately, he hadn’t done this enough to have gotten adept at judging the ideal amount of force he needed to apply to the ring top. Rather than just open it, he wound up tearing the top off the can, beer bubbling up and spilling out onto the bland, beige rug.

“Yes!” Thor bellowed in hearty agreement, tearing the top off his own can. “We drink!” He bent back his head and gulped whatever contents didn’t spill down his shirt and hit the rug. Steve laughed and it felt good. He slogged his beer down in the same manner, thinking fondly of nights spent drinking and laughing with comrades.

Tossing aside his can, Thor reached for another, but the joy on his face muted as he looked around the room. “This is a depressing hovel. It is an outrage to place a mighty warrior such as the Captain of America in such a place. I will see this slight amended at once. Who is responsible?”

Steve was a little hesitant to answer “SHIELD” since Thor looked about ready to get his hammer and start smashing the guilty party. “It’s temporary,” he responded, though he wasn’t sure why. He didn’t have any immediate moving plans.

Unless he took Tony up on his offer.

Not ready to consider Tony’s option, he picked up another beer and put it into Thor’s empty hand. “Let’s not worry about it now. We were drinking, remember?”

“Ah, yes.” Thor appeared appeased, ripping off the tops of the cans in his hands with his teeth and spitting them to the floor before guzzling.

Before long Thor had sprawled across Steve’s not very big couch, so he pulled over one of the wooden chairs from near the small table and sat on that. Conversation flowed easily, touching on topics that ran the gamut from battle stories to adjusting to Earth life and culture. In a lot of ways, this place was as foreign to Steve as it was to Thor, and they were able to commiserate humorously about their experiences. The conversation grew more solemn when Thor talked about Loki and his deep shame and regret over what his brother had come to. Somehow, Thor still managed to see the good in him, something Steve was unable to do, but he could listen, which he did, since it was clear Thor needed to get some things off his chest.

It wasn’t hard to match Thor drink for drink since the alcohol had no effect on Steve. Thor was really good at holding his liquor as well. Steve was impressed. The guys on his team could pack it away and still make it back to the barracks without puking, but Thor looked more than able to outdo them. Steve reminisced fondly about the Commandos; Thor raising more than one can to their memories. “True heroes, all,” he had dubbed them and Steve readily agreed.

“There is no deeper bond of friendship than that of a warrior who has fought at your side,” Thor announced, toasting to the thought.

“Very true.”

“You miss them.” It wasn’t a question.

Steve nodded, taking a sip, wishing it could do more than wet his throat. Without his consent, his mind took him back to the night he tried his damnedest to drown his sorrows to no avail.

The night Bucky died.

“Perhaps you miss one above the others,” Thor said softly. Steve’s head jerked up to look at him. Did Asgardians have some kind of mindreading techniques? Thinking about the way Loki had manipulated Barton and others, Steve’s shoulders tightened and he grew defensive.

“How do you know that?”

“Your expression tells me so.” Thor’s eyes were kind, his features compassionate. “Have I offended you in some manner, my friend?”

“No.” Steve relaxed, realizing he was being unfair. Thor was simply trying to be a buddy. “I just haven’t talked about . . . Bucky, his name was Bucky.” He had to pause. It had been a long time since the name had passed his lips, though Bucky was never far from his thoughts. “Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, but he was always Bucky to me.” He hadn’t spoken about Bucky to anyone since that night, but now the words were pouring out of him. Stories from when they were kids. Rescuing Bucky and the guys of the 107th from Schmidt’s prison. Teaming up to take on HYDRA. And of course the train. The damn train.

Grief and guilt and loss threatened to drown him. He gulped down the beer, but just like that night, it brought no comfort. Thor leaned across the coffee table, taking firm hold of Steve’s forearm. “I shall grieve with you, brother.”

Steve looked up to find Thor’s face awash with pain, as if he really did feel this as deeply as Steve did. It was kind of crazy, but in an odd way, it helped. He took hold of Thor’s forearm in the same manner and they sat quietly for a while, until the worst had passed.

“Thank you,” Steve said finally, when he could.

Thor nodded. “No thanks are needed.”

“I went down not too long after Bucky fell, so even if he hadn’t fallen, our time together was over. I wasn’t going to see him again. Still, I would have liked to pick up one of those folders SHIELD gave me after I woke and read about the great life Bucky had, even if I was never going to be part of it.”

“You would have always been part of it, as he remains part of yours.”

“You’re right. I just wish. . . .”

“What is it you wish?” Thor asked, truly interested. He was really easy to talk to, giving Steve the courage to voice his deepest regret.

“I kind of messed things up with us. Wish I’d have had a chance to fix it.”

“Ah, recompense. For what reason would you need such a thing? You were an honorable friend who risked your own life to save his. Certainly you can’t believe his fall was your doing?”

“Actually, I do, but that’s not what I meant.” Memories flooded back, memories Steve didn’t want, thought he had purged. He knew it couldn’t be the beer loosening them. He looked at where he and Thor remained bound by their mutual grasp. Panicking, he pulled his arm free and stood up. “Are you doing this to me? Is this some kind of magic power?”

“I would do no such thing.” Thor looked truly wounded. Setting down his beer can, he stood, his true majestic presence shining through despite his casual attire. “I shall not take offense since my own brother’s actions have caused this shadow in your mind, but I assure you I can be trusted. You are my brother, my comrade, my shieldmate. I would cut out my heart with a rusty dagger before I would have it hurt you.”

Steve put up his hands. “Okay, whoa, not necessary. No heart cutting.” He took a deep breath, trying to clear his mind. “I’m overreacting. Again. Been doing it a lot lately. I’m not used to being around people anymore.”

“All you have known is gone. It is difficult to adjust when the entirety of your world is new."

Steve nodded appreciatively. Thor was being incredibly patient with him. “This is helping. Talking. Hanging out with a buddy. This place has mostly been a lonely tomb, nothing but my memories and regrets for company.”

“This place,” Thor stated with disgust, “is wretched and soul-stealing.”

Thor was perfectly serious, but Steve had to laugh. “Tony calls it a hellhole.”

“On this we agree.”

Steve went back to his chair and sat. “Really doesn’t matter. I don’t belong anywhere.”

“On this, we must disagree.” Thor resumed his seat as well. “On the contrary, I believe you have great purpose. You were brought here through time to be exactly where you are. This is no accident. It is fate at work.”

“Fate, huh?” Steve didn’t know what to do with that, but it was an interesting thought.

“All who touch our hearts mold our fate. Your Bucky, he was no mere friend. He was hjartabródir, was he not?”

“What does that mean?”

“The simplest translation would be heart-brother. Had he lived and had you remained in your time, you would have taken him as your bóndi, your bondmate, your spouse, yes?”

Steve nearly fell off the chair. “No, no, no, no. Bucky was a guy. We were buddies. Guys weren’t spouses. I don’t know about your planet, but that’s not how it is here.”

“On my planet, there are no rules or restrictions to love, but we are discussing this planet. And you are speaking of a time long past.”

Steve had done some reading, astonished by what he’d found. Even having this conversation out loud was difficult to fathom. “In those days, there was no talking about things like that. You weren’t supposed to feel them. There was something wrong with you if you did.”

“So you never spoke of it?”

Steve’s laugh was painful. “Speak of it? I didn’t even want to admit to myself I felt it. I did everything I could to make it go away. I didn’t want to be a freak.”

“Never such. Only a man living in ignorant times.”

“Seventy years have passed and, from what I read, there’s plenty of similar ignorance still around.”

“Sadly, yes. But a man must be true to himself. There is no other path.”

“What if that truth hurts someone else?” Steve hung his head in shame, the words burning his tongue. “What if it breaks a trust? What if—?” He couldn’t continue. It was too painful.

Once again, the warmth of Thor’s hand wrapped around his forearm, and there was a strange comfort in the touch. “You questioned me earlier of magic, but it is no spell I cast on you. Where I am from, I wield not only thunder, but am looked to as the god of protection and healing. Perhaps something in you calls to me for such. I will help you if I am able.”

Steve’s face burned with shame. His throat closed, trying to swallow the words as if doing so would make them untrue. The incident had been weakness, pure and simple. He should have never let it happen. He wanted to keep it buried, refuse to acknowledge it, but instead he was speaking. “I don’t know what came over me,” he choked out, the words cutting him in a way the serum couldn’t heal. “Bucky was my friend. My best friend. My only friend for most of my life. The only family I had left.” He still wasn’t sure what seized him that night. At the time, he had wanted to believe it was the evil side effects of the serum, like what had happened to Schmidt, but cowards looked for excuses. He was responsible. He was the one who couldn’t manage his perverted impulses. He was the one who had grabbed his best friend and kissed him. Kissed him deep and hard the way you were supposed to kiss a girl—the way Steve had never kissed a girl.

The way Steve never wanted, to kiss a girl.

Not even Peggy, and he really liked her a lot. When she kissed him, it was nice and it made Steve happy, and in those brief moments they had, he began to believe he might be able to be normal. But nothing with her ever felt like it did with Bucky, no desire was ever as strong.

“I kissed him,” he muttered. “I was . . . I was so crazy with lust I didn’t even realize how hard he was struggling to get away from me. The only reason it lasted as long as it did was because I was strong. Too strong. I was stupid. I thought he stayed there because maybe he wanted . . . but it wasn’t that. It was me. Too strong.”

He felt the grip on his arm tighten as the waves of pain shook through him. “Was he injured?” Thor asked gently, as if he understood; understood how you could hurt and not mean to.

“I think I bruised his arms, but he wouldn’t tell me. When he finally got me to let go, he backed away. His face. The look in his eyes.” Steve couldn’t describe it, could only feel it. Confusion. Disgust. Betrayal. All aimed at him by the person he loved most in the world.

“Are you certain of his feelings? Did he give voice to them?”

“He didn’t say anything. He just got away from me as fast as he could.” Steve managed to control his shudder. “The next morning, he acted like nothing had happened. Same ole Bucky. I asked if we could talk, if I could explain. He said not necessary, that we were good. I should have insisted, but I was so relieved he was still speaking to me and he didn’t hate me. I was afraid to make things worse. I regret that decision, though. I never got another chance to talk to him. To ask him to forgive me.”

“But you say he was the same Bucky. If so, then he loved you the same. He died fighting beside you. He did not hesitate to protect you, even at cost to himself. This does not sound like a man who felt betrayed.”

Regret, remorse, and grief made believing Thor’s words difficult, though Steve wanted to. It was hard enough to lose Bucky, to have been unable to save him. It was unbearable to believe he had lost his love and respect as well. Was it really possible Bucky had forgiven him? “I would do anything to take it all back.”

“Steven, there is a world beyond this one. Those who pass into it are far wiser than any of us can be. Where Bucky exists, there is no pain, no injury. All is light and warmth. His thoughts for you are only loving. The pettiness of this world means nothing.”

“It would be nice if that were true.”

“Then believe it is so. To what benefit is to believe otherwise?”

Thor had a point there. Steve nodded, grateful. The simple act of verbalizing his heavy heart and being heard without judgment lifted him. He wouldn’t exactly call himself healed, but he could breathe easier around all this. “Thanks.”

Thor clapped him on the back, nearly knocking him from the chair. “Good man. We have each unburdened this eve and are the better for having done so. Now it is time to finish our victory celebration. Surely you have food in this sad lodging?”

Steve stood up, unable to keep from smiling at Thor’s boisterousness. “I’ll see what I can find.”

~0~0~0~

Steve’s small living room was littered with discarded beer cans and the smell of beer was everywhere. They had managed to polish off most of the two cases, along with every scrap of food Steve had in the kitchen, though that hadn’t kept Thor from complaining of hunger. The Asgardian was currently standing atop the coffee table, colorfully regaling Steve with one of his favorite battle stories. As the rousing tale drew to a climax, the old table gave way, two legs cracking in half. Thor jumped to safety, not missing a beat in his story, finishing with a flourish.

Steve laughed hard, dropping the can from his hand, the liquid contents spilling into his lap. “Crap!” He jumped to his feet, grabbing a pillow from the couch to try and soak up the foaming liquid before it sank deeper into his crotch. Thor bellowed at this, his laughter so loud Steve barely heard the pounding on his door.

When he opened it, a stack of pizza boxes with legs greeted him. From behind the boxes, he heard Tony complain, “You want to give me a hand with these? You’ve got the television blaring so loud I practically had to kick the door down to get you to hear me.”

“I don’t have television,” Steve laughed, unloading the pizza boxes from Tony’s hands, finally able to see his face. “And sorry I didn’t hear you sooner.”

Free of the pizzas, Tony held up a bag he had clutched between his fingers. “I’ve got six different cell phones in this bag and after we eat you’re going to figure out how to use at least one of them. What do you mean you don’t have television? What’s all the racket?”

“Ah, food!” Thor whooped so loudly Tony jolted, nearly dropping the bag of phones as he turned toward Thor in surprise.

“Thor?”

“You have arrived at an opportune moment, Tony Stark. We are famished.” Thor happily relieved Steve of the pizza boxes, taking them into the living room and depositing them on the couch.

“What are you doing here?” Tony turned to Steve. “What is he doing here?”

Steve shrugged and laughed. “Visiting?” He laughed harder, not having laughed this much since he had joined the 21st century. It felt good. And with Tony here, he felt lighter still. “And drinking. Lots of drinking.”

Tony didn’t look amused. In fact, he looked mad, which Steve didn’t understand. Tony came further into the living room, looking around at the devastation. “Wow, the party started without me. Funny, nobody told me there was going to be a party.”

“It just sort of happened,” Steve explained. “Thor came by to celebrate our victory and, well, he’s a little rambunctious.” He was laughing again, taking a good look at what had become of his apartment. “It kind of looks better this way don’t you think?”

“Excellent food,” Thor declared. He had flung open the top box and was eating slices two at a time.

“Yeah, too bad I only brought enough for two.”

“Nonsense. There is plenty. Eat, everyone.”

“Smells great,” Steve said as he took the piece Thor extended his way.

“You smell like a brewery,” Tony noted sourly. “I thought you couldn’t drink?” Looking Steve up and down, he added, “Were you using your penis as a straw?”

Thor had a huge laugh at the remark. Steve found it pretty funny as well. “I dropped one. And I can drink, it just doesn’t affect me.”

“All signs to the contrary.”

“Thor’s the one who broke the table,” Steve clarified as he chewed.

“Indeed, it was but a frail piece of wood.” He leaned over, reaching around on the floor until he found an unopened can of beer, which he extended to Tony. “Join the celebration, my brother.”

“Yeah, thanks.” Tony took the can then set it down on the floor along with the bag of phones.

“Let me see them,” Steve asked.

“See what?”

“My phones. You brought me phones, right?”

“Sure.” Tony picked up the bag and tossed it to Steve. He sat down on his chair, balancing the remains of his slice on his knee. He opened the bag, looking through at all the fancy Stark phones Tony had picked out for him, only half listening to Tony’s conversation with Thor.

“So, just dropped by for a little visit, eh?”

“Yes, I have. And a wonderful visit it has been thus far.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. Think you brought enough beer?”

“Perhaps not.” Thor laughed, reaching for another slice of pizza.

“A little visit, a lot of beer. Hoping to get lucky, there, blondie?”

“I am indeed lucky to have such fine friends.”

“Figured you’d put the moves on, Asgardian-style?”

Steve didn’t get that one, nothing new there. Thor seemed to understand, grinning around his pizza. “Yes, Asgardians have much style, thank you.” Tony muttered something Steve didn’t quite catch and then began to pace the room. He seemed very touchy tonight. Wanting to cheer him up, Steve pulled out one of the cellphones. The frame was red—Iron Man red, like Tony’s suit.

“I like this one. Will you show me how to use it?”

Before Tony could answer, there was a knock at the door. “More company?” he asked Steve, who shrugged. His little apartment had never been so popular. He got up and walked to the door, surprised to see Natasha there when he opened it. She came straight inside and headed for Tony. “Stark, I need your help.”

“The fair Natasha has come to join our circle,” Thor announced. “We will need more ale.”

“How did you know he was here?” Steve asked. “How did you even know where I live? How does everybody know where I live?” He thought about the stalking remark Tony had made this afternoon. “Do all you people go around spying on each other?”

Natasha glanced at him with a stony expression before turning her attention back to Tony. “Barton’s off the grid. I can’t track him.”

“Well, that answers my question,” Steve stated, realizing Natasha had traced Tony here because she had lost her surveillance on Clint. This was quite a team he had.

“What do you mean off the grid? He’s a spy. Isn’t that normal?”

“I told him about Coulson. He told me he didn’t believe me. Said he was going to find answers. That was almost a week ago. No contact. Nothing.”

“Maybe he needed time to deal with his grief,” Steve suggested.

Natasha shook her head. “Something’s not right. I haven’t been able to reach Fury. No one at SHIELD will confirm Barton’s on any mission and Fury is listed as unavailable. I need you to do your Stark thing and hack their system. I need answers.”

“Slow down,” Tony said, pressing a finger over his lip as he looked to be considering the information. “Come to think of it, I haven’t heard from Fury either, not even after my little press conference today. Why didn’t he call to chew me out?”

“If they are in danger, we must help.” Thor stood, dropping the remains of his slice into the open box. Natasha looked at him, then her gaze took in the rest of the room.

“What the hell happened here?”

“Frat party.”

“A what?” Steve asked.

Tony ignored the question, addressing Natasha instead. “There’s more here. Something you aren’t telling me. Either level with me or locate him yourself.”

Natasha considered his demand for a long moment before responding cautiously. “I’m worried about Barton’s mental state.”

“Because of what Loki did to him?” Steve ventured. “Do you think he hasn’t fully come back?”

“It’s not that.”

“Then what?” Tony was impatient, tense.

“His relationship with Coulson runs deep. He may not be able to handle his death.”

Tony made a face at her, waiting for more, but Steve understood. “Their relationship is the thing we didn’t have a clue about. That’s what you meant.”

Natasha nodded. Thor looked confused. Tony erupted. “What the hell are we talking about?”

Steve understood Natasha’s reluctance to disclose such private information. Clint was her friend, most likely her closest friend. She had to be really worried about him to come here with this. “She’s talking about Clint. And Phil. They’re together.”

“Together? Am I the only one who remembers Coulson is dead? Courtesy of blondie’s bonkers brother, as I recall. How could Clint be with Phil? Is he a grave robber? And what does Fury have to do with any of this?” Tony was talking fast, his eyes darting back and forth. Steve knew it was one of the ways his thought process worked. He would keep babbling until . . . . “Whoa, whoa, wait a minute. Barton and Coulson? Barton and Coulson? Barton and Coulson? Holyshit. Okay, mind blown. Need a minute.”

“Grow up, Stark.”

“The son of Coul was a great man. If he held the heart of the Hawk, it would be a devastating loss indeed.”

Steve shifted uncomfortably, having a pretty good bead on such a loss.

“Are you telling me Agent Coulson was doing the horizontal bop with Barton? No, no, Coulson having sex at all . . . it’s like picturing your dad . . . no wait, that I actually can picture, having walked in on some very uncomfortable situations there.”

“Stark, focus.”

“I thought there was a cellist? Weird enough to think he was dating the cellist, but Barton? Wait, wait, cellist . . . strings . . . bows . . . oh, I get it. Pretty clever, actually.”

“Tony, are you finished?” Steve was getting as impatient as Natasha. Tony finding Clint and Phil’s relationship to be such a big deal bothered him.

“Does Fury know?” Tony asked, still sounding shocked.

“What doesn’t Fury know?” Natasha challenged. “What difference does it even make? In case you hadn’t noticed, they are past the age of consent. Or they were. Are we done with the adolescent portion of the evening? Can you focus now?”

“No, no, no.” Tony was wagging his finger. “What Fury does and doesn’t know is of key importance here. I need to get back to the lab.”

“I’ll go with you.” Natasha moved toward the door.

“Steven and I shall remain here until you call us into service.”

“Yeah, new plan. You’ve partied enough for one night. I’ll give you a ride back to the tower.”

“I’m going too,” Steve stated. “I want to help.”

“A guy who can’t work a cellphone isn’t going to be any help to me in the lab. Maybe you should stay here and wash the pizza and beer off yourself. Wouldn’t want to tarnish Captain America’s image going out like looking like this.”

The harsh words stung. Tony hadn’t spoken so coldly to him since their ugly exchange on the Helicarrier. Steve thought they had moved past that. He worked to keep his temper in check, not wanting a repeat of behavior he was still ashamed of. He looked down at himself, seeing the wet beer spot on his crotch had spread, making it look like he’d peed himself, and his pants leg was covered in pizza grease. “You’re right. I’ll change and meet you there.”

“I’ve got this covered.” Tony strode towards the door.

“We’re a team now,” Steve reminded. “If Clint is in trouble, we all need to be part of this.”

“Should have thought of that before you started partying with the gods.”

“What does that have to do with anything?” Steve snapped, tired of being dismissed. “A full-time party boy like you shouldn’t be talking to anyone else about their behavior.”

“I’m not the one who’s drunk.”

“I’m not drunk.”

“I may be somewhat inebriated,” Thor announced proudly.

“Boys,” Natasha hissed. “Do we really have to do this now? Cap, I’ll wait for you to change and you can ride to the tower with me. Thor, you go with Tony. Stark, get your ass to the lab and find Barton. Move.”

And they did.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Stark Tower was an impressive building even in its current state. Loki’s army had done damage to the façade and many of the floors were under construction or reconstruction. The sign at the top that used to announce STARK to the world was only a lonely A now, and like many of the buildings in midtown, it was surrounded by cranes, scaffolding, dumpsters, and debris. Still, it was an awe-inspiring place.

He had only had the briefest glimpse at the place when they came to collect Loki after the Battle. Tony’s penthouse, though combat-scarred, was grand. Steve had plenty of time to wander now and see more of the tower since Tony had sequestered himself in the lab, leaving the rest of his team waiting to find out what their next move would be. Well, except for Best Buddy Bruce who apparently was worthy enough to have not only the access codes to the floor, but also to the lab itself.

Knock it off.

Reining in the resentment, Steve reminded himself of the apartment Thor had shown him, which Tony had given to him for his use whenever he was on planet. “Is it not magnificent?” Thor had asked and Steve had to agree. You could have fit four of Steve’s apartment in there at least, though the décor was far too opulent for his taste, but very fitting for Thor. Natasha had a suite as well, not as majestic as Thor’s, but still nice. Steve was relieved to know there were other Avengers staying in the tower besides Bruce, though it was a stupid thing to feel. Still, he hadn’t seen Bruce’s living quarters yet, or even his lab. Maybe he was sharing them with Tony? The penthouse was really big.

Enough!

This was getting out of hand and he needed to get it under control. All the talking he had done with Thor had clued him in to what he was trying to run from inside: his strange feelings for Tony. It was happening again. Only it couldn’t. He wouldn’t let it. When he woke up in this world, he had convinced himself he was different. He had believed the unsettling feelings, the urges, were gone. He wanted to be normal here. Maybe one day he would find another woman like Peggy, someone he could be happy with. She was smart and kind and very pretty. He really admired her courage, her toughness, and her take-charge ways. It didn’t matter if he didn’t get a tingly, queasy feeling around her. It wouldn’t have mattered if he never dreamed about her or woke up in the night in a cold sweat unable to stop thinking about her. He would have made her happy, and she would have been good for him, and it all would have been nice and normal.

“Do you require anything, Captain Rogers?”

Steve nearly jumped out of his skin. It was going to take some time to get used to the disembodied voice known as JARVIS that seemed to run everything around here. The world Tony lived in was like something out of a comic book. Nothing normal about it. “I can’t remember how to get back to the gym,” he called out, probably too loud. He wasn’t sure where exactly to aim his question. It felt silly to speak it to the air. He seemed to be the only one uncomfortable, though. Thor got a kick out it when he demonstrated how the AI worked, and Natasha seemed unruffled regarding JARVIS, but then there wasn’t much that rattled her. She was like Peggy in that regard. Maybe he should try talking to her more?

“I will be happy to assist you, Captain.” JARVIS sounded both pleasant and debonair. A tiny path of lights beamed across the carpet in the corridor where Steve stood, leading him to an elevator bank. The elevator was already programmed when he got there and he was in the gym in no time. Of course, this was like no gym he’d ever been inside. The one at SHIELD headquarters was the fanciest he’d seen until today. Happy had given him a brief tour of the tower earlier upon his arrival and the gym was one of the stops. It took up a complete floor of the building. There were two huge pools, hot tubs, showers—equipment of every kind you could think of, and much Steve could have never thought of. There were boxing rings, running tracks, weights of every size and shape, even some heavy enough to challenge him. There was no one currently here, but he knew if he had requested anything—a drink, a massage, first-aid, a towel—he would have it immediately.

He didn’t really want anything, though. He had come here because he was tired of wandering around. It would take days, maybe weeks, to see the entirety of Stark Tower and Steve had had his fill for now. He thought he would feel comfortable here amidst the training equipment, but now he wasn’t sure. Everything was very high-tech and computerized. He knew he could ask JARVIS to help him, but that was still a little weird. Maybe he should have gone to the library instead? The library was housed on two floors of the tower, maybe more actually. It was far more extravagant than even Grand Army Plaza, but not nearly as comfortable. Overwhelming would be a more apt description. Steve had gotten used to being overwhelmed, but some days it got tiring.

This whole day had been pretty tiring. He wandered to the spa area, finding a cushy chaise to sit on. The cushions beneath him moved and shifted until molding to his form perfectly. The chair began to grow warm, heat dancing lightly through the cushions, nestling him. Nice. He liked things warm. He hated cold. He hated ice. In his apartment, he slept with three blankets, no matter the temperature. He knew in his sleep the ice could find him; it often did. The nights when it wasn’t the ice, it was something else. Something worse.

~0~0~0~

Bucky, grab my hand!

Steve woke with a jolt, reaching desperately. No matter how far he reached, all he ever found was emptiness. Then a warm hand rested upon his shoulder, rubbing there and, for a moment, he hoped.

“Easy, Cap,” a familiar voice soothed. Only it wasn’t Bucky’s voice.

“Tony?” Steve sat up, looking around, trying to remember where he was. It took a moment for it to come back. There was bright light coming in through the huge windows. He remembered darkness outside when he had come to the gym.

“You know, we have beds,” Tony said, placing a warm mug in Steve’s hand when he had sat up fully. “Lots of them. You don’t have to sleep in a chair in the gym.”

“It’s a nice chair.” Steve wrapped his hands around the mug, letting the heat warm them as he inhaled the aroma of the coffee. “What are you doing here?”

“Here in the tower? Because, technically, I live here. Or here in the gym?”

“The gym.” Steve took a long drag on the coffee, sensing he was going to need it.

“JARVIS said you were having a nightmare.”

Steve nearly spit the hot liquid all over himself. “JARVIS? He what? How would he—? You know what? Forget it. I don’t want to know.”

Tony sat down on the chair opposite him. He was still in the same clothes as last night, only they looked far more rumpled, as did his hair. His eyes were red-rimmed. “Want to talk about it?”

“No,” Steve snapped, defensive. He was starting to really hate this feeling of being under constant scrutiny. “You don’t get to spy on my dreams, too.”

“Fair enough.” Tony stood. “Finish your coffee. I’ve figured out where Fury has hidden himself. We find Fury, we get answers about Barton.”

Steve stood as well. “Where is he?”

“One of those SHIELD super top-secret, hush-hush facilities. On Staten Island of all places. They threw me for a loop with that one. Who goes to Staten Island for anything? Anyway, I’ve got the location and I’ve cracked the code for entry on two levels. I figure we’ll wing it from there.”

“We’re breaking into a SHIELD top-secret facility?”

“You got a problem with it?”

“None. Just clarifying the mission.”

Tony smiled. “Hey, if they didn’t want me to break in, they should have invited me.”

As they walked to the elevator Steve asked, “You never went to bed did you?”

“Nope.”

He took another look at Tony. His black slacks were wrinkled, but it didn’t detract from the fact they were classy, probably expensive. The short leather jacket fit his body like a glove. The rounded snap collar, a front zipper that went up the side rather than the middle, and the diagonal zip pockets gave it a unique Tony Stark flair. The striking blue Henley underneath was coffee stained and scrunched up now, but it hadn’t been last night. Tony had arrived at his apartment looking very spiffy, like he was on a date or something.

Stop it.

Steve needed to stop fooling himself. Tony Stark had zero interest in dating him. It was well documented what a playboy he was, and none of those files Steve had been given showed him with anyone other than beautiful women. His weird reaction to Clint and Phil being in a relationship spoke volumes as well. Even if, despite all the evidence, Steve was wrong and Tony did like guys, the guy he seemed to like—a lot—at the moment was named Bruce Banner, not Steve Rogers.

“Is Bruce coming with us?” Steve asked in the elevator, deciding it best to throw cold water on his own face.

“Yes. They’re all meeting us in the garage.”

“They?”

“Bruce, Natasha, and your best buddy, Asgardian Ken.”

“My best buddy?” Steve laughed. “You sound like—” He caught himself before admitting Tony sounded the way his own inner voice did when it was whining about Banner.

“I sound like what?”

“It just sounded funny.”

Tony turned and looked at him strangely, but he didn’t say anything else because the elevator doors opened and they were in the garage. Tony had more cars than most small cities, rows and rows as far as the eyes could see. Idling near the elevator as they got off was a black vehicle that looked a bit like a van only way fancier—Steve hadn’t gotten up to speed on all the makes and models of vehicles well enough to name it.

Natasha was outside the car, pacing. She was wearing dark jeans and a black jacket. Bruce stood beside her, looking even more rumpled than Tony, but then again, Bruce pretty much always looked rumpled. And Thor . . . well, Thor was decked out in his Asgardian finery, cape billowing even though there was no wind.

“I see you didn’t get the memo on dressing inconspicuously,” Tony sniped.

“Memo?”

“Whatever. Just get in.” As Tony opened the driver’s side door and slid in, he amended, “Get in the back. There’s no room for your cape up here. You, sit in the front,” he directed Steve. Something about his tone sounded like a parent separating naughty children. Apparently, he and Thor weren’t trusted to ride near each other after their antics last night. Steve shook his head and smiled. Tony was odd. “What do I do with this?” He was still holding the ceramic coffee mug Tony had given him.

“Just drop it out there.”

“It’ll break.”

“Dummy will get it.”

“Dummy?”

“Get in the damn car.” Unable to bring himself to destroy a perfectly good mug and leave broken glass all over Tony’s garage, Steve bent down and carefully set the mug on the ground before getting into the vehicle and shutting the door.

“You people have a lot to learn about covert missions,” Tony grumbled as he screeched out of the garage.

~0~0~0~

Despite a slow start, it turned out they weren’t such a bad covert team after all. With Tony’s frantic driving, they made it to Staten Island in less than forty minutes. Steve was grateful for the invention known as seatbelts. No one talked much on the ride, so he had a good chance to take in the view. He marveled at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. It was the longest bridge he had ever been on. When he was a kid, the only way into Staten Island was by ferry. He had only gotten to ride the ferry with his mother a few times, but he always enjoyed the trip.

Since Staten Island wasn’t affected by the Chitauri attack, he was able to really look at it as it was today. The island was far more built up than how he remembered it and it looked to be thriving. Tony took a lot of local streets and made some strange turns on the way to the Fresh Kills Landfill. Steve suspected it was to make sure they weren’t being followed. Bad enough they were planning to break into a SHIELD facility. No sense making it worse by leading a news team there as well. He parked in a parking lot near a store called Lowe’s and then they set off on foot.

Tony had an electronic tablet in his hand, his fingers moving over it lightning quick. Bruce held some other device, smaller than Tony’s. They walked about two miles through tall weeds, not far from a swamp.

“Nice smell,” Bruce commented. Steve had been trying to ignore the rotting stench.

“Why is it secret bases are never located in five-star hotels, near the pool bar?” Tony asked as he came to a stop. “Another three yards and we’ll be within range of the security cameras on this side.”

“I’m on it,” Natasha shrugged off her backpack and reached inside, pulling out a small black cylinder. She raised it in the air, waving it back and forth while pushing some buttons. After a minute she announced, “Okay, we’re clear. Cameras are down.”

They hiked into more weeds until Tony stopped and knelt down, feeling around on the muddy ground. “Should be right here.”

“Back door,” Bruce said.

“More like a fire exit,” Natasha decided.

“Got it,” Tony declared, using his hands to brush away the mud and weeds to reveal a steel door in the ground. He felt around more, discovering a keypad and started punching numbers. After the third try, he sat back on his knees. “Dammit!”

“That code should have worked,” Bruce said, playing with his own gadget.

“Duh. You think?”

“SHIELD changes codes at intermittent times.” Natasha scowled. “We missed the window on this one.”

“Get out of the way,” Steve ordered, taking hold of Tony’s arm and helping him off the ground.

“They teach you how to crack codes for locks that weren’t even invented yet when you were in military school?”

“It’s a door, Tony. Thor, give me a hand.”

“With pleasure.”

“Wait, wait, wait.” Tony stopped Thor as he moved to pass, taking hold of the back of his cape and wiping the mud off his hands. When he was done, he waved him on. “Okay, carry on.”

Thor glared at him, but said nothing. Instead, he bent to help Steve, and between the two of them they tore the metal door from the hatch in less than a minute. Peering down through the opening, they saw a long ladder. Natasha went by both of them in a flash.

“Ten seconds until an alarm sounds.” She jumped into the opening and slid down the ladder. It was too dark to see, but they heard her hit bottom. Whatever she did down there must have worked because no alarm ever sounded. One by one, they climbed down, Thor going last to pull what was left of the door back over the gaping hole in the ground.

They spend the next forty minutes moving through hallways, disabling cameras, cracking locks, and rewiring elevators, successfully making it down three more levels. “Has SHIELD started establishing bases in hell?” Bruce asked as they prepared to go down yet another level.

Tony was punching at his tablet, going through maps and schematics. “Would seem appropriate if you think about it. The door at the end of the hall should be the main computer lab. We need access. There’s no chance it’s not occupied.”

“I can handle it,” Natasha growled.

“Not a good idea,” Steve stated as diplomatically as possible, unwilling to let loose a ticked-off master assassin on a group of unsuspecting technicians. “Nobody in there is our enemy. We need to do this clean. Nobody gets hurt. I’ll take care of it.”

He was in and out in under five, the agents in the room locked safely in a storage room, no alarms sounded. “It’s all yours,” he called to his team as he opened the door.

Natasha headed to the first console, laying her palm upon a screen to gain access. “We need to find Fury.” She sat down, reading the information as it scrolled up on the screen.

“See if you can find the Death Star plans in there, too,” Tony quipped. Bruce was the only one who got the reference, giving a small laugh. It was possible Natasha understood as well, but she clearly wasn’t amused, glaring at Tony before going back to work.

“According to this, Fury’s DNA signature is currently one more level down, third corridor, second room on the left.”

Tony grunted. “I don’t suppose there’s an escalator?”

~0~0~0~

“What the hell?”

Director Fury flew up out of his chair, knocking several things off his desk as the Avengers burst through his door. They hadn’t bothered with locks or codes this time. Thor and Steve just tore it from the hinges, setting off a cacophony of alarms.

“Isn’t this where they’re holding your surprise party?” Tony asked drolly as he sauntered in.

“Surprise,” Bruce announced.

“Where’s Barton?” Natasha demanded.

Fury shook his head, exasperated, bending to pick up his chair from the floor where it had landed. “I really thought it would take you a little longer. Isn’t the clean-up in Manhattan keeping you busy enough?”

“We’re multi-taskers.” Tony sat down on Fury’s desk, folding his arms.

Several agents in dark suits hustled down the hall, weapons drawn as they ran towards Fury’s office. Steve and Thor blocked the door with their bodies. “You really don’t want to do this,” Steve warned.

“You better pay attention to the nice one,” Tony advised. “Because you don’t want to see the other one get angry.” He nodded towards Bruce, who grinned menacingly.

“Stand down,” Fury ordered to the agents in the hall. “Stand down and turn off the damn alarms. Oh, and send the entire security detail in here so I can fire their asses.”

“Still using Hammer-tech security systems?” Tony tsked.

“Yeah, they figured if they used Stark products, you’d be able to crack them.”

“How’s that plan working out for you?”

“If you gentlemen are done with your foreplay, can we get to the reason we’re here?” Natasha flattened her palms on Fury’s desk and leaned closer, her voice dropping to a low growl. “I want to know where Barton is and why you’re going to such lengths to keep us from finding out.”

Fury’s hands went up in a placating gesture. “The plan was never to keep you from finding out anything. The plan was to delay you. Now that you’re here, you’ll be briefed on everything.”

“Would that be a full briefing or the Fury kind where lots of important little details—otherwise known as the truth—manage to slip through the cracks?”

Steve didn’t blame Tony for being suspicious. For people who purported themselves to be the good guys, SHIELD made a lot of questionable moves; trying to nuke them all—along with the entire population of New York City—currently held the top spot on the list. He knew Fury hadn’t been responsible for that, and he pegged the director as a stand-up guy, but Fury had never been totally honest with any of them, either. “Tell us the truth,” Steve urged. “Clint’s a member of this team and we have the right to know what’s going on.”

“I agree, Captain. If everyone will follow me, your questions will be answered.”

“Follow you where?” Bruce asked warily.

“We need to go down to Level 10.”

“Down again? How far down does this place go?” Steve asked.

“If we go down much further, we’ll hit China,” Tony scoffed.

“Do you want to see Barton or not?”

“He’s here?” Natasha straightened, heading for the door. “Let’s go.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

When the elevator doors opened on Level 10, the Avengers followed Fury into what was the most elaborate hospital Steve had ever seen. The place was huge. Everything in it was pristine and modern and there were computers and equipment here that Steve thought might even be new to Tony. Steve had been to SHIELD medical facilities, but nothing as remarkable as this. Still, he couldn’t shake the strange feeling of familiarity he felt as they walked the corridor.

“Is Clint wounded?” Natasha asked, looking around with dread.

“No. He’s perfectly fine.”

“Then why are we here?” Bruce wanted to know.

“Keep walking with me.”

Fury began explaining about this medical facility and how it was the best in the world. He went into detail about the caliber of specialists, the state-of the-art equipment, the breakthroughs being made in the numerous labs. Steve was only partially listening, looking around the halls, rooms, and faces as they walked, something nagging at him. Tony began asking questions a mile a minute and Fury was responding with even more information, the two of them getting into an intense discussion, until Steve stopped walking.

“Was I here?” he demanded. He had no memory of anything before waking up in the fabricated room in the SHIELD facility in Manhattan. At least he didn’t think he did. “After you found me in the ice. Is this where I was brought?”

“Yes, it is. The team of specialists here were the ones who were able to revive you. Without their efforts and the specialized equipment, we would have lost you.”

“How long? How long was I here before you moved me?”

“Three months.”

Three months? Steve tried to wrap his mind around the notion. Compared to nearly seventy years of nothingness, three months really wasn’t so long. Still. “Let me ask you this,” he started cautiously, not sure he wanted to know the answer, but pushing forward anyway. “If you hadn’t been able to revive me did you have equipment here for that eventuality as well? I mean, if this is such an amazing hospital, why do you have it hidden on a secret base where even your own operatives don’t know it exists?”

“Yeah, Fury.” Bruce’s tone was low—too low. “What were you going to do with him if you couldn’t revive him?”

The hair on the back of Steve’s neck stood up, sensing danger. He reached out to take hold of Bruce’s arm, seeing Natasha doing the same on the other side, smoothing her hand up and down his forearm.

“Easy, big guy,” Tony said soothingly.

“Come on,” Bruce argued. “We all know the answer. They would have kept him here as their own personal lab rat to poke and prod for all eternity. Hell, for all we know, that was the plan all along. Maybe his waking up spoiled it for them.”

Steve tried to control his shudder, not wanting to give Bruce any more reason for his ire, but he didn’t fully manage it. They could have done anything they wanted to him here and nobody would have been the wiser. In fact, how did he know what tests they did that he wasn’t aware of? “Is Bruce right? Is it true? Did you even want me to wake up?”

“If I didn’t want you to wake up, you wouldn’t be here right now to ask the question,” Fury stated sternly. “This is the exact reason I went out of my way to keep you people away from this place. I was well aware what the reactions would be. You all need to calm the hell down.”

“Can you assure them nothing untoward was done to Steven while he recuperated here?” Thor demanded.

“Yes.”

“And we believe you, why?” Tony asked.

“Look, we’re all grown-ups, so let’s start acting like it. You know I don’t see eye to eye with The Council on many matters, so I’m not going to bother to sugarcoat the fact that, yes, this medical facility is secret for a reason. What decision they would have made if Rogers couldn’t be revived is a gray area for sure. But I can guarantee you he received nothing but the best care. Every effort was made to revive him—and only to revive him—because I wouldn’t have stood for anything less. And neither would Agent Coulson.”

“Coulson?” Steve repeated.

“Yes, Coulson. He made it his personal mission to make sure no harm came to you. He oversaw every procedure, triple checked every piece of test data, and personally screened everyone before they were allowed to come in contact with you. Since you don’t trust my word, check it with Barton.”

“Which brings us back to where is Barton and why the hell is he here?” Natasha hissed.

“Follow me.” Fury led them down another corridor and walked past several doors before setting his hand on the keypad for the last one on the left. He looked directly at Bruce. “You got it under control, Doctor?” Bruce nodded tersely. Fury punched in the code and opened the door. Natasha shouldered her way through the men, entering first, Bruce protectively on her heels.

“Nat!”

“Where the hell have you been?” was Natasha’s greeting, but it was obvious she was relieved to see Clint.

Barton looked healthy enough, yet drained, ragged. “Are you alright?” Steve asked as he entered the room behind Thor and Tony.

“Yeah, fine.” He met Natasha’s eyes. “Sorry, I couldn’t tell you. That was the condition for them letting me stay.”

“Condition?” Natasha asked. “Why do you even want to be here?”

Steve took a closer look around. This wasn’t any kind of medical room. There were no monitors, medicines, or machines—just couches, a small fridge, a bed in the corner that was obviously slept in and not remade, some books and magazines strewn about. No windows either, at least none he could see, but the far wall had a floor-to-ceiling drapery, which was drawn closed.

“The condition was necessary,” Fury explained. “Agent Barton understood. As I said before, I was well aware of the reactions most of you would have to a facility such as this.” He ignored Bruce’s grunt and continued. “It was imperative this environment remain as tranquil as possible. Nothing could disturb the delicacy of these procedures.”

“Procedures?” Bruce repeated with contempt. “Are you experimenting on Coulson’s body, you son of a bitch?”

“Bruce,” Natasha whispered calmly, again reaching for his forearm and smoothing her fingers up and down in a lulling manner.

“That’s not it,” Steve stated with certainty. “Clint would never allow it.” A flicker of hope ran through him, though he was cautious about believing what his gut was telling him.

Clint immediately backed up Steve’s words. “Hell, no. I’d have burned this place to the ground first.” He put his hand on Natasha’s shoulder and leaned closer to her, even as she continued her contact with Bruce in an effort to keep The Other Guy at bay. “Nat, he’s not dead.”

“What?”

“What?” Thor echoed Natasha. “You are speaking of the son of Coul, are you not? I watched Loki skewer him with my own eyes.”

“He’s not dead,” Clint repeated, his voice cracking.

“Thank God,” Steve whispered as he let out the breath he didn’t know he had been holding.

“They’ve been working to save him. He’s had three surgeries so far. I wasn’t here for the first two, but he got through. They had to wait for him to get stronger before they could do the third one. They took him in this morning. If this one goes well. . . .” It looked as if Clint couldn’t dare speak the rest.

“What are his chances?” Bruce asked, reversing roles as he gently removed his arm from Natasha’s grasp and placed a bolstering hand against her lower back for support. Her body was rigid and her face was frozen in disbelief.

“His medical team will be able to explain everything better for you, Dr. Banner. I don’t pretend to understand it all myself. I’m just grateful as hell they’ve gotten him this far.” Fury looked as human as Steve had ever seen him. It was obvious how much Coulson mattered to him.

“He’s not dead, Nat,” Clint whispered as he cupped her cheek with his hand. She turned her head to look directly into his eyes, gazing deep for a long minute before finally releasing her held breath. Bruce’s hand rubbed small circles against her back and Clint grinned, though his eyes were heavy with moisture.

When the door to the room opened and a nurse entered, Clint jumped back, his face awash with hope and trepidation. “Maggie, is it over?”

“Yes.” Her smile was kind. “I wanted to let you know they are bringing him back to his room now.” She walked toward the wall with the drapery.

“How . . . how is he?”

“He made it through, Clint,” she assured. “He’s strong.”

“The strongest,” Clint agreed. His hands were shaking. The nurse pressed a button on the wall that drew back the drapes, revealing a thick glass window. On the other side was a medical room stuffed with important-looking machines and equipment. Everyone working in there was dressed in white suits, covered head to toe. Even their faces had masks. “It’s important he stay germ free,” Clint muttered as he moved closer to the glass, looking into the room expectantly. “But they let me stay with him in here. I got to go closer a few times, but I had to wear the suit. I hope he still knew it was me.”

“Of course he did,” Steve assured. Clint’s love was a palpable thing. Steve could feel it. Surely Phil felt it close to him.

Clint’s breath caught as the door inside the medical room opened and they wheeled Phil inside, though had Steve not known it was Phil, it would have been hard to tell. He moved closer to get a better look. Phil was hooked up to a million machines, and white-clad medical personnel swarmed around him like bees to honey, obscuring him from view. Clint leaned his forehead to the glass as he pressed a button beside the window. “I’m right here,” he said jaggedly, his voice carrying through a speaker into the other room. “You did good, babe. Real good.”

Maggie put her hand on his shoulder. “Keep talking to him. He hears you. The team will be in to brief you as soon as he’s stable.”

As Maggie left the room, Thor moved beside Clint, his eyes wide. “Praise be, it is true. Indeed, we must rejoice.”

Natasha walked slowly to Clint’s other side, her fingers slipping around his arm. “Nat’s here,” he told Phil. “We’re all here with you.”

“Hey, Boss.”

“Yes, we all stand beside you, son of Coul. You must fight like the mighty warrior you are.”

“I want to see his charts, tests results, everything,” Bruce quietly informed Fury. “You damn well better be taking as good a care of him as you say.”

“I’ll make sure you get everything. Total access.”

Bruce nodded before turning to join the team near the glass window. Well, not all of the team. It was then it hit Steve how completely quiet Tony had been since they’d entered this room. He turned away from the glass, spying Tony, his back pressed into the furthest corner of the room, near the door. His fist was clenched against his mouth, teeth gnawing at his thumb, the entire hand twitching. His whole body was quietly vibrating, the way a kettle shook as it readied to boil.

“Tony?” he called softly. “Are you okay?”

Tony shook his head, eyes unblinking. He continued to shake it as he moved his fist from his mouth. “Let me get this straight.” His volume was quiet, his tone menacing. “He’s been alive. All this time. But you let us think he was dead.” He pointed his fist toward Fury, his knuckles starting to whiten from how tightly he was holding it.

“I explained to you why it was necessary to keep this facility secret—”

“Only this isn’t about any damn facility,” Tony snapped, pushing off from the wall and walking slowly towards the director, his dark glare steely. “You played us. At any point you could have told us he was alive without revealing the location of your damn facility.”

“Tony.” Bruce’s hands were raised in a gesture of surrender as he walked towards Tony, voice placating. “Take it easy.”

“You let us grieve. You let us ache.” Tony exploded, voice rising with each word. “You son of a bitch, you manipulated us like puppets with those bloody cards!”

Tony started to lunge toward Fury, but Bruce got between them. “Tony, stop.”

“Fuck off!” Tony twisted out of Bruce’s attempted grip and shoved back, sending Bruce into the wall. Thor stepped forward and Tony slammed his fists into the broad chest, though that had to hurt Tony more than Thor. “Get out of my way!”

“Tony, don’t do this. Not here,” Clint pleaded, pressing the button to cut off the intercom.

“Stark, not here!” Natasha reiterated.

“We shall step outside.” Thor moved to get his arm around Tony, but he dodged it.

“Don’t touch me!”

“Leave him alone,” Steve ordered. “Everybody back off.” Steve was not going to allow anyone to hurt him, even unintentionally. Tony was seething with anger, burning for a target, but Steve sensed there was something more fragile beneath the surface that needed to be handled with care. He moved behind Tony, pressing his chest to Tony’s back as he wrapped his arms around him, keeping Tony’s pinned to his sides. Tony’s body was so hot, it felt like he was on fire. He shook hard in Steve’s arms, but he didn’t make any attempt to break free. “I’m not going to tell you to calm down, because you have every right to be mad. We’re just going to take this outside.”

“Steve, why can’t you see? You were there. You know what he did to us.”

“I do know. But this isn’t about him. It’s about Coulson. I know you don’t want to do this in here and risk Coulson’s recovery.”

Tony stilled, looking toward the glass window. “His name is Agent,” he said softly. He shook his head, looking quietly towards Phil for a long moment, then muttered, “You’re right. Outside.”

Steve immediately released his grip, causing everyone in the room to tense, but Tony only turned and walked to the door, pulling it open and leaving the room. Steve turned to Fury. “You need to deal with this now, Director.”

“I know.” Fury started towards the door as well.

“I’ll go with you.” Bruce and Thor both made to follow Fury, but Steve held up a hand.

“I’ve got this.” They nodded, deferring to his command. Steve looked towards the window. Clint’s attentions had returned to Phil, his palm flat against the glass, Natasha keeping vigil at his side. “Let me know if anything changes.”

“I will,” Bruce responded.

Steve followed Fury into the corridor. Tony was several doors down, pacing frantically, talking to himself. “Stark, we can go back to my office and hash this out.”

“Oh, you want to hash? Okay, sure. Let’s hash.” Tony was completely wound up, fists clenching and unclenching. He stalked toward Fury, eyes burning with ire. Steve’s own fists itched with the sensation of how bad Tony wanted to deck Fury. Several suited security men made the mistake of rushing towards Tony, ready to intercept. Steve got there first.

He stood in front of Tony, shoving the first man, who sailed into the next and sent four of them flying in one shot. “I’m giving you fair warning,” Steve cautioned. “The first person to lay a hand on him is going to find themselves one hand short when they try to tie their shoelaces tomorrow.”

“Stand down, Captain,” Fury ordered.

“You tell them to stand down.” Steve stood taller. “Nobody’s touching Tony, period. You let this get out of hand, and I promise you it’s not going to be pretty.”

“I’m not the one who’s out of control.”

“You think this is out of control?” Tony practically climbed Steve’s back trying to get to Fury. Steve reached behind himself to get hold of Tony’s arm and keep him from advancing.

“We both know he has every reason to be furious with you, so don’t act innocent. What you did was wrong, Director, plain and simple. Be a man and own up to it.”

Fury waved off the new set of security forces advancing toward them. He took several steps, closing the gap between them, only stopping when Steve’s cautionary finger went up to signal ‘close enough.’ “I made a bad call,” Fury admitted, and he sounded sincere. “There was a lot going on. The world was in danger. My right hand man was critically wounded and I had no way of knowing if he’d even make it to this facility. I needed the Avengers and I would have said whatever I had to in order to coax you all to action. I would do it again if I had to, and now that you’ve seen how it turned out, I don’t see how you could argue with me. The Avengers saved lives that day. You saved the city and maybe the world.” Fury’s head dipped down, then came right back up. “What I owed you after was the truth and you didn’t get it. You had to come looking for it. That was wrong. I take responsibility. But I assure you, Coulson has been in no danger since he arrived here. I haven’t left this site, and I won’t until he’s safe.”

Steve nodded. “Good enough.”

“Good enough, my ass, you lying fuck!”

“Tony needs some time to come to terms with this, but we’re not willing to leave here while Coulson is at risk.”

Fury pointed. “Room 12, down the hall. You’ll have privacy there.”

~0~0~0~

Tony spent the better part of the next hour disassembling Room 12. Steve found a spot on the long couch in the corner to watch from, only intervening when Tony tried to break something that would have hurt him more than the object. Bruce came by at one point to check on them, but Steve sent him away. The last thing they needed was for Tony’s rage to ignite Bruce’s and call the Hulk to action.

Steve was starting to wonder if they were going to have to find another room when Tony ran out of things to break, but he finally began slowing down. He was panting and sweating as he wrestled his jacket from his body, rolled it in a ball and tossed it at Steve.

“I don’t understand why you’re okay with this.” Those were the first words Tony had spoken directly to him since they’d come in here. The rest had been swearing and colorful descriptions about Nick Fury.

Steve caught the jacket, unfolded it, and tried to brush some of the wrinkles out with his hand before laying it neatly on the back of the couch. “I’m not okay with it.”

“Then why are you so fucking calm?” Tony pressed his back to the wall and slumped down, sliding until he hit the floor where he stayed, bringing his knees to his chest.

“Maybe because you’ve been steamed enough for both of us?”

Tony made a sound that could have been a laugh. Maybe just a grunt. “Your turn next, then?”

“Possibly.” Steve tried to make sense of his thoughts, which had been swirling since they arrived in the medical facility. “It’s a little creepy being here,” he admitted. “I don’t remember anything about it, but I know I was here. I’ve felt it since we got off the elevator and it’s not a great feeling. I suppose I should be grateful, though. According to Fury, they brought me back.”

“Fury’s a liar. I hate liars.”

“Everyone’s a liar, Tony. Sooner or later. Military men. Politicians. Spies. Agents. Friends. Family. Even superheros. We’re all liars.”

“You’re not a liar.”

“I lied on my enlistment forms half a dozen times.”

“I think that falls more in the category of nuts than lying.”

Steve smiled. “You’re not the first person who thought that.”

“Still, you’re a tenacious bastard. Gotta admire that.” Tony washed his hands over his face. He looked extremely tired, which made sense considering the emotional and physical strain and total lack of sleep. It was more, though. His soul looked weary.

“What do you hate about liars?” Steve asked, hoping to get him to talk about what was going on before he got the urge to strike out again.

Tony let his head fall back against the wall, sighing. “They manipulate you. I don’t like to be manipulated.”

“I’m not sure how honest it is to hack into secure files and break into a private facility, especially if we’re all supposed to be on the same side. I think we did our share of manipulating the situation to get the outcome we wanted.”

“Good fucking thing we did.” Indignation burned in his eyes. “He would have let us go on believing Coulson was dead. You would have been okay with that?”

“No, I wanted the truth, same as you, which makes us both feel justified with what we did. I think it’s possible people who lie feel equally justified. They feel their reasons warranted—”

“Warranted? Seriously? It’s warranted to pierce someone’s gut with burning grief to get them to do what you want?” Tony climbed to his feet, kicking his foot hard into the wall. “I guess Stane felt warranted murdering my parents then lying about it so he could mold me into his war-mongering meat-puppet. No, you know what? That’s on me. I was all too willing to assume the mantle. Like father, like son. But then my father was his own special brand of liar, so maybe it’s not surprising he and Stane found each other and created such a fucking brilliant prodigy.”

Steve understood now. Tony had been a tripwire since they found out about Coulson, and now it made sense. Listening, Steve could feel the pain burning his belly as if he had suffered it with Tony. “Tony, I’m sorry.”

Tony was pacing frantically. “Don’t act like SHIELD hasn’t given you every file they have on me. You know all this shit.”

“This isn’t about files. It’s about hurt. I’m sorry for what they did to you. It stinks.”

Tony stopped in his tracks and glared at Steve. His dark eyes were scrutinizing, though Steve wasn’t sure what Tony was looking for. Another lie, maybe? “Yeah,” Tony said, finally. “Okay.”

“It’s not okay.”

“It is what it is,” Tony snapped, then began pacing again. “Ancient history. Why did I even bring it up?”

“Because you’re feeling betrayed and manipulated.”

“It was a rhetorical question.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

“You always so damn earnest?”

“You know I’m not.”

“True. You did just threaten to separate some SHIELD agents from their hands. That was kinda cool, actually.”

Steve wasn’t proud of it, but he wasn’t ashamed either. “I don’t like to threaten anyone. But I wasn’t about to let them hurt you.”

Tony stilled once more, only this time he grinned. “Why, Captain, were you defending my honor?”

Steve understood this was Stark-speak for ‘thanks.’ Tony could be such jerk, but Steve was beginning to figure out how to read beneath the smart-mouth surface. “Someone had to.”

“Not gonna earn you any points with Fury.”

“I’m not here to earn points. I’m here for my team.”

“Does that mean you’ll help me slug him?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“It won’t help.”

“It would sure as hell help me. Shit, Steve, how are you not bothered by this?”

Steve leaned his head back on the couch cushion, considering before speaking. Ultimately, he decided to reveal himself. “Ever since I ‘woke up,’ everything has been about loss. Heck, even before then. My parents. Dr. Erskine. Bucky. Ultimately, I lost me when Red Skull’s plane went down. Even though I’m back, the rest is gone. When everything is about loss, it’s hard to get worked up over something—someone—finally being found.” He leaned forward, forearms on his knees, meeting Tony’s eyes. “Coulson’s not dead. Have you let it in yet? I mean, really let it in? I was there with you when we heard he’d been murdered. You might have thought you were putting up a good front, but it shook you. Hard.”

Tony blinked and flinched, closing down. He turned away and paced toward the door, but he stopped there and stood, frozen. Slowly, he turned back around and started to walk toward Steve. “Coulson was one of the good guys,” he said with difficulty. “There aren’t a lot of those.”

“Looks like the good guys may have won this one. He’s not dead.”

Tony sagged into the couch beside Steve, all the air looking to go out of him. He shook his head, then took another deep breath and expelled it for a good thirty seconds. His voice was thick when he spoke, but the antagonism was gone. “He’s a scrappy son of bitch, isn’t he?”

Steve leaned back as well, trying not to be unnerved by the press of Tony’s thigh against his. It was a long couch. He thought about sliding over, but he wasn’t about to risk offending Tony when he was this vulnerable. “He sure is.”

“You really think they’re going to be able to put him back together?”

“They defrosted me.” Steve remembered what Fury had said about the way Coulson watched over him when he was recovering here, unconscious and defenseless. “We’re not leaving here until they get him well enough to leave with us. We’ll figure out shifts.”

“Good plan.” Tony yawned, the size of it nearly bigger than his head. “When do I get to kick Fury’s ass?”

“Not sure yet. We might need shifts for that, too.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

The shift idea was going to take time to implement. For the present, none of the Avengers were willing to leave the medical facility. For the rest of the afternoon and into the late evening, they had taken turns sitting in the waiting room that had been set up for Clint. It was a little crowded when they were all in there at once, so they usually went in and out in groups of two or three. Whoever wasn’t supporting Clint and intently watching Phil sleep took it upon him or herself to keep an eye on Tony, but so far there hadn’t been any more incidents of attempted brawling in the SHIELD corridors. Fury was giving Stark a wide berth, only coming in to check on Coulson’s progress when Tony was out of the room. Steve did overhear Natasha giving Fury a verbal tongue lashing in the hall a few hours after Stark took him to task, but she seemed to have control of her outrage; though that didn’t mean Steve could let his guard down. He felt confident if she had wanted it so, Director Fury could end up a stain on the carpet without anyone being aware it had happened. Her ire was quieter than Tony’s, but surely more deadly.

Bruce had gone over every scrap of paper and every line of computerized data regarding Coulson’s condition, and for now he was satisfied with the treatment the agent was receiving. He briefed all of them, the level of detail and simplicity of language he used varying depending on who he was speaking with. Not surprisingly, Tony asked the most questions and required the most complex explanations, though he refused to even come in contact with any of Coulson’s medical team. He trusted Bruce and wanted the information delivered only by him. For a change, Steve wasn’t bothered by their connection. He appreciated how much effort Bruce was putting into making sure Coulson’s care was top-notch, and he was grateful for whatever Bruce managed to say to put Tony’s concerns at ease, at least for a little while.

Tony was exhausted. They all were, but his was more pronounced. This whole situation had taken an emotional toll on him. Steve was aware Tony hadn’t slept in more than thirty-six hours and was starting to wonder if maybe it was longer. Stark could well have been clocking overnight hours in his lab before this whole issue with Coulson had even come on their radar. It was the kind of thing Howard Stark had done. Steve hadn’t seen Tony all week before this, so anything was possible. Tony Stark didn’t strike him as the kind of person who did the best job taking care of himself. He remembered what Tony had told him about having a concussion and wondered how long he had given himself to recover from it. Couldn’t have been long, since he had clearly been dealing with the New York City recovery.

Thor had been coaxing his teammates one at time to accompany him to the deluxe cafeteria facility one level down, making sure they were eating and keeping up their strength. Clint had been the hardest to convince, but after Natasha presented him with two choices—go willingly or she would tell Thor to carry him there and force feed him—Hawkeye opted for Plan A. Tony went easily enough, he just didn’t eat much of anything from what Thor reported. Steve brought him a sandwich when he came back from his own meal. Tony claimed to have eaten it, though Steve wasn’t sure. He last saw Tony hunched over his tablet, typing away with one hand while making calls on his cell with the other at a desk near the nurses’ station.

Steve was presently sitting on a chair in Clint’s room while Natasha and Bruce went with Thor for their own break. “You are going to rest at some point, right?” he asked Clint, who had a chair pulled over beside the glass partition, intensely watching the nurses tend to Phil.

“I usually pass out eventually for a few hours.”

“Do you need me to point out you’re not making the healthiest choice? There is no way of knowing how long he’ll be here. You need to keep your stamina up. Pace yourself.”

“He would say something like that.” Clint turned to him, his rugged features etched with worry and distress, but a small smile curled the edge of his lips at the thought.

“Then how ‘bout we try to do what he would want?” Steve suggested. “You stretch out on the bed and I’ll turn my chair so I can see everything going on in there.”

“He’d like knowing Captain America was watching over him.”

“Only fair. From what I hear, he had my back when I was in this place.”

“He did.” Clint nodded as he got up slowly from the chair, stretching out the kinks in his back. “At the time, all I knew was he was on an important mission for a few months. He told me more about it later, after you were safe.”

“Was I ever unsafe?” Steve asked with concern.

“Not as long as Phil was here.” Clint moved to the single bed across the room, sitting down on the edge. “There was nothing for sure, but Phil’s been in the spy business long enough to be careful. It makes you a little paranoid, but it’s the kind of paranoid that saves your ass, so you listen to it. There was no way in hell he was going to risk anything covert happening to Captain America on his watch, even if the possibility was remote.”

Positioning his chair to allow him to monitor Phil yet still see Clint, Steve swallowed, his throat dry. He was agitated and grateful all at once. “It’s pretty unsettling knowing so much could happen around me, to me, and I wasn’t even aware.”

“Why do you think I won’t leave him? I mean, as far as I’ve seen, these docs are doing a top shelf job fixing him up. But he’s so fucking helpless, you know? I hate the idea of him being vulnerable and alone.” Clint picked up the pillow and crushed it between his powerful fingers. “Believe me, I understand Stark’s reaction. That was me a few days ago.”

Steve tried to imagine what it would be like; having someone you love kept from you at the time they needed you most. “Fury had no right to keep it from you.”

“Said he did it for Phil’s protection. After what happened to me with Loki. . . .” Clint twisted the pillow so tightly, it was a wonder feathers didn’t pop out. But then his grip relaxed and his eyes held sadness and painful regret. “I guess from his point of view, it made sense. I’m not sure I would have trusted me, either.” Clint appeared well versed in masking his inner turmoil, but in his depleted state, shards of it slipped to the surface.

“How did you end up here?”

“After Nat told me. . . .” His features went grim, his eyes were looking someplace far from this room. “Let’s just say those were dark days. The idea he could be gone, that it was my fault. . . .” His voice trailed off, broken. He was off the bed, heading back to the glass window.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Steve tried to assure, though he doubted it would be heard. He could never hear it. Not after Bucky.

“I helped Loki,” he admitted with disgust. “Without the chaos I caused on the Helicarrier, he would have never been able to hurt him.” He lifted his hand, pressing his calloused palm to the glass, fingers spread wide.

Steve would be a hypocrite to make any more attempts to talk him out of such guilt-ridden thinking. Best to move him off the topic entirely. “So did Fury eventually tell you?”

“Not right away.” Clint’s gaze never left Phil, even as he continued. “When I peeled myself off the floor, I realized Phil didn’t feel gone in my heart. I know it sounds stupid, but I would know. I just would. So I cleared my head enough to start asking the questions I would have asked right off if it had been on straight. Why hadn’t Fury told me? I called Phil’s mom and she sounded fine. She didn’t know anything. Why wouldn’t his family have been notified? Why was Fury nowhere to be found despite the ongoing crisis in New York?”

Steve nodded. It all made sense. “What led you here?”

“Remember the paranoia thing I mentioned? Comes with the trade. Phil and I have safety deposit boxes. We each know to go to them if the other turns up missing for too long.” Clint looked up at the ceiling and scoffed. “I’ve already moved mine and hidden Phil’s stuff in case Big Brother is listening.”

Steve was confused by the ‘brother’ reference, but he understood the gist of what Clint was saying. Spies spy. It’s what they do. He’d been under enough surveillance of late to know from experience. Wasn’t much different in the military. It was only with Peggy and Howard’s willingness to break the rules that he was able to cut through the bureaucracy and sneak behind enemy lines to rescue the 107th. Anything else he would have tried—including his plan to steal a jeep to go off on his one-man search mission when he couldn’t even drive—would have no doubt been thwarted.

“Phil must have been worried about an eventuality where he ended up here,” Clint continued. “He left me enough coded intel for me to find this place.” He shrugged. “After that, all I had to do was steal a Quinjet and threaten to strafe this joint to get Fury to reconsider his position.”

Steve couldn’t help but grin. “Makes Tony’s outburst look tame in comparison.”

Turning his head to the side to face Steve, Clint grinned and nodded. “Yeah.” He was quiet for a moment before continuing. “To be fair, I think Fury was relieved to tell me. He’s one of the few who’ve known about us. Phil trusted him with that, so I gotta give the guy the benefit of the doubt.”

“How long have you two been. . . .?” Steve was uncertain what the correct term was in these times.

“Together?” Hawkeye supplied. At Steve’s nod he responded, “Seven years. No itch, though,” he chuckled.

“I’m sorry. I don’t understand.”

“It’s a saying. The ‘seven year itch.’ Refers to the time in a marriage when the partners get antsy and want to stray.” Clint’s face sobered. “Never happen for me.”

“You’re married?” Steve asked, surprised.

“Not technically. We said our own stuff to each other. Never looked for anything beyond that. It seemed important to keep things as secret as possible.”

“You were worried what people would think?” Steve shifted uncomfortably, understanding how vital it was to keep such things hidden. He wasn’t prepared for Clint’s response.

“I don’t give a shit what anybody thinks. Neither did Phil. It felt important to keep some part of us for us. Only us. This job sucks everything. We wanted something private, something apart from SHIELD, something only ours.” His voice cracked as his body visibly shook. “I tell you, Steve, I don’t feel the same now.” He faced the window full on, practically flattening his face against it. “If he would just open his eyes, I’d marry him on the spot. I’d shout it to the world and I’d never let him go.” Even from his obstructed vantage point, Steve could see the moisture welling in Clint’s eyes as he pleaded, “Am I going to get the chance?”

Steve stood and moved behind him, taking firm hold of his shoulders as he spoke with utter certainty. “You will.” The depth of Clint’s love was obvious. It was strong. It had its own pulse in the room. Steve felt touched and honored to breathe alongside it. Despite all the losses he’d known, he still couldn’t make himself believe something as miraculous as this love wasn’t going to survive. “Don’t let yourself doubt. He can feel your strength and your love. He has to. I can.”

Clint turned, facing him, the strain of this ordeal writ clearly across his face. He started to speak, but words didn’t come. Steve cupped the back of his head and drew Clint’s head to his shoulder. A strangled sound blew into his shirt. Clint’s body was rigid yet trembling. Steve wrapped his arms around his friend, hoping to will strength into him.

“Steve’s right.” It was Tony’s voice. Steve twisted his head toward the door without dislodging Clint. Tony was standing there, watching , his features somber and mournful. “He’s Captain America, for Christ’s sake. You better listen to him.”

Steve gave Tony a grateful smile, motioning with his head to invite him closer. Tony hesitated awkwardly at first, before moving tentatively behind Clint, their two bodies forming walls on either side of Barton, sheltering him. “As soon as we bust Coulson out of here, you guys have a place at Stark Tower. An entire floor is being set up as we speak. It’ll have everything. Medical equipment, round-the-clock nursing, a therapy room, anything he needs. Hell, I’ll bring in a justice of the peace to marry you as soon as he’s up to it.”

Clint muttered “thanks” into Steve’s shirt.

Tony smoothed his palm against Clint’s back, his voice hoarse. “It’s nothing. I don’t want you to worry about anything while you’re here. It’s covered.”

“You and Phil are part of our team,” Steve assured. “You won’t handle any of this alone from here on out.”

“Means a lot.” Clint pulled back slowly, wiping his nose with the back of his hand as he attempted to pull himself together. He was less rigid; now Steve felt weakness in his limbs. He took firm hold of Clint’s arm to keep him upright.

“You agreed to get some rest, remember? Because it was what Phil would want.”

“Yeah.” Clint didn’t argue when Steve led him towards the bed. He collapsed into it, curling onto his side. “It wasn’t his idea by the way,” he muttered tiredly.

“What’s wasn’t?” Steve asked as he tugged off Clint’s boots and set them neatly next to the bed.

“Trying to fool you when you woke up. He hated the way SHIELD set it up.”

Steve clearly recalled how unnerving it was to awaken, confused and unsettled, in a place that set his instincts on high alert. “Good to know. Get some rest.” As he tugged the covers over Clint, he looked around for Tony, but he was gone. He must have slipped out as quietly as he’d come in.

Steve was worried about him, but he wouldn’t leave Clint alone. He watched over him and Phil as promised until Thor came to relieve him. Steve briefed him on Clint, and Thor related how rooms had been found for Natasha and Bruce, who had finally agreed to rest with Thor’s assurance he would assume guardian duty.

“You should take rest as well, Steven. Accommodations have been prepared in the east corridor.”

“Thanks.” Steve noted it was 03:45 when he got up and stretched. “Is Tony over there?”

“I have not seen him. I had expected to find him here with you.”

Steve scrunched his face, concerned. “Huh? I wonder where he got off to?”

“Do you wish me to search?”

“No, stay here with Barton and Coulson. I’ll track him down.”

The rooms in the east corridor were indeed set up for them. Electronic name plates next to the door indicated the identity of the expected occupant, but Tony wasn’t in any of them, not even the one labeled Tony Stark. He was no longer at the desk he’d been using when Steve had gone into Clint’s room. Steve searched the cafeteria, the two nearest lounges, and the john. He thought about looking in Fury’s office, but surely alarms would be going off if Tony had gone after the director again.

Steve knew there had to be some SHIELD-spy way of locating Tony’s whereabouts, but he preferred to search on instinct. It made no sense for Tony to be in there amidst the debris and broken furniture, but Steve headed for Room 12 anyway, cracking the door open to peek inside. The room was completely dark—except for the blue glow of the arc reactor giving away Tony’s presence. Stepping over the clutter, he walked toward the couch. Tony was sitting in the same spot he had been in earlier when they’d talked. There was no tablet. No phone. He was just sitting there, staring into the darkness.

“Must be impossible for you to play hide and seek with that thing.” Steve nodded toward the arc reactor as he sat beside his friend.

Tony snickered. “Hide and seek? Yeah-no. I sucked at it even as a kid. I’ve never been stealthy.”

Steve grinned, picturing a kid-size Tony Stark unable to keep quiet long enough to not give away his whereabouts. Changing the subject, he acknowledged, “It’s a good thing, what you’re doing for Clint and Phil.”

“Yeah, that’s me. I’m a real philanthropist, remember?” He bent down and picked something up from the floor. When Steve recognized the shape of the whiskey bottle in the dim blue light, he intercepted it from Tony’s hand before he could sip.

“Where did you get this?”

“I stole it from Fury’s office. Have some. I’m willing to share.”

“You don’t need this.” Steve set the bottle down on the floor on his side of the couch.

“Didn’t prohibition end before you went into the ice, Cap?” He leaned over Steve’s legs, making a grab for the bottle, but Steve gently batted his hands away.

“Tony, stop. This is the last thing you need right now.”

“What’s the matter?” Tony was ticked off. “You’ll only drink with Thor?”

“Thor didn’t recently have a concussion, he wasn’t going on two days without sleep, and he wasn’t in a distraught emotional state.”

“Well, fuck me if I can’t be as perfect as the golden god or the saintly soldier.”

Steve took a long, slow breath. Tony was overwrought. Steve needed to be patient, even though Tony could provoke him faster than anyone he’d ever known. “There’s a room with your name on it in the east corridor. You need to rest. It’ll help more than this bottle.”

“Debatable.”

“Tony—”

“You’re good with people, you know?” Tony mused, completely changing direction. He’d gone from annoyed to pensive in a blink. “It’s good you’re here. For Barton. For Coulson. I’m not good with people.”

There was defeat in the statement, not a trace of the cocky Stark bravado to be found. Steve’s inclination was to dispute the claim in an effort to cheer Tony up, but the man had made his view on liars clear. It could be said Tony Stark wasn’t good with people. He was infuriating and annoying and a real pain in the rear. Still, Steve didn’t have to think very long to come up with an honest response. “You’re good to people. You act like it’s no big deal, but you’re good to people all the time. Not just the everyday hero stuff, like saving schools and saving the world. But the little things. What you’re doing for Phil and Clint. The way you’ve opened your home to Bruce and Thor, given Natasha a place she’s willing to stay. Heck, even taking your team out for shawarma when you were in pain and exhausted, then making sure they all got home safely. You do a lot for people, Tony. You’re a good guy.”

“Then why don’t you like me?”

Steve’s jaw dropped nearly to his knees. “What? Where would you get an idea like that? Of course I like you. I like you too—” he caught himself before admitting too much. “I like you fine, Tony.”

“Yeah?” They had both been facing forward into the darkness, but Tony turned toward him. Even out of the corner of his eye, Steve could see how the blue glow only enhanced Tony’s handsome features. He looked enchanting. Steve’s heart throbbed too hard in his chest. Needing distance, he stood.

“Yeah. Now come on. It’s time to get some rest.”

“Are you coming with me?”

“Sure, I’ll walk you to your room.”

“How ‘bout inside my room? Keep me company?”

Tony was beyond exhausted. He’d been drinking and was clearly babbling. Tempted as Steve was by the offer, he wasn’t certain he could act appropriately. This was not a good idea. He wouldn’t take advantage. “You don’t need company to sleep.”

“I don’t do well alone when I’m this wound up. Wouldn’t you rather keep an eye on me? No telling what I’ll do next.”

He said it in a flippant manner, but the tone lacked bravado, sounding more anxious. This was the second time Tony had exposed his vulnerability tonight. It was probably the exhaustion speaking, but Steve wanted to believe it was more. Maybe Tony trusted him. That would be nice. He sure wasn’t willing to shatter even a scrap of trust, but he also had his own weaknesses to worry about. He couldn’t risk another friendship because of his inability to control his illicit urges. Going into a bedroom with a vulnerable Tony was out of the question.

I could ask Bruce to stay with him. Tony trusts him and Bruce would keep Tony out of trouble.

Bristling, Steve rejected the idea as quick as he had it. It was selfish, he knew, but he couldn’t bring himself to do that. He needed a Plan C.

“Okay,” he said, sitting back down, but making sure to leave a comfortable amount of space between their thighs. “We’ll stay here and talk until you’re ready to go to sleep.”

“Why you want to stay on this uncomfortable couch is beyond me, but okay. You’re the captain. We’ll stay here.” To Steve’s utter surprise, Tony scooted closer, pulled his legs up on the couch, then got horizontal, plopping his head into Steve’s lap.

“What are you doing?” he gasped, trying to ignore the unwanted jolt in his crotch.

“You said I should rest. You’re right. You don’t want to leave, so I’ll do it here. SHIELD’s furniture budget is clearly Lilliputian, but I’ve slept on worse.”

“But-I-Tony-we,” Steve tried to stop sputtering, but it was difficult as Tony made himself more comfortable, nestling. Steve twisted, trying to keep Tony’s head from getting any closer to his fast-awakening dick.

“Hey!” Tony whined. “What are you doing?”

“You have a hard head,” he complained, though it wasn’t the hardness of Tony’s head worrying him. He slipped his hand under Tony’s neck and nudged him onto his thigh.

“And you have hard thighs.”

“The bed in your room has pillows.”

“Nah, I’m good.”

Tony turned from his side to his back, nuzzling his head on Steve’s thigh like a kitten until he got comfortable. When he found the right position he sighed, closing his eyes. Steve was trying not to look down at him, but his eyes kept going there anyway. He had no idea what to do with his hands, at the moment holding them awkwardly aloft, trying to figure a place to set them down that wasn’t on Tony’s body.

His eyes were drawn to the blue orb beneath the material of Tony’s shirt. He’d never actually inspected it up close. It was just there, a part of Tony, a part of Iron Man when he had on the suit. Had to be strange, adjusting to something like that; a big hole in the middle of your chest plugged by a glowing device radiating power while keeping you alive.

Before he had even given himself permission to do it, his palm gently lighted on the blue spot on Tony’s shirt, fingers splaying. “Does it hurt?” he wondered, not meaning to say it aloud.

“Once in a while. Pretty used to it, though.”

“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t. . . .” Steve started to pull his hand back, admonishing himself for being rude.

“It’s okay.” Without opening his eyes, Tony captured Steve’s wrist before he could pull it fully away. “Want to feel it?”

Steve didn’t respond. To say ‘no’ would come across like he was repulsed, but saying ‘yes’ would just be wrong. Relieving him of the choice, Tony used his hold on Steve’s wrist to guide his hand under his shirt. Steve could simply break the hold and pull his hand back. Only he didn’t.

His palm pressed against the arc reactor, fingers fanning out to explore. It was slightly warm, but not hot like he thought it would be. It had a metallic feel, the outer ring smooth, the inner parts bumpy and sectioned, like a hub cap. When he slid his palm back and forth, thankfully nothing sharp bit into him. He didn’t want to think it was biting Tony.

“Is it freaking you out?” Tony asked, though he didn’t open his eyes to read the reaction on Steve’s face. Maybe he was afraid to. Steve well understood the reluctance to see someone’s expression when they looked at your imperfections; the combination of disdain and pity in a glance could speak volumes.

“It’s amazing,” Steve responded, meaning it. “The most amazing piece of machinery ever invented.”

The tension on Tony’s face lessened. “I’m pretty cocky and even I wouldn’t go that far.”

“Well, it is. It keeps you alive. That makes it amazing. And beautiful.”

Tony’s eyes did open then, slowly, burning directly into Steve’s. He couldn’t even blink, the gaze was so powerful. “Damn.” Tony’s voice was husky. “I didn’t think your eyes could look any bluer. Arc reactor light loves you.”

Steve realized Tony had never let go of his wrist. His warm fingers were still wrapped around the flesh, keeping Steve’s hand over the metal plate covering his heart. It was then he noticed he couldn’t feel Tony’s heartbeat. It didn’t matter. His own heart was beating loud enough for both of them. The tips of Steve’s fingers came in contact with the skin surrounding the arc reactor. The area closest to it was taut, but a little further along it was plush and warm. He didn’t dare explore further, though he wanted to.

