The text came when Steve was crossing the threshold to his small apartment after suffering through his Thursday afternoon art history class, the one filled with bored seniors looking for an easy elective.
CNN.com. Something you might want to see.
It was from Sam, and Sam was usually a little less cryptic and a little more detailed than that. He sighed and dropped his phone and his keys on the table by the door. He didn't really have time for this. He'd run the class a little late if only to torment those seniors that thought they'd be able to breeze through the class with no effort, and he didn't have much time in between that and heading up to the museum for his evening security shift.
He shucked his clothes on the way to his bedroom to grab his uniform, passing by the landline phone next the couch. The little red light was blinking, and he fought the urge to smirk and mutter that there was nothing wrong with a thirty-something-year-old man having a landline in this day and age. It came in handy every so often.
He hit the button to play the message and all but groaned as he heard Clint's voice come over the line.
"First, you're such a loser for having this. Second, dude, you gotta check out the news. No, don't ask why. Just do it. You'll know it when you find it. Trust me."
There were no messages after that, and Steve rolled his eyes and went into the bedroom. He didn't really have time to check, but he logged into his computer situated on the desk in the corner then went about getting into his uniform as his desktop and icons loaded. He'd probably have to look into getting a new computer one of these days, but given a choice between eating and faster internet access, he'd have to say he'd choose the eating every time.
The damned thing finally loaded after he'd gotten his shirt and pants on, and he opened the browser and went to CNN like Sam had suggested. He scrolled down the page and grumbled a little when nothing jumped out at him.
"This some sort of prank?" he muttered and scrolled up the page again. That was when he saw it — a headline featured on the left-hand side: Wedding Bells for Tony Stark?
Steve felt the bottom fall out of his stomach, and the pointer on the mouse shook as he tried to maneuver it over the link to click. He didn't know why it should bother him. It had been years since he'd last seen Tony, and he wouldn't exactly say their breakup had been amicable, but some stupid little voice in the back of his head had urged him time and again not to let his torch burn out. They were young and dumb and things could change for the better.
He clicked the link and waited for the page to load, the most tortuous ten seconds of his life. But when it did, he wished he could go back in time and stop any of this stupid stuff from ever happening.
Tony Stark Hints at Wedding Bells to Come read the splash at the top, and below that was a stunning recent picture of the billionaire, who looked fit, and trim, and tanned, decked out in a black suit and burgundy dress shirt that had probably cost the equivalent of a month's salary for Steve — from both his jobs. His eyes were shielded by a pair of tinted glasses, wire frames and rose-colored lenses. The van dyke he was fond of sporting now was clipped and trimmed and so perfectly sculpted it was as though he had drawn it on. He was smiling — downright grinning — a hand in the air as he waved at a camera (but not the one that had taken this photograph) and the elegant and gorgeous Pepper Potts adorned in a stunning royal blue dress standing right by his side.
He didn't bother to read the article. He clicked the link for a related video, and he got up and finished getting dressed as he waited for it to load, pausing the video so he wouldn't have to suffer through it buffering every two seconds. He tightened his belt, clipped his tie, buttoned his cuffs, brushed his hair, and grabbed his name badge, all before the video had even loaded halfway.
Figuring that was good enough, and checking his watch to make certain he wasn't running short on time, he clicked the 'play' button and waited for the video to begin.
"Are wedding bells about to ring for Tony Stark?" the anchor whose name was completely lost on Steve said before the clip cut to footage of the previous night's Stark Foundation gala while an announcer read over the images, "Tony Stark, one of the world's most eligible bachelors, may soon be off the market if comments made at last night's Stark Foundation fundraiser are any indication."
It then cut to someone asking Tony how he felt about the Supreme Court's recent ruling in favor of same-sex marriage. And Tony, in the flippant fashion Steve remembered he'd always used in public — especially when he had a microphone shoved in his face — said, "It's great. I think it's really, really great. It's about time we joined the civilized world, and in fact—" He looked straight into the camera and pulled his glasses down some, making those gorgeous brown eyes of his visible to one and all. "Steve, if you're watching this, I believe you owe me a ring."
The narration continued with more footage of the event and speculation as to what Tony's comments meant, but Steve just sat back, floored and speechless.
Maybe it was a joke.
Maybe it was for another Steve. Maybe it was a coincidence.
Or maybe — maybe — Tony hadn't gotten over him any more than he'd gotten over Tony. As the video played, a conversation from a lifetime ago began to repeat itself in his mind.
"What do you think about us getting married?"
"I don't think we can, Tony. Legally, anyway."
"We can in Massachusetts."
"I don't think we're legal residents of Massachusetts."
"We're going to school here. That's got to count for something!"
"I think we have to be residents here for a set amount of time, anyway."
"So? Are you saying I'm not worth becoming a legal resident of Massachusetts for the precise amount of time it takes to be issued a marriage license by the Commonwealth?"
"Um … could you repeat that?"
A smack. "Try to keep up, old man."
A laugh. "You know, I'm really not that much older than you."
"Old enough to buy me alcohol."
"Which I will not be doing."
"You're going to deny me alcohol at my own wedding?"
"By the time we can get married, you'll be old enough to buy your own alcohol."
A pause. "But would you really marry me?"
