The phone wakes Tony up, and by the second ring he's squinting at the caller ID. Nick Fury. Great. Nick Fury at 8 a.m. on a Saturday. What did Tony ever do to deserve this? On the plus side, this isn't an Ultimates priority ringtone, so at least the world's not ending today. He wonders if Fury's forgotten that the Ultimates don't belong to SHIELD anymore.
Tony smashes the speakerphone button and lets his eyes fall shut. He does not get paid enough for this. (He does not get paid anything for this.)
"I don't work for you," he says, before Fury can even get a word out. "You couldn't afford me, darling."
"I'm aware of that, Stark." Fury sounds, as usual, unimpressed. "But some of your team, out of the goodness of their hearts--" the little pause, of course, implies that Tony would never be one of these people-- "have decided to keep moonlighting for SHIELD."
Tony flails out a hand. He can nearly reach the whiskey on the bedside table. He'll have to get up, he supposes.
"That's nice," Tony tells him. "But I don't think their employment decisions affect me."
Fury sighs. "Suit yourself," he says. There's another pause, carefully timed; he wants to make Tony wait for it. "But Captain America's in the medical wing, and he's been asking for you."
Shit. Shit shit shit shit.
Tony sits bolt-upright, grabs the whiskey, and slugs it straight from the bottle in hopes that the alcohol will hit him fast enough to counter the incipient terror. It doesn't, really. He coughs and splutters.
"Is he all right?" Tony demands. "What's wrong with him? What happened?"
It's not like he and Steve have never had their occasional differences, but Jesus, if he's bad enough that they're keeping him in SHIELD medical, it must be bad. And Tony sure as hell doesn't want him dead.
"I'll tell you when you get here," Fury says, and there's a note of satisfaction in his voice. He's gotten Tony where he wants him.
The line clicks.
"Fuck you, Nick," Tony tells the empty room. Something happened to Steve, and it's SHIELD's fault for assigning him to whatever mission hurt him, and therefore it's Fury's fault.
He would stay away to spite Fury, but -- Steve is asking for him.
He can't remember Steve ever asking for him before.
Tony swears under his breath, has another drink, and goes to get dressed.
Tony's standing in the observation area adjacent to one of the isolation rooms at SHIELD medical, Fury at his side. Through the huge glass windows, slanted down, he can see Steve about ten feet below him, sitting on the narrow bed, his legs swinging. He's wearing one of those cloth hospital gowns, barely covering his broad shoulders. He hasn't looked up. Tony doesn't know if he can see through the mirrored glass -- maybe super-soldiers can -- but the way he's glancing around doesn't instill a lot of confidence in Tony.
Steve looks nervous. Maybe even upset. It's deeply wrong to see him like this, Tony thinks. He shouldn't ever be afraid.
Afraid isn't quite right. It's something else, too.
"So," Fury says. "There was an accident in one of the biological labs. Some of our scientists were working on a... veridical compound. There was a fire that trapped them in the lab, and Cap was inadvertently exposed to a massive dose of the compound while rescuing our personnel."
Fury shifts his weight, uncomfortably, and he gives Tony a look like he sincerely hopes Tony doesn't know enough Latin to unravel the word veridical, which he probably made up just to try to confuse him.
Too bad for Fury. Tony's a genius.
"A truth serum?"
Watching Nick Fury look guilty is maybe the weirdest thing Tony has ever seen. Fury coughs and glances away. "Yes."
Now that he knows what he's looking for, Tony looks down at Steve in the chamber below.
He's always thought Steve was a straightforward kind of guy. The ultimate, pardon the pun, in what-you-see-is-what-you-get. A man's man. Strong, brave, confident. No doubt, no wavering. He's a good leader -- and he won't hesitate to tell you if you've done well, but he also won't hesitate to tell you if you haven't. Hard to take, sometimes, but no one ever said Steve was easy.
And the one thing he isn't is afraid.
God, Steve just looks sad. That's what it is. He's sad.
If this is what Steve is really like, well. That's sad.
The intercom crackles, and Tony realizes they have the audio piped in and are monitoring. They can hear everything Steve's saying.
"It's lonely down here." Steve's voice is low, but with more inflection than he usually allows himself. Mournful, almost. "I want a hug."