“Now there’s something a guy doesn’t hear every day.” He was trying for humor, grappling for something to say, desperate for anything to take his mind off how much he liked having his hand under Tony Stark’s shirt.

“Did Thor kiss you?” Tony demanded, coming straight out of left field and clocking Steve with the unexpected inquiry.

“What? No! Of course not.” Steve hoped the blue light masked the color of his cheeks, which suddenly felt apple red. Why would Tony ask such a question? Had he figured it out? Does he know about me?

“Good.” Apparently satisfied with Steve’s answer, Tony relaxed, yawning slow and long before closing his eyes and snuggling deeper into Steve’s thigh.

“Why did you ask me that?” Steve wanted to know—but he also didn’t want to know. Turns out, it didn’t matter because Tony’s breathing grew heavier, his chest moving up and down rhythmically beneath Steve’s hand.

He was asleep.

Feeling like a deviant with his hand under Tony’s shirt when the man wasn’t conscious, Steve tried to slide it out. Tony muttered, a frown creasing his brow. His hold on Steve’s wrist tightened as he rolled to his side. His face was now buried in Steve’s abdomen, both Steve and Tony’s hands trapped between them, still buried under Tony’s shirt.

“Tony,” he whispered. Tony’s body grew heavy and limp as his breathing thickened once more. Steve made one more attempt to pull himself free, but Tony didn’t budge. His choice: Wake his exhausted friend up, or deal with it.

Get it together, Rogers.

Steve ordered himself to get control. Tony trusted him. He would not betray that trust.

With his free arm, he reached for Tony’s jacket, which he had placed over the back of the couch earlier. It took a minute to manage one-handed, but he got Tony covered as best he could. All that was left to do then was relax enough to sleep.

The assignment proved easier than he expected. The hardest part was clearing his mind of the wicked thoughts threatening to derail his good intentions. It took a while, but his soldier’s resolve finally won out. After that, he only needed to give in to his fatigue and allow himself to be soothed to restfulness by the steady rhythm of Tony’s breathing.

~0~0~0~

Steve jolted to consciousness, alarmed, looking around for whoever had socked him in the jaw. Another flailing arm caught him on the side of the face as an elbow rammed into his ribcage. He looked down, finding Tony there in his lap. Tony. He remembered then. Tony’s eyes were closed. He was surely still asleep, but he was fighting as if for his life, legs and arms thrashing. Steve took careful hold of his wrists, trying to calm him.

“Tony, it’s okay. It’s Steve. Wake up.”

Tony let out a pain-filled, choking gasp as he desperately fought Steve’s grip. Not wanting to hurt him, Steve let go—which resulted in another solid shot to his face. Shaking it off, he tried again to break into the awful nightmare.

“Tony, you’re safe,” he said, softly this time, trying to sound less aggressive. He flattened his arm to Tony’s chest to still him before he twisted off the couch and onto the floor. “You can wake up now. It’s not real.”

Once again his restraining efforts ratcheted up Tony’s fight rather than defused it. Steve got punched and kicked as Tony twisted furiously to get loose. Tony was pretty damn strong, even without his suit. Whatever he was fighting in his sleep was clearly a life and death threat, because the adrenaline surge was fueling his strength to a desperate level. Steve was reluctant to hold him tighter, but more worried about letting him go.

“Tony!” he called sharply as Tony yanked at his arm, trying to dislodge it. Needing more leverage, he decided to let Tony hit the floor, just not hard. Cushioning the drop as best he could, he followed Tony down, stretching atop him. He used his arms to bolster his formidable weight so it didn’t crush Tony, but pressed down on him enough to smother the thrashing.

“Tony,” he said softly into the closest ear. “Tony, it’s Steve. Listen to me. I need you to wake up,” he coaxed as gently and non-threateningly as he could. “Come on, you can do it.”

Tony’s eyes flew open with a start, his face devoid of color, his breath strangled. He blinked several times, clearing his sight, his expression twisting in confusion as he took in Steve’s face hovering over his.

“Jeezus, Rogers, what are you doing?”

“Trying to wake you up.”

“Wake? Wha—?” Tony looked around, disoriented. “Where the hell are we?”

“An underground SHIELD base in Staten Island.”

“Staten Island? Who the hell goes to Staten Island?”

Steve let out his own tightly held breath. Tony was coming back to him. “We broke into the medical facility to find Barton and Coulson, remember?”

Tony’s eyes darted side to side as his mind struggled to come back online. “Okay. Yeah. Barton’s safe. Coulson’s not dead. Fury’s a prick.” He looked back and forth again. “Why are we on the floor?”

“I was trying to—”

“Why the fuck is your nose bleeding?” Tony twisted his arm out from under Steve, examining his hand, horrified to find his knuckles bloody. “Shit.”

“Lucky shot,” he teased, hoping to keep Tony calm. He carefully climbed off Tony and got to his feet, wiping his nose with the back of his hand. “It’ll stop soon.”

Tony didn’t even look at the helping hand Steve offered him. He remained flat on the floor, his head shaking as he muttered. “I can’t have gotten that bad. I don’t do that anymore.”

“Tony, it’s alright. We all have bad nights. No harm done. I heal, remember?” He felt blood trickling from his ear; he reached up to wipe it before Tony saw it. The rest of his face was probably bruised and starting to swell, but it would pass quickly.

“JARVIS monitors me at home,” Tony was saying as he sat up. “Wakes me before it gets bad.”

“Ah, JARVIS, the nightmare police. Yeah, I remember. I think I would be uncomfortable having something watching me when I slept.”

“Clearly it beats the alternative.” Tony shook his bloody hand. “I think you broke my fingers with your face.”

Concerned, Steve immediately crouched down beside him. “Let me see.”

“I was joking. It’s something I do when I need an alternative to feeling like a complete ass. Haven’t you noticed?”

“Let me see anyway.” Tony made an annoyed, sucking sound, but he turned his hand over to Steve for inspection. He examined it carefully, making sure no bones were shattered and all traces of blood belonged to him. “Seems okay. I’ll bet it smarts, though. I do have a hard face.”

He was pleased to see Tony’s tension ease. He actually laughed a little. “I think I would have been better off fighting the wall.”

Without realizing he was doing it, Steve found he was rubbing the sure-to-bruise knuckles. “Sorry.”

“You’re not the one who should be apologizing.”

“Nightmares are hell,” he said from experience. “No need to apologize about them.”

Tony was trying to hide it, but the fear and pain of the nightmare hadn’t totally left. Steve could see it in his eyes—his dark, stunning eyes.

“Hey guys—whoa!” They both started when the door opened and Bruce stuck his head in. “What the hell have you two been up to?” the doctor asked, amused. The room was still trashed, Tony was on the floor looking like someone who had just gone three rounds against the champ, Steve was crouched beside him, his face bleeding as he caressed Tony’s hand. Yeah, it had to look pretty crazy.

“Steve was helping me find my contact,” Tony quipped. “And yourself?”

“Probably not a good time to point out you don’t wear contacts, right?”

Exhausting the definitions Steve knew for the word ‘contact,’ he gave up. “I don’t know what either of you are talking about.” He stood, using his grip on Tony’s hand to help him up as well. “Any news on Coulson?”

“Yes, that’s actually why I came by. The latest test results are very encouraging. The surgery went well. There’s a chance he’ll regain consciousness today.”

“That’s great news.” Steve smiled.

“What the hell time is it, anyway?”

“12:30,” Bruce answered. Steve realized they had gotten at least eight hours of sleep. Tony probably needed more, but it was a good start. “Doesn’t your expensive Rolex tell time?”

"Not until it gets coffee."

“The showers are down the hall,” Bruce pointed out. “Clean clothes in there, too. Not saying you guys need any of that.” There was no masking his snicker. “Then you can have coffee.”

“Who the hell died and made you Mr. Coffee?” Tony was swaying a bit, not looking fully awake.

Steve bent down and picked Tony’s jacket up off the floor where it must have landed in the scuffle. As he handed it to Tony he said, “Go take a shower. I’ll hit the cafeteria and get you coffee, then meet you there.” The last thing Steve needed was to be in the shower room when Tony was taking one.

Uh, Cap,” Bruce cleared his throat. “You might want to. . . .” He made a wiping motion across his face.

Steve touched his fingers to his own face, feeling the dampness of his blood. “Oh, right. I better hit the head first and clean up.”

“Yeah, who would have thought picking up a contact lens was such brutal work.” Bruce chuckled, Tony glared at him, and Steve just shook his head as he left the room.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Do you think he’s even going to know it’s me?” Clint complained. They had given him the go-ahead to sit at Phil’s bedside, but only if he wore the protective gear. He was dressed head to foot in a white jumpsuit: gloves, white papery booties, his hair covered in a white netty hat. He hadn’t pulled the mask over his mouth yet. “It was different before. He was in a coma. But now . . . he might open his eyes.”

Steve looked to Tony and Bruce, who were also present in the anteroom where you needed to don protective gear before going into Phil’s room. Neither of them looked eager to field this one so Steve gave it a shot. “I think it’ll be fine.” Okay, that wasn’t very comforting.

“The important thing,” Bruce interjected to Steve’s relief, “is that he stays calm. Waking up after being unconscious for so long is very disorienting. Keep talking to him. Let him hear your voice.”

“You do think he’ll wake up, though, right?”

“The most recent brain scans are giving a good indication he’s on his way back to consciousness, yes.”

Bruce had been going over the medical mumbo-jumbo with all of them, just as he had last night. Even broken down in simplest terms, Steve was still confused by most of it. He wondered if Clint was hearing much of anything other than Phil was still alive and might come to. Then again, that might be the only thing worth hearing.

“I can’t believe how nervous I am about this.” Clint looked as if he was walking in front of a firing squad. “I’m afraid he won’t wake up. I’m even afraid he will wake up, but won’t be . . . Phil, you know?”

“Put those scenarios out of your mind,” Bruce advised. “The more unsettled you are, the more anxious he’ll feel.”

“No pressure,” Clint muttered sarcastically.

“Nothing to worry about.” Hard to believe how perky Tony looked and sounded after the shape he was in only an hour ago when they had woken up. A shower, clean clothes, and half a pot of coffee had done wonders. “I’m the master of looking good despite being trashed,” Steve remembered him saying the morning after the Battle of New York.

“Nothing to worry about?” Clint repeated, his raised eyebrow questioning Tony’s sanity.

“Sure. Steve will be in there with you.”

“I will?” At Tony’s glare, he amended, “Yeah, I will.”

“Come on, Cap,” Tony directed. “Time to get suited up.”

Tony walked beside him to the corner of the room where the medical garb was stacked, out of Clint’s earshot. “Why am I going in there, exactly?”

“Hope these very attractive paper onesies come in extra, extra large,” Tony said aloud, rifling through them as he lowered his voice. “You have to be in there to make sure Coulson’s recovering heart doesn’t stop. The last he remembers, his boy there was Loki’s meat-puppet and Fury’s Flying Heli-spaceship was going to hell without the hand basket. Look around. This place doesn’t exactly scream warm and fuzzy. He ain’t waking up in Kansas.”

Steve was glad he got the reference. He started to shrug into the paper jumpsuit, keeping his voice low as well. “You think it’s possible he’ll wake up and think he’s in danger; that he’s Loki’s captive and Clint is still a threat?”

“It’s entirely possible.”

“You can’t tell Clint that,” Steve argued, aware of how much guilt Barton was already shouldering.

Shhh,” Tony warned. “Do you see me telling Barton? I’m telling you.” In a louder tone he added, “Don’t forget your paper booties, Cap.”

“Oh, right.” Steve glanced back, seeing Bruce was keeping Clint occupied. He seemed unaware of their conversation.

“What Coulson needs is someone both familiar and reassuring so he’ll know he’s safe. I think his hero, Captain America, fits the bill perfectly.”

Steve nodded as he finished dressing. It was flattering how awed Agent Coulson had been at meeting him. Maybe Tony was right. But as he finished putting on the hat and gloves after the boots, he looked down at himself, no longer certain. “I don’t see how I’m going to be much of a reassuring presence dressed like this. I look like everyone else in there; unfamiliar and maybe a little menacing to someone in his condition.”

Hmmm, good point.” Tony was thinking. Then again, Tony was always thinking. “Hey, Doc, is it really necessary for Steve to dress like a paper-mache spaceman? He’s Captain America. Any germ stupid enough to invade his personal space is going to get its ass kicked pretty quick.”

Bruce gave the question thought, eventually shaking his head. “Just because germs can’t affect Steve doesn’t mean he can’t carry them. It’s possible he can’t, but too risky. Coulson’s condition is critical. The last thing we want to do is expose him to anything that might set back his recovery.”

“Okay, new plan.” Tony was rapidly looking around the room, apparently formulating this new plan right there. Spying something, he clapped his hands. “Got it.” He grabbed a surgical marker and stood in front of Steve, drawing something on the front of the jumpsuit.

“What are you doing?”

“Making you more recognizable. I’m not the artist, but I think this will do the trick.”

Steve stood still while Tony worked, trying not to flinch even when he brought the marker near his face. When Tony was done, Steve caught a glimpse of himself reflected in the glass of the window; he had drawn a big star on Steve’s chest and a capital A on the cap covering his forehead. Steve had to hand it to him. It was clever. “Yeah, this could work.”

“Are you done, Rembrandt?” Clint complained. “I want to get in there to Phil.”

~0~0~0~

Once they got inside Phil’s room, Hawkeye was less anxious. He froze about five feet from the bed, staring. Steve stood behind him, placing a gloved hand on the small of his back, giving him time to come to terms with his fears.

“He looks better today,” Steve pointed out. “Less tubes.” You could actually make out Phil’s face now. There was a thin, clear tube wrapped around his face, bringing air into his nostrils, but the huge hose that had been in his mouth and down his throat last night was gone. Bruce had told them that meant Phil was breathing on his own. There were still wires attaching him to all kinds of monitors, but none of the monitors were squealing and Steve knew that was a good thing.

“Don’t be a pussy, Barton. Get in there.” Natasha somehow found a way to make the command sound affectionate. Clint turned toward the window partition. Natasha was watching him along with Tony, Bruce, and Thor.

“Tell it to my feet. They’ve decided to take root right here.”

A white-clad figure moved closer to them. “It’s okay, Clint.” Steve recognized the voice as belonging to nurse Maggie from yesterday. “He’ll know you’re here, even if you stay back for a while.”

“She’s right.” Tony’s voice this time. “It’s a proven fact that when the person who’s meant to alter the course of your life comes into the same air space as you, your senses recognize it right away. Even when you don’t want them to.” Steve turned towards the window, finding he wasn’t the only one staring at Tony in utter surprise. Tony looked uncomfortably at the attention he was currently at the center of, adding quickly, “Or even if you’re unconscious, or whatever.”

“Where did you read this fact?” Bruce asked skeptically.

“Magazine, cereal box, Snapple cap, someplace.” Tony waved his hand dismissively. “I’ve got phone calls to go make. Someone come get me if Clint Armstrong there makes it to the moon, or if Coulson wakes up, whichever comes first.” Steve saw Tony disappear from the window, and most likely the room judging by the door closing he could hear through the intercom.

“Is he all right?” Natasha asked. “That didn’t sound like Stark.”

“I’ll go check on him,” Bruce offered and then he was gone from view as well.

Of course you will, Steve thought, annoyed. Admonishing himself for being petty, he focused his attention back where it needed to be. “Come on, Clint, you can do this.” He nudged Clint toward the chair beside Phil’s bed. “Don’t focus on thinking the worse. He’s come this far, but he’s gotta be tired. He needs you. He needs all of us to pull him the rest of the way.”

Clint nodded, sitting in the chair and reaching for Phil’s hand. His hand and arm had a lot of wires and contraptions, so Clint’s gloved fingers wrapped around his wrist. “I wish I could touch him without these damned gloves. I want him to know it’s me.”

“He’s going to know it’s you. Tony was right. Some people you can just feel.” Even when you don’t want to.

~0~0~0~

“Steve?”

Steve’s head came up from the book he was reading. Well, it wasn’t an actual book. He couldn’t have a book in here because of the contamination issues, but there were ways around it. Having been poor as a kid, he couldn’t afford books. He could only take out a few from the library each week, so he read them over and over. He’d gotten pretty good at being able to retell the story in his mind when he was bored, and it became an alternative to actual reading. “What’s wrong?” Steve asked, concerned by Clint’s agitation.

“I think he might have squeezed my finger.”

Steve stood, coming closer to the bed. “Are you sure?”

They had been in there a lot of hours and Clint had refused even the shortest of breaks. Even when Steve got up to stretch his legs, Clint remained rooted to his chair, his hand on or near Phil’s, his head sometimes resting on the mattress, sometimes up and looking at his lover. He had refused any and all attempts from the Avengers, the nurses, and Steve to take a break. Steve remained with him, though Bruce, Natasha, and Thor had all offered to relieve him at different points. If Clint was staying, he was staying. They had come in here together. If the mission was to stay there until Coulson awoke, then so be it.

“I think so.” Clint sounded hopeful for a moment, then sighed. “Maybe not. Maybe I’m imagining it because I want it so bad.”

Clint had to be tired and sore. Steve’s body was complaining as he stretched and he couldn’t remember seeing Clint get up to even pee. Steve had gotten accustomed enough to the various monitors and screens in the room to be aware the data hadn’t changed. It was possible Clint was imagining something he wanted desperately, but what if he wasn’t? “What was the last thing you were talking to him about?”

Clint had been talking to Phil all afternoon. Steve enjoyed listening to the warm stories about different dates or anniversaries or funny anecdotes. At times, though, the conversation became more personal. Clint’s guard was down and he would lose awareness of his audience, exposing private emotions or experiences meant only for Phil’s ear. Steve was uncomfortable eavesdropping, doing his best to afford the couple as much privacy as was possible in the situation. He made sure the intercom got turned off. The rest of the team could still watch supportively from the other side of the window, but they didn’t need to listen to every word, just like Clint didn’t need to be distracted by their conversations, especially when Bruce was conferring with the doctors, or Fury was getting an earful from the still pissed-off Avengers. Steve did his best to tune out and get lost in one of his mental books—when he wasn’t busy wrestling with his complicated and mostly uncomfortable thoughts about Tony Stark.

“I was talking about the night he told me he loved me.”

“Keep talking about it then.” Steve would have to break his own rules of privacy, but if something Clint was saying had reached into the darkness and found Phil, they needed to know.

“Well, he had cooked this really amazing dinner—”

“Don’t talk to me. Talk to him. Just like how you were doing it before.”

“Oh. Right.” Clint turned back toward Phil, leaning over the bed, resting his head on the mattress beside Phil’s hand, careful not to interfere with any wires. “You made that amazing dinner, remember, babe? You didn’t tell me until way later it was in honor of the 200th day since we’d first gone out. You keep track of stuff like that. Me, I never counted. I just kept waiting for it to blow up in my face. That night, I figured it would for sure. I screwed up your whole dinner. You’d been working on it all day. By the time I got there, three hours late, it was ruined. You should have tossed me out on my ass, but you didn’t even get mad. You went down to the joint on the corner and brought back a sack of the greasiest burgers and fries I’d ever eaten . . . and they were amazing. You were amazing.”

Clint’s voice became strained; even though he couldn’t see his face, Steve knew he was crying. “You’re doing good,” he whispered, hoping to reassure, but he didn’t know if Clint could hear him. He was somewhere far from here eating greasy burgers and fries.

“When we finished eating, I offered to clean up, but you said it could wait. You needed to tell me something. I kept dodging the conversation. It sounded serious, so I figured it was bad. I didn’t want to hear bad. You never let anything go, though. You cornered me in the kitchen, taking the filthy pots out of my hands when I kept clutching them as if they could shield me from what was coming. I almost didn’t hear you when you said you loved me. The noise in my head was loud. You were louder.”

Steve flinched, certain he’d seen Phil’s fingers twitching near Clint’s head. He started to say something, but stopped himself. Clint needed to keep talking.

“All those years we worked together. You were the most amazing person I’d ever known. I never wanted to feel the things I felt for you. I denied them, hid them, tried to run from them. Didn’t matter. My mind never had much say. I was fighting something I couldn’t fight and it pissed me off, but it didn’t matter. You were a force to be reckoned with. Everything was dark, always. Then you. You turned the lights on. But I knew it wasn’t right. Someone like you was never going to want someone like me. Not like that. Never gonna happen. Only it did. And it was enough. When we started seeing each other, it was more than I could have thought possible. What more could I want? I had no idea what else I could want until you said you loved me.” Clint’s voice cracked, his body shaking. “I don’t want to go back in the void. That’s what the world is without you. A big, dark void. I can eat and sleep and work and function, but I can’t feel. With you, I feel. You gotta come back. Please . . . please come back to me.”

Steve had to blink several times to clear the moisture in his eyes. He came closer to the bed, reaching out to put a hand on Clint’s shoulder, wanting to offer comfort, but his hand froze mid-air. Another hand was already reaching to comfort.

Phil’s fingers were lightly combing strands of hair at Clint’s temple. Steve wasn’t sure if the touch was too faint or Clint was too distraught to notice, but he didn’t react. There was movement under Phil’s closed eyelids and Steve’s heart raced in his chest.

“Clint,” he whispered. “He hears you.”

It took a moment for both the touch and Steve’s words to sink in, but when they did, Clint gasped. “You see it, too?”

Steve nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

“I thought I was imagining. . . .”

“We both must be imagining the same thing, then, because he’s touching your hair.”

Clint’s choked sob was a beautiful thing. He slowly raised his head, wrapping his own fingers around Phil’s, squeezing back as he looked expectantly at his lover’s face. “Come on, Agent Bear, come on back to me. I feel you trying.”

Steve turned toward the glass partition. Natasha was the only one in the room presently, but she was practically pressed to the glass. He gave her a thumbs-up sign, and he could see her forceful breath condense on the glass.

Clint kept talking, encouraging, squeezing Coulson’s hand until, eventually, his lids fluttered more and finally opened. Two nurses were at the bedside opposite Barton, checking monitors and IVs. Steve moved closer still to try and be in Phil’s limited line of sight, pressing himself against Clint’s back, feeling how hard the other man was shaking.

Phil’s gaze was unfocused, not lighting on anything in particular. Steve could only imagine how disorienting this all was. He couldn’t remember when he initially woke up. Was it like this? Surely there was no one there to hold his hand and coax him gently back to the living. His first memory was of the fabricated room on the SHIELD base. Alone.

“Oh, honey, you have no idea how gorgeous those eyes of yours are,” Clint said breathlessly.

Phil’s eyes began to move back and forth, more awareness reflected in them. His gaze was apprehensive at the white-clad figures fussing with the medical equipment beside him. When his eyes found Clint, they softened, but there was unease there as well. The machine monitoring his heart registered subtle changes.

“Welcome back, Agent Coulson,” Steve stated in his best Captain America voice. It looked to catch Phil’s attention, because the wandering blue eyes found him. “Loki has been defeated,” he assured. “Agent Barton has been recovered safely. You’re in a SHIELD medical facility and they are taking top-notch care of you. The Avengers are assembled here to safeguard you. We need you back with us, Agent Coulson. Keep up the fight.”

Phil’s eyes closed for a moment, and it looked as if he gave a small nod.

“He’s squeezing my fingers,” Clint announced excitedly. “I’m right here, honey. I got you.”

Phil’s eyes opened again, gazing groggily at Clint. His facial expression looked relaxed. The unspoken love passing between the two of them in that moment was like nothing Steve had ever witnessed. Beautiful. Truly beautiful.

Clint began murmuring a lover’s endearments and Steve stepped back to give them as much privacy as possible. He walked toward the window, looking at Natasha, who was still pressed against it, her face stoic but her eyes holding a depth of emotion that spoke of her affection for these two men who Steve felt certain were her only family.

He flattened his palm to the glass, spreading his gloved fingers wide and she mirrored his move, their hands touching virtually as they quietly shared the relief and joy of the moment.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

The next few days proved interesting. Steve had figured out a pretty good rotation system, though at first he had to practically carry Barton away from Phil’s bedside in order to get him to rest. Bruce, Thor, Natasha, Steve, and even Fury—though never alone; they didn’t trust him that much—took three-hour bedside shifts. Barton had originally agreed to a three-hours on/three-hours off schedule for himself, but he wound up slipping in for extra time anyway. Still, they managed to get him to sleep and eat semi-regularly. Coulson’s wakeful periods were few, but the fact there were any at all was tremendously encouraging. Whenever his eyes opened, whoever was on bedside shift would reassure him about the situation and his status. Hopefully, despite being heavily medicated and debilitated, the repeated message was sinking in. Phil hadn’t seemed unduly alarmed, just confused. According to Bruce, who gathered them regularly for updates, his condition was strengthening.

Tony never went into Phil’s room, but he never left the base either. He showed up periodically to check on Coulson’s progress or sit in Clint’s room near the window to watch him, but other than that, Stark was holed up in the sleeping room he had been assigned, apparently with a ton of his tech he had Happy bring him from home. Fury was pretty steamed about it—“You can’t just order things to be delivered to a secret facility. Who are you calling next? Papa John’s?" The fact it bothered Fury, of course made it sweeter for Tony. Steve heard from Natasha there had been a bewildered Papa John’s delivery man with a stack of pizzas wandering outside the base entrance looking for an address the next day.

Steve was annoyed and a little hurt that his only intel regarding Tony was gathered through others. For whatever reason, Stark had been avoiding him since the day they woke up eventfully in Room 12. The times Tony emerged from his room, Steve was either resting in his own room, getting something to eat in the cafeteria, or sitting his shift with Coulson. He looked up a few times to see Tony staring at him through the glass, but Stark always turned away or disappeared from the room when Steve caught him watching.

He’s not watching you, stupid, he’s checking on Coulson.

Steve had given brief thought to how Tony always managed to know his whereabouts, but then he remembered he was surrounded by spies and self-proclaimed stalkers. The whole thing was childish. If Tony Stark wanted to go to the trouble of tracking Steve’s every move for the express purpose of avoiding him, what difference did it make? It didn’t matter.

Except it did.

“What is his problem?” Steve complained to Thor as they entered the cafeteria after midnight on the third day of this nonsense. Tony had been at the coffee urns, but made a swift exit at their arrival. Apparently, his stalking skills weren’t totally perfected, since he hadn’t expected Steve to be in the cafeteria. Then again, Steve hadn’t planned to come to the cafeteria until the last minute. Thor was hungry. Again. Steve had just eaten a few hours earlier, and though his metabolism needed a steady amount of food, he wasn’t particularly hungry at the moment; just tired of sitting in his room by himself.

“Are we speaking of Tony Stark?”

“Yes.” Steve sat down, more than a little ticked off.

“Well, it would seem he has many problems. Which in particular would you like to elaborate upon?”

“That’s your version of being funny, right?” Thor smiled broadly before leaving Steve to go fill his tray with as much food as would fit on it. When he returned, he sat down and began his feast. Steve watched, rolling one of the oranges from the tray under his hand.

“What has you in such foul spirits this evening, Steven?”

“I’m not foul,” he responded grumpily.

“As you say.” Thor was grinning at him again and it was annoying.

“Okay, a little foul. Maybe.”

“Share some food. It will bolster you.”

Steve took half of one of the extra-long sandwiches, biting into it. “They do have good food here.”

Mmmm, excellent,” Thor agreed, his mouth stuffed.

“Is food very different on your world?”

“Somewhat, yes. Different game. But there are similarities.” He polished off the other half of the sandwich, washing it down with a pitcher of milk. “I must bring you back some dried brachstrap hide. You will enjoy it.”

Steve shrugged. “Sure. Why not.”

Thor reached across the table and pounded him on the arm. “I like your sense of adventure.”

“When I was growing up, you ate what was put in front of you and were thankful to have it. Food is food.” Steve looked around at the enormity of the food selections. “We didn’t have anything like this.”

“I grew up amidst feasts.”

Steve smiled, easily imagining Thor in such an environment. “I’ll bet. Me, I was happy to have Brussels sprouts.” He reconsidered, remembering the taste. “Okay, maybe not happy. But I ate them. I ate all my vegetables.” He thought wistfully about how his mother would get after him about vegetables, certain they were going to make him healthier. “Never helped much. I was still scrawny.”

“I know you speak the truth, but I find this nearly impossible to fathom.”

“Before the serum, I was a short, ninety-pound asthmatic.”

“With the heart of a lion,” Thor roared.

Steve shook his head. “A guy like you wouldn’t have known I was alive.”

“I disagree.” Thor took a meaty bite off a chicken leg, then pointed the bone at Steve. “But if there is truth in what you say, it would have been my profound loss.” For all his boisterousness, Thor could also be quietly reflective. His eyes were soft and he was completely sincere.

“Thanks.”

“Is this why you are distressed by Tony Stark’s behavior?” Thor leaned across the table, his blue eyes seeming as though they were peering inside Steve. “Because you feel he has treated you, as you say, like you are not alive?”

Steve didn’t expect the question and he certainly didn’t expect the uncomfortable heat flushing his cheeks. “Tony’s just being a jerk. It’s what Tony does. I don’t care. We’re here for more important reasons.”

“Indeed we are.” Thor raised his next pitcher. “To the son of Coul. May he continue to grow hale and strong.”

Steve didn’t have a drink, but he raised his piece of sandwich in toast. “Agreed.”

As Thor prepared to consume his next course, he said simply, “You are aware, of course, he is quite chagrined.”

“What?”

“Our friend, Tony. He experienced great humiliation for having exposed himself in such a weakened manner through his nightmare. He has kept distance from all of us since the incident.”

“Wait, what do you mean? How do you even know he had a nightmare?”

“I believe your Midgardian term is gossip.”

“Gossip? Oh, for Pete’s sake.” Steve pushed his chair back from the table and stormed out of the cafeteria, heading straight for Tony’s room. He considered knocking, but he figured Tony would pretend to not be in there or some such juvenile tactic. Steve had learned a thing or two about spying and stalking from his new team. He knew the codes for all the doors on this floor, and he proceeded to punch in the correct one to gain access.

Tony was hunched over the desk, tapping away into one laptop while a bigger screen beside it scrolled through what looked like formulas. His chair rolled back and his head popped up in surprise at Steve’s entrance.

“Don’t feel any need to knock,” he said acerbically.

“I didn’t.” Steve closed the door behind him. He was taken aback by the room. It was the same size and layout as the one he was in, but where his was sparse, Tony’s was covered nearly wall-to-wall in technology, books, and notepads. Even the bed was piled under what looked like blueprints and another laptop. “Turning this into a lab?”

“What’s it to you?”

“The bed’s meant for sleeping.” He figured Tony had had all this gear hauled here as a way of keeping overly busy and avoiding sleep as much as possible.

“And this room is meant for me. Why are you in it?”

“Because I want you to tell me if the reason you’re avoiding me is because of what happened with your nightmare.”

“Avoiding you? Why, Cap, are you missing me?”

“Yes.”

Tony was being a smart-mouth, so he probably expected a similar retort, but Steve didn’t feel like playing games. His honesty threw Tony. “Oh.”

Taking a deep breath, Steve started again, less offensively. “You had what looked like a hellacious nightmare. So? You’ve got plenty of reasons for it. I have them all the time myself. Why is it such a big deal to you?”

“I don’t do that in front of people,” Tony snapped, his voice cold.

“I’m not people.”

“It’s nobody’s business but mine.” He rolled his chair back to the desk and turned his attention to his screens. “We done now?”

“No,” Steve said stubbornly, refusing to be put off. He crossed the room, moving behind the desk and the monitors, peering over them at Tony as he spoke. “Letting other people see your weakness is not fun, I get it. Tony, I got beat up every week of my life. There are always going to be people and things that make you feel weak. All you can really do is get up. There’s no shame. You sure don’t have to feel shame around the people who care about you.”

“Stop acting like this is some kind of fraternity. Nobody around here gives a damn about anybody unless it’s necessary. We got a job done together. The job is over. Don’t expect any Hallmark cards or barbecues.”

“You don’t believe that.”

“How the hell do you know what I believe?”

“Because you wouldn’t still be here if you did. You’ve got a perfectly remarkable lab in your plush tower complete with robots and AIs at your disposal. There’s no reason for you to cram yourself in here with portable equipment.” Steve sighed and shook his head. “Do you really think falling back on this cold, indifferent, wiseguy persona is going to protect you from your vulnerability? You’re not fooling anybody, at least not anybody around here.”

Wiseguy?” Tony laughed condescendingly at what he clearly considered an old-fashioned term, doing his best to make Steve feel like a jerk. He refused to be the butt of Tony’s off-putting humor.

“Forget it.” Steve headed for the door. “I’m done.”

“Why does this matter to you so much?” Tony asked as Steve’s hand reached for the handle.

“Why shouldn’t it matter? You’re my friend. At least I thought you were.”

“I guess now you see why I don’t have many friends.”

“A person doesn’t need many. Just needs the right ones.”

Steve didn’t turn around. If Tony was making one of his mocking faces—or worse, had turned away completely—he didn’t want to see it. He didn’t leave, though. He waited.

“Okay, you can stay. If you want.”

Steve let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. “Is it what you want?”

“Jeezus Christ, do I need to roll out a freakin’ red carpet? Stop being such a prima donna and sit.”

Translation from Stark Speak: Yeah, I really want you to stay.

“Okay. But you’re going to need to move one of your toys off the couch because I’m not sitting on the floor.”

~0~0~0~

“He told me they call them the ‘walking dead’ in his village,” Tony explained, his mood somber.

Steve listened, rapt. They had been talking for about an hour now, but it had taken Tony this long to say anything of consequence. Before this, they had discussed safe topics: Coulson’s condition, plans for the restoration of the city, Tony’s current projects, the renovations at the tower. Steve could sense Tony was babbling; basically talking to avoid talking. He was good at it. Most people got sullen or quiet when they didn’t want to open up, but Tony got more talky. Steve didn’t mind. It was better than being ignored and avoided. Steve was the one who brought up Afghanistan. He never expected Tony to share much—even the SHIELD files regarding the incident were light on data—but he figured maybe it would help Tony to have the ear of someone who had experienced a combat zone firsthand. Of course, he had been a soldier. Tony was no soldier.

“They called them that because it takes about a week for the barbs of shrapnel to reach the vital organs,” Tony continued. He was still seated at the desk chair, but he had it reclined to almost a prone position, his feet up on the desk. His fingers ghosted over the circle shining beneath his tee shirt.

“Thank God that’s not what happened.” An icy chill ran down Steve’s spine thinking about how easily Tony could have died in that horrible place. He was seated on the couch across from Tony but he could still see the sorrow etched in his dark eyes.

“Because Yinsen saved me. He saved every aspect of me and yet I’ve never told anyone his name. In fact, this is the first time I’ve said his name out loud since he died. Well, except maybe in a screaming nightmare. Not sure that counts, does it?”

“It’s good to talk about him. We try not to think about the fallen heroes because it brings such burning pain in the gut. The loss still hurts bad.”

Tony’s eyes drew up, his gaze meeting Steve’s. “You understand,” he acknowledged hoarsely, nodding towards Steve. “Probably better than anyone.”

“I don’t know about that. But I do know it’s good to talk about them. It honors them. Yinsen was a true hero. He saved your life.”

“Told me not to waste it.”

“And you haven’t,” Steve assured with certainty. He’d read enough background intel to know how much Tony Stark had changed. “You’re no longer making weapons. You make incredible strides every day in clean energy. There’s your charity work; the stuff you’re doing to rebuild what Loki destroyed . . . not to mention being a hero.”

“Yeah, let’s not mention,” Tony sneered derisively. “I don’t belong in the same sentence as Captain America in the hero department.”

“Then you can have your own sentence.”

Tony actually grinned, his features lightening. “I won’t settle for anything less than my own paragraph.”

“Hey, if you keep going the way you are, you might even earn a whole chapter.”

“Okay, but I get movie rights. And Spielberg directs.”

“Who’s Spielberg?”

“We have got to get you to some movies.”

“Sounds nice. Haven’t gone to a movie in about seventy years.” They both had to laugh at the absurdity of the statement.

“Talk about don’t get out much.”

“They still have buttered popcorn, right?” He used to love movie popcorn. It was a big treat.

“More like popcorn with a greasy mystery substance. But if that doesn’t appeal to you, I have an amazing home theater in the tower. It rivals the one they have set up for the president, and I can assure you the popcorn there is freshly popped and soaked in real butter. If you lived there, you could use it any time you wanted.”

“You didn’t want me in your room an hour ago. Now you want me to move in again?”

“Sue me. I’m fickle.” Tony threw his head back, yawning hugely.

Concerned, Steve pointed out, “You can’t avoid sleeping forever.”

“True, but I’m not avoiding it. Just minimizing the hours.”

Steve stood up. “I’ll tell you what. I’m going to head to the cafeteria and get you some warm milk. My mother always gave it to me to help me sleep.”

“How disgustingly wholesome. My mom went with brandy.”

“She did not.” Steve waved his hand, laughing as he walked towards the door.

“You haven’t lived until you’ve had brandy warmed up in your baby bottle.”

“I’m ignoring you.” He opened the door.

“Steve, wait.” Steve paused in his tracks. Tony’s voice was no longer playful. It was panicked. Steve closed the door and turned to him. Tony looked down, avoiding his gaze, picking up a pen from the desk and fidgeting with it. “It’s not about can’t go to sleep. More like don’t want to. They make milk for that?”

“I understand,” Steve said softly. “You gotta face it though. Don’t let it best you.”

“What if I fail?”

“Then you’ll do some fighting in your sleep. Maybe scream a little. SHIELD makes these walls soundproof, right?” Steve wasn’t trying to trivialize Tony’s very real trepidation. The kind of nightmares he was talking about were tough stuff; Steve knew. He just worried Tony was more concerned about people knowing he was having night terrors than about actually having them. Changing tactics, he said, “Yinsen was a good, decent man. He got wounded doing the right thing. The heroic thing. An ordinary man making an extraordinary choice. Sounds a lot like Coulson.”

“What’s your point?” Tony sounded defensive enough for Steve to guess he was on the right track.

“My point is we dream about things when they get triggered. You’ve had a lot of triggers since we got here. Fury’s lies and betrayal. Your grief getting dredged up. Coulson. Maybe now that you’ve looked at a lot of it while your eyes are open, it won’t have to haunt you so badly when you close them. Even if it does, it’s okay. There’s not a person here who hasn’t been there. No one’s judging.” Tony’s legs came off the desk as he sat back up, burying his face in his screens.

“If you say so.”

Despite the obvious effort to close off and be indifferent, Steve could still feel the pain and fear Tony grappled with. He wondered if other people saw through Tony’s emotional armor. Probably not. I didn’t. Just thought he was an arrogant jerk. Steve realized he was the one who was the jerk for being so quick to judge. Tony had gotten very adept at masking his deeper self behind his wit, arrogance, and wisecracks. How many people ever cared what was behind his curtain? Steve had spent a big chunk of years being invisible, but not Tony. He refused to be invisible, choosing instead to be loud and attention-seeking and driven. Yet, in a lot of ways, nobody had really ever seen either of them. They had that in common.

“I’ll get the milk. It’s your decision whether you drink it or not. If you don’t want to go to sleep, we’ll talk. No big deal.”

~0~0~0~

“This is utterly repugnant,” Tony complained, his face twisted in a sour expression.

“It’s not about the taste.”

“Can I pour some vodka in it?”

“No!” Steve tried to sound stern, but he almost laughed. He was still trying to believe Tony had cleared off the bed while he was gone and was actually sitting on it, drinking the warm milk he had brought.

Tony pouted like a child, grumbling something at Steve under his breath before taking another sip. “Bleeechhhh.”

“Sip it slowly.”

“Why? To prolong the torture? Taste buds were not made to be abused like this.”

Slowly,” he reiterated. Steve was moving around the room, turning off lights and trying to switch off as many devices as he could figure out in order to make it dark enough for sleep.

“Stop messing with my stuff.”

“I’m not messing with it. I’m turning it off.”

“A guy who can’t work a cell phone shouldn’t be touching such sensitive equipment.”

“Yeah, you never did teach me how to use that phone. We’ll have to add it to the list after the movies.”

“Oh, we have a list now?” Tony tried to sound flip, but he actually looked pleased.

“Yup. I’m keeping track, so you better get some sleep. You’re going to need your strength.”

Ohhh, sounds sexy,” Tony teased and Steve felt his cheeks go red.

“I d-didn’t mean it like that,” he sputtered.

“You are the only guy I’ve ever known who could pull off a proper blush,” Tony pointed out grinning, which made Steve’s face go hotter. “I mean, I’ve seen guys go red in the face and look like their heads were going to explode, but it’s not attractive. On you, the whole red cheek thing is adorable.”

Steve would have been humiliated at the teasing, only Tony didn’t seem to be teasing. He was serious. Maybe that was worse.

“The milk is going to your head,” he quipped, turning away from the scrutiny.

“Leave it me to find a way to get drunk on milk.” From the disgusted sound he made, Steve could tell Tony had taken another sip. It was hard to believe he was drinking it despite his grousing.

“It’s not going to work if you don’t relax.”

“There are too many rules involved with this milk. I’m not good with rules.”

“It’s not a rule. Finish it and lay down. When I leave, I’ll turn off the last light. It’ll be dark and quiet then. Relax and see what happens.”

“If nothing happens, can I have my tablet back?”

“No.”

Tony sighed and shook his head, but oddly didn’t argue. Steve watched him finish the warm milk, wishing he had a sketch pad to capture some of the hilarious faces Tony made as he overdramatized the horrible taste. After handing Steve the cup, Tony laid down, taking a good five minutes to punch his pillows into submission before deciding they were positioned correctly.

“Goodnight, Tony,” he said softly as he walked toward the door. “Sleep well.”

Tony grumbled, clearly not believing it was possible. Steve felt sad for him. He wished there was more he could do. He reached for the last light switch by the door and flipped it off, preparing to leave.

“Hey, Steve.”

Tony’s voice sounded small in the darkness.

“Yes?”

“Thanks.”

Steve smiled, though Tony couldn’t see it. “You’re welcome.”

He had only gotten the door partially open when Tony called to him again. “Steve?”

“Yes?”

“You mind staying? I mean, just to see if the milk works, you know?”

Steve was touched by the request. He knew it didn’t come easily for Tony. Still, he hesitated. “I don’t mind, but are you sure? You made it pretty clear you don’t like people seeing your nightmares. If you have another—”

“Generally, REM sleep occurs ninety minutes after sleep onset. Gives you plenty of time to make a break for it if I do fall asleep. Might want to stay on the far end of the couch, though. As a precaution. Out of punching and kicking range.”

Tony’s chest gave off enough light in the now-dark room for Steve to find the desk chair and roll it near the bed, sitting down right beside Tony. If his point was to get Tony to understand he had nothing to be ashamed of, distancing himself like Tony had the plague wasn’t going to resolve anything. “I’ll sit here.”

“Steve. . . .”

“You can’t hurt me. Not permanently, anyway.” At least physically. I get the feeling you could shatter me inside, but that’s not your fault, it’s mine.

“Why are you nice to me?” Tony’s eyes were closed and he had to be drifting to let those words slip out. Maybe the milk was working.

Because I like you. Because I like you a lot. Too much. Because something about you got inside me the day I met you and I can’t shake it loose no matter how hard I fight. Luckily, Steve wasn’t drifting unguardedly towards sleep and was able to respond, “Because somebody needs to be.”

“Dirty job, but somebody’s gotta do it,” Tony muttered into his pillow, though a slight smile curled his lips.

“It’s not such a hard job.”

Tony made a scoffing sound. Nestling his face deeper into the pillow he spoke drowsily, “Warm milk’s’powful shit.”

“Let it work, then.” Steve untangled the wad of blankets and covered Tony properly. He had been doing the same thing for Clint most of the week, but not once had it affected him this strongly. It took every iota of strength he had to keep from leaning over and kissing Tony on the forehead.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Steve, he said my name!”

Clint crashed so hard into him as he entered the room the impact would have bowled over someone else. Instead, poor Clint bounced like he’d hit a wall, but he shook it off quickly and grabbed hold of Steve’s arms. His face was the happiest Steve had seen it in . . . ever. “He said my name.”

“That’s amazing!” Steve’s own spirits lifted through the roof. He looked over towards Clint’s bed where Natasha was sitting, her back leaning against the wall, one leg drawn up to her chest. She was more subdued, but it was clear she was very pleased. She nodded in confirmation.

“It’s true. I heard it.”

“He knew it was me. Even in the paper ghost suit. At least I think he did. But even if he didn’t, he was still calling for me. That counts, right? It was my name he said. No doubt about it. Right, Nat? Ask Nat. He said my name.”

“He sure did.”

Clint was vibrating with excitement. He threw his arms around Steve, who returned the enthusiastic hug. “This is the best news, Clint.” Looking towards the partition glass, he became concerned. “Why is the curtain closed?”

“The doctors are running tests,” Natasha started to explain before Clint cut her off.

Pulling back from their embrace, Clint continued enthusiastically, “They think he’s strong enough to be taken out of isolation. No more paper suits. I can touch him with my own hands.” Clint held out his hands. They were shaking, probably a very rare condition for an archer, especially the world’s best archer, but his emotions had been running the gamut this week, so it made sense.

Steve took firm hold to steady them. “Amazing news.”

Steve’s entire mood changed. He had had difficulty sleeping after he left Tony at about 0200. Too many unwanted thoughts sped through his mind, making him dizzy. When he did finally manage them enough to fall asleep, the dreams started. Thankfully, the worst one—the one filled with frigid darkness and paralyzing inertia—stayed away, but the other wasn’t much better. The recurring nightmare had pounced again, the one where he was trying to grab Bucky’s hand; but when he looked down at the figure slipping out of his reach and his life forever—it was Tony, not Bucky. Even as he woke in a trembling sweat, the image was burned into Steve’s brain, sending him reeling in too many directions. He was disgusted with himself for his disloyalty to Bucky, as if the man who had been his sole friend and family for much of his life were somehow replaceable, interchangeable; as if his death was just a plot point in the serialized drama of Steve’s life; his part being taken over by a different actor.

On top of that, he felt unworthy of the trust Tony had placed in him as a friend. His feelings for Tony were awkward before he starred the man in his dreams. He was not going down the same path with Tony as he had with Bucky. He would not damage another friendship with his confused longings.

Having given up the whole sleeping thing at about 0700, Steve had found his way to the base gym, doing his best to exercise the demons from his head. He ran the track so long and hard he almost forgot about his shift with Phil. Thankfully, he managed to shower and eat, still making it here before ten. It was time for Natasha to take a break, but she didn’t seem to be going anywhere, so they all waited in Clint’s room for the doctors to finish in Phil’s. Despite his efforts not to, Steve’s thoughts returned to Tony. Was he able to sleep? Did he have more nightmares? Is he okay? Should I go check on him?

No!

When the doctors gave them the okay to return to Phil’s room, Steve was able to shift his focus appropriately. They were, indeed, allowed to return to Phil’s bedside without paper jumpsuits. The nurses had raised the back of Phil’s bed, propping him in a reclined sitting position. He looked good. Really good. Each day, he had looked better, but today was the best, for sure. Forgoing his usual chair, Clint perched gingerly on the edge of the bed, making the most of his opportunity to touch Phil’s skin with his bare hands for the first time in what had to feel like forever. He had grown accustomed to holding Phil’s hand without disturbing the IV’s and pulse oximeter—Steve had been in here often enough to have learned the names of some of the instruments. Clint’s other hand caressed his lover’s sleeping face, outlining it with his fingertips, remapping every plane and crevice. When his thumb brushed the dry lips, he stopped, reaching for the balm on the bedside table and applying it tenderly.

“It’s a good thing I’ve gotten good at this,” he told Phil, talking softly to him as he always did. “When you’re finally out of here, I plan to kiss those lips of yours sore.”

Natasha smiled. She was seated in the chair closest to the bed, the one Clint usually occupied. She placed a comforting hand on Clint’s thigh, watching him; watching both of them. Steve stood on the opposite side, still a little too wired to sit.

“Can’t tell you how good it feels to touch you, baby.” When he was done, he set the balm back on the table, then turned and leaned closer to Phil, pressing his lips to the pale forehead, making a soft, Mmmming sound as he let the sensation of the contact wash over him. Steve had witnessed Clint’s anguish, his despair, his frustration during the long days of being separated by glass, tubes, and paper. To finally be able to touch Phil in this manner was the warmth of the first spring day after an endless winter.

Natasha’s eyes met Steve’s, filled with the same satisfaction he was feeling at being privy to such honest-to-god love.

“Hey, honey,” Clint said, drawing back suddenly. Steve noticed Phil’s lids were fluttering open. His fuzzy gaze went directly to Clint. “I’m right here.” Clint brought their faces together, nuzzling Phil’s nose. “It’s me. No mask. Feel me.”

Phil’s hand closest to Steve, the one Clint wasn’t clutching, started moving against the sheets, fingers flexing and un-flexing. “Here, let me help,” Steve offered, not sure how he knew what Phil wanted, but he did. Gently, slowly, he helped Phil bend his arm and bring it toward Clint. The minute Phil’s fingers were close enough, they fanned against Clint’s cheek.

“Beautiful,” Phil whispered hoarsely, his voice making its own beautiful sound to those eager to hear it.

“Your eyes are what’s beautiful. Seeing them open and looking at me.”

Phil’s lips curled in a small smile. He continued to look at Clint for a time, blinking. His lids seemed heavy, wanting to close, but Coulson was fighting it. He looked past Clint at Natasha who was leaning closer now, resting her chin on Clint’s thigh as she watched him.

“You need to finish lounging in this bed and get back to work soon, boss. We need you.”

Phil managed a nod. He turned his eyes toward Steve next. He was still holding Phil’s arm in place. He swallowed twice before he managed to get his next words out. “They okay?”

Steve smiled reassuringly. “Absolutely. Everyone is safe and well.”

Phil tried to talk again, but he coughed instead. Maggie was at Steve’s elbow, handing him a cup with a straw. “See if you can get him to drink.”

Steve kept his hold on Phil’s arm with one hand and brought the cup closer with the other. Clint took the bendy straw and pressed it to Phil’s lips. “How ‘bout you take a drink for me, honey. Can you do that?”

Phil was able to take two good sips. The excited buzz in the room made it feel as if they were going to break into applause. The expense of energy looked to take its toll as Coulson started to lose his battle with his eyelids. “It’s okay,” Clint soothed as Steve moved the cup away. “Rest now. You did great. I love you so much.”

Lvyoo,” Phil murmured as he fell back asleep. Clint continued to stroke his face and neck, whispering sweet nothings as Steve eased Coulson’s hand back to the mattress.

“He’s doing great.” Steve was thrilled to say.

“That’s my guy,” Clint boasted proudly, his eyes alive with love and hope.

Phil didn’t wake anymore during Steve’s shift. Since Natasha and Clint were reluctant to leave, the three of them sat at Coulson’s bedside, talking quietly. Clint was convinced Phil could hear them, so he encouraged Steve to tell stories from the days when he was a kid since Phil loved any Steve Rogers stories. By the time Bruce came to relieve Steve, he was able to talk Clint and Natasha into taking a break. He walked them down to the cafeteria and joined them for lunch, making certain Clint was eating enough.

After lunch, Natasha tried to talk Clint into crashing in her room for a while so he’d truly rest, but even her formidable persuasive skills were no match for Clint’s dogged determination to stay close to Phil. Steve left them in front of the door to Clint’s room, certain Tasha would make sure he got some sleep.

Despite his best efforts to stop himself, he found he was walking toward Tony’s room. Checking on a friend to make sure he’s okay is the right thing to do, isn’t it? Without stopping to feel guilty about it, he let himself into Tony’s room as he had last night, expecting to find him buried under three screens and working away. He stopped cold near the door when he saw Tony was still asleep. For a moment, he considered the possibility Tony had gotten up and then gone back to sleep at some point, but if that was the case, the room would have looked different. Everything was where Steve had left it last night, not one piece of technology moved or turned on. No way Tony Stark would have been awake and not touched at least one of those devices.

Steve moved closer, needing to make sure Tony was all right. He was, indeed, sleeping peacefully without so much as a furrowed brow. He was on his stomach, one arm hugging the pillow the side of his face was smushed into. Tony looked very young asleep; unguarded and innocent. It got Steve to thinking whether Tony was older or younger than him. Years-wise, he had been born decades before Tony. Steve wasn’t sure if that made him 24—as he had been when he went down—or somewhere in his nineties. Tony had experienced the world nearly twice as many years as Steve had, though. Then again, Steve had been close friends with Tony’s dad when Howard Stark was a young man, before Tony was even a glint in his eye. It was all pretty confusing.

Once again he found himself fixing the blankets; Tony was definitely a blanket-messer. Steve’s mom used to call him that as a kid, though when he moved to the orphanage, he barely moved at all in his sleep. When he got up in the morning, the bed looked exactly as it had when he slipped into it at night. Of course, those were the days before the nightmares.

I wonder if you had nightmares again, Tony? Steve was hoping he hadn’t. He hoped Tony had finally gotten some undisturbed rest. Without his permission, his fingers grazed over Tony’s hair, playing in the thick, tousled mane a minute before Steve pulled his hand back as if he’d touched fire.

Tony made a low-pitched sound and then, to Steve’s utter astonishment, muttered, “Steve.”

For a moment, Steve stopped breathing. Was Tony actually calling his name in his sleep? No, moron, you’re waking him up. Get out of here.

“Go back to sleep,” he said quietly as he made his way to the door.

M’kay.” Tony stirred, pulling the pillow closer, hugging it more securely before settling back down.

What I wouldn’t give to be his pillow.

Steve decided it was time to go back to the gym.

~0~0~0~

Steve didn’t see Tony again until that evening. Fury had called them all to a meeting in the large conference room a few floors above the medical facility. He was surprised Tony even showed up, given his current animosity towards the director. When he questioned him about it in the corridor before they entered the conference room, Tony replied smartly, “And let the Mouseketeers have a meeting without me? No way.”

“Do we need to remove the pointy objects?” Bruce asked as he passed them.

“Does my dick count? Because it can get pretty pointy. If my dick counts, we sure as hell aren’t removing any pointy objects.”

“Why is everything about your dick?” Bruce mock-complained.

“Don’t be like that. You’ll hurt his feelings. Say you love my dick.”

“If your dick comes to a point, you have more problems than I thought,” Natasha commented.

As they filtered into the room and started to take seats around the table, Tony tugged on Steve’s shirt. “Hey, sit next to me. I want to pass notes in class so I don’t get too bored.”

“Surprised you’re not passing notes with Bruce,” Steve groused.

“Have you ever seen his handwriting? A monkey with a pen up his ass could write more legibly.”

Steve tried not to smile, but it was hard. Tony was in full-on sharp-Stark mode, which could be galling, but there was also something comforting about it. He agreed to sit next to him, though he dreaded the idea of his cheeks flushing at whatever inappropriate note Tony planned to pass him. He was glad it was Natasha who sat on the other side of Tony. She wouldn’t tolerate his crazy.

It also meant Bruce was not in that seat.

Agents Sitwell and Hill joined the meeting, Thor entering right in front of Fury. As the Asgardian was seating himself beside Steve, Tony leaned across the table. “Hey, Thundercat, how many of those outfits do you have, exactly?” Thor was still dressed in his warrior regalia. “Has SHIELD been laundering those for you, or do they keep them in stock? Did you pack an extra cape in your iron boxers? Please tell me you’re showering. You are showering, right? Do gods not have b.o.?”

Thor smiled good-naturedly. “Is my odor offensive?”

“He smells pretty good to me,” Steve commented, earning a dirty look from Tony.

“Where’s Barton?” Fury barked.

“Where do you think?” Natasha countered.

“I trust you will fill him in.”

“Depends on whether there’s anything worth filling him in about.”

“Yeah, because if this is going to be another Fury lie-fest, I think Barton can skip the minutes of this meeting.” Tony bristled, barely civil.

“Okay, I’m not winning Prom King this year. I get it. Agent Coulson is recovering well. We need to move past this, people. We have important matters to discuss.”

“Are you saying Coulson isn’t important?”

“Tony,” Steve whispered, laying his hand on Tony’s thigh. Tony grudgingly sat back in his seat.

“The Avengers Initiative is in full swing and I have no plans to shut it down. Our victory in New York only scratched the surface of what this team is capable of, but we need to move cautiously. The public is still reeling from the battle and, right now, we are the subject of every newsfeed, headline, Internet blog, and tweet. Image is the key. We need to be on the right side of this.”

“You want us to start making public service announcements and kissing babies?” Natasha asked, her face sour.

“All due respect, sir, but the city is still in crisis,” Steve pointed out. “Our priority needs to be the rebuilding efforts.”

“Exactly, Cap. And in doing that, we rebuild the image of the Avengers as well.”

“Rebuild our image?” Bruce asked. “What exactly have we done to tarnish it?”

“The Avengers are hailed as heroes in most circles,” Hill explained. “But there’s a very vocal minority pointing out that the Avengers are no better than the Chitauri; that you’re aliens looking to take over this world.”

“Are those the same people leading those Hardy Boys searches for the President’s birth certificate?”

Steve looked at Bruce. “Why would anybody look for the president’s birth certificate?”

Bruce’s eyes were patient. “I’ll catch you up after the meeting, Cap.”

“Our exalted director is talking about PR, and as much as I hate to admit it, he’s got a point.”

“Thank you, Stark.”

“Don’t thank me for anything because you’re still a scumbag. But what the Avengers need is a PR guru. I happen to know the best in the business. She took care of the current British Prime Minister’s baby-daddy scandal.”

“David Cameron doesn’t have any illegitimate children,” Sitwell said.

“My point exactly.”

“Is this your pointy dick talking, Stark?” Natasha wanted to know. “Because the last thing we need is someone whose top résumé bullet is ‘slept with Tony Stark.’ ”

“She’s not into guys. Not that it stopped me from trying.” Tony winked and grinned.

Steve didn’t laugh.

“If she’s the best, why doesn’t she handle public relations for Stark Industries and its trouble-magnet owner?”

Tony sneered at Fury before responding, “Because even I am not a big enough fish for her. That should tell you something.”

“Can you get her in for a meeting?”

“Sure, if you and SHIELD are willing to loosen the purse strings real wide.”

Fury nodded towards Hill who jotted something down in a notepad. “When are we getting back to the discussion about the rebuild?” Steve wanted to know, becoming impatient with what seemed to him to be unimportant matters. “What difference does it make what magazine covers we’re on when the city is staggering?”

“I agree with Steven’s words. The rest is frivolity.”

“I nominate Thor for all future magazine covers,” Tony quipped. “It’s time we put those surfer good looks to use. Gotta lose the cape, though. Show a little more skin.” At Thor and Steve’s sharp glares, Tony threw up his hands. “What? I’m just saying.”

“Let’s get back to business, people. In order to move forward in an organized manner, we need to assign the Avengers a handler.”

“The Avengers already have a handler.” The adolescent jocularity of a moment ago fled and Tony was all steel eyes and gritted teeth. “His name is Coulson.Agent Coulson.”

“Agent Coulson is not currently fit for duty,” Fury pointed out.

“He will be.” Natasha’s features were even colder than Tony’s.

“And until then?”

Bruce added his vote. “Until then we play nice with each other and figure it out was we go along.”

“A team like this will only function effectively under trusted leadership, sir.”

“I love it when you talk all captain-y.” Tony’s voice was pitched low, but not so low that it didn’t vibrate in Steve’s thighs.

“The Captain of America speaks for us all.”

“Including Barton, because you know what his vote will be.” Natasha stared pointedly at Fury, something unspoken in the exchange.

“Agent Coulson is the best there is,” Fury stated. “Never get any arguments from me there. Nobody will be more relieved than me when he’s cleared for duty. Knowing the man the way I do, I would go to Vegas and put down two years’ salary on the odds of him getting back to work far sooner than any doctor will predict. The issue here is the transition phase between that day and this one.”

“Director Fury, the issue has already been put to rest. The Avengers will accept only Agent Coulson as their handler. In the meantime—”

“In the meantime, Captain, Agent Romanoff can barely manage to hiss at me, Agent Barton ignores my existence, and Stark spends most of his days devising new and unique ways to kick my ass.”

“I’ve come up with a few new good ones, actually.”

“Cap will keep us in line.” Steve turned toward Natasha, surprised by her assertion. “You’ve done a damn good job so far. There’s no doubt in my mind Clint will agree. Coulson, too, for that matter.”

“There’s a big difference between being the team leader and the SHIELD handler,” Maria Hill argued. “Captain Rogers has no experience—”

“Captain Rogers has more experiences than the rest of this room combined.” Bruce adjusted his glasses. “More importantly, he’s respected.”

“Director Fury, surely you can see—”

“Don’t be bitter,” Tony cut Hill off. “Only Bruce looks good as a green-eyed monster. There’ll be other jobs for you. I hear the security corps is being replaced. One too many break-ins and pizza deliveries.”

“Stark,” Fury warned.

“Play nice.” Bruce wagged a ‘naughty’ finger at Tony who proceeded to quickly fold up a piece of paper and shoot an airplane at him.

“Guys, this is exactly what Director Fury is talking about. If we can’t do better than this until Agent Coulson recovers fully, this situation won’t work.”

“Cap is right,” Natasha agreed.

“Okay, I’ll behave. But only because Steve asked me to.” Tony directed his remark pointedly at Fury. Apparently his message was received because Fury let the matter of finding another handler drop. The Avengers actually did behave after that, even Tony. When he did pass Steve a note in the middle of Fury’s briefing, there was none of the expected crude humor. Instead it said simply: I slept great. Best in months. Thanks.

Steve made the mistake of looking at him to make certain he was being serious, getting nearly knocked out of his chair by the impact of the unmasked gratitude in Tony’s eyes. Looking away quickly, Steve scribbled you are welcome on the paper and slid it back, doing his best to avoid looking at Tony from then on.

They came up with a plan to organize their efforts towards Operation Rebuild while continuing to support Coulson’s recovery. A schedule was drawn up, similar to the one they had in place, only this time enabling them to leave the Staten Island base at different intervals. Fury reported—and Bruce concurred—that Coulson would soon be strong enough to be moved to the SHIELD hospital facility in Manhattan, which would make scheduling shifts less cumbersome.

For now, Tony Stark would be the face of the Avengers since he had the most experience with reporters and media attention. The rest of the team would do their best to keep a low profile, which was exactly how they wanted it. Fury was going to put out the call to the public relations woman Tony had mentioned, and they would see where that went.

Fury requested a report from Thor regarding the status of the Tesseract and Loki, wanting to insure the Earth was free from those particular threats. The Avengers had their own queries regarding The Council and their cloaked intentions. Fury assured them he was on top of the situation, for what that was worth. He also gave a brief outline of proposed future scenarios in which the Avengers could best be employed. They listened without committing one way or the other.

Remarkably, every one made it through the meeting without incident. “Good job in there, Cap,” Bruce had remarked as they were leaving the conference room. Natasha and Thor concurred, though Steve didn’t feel he had done much.

“Captain Rogers.” Steve fell back at Fury’s request. “Close the door, please.”

Once they were alone, Fury got right to his point. “They’re right. You are the only man they respect enough to keep the team functioning as a cohesive unit.”

“I’ll do my best, sir.”

“I’m impressed by your ability to keep Stark in line.”

“Nobody keeps Tony in line and I wouldn’t try. His brilliance and commitment are unmatched. His outspokenness can be off-putting, but for the most part he’s speaking the truth. People don’t always want to hear the truth.”

“People like me?” Fury’s lone eyebrow rose.

“You didn’t handle the situation well, sir. People got hurt because of it.”

“I’m aware.”

“Then the best thing to do is give it time to settle. Tony’s not your biggest fan, but he’s committed to the team. He’ll do what’s right.”

“You sure?”

“Absolutely.”

“The Council is concerned Stark might be a liability.”

“Liability? Was he a liability when he ate the nuke those spineless cowards tried to fry New York with? Or was it when he sacrificed himself to destroy the Chitauri and close the portal?” Steve could feel his blood boiling.

“Easy, Cap, I never said I agreed. Stark is a bigger pain in my ass than a hemorrhoid, but he’s vital to the Avengers. I’ve already told that to The Council along with my advice for them to stick it where the sun don’t shine.”

“Then what is your point, sir?”

“My point is your influence is good for Stark—for all of them. Keep up the good work.”

“I’ll do my best for this team, always. And I’ll do my best for SHIELD for as long as they treat the Avengers with the respect they deserve. But if you think you or your Council, or anyone else for that matter, is going to manipulate them in any way and try to use me to do it, you may want to think again. Sir.”

~0~0~0~

“Getting called into the principal’s office on your first day as honorary Grand Pooh-bah.” Tony was leaning on the wall outside the conference room when Steve emerged. “Not a good sign.”

“You waiting for me?”

“Of course. How else would I get the scoop?” Tony came up to walk beside him. “What happened?”

“I got in trouble for passing notes in class.”

“It was about me, wasn’t it?”

“Isn’t everything?”

“It should be.” They continued walking together until they reached the elevator.

“I need to go to the medical floor and sit my shift with Phil,” Steve said, stepping inside and pushing the appropriate level button.

“I’ll take your shift,” Tony offered, stepping inside as well. “You can’t be getting much sleep worrying about whether everyone else is resting.”

“But you said you didn’t want any shifts inside Phil’s room.”

“I changed my mind. I’m fickle, remember?”

“Tony, don’t worry about Fury. I’ve got your back.”

“I know.” The elevator doors opened and Tony stepped out. “I left a listening device in there. Heard the whole thing.” Tony grinned like a mischievous child; a very pleased mischievous child. “Nice work, Captain.” He gave a salute and took off down the corridor.

Steve hadn’t moved, the elevator doors closing on his stunned expression as he tried to make sense of the wonder that was Tony Stark.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

By the end of ten full days in Staten Island, the Avengers were pleased with Agent Coulson’s progress. His eyes opened more regularly, he seemed cognizant of the team and his surroundings, and was talking more, mostly to Clint, but to the others as well. The level of gratitude he expressed with his few words and through his eyes touched Steve’s heart. Steve had gotten into the routine of reading to Phil during his shifts, something Coulson looked to enjoy. He figured out quickly the type of books the agent enjoyed best, though Phil wasn’t one to complain. Usually, Steve could tell which books were the least interesting by how quickly Phil fell asleep on them. It didn’t matter to Steve. He loved to read and could find something of interest in almost any book, so switching was no bother.

“My mom used to read to me when I was sick,” Steve had shared. He was such a frail kid; there were days he’d get so sick, he didn’t have the strength to hold a book up in his hands. His mom knew how much he loved his stories, so she would pick the book up and continue it for him. Her voice was pretty, and she could change it for each character to make the story more exciting. It was one of the dozens of things about her he missed when she was gone.

“Mine, too,” Phil had managed to tell him.

Steve didn’t know much about Coulson’s family. He wondered if they were somewhere, worried about him, or did they not even know what he did for a living. “You’ll have to tell me more about her when you get stronger.”

Phil nodded, his blue eyes warm and hearteningly alert.

Phil had a long road of recovery and physical therapy ahead, but the doctors were finally optimistic about his prognosis. After discussing it with Clint and making sure he was okay with it, the Avengers decided it was time to implement the new schedule they had worked out. Bruce and Natasha were going to stay with Clint, taking the first shift. The rest would return to Manhattan and get back to the rebuilding efforts. Bruce had set up a pretty good work space and was going to be doing research and coordinating with them from Staten Island.

Steve hadn’t allowed himself to notice how much he’d missed the fresh air and sunshine until they had exited the underground base. The wind on his cheeks was exhilarating. Since his awakening, he had a lot of trouble being closed in for long periods, but when it was necessary, he dealt with it stoically and without complaint. He would have done ten years, instead of ten days, underground to help Phil and Clint, so he had no regrets. Just relief.

Thor must have been experiencing a similar feeling of emancipation since he chose to fly back to the tower rather than be cooped up in a car. Steve gave serious consideration to walking back to Brooklyn, but Tony balked.

“You can’t walk across the Verrazano.”

“Tony, I could walk for days and not get tired.”

“I mean it’s illegal. The bridge has no walkway. Cars only.”

“Oh.” Steve thought again. “Then I’ll walk to the ferry and ride to Manhattan. From there, I could walk over the Brooklyn Bridge.”

Tony was growing impatient with him. “Seriously? What’s with the sudden desire for a marathon? You need to get away from me that badly?”

“No,” Steve argued. “Not at all.” The opposite, actually.

“Good. Then come on. Haven’t you ever heard of leaving with the guy who brought you?”

It was pointless to argue with Tony, especially when Steve really didn’t want to. They had exited from the main doors of the base rather than the backdoor they had broken in through, so Steve figured they had to be quite a distance from where they had parked the SUV. He looked forward to the walk, figuring it would be a good start in clearing the cobwebs from his head. He was surprised when Tony stopped about a quarter of a mile from the base and pulled out a car clicker.

“This isn’t where we parked,” Steve reminded.

“You mean the SUV? Oh, no, it’s not there anymore.”

“Someone stole your car?” he asked in alarm.

“Probably would have if I had left it there. No way in hell one of my cars was staying unattended on a Staten Island street. I had it picked up after we got to the base. Happy dropped this one for us this morning.”

Steve shouldn’t have been surprised, but Tony’s life was still surreal to him. Stark could be making things happen even when you didn’t see him making anything happen. He changed cars like other people changed their boxers. Most people didn’t own one car in Steve’s time. Tony had a fleet, along with countless other luxury belongings.

This particular car was an Audi A6—a fact Steve only knew from reading it off the fender. He hadn’t studied much about cars. There were so many more interesting things to read about as he oriented himself to this world than the makes and models of cars he couldn’t drive anyway. He could see this one was bigger and less showy than one of Tony’s sports cars, though still really nice. As he walked around to the passenger side of the four-door gray sedan—its sleek silver paint glimmering in the sunlight—he asked, “How do you keep track of them all?”

Tony laughed, sliding in behind the wheel and popping open a compartment which presented his sunglasses to him. “Pretty easily, actually.” He waited until Steve was situated, reminding him about the seatbelt.

“Oh, yeah.” Steve clicked the device in place and Tony pulled out.

“I chose this one because it’s not flashy,” Tony told him. “Thought you’d appreciate that.”

Steve grinned. “You and I have totally different ideas about what is flashy.”

“Fair enough. But at least you have enough leg room, right?”

“It’s very comfortable,” Steve admitted. His seat was roomy, he could stretch his legs well enough, and the buttery leather was almost obscenely supple.

“Maybe you should think about getting a car. I know a great dealer when you’re ready.”

“What do I need a car for?”

Noting the way Tony’s features scrunched, Steve could tell Tony had as much trouble figuring him out sometimes as he had deciphering Tony. “Oh, I don’t know. To drive, maybe?”

“I like to walk.”

“Even you can’t walk everywhere, especially if you want to get there with some expediency.”

“Most of the places I need to get with any expediency, SHIELD provides transportation.”

“Yeah, but sooner or later you’re going to want to get someplace with expediency that’s not a mission.”

“I have my bike.”

“What if it’s snowing? Freezing? Hailstorms?”

Steve shrugged. “Okay. So if I ever learn to drive and I need a car to get someplace with expediency that’s not a mission and it’s snowing, freezing, and hail storming, I’ll borrow one of your cars. You have plenty.”

Tony’s smile was broad. “You are marvelously original and charmingly quaint and it makes me fucking crazy . . . in a good way.”

“Thanks?” As compliments went, it was a strange one, but Tony seemed sincere and Steve wasn’t offended. In fact, it had been quite a while since Tony had offended him. Neither one of them had been very nice to the other when they’d first met, but that wasn’t the case now. Sure, Tony could still make him crazy with his outrageousness—but it was different crazy these days. “This isn’t your kind of music.” Steve glanced at the knobs and buttons of the stereo system as the sound of big band music filled the car's interior.

“I know. You hate my music.”

“I don’t hate it. Well, okay, I hate it. But it’s your car.”

“Which makes you my guest. It would be rude to inflict my music on you.”

“Whenever you have someone in your car, you don’t listen to your music?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“Then why now?”

“This is the first time you’ve let me drive you somewhere; well, other than an SUV ride full of Avengers preparing to infiltrate a secret base, so I’m thinking that doesn’t count.”

Tony was right. This was the first time they’d been alone in a car together. Steve had been trying hard not to think about how much he was enjoying this; how comfortable he was; how he liked having Tony all to himself.

Stop it.

“I wanted you to be comfortable. I had Happy find this CD because I sure as hell don’t have any music like this programmed in my car. Do you like it?”

“It’s nice,” Steve responded, though he wasn’t really listening; too busy marveling at Tony going to such effort. Looking for something safe to say, he went with, “I appreciate you giving me a ride.”

“My pleasure.”

Steve pretended he was looking forward, but he cheated his eyes towards the driver’s seat. Tony wasn’t looking at him, though. His eyes were on the road, protected by his fancy sunglasses. He had a handsome profile: rugged cheek, perfectly groomed facial hair, strong chin, plump lower lip.

At that thought, Steve knew it was time to direct his attention elsewhere. He looked out his own window for a time, the mix of familiar and unfamiliar jarring as always. He knew enough to know when Tony missed the correct exit on the BQE and was heading toward the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan.

“Did you forget I live in Brooklyn?”

“No. I need to make a stop at the tower first.” He half turned his head toward Steve. “Okay?”

Bad idea. Tony can drop me first. It’s easier. I already don’t have my brain under control. Too many weird thoughts. Best to go home. Tell him.

“Sure. No problem.”

~0~0~0~

When they arrived at Stark Tower, Steve figured Tony had some important piece of work he wanted to do in his lab. He had been away from it for almost two weeks and was probably getting hives from the separation. There was no telling how long he’d be in there once Tony got to his lab. Steve thought about taking himself home, but he didn’t want to get into an argument with Tony, who seemed determined to drive him, so he started thinking about where to spend his time at the tower. Probably the gym.

“Welcome home, sir,” The voice called JARVIS greeted as Tony and Steve got on the elevator to come up from the garage.

“Did you miss me, JARVIS?”

“Indubitably, sir.”

“Don’t be a smart ass.”

“He sounds real,” Steve whispered.

“He is real. And whispering won’t help. He hears everything.”

“Indeed I do, Captain Rogers. Welcome home to you as well. Your apartment is—”

“Whoa, whoa, Jarvis, ixnay. Cease. Desist.” Tony was waving his arms frantically.

“My what?”

“Must be a malfunction.”

“I assure you I am functioning at the optimal level.” Tony was shaking his head and making a circular, waving motion of his finger near his temple to indicate ‘crazy,’ but JARVIS was on to him. “I am not capable of being crazy, as you are indicating, sir.”

“He sees everything, too, huh?” Steve narrowed his eyes. “What’s going on, Tony?”

The elevator stopped, doors opening to a floor Steve had never been on. “Okay, don’t get mad,” Tony said nervously. “Give me a chance to show you something.”

They stepped out of the elevator into a hallway with only one door, an old-fashioned door, unlike the technological swooshing ones Steve had had difficulty mastering in other parts of the tower. Tony needed a key, not a button or a wave of his hand to open it. When it did open, he led them into a large, empty room. The walls were freshly painted in a soothing blue; the wood floors were beautifully finished and shining.

Otherwise, the space was nondescript. Empty. Its most notable feature was the windows. They stretched ceiling to floor and took up most of the far wall. Steve walked closer, finding they offered a view of not just the city, but the Brooklyn Bridge—all the East River bridges—and Brooklyn as well. The sunlight coming through them was spectacular. It was almost like being outside. Turning back from the window, confused, he asked, “Great view, but what exactly am I supposed to be looking at? You said you needed to show me something.”

“Don’t worry about it. Walk around. Keep looking.”

Steve remained puzzled, but this seemed important to Tony, so he walked through the space. There was a hall off the room they were standing in. It broke off into three other rooms. One was a bathroom with clean, neat tile, and a very large shower stall. The next was a kitchen; white cabinets, what looked to be new appliances, nice wide spaces between everything. The last was a good-sized room, though not as big as the one they entered through. It had fewer, more traditional windows, therefore less light, but wasn’t dark by any means. Just more peaceful, less stimulating to the eye. Tour complete, they returned to the large room, Steve asking, “Is that it? Is this what you wanted me to see?”

“Do you like it?”

“Yeah, sure, it’s nice.” The space wasn’t opulent like the penthouse, or Thor’s apartment, or really any other space in the tower Steve had seen. It was simple. Nothing Tony-esque about it. It was stark, not Stark. “It doesn’t really fit in with the rest of your tower, though. Are you renovating it?”

“It’s already been renovated. This is actually the look I was going for.”

“Okay.” Steve still didn’t understand. Tony was starting to bounce on his feet, bopping and swaying like he was getting agitated or uncomfortable. “Tony, what’s going on? Why are we here?”

“I was hoping you’d like it. Hoping you’d want to live here.”

“Live here? Here?”

“Yes. In this apartment.”

Steve was baffled. All the times Tony had tried to get him to consider moving to Stark Tower, this was not what Steve had pictured. Having seen the inside of the tower and gotten a firsthand perspective of how grandiose everything was, this space made little sense. There wasn’t even any furniture. When Tony Stark did things, he did them big—no, huge—no, extravagantly elaborate.

“Okay, I’ve fucked up.” Tony looked like a kicked puppy. “I can tell you’re not happy.”

Steve felt like an ingrate, hastening to explain. “I’m not happy or unhappy. Just not sure I totally get it. I know you hate the place they gave me in Brooklyn—”

“So why would I try to get you to replace it with this empty dump?”

“This is not a dump,” Steve argued. Looking around again to make sure he meant his words, he added, “It’s nice. Really nice. Comfortable. It’s just not you, you know?”

“It’s not supposed to be me. It’s supposed to be you.” Tony threw up his hands in exasperation and began to pace. “I wanted it to be me, believe me. Do you have any idea how hard it is for me to use this kind of restraint? To leave this place like this? I am not known for restraint.” Tony looked as though he was going to pop. He stopped walking, taking a deep breath before continuing, hands gesturing to emphasize his words. “But the more palatial architectural plans I drew up, and the more trappings I ordered to fill it with, the more I realized I was doing the same thing SHIELD had done. I was trying to define you. They did it using a black and white rerun from the forties, and I was trying to do it by stuffing the place full of Technicolor; everything the decades robbed from you, things you truly deserve. None of that was going to work, though.” He paused, taking in the room. “Four walls and a floor is space. Space can’t be a home until you make it one. The place you live has to reflect who you are, not who other people think you are. Yeah, I can have my design team come in and transform this overnight—I’ve done it for everyone who moved in to the tower. But that’s not good enough for you. Not after everything you’ve lost and sacrificed.” Tony’s chin dropped to his chest, his words suddenly fumbling and shy. “You deserve a home. I mean a real home. It has to be personal, you know? I wanted you to think of this as your blank canvas. You fill in all the colors you want until it feels right.”

Steve had never experienced such an inability to speak. Every word, every sound he thought to make lodged in his throat and it was hard to breathe around them. What could he possibly say in response? Tony’s generosity, his effort, his thoughtfulness—thinking so hard about what would be right for Steve, even when it went against every one of his own instincts—was staggering. Steve looked around again at their surroundings as he tried to fathom it.