"Are you asking?"
"Yes or no?"
Another pause. "Yes."
A hum. "Maybe."
"Well, it's a big decision. A fella's only gonna get married once in his life."
"A fella from the '40s, maybe. Seriously, how did I get stuck with such an old man?"
"You mean how did you get so lucky?"
"You're going to be the death of me, Rogers."
"I sincerely hope not. I've gotten used to having you around."
Another smack, a pause, and then an unsure, "But would you?"
"Marry me? Not saying today, but...someday, maybe, in the future?"
"How 'bout this? The day it becomes legal across the country is the day I marry you — What? Where are you—? Tony, what are you doing?"
"Well, clearly you're not as serious about this relationship as I am—"
"Come here, you little bag of nuts."
"Oh, that didn't hurt!"
"The hell it didn't! You're a lot stronger than you think you are. What do you bench-press? Buicks?"
"I didn't say I wouldn't marry you, Tony. But I will definitely marry you the day it becomes legal all over the country, if not before then."
"So … that's a 'yes'?"
"That's most definitely a 'yes.'"
"Just so you know, I'm going to hold you to that."
A hum. "Hopefully you won't have to. Hopefully we'll be married long before then."
A nice thought that never panned out. The sole heir to Stark Industries and the young orphan that was working to pay off his mother's debts might have looked like a good match on paper — young and attractive with similar interests and an identical drive to bring out the best in each other — but real life never went that smoothly. Tony's world was one that Steve would never be welcome in, and while Tony was more than welcome in Steve's, he could never truly leave his world behind. While Howard was still alive and still running the company, sure. Tony could fuck off to do what he wanted — build, create, enjoy life with the first real friends he'd ever actually made.
But when Howard died, Tony was suddenly heir-apparent, and building and creating and spending time with friends had to be set aside so that Tony could be properly groomed to take over the company that bore his name. And though he oh-so-politely told Obadiah Stane to 'fuck off' when Stane told him no one wanted a fag running the company, Steve wasn't about to let Tony choose between wealth and poverty. He loved Tony. He would gladly have married Tony.
But he loved him enough to let him go.
It hadn't been an easy decision to make. He'd suffered through it, labored through it, run through the pros and cons of it in his head. The only 'pro' he could see to it was that Tony would get the life he deserved, not what little Steve could give him. It was odd that Howard didn't seem bothered by him in the least. Maybe he figured Tony was just going through an experimental period and Steve was but one in a long line of 'phases' he had to suffer through. Not to say Howard had liked him. The first thing Howard had ever said to him the first time he'd met him — a Thanksgiving holiday break that Steve had opted to spend with Tony's family instead of Bucky's for the first time since his mother had died — Howard had shook his hand, looked him over, and said, "Well, you're probably as dumb as a post, but at least you're pretty. Tony has a weakness for pretty."
He'd had every intention of defending Tony's honor, but Tony had just put a hand to his arm and shook his head as though to say it wasn't worth it.
Maria had been cordial to him, but it was the family's butler…or cook…or valet… handyman?...pretty much the one that took care of them, Edwin Jarvis, that had been not only polite to him but kind to him, asking about his studies and how he and Young Sir had met and what he planned to do once he'd gotten his degree. In fact, Tony also gravitated toward Jarvis while they spent that weekend in the Stark mansion on Fifth Avenue (good god, his mother would never believe he'd snagged himself a fella that came from Fifth Avenue), and it seemed that Jarvis was almost a surrogate father to Tony, treating him with the warmth and authority normally afforded an actual father.
He suspected, later on when Howard, Maria, and Jarvis had all died in that horrible wreck, that Tony mourned the loss of Jarvis more than he mourned both his parents.
But Howard and Maria had tolerated him, maybe not liked him, but never actually made him feel like he was an interloper. Part of him suspected it was because so long as he was there, Tony would leave them alone, and it hurt to think that Tony's entire existence was merely due to the fact that Howard would need an heir to pass his company to. Tony had been born simply to run a company, and for nothing more.
Still, it was Obadiah Stane that had set him on edge, had always looked at him with equal parts distrust and disgust. When Howard was alive, it was no big deal. Howard still owned and ran the company, and Stane had no power or authority over him. When Howard died and Stane stepped in as intermediary, suddenly Steve noticed a change. He even noticed it about Tony — the contemplative looks Tony would sometimes give him like he was trying to figure him out, and Steve could only wonder if Stane, who was the other real father-figure in Tony's life, was filling his head with stupid notions that he was only with Tony for his money.
Look, he'd met Tony at a party and hadn't had the foggiest idea of who he was. He'd been considering chucking it all in and telling Thor and Bucky and Sam that he was done for the night and was heading out — in fact, he was clear on his way over to telling them that — when he'd bumped into a short, lithe brunette in a hoodie trying to balance three cups of Sam Adams in his grasp. The beer had sloshed all over his sweatshirt, and the shorter man had said, "Watch it! What do you think this is? Coors Light?"
And then he'd looked up, and Steve had been gobsmacked by the most beautiful brown eyes he'd ever seen, big and sharp and framed with inky black lashes. Pretty Eyes seemed equally smitten by him, his mouth going slack as he raked his eyes over Steve's form, but Steve, not wanting to get off on the wrong foot, had just said, "I'll pay — to clean your sweatshirt, I mean. I'll pay."
