“Steve!” a voice calls and Steve hunches his shoulders as he tugs his ball cap down, momentarily forgetting his injury.
He hisses as the joint flares with pain and presses his palm down over the muscle. Dammit, that hurts. Behind him, the paparazzi are still calling his name, shutters going like mad. Then one of them shouts, excited, “Tony!” The rest of the paparazzi follow suit, his name giving way to Tony’s.
When Steve lifts his head, he finds Tony walking toward him, dark sunglasses covering his eyes and both hands held aloft, making sure the paparazzi can’t help but get photos of the rude gesture he’s making. It’ll make the photos pretty much worthless, which is nice, but Steve wishes it weren’t necessary.
“Hey,” Tony says, stepping close and hooking one arm around Steve’s neck. The warmth of his palm doesn’t cover it and Steve guesses he’s still throwing the bird. “You okay? Shoulder bothering you?”
Steve’s mouth twists in a crooked smile. “Not as much as those vultures.”
He can just make out Tony’s eyes behind the lenses, darkening a little. He tilts sideways to get a look around Steve’s shoulder and mutters, “Assholes. Bad enough you’re hurting without them harassing you.”
The scowl on his face makes Steve smile and he leans forward to nuzzle Tony’s cheek.
“Hey, watch it,” Tony complains, but he turns into the attention. “You’re gonna take my eye out with that hat.”
“Did you get a table?” Steve asks.
“Did I get a—of course I did, what do you take me for? They’d have booted someone out the door for me if they didn’t have one. Come on.” Tony shifts to walk alongside him, hand swinging around between them to flash the paparazzi a final double-bird. “I got us a spot on the patio—four walls to keep out the peeping pricks, plus sunshine and fresh air.”
“Anti-prick walls. You don’t say?”
A grin splits across Tony’s face and Steve gets the pleasure of seeing his dark eyes slide sidelong to look at him. “Impenetrable anti-prick walls.”
“Now, let’s not go nuts,” Steve says and Tony huffs a laugh, leaning into his side and pressing his face into the crook of Steve’s shoulder.
“Oh, sure, I’m the one who’s nuts.”
“Absolutely.” Steve presses a kiss into his hair. His eyes drift closed for a second as the warm and slightly intoxicating smell of Tony and Tony’s shampoo blooms in his nostrils.
Then a waiter clears his throat behind them and Steve’s cheeks heat. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” he says, hurriedly and winces as he moves his shoulder in his rush to get Tony moving.
The patio is even better than Tony described. All the chairs and tables look like wrought iron and they’ve each got a red-and-white striped umbrella hanging overhead. The walls surrounding them are old, authentic New York brick, with tendrils of ivy climbing skyward. “Wow,” he breathes. “Tony, how did you find this place?”
Tony finally slips off his sunglasses, grinning back at him over his shoulder. “Iron Man never tells his secrets.”
Steve snorts. “I seem to remember a press conference or twenty that says otherwise.”
A few surreptitious glances follow as they seat themselves at a table in the back corner. Tony makes a noise of complaint when Steve settles, a triangle of sunlight draping over his injured shoulder. “Dammit, I told them—”
“Tony, it’s fine,” Steve says and gets a look in return, the one Tony always gets when Steve starts demurring. “No, really,” he says. “It feels good.”
Tony eyes his shoulder critically before grudgingly relenting. “Fine, but if it starts to bug you, we’re switching.”
Steve nods. Instead of moving on to the menu though, Tony wrinkles his nose. “What?” Steve says.
“Oh, damn, Tony, why didn’t you say something sooner?” he demands, lowering his voice and trying to slip it off as subtly as he can. Ma, God rest her soul, is probably rolling over in her grave. He glances around and it doesn’t look like anyone noticed, not that anyone much cares about niceties like that anymore, but it’s the principle of the thing.
Tony props his chin on a fist and smirks. “I like watching you be stealthy.”
They banter while they peruse the menus and the sunshine soothes Steve’s shoulder to the point where it almost feels good. The metal on the sling gets uncomfortably hot, even through his shirt, and Steve unbuckles it, slips it off as he smiles at Tony. He’s skimming the menu and talking, paying attention to both, which Steve still finds impressive. He used to think a person could only really take in one thing at a time, but not Tony.
The waiter comes to take their order and Tony orders for both of them without even giving Steve a chance to protest—but they’re all things Steve wants and three entrees is more than he’d usually allow himself if he ordered. Tony probably knows that.
Their feet find one another under the table, Tony’s tapping at the sides of Steve’s gently, then the insides of his legs bracketing Steve’s own. He flicks a balled up straw wrapper at Steve’s forehead and Steve blows his into Tony’s face. They laugh and talk about press conferences and Thor’s new apron and The Colbert Report.
“Guy’s always on,” Tony says, admiring, and Steve smiles, looking up from the ring around Tony’s finger. He’s still getting used to the sight of it and it still makes something warm flutter low in his belly.
“Sure, I am. But it’s always a pleasure to watch a master at work.”