He was wrong before. The apartment wasn’t empty at all. The view of the bridge and Brooklyn wasn’t an accident, nor were the windows that left him feeling liberated rather than confined. The natural light, all southern exposure, was not only easing his persistent claustrophobia, but calling to the artist he kept locked away. The walls were bare, but they weren’t dingy—instead, the blue was as calming as a nursery, without being the least bit childish. He walked back down the hall, stepping inside the kitchen this time. There was plenty of open space. Cabinets were at the right level, he didn’t need to stoop. Nothing was cramped. The appliances were modern, especially compared to the relics in his current kitchen, but they weren’t so high-tech looking as to be intimidating, like the stuff in the penthouse kitchen. An abundance of counter space—even a counter-cabinet island in the center, kind of like a table, only higher—still left plenty of room for ample kitchen furniture. Every detail bespoke a space scaled perfectly to his height and sensibilities. As he left the kitchen, he saw Tony in the hall, silently watching him. He ducked his head into the other room, realizing it was meant to be a bedroom. The lessening of light and stimulus there would prove very relaxing, soothing for sleep.

“Tony,” he started, hoping more words would follow, but his thoughts were a jumbled mess drowned out by his loudly racing heart.

“You could be in the gym in seconds,” Tony pointed out, talking smooth and fast like a salesman. “I mean, you don’t have to stay cooped up in here. You’d have access to anything in the tower. You can go to the pool, the library, theater, anywhere you want. Plenty of room in the garage for your bike. I could help you fix up the place. Or change it entirely. It can be bigger—”

“No.” Steve shook his head. “I don’t like bigger.” That was one thing he was certain about. Small and cramped was not great, but it beat rattling around somewhere too large, every step reminding him how he didn’t fit. It was a feeling he had experienced on the SHIELD base, and previously in the tower. “This size is good.” All the places he’d ever lived could fit inside this apartment, yet there was still a coziness about it, which held great appeal.

“So, you like it?”

Tony bit his lip, his tone eager, his facial expression one of someone preparing for the worst while hoping for the best. Steve realized what a louse he was being. He still hadn’t told Tony anything. “Yes, I like it. I think—”

“Wait.” Tony held up his hands to stall Steve’s words. “Don’t decide yet. I forgot to show you something.”

Steve wanted to tell him he had done enough, more than enough, but Tony darted off too quickly. Steve followed him into the kitchen and watched as Tony frantically opened and closed cabinets. “I put them in one of these cabinets for safe keeping. Which fucking cabinet was it?”

“It’s okay. I don’t need see anything else.”

“No, it’s important.” Tony started babbling more quickly as he searched. “I know I said this should be a blank canvas and all, but then I got to thinking most people have a starting place when they are figuring out what goes in their home. I mean, yeah, you can pick out all kinds of great, new stuff, and it will be personal because it’s yours, and you picked it, and it reflects you, but unlike most people you don’t have any truly personal belongings. The average person has more dust collectors per square foot than a pile of shit has flies. You should get to have something on your shelves that’s personal, too.”

“I don’t have anything like that,” Steve said, trying not to feel forlorn when Tony had worked this hard to create a space he could feel comfortable in.

Tony gave a hoot of success as he removed something from the left-most cabinet under the sink. He carefully extricated the items and walked toward Steve, handing them over. “Yeah, you do.” Steve looked down, seeing two picture frames being set into his outstretched hands. “I had them restored and framed, but the pictures are the real thing. I found them in a box of my father’s stuff.”

Steve gasped, nearly dropping the frames from his hands. The first was a picture of Steve the way he had once looked—the way he still saw himself at times when he looked in a mirror. He was talking to Dr. Erskine and Howard Stark in the lab just before they began the process to inject him with the serum. He had seen pictures of himself from that morning before. He had also seen file pictures of Erskine and Stark, but this photo he had never seen. Colonel Phillips had ordered the photographers to stop snapping and had the cameras confiscated. Howard Stark must have gotten hold of this picture, but never made it available, because it was in no files Steve had perused. Steve’s fingers ghosted lightly over the images of his friends. He had known them such a short time, but he wouldn’t be the man he was without them. He could still hear Erskine’s soft-spoken voice explaining to him why he was chosen for the Super Soldier Program. Not a day went by when Steve didn’t try to live up to the faith the kindly doctor had placed in him.

The second picture was of him with the guys from the 107th. It wasn’t the kind of official picture found in an army file. One of the guys had procured a camera from a local shop and was snapping pictures one day outside the mess tent. Steve had never seen the picture developed, but looking at it, he could remember the moment as if it was yesterday. They were all there, all horsing around: Gabe and Jacques were pretending to tango; Dum Dum was still chowing down, having liberated his plate from the mess; Morita’s fork was coming dangerous close to Dum Dum’s plate in an attempt to steal a potato; Falsworth was bending over, his head over his shoulder to grin as he pointed his butt toward the camera—he was yelling “Kiss my bum,” Steve almost hearing the words come through the still picture; Steve stood awkwardly beside him, never having been comfortable with getting his picture taken; Bucky was clinging to his shoulders, having jumped piggyback style onto Steve to pull open his jacket and expose the Captain America star on his chest. Bucky’s face was alight with laughter and pride. Bucky always had the most amazing smile.

Steve’s hands shook as the emotions rocked him. A longing he rarely let himself acknowledge surged and the ache of loss bounced around inside his stomach, nauseating him. He managed to get the photos back into Tony’s hands before dropping them, then turned and headed straight for the john.

~0~0~0~

When he emerged a few minutes later, after splashing himself with enough cold water to fill a tub, he felt steadier. He found Tony in the living room, the photos nowhere in sight. Tony looked as green as Steve had felt before his retreat.

“I’m sorry, Steve. I fucked this up. Wasn’t what I meant to do, but when I do something, I do it big. Epic proportions of failure.”

It was everything Steve could do not to wrap Tony in his arms and kiss him until he understood exactly how wonderful he was. Mustering restraint, he put a hand on his friend’s shoulder and squeezed. “You didn’t fail. You got it right. All of it. I’m a little overwhelmed. More than a little. Sorry for behaving like an ungrateful jerk. I’m going to do better. I might need time to let the emotions straighten out. I’m not used to the kind of gifts you give, but wow.” Wow? Really? This is what you come up with?

There was a glimmer of hope back in Tony’s eyes. “You mean you like it? The apartment?”

“How could I not? You gave me something even I didn’t know I needed. You took the time to see me as more than an oddity stuck in a time warp. I know it had to be hard for you, a place like this. You probably think it’s crazy someone would want to live this way, but it didn’t matter: You still did it.” Steve shook his head, utterly frustrated with himself. “I’m saying everything wrong, not saying anything I mean.”

“If we’re being truthful, I don’t give a damn about what words you find. You can nod. Stomp your foot. Blink your eyes. Whatever. I just gotta know if you’re going to move in here.”

“If I say yes, are you going to expect me to do it this minute?” Steve was still reeling. He had in no way mentally prepared himself for the challenges of sharing living space with Tony Stark. He needed time.

“Yes. Of course. This very minute. Yesterday would have been better. See, patience is one of those things like restraint. Not my forte. But if you’re saying stop pushing and give you time or forget the whole thing, I’ll go with option A.”

“I don’t think I was exactly saying it like that. I’m a little more tactful.” Steve was gratified when Tony smiled along with him.

“Thor’s hammer is more tactful than me.”

~0~0~0~

“You can go as slow as you want. It’s your place. But I think we need to start planning. A bed has to happen first. Those custom wood floors are reclaimed Amish oak, but I doubt they are comfortable to sleep on. Maybe you want carpet? Do you want carpet? Or area rugs. Those might work, too.”

Steve was listening to Tony ramble as he drove them to Brooklyn. He had tried convincing Tony he was capable of getting home on his own, not wanting to put him to any more trouble, but Tony was stubborn.

“There are countless ways to shop,” Tony went on. “I can get you a bunch of catalogs. You can shop online. We can go to as many stores are you want. I can hire a personal shopper. Do you even know what that is? No matter. I’ll put JARVIS on this. He’ll be at your disposal when you move to the tower. Twenty-four, seven. Anything you need. And don’t be afraid to call on my design team. They’re the best. Not that I’m saying you can’t design your space perfectly fine yourself. I’m not trying to tell you what to do. The apartment is for you.”

Steve nodded, distracted. If he listened too much, his head would spin more than it already was. He was getting a clearer idea of how much of a struggle it had been for Tony to present him with a bare apartment rather than equip it ceiling to floor with the best of everything. Tony liked his stuff. Stuff played a prominent role in his life, the finer the better. Steve had expected that to make him arrogant and materialistic, but like with many things about Tony Stark, Steve had judged it wrong. Howard Stark shared a similar trait. He was rich, but he used his money, power, and acute intellect to serve a greater purpose than himself.

Steve was aware the Howard he remembered bore little likeness to the one Tony described. As much as he admired and missed his friend Howard, a part of Steve hated him for the pain he had caused Tony. It had to have taken a lot for Tony to willingly go through his father’s things to find those pictures.

“Those photographs mean a lot to me,” Steve stated quietly, interrupting Tony’s monologue on the various styles of furniture that had come into fashion since Steve’s day. “To have something really personal is nice. I mean, I know I could go online and pull up a bunch of pictures from those days, but Howard was there. Those are the actual photographs, not electronic replicas.”

“There aren’t any replicas of those particular pictures as far as I know.” Tony’s face grew solemn. “There were certain things my father kept for himself. He never wanted anyone touching those boxes. Not like I ever had any desire to touch his damn, precious boxes.”

“But you did. For me. Thank you.”

Tony turned a quick glance Steve’s way, his eyes shielded by his sunglasses making it impossible to see what truths they held. When he turned his attention back to the road, Tony mused, “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. Do you remember what you said about misjudging me on the Helicarrier? I did the same to you. I was pissed at you long before I met you. I had years of pissed stored up, thrilled to finally have the chance to spew. All the crap I said to you when we first met, it was my anger talking. The jealousy.”

“Jealous?”

“For a lot of years, I was convinced you mattered more to him than anything else, even me.”

Steve’s gut ached for Tony. “What an awful way to have to feel. I’m sorry.”

Tony shrugged. “Not your fault. Turns out, you were as perfect as he believed. The bullshit I was spouting on the Helicarrier was me preening, trying to get one up on the big hero who daddy liked best. He gets the last laugh, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“He was right about you. And if something in his sacred junk box gives you even a moment’s comfort, then I’m glad I went through it.”

“I can’t say whether your father knew it or not, though I don’t know how he couldn’t. But he had a remarkable son. If I had to sleep for seventy years in order to get a chance to know you, it was worth it.”

Steve regretted the words the second they escaped. Not that they weren’t true. He just knew he was walking a fine line and he needed to start being more careful before he ruined everything.

Tony’s voice was husky when he spoke. “He was right to keep looking for you all those years. You were worth finding.” Before Steve could respond, Tony stopped the car and shifted into park, announcing sourly, “Here we are. La Casa de hellhole.”

Steve looked out the window, surprised they were already here. He hadn’t been paying much attention to the outside surroundings; too much going on inside. “Oh. Okay.” He felt awkward and very small in the face of the things Tony had said and done. “Thanks again, then. For the ride and everything.” He opened the car door.

“Wait, take this.” Tony reached into his pocket and pulled out the Iron Man red cellphone; the one that had been in the bag of phones Tony had brought him the night with the pizza; the one Steve had selected, but never got to really look at. “I’ve programmed it for you.”

Steve looked at it in awe as the phone was placed in his hand. Had Tony been keeping it for him all this time? “Thanks. I . . . um . . . still not sure I know how to use it, but thanks.”

Tony took the phone back. “Quick tutorial.” He hit a small button on the side. “This turns it on.” He swiped his thumb across the screen. “This brings up the keypad. If you press one on the keypad and hold it for a second, you’ll be calling me.” He handed the phone back to Steve. “If you need to know anything else, you press one and ask me. Got it?”

“Yeah, that I get.”

~0~0~0~

“Oh my gosh!” Steve exclaimed, coughing as he entered his apartment. The stench was foul, even to him, and he’d bunked with soldiers during battle. He had totally forgotten about the beer and pizza party Natasha had interrupted the night she came here to tell them about Clint. Spilled beer and rotting pizza was everywhere, the window tightly closed. He went to open it, but it did little good.

The lamp he switched on despite it being the middle of the day did little to eliminate the dreariness. The place felt oppressive, maybe more so than usual since he’d been away from it for a while. Retrieving cleaning supplies from the kitchen, he slammed into the counter as he moved too quickly in the too-small room. While he rounded up the garbage, he thought about the last apartment he had lived in with his mom before she got really sick. It had been smaller than this, and they had been struggling to make ends meet, yet it never felt this desolate. Steve’s artwork hung on the walls and his mom was always making little things to brighten it up: A doily one day, a new pot holder the next, a patchwork blanket over the sofa, a vase full of paper flowers someone had thrown away that she fluffed until they were beautiful again.

They never had much, but every single thing in the apartment meant something. Steve looked around as he fought with a pizza stain in the tired carpet. He told himself he hadn’t bothered with this place because he was busy, because he was still adjusting to his new life. Truthfully, he hadn’t cared enough to bother. This apartment—hovel as Thor described it, hellhole as Tony called it—was an outer reflection of how he had felt inside: dull, tired, out of date, cramped, gloomy. A part of him liked being here; liked it in a sulking sense because it made him miserable. He could avoid calling himself to task on his brooding because SHIELD had given the apartment to him. He wasn’t responsible.

Get it in gear, Rogers. Time to quit the sniveling. You lost people. You lost seventy years you’re not getting back. Deal with it. This is the life you have. Get out of the tomb. Start living.

Tony could see right off how Steve was doing himself no favors living in a mausoleum, avoiding the world. Tony was offering him a place to stay, yes, but more importantly, he was gently prompting him to join this world, start to create the Steve Rogers he would become in the 21st century. A part of Steve had initially felt slighted at Tony offering him an empty space, as if he didn’t rate a real apartment like he had given the others—and had surely given Bruce. It had been a fleeting thought, one he hadn’t fully acknowledged inside himself, and had repressed the moment he realized the true significance of Tony’s gift. Steve understood now.

Was he finally ready?

He discarded his rag and cleaning liquid, tossing them to the floor and kicking the trash bag as he reached for the phone in his pocket. Remembering the instructions, he pressed one, Tony picking up immediately. “Hi, Tony. It’s me. Steve.”

“I know.”

“How do you know?”

“My phone tells me. Besides, I recognize your voice.”

“Oh.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I was just . . . wondering . . . are you too far away to turn back around?”

“I’m still downstairs.”

“Oh.” Steve needed to let that sink in a minute. Why would Tony be downstairs when Steve had gotten out of his car at least twenty minutes ago?

“Steve, is something wrong?”

“No. I changed my mind. About the needing time thing. If the offer still stands, I’d like to go back to the tower with you. I don’t have much here to pack. My books, the laptop, some file folders, a few clothes. Do you think this stuff will fit in your car?”

“I’ll make it fit.”

“Oh, and my bike. It’s parked around the corner. I can’t leave it here.”

“I’ll have it picked up before you’re done packing.”

Steve couldn’t help smiling. When Tony wanted something done, it got done. “Okay. Give me ten minutes to throw my stuff together and I’ll be ready.”

“I’m on my way up to help you. Then it will only take five.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

When the whirlwind called Tony Stark was set in motion, the path of least resistance was to spin with it. Interference was a waste of energy. It was mindboggling the amount they got accomplished in the hours between loading Tony’s car with Steve’s meager possessions and bedtime. True to his word, Tony made certain the choices were Steve’s. Making the choices happen was pure Tony.

It didn’t take long to get Steve’s stuff moved in. Hangers filled the closets, way more hangers than Steve had clothes, so he was able to get things put away easily enough. Some workers brought in book shelves—“Completely temporary,” Tony assured him. “A place to put your books until you find shelves you like, then they’re out of here.” Steve stacked his books neatly, making a mental note about which library books he needed to return soon. When he finished, he looked around.

“Where are my pictures?”

Tony looked uncomfortable. “You got pretty upset about them. I didn’t know if you wanted them in here, or if they were making it worse.”

“Of course I want them.”

“You sure?”

“Positive.”

In less than five minutes, the pictures were back, along with a beautiful antique table for them to sit upon, another temporary addition, Tony swore, but Steve liked it. He was pretty sure it was going to stay.

They went to the huge kitchen in the penthouse for lunch, Steve not realizing how hungry he was until he smelled the food. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast in Staten Island at 0600.

And then they went shopping.

Steve admitted to Tony that the act of shopping people presently engaged in was foreign to him. He remembered going to the store when he was younger, carrying just enough money to buy what was needed. Sometimes there wasn’t even enough for that. He spent a lot of time waiting in bread lines, or showing up at a local church early in the morning to procure a pair of old shoes or maybe a shirt with only one button missing from the Sisters of Charity. When he was in college, he worked two jobs to pay for tuition, rent, textbooks, art supplies and food, and when there wasn’t enough for all, he either went without eating or slept in a flophouse. Sure, he’d looked in windows from time to time at things he’d never be able to afford to own, but he’d never actually walked around with enough money to go inside a store and select from different options, letting what he liked be the deciding factor rather than worrying about cost.

At first he was uncomfortable letting Tony buy him things, but Tony had sat him down at the computer and shown him exactly how much money both the Army and SHIELD—the modern day offshoot of the SSR—owed him in back pay. The figure was astounding. “I’ve already got my accounting and legal teams working on shaking loose every damn penny rather than let them tie it up in red tape for years. You’re a rich man, Cap. I think I can afford to spot you a loan.” Tony whipped out his wallet and handed Steve a black credit card with the words American Express emblazoned on it. “You can use this for now.”

Steve looked at the piece of plastic. “I’ve read about credit cards. I haven’t used one, yet.”

“You’ll learn fast. Trust me.”

He’d gone food shopping since his return to the world of the living, but only in small markets in Brooklyn. Tony took him to a place called the Fairway Market and it was huge. It had everything: A bakery, produce from around the world, butcher shop, deli, cheese shop, even a whole section with every kind of coffee bean imaginable.

“Do you shop here?” he asked Tony as they walked the countless aisles, Steve’s head turning to and fro to take it all in.

“I don’t spend time in supermarkets.” Tony looked up from his tablet, peering over his sunglasses to give a quick glance. “But as such things go, this place is a good one.”

“How do you—” Steve started to ask, then stopped himself. Of course Tony would have people who did this kind of thing for him. When Steve had worried about going out shopping when the Avengers were supposed to be keeping a low public profile, Tony has quipped, “Believe me, nobody expects to see Tony Stark in the Ajax aisle.”

Tony was dressed simply: jeans, sneakers, a plain tee shirt, and a New York Giants jacket—after Steve had complained he wasn’t going out in public with him wearing a Yankees jacket. For Stark, it was casual attire, nothing attention-grabbing, but to Steve he still looked stunning.

Figuring Tony had to be bored, Steve repeated his previous offer. “You didn’t have to do this with me, Tony. I’ll be fine.”

“Hey, I said I’d help you. I knew I wasn’t going to talk you into letting my people take care of it, so shop away. Enjoy.”

Steve did his best to make it quick, not wanting to detain Tony any longer than necessary, though he wasn’t grousing and he sure wasn’t someone to suffer in silence. In fact, Tony kept piling more things into his cart when he wasn’t looking. He wound up with two carts, and eventually three. “Why do I need all this? It’s not like I can’t come back.”

“Yeah, and the depression ended decades ago. Don’t be afraid to fill up your cart. It’s not a sin.”

Steve got the point. He realized it was going to take more effort to get himself in a 21st century mindset, but at least he was trying now. To Tony’s utter relief, Steve agreed to allow Stark’s assistants to pack up his groceries and transport them back to the tower so they could continue their shopping trip.

Happy was waiting for them outside, though not in a limo. It was another one of Tony’s cars, a blue one this time. Tony had explained it would be easier to move in and out of stores in Manhattan if they didn’t have to worry about where to park, and Steve was enough of a New Yorker to understand his point. As Happy drove them further uptown towards their next destination, Tony pulled out a laptop and was showing Steve samples of window coverings JARVIS had collected: curtains, blinds, shades; all colors, sizes and textures.

“You’re going to need to put something up over those windows soon. I can get you samples of anything you like if you want to feel the fabric. Let me know what appeals to you and I’ll make it happen.”

Steve was overwhelmed by the choices. He wanted to tell Tony to close the laptop and he’d figure it out another time, but he had made the decision to move forward, not procrastinate. He studied the options carefully, visualizing how each would look in the apartment—his apartment. The color was the easiest choice. He was going to stay with the blue hues Tony had chosen for the paint. He knew he didn’t want anything too heavy or cumbersome; he loved the windows and the light they emitted. But, as Tony pointed out, it was good to have the option of muting the brightness when he wanted it. Tony helped him choose light filtering shades that could be adjusted with a remote—which Tony assured he would help him figure out—for the living room, and room darkening shades for the bedroom. He also picked sheer curtains to frame the windows.

“Where are we?” he asked as they got out of the car, too busy looking at window treatments to have paid attention to their route.

“You need a bed, remember?”

“They sell beds here?” On the outside, the building looked like a fancy hotel. Steve had figured they’d be shopping somewhere that looked like Macy*s maybe. “What kind of store is this?”

“This is not a store,” Tony answered, pronouncing the word ‘store’ as if he was afraid he was going to catch disease from it. “This is a shop-by-appointment-only boutique with a six-month wait list. Sheik Yerabooti couldn't get in here last minute.” But Tony Stark can, Steve mentally finished. For such a big place, there weren’t many people inside. The staff was dressed like swells and everyone was eager to greet Mr. Stark. They were offered elegant coffees and drinks, which Steve politely declined. He was secretly glad when Tony didn’t drink. Steve was presented with large gold-trimmed books full of opulent bedroom furniture, and escorted to several showrooms. He did his best to appear interested, but he really didn’t feel any of this stuff was for him: Solid gold bedposts, leather headboards, mattresses the size of boxing rings; one room was decked out like something Henry the VIII might have slept in; the more modern stuff seemed to Steve like it was meant for a space colony on Mars.

“Do you have anything a little less . . . a little less?” he asked after almost an hour of futile browsing.

The refined woman helping them looked to be trying hard not to turn up her nose, but Tony laughed, to Steve’s relief.

“Message received, Cap. Let’s get out of here.”

“I’m sorry,” he told Tony on their way out.

“No need. I figured this might happen, but I took a shot.”

“You shop in there?” Steve was puzzled. Tony’s stuff was extravagant beyond Steve’s taste, but it wasn’t gaudy.

“I employ personal shoppers and at times things I’m interested are sent here for me to take a look at before I go to the expense of having them delivered and set up in the penthouse. The personal shopper route is not for you, but I thought maybe we could take a look here in case there was something you liked. I’m not exactly familiar with your average furniture stores.”

Steve was amused to hear there was something Tony wasn’t a genius in. The kind of shopping they were doing wasn’t Tony’s area of expertise either, which only made it more meaningful he was doing this for Steve. “Nope, nothing run of the mill about that place. Talk about olden days. I thought we decided I should leave the museum décor behind? A lot of that stuff dates back way before me, even.”

Tony grinned, putting his dark glasses back on as they stepped into the sunlight and headed to the car. “True. But I think you might look pretty hot sprawled out in a Louis XIV gold-trimmed platform bed with curtains.”

Steve was hoping the lenses on Tony’s glasses were dark enough to keep him from noticing the heat flushing his cheeks.

“Might I suggest Sleepy’s?” Happy offered as he opened the car door. “There’s one a few miles from here.”

“A what, now?” Tony asked.

Sleepy’s. It’s a chain store. It sells mattresses and bedframes.”

“I like the name,” Steve grinned. “Sleepy was one of the seven dwarfs.”

“So now our shopping criteria have narrowed to places named after dwarfs?”

“Let’s try it. It can’t be any worse than Louis XIV’s bedchamber.”

~0~0~0~

Steve spent the next hour hopping from bed to bed under Tony’s supervision in a large showroom full of mattresses. He had never realized there were so many kinds of mattresses. The small SHIELD-issued bed in the hellhole wasn’t well planned, one side of it sagging after his first week there. Steve wasn’t picky, though. He had slept on a couch for much of his life, and was also familiar with bunk beds at Bucky’s, cots in the orphanage, and army bunks and bed rolls. This was a new experience entirely. He was self-conscious at first, thinking it strange a store would be okay with a grown man sprawling himself atop their mattresses in public, but Tony convinced him it was exactly what they expected him to do, other customers paying them no heed as they did the same.

Tony steered him away from anything that wasn’t king-size, deciding even those were too small. “Okay, clearly this will have to be a custom order, but at least you can get a feel for the kind of mattress you like. Try ‘em out. Roll around. Lay the way you do when you’re sleeping.”

Steve climbed on, flat upon his back, lying stiffly, arms at his sides.

“Please tell me that is not how you sleep. I feel like I’m supposed to salute or something.”

Steve often slept on his stomach, but he would have felt foolish doing it here, so he rolled to his left side instead. “This one’s fine.” Of course, by the time he got to the fifth mattress he labeled as ‘fine,’ Tony shook his head and sighed.

“Let me explain the concept again. It’s about comfort. Try to wash your brain clean of this image as bed being something provided for you to dutifully lie down in until it’s time to bounce up and be amazing again. What makes you relax? What makes you comfortable? Hard, soft? Thick, thin? Plushy, not plushy?” Steve nearly gasped when Tony hopped up on the bed beside him, curling to face him. “This one. This is a pillow-top. It’s higher. Fluffier. Lay on it like you would at home.”

Steve didn’t process the request at first, thrown by the how gorgeous Tony’s eyes were as they looked at him from across the pillows, like something out of a dream. “It’s nice,” he muttered, only at this point he wasn’t aware the mattress.

“Some people find these type of mattresses too warm. Are you hot?”

Hot. Very hot. So hot.

“I . . . um, I sleep on my stomach.” Ducking for cover, he rolled over, his self-consciousness taking a backseat to his desperate need to smother his heated face and groin into the thick mattress before he truly humiliated himself.

“Yeah . . . mmm . . . like that . . . nice.” Tony’s voice suddenly sounded slurred. A moment later, Steve felt the mattress jostle and heard Tony spring from the bed. “Maybe memory foam,” he said anxiously. “I’ll be over there looking at those.”

Steve didn’t follow right away, waiting until it was safe to get up. Thankfully, Tony didn’t get in any more beds with him, though he did lay in a few by himself as he explained the differences of the mattresses to Steve, which was almost as bad. All the while, Tony was typing things into his tablet, which Steve was glad about because it was difficult being the sole focus of Tony’s attention when he was stretched out in a bed.

When they had tried all the beds that would fit Steve—after both Tony and the salesman had explained things like foam, coil, springs, innersprings, pillow-tops, latex, and air mattresses until Steve was so confused he was ready to requisition an army cot—Tony declared they were finished.

“But I didn’t pick anything.”

“Sure you did.” Tony turned his tablet around to show Steve. “I’m custom ordering this for you. I was watching you. I saw what you liked and didn’t like, what works and what doesn’t, and then factored in your special needs. This should do the trick.”

Tony showed him something called an Extreme UltraKing five-inch mattress with a Swiss- designed inner coil system, one hundred percent Belgian cotton casing, and a quilted underside to regulate body temperature. It was supposed to cushion and adjust to the body’s curves while maintaining firmness under weights even heavier than Steve’s, and the extra-large size would be tall enough, wide enough, and long enough. Steve looked at Tony, stunned.

“You were able to figure this out just by watching me lying on beds in here?”

“Sure. It was a simple algorithm.”

Steve raised his eyebrow, suspicious. “And you didn’t have it picked out all along and played out this charade so I’d think it was my choice?”

“Would I do something like that?” Innocent did not work on Tony.

“Yes, you totally would.”

Tony laughed. “I will neither confirm nor deny this allegation. To do so would only impugn my integrity. I will, however, offer a guarantee: If this bed comes and you don’t absolutely adore it in every measurable way, we’ll come back here and do this again.”

“Oh, no.” Steve shook his head. “Once was more than enough. I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“Not in my tower, you won’t. Which brings us to our next problem. It takes six weeks for this to be custom made and shipped. Of course, for me, it’ll be here by Friday. Still leaves you bedless for the time being. And we haven’t begun to look at frames and bedroom sets.”

Steve gave a moment’s consideration to letting Tony go ahead and order everything to be done with this, but that would defeat the purpose. Besides, he actually was having fun. He just needed a break, yearning to shop for something more familiar—and far less tantalizing when it came to a certain Tony Stark.

“We’ll figure it out,” he assured. “Right now, my head is spinning. I need to focus on something simpler. Can we find a place to buy some drawing pencils? I haven’t had any in seventy years.”

~0~0~0~

Pearl Paint on Canal Street had been around in Steve’s day, though it wasn’t nearly as impressive back then when he was an art student in search of supplies. Now it took up an entire five-story building, its bright red and white painted façade a welcoming sight.

“I’m going to sit this one out,” Tony informed, situating his laptop in the back seat as they pulled up. “I’ll think you’ll enjoy this more on your own.”

“I won’t be long,” Steve responded, puzzled when Tony snickered.

Two hours later, he was still wandering the narrow, maze-like hallways, each aisle crammed to the ceiling with every possible art-related item you could image. He had forgotten how much he’d missed the world of art. This place was an artist’s wonderland. He tried to be conservative at first, but before he knew it, he had a basket full of pencils, paper, sharpeners, sketch pads, charcoals, erasers, and three different art supply organizers, the biggest designed like a lazy Susan, with a built-in turntable. He even picked out paints, though he hadn’t painted since—he couldn’t remember when. With paints came brushes, cleaners, cups, palettes, and canvases. When he took a look at the second basket he’d filled, he knew he was out of control. He hadn’t even hit the art books yet. And, of course, he needed a drafting table. Everyone who worked at the store was super nice, helping him find things he didn’t know he needed. He learned quickly, picked up tips about the best products, and was offered help selecting the books he would most benefit from.

I can’t buy all this stuff, he worried when the guilt set in, coming from a place so deeply embedded he wasn’t even sure how to access it, much less quiet it. He yanked his cellphone out of his pocket and pressed one, needing advice.

“Did you forget how to swipe the credit card the way I told you?” Tony asked as he picked up the call.

“Sorry to bother you. I can’t. . . .” Once Tony was actually on the phone, Steve felt stupider. He was about to say ‘forget it,’ but Tony spoke first.

“Be right in.”

Steve laughed nervously when Tony entered the store, took one look at his two baskets of stuff, along with what he had leaning near the counter, and asked, “Is this all you bought?”

“I haven’t actually bought anything yet.”

“The whole spending money thing again?” At Steve’s nod, Tony smiled. “We’re going to keep working on this.”

“I think I need to put some things back.”

“Okay, let’s recap, Cap. You don’t have a car, your clothes come from Sears, you’re living rent-free, no screaming kids to feed, you’ve earned your money by allowing the U.S. Army to use you as a guinea pig in what had to be an excruciatingly painful procedure, and by putting your gorgeous ass on the line to protect your country, a duty and sacrifice that has stretched out for almost a century. Is it truly such a crime to buy a few pencils and some paper if makes you happy?”

“Hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“Ring all this up, please,” Tony directed the college kid who was working behind the counter. “You need anything else?” Tony asked as he yanked out his wallet.

Steve indeed went back to take another look around the store. It ended up taking Steve, Tony, Happy, and two store clerks to get all of his purchases loaded into another one of Tony’s cars, which had pulled up to the curb on cue the moment they stepped out of the store.

“I might need to get the architects working on expanding your apartment,” Tony pointed out when they got back in the blue car with Happy.

“I like it the way it is.”

“How about a full studio? I can have it built in a day. You want an art studio?”

“Tony.” Steve tried to argue, but Tony was enjoying coming up with new and better plans as they rode, so he let him talk. Tony had been so patient and kind today. Listening was the least he could do, even if he had no interest in a “Steve Rogers art and rec center” expanding off his kitchen.

“Hey, Happy, can you stop, please,” Steve called as something caught his eye out the window. Happy easily obliged, pulling the car over near a thrift store that had furniture set out on the sidewalk. Steve got out, making a beeline toward the hutch he had been drawn to. “It looks just like it,” he said aloud before realizing Tony was next to him.

“Like what? A piece of junk on a sidewalk?”

“When I was six, we visited an aunt in the Bronx. She had a hutch like this, made of wood with these glass cabinets on top where she displayed pretty dishes. My mother thought it was the most beautiful thing. She talked about it for a week. I made her a picture of it which she put on the wall in our kitchen. She said now she had one, just like Aunt Mary, only hers was better because it came from love, not money.” He set his hand upon the counter, feeling the wood as he allowed the memory to come.

“Would look great in the corner of your kitchen,” Tony said softly.

“It would with a little paint, some finish.” Steve shook his head. “No. That’s crazy. I want to stop living in the past. I already had one apartment filled with old relics.”

“Ignoring your past is no better than being stuck in it. You can blend the past with the present. Your home will become a reflection of the whole you. SHIELD brought you meaningless relics. This, you picked yourself. If you worked on it and painted it, it would mean even more. Entirely different species from the crap in the hellhole some mid-level agent ordered out of Cheap Junk Monthly.”

Steve turned to Tony, appreciating his wisdom and support. “You’ve been great today. Have I told you?”

“I’m great every day,” he quipped, brushing aside the sincere compliment as he often did. “Find out if Grandma Moses over there takes plastic while I call to arrange for this thing to be picked up.”

~0~0~0~

Steve was exhausted when he fell into bed that night, but he couldn’t sleep. Too much to think about. Front and center was the notion of spending his first night in the only bedroom that had truly belonged to him. This is my room, he needed to convince himself as he looked around the darkness at the nearly empty space. He would have willingly slept on the floor, but Tony wasn’t having it. Steve was equally stubborn in his refusal to sleep in any one of a hundred other rooms Tony had offered in the tower. He wanted to be in his own room. They bickered, Tony eventually suggesting he have a bed moved in here temporarily. Steve thought it was too much work for no good reason, but he gave in. Tony had been far too generous for Steve to feel comfortable giving him grief about much of anything. The silk sheets were another unnecessary luxury, but boy did they feel amazing against his skin.

The room was temperature controlled by JARVIS, but Steve still felt overly warm, so he tossed his tee shirt to the floor.

“Would you like me to adjust the climate control regulators, Captain Rogers?” JARVIS’ smooth voice popped out of the darkness, causing Steve to nearly leap out of his skin.

“No. I’m fine.” He pulled his sheet up higher, concealing himself from unseen eyes. “Are you going to be spying on me all night?”

“My duty is to see to your needs. However, you can employ the Privacy Protocol at any time.”

“Yeah, privacy. How exactly do I do that?” Steve felt ridiculous talking to the voice in the air. This would take getting used to.

“Select a password code. Once employed, your apartment will be removed from the monitoring grid until you reactivate by speaking the password.”

“Sounds good. Let’s do it.”

“Speak your security passcode now, Captain Rogers.”

“Homecoming,” Steve said without pause.

There wasn’t anything overt he could point to—the lights didn’t dim, there wasn’t the click of a switch—but something felt different, as if a ghost, a very benevolent one, had been exorcised. Steve had his doubts even a Privacy Protocol was going to take him totally off JARVIS’ radar. Tony was too security conscious for that. Still, perceived solitude was better than none. It wasn’t like SHIELD wasn’t spying on him in the old apartment. This was his life now, and his new goal was to adjust and maybe even learn to enjoy it. He had certainly enjoyed today.

“JARVIS?” he whispered, testing to see if the whole passcode bit they had just enacted was really working. Silence met his query and Steve relaxed. He kicked the covers off completely, wondering if he should have let JARVIS adjust the temperature after all, though he wasn’t sure any amount of air conditioning could cool the heat burning within him.

As much as he tried to focus on Tony’s friendship—and Tony had been an amazing friend today—he couldn’t seem to get his body to understand Tony Stark was off limits in other contexts. He’d have to take better charge of himself, employ more restraint. It wasn’t going to happen tonight, though. Not when he was laying under Tony’s roof, sliding against his silk sheets while his mind replayed every cherished moment of what had been his best day since waking up. Before he knew it, his sweats had hit the floor as well, and his hand—the one that had danced over displays of seamless white-sable brushes—now caressed his engorged shaft. It didn’t take much as he matched a memory to each firm stroke: The way Tony’s cologne filled the car; the twinkling grin that met Steve’s recitation on why he didn’t need a car; the smoky sincerity in Tony’s voice when he explained to Steve why he deserved this apartment; his nimble hands making quick work packing Steve’s bags; the way his own body flushed when Tony teased him about the Louis XIV bed; those smoldering eyes gazing across the Sleepy’s mattress at him. . . .

Steve stuffed his face into the pillow, muffling his cry as he came onto the silk sheet. He did his best to catch the spill, not wanting to stain the fine fabric, but he wasn’t entirely successful. Getting up quickly, he got a wet towel and worked to blot the stain, but tomorrow he would have to locate the laundry room in the tower.

Climbing into the huge shower stall—Tony really thought of everything, this shower is enormous—Steve flattened his back to the wall and tried to catch his breath as the spray washed over him. Tomorrow. Tomorrow he would get a handle on this.

Tomorrow.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve was grateful for his busy schedule over the next few weeks. He started each day with a vigorous workout, enjoying the ease of having such top-notch equipment as Stark Tower afforded at his disposal. His morning and afternoon schedules varied, depending on whether he was pitching in to help with Operation Rebuild, or taking a shift with Coulson. Once the agent had been moved to the SHIELD medical facility in midtown, Steve was able to do both in the same day. Steve made sure to put in enough ‘study hours’ each week—seventy years of history and culture was a lot to catch up on. Sometimes he combined his study time with his Phil visits, reading aloud from whatever book he was currently immersed in. Phil especially loved historical tomes. He had Clint bring several of his favorites from home to the hospital so he and Steve could read them together. On days when Phil was feeling less able to mentally focus, they settled for a good Tom Clancy novel.

Late afternoons were usually spent on SHIELD-related business. Sometimes there were planning sessions for Rebuild, other times he had to deal with Fury. He had also been given the task of acting as liaison between The Avengers and Madison Everett, the public relations genius SHIELD had hired on Tony’s recommendation. She was one sharp cookie, for sure. She had a vocabulary equal to Tony’s and Bruce’s combined, and everything she did was rapid-fire, yet she always appeared cool and collected. Steve guessed she was in her late forties, though he was the last person who should be judging ages. She was a sharp dresser and very attractive, her ebony skin, jet black hair, and green eyes a striking combination. Most importantly, she excelled at her job. She had only been with the team a few days when many of the negative and sensationalized news stories about them began to lessen. She coached them on what to say, what not say, where to be, and where not to be. Steve was grateful she kept the photo ops and public relations appearances to a minimum, going for quality not quantity. She also worked to insure the media focus remained on the Avengers as heroes, yes, but also as people doing a job, entitled at the end of the day to keep their personal lives private.

Despite his long days, Steve looked forward to evenings. That was when he made the most progress towards getting his apartment set up. He and Tony had several more shopping sprees, and one by one the rest of the team got in on the act. They were all enthused about helping him make his apartment a home, which touched him. It became their personal project, offsetting the stress of their day jobs. They even jokingly began referring to it as Operation Cap’s Crib, a name Steve found amusing once they explained what it meant. Having contributions from his friends made the place more personal and comfortable every day. Thor had brought him back a jewel-encrusted goblet from Asgard that probably looked odd displayed inside the glass cabinet of the old hutch, but Steve liked it there. Thor was also great for moving furniture and hammering nails. Natasha had helped him shop for wall art and area rugs. She had exquisite taste and Steve really liked the things they had selected together. Bruce worked with him to build oak bookshelves along one full wall, recognizing Steve’s need for a lot of space for his growing book collection. He also introduced him to the world of coffee table books. Steve had gotten several even though he didn’t have a coffee table as yet.

By the end of a full week in the Manhattan medical center, Phil was doing well enough to insist Clint begin taking daily breaks from watching him sleep. Helping Steve was one of the few ways they could get him to leave Phil’s bedside without squawking overly much. Clint took him shopping for electronics, starting with a giant, flat-screen television he hooked up so they could watch sports together. He also introduced Steve to something called the PlayStation 3, which was actually a lot of fun once you got the hang of it.

The apartment really was turning into a home, much to Steve’s delight. He had set up his drafting table and art supplies in a corner of the living room beside the window. It was a soothing presence having them there even if he hadn’t had a chance to use them much yet. His window shades and curtains were up and working well. On one of his shopping trips with Tony, Steve had found a large, butcher block kitchen table. It was sturdy and he liked the way the wood matched his hutch. Tony wouldn’t allow him to buy the chairs that went with it, however, saying they were far too rickety for his “super-sized bulk.” Steve let him order the extra sturdy custom-built ones he said were more appropriate, not minding having to eat standing up while he waited for them to arrive. He found plates and cups he liked on his own, not wanting to hear it from Tony about shopping in Sears again. The drawings from the kids at the children’s hospital that hung on his fridge completed his kitchen for now.

The bed Tony ordered had arrived, and despite having to endure Tony’s smug I-told-you-so-grin, Steve had to admit it was incredible. For the first time in his life, he had trouble waking up in the morning, needing to use an alarm clock to rouse him from the deep, comfortable sleep he enjoyed. The rest of his bedroom furniture was on order after two days spent pouring over catalogs to make a decision. Clint was the one who finally helped him decide, he and Steve sharing the most modest taste out of all the Avengers. For now, there was only the bed, a lamp, and the framed picture of the 1941 Pennant-winning Brooklyn Dodgers team—complete with autographs of all the players—that hung on the wall opposite his bed, a gift from Phil, delivered via Clint. Steve was reluctant to accept at first, the picture clearly a vintage collectible and surely a meaningful possession of Phil’s. “He really wants you to have it,” Clint insisted. “In fact, I’m not allowed to come back to the hospital until I get you to take it.” Steve made sure his first stop the following morning was to the medical facility to thank Phil.

“Thank you,” Coulson had replied, his blue eyes warm, his gaze steadier every day.

“You did the same for me,” Steve reminded.

Coulson shook his head. “Not the same. You’ve taken care of him. That matters more to me than anything else.”

“Clint’s family now. You all are.” It hit Steve in that moment how seamlessly the transition had taken place inside of him. After the ice, his world had gone from icy white to dull gray, but now it was rich with color. “Still doesn’t mean you have to give me your cherished Dodgers picture,” he said to lighten the moment, emotions thick in his throat.

“I retain visiting rights.”

“Deal.”

Steve’s apartment, had in fact, become a visiting hub. With no actual verbal agreement, the Avengers fell into a routine where weekends contained some measure of team bonding time. Whether all together or in groupings of two or three, weekends revolved around shared meals, movies, talk, or other leisure activities. The floor below the penthouse had become the Avengers common area. Accessible from the penthouse via a flight of inner stairs or the dedicated elevator for the private floors, it contained a kitchen, rec room, library, and a huge living room with lots of furniture along with a state of the art entertainment center. The long hallway off the kitchen led to half a dozen lavish bedroom suites, including Natasha, Bruce, and Thor’s rooms. When Phil was released from the hospital, he and Clint would share space on the floor below rather than occupy one of the empty bedrooms on the common floor. This was because Tony was having truckloads of medical equipment as well as physical and occupational therapy apparatus installed to insure Phil’s rehabilitation could take place comfortably in one space. Steve’s floor was two short flights of stairs below that, which he knew from running them each morning to check on the construction progress for Coulson’s rehab gym. Steve’s inclination for choosing the stairs over the elevator when he traveled through the tower amused Tony.

“JARVIS is getting a complex. You keep spurning his sophisticated elevator system, you Philistine.”

“Sorry, JARVIS,” Steve called to the air. “No offense meant. I like stairs.”

When his apology was met with silence, Tony laughed harder. “I believe you have just been given the techo cold shoulder.”

Some nights were spent on the common floor, and occasionally the Avengers would gather in the home theater Tony had told him about. It was like a glamorous movie theater right there in the tower, complete with cushy velvet seats that reclined and plenty of buttered popcorn. Steve was impressed. Tony finally got around to showing Steve a Spielberg movie—Jaws—and it was awesome. More and more frequently, though, the Avengers had begun congregating in Steve’s apartment. This necessitated the need to purchase a huge sectional couch which wrapped in a U-shape around the television, some sections even rocking back into recliners, which Steve found pretty nifty.

All in in, Steve’s life had become full, productive, and for the most part satisfying. It was certainly a far cry from the shadowy existence he had been living when he was fresh out of the ice. It wasn’t necessarily better than the world he had grown up in, just different. He was slowly learning different could be good, too. He had almost been too engaged in building this new life to dwell on his longing for Tony.

Almost.

~0~0~0~

“If this keeps up, you’re going to need to start taking reservations.”

“What are you talking about?” Steve was moving quietly around the living room, picking up after an Avengers pizza night. They had just finished watching a marathon of a show called The Walking Dead. Steve didn’t care for it much. Too violent. Besides, once you’d been face to face with the Red Skull, viewing zombie-looking creatures lost its entertainment appeal. He liked watching his friends watch, though, peeking out occasionally over the cover of his book.

“Your apartment,” Tony said, swishing the liquor in his glass. He had been drinking a lot tonight. Too much for Steve’s liking, but it wasn’t his job to police what his team watched on TV or what they drank during off hours. “It’s the new hot spot. You’re totally trending.”

“Trending?” Steve thought a minute. “Tweeter, right?”

“Twitter and I was kidding.”

Steve wasn’t sure what the joke was, but he smiled. “I’m glad they’re comfortable here, if that’s what you mean.” He put down his bag of trash and bent to throw a blanket over Clint, who was stretched out asleep on the couch. Phil wanted him to spend at least one night a week away from the hospital, but Clint was reluctant to sleep in the suite Tony had set up for them until Phil could stay there with him. To do otherwise, he felt, would be to jinx Phil’s impending homecoming. Most of their stuff from their previous apartment had already been moved to the tower, so Clint mostly crashed where he landed. Steve didn’t bother to wake him when the others filtered out.

“There are plenty of other bedrooms upstairs,” Tony pointed out loudly.

Shhhh.” Steve picked up the trash bag and hustled Tony into the kitchen with him. “There’s no reason to wake him up. I don’t mind if he sleeps there.”

“Sure. Why not? I’ve got an entire amazing tower people would pay money just to get a peek at the inside of, yet I live with a group of people content to huddle their considerable mass into one small room. Your living room.” Tony sounded like a pouting child, and Steve was confused. He’d been pretty quiet most of the night, which in itself should have warned Steve something wasn’t right. Tony moved around Steve, opening and closing the refrigerator and several cabinets. “Don’t you have anything but orange juice to drink in this place? Where’s the liquor?”

“You know I don’t have any liquor.”

“What kind of trendy hot spot doesn’t keep liquor on hand?” He shrugged. “S’okay. I carry my own.” Tony went into the living room, returning with the bottle he had been drinking from all night and refilling his glass.

“Don’t you think you’ve had enough?” Tying the garbage bag and setting it down, Steve moved to the sink to start on the dishes.

“I don’t know. Have I?” Tony hefted himself up onto the table, plopping his butt there as he looked around. “You don’t have any chairs in here.”

“I know. You ordered custom chairs, remember?”

“So I did. Installed a dishwasher too, if I recall correctly.”

“I prefer to do them myself.”

“That’s because you are very capable and efficient and don’t need any help.” He took another swig from his glass.

Steve sighed, switching off the water and turning to him. “Tony, what’s wrong?”

“They all like you best.” His tone was so childishly whiney, Steve figured he was trying to be funny. But even if it was meant as a joke, Steve sensed the joke was meant to deflect from a truth.

“None of us would be here at all if it wasn’t for you, Tony.” He walked towards the table where Tony was seated. “Everyone knows that.”

“Whatever.” He made to sip again, but Steve caught his wrist, keeping the glass from making it to his lips.

“Whatever is bothering you, this isn’t helping.”

“What are you going to do about it?” Tony challenged, dark eyes narrowing in a dare.

“What do you mean?”

He leaned closer until his nose nearly touched Steve’s, his voice going low, provocative. “I mean, you’re our interim handler. Why don’t you handle me?”

Steve turned Tony’s wrist loose and jumped back as if he had been scorched. He felt totally exposed, as if Tony saw right through him to his darkest secrets and was using them to have fun at Steve’s expense. For all he knew, Tony had JARVIS spying on him. Despite his attempts to be quiet, Steve was pretty sure Tony’s name had slipped past his lips a time or two late at night, in the dark, as he guiltily relieved the never-ending frustration. Had Tony asked JARVIS about it? No. Tony wouldn’t do that. He couldn’t. “You’re drunk,” he accused, taking another step back, looking for a way out.

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Tony slid off the table, covering the distance between them. Steve wanted to run, but his legs refused, his feet taking root in the floor. Tony’s face, his eyes, they were mesmerizing in a way they’d never been before. So intense was the power of his gaze, Steve felt physically pulled toward him without being touched. It took all Steve’s formidable strength to fight it. He was losing, though. Why was Tony looking at him like that? What did he see? Tony’s chest pressed to his and it burned. Was it Tony’s body emanating the heat or his own? He had no idea.

He knows. He has to know. He’s waiting to see what I’m going to do. He’s testing me.

Steve couldn’t fail this test again. Not like with Bucky. Tony was too smart. It took Bucky years to clue in, years to figure out his best friend was no friend at all. Their friendship was an act, Steve’s way of staying close to him. Bucky didn’t want the real truth. Tony won’t want it either, but he looked bent on finding it. Let me be a better liar this time.

Tony’s fingers started to move towards his face. If they made it, it was over. Steve was fighting with all he had. He wouldn’t be able to withstand the touch. Tony’s breath caught in his throat. Steve wasn’t breathing at all.

And then Tony yanked his hand away and staggered back two steps. “No. Not like this,” he was muttering. Tony shook his head, frustrated. “It’s not why I moved you in here. There can’t be any strings. No expectations. Not fair.” His face was twisted in confusion when he looked at Steve. “You don’t think that, do you?”

Steve didn’t understand the odd words, but he didn’t care. All he cared about was he hadn’t revealed himself. At least he didn’t think he did. “I’m going to bed,” he managed to say as he ducked out of the kitchen. It wasn’t until he heard Tony leave that he allowed himself to breathe again.

~0~0~0~

“Steve, are you all right?”

Steve wasn’t startled by Clint’s voice. He’d heard him get up to use the bathroom. He looked at the silhouette standing in his bedroom doorway backlit by the hall lights Steve had forgotten to turn off. “I’m fine.”

“Nice try.” Without invitation, Clint came into the bedroom. “It’s about one hundred degrees in here and yet you’re sitting there wrapped in a comforter the size of Miami.”

Steve clutched the blanket tighter, pressing his back flatter against the headboard. He was freezing. “Sorry. I turned up the heat. Didn’t mean to stifle you. I’ll fix it.”

Clint climbed casually into the bed and sat beside him as if it was something he did every night. “Not on my account.”

“It’s not cold in here, is it?”

“Nope.”

“I figured it was in my head.” Steve was working hard to keep his teeth from chattering. “Residual effect of seventy years in the deep freeze. Happens sometimes when I’m really tired.”

“Or upset?”

Steve turned his head. There was enough light filtering from the hall to make out Clint’s features in the dark bedroom. There was only kindness and concern there, no judgment. “Maybe. A little.”

“Maybe a lot. I heard you from the bathroom. You’re covering well for the moment, but if you keep breathing like you were, you’re going to hyperventilate.” Clint inched closer until their shoulders were side by side, then he tugged on Steve’s blanket. “Give me some of this.”

Steve was more than a little embarrassed. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.”

“My bladder woke me.” He yanked harder. “Are you really going to make me fight you for this blanket?”

“You’re sweating. You’ll melt under here.”

“I’ll survive and the body heat will do you good.”

Steve relented, loosening his death grip on the blanket’s edge. Clint unfurled it enough to slip under, press his sweaty shoulder to Steve’s, then tug the rest around his other shoulder, sealing them in together. It reminded Steve of the way his commandoes used to huddle together for warmth on a mission, huddled in a foxhole or the lee of some bombed-out bridge, sharing one blanket, only this blanket was far softer than the army-issued ones that felt like sandpaper.

“You’re right. The body heat is helping.” Steve felt warmer already. He tried not to think about how hot Clint had to be. He wasn’t complaining, so Steve did his best to appreciate the comfort being offered.

“Good. Consider me your personal space heater. Any time.”

Steve smiled. “You’re a good guy.”

“Back at’cha, pal.”

Steve yawned. The hours of shivering and the emotional upheaval had taken their toll. Now that he was thawing, weariness was creeping up. “Clint?”

Hmmm?” Clint sounded pretty sleepy as well. No doubt going down from the heat.

“Did you ever have a friend who meant so much to you, that you only wanted to be your best for him, but no matter how hard you tried, you messed up?” Steve rested his head against the headboard, closing his eyes as he felt Clint’s head land on his shoulder.

“Yup.”

“What did you do?”

“I moved in with him,” Clint said around a big yawn. “His name is Phil.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Practically the entire tower was festively decorated in honor of Phil Coulson’s homecoming. Streamers, signs, balloons, confetti, and all sorts of twisty, dangling things Steve didn’t know the name of hung from the ceilings and walls. Thor had offered to fly a huge banner and streamers around the outside of the tower, but Madison nixed the idea, saying it was in poor taste for Stark Tower to do something so ostentatious when the city was still in recovery. It was probably just as well because, as far as the Avengers were concerned, this was a private affair. Family only.

Phil and Clint’s floor was the most spiffed up; balloons, flowers, Welcome Back signs, and stuffed animals on nearly every available surface. Most of the stuffed toys had been dressed in sunglasses and suits, a particularly whimsical idea Thor had come up with. They looked great. As perfect as everything was, Clint was still fussing that morning. Steve had helped Clint move the last of his and Phil’s personal belongings into the suite a few days earlier. Now, Clint was unsure about every decision he had made. He rearranged Coulson’s suits in the closet twice, reorganized drawers, shifted knick-knacks from one place to another, and found five different spots for the same chair. Steve recognized the behavior for the nervous tension it was and supportively helped move things back and forth—and back again—as many times as Clint asked him to. Right before Hawkeye left with Happy to pick Phil up at the medical facility, he had a minor meltdown, searching frantically for the ring that had been in his pocket.

Steve and Thor helped him look, turning over couch cushions, checking under the furniture, scouring the sinks and drains. Only when Natasha arrived to ask them why the hell they were ransacking the place did they find out Clint had given her the ring two days ago to avoid losing it.

“You really need to get a grip, Barton,” she reprimanded with her particular mix of menace and affection.

“Cut him some slack,” Bruce chuckled. “It’s not every day a guy gets married.”

Phil had indeed agreed to marry Clint today in the tower. He had been reluctant at first, not because he didn’t want to, but he hated having to say I do to the man he loved while he was stuck in a wheelchair. His opposition didn’t last long, though. They had both been deeply affected by how close they had come to losing each other, and Clint stubbornly refused to let even one more day pass without making the ultimate commitment. It had been difficult enough for him to wait this long, but Phil didn’t want to do it in a SHIELD hospital bed. Compromising, Phil agreed it could take place today as long as Clint agreed to marry him again when Phil could do so on his own two feet before whisking him away for a proper honeymoon after.

“I’ll marry you every month, every day, every minute if you want,” Clint had told him.

Today, everything was set and ready, Tony having outdone himself getting a large conference room turned-out ballroom style, complete with twinkling lights, food tables, a decorated platform for the groom and groom to get married upon, and small group of musicians to provide music. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a ballroom in the tower, but it was huge and there weren’t going to be many of them. This would be much more intimate and appropriate. At least that was what Tony had told Clint. Steve had barely seen him over the past two weeks other than for Avenger business, and even then they had hardly spoken.

Unlike the incident in Staten Island when Tony had shut him out, Steve didn’t pursue Tony this time. In his heart, he knew why Tony was avoiding him. He didn’t need to hear the words. He missed him, though; missed their shopping excursions, their dinners, the funny comments Tony made when they would watch a movie together. He missed talking to him. Missed seeing him. Missed being in the same room with him. Steve knew the whole thing was his fault, though, so all he could really do was endure the separation until enough time had passed for Tony to be willing to consider being his friend again.

“The limousine has pulled into the garage,” JARVIS announced, setting everyone in motion.

The plan was simple enough. Clint would bring Phil to their suite first, giving everyone a chance to welcome him and affording Phil the opportunity to see where he would be living. Then they were going to move the party down to the makeshift marriage chapel to get the wedding started. The ceremony would be brief; the reception and dinner simple as well. Nobody wanted to tax Phil too much on his first day out of the hospital. He had been making remarkable progress, but he had a long road ahead. The entire suite had handicap ramp access, as did many other parts of Stark Tower Phil might have a reason to enter. His left arm was barely working and was usually kept resting in a sling. Tony had gone to the trouble of having designer slings made to match Phil’s outfits, particularly the Dolce & Gabbana one to match his wedding suit. Oxygen tanks were being kept on hand because Phil was still having trouble breathing at times while his lungs regained their strength.

“Come on, Cap,” Natasha urged, nudging Steve to the front of the crowd gathered near the door. “He’s going to piss himself when he sees you in your uniform.”

They had all decided to get gussied up for the occasion, so Steve was in his Army dress blues, the uniform he had been issued since returning to the world of the unfrozen. He hesitated before putting it on this morning, but since Phil had asked him to be his Best Man for the wedding, he decided to show his utmost respect to their returning comrade on this special day.

Though small in number, each guest was significant in the lives of the grooms. The Avengers were there, of course, along with Dr. Selvig, Maggie and several of the nursing team who had taken care of Coulson, a few of his doctors, Agents Hill, Sitwell, Stern, and Adams, along with some other agents Steve had never met, but thought were friends of Coulson’s or Barton’s. Phil had purposely not included his family, not wanting to expose them to the hoopla that was life with the Avengers in Stark Tower. From what Steve had gathered, Phil’s parents were simple, elderly people who were told very little about the extent of their only child’s injuries and how he sustained them. Phil and Clint were planning to visit them as soon as Phil was able. Madison was there with a date, a young woman named Lisa. Happy would be joining them as well after he parked the limo. Nick Fury was on hand, though he and Tony were keeping a safe distance from each other. Tony looked extremely handsome in a black suit, white shirt, and blue striped tie. There were enough people around that Steve chanced staring at him for a few moments, hoping he wouldn’t get caught.

When the suite doors opened, Phil rolled out in his Stark Technologies wheelchair, a gleaming, gun-metal gray dream of assistive medical technology, embodying the best combination of lightweight, collapsible, and self-propelled. Steve knew Tony had crafted this prototype with Phil’s needs in mind, and the sleek touchpad built into the right armrest insured the agent wouldn’t have to wait for someone to push him anywhere—not that there was any shortage of willing chauffeurs. As a comical touch, a dark suit and black sunglasses were painted on the back of the seat chair, though Natasha had managed to talk Tony out of the racing stripe and the words Agent Awesome in glitter lettering. Steve watched as the virtually silent wheelchair moved at a steady clip, with Clint following behind and to the right. Everyone yelled “Welcome Home!” and threw confetti before bursting into a round of applause. Phil looked genuinely moved, and more than a little embarrassed. There was a blanket over his lap, but he still looked sharp in his crisp blue suit and matching sling. His weight loss was evident, his face thin and drawn, but there was good color in his cheeks and his eyes were twinkling happily.

Clint stood proudly behind him, applauding as well. He was wearing a silvery-gray raw-silk sports jacket over black slacks, a purple button-down shirt and black tie. Natasha stepped forward to hug him and kiss Phil, her slinky green curve-hugging dress, and heels that made her nearly as tall as Thor, garnering the attention of practically every male eye in the room—and a few female eyes as well. Tony stepped forward, easily assuming the role of Master of Ceremonies. “Agent Coulson, I think I speak for everyone when I say: It’s about damn time you got your ass out of the hospital.”

Everyone laughed and applauded harder. The waiters working the party slipped around with trays of champagne. Phil was given a flute of water with a bendy straw inside it, which made him laugh. “To Agent Phil Coulson,” Tony announced as he raised his glass, those gathered following suit. “Sometimes the good guys don’t die young.” With everyone’s eyes on Phil, Steve snuck another glance at Tony, nearly spilling his drink down his uniform when he found Tony’s eyes fixed upon him. Steve had to look away, the gaze so intent it made his palms sweat.

Toast completed, Tony moved to the door and opened it, gesturing towards the elevator bank. “Okay, everyone, it’s time to give Agent Agent a break to catch his breath before the festivities begin. If you would make your way to the fourth floor, you’ll find food, refreshments, and enough bathrooms to ensure even the weakest bladders have no reason to cry.”

As the people headed to the elevator, Steve walked to Phil, crouching down. “How are you holding up?”

Phil nodded. He was tired, but he was tough. “I’m good.” Gesturing with his chin at Steve’s attire, he asked, “Dress blues for me, Captain?”

“Of course,” Steve grinned. “I gotta look sharp if I’m going to hold my own next to you up there on the wedding stage.”

“I think you’ll manage.” Phil’s eyes were soft. “Thank you.”

Steve stood up, coming to attention and giving a salute. “My honor, sir.” Phil returned the salute, beaming proudly. Steve cuffed Clint’s arm and asked, “You need any help getting him downstairs?”

“No, we’re good, thanks. I’m just trying to figure out where in that dress Tasha has my ring stashed.”

Steve laughed. “Guess we’ll find out soon enough. See you downstairs.”

As he took his leave from his friends and headed toward the stairwell, he was waylaid by Tony blocking his path. Looking Steve up and down like he was one of those fancy cars Stark was considering buying, he admonished saucily, “You need to warn a guy before you walk around dressed like this. You’re lethal. I nearly poured the bubbly down my crotch.”

Flustered, Steve stammered. “I . . . um . . . oh . . . sorry.”

You’re a regular smoothie, Rogers.” It was Bucky’s voice in his head, teasing him the way he always did when Steve messed up around a pretty girl. Only Tony wasn’t a girl and Steve didn’t need to be blushing like a fool.

“You can make it up to me. Save me a dance. I’m paying obscene money for our little orchestra downstairs and I intend to get full value for my dollar.”

“Dance?” Steve repeated the word stupidly, not certain he’d even heard it right. Before he could respond, Tony had whipped out his phone and was talking to someone about party details as he walked off.

Part of Steve was excited; the part that wasn’t terrified. The prospect of dancing with Tony did things to him that his uniform pants were not equipped to handle. Getting himself back in hand, he headed to the stairwell, keeping in mind he didn’t have the best luck keeping dance dates.

~0~0~0~

“Let us begin.” The Reverend Elly Kravitz raised her arms to indicate the commencement of the service. She was a small woman, five-foot-two at most, but her voice was powerful enough to be heard without the aid of a microphone. She had short silver hair and purple glasses, and was dressed in simple white vestments, two long opulent scarves draped around her neck. The first was burgundy with an embroidered cross at the tip, and the second was made of wool and rainbow colored. Steve had gotten to speak to her for a few minutes as they were setting up on the ceremony platform, finding her to be witty, charming, and kindly. She stood now in the center of the platform, Steve near her right and Natasha, who was serving as Clint’s Best Woman, to her left. Before her was Phil, in his wheelchair, and Clint straddling the chair he had set up directly in front of his lover, refusing to be towering over him, instead choosing to make his vows at eye level, a choice Phil met with a gratified smile.

“Friends, we have assembled in this place to witness the marriage of these two remarkable men, Clinton Francis Barton and Phillip J. Coulson.”

Francis,” Steve heard Tony chuckle from his seat in the front row. Thor and Bruce, who were on either side of him, elbowed him in unison as Steve and Natasha glared. “What? It’s funny. Okay, forget it. I’ll behave. Carry on, your reverendness.”

Thankfully, the reverend had a sense of humor, because she smiled warmly. “Why thank you, Mr. Stark. I believe I shall.”

“Wait, you know what,” Clint said, waving his hand. “He’s right. Just stick with Clint and Phil, if it’s all the same to you.” Looking at Phil he added, “That okay with you, babe?”

Phil nodded. “Perfect.”

“Clint and Phil,” she continued, “have brought you here today as witnesses to their commitment. All that they are, they offer to each other, for marriage demands no less. They bring their dreams and accomplishments, as well as their fears and failures. They offer each other their virtues and vices, their fortunes and wants. Whatever time brings their way, they shall remain united. It is love that will make each step on this journey easier. Love sweetens shared dreams and comforts fear. Love sees the good and overlooks the bad. Love provides the strength and courage to endure. Love brings riches beyond even those the most poetic words could hope to describe.”

She placed a hand on each of their shoulders as she looked out toward those gathered. “Do all who have gathered here today to witness this commitment vow to honor this love and support this union, surrounding them with your own love and good wishes from this day forward?”

Steve answered, “We do,” along with the rest of the crowd, grateful Tony didn’t deviate from the script.

“Marriage is different than all other relationships. It makes people kin, it celebrates intimacy, and ties a life-long knot. Please join your hands as you pledge your vow of love and devotion, each to the other.”

Clint took Phil’s right hand and pressed it between his two. Though Coulson was infirm, it was Clint who trembled, pressing his forehead down upon their clasped hands. Natasha placed a settling touch upon his shoulder as Phil whispered, “Easy, baby. I’m right here.”

Clint nodded, his head slowly coming back up. “Sorry,” he muttered, then turned toward the reverend. “I can do this.”

She smiled warmly. “Clint, do you take Phil to be your partner, your husband, to stand beside him always; share his burdens and rejoice in his successes; vow to love and cherish him, putting him always first, remaining true to him now, and forever more?”

“Damn right, I do,” Clint answered with a sly grin, eliciting laughter from those gathered.

“Phil, do you take Clint to be your partner, your husband, to stand beside him always; share his burdens and rejoice in his successes; vow to love and cherish him, putting him always first, remaining true to him, now and forever more?”

“I do,” Phil declared proudly, strongly.

“Steven, and Natasha,” the reverend invited, “Please come forward.” Steve squirmed under the attention as he walked forth with Natasha, momentarily forgetting what pocket he had the ring in. “You have chosen to stand beside Clint and Phil, witnesses to their vows, to be the safekeepers of their rings. Do you vow to support and uphold their union to the best of your ability from this day forth?”

“I do,” Steve vowed solemnly.

“I do,” Natasha echoed.

“May I have the rings?” She held out her upraised palm for Steve and Natasha to place the rings upon it. Steve glanced at the crowd, grinning when Tony winked at him. “Being one unbroken circle, your rings symbolize unending love. May these rings be your constant reminder of this moment when you pledged your unending love, each to the other. May they glow as a reflection of the warmth of your love as you begin this incredible lifelong journey. Wear them as a sign of the commitment you share.” She held her ring-filled palm skyward, then brought it back down. “Clint and Phil have chosen to speak their own promises to each other as they exchange their rings.”

As Natasha took one ring from Reverend Elly’s hand, Steve crouched beside Phil’s chair, gingerly removing his left arm from the sling and bearing the weight of it as he held it out toward Clint. Natasha handed Clint the ring and he brought it to Phil’s finger as he spoke hoarsely. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world. Of course, it took meeting you for me to see it. Now, I’ve got it all, and I promise to never, ever take it for granted. Thank you for loving me; for seeing something in me worth loving. I’m going to do everything I can to make you happy. I’m so damn grateful I’m going to get that chance.” Clint’s voice cracked as he slid the ring fully onto Phil’s finger. “Thank you for fighting so hard to come back to me. I won’t let you down.” He leaned and kissed the finger his ring now shone from. “I love you, babe.”

Phil patted Clint’s head comfortingly with his right hand. When Clint drew back up, he smiled, pools of unshed tears in his eyes. At Phil’s nod, Steve set his arm back in the sling, then took the ring from the reverend, putting it into the right fingers of Phil’s hand. Clint held his left hand out where Phil could easily reach.

“Clinton Francis Barton,” Phil began, shooting a no-nonsense glare at Tony, who grinned and nodded, making a zipper gesture across his lips. Turning his attention back to Clint, Phil continued, “Gotta keep this brief. If I had more energy, I could go on for days telling you how you’ve never let me down. You are exactly what I wanted . . . what I’ve always wanted. Still hard to believe I finally caught you. You didn’t make it easy.” Clint’s face beamed as they both laughed, then Phil sobered. “I heard your voice in the dark, calling me back.” Phil paused, clearing his throat a few times before looking at Steve. “Water?”

“Right.” Steve was on it, grabbing the water bottle he had on reserve, straw at the ready. Phil took two sips, then nodded.

“You sure you’re okay?” Clint asked, concerned. “If this is too much—”

“Barton, stop talking and let me marry you, please.”

“Yes, sir,” Clint smiled.

“Yeah, come on, Francis,” Tony teased, quickly shrinking down into his chair at the half dozen stern glances his outburst earned him. “Oops, there I go again. I really was never very good at these things.”

“Didn’t you bring him a toy or some candy to keep him occupied?” Natasha berated Bruce, but everyone was grinning.

“I could give him my keys,” Bruce joked.

“I like keys,” Tony teased, ever incorrigible.

“Go ahead, Phil,” Steve encouraged, trying to get them back on track while Tony was still capable of sitting still.

“Yeah, come on, boss. Marry me.”

“That’s exactly what I plan to do. And then I plan to spend the rest of my life loving you the way you deserve to be loved.” Phil slid the ring onto Clint’s finger. “This ring is my promise to you. I promise you everything I have to give, everything I’m capable of giving . . . and when I’ve exhausted that, I’ll find more. I love you. You’re mine. Always.”

Clint’s tears did shed then. He swiped them with the back of his right hand, his eyes never leaving Phil’s. Their eyes were saying even more than the words they had spoken. Reverend Elly slipped her rainbow scarf off and nodded towards Steve. Once again, he crouched to retrieve Phil’s left arm, aiding her as she wrapped their joined hands with the scarf and bound them together.

“You have expressed your love and commitment through the vows you have taken today and with the exchanging of rings. It now gives me great pleasure to pronounce you joined in this sacred union.” She moved her hand over their wrapped ones. “These are the hands that will give you strength when you need it, support and encouragement in times of joy and times of difficulty. These are the hands you will join, even in old age, finding the same tenderness in the other’s touch. May your life together be a source of inspiration to yourselves, your families, your friends, and to all whose lives you touch.”

She carefully unwrapped their hands, putting her scarf back around her neck as Steve slipped Phil’s arm comfortably back in his sling. Clint kept tight hold of his right hand as the reverend raised her arms before them and declared, “Clint and Phil, by the authority vested in me by the state of New York, I declare you wed. Please share your happiness with each other and seal this sacred vow with your kiss.”

“Damn straight,” Clint proclaimed, climbing off his chair and shoving it behind him. He got down on his knees, in front of Phil’s chair, taking his husband’s face between his palms. Phil leaned toward him, their lips meeting in a slow, tender kiss.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the reverend called out happily, “please join me in congratulating the happy couple.”

The room broke into applause, Tony climbing to stand on his chair, emitting whistles and catcalls. Steve laughed, shaking his head. Phil and Clint drew back, touching foreheads, Steve able to hear their whispers in spite of the thunderous clapping.

“We did it, babe,” Clint said, brimming with joy.

“We sure did. And for your first mission as my husband, I suggest you get me to the bathroom. I sure as hell don’t plan to use a bedpan at my wedding reception.”

~0~0~0~

For a party intended to be small and low-key, things had gotten festive pretty quickly. The music was great; people were eating, drinking, dancing. Phil returned from a short break after the ceremony and looked more energized than he had since coming out of the coma. This marrying stuff seemed to agree with him. In typical Coulson fashion, his first concern was getting the paperwork in order. He and Clint and Steve and Natasha, along with Reverend Elly, signed the license, making everything official. It was then the reception began in earnest. Phil was currently on the dance floor with his new husband having a great time. They had found a clever way around the restrictions of Phil’s infirmity and were happily getting to dance at their wedding. Clint had perched himself over the wheelchair, one leg straddling each chair arm, careful to keep his weight from landing on Phil’s lap. He had one hand on Phil’s shoulder and his other hand held Phil’s good one, arms extended in a dance hold as Thor pushed the chair around the floor to the rhythm of the music. All three were laughing and having a great time. Thor was wearing a regular suit today, not his Asgardian finery, his hair neatly combed and pulled back from his face with a small band around the front most pieces.

“You’re way too hot to be a wallflower, Cap.” Natasha found him at the table in the corner where he had been sitting, watching. She extended her hand towards him. “Come and have some fun.”

“I don’t really dance.”

“Have you looked at these people? I’ve seen better dancing at a children’s production of Swan Lake.”

Steve smiled. What passed for dancing these days was pretty different than the way he remembered it. Still, he had always felt awkward at gatherings like this and today didn’t feel as if it would be any exception. “I’m still eating,” he pointed out, looking down at his plate.

Natasha seated herself in the chair across from him. Her green eyes were focused directly on him, assessing. “It meant a lot to Phil, having you stand up for him today.”

“It was my honor.” Steve had been awed by the privilege. Of all the things he had experienced since waking up, this stood out as one of the best. “I’ve never been to a wedding like this before.”

“You mean a wedding thrown in one of the most expensive pieces of real estate in the city, overseen by British-accented AI, surrounded by spies and gods and superheroes? Or one between two men?”

Steve had to laugh. “All of that.” She smiled, looking pleased she had gotten him to laugh. Natasha didn’t smile often, but when she did, it was a pretty thing. Steve realized she must have thought of him as a friend to be this open. Everyone had grown closer as a team in the few short months they’d known each other, but he felt the experience they had shared at the hospital had been what truly earned him Natasha’s frugally given trust.

“What kind of weddings have you been to?”

“Not many. One when I was in the army, but it was a rushed thing in a tavern with a justice of the peace between a guy from our unit and the local girl he’d. . . .” Steve trailed off. This wasn’t appropriate conversation to have with a lady. Switching topics, he continued, “There were two when I was a kid. Cousins of my mom. Small affairs, though, nothing like this.”

“For Stark, this is minimalist.”

“True.” Steve nodded. “But for the people I grew up around, this wasn’t even something you could imagine. Such fancy clothes, this bounty of food, real music. In my neighborhood, there would be a mass, and then a get-together in someone’s house with whatever potluck the women brought along to make a meal. The radio provided music. People seemed to enjoy it, though.”

“But not you?”

Steve shrugged. “Oh, it was fine. I was never exactly adept socially. I felt awkward in those situations, but it was okay because nobody really noticed me anyway. I could always find a corner where I could be alone and sneak out my comic book.”

“Do you need me to get you a comic book now?” Her expression was kind. She wasn’t making fun of him.

“No. I’m good. I like watching them.” He looked towards Phil and Clint who were both beaming and laughing and stealing little kisses as they sang to each other. Even in a wheelchair, Phil looked so much better than he had in the hospital bed fighting for his life. “Hard to believe how far he’s come. A real happy ending.”

“I’ve not seen many of those myself. It is nice. I’m not sure Barton would have survived if things had turned out the way we thought they had.”

“Must have been terrible for you to have to tell him, when we thought Coulson was dead.”

Natasha stiffened, her face wiped clean of emotion, her voice cold. “It sucked.” He caught her brief, steely glare in Fury’s direction, Natasha’s fingers twitching on the table.

Quickly changing the subject, Steve said, “I think any wedding is nice, elaborate or not, if the people love each other. I’ve never seen anyone look at each other like they do before, though, not even at a wedding.”

“You sound like a true romantic, Captain Rogers.”

Steve shrugged uncomfortably, looking down at his plate as he used his fork to play with his food. “I think I’m grateful for the opportunity to witness something that could have never taken place in the old days. Guys like Clint and Phil would have been. . . .” He stopped himself. This was not something he wanted to be talking about, especially not with Natasha. “Have you tried the ham? It’s really good.”

“Your day, my day, this day. The way I see it, there is always going to be someone who has a problem with who you are.” Natasha clearly wasn’t interested in talking about the ham. “My philosophy is, screw them. You get one go-around. Make it count. Take what you want.”

“That simple, huh? Doesn’t work real well if what you want hurts somebody else.”

“No wonder Coulson likes you so much.” Steve looked up from his plate and she was staring directly at him, almost inside him. “Okay, good guy. Compromise. If you’re not comfortable knocking on the closed doors, shop in the open stores. Thor’s got a pretty big man crush going for you. Or would that be god-crush? Whatever. I’m sure it could be pretty hot. It’s gotta beat reading comic books in a corner by yourself.”

Steve was flabbergasted. He had no idea how the conversation had brought them here, or if he even knew where here was. Was Natasha insinuating there was something going on between him and Thor? “Thor’s my friend,” he protested.

Bucky was your friend, too.

Shut up.

“Friends hook up, Cap.”

“Hook up?”

“You know, hooking up; booty call; friends with benefits. It means sex for sex’s sake. Whatever gets you through the night. You can’t be this innocent. You were in the army. Guys were getting laid, right?”

Steve gaped. He had been around enough to know how much more easily people discussed this kind of thing now, but it still jarred him. How did they even get on this topic? “Um, yeah, they were, but-but—”

“But with girls, right? Hey, you can find that, too. I just didn’t get the sense your taste ran in a female direction. You haven’t checked out my cleavage once tonight, or any other night as far as I’ve noticed. And I would notice.”

Steve stood up. He needed air. Was he really this transparent? Why did everybody seem to know things about him he wasn’t sure of himself? It was very troubling and he was completely uncomfortable. Natasha took hold of his arm, pulling him back toward his seat.

“Easy, Cap, we’re talking, nothing more. I want to help you. You’re a great guy, but it’s got to be lonely as hell being you.”

“I do okay.” He sat back down, but he really wanted to bolt. He sensed Natasha was trying to be nice to him, though, and he had trouble being rude.

“I’m the last person looking to play matchmaker, believe me. But I like you. I owe you.”

“You don’t owe me anything.”

“Coulson and Barton are my family and you’ve done nothing but right by them.”

“You could send a card?” he offered, trying to lighten the conversation. She did laugh, but it didn’t deter her.

“I’m wondering if you are really cluing in to the possibilities around you. Not everybody gets a shot at the soulmate package like Clint and Phil. You have to make due. Scratching an itch once in a while with a friend isn’t a bad deal.” She leaned back in her chair and nodded towards the dance floor. “It’s not like groom one and I haven’t—”

“You and Clint?” Steve exclaimed, confounded. “Does Phil know?”

“Phil knows everything.” There was affection and admiration in her tone.

“And it doesn’t bother him?”

“What’s to be bothered about? It was a long time ago, before Barton went monogamous. And it wasn’t like it meant anything. Not like what they have. Just fun, you know?”

“I don’t know.” Steve wasn’t sure he’d ever understand the mores of this time. “And I’m not interested in finding out. Thor’s my friend. Period.”

“Okay, so not Thor.” Natasha looked around. “Maybe you like ‘em a lot shorter and darker and way more irritating?”

He followed her line of sight, nearly choking on the water he was swallowing. Tony was dancing crazily with Clint while Thor and Bruce were taking turns spinning Coulson’s chair to dance with him. “Tony?” he protested too loudly. “Tony and I are just friends. Barely.” He was trying hard to sound unaffected, but his voice came out practically squeaking. “He’s got no interest in me that way.”

“Stark? Are you kidding? He’d hump his grandmother’s fiancé if he or she was good looking and gave him a wink.”

“That supposed to sound appealing?”

“It was meant to sound funny.” She leaned across the table, studying him with her dissecting stare again. “Well, shit, it is Stark. How did I miss that?”