And Pretty Eyes had just snorted a laugh and said, "It's beer. It'll wash out. You, on the other hand — I haven't seen you around here before."
"I don't normally come to these things."
"Me neither." And then he'd tossed the half-emptied cups aside — oh, that poor, trashed frat house that had, once upon a time, been an elegant Victorian — grabbed hold of Steve's arm, and added, "So what do you say you and I commiserate in our misery of these horrible things together?"
He never gave Steve a chance to answer 'yes' or 'no.' He just dragged him out, away from his friends, away from the party, and out onto the streets at eleven-thirty at night where they strolled in the muggy early fall darkness and talked about everything under the sun. He found out Pretty Eyes's real name was 'Tony.' He was studying engineering. He liked to build robots and listen to old-school rock. He had a weakness for jelly doughnuts. He didn't have a good relationship with his father. Steve, in turn, told Tony about himself. He told him his name, that he was studying art, that he was struggling with whether or not to join the military, that he was an orphan that was going to school on scholarships and loans that were just being added to the medical bills left over from his mother's treatments (that clearly hadn't worked).
It was easy talking to Tony. He'd never found it so easy to talk to anyone. And Tony didn't know him, so there was no pressure to be anything but himself. Not like with his friends that expected certain things of him—
The most annoying sound in the world pulled him from his memories, and he sat at attention and shook his head, and he looked down at his phone to see the alarm he'd set for himself. Shit. Good thing he'd set it. He'd hate to be late for work at the museum. Again.
He jumped up and snatched his phone, leaving the browser open to the page about Tony Stark and his bid for matrimony. Whatever Tony was up to, it was not going to end with the cracks in his heart being repaired. Not after all this time.
"So, did you see it?"
Steve sighed as he set his brown-bagged lunch down on the security station's counter. "See what?" he asked a too-excited Sam. Bucky just rolled his eyes and muttered, "Oh, that."
"You know what, man. I sent you the text — and I know Clint left a message on your machine. You know you're the only person under eighty with a landline, right?"
"I am not the only person under eighty with a landline," he told Sam then directed to Bucky, "Sign me in, would you?"
"Sign yourself in, punk," he said and kicked away from the desk with his foot, rolling the chair away from the computer terminal.
Steve rolled his eyes then came around the station and grabbed a chair. "Did you seriously not see it?" Sam asked as Steve logged in his info.
"See what?" he reiterated.
"He saw it," Bucky said. "He's playing dumb. He's a shit liar. He'd be asking more questions if he really didn't know what you were talking about."
Steve shot a look at Bucky then got up and grabbed his lunch. "I'll be right back."
"Shoulda got that done before you logged in, Stevie! Slacking off on the company's time!" Bucky called out to him as Steve made his way to the employee break-slash-lunchroom. He nodded 'hello' at some docents working the late shift, smiled at a few tourists, made his way past the atrium and down the solemn, windowless corridor toward the employee area.
It was quieter down here, the sounds of the public areas upstairs not even a distant echo. There was the buzz of the overhead lights and the hum of the snack and soda machines, and he exchanged pleasantries with one of the afternoon janitors that had probably been working here since before Steve was born. He went into the lunchroom and stowed his bag in the fridge that hadn't been cleaned out in probably five years or more, and he spotted Bucky's lunch on a shelf with a yellow post-it attached to it reading Fuck off, Wilson. Pudding cup is mine.
Natasha must have packed that lunch for him. He got oddly defensive when it came to her.
He shut the fridge and checked his watch. His shift didn't technically start for another ten minutes, and he thought about bringing up that video on his phone — the one where Tony had looked dead into the camera and said Steve owed him a ring. It didn't mean anything; he knew it didn't mean anything.
But it was nice to pretend it meant something — even if just for a moment.
He shook his head and decided it would be better to go bullshit with Bucky and Sam. Sam would nag him about the video, but if he kept quiet enough about it, Sam would eventually give up just because he wasn't getting the desired response. Bucky…he didn't know about Bucky. Bucky, oddly, had all but taken Tony's side in the breakup, and he remembered Bucky just shaking his head at him and saying, "Whatever, pal. Dumbest fucking mistake you've ever made, but it's your life."
He made his way back to the security station, where Bucky and Sam were in the middle of a heated argument over the merits of turning video games into feature-films, with Sam extolling the virtues of modern computer graphics while Bucky was sneering and reminding him that no one wanted to see movies about video games.
"Look, you think anyone's going to want to watch a movie about The Legend of Zelda?" he asked as Steve took a seat and began his nightly routine of going over call-sheets, complaints, and checks.
Sam rolled his eyes. "I'm not saying it has to be The Legend of Zelda— no, wait! That could be awesome! With the state of computer graphics today? Hyrule would look awesome on screen!"
"The fact that you remember the place is even called that—"
Sam scoffed. "Get off your high horse. I remember some pretty fierce competitions in college, and I distinctly remember you throwing the controller so hard that it cracked the picture tube."