If this were any other situation, Tony would make fun of the guy forever, but something within him just can't. Steve and Jan broke up -- what, was it months ago? Has anyone even touched him since then? Apparently not.
He'd thought, maybe, once, that Steve -- the true Steve -- would be mean. Cruel. An asshole. That's certainly what people like to call him. He used to hear people joking, whispering in the Triskelion corridors, about what the A really stood for.
He thinks maybe no one really knew Steve at all.
Steve just wants a hug.
"How much longer?" Tony asks Fury, in an undertone.
Fury shrugs. "At least a few hours."
"Will I be affected if I go in there?" Tony asks, and he's already heading to the door, because, even if he is, hell, he doesn't care if anyone at SHIELD knows what he thinks of them.
"You'll be fine as long as you keep your clothes on," Fury says, dryly, because now is apparently the time to bring up Tony's blatantly-obvious crush on his teammate. "At this point in the cycle it's fluid transfer only."
"How easy do you think I am?" Tony asks, because really the only thing to do is make a joke of it, right?
He needs another drink.
Silent, Fury raises an eyebrow, and Tony decides discretion is the better part of valor.
"I really missed you," Steve says, as the isolation door hisses and clicks to let Tony in. "I'm glad you came."
Steve's still scowling, though, and he looks utterly miserable -- which, Tony thinks, is probably what he would have expected from a guy who's being forced to tell the truth.
Tony puts on his best smile. "How are you doing?"
It only occurs to him after he says it that he should be very careful what he asks Steve.
"This is goddamn embarrassing," Steve says, spitting out the words. "I hate that everyone knows what I think. And I still really want a hug." He directs the last statement at the floor. His face is twisted up.
Well, what the hell, why not?
"You want a hug from me?" Tony asks, just to make sure.
"Yes," Steve admits, eyes downcast. "You always touch people. I watch you touching people all the time, even if you never touch me. You look like you'd be nice to hug." He makes the compliment sound like a curse.
"You want a hug from me now?" He's trying not to make Steve beg for it, but it feels a little less like taking advantage of him -- God, does he ever want to hug Steve -- if they can establish that Steve specifically wants this.
Steve's mouth works. "Yes."
It's the world's most awkward hug, at first. Tony kind of shuffles in, and Steve doesn't seem to know what to do with his arms, and Tony's hands catch on the stupid hospital gown. But then Steve pulls him close, and he buries his face against Tony's neck, and suddenly it is hideously clear that the poor guy's been starving for human contact.
Tony pets Steve's hair, and Steve shivers and holds him even tighter. Tony can't quite breathe. Death by super-soldier hug isn't what he thought his obituary was going to say.
Eventually Steve lets him go, still looking guilty.
"Is that okay?" Tony asks. "Is that good?"
Steve nods. "You smell really nice," he says, and then his face crumples up into a wretched, ashamed sadness.
Ordinarily, Tony would be busy preening at this sign of affection -- but, well, it's clear Steve's not happy providing it.
"Hey, no," Tony says. "I'm supposed to smell nice. I do try. You should see how much I spend on cologne, darling. You know me; I'm terribly vain."
Thankfully, Steve smiles a little; at least Tony can distract him from his misery.
"I hate being here," Steve says, glumly. "I want to go home." He glances over at Tony. "And I want you to come home with me."
Steve covers his face and shuts his eyes.
This really isn't how it goes in Tony's fantasies.
"Darling," Tony says, "I would be honored."
It takes half an hour for Tony to convince Fury to let Steve out, accompanied by promises that he will remain with Steve until the drug wears off, and that he will bring him back to SHIELD in an instant if things start getting weird. On the one hand, he signs a terrifying number of papers about liability. On the other, Steve brightens considerably as soon as he gets actual pants on, so Tony considers it worth it.
"I'm sorry I can't take you back to 1945," Tony says, as he follows Steve into his dingy little Brooklyn apartment.
"Don't be sorry." Steve pockets his keys, but his mouth is a thin line of tension. "I miss it sometimes, but I'm glad you're here with me now. And I don't think you'd have liked 1945."
Well, that was almost a normal statement.