“You didn’t miss anything because there’s nothing to miss.” He stood up again, already mapping his escape route with his eyes. “Natasha, I have to go to my apartment. I left Phil and Clint’s gift there.” He had actually managed to forget the present, and he was relieved he didn’t have to lie.

“Want company?”

“No!” Catching himself, he calmed his tone. “I mean, no thank you. I’ll only be a few minutes. You should enjoy the party.”

“Come on, Nat,” Clint called from the dance floor. “They’re about to play a samba with your name on it. You too, Cap. Get out here. This is my wedding and I want everybody celebrating, dammit.”

“Somebody’s already had more than their quota of champagne,” Natasha remarked, laughing as she stood.

“Yeah, start without me. I’ll be back.”

Steve beat a hasty retreat to the stairwell.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve looked at the neatly wrapped wedding gift on the table near the door. He considered bringing it to Phil and Clint tomorrow, but he knew that would be rude. He was the Best Man. Disappearing from their reception wouldn’t be nice. He wasn’t in much of a party mood, though. Still, how much longer could it go on? Phil had to be getting tired even if Clint looked like he was ready to dance for days.

He went into the bathroom and washed his face again, preparing himself to tough it out. He took an extra-long, hard look in the mirror, wondering what it was people saw when they looked at him. His face must be revealing things he wasn’t aware of. To him, his face was regular. It was actually the most recognizable part of himself since the serum. A little fuller now, but same eyes, same mouth, same nose, same forehead. Just a kid from Brooklyn.

A kid from Brooklyn who hangs out with gods and billionaires and fights space aliens for a super-secret spy organization.

If he had read his own story in a book, he would have found it far-fetched. Shrugging, he took a deep breath before making his way back through the apartment and picking up the gift. As he opened the door to exit, he found Tony Stark standing on the other side.

“For me?” Tony said, taking the gift from Steve’s hands. “You shouldn’t have.”

“I didn’t.” Steve took back his present. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.”

“Are you taking attendance?”

“Actually, I was interested in finding out what Natasha said to you that sent you jack-rabbiting out of the reception like your pants were on fire.”

Steve squeezed the box in his hands, not realizing how hard until he heard one side denting in. “Why is everybody always watching me? It’s like living in the zoo. I should sell tickets.”

“Easy, big guy. Don’t want to mess up your pretty wrap job.”

“I came here for this.” He shook the box at Tony.

“Looks like you found it. And now you’re crushing it.” Tony took the box from his hands again.

Steve snatched it back. “And now I’m taking it to Phil and Clint. Can you step out of my way, please?”

“Why? I’m having fun playing hot potato with your wedding gift.”

Steve sighed, exasperated. The last thing he wanted was to be alone with Tony right now. Steve’s emotions were all charged up and Tony looked too handsome in his gray suit. “Tony, what do you want?”

“I want to talk to you.”

“Fine. Let’s go back to the party and you can talk to me there.”

Tony shook his head and stepped around Steve, entering the apartment. “Here’s better.”

Steve could have walked out. He was facing the door. It was still open. He had his present. He needed to leave.

Except he didn’t.

He returned the box to the table, closed the door and turned to Tony. “Why is it we only talk when you want to? You can go for weeks ignoring me, then the minute you want to talk, I’m supposed to drop everything. Why?”

“Because I’m manipulative? Immature? Narcissistic?”

“Infuriating,” Steve added, though he wasn’t furious. He was too dizzy from the scent of Tony’s cologne. “Probably drunk.”

Tony shook his head, his features going serious. “Nope. Not this time. Not a drop. I even fake-sipped on the toast. I’m not making that mistake around you again.”

“What mistake?”

Tony stepped closer. Too close. Steve’s heart raced, his thoughts immediately jumping to the night in the kitchen. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it, you know? I’m a little obsessive when it comes to solving puzzles, and you, Captain, are a puzzle to me. You’re pretty stingy with the pieces, too.”

Steve took a step back, putting room between them, room enough for him to at least breathe. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“I’m talking about how much I wanted to kiss you that night. It took everything I had to stop myself. Because it would have been wrong.”

“I see.” Steve felt his heart soar then crash all in the same moment.

“No, you don’t see.” Tony was closing the gap between them. His dark, intense eyes bore into Steve, practically daring him to move away again. “I stopped because I was drunk. I stopped because I gave you this apartment for the right reasons. I never wanted you to feel you owed me anything because of it. I didn’t want it like that.”

“Want what?” Steve dared to ask, though he was terrified of the answer. “Friends with benefits,” Natasha had called it. Tony wanting something that crass from him was almost worse than Tony being disgusted by him.

Almost.

“Couldn’t stop thinking about it,” Tony repeated, his features scrunching in concentration. “Because, for a split second, right before I got my shit together and pulled away, there was something. In your eyes, your body language, I can’t say for sure. I told myself I imagined it. I was drunk. I’d seen what I wanted to see. But what if I didn’t?” Tony was looking harder at him, searching. Steve did his best to mute his expressions despite shaking inside. This wasn’t going to end well.

“Nothing happened that night,” Steve insisted, hoping to diffuse whatever this was. “You were drinking too much. We got in an argument and I don’t even know why. You left, and you’ve barely spoken to me since. Why all of a sudden is this important to you?”

“I’ve barely spoken to you since because I was waiting. Giving you time. Space. Surely, if I was right, I would have seen another sign. Something.” Tony shook his head, disappointed. “But nothing.” Tony leaned closer, letting their chests touch. He was breathing long and deep. “Won’t even give up one damn puzzle piece, will ya?”

“I’m not a puzzle,” Steve argued pulling back, reminding himself how much Stark liked to toy with people.

“And you’re not a liar.” Tony’s index finger came up to make the point as he continued to ponder. “You sure as hell don’t play games. Not your style.” He tapped the finger to the side of his head. “I couldn’t figure it out. But I couldn’t give it up, either.” He folded his arms in front of him, looking both offensive and defensive at the same time. “So I talked to Thor.”

“What?” Panic raced through Steve, followed by outrage, then pure terror.

Tony waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t be mad. You can’t blame him. He’s a pretty simple, trusting guy, and I am a persistent, devious, son of a bitch when I want something. I’m not even sure he realized he gave up your secret.”

Thoughts flew furiously, a whirlwind Steve tried to make sense of even as the hair on the back of his neck stood in warning. What could Thor tell him? He doesn’t know how I feel about Tony. Despite all the stuff Natasha was saying, Thor and I are only friends. I never did anything around him he could have misinterpreted. The only private thing I ever told Thor was— No, he wouldn’t! He didn’t!

Tony’s words echoed. “I’m not even sure he realized he gave up your secret.”

“No,” Steve shook his head repeatedly, backing away from Tony, devastated and humiliated. “You had no right. That was personal and I sure as hell didn’t share it with the likes of you.”

Tony folded his arms across his chest again, looking too damn smug. “Swearing, Captain? And in uniform. I must have really pissed you off. Good. Maybe now you’ll be honest with me.”

“You want honest?” Steve moved to the door, throwing it open. “Get out!”

Tony walked to the door, but he didn’t leave. He slammed it closed, then squeezed between the door and Steve, lifting his chin to get directly in Steve’s face. “I’m not leaving. No way. Not because of something he did.”

“Don’t,” Steve warned, feeling sweat soaking into his uniform as everything inside started to unravel.

“Oh, I know. I’m not fit to speak his name, right? Saint Bucky Barnes, a regular cross between Clark Gable, Santa Claus, and Jesus Christ. Did he walk on water, too? I’m half surprised he couldn’t fly up out of that canyon after he fell since clearly he was Superman.”

Hot tears burned Steve’s eyes as his fists clenched tight enough to hurt. “I thought you were my friend.”

“I am your friend.” Tony’s tone changed; the bravado cracking. It was then Steve realized Tony was shaking as hard as he was. “I want to be more than your friend, but you won’t let me. You won’t let me because that damn ghost is standing between us. Because Saint Bucky Barnes was an asswipe—”

“Stop it. Stop—”

“—who was too stupid to see what he had right in front of him. What kind of—”

“Shut up. Shut up!” Steve attempted a retreat, needing to get away, but Tony grabbed hold of his uniform, digging his fingers into the material like he was holding on for dear life.

“I’m not shutting up. What kind of a dickhead would hold a heart like yours in his hands and throw it away? Who in their right mind gets the opportunity to kiss someone like you and tosses it in the trash? I would never be that stupid.”

“You are stupid . . . and you’re mean . . . you like to play with people . . . just shut up—”

“You want me to shut up? Then shut me up.” When did Tony’s fingers knot into his hair? When had Steve’s palms flattened to Tony’s chest so hard, he could feel the outline of the arc reactor through the layers of suit and shirt?

Don’t do this!

Steve couldn’t tell if the inner voice was yelling at Tony or at him, but it didn’t matter. If Steve ever possessed self-control, he couldn’t remember it. A primal part of him he had never met before had taken command, his hands grabbing Tony’s hips, lifting him from the floor, heaving him up, pressing his back to the door as Steve flattened against him. It didn’t help that Tony was moaning, “Oh, fuck, yeah,” his grip on Steve’s hair twisting wildly.

“Shut up,” Steve ordered again, this time backing it up with his mouth. He swallowed Tony’s words—his sounds—his every breath; only it was Steve being swallowed, his essence forced out from behind the shadows and laid bare to Tony Stark. Rational thought didn’t exist anymore. Only want. The heat felt incredible, washing over his body, melting the relentless ice.

Steve felt Tony’s body give a little hop, and then Tony’s right thigh hooked over Steve’s pelvis a second before the entire leg wrapped snuggly around his waist. The left leg followed from the other side, locking him in place, surrounding Steve with a strength that should have surprised him, but didn’t. There was no escaping this manly embrace. As if he wanted to leave? Not hardly. What he wanted was Tony Stark, every sexy, maddening inch of him. Tony’s mouth was more delicious than any food or drink he’d ever known. His mouth moved over it, inside it, like it was created only for this. He had to have more.

More.

Easily keeping Tony in place with the press of his body, his hands released the lean hips, sliding between them, tugging at the knot of Tony’s necktie. Steve’s fingers had no finesse, they were shaking too hard. Instead, he tore the material until the knot was gone. He yanked, the tie flying free from around Tony’s collar, Steve balling into his fist, the material practically melting there. His other hand took hold of the collar, desperate to make the confining buttons go away. A tiny, strangled sound reverberated from Tony’s throat into Steve’s mouth, not registering at first. He didn’t want to hear; didn’t want to think. Too much thinking over too many long nights.

But then the flashback forced itself into his mind, the image black and white, grainy, before growing painfully sharp. He pulled back so hard, so fast, he nearly bruised their lips. Tony’s head slammed against the door, Steve’s knees going weak, nearly dropping them both to the floor.

“M’sorry,” he muttered shamefully when he found the wherewithal to speak. He had done it again; just like with Bucky; no, worse. Harder. It was awful. He was awful. Shame burned his gut, making him nauseous, head reeling.

“Hey-hey-hey,” Tony’s voice called insistently, cutting through the punishing chatter in his brain. “Look at me!” Tony’s hands cupped his cheeks, forcing him. “Take a good look.”

Oh, hell. Tony was so beautiful it hurt. He was panting, face flushed, eyes glassy, struggling to focus. His lips were red and swollen and all Steve wanted to do was take them again and never let them go.

“Nobody’s fighting here,” Tony was insisting emphatically. “I’m not struggling to get away.” The leg-lock around Steve’s waist tightened, mashing his ribs pointedly. “You’re not hurting me.” The fingers of Tony’s right hand played over Steve’s mouth as Tony’s expression grew hungrier. “I want you,” he exhaled in a sultry whisper. Tony’s other hand left Steve’s face, going to his own collar, opening the buttons Steve had been wrestling with, exposing his throat. Tony bent his head back invitingly. “Don’t you dare fucking stop!”

Stop? The word lost meaning. Regrets of the past washed away, drowning beneath the tidal wave of desire swamping him. All he could see was Tony. All he could feel were Tony’s legs squeezing him, his hands locking behind Steve’s neck. The hot, hard bulge in Tony’s pants drilled shamelessly into Steve’s chest, driving him wild. Tony’s bared throat was a magnet, pulling Steve toward it.

The growl that tore from Tony as Steve hungrily devoured the muscled flesh mobilized him. Every one of Steve’s senses screamed from overload as he fought to take it all in: Each gasp, pant, and stuttering breath was music; beneath the sleek, salty flesh, his tongue tasted Tony’s galloping pulse; the expensive cologne, mingled with the smell of Tony, intoxicated him; Steve’s hands roamed wildly, like a kid set loose in the candy store, touching it all, but too excited to settle on any one piece because each piece of Tony was more tempting than the last: Arms, cheeks, hair, neck. But soon the smelling, touching, tasting, hearing weren’t enough. He had to see. He had to convince himself this was truly happening, Tony was really here, with him, like this, wanting him.

With difficulty, he parted his lips from the bared Adam’s apple and drew his head back, opening his eyes. His vision blurred at first, but even hazy, Tony was a sight to behold. For months, he’d studied Tony with an artist’s eye, trying to passively take in his beauty without emotionally reacting to it. When he closed his eyes at night, he could see Tony’s face in detail, every line, every hair, every contour. He knew his expressions; animated, furious, concentrated, mischievous, brave, kind, roguish. He’d seen Tony post-battle; he’d witnessed him twisted in nightmares as well as blustering with the bravado that was uniquely Tony Stark. What he’d never seen, hadn’t dared to imagine, was the expression currently on Tony’s face.

Tony blinked repeatedly, his own vision—no doubt—impaired. He was panting, mouth agape, as he struggled to suck in much-needed air. His hair, which had been perfectly coiffed at the wedding, was askew in the goofiest way. Tony was a self-proclaimed playboy, so Steve expected a smug, carnal, experienced air, but reality was the opposite. He looked expectant yet unsure, and pretty discombobulated. Tony’s face was flush with arousal, his eyes dark with desire for sure, but there was something unguarded as well, something that called to Steve, making him want to protect Tony with every fiber of his being.

“Still not wanting to get away, right?” Steve asked, needing to be sure.

“Not in this lifetime, soldier-boy.” Tony’s chest heaved, eyes twinkling and wet with want, a desire Steve felt driven to fill. Every fiber of him burned to give to Tony, to drag more of those unguarded moans from his throat.

“Unlock your legs for me, then.” Tony stiffened, his face going wary. “I’m not letting you go,” Steve assured.

“Better not.” Looking none too happy about it, Tony slowly unknotted his legs from Steve’s waist. Steve had firm hold of his hips, so it wasn’t like he went far, back still pinned to the door, feet dangling at least sixty centimeters from the ground.

“Trust me not to drop you?”

“No worries,” Tony assured, looking both bewildered and intrigued.

With ease, Steve lifted, flattening his hands beneath Tony’s buttocks as a seat before urging Tony’s legs to drape one over each of his shoulders.

“Wow, this is what it’s like to be really tall.” Steve recognized the nervous joking for what it was. Tony’s crotch was inches from his face, so he knew the ardor hadn’t cooled one speck.

“Open your pants,” he directed. He could have held Tony with one hand and done it himself, but Tony was already placing a huge trust in him. No point pulling one hand out from under him to give him even the smallest reason for concern.

“My what? Whoa, hold up. You’re not planning to—”

“Do it.”

Tony’s hands fumbled with belt and fly, but it didn’t take long. Steve closed his eyes, knowing if he took too good a look at Tony’s cock as it popped out of his pants, he would be undone before he started. Taking a long, hearty breath, he leaned forward and took the head into his mouth.

“Holyshit!” Tony cried out, curling over, his hands grabbing Steve’s head for purchase as his whole body shuddered. Steve’s tongue wanted to paint each inch, learn every taste and curve of this glorious new sensation, but this wasn’t about him. Tony was already swollen and leaking. He could feel the tension in Tony’s legs as he fought to hold back, retain control. Steve leaned back, adjusting their angle, using his hold on Tony’s rear to tilt him deeper into his mouth and throat. He gagged a little, not quite sure how to breathe. Didn’t matter. He could hold his breath a long time. Forcing his body to relax, he urged Tony’s movement, his hands lifting and lowering his buttocks in a thrusting motion.

“What’re’you . . . ohhhhhh fuck . . . shit . . . sweet Jeezus. . . .”

At first, Steve couldn’t tell if Tony was trying to pull back or move forward as he twisted wildly. His vocal cords were working fine, though, his string of swear words bouncing off the walls of the apartment. Not one of those words was stop, so Steve didn’t. Tony started gripping first his head, then his shoulders, using the grip to steer, which made Steve crazy. Tony began to set his own fevered rhythm, his legs and hands pulling, pushing, squeezing as he humped Steve’s mouth in a modified sit-up motion. He desperately wanted Tony to have whatever he craved, whatever made him feel good, whatever made him scream. Steve’s hands continued to cup Tony’s bottom, there now only as a sort of landing pad, to support but not regulate. He had a momentary urge to tear the pants right off him so he could feel the flesh of Tony’s buttocks atop his palms, but he controlled it.

“God bless super serum!” he heard Tony cry out as he rode hard at least seven feet off the ground. Steve nearly laughed, which would not have been good in the moment. He wished he could see how amazing Tony must look. Maybe he was hasty when he insisted on the Privacy Protocol for JARVIS.

Embarrassed by the thought, Steve felt his already broiling flesh enflame. If he wasn’t careful, he would spill himself inside his dress blues, which wasn’t very respectful. Then again, respect and decorum had flown out the window the minute he hoisted Tony up to ride his face. He wasn’t sure who he was anymore and he didn’t care. He just wanted to be with Tony, give him everything, make him happy. He had to be careful not to clutch too hard, because part of him wanted to swallow Tony down and never let him go. He had never felt this out of control, not ever, certainly not with Bucky. He had mastered restraint and discipline, always maintaining his own inner order despite the chaos and absurdity around him. Yet how easily Tony Stark had shattered it, getting under his skin from the minute they met, refusing to be dislodged despite Steve’s best efforts, until it all exploded into this moment.

“Steve!” Tony’s cry was thick with warning. “Can’t. . . .”

Steve could feel the tremor rocking Tony and his heart leapt in anticipation. He felt Tony trying to pull back, but Steve was having none of it. His fingers spread over Tony’s rear, holding him there. Tony pounded on his shoulders, but he was already coming, his hot, spicy cream shooting down Steve’s throat. Physically, it wasn’t a particularly pleasant sensation and he had to work not to heave, but deeper inside—in his mind and his heart—it was—

Amazing.

In fact, Steve got so lost in the heady gratification he got dizzy for a moment, not realizing Tony was collapsing at first. Tony fell back, hitting the door, his legs feeling like they had lost all muscle control as they slid off Steve’s shoulders. Snapping back to action, Steve caught him, getting his hands around Tony’s waist. After his softened cock slid from his throat, Steve pressed gently into his torso, getting Tony upright between himself and the door, not yet setting him back on the floor. Tony shook himself, wrapping his arms around Steve’s neck. He looked exquisite. Sweat glistened from his face, his eyes, soft as melted chocolate, teamed with the most incredible grin.

“Where the hell did you learn how to do that?” he asked in awe, looking completely thunderstruck.

Steve shrugged, suddenly feeling bashful, but he wouldn’t lie. “You told me I should watch more movies. There’s a lot of crazy stuff on the Internet. I mean blow-job stuff. The acrobatics kinda just happened.”

Tony’s eyes went wide, his head falling back and lolling in a complete circle before snapping back. “Okay, we need a new image, because if I keep picturing Captain America hunched over a laptop watching Internet porn for pointers, I’m going to lose it again.”

“Fine by me.”

“Nah, I got a better plan. Let me down, muscle-man.”

Steve didn’t try to confine him when Tony began shimmying down his body. He would never hurt Tony. If he wanted to get free, Steve didn’t hesitate to let him go, though the loss of contact physically hurt. Thankfully, they weren’t apart long. When Tony’s feet hit the floor, he straightened, pulling back to take a few quick breaths and fix his pants before crouching down, going to his knees. His fingers made such quick work of Steve’s pants, he didn’t realize what was happening until his trousers slid past his hips and a waft of cool air blew over the freed head of his burning cock. Strong as he was, Steve needed to brace his hands on the door to keep from toppling as Tony’s tongue and mouth undid him. He had a fleeting thought about being grateful to have gone first, because there was no way he would have wanted to follow this act. The things Tony was doing to him defied description.

He wasn’t loud like Tony in his pleasure, not because he wasn’t feeling it, but because he was feeling too much. He didn’t have the wherewithal for words. Tony’s mouth was hot and skilled, finding sensitive spots Steve didn’t know he had. His hands were wicked, his fingers exacting, his focus unrelenting. He pulled back only once to growl about “how fucking gorgeous” Steve’s cock was.

Steve was already so gone from making Tony come, he could do little but try to hold on until Tony sent him crashing through the ceiling. He came hard and fast, losing vision for an undetermined time. He might have cried out, he wasn’t sure. He couldn’t have said what his name was if somebody asked. The first thing he was aware of—besides heat, thunder, and whirlwind euphoria—was a pinching sensation on his upper thighs and Tony’s voice.

“Come on, Steve, don’t collapse on me. You’re reeling like a boxer right before he hits the mat.” He reached out blindly, his fingers landing on Tony’s head, finding him. “Yeah, I’m right here. Sit down with me. Come on, you can do it.”

Steve tried to remember how to sit. He took an unsteady step, crashing into the door. Turning, he flattened his back against it, using it as a guide as he slid to the floor. Tony’s hands went around his waist, body curling into Steve’s chest.

“As landings go, Cap, that wasn’t pretty, but at least you didn’t hurt yourself.”

“You should come with a warning label,” he muttered as he played with Tony’s hair, kissing the top of his head. Tony laughed, sounding utterly pleased.

“You ain’t seen nothing, yet.”

“That’s what I’m afraid of.”

“Hey, you should talk. The Cirque de Soleil blow-job was inspired. You have totally blown my mind. I’m not kidding. There’s nothing left in there. I might have to look for a job on Fox News or something. My IQ points have dropped so low, the number is smaller than Olive Oyl’s waist size.”

Steve only understood maybe half of what Tony was saying, but it didn’t matter. He was content listening to him, loving the way Tony was nuzzling against him as he petted his hair.

“Excuse me, sirs.” JARVIS’ voice cut through the afterglow, causing Steve to jump.

“Are you kidding me?” he grumbled. “I thought we talked about the whole privacy thing, JARVIS?”

“Indeed, Captain. Your Privacy Protocol is firmly in place.”

“Then why are you talking to me?”

“Because Mr. Stark is currently in your apartment and his Protocol overrides yours.”

“My protocol is bigger than yours,” Tony teased, leaning up to give Steve a kiss on the cheek. “What do you want, JARVIS? This better be good or my new Protocol is going to be to disassemble you.”

“Agent Romanoff is insistent I locate the two of you. They are holding up the cake cutting ceremony until your return.”

“Cake, what cake?” Tony groused, his fingers feathering over Steve’s softened cock, causing him to shudder. “I don’t care about cake. Let ‘em eat cake. They can have all the cake they want. Go bake them one, JARVIS.”

Despite Tony’s distracting fingers, Steve’s thoughts finally cleared. “He means wedding cake. Oh, no.”

“Whose wedding?” Tony might have been right about his mind being a few IQ points short.

“Clint and Phil,” Steve reminded, trying to detangle them despite Tony’s lack of cooperation. He was currently making a meal of Steve’s earlobe.

“Agent Coulson is tiring,” JARVIS reported. “But he refuses to cut his cake without the presence of ‘his Best Man and his new landlord,’ was the quote.”

Steve felt ashamed, having forgotten totally about Clint and Phil. “Tony, we gotta go,” he insisted, gently breaking free from the grip Tony had on his jacket, though he hated doing it.

Tony gave a pouting huff, but climbed to his feet. “Fine. We’ll go eat cake.” He bent down, picking up his tie, his eyebrows rising in amusement at the torn material, which was practically in shreds.

“Sorry,” Steve offered, abashed, as he struggled to adjust his pants.

“Ties are overrated.” He balled the material and pressed it to Steve’s cheek. “But I’m keeping this one.” Tucking it into his pocket with a salacious grin, he whispered, “Souvenir.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Did you lose another contact?” Bruce winked and smiled slyly as they tried to quietly re-enter the room. Why Steve had bothered to entertain any notion of privacy with this bunch was bewildering. He should have known better by now.

“Didn’t find your gift, Cap?” Natasha added from beside him, gesturing towards Steve’s empty hands, her eyes knowing.

“Darn it.” Steve was miffed at himself for once again leaving it behind, though in the shape he was in, he was lucky he remembered to zip his fly.

I did, didn’t I?

He tried to discretely check, folding his hands near the bottom of his jacket. “I can go back and get it.”

“I could help,” Tony offered, turning to him with the naughtiest grin, eyebrows wagging. It was then Steve noticed the ‘you’d-have-to-be-blind-to-miss-them’ reddish purple marks along the side of his neck. Steve reached out, trying to be nonchalant in adjusting Tony’s wide-open collar in a way that covered them.

“No way,” Natasha protested. “You two are not allowed to go anywhere alone together until this reception is over.”

“Weren’t you wearing a tie earlier?” Bruce pointed out.

“Weren’t you minding your own business?” Tony retorted.

“Hey, if you guys are done playing hide the salami,” Clint chimed in as he joined them, “my husband and I would like to get this cake cut. He’s already taken one nap in the chair.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said, chagrinned. “It was thoughtless to disappear. Phil needs to rest.”

“Don’t feel bad,” Clint assured. “The last thing he wants to do is go to bed. I think he plans to close this place down.”

“Understandable, after what he’s been through,” Bruce said thoughtfully.

“Looks like you won’t be needing your personal space heater anymore.” Clint laughed as he elbowed Steve, grinning like a fool. He had definitely been imbibing pretty freely.

“What is he talking about?” Tony asked, looking from Steve to Clint then back again, the wheels in his head almost visibly turning.

“It’s warm in here?” Steve tried feebly.

“Where is the promised cake for this feast?” Thor bellowed as he approached, Phil motoring along in front of him.

“There better be chocolate involved,” Phil declared. “Or someone is going back to the bakery.”

“I don’t think chocolate is on your approved diet list,” Natasha commented.

“Seriously?” Tony asked, folding his arms. “You? The rule keeper? Sorry. Doesn’t jibe.”

“My man can have all the sugar he wants today,” Clint stated, leaning down to give Phil a tender kiss on the lips.

“Says the man drinking both of your shares of the booze,” Bruce laughed.

“Weren’t you wearing a tie?” Clint asked as he straightened, then pitched unsteadily towards Tony.

Thor took hold of his arm to right him. “Come, Clinton. Your cake awaits.”

“Is that some kind skin condition on your neck, Stark?” Natasha inquired wickedly as they all walked towards the table with the huge wedding cake.

“I think Tony’s allergic to his contacts.”

“I didn’t know you wore contacts, Stark,” Phil remarked.

“Actually, I have remarkable vision. Bruce, on the other hand, might need to look into contacts to go along with his glasses, since he keeps mistaking Natasha’s door for his own in the wee hours of the night.”

Steve’s jaw nearly dropped to the floor. At first, he thought Tony was mouthing-off, but the way both Natasha and Bruce shifted uncomfortably, taking a step apart from the other as they walked, spoke volumes. Coulson’s lips turned up slightly in the corners and Hawkeye laughed hysterically.

“Bruce and Natasha?” Steve dropped back to whisper to Tony. He sure had missed that one.

“Old news.” Tony waved his hand. “I want to hear more about this space heater thing.”

“Knock it off.”

“Do I need to ask Barton?”

Steve came to a stubborn stop, taking hold of Tony’s arm, letting the others walk ahead of them. “You will not grill any more of my friends about anything from here on out, understood?”

“I am so hot for you right now, Captain.” Tony’s grin was absolutely filthy, making Steve’s thighs sweat. “Are you sure we can’t go back and look for your present?”

“You’re incorrigible.”

“And sexy. Don’t forget sexy.”

“That, too,” Steve admitted, fighting the nearly overwhelming urge to kiss him right there. “Let’s go eat cake.”

He walked away, but Tony was close behind him shamelessly whispering, “I can think of something I’d like in my mouth way more than wedding cake.”

~0~0~0~

The cake was delicious and Steve was starving. He ate three huge slices and also had two more passes at the buffet table before he even began to feel satiated. Clint, on the other hand, had eaten little, but was drinking steadily. “Do you want me to get him to slow down?” Steve asked Phil, who was sitting in his chair beside him, watching Clint lead a conga line.

“Not at all.” Phil looked tired, but content. Clint was right about him dozing off in the chair. Steve had seen him do it a few times, though he resisted any attempts to be brought back to his room to rest. “He’s having a great time. It brings me pleasure to watch him.” Phil’s eyes tracked Clint, the corners of his lips curling unguardedly.

Steve nodded, thinking he understood. “You’ve both been through so much. This must feel like—” Steve realized he didn’t have the words.

“Prison release?” Phil supplied. They both laughed.

“I guess something like that, yeah.”

“I wish I could keep up with him tonight.”

“You will,” Steve assured. “Soon.”

Phil nodded. “I’m grateful to be here at all.”

“We’re all grateful you’re here.”

Phil turned away from his husband-watching long enough to meet Steve’s eyes and smile. “Thank you.” His head canted to the side. “Glad to see you’re having such a good time tonight. You look very happy.”

Steve downed his bottle of water, squirming awkwardly. “Yeah, it’s, um, a good party.”

“Where exactly did Stark get off to?”

Steve looked around, trying to shrug casually. “Phone call, I think.”

In truth, Tony had gone to make a few business calls, but not until first informing Steve how “fucking hard it is being around you and not jumping your bones right now.” He had gone on to complain, “If you’re going to make me behave, then I gotta stay busy, distracted, you know?”

“It’s only for a little while more.” Steve was trying to be mature, but inside he was struggling as much as Tony. He was partially relieved when Tony disappeared from his view to make his calls. Of course, the other part of him was miserable, scanning the room every few minutes, desperate for even a glance of him.

“Hey, husband of mine,” Clint greeted as he approached them. He looked so stinking happy. It made Steve grin. “You ready for another spin out there?”

“I think I need to pass.”

“Time for bed?” Clint asked in concern as he crouched in front of Phil’s wheelchair. Phil reached to stroke his cheek in assurance.

“I’m fine. Sitting here among our friends, watching you have such fun. This is the best medicine for me.”

Clint looked up at Steve. “He’s telling me the truth, right?”

“Absolutely.”

“Then how ‘bout you, Best Man? Ready to boogie?” Clint lost his balance and toppled, crashing into Steve’s legs. He laughed as he helped to right him, slipping his hands under Clint’s armpits and hauling him up.

“Don’t think I can keep up with you. I’ll just keep Phil company. Thor was looking for you, though.”

“Oh, man,” Clint shook his head as he finally settled on his feet. “That guy’s gonna kill me. Those Asgardians got the moves.”

“You looked pretty good when he flipped you earlier,” Phil pointed out.

“You mean when my head almost went through the ceiling? Yeah, that rocked.”

“Go get him, tiger,” Phil encouraged. After giving Phil a quick kiss and wink, Clint was gone again. “Thor better watch out. My new husband’s got moves he hasn’t even tapped yet, and he’s been cooped up in a hospital room for a lot of weeks.” Phil looked upward. “Hope those chandeliers are reinforced.”

Steve sat, watching Phil watching Clint. “Did you know?” he found himself asking. “I mean, way back. When you met him. Did you know he’d be the one?”

Phil took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “I knew he mattered. You know how you can go through a day with a sea of faces in front of you, but you barely take notice? It’s like the background on a painting. It’s there, but it’s not what catches your eye. The minute I met him, he stood out in the foreground. Everything else blurred behind him. Still does. Does that make sense?”

“Perfect sense.”

~0~0~0~

“Come on, you owe me, remember?” Tony was hanging on his arm, wheedling.

“I still don’t get how I ended up owing you a dance because I wore my uniform today.”

“It’s very complicated logic. No sense troubling your pretty head trying to figure it out. Trust me. You owe me.”

Steve made the mistake of turning toward Tony. “Don’t look at me like that. Those eyes of yours are dangerous.” Steve managed to get his arm free as he lowered his voice more. “It’s not that I don’t want to. But it’s not a good idea. Not after before.” Upon his return to the party, Tony had cornered him, rubbing shamelessly against him before stealing a kiss. Steve had to spend fifteen minutes in the john waiting for the embarrassing bulge in his uniform pants to correct itself. Pressing Tony to his body in something as intimate as a dance in the middle of a room full of people was the definition of a bad plan.

“What if I don’t care what they think?” The playful air had fled and Tony’s voice was thick with emotion. “Who cares what they know? I want to be near you. I was kinda hoping you might want the same thing.”

“Of course I do.” Steve was floored. He had hidden for so long. Burying aspects of himself, even from his own unforgiving scrutiny, had become second nature. The idea of embracing it was something he’d never considered. The realization that Tony wasn’t looking to run from this thing between them, or hide it away in a dark corner, was profound.

“Yeah?” Tony’s smile was hopeful and nervous at once.

Steve took Tony’s hand in his, interlocking their fingers. “There’s a lot happening really fast and this is supposed to be Phil and Clint’s day. It doesn’t feel right to make it about myself.”

“That’s what I get for falling for the good guy, I guess.”

Falling for?" Steve repeated, sure he had heard wrong.

“Clint!” Natasha called out. Steve’s head whipped around quickly, eyes immediately discerning the cause of her distress. Clint had been doing a flip off one of the chandeliers, but the alcohol intake had apparently impaired his usual impeccable balance. He was falling towards the floor. Fast.

Steve’s reflexes took over and he was under him before the collective gasp in the room had finished fully forming. He caught him easily enough, though Clint was dead weight and would have crashed to the floor pretty hard if not for Steve’s intervention.

“You okay?” Steve asked, shaking Clint.

“Gotta get those stairs fixed, Stark,” Clint slurred.

“Is he hurt?” Phil’s voice was steeped in concern as Thor wheeled him to the center of the dance floor where Steve was holding Clint.

“I stepped away for but a moment to procure refreshment,” Thor was saying.

Bruce had raced over and was feeling Clint for broken bones. “He seems all right.”

“You sure?” Natasha asked. “Crashing into Steve is almost as bad as hitting the floor.”

“I was careful,” Steve assured.

“Okay, party’s over,” Tony announced as he joined them. “Barton, you are officially cut off.”

“Good idea,” Clint lifted his head to agree, right before he passed out.

“Jackass,” Natasha admonished the unconscious man in Steve’s arms as she reached out to check him herself.

“Thank you all for coming,” Phil said, calm and collected, waving his good arm at the crowd. “My husband and I have had a lovely time. It’s been a great party, but I think it’s time for bed.”

“I’ll take him,” Steve offered.

“I’ll go with you,” Bruce added. “Make sure they’re both okay.”

“I’ve got a whole medical team on standby in their suite,” Tony reminded.

“I know, but I’ll feel better if I check for myself.” Steve noticed the silent looks exchanged between Natasha and Bruce, realizing he was doing this as much to assure her as himself. How did I not see what was between them before? Too busy being jealous, I guess.

“Helluva party you throw,” Fury commented to Tony after saying goodnight to Coulson. “Wouldn’t be a Stark party if someone didn’t get drunk and make a fool of himself.”

“You drive carefully, now, Nick,” Tony ground out around an obviously false smile. “Please come again soon. How does 2025 work with your schedule?”

“I’ll pencil it in.”

“I’ll be back soon as I can,” Steve said, trying to draw Tony’s attention from the daggers he was glaring at Fury. “Maybe we can finish our conversation?”

Tony’s entire demeanor softened. “Yeah, I’d like that.”

~0~0~0~

The nurses Tony had hired for Phil were excellent. Mark and Carolyn had Phil medicated, washed, and ready for bed in no time. After Bruce had given Clint another once over, determining he hadn’t hurt anything, they had tossed him in the shower.

“Shit!” Clint screamed when the cold water doused him.

“Too warm?” Bruce teased.

“What the hell,” he groused as he tried to get to his feet.

“Swinging from chandeliers ring any bells?” Steve asked as he reached in and helped Clint get vertical. His arm got soaked, but he had already taken off his uniform jacket, so it wasn’t so bad.

“Oh, man.” Clint’s dragged his hands over his face. “It’s fuzzy, but I remember.” He straightened, looking around. “Is Phil okay?”

“He’s fine,” Bruce assured. “The nurses are taking good care of him, getting him ready for bed.”

Clint pressed his hands to the wall, ducking his head under the cold spray. “Where the hell was Thor anyway? He was supposed to be dancing with me.”

“You might want to consider how often he breaks for food next time you’re expecting him to spot you.”

“In his defense,” Bruce added, “he says he told you he was stepping away.”

“Yeah, I don’t remember that part.”

“Not surprising,” Steve said, grinning. “I’m actually a little surprised you’re upright.”

“Sorry to disappoint you guys. You’re not getting to give anyone a sponge bath tonight. I got this.”

“Glad to hear it.” Bruce backed away. “There’s a fresh pot of black coffee waiting for you when you get out of there.”

“Thanks. And Steve? Good catch. Appreciate it.”

“No problem.”

Steve left the bathroom and went in to say goodnight to Phil, but he was already asleep. The hospital bed Tony had brought in looked practical but comfortable, and it was wider than the standard ones. Even though there was a perfectly good bed in the suite, they pretty much figured Clint would bunk in with Phil for the most part, like he did in the hospital whenever he could get away with it, so there was plenty of room beside Coulson.

“Tell him I’ll be here in the morning to help him with his exercises,” Steve informed Mark.

“I will.”

“Thanks. Goodnight.”

Steve exited the bedroom, making his way through the living room and towards the door, but he stopped when Bruce called to him.

“Hey, Steve, you forgot your jacket.”

“Oh, thanks.” He took the jacket from Bruce’s hand. “Clint okay? Maybe I should stay.”

“He’ll be fine. You go on. I’ll make sure he gets to bed. I don’t want to hold you up. Tony’s not very patient.” Bruce grinned and Steve studied his feet awkwardly.

“No, I guess not.” Steve was feeling pretty impatient himself, but he didn’t want to be rude. He’d been petty and unfair towards Bruce for weeks, and even though it was all in his mind, he felt like he owed the guy an apology. Knowing how weird that would have sounded, he searched for something else to say. “So. You and Natasha, huh?”

It was Bruce’s turn to look at his shoes as he shrugged. “Yeah. Kind of strange, right?”

“No. I think it’s nice. I’m happy for you.”

“Thanks.” Bruce’s head came up and he looked genuinely pleased. “I appreciate it. I think it’s nice about you and Tony, too.”

Steve nodded, though in truth he was still getting used to the fact there was a ‘him and Tony.’ Felt odd to be speaking about it. “Talk about strange, huh?”

“Not really. It’s a good fit.”

Bruce’s kindness and support only made Steve feel guiltier about his unkind thoughts. “Look, I feel like I should apologize to you. I’m not proud of it, but I was really jealous of you and Tony.”

“Yeah,” Bruce nodded. “The night after the Battle, right? I understand. But I’m sure he explained how it was, or I’d be ducking right about now.” He laughed, looking very amiable.

How it was?

Steve stiffened, responding cautiously. “Yeah, you know Tony. Never stops talking.”

“Don’t be too hard on him. It was a mistake. He just gets carried away sometimes. He was pretty shook up from the whole Chitauri attack and the almost dying thing.”

Everything inside him told him to leave it be, but Steve didn’t. He couldn’t. “I know how much your friendship means to him. You guys are so close. And you did go home with him that night. Guess it stands to reason.”

“Yeah, exactly. No big deal. It happens with friends.”

“Yeah, Natasha explained it to me earlier. Friends with benefits, right?” Steve wasn’t sure how he was speaking around the bile in his throat. He felt all the food he had eaten churning in his stomach as he turned to leave.

“Wait a minute.” Bruce grabbed his arm, and it was all Steve could do to keep from shoving him into the next decade.

“I gotta go,” he said shortly. He’d heard enough.

Bruce took a good look at him, his expression changing to panic, eyes going wide. “You didn’t know anything about it, did you? Oh, fuck. Steve, wait, you’re misunderstanding—”

“No, this one I got. Loud and clear.”

“No. You don’t understand. You’ve got it wrong. Let me explain,” Bruce implored.

Steve yanked his arm back, raising a warning finger. “Bruce, just don’t. Hulk or no Hulk. You do not want to be in my face right now.”

As he stormed out of the suite, blood boiling, he heard Bruce calling after him before muttering, “Shit. Tony’s totally going to kill me.”

~0~0~0~

It took Steve exactly three minutes to tear down the stairs, get to his apartment, throw off his uniform and tug on sweats and a tee-shirt. Then he was gone. He had no idea where he was heading when he left. All knew was he wanted to get as far from the tower, these people, and all things Stark as he possibly could. He ran—hard—as if there was a speed he could achieve fast enough to escape his own mind. He made it over the bridge into Brooklyn, but he didn’t stop there. He didn’t belong there any more than he belonged anywhere. He kept going, straight through the mid-section of Queens into Long Island, running its entire length as well. Finally, stopping more than one hundred miles later, when he had run out of New York real estate, he gave serious thought to jumping into the water and swimming to Connecticut, but decided against it.

Instead, he sat on the rocks looking into the Long Island Sound, winded, drenched in sweat, shaking hard. His thoughts were complete mayhem. He wanted to blame Tony, or Bruce, or even Thor for betraying him, but there was no one to blame but himself. Tony was Tony. Sex was a game to him and nobody twisted Steve’s arm to play. Picturing Tony with Bruce was making him see red, a rage he had never experienced before. But what difference did it make? It wasn’t like Tony probably hadn’t slept with half the population of Manhattan. Steve was plain stupid for believing what had happened between him and Tony was special. Why would he matter that much to anyone? He never had before.

He was a relic, pure and simple. The man out of time—the oddity—the thawed popsicle who probably would have wound up in the freak show if they hadn’t needed his help to save the planet. He was never going to understand. He would never fit in. People in this day saw sex as a means to an end. It was all very casual and the players were interchangeable. Who you were and what you felt had no business in it.

Not for Phil and Clint, he thought, thinking of their beautiful wedding. He ached to have someone love him like that, but it was a stupid dream. It was never going to happen for him. What was so bad about this ‘hooking up’ stuff? At least it meant he could be with Tony.

Sure, and I could twist my guts to shreds every second thinking about who he’s with when he’s not with me.

But up until today, he wasn’t even with me at all, which was pretty awful, too.

“I am such a jerk,” Steve said aloud, dropping his face into his hands. He didn’t know what he wanted anymore. Not to feel tortured in his own skin would be nice. What he truly dreaded was going back there. They would all know. They always knew everything. It wasn’t like he would get to be a loser and an idiot in peace for a while until he could get his head on straight. They probably got quite a laugh out of him, how quaint and naïve he was.

Running away was no option, though. He had never run from things in his life and he wasn’t about to start now. Phil would be expecting him to show up and help with his therapy like he did every morning, and Steve wasn’t about to let him down. He had other responsibilities as well. This city had bigger problems then his insignificant hurts. Feeling sorry for himself was a selfish proposition and he knew it.

Still, he couldn’t bring himself to get up. Not for a few more hours. He let himself wallow in the pain, the shame, the disillusionment and disappointment, and the stinging knowledge of how utterly pathetic he was. Mostly, he tried not to think about Tony Stark. Best not to dwell on things he was never going to have, not the way he wanted it, anyway. Of course, he hadn’t been successful putting Tony out of his mind before and it was only harder now; hard not to think about the things he wanted—the things he’d only begun to touch and now could never really have. Would it have been better to never have had a taste? What did he even want from Tony?

Only everything.

When dawn began to break in the sky, he finally managed to get to his feet and start his journey back. He ran hard again, hoping to sweat out the ache eating him alive inside. By the time the tower was in sight, he was exhausted, emotionally and physically. He dragged himself up the stairs, figuring he had time to shower and change before he needed to be at Phil’s suite.

The last person he wanted to see was Tony, yet there he was, sitting on the floor outside Steve’s apartment door. He was still in the suit he had worn to the wedding, only it was totally wrinkled now. He must have been dozing, because when Steve closed the stairwell door, he started wildly, then jumped to his feet, going from zero to furious in three seconds.

“Where the hell have you been?”

“Out,” Steve answered, too tired for the drama.

“Out where? You look like you’ve been break dancing in a bucket of lard.”

“Can I please get into my apartment?” Steve asked, hoping Tony would move away from the door.

“Can I go in with you?”

“No.”

“Then no.” He folded his arms stubbornly. “We need to talk.”

“I’m surprised you’re not already in there. You could probably have JARVIS override the locks whenever you want.”

“I won’t do that to you. I told you this was your place and I’ve gone out of my way to respect it as such, though it’s pretty damn hard for me.”

“Thanks.” Considering how few boundaries people around here respected, Steve was grateful. “We really don’t have anything to talk about, though. Bruce already told me about you two, a conversation I’m sure he reported to you five minutes after it happened.” Which was why Steve had left the tower in three.

“Bruce is a jackass and there is no ‘we two.’ You’ve got it wrong.”

“Tony, you don’t owe me anything.” Steve’s anger at Tony had muted somewhere around mile two hundred. All that was left now was anger at himself. And sadness. “I don’t need any explanations. What you do is your business.”

“Well, I’m making it my business to tell you what I didn’t do.”

“Are you telling me Bruce lied about you two?”

“I’m telling you that you didn’t stick around for the whole story.”

“I’m not real interested in the play by play.” Just the thought of it sent Steve’s already unsettled stomach roiling.

“I didn’t have sex with Bruce,” Tony implored, his features distraught, his body tensing like this actually mattered to him; like he was sincere. But this was Tony Stark. He could pretty much talk his way out of anything. Steve waited, just staring, wondering if he was going to get the truth. Tony fidgeted, then paced, taking several deep breaths in and out before finally admitting. “Okay, it was more like attempted sex.”

“Attempted sex?” Steve repeated, wondering if this was another euphemism he didn’t get. “What does that even mean?”

“It means there was an offer on the table, but both parties couldn’t agree, so there was no merger.”

“Which party took it off the table?” Steve needed to ask, though Tony’s nervous fidgeting gave him his answer.

“Technically, that would be him.”

Steve didn’t think it was possible to feel worse than he already did. He was wrong. He yanked his key from his pocket, desperate to get inside and get the door between them. “Tony, this is none of my business and I’m running late. Please just leave me alone.”

“But I’m not done explaining.”

“What’s to explain? You can have sex—or attempted sex—with anyone you want.”

“I was hoping to have it with you again. The real kind. Not the attempted—”

“Not happening.”

“Because of Bruce?”

“Because of me. Because I’m not the right person for you. Because I can’t handle the stuff that comes so easily for the rest of you. I mean, I don’t even know how far down on the list I was.”

“What list? What are you talking about?”

“Was I second? After Bruce? Or did a few more people have to turn you down before you got to me?” Steve would have bitten off his tongue if it could have taken back the words, but there they were, in all their pathetic glory.

That’s what you think?” Tony staggered back a few steps, his face white.

Steve took a deep breath, determined to get through this no matter how hard it was. “What I think is you’re a great guy. And I want you to be happy. I’m just not cut out for this kind of thing. You should find somebody better suited for you and the kind of stuff you like.”

“Just like that?” Tony muttered, his voice thick. “You’re done with me?”

Steve turned away, his hand shaking as he struggled to get the key in the lock. He hadn’t expected Tony to look and sound this hurt. It was tearing at his heart, but what choice was there? They would only keep hurting each other. They were too different. It took him three tries, but he finally got the door open. “If you want me to move out, I will.” When Tony didn’t answer, Steve turned around.

Tony was gone.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

The next two weeks were rough, and not just for Steve. The entire tower was filled with a tension and dissent they hadn’t experienced as a team since day one. Steve was oblivous at first, keeping to himself for a few days after the wedding. He tossed and turned at night, barely sleeping. When he was awake, he was either working in the city or losing himself in the gym in almost non-stop exercise. Despite the increased workouts, he could feel his physical condition was far from peak. He needed an ample amount of sleep and nutrition to meet the needs of his body, and when he didn’t attend to those needs, he felt it. Sure, he could power through, but not without a toll.

His condition didn’t go unnoticed by SHIELD’s top agent, whose keen observational skills hadn’t been dulled by his current disability. Phil Coulson put in a demanding daily workout in the fully equipped physical therapy facility Tony had installed in his suite, and despite his personal angst, Steve never failed to show up on time each morning for the sessions, just as he had when Phil was in the hospital. The first few days after the wedding, their conversations stayed within the parameters of the workout, but it wasn’t long before Phil was calling on him to task.

“If you’re not careful, you’re going to start looking more listless than I do. Not exactly the image expected from Captain America.”

“You’re anything but listless.” Steve knew he was dodging, but it was also the truth. Walt, the lead physical therapist on Phil’s medical team, was impressed with Phil’s progress, pointing out he was weeks ahead of where anyone else with his injuries would have been.

“And you’re purposely missing my point. Why?”

“Because I’m fine. I’ve had a little trouble sleeping lately. Nothing to be concerned about.”

“You’re not going to tell him?” Clint hissed from his perch atop the cabinet in the PT room where he often crouched to watch Phil’s workouts.

“His focus belongs on his exercises. This regime is taxing enough without distractions.”

Phil’s left arm was progressing, though not as fast as he wanted. He was anxious to get on his feet again, but the arm wasn’t strong enough to offer the support he needed to grasp the handrail on the parallel bar platform. That’s where Steve came in. He would stand behind Phil, one hand around his waist, offering only enough support to take the place of his left arm while Phil got the opportunity to work his legs. Right hand gripping the bar, he slowly walked the ten-foot length of the of the parallel platform’s hardwood base floor. It was an effort, but each day he was able to stand and walk longer. Phil’s discipline and determination were exceptional. If Steve shouldered too much of his weight—even for a moment—to make the arduous task easier, Phil balked immediately.

“You done . . . talking about me . . . like I’m not here.” Phil grunted each word as he continued to plow forward.

“Sorry, babe. Be glad you’re in here. Take a step outside this suite and the tension in this tower will choke you.”

Phil looked over his shoulder toward Steve before he took his next step. “That true?”

“I, um, can’t say I’ve noticed.” Steve wasn’t proud of the fact he was too wrapped up in his own misery to think too deeply about the discord within the tower, though he couldn’t argue with Clint’s assessment.

“Haven’t noticed? Do you live under a rock? It’s worse than high school,” Clint informed them, laughing derisively. “Let me see if I can recap the latest episode of As The Avengers Turn. Stark and the good captain here are at odds, which is making both of them pretty unpleasant to be around, and has thrown the entire equilibrium of life as we know it into chaos. Tony’s pissed as hell at Bruce. The God of Thunder has it in for Tony over the fact that Steve is no longer talking to his thunderous self because of something Thor told Tony that he shouldn’t have. Bruce is mad at Cap for how he’s treating Tony, and because Cap is pointedly avoiding the good Doc Hulk over something Bruce feels is unfair. Nat is ticked off at Bruce for having a big mouth, and she’s not too pleased with Stark for fucking with Cap; though Stark seems to think whatever she said to Steve during our reception made matters worse, so he’s not talking to her either. When she’s not busy with all of them, Nat finds the occasional free moment to be annoyed with me over my drunken drop at the reception, something I’m still holding Thor responsible for, by the way. And Tony has been snarling at me over something I said about a heater, which I don’t remember saying since I was pretty wasted at the time.”

Steve was chagrinned at how childish Clint’s recitation made things sound. “It’ll pass,” he responded, hoping to downplay it.

“In the meantime,” Phil started, not finishing his thought until he completed two more steps, “how does this situation affect the team?”

Steve looked up towards Clint, expecting him to have a smart-aleck retort, but he waved his hands in a surrender gesture, not eager to get any deeper into this mess. “From what I see,” Steve offered, “everyone is carrying out their missions regarding Operation Rebuild.”

“Individual effort is good.” Phil gritted his teeth, summoning the strength to get to the end of the floor board. When he’d made it, he spoke around his heaving breath. “Doesn’t make a team, though.”

“Yes, sir.” Steve knew he was right. What he didn’t know—or have the heart to figure out—was how to fix this. He really did want to believe it would pass. “Ready for your break?” he asked, knowing there would be no stopping unless Coulson gave the word.

“Sounds good.” A little surprised, Steve nodded towards Clint who was already climbing down to retrieve the wheelchair. Steve protectively guided the sling arm while Phil did the rest, grunting at the effort of getting himself into the chair. Clint held the handles of the chair, but didn’t offer assistance. He knew, like Steve did, such help would be met with a steely glare and a civil, but stern, reprimand.

“You did great today,” Clint said with pride, handing Phil a towel once he was seated properly.

Phil wiped the sweat from his face and head before addressing Clint. “Thanks. Listen, could you go tell Walt I’d like an extra banana in the protein shake today?”

Clint looked astutely from Phil to Steve, then back to Phil. “Sure. No problem.” He bent to give Phil a quick kiss, then nodded towards Steve before disappearing.

“Do you want to start the arm reps now or wait for Walt?” Steve asked. Walt usually made himself scarce during the start of the workout because Phil preferred to do certain things with Steve, a pattern they had gotten into at the hospital, but he usually joined them after the parallel bar platform.

“It can wait. Sit.”

Steve figured he wasn’t going to like what was coming, but dragged over a weight bench and sat nonetheless. “If it’s about the team—”

“It’s about you. Until you deal with you, there is no team.”

“Good thing you’ll be back to lead soon, then. They’ll be better with you in charge.”

Phil shook his head. “You underestimate your role. The last thing you need is more pressure, though. I’m sure you put enough on your own shoulders. I’m not looking to give you any pep talks about team spirit or leadership.”

“What, then?”

“I’m worried about you.” Phil’s eyes were kind, his concern clearly genuine, making it easier for Steve to listen without feeling scrutinized. “Steve, you can’t spend a lot of time fretting about things that happened when you weren’t in the picture. People can’t edit their pasts. You should know that better than anyone.”

Steve took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. He had gone over this a thousand times in his head already. When he’d finally reached a place close to rational thought, he did understand it was crazy to be angry at Tony for something he did when they weren’t together, but the realization didn’t help much. “I do know. I understand what you’re saying. I’m just not sure my being in the picture now changes anything. Not in a way I can live with. The things I want are too old-fashioned.”

“What is it you want?”

There was another topic Steve had wrestled with during the long hours he wasn’t sleeping. Looking at Phil, he managed to boil it down to a few short words. “I want what you have.”

“With Clint?” At Steve’s nod, Phil smiled. “Well, that’s not old-fashioned at all. You should know. You stood beside us at the wedding. But it’s the kind of thing that doesn’t just happen. Happy endings don’t come gift wrapped with a bow and set on your doorstep in this day any more than they did in yours. The relationships that matter take work and effort over time. I know you’re not a guy who shies away from hard work. Why are you afraid to fight for this?”

“Fight for what? To make someone the person I want him to be rather than the person he is?”

“I think every day we discover a little more about who we are. If we’re lucky, every day brings a new awakening.”

“Yeah, but sometimes you wake up to find everything’s gone.” Steve stood, too uncomfortable to continue the conversation. He knew too much about losing things. “I appreciate your concern. Thanks for talking to me.”

“Steve—”

“I’ll stop by tonight and help you do some more walking if you want.” He gave a shout to Walt to let him know he was leaving so Phil wouldn’t be alone, and then he took off.

Phil hadn’t brought the subject up again in the days that followed, even as the tension in the tower increased. No one was ever in the common rooms. The theater went unused, there were no shared meals, certainly no bodies strewn over Steve’s couch watching TV at night. The weekend was miserable. Steve sat at his drafting table, trying to distract himself from the lack of conversation and laughter that used to take place on their off days, but all he wound up doing was drawing countless sketches of Tony: everything from the detail of his hands to the profile of his nose, even a few of the arc reactor, recalling how it felt the night Tony pressed Steve’s hand under his shirt.

“This is not helping!”

With a swipe of his arm, the sketches scattered to the floor. But a moment later, he picked them all up, taking care to flatten the ones he had bent before setting them neatly on the table near the photos Tony had gifted him with. He looked at the image of Bucky and the other guys, wondering what they would think of the life he was leading now.

Which part? The comic book superhero of the future, fighting space aliens? Or the hopeless queer?

Oddly enough, he figured they would have found the first identity easier to fathom, but it didn’t bother him much. He had come to accept himself for who he was. Denial made little sense anymore. Preferring guys wasn’t such an awful thing. The problem was, he always picked the wrong guys. That was the part he would change if he could. Too bad his heart never was very good at listening to his head. He looked around his beautiful apartment, everything in it reminding him of his team—of Tony. It was difficult being here, but the thought of leaving was far worse. He would have moved out if Tony had asked, but he never asked, and Steve was reluctant to leave the first place that had felt like home to him since his mother died. Surely he and Tony would find a way to be friends again and this friction between the Avengers would pass. They had figured out a way to come together before and they would again. He just needed to wait it out.

By the following Tuesday, he wasn’t as sure. They had sat through the PR planning meeting with Madison in total silence; no wisecracks, no questioning, no input of any kind. Everyone’s chair was as far as possible from anyone else’s. Madison’s outline for several appearances, including a charity event in which they would be expected to do a meet and greet the following Tuesday evening, was met with grudging nods.

“Talkative bunch,” she commented as she was wrapping up the meeting.

“It’s an off day,” Steve responded as an explanation.

“Look, I don’t know what’s going on here,” she said, flattening her hands on the table in a no-nonsense stance. “But you better not let the press get hold of it. Outside this tower, you all need to play nice or even my considerable talents won’t be able to keep a lid on the negative image repercussions.”

“Guys, she’s right.” Steve stood up. “If public opinion shifts on us, we’ll be perceived as no better than a bunch of vigilantes. Or worse: Aliens. Either way, we’re a threat. We can do a lot of good in this world. We’ve already proven it. Do we really want that work to be curtailed because we can’t take the high road with each other? After all we’ve been through together?”

“I don’t see you on any higher road than the rest of us, lately, Captain,” Bruce grumbled. It wasn’t the most positive comment, but it was a comment nonetheless, and Steve realized it was far better than the silence. This had gone on long enough. Even bickering with each other openly had to be better than the stony indifference they had been hiding behind. And Bruce had a point. Steve was supposed to be the leader, setting the tone, and he’d done a shamefully poor job lately.

“You’re right.” He turned to Madison. “Madison, thank you for your input and the hard work you’ve been putting in on our behalf. Would you mind excusing us now? The team has some issues to work out.”

“No problem.” She gathered her papers and packed them into her briefcase, bidding them all ‘good afternoon’ before exiting. Steve turned to the sullen mob who were not only his team, but his friends, his family. This needed to end, no matter how uncomfortable the prospect of this conversation was for him.

“All right. I’ll start. You asked me to be a leader and I’ve let you down. The reasons don’t matter. I owed you better than what I’ve given, and I’m sorry.”

“You are a fine leader,” Thor interjected. “It is we who have let you down. For my part, I betrayed your confidence and sullied your trust.”

“I know you didn’t mean to,” Steve responded, aware it was time to let it go, even if he hadn’t been able to do so yet.

“Yeah, that was on me,” Tony muttered from the corner. “But I’m not sorry.” He folded his arms like a petulant kid, curling more into the wall he was leaning on. But at least he was talking.

Thor ignored him, directing his comments to Steve instead. “I offer you my humble apology.” He put his hand over his chest, bowing his head.

“I accept. And I’m sorry for being surly every time you’ve tried to talk to me lately. You’ve made quite a few attempts to apologize, and I’ve been too hard-headed to give you the chance.”

“You were justified in your anger. One should expect more from those he calls friend.” Thor looked pointedly at Tony, who shrugged, then looked at his watch.

“Very touching. Is this meeting over yet? Is this even part of the meeting? Is it, like, a sub-meeting, because I didn’t sign up for any sub-meetings. Sub-meetings are totally not on my schedule.”

“Stark, stop being an ass.” Natasha threw him a dirty look.

“Leave him alone,” Bruce defended, incurring her icy stare.

“Oh?” Her eyebrow arched. “Are you worried about him now? Where was this concern when you were sabotaging his chances with Cap? Were you jealous?”

“It wasn’t Bruce’s fault,” Steve managed to say, even as he bristled. The wound was still raw, but the point was to lead by example, so he certainly couldn’t backtrack now despite his discomfort. “I let Bruce think I already knew what he was talking about. He wasn’t divulging anything. I was being dishonest, and I got what I deserved.”

“You didn’t deserve to get hurt, and I wish like hell it didn’t happen,” Bruce said earnestly. Looking at Natasha, he added, “But no, I didn’t do it on purpose. You think I did?”

“Why would you bring it up at all?” she asked. “Did you ever hear of wishing people well and shutting the hell up?”

“You don’t have any business talking to people about shutting the hell up,” Tony accused. “Who exactly made you director of the department of sex education around here?”

“There is such a department?” Thor asked, clearly interested, causing Clint to laugh.

“That’s funny to you?” Natasha asked. “As funny as playing the crazy uncle at your own wedding reception and trying to break your fool neck showboating? Real great present that would have been for your new husband.”

“I wasn’t trying to break my neck. Thor was supposed to spot me. We were dancing.”

Bruce started humming what Steve figured had to be a song. “Oh, what a feeling; when you’re dancing on the ceiling.”

“I am at fault,” Thor agreed. “I lost sight of how weak Midgardians are with their brew. Clinton was surely not capable of being sensible in my absence.”

“Is that supposed to be an apology?” Clint sucked his teeth, rolling his eyes.

“People,” Steve interrupted. “This isn’t getting us anywhere.”

“On the contrary,” Thor interjected. “I find this clearing of the air quite refreshing. I have missed the rousing company of my comrades.”

“Thor’s right—though he still didn’t apologize to me.” Clint looked around the room. “The icy silence around this place sucks. I think sniping at each other is a step up.”

“Idiot,” Natasha griped, but she did give Clint what looked like a hint of a grin—you would need a magnifying glass to be sure.

“Love you, too, Nat.”

“This is stupid,” Tony complained sharply.

“Can’t you just admit you’re as miserable as the rest of us?” Bruce asked him.

Tony kicked the wall, standing so fast his chair crashed to the ground. He pointed at Bruce, his face tight, words low and laced with venom. “You don’t get to assess me. You are officially relieved from having any opinions regarding me and my life. You are the last person I would trust to tell anything to anymore, you backstabbing Judas.”

“I did not stab you in the back,” Bruce protested heatedly, coming to his feet as well. “Just because he let you down, don’t take it out on me!”

“Shut up! You’re the last person who gets to talk about him.”

“Guys, I’m right here.” Steve was confused by the exchange, but he figured he was the ‘him’ involved, and it troubled Steve to be the cause of their vicious words. “If you’ve got a problem with me, deal with me.”

“Nobody can talk to you, Mr. Perfect,” Bruce rebuked. “How many times since this happened have I tried to get you to listen to me? To let me explain? But no, you can’t listen. You’re too busy being morally outraged and judging us lesser mortals.” He made a sweeping gesture to encompass the room. “And now all of them give me the hairy eyeball like this is my fault. I didn’t sleep with your precious Tony!”

Ohhh, this is getting good.” Hawkeye climbed up onto the back of his chair and perched forward like he did when he was watching a ballgame. “I don’t suppose you would all pause while I get some popcorn?”

Steve stumbled back, rocked. He knew they needed to clear the air, but he never expected it to get this personal. This was not a conversation he was going to have with an audience. “I think we’re done here.”

“No more team building?” Tony said caustically. “Oh, darn.”

“On Asgard, when two suitors clash for the affections of their beloved, they settle it with a hearty skirmish.” Thor leaned toward Clint. “Who is fighting for whom, here?”

“My scorecard is a little behind, but I think it’s Tony. No, wait, could be Cap. No, it’s Tony. Bruce and Steve are—”

“I am not fighting for Tony. I didn’t sleep with Tony. I don’t want Tony. More importantly, he doesn’t want me, which is why I didn’t sleep with him in the first place.”

“Are you really doing this here?” Natasha was disgusted.

“Why not? It’s not like you can be any more pissed at me.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Clint posited. “She holds a pretty mean grudge.”

“You should know, Barton.”

Peevish accusations were flying back and forth so fast, it was hard to keep track of them, but Steve’s instincts told him there was something deeper here, something he needed to pay attention to. Looking at Bruce, he asked, “What are you trying to say?”

“Oh, now you want to listen?”

“Don’t even think about it, Banner.” Tony threatened, looking poised to explode.

Bruce paused, looking at Tony, seeming to be considering his next words, finally waving his hand dismissively. “It’s not like it can get any worse. The truth might be refreshing.”

“I’m not going to warn you again—”

“He didn’t want me, Cap. Pepper dumped him months before the Battle because she couldn’t deal with who he was. That night, when he was hurting and lonely and scared shitless from coming inches from dying, I was there. It was convenient and I was game. Wasn’t like I’d had anybody who’d mattered to me in forever. It would have been fun to release a little steam after the hell we’d been through, but ultimately I didn’t take him up on it. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I knew how he really felt, and I wasn’t going to let him hurt himself more.”

“You son of a bitch.”

Steve was so shaken by what Bruce was saying, he didn’t see Tony lunge at Banner until Clint had alertly jumped between, cutting him off, wrapping his arms around the struggling Stark. “Easy, Tony. Do you really want to pick a fight with a Hulk?”

“Make him shut the fuck up!”

Tony was wild, bucking furiously until he’d nearly dislodged Clint’s grip, but Thor stepped in, his own restraining arm keeping Tony away from Banner. “Perhaps it is just that you should experience the ignominy of having your own secrets spilled, as you were so cavalier with Steven’s.”

“Bruce, this has gone too far.” Natasha yanked at Bruce’s arm. “Stop this, now.” Bruce hesitated, looking regretfully at Natasha, then Tony as well. Taking a deep breath, he pulled his arm from Natasha and faced Steve square on.

You were the one he wanted. You were the one who rocked his world from the minute he met you, which terrified the hell out of him, because you were the one person on the planet he knew he was never going to be good enough for. After weeks of torturing himself with it, he finally got up the courage to go for it with you . . . and you dumped him. The one thing he feared the most. How could you do that?”

“I . . . he . . . I d-didn’t,” Steve stammered, reeling.

“Shut the fuck up,” Tony ordered, struggling violently.

“Leave him alone,” Natasha ordered Clint and Thor, who let go of Tony.

“You weren’t going to tell him,” Bruce offered to Tony as explanation. “You would have let yourself bleed to death.”

“Such a humanitarian, Doc.” Tony’s voice was hoarse and bitter. He didn’t go at Bruce again, just headed for the door.

Gathering the effort to speak, Steve called, “Tony!”

“Save it. I’ve got nothing to say to any of you, except go to hell!”

The door slammed behind him, casting the room into a long, uncomfortable silence, which was only broken when Clint chimed, “Great meeting, Cap. Same time tomorrow?”

“Indeed,” Thor concurred heartily.

~0~0~0~

Steve sat in the conference room long after the team had filtered out, trying to digest everything that had happened. His heart beat so loud in his ears, it was giving him a headache. It took a while to get his hands to stop shaking.

“You were the one who rocked his world from the minute he met you.”

Can that really be true?

Steve couldn’t think of one reason why Bruce would lie about it. He had incurred Tony’s wrath, as well as Natasha’s, to say it. Tony’s pain and outrage were undeniable. He sure behaved like a man who had just had his deepest secret betrayed.

Like how I felt when Tony hit me with my secret about Bucky.

“Why wouldn’t he tell me?” Steve reached for the cup of pencils on the table, dumping the contents in his hand then snapping every pencil in half before crushing the tin cup in his fist.

It’s not like we had any chance to talk after . . . .

Steve had been using a considerable amount of mental discipline the past two weeks to keep from thinking overly much about the passion he and Tony had shared. It was the most incredible experience of his life, yet mere hours later just the thought of it was like jabbing a knife into his heart. He had fought with every ounce of strength to lock the memory away in his mental footlocker where he kept all the bittersweet memories of the things he had lost. They didn’t always stay completely tucked in there, but if it wasn’t for the locker, he would have gone mad with grief and longing.

“It shouldn’t have mattered that we didn’t talk,” he admonished himself. “Tony’s shown me in a dozen ways. I was too locked up in my own fear to see.”

He thought about how amazing Tony had been, not only giving him a place to live, but giving him time and support to help him discover what he needed that space to be; helping turn it into a home. Tony had revealed himself on Staten Island, letting Steve see his fears and vulnerability. He cared enough to break down Steve’s walls, not stopping until he’d figured out the root of the shame that had held Steve prisoner for so long. Okay, so he didn’t do it in the most above-board way. Pumping Thor for Steve’s secrets wasn’t very nice, but maybe the end justified the means?

I was the one lecturing him in Staten Island about how everyone’s a liar and people feel justified in the things they do, even when they aren’t the most honest or forthright.

“At least he cared enough to fight. What did I do?”

Bruce’s words came back to haunt him. “After weeks of torturing himself with it, he finally got up the courage to go for it with you . . . and you dumped him. The one thing he feared the most.”

“I didn’t know,” Steve whispered, getting up to pace. No, he didn’t know. He had made another assumption. It wasn’t the first time he’d done it to Tony. He hadn’t been trying to hurt Tony, only to protect his own scarred heart, but he’d hurt the man nonetheless.

Just like that?” Tony had muttered, the pain in his voice something Steve desperately tried to mute. “You’re done with me?”

Is that how he felt? Abandoned? Tossed aside? I wouldn’t even listen to his explanation. Just turned away. And today? Add betrayed and humiliated to the list and it would sum up what Steve saw on Tony’s face before he left the conference room. Thinking about how utterly crushed Tony had looked wrecked Steve. Things never should have gotten this out of hand. He recognized dealing with his own noisy emotions had drained the majority of his strength the past two weeks, but it was imperative he get himself together. Tony needed him.

And I need Tony.

Galvanizing himself to action, he left the conference room in search of Tony Stark. He tore through the tower, searching the penthouse, the lab, the common floor, coming up empty each time. After trying the garage, the Stark Industries’ floors, the roof, and the gym, he remembered the phone Tony had given him and pulled it out, pressing one.

Tony didn’t answer.

When Tony’s recorded voice said to leave a message, Steve did: “Tony, it’s Steve. Call me. Please.”

As he continued to search, Steve called Tony’s phone ten more times, leaving ten more messages, getting no response. He made it back to the common floor, looking around again as he tried to figure out what to do next. He would have gladly ran the stairs of the tower from top to bottom ten times if it would help him find Tony, but it wasn’t very expeditious. Finally, he remembered JARVIS.

“JARVIS,” he called out.

“Yes, Captain? How may I be of service?”

“I need to find Tony. What floor is he on?”

“Mr. Stark is not currently in the tower.”

“Okay. Where did he go?”

“I’m not at liberty to discuss Mr. Stark’s whereabouts.”

“What? That’s crazy. Tell me where he is.”

“I am sorry, Captain. I cannot.”

Frustrated, Steve’s tone grew surlier. “Then tell me how he left. Did he drive? Did Happy take him? Was he in the suit?”

“I am sorry, Captain. I am not at liberty to say.”

“This is ridiculous.” Steve kicked the fancy coffee table, spilling magazines and what were probably expensive knick-knacks to the floor. “Fine. Call him for me, then. Tell him I have to talk to him.”

“Again, I apologize. I am not to put through any calls from any of the Avengers.”

Steve felt his temper slipping. He didn’t have the time or the patience to argue with a disembodied voice. He needed to find Tony. “Okay, JARVIS. How about you call Tony and tell him I’m going to find a huge wrench and start pulling you apart piece by piece until he gets back here?”

“Even under threat and duress, I would be unable to counter Mr. Stark’s direct order.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you? You’re still miffed at me for the whole Privacy Protocol thing.” Steve shook himself, realizing he sounded insane having an argument with an AI.

“He’s not going to tell you anything.” Steve turned to see Bruce watching him from the other side of the room near the corridor. “Believe me. I already tried.”

“He won’t answer your calls either?”

“Why would he?” Bruce walked further into the room, removing his glasses, nervously chewing at the end before saying, “I’m really sorry. I mishandled this whole thing.”

Steve would have loved to have a target for his anger—besides JARVIS—but it wouldn’t have been fair. “No. It’s good you said what you did. I needed the hard kick in the pants. I wasn’t going to listen to you otherwise.”

“Maybe. Just not sure he’s going to be able to handle the fallout.” Bruce sat down on the couch looking dejected. “I’m worried about him.”

“Me, too.” Steve refused to let his distress weaken his resolve. “But I’m going to find him and bring him back.”

“How? He could be anywhere.”

“I don’t know yet. But being around all this stalking and spying has to be good for something. I need to stop thinking in black and white. Time for modern tactics.”

Time to think more like Tony Stark.

~0~0~0~

By the time Steve got back to his apartment, he had a plan. He worked the details out in his mind as he took a fast shower. It was not a foolproof strategy by any means, but it was worth a shot. He was going to need help, though, to carry it out. After drying off, he picked up the pants he had been wearing and searched the pockets for his phone. He was disappointed to see he still hadn’t received any return calls from Tony.

“Okay, Tony. Be stubborn all you want. I can be stubborn, too.”

Clutching the phone, ready to make his next call, he remembered it was only programmed with Tony’s number. He’d never gotten around to doing anything else with it. “Darn it,” Steve swore, frustrated as he tossed the phone to the bed. “Okay, wait. New plan.”

It was probably crazy to worry about putting on his pants before he spoke to an AI, but he did it anyway, calling out, “JARVIS,” only after he’d gotten his fly zipped. When there was no polite response, he tried again.

“JARVIS?” Steve shook his head, taking a deep breath. “Okay, come on, JARVIS. You know I wasn’t serious with the wrench thing, right?” When JARVIS still didn’t respond, Steve became concerned. Then he remembered where he was. “Right. The PRIVACY PROTOCOL in the apartment.”

Problem was, he couldn’t remember the code he was supposed to use to lift it. “How anyone gets used to this technology is beyond me,” he muttered as he stomped to the door and went out into the hall. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain. May I help you?”

“Yeah. I need to call Madison, but I don’t even know her number. Can you help me?”

“My pleasure, sir.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Three days later, Steve stood in the center of the grand ballroom at a mansion called Douglaston Manor seriously rethinking his plan. It was over an hour past the time he had set, but he remained the only person here other than the small group of staff and musicians, each hand-selected by Madison for their discretion. Set within the scenic grounds of a country club, The Manor was a Spanish-style mansion situated on the highest point in Queens, overlooking the Manhattan skyline. It was used to host high society receptions and other classy events. In fact, it was going to be the setting for the expensive charity affair Madison had briefed the Avengers about before their meeting had exploded. That event was still set to take place in a few days—only Madison had told Tony it had been moved to tonight.

“Where the hell is everybody?”

Steve turned, so relieved to hear Tony’s voice behind him his legs nearly gave out. Seeing Tony didn’t help his balance any. He looked like something off a magazine cover, only more debonair, dressed sharply in black tux, white shirt, bow tie, and shoes so polished the light of the chandelier was reflecting off them. Steve felt like a hobo in comparison despite being dressed in the gray suit he had bought for tonight. Tony was looking around the room in confusion. It was decorated ornately—complete with dangling crystals and twinkling lights. A full band, formally dressed, played soft music on the stage, but the fine wood floor contained only one table, set with elegant linens and china, near the center of the room, its candlelit centerpiece flickering. The rest of the room was empty.

“I can’t be early,” Tony said, looking at his watch. “I’m never early. In fact, I take pride in making an entrance. Did someone pull the fire alarm?”

“Not exactly.” Steve lost what confidence he had in his plan. He was terrified Tony would bolt before he could explain. He was more terrified of how Tony would react once he did explain. This was the stupidest idea I have ever had.

“I don’t get it. There are enough cars outside to—”

“To make you think there was a crowded charity event going on inside so you’d come in.”

Tony looked around again, then looked harder at Steve. His expression changed for a moment. “Okay, you look—edible.” He twitched, shaking his head before his expression went back to indifferent. “What’s going on, Cap? Did they cancel this thing and nobody bothered to tell me?”

“How could anybody tell you anything? You’ve been incommunicado for days.”

“Clearly not true or I wouldn’t be standing here. I talked to—” Tony cut himself off, understanding registering quickly in his astute eyes. “You played the Coulson card on me, you sneaky bastard. You’ve become as devious as the rest of us.”

Steve could only nod, the lump lodged so tight in his throat, no sounds could move around it. He had no idea how Tony was going to react to the ruse given how betrayed he already felt by his team. Phil wasn’t technically an Avenger, so JARVIS did not refuse to put through his call. Steve counted on Tony’s concern for Coulson’s condition overriding his resolve to ignore calls. Phil was the one who implored Tony to get in touch with Madison, who concocted the story about the charity event date being moved, and how desperately the kids from the destroyed youth center, whom they were raising money for, were counting on meeting Iron Man. Even when Tony finally agreed to put in a “ten minutes, tops,” appearance, Steve was never certain he’d actually show. Now that he’d duped Tony into being here, Steve wondered if he’d only made things worse.

Tony didn’t say anything for long, agonizing minutes. He stared at Steve, glancing around the room now and then before his glare went back to Steve. Finally he nodded, an expression of grudging respect on his face. “Nicely done. I’m not easy to fool. What I don’t get is why? None of this,” he waved his hand to encompass the room, “is your style.”

“My style wasn’t working,” Steve managed to say, still stunned Tony hadn’t taken off. "I got desperate." He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone. “I kept pushing one, but nobody answered.”

Tony’s eyes drew down to the floor, his body sagging with what looked to be the weight of emotions he was holding at bay. “You should have left me in hiding. I’m not ready to do this, Steve. I’m sorry.”

“There’s nothing for you to do,” Steve hastened to assure, sliding the phone back in his pocket. Tony had been really hurt. He knew it was important to take this slow and easy. The fact that Tony was still standing here spoke volumes. Steve didn’t need anything else right now. “I just hate to eat alone and they’ve already made the dinner and everything. Do you mind?”

“Dinner?” He looked toward the round, set table and the waiters in the wings. He actually grinned, wiping his hands over his face in disbelief. “Let me get this straight. You bought out this entire place, hired a band, a staff, rented fake cars for the parking lot, had a full ballroom decorated to the nines, a private meal prepared, and bought yourself a new suit, all to have dinner with me?”

“Well, technically, I didn’t buy anything.” Steve reached in his pocket again, this time for his wallet. Taking out the black American Express card Tony had given him when they were shopping for his apartment, he explained, “You’d be amazed at how much you can accomplish and how accommodating people are when you have one of these with Tony Stark’s name on it.”

“Actually, I’m not so amazed,” Tony said cockily.

“Yeah, probably not. You’d be used to it. But me? I was totally amazed.” Steve tucked the card back into his wallet. “Hope you don’t mind. You never did ask me for the card back.”

Steve’s heart soared when Tony actually laughed. “Knock yourself out, Cap. Card’s all yours.”

“Then you’ll have dinner with me?”

“Might as well. I’m guessing I paid a fortune for it.”

~0~0~0~

The food was delicious. Tony said the wine they offered was vintage, but he didn’t drink any, instead having the same fruity, non-alcoholic concoction Steve had chosen. The friendly wait staff efficiently brought each course to their table then disappeared. The live music was soothing, non-intrusive. Steve basically had Tony all to himself in this elegant, romantic setting, though he did his best to treat the whole thing casually so he wouldn’t scare Tony off. They talked about neutral topics: Phil’s progress, Madison’s PR campaign, the newest car Tony had purchased earlier in the month.