"I was so fucking close! And one of those stupid fucking fish-things got me!" Bucky cried out, and Steve just shook his head and tried to concentrate on his job. He'd been there that night. He'd almost cried because it was his TV Bucky had broken and none of them had had the money to replace it.
Well, except Tony. Who'd gone and not just bought him another TV but had bought one of those expensive flat-screens. Clint, upon seeing the brand-new TV set up in the shitty apartment Steve shared with Sam and Bucky, had just squeezed Steve's shoulders and said, "Never, ever let him go."
"I think we were the only college students playing old-school Nintendo games," Bucky said.
"What?" Sam said with a laugh. "None of us could have afforded a Playstation."
Bucky shrugged. "None of us except Stevie's boyfriend."
Steve rolled his eyes but said nothing.
"Yeah, except he seemed to be just as happy with our lame-ass Nintendo marathons," Sam said. Bucky nodded in agreement, and Steve groaned and sat back in his chair.
"Is there a point to any of this?" he nearly snapped at them, smacking a pen down on the desk that he'd been using to jot notes with. He looked between Sam and Bucky's expectant faces, and he sighed out another groan and said, "Yes, I saw the video. Now, can we stop talking about it?"
"Why?" Sam asked.
"Because it doesn't mean anything, all right? He probably wasn't even talking about me."
"Is there any possible way at all he could have been talking about you?" Sam asked. "Is it a reference to anything you two had talked about?"
Steve went quiet, pursing his lips and shifting his gaze down to the desk so he wouldn't have to look at either of his friends, and Bucky muttered, "I knew it," then added, "What, Stevie? What's it about?"
"Yeah? Bullshit. What's it about?"
"Does it matter?" he asked, glancing between his friends. "It was years ago. It doesn't mean anyth— He wanted that breakup as much as I did. Well, no, I didn't want it, but I had to— Look, he didn't want to hurt my feelings. He wanted to be the nice guy, so he let me break up with him. He looked almost relieved when I did it."
Bucky and Sam exchanged somewhat perplexed and worrying looks, and Steve looked between them and said, "What?"
"I think we gotta tell him," Sam said, but Bucky shook his head. "No, he doesn't need to know."
"I think he does."
"No, let him live in his delusion."
"What?" Steve asked. "What delusion? What are you talking about?"
"Nothing, man," Bucky said just as Sam said, "What happened that night—"
Bucky pointed a finger at Sam. "Don't say anything."
But Sam shook his head and said, "Nah, man, it's time. We gotta tell him."
Steve glanced between Sam and Bucky, Bucky shot daggers at Sam, but he exhaled an annoyed breath through his nose and turned to Steve.
"You really think that idiot wanted to break up with you? Really? Let me tell you, the night you broke up with him, when you fucked off to god-knows-where, three o'clock in the morning, your little boyfriend shows up at the doorstep, crying, begging us to tell him what he did wrong."
"What?" Steve asked, but Bucky continued unabated.
"I guess 'cause we're your best pals, he thinks we'd know this sort of thing. I sat there until six- thirty with him sobbing snot into my shoulder all because of you."
Steve looked to Sam for confirmation, and Sam shrugged and said, "I was half-asleep, but yeah, that's how I remember it."
Steve looked between Sam and Bucky, and he stuttered out a few confused non-replies before he all but sputtered, "What? Why didn't you tell me this before?"
Bucky shrugged. "Didn't seem important. You'd already made your mind up about what was best for the two of you. He moved on, you moved on, thought it would be the end of the story."
Sam raised an eyebrow at Bucky. "He moved on?"
Bucky made an airy motion with his hand. "Sort of," he conceded. "There was…what was his name? Phil."
"Yeah, he was a nice guy."
"Eh, came on a little strong," Bucky countered. "Sharon, but that got weird when it turned out she was Peggy's cousin."
"Still a sandwich I wouldn't have said 'no' to being in the middle of," Sam said, and Bucky gently fist-bumped him in agreement.
"Uh…and, who else— Wasn't there an Arnie guy for a while?"
Steve rolled his eyes. "No, we were just friends."
"Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?" Sam mused. "Oh, hey! What about that German grad student? What was his name?"
"Johann," Bucky said. "Didn't he have that awful skin condition?"
"Hey, man, don't hold that against him."
"No, I won't hold that against him. I'll hold against him that he was a perverted creep with a weird bondage fetish."
"As opposed to the non-weird kind of bondage fetish?" Sam mused.
Bucky shot a knowing look at Sam. "Don't knock it 'til you try it," he said, and Sam shook his head and sat back from the group.
"More about your relationship with Nat than I ever wanted to know."
Bucky grinned licentiously then sobered as he turned back to Steve. "Seriously, that was an abusive relationship waiting to happen. Severed body parts stuffed into garbage bags and strewn along the highway. Head in the freezer. Pretty sure that's how that relationship would have ended. Your body parts, not his."
Steve made a sour face at the thought. Although, nothing that Bucky had said pinged false to him. Schmidt had been a pushy, obstinate sort, and Steve's fight-or-flight instincts had always reared up whenever the guy was around, which had been often given that both he and Steve were doing graduate course work, their schedules often overlapped, and Schmidt had taken a weird sort of liking to him.
"Thanks, Buck. And nothing ever happened with Schmidt."