Steve’s fingers brush over the shining platinum band and Tony glances down. A smile crinkles the corners of his eyes, his fingers curling. The heat of a blush seeps into Steve’s cheeks. “I like the way this looks,” he admits.
Tony grins, looking up at him through his eyelashes. He flutters his fingers and Steve shakes his head, a smile tugging at his lips. “You like how it looks, huh?” He lifts his hand a little, tilting it left and right, gaze assessing. “I can see the appeal,” he says at last.
“You’re terrible,” Steve says, huffing and sitting back.
Tony hesitates, mouth opening, and then leans forward as he closes it, reaching to wrap his banded hand around Steve’s. “Okay, levity unappreciated, noted.” He squeezes Steve’s fingers. Then, In a low voice, he confesses, “I keep getting distracted in the lab. Seeing it flash out of the corner of my eye. Ask JARVIS. I spend an unhealthy amount of time staring at it.”
Steve knows he’s doing it on purpose, trying to wheedle his way back into Steve’s good graces, and he doesn’t want it to work, but he’s caught Tony doing that exact thing, sitting in the lab staring at his wedding band, turning it slowly around his finger with his thumb, and he can’t stop the rush of affection he feels.
He’s not going to let Tony off that easy though. He glances up at him and says, noncommittal, “Yeah?”
Tony stares at him for a second, and then narrows his eyes. He blows out a short breath and says, “Yeah, okay. I like seeing it. I like the way it looks. I like what it means. I like the way it feels. I especially like knowing you have one just like it. Is any of this hitting the mark?”
It is, it all is, because even with the attempt to play down what he’s said, it’s obvious it’s all true. It makes Steve feel hot all over.
He shifts, resisting the urge to push across the table, and Tony frowns slightly, eyes sweeping over Steve’s face. Then he looks mildly surprised. “You like that?”
“You like that,” he repeats more confident, a grin creeping into his voice. “God, I should have known you’d be into that. Which part is it that you like: marking me as yours or marking yourself as mine?”
When he doesn’t answer right away Tony says, “Come on, I told you.”
Steve blushes even more deeply and mutters, “Neither.” Then he amends, “I like those, too.”
Now Tony just looks curious. “Then what?”
“I like that you like it,” Steve says, looking down at the table. When he glances back up, Tony is leaning across the table to press their mouths together, his hand curling around Steve’s neck.
“You’re damn right I do,” he breathes before dropping back into his seat.
Steve grins, helplessly, like an idiot.
A waiter passes the table to their right and trips. Steve sees it happen in slow motion; his toe catching on a cobblestone, the weight of the heavy plates at the front of the tray feeding its sudden forward momentum, the waiter’s expression of shock.
He lunges out of his chair, hears Tony bark, “Steve, no!” but it’s not until he brings his arms up to catch the tray that he remembers.
His shoulder lights up with white-hot agony, stoked hotter by the muscle tensing as the tray hits his hands. He grits his teeth and reaches up to grab the edge of the tray with his other hand as the pain shorts out his ability to control his arm. The pressure of the tray on his shoulder is excruciating.
When he stops moving, he can feel himself shaking.
“Oh my god,” the waiter whispers, “th-thank you. Thank you so much, I—”
“Fuck!” Tony spits out from behind Steve.
“Please take the tray back,” Steve asks and it’s a struggle to keep his voice steady.
“Take it!” Tony snarls when it doesn’t happen right away.
When the weight is lifted, it hurts nearly as much as taking it had. He reaches to curl his hand over the wound and hisses, pulling back before he’s put any pressure on it at all. It stings and throbs and, hell, it’s like taking the hit all over again.
“Steve, Steve, come on, sit down, will you?” Tony is saying, hands gingerly nudging him back toward his chair.
“Yeah,” he rasps and sinks down into it.
Tony drops to his knees in front of him, eyes wide. “Christ, what were you thinking, you idiot?”
Steve shakes his head because his throat is too tight to speak. Dammit, it hurts. There’s a funny tickling sensation amidst all the screaming agony that probably means he’s bleeding again.
“First aid kit,” Tony demands, “bring it to me, now. Some ice, a plastic bag if you have it, if not, bring the plastic wrap. No, don’t call a goddamn ambulance, don’t be stupid.”
Steve hunches forward further because his eyelashes are clumping together and he knows it’s just a matter of time. All for a few plates of food that probably won’t get served now anyway.
“Steve?” Tony says and then achingly, “Honey.” He puts his hand on the back of Steve’s head, and draws him forward until his face is pressed into Tony’s jacket. Being hidden only makes the tears come thicker. Steve hates it.
He hates Tony’s sarcastic murmuring and the hand moving up and down his back in long strokes less.
The initial pain starts to dull and he breathes through his mouth, eyes pressed to Tony’s collarbones until he’s sure he’s stopped. Then he leans back ever-so-slightly and stares down at his feet.