“Did you drive it here?”

“No.” Tony shook his head. “I had Happy pick me up in the limo.” He brought his napkin to his mouth as he laughed. “Oh, shit, I told him to leave the engine running. I left the briefcase suit in there so I could change into Iron Man for the kids. I wasn’t planning to stay in here this long. He’s still sitting out front.”

“I’ll ask our waiter to send food out to him.”

“He’d like that,” Tony said, swirling the contents of his glass, but staring at Steve. “You’re always thoughtful.”

“I wish I was.”

“More thoughtful than most. Especially on the days you’re not duping people into having dinner with you.”

Tony’s tone was amused, so Steve smiled. “I told you I didn’t like to eat alone.”

“There are easier ways to find company. You went to a lot of trouble.”

“Yeah, I did.”

“New suit and everything. Was Sears having a sale?”

Macy*s, actually.”

Macy*s?” Tony chuckled. “I don’t think my credit card has ever seen the inside of Macy*s.”

“It has now.” Steve brushed some crumbs from his tie. “Why? You don’t like it?”

“I like it fine. Just wondering what the right designer and stylist could do with you.” Tony’s chin dropped, focusing his attention on his plate, but Steve caught the appraising look he didn’t quite succeed in hiding.

“Anytime you want to find out, let me know. I’m game.” Something about having clothes made for him to Tony’s specifications caused Steve’s heart to race. He took a deep breath, reaching for his water glass. He was grateful when the waiter came to clear the table.

Steve took the opportunity to direct the waiter to bring food out to Happy. “Very good, sir. I’ll make sure those dishes are prepared right away. Are you gentlemen ready for dessert?”

“I really should go—” Tony started to say.

“Dessert sounds great.”

“Would you care for the menu to choose from or do you prefer to see an assorted dessert tray?”

“The tray. For sure. Bring it all out.”

“Hungry tonight?” Tony asked when the waiter was out of earshot.

“Starving.” Steve knew he should have done a better job hiding the double meaning from his tone, but this whole thing was becoming difficult. Being this close to Tony—staring into his gorgeous eyes, smelling him, hearing his voice again—brought to focus how bereft his world had been these weeks. He missed Tony desperately. If they ended up being nothing more than friends after everything that had happened, he’d settle, because his world without Tony was dull and gray and oppressive, but he wanted more than to be Tony’s friend.

“I really don’t think I should stay,” Tony said softly, though he didn’t make any move to get up.

“Why? Are you still mad at me?”

“I’m not mad at you. I was never mad at you.” He leaned back in his chair, hiding the emotion in his voice behind his next statement. “Now Bruce, I plan to make sure they put extra starch in his shorts at the laundry ‘til the end of time.”

“If you’re not mad at me, then why didn’t you answer my calls?”

“Because I couldn’t.” Tony shifted uncomfortably and Steve wanted to distract him from thinking about leaving again. He knew he had better back off.

“Fair enough. It was nice of you to show up tonight for the kids. Couldn’t have been easy.”

“Would have been easier if there were actual kids here.”

“Darn.” Steve snapped. “I knew there was something I forgot to rent.”

Tony laughed. “Who are you? Wile E. Coyote, going all scheming and sly on me.”

“Does it bother you?” Steve asked seriously. Tony hated being lied to and Steve wasn’t entirely comfortable resorting to deception to get his attention, though he had felt desperate enough to do it anyway.

“If it had been anybody else, I would be fucking pissed. With you?” Tony was quiet for a minute, thinking before finishing. “It’s kind of sweet, actually, though I feel like I’ve corrupted you.”

“Maybe I like being corrupted by you.”

Stop flirting!

Thankfully, they were interrupted by the dessert tray and coffee being brought to the table. There were eight different dessert choices, each looking tastier than the next. Steve decided he was going to try every single one. If he couldn’t satisfy one appetite at the moment, he’d distract himself with sweets instead. After Tony had selected, Steve told the waiter, “Leave the whole thing.” He smiled and set the tray on a serving table beside them. Steve started with pineapple cheesecake, followed by lemon pie, and then a huge brownie covered in chocolate sauce and nuts, each one rich and delicious.

“Sure you don’t want any of this?” he asked Tony.

“No, I’m good with mine, thanks.”

“What is it?” Steve didn’t recognize what Tony was eating, but it looked interesting.

“Tiramisu.”

“May I try?”

“Sure.” Tony started to slide his plate toward the center of the table, but Steve reached over and clasped Tony’s wrist. Raising Tony’s arm, he leaned forward, wrapping his lips around the bite on the end of the fork, savoring it slowly.

Mmmm, it’s good.” He let his tongue slip out to wipe the cream from the corner of his mouth, gratified at how intently Tony was watching him.

Um, yeah. Glad you like it.”

“I do. I’ll tell you what looks really good, though.” He reached over to the tray and picked up the pretty glass cup holding what looked like pudding, only each level was a different shade of brown until it got to the top where whipped cream and shaved chocolate bits topped it.

“It’s mousse.”

“I’m figuring you don’t mean the animal.” Steve grinned as he dug his spoon in.

“No, it’s French. M-o-u-s-s-e."

Mmmm, gosh,” Steve moaned as he lapped it off the spoon. “Don’t care how you spell it. It tastes amazing.” He took another taste, mmming around his spoon before scooping out another bite and bringing it towards Tony. “You gotta try this.”

Tony straightened, looking from the spoon to Steve, then back again. “I’m, uh, I’m pretty full.”

“How about just a little bite? It’s light and fluffy. Goes down smooth. Really. Try it.”

Tony’s fingers gripped the edge of the table, twisting the cloth as he leaned forward and opened his mouth, letting Steve slip the spoon between his lips. Tony had the most sensuous lips, and Steve found himself licking his own as he watched him. He started to wonder if the staff had turned off the air conditioning, because it was very warm. He reached up to loosen the knot of his tie as he took his spoon back and licked the parts Tony had missed.

Tony brought his napkin to his mouth as he swallowed then cleared his throat a few times. “Yeah, it’s great.” He reached for his water glass, taking a few long gulps, sweat beads forming on his brow as he complained, “Did you forget to order air conditioning? It’s pretty stuffy in here.”

“I was thinking the same thing. I’ll get the waiter to—”

“No, forget it. It’s fine.” Tony sat back, fanning himself with his napkin, looking around as he fidgeted in his chair. “So how exactly did you get Madison to agree to help you pull this off?”

“She likes me,” Steve grinned, digging back into his mousse.

“You’re easy to like.”

“No, I meant she likes me, likes me.” Steve knew he was taking a calculated risk. He hoped it paid off. “She asked me out to dinner when we first started working together.”

“Did not,” Tony scoffed. “She’s not into guys.”

“I know. She said as a rule, she found men boring, but she thought I might be worth making an exception for.”

Tony tossed his napkin to the table, clearly annoyed. “Really? You’re dating lesbians now? I get that I’m not in your league, but seriously?”

“I didn’t say I was dating her,” Steve said calmly, licking at his spoon like an ice cream cone, noting how Tony’s eyes were glued to his actions despite his ire. “I said she asked. I politely declined. As for tonight, when I told her what I needed help with, she said I was a great guy who deserved to be happy. Well, that and something about us needing to get our—” Steve paused, not wanting to repeat the expletive she used, “—our stuff together for the sake of the team.”

“Oh?” Tony was fuming . “For the sake of the team, huh? That’s what this is about? I knew it.”

“You gotta admit it has a negative impact on everyone when we’re at odds, which isn’t good for—”

“I don’t give a shit what’s good for anybody. If the only reason we’re here is—”

“No, no, not at all.” Steve stuck his finger into the whipped cream then licked it off slowly, making Tony wait before he continued calmly. “I said that’s what Madison said. It sure isn’t why I’m here.”

Tony leaned forward, his face hard and impassive, but his eyes, which were still watching Steve’s tongue, were sending a different message. “Why are you here?” he snapped.

Steve put down his spoon, leaning across the table as well, speaking straight from his heart. “Because I need you to come home.”

Tony pulled back as his jaw dropped, the emotions crossing his face too fast to identify each one. “Th-that’s not a good idea,” he stammered, fingering his napkin uncomfortably.

“Why not?”

“I need time.”

“Time for what?”

“To get myself together.” Tony’s hands were shaking as he wrapped them both around his napkin and twisted it roughly. “I want to be able to be your friend. Your teammate. But I can’t right now.”

“I want those things, too.” Steve struggled to keep his brimming emotions from exploding all over Tony. “But I also want more.”

Tony shook his head vigorously, fighting Steve’s words. “No. No, you don’t. I’m not relationship material. We’ve already established that.”

“We haven’t had a chance to establish anything.”

“Haven’t we?” Tony pushed back from the table and stood. “The night with Bruce? I’d have jumped his bones in a minute if he’d have given me the go sign,” he stated crudely, his smile cold. “And it would have been damn fine, too. That’s who I am. It’s the way I’m built.”

The substantial amount of food Steve had eaten rolled sickly in his stomach at the image his mind supplied. There were voices in his head screaming to sabotage him, but he refused to listen, taking a deep breath instead. He recognized Tony’s protective tactics for what they were, though they still hurt. But Tony hurt, too. This was a crucial juncture between them and Steve refused to fail again. “I don’t believe that.”

“Really? Because you believed it pretty quickly a few weeks ago.”

“Because I’m a judgmental, self-righteous idiot.”

His response looked to catch Tony off-guard, wiping the taunting grin off his face. He ran a hand through his hair, the wind going out of his sails. Shaking his head, he said, less caustically, “I wish I could be different for you. I really do. You deserve the best. Me? I’m a mess. I have more flaws than I have facial hair. Even if I had something good, I’d screw it up. It’s just what I do. I’ll never be perfect enough for you.”

Steve stood quietly, folding his napkin before setting it beside his plate. He slid his chair neatly under the table, but he remained on his own side, watching Tony struggle against whatever was trying to eat him alive from the inside. He knew the feeling well. “I don’t need perfect. I need somebody who wants me the way I want him. Only me. I’m not cut out to be anybody’s ‘booty call.’ That’s really my only steadfast term. The rest is negotiable.”

Tony shook his head, looking sad. “I’m sorry, Steve. I have to go.”

Steve did his best not to flinch despite the grenade to his gut. I can do this. His mission was to bring Tony home. Everything he had done tonight; all the ways in which he had played hard and fast with the rules despite his moral code; every step he had forced himself to take outside his comfort zone; it was all for the greater good of the mission. He would not fail now.

“Sure,” he responded, forcing casual into his voice despite the inner terror. “I understand. There’s one more thing, though. I owe you something and I need to pay up so things can be square between us. I don’t shirk on my debts.”

“Debts?” Tony was confused. “Are you talking about the credit card? Because I told you I don’t care about that.”

“No. Not the credit card. I put it to good use tonight. I’m not sorry for it.”

“Then what do you mean?”

“From the wedding.” Steve moved around the table, coming towards Tony. “I owed you a dance, remember?”

Tony took a step back, fear and desire battling in the depths of his eyes. “No, it’s okay. You don’t owe me anything.”

“The heck I don’t. I’m no deadbeat. A debt is a debt.”

Tony folded his arms like a shield over his chest, talking faster as Steve drew nearer. “No, you see, technically, it wasn’t really a debt. Not in the sense you’re talking about. You don’t have to feel indebted because it wasn’t like a bet or anything. So, you don’t really owe me anything.”

“It’s very complicated logic.” Steve repeated back Tony’s words from the wedding as he gently dislodged Tony’s arms from their protective knot. “No sense troubling your pretty head trying to figure it out. Trust me. I owe you.”

Tony was trembling as Steve took his wrist, looking more uncertain than Steve had ever seen him. Steve walked backwards from the table towards the center of the floor, tugging Tony along with him. “Got it all figured out, huh?” Tony asked skittishly before shaking his head, a grudgingly admiring grin curling his lips. “Okay, this naughty, wicked streak of yours is really starting to grow on me.”

“Good.” Steve smiled, reeling Tony to his chest by his wrist, their fronts pressing together, each able to feel the heat emanating off the other’s body. “Leaves us with only one small problem.”

Tony inhaled long and deep against Steve shoulder, rubbing his nose back and forth on his jacket. “What’s that?” he asked distractedly.

“I don’t know how to dance.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he replied in the same dazed tone. “I’m a great dancer. I’ll follow anything you do.”

“You expect me to lead?” Steve didn’t have a clue how.

“It’s your party, Cap.”

Oddly, parachuting behind enemy lines to infiltrate a heavily-armed HYDRA base when he’d had zero combat experience had felt less daunting than this, but Steve refused to back down. He recalled dozens of images: photos, movies, real-life experiences past and present, culling them, teasing out the details with an artist’s eye, until he had formed a single picture as his source to work from. He slid his right hand against the small of Tony’s back, using it to guide their alignment, then drew it up slowly, until it was pressed just beneath his shoulder blades. He let go of Tony’s wrist, flattening his left palm and holding it out in offering. “May I have the honor of this dance?”

Tony pulled his head back enough to look at Steve as he exhaled hard. “You’re killing me here, you know this, right?”

“Is that a yes?”

Tony’s response was to set his right palm atop Steve’s outstretched one, settling between his thumb and forefinger. Steve closed his hand around it, Tony completing the hold with his own fingers as they raised their joined hands to Tony’s eye level. Steve straightened his posture, bringing his right elbow up at a ninety-degree angle, pointing horizontal, parallel to the floor, as he maintained the hold on Tony’s back. Tony set his left hand against Steve’s shoulder, bending his own arm at the elbow, his upper arm resting lightly atop Steve’s. Tony nudged him slightly with his hip.

“You want me to move about a half foot over so we’re not starting toe to toe, right?” Tony asked as if Steve had thought of this. “Because we don’t want to step on each other.”

Um, yeah. Right. Exactly.”

Tony took a step, setting his feet so Steve’s right foot was pointed between his two. Since Tony was looking forward over his right shoulder, Steve did the same over Tony’s. He wasn’t real sure about the footwork part, but when he stepped back, Tony moved forward. He tried it again, and the same thing happened. Of course, if all he did was keep stepping in reverse, their trajectory would crash into the bandstand.

As if reading his thought, Tony made a suggestion. “You know I’m pretty stubborn. I think if you want me to go your way, you could try communicating through here.” Tony pushed down on Steve’s right arm, the one his was resting atop. “And even back here.” He rolled his shoulder blade against Steve’s cupping hand. “Might help. I’m just saying.”

Steve recognized the hint he was being given, Tony finding a way to explain how to lead without making it sound like he was directing. Steve was touched by the kindness and patience. How did Tony not see how amazing he was? Steve closed his eyes, focusing, trying to communicate his intentions through his hold on Tony, astonished when it actually worked. They moved forward, back, side-to-side, all without Steve stepping on anything. There wasn’t a thing sophisticated or rhythmic about it, but Steve was thrilled to have figured out this much. He was no Fred Astaire by any means, but he was dancing.

Dancing with Tony.

He had been concentrating on not messing up, not pulverizing Tony’s toes. When he took a deep breath and tried to relax, he became more aware of how wonderfully Tony fit in his arms. Where Steve’s body had been rigid, Tony’s had been pliant, matching each move willingly, smoothly following whatever step he came up with. Tony really was a great dancer if he could make Steve seem not a total flop at this. If Tony hadn’t been trusting and generous, they would have been done before they started.

“Where did you find this band?” Tony asked.

“Madison knows them. Are they okay? Do you like them?”

“They’re wonderful.” Tony squeezed their joined hands for a moment before letting his go lax in Steve’s grip again. “I like to listen to them. Listen to the music.”

Steve realized he hadn’t been hearing the music at all, just moving this way and that. Abashed, he took another deep breath, trying to clear his mind of the mechanics he had been fixed upon. The music really was good. The band had been playing throughout their dinner and though Steve’s mind was focused on Tony, he had taken note of what a lovely backdrop they had provided. He tried to open himself to the music, listening to the cadence of the singer’s voice, the sound of each instrument, setting his breath to its pulse. Music was like art. You needed to use more than your head to really get inside it.

Mmmm, nice,” Tony hummed near his shoulder. “Love the jazzy blues vibe.”

Steve smiled. He had been baffled about what type of music to select when he’d talked to the band earlier in the evening. He didn’t want anything too old-fashioned, but he hadn’t discovered much modern stuff he could relate to yet. There was one sound still popular today that he had a huge fondness for; and for whatever reason, he knew Tony would like it, too. Blues was powerful, yet smooth; both action and reaction; pain and promise; it was strongly defined and yet fluid; there was nothing trite about it. You heard it, but more so, you felt it. It stole your attention while still managing to be unforced, natural. There were layers of meaning that could take years to tease out, yet each experience was rich with satisfaction.

For Steve, the blues was like Tony.

“I’m glad you like it,” Steve responded, finding his body moving more fluidly to the rhythm. “I think Marcie sounds a little like a mix of Billie Holiday and Lena Horne,” he commented as he listened to the lead singer’s soulful voice.

“Lena Horne? A legendary talent, I agree, but wasn’t her music most popular in the late forties, early fifties. Isn’t that after your time?”

“She sang at the Cotton Club when she was sixteen.”

“What?” For the first time since they’d started dancing, Tony missed a step and they got tangled, tripping each other up. “You are not telling me you were inside the Cotton Club?” he asked, both breathless and impressed.

“Just once,” Steve explained while he got their footing back in synch. “It’s not like I could have afforded to go inside like the rich folk. Besides, I was only thirteen. Bucky knew a guy who worked in the kitchen and he snuck us in through the back. It was. . . .” Steve wasn’t sure what the right words were, finally settling on, “Magical.”

The Cotton Club?” Tony still sounded stunned. “The place where Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Ethel Waters, Dizzy Gillespie—hell, so many of the greats. They played there. And you were inside? In its heyday? You never told me.”

“You never asked.”

“I am appropriately awed, Captain.”

Steve could feel how stupid his grin was, grateful Tony’s eyes were still aimed over his shoulder in dance position. He liked the idea of awing the sophisticated Tony Stark. Still, he had been having enough trouble keeping his feet straight when he wasn’t talking. “I thought we were listening?” he reminded.

Tony’s laugh was soft. “No problem.” He turned his head just enough to breath against Steve’s neck, the warm caress of moist air getting under his collar, grazing his skin.

“You’re not going to let me concentrate, are you?”

“Does it really require that much concentration?”

“It does if you value your toes.”

“You’re doing great. I think your whole ‘I don’t know how to dance’ thing is a front.”

“No front. I’m just lucky enough to have found the right partner.”

The hand Steve had pressed to Tony’s back noted the fine shiver. He used the hold to draw Tony closer, liking the heat he felt burning beneath the tux jacket and shirt. Steve’s own body was damp beneath his clothes, his flesh perspiring from both nerves and longing. If he thought too much about how he ached for Tony, anything resembling coordination would have been lost. This moment was too lovely to spoil. He closed his eyes, inhaling the intoxicating scent that was distinctly Tony, drifting on it as he opened himself to the music, striving to feel their moves rather than plan them. It was beautiful, moving in synch, communicating only with body language, attuned only to the music and each other, each step met and matched, creating a unique moment that no one else could touch. This must be why people dance.

Having Tony all to himself, pressed into his arms as they swayed to romantic music, was addicting. If he could have frozen time the way he had been frozen—kept it from moving forward the way it had for him when he was in the ice—he would have captured this moment and never let it go. Even in between songs, when the band finished one and put their instruments in place to begin another, they continued to dance without missing a beat, somehow sharing the same rhythm in their minds. It was like nothing he had ever experienced and he never wanted it to end.

He couldn’t have named most of the songs, not even the one playing now, but it didn’t matter. For some reason, though, the lyrics of this one started to filter through the contented hum in his brain, whispering to him to take notice.

“Like a flower waiting to bloom; Like a light bulb in a dark room; I’m just sitting here waiting for you; To come on home and turn me on.”

Marcie’s voice was velvet sensuality, smooth and smoky. The band kept a slow, steamy tempo behind her lyrics. The song felt intimate, personal, hitting him in the gut where his longing for Tony nestled, always there.

“Like the desert waiting for the rain; Like a school-kid waiting for the spring; I’m just sitting here waiting for you; To come on home and turn me on.”

Tony’s head tucked in against his shoulder as their footwork slowed, barely moving now, simply swaying for the most part. Steve looked over towards the bandstand, his eyes finding Marcie’s as she breathed her words into the microphone. She winked at him, her ebony skin glistening richly against the white glittery gown. There was soft wisdom in her dark eyes, as if she somehow knew them both, as if her song choice wasn’t random.

“My poor heart, it’s been so dark; Since you’ve been gone; After all, you’re the one who turns me off; You’re the only one who can turn me back on.”

Strong as he was, Steve’s left arm went weak, unable to maintain the extended dance position. As it softened and came down at their sides, Tony continued to follow, his own arm going slack, fingers interlacing with Steve’s, still holding on. Tony’s left hand traveled from his shoulder, snaking around his neck. Steve’s head lowered, his cheek brushing against Tony’s hair as he cupped his back and pressed him maddeningly closer.

“My hi-fi is waiting for a new tune; My glass is waiting for some fresh ice cubes; I’m just sitting here waiting for you; To come on home and turn me on; turn me on, turn me on.”

Tony squeezed their locked fingers, pressing his lips to Steve’s shoulder, a kiss that branded his skin despite the layers of clothing. Steve’s hand slid down from Tony’s back, wrapping around his hip possessively, sealing them tighter, unwilling to let go. “Time to come home,” he demanded in a whisper.

“I told you why I can’t,” Tony responded, also whispering, but there was no resolve in his voice. He pushed his hip more firmly into Steve’s grasp, his fingertips sliding beneath Steve’s collar, tickling the little hairs at the nape of his neck. “You have an amazing neck.”

“You have to at least give me a ride,” he countered, pretty sure they weren’t really arguing the point anymore.

“Where’s your bike?”

“I took the subway and walked.”

“You were pretty certain you were going to get a ride back.”

“You’re the one who explained to me how a fella is supposed to leave with the guy who brought him.”

“You didn’t bring me here.”

“Didn’t I?” Steve growled, loosening their joined hands so he could take hold of Tony’s chin, raising it enough for Tony to read the resolve in his eyes. Tony’s cheeks and throat were awash in heat, his pupils huge as they took in the full of Steve’s expression. His tongue moistened his lips before he capitulated.

“Uncle.”

~0~0~0~

“Hey, Cap’n,” Happy greeted enthusiastically, getting out of the front seat of the limo as they approached. “Good to see you. Thank you for sending out the food. It was incredible.”

“I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

“I don’t know what was better, the honey chicken or the glazed beef.”

“How ‘bout those potatoes?” Steve added.

“Oh, the potatoes were outstanding. Could have made a meal out of those alone. But then I would have missed out on the veggies.”

“What am I? Trapped on the Food Network?" Tony complained. He was already annoyed with Steve for insisting on thanking everyone individually as he said goodnight inside, delaying their departure. Steve fully understood his anxiousness. He was in a tizzy himself, desperate to get Tony alone, but he couldn’t bring himself to be rude to the people who had been kind to them, creating their wonderful evening.

“Sorry, Boss.” Happy came around quickly to open the back door. “Didn’t realize you were in a hurry.” Happy shot Steve a grin which he returned before bending to climb into the car. He hadn’t even had a chance to slide over on the seat and make room for Tony when he was hit full force with the impact of a Stark-size missile. His balance upset, he fell back on the plush leather, Tony climbing atop him, nimble fingers already working his belt and fly open.

“Tony?” Steve gasped.

“Happy, take a walk,” Tony ordered. “Digest all the food you were babbling about. The grounds here are beautiful.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” Happy said from his position still holding the door.

“Tony!” Steve was befuddled, trying to get his hand between Tony and his fly, but Tony was quick.

“Don’t forget the privacy shades,” Tony hollered.

“Working on it,” Happy informed, closing the car door.

“Are you crazy?” Steve fought for a breath. Tony had already gotten his pants undone and was reaching inside, making Steve so hard, so fast, he got dizzy, dropping his head back on the seat. Somewhere in the distance, he heard the front door of the car open, then a mechanical noise as it grew totally dark inside.

“Shades in place,” Happy called.

“Great. Get out.” Tony wasn’t even trying to sound polite. Steve heard the car door open and close again, then he felt Tony leaning, hitting something. The darkness lifted, soft light illuminating the car.

Steve managed to get his fingers around Tony’s wrist. “Wait,” he panted, trying to regain some semblance of composure, but Tony’s fingers were already wrapped around his swelling cock, causing him to sputter. “Ha-appy . . . you c-can’t . . . we shouldn’t. . . .”

“Don’t bother complaining, Rogers.” Tony’s grin was wicked as he straddled Steve. “Not after you spent the whole evening seducing the fuck out of me. Time to pay the piper.” Tony flattened the full of his weight atop Steve, smothering his cock between them as he brought his face closer, finger toying with the pad of Steve’s lower lip. “You’re not a cock-tease, are you, sweetie?”

Tony was incorrigible and Steve told him so—at least he did in his mind. His mouth was too busy sucking Tony’s finger like a hungry mutt. Tony watched him salaciously for a minute before yanking his finger free and replacing it with his tongue, which did its best to climb down Steve’s throat. Steve fought to keep up with the mind-stealing kiss, staggered by how desperately he had missed the taste of Tony’s mouth. It was a flame he was incapable of flinching away from. He was more than ready to be swallowed whole if Tony asked it of him. He could barely remember how to move. One of his arms was up against the seat, fingers clutching at the leather, while the other arm dangled over the seat edge. Tony was having no such coordination problems. He was a live wire, vibrating with intensity, his hands busily mapping Steve’s face and hair, his lower body undulating. One of Steve’s feet was on the floor, leg bent at the knee. He struggled to spread it wider, giving Tony’s body more room. It was a wide seat, but he feared Tony might land on the floor at the rate he was going.

Tony’s fingers wrapped around the knot of Steve’s tie, keeping firm hold as he broke the seal of their hungry mouths and pulled back. He looked down at Steve, his expression so intoxicating it should have been illegal. “If you had any idea,” Tony murmured, his voice deep and raspy, “the things I want to do to you, you’d run far and fast.”

“No.” Steve would have shook his head if he could. “Not going anywhere,” he was panting like he’d finished a three-hour workout. “Not ever.”

“Oh, Christ,” Tony swore. “You’re going to kill me, you hot fuck.” He shifted, wheedling his arm between them, taking possession of Steve’s cock once more. Steve groaned at the touch. He was already harder than he’d ever been in his life and yet, somehow, his rod stiffened more. “I want to make you come,” Tony declared with a raunchy groan. “Wanna watch your face when you come for me. I want to see it.”

Yes,” Steve hissed, willing to do anything Tony wanted. But a moment later, Tony was climbing off him, and he panicked. “Wa-it, wha? S’wrong?”

“New position.” Steve watched, dazed, as Tony got on his knees on the floor and patted Steve’s thigh. “Lift this up onto the seat, big guy.” He’d no sooner managed to get his leg up when Tony was leaning over him, fingers tugging at the waist of his pants. “Help me out.”

Steve planted the soles of both shoes flat on the seat, heaving his lower body up enough for Tony to yank his trousers down his hips. For a moment, he felt utterly ridiculous. He was lying across the backseat of Tony’s limo, in the parking lot of the swankiest place he’d ever eaten in, dressed in a suit jacket, shirt, and tie—from the waist up. From the waist down his pants were flayed open and half off, his cock jutting, swollen and leaking. But then Tony’s fingers were around him again, his lips nibbling the lobe of Steve’s ear where he whispered, “You are the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever laid eyes on,” and nothing else mattered. Tony leaned back and Steve gazed into the depths of his eyes, losing all modesty, his world narrowing to a fierce desire to be the person Tony looked at that way.

Bringing both hands to play, Tony pumped his cock slowly while he dipped his thumb into the slit, tickling there, sending Steve’s lower body off the seat and almost through the car roof. “You like that?” he asked cockily. Steve wasn’t certain whether he answered or not, though it didn’t matter. His body was keeping no secrets. Tony’s head ducked for a moment, his tongue replacing the thumb, licking into his slit as he increased the pumping tempo on Steve’s cock. He shook hard, pulse racing as he struggled for breath. Through his blurred vision he watched Tony’s head draw back again; watched his tongue play over his lips, tasting.

“Tempting,” Tony admitted. “But I think I want to watch you more.”

Steve managed to get his arm to move, cupping Tony’s face with his hand. Tony kissed into his palm, his eyes softening as he whispered, “Nobody’s ever touched you like this.” It wasn’t a question, but Steve shook his head, needing to answer.

“No.”

“Good.” Tony’s smile was brilliant and seductive. “All mine.”

He fisted Steve’s cock, his other hand sliding beneath his balls, cupping, pinching, teasing. Steve had been getting himself off since he was a teenager, but his own hands had never felt like this. It was too good . . . too good. His hand fell from Tony’s face, taking hold of his shoulder to try and keep himself grounded, but it was already too late.

He futilely fought it, his eyes squeezing shut to eliminate the stimulus of Tony’s hungry, watching gaze. He didn’t want this to be over. He never wanted it to be over. The truth was, it was pretty much over the minute Tony touched him intimately, as if his hand was made for the express purpose of wrapping around Steve’s cock. He tried counting backwards from one hundred, but he couldn’t remember what came after ninety-eight. His insides were burning lava. There was no stopping the onrush.

He felt the orgasm tear through every muscle and limb. He had a fleeting thought about not wanting to make a mess in Tony’s car, but for once Steve’s inclination towards being polite was overrun by the greediest craving for self-gratification he had ever experienced. His head bent back so far on the leather seat, it was a wonder he didn’t snap his neck. A sound he didn’t recognize tore from his throat as he thrust up into Tony’s fist and erupted in thunderous waves of intense pleasure.

Tony pumped every bloody drop from him, and when he thought there was nothing left and he couldn’t stand the touch, Tony managed to find more. And Steve came again, harder. He had no idea how long it went on. The concept of time and place had lost meaning in his world. He was a puddle of shimmering limbs and sweat, fighting to breathe. Only Tony’s voice could cut through the haze.

“Shit,” he groaned desperately, sounding as wrecked as Steve felt. “I’m gonna cream my pants.”

“No.” Steve’s head thrashed side to side as he tried to clear it and galvanize himself to action. He turned to clasp Tony’s forearms. Careful not to injure, he used only enough strength to spur Tony to scramble up and on top of him. Through both their clothes, he could feel Tony’s flesh was hotter than his. He tried to get his hands between them, but his efforts were bumbling at best. Coordination had not returned. Frustrated, he tore at waistband of Tony’s pants, splitting them open to free the steely cock strangling within them.

“Oh, yeah!” Tony howled appreciatively. His own hands were busy working Steve’s shirt open, a few buttons falling victim to the rough handling. And then Tony flattened against him, his fiery cock nearly drilling a hole into Steve’s abdomen. Tony started humping feverishly against his bared flesh and it was like nothing Steve had ever felt. He got his hands on Tony’s hips, wanting to help, but Tony clearly had his own rhythm. His fingers wrapped around Steve’s wrists, communicating his need for Steve to stand down. When Steve’s movement ceased, Tony used the hold on Steve’s wrists as leverage to pump harder.

Tony was full-out abandon, magnificent in his passion. Steve wished he could have seen his face, but it was buried in his shoulder. He pictured it though, in his mind’s eye, painting it with artistic strokes, though no artist’s tool could ever capture the beauty of his Tony.

Mine.

Tony gripped Steve’s face as he came, kissing him with burning intensity as hot cream soaked his flesh, sealing them to each other. The kisses continued against his chin and cheek as Tony shuddered through his aftershocks, finally coming to rest with his face tucked between Steve’s neck and shoulder, nuzzling his nose under Steve’s collar. Steve wrapped one arm around him, pressing him tighter still, loving how Tony’s body heat warmed him like nothing ever had. For the first time since he’d awoken, the ice, which had thawed from his body, finally melted around his heart as well.

Steve let himself drift, content to listen to Tony breathe forever. After a time, he felt Tony squirming, digging into his jacket. He didn’t bother to open his eyes, but he could tell by the sounds Tony was pressing buttons on his phone.

“Yeah, Happy. Stop sightseeing and get back here. Take us home.”

It was then Steve remembered where they were. He knew he should have been more self-conscious. Privacy windows or not, it wasn’t like Happy wasn’t going to know what they had been doing. Still, he couldn’t muster the energy to worry about decorum. Tony had just said they were going home.

Tony’s coming home.

Mission accomplished.

~0~0~0~

“Let me get the elevator for you.” Happy ran ahead, pushing the button to summon the tower elevator to the garage level.

“Thanks.” Steve looked down at the still unconscious bundle of Tony Stark he’d lifted out of the limo and currently cradled in both arms. Tony was sound asleep, wrapped in the blanket Happy had retrieved from the trunk, the side of his face pressed to Steve’s shoulder, drooling on his jacket. Steve was grateful for the blanket since he’d practically torn Tony’s pants in half. He had only managed to get the fly zipped on his own trousers, button and belt still undone, half his shirt torn open, but Tony’s body covered it. They were a mess, no doubt about it, their clothes and Steve’s chest and abdomen covered in dry semen. Thankfully, Tony’s personal garage was completely private.

“Your floor?” Happy asked as the elevator arrived. At Steve’s nod, he leaned in and pressed the button. “Do you need anything else, Cap’n?”

Steve was still pretty flustered, blushing shyly, but Happy wasn’t ruffled. Tony had fallen asleep soundly in his arms on the back seat on the ride home. Steve hadn’t been willing to wake him just to put up a phony front when it was no secret what they had been doing in the limo. To his credit, Happy had been nothing but kind and helpful, making it easy for Steve to get Tony out of the car undisturbed. He hadn’t so much as glanced sideways at Steve, which made this a lot less embarrassing. “No, I’ve got it from here. Thank you. Thank you for everything.”

“You’re welcome,” Happy said with a smile as Steve carried Tony into the elevator. “Really glad you got him to come home,” he continued, sincerely. “I was worried about him. He doesn’t make the best choices when he spirals like that. You’re good for him, you know?”

Steve took the compliment to heart, knowing how much Happy cared about Tony. “I want to be.”

“You’re a natural,” Happy laughed. “Nite, Cap’n.”

“Goodnight.” As the elevator doors closed, Steve looked down at Tony and smiled. “JARVIS,” he called out.

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“Please let everyone know Tony’s home safe.”

“Certainly, sir. I’ve also taken the liberty of re-routing the elevator destination to the penthouse.”

Here we go again. Steve took a deep breath, holding on to his temper. “Then please take the liberty to re-route it back to the original destination. We’re going to my floor.” Steve supposed he was being forward, taking Tony to his apartment rather than to Tony’s own bed, but he wasn’t about to justify himself to a bossy AI, even if his decision was partly due to his own lingering insecurity. Who knew how many people had kept company with Tony in the penthouse? In Steve’s apartment, Tony belonged only to him.

“Are you sure, Captain? Sir is quite comfortable in his own bed.”

“I’m sure,” Steve snapped. “Just do it.”

Tony stirred and muttered against his collar. “Quit fighting, you two. I’m trying to sleep.”

“Tell him,” Steve argued. “He doesn’t like me.”

“Might be mutual,” Tony snickered. “He was a little huffy about the wrench incident.”

“That was your fault. You shouldn’t have sicced your technological watchdog on me in the first place. I was worried about you.”

Tony’s fingers found his cheek. “You’re right.” Steve looked down to see Tony’s eyes open, looking at him softly before calling sharply, “JARVIS!”

“Yes, sir?”

“From here on out, Captain Rogers has full access to anything he wants, even if it’s information about me. No secrets.”

“Sir?”

“You heard me. You hear everything. Answer to Steve the way you answer to me. No wait; be nicer than you are to me.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Tony patted Steve’s cheek. “Better?” he asked as he tucked his head back into Steve’s neck and closed his eyes.

Steve opened his mouth to say something, but no words came. He was completely astounded by the trust Tony had placed him.

“We have arrived at your floor, Captain,” JARVIS announced. “Will there be anything else?”

Steve stood dumbly for a minute. He could tell by Tony’s breathing he had already fallen back to sleep. “Um, yeah, could you open the door? I’ve kinda got my hands full.”

“With alacrity, Captain.”

~0~0~0~

The hot water felt great, but Steve was too exhausted to linger under the shower spray for long. He was so tired he was teetering. He flattened one hand to the wall, grabbing the soap with the other, making quick work of his clean-up. He didn’t bother to dry himself when he got out, simply wrapping the towel around his waist as he went back into the bedroom. Tony was still sound asleep in the center of his bed where he’d left him. Steve had managed to remove his shoes and bowtie, opening his collar without waking him, but he didn’t push his luck beyond that. Tony was wrapped nice and warm in the blanket, and he was clearly comfortable enough to sleep. The rest could wait until morning.

Steve walked to the new bureau, part of the bedroom set that had arrived this week. It had been sad, his furniture showing up and Tony not there to share the excitement with him. It would be better now, with Tony home where he belonged. He quietly opened a drawer, reaching in for a pair of sweats before closing it again. He tugged them up his still-wet body, the material clinging uncomfortably, but he was too tired to care. He checked Tony’s blanket one more time, making sure he was warm enough. Steve’s preference would have been to climb into bed beside him and use his body heat to insure Tony’s warmth, but he was no lout. Tony wasn’t awake to give consent to such sleeping arrangements, and Steve would never take advantage. He had already been presumptuous, putting the unconscious man in his bed in the first place.

“Goodnight,” he whispered softly, brushing a kiss over Tony’s hair.

Steve stood in the doorway, watching him quietly for a while, until his weary eyes started to see two Tony’s. One Tony is already more than I can handle. Steve smiled at the thought, dragging himself into the living room and collapsing on the couch. He didn’t bother with a blanket or pillow, just sank into the cushions. Closing his eyes, he contented himself with the memory of dancing with Tony.

It had been a wonderful night.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve lay in the haze between sleep and wakefulness, reluctant to move despite the distinct burn of daylight behind his closed lids. It was odd. His bedroom wasn’t usually this bright in the morning. The brightness was annoying, but the lulling feel of fingers carding gently through his hair, massaging his scalp, was heavenly. He was afraid to move for fear it would stop. He drifted, relaxed and content, realizing he’d lost awareness for a while when he started to wake once more.

Despite his reluctance, cognizance gradually returned. Tony was his first thought. The thoughts that followed were provocative enough to turn his morning wood into a full-fledged hard-on before he’d mustered the energy to lift his eyelids.

Tony’s face filled his vision when he opened his eyes. His head was resting on a pillow in Tony’s lap, Tony’s fingers still combing through his hair. Steve was on his back, stretched out on the couch, where he now remembered falling asleep last night. He was grateful to feel the afghan from the back of the couch thrown over him, camouflaging the unruly goings-on in his sweats. Tony was seated on the far right end of the couch where it jutted out vertically, his legs stretched straight. Steve was lying horizontally, their bodies forming a T-shape where they met on Tony’s lap. T for Tony, Steve thought absently.

“Good morning, beautiful.” Tony smiled down at him.

“Morning.” Tony’s hair was damp and he was wearing one of Steve’s tee shirts and a pair of his gym shorts, so he must have showered already. “You been awake long?”

“Long enough to get to watch you sleep, which, frankly, I could do all day and not be bored, which should tell you a lot, because I’m easily bored.” Tony reached for something on the table beside the couch. “But I also had a chance to look at some of your art work.”

Steve blushed and groaned, reaching for a pillow beside him and covering his face. Tony had a handful of the drawings Steve had done of him. “Okay, this is embarrassing.”

Tony snatched the pillow away and tossed it on the floor. “You know, if you had told me you were obsessed with me from the start,” Tony said playfully, “we could have saved ourselves a lot of grief.”

“I am obsessed with you,” Steve admitted, unwilling to pretend any longer. Tony looked floored, dropping the drawings onto the table. “Does it bother you?”

“Bother me? Seriously? You’re being serious here, right? Okay, I’ll tell you what bothers me. Waking up alone when I could swear I came home with the hottest guy on the planet.”

Steve stretched an arm over his head, his fingers petting the silky hair on Tony’s bare leg. “You were asleep. It wouldn’t have been right to presume.”

“A true gentleman.” It could have been mocking, only it wasn’t. Tony actually looked impressed. But then the fingers in Steve’s hair tightened their grip, tugging sharply. “Next time, though, do me a favor? Presume. No, wait. You don’t have to presume. You can just know.”

“What should I know?” Steve took his hand from Tony’s leg, wrapping it around his neck to encourage him to lean closer. He wanted to hear it. When Tony’s face drew near enough, he nuzzled his lips with his own, urging, “Tell me what I should know.”

“You should know I want to be near you—awake, asleep, unconscious, dead—doesn’t matter. If I could crawl up inside you and live in your skin, I’d do it. That a clear enough invitation for you, Captain Considerate?”

“Yup.” Steve took Tony’s mouth with a deep, hungry kiss, sealing their pact definitively. When Tony pulled back after a time, he was panting for air.

“Okay, that’s settled. Now how ‘bout we put the boner you’re trying to hide under the blanket to good use?”

Steve flung the blanket to the floor, springing up from the couch. He climbed over Tony’s lap, balancing on his knees as he straddled him. Tony’s arms were around his neck in a shot, pulling him down, their mouths reuniting, the kiss deep and hungry. Steve’s need for Tony was soul deep. It had made him crazy, the day of Phil and Clint’s wedding, and again last night. The passion was intoxicating, addictive. Tony’s hands moved to his bare chest, palms flattening over his nipples, sending Steve spiraling.

Steve was surprised he could think at all inside the whirlwind of lust. Yet, he was thinking—about Tony: the injured Tony who had trusted him enough last night to take another chance despite his obvious fear and insecurity; the one who had given Steve full access to JARVIS, effectively laying his secrets at Steve’s feet; the same man who just freely admitted he wanted to live inside of Steve’s skin.

Tony deserved the all of him and Steve longed to give him everything he was and everything he would ever be, which was oddly enough the reason he was pulling back now. “Wait,” he panted, trying to nudge Tony’s distracting hands from his chest. “We can’t do this again.”

“Not ever?” Tony asked, his face panic-stricken.

Steve smiled and shook his head. He’d sooner cut off a limb than give this up. “Of course not. No.”

“Then what? Are you okay?” Tony was worried now, his fingertips framing Steve’s face, touching him tenderly. “I’m going too fast with you. I knew it. I can’t help it. You make me bonkers.”

“And you make me so frantic I can’t think straight. I don’t want to think straight. Which is great. Amazing. Oh, gosh, how I want to give in.” Steve’s resolve weakened momentarily and he almost threw his concerns out the window and dove back into Tony’s arms. Instead, he forged ahead, uncertain. “But I want everything else, too. I know it’s greedy, but I think there’s more between us than this.” No. That isn’t what I meant to say. Crap. “I’m ruining this, aren’t I?”

“No.” Tony’s eyes were soft, and he patted Steve’s cheek comfortingly. “Actually, I think it’s pretty sweet.” He grinned. “My blue balls aren’t appreciating it at the moment, but they’ll get onboard. They like you.” Tony kissed him, softly, sweetly. “I like you, too. A lot. And I’m going to prove it to you.”

“You don’t have anything to prove to me.”

“Okay, bad word choice. I only meant I was going to show you that, besides being the best sex I could ever dream of having, you’re everything else to me, too.”

“We’re not totally eliminating the sex part, though, right?” Steve was embarrassed to ask, but he needed to know. Tony’s laugh was warm and rich.

“Hell no. I’m talking about a date. Stark-style. You got to wine and dine me last night. I’ve gotta tell you, I’ve never been wooed like that. Unbelievable.” Tony’s face knotted with emotions for a moment before he shook it off. “My turn. Give me a shot. Tonight. Eight o’clock. Meet me here.”

“Okay.” Steve smiled, already anticipating.

“Now you gotta get up because you straddling me is not helping me focus.”

Oh, right.” Steve moved, reluctantly. He watched as Tony got up, looking edible in his tee shirt and shorts. Suddenly he realized there were a lot of hours between now and eight o’clock.

Me and my stupid ideas.

~0~0~0~

“You’re really not going to tell us anything?” Clint asked, perched up on his usual cabinet watching Steve and Phil go through his walking repetitions.

“Clint,” Phil chastised.

“What?” Clint asked, all innocence. “You know you’re curious, too.”

They had both been staring at Steve in anticipation since he showed up. He could tell they had been busting to ask him how things went with Tony last night, though to their credit, the subject hadn’t come up.

Until now.

“Well, you know he came home,” Steve hedged, smiling shyly.

“I also know you’re here and not with him. What gives? Tell me you didn’t fuck this up, Rogers.”

“Clint.” Phil sounded exasperated this time. He paused at the midway point, holding on to the bar with one hand as he turned over his shoulder to give Steve a glance. “Can’t you tell by looking at him?”

Steve self-consciously studied the wood platform beneath their feet. “Phil’s right. I didn’t mess up.” He thought about it for a minute. “At least, I don’t think I did.”

“If things hadn’t gone well, Stark would be in here throwing a fit about now,” Phil pointed out wisely. “I did help with last night’s bait and switch.”

“For which I’m very grateful.”

“Anything for the team.” Phil laughed before starting his steps again.

“I still can’t believe you guys managed to pull one over on Stark.”

“Was . . . for his own good . . .” Phil huffed between steps.

“I felt guilty, but he really wasn’t mad. And things couldn’t go on the way they were. Too many people were hurt. I know it caused strife for Bruce and Natasha.”

“Strife?” Clint’s laugh was a dirty thing. “Are you kidding? Conflict’s like an aphrodisiac to Nat. Haven’t seen either one of ‘em in two days. No wait. That’s not entirely true. Every once in a while, one of them shows up in the kitchen on the communal floor looking pretty fucked-out and stocking up on sustenance.”

Clint!

“Okay, okay, sorry. I just didn’t want Cap worrying about them.”

Steve had no clue what to say. It still bewildered him how easily people spoke about such private things, but he had been trying to adjust. It was as much a part of his new world as talking computers and invaders from space.

“Where’s Stark . . . now?” Phil asked.

“Not sure.” I miss him like crazy, though. “He’s, um, planning a date. For tonight.”

Steve expected a wisecrack from Clint, but none came. He looked up to see Clint exchanging a tender look with Phil. He tried to imagine what would have happened to Clint if Phil had really been dead as they once believed. No. It wasn’t meant to play out that way. He shook the dark thought from his mind. Some things were meant to be, despite the odds. Like me and Tony.

“How are things going in here?” Walt asked, entering the gym to check on Phil.

“He’s doing great,” Steve answered. “Stronger every day. At the rate he’s going, he’s not going to need me much longer.”

“I feel the same way,” Walt agreed with a smile. “I better start updating my résumé because I’ll be out of a job soon enough.”

“No offense to either of you,” Phil said politely as he was climbing back into his chair, “but I do look forward to that day.”

“So do I,” Clint added, stealing a kiss before handing him the water bottle and towel.

“I’ve got the whirlpool fired up, Agent Coulson,” Walt informed. “You let me know when you’re ready.”

“I’ll be there in a few minutes, Walt. Thank you.” Walt turned, leaving the room. Clint, who had been blatantly staring at his butt as he often did, gave an appraising whistle.

“I gotta say, there’s not much wrong with Stark’s hiring criteria,” he commented, laughing. “I mean, where did he get that guy? Off the cover of Men’s Fitness magazine? The only body I’ve ever seen fitter than Walt’s is—well, you. Maybe you should switch to those tight sweatpants he wears. They sure do conform.”

Steve stammered awkwardly. “I, um, I like mine. Sweatpants, I mean.”

“Walt happens to be a skilled, competent professional,” Phil stated with a sly grin. “Yet here you are, sexually objectifying him.”

“Says the guy who looks forward to climbing in the whirlpool with him every day. Don’t play yourself, hubby. You know Stark selected that particular brand of eye candy for you. Tight ass. Buff arms. Totally your type.”

“It would be rude for me not to appreciate his considerate gesture, then.”

Steve grinned as he watched them banter. It was inspiring, how comfortable they were with each other. This was apparently a recurring bit of fun between them. Steve had never given much thought to Walt’s looks. Clint was right, though. He was a very fit guy. Handsome as well; mocha skin, dark eyes, fully shaved, smooth head, a flawless dome, not an imperfection on it. He probably could pose for magazines. Regardless, Steve was certain Clint had no sexual interest in Walt whatsoever. Barton was a flirt and he did make bawdy comments about guys, but he looked at no one the way he looked at Phil.

“Nah, wouldn’t want you to be rude,” Clint laughed. “Very noble of you to endure all those hours in the whirlpool, as well as Walt’s daily massages.”

“Yes, I’m quite stoic.” As Clint leaned to kiss him again, Phil took hold of his collar, drawing him closer for a moment, saying something quietly.

Steve was startled by the sound of music coming from his pants. He looked down, bewildered, before realizing his phone was in his pocket. He was more surprised to recognize it was playing Take the A Train, a famous song by Duke Ellington, recorded back in Steve’s day; a song the band had covered last night when they were eating. He fumbled in his pocket to retrieve the phone, so anxious he nearly dropped it trying to answer.

“Hello?”

“Hey, it’s me,” Tony greeted unnecessarily. Steve didn’t think anyone else knew his phone number. “I wanted you to know your phone was still working, in case you thought it wasn’t. You know. Because of the last few days. Wasn’t the phone. It was me. I’m sorry. Won’t happen again. I mean, if you wanted to use it or anything. To call.”

Steve listened to every nervous, rambling word without interruption, enjoying the sound of Tony’s voice. It brought goosebumps to his arms. Only when Tony paused to breathe did Steve speak, managing a mushy, stupid, “Hi.”

“Hi.” Tony sounded as awkward as Steve felt.

“How are you?”

“I was better earlier. Where are you?”

“Finishing up Phil’s workout. The ring thing, the song. Your doing?”

“Yeah. Programmed it this morning. You like?”

“Yesss.”

“I’m glad. The phone. You’ll use it again, right?”

“If you want me to.”

“I want you to.”

“Then I will.” Steve couldn’t wipe the goofy grin from his face.

“Okay. Talk to you later.”

“Bye.”

As Steve slid the phone back in his pocket and turned around, Phil and Clint were both grinning at him.

“Oh, you got it bad,” Clint teased.

Steve shrugged shyly, not looking to deny it. “I guess I do. I mean, I was sweet on Tony pretty much from the start. Just never expected him to like me the same.”

“Smartest thing Stark ever did,” Phil claimed.

“And you’ve got a lot of hours to kill between now and tonight.”

“I know.” Steve sighed. It already felt like three days since this morning.

“That’s where I come in, buddy.” Clint threw an arm around Steve’s shoulder. “The boss has given me my marching orders. He’s chasing me out for the day, and you’re coming with me.”

“Oh, okay. Where are we going?”

“The relief center in the Village is getting several truckloads of supplies today. I was going down to help with the unloading. We can start there and then see what trouble we get into after.”

“Great. I’ll change and meet you in the garage. Want to ride on my bike?”

“Hell, yeah!” Clint said, rubbing his hands together. After a pointed glance from Phil, he amended grudgingly, “I mean, no. Motorcycles are unsafe. Forty-seven percent of motorcycle accidents are fatal.” Clint looked like a kid who was grounded.

“Wow. I didn’t know.”

“I’m sure the percentage when you’re Captain-Fucking-America is a lot less, if it even exists at all.”

“How about we just take the subway? Sound good?”

“People do die in the subway, you know,” Clint stressed to Phil, but Coulson had already turned his wheelchair and was heading towards the whirlpool where Walt was waiting.

“See you boys later.”

~0~0~0~

Steve changed quickly. Being in his apartment only made him pine for Tony more, and he didn’t want to linger. The blanket from the limo was still on Steve’s bed and the drawings of Tony were piled on the table next to the couch where he had set them down. Steve had a thought about neatening things, like he usually did, but he couldn’t bring himself to tidy away the memories. Instead, he headed out, taking the stairs two at a time.

“Hey, JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain.”

“Where’s Tony?” Steve knew it was childish, but he gave in to the insecurity nonetheless.

“Mr. Stark is currently in the office on the laboratory level.”

“Oh, he’s working.”

“He has spent the last several hours toiling over his plans for this evening. Would you like to know the details of the rejected proposals, or the one he is currently investigating?”

“No!” Steve halted on the steps. “I think he wants it to be a surprise.”

“I am to keep no secrets from you, Captain Rogers.”

“Only when I ask, JARVIS. I’m not asking.”

“Of course.”

“But—” Steve paused. Getting used to life in Tony’s world was no small endeavor, but Steve was going to do his best, which meant he had to stop getting into sparring matches with JARVIS. “Thanks for being willing to tell me.”

“My orders were—”

“Yeah, I know. I’m still saying thanks. I appreciate it. And I appreciate how well you take care of Tony.”

“Thank you, Captain.” Steve knew it was crazy, but he thought JARVIS actually sounded pleased. Get a grip, Rogers.

“Can you please tell Tony I left the tower with Agent Barton and we’re heading to the relief center in the Village. I’ll call him soon.” Steve continued down another flight, then paused again. “Oh, and tell him not to make himself crazy. I’m just looking forward to seeing him.”

“I will certainly deliver your message.”

~0~0~0~

Clint blended in easily, wearing jeans and a plum tee shirt. Steve could still go mostly unnoticed as well, dressed in casual clothes, sunglasses and ball cap. He and Clint were unloading their third truck of supplies, and the volunteers from the Episcopal churches of New York City were grateful for the help. Unlike the early days after the battle, the relief efforts had become very organized. There were several places like this throughout the city, as well as centers to help displaced residents find new housing. During the week, Steve did most of his volunteer work dressed as Captain America, heeding Madison’s plan to maintain a good public image for the Avengers. Today was Saturday, though, and Steve wasn’t up for the hoopla that surrounded Captain America wherever he went. It felt great just to be helping.

“Time for a break.” Clint patted his shoulder when they had finished the third truck.

“No, I’m good.”

“Slow it down, Cap. Unless you’re looking to blow your cover, you need to stop working like you can lift this whole truck into the air.”

“You’re right.”

“There’s a coffee shop across the street. We’ll grab a bite to eat and give them time to roll the next truck in.”

“It’s great how much stuff people are donating.”

“All these trucks today, those are your boyfriend’s doing,” Clint explained. “Stark Industries donates a helluva lot more stuff than Tony takes credit for.”

Steve smiled. He was proud of Tony—and he got a kick out of Clint referring to him as Steve’s ‘boyfriend.’ “He likes to keep a low profile too, sometimes. Why don’t you go get us a table? I want to call him and then I’ll meet you.”

“I’m not waiting for you to order. I’m starved.” Clint threw him a wave as he started across the street. “Give him a kiss for me.”

Steve laughed, yanking off the work gloves so he could reach into his pocket for his phone. He pressed one, excited when Tony picked up on the first ring.

“Finally,” Tony said as a greeting.

“I’ve only been here a couple of hours,” Steve pointed out. A couple of long, endless hours, that aren’t passing fast enough.

“A couple of hours during which you’ve been too busy to call me. What are you and Barton up to?”

“Didn’t JARVIS give you my message?”

“He told me what you told him. I’m wondering what else your best buddy Clint is getting up to with you.”

“I thought Thor was my ‘best buddy,’ ” Steve teased, remembering the hard time Tony had given him in the past about the God of Thunder, recognizing it now for the jealousy it must have been. “You can’t be jealous of Clint. He’s a married man.”

“Sure. And married men have never in the history of the world been known to stray.”

“You don’t believe Clint’s a cheater.”

“True,” Tony grudgingly admitted. Steve could hear his pout through the phone. “But I am jealous he’s getting to spend time with you and I’m not.”

“I can come home right now,” Steve offered eagerly. “You can spend all the time you want with me.”

“No!” Tony sounded a little frantic before calming some. “I mean, I’m not ready, yet.”

“Tony, I don’t want you putting yourself to such trouble. If this is about what I said this morning, maybe I was wrong—”

“It’s all good. Tell me about your day.”

Steve sighed. These plans of Tony’s were clearly important to him, so he didn’t argue. Instead, he told Tony about the goings-on at the relief center and some of the nice people he’d met before asking, “How is your day going? I mean, besides, whatever it is you’re working on that’s not ready for me to come home.”

“Banner was down here,” Tony revealed slowly, as if he was broaching the subject carefully.

“What did he want?” Steve snapped before he could stop himself.

“Now who’s jealous?” Tony was being playful, but Steve didn’t like the game.

“I think I have a lot more reason to be.” The words were harsh and Steve immediately regretted his immaturity.

“Ouch.”

“Tony, I’m sorry.” He truly was. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

“Don’t be sorry. I deserved it. I’m a big boy. I’ll deal. I’ll also wipe the doubt from your heart if it’s the last thing I do.”

“There’s nothing to wipe. I trust you.” Steve paused, hoping his sincerity sunk in. “I wouldn’t lie about that.”

“I know you wouldn’t.” Tony’s voice was soft. “I’m still going to make it up to you, though. I’m going to be worthy of your trust.”

“You’re already worthy.” Steve ached to hold him. “Are you sure I can’t come home?”

“Just give me a little more time, okay, sweetheart?”

The phone slipped from Steve’s sweaty fingers, but he caught it before it hit the ground. He had to turn and face the truck, trying to hide the bulge sprouting in his pants at Tony’s whispered sweetheart. He knocked his head against the truck a few times, trying to clear it.

“You still there?” Tony asked.

“Here. Yes. I am. Right here.” He took a deep breath, changing to a safer subject. “So, what did Bruce want?”

“You sure you want to talk about this?”

“Yes.”

“He wants me to overlook how he exposed secrets I trusted him with in front of a roomful of people and be his friend again. I didn’t have any burning desire to toss his filthy little duffel bag full of pathetic shit to the curb and book him on the next plane back to whatever third world country he wants to hide in next, so I said maybe.”

Steve could hear the hurt beneath the flippancy. He longed to kiss every wound Tony had ever suffered. “Your hurt is understandable. He cares about you, though. He really was trying to help you, which he actually did.”

“Yeah.” It was the pouty voice again.

“You’ll do the right thing,” Steve said with confidence. “You two shouldn’t be at odds.”

“You’d be okay with the not at odds thing?”

“Of course.” Steve smiled. “Friendship is precious. It should never be thrown away.”

“For the sake of the team,” Tony muttered.

“I wasn’t talking about the team. I was talking about you. You deserve to have good people in your life who care about you.”

“You are sooo damn sexy when you’re all noble and wise.”

“You need to stop talking dirty to me on this phone,” Steve laughed. “I’m in public.”

“Is Captain America getting wood for me right out on the street? Holy shit.”

“I’m going to eat lunch now. Goodbye, Tony.”

“Call me later.”

“Only if you behave.”

“Not going to happen.”

“I know. I’ll call you anyway.”

~0~0~0~

“I’ll have the roast beef hero with everything on it, fries, and onion rings.”

“Make it two heroes,” Clint added helpfully as he watched Steve steal another one of his fries. “And hold the onion rings.” At Steve’s questioning look he reminded, “Big date tonight, remember?”

“Right. Okay. No onion rings. Extra fries, then.”

“Two heroes, extra fries,” the waitress repeated as she scribbled in her pad. “Lucky girl.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your date tonight,” she clarified, smiling.

“Oh, it’s not a girl,” Steve said without thinking. Clint laughed and the waitress rolled her eyes, but she was still smiling.

“Figures. All the good ones,” she muttered. Pointing to Clint, she added, “And this one’s got a wedding ring. Clearly not my day.”

“We’re good tippers,” Clint offered as consolation.

“A silver lining,” she laughed amiably. “I’ll go put your order in and I’ll make sure there aren’t any onions on the sandwiches either. Anything else for you?” she asked Clint who was halfway through a double cheeseburger.

“Probably going to need more fries since he’s eating all mine,” Clint said.

“You got it.” She scribbled something else on her pad before retreating.

“I only had a few,” Steve defended. “I’ll pay you back when my order comes.” He stuck his fork into the fries once more. “I’m starving.”

Clint laughed. He was curled into the booth opposite Steve, leaning on the wall, both legs bent at the knees and pressed to his chest. How he ate in such a position was a wonder. “It’s my own fault. Probably should have ordered for you.”

“How would you know what I’d want?”

“From what I’ve seen, not sure there’s anything you don’t eat.”

“Except onion rings, apparently.”

“Just trying to help a guy out.”

“I appreciate it.” Steve took a sip from his water glass. “I guess I don’t know much about the etiquette of dating.”

“You’ll figure it out. You’re a quick learner. I have no idea how you handle the amount of data you do on any given day. Gotta be crazy.”

Steve shrugged. “Not like I have a choice.”

“Sometimes I try to imagine what it’s like to be you.” Clint took a hearty bite of his burger before continuing. “I get tired thinking about it. For what it’s worth, you do a helluva job coping with the impossible. You’re a class act, Rogers. Stark better appreciate you.”

Steve waited until the waitress finished putting down a large glass of milk in front of him and walked away. “I’m the one who needs to appreciate having Tony. He could be with anybody he wanted.”

“Maybe.” Clint pondered over his fry. “But I can tell you from experience, being with anybody is a far cry from being with the right somebody.”

Steve nodded, respectful of what Clint shared with Phil. “I hope I’m the right somebody for Tony.”

“You’re not still worried about the whole Banner mess, are you? That wasn’t anything serious.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m Hawkeye, remember? I see stuff. I know I’ve been pretty distracted since my guy went down, but I haven’t been completely blind. You don’t see how Stark looks at you, do you?”

“I saw it last night.” Steve hid behind his straw, taking a long drag of milk, trying not to linger too much on the memory of Tony’s expression when he touched him. “But. . . .” he looked around. The coffee shop was bustling, but not so busy that anyone was seated too close to their booth. Still, he leaned across the table and spoke softly. “Does that count? I mean—” he stopped, shaking his head. What had gotten into him? “I’m sorry. This isn’t appropriate.”

Clint sipped his Coke, staring at him with discerning eyes before speaking. “I’m not trying to be up in your private shit. I just want to be a friend.” He leaned back, dragging his hands over his face. “These past months, I was my lowest. A total mess. You sat with me. You heard me talk about stuff I’ve never talked about with anyone but him, and not once did you make me feel lame. You held my hand; you tucked me into bed; you wiped my snotty nose when I cried in my sleep; you told me stories when I thought I’d go crazy from the unending silence. And you did it all without making me feel like a douchebag.” He shrugged, reaching for another fry. “What I’m trying to say, Steve, is you’re my friend. That’s solid. Whatever you feel like talking about, or not talking about, we’re cool.”

Steve was grateful when his food arrived, his emotions zigzagging everywhere. He busied himself with his sandwich, Clint eating quietly as well, not seeming to mind. Only after he’d gotten halfway through one hero was he able to speak. “You were wondering earlier what it’s like to be me. For those first months, it wasn’t much different from being in the ice, only I was awake. Still frozen. Cut off. Isolated.” He pushed his plate of fries towards Clint in offering. “I have friends now. I never had many before, and those are long gone. Everything’s gone. But new experiences come along. New beginnings. I’m really lucky.” He took a sip of his milk, then tipped his glass toward Clint. “I’m honored to be able to call a man like you my friend.”

Clint lifted his glass and grinned. “Back at’cha, Cap.” He took a sip and swiped a few of Steve’s fries. “How ‘bout we forego the secret friendship handshake and you tell me what’s bothering you instead?”

Steve took a deep breath, stifling the inner voices ordering him to buck up and stop sniveling. “I’m not bothered. I’m happy. Maybe a little confused.”

“About Tony?”

“About how I feel.” Steve shook his head. This wasn’t coming out right. “I know how I feel about Tony. Oh, my gosh, it’s so big. But then I get with him and this other stuff—it’s really big, too. Even when I’m not with him, I’m thinking about it.”

Completely straight-faced, no trace of mocking, Clint asked, “We’re talking about sex, right?” Steve fought the humiliation threatening to swallow him, nodding as he took a big swig of milk, trying not to choke. Clint nodded as well. “Okay. I’m figuring there’s no problem in the sex department, right?”

Nooo problem,” Steve muttered self-consciously. “Which maybe is the problem?”

Clint leaned back. “Oh, okay. I think I get you, now.”

“You do? I’m not even sure I get me.” Steve played with his sandwich, breaking it into smaller bites to have something to do with his hands.

“I get you. But I’m struggling with how to talk to you without sounding crude. I really do respect how you have a whole different moral code than we operate under.”

“Which is a polite way of saying talking to me is like talking to your grandfather?”

“No.” Clint laughed. “First off, I don’t have a grandfather, and if I did I wouldn’t talk to him about sex. What I do have is a good friend who’s old school, and I sure as hell don’t want to offend you.”

Steve ate quietly for a few minutes, gathering his thoughts. When he was ready, he said, “I really appreciate that. It does confound me, how easily people bandy about private things nowadays. You’re the first person who’s made an attempt at restraint when talking to me about sex. I think they actually get a kick out of shocking me.”

“They don’t mean to be mean.”

“I know. But I’m an oddity, I know. I’m working at evolving. Whatever you have to say, you can say. I can handle it. You’re trying to help me.”

“Okay. Put the milk down, though. I don’t want you spewing at me. This is one of my favorite tee shirts.”

Steve laughed, feeling more at ease. He pushed his glass and his plate towards the center of the table and wiped his mouth. “Shoot.”

“You’re worried you might be too warm for Stark’s form. That having mind-blowing sex when you guys are together, and obsessing about it when you’re not, somehow cheapens the relationship, right?”

Steve was glad Clint had him refrain from eating or drinking, leaving him nothing to choke on. Despite his chagrin, he was fascinated by Clint’s insight, eager to hear more. “Something like that, yeah.”

“First off, lighten up, man. Judging by the way this is freaking you out, I’m guessing you haven’t gotten laid in what? Seventy years?”

Steve squirmed, but he trusted Clint and he really needed to talk about this. “Longer, actually.”

“Longer? What were you, like twenty-something when you went down into the Arctic? How much longer ago could it have been? I mean—whoa. Hold on. Time out.” Clint leaned forward, looking hard at him. “Are we talking ever?”

“Ever,” Steve confirmed. He wasn’t comfortable, but he wasn’t ashamed of his truth. He may well be a relic in this day and age, but he was never going to think sharing intimacy with someone was something you did lightly. He would always believe you were supposed to wait until it mattered, and even then it should be special: loving and romantic. But if that’s true, why do I act so carnal around Tony?

To Clint’s credit, he minimized the shock on his face quickly, reaching across the table to pat Steve’s arm. “If this is your first shot at the big leagues, then I gotta say again, lighten up on yourself, buddy. A little horniness is understandable. Most guys get antsy when it’s been a few months. Ease back on the guilt.”

“What if it’s more than a little . . . the horniness?”

“Have you hurt him?”

“No! I would never hurt Tony.”

“Is he having as much fun as you are?”

Steve felt his cheeks burst into flames. “From what I’ve seen, yes.” He reached for his water. “But I don’t want to talk about Tony. It wouldn’t be right. I mean, not about what he likes or feels. That’s his business.”

“I hear you. Just needed to know what we’re dealing with. Take a deep breath. You’re okay. I promise.”

Clint was being really nice to him. Steve did take a deep breath. Somehow, Clint was helping him get through this, and he was grateful. “Tony matters so much to me, but I don’t think I’m showing him right. It keeps getting mixed up with the other thing.”

“Cap, you are wound pretty damn tight with your rigid moral code, and I’m not saying it’s bad. It’s who you are, which is cool. Don’t change. But don’t strangle yourself, either. You haven’t done anything wrong. The two things you’re talking about are not mutually exclusive. You don’t have to pick one or the other.”

“Is that . . . do you. . . .” Steve wasn’t quite sure what the appropriate way to ask his question was, or if he had any business asking it at all.

“Are we talking about me, now?” Clint asked astutely. At Steve’s nod, he grinned bawdily. “Are you kidding? When I first got with Phil, I was worried I was going to have to join one of those sex addict groups. I mean, we’re talking all the time. Every surface. Every opportunity. Every position.” Clint leaned back against the booth. He didn’t look uncomfortable. He looked proud. “Sex, in general, is good stuff. But when you get with the right person? It’s like one of those experiments on the science channel where the beakers explode. You realize what had been passing for good all along was nothing. Like you weren’t even on the same planet as real sex.” Clint was idly playing with the band around his finger. He leaned closer to Steve, lowering his voice to make Steve pay attention to every word. “Listen to me, buddy. The emotion isn’t a separate thing. It’s what feeds the physical part. The two together are meant to co-exist. You’re not doing anything wrong. Sounds like you’re doing it pretty fucking right. Feed them both, sure, but when you do, be ready for the chemical reaction. Enjoy it.”

Steve was hanging on Clint’s every word, thoughts bouncing in his head like a ping pong ball. “And Phil still knew? That you cared about him?”

“If you’re worried Tony doesn’t know how much you care, show him. Tell him. Skywrite it if you want. But don’t stop sleeping with him. Make the stuff you feel in here,” Clint pressed a palm over his heart, “part of everything you’re feeling down there.” He pointed at his crotch and laughed. “Trust me, the combination is lethal.”

“Wow.” Steve smiled, relief washing over him. “Talking about this stuff isn’t so bad after all. You’re a good friend, Clint. Here, you can have the rest of my fries.”

Clint took a handful and shoved them into his mouth, chewing and swallowing. “If you’re going to pay me in fries, I’m always at your service.” His face sobered as he toyed with the silverware on the table. “You know, Phil hasn’t been able to make love since the injury.”

Steve realized he should have known. “I’m sorry. I’m being insensitive.”

“No, not at all. He’s such a beautiful, selfless man. He’s offered to do stuff for me, when his energy is there, but I prefer to wait and party together. I’m not telling you this to make you feel bad. Just finishing my point. I love him with everything I got, and that wouldn’t change if he could never get it up again. But when he can, it’s going to be awe-some! The Viagra guy isn’t going to have anything on me.”

“What’s Viagra?”

“They advertise it on the TV. You know; the medicine to help you get wood.”

“They advertise that on television?” Steve gaped in shock.

Clint chuckled hard. “Christ, Stark must really enjoy you.” The wicked gleam in Clint’s eyes as he wiped a tear from the corner gave Steve the impression he meant his words in a good way. Since he liked the idea of making Tony both happy and hot, he accepted it. “Anyway, I look forward with smutty anticipation to nailing my new husband to the wall first chance I get, and riding him like a rodeo cowboy on speed, but that doesn’t subtract at all from how much I love him. Sure, there are guys out there just looking to get a leg over. You were in the army. We both know the type. Steve, believe me, you’re not one of those assholes, no matter what wild and wondrous things you’re discovering in your pants for the first time. Go with it. Have fun. Stop worrying.”

“I’m going to try.” Steve went back to work on his sandwich with new vigor, taking a second to glance at his watch.

“Still too many hours away?” Clint observed.

“My own fault. I think I put too much pressure on Tony, talking about focusing on the other stuff between us.”

“He’ll be fine. Let him knock himself out for you if he wants to. You’re worth it. He must think so, too, or he wouldn’t be doing it. Distract yourself from worrying. What are you going to wear for your big date?”

“Wear? I don’t know.” Steve hadn’t given it any thought. “You think I should dress up? I only have the one suit, but—” He caught himself, not wanting to admit what had gotten all over his clothing last night.

“No worries. Eat up. After lunch we’ll finish at the relief center, and then we’ll see about finding you some sexy threads suitable for this mega-date of yours. How do you feel about leather?”

“You mean, like a jacket?”

“Nope.” Clint grinned mischievously as he finished Steve’s fries.

“Yeah, something tells me I’m not ready to go shopping with you.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

Steve was right. He wasn’t ready for shopping Clint Barton style, at least not at the first store they went to. Steve wouldn’t even walk through the door, having gawked at the outrageous stuff in the window, which looked like a cross between Halloween costumes and porn. Clint had been going on about something called a thong, which Steve didn’t let him finish describing, as well as a few suggestions about wearing leather in places leather was not meant to be worn.

“I’m messing with you,” Clint laughed, taking Steve’s arm to pull him away from his window gaping. “I’ll tone it down. I promise.”

They actually ended up having a good time. Steve was getting the knack of this shopping thing, having gotten a lot of practice decorating his apartment. Clint was very funny, and it made Steve happy to see him enjoying himself after the weeks of non-stop worry and stress. Steve ended up with a pair of black jeans, which were nice, though he thought they were a little snug. Clint and the sales guy helping him didn’t agree, insisting they were perfect, so Steve capitulated. He hadn’t understood what was fashionable in his own time and he certainly hadn’t figured it out in the present day. It got him to thinking about what Tony had said about wanting to get him a person called a stylist. The idea of Tony picking clothing he liked for him was still making Steve warm. He began to worry about his selections today, wondering if Tony would find them attractive. He pulled out his phone after he had changed back to his own pants.

“Do you like jeans?”

“Jean who?” Tony asked distractedly. He could tell Tony was typing something on his tablet, picturing his focused look of concentration.

“Not Jean. Jeans. Pants. Dungarees.”

“Dungarees?” Tony burst out laughing at the word. “There’s an oldie. Okay, you’re asking me if I like to wear jeans?”

“I’m asking if you’d like me to.”

“Are you shopping without me!” Steve apparently had Tony’s full attention now, and it was intense.

“I needed something to do. You won’t let me come home. You’re planning this big date and I don’t know what I’m supposed to wear.”

“Tell me Barton is not helping you with your pants.”

“Just to pick them. Not to put them on me.”

“Put him on the phone.”

“Okay, but I’ll have to have him come in the dressing room with me, which is where I am. That what you want?”

“No!”

Steve laughed. It probably wasn’t nice to tease Tony, but he couldn’t deny enjoying the reaction. “Are you going to tell me if you like jeans or not?”

“You could make a parka look good. Stop worrying about your clothes. If you need to buy clothes, I’ll take you to buy clothes.”

“You’re busy.”

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

“A little.”

“You can buy the jeans, but that’s it.”

“I don’t get to have a shirt?”

“Don’t feel the need to get one on my account,” Tony said hungrily.

And for the second time today, Steve wound up with a boner from talking to Tony on the phone. He looked at his watch for the hundredth time, wondering if it had stopped. “Any chance your plans are ahead of schedule?”

“I just scrapped Plan G, but H has a lot of potential.”

“Tony, I want to be with you. Does it have to be more complicated than that?”

The line went silent for a few moments and Steve thought maybe he’d pushed the wrong button and disconnected the call. Then he heard a flurry of activity through the earpiece, papers being crunched, keyboard tapped, a few things falling to the ground. “You know, you’re right. Absolutely. Yes. Exactly. This is great. Yeah, this will work. Totally. Okay, gotta go. See you later.”

“Glad I could help.” Steve realized he was talking to no one as Tony had already gone. He tucked the phone back into his pocket, only to have it ring a second later. “Yes?” he answered.

“Quick question. Can I have permission to go into your place when you’re not there just this once for a minute?”

“Of course but—”

“Great. Thanks. Bye.”

“Nice talking to you.” Steve shook his head. He didn’t know what his apartment had to do with a date, but no sense trying to figure it out. If Tony was on Plan H, the possibilities were endless.

He went back to finish his shopping. He ended up getting a pale blue, v-neck tee shirt Clint insisted did illicit things to his eyes, and a lightweight cotton blazer in a shade the young man helping them called heather, but looked gray to Steve. Clint and the sales clerk assured him the outfit was “hot,” but he still worried whether he looked appropriate for whatever Tony had planned tonight.

After the shopping was complete, Clint took him to an arcade to play video games and then they went for ice cream. When they got back to the tower, they showed Phil the clothes Steve got and told him about their day. It was 6:30. Steve killed another thirty minutes going over a few new exercises with Walt that were going to be added into Phil’s regimen the following week. By the time he changed into his new clothes and climbed the walls some more, it was 7:25. Steve couldn’t stand it any longer.

“I’m going downstairs,” he announced nervously. “It’s my apartment. I should be able to go there if I want to, right?” Neither Clint nor Phil answered, both looking at him with patient smiles. “You think it’s a bad idea? I should wait, right? Or should I go? I mean, he said he would meet me there at eight. Why can’t I wait there for him?”

“You should do what feels right,” Phil said, which made sense, but wasn’t very helpful.

Ultimately, Steve decided to leave. He thought of walking slowly to kill more time, but instead was bounding down the stairs. He wasn’t sure if he was supposed to wait in the apartment for Tony or in the hall. Were they going to the garage? To the penthouse? Outside? In the city? Out of the city? He didn’t know. The one thing he did know was how much he had missed Tony and how eager he was to see him.

Which is why, when he threw open the stairwell door and saw Tony coming out of his apartment at the same moment, he ran to greet him. JARVIS must have tracked him and alerted Tony of his approach, but Steve didn’t care.

He didn’t have to go far. Tony met him halfway down the hall, launching himself at Steve, arms wrapping around his neck, legs hugging his torso in a position Steve had already come to like—a lot. It was Steve whose back hit the wall this time, adjusting to the force of the impact, catching Tony as his own arms went around Tony’s waist. Tony was kissing him before Steve could take a breath. Steve would have kissed him back, but Tony’s mouth was quick and elusive. Sweet kisses rained over his cheeks, forehead, ears, neck, chin, throat, nose, even over his eyes. Tony’s entire body bounced with excitement like an overeager puppy, and Steve laughed with delight, glad he wasn’t the only one this smitten.

“I wasn’t sure you’d be happy I showed up early.”

“I’m totally annoyed,” Tony answered between kisses. “Didn’t even have a chance to get changed.”

“You look great.”

Tony’s palm fell over Steve’s eyes, covering them. “What am I wearing?”

“You’re wearing Tony Stark’s skin and face and hair and smell. You’re perfect.”

Tony laughed. “Good answer.” He brushed the center of his palm lightly over Steve’s eyes. “Christ, how can these eyelashes be real? They’re longer than my beard.” Tony removed his hand, but Steve kept his lids closed as Tony’s index finger played lightly over his lashes, tickling like snowflakes. “Gorgeous. And all yours. No enhancements.”

“How do you know?”

“You’re not the only one who’s obsessed. Do you have any idea how many pictures of you I’ve poured over, both pre- and post-serum?”

Steve squirmed, embarrassed at the idea of Tony looking at photos of the way he used to look. “Why would you want to look at pictures of a skinny runt?”

Tony’s palms flattened against Steve’s cheeks, holding his face securely. “Look at me.” When Steve opened his eyes, Tony’s burned into his, dark and fierce. “You’re gorgeous, then and now. I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but I’ve whacked off more than once looking at pictures of that beautiful, shy, brave boy whose inner essence could shine through even a grainy black and white photo.” Tony’s voice softened as he pressed the next words against Steve’s lips. “And now he’s all mine.”