Well, not too much. Look, he'd been on the rebound, was missing Tony like crazy, and there was a weird and masochistic part of him that thought he deserved nothing more than whatever weird shit Schmidt had planned for him. Candle wax burned like a bitch, as it turned out.
Bucky shivered. "Thank fuck," he said, and Steve vowed then and there never to admit the truth to him. "Guy gave me the creeps. Anyway, my point is—"
"You had a point?" Steve mused with a slight smile.
Sam just shook his head, and Bucky pursed his lips in annoyance and said, "See, it's things like this why you're still single."
"No, it isn't."
"No, it isn't," Bucky amended. "It's because you're still hung up on a guy that you dumped. Seven years ago, Stevie. Seven years. The grand total of all your relationships since then have amounted to—" He looked at Sam. "What'd we figure?"
Sam tilted his head in thought. "Two weeks?"
Bucky nodded and made a 'there you go' motion at Steve. Steve just shook his head. "What's the point of all this?"
"That it's time you got over that guy no matter what he's telling the press."
Steve scoffed and sat back in his chair. "Doesn't matter. It was just a joke, anyway. He didn't mean it. He probably wasn't even talking about me. He probably doesn't even remember me."
All three jumped and turned to see Natasha standing on the other side of the security desk, her makeup a little worn from a full day of wear, but the scarlet waves that cascaded past her shoulders looked like they'd just been set an hour ago. She braced her hands on the dark granite desk then leaned over and kissed her fiancé 'hello,' the silk of her royal blue dress reflecting off the warm lights from above, the diamond pendant necklace Bucky had given her on one of their anniversaries catching in the light, which matched the sheen from the tasteful diamond on her left ring finger.
Steve and Sam exchanged 'hellos' with her after the happy couple had finished their greeting, and once they had, Sam asked, "What do you mean he does?"
She folded her arms on the granite top and leaned her weight onto her elbows. "You remember who I work for, right?"
"Nat's Pepper Potts's PA, remember?" Bucky said then turned to her. "OK, 'fess up. What sort of dirt did you get?"
She shrugged. "Nothing much. Pepper wasn't in a very good mood because Tony went spouting that off last night, so every Tom, Dick, and Harry that thinks he's Tony's 'Steve' was harassing the company today—"
"She's the CEO. She doesn't have to deal with that shit, does she?" Sam asked.
"Not directly, but she hears about it — mostly from Tony."
"Does she know you know the real Steve?"
"Not as such."
"Does Tony even know you work there?" Bucky asked.
She shrugged. "He's seen me once or twice, but I don't think he recognizes me."
Bucky grinned and reached out to take her hand. "Yeah, last he saw of you I think was during your misguided emo-goth-chick phase," he said as he played with her fingers.
She shrugged but didn't defend herself against or deny Bucky's accusations. It was hard to when there were photographs.
"So, was Tony serious about it?" Sam asked, and Natasha shrugged as she let Bucky play with her hand.
"Seems to be. Guess he never got over Steve the same as Steve never got over him."
Steve rolled his eyes and stifled a groan, but Bucky turned to him and said, "I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times. You two are fucking idiots."
"Yeah, man," Sam said and smacked his arm. "You know how loaded he is now? You could be living the high life in Manhattan, not slumming it in the last non-gentrified part of Brooklyn!"
Steve sniffed derisively and said, "I'm not going to sit here and be insulted about where I live by people that have actually chosen to live in New Jersey."
He was treated to all sorts of excuses by that, from Sam's It's cheaper to Bucky's It's safer to Natasha's It's actually a really nice town. He rolled his eyes at all three of them and shook his head at their misguided notions.
You couldn't pay him enough to live in New Jersey.
He must have ignored them for far too long because the next thing he knew, Natasha was leveling a serious look at Bucky and telling him to be on his best behavior tonight.
"When am I ever not?" came his cocky reply, and she swatted at him, but there was a teasing and fond smile on her lips as she did so. She muttered something in Russian — probably one of the few words she remembered from the college Russian she'd taken — and Bucky replied in much the same way, and Steve had to suppress a laugh at the blind leading the blind. Natasha's Russian was probably as good as his German—
Which had actually been enough to impress Johann all those years ago. He shivered. There was a memory path best left undisturbed. OK, maybe more had happened with him than he'd been willing to admit even to himself. Look, he…hadn't been in a good place at that time.
"Why?" Sam asked. "Who are we trying to impress?"
"I was telling Pepper about how James and I are getting married in the atrium, and I was telling her how beautiful it was, and she's been looking at venues for her upcoming wedding with Happy—" She directed a knowing look at Bucky. "—who's head of security," she said, her tone leading.
Bucky sat back and shook his head. "I told you, I am fine where I am. Unruly five-year-olds on a school trip and asshole teenagers looking for a place to make out are about as stressful a level as I'm willing to handle."
Natasha pursed her lips at Bucky, her eyes flat, and Steve knew that wasn't the end of the conversation, but she turned back to Sam and continued, "Anyway, Pepper's looking for wedding venues, and I was telling her about this one. She was intrigued, so I told her to stop by and I'd show her around."
Bucky sighed out a groan. "And don't tell me. Happy — and what the hell kind of a name is 'Happy'? — is stopping by, too, and he's got a whole speech lined up about how great an opportunity it is to work at Stark Industries and how much of a privilege it is and how great the retirement package and the benefits are."