“Not that anybody could judge you, knowing the hell you go through,” Tony says, inexplicable until Steve feels him tug the baseball cap onto his head, thumbs swiping quickly over the dampness on Steve’s cheeks. He’s grateful for the meager shelter it provides. Then Tony squeezes his knee and says, “I’m gonna open up your shirt, all right?”
Steve nods and focuses on breathing and not burning up from humiliation. If he’d left his sling on this would have never happened.
Tony’s fingers are deft and gentle, slipping out half a dozen buttons in no time. He carefully tugs it down to expose Steve’s shoulder—he’s wearing an a-shirt instead of his usual t-shirt on account of the stitches.
“Hey, good news,” Tony says, squeezing his bicep, “you only popped two stitches.”
“Hooray,” Steve mutters.
“This is going to sting,” Tony warns, and then dabs at the wound with an antiseptic wipe.
Steve hisses and wraps his hands around the arms of the chair, so he doesn’t accidentally bust Tony’s instead.
“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Tony murmurs, “hang on, almost done.” He cleans up the thin rivulet of blood snaking down Steve’s bicep and then presses the edges of the wound together, laying butterfly stitches over the gap, his mouth pinched.
While he dresses it, Steve watches his fingers through half-open eyes, breathing in the soft smoky smell of Tony’s cologne, laid over the gunmetal and grass smell that’s all Tony. He loves that smell.
Tony buttons his shirt back up and then climbs to his feet, groaning about his knees. “Nobody asked you to kneel on the cobblestone,” Steve reminds him.
“Psh,” Tony says. “If you’d seen the look on your face, you’d’ve dropped to your knees then and there, too.”
Steve squirms at the reminder.
Tony fills a plastic baggie with ice and wraps it up, then folds a napkin around it and reaches to press it to Steve’s shoulder. “Tony,” he complains.
“Oh, come on, they owe us. It’s a napkin, Steve. It’s not gonna break the bank.”
Reluctantly, Steve lets him press it down onto his shoulder. He winces, but reaches up to hold it himself. Soon the cold will start to numb the area.
“Let’s get out of here,” Tony says, and coaxes Steve to his feet with a hand on his elbow.
Steve’s grateful Tony doesn’t want to stay—he wants to go back to the Tower where he can lick his wounds in private, away from all the eyes he can still feel. Tony gathers up his sling and their other belongings, pulling out the arms of Steve’s sunglasses so he can easily slip them on Steve’s face, and then he leads Steve back into the restaurant with one warm, reassuring hand on the small of Steve’s back.
“You got a back door?” he asks one of the waitstaff.
They blink and after a beat, point down a hall to their left. “Exits out into the alley.”
“Perfect,” Tony says.
“Mister Stark! Captain, your meals.” Their waiter comes jogging breathlessly up, holding out an elegant white paper bag with red ribbon handles. “I’m so sorry your meal was interrupted. This is on the house.”
Tony looks impressed, and Steve knows there aren’t a lot of things that impress him in restaurants anymore. People tend to fall all over themselves for them.
“Nope,” is his only reply. He hands over several bills—probably more than twice the amount of what their meal cost. “Thanks for your help, this is great.”
Steve is starving, and part of him wants to sit back down and eat right now, but the rest of him just wants to go home.
Tony takes the bag and Steve waves politely as he’s steered toward the side exit.
“They rushed our food after the accident,” Tony says.
“Nice of them.”
Tony hums in agreement. He pushes the door open ahead of Steve, who’s careful to keep his arm settled firmly across his stomach instead of reaching to hold the door himself.
One of the paparazzi is waiting at the mouth of the alley.
“Shit,” Steve says as the guy turns, raising his camera. His mood sours even further. The pap meets his eyes and to Steve’s surprise, his camera slows it’s ascent.
He frowns. “You bleeding?”
Steve glances down and sighs at the sight of the blood spotting the shoulder of his shirt. He liked this shirt.
“Look, he’s having a shitty afternoon, you wanna take your damn pictures and get out of his face?” Tony doesn’t mute his irritation.
“Didn’t know you were hurt,” the pap says and then glances out to the street. Steve is shocked when he lowers his camera. “C'mon. You hurry and you can get to your car before anyone notices. I’ll get their attention.” He waves them forward impatiently when they just stand there.
The three of them peer around the corner, and when someone exits the restaurant, making all the paparazzi perk up, he and Tony duck out onto the sidewalk, although Steve doesn’t miss Tony hanging back just long enough to tuck the rest of his cash into the pap’s shirt pocket. “Thanks,” he says fervently. “Owe you one.”
When they’re halfway to the car, they hear him yelling into the alley, “Mister Stark, Mister Stark!” and then the sound of all the other paparazzi coming running.
No one notices them slipping into the Tesla parked on the street.
Inside, Tony puts a hand on Steve’s thigh, gives him a once over. The ring Steve gave him glints in the sunlight filtering in through the windshield and despite the throb of his shoulder, Steve feels happy. “You okay?” Tony asks, eyes searching Steve’s face.
Steve smiles and covers Tony’s hand with his own, feels their rings clink together. “Never better.”