Steve shook hard, afraid to fully feel the impact of Tony’s words. Was it possible Tony would have liked him before he was Captain America? Probably not, but he liked hearing it. The idea of Tony being obsessed with him; of pleasuring himself thinking about Steve the way Steve had done so many nights alone in bed with thoughts of Tony, was both surprising and unsettling. “All yours,” Steve murmured in response, canting his head and capturing Tony’s mouth more fully, finally getting his chance to kiss. Kissing Tony in the flesh was more exciting than Steve had ever imagined during his lonely, late-night masturbations sessions. The hair on Tony’s upper lip tickled mischievously; his mouth managing to be pliant and bossy at the same time; hungry little sounds passed through his lips into Steve’s mouth, Tony unable to be quiet even with his mouth full, which was fine with Steve. He was fascinated by all of Tony’s sounds: His cadence when he was rattling off complex sentences without pausing to breathe; the different ways he laughed depending on whether he was being jolly or rascally; the whizzing puffs of air when he was sleeping. But the sounds Tony made when he was aroused defied any description Steve could come up with. Steve craved every one of them and felt driven to elicit more.

Tony’s fingers were in his hair now, sifting and rubbing against his scalp. His legs squeezed Steve tighter, sealing them together. After being apart for what felt like weeks, Steve savored each kiss, until the annoying noise of Tony’s phone interrupted them.

“Gotta get this,” Tony insisted, pulling back as he squirmed to get his hand into his pocket.

“Are you kidding?”

“Go,” Tony said by way of greeting when he’d gotten the phone to his ear. Steve tried to poke his nose between the phone and Tony, but Tony tugged the back of his hair to get him to quit it. “Okay, good. Make it happen.”

“There are a lot of things I was hoping to make happen,” Steve complained.

Tony clapped the phone shut and kissed his nose. “No pouting. It’ll be worth it, I promise. Can you put me down, please?”

“Do I have to?”

“No. But if you don’t, the entire plan I’ve been working on for you all day goes kaput.” Tony smiled. “I’m flexible. We can go with that if you want. Up to you.”

Steve actually considered his options, but in the end, he couldn’t ruin Tony’s plans. It wouldn’t have been right. He relaxed his grip, letting Tony slide free from his arms, regretting it the moment he did. Getting his first good look, he saw Tony was dressed in black cargo pants and a grungy, black, long-sleeve tee shirt. Tony had said he hadn’t had time to change, but to Steve he looked great. He looked like Tony.

“Whoa, check you out, GQ.” Tony whistled at him as he got his own chance to notice appearances. “I’m liking the look.” He took hold of the edges of Steve’s jacket. “A lot.” Tony pressed his face against Steve’s chest, rubbing his way up the tee shirt to where the opening of the V-neck started, licking his tongue there. His hands snaked around Steve, sliding into the back pockets of his jeans, sculpting the outline of his buttocks. “Maybe I should send you shopping with Barton more often? Wait a minute. What the hell am I saying? No. No. Rewind. Delete. If anyone gets to ogle you while you slip clothes on and off this gorgeous body, it’s going to be me.” Tony shook himself and pulled back. “Okay, focus, Stark.”

Sometimes Steve got a headache thinking about what Tony’s inner conversations must be like if the ones he had with himself aloud were that convoluted. “So what happens now?”

“The helicopter is about to land on the roof.”

“Helicopter? Are we going someplace?”

“No. I ordered take-out.”

“Take-out? From a helicopter?”

“Not from the helicopter. The helicopter is the means of delivery.” Tony took Steve’s hand and tugged him towards the apartment door. “Don’t worry. It’ll be warm. I’ve got state-of-the-art portable warming ovens in there.”

Steve was puzzling over why anyone would go to such trouble to have food delivered, but then Tony opened the door and he saw his apartment. The living room looked lovely, bathed in soft light and music. There was a table set up near the windows, a table that certainly hadn’t been there when Steve left this morning. It was set with fancy dinnerware, starched white tablecloth, and candles, and was situated to get the best night view of the city.

“Oh my gosh.” Steve stood in the doorway staring. “This is nice.”

“It’s a start. Come on. Sit down. Food’s almost here.”

Tony led Steve to the table, pulled out the chair for him and unfolded his cloth napkin, laying it neatly across Steve’s lap. Steve was grinning like a goof at how sweet Tony was being. Tony had barely sat down across from him when there was a knock on the door. “Enter,” Tony instructed. In came about half a dozen men in waiters’ clothes, carrying silver-covered trays. Two of them set up side tables near Steve, while the others started to set their trays down.

“Smells great,” Steve realized, certain he knew the aroma, though he couldn’t quite name it. No matter. Tony had gone to a lot of trouble, and he would make sure to enjoy it. To his utter astonishment, one waiter lifted the lid off the tray closest to Steve with a flourish, revealing a platter filled with hot dogs and crinkle-cut fries sitting on familiar green and yellow paper plates.

“You got me Nathan’s!"

“The Original Nathan’s Famous, straight from Coney Island, Brooklyn. Established in 1916 by Nathan Handwerker.”

Tony continued to recite the oral history he must have memorized, but Steve was only half listening. He knew Nathan’s. Whenever they could scrape a few nickels together, he and Bucky hopped on a train to Coney Island to get franks. Not that Nathan’s were just any franks. They were the franks. Those hot dogs, along with the fat, crinkle-cut fries, were a renowned Brooklyn delicacy. Even rich and famous people flocked to Coney Island to get a taste. Steve remembered reading in the papers how President Roosevelt had served Nathan’s Famous to the King and Queen of England. He and Bucky had joked about how they had eaten food fit for kings.

He was happy to read Nathan’s was still in business in Coney Island, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself there, afraid he would be overwhelmed by the memories. Facing new things every single day was daunting, but sometimes the harder part of Steve’s current life was encountering something that remained from his time. The mix of nostalgia and melancholy could be overpowering; joy at the refuge of the familiar followed swiftly by grief because nothing was really the same. The people with whom he had shared any particular experience were long gone. As the distinctive Nathan’s aroma filled his nose, Steve was transported back. The shadows loomed, dancing on the scent of franks, whispering in his ear over the hub-bub of a bustling boardwalk, overrun by the sound of Bucky’s laughter.

“Aren’t you going to eat?” Tony asked, his concerned voice breaking through the trance. “You do like these, right?”

Steve looked at the buffet of franks, fries, and condiments laid out before him, his stomach casting its vote, grumbling impatiently. “Yes. I like them. I like it all.”

It was unconventional, piling hot dogs and fries onto the expensive china set before him—dousing everything with ketchup and mustard—but also cathartic. Here, in the harbor of his home, supported by the secure presence of Tony’s thoughtful care, Steve was able to shake the clinging shadows and dig into his feast, savoring each delicious bite. Was it possible this food tasted better than he remembered? Maybe. This was, after all, its own unique experience, a memory in the making.

“You’re probably thinking it would have been easier to go to Coney Island,” Tony stated, eating slowly, looking more vested in watching Steve eat.

“Nope.” Steve shook his head, swallowing before speaking. “This is perfect. Right here. Like this.”

“Yeah?” Tony seemed unsure.

Steve reached across the table, covering Tony’s hand with his own. “This is exactly right for me.”

Tony brightened, his other hand patting Steve’s before he pulled back to free Steve to eat. “Yes, of course. I’m an ingenious planner.”

Steve laughed around his mouthful of frank. “Is this plan H?”

“Not exactly.” Tony stabbed his fries with the plastic red pitchfork included with the condiments, getting into the spirit of eating Nathan’s properly. “Might have been a few iterations later. Doesn’t matter. The others were perfectly usable plans. In fact, I hope your dance card is empty for the next few weeks, because I plan to implement most of them.”

“I’m free.” Steve relished the anticipation. “But you don’t have to keep going to a lot of trouble for me.”

“Nothing about you is any trouble to me. The hardest part is holding back. There isn’t a place I don’t want to take you, an experience I don’t want to offer you, a gift I don’t want to bestow on you.”

“Tony,” Steve said softly, not sure how to respond in the face of such heartfelt generosity.

“No, no,” Tony waved his hands. “Don’t stop eating. I want you to enjoy your dinner. It’s important to me. Let me ramble, okay? No input necessary.”

Steve nodded. He was enjoying his delightful meal, and it was no hardship listening to Tony talk. It was one of his favorite things to do.

“Great.” Tony clapped his hands together. “You know, last night, I gotta say, you out-Starked me. Who’d have thought, right? But you did. You know me. I’m pretty competitive. I had to figure out a way to top it, tonight. Then I realized I built up my expectations so much in my frenzied need to wow you, I somehow lost sight of you in there. Thank you for being patient with me, today. You have no idea how grounding it was.”

“I missed you.”

“I missed you, too, which got me thinking more about last night. What made last night special wasn’t the wow-factor—though that was damn amazing. But you made it more about this.” Tony’s finger gestured between them. “The us part. I want to do that for you tonight. I think it’s what you were talking about this morning, what you wanted. I know it’s what I want. I realized our date had to happen here. This apartment is a perfect example of something I was tempted to ruin with excess, but instead I got it right. You’re happy here, which is my goal—to make you happy. A complicated concept, but an underlying simplicity.”

“Then you can quit trying because you’re already there. I am happy. The only way I can be happier is if you tell me how long I have to keep eating until I’m allowed to kiss you?”

Hmmm. I didn’t exactly factor that into the plan,” Tony said as he got up. “But we can improvise.” Steve pulled his chair back from the table enough for Tony to sit on top of his thigh. He wrapped his arm around Tony’s waist to keep him secure as Tony stabbed a fry and fed it to him, followed by a soft kiss.

“Wow,” Steve grinned. “Tastes even better this way.”

“Yeah?” Tony got a fry for himself off Steve’s plate, slipping it into his mouth before kissing him again. “You’re right. Mmmmm. Make a note for future plans, JARVIS. Only one chair is needed when dining with Steve.”

“Yes, sir.”

They continued their meal in kind, sharing bites and kisses, Tony feeding Steve and Steve feeding Tony, though Steve definitely consumed the majority of the enormous amount of food. They were the best franks and fries he’d ever eaten, and he relished every bite and kiss.

“Oh my gosh, I’m so full,” Steve finally announced, sorry he had let Clint talk him into the tight jeans.

“You can’t be full yet. You’re not done. I have another Brooklyn delicacy for you.”

“What? Tony, really, I don’t need anything else.” Unsurprisingly, Tony wasn’t listening. He had gotten off Steve’s lap and was on his phone again issuing orders. “Don’t tell me there’s another helicopter of food coming?” Steve put his hand over his packed stomach and groaned.

Disconnecting his call, Tony took Steve’s hands and led him towards the couch. “No need for the helicopter. I bought all the necessary supplies and I hired someone to make it perfectly. It’ll only take a few minutes.”

Refusing to be a party-pooper, Steve smiled. “Sounds great.”

“Need to do a few push-ups or something to digest?” Tony offered as he sat on the couch. “I don’t mind watching, but only if you take off your shirt.”

“I think I’ll be okay.” He sat down beside Tony. Looking over his shoulder towards the table, he fretted, “I should clean up the mess, though.”

“My people will take care of it. Relax. You’re on a date, remember? How’s it going so far?” Steve took Tony’s hand in his and squeezed. “Perfect.”

Tony pumped his free fist. “Yesssss!”

“You are such a cutie.” Steve recognized Tony’s grin—the one informing him he’d just said something old-fashioned and Tony was tickled.

“As long as I’m your cutie, I can handle it.”

Steve lifted Tony’s hand to his mouth to kiss. “For sure.”

“Oh, hey. Wait. I have a present for you. You can open it while we wait for the next course.”

“A present?”

Tony leapt up from the couch and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a minute later with a beautifully gift wrapped box, complete with a big red bow. “I didn’t wrap it,” he admitted. “I suck at wrapping. But I did the picking. Well, JARVIS helped.”

“JARVIS?” Steve looked suspiciously at the box Tony placed in his hands.

“Don’t make the face. JARVIS has been instrumental in helping me plan things for you. He knows how important you are to me. He likes you. He really does. He’s just a little hard to get to know. Kinda like me, which is not ironic.”

Steve opened the box lid to find two books. He could tell immediately they were old. The smell of leather and paper wafted through his senses as he carefully picked up the first one, stroking his fingers over the raised gold lettering. “Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck,” he read aloud. He carefully opened the cover, confirming his suspicion. “This is a first edition . . . a signed first edition.”

Tony didn’t say anything, smiling as he watched Steve carefully set down Of Mice and Men before lifting out the second book. “The Patriot by Pearl S. Buck.” He looked inside, finding this one was a signed first edition as well. The books had to be almost as old as he was. “These . . . these were two of my favorite books,” he whispered, stunned. How could Tony know? “I used to borrow and re-borrow them from the library. Right before Dr. Erskine approved me for duty, I had saved up enough money to buy my own copies. I packed them in my suitcase when I went to bootcamp. Used to read them at night on my bunk when my body was aching so bad I could hardly keep my eyes open. Didn’t matter, because I knew the stories. They kept me company when I felt alone and almost defeated, like maybe everyone was right and I didn’t belong in the army.” He paged through The Patriot carefully. “I thought about I-wan and how much he struggled, what he overcame, how desperately he loved his country and his family.” Closing the book, he set it down, fingering Of Mice and Men. “I thought about George and Lennie and the power of their friendship . . . of how fiercely they clung to their dream.” Steve continued to look down at the books, shaking his head, trying to find the right words. “Thank you,” he managed. “This is an amazing gift. I’ll treasure them.”

“I wish I could give you back all the things you lost.”

“I don’t need them. What you’ve given me. . . .” Steve looked around, his heart full. “I have a home. And the things in it are personal; they matter to me. Some because they remind me of the past, most because they are part of my present. But everything here matters. This apartment and what’s in it ground me to this world. I have a place, now.” Steve picked up his books and took them to one of his bookshelves, setting them different places until he found the exact right spot where he wanted to display his precious gifts. His chest was tight with emotion, making it difficult to breathe evenly.

Tony moved quietly behind him, sliding his hands around Steve’s waist, pressing his front against Steve’s back, cradling him quietly while he took a moment to gather himself. Steve took Tony’s hands and pressed them over his heart, holding them there so Tony could feel how hard it was beating. Ultimately, the knock on the door diffused the gravity of the moment.

Tony was very excited, dragging Steve back to the couch. Another small group of uniformed waiters entered, many of them the same as before, maybe some new faces, though Steve wasn’t sure because it was a whirlwind. A few set to work behind them, cleaning up the mess, while others set up a small table in front of Steve and Tony. Steve was glad the tray set down this time was smaller. He wasn’t sure where he was going to find room for whatever was under the silver lid, but he knew he would because he wouldn’t disappoint Tony. Turns out, there was no reason to worry. When the lid was lifted and its contents unveiled, Steve stared, stunned.

“Is that—? No. No way. It isn’t. Is it?” Steve blinked, staring again at the tall, old fashioned soda glasses containing a familiar chocolate drink with a huge, white foamy head. “Is that really a chocolate egg cream?”

“So I’m told,” Tony laughed. “You do realize there’s no egg or cream involved, right?”

“Of course.” Steve picked up the straw from the tray and dipped it into the foam, scooping and licking. “You need chocolate syrup, milk, and very cold seltzer water, but the glass has to be tilted at just the right angle when you add the seltzer or you won’t get the head.” As a kid, he’d watched with fascination when the soda jerks in the drugstore would squirt the nozzle into the glass perfectly, creating the chocolate concoction that was a favorite drink in his Brooklyn neighborhood. “How did you do this? It’s fresh. If this had come in a helicopter, it would have gone flat by now.”

“I bought a soda fountain, paid an old-timer from Brooklyn—who looks like a cross between Yoda’s mother and Ernest Borgnine after a hard night out—and I listened to his four hundred stories about the old days when he ran his soda counter, and how the making of an egg cream is an art form totally misunderstood by the whippersnappers of today who make them all wrong and have no business labeling them egg creams, as they’re clearly cheap knock-offs.” Steve burst into laughter, picturing the exchange. “Hey, stop laughing at me and drink this thing before it flattens or Ol’ George is going to flatten me. Apparently, letting an egg cream go flat is a sin inciting the souls of Brooklyn to gang up in collective outrage.”

Steve leaned over the table, and took a long drag from his straw, savoring the fizzy, chocolatey, creamy flavor as it slid down his throat. “Oh my gosh, this is amazing. Perfect.” He took another long sip before he dipped his straw to lick more foam off the top.

“Holyshit!” Tony exclaimed as he took a sip of his own. “Is this thing legal? It’s too good to be legal. That’s it. I’m locking Ol’ George the egg cream maker in the cellar so he can make these for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. He’s never leaving.”

Steve stuck his straw in Tony’s foam, then brought it to Tony’s lips. “Here. You have to drink it from the bottom and the top. It’s more fun.”

Tony licked the white fuzz from Steve’s straw, then grinned devilishly. “You better be careful about sticking things in my mouth. I’m tempted to pour this all over you and lick if off your chest.”

“Sounds pretty good, but then I’d have to tell Ol’ George you dumped his egg cream. You’re sure not spilling mine.” Steve picked up his glass, protectively cradling it to his chest as he leaned back on the couch. “You can lick me later though, if you want.” Steve felt awkward flirting, knowing he wasn’t in Tony’s league when it came to such things, but he was trying. In the meantime, he sucked his delicious drink through his straw contentedly.

“Deal.” Tony drank more of his own soda before standing.

“You’re not calling anyone else are you?” Steve couldn’t imagine what Tony would make come through the door next.

“Nope. You and me from here on out.”

“Good.”

Tony moved the table with his soda to the side and went over to the television. He picked up a DVD that hadn’t been there this morning. “Watch a movie with me?”

“Sure.” It was a simple request, but Steve was excited. They had watched movies in Tony’s private theater as well as in here and on the common floor, but never alone like a couple of sweeties. “What a great date.” Only Tony could turn something as traditional as dinner and movie into this unique, special experience.

“I bought a popcorn popper. It’s in the kitchen. Let me know when you’re ready and I’ll make us a batch. I already melted the butter. Just gotta warm it.”

“You’re cooking for me, too?” Steve asked, impressed.

“There are no limits to my talents.” After turning on the television and putting in the DVD, Tony turned off the music and blew out the candles on the table, lowering the lighting more. Steve finished his soda and got up to set his empty glass beside Tony’s before sitting in the center of the couch and pulling over the huge, cushioned ottoman. He patted the space beside him, happy when Tony joined him, scooching close as he put his feet up next to Steve’s. Tony kicked off his shoes, Steve doing the same. He took Tony’s hand in his, and they both slumped into the cushions as they waited in the darkened room for the movie to start. Tony’s socked foot inserted itself between Steve’s two, instigating a little naughty play, but then the movie began.

And Steve was riveted.

The movie was called Raiders of the Lost Ark. When he saw Steven Spielberg’s name appear on the screen during the opening credits, he was quick to point out, “The same guy who directed Jaws.” This movie didn’t look anything like Jaws, though. It opened in a jungle in South America in 1936. Steve was immediately curious about how a time period he had lived through would be depicted through modern eyes. “When was this made?”

“1981.”

“Wow. So this is an oldie by today’s standards, but it’s set in my time.”

“I think you’re going to find it’s timeless. A classic. You’re going to love it.”

Tony sounded certain. Steve hadn’t loved all the movies and television they had shown him, but for the most part, he found things interesting as a means to understand current culture. Movies provided a different perspective than history books, files, or informational websites. Raiders of the Lost Ark proved to be a lot more than interesting.

By the time Indiana Jones was running from the boulder, Steve was inching up on the couch, eyes fixated on the big screen. It reminded him of the movies they watched during the Saturday matinees when he was a kid, full of action and adventure that had you jumping in your seat. Steve was so engrossed, Tony didn’t bother to pause the film when he got up to make the popcorn. One minute Tony was beside him being a great sport about the way Steve was clutching his hand or arm, or gasping at an unexpected moment. The next, he was gone. Then he was back, passing a hot tub of buttery popcorn into Steve’s hands, which he munched without taking his eyes from the television.

The most unsettling part was when the evil Nazis’ faces melted off, too reminiscent of Steve’s experience with the Red Skull to be entertaining. He squirmed uncomfortably, looking away from the screen for a bit, only looking back through his fingers here and there.

“Need me to fast forward?” Tony asked.

Steve shook his head. “S’okay.” He got an eerie chill. It was uncanny, the similarities to Red Skull’s fate when he picked up the Tesseract. Tony’s hand held his tight, and then it was over, and Steve reminded himself it was a movie. It was a great movie and he’d had a wonderful time.

As they watched the end credits, accompanied by the rousing theme music, Steve turned to Tony. “That was awesome!”

“You got a little green there towards the end. Sorry. I should have thought about the connection.”

“No, really. It was great. If I avoided everything that reminded me of the past, I’d have to sit in a closet. What a fun movie. My favorite.”

“I’m glad. Next time, I’m picking something less intense, though. I was hoping for a little more cuddling, but I gotta admit, I had fun watching you watch it. You looked about ten years old, which probably makes me a pervert for getting such a kick out of it.”

“You are not.” Steve smiled. “I’m an old man, remember? And we don’t need a movie to cuddle.” He pulled Tony into his arms and leaned back into the cushions. Tony tangled his legs around Steve’s, his face pressing into Steve’s shoulder. “Better?”

“Much.”

“You sure know how to plan a date. I hope you don’t expect me to top this tomorrow.”

“Nah. I still have plenty of unused plans we can tap.”

“Right. Plans A through . . . H? No. J? K?”

Elemenopeee,” Tony laughed, kissing Steve’s neck.

“I wonder what Indiana Jones would make of this world if he woke up here, like I did.”

“Might have been a better sequel than the ones they made.”

“There are more of these?” Steve asked excitedly.

“Did I say that?”

“Oh, come on. You’re going to show them to me, right?”

“Not tonight, I’m not.”

“Tomorrow?”

Tony groaned. “Not a big fan of the second one, but yeah, I guess for you.”

“Well, how about the third one? Is there a third one?”

“Most people think the third one was good, though it’s got a lot of daddy issues, and I have plenty of my own. I’m not the best judge.”

Steve stroked his fingers through Tony’s hair, sensing his change in mood. He still had trouble reconciling the Howard Stark who was his friend with the father who had clearly damaged Tony. “I hate how much he hurt you.”

“I think I did a pretty good job screwing my own life up. Howard doesn’t get all the credit.”

“Did he drink a lot? I mean, he didn’t when I knew him, but from what I hear, things changed.”

Tony bristled against him. “Yeah, a habit he developed later in life, unlike his son who got the early jump. Truth is, I don’t think he was very happy. I used to think it was my fault. Like if I was a better son, he’d have been happier.”

“You can make yourself crazy thinking stuff like that,” Steve said dolefully, pushing away the unwanted memories. “Not worth it.”

Tony leaned back enough to look at him with scrutiny. “And the guy whose dad was a big war hero knows this how?”

“My dad wasn’t a hero.” Steve shifted uncomfortably. He wouldn’t lie to Tony, but he would have preferred not to mar their wonderful evening. Tony wasn’t one to let stuff go, though.

“Yet all the files on you state your dad died from an illness related to mustard gas exposure during World War I. Dying as a result of serving your country qualifies as—”

“I told you I lied on my enlistment papers.” Steve untangled their limbs and got up, busying himself cleaning stray popcorn kernels from the floor and dumping them into the bowl. “Can we go back to talking about the movie now?”

“Steve.” Tony’s voice was gentle. Steve glanced at him, caught off-guard by the depth of compassion in his eyes. He owed Tony the truth, but it was hard. He’d never talked about this with anyone, not even Bucky. He’d lived the lie so long, it had become his truth. Even his mother lived it as truth, Steve only finding out by accident, never allowed to talk about it after that day.

Steve sighed, putting down the popcorn bowl and sitting on the ottoman facing Tony. “My dad was a drunk,” he stated simply. “He got drafted when he was eighteen, which was only a few months before the war ended. He wasn’t much of a solider. He could never keep a job. To save face, my mother told people it was because of injuries from the war. Eventually, taking care of a wife and sickly kid became too much for him and he left altogether. She moved us to a different neighborhood; told people he died from being exposed to the gas in the war. Made her life easier I suppose, I mean, not having to deal with the shame. I only found out when she got sick. She used to get these fevers and sometimes she didn’t know what she was saying.” Thinking about his mother’s illness hit too many raw nerves, and Steve shivered. He hung his head. “I used to think maybe he might have stuck around longer if I hadn’t been such a burden, all the sickness and doctor bills and such. From the little she said, I know they fought about me. Maybe she wouldn’t have gotten so ill if he’d stayed. Things were hard on her, all alone.”

“It was not your fault,” Tony insisted vehemently, pulling Steve’s head into his chest and hugging him there. “He was a chicken-shit bastard, and you grew up to be a hero in spite of him.”

“I’m a liar.”

“Bullshit. Do you know how he died?”

“I have no idea.”

“So all you know is what your mom told you. That’s what you put on your damn enlistment papers. Case closed.”

Steve rested his cheek upon Tony’s thigh. Tony curled over him, his hand rubbing soothing circles upon Steve’s back as he kept Steve cocooned within his body. It felt nice. So nice. “You’re not mad at me?”

“Why in the hell would I be mad at you?”

“You told me you hate liars.”

“I seem to recall the night I told you that, you told me you lied on your enlistment papers.”

“Yeah, but I didn’t tell you the extent.”

“I didn’t ask. When I asked you tonight, you told me.”

Steve sighed. “Messing up this terrific evening you put together for me.”

“If you think talking to me and sharing yourself is messing up, then I’m the one who’s messed up here.” He kissed the back of Steve’s hair, his soft breath fluttering it. “I want to know you, Steve. I want to know whatever you’re willing to share with me.”

“Even if it’s everything?”

“That would be like winning the lottery on Christmas morning right before leaving on a two month trip to paradise in your brand new yacht stocked with egg creams.”

Steve laughed. “Sounds pretty good.”

Tony’s nose nuzzled against the nape of Steve’s neck. “You are extraordinary. Do you even see it? All the crap life threw at you, but it didn’t knock you down. You always stood up. You had every excuse to falter, and instead you chose to be this selfless, upstanding, man of honor. You are completely out of my league.”

Steve carefully extricated himself from the nest of Tony’s body, sitting up, facing him. “Don’t say that. Don’t think it. You are a man of honor, too. Whatever mistakes you’ve made don’t change that. In fact, I think they only made your character stronger. But if you don’t believe that, then believe how much I need you, because if you start talking about this ‘not good enough for me’ stuff and you try to leave me again, I don’t know what I’m going to do because I’m telling you right now, I can’t—”

Shhhh, easy. Take a breath.” Tony’s fingers squeezed his shoulders. “You’re talking faster than me. Not a good thing.” He touched his forehead to Steve’s. “I’m not going anywhere. You’re stuck with me, okay?”

Steve did try to breathe, realizing how clenched his chest was. He nodded, trying to lighten up. “Not stuck, but it’s very okay with me.”

“Good.” Tony leaned back and grinned at him, a smile bright enough to illuminate the dimly lit room. “Because we’re not even finished this date yet.”

“We’re not?”

“Hell, no.” He kissed the tip of Steve’s nose. “Now sit here and relax. Then meet me in the bedroom in five minutes, okay?”

Steve looked over Tony’s shoulder towards the hall, panic gripping him again. “You don’t have anybody hiding in there, do you? Because you said it was just going to be me and you, now. I don’t need any more waiters, or food, or presents.”

Lonnng, deep breaths,” Tony instructed calmly as he stood, ruffling Steve’s hair with his fingers. “You and me. I promise.” Bending to kiss Steve’s hair, he reminded, “Five minutes,” before slipping away towards the bedroom.

 

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“You’re early again,” Tony pointed out, amused. “I’m going to need to start factoring that variable into my plans.”

Steve stood stone-still in the doorway to his bedroom. Tony was probably right. He felt like he had been waiting an hour, but maybe only a few minutes had passed. Tony was finishing lighting the nearly dozen candles adorning the bedroom, painting it in flickering light. There was a brand new comforter on his bed, thick and puffy and Iron Man red. From what Steve could see, the sheets beneath the neatly made bed were new too—and looked like silk. “Oh, boy,” he muttered, taking everything in.

Tony put down the lighter when the last candle wick caught, moving to a keypad near the door Steve had never seen before. His fingers played over the buttons for a few seconds before soft music filled the room. “I wanted to have a hot tub installed,” Tony said teasingly, “but I figured it might be a little presumptuous since you like your apartment the way it is. Still,” he waved his hand with a flourish, taking in the room, “more romantic than the back of my limo, don’t you think? More date-appropriate, right?”

“The limo was great,” Steve said stupidly, unable to keep from grinning at the memory. “But this is really nice.”

“Glad you like it. And thanks, by the way.”

“For?”

“For giving me the okay to be in your apartment today. I’m trying hard to respect the whole your space in my tower thing. Didn’t want to just waltz in here, but outside of magic, I couldn’t figure another way to set this up for you without access. Oh, and your bedroom furniture looks great. Good choices. Very you.”

“Sorry you weren’t here to see it when it got delivered.”

“Me, too. But I’m here, now. Let’s make up for lost time.” Tony walked over to a small table, lifting an ornate bottle from a bucket of ice and working it open. “Don’t worry. It’s sparkling cider—albeit, very expensive sparkling cider—a choice, I’m relieved to say, I made long before I heard the ‘your dad was a drunk’ story or I’d feel like a real ass about now.”

“Tony, you don’t have to not drink because of me.”

“I’m not drinking because of me.” The liquid looked pretty as Tony poured it into the long-stemmed crystal glasses sitting beside the bucket. “I’m going to do this right with you, Steve.” He brought the glasses to where Steve was still rooted in the doorway, handing him one. “To our first full, knew-it-was-a-date-from-the-minute-it-started date,” he toasted. “Though the other stuff was spectacular, too, and totally counts.”

Steve clinked his glass. “Couldn’t agree more.” He took a sip, enjoying the sweet flavor and the bubbly tickle, but what he thirsted for wasn’t cider. Taking a breath, he downed the contents of the glass.

“Feeling dry?” Tony laughed.

“More like impatient. Finish.” He nodded towards Tony’s glass. “Please.”

Tony eyed him playfully. “You rushing me? Can’t you see I’m working my best romantic moves, here, Rogers?”

Steve shook his head, taking the glass from Tony’s hand. “Nope. Not even close.” He downed Tony’s drink as well before setting the now-empty glasses upon the dresser. “You have way better moves than this, Stark.” Steve’s hands went around his waist and he lifted Tony up until his feet were dangling off the floor. Tony’s hands flattened on his shoulders as Steve carried him to the bed, dumping him on his back across the new comforter.

“I thought you wanted to go slow.” Tony’s breath caught as he inched towards the head of the bed using his elbows and feet. Steve climbed over him on hands and knees.

“This is slow.” He pressed his mouth to Tony’s, kissing deep and hard. Balancing his weight on one hand, he used the other to squeeze Tony’s hip then press between his thighs, his palm coming to rest on the bulge forming beneath the black pants. Steve’s own pants were strangling him, cock filling quickly in the confined space. He kissed deeper still, hunger burning, not releasing Tony’s mouth until he became dizzy from lack of air. When he pulled back, Tony looked up at him, eyes soft, his finger tracing Steve’s mouth as they caught their breath. “This okay?” he asked, realizing he was being an oaf again, and had trampled Tony’s sweet seduction with his greedy lust.

“S’fine.”

“Tell me.”

Tony’s grin was lopsided and adorable. “Hoping maybe we’d get a chance to get naked this time.”

“I can fix that.” Steve bounded off the bed, yanking the jacket from his body before both feet hit the floor. He tossed it, hands moving to his belt, which he had open and whipping through the belt loops in less than a second, fingers already unbuttoning his fly.

“Whoa, tiger! Slow down.” Tony turned on his side, propping his head against his fist. “Let a guy savor.”

“Sorry,” Steve said, abashed. Slow down, stupid. You’re doing it again. Can’t you just once try to be smooth? Steve froze, suddenly uncertain what to do. Was he supposed to keep taking his clothes off, only slower? Or was he supposed to try and be sexy about it? Oh, yeah, that’ll be a riot. Maybe he was supposed to have waited for Tony to do it? “I’m a little stuck,” he admitted when he’d stood like a statue for an uncomfortable interval. “Could you, um, tell me what you want exactly?”

“Face the other way,” Tony directed decisively, no uncomfortable hesitation on his part. Steve did as he was asked, turning towards the wall, no longer facing Tony. “Now take off your shirt.”

Focusing on the warm glow of the candles, trying to ignore the burning gaze he felt at his back, Steve took hold of the hem of his tee shirt with both hands and drew it up his body until he had shrugged the shirt over his head. Balling it in his fists, he held on to the makeshift security blanket.

Mmm, s’nice. You have a great back.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t turn around. Lose the shirt. You’re going to need your hands to open your pants. Take your time.”

Steve practically had to pry the shirt from his clenching fingers. He wasn’t sure if he was aroused or terrified. Maybe both. He finally managed to open his fists enough for his tee shirt to fall to the floor. “Now?” he asked, wondering how much time he was expected to take. Tony’s response was more sound than word, but Steve took it for an affirmative. Modern jeans had buttons where a zipper should have been, and he had a little trouble navigating them with his unsteady fingers, especially with his cock stretching the crotch to near splitting. He hissed when he got his briefs tangled, pinching a couple of hairs painfully.

“You okay?”

Refusing to own up to what he’d done, he nodded. “I’m good.”

“You’re very good.” Tony’s voice was a caress and Steve actually shivered. Forcing himself to focus, he got the rest of the stubborn buttons undone. His cock practically sighed at the release of pressure. He tucked his thumbs into the waistband of his pants and got ready to pull them down, but Tony stopped him. “Not yet. Just leave them open. You can bend down and take off your socks first.” Steve was grateful for the reprieve. He lifted one leg in front of himself to grab his sock, but Tony spoke again. “No, not like that. Pick your foot up behind you. I want to see.”

This is what I get for trying to rush everything. Steve had never been comfortable performing on stage, and this felt reminiscent. It was awkward—no, he was awkward. Balancing on one leg, he bent his knee to bring his other foot up behind him, heel pointing up towards his buttocks. It felt silly, but he reached behind and yanked off one sock, making sure to count to ten before he put his foot down so he wouldn’t rush again. He repeated the process on the other foot, holding it up longer this time as he realized the pants had to be next.

“You’re doing great.” Tony paused, making the most incredibly indecent sounds. Steve tried not to listen too closely because they were only making his cock harder and, sooner or later, he was going to have to turn around. There’d be no hiding himself then. “Those jeans do justice to your fine ass,” Tony complimented, his voice husky. “But you can pull ‘em down now.”

Oh boy. The beads of sweat from Steve’s brow slid into his eyes. He had been the one who had asked Tony to tell him exactly what to do, but now he wasn’t sure he could follow through. He could fess up, certain Tony would let him off the hook, but he didn’t. He wanted to be naked with Tony. More than anything. The being watched part was the struggle—and the thrill. He blushed when he realized how much he was enjoying this.

I really do trust Tony.

He took hold of the waistband of the jeans, pulling until they had cleared his hips, stopping only when Tony said, “Wait.” He didn’t move, didn’t breathe, just waited. “Okay,” Tony encouraged breathlessly. “Go ahead.”

The pants were tight and Steve’s flesh was damp with perspiration, so it took a little doing to get them down his legs. When he’d wrestled them past his knees, he was able to let go, the pants dropping the rest of the way, pooling around his bare feet, leaving him only in his skivvies. His cock strained against the fabric of the fancy cotton knit briefs Clint had insisted he buy since his regular underwear would have bunched up beneath the snug jeans. Despite how self-conscious and bashful he had been during this little striptease, his cock hadn’t made any attempt to retreat. In fact, it had swollen more. Steve was grateful to be facing the wall, embarrassed by the way his cock was trying to escape from his drawers. He pressed his fist into it, hoping for control.

Fighting to get his shaking legs to maintain their balance, he lifted his right foot, stepping out of the pants and rebalancing before he got his left foot free. He realized the only thing he was hearing now was soft music and his own heavy breathing. “Tony?” he called out hesitantly.

“Yeah, oh yeah,” Tony moaned. “Right here.”

“Want me to finish?”

“I’m ‘bout finished,” Tony panted, the words followed by a strangled sound.

Steve gasped, nearly creaming himself at the realization. “Are you? Oh, gosh.”

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to . . . you’re just . . . too damn exquisite. Finish it. Please.”

Tony sounded tortured in the best possible way. Heat climbed Steve’s body, starting at his toes, working its way up, as if the candles were suddenly scalding his skin. He took a long, deep breath, shoring himself. Knotting his fingers into the sides of the underwear, he slowly peeled them down his legs, bearing himself to Tony.

“Oh, fuck me!” Tony cried out. “Holyfuckingshit!”

Chest heaving as he tried to get a decent breath, Steve cheated a glance over his shoulder. Tony was still on his side, but his head was no longer propped, his cheek now flat against his forearm, his other hand down the front of his pants. His body was writhing, his features straining blissfully. Steve took firm hold of the base of his own cock. It was aching, but he denied it release, too caught up in watching Tony’s. He was beautiful.

“Com’ere,” Tony beckoned. His throat sounded raw, and he was still shaking through the aftershocks. Steve couldn’t move, not one of his limbs responding to his command. What command? His brain was mush. It was difficult enough to breathe; to not tip over and crash to the floor. Tony should have been the one who couldn’t move after an explosion like that, but he was up and off the bed, one hand flattening against Steve’s bare ass as he came around in front of him and dropped to his knees.

“No, wait, Tony, you don’t—ohhhhh!

Whatever Steve had thought to say was gone, swallowed down Tony’s throat. Tony’s other hand landed on his ass as well, cupping him, pulling him forward. Steve barely made one thrust, and it was over. He wasn’t sure, but he wouldn’t have been surprised if someone told him he’d howled loud enough to be heard on the first floor of the tower. Tony swallowed most of his eruption, though some landed on his shirt when Tony stood to guide Steve towards the bed, his legs teetering.

Steve’s back hit the mattress, his feet still on the floor, Tony falling on top of him. After a long time-out for necessities like breathing, Tony finally declared, “I like this going slow thing.”

Steve laughed so hard, his side hurt. When he’d recovered enough to speak, he found the wherewithal to say, “Thought you wanted us naked? You’re not even naked yet.”

“That’s because you keep making me cream my pants like a thirteen-year-old.”

“Wasn’t my fault,” Steve defended, still having trouble breathing. “I only did what you told me to.”

Tony pulled himself up Steve’s chest, dragging his yucky wet pants and shirt against him as his face came into Steve’s line of sight. “Following orders, eh, soldier?”

Steve tried to think of a way to deny what he was feeling without actually lying, but what was the point? Did he really want to pretend with Tony? “Your orders,” he said shyly. “I think I like following those.”

Tony’s smile made battling the inhibition worthwhile. “Yeah?” He kissed Steve so sweetly, he felt like a cherished treasure.

Mmmhmm,” Steve answered against his lips.

“If we’re being that honest, then I guess I have to tell you I like the way you pick me up like a sack of potatoes and drop me wherever you want.”

Steve laughed at Tony’s wording even as the meaning hit him in a deep place. “Really? I thought I was being such an oaf.”

“You can manhandle me anytime you want, hot stuff,” Tony announced seductively, grinding himself against Steve. “And that’s an order.”

“To-neee,” Steve moaned helplessly, feeling his cock perk up at their naughty conversation.

“What?” Tony was all fake innocence as he dipped his head, his lips roaming Steve’s chest. And then what felt like teeth clamped around his left nipple and Steve nearly bucked them both off the bed with his reaction to the never-before-experienced sensation. “Okay, that was fun,” Tony announced, moving his head to capture the other nipple.

“Time out!” Steve cried after Tony had set fire to his right nipple. Making use of his license to manhandle, Steve heaved himself up from the bed, taking Tony with him. Tony clung to him as he walked towards the bathroom, nipping at Steve’s earlobe and neck.

“Where’re we going?” Tony asked, though he didn’t sound like he particularly cared.

“You’re a little rank, in case you hadn’t noticed, and you’ve gotten it all over me, too.”

Ohhh, a clean freak, huh?”

“More like an ‘I need a break’ freak.”

“You gonna wash me?”

“Not sure there would be much of a break in that plan.” He set Tony down carefully next to the shower stall and reached in to turn on the faucets. “You can go first.”

Tony gave a little bow and extended his hand towards the shower. “No, you first. I insist.”

Steve shrugged. “Okay.” He pulled back one of the glass doors and stepped inside the shower. He hadn’t even gotten his second leg fully inside when Tony was in there with him, clothes and all, blanketing himself around Steve and kissing any part he could get his lips on.

“Tony, what are you doing?”

“Seriously? You need a break? You’re like half my age in dog years.”

“You’re going to flood the bathroom.” The shower door was still wide open and the water was splashing off them and out of the stall. Tony reached back with his foot and kicked the sliding door shut.

“Happy now?”

Tony was soaked, his clothing clinging to his flesh, outlining every muscle. His hair was sopping and tousled, making it even darker; droplets of water clung to his eyelashes and mouth. The bright blue circle shining through his shirt enthralled Steve, like a beacon calling him home. Unfamiliar longings threatened to seize his heart and body, routing them beyond his control. He realized he was shaking, his hands unsteady as he attempted to set them carefully on Tony’s shoulders to separate them, needing the distance.

“I’m . . . I’m afraid,” he stammered clumsily. “Afraid I’m going to devour you. Like I could eat you alive if I let myself go.”

“It’s okay.” Tony wasn’t mad. His hands smoothed over Steve’s chest in a gentling caress. “We can try for slow again, if it’s what you want.”

“I don’t know what I want.” Steve was painfully confused. He felt more inept than when he was a hapless recruit. “I don’t know what I should want; what I shouldn’t want. It’s all jumbled up in there and—”

Tony quieted Steve’s anxious whining with his mouth. His kiss was wet and warm, managing to both calm and arouse simultaneously. Tony’s palms were flat against his chest, as if feeling for the exact moment the tension started to ease from Steve’s body before he released his mouth. As he drew back, Tony brought one hand up to tap Steve’s temple. “I need you to stop thinking so much. You know what you want.”

“But if I’m not careful—”

“What? You think I can’t handle you?” Tony’s grin was brash; his expression sexy enough to make Steve drool. “Trust me. I can handle you.”

All thoughts of a break flew out the shower stall. Steve’s fingers wrapped around Tony’s wrist. He yanked Tony’s arm around his shoulder, holding it there, pressing them closer as their mouths met. The water pounded upon them, sealing them tighter, steam rising, though whether from the heated water or their bodies, it was hard to tell. Tony’s free hand roamed Steve’s body; down his side, over his hip, eventually coming to land on his butt cheek. It was strange, being touched there, but it was a good strange. He liked it.

Whatever he managed to touch on Tony was draped in heavy, sodden cloth. The contrast between his nude flesh and Tony’s covered body was titillating, a secret he was eager to uncover, but a present he didn’t want to unwrap too quickly—except every other second when he longed to wildly tear it open. Compromising, he slid both hands under Tony’s shirt, palms grazing smooth back and strong shoulder blades. Tony pressed closer against him, responding to the touch. He squeezed Steve’s butt while the fingers of his other hand dug into Steve’s shoulder. Tony captured Steve’s tongue and dragged it into his mouth, sucking hungrily until Steve whimpered. Taking mercy, Tony let go, peppering Steve’s lips and chin with tiny kisses as Steve panted for breath, muttering, “I probably . . . don’t want to know . . . how you learned to kiss like that.”

Tony grabbed Steve’s chin tight enough to hurt. “I have never kissed like that.” Tony’s eyes were liquid fire, his body taut. “Nothing with you is like anything else, ever. Believe me.” It wasn’t a question or a request, but a demand. Steve’s practical side told him he was crazy to think he could be anything special to someone like Tony Stark, whose experiences probably had experiences. Yet his heart told him Tony wasn’t lying in an attempt to make him feel good. He was speaking the truth.

“I believe you,” Steve assured. Tony’s eyes scrutinized him, searching for untruth. When he didn’t find any, he pulled back, reaching down to the hem of his shirt to tug it upward. The material was weighted from the water, and Steve’s hands were tangled in there as well, so it took a minute. When he’d finally stripped it off, Tony flung the shirt up and over the shower door. It landed with a squishy splat on the bathroom tile. He took another step away from Steve, pressing his back to the wall as he looked down at himself before his gaze found Steve’s again.

“Ain’t exactly pretty, but it’s all yours.”

“Pretty? Is that what you think? That I don’t. . . .” Steve shook his head, trying to fathom the notion. Taking a deep breath, he spoke from his heart, hoping to be as patient and kind as Tony always was with him. “You are the handsomest man I’ve ever laid eyes on. I used to worry you were going to catch me staring at you and think I was a creepy nut.” Steve closed the distance between them, spitting water and blinking it from his eyes as he flattened his hand over the arc reactor. “And this? Oh, boy, you’re really going to think I’m an idiot, but I think it’s hot. Totally Tony; nobody else. Unique, like you.” Steve bent to trail kisses over the blue circle that represented Tony to him. “When we’re pressed together and I feel it; it’s like your heart comes through your chest to touch me. I feel empty when it moves away.” Steve pressed his cheek against the metal, shivering with excitement. He had only ever touched it with his hand or through clothing. This was much more intimate. “When you wear stuff that covers the light, I miss the glow.” Steve straightened, pressing his chest to Tony’s, experiencing the sensation on his bare skin for the first time; loving it. “I’m sure it’s gotta be hard for you, dealing with this. But don’t ever worry about it on my account. Your arc reactor is part of my Tony, and everything about my Tony is beautiful to me.” Tony was trembling against him. Or maybe I’m the one who’s trembling? Didn’t matter. He pressed his lips to Tony’s, whispering, “Want to look at you forever. You’re stunning. Gorgeous. You’re—”

Tony kissed any remaining words from Steve’s mouth, but he didn’t mind. Kissing Tony was better than anything, even egg creams. Tony was more fired up than before, his hands everywhere, groping, clutching, scratching. A few times he pulled himself up on Steve, wrapping his legs around his torso. Then he would let go and slide down again, grinding himself on Steve’s thigh, his cock, everywhere. It went on for an untold time until they both got frustrated with the barrier of Tony’s pants between them.

“Help me,” Tony was pleading, moving Steve’s hand to his crotch.

“Need to feel all of you,” Steve was moaning.

They both struggled with the fly, but everything was wet and stubborn. “Come on, Cap,” Tony demanded. “I am not coming in my pants again.”

“Darn right, you’re not.” Steve yanked the waistband far enough from Tony’s cock to keep from hurting anything important before he tore the pants in two, stripping them off Tony’s hips and legs.

“You know that’s the second pair of my pants you’ve destroyed,” Tony was teasing as he struggled to shimmy out of his boxers. “Not to mention my tie and shirts.”

“Tough.” Steve was more careful with the boxers, but in three seconds they were rags as well. “Maybe you should stay naked.”

“Plan has . . . possibilities.” Tony’s chest was heaving as he grabbed Steve’s cock with one hand and practically fused it to his own, which he was fisting with his other. “Sweetfuckingshit!”

Steve would have cried out too, if he could remember how. Instead, he fell back against the wall, gasping. Tony followed him, his mouth wild and greedy, devouring Steve’s. Tony was pumping him, then rubbing him against his own cock. It was beyond anything Steve could describe. His head was spinning, his breath was almost non-existent. He never wanted it to stop, but he needed something more. Tony had rubbed off against him in the limo and Steve had swallowed him down his throat against his front door; what he hadn’t done . . . what he had to do or he would die . . . was touch him. Communicating the desire to his hand took time, since his brain was short circuiting and his cock didn’t want to be disturbed, but finally he managed to get his arm between them, making an attempt at batting Tony’s hand away.

Tony ripped his mouth from Steve’s roughly. “I got, ya, babe. S’okay.”

Nooo,” Steve moaned, but after Tony pumped him a few more times, he forgot what he was arguing about.

“What do you need?” Tony’s mouth found his ear, whispering wickedly. “Harder? Faster? Tell me!”

What do I need? Steve’s brain echoed as his balls tightened and his cock leaked into Tony’s fist. Need . . . need . . . ohhh, oh yeah. “Touch you?” he managed, though he wasn’t sure he was speaking aloud.

“You wanna touch me, babe? Come on. Touch anything you want.” Tony let go of his own cock, taking possession of Steve’s wrist and drawing it between his legs. Steve opened his palm then closed it around Tony’s shaft, loving Tony’s strangled moan. He was so thick and long and sleek. His cock surged in Steve’s hand, fitting perfectly. Cradling Tony in his palm made Steve crazy, even crazier than the steady pumping on his own shaft.

Tony’s mouth was on his again, tearing what little breath he had from his lungs. He tried to match the rhythm Tony had going, but his hand was fumbling. He wondered how Tony could manage to be so coordinated, every single stroke sending Steve flying, his body begging for more. And then Steve was coming and he had to let go, afraid he’d break Tony as everything shook beyond his control. Both fists curled and slammed back into the tile as he thrust into Tony’s milking palm over and over and over. It grew dark. Water splashed steadily over his face and body, the blue light all he could distinguish beyond his closed lids.

“You’re okay,” Tony’s voice was soothing. “Come on, we’re gonna sit.”

Steve’s legs were buckling, but he refused to sit. Blindly, he reached for Tony. Bracing his back to the wall for support, he got his arm around Tony’s waist, turning him until Tony’s butt was flush against Steve’s depleted cock. He found Tony’s cock with his other hand, measuring its length with his fingers. Tony was still hard as the tile.

Tony’s head fell onto his shoulder as he surged in Steve’s hand. “You sure?” he asked, voice strained.

“I’m sure.” Steve mustered his strength, lifting Tony from the waist until his wet-socked feet were dangling beneath Steve’s knees. “Sure I want you to scream my name when I make you come.”

Steve gasped at the words coming out of his mouth. Luckily the shower water put out the fire before his blush burned the flesh from his face. Where that had come from, he didn’t know, but apparently it was a good thing to say because Tony shuddered, crying, “Oh, yeah!” Tony’s arms bent over his shoulders, grabbing the back of Steve’s head. He was trying to push forward into Steve’s hand, but the way Steve had him at the waist, he was having trouble moving his lower body. “Harder,” he demanded, when he couldn’t make it happen himself.

“No,” Steve said simply, slowing his caress, his hand sliding back and forth on Tony’s cock in an unhurried rhythm. For once he was going to make this good for Tony, not a crazed, rushed thing that happened after Steve had lost all semblance of control. Tony deserved better—though he didn’t exactly agree.

“Son of bitch.” He actually kicked Steve, yanking the hair he twisted between his fingers to urge him faster. Steve released his cock altogether, letting it hang, swollen and untouched, which only frustrated Tony more. “What are you doing!”

“You gonna be good?”

“I think I was pretty damn good to you a few minutes ago when I got you off so hot you almost passed out.” Tony struggled, kicking Steve’s shins with both feet this time. “Now you’re going to be a cocktease?”

Steve laughed. “Why? You don’t want your cock teased?” Ignoring the string of curses, he reached behind himself, finding the soap, rubbing his palm over it to get it lathered. Bringing his soapy hand to Tony, he wrapped it around his needy cock. Steve’s hand slid smoothly over the entire length. “Are you sure?”

Ooohhhmygawd, when did you become such a bastard? You know I’m going to get you back, right?”

“Yeah, I figured.” Steve gently squeezed Tony around the waist where he was holding him securely, kissing the part of his arm his lips could reach. “Right now, I want to make you feel good.” He cupped the very tip of Tony’s cock, fingers gliding over the head, wanting to learn every curve and ticklish spot. He cheated his thumb inside the slit, loving how Tony writhed against him.

Soaping up his hand again, he stroked slowly from base to tip, once, twice. He could feel Tony struggling to thrust, but he stretched his palm out to take hold of Tony’s hip and secure it while his forearm remained around his waist, limiting Tony’s movements. He was still able to kick, which he did for a while, but Steve easily endured, until the fight eventually went out of him. The flesh of Tony’s penis was sleek and hot and felt amazing against Steve’s hand. He measured length and width as he stroked, even weighing Tony’s balls and noting the thickness of his pubic hair, hungry to know every detail of his lover’s body.

Tony’s curses became more and more incoherent, until they were mostly moans and pants. His head lolled on Steve’s shoulder, his fingers still playing with Steve’s hair, though he was no longer yanking. Steve tried to remember every stroke he’d ever used to pleasure himself, trying them on Tony; some to arousing effect, others not as much; all of it providing knowledge he tucked into his mental file labeled Tony.

Gradually, he increased his rhythm and the pressure of his hand. Tony had given up trying to rush him, but he could tell his lover was grateful when things got more intense. Still, Steve held back, working him close to the crest, then slowly easing back, only to build to again. He kept his eyes closed, attuned fully to Tony’s body: his every twitch, strained breath, whimper, and quiver. Tony locked his feet around Steve’s calves, holding on, riding out each bit of pleasure until Steve could literally feel the shift when pleasure threatened to cross the line into discomfort. Steve took immediate action, switching tempo, curling his hand around Tony to provide a tight hot channel, and pumping him to the point of no return.

Tony did indeed scream Steve’s name when he climaxed. Actually, it was more like a cry. Tony shot so hard and so long, Steve thought his cock would come apart in his hand. Every muscle in his body strained until the last drop had sputtered out, then he went boneless, Steve’s arm the only thing keeping him from crashing to the floor in a heap.

Steve sank down to the tile still clutching Tony, his own legs grateful to finally be able to give out. He cradled Tony on his lap as the water rained over them, thinking absently how Tony must have one heck of a hot water heater installed because, thankfully, they weren’t being doused with icy spray yet. Still, they were going to prune and turn to fish if they didn’t get out soon, though it was a long while before Steve could muster the energy to do anything about it. Eventually, he managed to reach up and snag the washcloth and soap, running them soothingly all over Tony before trying to clean himself.

“You still with me?” he asked as he used his hand to gently wash off Tony’s face.

“I think so,” Tony answered without opening his eyes. “Might need that break now, though.”

“All those dog years catching up, huh?” Steve reached down, yanking the soaking socks from Tony’s feet. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you you’re not supposed to wear your socks in the shower?”

Tony’s laugh was soft. Steve leaned his head back on the wall, his own eyes closing for a bit. He must have dozed off, startling awake again when the water went away. He looked up, seeing Tony standing over him, his hand on the faucet. “Come on, Cap. Up and at ‘em.”

“How long was I sleeping?”

“Not sure. Wasn’t conscious.” He held up his hand, showing his wrinkled, water-logged fingers. “A while?”

Steve laughed, climbing to his feet as Tony exited the shower stall. “Were you thinking this might happen with us when you had this huge shower installed?” Steve asked.

“Thinking or hoping? They’re two different things.” He grabbed a towel off the rack and wrapped it around Steve’s hips, drawing him closer to kiss him lightly. “Mostly, I wanted you to be comfortable. But I’m not sorry it’s big enough for two in there.”

“I’m not sorry either.” He reached for another towel and rubbed it gently over Tony’s head, drying his face and hair. “And I'm real glad you got me a bed big enough for both of us.”

“Bed,” Tony moaned tiredly. “Bed sounds great.”

They managed to get mostly dry, each taking a turn at the toilet before stumbling to the bedroom. The candles had burned halfway down, but they still glowed prettily. Tony dragged back the comforter, revealing the red satin sheets. “Don’t even think about sleeping on the couch again.”

“Not a chance.” Steve climbed in the bed, the expensive sheets caressing his bare flesh almost obscenely.

“You have a side?” Tony asked as he got in as well.

“A what?”

“A side of the bed. A preference.”

“Oh, I don’t care. I never had such a big bed before. I mostly get in the middle.”

“Middle’s good.” Tony slid to the center of the bed, stretching out on his back and opening his arms. “Come’ere.”

Steve smiled, lying down on his side against Tony, pressing his cheek to the arc reactor as he pillowed his head on Tony’s chest. Tony’s arm came around him, fingers playing lazily through his hair. “This is nice,” Steve whispered, overwhelmed by how content he felt.

“I plan to do more than sleep in this bed. Just need a little rest. Then we’ll christen it, okay?”

“Sure.” Steve was glad Tony couldn’t see how stupidly he was grinning.

“Hey, Steve?” Tony said around a yawn. “Remember last night? Or two nights ago if today is tomorrow. What the hell time is it anyway? Doesn’t matter. In the Douglaston Manor. When we were having dinner.”

“Ye-ah?” Steve wasn’t sure what the question was anymore, his eyes falling closed against the comforting blue light.

“You said you didn’t need perfect. You just needed someone who wanted you back—only you. I thought you should know you’ve had that since pretty much the minute I met you.” Tony yawned again, his voice growing distant in Steve’s ear. “N’case you were wondering.”

“S’nice,” Steve thought he replied. Or maybe he dreamed it.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

It was still dark outside when Steve regained consciousness. His first awareness was Tony. His second was I’m starving. Despite the complaints of his stomach, he was reluctant to move. Tony’s body had turned slightly in sleep and Steve must have slid off his chest, because his face was now tucked into Tony’s armpit. Tony’s fingers were lax, but still close to Steve’s hair. He likes my hair, Steve thought dreamily, thinking of how often Tony petted him there, a sensation he’d grown very fond of.

Waking up beside Tony was like nothing, ever. Steve had never slept with anybody. Not really. Not in the intimate sense. In the orphanage, he was forced to share a bed at night with kids who beat him up in the daytime, but that didn’t count. Huddling for warmth with other soldiers in a foxhole wasn’t the same either. He thought about the one other time he had ‘slept’ with Tony. At least this time I didn’t wake up with a bloody nose. He wouldn’t have minded; would have been worth it, but thankfully it wasn’t the case. He could feel how peacefully Tony was sleeping now, which gratified him. He would do anything to make Tony happy.

He closed his eyes, trying to order himself back to sleep. He couldn’t remember such a sense of comfort before, and he sure didn’t want to disturb Tony. Problem was, his stomach decided to gripe more audibly. Worried the uncivil sounds would wake Tony, Steve tried to quietly dislodge himself from under Tony’s arm. He didn’t get far.

“Wher’y’goin’?” Tony asked sleepily as the bed dipped.

“Go back to sleep,” Steve said softly, kissing Tony’s forehead. “I’m hungry.”

“Didn’t you eat, like, two dozen hot dogs?”

“Hours ago,” Steve laughed, spying the clock. Almost 0300. “In case you don’t remember, you helped me work a lot of that off.”

“Oh, I remember.” Tony smiled before he fully opened his eyes. Untangling from the sheets, he started to sit up. “We can go upstairs. I’ll have the chef—”

“No!” The protest came out a lot louder and harsher than Steve had intended. He tried to quiet the panic at the idea of letting in the outside world.

Ohhh-kay.” Tony’s expression was quizzical.

“I mean, I have food. In the kitchen. I’ll go make a sandwich.”

“I’m on it.” Tony got fully out of bed in all his naked glory. Steve couldn’t speak, only gawk. “Anything in particular or just dump the contents of your fridge on two pieces of bread?”

“Yeah,” Steve answered, sounding like a half-wit. “Anything is fine.”

“You’re looking at my ass, aren’t you?” Tony asked cockily as he walked towards the dresser.

“Yes.”

“Good.”

Tony grabbed what looked like a shirt from Steve’s drawer, then left the room, heading into the bathroom. Steve missed him the minute he was gone. He looked around, wondering what he was supposed to do. The candles were down to near stubs, but they were still burning. He hadn’t noticed before, but the music was still playing. As he rubbed his hand over the satiny sheets, he thought about what a nice job Tony had done of turning the room into a romantic retreat. And then we went and spent most of the evening in the shower. Steve smiled at the memory. He had no regrets and was pretty sure Tony didn’t either. Besides, Tony said we would christen the bed later. Steve wasn’t sure what that meant, but he liked the sound of it. They hadn’t actually made love in a bed yet, which had to be unconventional even by today’s standards.

When he heard Tony exit the bathroom, he got up and went in himself, looking around at the mess. Tony had added to the chaotic condition they had left it in, taking a new toothbrush from under the sink and throwing the box and wrapper on the floor, along with another towel. The cap was off the toothpaste and there were squirts all over the sink top. Steve was so stinking happy to see Tony’s toothbrush sitting in the cup next to his, he didn’t care. He didn’t mind tidying up either, as he liked to clean, and it gave him something to do for a few minutes.

When he was done, Tony was still in the kitchen, so he joined him there. Tony had several sandwiches made, a fresh-popped bowl of popcorn, and about half a dozen bottles of water lined up on the counter. “You don’t have a decent serving tray,” he complained as he jerked the cabinets open and closed. “Have to do something about that.”

“We could eat in here.” Steve’s kitchen chairs hadn’t come yet, but they could stand. “Or in the living room. The table you had set up last night is still there. Or I could bring those chairs in here.”

Tony started picking up the waters one by one and handing them to Steve. “Just help me carry. The idea was to serve you in bed, but the no serving tray thing hampers the plan.”

Eating in bed was uncouth according to Steve’s mom, something he’d never done, but he wasn’t going to spoil Tony’s efforts. “Okay.” He began tucking water bottles under his arms until he had them all, then grabbed three sandwich plates, leaving one plate, the popcorn, and napkins for Tony. As they walked down the hall, he noticed Tony was wearing one of his black sleeveless tee shirts, but nothing else. The look was adorable, though Steve worried about the reason. “You still feeling self-conscious about your arc reactor?”

“Just not accustomed to walking around topless, especially next to Captain Adonis.”

Steve frowned as they entered the bedroom. “Tony—”

“I’m okay,” he assured, and he did sound okay. He set the things he was carrying on top of the comforter. “Let me get used to this, all right? No worries.”

“I understand.” Steve set his plates down, then the waters, tossing one to Tony before opening his own. He was dry as the desert. “Honestly, I feel a little strange walking around with nothing on. I can throw on a shirt too, and some sweats.” Steve finished the contents of the bottle with ease, setting the empty aside. Tony put his down without drinking.

“Are you kidding? You are not covering my eye candy.” When Steve’s hands were free, Tony went to him, flattening his palms against his chest and covering it with kisses, leaving a trail of warmth wherever his lips passed.

“Can I please eat a sandwich before you eat your candy?” As if on cue, Steve’s stomach chimed in with a loud gurgle, making Tony laugh.

“I’m not sure. If I don’t feed you, will you get weak and helpless and be at my mercy?”

“I’m pretty much at your mercy the second you touch me.”

“Works for me.” Tony kissed him sweetly then climbed onto the bed, patting the mattress beside him. “Come and eat.”

Steve let out a grateful sigh, sitting beside Tony. It was odd eating in bed, especially naked. Steve ended up putting a pillow over his lap, feeling uncomfortable looking at his own dick and balls while he chewed. Tony didn’t complain, eating one sandwich and downing several waters before lying back against the pillows to watch Steve devour the rest. Whatever uneasiness Tony had about his chest clearly didn’t extend to the rest of his body. His legs were splayed, cock resting soft and proud against his thigh as his fingers brushed the shirt material up over his stomach, playing absently along his skin. Steve had to look away in order to resist the urge to eat Tony rather than the food. They talked here and there, nothing of much importance, just comfortable chatter.

“You don’t eat as much as Thor,” Tony pointed out in his researcher voice after Steve had consumed most of his meal. “Though there are times you can really pack it away. Other times, like when you were in the hospital with Phil, you didn’t eat as much.”

“For the most part, it’s proportional to what I expend. Like how you have to fill your car with gas more if you drive a lot. But I can also do without for long periods if I have to, a necessity in battle. Wasn’t like I could stop at the nearest mess tent outside a HYDRA base, and they sure didn’t pack a lot of rations.”

“Interesting. How long can you go like that?”

“I’m not sure. So far, as long as I’ve had to. But when I don’t have enough food or sleep, I can feel it.”

“Like a car not running on all cylinders?”

“From what I know about today’s cars, yes, I think that’s accurate. Everything inside kicks up to compensate when I’m low on something, but it drains me. Probably why I heal slower when we’re involved in a situation as intense as The Battle of New York.”

“Yeah, you did look as ragged as the rest of us there at the end.”

“I didn’t look as bad as you did when you fell from the sky.” Steve paused mid-bite, a shiver running through him.

“That’s what I get for trying to be a hero for you.”

“For me?”

“Pretty much. Wanted to be who you thought I could be. ‘Lo and behold, turned out you were right. There was more to me.”

Steve smiled, looking him straight in the eye. “Glad you realized it.”

“So back to you. What about sex?”

Steve nearly spit out the mouthful of water he had just sipped, thrown by the non-sequitur. “What about sex?” he repeated, unsure what he was being asked.

“Is that why you’re so hungry now? Is it why you got so tired in the shower?”

Swallowing careful, Steve admitted, “Not sure. It’s an untested theory.”

“What do you mean? Are we talking about your recovery time or the total outlay?”

Steve figured Tony didn’t want to know how much he resembled his dad right now, eyes dark with keen interest, his mind clearly going a mile a minute, coming up with endless questions to figure out what made Steve tick. “It wasn’t exactly something Dr. Erskine tested me for. And since the serum . . . well, I don’t know.”

“Certainly you’ve ejaculated since the serum.”

Steve squirmed, looking down at his plate, picking at the remains of his food. “Of course. But you were talking about . . . sex . . . not ejaculating. Like for you. Isn’t it different? How you feel alone in your bed with your hand, compared to how you are when, I don’t know, not alone?”

“Yeah,” Tony nodded, more wheels turning. “So, when you’re with me, does it feel more?”

“Of course.”

“Is there an emotional factor? Do the emotions increase the energy drain?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Steve stammered. He really hadn’t had time to consider any of this.

“The last time in the shower, when you came so hard—”

“Can we talk about something else?”

“Are you kidding? This is fascinating.”

“For you, maybe.” Steve stood up, clearing empty plates from the bed. He could feel his heartbeat increasing uncomfortably, which made no sense because he wasn’t doing anything.

“Okay, we’ll come at it from a different angle.” Tony was up on his knees, twisting the pillow excitedly. “After what you did to me in there, I couldn’t have gotten wood again in that moment if you had threatened to cut my cock off if I didn’t. I mean, I was d-o-n-e. Did you feel like that?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Dissecting something beautiful in such analytical terms was jarring. Steve struggled to take a deep breath and calm down, feeling himself growing too uncomfortable with the conversation.

“But you’re not sure? Those reserves you have when your other cylinders aren’t working? I mean, you sure kicked it up another gear to find the energy to send me through the ceiling.”

“Because I wanted to make you feel good!” Steve defended, though he wasn’t sure why he felt attacked. He went to move the popcorn bowl, but his hands were shaking and he dropped it, kernels spilling across the floor. “Oh, great!”

“It’s okay,” Tony assured, getting off the bed. “I’ll help you.” Tony started to pick up the bowl, but Steve snatched it from his hand. He was feeling prickly and defensive.

“Leave me alone. I’ll do it myself.” He got down on his knees, trying to focus on the kernels and not on the tightness in his chest or the way his head was spinning.

“Hey.” Steve shrugged off the hand Tony tried to put on his shoulder, not wanting to be touched. Tony’s voice softened. “Steve, babe, what’s going on?”

Steve could feel he was clutching the bowl too tightly, only seconds from shattering it. He let go, standing up, trying to get a breath, but his head was spinning with rage at himself. Why was he letting this get to him? Why was he ruining everything? Struggling again to take air into lungs that felt suddenly too small, he exploded. “Am I not enough of a freak being a living fossil, and the world’s oldest virgin? Does the rest of my sexual ability have to go under the microscope, too? I guess I did everything wrong. Big surprise.”

“Oh, crap, that’s what you’re hearing?” Tony sounded horrified. “I am a total jackass.”

“I’m sorry, Tony. I wish . . . wish I could be normal for you. Having sex with me m-must . . . must b-be like being in a sideshow.” Trembling with shame, he pounded on his chest, trying to get his heartbeat to stop drumming. He headed towards the door, panting. He needed out. Needed air. Needed something to make this stop.

“No!” Tony actually jumped on his back, clutching Steve’s shoulders, clinging to him. “If you leave, I’m going with you, so you might as well stay and talk to me.”

“Can’t.” He shook his head. Tony sounded upset and Steve knew he was the cause, but he didn’t know how to stop. His chest grew tighter, and talking felt far too challenging. Breathing was enough effort. He felt like he was strangling.

“Steve, I need you to sit down.” Tony’s voice was forceful. “Sit, now.”

Tony slid from his back and took his arm, guiding him towards the bed, which was good because Steve wasn’t sure he would have found it otherwise. He sat stiffly, fear gripping him. He hadn’t had this much trouble breathing since the asthma days. This wasn’t right. It shouldn’t be happening. Tony stood in front of him between his knees, one hand going to Steve’s chest, the other on his wrist. He was asking JARVIS something about pulse and heart rate. Steve couldn’t figure out how JARVIS would know anything about his body, but he didn’t really care at the moment. He needed to breathe.

Focus, Rogers. Breathe.

“You’re doing good,” Tony was telling him, but how could that be true? He looked up, finding Tony’s eyes, seeing the distress he was trying to mask with his calm words.

“W-wha? Wh-y?” Steve was trying to form full questions, but not succeeding. Somehow, Tony understood him.

“I think you’re hyperventilating.” Confused, Steve furrowed his brow, and Tony went on to explain. “It’s a fancy word for over-breathing. Feels scary, but you’re safe.” Tony’s fingers started to comb gently through his hair. “I know exactly how you’re feeling. I’ve been there. It’s gotta be even more bizarre for you since you’re used to being all super and shit, but I don’t think serum fixes emotional overloads. I need you to trust me. This will pass. Let’s relax as much as you can and focus on breathing. Just breathing.”

Steve was trying to do what Tony said, but the uncontrolled feeling of panic was making breathing harder. Something had to be very wrong with him if he was breathing like this. But Tony said this has happened to him. What does he mean? “Why . . . can’t. . . .”

Shhhh,” Tony soothed, “Don’t talk. Breathe. In and out. Nice and slow. No worries. Your oxygen and carbon dioxide intakes are going a little fluky, but it will stop.” Tony kept talking, slow and steadily, keeping constant contact with Steve’s body. “I doubt they had panic attacks in your day, or if they did, they didn’t call them that. We have them a lot nowadays." Steve had a brief recollection of times his mother would insist he calm down because he was overexcited and couldn’t breathe. But how could that be happening now? He wasn’t supposed to be like that anymore. "What you have to do is stay calm, take things nice and slow. I bet when you were a kid and would get sick, your mom would want you to relax and stay quiet, right? ” Tony leaned over him, kissing his head where he was still stroking. His fingers felt nice. He took Steve’s hand and tucked it under his shirt, over his own abdomen. “I want you to try and breathe like this for me, okay?” Tony was taking long, slow, deep breaths. Steve could feel them. He did his best to emulate the rhythm.

“You’re doing so good,” Tony encouraged. “You are an amazing man. You’re not a freak. You haven’t done anything wrong. I picked a moment when your emotional defenses were probably more unguarded than they’ve ever been to start my analytical bullshit. I wasn’t thinking. You know me. My brain goes a mile a minute, yet I can simultaneously manage to not be thinking.”

Steve was shaking his head, clutching at Tony’s abdomen. “No. Not you.” Being able to form coherent words bolstered him, some of the panic ebbing.

“You’re breathing, I’m talking, remember?” Tony’s fingers petted him more slowly. “You misunderstood me, which was my fault. I sure didn’t mean to make you feel like a lab rat. There is absolutely nothing wrong with how you make love. Quite the contrary, my sexy sweetheart.” Tony was feathering kisses on his forehead in between words. “You’re right about one thing, though. You’re not normal.” He moved Steve’s hand from his abdomen to his arc reactor, tapping it with their joined fingers. “And this shit sure as hell isn’t normal, either. What the fuck is normal? I’m the wrong guy to define normal. What I do know, is you are extraordinary, which is so far ahead of normal in the polls, the race has already been called.”

Steve managed to smile at Tony’s unique manner of expression. Listening to his voice was calming the clamor in Steve’s head. He closed his eyes, continuing to try and match his breathing to Tony’s. He was trying to quiet the inner turmoil enough to hear what Tony was saying to him. “You, too. Extraordinary.”

“Guess that’s one word for me.” Tony threw one leg over Steve’s right thigh, straddling it as he sat down. He took Steve’s hand from under his shirt and kissed the palm then placed it on his own cheek. “Steve, to say I’m inquisitive is an understatement. I think when I was in the womb, I was drawing up blueprints to see if I could figure out a better escape route. So, yes, it’s in my DNA to be curious about you and what makes you tick. My timing could use a lot of work. In fairness, though, you did tell me you wanted to share everything. You gotta be careful telling a guy like me something like that.” He put his hand on Steve’s chest, letting it rest there until Steve took a few good breaths. “That’s great. Good job. Keep breathing.” Tony touched his forehead to Steve’s, voice lowering to something more vulnerable. “Enough babbling with my justifications. Let me be honest. Your sexual ability wasn’t what worried me. It was mine.”

The statement made no sense. Steve wondered if he had heard right, thinking maybe he was spinning out of control again. But his heart was slowing and his breathing, while still fast, no longer felt choked. He drew his head back to look at Tony, concentrating enough to make a complete sentence. “What are you . . . talking about?”

“Think about it. Without even integrating all the serum sci-fi, you’re operating inside a twenty-four-year-old body—one that’s never gotten out to the fair before and is real anxious to get on all the rides. Despite working with a model almost twice as old, I’m cocky enough to believe I can handle you. I just don’t know what else I’m going to need to factor in to the equation to insure I can keep you fully satisfied.”

This is what you’re worried about?”

Tony shrugged. “You have your anxieties, I have mine.”

Steve took a few more breaths, wanting to be sure he could finish his sentence once he started. “Not everything can be planned, you know. Plans are great, but. . . .” Steve shook his head, realizing who he was dealing with. “Forget it. You analyze whatever you need to. Just remember, you’re a genius. You’ll figure things out.”

“What I need to figure out is how to not upset you like this again. I’m sorry.” Tony’s remorse was apparent in eyes. He reached up to brush Steve’s hair back off his face. “I’m good at finding ways to screw things up.”

“We’re not screwed up. We’re figuring each other out. That’s gotta be normal, right?”

Tony smiled. “You’re right.” He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, shaking his head. “How the hell are you this amazing?”

“Amazing? You don’t want to rethink your word choice after how nutty I just got?”

“Nope. Only makes you more amazing.” He wrapped his arms around Steve’s neck, leaning his head in to nibble an earlobe. “Want to hear a theory?”

Steve laughed. “Now you have a theory?”

“I plan to come up with lots of theories about you and test every damn one of them.” He pulled back, looking carefully at Steve. “Sexual innuendo, meant strictly to be hot. You’re not under a microscope.”

“Got’cha.” Steve was a lot more relaxed. “It was hot.”

“Good.” He trailed a line of kisses down Steve’s throat. “So, back to my theory.”

Hmmm?” Steve asked, tilting his head back under the warm mouth making his heart flutter in the good way.

“I think I might be your sweet spot. I get to you in a way even your super serum is defenseless against.” Tony’s palms flattened over his nipples, and for a moment Steve thought he had on his Iron Man gloves with the repulsor palms, the shock was so strong. “Like how they built the Death Star, this huge, impenetrable space station, but a small, very motivated ship could slip inside and shatter it to shit.” Steve was trying to make sense of the words, but Tony’s fingers were toying with his nipples, causing his body to writhe and his brain to scramble. “Want to know what else?”

“Else?”

Tony let go of his right nipple long enough to wrap his fingers around Steve’s wrist. He set Steve’s hand on his lap, enabling him to feel Tony’s swelling erection. “Feel that?” Tony was whispering in his ear, grinding himself onto Steve’s leg as he went back to his nipple play. “Shouldn’t be possible, but you’ve got me hard again already. I don’t know what I’m capable of when I’m with you any more than you know what you’re capable of with me.”

“M-maybe we have to study you, too,” Steve managed to say as he wrapped his hand fully around Tony’s cock. His own cock was interested, but hadn’t quite matched Tony’s achievement yet.

“Maybe we should relax and enjoy each other. I mean, really, Steve, do you have to be so analytical?”

Steve laughed, utterly delighted by this complex, incomparable rascal of a man who he was lucky enough to have on his lap. “I’ll do better,” he responded, bringing his other hand around Tony’s waist.

“First, scoot back for me. We are doing it in the bed this time. I went to a lot of trouble putting these sheets on. Do you know when the last time was I made up a bed?”

How Tony could spew so many words without losing focus on the fire he was igniting in Steve’s nipples was something he couldn’t fathom. “Never?” he guessed, bringing his arms behind himself to push back on the bed. Tony managed to stay wrapped around his thigh as Steve moved to the center of the mattress. Tony’s hand landed next to Steve’s head, propping himself as he hovered over Steve, still languidly rubbing his cock against his thigh.

“I don’t know if I’d say never. Maybe hardly ever?”

“Well, I’m honored you did all this for me.”

“I want to do a lot of things for you.” Tony climbed flat atop him, clasping Steve’s fingers with his own and encouraging him to raise his arms over his head. He stretched them out straight, fingertips touching the edges of the pillows. Tony’s kiss was warm and unhurried, giving Steve the sense he was being careful, making sure Steve was able to breathe okay around it. He’s still worried about me. Tony had covered his own fear with a steady, calming presence Steve had desperately needed when he was unraveling, but a few times Steve noted how Tony’s hands shook as he touched him.

“You’re very good to me,” he whispered reassuringly as Tony’s lips alternated between his mouth, chin, and neck. “And I’m okay.”

“S’nice,” Tony murmured indulgently, apparently not buying it. “Close your eyes,” he encouraged as he kissed over both lids. “Your job is to relax.”

Steve nestled into the satiny luxury of the sheets, doing as he was asked. “What’s your job?”

Tony’s response was a satisfied laugh as he slid off Steve’s body. The dip of the mattress told Steve that Tony was crawling toward the head of the bed. His knees moved close to Steve’s head as he fitted himself between Steve’s outstretched arms. Fingertips combed through his hair before massaging his scalp. It felt wonderful. He moved his arms, trying to touch Tony, but Tony snagged his wrists, kissing each one in turn before laying them back against the mattress. “Relaxing,” Tony reminded, his fingers feathering over Steve’s wrists, gliding down the underside of his forearms and upper arms before drawing circles in his sparse armpit hair. Steve moaned at the unexpected sensation, his upper body shivering. Tony didn’t miss the reaction, the tips of his fingers dipping into the hollow of Steve’s underarms again, moving slower this time. Tony was barely touching him, and yet every nerve-ending felt alive, straining towards the petting fingers. It tickled, not unpleasantly, but warmly, making him tingly and a little dizzy.

“You like that?” Tony asked, though the tone of his voice assured he knew the answer. Tony was watching him; he didn’t need to open his eyes to know. The burn from Tony’s gaze heated his flesh. He squirmed, starting to feel self-conscious, realizing he was stretched scandalously across the bed, naked, like a bawdy pin-up girl posing for a portrait. He hadn’t realized his brow had furrowed until Tony’s fingers smoothed there. Tony’s other hand continued to tease and tickle his armpit, distracting him, though he still wanted to yank the edge of the comforter over himself to hide the shameful preening.

“Tony?” He started to open his eyes, but Tony’s hand came over them, covering.

Shhhh. You’re okay. I’ve got you.”

“I feel . . . funny.”

“A good funny or a bad funny?” Tony asked, his tone patient.

“Oh? Um?” Steve considered the unexpected question. There was nothing bad. Tony’s fingers were bewitching. Wherever they landed, pleasure followed. The problem was more about his inhibitions than anything Tony was doing. Was he going to allow his outdated modesty to deprive him of things he longed to experience? “I think good. I just. . . .” Just what? What is wrong with me?