"No. Happy has security work to deal with tonight."
Bucky 'tsked' and shook his head. "Doesn't even get the evening off."
"And incidentally, the benefits and retirement package are to die for."
"My 401's chugging along nicely. And if not, there's always Social Security."
Sam snorted a laugh. "You know that's not going to be there for us when we get old, right? You know they'll have killed it by then."
Bucky grinned at him. "Then I guess Stevie'll have to make like the ninety-year-old that we all know he really is and write another letter to our rep demanding they not privatize it." He smacked Steve's arm. "Seems to have worked so far."
"I really don't think I'm the reason—" he started to say when Natasha cut in and said, "Oh, yeah, Stark's coming."
Steve's heart thudded hard against his breastbone, but he was able to get control over himself and scowl at Natasha. "Don't say it like that."
"No, dude," Sam said and pointed down the hallway. "He's coming, like, right this second."
Steve didn't even have time to look. Instinct took over, and with an almost comical series of thumps, he dove beneath the security desk and pulled his knees up to his chin, curling himself into a ball as he tried to make himself as small and inconspicuous and unseen as possible.
"If you rat me out, I'll never speak to either one of you again."
"How are we the losers in that scenario?" Bucky asked, but Sam just rolled his chair so that he was cornering Steve in and, hopefully, blocking him from any view.
He heard Natasha and Pepper Potts greet each other, and then Natasha was introducing Pepper to both Bucky and Sam. Tony still hadn't said a word, and maybe he wasn't actually there because he himself hadn't actually seen Tony; he'd just taken both Natasha's and Sam's words for it.
And then, he heard it.
"Jesus fuck, Barnes?"
"There it is," Bucky said. "Long-time, no-see."
"Yeah, you…and Wilson? Uh, does this museum know it put you two in charge of security? Christ, Barton doesn't work here, too, does he?"
"Hey, I'll have you know our shift has the best safety rating going three years in a row," Bucky said. "And no, Clint's working for some other security firm."
"Which is a fancy way of saying he's a spy," Sam said.
"He's not a spy," Bucky said. "He just wants everyone to think he's a spy. I think he actually works for Comcast."
"Jesus," Tony said with a horrified exhale of breath. "What'd he sell his soul or something?"
"That implies he had a soul to begin with," Bucky said, and the guys laughed (Steve noticed Natasha's laughter was conspicuously absent) before Natasha suggested that they go check out the atrium and Pepper agreed wholeheartedly with that suggestion.
"Come on, Tony," Steve heard an unfamiliar female voice say, which he took to be Pepper's, and Tony whined a little before Pepper added, "You can play with your friends later. You said you would help me with this."
"Fine," he muttered, then said, "See you later," and Steve heard the departing clack of three sets of expensive shoes against linoleum. He kept quiet and tucked into himself for a few more minutes, until both Bucky and Sam wheeled back from the desk and shot pointed looks at him. "Way to be strong, man," Sam said.
"You know I don't swing that way," Bucky said, "but your boy's looking fucking fine."
Steve rolled his eyes and scrambled up from his hiding spot. "Look, just cover me until he leaves, all right? He doesn't…he doesn't need to know."
"What?" Bucky said. "That you're too chickenshit to face him?"
"It's not that," Steve said as he sat back down in his chair and watched the monitors. He flipped through a couple and tried to find the trio, but they seemed to keep stepping out of view just as he hit the right camera. "It's just…it would be weird, all right? Especially after that joke of his from last night."
"Don't think it's a joke," Bucky said.
"It's a joke," Steve countered.
"And what if it wasn't?" Sam asked. Steve turned to him and went to say…something…when Bucky said, "Oh, shit, he's coming back," and Steve's eyes went wide before he dove under the desk again, thumping his way back to his hiding spot.
Bucky burst out laughing, and Sam shook his head and said, "You're an ass, man," and Steve frowned between them and said, "He's not coming, is he?"
Sam nodded at the monitor. "He's over in the atrium with Nat and Potts. Seems to be more interested in whatever's on his phone than whatever Nat and Potts are discussing."
"He always did have the attention span of a flea," Bucky said, and Steve rolled his eyes and crawled out from under the desk again. "Seriously, pal," he added as Steve sat down in his chair again. "Way to throw yourself on a grenade. You're an inspiration to everyone everywhere."
"I don't think you can equate facing an ex with throwing yourself on a grenade to save someone," he said and glanced at the monitor where, true to Sam's word, Tony was standing beside Pepper and Nat and fiddling with this phone.
"Especially when you're the one that fucked up the relationship," Sam said, and Bucky nodded his solemn agreement.
Steve heaved out a sigh and stood up. "I'm going to get a coffee. You want anything?"
They both indicated they were fine, so Steve headed off toward the employee lounge, making sure to bypass anything remotely connected to the atrium. No sense in chancing a fate worse than death just to get away from Bucky and Sam's needling.