Tony pushes Steve toward the couch. "You sit down," he informs Steve. "I'll get you something. Do you keep alcohol in the house?"
Steve blinks at him. "Do you really think I should be drinking?"
"For me, darling." Tony fills a cup with water for Steve.
"Oh!" Steve actually smiles. Then he shrugs. "There's beer in the icebox. I know it's not fancy like you like." He glances down. Does he really think Tony's judging him?
Steve's sitting now, but he's shifting uncomfortably, and he keeps looking around at the door and the windows like he's trying to gauge how he can exit the room the fastest. Tony wonders if maybe he should leave after all. Screw SHIELD.
Sitting down next to Steve, Tony hands him the water, and then Steve nods at the still-capped beer in Tony's hands. "I can get that for you," he says, and when Tony holds it out he opens it barehanded. Show-off.
"Fancy enough," Tony says, and he takes a sip of Steve's shitty Budweiser. American beer. Ugh. The things he does for love. "Thank you."
Steve's eyes dart around the room, and he's sitting up, ramrod-straight. He is visibly, obviously, extremely uncomfortable. It doesn't make sense. He'd asked Tony to come home with him.
"Look," Tony ventures, when Steve has said nothing, "if you don't want me here I can go, okay? I can get someone else to come mind you."
"I want you here." Steve's voice is insistent, but still tense. "I like having you around, and I figured that if I said anything too embarrassing you wouldn't make fun of me." Steve is staring at him, wide-eyed. "I'm just upset because I know I'm not going to be able to avoid telling you I find you very attractive."
Steve goes about three shades lighter and slaps his hand over his mouth.
"I hate myself," Steve says, the words muffled by his hand.
Steve looks like he's going to be sick. He's glancing wildly around the room, and as his hand falls away, Tony can hear him breathing, fast and too shallow.
On impulse, Tony grabs his hand. They both stare at their joined hands in silence.
"It's okay," Tony says, softly. He smiles at Steve, very carefully, Steve who is looking at him like he expects Tony to eat him alive. "It's good. Maybe you didn't notice the part where I've been flirting with you."
"You flirt with everyone." Steve's voice is sour.
Tony considers this. "True."
"Didn't think I had a chance with you," Steve says, and he looks like he wants to punch himself in the face. "Wouldn't really know what to do with one if I did."
Tony strokes his hand. "I didn't even know you swung that way, darling. Or I would have asked for real, a lot sooner."
"They asked in the Army, you know," Steve says. His gaze is distant. "They said are you a homosexual and I said sir, no, sir and it wasn't a lie." He looks at Tony, imploring. "It wasn't. I loved Gail. I really did. I would have married her and been happy. And I wanted to be Captain America, I wanted it so much, and I couldn't let them take it from me. So if there was a good-looking guy who turned my head, or if I-- if I heard someone, late at night, in the barracks -- God, we never had any privacy -- I'd just... think about Gail. About how much I needed to be normal. I needed to be a normal man, with a normal life. There weren't any other choices. Not if I wanted to be Captain America."
Tony thinks maybe this is more than he's ever heard Steve talk about his feelings about anything.
"They're not going to take it away," Tony says, carefully. "You're not in the Army anymore. You're not even in SHIELD anymore. You can be as gay as you want. Welcome to the twenty-first century, darling."
Steve smiles at him, an actual smile, and he thinks maybe it's the first time he's seen Steve be happy. Maybe ever.
"I really want to sleep with you," Steve says, and his face is bright red but at least he doesn't look like he wants to die. "I think about you a lot." He licks his lips. "You're a real handsome fella."
"You're sweet, darling," Tony says, laughing. "I like you. But I think maybe we shouldn't, right now."
Steve practically pouts. "I'm not lying. I can't lie."
"I know," Tony says. "But just because you want it doesn't mean you'd really want to do it right now." Tony actually does know what consent is. "Ask me when the truth serum wears off, okay?"
Steve hangs his head.
"I'm not sure I'm brave enough to," Steve admits.
Tony pats his hand. "You made it this far. Come on, we can find something else to do while we wait."
"I want to watch General Hospital," Steve declares. "And I want you to pet my hair."
Yeah, okay. Tony can do that.