Tony was smoothing his brow again. “This doesn’t feel like relaxing. Going slow gives you too much time to think and worry. But we’re going to make this work. We need one small modification.” The bed shifted and Tony was climbing off.

“No,” Steve complained. He hadn’t meant for Tony to stop.

“No moving. Stay exactly how you are.”

Steve didn’t move, but he did peek, since Tony didn’t say he had to keep his eyes closed. He watched him dart around the room, blowing out each remaining candle. Without the flame-light, it was nearly impossible for Steve to see him, but he heard him crash into the closet door. “Owww,” Tony complained. Cursing, he yanked off the dark shirt, the blue glow from his chest quickly illuminating the area enough for him to see what he was looking for in the closet. He came back to the bed holding one of the neatly folded sheets Steve kept on the shelf in the left-most corner. Like a magician, Tony shook out the sheet with a flourish, then draped it over Steve’s body. Steve was immediately grateful for the dimmer lighting and the camouflage, though he hated putting Tony to such trouble.

“I could have gotten under the blanket.”

“Would have involved moving to untangle. Moving is not relaxing. Try to keep up with the program, here, Rogers.” Steve grinned as Tony climbed back into the exact same spot, his fingers tracing the contours of Steve’s armpits as he leaned forward to kiss him on the forehead. “Better?”

“Thank you.”

“I live to serve. Close your eyes again.” Steve received another kiss when he complied. He took a long, deep breath to show Tony he could, the effort relaxing his body more. He felt as though he were melting into the mattress. The first night he slept on it, Steve knew Tony had gotten him the most comfortable bed in the world, but right now it felt doubly so. Even more pleasant were Tony’s touches. They remained unhurried, light, tender. Steve wasn’t certain if it was the residual effect of his bout with what Tony called hyperventilating, or fatigue from their earlier, exhilarating lovemaking, but Steve’s body was reacting differently to Tony’s caresses. Each graze of fingertips, palms, or lips aroused him, making his flesh warm with delight, but they didn’t inspire a frantic urgency to eat Tony alive.

He kept his eyes closed, feeling rather than seeing, where Tony’s touch would light next. Tony returned often to sensitive spots like his armpits and nipples—and even his navel, which Steve was surprised and abashed to find was hyper-reactive to Tony’s finger—but in between, Tony massaged his shoulders and temples, played with his hair, kissed down his neck and chest, and repeatedly stroked the length of both arms, sucking his fingers and licking the center of each palm. Steve drifted back and forth between quivering arousal and drowsy relaxation, dozing off once or twice, though not for long.

After a time, Tony changed position, coming up against Steve’s side, smoothly cheating the sheet lower and lower as he kissed over abdomen, ribs, hips and upper thighs. By the time he discarded the sheet altogether, Steve was no longer fretting about modesty, too busy enjoying the ripples of pleasure traveling through him. Tony’s hands, so capable of building and creating, could undo just as easily. Steve was surprised, though not bothered, when Tony left his half-hard cock alone and instead mapped his way down Steve’s legs with his lips and hands. At this point, anything Tony touched was responsive, teaching Steve quite a bit about his body’s appetites.

Inner and outer thighs, knees, calves, feet, toes; Tony paid equal attention to all. Steve basked in the generosity of his doting lover. He would have felt guilty for taking selfishly except Tony sounded like he was enjoying this as much as Steve. His whispers, purrs, and hot, heavy breaths made sweeter music than the tunes playing in the background. Steve loved listening to him, knowing he was the one making Tony sound like that. To be the object of Tony Stark’s focused attention was better than anything Steve could have ever dreamed possible. In fact, occasionally he thought he was dreaming, though he didn’t dare open his eyes for fear it would end.

When Tony did eventually make his way back up from Steve’s feet—after lingering there a long time, massaging until Steve was nearly boneless—his hands and knees straddled Steve as he inched over him, pressing their chests together, his thick, leaking cock dipping between Steve’s thighs. “You can open your eyes, baby,” he whispered, kissing Steve’s lax mouth.

Baby.

The word stole the breath from his lungs. Steve needed to blink several times to focus, the effort worthwhile as Tony’s handsome, flushed, soft blue bathed features came into sight.

“You look amazing,” he murmured.

“And you look relaxed.” Tony was clearly proud of himself, which only made him more stunning.

“You are really good at that,” Steve admitted, appropriately awed.

Tony’s eyes grew pensive; his voice tender. “Your flesh is starved for touch. It kills me how neglected you’ve been.” He bit his lip, apparently struggling with what he wanted to say. Finally, he dipped his head, tucking his face between Steve’s neck and shoulder, voice raw as he admitted, “I’m a bastard, though, because I’m glad. Only my fingers get to touch you. Only I get to heat your flesh and bring it to life and make you writhe. I don’t want anybody’s hands on you, ever, even accidentally.” He sucked hard at the join of flesh he whispered against, his body shuddering. “I am so fucking hot for you right now, I think I’m going to combust.”

“Let me help you,” Steve pleaded, reaching for Tony’s hips. “Anything you want,” he offered, sincere despite his lack of experience, willing to do whatever would make Tony happy. “Tell me. Please.”

Tony rose, his knees still straddling Steve, but this time he rested his butt on Steve’s abdomen as he sat upright. Steve kept his hands on Tony’s hips, kneading the flesh, trying to encourage. Tony’s cock was straining between them, and again he looked to be struggling with what he wanted to say. It took Steve a minute to get his overly relaxed brain to work, but an idea came to him. “Put it in my mouth. I know you liked when we did that.”

Tony shook hard enough to slide off, but Steve’s hands held him fast. “Are you sure? You don’t have to.”

“I’m very sure.” Steve licked his lips, thirsting for the flavor uniquely Tony. He had only gotten to do it the one time, and there wasn’t much savoring involved in their heated frenzy. He was hoping things might last a little longer this time, though he wasn’t sure. Tony’s need had to come first. Whatever he needed, Steve would do. Fanning his fingers over Tony’s backside, he used his hold on Tony’s hips to lift him, bringing him towards his mouth.

“Easy, muscle man.” Tony smiled down at him, the tip of his index finger tracing Steve’s lips. “No devouring. I want to watch you this time. Slow down.”

“Y’sure? Thought you were combusting?”

“For now I’m sure. I’ll let you know when I change my mind.”

Steve kissed Tony’s finger. “Okay.” He eased off on his hold, his hands still on Tony’s hips, fingers on his butt, but he was no longer using his strength. “However you want it.” He grinned sheepishly. “Not like I know what I’m doing anyway.”

“Oh, you know plenty about what you’re doing.” Tony winked at him. His eyes were liquidy, brimming with desire. Steve wanted to commit the image to memory, hoping he could draw it one day. Tony was beautiful. Steve would never get enough of looking at him. The finger tracing Steve’s lips slipped between them, pulling his lower lip down, encouraging his jaw to loosen. In a smoky whisper, Tony directed, “Show me what you want to do to my cock.”

Steve shuddered, nearly dislodging Tony, but he pressed his knees more firmly into Steve’s sides and rode it out. He wondered if he would ever get used to how easily Tony talked about sexual acts. It discombobulated him, but he liked it. The dirty talk was Tony, as much a part of him as his dark eyes and genius brain. Steve would have to get used to it. Not a hardship.

Steve pressed his lips around Tony’s finger, sucking lightly. He was unsure, and for a second he worried he’d feel too silly to do this, but Tony’s eyes held him prisoner. There was no looking away, no chance to think. The dark gaze was both needy and demanding, and Steve felt compelled to comply with whatever was being asked of him. He relaxed his mouth, letting Tony’s finger slip inside past the knuckle before he started sucking again.

Mmm, s’good.” Tony’s tone was appreciative. “I’m a lot bigger than that, though. Think you can handle me?” At Steve’s nod, he slid his middle finger into Steve’s mouth beside his index finger, waiting for Steve to adjust appropriately to accommodate both. “Breathe through your nose,” he advised, Steve realizing he hadn’t been breathing at all. Tony slid his fingers further, resting the tips on the back of Steve’s tongue. “Relax here.”

Steve swallowed awkwardly, not sure what else to do with his saliva. But then his mouth felt too dry. Tony pulled back a bit, the fingers of his left hand caressing Steve’s cheek. “No hurries. Do what feels good. Want to taste?” Liking the idea, Steve kept his lips pursed, but managed to get his tongue moving, tickling over the tips of Tony’s fingers. Judging by the sound Tony made, this was a pleasing sensation, so he tried it again. Remembering how his own cock reacted when Tony’s tongue had grazed his slit in the limo, Steve simulated the act, sliding his tongue into the space between Tony’s fingers. “Ohhh, there you go. Nice.” The fingers on his cheek patted appreciatively.

Tony’s fingers moved in and out of his mouth, giving Steve a chance to lick and suckle while he figured out ways to breathe and swallow without messing up the rhythm too much. Every so often, Tony would push them back towards the deepest end of his tongue, tickling his throat as Steve learned out how to adapt to their presence while still actively using his mouth and tongue.

“Ready for more, baby?” Tony asked breathlessly after a time. Steve was ready for the real deal, knowing how difficult it had to be for Tony to hold out like this when his cock was so hard. Steve could feel it pressing into the dip between his abdomen and chest; heavy, hot, and needy. Ignoring it, Tony slid a third finger into Steve’s mouth instead, stroking his face and hair as Steve adjusted again. Just like when they were dancing, Tony was finding indirect ways to show Steve how to lead without taking charge, gently guiding him towards the lessons he so eagerly wanted to learn without once making him feel inept.

I love you, Tony. He would have said the words aloud if his mouth wasn’t full. He hoped somehow his eyes and his dedication to Tony’s pleasure spoke his truth for him. He wanted to swallow Tony’s fingers straight down his throat, to have his lover inside him and never let him out. Instead, he followed Tony’s bidding, trying to master each whispered direction, practicing over and over as he longed for a chance at more. The thing Tony had to keep reminding him about—the thing he was being a stickler for—was breathing. Steve sensed he had better get that part right if he was going to get more than fingers in his mouth, so he worked harder. Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.

Stupid hyperventilation.

The incident earlier had to be the reason Tony was holding back and he appreciated the care, but he was fine now. Just needed to prove it. Thankfully, he was a tenacious guy. He realized he had succeeded when Tony dragged his thoroughly loved fingers from Steve’s mouth, his eyes nearly crossed with lust as he groaned. “Keep that up, Rogers, and I’m going to blow my wad before you get the main course.”

“What are you waiting for?” Steve licked his lips in anticipation.

Eyes becoming impossibly darker, Tony took hold of Steve’s chin with his left hand, fingers cupping his jaw as Tony’s thumb breached his mouth, pad pressing flat on his tongue, holding it down as he opened him wide. Tony’s right hand had a firm grasp on the base of his cock as he brought it to Steve’s mouth, letting it dangle just beyond his reach for several agonizing seconds, continuing to hold Steve open, but not entering. Steve’s fingers clutched Tony’s hips, itching to drag him forward, to compel movement, but he resisted. His own cock, which had been alternately firming and flagging—his entire focus on Tony, leaving little attention for himself—filled with a rush now; aching. He sure as hell wasn’t above begging, but Tony’s hold was too secure to allow the necessary press of lips required to form the ‘P’ for please, the sound coming out more like a strangled, lisping “easssssh.”

“Was just going to say the same to you,” Tony admitted, the hand holding his cock starting to shake. He drew out his thumb, but kept hold of Steve’s chin as he slid the head of his cock inside Steve’s mouth. Tony held on to it, guiding slowly despite the inner frenzy Steve could feel radiating from him. Tony’s cock was longer and thicker than three fingers, but Steve didn’t mind. He eagerly put to use all he had learned, suckling and tonguing the spongy head as he breathed around the thick organ. Tony’s flesh was warm in places, nearly scalding in others. He tasted salty and a little bitter as Steve tongued his slit, eagerly lapping the essence of Tony he had longed to experience. Tony’s cock twitched against his tongue as he lapped the same spot again. The fingers around his jaw went lax and then disappeared before landing in his hair, alternately twisting and caressing.

Tony’s blue-lit gaze was riveted to him, his mouth practically salivating as his tongue played over his parted lips. Steve liked how hot it made Tony to watch him, but he couldn’t handle the intensity of Tony’s enthralled attention, choosing to close his eyes so he could concentrate fully on giving pleasure. The sensuous weight of Tony’s shaft slid heavily—heavenly—across his tongue, and it was his lover’s turn to gasp for air when Steve tipped his chin upward slightly so that he could pull the head of Tony’s cock deeper, well into his throat. Steve swallowed purposefully, remembering how it had felt when Tony did this for him, the press of inner muscles surrounding the sensitive tip of Tony’s cock. Pubic curls tickled Steve’s nose, but he didn’t them distract. He swallowed again, liking the feel of Tony pressed impossibly deep in his body. He wanted to keep him there forever, and the words to that effect rumbled up from his chest, lodging in his throat, surrounding and caressing the shaft buried there.

“Steve!” Tony howled, his whole body shaking. “Too good!” Steve held on to him so he didn’t fall over, tilting his head and neck back further against the comforter, hoping Tony would take what he needed for relief. He could feel Tony rising up higher on trembling knees, his hips starting to pump. Slowly, still holding back, Tony began sliding impossibly deeper down his throat. Steve tightened involuntarily, ripping a groan from Tony’s throat. Dragging vital breath through his nose to get his lungs filled, he relaxed his throat muscles the best he could, then held on. Tony’s pumping increased in intensity, his cock burning as it drove in and out of his throat. There was no breathing then; no thinking. He opened his eyes, but he couldn’t see. He fought the impulse to choke, forcing his hands off Tony’s hips, afraid he would hurt him, fingers tearing at the blanket instead.

It hurt some, but the minor pain was laced with pleasure and a satisfaction defying description. Tony was inside of him; part of him; needing him. He worked to take it all. Breathing didn’t matter. Discomfort didn’t matter. Tony mattered. Only Tony. He was filled with Tony, as if he had somehow managed to spread from Steve’s throat to his insides, travelling through his bloodstream. His head spun in the whirlwind, his flesh atingle, heart racing in his chest.

In the distance, he could hear Tony crying his name, felt him attempting to pull back, but he didn’t make it fully out. Memory kicked in, warning him to prepare as Tony exploded, waves of sticky cream pouring down Steve’s throat so fast he barely had time to swallow. He fought not to, but he ended up coughing, gagging once before Tony slid out and Steve could get his throat to work right and finish swallowing.

“Y’okay?” Tony grunted, fingers smoothing back Steve’s hair. He nodded, thinking up a response about still needing more practice at this, which he wasn’t able to voice. He knew breathing was the priority in the moment as he gasped for air. Tony’s breathing sounded no better, his body shuddering atop Steve. “You’re fucking amazing,” he was saying in between pants, making Steve beam inside and out.

He hadn’t realized how hard his cock was until Tony reached behind himself and took hold. How Tony was still upright after a climax as powerful as the one Steve had just tasted was a wonder. Tony’s fingers moved from his hair to his mouth, petting over Steve’s swollen lips as he encouraged, “Keep breathing, baby.” Giving Steve’s cock another squeeze, he boasted, “I know exactly where I want to put this, and you’re going to need all the oxygen you can get.”

“Wha—?”

Tony slid off him, hitting the mattress hard. He laid on his stomach a minute, complaining about his knees, but then he practically swam to the head of the bed and yanked open a drawer from the bed stand.

“How did that get in there?” Steve asked, confused, when Tony returned clutching a pack of condoms and a tube of something in his hands. “Those aren’t mine!” They used to give out condoms to the soldiers during the war, but even then Steve didn’t keep them. Wasn’t like he had any use for them. And he sure as hell hadn’t bought any here.

“Keep thinking,” Tony teased as he tore a packet open with his teeth.

Thinking? What was he supposed to think about? He felt totally gutted, and yet somehow painfully aroused at the same time. Mostly, he wanted Tony to stay still long enough for Steve to hold him, his emotions so huge he didn’t know how to contain them. “Tony,” he whispered, his hand reaching. But then he jolted, his back shooting off the mattress as he realized Tony was rolling that thing onto his cock. “Whoa! What are you doing?”

Tony pushed him back down, climbing atop him, kissing him harder than he’d ever been kissed. Steve tried to protest, hoping to at least have a chance to go gargle or something, but enough brain cells decided to come back to work long enough for Steve to realize that tasting himself on Steve’s mouth was exactly Tony’s goal. What little ability to breathe he had regained was quickly stolen by Tony’s demanding mouth, Steve needing to fight to keep pace. He was dizzy from the passion of their kisses, barely noticing Tony was still tugging a condom over his cock until some of his pubic hair got caught in what felt like a taut rubber band.

Owww,” he complained, tearing his mouth from Tony’s.

“Sorry. Hands are shaking.” Tony’s fingers petted the base of his cock, smoothing wisps of hair.

“Why do I need this thing?” Steve had never put one on, and it wasn’t particularly comfortable.

“Because I need you.” Tony took hold of his face, kissing tenderly before practically pleading. “Please, baby. After the way you just ripped my soul out through my dick, I’m not likely to get any looser. Let’s take advantage.”

It took Steve three full breaths before he caught on, his eyes going wide as his jaw dropped off his face. He looked closely at Tony, not sure for a moment, but his expression was too raw and hungry to be teasing. “Weren’t you worrying about keeping up with me a little while ago? I think I’m the one totally out of my league.”

“Maybe it’s all that super serum I’ve been ingesting through your cock,” Tony laughed as he climbed up to straddle Steve again.

“I don’t think it works like that. Tony, are you sure—”

“I’m sure.” Tony squirted something from the tube all over his hand and then reached back, fisting Steve’s cock. It was cold and felt gooey. Steve bucked, but his cock grew thicker, clearly siding with Tony in this debate.

Yearning laced with blind panic punched Steve in the gut. Watching a few dirty movies on the Internet in no way prepared him for something this important. He could hurt Tony. Nothing was worth the risk. “I don’t think I’m ready this. I’ll hurt you. I can’t hurt you.”

“I won’t let you. Trust me.”

He did trust Tony in the deepest places of his heart. What he had less confidence in was Tony’s regard for his own safety, which he could be pretty reckless with. If they were going to do this, Steve had to be the one to maintain the safeguards. Was he capable of doing that when he was marching into unfamiliar territory?

On the other hand, could he really say no when this extraordinary man who he loved beyond reason was offering this intimate gift of his very self? Tony’s hands were behind his back, doing something with the gel stuff, his eyes never leaving Steve as he waited for an answer. “You really want this?” Steve asked.

“I’ll wait if you need to. I am probably pushing you way too fast. But if you’re asking about what I want. . . .” Tony took a deep breath, his body shivering as he bit his lip before answering hoarsely, “I want . . . no I need . . . to feel you inside me. I’ve wanted it every fucking minute since I laid eyes on you. I’ll probably keep wanting it until the day I stop breathing.”

Steve’s cock surged, going impossibly hard. He was pretty certain he wouldn’t be able to hold out long enough to do this thing, but he wanted to try. He wanted Tony. He reached up, flattening his hand to the blue orb, covering the heart of his man as he nodded. Tony let out a hiss of breath he must have been holding, then shifted, taking firm hold of the base of Steve’s cock as he positioned himself over it. When Tony started to sink down onto the head of his shaft, Steve saw stars. The sensation was too good to be bearable. His arms fell flat to his sides, fingers clutching at the bedding, trying to find a way to keep from flying up through the ceiling.

Tony twisted, the gooey stuff squishing, easing the friction as he took the entire head of Steve’s cock inside his body. Tony was grunting and panting, his own cock soft and spent, yet he was clearly finding this arousing. There was no mistaking the expression on his face. Tony’s body was tight and hot, making Steve yearn for more. His cock ached to thrust, but Steve fought it, using every ounce of strength he had to stay still and not do anything to hurt Tony.

Tony leaned forward, his fists hitting the mattress for support as he continued to impale himself slowly onto Steve’s cock. When the head of his penis brushed against something nub-shaped, Tony froze, letting out a sound that was a cross between a cry and a coyote howl. Steve reached for Tony’s hips, ready to untangle them, terrified Tony was hurt, his own cock losing some of its steam in his panic. But then Tony made the sound again, only this time he clutched Steve’s chest with sticky fingers, breathlessly muttering, “so good.” The walls around Steve’s cock shivered, sending sparks of electricity straight into his balls. Tony pushed down again, taking more of Steve, half his cock sheathed in Tony’s body. He knew for sure he was done.

“I’m gonna come,” he warned.

“No, no, no,” Tony begged. “Flip us over. Want you all the way inside me first. Help me, baby.”

“Help me, baby.”

Oh my God.

Steve couldn’t have resisted the power of the plea if he wanted to—and resistance was nowhere in sight. His body was a big, exposed nerve, everything hot and twitching uncontrollably, but he found the wherewithal to heed Tony’s words. He got his hands around Tony’s back and held him securely, rolling them until Tony was the one underneath. His cock slipped out some, but Tony bent his legs at the knees, spreading wider, pulling on Steve’s shoulders to coax him back in. “Come on Steve, fuck me. Pleasepleaseplease.”

Conscious thought was gone. There was sensation. Desire. Instinct. And Tony. Steve’s world was pared down to those important elements. Getting to his knees, he got his hands under Tony’s butt, lifting and tilting his lover’s lower body until he could slide further inside the hot channel that belonged only to him. He refused to acknowledge anyone had touched Tony before. Mine, an inner voice he didn’t recognize growled. Steve pushed forward, breaching Tony’s body, making certain he pushed out anything that could have possibly existed beyond him.

Tony groaned for him, struggling at first to take him fully, nails digging into Steve’s shoulders as he fought to open. It was a battle whose outcome was a forgone conclusion. Tony’s channel was made to be his and Steve’s cock stormed inside, meeting less and less resistance with each subsequent thrust. Steve’s flesh was soaked with sweat, hair falling into his eyes, veiling his vision of Tony’s gorgeous face as he made love to him. Tony looked drunk with euphoria. He wrapped his legs around Steve’s waist the way he did when they were vertical, squeezing him, clinging to him, begging shamelessly for more.

Tony’s neck arched back as Steve fully claimed him, filling Tony with himself. It was the most amazingly alive sensation Steve had ever experienced and he struggled to stay still, savoring. Tony was twitching, trying to get him to move, but Steve held him firm. The confinement only made him wilder. Tony’s legs crushed his ribs, his hands pounding Steve’s shoulders as he let out a string of curses blue enough to make a solider blush.

“Stop,” Steve ordered giving Tony’s tush a little pinch to regain his attention. Tony’s eyes went wide as he gaped, but Steve smiled before he continued, his voice scratchy from emotion. “Feel this? I’m inside you. We’re together. Totally.” The wonder of it robbed Steve’s breath from his lungs. He wanted to say more, but couldn’t. Tony’s body quieted around him, unsteady fingers cupping Steve’s cheek and chin. Tony’s utter silence was in sharp contrast to the howling he had been doing, but his eyes held their own language, one Steve could read easily.

He understands.

If Steve could have, he would have stayed inside Tony forever. He longed to crawl within his flesh, curl up beneath his arc reactor and protect Tony’s tender heart with every last ounce of strength he possessed. He would have willingly given up everything he had, everything he was, if Tony needed him to. Despite the longing to stop time, his body was giving way. The sensations were overwhelming and Steve too inexperienced to keep them at bay. He started to move, slowly at first, but before long the rhythm between their bodies dictated its own brisk pace.

When the orgasm claimed him, it was like nothing he’d ever experienced, could ever imagine. In those brief, glorious moments of blind euphoria, he knew exactly who he was and what purpose he served in this world: he was born to love Tony Stark. It was an indisputable fact.

Steve must have blacked out for a time, because his next awareness was face down in the mattress, his cheek against Tony’s, his body half atop his boneless lover. Tony’s legs were still partially around his torso, though no longer locked at his back. They were both gross. The condom Tony had insisted on putting on him was a soggy bag hanging near the tip of his cock, and there was jelly, semen, and sweat everywhere.

“You sure you never screwed before?” Tony asked, his throat sounding raw, probably from the screaming he had done.

He grinned at Tony’s word choice. “You’re my first,” Steve murmured, pleased with his truth.

“You’re a natural.”

“Who’d thought?” He had no idea where any of that came from. One minute he was struggling to maintain his control and protect Tony, and the next thing he knew, his body was mapping an unknown trail. “I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

“Baby, if that was pain, then I’m proud to be a masochist.”

Steve shifted his weight off Tony, hitting the mattress beside him. “You do stuff to me I can’t explain—especially when you say baby.” Steve’s body flushed fully. “Whatever it is, I like it.”

Tony nuzzled into him, sounding very sleepy. “Good, because I’m yours. You own me, baby.”

“Was kinda thinking the reverse, actually.”

“Works for me.”

“We should shower. Again.”

Mmmhmm. Later.”

“Later,” Steve agreed as the world went dark.

~0~0~0~

Bright sunshine filled the apartment when Steve’s eyes finally reopened. He was surprised and more than a little unsettled to realize he was in bed alone, but he calmed when he heard the sound of the shower. He headed to the bathroom, taking care of necessities and brushing his teeth before joining Tony in the shower.

“Hey, handsome,” Tony greeted, moving straight into his arms. Steve hugged him hard, burying his face in Tony’s wet hair, holding on as a shudder ran through him. Tony noticed quickly. “Steve, you okay?”

“Yeah.” He took a long breath, inhaling Tony, calming himself. “You weren’t there and it shook me up for a second.” Steve was too familiar with waking up painfully alone. “Got scared I might have dreamed you.”

“Oh, babe, I’m sorry.” Tony pulled him under the water and kissed him slowly, comfortingly. When Steve was able to loosen his grip, Tony pulled back enough to cup his cheeks and smile at him. “You’re not getting rid of me. Just needed a shower. When I woke up, I was coated in so much damn dried lube, my fingers were stuck to my pubes.”

Steve laughed, his anxiety waning. “Lube,” he repeated, committing the word to memory, realizing it was the term for the gooey jelly Tony had coated them with last night. “That’s what’s all over me.”

Tony’s hand went to his cock, feeling the dried, sticky remains. “You are, indeed a mess. We’ll have to get you nice and clean, won’t we?”

They spent the next twenty minutes washing and kissing. It was nice—except maybe when Tony teased he had so much lube in his pubic hair they would have to shave it off, and for a second Steve believed him. Turns out, the stuff came off pretty easily with soap and water, another clever concoction of the modern world.

“I hope it washes off this comforter,” Steve speculated when they were back in the bedroom. He had given Tony his robe to put on, so he tugged on gym shorts and a tee shirt before tackling the mess they’d made on the bed.

“I’m pretty sure the thing is washable. If not, I’ll buy you a new one.”

“Don’t want a new one. I like this one.” He yanked off the stained comforter, rolling it into a neat ball and tucking it into the corner to be washed later. Thankfully, most of their activity had occurred atop the blanket, leaving his new sheets unstained. When he bent to pick up stray popcorn pieces, he also found the used condom in the puddle on the floor where it had ultimately landed, probably when he’d yanked up the blanket. “Yuck.”

Tony laughed watching him. “Condoms are flushable, you know.”

“I didn’t know.” He snatched a handful of tissues from the bedside table, using them to scrape the rubbery mess off the floor. “Why do you think we even need this?” he complained as he walked towards the bathroom to dispose of the wadded mess, coming back with his cleaning products to wipe up the floor.

“Protection,” Tony answered when Steve had returned. “I would never be unsafe with you, Steve.” To Steve’s amazement, Tony actually bent down to finish cleaning up popcorn while he worked on the floor stain. “I’m sure they had condoms in the dark ages, too, right?”

“I’m not saying I don’t know what it is. I was asking why you thought you needed it.” Tony was actually befuddled, which was a delightful sight. Steve stood, tossing the dirty paper towels in the trash. “Think, genius. Neither one of us is getting pregnant.” Steve carried the trash can to Tony so he could discard the popcorn. “I don’t have any diseases to give you and if you have any, I can’t catch them.”

“I don’t have diseases,” Tony huffed, miffed as he stood up with the popcorn bowl in his hand. “I’ll have you know I am very meticulous, and even though I have the reputation of a playboy—albeit a reputation I have been known to perpetuate myself a time or three to maintain my prestige—at no point have I ever been someone who-ooo-ohhhh. Time-out. Holy shit! Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“The light bulb finally switched on?” Steve grinned as he took the bowl from his hand and set it on the dresser along with his cleaning bottles.

“You’re talking about bare-backing!” Tony’s expression looked almost giddy. “Hell, even I’ve never done that.”

Another phrase for Steve to commit to memory. “If that’s the term, I guess that’s what I’m talking about. Whatever you’re comfortable with is fine. I was only pointing out we have options, Tony.” Steve wasn’t overly fond of having a slimy, tight bag around his cock, especially after his erection had subsided when it got really yucky, but he would wear them all day long if Tony needed him to. It sure hadn’t hampered his pleasure any.

“Fuck me!” Tony declared, smacking his head. The look in his eyes told Steve they may well have used their last condom. “Baby, if I could get an erection right now, you would be in sooo much trouble.”

“I’ll settle for a rain check.” Steve leaned in to plant a quick kiss on Tony’s still gaping mouth. “Right now, I’m going to feed you.”

“Great, because I’m starving. I’ll call upstairs and have the chef—”

“I’m making you pancakes.”

“You’re cooking for me?” Tony looked impressed.

“I happen to be a very good cook.” Steve gathered the things off the dresser and started out the door, heading for the kitchen.

Tony jumped on his back, legs wrapping around Steve’s waist, arms around his neck. He kissed his neck and shoulder as he rode piggy-back style into the kitchen. “Wow, all this and he cooks, too. Jackpot.”

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Coulson sent you a text.”

“Huh?” Steve opened eyes he hadn’t realized were closed. His book was still upright in his hand, but he couldn’t remember having read any of the words on the page in front of him. Tony’s fingers fell into his hair.

“Sorry. Didn’t realize you were sleeping.”

“I’m okay.” Steve looked up at Tony, his head still comfortably ensconced on the pillow in Tony’s lap. Tony had his tablet in his hand. Shortly after their pancake breakfast—which could have more aptly been designated lunch, since they hadn’t gotten around to eating until long after noon—the effects of being away from his technology for over fifteen hours was starting to get to Tony. Steve didn’t mind sprawling on the couch on Tony’s lap while he tinkered away. It had been very comfortable; so comfortable he must have dozed off.

“Technically, he sent me a text,” Tony continued. “But I am supposed to give you the message. We need to teach you how text, by the way, though, oddly enough, I don’t mind being your secretary. Yeah, then I can be straight up in your doings and I won’t have to take the time to sneak around and find things out the long way.”

Steve shook his head through Tony’s babble, trying to remember the point of the conversation until finally it came to him. “What’s the message?”

“Oh. He said to tell you it’s Sunday and he’s taking a break today, so you don’t need to stop by.”

“Coulson doesn’t take breaks from therapy,” Steve muttered, confused, until realization dawned. He flew up, looking around. “What time is it?”

“3:25. What’s wrong?”

“I totally lost track of everything. I show up every morning for him. I can’t believe I completely forgot.” Steve felt inconsiderate and selfish.

“Sounds like he wasn’t waiting for you. Stop worrying.”

“He sent that to let me off the hook. He didn’t skip therapy. What time was the message sent?” Tony’s lack of response was his answer. Steve knew he was right. He sighed, running a hand through his hair. “I can’t believe I let him down.”

“Coulson’s no idiot. You’re right. He probably figured you’d beat yourself up about being a fallible human being, so he took countermeasures. He’s sent you a ‘get out of jail free card,’ babe. Take it in the spirit it was intended and ease off the guilt. You’re allowed to have a life once in a while.”

“I guess.”

“Try harder.”

Steve smiled. “You’re right. “ He did his best to let the guilt go. Phil went to the effort of sending the text because he didn’t want Steve to feel bad. To not accept the kindness would be a different form of selfishness.

“Then go back to your book.” Tony tugged at Steve’s hair, drawing him back to his pillow. “What are you reading anyway?”

Of Mice and Men.”

“That’s not the one I gave you.”

“Because I don’t want to mess that one up. It’s too precious.”

“So you’re never going to touch it?”

“I didn’t say that. I just have to be very careful when I do. It’s not the kind of thing you lay around on the couch with.”

Ooohkay.”

“What? Don’t you have anything that’s too precious to you to handle carelessly?”

“Do you count? Because if you do, I’ve gotta tell you, I plan to handle you. A lot.”

“Big talk from a guy who can’t even get it up right now.”

Tony dropped the tablet onto the couch cushion and yanked the book out of Steve’s hand. “Do I hear a challenge, Rogers? Maybe I need to remind you I know where all your ticklish spots are.”

“I wouldn’t say all.” Steve was up and moving before Tony could get his hands on the spots he did know about.

“You’re right. I think I need to do more research on this.”

Tony was fast. Steve tried to make an end run around the couch and Tony faked like he was following, but then flew over the arm, knocking Steve on his ass on the far corner of the couch, his knee slamming into Tony’s tablet.

Owww.

“Don’t play the injury card. There are no time-outs.” Tony landed on top of him, his fingers moving quickly under Steve’s tee shirt, one hand tickling at his ribs while the other went straight for his navel.

Steve was laughing too hard to successfully wriggle away—not that he really wanted to. If Tony wanted to touch him for the rest of his life, he’d be okay with it. Sounded pretty great, actually.

“Oh, Christ.” Tony stopped tickling, slinking up Steve’s body, his face hovering over Steve’s. “Look at you. Like you’re not adorable enough. You know you look about twelve when you laugh like that. I’ve become a dirty old man.”

“Dirty, yes, but you’re not so old—your dog years aside.” Steve knew if he smiled any broader, his face would probably crack, but he couldn’t help himself. “Besides, I was never this happy when I was twelve. Or ever, really.”

Tony’s fingers caressed the side of his cheek, his eyes bright and appraising. “You really are happy, aren’t you?”

“Best Sunday in the history of the world. And my Saturday was pretty perfect, too. And then there was Friday.”

Tony looked a little staggered, but also pleased. “Never believed I could make you this happy.”

“Is that why you took so long to make your move?” Steve teased.

“Hey! If it wasn’t for my move, there would have been no move, Mr. Hard-to-get. You do remember how you avoided me like I had the clap all those days after the Battle, right? And when we were trapped in a bunker in Staten Island, you only deigned to acknowledge me to distract me from kicking Fury’s ass.”

“Not true,” Steve countered, raising his pointing finger and tapping on Tony’s cute nose. “We had a date, remember? Well, an almost date. Pizza at—”

“The hellhole!” Tony went up on his knees between Steve’s legs, adorably indignant. “There I was, standing in the doorway with half a dozen pizzas and my dick in my hands, only to find you boozing it up with Thundar.”

“Wasn’t my fault.” Steve could hardly stop laughing long enough to respond, needing to wipe the stray tears of laughter from the corners of his eyes.

“I really thought you had a thing for Thor—thing for Thor; thing for Thor—hey, that sounds kind of like a bell. No, more like a Dr. Seuss line. Whatever. Made me crazy, even if it did make sense. He’s got the whole Fabio God-thing going, and you deserve the best.”

“I have the best.” He pulled Tony’s hand, coaxing him back down to his chest. “Did you really like me all the way back then?” Listening to himself, Steve flushed. “Gee, now I sound twelve, too.”

“You are a-dork-able.” Tony’s fingers slid under his shirt and tickled over his navel, making Steve wiggle and laugh more. “Don’t change. And yes, I liked you then. I liked you before then. I did everything but dunk your pigtails into the inkwell on the Helicarrier to get you to pay attention to me.”

“They still have inkwells?”

“It was a metaphor. I was going for something from the dark ages, when you were young.”

Ohhh, you mean when I was really twelve?” Steve could not stop laughing. He was so delightfully, blissfully happy, his head was spinning.

“Did you like me back then?” Tony looked almost as happy as Steve felt. “Did’ja, huh?”

“Yes,” he admitted, grinning like a dope. “Thought I liked you too much. I was so sweet on you, I’m surprised I didn’t get cavities. I wasn’t playing hard to get. I was trying not to crush you with my big, fat Tony-crush.” He was positively giggling at the silliness of his words. He was flying. It was like being drunk. He was reminded of the time, pre-serum, when Bucky had worked for a summer helping a guy unload his truck. One day the man had given Bucky a case of beer as payment. He and Bucky had chugged at least a dozen of those bottles. Steve had never felt so giddy in his life. They were totally sloshed, and he couldn’t stop laughing, his body warm and tingly. Alcohol could no longer affect him like that, but apparently Tony could.

“Sweet on me, huh? A big, fat Tony-crush?” Tony was laughing, too. “Jeepers, how swell is that?”

“Very swell.” He traced the outline of Tony’s smile with his fingers. “Makes you my sweetheart, now. Or maybe even my sweetie-pie.”

“I thought I was your cutie?”

“That, too. You’re my cutie sweetie-pie sweetheart.” They were both cracking up, their bodies rocking with laughter. Tony almost slid off, but Steve caught him and pulled him back up. “And I’m your a-dork-able baby.”

“Help! Sugar overload. Save me.”

Steve flipped them, tucking Tony on his side between himself and the couch cushions. “Nope. I think you need more sugar.” Steve nibbled sloppily at Tony’s mouth, having trouble getting his aim straight while they were both chuckling. Tony took hold of his head to keep it still, his tongue licking over Steve’s lips.

“You do taste like sugar.” Tony kissed him half a dozen quick times on the mouth before cracking up. “And spice and everything nice.” He wiped at his eyes. “Oh, man, I am totally gone. Only you can do this to me, I’ll have you know.”

“That’s because of how much I love you, cutie-sweetie.”

They were both soaring on such a high that it took a few minutes for Steve’s words to sink in to either brain. Steve wasn’t even sure he had said the words aloud until Tony’s face sobered, his eyes still dancing, but blinking fast now as if he was stunned. “Did you . . . did you just say you love me?”

Steve felt his cheeks heat as he sucked in another breath to smile without laughing. “I guess I did.” He cupped Tony’s chin, rubbing his thumb over the soft, trimmed beard hair that made his flesh dance when it came in contact. “I had intended to tell you a little more romantically, but I’m not taking it back. I love you, Tony Stark.”

Saying it out loud was exhilarating and Steve was flying. He was giddy before, but the feeling was double now. Tony looked utterly, delightfully flabbergasted. He remained speechless, which was a rare condition for Tony Stark. Steve didn’t care. He began sprinkling Tony’s face and neck with kisses, repeating his declaration of love after each press of his lips until he sounded like a broken record, his heart growing bigger inside his chest.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked when Tony had stayed silent so long, Steve wasn’t sure he was still breathing.

Tony nodded, but his face was slowly transforming from an expression of wonder to pure terror. His hands flattened to Steve’s chest, fingers clawing at his shirt until he was fisting the material in both hands in a crazed death grip, pulling Steve closer, nearly tearing the shirt from his body. “It’s a terrible idea.”

“What is?” Steve asked.

“Loving me. You’ve gotta take it back.”

A few minutes ago, Steve would have thought Tony was kidding, but he had gone alarmingly serious. “I’m not taking anything back.”

The grip on his shirt pulled tighter and Steve could hear the material tearing. “You don’t understand.”

“I think I do understand,” Steve said calmly, slipping a hand inside the robe to flatten on Tony’s chest. “And I think you’re the one getting ready to hyperventilate if you don’t start breathing.”

Tony looked even more panicked. “You’re right. Not breathing. Not good. This isn’t good. Not at all.”

“Tony, let me help you.”

“Yes! That’s it. You can help me.” Tony pulled harder on Steve’s shirt, imploring. “You’re Captain Fucking America. You can do anything.” Tony was starting to pant, his eyes darting back and forth, though whatever he was seeing had to be in his head, because there was nothing going on around them.

Steve struggled to sit up, taking Tony with him since the hold on his shirt didn’t relinquish. In fact, Tony’s nails had started stabbing into the flesh of his chest. When he was upright, feet on the floor, Tony straddled his lap, trying again to shake him. “You’re going to help me.”

“I’ll do anything for you,” Steve said softly, rubbing the back of Tony’s neck soothingly.

“Promise me, Steve.” Tony’s voice cracked and his eyes were more vulnerable than Steve had ever seen them. “Promise me you won’t let me fuck this up. No matter what I do, you won’t let it happen. Promise.”

“Oh, sweetie.” If Steve wasn’t already head over heels in love, he would have easily fallen in love with Tony in that moment. With every ounce of conviction he possessed, in his most earnest Captain America voice, paired with what he hoped were sufficiently adoring and assuring Steve Rogers eyes, he vowed, “I promise you, I won’t let you mess this up. I won’t let either of us mess up. It’s not possible. Won’t happen. Ever. I promise with all my heart.”

Tony sucked in a long, deep breath, releasing it slowly, his eyes assessing Steve’s demeanor. The tension in his fists started to ease, loosening their grip on Steve’s shirt, which was now a wrinkled wad. “You promise?” he repeated, chewing on his lower lip.

“I promise.” Tony wrapped himself around Steve so tightly, it knocked the breath from his lungs for a minute. Recovering quickly, Steve folded his arms protectively around Tony’s vibrating body. “I’ve got you.”

Tony hid his damage well, masking it behind bravado, quick wit, and uncanny resiliency, often managing to be on the offensive and the defensive simultaneously, leaving little room for anything to get through his carefully crafted armor. Beneath all of that, Steve knew there was a fragile soul, more vulnerable than even his shard-exposed heart. Tony had sustained far too many hurts in his life, to the point where he began inflicting them on himself in a convoluted effort at protection.

“This is good,” Tony was muttering almost incoherently, his face buried in Steve’s neck. “Captain America doesn’t break promises or lie. You got this. Even I can’t fuck it up, now.”

“That’s right. Nothing can get between us.” Steve petted soothingly over Tony’s hair and back, hoping to calm him; to reassure. “Don’t you see—we’re destined? I couldn’t see either at first, but I know now. Both of us could have died long before we ever met. Only we didn’t. We’re not supposed to be living in the same century—only we are. We were both born ordinary men, yet we’ve ended up on an extraordinary path. After we did meet, even our own countless character flaws and stubborn short-sightedness couldn’t keep us apart forever, because here we are. What do you think you can possibly do to damage something that strong, that destined?”

His words actually induced a short laugh from Tony. “Let’s not tempt fate with that question. Go back to telling me how amazing we are.”

Steve smiled, feeling Tony’s body relaxing in his arms. “We are amazing. Extraordinary. A super soldier and a super genius. We’re superheroes. How can we be anything less than super-lovers as well?”

“Do I get to wear a super ‘S’ on my chest?”

“You get to do whatever you want.”

“Now you’re talking.”

Steve was relieved to hear Tony coming back to himself. The stranglehold around him loosened, Tony nuzzling more than clutching now. Steve could tell he was tired, and how not after such an emotional outlay? “It might be time for a super nap.”

“Okay. But no warm milk.”

“You loved the warm milk,” he teased softly. Tony didn’t resist when Steve shifted them, laying down and stretching out over the couch cushions, keeping Tony tucked tight to him. Tony slid one bare foot between Steve’s two, languidly playing footsie. Felt nice.

“I did kind of like it, even though it was nasty.”

Steve kissed his hair. “It’s an acquired taste.”

“Can I tell you a secret?”

“Of course.”

“JARVIS, no listening in. This is only for Steve.”

“As you wish, sir.”

Steve rolled his eyes, grinning. Life with Tony was never going to be ordinary. “Tell me your secret.”

“I haven’t had any nightmares since Staten Island. JARVIS hasn’t had to wake me up. Right before I go to sleep, I think about you, about how nice you were to me that night. How safe I felt, like you were some kind of dream guardian. I really felt you could protect me. I trusted it. And it worked. And it keeps working.”

Steve was so moved, he had to talk around the lump lodged in his throat. “Glad I could help you. But Tony, there’s no guarantee you’ll never have another nightmare. I don’t have that kind of power. I wish I could promise to do that for you, but I can’t.”

“I know. Still pretty cool, though, right?”

“Very cool.”

“And I am going to feel remarkably wussy for having told this to you when I’m more awake and not in this lame-o headspace.”

“Told me what?” Steve teased. “I shut off my listening gear the same time JARVIS did. There’s no record of what you said anywhere.”

Tony squeezed his hand and pressed it to his lips. “You’re the ultimate good guy, Steve Rogers. How did a nice guy like you end up in a tower like this?”

“Just really lucky, I guess.”

~0~0~0~

The nap was very restful and Tony was doing better when they woke up. He was even willing to sit through the second Indiana Jones movie, but he hadn’t brought the DVD and Steve wasn’t keen on going to the private theater on the tenth floor. Steve patiently listened to Tony’s rant about Steve letting Clint hook up his television, and how it wasn’t wired directly to JARVIS—something Steve hadn’t seen any need for at the time—and therefore they couldn’t access the bazillion movies that could have been at their fingertips blah-blah-blah. Mid-tirade, Tony paused. “You know what? I’ll do it now. I’ll go get some tools and do this thing right like I should have done in the first place.”

“Too much trouble,” Steve hastened to argue. “Besides, you said the second movie wasn’t great anyway. We can watch Raiders of the Lost Ark again.”

“You really want to do that?” Tony was clearly suspicious, but for whatever reason, chose not to argue, to Steve’s relief.

“Sure. It’ll be fun.”

Turned out, it was fun, though only partly because of the movie. Steve had sprawled out on his stomach, his chest over Tony’s thighs, head cushioned on the pillow beside Tony’s hip, making his back the perfect desk for Tony to fiddle with both his phone and tablet simultaneously. Steve had no idea what he was working on, and didn’t care. He enjoyed being with Tony and he really did like this movie, maybe more so the second time. Well, at least the parts he got to re-watch.

By the time Indiana Jones landed in the pit of snakes—“Why did it have to be snakes?”—Tony had apparently gotten bored with his electronics. He started rubbing Steve’s back, which was quite pleasant. Eventually, his hands moved to his rear end, still pleasant—becoming quickly distracting when Tony’s hands dipped under his shorts.

“It’s a little hard to focus on the movie when you’re doing that.”

“Oh, and I’m supposed to concentrate on anything with this luscious ass staring up at me. Totally your fault. Stop complaining.”

“I wasn’t complaining.” Steve grinned as he suggested, “Would it help your concentration any if I rolled over?”

“Because your package is so much less distracting? No, thanks. I’m good.”

“You’re too good.” Steve realized he had drooled onto the pillow as Tony’s fingers tickled the crevice between his cheeks.

“And you should be on the cover of Hot Buns Monthly.”

“There’s no such thing . . . is there?”

“What’s the matter? Didn’t come across it on all your forays into Internet porn?”

“I looked at porn maybe twice, only for a few minutes.” Steve felt his cheeks heat; both sets of cheeks, actually. “It was a little . . . intense.”

“You don’t need porn. You’ve got me now.”

“You’re pretty intense, too,” Steve teased.

“You ain’t seen nothing yet. These shorts are totally cramping my style,” Tony complained, yanking Steve’s shorts down his hips. “Mmmm, better.” Tony’s palms cupped Steve’s buttocks, squeezing. “You have a fucking fantastic ass.”

“I’m trying to watch the movie!”

“So watch. What? Do you have eyes in your shorts?” Feathery soft fingers traced the outline of his buttocks, then danced between them, raising goosebumps on parts of his skin nowhere near his hind quarters.

“To-neee.”

“You’ve already seen the damn movie. Quit’yer bitchin’.” Tony’s palm slapped the fleshiest part of Steve’s ass, causing him to jolt.

“Hey!”

“Still griping? What do I look like? The complaint department?” Tony was laughing as he spanked him again. Steve was more than a little embarrassed by how hot his flesh felt where Tony’s hand had swatted.

“Are you having fun?”

“Loads. How ‘bout you?”

“I am watching this movie,” he answered stubbornly, punching at the pillow beneath his head to reposition.

“Need I remind you this is your fault? I mean, look at this juicy ass. Am I really supposed to control my urges to touch it . . . to caress it . . . to spank it. . . . Hey! I could bite it. Would you prefer that, because it wouldn’t be any hardship?”

Steve tried muffling his laugh in the pillow, not wanting to give Tony any more ammunition. There was really no telling what Tony would do when he was in his wickedly mischievous mood. More unsettling was Steve’s realization he probably wouldn’t object to anything. Being with Tony made him feel like a stranger in his own skin, yet at the same time, he never felt more comfortable being himself.

“Okay, how about a new tactic?” Tony suggested while Steve pretended he remembered what movie he had been watching. Tony slid his hand between Steve’s thighs. There wasn’t much room to maneuver since his shorts were still tangled around his hips, confining his legs. Tony managed to wheedle in there, two fingers rubbing the flesh of his balls together until he had to bite the pillow to keep from groaning. He only spit it out when he felt capable of forming words.

“All right, what is this tactic? Because you are not spanking my balls.”

“What a hot idea, but I would never do something like that,” Tony responded with feigned sincerity. “Unless, of course, you liked that sort of thing. It was your suggestion—”

“Tony—”

“Stop distracting me, kinky monkey. Getting back to my point, my tactic is I’m going to get you to talk. I don’t think I’m going to touch your ass, or your balls, or anything else until I get some answers.” Tony pulled his hands away, and Steve’s lower body felt immediately cold and bereft.

Confused, he sputtered, “Wha-what? What do you mean? Answers about what?”

“Let’s start with why you look like someone stole your lunch money, kicked your puppy, and told you Santa’s a drunk guy who works at the mall every time I suggest leaving this apartment?”

“I don’t understand,” Steve tried, hoping to bide his time.

“Don’t you think at some point I might need to—oh, I don’t know—get my clothes? I might actually want to put on pants.”

“I have pants.”

“Steven.”

Steve sighed, wrapping his arm around the pillow and staring at the television. “I really like this part of the movie. Can we talk later?”

“Sure. I can wait.” Steve felt the weight of Tony’s tablet return to his back. “I can wait all night. Your sweet balls look awfully cold, though. And I really feel sorry for your ass because it’s missing out on all the incredible stuff I had planned.”

“You don’t play very fair.”

“No. I rarely do.”

Aside from craving Tony’s touch, Steve’s conscience told him he owed Tony an explanation. Still, he didn’t look forward to this conversation. He wasn’t exactly proud of his insecurities. “I should probably just watch the movie, then,” he said, wishing he hadn’t sounded forlorn.

Tony’s fingers were tapping on his tablet, but it didn’t sound like typing; more like restless fidgeting. “You’re a tough nut, Rogers.” He picked the tablet up from Steve’s back again, his palm flattening there in its place. “Talk to me, Steven.” And then, in a lighter tone, he added, “Am I being kidnapped? I think handcuffs need to be involved if that’s what’s happening. I demand handcuffs be part of any kidnapping scheme. Preferably the fur kind.” Steve had no choice but to laugh, which was no doubt Tony’s intention. His hand rubbed Steve’s back as his voice softened. “If I left here, you could come with me. I’m not trying to get away from you. Anywhere I went, I’d want you to come.”

“Yeah, that’s the problem.” Steve rubbed his hand over his face. This wasn’t going away.

“I don’t understand.” Tony sounded downcast and Steve’s guilt grew.

“You don’t have to stay if you don’t want to.”

“Steve, it’s not about wanting to leave. I don’t want to leave you. I’m having a great time here with you. But I can tell something is wrong. I suck at this stuff, so I’m not sure how to deal here. Would you rather I act like I don’t notice?”

“No.”

“Good.” Tony’s fingers fell into his hair, petting softly.

Steve closed his eyes. He couldn’t see Tony’s face from this position anyway, but the extra concealment helped him find words. “This apartment didn’t exist until you had it made for me. There’s only you and me here. Just us. No shadows. Everywhere else . . . especially your penthouse . . . you’ve already shared. Your bedroom. Your bed.” The words stuck, but Steve soldiered on. “Which is understandable. It’s your home, your life. I’m not trying to begrudge you anything from before I was around. I’m saying I might need time to get comfortable with the idea of being us in those places, which is stupid, I know—”

“Shit, Steve, why didn’t you tell me?” Tony actually sounded relieved. “I thought it was something awful. You were freaking me out. This is something I can fix!”

“You don’t’ have to fix anything. It’s me, my problem. I have to—”

“JARVIS. I want you to start working up all the specs for each floor of the tower, starting with the penthouse. We need to design entirely new schematics. I’m going to need measurements, structural outlines, the works.”

“Right away, sir.”

“Tony, no, wait, JARVIS, hold on.” Steve was struggling to get up, awkwardly trying to yank up his shorts at the same time. By the time he made it to his feet, Tony was already tapping away eagerly on his tablet. “Please, stop. You just finished rebuilding the penthouse from the Battle, and the rest of the tower still has ongoing construction. You’re not going to undo all that and start over. I don’t want you to.”

“Why not?” Tony looked at him like he was a lunatic. “If you would have given me the heads-up sooner, the work would have already been started, though, in fairness, we have been a little busy—a lot busy. Magnificently busy. Yeah, those things took precedence for sure. Not a problem. I’m on it now.”

“Tony, stop, breathe,” Steve implored. He reached for the tablet, taking it out from under Tony’s typing fingers.

“What are you doing?”

“You can’t redesign your entire tower for me.”

“Why not?”

“Because . . . because. . . .” Steve paused. He didn’t have an exact reason. What he did know was he was being selfish and childish and Tony shouldn’t be indulging him.

Tony’s grin was brighter than the sun through the living room windows each morning. “Baby, I live for this stuff. I love to do this stuff. I’m great at this stuff. And now I get to do it for you. For us. I can redesign every inch. I’ll throw out the furniture, the curtains, the carpet, the bed—especially the bed. Bed first. And you can help me. With your input and taste, we can design together. It’ll be ours. No shadows. No one else. It will be like this apartment, only bigger. You’ve loved putting this place together with me. Now we get to do it again, only on a huger scale. Where is the downside? Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t do this?”

Steve’s heart suddenly felt too big to live in his chest. He handed Tony back the tablet. “When you put it like that, I guess I don’t have a good reason.” Tony took the electronic device eagerly, his fingers tapping before it was fully in both hands.

“On second thought.” Steve yanked the tablet back from him again.

“Now what?” he asked, exasperated.

“I thought of a reason.”

“A reason why I shouldn’t do this?”

“No. A reason why you shouldn’t do it right now.” Steve tossed the tablet to the far corner of the couch, then dove on top of Tony, tackling him into the cushions and kissing him with all he had.

“Excellent reason,” Tony panted when he could get his mouth free long enough. Then he wrapped his legs around Steve and their design plans were put on hold for the time being.

~0~0~0~

“You sure we’re good?”

Steve appreciated Tony’s care and concern. It made their parting bearable. He brushed his lips over Tony’s, whispering, “We’re good,” before the peck turned into a full-blown kiss.

Steve usually got up early enough to put in a full workout himself before heading to Phil’s, but he had been reluctant to leave Tony. As they stood now in front of the apartment door saying goodbye for the fifth time, Steve knew he was only minutes away from being late for Phil’s therapy session. After shirking his commitment to his friend yesterday, he wasn’t comfortable with the thought of being late this morning. Still, Tony’s mouth was sweet temptation.

“Sorry again about the breakfast,” Tony offered between kisses. He had taken a crack at making them breakfast and feeding Steve in bed. The toast was black, the eggs were runny, and the bacon looked as though it had been burned at the stake, which had set off the fire alarm, precipitating Dummy to burst through the door with a fire extinguisher Tony thankfully wrested from his mechanical hand before it ruined the apartment. In Steve’s mind, though, everything had been delicious.

“Breakfast was wonderful,” he responded sincerely. The best part was Tony hadn’t suggested they eat anywhere in the tower but here. Tony was also the one who had Chinese take-out delivered last night after they’d finally come up for air on the couch. Steve never did get to re-watch the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, but who cared? He and Tony had been too busy discovering their own treasures.

They had eaten their take-out snuggled on the couch while Tony impressed him with possible designs for the penthouse, concepts he could make appear in 3-D images in the air in front of them with a swirl of his hand and a little assistance from JARVIS, who Steve was truly coming to appreciate. Tony was too animated by his new project to leave Steve any room for guilt, and he quickly got into the spirit of things. They started on the couch, but later moved into the bedroom, planning and designing; arguing and laughing; Internet shopping between kisses and petting. Steve sketched some ideas on his pad, a few of which Tony hated, and most he really liked. Steve had even dragged his own laptop into the bed, adamant that they look up the best places to donate the things Tony was getting rid of to where they could do the most good.

“The bed’s going out first thing in the morning,” Tony had announced proudly.

“Oh, yeah? Where are you going to sleep?”

“Do you know how many bedrooms I have in this place?” he teased.

“Bedrooms you haven’t made use of before?” Steve grilled, raising an interrogating eyebrow.

“Possibilities are narrowing,” Tony laughed before heaving a put-upon sigh. “I guess I’ll have to sleep here.”

“Oh, darn.”

Their planning continued long past midnight, until Steve finally shoved laptops, tablets, sketch pads, Stark phones, and pencils aside and ordered JARVIS to go to sleep as he snuggled into Tony’s arms between their red satin sheets. Even in the dark, without the assistance of electronics, they were still talking, planning. It had been both exhilarating and soothing, providing a sense of security Steve had never felt before.

“Thank you,” he had whispered as they were finally drifting into an exhausted sleep. “Feel a little greedy,” he had admitted. “You already gave me a home. But this has been nice.”

“You’re the one giving me a home this time,” Tony said warmly, shifting until he was spooned up behind Steve, kissing softly into the hair at the nape of his neck. “Thank you, baby.”

They had both slept contentedly until sunrise, but then Tony was back at it again. Steve woke to the site of architectural plans dancing over his head—literally. He appreciated how Tony and JARVIS had been whispering to each other, but he gave them full permission to talk as loudly as they wanted when he headed into the shower, pleased when Tony chose instead to put aside his frantic planning and join him under the spray. After their shower, there was the breakfast fiasco, but every minute had been wonderful. As Steve started to get dressed and ready to take on the day, Tony grew more worried about him, being extra attentive and kind. Steve tried to assure he was all right, his panic over what was going to become of them outside the cocooned walls of his apartment having lessened since their talk yesterday.

Still, he hadn’t made it out the door yet.

“Wonderful?” Tony laughed at Steve’s account of their breakfast. “You must be in love with me to define our breakfast as anything other than epic disaster.”

“I am in love with you—which you’re getting better at accepting without getting spooked.” Steve stroked his cheek proudly.

“Yeah, how ‘bout that? Yay, me.”

“I really need to go,” Steve said reluctantly. “Guess our date is officially over—more than thirty-six hours later.”

“Nah. That was just phase one.”

“Phase one? Sounds nice.” He refused to allow himself to indulge in melancholy thoughts when he was the luckiest guy in the world. He had everything to look forward to. “Hey, at least you can go put on your own pants now.” He grinned as Tony tugged on the drawstring of the pair of Steve’s sweats he was wearing, which he had rolled up at the ankles. “Though I think you look very cute this way.”

“I gotta agree. I wear over-sized sweats well. I’m quite the fashion plate.”

“You could look handsome in a garbage bag.”

Ohh another kink, kinky monkey. You like that sort of thing? Because I can wrap myself in plastic . . . maybe a little poke hole for my dick. Actually, it wouldn’t be a little hole. We’d need a big hole. Big, big hole.”

“Goodbye, Tony.” Steve indulged in one last kiss before he finally made it through the door, heedless of the grin he couldn’t seem to wipe off his face.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Steven!”

“Hey, Thor,” Cap greeted, looking up from the bag he was pummeling when Thor exited the elevator into the gym. He was a little surprised to see him in his Asgardian attire since he usually worked out in more practical clothing.

“I have been searching for you, my friend.” Steve grunted from the huge bear hug thrust upon him.

“You found me,” he grinned.

“The son of Coul directed me here. I have come from my visit with him. He is remarkably well.”

“He’s doing great,” Steve concurred, picking up his towel to wipe off his face. “He had a great physical therapy session this morning. I’m seeing real improvement with his arm.”

“Indeed. I have noted this as well.”

“Did you come to work out? I was finishing up, but I could put in another hour if you want someone to spot you.” Thor’s workouts made Steve’s look like a kid in gym class. He enjoyed the challenge of training with the God of Thunder. It pushed him to his utmost. Since he’d been neglecting his gym time the last few days, it would do him good. He had come straight here after spending about ninety minutes working with Phil—and being grilled by Clint about his “wild weekend.”

“I would enjoy nothing more than one of our invigorating training sessions, but I have actually come to seek your aid. I have tasked myself with providing assistance in bringing the sky chariots back to full function. The mighty laborers undertaking this important duty have encountered a hindrance.”

It took Steve’s brain a minute to translate from Thor-speak, but luckily he had seen a report on the news when he was in Phil’s suite. “You’re talking about the tram, right?” The Roosevelt Island Tramway was an aerial tramway in the city that spanned the East River, connecting Roosevelt Island to Manhattan. Its ‘sky chariots’ normally transported hundreds of people per day, but the entire thing had been out of commission since the Battle. The city had been working for weeks to get it up and running again, coming close, but the project had hit a major snafu this morning when one of the cables came loose again and the crane needed to reach it went out of commission.

“Yes, the tram,” Thor repeated the word. “A most impressive mode of travel.”

“I agree. In my day, the only way to reach Roosevelt Island was a trolley that ran across the 59th Street Bridge . . . I mean, the Queensboro Bridge . . . no, wait.” Steve tried again, remembering his reading. “The Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge.”

Thor was amused. “Many names for such a fine structure.”

“Apparently, changing the names of things is a common occurrence now.” Steve took a chug from his water bottle, wiping his mouth with his hand before asking, “How can I help?”

“It is my understanding that until the tram is operational, the hardship will continue to affect the citizens of New York who already toil each day because of damage wreaked by my brother. This matter appears to me to be one easily rectified, as the complicated mechanical work has already been concluded. What they lack is merely the ability to reach the top of this mighty structure to bring this project to fruition. It will take weeks for the crane to be repaired, but I could reach it in moments.”

“I see your point. Okay, I’m in. I’ll help you out up there, assuming you’re planning to give me a lift.” Finding new Rebuild projects was part of their daily routine, though Steve had rarely seen Thor as fired up about a particular one. The ‘sky chariots’ apparently fascinated him.

“I shall.”

“Okay. I’ll grab a quick shower and suit up. Meet you in front of the building in ten minutes?” Thor nodded, but he was now grinning in a way that didn’t look to have anything to do with their latest Operation Rebuild project. “What?”

“I must take this opportunity to remark how brightly your aura shines today. Clearly, the match between yourself and Tony Stark is a fine one. I have not before seen you look in such promising spirits. It is a sight to behold.”

“Thanks.” Steve couldn’t help but smile. Clint and Phil had said similar things to him. He no longer felt uncomfortable with everyone’s interest in his business. Those days were past. These were his friends; his family. His happiness mattered to them. They were eager to share in it, and that made Steve feel both valued and included. “I am happy. Happier than I’ve ever been; than I ever thought I could be. I love him, Thor,” he declared proudly. “I love him so much.”

His admission earned him another mighty Thor hug, and several pounding slaps on the back. “A most joyous day! Tony Stark must certainly love you as well, for only a fool would not.”

“Sure. I mean, I think so. Yeah.”

Thor stepped back. “Has he not proclaimed his affections?”

“In words? Not really. He’s not ready. He practically passed out when I said it to him. Tony’s got some issues to work out, but he shows me.” Steve smiled, harboring no doubts regarding Tony’s affections, love words or no love words.

“A man’s actions are indeed the true testament of his heart,” Thor concurred. “I intend for my actions to redeem myself in your eyes, shield brother. I have missed the camaraderie of our friendship these past weeks. I admit I sought solely your assistance on today’s endeavor purposefully. I look forward to working by your side this afternoon for our common goal.”

“I do, too.” Despite apologizing during their explosive meeting in the conference room, Steve had yet to repair the rift he had allowed to form between himself and Thor over the past few weeks because of his inability to get over Thor’s unintentional breach of his privacy. He appreciated the olive branch Thor was offering, even if it was no longer necessary. “But you don’t have to work for any redemption. You’re my friend, Thor. I’m lucky to have you.”

“I value your friendship as well.”

“I better get moving. We have a sky chariot to repair.” Steve walked towards the bench where he had left his shirt and shoes, picking up the phone he had left under the pile. He looked at it, puzzled. “Hey, Thor. Do you know what it means when the light blinks like this?” He held up the cellphone to show his friend.

“I believe the indication is you have received a message.”

“A message? Isn’t it supposed to ring first?”

“There is logic in what you say, yes.”

“Do you know how I play the message?”

“I am sorry. I do not.”

“It’s gotta be from Tony. Nobody else calls me. I can call him back. Meet you downstairs, okay?”

“I shall be waiting.”

Steve sat down on the bench, pushing the number one. He heard Tony answer before he even heard a ring on the line. “Did you forget how to answer your phone?” Tony asked in lieu of a greeting.

“I don’t think it rang. Or if it did, I didn’t hear it.”

“I called you four times. I left messages.”

“Yeah, about the messages thing—”

“That’s it. You are getting a full tutorial on cellphones tonight. Time to move past the number one, Elmo.”

“But I’m busy tonight.”

“Doing what?”

Steve smiled. “Kissing you.”

“Stop that. I’ve already had to beat off once because I can’t stop thinking about you.”

Steve felt a rush of heat whoosh through his body. “Really? I only left three hours ago.”

“Complaining?”

“Nope.” Steve was glad he wasn’t the only one pining.

“Hope you don’t mind. I’ve already had a few of my things moved to your apartment.” Tony sure wasn’t one to delay when he wanted something. Steve grinned over the idea of Tony’s belongings in his apartment.

“Did you pack plenty of pants? I’m tired of listening to your whining about no pants.”

“Enough for now. I plan to be naked a lot. I also rewired the electronics in there. Your apartment has officially stepped out of the dark age and into the Stark age.”

“You’ve had a busy morning.”

“What have you been up to? How’s Agent?”

“He is doing very well. He wanted me to remind you the actual charity event we’re supposed to attend is tomorrow night.”

“The same charity event you duped me into believing was moved to last Friday so you could lure me into your shameless den of lust?”

“I’d hardly call the Douglaston Manor a shameless den of lust.”

“How am I supposed to be expected to keep my hands off of you there tomorrow? I’m getting wood from thinking about being there with you again.”

“Maybe we can have the band hang around until after everyone leaves and we can have a private dance?”

“I’ll be your private dancer any day, baby-blue.”

Steve was pretty sure he’d missed another reference, but he was hardly able to think around Tony calling him ‘baby-blue’ enough to care. He never knew he had such a soft spot for nicknames. Of course, most of the nicknames he had been called in the past were things like runt, punk, shrimp, loser, pipsqueak, and numbskull. Baby-blue was a cut above those, and he immediately loved it. “It’s a date, then.”

“Where are you?”

“Getting ready to leave the gym. Thor and I are going to do some Operation Rebuild work over near the Roosevelt Island Tram. Where are you?”

“In the limo on the way to the airport.”

“Airport?” Steve’s stomach muscles clenched.

“That’s why I kept trying to call you. I explained in the messages. I have a meeting in Chicago, but I’ll be back tonight.”

“You didn’t say anything about Chicago earlier.”

“Only came up after you left. Pepper called. She has a stop-over there on her way back to California from DC. Perfect opportunity to get some Stark Industries business done. Be a lot quicker than me having to fly to the west coast.”

“Because you don’t have a million cellphones and video chatting computer things.” Sarcasm didn’t come naturally for him, and Steve regretted the words the minute they were out of his mouth.

“Do you want me not to go?” Tony should have sounded ticked off, but instead he was being nice.

“Of course not. It’s your work. Your work with Pepper.” Rogers, shut up and stop sniveling.

“Things have been hectic since the Battle. This is really the first opportunity I’ve had to sit down with Pepper to—”

“I understand. Really.”

“Can I finish, please? What I’m trying to tell you is I’m in the process of stepping down completely from the running of Stark Industries. There’s a pile of papers taller than the tower I have to sign, but when that happens, it’ll be done. I’m sorry this came up at the last minute, but I really want to jump on the opportunity to get together with her while we are only one time zone apart. She’s not keen on coming back to New York, and I sure as hell don’t want to be away from you the amount of time it will take to get this done in California.”

“You’re giving away your company? To Pepper?”

“No. Stark Industries is still my company. I just won’t be dealing with the minutia of running things. Pepper’s great at minutia. She loves it. I hate it. This transition has been in the works for a while; time to step things up. I’ve got way too much on my plate with the Avengers Initiative, the Rebuild, the R&D, upgrading the suits, as well as the gear for the rest of the team, and now remodeling the tower. I’m thinking of renaming it Avengers Tower, by the way. What do you think? New design. New name. I like the synergy.”

Steve’s head was spinning trying to keep up with everything Tony was saying. “Um, it’s a good name.” Steve took a long breath. “This isn’t all because of me, right? I never asked you to change your life like this.”

“I told you, the transition was already in the works before the Battle. But yeah, am I looking to expedite the process so I can have more time to devote to you, and the work we’re doing, and the life we’ve got going? You bet your pretty ass I am. Look, I’m sorry to dump all this on you via phone call as the limo is literally pulling into the airport, but I need to make this happen. Are you going to be okay?”

“Sure, Tony.” It was a lot to fathom, but Tony sounded really fired up and Steve liked the way he talked about focusing on their life together.

“We’ll talk more tonight. And answer your damn phone when I call you. I’ll let you know when I land.”

“I will. I miss you already, cutie.”

“Your cutie misses you, too. Don’t forget we have a date tomorrow after the charity schmooze-fest. You owe me a dance.”

“I owe you another dance? How exactly do I keep racking up these debts? You know, we might be pushing our luck. You’re giving me a whole new opportunity to step on your toes. I’ll have to make sure the band plays something slow.”

“You just be there. I don’t care what they play. See you tonight. Don’t be late.”

An icy shiver ran up Steve’s spine, which was crazy since he was still drenched in sweat. He stood, grabbing his stuff and hastening toward the shower. He was in and out in three minutes. A lot of the Avengers’ gear was kept in a high-security arming room on the floor below the gym, so it didn’t take him long to suit up. As he got dressed, he wondered again about the odd feeling his exchange with Tony had left him with. The words felt familiar, but how could they be? Strange. Shaking it off, he headed out of the tower, not wanting to keep Thor waiting.

~0~0~0~

The Roosevelt Island Tram spanned the East River directly beside the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. Since it was located at 59th street, it was a quick jog from the tower. Thor had offered to fly Steve, but he passed. He was going to be spending enough time up in the clouds, and he wanted to keep his feet on the ground as long as possible. Besides, they attracted enough attention merely showing up somewhere. No reason to make it worse by soaring in under the cape of the God of Thunder. Thor chose to jog beside him—which, of course drew its own level of attention, though the citizens of the city were getting more accustomed to seeing fully uniformed Avengers as part of the Rebuild effort. The only thing missing was Mjolnir, but he knew the hammer would arrive the moment Thor called.

Their presence on the scene quickly elevated a boilerplate news story into more of a media event, but Steve was getting used to ignoring the cameras when he was working in the city. As part of Operation Rebuild, SHIELD had started deploying an extra security team wherever any of the Avengers assembled, providing assistance to the police to keep them from being overburdened with crowd control. Steve wished the brouhaha wasn’t necessary, but for now the only way to avoid it was to stop helping with the Rebuild efforts altogether, which was not an option. At Coulson’s suggestion, SHIELD had also established a liaison with the mayor’s office, cutting through the red tape of bureaucracy. Within minutes of their arrival, Thor and Steve were leaning over a tableful of blueprints as they listened to the foreman of the work crew and several chief engineers regarding the status of the tram, working together to come up with a plan.

Things went surprisingly smoothly. Most of the work had, indeed, already been completed, just as Thor had explained. After devising the best strategy for refitting the faulty cable, Thor flew Steve to the top of the support tower on the Manhattan side. He still needed to get used to the whole flying thing. He was more comfortable sitting atop the over-200-foot-tower, his legs wrapped around the structure for support as he held up the heavy cable Thor was busy welding. Thor had long since eschewed the man-made tools he was provided, and instead made good use of his hammer and its energy-producing current. It was a fairly windy day, which actually provided relief from the late summer heat. The distant clouds were starting to grow darker, indicating they were likely in for a storm.

“Is this storm coming in your doing?” he asked, knowing Thor could hear him on his comm unit, even over the sound of soldering, since they were both wearing the earpieces Tony had designed.

“It is not.”

Steve ducked away from the billow of Thor’s cape, which kept smacking him in the face. “Can’t you control that thing?”

“I apologize.” He shifted his body, but it was a long cape and he was standing only one rung above Steve. “Do not despair. I have nearly completed this task. You will be happy to know there are less cameras and scribes below now.”

Steve laughed. “I guess watching us doing this is almost as boring as watching the workers.” Steve was glad to be old news.

“Perhaps I should attend to this task with more flair,” Thor stated jovially.

“No showboating. Finish the job.”

Thor did finish soon after, but there was no way to tell how well it would hold without running one of the cars. “Time to ride the sky chariot!” Thor declared. For a guy who could fly with no chariot, he was exceptionally eager. Steve was beginning to sense this was the real reason he wanted to fix the tram.

~0~0~0~

“Don’t tell me you guys are sightseeing?” Clint’s gruff laugh came in through Steve’s earpiece as the tram car began its ascent from the Manhattan station.

“What are you doing here?” Steve asked.

“The boss sent me to check up on you two.”

Steve looked out the tram window, trying to see if he could locate Clint in the crowd. It was no doubt a useless undertaking since Clint wouldn’t be anywhere he could be easily seen.

“Well, tell Phil I think we’re almost done here, though I’m not sure I’m going to get Thor off this thing until he’s had a few more rides.” Truth be told, Steve had only ridden the tram once himself in the early days post-awakening. It had been an exciting experience.

Clint laughed again. “Will do. Oh, and I’m supposed to pass you a message from Stark.”

Steve pulled the phone from a compartment in his utility belt. “Darn.” It was blinking again. He’d missed another call. “Did he land in Chicago?”

“No. That’s what he wanted you to know. They took off later than expected. Whatever storm is moving in here hit Chicago a few hours ago. Didn’t last long, though, and they reopened the airport. His plane got in the air about thirty minutes ago.”

Steve frowned. He wasn’t thrilled at the idea of Tony’s plane heading into turbulent weather, and the later he left meant the longer it would take him to get back, especially if the storm was coming this way. There wasn’t much he could do about it, though. “Thanks for passing on the message. And thanks for leaving out the part with the obscenities about me not answering my phone again.”

“You know about that, huh?”

“I figured.”

Steve looked out the broad window. They had reached the midway point of the trip and the view of the city was a good one. Thor was moving from one side of the car to the other, looking at everything with a level of enthusiasm that didn’t jell with how old he had to be. Despite his grandeur and might, he had a boyish wonder about him, which was part of what made him so endearing. He was a simple guy, unlike his brother whose complexities had complexities. When the tram car came to a sudden stop, Thor declared, “How clever. They provide time to take in the majestic vista.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not supposed to stop,” Steve responded, picking up the walkie-talkie the foreman had given them to check in with people on the ground, only to find there was, in fact, another glitch.

“I don’t think it’s the cable,” Pete, the lead mechanic informed them. “It’s gotta be the mechanism on the car. We haven’t been able to run them in weeks.”

“I shall make a thorough inspection.” Thor started climbing up and out of the car through the emergency hatch in the ceiling.

“Anything in particular we should be looking for?” Steve asked Pete as he picked up his shield from where he had sat it upon the seat, and slung it across his back before following Thor up. The wind had picked up, so Steve made sure to hold fast to the metal ladder atop the car. The mechanisms were another climb up, near where the tram attached to the cable.

“I think you fellas may be out of your league,” Pete informed. “Might be best if you come on back.”

“You’re probably right.” Steve looked up to see Thor was already quickly climbing the outer ladder towards the high wire. “But it looks like we’re going up anyway, so tell me what I’m looking for.”

Steve hitched the walkie-talkie onto his belt and started climbing, listening to Pete rattle off a lot of electrical mumbo-jumbo. It was like listening to a conversation between Tony and Bruce, which for Steve was like watching a foreign movie without subtitles. He wasn’t certain Thor was going to understand the mechanics any better, though he suspected Thor’s idea of fixing this thing was going to entail his hammer and a hearty bolt of lightning.

“The cape, Thor,” Steve complained as he reached the rung below his teammate, once again getting cracked in the face as Thor’s cloak rode a gust of wind. Thor climbed around the other side, taking his cape with him as he inspected the motors.

“They seem to be jammed,” was his conclusion.

“Tony could fix this thing.”

“I agree. We must summon him.”

“Can’t. He’s on his way to Chicago. But we can come back tomorrow.”

Pete started explaining something about a manual crank that might allow them to unlock the gears and get the car back to the station until they could make the repairs. Thor was going to need to fly back to the support tower they had been working on earlier to hit the cut-off for the current first.

“Do you wish to accompany me?”

“I think I’ll wait here. Take in the sights,” Steve joked.

“Look under the cable. Do you see any frays?” Pete was asking him as Thor took off.

“Hang on.” As Steve climbed to the upper most rung and peered beneath the long metal mechanism that held the car to the cable, he thought of the day on the Helicarrier when he had to inspect the engine control panel for Tony to check the relays. “It seems to run on some form of electricity,” he had informed, exhausting the extent of his knowledge about such things. He smiled at the memory, missing Tony.

“Hey, Thor.” Clint’s voice came in through their communicators. “While you’re buzzing around, take a pass near the bridge, lower level. Something doesn’t look right.”

Steve swung around, his eyes immediately scanning the bridge across the water, trying to find what Hawkeye had spotted. There was a fair amount of traffic, and the walkway seemed especially crowded near the center with pedestrians and bikers who were, no doubt, intrigued by the sight of Avengers perched atop the tram. He watched Thor fly closer to the bridge, his head sweeping back and forth as well.

“What is it you have espied, Clinton?”

“Outer roadway. Tanker truck.” Clint sounded like he was running now. “He’s moving too fast.”

Steve saw it, too. “Thor, you gotta get those people out of there. If that truck crashes, it won’t be pretty.” Steve’s head jerked back and forth, assessing his quickest route. He saw Thor land in front of the crowd as he climbed to the uppermost arm of the tram car, taking hold of the cable. He considered climbing the cable hand over hand until he reached the Manhattan station so he could get on the bridge to help, but he rejected the idea as too slow. Thinking fast, he whipped off his utility belt. He paused for only a split second when his phone slid out of the unfastened compartment and dropped down into the river, bemoaning the loss of the phone Tony had given him.

“I think I can halt the vehicle,” Thor declared.

“Be careful,” Steve cautioned. “We don’t know what he’s carrying and hitting you is as good as hitting a wall.”

“Help’s on the way,” Clint informed. “Natasha says Bruce has already Hulked-out and should be up there with you in a few minutes.”

“A few minutes might be too late if that truck blows.” Steve had gotten his belt around the cable, preparing a makeshift zip-line. The memory of his final, fatal mission with Bucky darkened his thoughts, assaulting his heart and senses as he hoisted himself off the top of the tram and started to slide down the line.

“Thor, look out!” Clint yelled.

The blast was violent, the sound of it reverberating through Steve’s skull. The force lurched the cable hard, sending him flying what felt like down and backward simultaneously. His back crashed into the glass tram window, cracking it with the impact of his shield. He tried to stop his fall as he slid down the windshield, but there was nothing to grab until he started descending off the front of the car. The fingers of his right hand managed to catch hold of an opening near the bottom of the tram car. The hold stopped his fall, his body coming to a jarring stop as his arm nearly ripped from the socket.