He found his way to the lounge, and he breathed sweet, sweet relief as he was left alone with the gentle hum of the fluorescent lights and the machines. His sweet-tooth nagged at him, and he went over to the vending machine and looked over his choices, settling on a Snickers just as someone else came into the room. He rolled his eyes and let out a silent sigh and figured it was either Sam or Bucky, but he said nothing and hoped they would get the hint to leave him alone. It wasn't fun being confronted with past mistakes, especially a mistake that had caused him so much heartache, a mistake he'd taken for doing the Right Thing.
He tried to catch a glimpse of the person in the reflection of the glass, but the lighting wasn't good
enough to catch the person, nor was the angle, so he settled for making his selection and pressed the buttons as he heard whoever it was pour himself a cup of coffee from the pot. Maybe it wasn't Bucky or Sam then? Wouldn't they have antagonized him by now?
"Ugh," the person said, "this shit has the consistency of motor oil. How can you stand it?"
Steve froze as the candy bar dropped down into the trough. Shit, shit, shit. How— how in the ever-loving fuck was he even down here? Didn't he see the 'employees only' signs?
His heart raced so fast and beat so hard Steve thought it was about to burst right out of his chest, and he swallowed and took slow, measured steps to grab his chocolate bar and get the hell out of there without his companion noticing.
"I mean, I guess you don't have a choice," the voice from his past continued then went quiet as he took a sip. He hadn't turned around from the coffee machine yet, and Steve was almost at the door when he added, "Ugh, tastes like motor oil, too— not that I know what that tastes like. Too much. All right, I have a helper-bot that puts it in everything including my protein shakes that I've kind of been subsisting on—"
He turned around, and Steve was caught just on the wrong side of the threshold, and he stopped, swallowed, and turned, unable to contort his face into anything other than the proverbial deer-in- the-headlights.
Tony, to his credit, didn't seem surprised in the least, and he put the Styrofoam cup to his mouth and took a sip before he smiled a little sheepishly and said, "Hi."
Steve could only nod, his gaze falling upon the gorgeous sight of the one that got away. The dark suit accentuated his lithe build, the van dyke lent itself to a certain sophistication, and there was something about the way he stood now, the way he carried himself that screamed power and prestige.
And yet, Steve could see, underneath it all, the stubborn, baby-faced wunderkind covered in grease smudges and faded band shirts, all messy-haired with dogged determination, bending the laws of nature to his will, demanding that science meet his needs. He saw a mad, impossible boy wanting to step out from under his father's shadow, wanting to break free of the world he was expected to seamlessly and silently slip into, a dreamer with visions of a better, safer, more prosperous world. Not 'Tony Stark,' just 'Tony.' His Tony.
Tony made a face and a hesitant, guttural sound, and Steve was pulled out of his memories for the second time that day as Tony scratched the back of his head and said, "Uh, yeah, I wanted to, ah… Look, you, uh, you didn't happen to see the news within the last twenty-four hours, did you?"
He swallowed, his stomach doing a flip just as his heart sank down into it, and he put on his most placating and friendly face as he said, "Don't worry about it. It was a joke, right?"
Tony's eyes went wide a moment, like he hadn't expected Steve to say that, before a mask settled over his face, and he put on that phony smile that Steve could spot a mile away and always hated to see.
And he hated that, for the first time in his life, it was being directed at him.
"Yeah," Tony said with a laugh as phony as his smile. "Yeah, it was— You know I'm always trying to fuck with people. Thought it might get the press in a bit of a tizzy for a while. It's what I'm best at."
Steve started to nod then gave a curt shake of his head. "No," he said, like it was the definitive word on the matter. "No, it's not."
Tony scoffed. "Yeah, I think it is," he said and took another painful sip of his coffee, literally finishing with an 'ack' sound and sticking his tongue out in disgust.
"It's not," Steve said, forcing himself to ignore Tony's hammy exaggerations, those things that always amused him the most about Tony. "You're so much better than that. You always were."
And now some sort of sharpness slid over the mask, and there was an almost dangerous look about him as he said, one eyebrow raised, "Yeah? Well, no offense, but you kind of haven't been around me the last several years, so you're not exactly the best person to ask about it."
It was a defensive measure. Steve had seen Tony through enough good times and bad to know a patented Tony Stark Defensive Maneuver when he saw one, and rather than rising to the bait, he just nodded and said, "I know. I'm sorry."
"Yeah, you should be," Tony said in spite then blinked and frowned, his tone much more curious as he asked, "Wait, for what?"
"For not being there the past few years. For ending things the way I did— how I did. I'm sorry, Tony. I thought… I thought I was doing the right thing for you. For both of us."
Tony just gazed at him, head tilted, lips parted slightly, Styrofoam cup halfway to his mouth. He watched as Tony's eyes scanned the breadth of his face, like he was trying to read him, trying to figure out if he was saying what he thought he was saying, and for a moment — for just a moment — Steve saw that protective shell crack. He saw the mask begin to slide off. He saw that wide- eyed and idealistic man he'd fallen in love with all those years ago.
But then he blinked, and the mask was back, and the shell was all patched up. He closed his mouth and swallowed, and he nodded and then shrugged a little.
"Yeah, well, look, it was your first romance, and who knows what they're doing at that age, you know? It's fine. Water under the bridge. No big deal."
But Steve took a breath, and the Snickers bar going soft in his warm hand, even through the wrapper, he stepped closer to Tony and shook his head ever-so-slightly.