“Cap!”

“I’m okay,” Steve assured, trying to bring his left arm into play to pull himself up, but he couldn’t move it. It was then he saw the huge chunk of metal protruding through his uniform sleeve.

“Thor, you gotta get Steve!”

“No!” Steve tried to turn to see the bridge through the billows of smoke. “I’m secure. What’s happening on the bridge?”

“Hard to see,” Clint reported. “It looked like Thor was able to separate the cab from the trailer. He might have saved the driver. He’s got the hammer spinning, probably trying to keep the flames off the people. The cops and our guys are heading onto the bridge. I’m almost there. Firemen on the way.”

Steve could hear the screams and the cars crashing into each other through Clint’s earpiece, so he knew Barton had to be close to the scene. “Be careful,” he ordered.

“What about you?”

“Climbing back into the tram. Just worry about those people on the bridge. If any more cars hit those flames, it’s going to blow again.”

He wasn’t sure if it was the wind from the storm, or aftershocks of the explosion, but Steve’s body was being tossed like a ragdoll. He tightened his grip, maximizing the strength of his working arm as he tried to heave his legs upward to climb back into the car, but there was nothing to latch them on to. He was dangling below the tram and the doors were not opened. He noted the amount of blood pouring from his arm was coming at a steady clip, realizing he most likely severed an artery. Not good. The adrenaline rush was keeping the pain at bay for now as Steve planned his next move.

“Report, Barton.” It was Natasha’s voice in the communicator this time.

“We’ve got chemicals spilled over what looks like a quarter-mile radius. Thor managed to heave the trailer far enough out that most of the debris blew off the bridge, which was good for the pedestrians; not so much for Cap. We’ve got a chain reaction of crashes going here, nothing deadly yet, but if any of those cars get pushed into the fire, we’re going to have fireworks.”

“Where’s Hulk?” Steve demanded.

“He just hit the bridge on the Manhattan end,” Natasha reported.

“We’ve got a lot of smoke down there,” Steve noted. “He needs to move slow and steady so he doesn’t crush anyone in the melee.”

“Shit, Cap,” Natasha exclaimed, no doubt getting a gander at him dangling. “We’ve gotta get you off of there.”

“I can hold. Get those people to safety first.”

Steve looked down at the river beneath his feet, calculating the distance, formulating his strategy. He was certain he could survive the drop, though he didn’t look forward to going into the water. His best bet was to try and land shield first. If he lost his grip, he would twist through his fall to get the shield strapped to his back into position.

“Guys, we got another problem,” Clint warned, then his voice rose as he exclaimed, “Christ! Cap hold on!”

Steve felt the second explosion before Clint’s words finished echoing in his ear. His body waved out from the tram like a flag just as something heavy and unyielding crashed into the back of his head. The pain was blinding. Everything went dark. He could feel his fingers tearing from their hold, but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything. There was no chance to twist, or think. From somewhere in the far distance, he could hear Barton’s voice, but could form no reply.

“Cap is down! Repeat. Cap is down!”

~0~0~0~

Cold. Brutal cold.

Frost raced through his veins, claiming his blood, intent on strangling his heart.

The power in his muscles and limbs muted. After only a brief struggle the ice won out, paralyzing all but his brain. Sadistic, frigid cold would not do him the kindness of consuming his brain as well. Screaming thoughts flowed in slow motion. Blind terror. Hopelessness. Despair.

No. Can’t be cold. Summer. It’s summer.

His aching head fought for clear thought. Plunging. Too heavy. His body was dead weight.

Frozen.

No. Warm.

Panic clutched his still-beating heart and he opened his mouth to breathe; to scream. Foul, filthy water choked him, burning down his throat, filling lungs and stomach. Drowning. He was drowning.

Swim. I can swim.

Ice immobilized him, frost burning his limbs until they turned into statues.

He fought to open his lids, but they hurt. His whole face hurt. Something thick and sticky sealed his eyes shut. Darkness. Cold.

Not cold. East River. Summer.

He thought of Brooklyn as the frost seized him. Hot summer days, open hydrants, lemonade. There would be no going home. There was nothing left but ice and the cold prison of fear and unrelenting regrets. Why wouldn’t the ice take pity and freeze his brain as well?

Move your legs. Sinking. Not cold.

Water, not ice, burned his lungs. Filled them so foul he wanted to vomit, only he couldn’t. Too heavy. Too deep.

Tony. I love you.

~0~0~0~

“Do it again. Harder!”

Steve heard the muffled words in the distance as a brute force wrapped around his chest, squeezing. The pain was secondary to the convulsion rocking him. A torrent burst up through his body. Choking, gagging, foul fluid spewed from inside him. He retched as it came forth again, then his body gave out and he collapsed against the wall behind his head.

The wall had a hand which wiped, cleansing, over his face and mouth. “He breathes!”

Something far too tight strangled his left arm, the voice beside it demanding, “Come on, Cap. Come back to us.”

Steve fought to remember as the fingers on his face brushed over his eyes, pushing the wet, sticky veil from them. He struggled to lift his lids. The weight of heavy drops of water pushed them closed again. The water danced over his face and lips. Licking, he could taste clean, not filth. Rain. Raindrops.

“What’s happening, Nat!” Clint’s voice was urgent in his ear, but tinny, not close like the other two. “Come in, Natasha. Your ear-bud must be out. You better have your damn radio on.”

“We’ve got him. Thor brought us down on the Roosevelt Island side. Less chaos and no reporters here. We’re trying to bring him around.”

“Is he breathing?”

“I have cleared the water from within.” That voice was right behind him. The hard surface his head was resting on was Thor. “His breath is labored, but steady.”

“I know he’s super and all, but the face-plant he did into the river was pure dead weight. Check to see what’s broken.”

“About to,” Natasha replied competently. “Just getting this tourniquet secured. Can’t have him bleeding out on us before he has a chance to heal. I can tell you his face looks like hamburger.”

“I have removed the jagged, burning metal from his arm. There has been much blood.”

Jagged, burning metal? My arm? Musta hurt. Glad I missed it. “Bridge,” Steve managed to say, the word shard glass against his raw throat. “People.”

“I’ll be damned, Steve's communicator is still functioning,” Clint observed with a whistle. “I heard him. Through my ear-bud. Stark’s tech is kick-ass.” Steve tried to smile, thinking Tony would appreciate the compliment, but his face muscles wouldn’t cooperate. “No worries, Cap,” Clint continued. “Hulk has the fire contained and we’re moving people off the bridge rapidly. He’s pushed most of the cars back a safe distance from the spill. The last thing to get through was the car carrier. When it hit the pileup, several of the cars flew off into the fire. When they exploded, big chunks of car flew off the bridge. Looked like a whole front end nailed you in the head, Cap, but the rest went into the river.”

“Keep your cloak tight on the head wound.” Natasha’s voice again. “You can secure it with this.”

Blindly, Steve reached back, feeling the wool of Thor’s cape waded beneath his head. His skull ached so intensely, it felt more like Thor’s hammer than his cloak pressing on him. Two sets of hands were canvassing his body, one pair large and strong, the other smaller, quicker, more precise. Most of the places they were touching hurt, but the worst were his head and arm. The big hands turned his head to the side as something was wrapped around it, binding the folded fabric of the cloak to what had to be his head wound. Whatever had hit him—did Clint say a car?—clocked him good. He fought once more to open his eyes, ignoring the pain in his eye sockets. He got a blurry glimpse of the ground beside him; of his shield and discarded cowl, edges jagged from where Thor must have torn it off him. It was gray outside, rain falling steadily upon the ground near his face. He could smell the smoke and chemicals from the bridge, but couldn’t turn enough to see in that direction.

“The bridge,” he worked to say. “Dropped my phone. Can’t miss my date. Not again. Too cold.” His words weren’t making sense. He tried to turn, to see Natasha or Thor, but pain shot through his head, whiting out his vision.

“Take it easy, Cap.” Nat’s hands pressed down on his chest.

“The Captain of America is not himself.”

“Romanoff to Hill. Where the hell is the medevac copter?”

Steve felt cold. And tired. Very tired. He reached, finding Thor’s hand. Pressing it to his cheek for warmth, he let his eyes fall closed. He needed sleep. He had to get up for school tomorrow. Couldn’t be late.

“Hey, hey, Cap, you gotta stay with us.” Natasha wanted him to stay, but she was the one going. She sounded far away. Does she need to go to school, too?

“Steven!”

“What’s happening, Nat?”

“He’s white as a sheet and trying to clock out on us. Thor, you need to get him out of here. They just radioed; the damn SHIELD chopper is still six minutes out.”

“Typical incompetent bastards. Are they stopping for doughnuts on the way or did their Hammer-tech GPS battery die?”

“Stark?”

Tony?

Steve was confused again. Sounded like the Iron Man suit landing nearby, and Tony’s voice in his earpiece. Tony doesn’t live in Brooklyn, does he?

“I leave you people alone for what? Half a day? And now you’ve broken my captain? You’re lucky I don’t blast you all into the river, starting with you, Thunderdome. Were you too busy combing out your blonde tresses to catch him for fuck’s sake? Move over.” Steve felt Thor’s thighs shift beneath his head as a metal hand pressed lightly over his chest. “Steve, baby, can you hear me?”

“Tony went to California,” he muttered. That’s not right. Someplace else. Not the cold place.

“Not quite.” Tony’s voice was tender. “Barely made it over Pennsylvania, actually. Imagine my surprise when I log onto my laptop on the plane and there you are, on every news feed, doing the shimmy-shake over the East River. Wasn’t much left to do but jump out of the plane. Thankfully, I had a suit onboard.”

“I didn’t buy my suit at Sears,” Steve corrected.

“Fuck, must be one helluva concussion if he’s altered." Steve’s head was turned slightly, the cloth wrapped around the back shifting. “Christ! Did he break the river with his face or the back of his head? Looks like he’s missing a chunk of skull.”

“You guys have a convoy of news reporters heading in your direction. A few well-placed arrows have slowed the vans down, but I probably shouldn’t shoot at the incoming news helicopter, not while the fire here is still burning at least.”

“How long was he under water?”

“Close to five minutes. Thor was shielding the pedestrians until Hulk got on the scene. He sunk pretty far and fast.”

“I apologize for failing to come to his aid with more expediency. I did not see his fall, and could not hear Clinton’s distress call above the clamor.”

“Barton was about to jump off the damn bridge after him,” Natasha said sourly. “Hulk yanked him back and threw Thor in as he took his place.”

“Then why the hell do you look like the East River vomited you?”

“Because she bitched at me for trying to dive in after Cap right before she pitched herself over the rail and grabbed hold of Thor’s cape.”

“I had an Asgardian to break my fall. You would have broken your fool neck. Look what the impact did to Cap. Besides, it’s a big fucking river. Two pairs of eyes trumps one.”

“The trail of blood provided needed assistance towards locating the Captain.”

“Tony?” Steve managed to get his hand pressed to the arc reactor plate. “I lost my phone in the ice. Now we can’t see the Temple of Doom.”

“We’ll see it. Don’t you worry.” Steve got his eyes open enough to see Tony. His face shield was up. He looked handsome. And scared.

Steve’s left arm had gone completely numb, which was nice. One less thing to hurt. His body convulsed hard and he started coughing uncontrollably before he managed to ask, “The bridge?”

“The damn bridge is fine. You’re what matters.” Steve felt himself being lifted, one metal arm under his legs, the other behind his back.

“Watch his head. And be careful of the tourniquet.” Natasha’s voice grew faint. Steve wondered if she was sick, her voice was so low. “He lost a helluva lot of blood before we got to him.”

“He’ll be fine!” Soft kisses danced against the rain on Steve’s face, tickling his sore flesh, warming the frigid cold. “You’re going to heal for me, aren’t you, baby-blue?”

“Do anything for Tony. Tomorrow. Tired now. Very tired.”

“I know you’re tired, but no sleeping. You’re going to do what I tell you, Steven, do you understand?”

“Yes.” Do what Tony says.

“Good boy.” Tony’s kisses were sweet. Made his mouth feel better. Steve liked the candles and the new sheets. He could see the red from the comforter under his cheek. Comforter was hard, though.

“Don’t fall in the ice,” he warned, needing Tony to be safe.

“No ice.”

“You taking him to the SHIELD base hospital?”

“Like hell. I’ve got a medical team standing by at the tower. Nobody’s touching him without my direct supervision.”

“Clint! Get those people off the bridge!” Steve felt his throat rip from yelling, but he had to make sure everyone got to safety.

“I’m on it, Cap.” Clint sounded sad. Steve wanted to find out why, but he was too tired. Tony said no sleep. They had to watch the movie. “Phil’s already waiting for you on the medical floor of the tower.”

“Tell him we’ll be there in four.” Tony’s voice sounded like a robot.

“We going to California?”

“We’re going home, baby.”

~0~0~0~

Flying in the wind and rain was nauseating, especially with the cold. Steve tried to open his eyes, but big drops of water pelted them back shut. Same thing happened when he opened his mouth to talk. He needed to tell Tony. He was going to be sick.

“We’re almost there.” Tony’s mechanical voice told him. Might have been talking to him all along, but he couldn’t remember any words. He didn’t want to throw up on Tony’s tuxedo. Not before they danced. He fought the roiling urge until they landed and he needed to get out of the limo.

“Sick,” he muttered, desperate.

Being turned from horizontal to vertical made the dizziness worse. When his feet touched the ground, he folded in half, clutching his stomach with his only working hand. Where did my other hand go? What tasted like sewage retched up from his stomach, pouring out of him, burning his throat with acid. He tried to fall to his knees on the sopping ground, but the metal belt around his waist wouldn’t release him.

“Get it out. You’re doing good.”

Steve tried to look around, recognizing the roof of the tower. He could see the bridge from here, engulfed in flames. He had to get over there. “Thor. Contain the fire. Get those people out of the way!” Mustering full effort, Steve broke free from the cable tangling around his waist. He had to jump to get across. “Bucky, get out of here.” Bucky had already made it over the chasm, but he was being stubborn about leaving Steve behind. Steve had to jump. It was the only way. He needed to get those people off the bridge before it crashed into the ice. Every muscle in his body hurt. His head had been flattened by a tank, but he ran as fast as he could, lunging into the air, careful not to look down.

“Holyshit! Steve!”

He missed the platform. Falling. Down. Down. Sorry, Bucky. My turn to fall from the train. So cold. He was snatched from the icy wind by a heavy metal clamp around his waist, jarring him to a stop. Had to be Red Skull’s device. He fought to break free, kicking and twisting as hard as he could. His head hit something steely and unyielding, the pain vicious.

“Damn it, Steve. Stop! Stop fighting me. You’re hurting yourself.”

Tony. Tony is here.

“Tony, I gotta get on the bridge.” Tony would help him. Tony is smart.

“Baby, you just jumped off my roof. Do you know where you are?”

“Sky chariots,” Steve muttered, twisting against an unyielding force. “Gotta put it in the water.”

“What you have to do is stop. Just stop.” Tony’s voice was strange. Like a robot swallowed him.

Spitting rain and ice from his mouth, Steve begged Tony to understand. “It’s my choice.”

“No, baby, it’s my choice. I’m not letting you go. I’m stronger than you. You’re going to stop now. Tell me you understand.”

Steve’s arms were pinned, his feet couldn’t reach the floor. The wall he was pressed against was solid; intractable. No. Not a wall. A familiar blue glow cast out from the center. Tony’s heart light. “Tony?”

“Right here.”

Fear churned his stomach. “Don’t want to go back in the ice. Please help me.”

“You’re not going in any ice. Never again. I’m going to keep you warm, baby-blue.” Tony’s voice was tender, but strong. Steve realized he was safe, his body giving out, surrendering the fight as he went limp in Tony’s arms.

“Stark, what’s the hold-up? According to JARVIS you’re on the roof. The storm isn’t getting any calmer out there.”

Coulson’s voice was in Steve’s ear. Where was Phil? He shouldn’t be out in the rain. “Your wheelchair will rust, Phil.”

“Sorry, Agent. Had a slight delay when Steve decided to hurl himself off the roof.”

Who jumped off Tony’s roof?

Steve was moving again, but he couldn’t walk. Tony? Tony was carrying him inside, away from the rain. That was good. He was tired of wet and cold. Maybe he could sleep now?

“Not good. Be best if you don’t remove the Iron Man suit until they get him stabilized. Nothing else is going to be strong enough to restrain him.”

“Couldn’t agree more. On my way to you now. Wake up, baby. No sleeping.”

“Are we going to Staten Island to visit Phil?”

“Sure.”

~0~0~0~

The bed Tony laid him on wasn’t comfy like their bed, but no matter. The pain coursing through him wouldn’t have allowed for comfort. The room was very white; so white, it hurt to look at it. The people in the room were nice. They spoke gently to him, but he couldn’t understand many of the words. Maybe they don’t speak English. He was aware they were cutting off his suit and he thought to complain, but it was wet and cold and covered in blood. Being free of it didn’t bring much warmth at first, but then blankets were laid over him; hot blankets, like they had been cooked in the oven. He liked the oven blankets. Not as much as Nathan’s, though.

“I don’t know if it’s the blood loss and injuries, shock, or some horrific flashback being fueled by what has to be a fucking huge concussion, but he is cold—too cold.”

“Could be all three.” Coulson’s voice was close. Steve could hear him even though the bud was taken from his ear by an unseen hand. He was being poked and prodded, cold instruments touching his frigid skin.

“Phil?” Steve asked. “You have to tell Clint. Get him off the bridge before it goes down in the ice.”

“I’ll make sure he gets off. You need to take it easy, Steve.”

He could hear Coulson, but he couldn’t see him. Is Phil under the bed? There were windows. The storm outside was dark and raging. He was pushed to his right side, the vise clamped around his left arm released, but the limb wasn’t part of him. His head was gently unwrapped and he caught sight of a familiar piece of material. “Thor’s cape.” He tried to reach for it, but he was lying on his only working arm. “I ruined it. But I wasn’t mad. About the hitting. Was the wind. Blows a lot.”

Tony came into his line of vision. He was in red, like the comforter, only his head was Tony’s whole head and his hand, too, a real hand; the fingers gentled over his face. “Thor used his cape to help you. He doesn’t mind. Can you stop worrying for a while so the doctors can help you, too?”

“My face feels wrong.” Tony’s fingers were nice, but his face felt swollen, like a boxer after a bad fight, only a lot more. Hard to keep his eyes open.

“You hit the water with your face, babe. But it’s already getting better. Looked a lot worse when I first got to you.”

“Ugly.”

“You could never be ugly.”

Steve wanted to smile, but it hurt too much. Even thinking about it hurt. The pain in his head was complete agony, which made the aches coursing through the rest of him almost inconsequential. Shouldn’t ice be more deadening? Didn’t seem fair to be frozen and yet suffering this severely.

“You need to get his pain managed,” Phil calmly demanded.

“Has he complained of much pain?”

“This is Steve Rogers, Doctor. He doesn’t complain about anything. Stark, were the records from the medical facility in Staten Island faxed to this team?”

“JARVIS?”

“Every known medical record on Captain Rogers is in the database, sir.”

“Then I suggest one of you knuckleheads stop playing doctor and start acting like one. I’m paying you a fuck ton of money. Fix him!”

Steve grimaced, but his brain barked out a warning. Tony was in trouble. The distress was clear. Gotta get up.

“Tony, I understand your stress, but try to remain calm.”

“Coulson, do you think I care what these assholes—”

“They aren’t the ones I’m worried about.”

“Gotta help Tony.”

“Steve, whoa, no, baby, don’t get up.”

“Tony, I’m coming!” Steve fought off the hands trying to subdue him; to keep him from Tony. He heard trays crashing, carts being upturned. Needles tore from his body. His head swam from his sudden movement, stomach heaving, but he made it to his feet, looking about blindly as something thick and sticky gushed into his eyes. Didn’t matter. He would find Tony.

Metal arms fastened him in a bear hug, pressing him back downward, pinning his body to the bed. Something warm and wet brushed over his face and eyes, cleaning the gook as he was held securely. “Steve, it’s me. It’s Tony. Open your eyes.”

“Somebody get that damn bleeding under control before he bleeds out.” Phil sounded as close to mad as Steve had ever heard him.

Steve felt something tighten on his good arm, and then a sharp pinch, but it was nothing compared to the agony in his head. “Get three units of O-neg up! Run ‘em wide open!”

“Tony?” Steve thought he was speaking aloud, but he couldn’t hear himself. Tony’s face was before him, blurry and dark. Something was wrong with Tony. He looked agonized. Voices were talking back and forth in various tones of desperation. Steve struggled to understand the words. He had to help Tony. Groaning, he fought to get his limbs to move.

“I shall assist.”

“Thor? Where did you come from?”

Large hands cupped Steve’s head, immobilizing it, as the metal weight on his chest incapacitated him. “I have brought something for Steven, something of my world. It will anesthetize both pain and movement so that he may heal more quickly.”

“How do we know your Asgardian moonshine isn’t going to damage him?”

“The Captain is strong as any warrior I have known. He will endure.”

“We don’t have a lot of choice, Stark. You can’t reason with him. The head injury has him too disoriented, and the confusion is setting off the fear, which triggers the instinct to fight. Despite the injuries, he’s still strong; strong enough to hurt himself struggling. Every time he moves, he’s bleeding more. I doubt even his serum will be able to keep up with the rapid loss from both his head and the artery in his arm.”

“Agent Coulson has a point, Mr. Stark. Based on his pulse rate, his discoloration, and the rapid and profuse blood loss, we could be looking at hypovolemic shock. I suspect internal bleeding from the impact of the fall as well, which is not working in his favor.”

“They mean me?” Steve asked, trying to find Tony’s face again, but the room was spinning.

“You managed to hurt yourself pretty good,” Tony said softly. He sounded calm, but Steve didn’t believe he was. “But we’re going to give you some medicine and then you’re going to do your super soldier thing, and it’ll all be good. Okay, baby?”

“Can’t,” Steve said weakly, though he hated disappointing Tony. He just couldn’t dance right now. “Doesn’t work in the ice. Too cold.” It was cold. Very cold. Loud buzzers and alarms were going off. Noise. Noise. Noise. Steve longed for quiet so his head could stop hurting. He hated to leave Tony, though. Serum doesn’t help in the ice. No time for the movie.

“Captain Rogers’ blood pressure has dropped to 60 over 32, sir.”

“Fuck! Thor, get your magical mystery potion in him now!”

Steve was vaguely aware of more needle pinches, and sadly cognizant of the smell of Tony’s fear. He felt himself being pulled towards unconsciousness, and he struggled to fight. Tony said no sleeping. Unfortunately, this was a battle he wasn’t winning.

Sorry, Tony.

~0~0~0~

Is this what it feels like to be dead?

The question floated hazily through Steve’s mind, never quite lighting anywhere long enough to worry about. His thoughts were slow and scattered. He could hear things, but he couldn’t name them. He wasn’t sure they mattered. The absence of pain was an overwhelming sensation; he was afraid of it, but he couldn’t hold the fear. His heart wasn’t able to muster enough beats to panic.

He managed to get his eyes open—or did he? He was looking through cotton. Maybe a dream? His body was in a room, yet he didn’t quite feel himself there. He didn’t feel much of anything.

He might have been on his side. Someone else was in the dream, a foot away. He tried blinking, but his lids were too heavy. There were monitors and wires and someone standing over them; checking them; writing stuff down. He looked familiar. Steve started to worry, but he couldn’t muster enough energy to sustain it, worry bleeding away, leaving him floating again.

He continued to stare, waiting for his languid thoughts to tell him something. When the man’s head looked up and smiled at him, he recognized Bruce. “Hey, Steve.” The words were no more than a whisper. The only other sounds he could distinguish were mechanical, dings and pings.

Bruce moved closer, reaching a hand to touch Steve’s head, looking over his shoulder towards what felt like bandages plastered over the back of his scalp. He mentally winced, remembering the pain, pain no longer there. Bruce looked to be touching, but Steve didn’t feel. Maybe he was dead after all. Was Bruce dead, too?

The bridge.

Did he die there?

“You’re okay, Steve,” Bruce assured. Steve didn’t have the energy to believe or disbelieve, but he tried to listen. “You’re in the medical facility in Stark Tower. They’re taking excellent care of you.” A circle of light from Bruce’s hand shined into his left eye, then his right, but Steve was too listless to blink it away. “I know you feel very wonky, but I want you to try not to worry. They administered an Asgardian drug that I’ve been working to identify—without success. No part of its composition exists in our world, but for the most part, I think it’s helping you. I’m just not sure how long the drug will take to wear off or what its full effects are. Seeing you open your eyes is a good sign.”

Made sense—and yet, no sense at all. Didn’t matter. Bruce didn’t look overly worried. “Are you feeling any pain?” Steve meant to say ‘no,’ but he wasn’t sure if he did anything more than drool. More of the room came into focus. It was dark outside the window. Nighttime dark. Still raining. What looked like the huge body of a sleeping Thor was draped over a couch behind Bruce’s shoulder. He wasn’t wearing a cape, and Steve thought he knew why, only he didn’t.

“Everyone is here with you.” Bruce was still talking, so Steve tried to make sense of the words. “Clint and Natasha finally took Phil to lie down in the room next door. He’s been in the wheelchair too many hours, but he was adamant about not leaving here.”

Poor Phil.

It was like moving through Jell-O, but Steve was finally able to muster the wherewithal to furrow his brow, pushing to ask what he most needed to know. Some kind of sound passed through his lips. He wasn’t sure Bruce understood, but then he leaned closer and wrapped his hand around Steve’s wrist. Steve was on his right side, facing the window, so it was his left arm Bruce controlled. He waited for the searing pain, but it didn’t come. Instead, his hand was placed a few inches behind him, landing on a thigh that wasn’t his. He couldn’t move his fingers, but his palm felt right there. He became more aware of the warm body sharing his bed, pressed to his back, grounding him. Made sense now, why he didn’t feel more panic over his feeble condition.

“He awake?” Tony’s voice was hoarse and thick, but Steve would know it anywhere.

“Not sure if awake is the term I would use. His eyes are open. Glassy and not responsive, but open.”

“Hey, Steve-baby, I’m right here.” Tony’s arm came around his waist and hugged carefully. The sensation didn’t feel distant. A gentle kiss landed on his cheek. “His face is much better.”

“The head wound looks better, too. I changed the dressing a few minutes ago. This arm is healing slower than I’m comfortable with.” He saw, rather than felt Bruce place his arm back on his own side before sliding the blanket down to fan his hands over the length of it. Steve probably should have felt the touch on his skin, but he didn’t.

Tony’s hand was moving on his stomach. “I think I’m going to change out these blankets again. The nurse should have done it a half hour ago. His flesh still feels cold to me. You sure I can’t put an electric blanket over him?”

“Not with all these monitors attached.”

“Fine. I’ll get more of the heated ones.”

The warmth withdrew from Steve’s back, an unpleasant sensation. Distress surged up through the heavy, cotton cocoon wrapped around him. Tony’s gone. Gone. Gone. He couldn’t see him or feel him or hear him. Alone. Steve struggled to call out, but he had no voice. None of his limbs would obey any command, even when he could concentrate enough to form one. He was trapped. Frozen. His vision darkened, breath turning to ice in his lungs. He fought to scream, but there was no sound. Only cold.

“Uh, Tony, you need to get back here. Now.”

One of the monitors shrieked, but Steve didn’t care. Maybe his heart was stopping and he would be free of this prison. The ice immobilized him, but refused to grant him the peace of oblivion.

“What’s wrong?”

“Look.”

“Oh my God.” Tony’s fingers returned, brushing across the ice on Steve’s face. “Those are tears.”

“Looks like it. His heart rate is climbing too quickly.”

“He’s not supposed to be feeling anything.”

“Well, he sure as hell felt you leaving because that’s what triggered this. Look at his eyes. They were somnolent before. That looks like terror to me now.”

“Steve, I’m sorry. I’m right here. Look at me. Do you know I’m with you? Can you see me?”

Tony was here. He was looking for Steve. But Tony sounded far away, his voice not in the same place as his face. Was he trapped too? Brief flickers of heat scattered over Steve’s body: on his cheek, his neck, his chest, his hand.

“Christ, he’s like ice again. I’m right here, sweetheart. I need you to feel me. It’s Tony. Your cutie-sweetie Tony. Remember? You’re still here with me in the tower. You’re not in the Arctic. There’s no ice. The medicine’s making you loopy. That’s why you can’t move and talk yet, but it’s going to pass. Considering the torture you’ve been through, I can totally understand why being this immobilized would be pure terror for you. I realize now when I moved, I took your anchor to the here and now with me. Won’t happen again. I swear. I’m not leaving you.”

Not leaving.

Tony.

“I had your comforter brought here. Nice and clean. Just for you.” The red comforter. The one from their bed. It was on top of Steve. On top of the other blankets. He could see it. “If you get scared, just look at this blanket, and you’ll know you’re home, okay?”

Their blanket was warm. Soothing. Like Tony. Like his voice. His touches. Red was hot and could burn through the ice.

“I think it’s working, Tony. Hey, Steve—it’s Bruce. You remember how we watched over Coulson, right? Try to remember. Know that we’re all right here with you, keeping watch. You’re not trapped. There’s no ice. You’re sure as hell not alone. Your boyfriend here has been peeing in a jug to keep from having to leave your side. You’re safe, Steve. If you try to sleep, I think this will wear off sooner. Your body has already done a remarkable job healing. Let it rest now.”

“You can sleep for me, can’t you, baby boy?” Tony’s fingers combed lullingly through his hair. His voice was a sweet song. “I know I told you before you couldn’t sleep, but you can sleep now. I want you to. In fact, Bruce and I are going to sit here and talk science geek. That’ll put you out for sure.”

In a distant place in his brain not fully functioning, Steve knew that was funny. He didn’t fight when his eyes drew closed and brought the darkness. No. Not dark. There was a blue beacon of light over a red, puffy blanket, and the hypnotic lure of a voice that shattered the icy isolation, bringing the warmth of the sun.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“Do you know what year it is, Captain Rogers?”

Steve knew the doctor was trying to do his job, but the question still struck him as uncomfortably familiar. “I didn’t get any of these questions right the first time, when I woke up from the ice.” Steve repeated the mantra that had been asked of him a dozen times in the SHIELD hospital. “What year is it? Who is the president? Do you know where you are?” He shook his head, trying to focus on the now. “I do know my name is Steve Rogers, and I did pee on my own this morning. Does that count for anything?”

“He did. I saw him. It was magnificent.” Tony stood beside the bed holding the cup with the straw Steve had been trying to drink from, though he had little desire for the water.

Steve appreciated Tony’s attempt at levity, but it had been far from magnificent. Complete sentences were slow to come, making it all the more frustrating when he finally became aware of the tube they had stuck up his penis. If he could have moved enough of his own limbs to get it out, he would have. Instead, he kept muttering stupidly, “Out, out, out,” until Bruce finally clued in to what was distressing him. He was sorry whatever anesthetic they had given him had mostly worn off by then, because the extraction process had been misery despite Tony’s attempts to distract him.

“And I can vouch he got his name right,” Clint added from the windowsill where he was perched.

The doctor didn’t look particularly amused. “How about a different question? Do you know the day of the week?”

Steve concentrated. Things were still fuzzy, though not nearly as bad as a few hours ago. The drug they had used on him had been potent. Each time he had gained the smallest level of consciousness, Tony or Bruce or whoever was closet kept a calming litany going to remind him where he was and what was happening to him. It was similar to the way they had had to help Coulson re-orient, and he found comfort in that, though it was all still disconcerting. His own memories were choppy at best. Bits and pieces. Nothing he wanted to linger on too long: Pain, delirium, incapacity, fear. Through it all, there was Tony. He was very aware of Tony. Trying again to come up with an answer for the doctor, he started back at the things he did have a clear recollection of. “I know there was Sunday.” He turned to Tony and smiled, grateful those memories were fully intact. “Then it was Monday. Yeah, Monday. The tram. The bridge. It was Monday, so this must be Tuesday?”

“It’s actually Wednesday.”

“Wednesday?” Steve was thrown, shifting uncomfortably atop the bed. They hadn’t let him walk yet, but he stretched out his legs to make sure they were still working. He knew he should be thankful for having made it this far.

“You’re just not good with tests, buddy,” Clint teased, undoubtedly trying to keep him from fretting.

“How ‘bout we save the rest of the inquisition for later,” Tony suggested, glaring at the doctor, his finger motioning towards the door. “Give the guy a chance to wake up and shake the cobwebs out.”

“I missed our date,” Steve muttered sadly, the realization sinking in. “We were going to dance. After the charity event.”

“The charity event was postponed,” Phil assured him. “It will be rescheduled.”

“We’ll have plenty of dates.” Tony set the cup down, leaning in to prop the pillows behind Steve’s back. They had the bed positioned to enable him to sit up, but there were several pillows behind him to make certain he didn’t lean back hard on his not fully healed head.

“I don’t have a good track record with that sort of thing.” Steve’s mind had been a jumbled knot of past and present since he got injured. The similarities were eerie, but at least when he woke up this time, he’d only missed a date, not lost everything.

“Are you kidding? We had the most epic thirty-six plus hour date in history. You do remember, right?”

Steve’s cheeks heated as he looked down at the red comforter over his lap. “Yes.”

“Captain Rogers, I’d like to draw some more blood.”

“Are you still here?” Tony asked flippantly, glaring at the doctor. “I thought you left. In my mind, I saw you walking out the door. Didn’t happen?”

“Tony.” Steve reached for Tony’s arm, missing the first time, but getting hold the second. “Don’t be rude.”

“I’m paying him. I can be as rude as I want to be.”

Tony looked exhausted and Steve knew he was the cause. He ran his fingers soothingly over the bare skin of Tony’s forearm as he addressed the doctor. “You can take all the blood you want. Just give us a few minutes, please.”

The doctor did leave this time. “Some people don’t take a hint well,” Tony sniped.

“Did you piss off another doctor?” Bruce asked, entering the room with Natasha directly behind him.

“They’re all incompetent. I’m firing everybody.”

“I don’t think it’s their fault. I’m a complicated patient.”

“You do defy the medical books,” Bruce agreed, standing on the side of the bed and taking hold of Steve’s left arm.

“Look who’s talking,” Natasha pointed out.

“Good point.” Bruce clasped Steve’s hand as if they were arm wrestling. “Can you resist me?”

On a normal day, Steve could have snapped Bruce’s arm off. Today, his efforts only managed to keep his arm from being pushed back down to the mattress too quickly. Still, the result was better than this morning’s previous attempts when he had trouble clasping Bruce’s hand as all. The exertion had left him panting, a hot twinge of pain coursing from fingertips to shoulder.

“Guess I’m not exactly one hundred percent.”

“Anyone else would have lost this arm . . . and probably be dead,” Bruce assessed. “Therefore, I’d say you’re doing fine.”

“I can help you with your physical therapy if you’d like.” Everyone laughed at Phil’s injection of humor into the situation. “Or maybe you’d like to borrow a sling?”

“Thanks,” Steve replied, then looked around at his friends. “All of you. Really. Thanks.”

The door burst open wide and Thor sauntered through, dressed in his ‘Midgardian costume’ as he liked to call it when he wore his jeans and tee shirt. He was carrying two large, greasy bags. “Steven! How heartening to see you upright. I have brought you a feast from the king of burgers.”

“Considering your last meal was the East River, that’s gotta sound tasty.” Tony took one of the bags from Thor’s hand, digging inside to pull out a fry, which he popped into his mouth. Steve’s throat was still sore and his stomach felt iffy at best, but he didn’t refuse when Tony fed him the next fry out of the bag.

“Nothing like a hearty, nutritious breakfast,” Clint declared. “Give me some.”

The bags were passed around, most of the food consumed. Steve watched, not really hungry. His IV’s were still in, and they had gotten him to drink a little water on his own, but food held no appeal. The one fry he had eaten was a pile of lead in his gut. He dozed off a few times while his friends ate, relieved upon awakening to still be aware of his surroundings. He had a lot of questions about what happened at the bridge, and could tell he was only being given a short version of the story, but he understood their efforts to protect and not tax him. Miraculously, no one was killed, and none of the injuries sustained were fatal, so he took comfort in that knowledge. The truck driver who had caused the incident had suffered a heart attack, which is how he came to lose control of his vehicle. Thor’s quick thinking had gotten his cab detached from the truck before it blew, and he was expected to recover. Despite the ordeal Steve had been through, he was grateful they had been on the scene, because the whole situation would have been much worse if they hadn’t been.

“I suppose the tram is out of commission again,” he reasoned.

“Thing didn’t stand a chance after getting hit full on by Captain America and his mighty shield,” Clint quipped.

“When you are recovered fully, we shall return to put right the sky chariots!”

“Like hell.” Tony nearly spit half a Whopper at Thor. “I’ll fix the damn thing myself before I let you two up there again.” He pointed an accusing finger at Thor. “You, stay away from all things mechanical, and no dragging him into your blonde-brained schemes, especially when they involve being 200 feet above water. And you,” he turned to Steve. “I’m not letting you out of my sight for at least the next . . . oh, how ‘bout ever.”

Steve didn’t argue with him, and no one even made a joke, which for this group was telling. Tony had been through hell, and was way too overwrought for any of this to be funny right now. Tony was sitting on the edge of Steve’s bed and he set his right palm upon Tony’s thigh, hoping to offer comfort and a reminder that he was all right.

The last thing they needed was for Nick Fury to breeze into the room, but that was just the kind of timing the man had.

“Who let you into my tower?” Tony asked, his face souring. “JARVIS, don’t we have any attack dogs?”

“I am not aware of any, sir.”

“Damn. I knew I forgot to buy something.”

“Director, this might not be the ideal time,” Coulson cautioned.

“Since Stark won’t return any of my calls, it’s not like I had a choice.” Fury took three steps towards the bed. “How you doing, Cap?”

“I’m good, sir.” He felt Tony’s tension beneath his hand, and he tried to smooth it with his palm. “They tell me I’m healing up nicely.”

“Good to hear. We were all concerned.”

“We must have missed your flowers,” Natasha said drolly.

“I’ve been a little busy putting out fires, right, Stark? Maybe you could step out in the hall for a word?”

Tony actually started to stand, but Steve pressed down hard on his lap. His good arm was working fine. Tony wasn’t going anywhere. “Whatever you need to say, I’d prefer you say it in here, sir.”

“I don’t want to interfere with your convalescence. I truly do want to see you well.”

“I appreciate that. But this is my team and as long as I’m not in a pine box, then I intend to be involved in whatever goes on with them.”

Fury shot a deferring look to Coulson, who responded, “You heard the man.”

“All right then. We’ll start with the appetizers and work our way up to the main course.” Steve had no idea what was coming, but he could tell by the tension in the room, there was a lot he hadn’t been told about what had been going on while he was in La-La Land. “This is not a SHIELD-sanctioned medical facility. Where do you get off bringing one of our operatives—”

“I am not your operative,” Steve pointed out.

“This is an Avengers-sanctioned medical facility,” Tony defended.

“Sanctioned by whom?”

“I guess that would be me. I started putting this place together not long after Avengers started moving into my tower. This is our medical facility.”

“I’ll sanction it too, if you like,” Bruce added. “I don’t think I’ve ever gotten to sanction anything before.”

“Your SHIELD-sanctioned medical team wasn’t on the scene while Cap was bleeding out.” Natasha was on her feet, practically snarling.

“That miscue is being seriously addressed, believe me. But Stark could have just as easily transported the captain to our midtown base hospital in the same amount of time as it took him to come here. Instead, he pulls another one of his renegade stunts, putting the life of Captain Fucking America, of all people, at risk.”

“If I’m with Tony, I can assure you, I’m not at risk, sir.”

“You sure about that? Are you aware they pumped you full of an unknown alien substance?” He spun around to confront Thor, his black coat billowing out behind him. “As for you, I want that vial.”

“I possess no vial.”

“Vial, bottle, container—I don’t care if you have it in a jug with three x’s on the front, stuffed in a brown paper bag. I want it. Our scientists need to get a look at the contents of that stuff.” Fury threw a glare at Bruce. “I know you’ve had it under your microscope, Doctor, so don’t try to look innocent.”

“I’ve had a lot of things under my microscope. You’d have to be more specific.”

“I apologize, Director Fury,” Thor stated, though he did not sound sorry. “I cannot comply with your request. I would not be comfortable with the solution falling into the wrong hands.”

"But you put it in Stark’s hands?”

“Technically, I did not. I provided it to Steven.”

“And I think I pissed out the last of it this morning.”

Clint snickered at Steve’s confession, incurring the wrath of the director, who spun and turned on him. “Don’t think your tight little white ass isn’t in this shit up to your balls, Barton.”

“Agent, I think he’s making a pass at your husband.”

“Shut up, Stark. I’ll get to you next.”

“I thought you were finished with me. The whole renegade thing and the vial that wasn’t really in my hands; wasn’t that my turn?”

“Not even close. As for you, Barton, are you aware the media doesn’t appreciate you shooting arrows through tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of their equipment?”

“Um, excuse me,” Tony said, raising his hand like an eager schoolboy. “I know we’re not back to my turn yet, but I have my checkbook in my jacket. I can pay for whatever he broke. Clearly it was a bad day. His aim was off. Performance anxiety. You know what that’s like, don’t you, Nick?”

“His aim was perfect, as always, right, Hawkeye? You hit everything you intended to hit.”

Clint shrugged at Fury’s accusation. “Those vultures didn’t have any business intruding on something private. I don’t think they have a right to shove cameras in the face of one of the true heroes of this world while he’s bleeding out his eyeballs and upchucking all over his teammates’ uniforms while they’re fighting to save his life. Sir.”

“Well, you don’t get paid to think. What if you had hit an innocent bystander?”

“You just said he had perfect aim,” Natasha hissed.

“Do I have to remind all of you people we are trying to establish a positive media image and public persona for the Avengers? Madison has been working her ass off the last two days trying to keep all your misdoings contained. Do you really think shooting at the press is the route to go? Especially since you damn well missed one.”

“Had to be a bystander’s camera phone, not anyone from the press,” Clint responded grudgingly. “Because I didn’t miss any.”

“I appreciate you guys trying to protect me, but if someone snapped pictures of me bleeding and unconscious, it’s not the end of the world.”

“Except that isn’t the video that’s gone viral,” Fury exclaimed.

“What are you talking about?” Steve was confused, but apparently he was the only one, since everyone else was pointedly avoiding looking at him. “Tell me.”

Phil cleared his throat. “This might be a good time to point out the Avengers saved countless lives, and contained structural damage that could have been devastating to the infrastructure of one of the most travelled bridges in our country.”

“No shit,” was Fury’s reply. “We should have hit the media jackpot on this one, but instead, thanks to our billionaire stud here, all anyone wants to talk about is Romeo kissing Sleeping Fucking Beauty!”

“Technically, you’re mixing your metaphors, Director,” Bruce explained, pushing his glasses back on his nose. “Romeo is a character from English literature whose paramour was Juliet, while Sleeping Beauty comes from a fairytale and her beau was . . . now, wait. Don’t tell me. What was his name? It wasn’t Prince Charming. Give me a second. I can Google this.”

“You think I give a fuck!”

“Well, I give a fuck,” Tony complained. “I always wanted to play Juliet. I almost had the part in high school, but they were insisting I shave the beard, which was a deal breaker. They had no vision. I suggested they simply change it to Romeo and Julio, but they were traditionalists. Or maybe it was the double ‘o’ thing they objected to? I happen to like the assonance, but I can see how it could appear uninspired.”

Steve started to rub his temple with his fingers, not enjoying the return of his headache, thankful it was bearable. “Can someone please tell me what we’re talking about?”

“Someone posted a video on the Internet,” Phil explained. “Iron Man was cradling Captain America in his arms, kissing him. It’s become front page news.”

Bruce moved to the side of the bed, checking the monitors before nudging Steve forward to examine beneath the bandage on his head. Tony’s fingers covered Steve’s on his temples. “You okay, Steve?”

“Just hurts a little,” he muttered before turning to gaze at Tony. “You were kissing me?”

Tony nodded. “Yup.”

“That’s sweet.”

“Sure, all kinds of sweet,” Fury groused. “The sugary, saccharine kind. What it’s not is good press. Not when the Avengers Initiative is still in its initial stages.”

“Doesn’t it bother anybody that we live in a country where a guy kissing another guy can shove a story about life-saving heroism to the back pages of the paper?” Clint grumbled. “How is this even Tony’s fault? And who gives a fuck? The media is out of control. I should have used more arrows.”

“The media is out of control,” Fury agreed. “And people’s lives should be personal, and news should focus on poverty and injustice, and something called a tweet shouldn’t have the power to dictate lives, but we don’t live in a pretty and fair world. We live in this shitty-ass one, so we play by those rules. It may not be Stark’s fault, but he sure as hell has the power to fix this. Now I don’t give a damn who any of you are fucking. You can get it on with roosters in the god-damned hen house on old McDonald’s fucking farm for all I care. But tomorrow afternoon, Tony Stark is giving a press conference. Madison has already set it up. Nip this shit in the bud before it gets any bigger and let’s get back to business.”

“Sir, I don’t believe a press conference is the way to go,” Phil interjected. “You remember what happened the last time.”

“Surely even Stark can’t fuck this up. His reputation has been trash for years, but I strongly doubt he wants to see Captain America’s rep dragged through the mud.”

“Hello? I’m still here. In the room. The guy with the trashy reputation.”

“I’ll do it,” Steve volunteered, shouldering aside his aversion to the spotlight. “This all happened because of me. I should be the one—”

“Absolutely not.”

“No way in hell!”

It was a rare occasion for Fury and Tony to agree. For them to do it simultaneously was more bizarre. “Why not?” Steve asked.

“Baby, they’d eat you alive.” Tony kissed his nose and patted his swollen cheek.

“Tony, we gotta cut this short,” Bruce said after re-doing Steve’s bandage. “He needs more rest.”

“Another good reason why you’re staying out of this,” Tony insisted.

“Listen to him, Cap.” Fury pointed a long finger at Tony. “You make it short and sweet. You were distraught. You were giving him mouth to mouth. You thought he was dead. Pick one. Issue your statement then throw the focus back to the bridge and how many lives were saved. You make that the news story and put this other thing to rest.”

“This other thing?” Steve repeated, offended. “Do you have to make it sound so base? Do you have any idea how scared he was? What I put him through? If it wasn’t for Tony—for all of this team—I’d be dead. In fact, if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t care if I was dead. Tony didn’t do anything wrong and there’s no way in hell he’s taking shit from anybody for being the amazing man he is!” Steve hadn’t noticed how loudly his monitors were dinging until he stopped to catch his breath, which, at the moment, he was having a tough time locating.

“Okay, enough. Party’s over,” Bruce announced. “Everyone out. Doctor’s orders.”

“Baby, take it easy.” Tony’s hands were on his chest.

“I’m fine.”

“You just swore twice . . . in the same sentence.”

“You’re a b-bad influence,” Steve huffed.

“One more thing that’s my fault,” Tony laughed.

As everyone filed out, each bidding Steve to take care of himself, Tony adjusted Steve’s covers and lowered the back of the bed before climbing in beside him. “I’m going to come back and check on you in a few minutes,” Bruce said as he closed the blinds and switched off all but the dimmest light. To Tony, he added, “Try to get him to rest.”

Tony nestled onto Steve’s chest and Steve brought his good arm around Tony’s shoulder. “I hate being this much trouble,” he groused, finally getting a full breath. The darkening of the room had soothed his headache.

“You’re not trouble,” Tony said so softly Steve barely heard him. He moved his head again, pressing the side of his face against Steve’s breastbone. “Am I too heavy here?”

“No.”

“Good. I need to listen to your heart.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Steve pulled the blanket until it was out from under Tony’s head, letting him get closer still to his chest, only the thin hospital gown separating them now.

“Put your blanket back. You’ll get cold.”

“You keep me warm.” Tony’s body was as tense as one of Clint’s bow strings, like he was afraid to let anything slip out. Steve kissed the top of his head. “Can JARVIS play music in here?”

“Sure. What do you want to hear?”

“The song we danced to. The last one. The ‘come on home and turn me on,’ one.”

Tony sighed against him before requesting the song from JARVIS. It only played a couple of verses, Steve feeling himself relaxing into the memory, when Tony’s body grew stiffer. “JARVIS, turn it off.”

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked.

“I can’t.”

“I’m sorry. I just wanted you to relax. You’re so tense.”

“Not sure there’s a song to help that.” Tony’s voice cracked, his fingers tightening in the comforter near Steve’s hand. “I almost lost you.”

Tony sounded about eight-years-old and it broke Steve’s heart. “I’m here, my love. I’ve got you.”

“Supposed to be taking care of you,” he griped, angry with himself.

“You already did,” Steve hushed calmly. “Let me hold you for a while, okay? That’s the best medicine you can give me.”

Tony didn’t protest when Steve shifted them, getting Tony completely under the blanket, tucked against him. He rested one leg atop of Tony’s two, holding him as tight as he could with one arm. Tony started to vibrate, mildly at first, but it wasn’t long before the shudders were fierce. Steve held on, murmuring quietly, not even sure what he was saying. Tony probably couldn’t hear him anyway. Steve realized the constant, steady pounding of his heart was the only thing Tony wanted to listen to.

“Please don’t leave me,” Tony pleaded before Steve’s chest became moist with warm tears soaking through his gown.

“Never leave you.”

“S-sorry. I don’t do this.”

“You do it with me.”

“Y’sure?”

“Yup.”

Tony allowed a bit more of his anguish to slip through what still felt like tightly held walls. Steve rocked him, reminding him over and over it was okay. Eventually, the storm passed. Tony’s tremors slowly quieted until his body was lax against Steve’s. Steve drew comfort from the trusting presence of the body pressed close to his. He was nearly asleep himself when Bruce slipped back into the room to check his monitors.

“Your blood pressure and pulse are back to normal,” he noted with a twinge of disbelief.

“I know,” Steve said peacefully, kissing Tony’s sleeping head before he closed his eyes and let himself drift.

~0~0~0~

Chapter Text

“I’m not sure I should be doing this.” Clint looked around again, making sure they were alone in the men’s room. “I don’t want to wake up with a horse’s head in my bed.”

“A what?” Steve asked, shocked.

“Movie reference,” Clint explained, waving his hand. “I just mean Tony’s going to be pissed at me for showing this to you.”

“I have a right to know what all the hoopla is about.”

“Then ask Tony to show you.”

“I did. He won’t. He’s still worried about me.” Steve’s hand reflexively combed over the back of his head, feeling the patch where his hair had been shaved and his head was still scabbed.

“I’m worried about you, too.”

“I’m fine,” Steve assured. “They let me out this morning with a clean bill of health. Ask Bruce. He’ll tell you. Tony wouldn’t have let me come here today otherwise.” In truth, it wasn’t as smooth a process as all that. Bruce had concerns about unforeseen after-effects of Thor’s mystery drug, and Tony sure didn’t let him come. He argued long and hard to the contrary.

“Tony doesn’t want any of us here.”

Clint was right. The press conference would be starting in fifteen minutes and Tony had locked himself in Madison’s office, refusing to speak to anyone. He had steadfastly refused to hold this conference anywhere near his tower, so she had set it up in a large conference room in her building downtown. Tony had pointedly told each and every one of the Avengers to stay away, telling them he planned to hog the entire limelight for himself, but they knew he was protecting them. He was pretty angry when they showed up, and was especially mad at Steve, who he had tried to get to promise to go home. Steve hadn’t promised, though. He couldn’t.

“Fine. But you all damned well better stay in the anteroom away from the cameras.” Those were the last words Tony had spoken to them before he had isolated himself. Steve hated the idea of Tony having to face this alone. He needed to see the video for himself to be prepared for what Tony was up against. Nobody would let him near any phones, computers, or televisions at the hospital and he had come straight to Madison’s building after his release, so he hadn’t had any access to the Internet.

“Show me, Clint.”

“All right,” Clint hissed. He yanked his phone from his pocket and started tapping buttons. “If you tell Tony or Phil I was the one who showed this to you—”

“I won’t.”

“Yeah, sure. Unless they ask, right, Dudley Do-Right?”

“Give me the phone.”

Clint handed it over and Steve pressed ‘play’ on the screen. He gasped when he saw himself. “I look like a bloody corpse.” He knew how bad he had felt, and suspected how he must have looked, but seeing was still a shock. There was no sound. Whoever made the video must not have been close enough to capture audio. Steve didn’t need sound. He could tell most of what Tony was saying to him as he cradled him in his arms, especially the word baby. Tony’s fear and distress were evident as well, but his kisses were tender. There was no mistaking the depth of Tony’s affection, and Steve’s insides melted as he watched. He felt lightheaded, everything spinning for a moment. Clint’s arm came out to steady him.

“You okay? Do I need to call Bruce?”

“No . . . I just,” Steve shook his head. “Big feelings.” Steve watched the video again, moved once more by Tony’s unguarded emotion for him. Less appealing were some of the comments below the video. Steve used his thumb to scroll down, appalled, but not surprised by the ugly things people could say. It wasn’t the case with all of them by any means, but the level of hatred and mockery he read, and the countless links he briefly scanned were disgusting.

Clint snatched back the phone. “You said show you the video, and I did. The rest is garbage. Stop wasting your time.”

“I’ve dealt with my share of bullies and hate mongers. I fought Nazis, remember? I’m not going to shrivel up and shatter over this kind ignorance.”

“A big percent of the reactions have been positive. You’ve got a lot of fans, actually. Dozens of websites have sprung up devoted to IronShield.”

Steve laughed. “IronShield?”

Clint shrugged. “I didn’t make it up. Kinda witty, though.”

“I’m worried about Tony. What other people think or say is their problem. We don’t have time for that. I don’t understand why we’re giving this credence by devoting a press conference to it.”

“Because The Avengers is a brand,” Madison informed them as she came through the door, her high heels clicking on the tile floor. “And if you want a brand to sell, you keep your brand name clean.”

“You realize you’re in the men’s room, right?” Clint asked.

“Don’t worry, Agent Barton. I’m not here to peek at your wee-wee.”

“Why are you in here?” Steve asked.

“Looking for you. I’ve spent a lot of hours carefully preparing Mr. Stark’s statement. If he follows my script, we can turn this to our advantage. What you need to do is stay in the background, the stoic, wounded hero. We don’t need any surprises out there.”

“I’m not comfortable with any of this,” Steve complained, ignoring the queasiness in his stomach and the dizziness that hadn’t fully abated.

“I know you’re not. I sympathize, Steve. I’m in your corner. I support you and this relationship, you know I do. Give me time to roll it out properly for the public. Let me do what you pay me for. Six months down the line, I can spin this into something that may very well push civil rights forward with an unprecedented momentum.”

“You’re pleading your case to the wrong Avenger,” Coulson informed, his wheelchair parked in the doorway, which had not closed after Madison’s entrance.

Clint laughed. “This must be what high school was like; everyone cutting class to smoke in the john.”

“What do you mean?” Madison asked as Phil powered towards them in his chair.

“Your wild card is Stark, not Rogers. Steve is completely and morally uncomfortable with this entire situation, but he’s no powder keg. Your plan is solid, but it doesn’t take into account the predictably unpredictable nature of Tony Stark.”

“I appreciate your input, Agent Coulson. I look forward to liaising with you when you’re back to work full time. I’ve been assured by both Director Fury and Mr. Stark himself that our plan is a go.”

“Nevertheless, I took the liberty of preparing some cards you might want to consider as an alternative option for Stark’s statement.”

Madison took the cards and read through them quickly, shaking her head, confused. “Are you joking?”

“I assure you, I’m quite serious.”

Yet another head stuck itself into the bathroom, Steve recognizing the young man as Madison’s assistant. “Excuse me, Ms. Everett. We’re about to begin.”

Madison handed the cards back to Phil. “Thank you again, Agent Coulson. Please excuse me. I have a press conference to attend to.”

~0~0~0~

“I should be out there with him.”

Natasha’s hands set upon Steve’s shoulders, coaxing him to stay in his seat. “Not a good idea, Cap. Stark can do a press conference in his sleep. If you were out there, the dynamic would change. He’d want to protect you. It would throw him off his game. The last thing the vultures need is to smell weakness.”

Steve understood her point, but it still didn’t sit right in his churning gut. He stared at the monitors set up in the anteroom, different screens showing different angles of the press room. The monitor aimed where Tony would stand showed an empty stage, but the rest were trained on the hordes of cameras and reporters. “There are so many of them.”

“Standing room only,” Clint groused, crouched on a desk next to Steve. “The rest have spilled out into the hall.”

“A real dog and pony show.” Bruce leaned on the desk near Clint. His arms were folded over his chest, body tense. “Have we stopped to ask ourselves if it’s worth all this? We keep talking about how much good we can do as Avengers, but maybe it isn’t worth the price.”

“We can’t think that way,” Steve said.

“Why not? If they don’t like who we are and how we are, then fuck them. Maybe they don’t deserve our help. I, for one, am not comfortable living my life under constant scrutiny by the very people we are looking to serve.”

“He’s got a point.” Natasha moved to Bruce, her fingertips feathering lightly over his folded arms, the touch clearly calming him. “How effective a team are we if we have to jump every time Fury snaps? Do we want him or Madison or anyone else dictating our private lives?”

“Every job has a downside. But there’s a bigger picture here,” Steve insisted. “Bigger than ourselves.”

“She’s not talking about the job part,” Bruce responded.

“This job, as you call it, is who we are,” Thor proclaimed. “We must aspire to the highest level of responsibility, duty, and honor. Our cause is to protect this world; our job to maintain peace. We must never allow the likes of these,” his big hand gestured towards the screens, “to distract us from our course.”

“I’m down with all that,” Clint nodded. “Though the flowery language is a bit of overkill, there, buddy. But it’s these bozos not focusing on the big picture. This city still needs to be put back together, and there are more threats coming. After what happened with the Chitauri, they’re fools if they don’t see the rising storm. Instead, they’re wasting time chasing their tails over bullshit.”

“The way to get a dog to stop chasing its tail is to throw it a bone,” Phil stated calmly.

“This feels more like throwing Tony under the bus right now,” Bruce said sourly.

“Have faith in Stark.” Phil handed the cards in his hand—the ones he tried to give to Madison—to Steve. Maneuvering his chair closer to the screen where Tony would soon appear, he added, “He’s nobody’s puppet.”

Steve started to look down at the cards, but the eruption of noise in the press room was loud enough to be heard through the walls. He saw Madison appear on the screen, stepping in front of the microphone, calm and collected, raising her hand to quiet the clamor.

“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you for coming. Mr. Stark has prepared a statement to share with you. He will not be taking any questions at this time. Thank you.”

Tony looked crisp and sharp in his perfectly tailored black suit, white shirt, and silver tie. His shoes were shined, beard recently trimmed, not a hair in his dark mane out of place. His jacket and shirt were buttoned neatly, not a wrinkle or piece of lint marring any of his garments. Because he was the self-proclaimed ‘master of looking good despite being trashed,’ there wasn’t even a hint of the fatigue and emotional outlay of the last few days on his features. “Cover-up is not make-up,” Tony’s voice reminded him. Steve smiled at the memory, beaming proudly at his handsome man despite the pounding in his head as his worry intensified. Tony was fragile last night, a side of himself he would never show to anyone else; a side Steve was honored his lover felt safe enough to share with him. Tony was still unsteady this morning when he volunteered to help wash the dried blood and guts from Steve’s hair, but ended up having to turn the job over to the nurses. Tony’s fingers had petted over the hairless patch several times, giving Steve the sense he was still seeing a gaping, bloody wound rather than the scabbed-over skull actually there. Tony remained haunted by Steve’s brush with death, no doubt, and his emotions hadn’t fully settled. Steve wasn’t going to be able to tolerate it if one of those bloodthirsty wolves clawed past Tony’s poised outer façade and pierced the tender heart beneath. If that were to happen, all of Steve’s noble talk about things bigger than themselves would fly right out the window, probably followed by a few reporters with their cameras shoved neatly where the sun didn’t shine.

“Good afternoon.” Tony stepped in front of the microphone as Madison moved to his right. He didn’t blink at the distracting flashes of light from the many cameras simultaneously trying to snap his picture. Holding up a handful of cards, no doubt the ones Madison had prepared, he quipped, “We all know how good I am with the cards,” eliciting laughter from the throng. “If at first you don’t succeed blah, blah, so I’m ready to give it another go.” He looked downward, beginning to read. “On Monday, the Avengers were present on the scene of a serious accident that took place on the Ed Koch Queensboro Bridge. There has been much speculation regarding an incident that allegedly took place in the aftermath of this calamity in which one of our own was severely injured,” Tony hesitated for a brief second, then continued, “particularly as pertains to my involvement in said incident.” Tony paused, a subtle shift in his composure apparent as more flashbulbs sparked.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” Steve encouraged, trying to will his love to Tony through the screen.

Madison leaned over and whispered to him, nodding towards the cards in his hands.

“Yes, the cards,” Tony agreed, smiling falsely. He brought the cards up higher, once again beginning to read. “Regarding the rumors circulating around this incident, I am here to tell you that the truth is. . . .” Tony’s recitation broke off, his eyes coming up from the cards and looking out into the crowd. “Oh hell, who am I kidding?” He flicked his hand upwards, his cue cards flying into the air then raining down around him like confetti. “The truth is, my name is Tony Stark and I am in love with Steve Rogers.”

The press room exploded with voices and flashbulbs, reporters practically climbing on top of each other to get closer to the podium. In the anteroom, Thor slapped his mighty hands together and roared as Clint stood up on the desk, whooping like he was at a ballgame. “Way to go, Tony!” Bruce took off his glasses and pinched his nose, laughing, and Natasha’s face broke into a rare, genuine smile. Steve was stunned, his eyes casting down to the cards he was still clutching his hand. There were ten of them, each with only one sentence typed on its face:

The truth is I am in love with Steve Rogers.

Steve’s eyes darted over to Phil, who nodded at him with a satisfied grin, saying, “Experienced supposition based on my knowledge of the subject.”

“Hang on, he’s not done.” Natasha was pointing at the screen.

Tony was holding up a hand, quieting the chaos. “Let me clarify. Please. Ladies and gentlemen.” When the noise had muted to a dull roar, Tony continued. “To be more specific, I am truly, deeply, madly—in my case very madly—in love with Steve Rogers. We’re talking head over heels, over the moon, daisy-picking, sonnet-writing kind of love. If you want to write about that, write away. Knock yourselves out. My relationship status is not changing from ‘totally taken’ any time soon. Not ever, if I’m lucky, and stay worthy of him. But when you get tired of filling your columns, newsfeeds, tweets, articles, blogs, and Internet forums with an irrevocable fact that will remain unchanged from this day forward, I hope you find time to devote your reporting to what else is going on around you. My teammates saved a lot of lives on Monday, and Steve Rogers nearly lost his in the process. These same heroes . . . these Avengers . . . risked life and limb during The Battle of New York to protect this city; to protect our world in its darkest hour. Miraculously enough, they stand ready to do so again anytime they’re needed. I’m honored to be included in their ranks, and I hope the rest of you come to realize the worth of this group of remarkable individuals. Whether you do or not is of no consequence, though, because they will selflessly continue to protect and serve this city, this nation, and this planet to the best of their . . . our . . . abilities. Thank you.”

The press room broke into a frenzy of commotion as Tony stepped back from the podium. Shouted questions, microphones, cameras of every kind were thrust at Tony, who stood in the flurry, grinning with unflinching composure. Steve flew up from his seat, heading towards the door.

“Where you going, Cap?”

“If I’m going to be an Internet sensation, I’d at least like to have a decent picture out there; one that doesn’t look like I’ve been trampled by elephants and tossed in the sewer.”

Steve entered the press room, shouldering through the throng as he made his way toward the front of the room and Tony. As the reporters picked up on his presence, a ripple of mutters and shouts turned in his direction, the glare from the camera lights and flashes taking aim at him nearly blinding. He shrugged off the hullabaloo, his single purpose to reach Tony.

“Steve! What are you doing?” Tony gaped at him, astonished, as Steve took hold of his arms and physically lifted him out of the oppressive throng. He set him down in the least congested corner before wrapping his arms around Tony and dipping him back until Tony’s upper body was practically horizontal. Leaning over him like some modern reenactment of the old Gone with the Wind posters, Steve covered Tony’s mouth with his, kissing him deep and hard and thorough. Tony’s arms came around his neck, pulling him closer, lengthening the kiss. There would be no mistaking this as grief over a fallen comrade or a fumbling attempt at administering mouth to mouth resuscitation. This was exactly what it looked like.

Pure love.

Steve paid little heed to the melee erupting around them. He barely heard it. When Steve finally let him up for air, the lights from the dozens of cameras were dull in contrast to the brilliance of Tony’s eyes.

“You trying to steal my thunder, Cap?” Tony slurred, sounding almost drunk. “Never pegged you for a camera hog.”

“Press conference is over, Mr. Stark. Take your bow and let’s go.”

Tony laughed and Steve clasped his hand. Shielding Tony with his brawn, he led him through the oppressive sea of people, microphones, and cameras trying to get a piece of them. They made it safely out of the press room, but the brouhaha was worse in the hall where the overflow crowd got their first chance to accost the newsworthy Avengers. Steve used his body as a buffer, cutting a narrow path for them to walk through before they ducked into the stairwell. They were chased down the stairs and out into the street, at least half the buzzing swarm of media hot on their tails.

Thankfully, Happy had the limo pulled up directly outside the door. The rest of the team was already piled inside and Happy had just finished loading Phil’s wheelchair into the trunk. “Another rousing press conference, boss?” the grinning man asked as he shut the trunk and hustled around to yank open the door.

“My best yet,” Tony responded, not arguing when Steve nudged him in first, but tugging on his hand to quickly follow him inside the car. Hands and faces pressed against the window when the car door closed, Happy hastening to get into the driver’s seat.

“Be careful,” Steve cautioned. “Don’t run anybody over.”

“Except Murphy,” Tony joked. “And Brady. Oh, and the guy from Channel 7 with those hideous hipster glasses.”

“To-nee.”

“Okay, okay, not them either.”

“Don’t worry, Cap’n,” Happy called from the front as he started to pull the car slowly from the curb. “This isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve been driving for Mr. Stark a lot of years. This kind of thing comes with the territory.”

Steve looked around the limo, realizing this was the first time they had all ridden together like this since the night of the Battle, after shawarma. They were in almost the same positions with two exceptions: Phil was blessedly alive and sitting in the front seat beside Happy, and Bruce was on the seat-bench opposite them by the window where Steve had sat, leaving him the space beside Tony. Oh, and Tony had just declared he loved Steve in front of a broadcast audience of millions.

A lot had changed in a few short months.

“This has been a most exhilarating afternoon!” Thor declared. “I believe we have made what is termed a successful getaway, yes?”

“Damn right, Sundance,” Tony quipped as he loosened his tie and unbuttoned his jacket and top shirt buttons.

“Fury has got to be flipping his eye patch about now,” Clint laughed.

“Director Fury has already contacted me,” Phil reported from the front seat. “He has decided to take a break from the day to day operations of the Avengers. His exact quote was, “They’re all yours, Coulson. Good luck.” There were also a few profanities laced in, along with a tirade about him not being paid enough, and some noises about an extended vacation.”

“A vacation!” Tony clapped his hands together. “That’s what we need. We should take this getaway tour out of town until the heat dies down.”

“An excellent idea. You may all accompany me to Asgard as my honored guests. I shall show you a rollicking good time.”

“Isn’t that where you brought Loki?” Natasha asked.

“Indeed.”

Almost in chorus, the collective team quickly replied, “Pass.”

“I’m feeling Fiji?” Tony suggested. “Anyone else?”

“If you’re buying, I’m flying.” Clint leaned forward from his position beside Tony, calling towards the open partition to the front seat. “What do you think, boss?”

“Come on, Agent. I’ll have a whole new set of therapy equipment there for you when we arrive and you can even pack that tasty bit of a therapy boy of yours. What’s his name? Willie? Webster?”

“Walt,” Steve provided, giving Tony a reprimanding raised eyebrow.

“Walt, that’s right. Walt, who is waaaaay not cuter than my Steve,” he hastened to add, grinning impishly at Steve, “but we’ll bring him anyway. We’ll have doctors, nurses, the works.”

“I agree Walter is no Captain of America, but I have found him to be a most delicious man. I have savored our companionship. I should like this Fiji place.”

The expressions on the faces of his fellow passengers almost made Steve laugh. He was relieved he wasn’t the only one caught off guard by Thor’s disclosure. He hated being the slowest on the uptake. It was Tony who eventually broke the stunned silence.

Ooo-kay. Since we’ve clearly moved to sharing time, how ‘bout you, doc? You can’t tell me you wouldn’t enjoy seeing your woman here on the beach in a bikini.”

“What makes you think he hasn’t already?” Natasha’s face was smug, but Bruce blushed and fidgeted awkwardly.

“Maybe we need to cut sharing time short and go right for snack time?” Clint offered.

“Your jacket is buzzing,” Steve told Tony, pointing to his inner pocket.

“I better turn this damn thing off. Every hack in the city is no doubt offering to sell his mother to get hold of my private number.” Tony yanked the phone out of his pocket, looking at the screen. “It’s Madison.”

“You need to answer. We owe her an apology.”

“Yes, Boy Scout baby.” Tony reached to lightly touch the back of Steve’s head, playing with the frayed strands of hair nearest his bald patch. Steve might have felt self-conscious if Tony’s expression hadn’t been so adoring. Tony brought the phone to his ear. “Hey, Madison, before you rightfully curse me out, can I explain . . . what’s that? . . . Sure, yeah, he’s here. We’re all in the car. . . . Okay. I can put you on speaker.” Tony leaned across Steve, setting his phone in a compartment. “Hey, Agent, it’s for you.” He pressed a button and Madison’s voice was clearly heard throughout the limo.

“Agent Coulson?”

“Hello, Ms. Everett.”

“I owe you an apology. I have a lot to learn from you.”

“No apology necessary. You’ve taken on a very challenging group of individuals. You’re doing a fine job.”

“I underestimated the level of challenge, a mistake I won’t make again.”

“Does this mean you’re not firing us?” Steve asked, hopeful.

“Technically, we pay her salary, so we would be the ones in a position to fire,” Tony started babbling. “However, if she were to choose to quit, she would be well within her rights, despite her contract, since the contract states—”

“To-nee.”

“Shutting up now.”

Madison laughed. “Relax, Steve. I’m not firing or quitting. I’m a pro and there’s nothing I like better than a good challenge. I need to up my A-game, though. Your boyfriend is far more of a handful than I anticipated.”

“You’re telling me?” That earned Steve a pinch in the side from Tony.

“You aren’t exactly a walk in the park either, Captain Rogers. You have an odd concept of staying in the background. That kiss of yours is trending faster than William and Kate’s wedding smooch.”

Steve blushed, nudging Tony in the shoulder when he started to make exaggerated kissy faces. “I’m sorry.” He thought again. “No, I’m not sorry. I’m only sorry for making your job harder.”

“Along those same lines,” Tony added, “I want you to know it wasn’t my intention to play you. I really thought I could color inside the lines this time. But the minute I got to the part of the script about how Steve almost died, all bets were off. There was no way I was going to be able to stand there and deny how I feel about him in light of coming so close to losing him. Couldn’t do it.” Steve smiled softly at Tony, interlocking their fingers and bringing their joined hands to his mouth for a kiss.

“I understand,” Madison said. “I hope you understand exactly how viral this is going to go. Every time you step outside for any reason, there’s going to be a blizzard of cameras. It’s going to make it very difficult for you to continue your Rebuild efforts at this time.”

“Which is exactly why we’re going on vacation. They’re not going to have anybody to chase and by the time we get back, the next media sensation will be in play.”

“I like this idea,” Madison said, her voice accompanied by the sound of frenetic typing, the tapping sounding through the phone line. “Yes, this could work nicely to our advantage. Do me a favor and make it someplace distant. No tourist traps with organized media outlets. Stay a few weeks. Give me time to get on top of this.”

“Not a problem,” Tony laughed. “Sure you don’t want to come with us? I’ve got a big plane. Plenty of room.”

“I’ll have to pass. I have some very high maintenance clients and I’m going to be up to my elbows in work for the foreseeable future. I’ll stay in contact with Agent Coulson. Send me a postcard. Ciao.”

“I’m glad she’s not mad,” Steve said as Tony reached across him again to retrieve his phone. He swallowed down the touch of nausea that hadn’t fully receded, figuring a little car sickness and a headache wasn’t the worst fallout after what his body had been through.

“I’ve got to see this video.” Tony was swiping and tapping his phone screen.

“Why? You were there,” Steve complained, already embarrassed.

“I had my eyes closed,” Tony teased. It didn’t take him long to find what he was looking for. As the video of Steve’s kiss played across Tony’s screen, Clint started humming the tune from Gone with the Wind. “Baby, you are so hot.” Tony was practically salivating even as Steve wanted to crawl under the seat.

“You certainly didn’t look like someone dragged from the sewer this time,” Natasha added.

“Push the tab to ‘like it,’” Clint encouraged, though Steve didn’t know what he meant.

“I’m going on all my accounts to ‘like’ this,” Tony replied. “I’ll create new accounts. This is going to be my new wallpaper.”

“You’re going to put that on your wall?” Steve asked, flabbergasted.

“He means computer wallpaper,” Natasha clarified. “Like this.” She pulled her phone out of her pocket and turned it toward Steve, revealing the picture of Steve kissing Tony adorning her screen.

“Oh, real nice,” Bruce complained, though he looked amused.

“Well, you bitched when I wanted to put the picture of you in—”

“This wallpaper is just fine.”

“I must have some of this electronic paper of handsome kissing,” Thor lamented. He dug a cellphone from his pocket. “It would give me reason to use this talk-box SHIELD keeps providing to me.” Nat touched her phone to Thor’s and he laughed with delight, turning it around to show the picture he now had as well. “The device possesses magic.”

Steve felt a pang of sadness because he no longer had the red phone Tony had given him. He knew it was stupid to mope about something so silly compared to the anguish of true loss, but it still bothered him. It was the first thing Tony had gifted to him.

“What’s wrong?” Tony asked and Steve realized he wasn’t doing a good job of masking his pout. “Are we making you uncomfortable with this?”

Steve shook his head. “I knew when I made the decision to come out and kiss you publically what the consequences would be. I’m not complaining.”

“It was a helluva gesture.” Tony looked all lovey-dovey, making Steve twist on his seat.

“Not as big as yours.” Steve still couldn’t believe Tony announced to the world he was in love with him. “Most people say stuff like that in private.”

“I’m not most people. I do things big, baby. But I hope you know I meant every word. If I promise to tell you again in a more romantic, traditional, private way real soon, will you smile for me?”

Steve did smile. “I’m not sad.”

“Good. Because I hate giving presents to sad people. Makes it look like I’m trying to cheer you up or something, and I don’t do cheer. Cheer is goofy, like Thor. Thor’s a cheerful guy.”

“I am indeed.”

“What present?”

“Happy.”

“On its way, boss.” Happy passed a small, gift wrapped box with a big red bow through the partition window to Natasha, who in turn handed it to Tony, who gave it to Steve.

“What is this for?” he asked, a little overwhelmed.

“For not dying on me.”

“I didn’t die either,” Clint teased. “Do I get a present?”

“Yeah, I have one for you right here.” Tony flipped him the bird, and they all laughed. Steve carefully opened his box, thrilled and moved to see an exact replica of his red phone inside. He took it out eagerly, locating the keypad and pressing one, elated when the phone in Tony’s hand rang.

“Thank you!” He flung his arms around Tony.

“You’re welcome.” Tony drew back, his finger pointing scoldingly at Steve like a school master. “This time you are going to learn to use the whole phone, all the buttons, all the features, understood?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Oh, now you’re just trying to make me hot.” Tony pressed his forefinger to Steve’s lips, memory sending a flush not only through Steve’s cheeks, but down his neck, straight to his toes. He gently kissed the fingertip, longing to suck it into his mouth, but he had already made enough of a public spectacle of himself for one day. He hoped his eyes were enough to communicate his intent to Tony.

“Stark is hot. He’s burning my arm.” Clint was grinning beside Tony.

Tony didn’t deny it. Reluctantly retracting his finger, he continued talking with a naughty twinkle in his eyes. “As a matter of fact, while you’re being deliciously compliant—another term making me very hot by the way, if you’re keeping score—let’s talk about this wardrobe of yours. You’re going to let me call my tailor and design team in to put together some outfits for you to wear on our vacation, right? I mean your sexy Sears pants and checkered shirt there are great when all you’re doing is kissing your man on national television, but for Fiji, we might want to spice things up a bit.”

“Are we really going to Fiji?” Steve was taken aback. “I thought you were kidding.”

“I never kid about anything as important as a luxury vacation. Operation Avengers Do Fiji is a go, right, Agent? Agent?”

When Phil didn’t respond, Happy spoke quietly into the silence. “He’s taking a little nap.”

“He’s really been overdoing these past few days,” Bruce noted.

“Totally,” Clint agreed.

“All the more reason why he needs a vacation.” Tony was really fired up now. “Think about it: A beautiful cabana on a glorious private beach where he can focus on his therapy and rehab; a place where he can relax because we’ll all be staying out of trouble—at least the Avengers kind of trouble. Any other kind of trouble is clearly at the discretion of the consenting adults involved.”

“A place without jackhammers and drills and dozens of stomping, cursing cavemen named Vinnie ripping apart your penthouse,” Natasha added drolly.

“That, too.”

“Sounds great,” Clint agreed. “I’ll talk him into it. He owes me a honeymoon.”

Tony started tapping on his phone again. “I’m going to see if they make waterskies for wheelchairs.” Tony slumped down, leaning into Steve, letting his head rest on Steve’s chest as he happily planned. “I need to get the plane fueled up. And I’ll have to go over the remodeling plans for the tower with the crew of Vinnies because I don’t want them slacking while we’re gone. And your clothes. Yes, I’m going to set that in motion first. You’re going to get to play supermodel for me, baby-blue. So is everyone down with Fiji or should we consider some other locations? Hey, who says we only have to go to one place?”

Everyone began talking at once, except for the napping Phil, and Steve who really didn’t have an opinion one way or the other. He was too content to care. A few months ago, he had ridden in this same limo, grateful for the camaraderie of his newfound team, but certain the bond was as temporary as everything else in his life had been. When he’d gotten out of the car in Brooklyn and returned to the lonely hellhole, the isolation was bleak, the silence deafening. There wasn’t much silence in his life these days, as evidenced by the noisy chatter around him. He had more than a team now. He had a family—a home—love.

Not bad for a guy who’d woken back at the starting gate, seventy years behind everyone else.

Thor had once told him he had been brought through time to be exactly where he was; his life was no accident, but fate at work. He truly believed that now. Steve wrapped his arm around Tony, snuggling him closer as he turned to look out the window. The debate about their vacation plans buzzed distantly in his ears, capturing no more of his attention than the driving tune Happy liked to whistle, or the soft play of music from the radio. Their destination didn’t matter. He would be happy to go anywhere as long as he was going there with his family.

As long as Tony was at his side.

~0~0~0~