"No, it's not. It wasn't. It was a big deal. I'm sorry, Tony. I thought… Doesn't matter what I thought. The point is I hurt you, I know now that I hurt you, and I'm sorry. Nothing I ever say can make up for that. You asked me to marry you once. I said I would. And then I broke your heart because I thought letting you go was what you wanted. I thought you were just too afraid to be the bad guy."
Tony had shifted his gaze away from Steve as he talked, like he was unable to look at Steve while he listened to those words come out of his mouth, but his final words gave him pause, and suddenly Tony was looking at him, concern and confusion lining those tear-filled brown irises.
"What? Why? Why would you think that?"
He shrugged. "I don't—"
"No," Tony said and stepped closer, now resolute, the coffee left forgotten on the counter behind him. "Why would you think that? What made you think I wanted you to break up with me?"
Steve groaned a little and scratched at his forehead with his index and middle fingers, his ring and pinky holding onto the melting candy bar. "I don't… Look, it's not—"
"Did I say something? Did I tell you something? Was I not a good enough boyfriend—?"
Steve looked up in horror. "What? No! No, of course you were—" He grimaced and groaned and dropped his hand back down to his side. "Look, it's nothing. Forget I said anything, and let's just let bygones be—"
"No," Tony said, fury in his eyes and jaw hardened. He folded his arms and added, "No, I want to know. What made you think I wanted to break up with you?"
Steve found his gaze locked into Tony's, and like so many times in the past, he found he couldn't look away. Tony was several inches shorter than he, but it was times like this, when Tony's fury reached its boiling point, that Steve felt Tony was more intimidating than even an eight-foot metal murder-bot could ever hope to be.
He swallowed and knew he had to choose his next words carefully because he wasn't about to let his last conversation with the one he would always love end in pain, accusation, and hate.
"I overheard Stane tell you that no one wanted some 'fag freak' running the company and how he couldn't believe that someone with my debts wasn't with you just for the money. I know you always trusted Stane, you looked up to him, and I noticed after that that you…seemed a little closed-off to me, like you were trying to figure out if maybe he was right. I didn't ever want you to think there was even a possibility that he could be, and so I…"
He left off what didn't need to be said, and he waited while Tony processed his, his chin wobbling like he was trying so very, very hard not to lose control of himself, and he blinked several times, averted his gaze, and then finally let out with the most venomous, "Fuck you, Steve," that he had ever heard in his life.
Tony dropped his arms and stormed out of the lunchroom, and Steve rolled his eyes and sighed and tossed the melted candy bar onto one of the lunch tables and took off after him. "Tony! Tony, wait!"
"No, Steve!" Tony yelled, spinning around on his heel and glaring at him. He marched right back up to him and jabbed him hard in the sternum with his pointer finger. "You don't get to do this, do you understand? You don't get to somehow make this my fucking fault!"
He winced away from the jabs and thought about rubbing his bruised sternum but fought the urge. "But it's not your fault. Don't you get it? It's all me! It's all on me! I'm the one that jumped to a conclusion without talking to you! I'm the one that screwed up!"
"Yeah, because I wasn't the perfect boyfriend—"
"That's not what I said—"
"Really? Because that's what it fucking sounds like, Steve."
Steve glanced around, and though they were in the bowels of the museum, Steve really didn't want to embarrass himself in front of any janitorial staff or other night workers.
"Look, Tony, I'm on the clock here. Could we do this later?"
"Why?" he asked and folded his arms tight against his chest. "Why should I allow you that favor?"
Steve swallowed again, and though he knew this could very well be his undoing, he knew with every fiber of his being that it was the absolute truth of the matter.
"Because I know you meant it when you looked into that camera and said I owed you a ring. And because all I want to do is cash in my life savings and buy you the best one I can afford."
That did it.
Tony's façade shattered. He dropped his arms from their defensive position over his chest, and he let his gaze rake over Steve's face for only a moment before he advanced on him, grabbing him by the front of his shirt and hauling him in for a bruising, passionate, wet and desperate kiss. Steve didn't even hesitate. He put his arms around Tony's smaller frame and kissed back, taking the advantage away as he plundered Tony's mouth, tasted him, held him in his arms and forced him to accept what Steve gave him, just like the old days. He felt Tony go a little lax at that, his knees bending the slightest, and he let go of Steve's shirt and slid his hands so that he had them on Steve's shoulders, allowing Steve to hold him and cradle him and take care of him like he did once upon a time.
Tony broke the kiss, slowly, like he was forcing himself not to be such a glutton, his eyes closed as his lips hovered by Steve's mouth, and quietly, like a prayer, he said, "Go out with me."
"OK," Steve said in the same gentle whisper. "When?"
"Can't. Gotta work."
Tony opened his eyes and pulled away from Steve's embrace at that. He licked his lips, tasting the last of Steve on his mouth, before he asked, "What time do you get off? And, no, that was not a bad innuendo."
He laughed a little at the fact that Tony had to insist that it wasn't innuendo — he didn't even think to take it as such — and said, "Midnight."
Tony eyed him over, and he nodded and said, "I see," before he turned and left, leaving Steve to wonder what in the hell had just happened.