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In Your Warmth I Forget How Cold It Can Be

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An act of kindness is what you showed to me. It caught me by surprise in this town of glass and ice.

 

Contrary to popular belief, Tony could follow orders. He mostly chose not to. Usually making a show of it.

Case in point: today. Even Tony was somewhat surprised with the ease he’d fallen in line, ready to follow Captain America’s orders. Despite spending the large majority of the day wanting to punch the guy in those perfect teeth. Granted, the impulse was still there - Tony was fairly certain it would never fade entirely - but it was now muted by curiosity, fascination and, however grudging, respect.

The same amalgam of emotions - curiosity being the prevalent - that ensured Tony was still roaming the halls of a SHIELD facility instead of surveying the damage done to his tower.

Tony’s life has never lacked excitement, but teaming up with a pseudo god, a living legend, a rage monster and a pair of terrifyingly competent spies to stop an alien invasion was a novel experience even for Tony Stark.

Avengers.

Bruce had called them a chemical mixture that makes chaos, a time-bomb, and while Tony couldn’t disagree with that assessment, when the push came to shove, they rose to the occasion; they became a team.

The battle had been won. Loki was secured, debrief was over, and Tony… well, he was bored. And rapidly losing what little patience he had for following Fury’s order to ‘stay here, Stark, until SHIELD has everything under control, and no, I don’t fucking care that you own a big-ass tower right here in New York.’

Usually, an order phrased quite like that would have been enough to bypass any and all rational thought and go straight for the contrary asshole part of Tony’s mindset. However, there was an idea, urgent, immediate and stubborn, that has been steadily forming in the back of Tony’s mind ever since his miraculous return that coincided with Fury’s order.

Tony was tentatively calling his idea ‘how to steal the Avengers from Fury’. Alternately, ‘frat house for superheroes’. The idea itself was impulsive, potentially disastrous and required patience and careful coaxing, but Tony’s always loved a challenge.

Tony had managed to corner Bruce after debrief, gaining a definite maybe to adding Bruce to Stark Industries’ collection of minds. The rest, however, were proving difficult to approach. Or track down, for that matter.

Barton had not been present for debrief, and Romanoff had disappeared in a disturbingly ninja-like manner before Tony had a chance to talk to her and test the waters, so to speak.

Locating Thor hadn’t been difficult; Tony had found him sitting in a room adjacent to where Loki was being held, staring down at what appeared to be a strange kind of a metal muzzle, with the air of a man weighted down by an almost unbearable burden. Tony could be, and generally was, an insensitive asshole, but even he wasn’t so self-absorbed not to recognize raw, naked grief when faced with it.

And that left Rogers. Who was probably sitting in his allocated room, following Fury’s orders because that was what good soldiers did.

Tony had pretty much accepted this to be fact, much to his immense frustration, which was the reason why he could only gape dumbly when he almost collided with Rogers on the stairwell leading down to the lobby. And freedom.

Fortunately, Tony managed to stop himself from blurting out one of the many things that crossed his mind, settling instead for, “Rogers.”

“Stark,” Rogers replied curtly. Then he returned to staring at nothing, clearly done with their conversation.

Was it his recent brush with death, or a sudden influx of empathy, Tony decided to ignore the impulse to poke at Rogers, try and test just how fragile their silently agreed upon armistice was. Instead, he settled for studying him.

Rogers was either a ridiculously bad actor or wasn’t trying at all, considering it was blatantly obvious how precariously on edge he was. It was both eerie and fascinating how much he resembled a caged tiger pacing the length of his prison, without moving at all.

Neither of which actually explained the train of thought that ended with Tony opening his mouth, asking, “Wanna go grab a hot dog? I’m buying.”

Rogers whipped his in Tony’s direction, his brow furrowed in suspicion. The sentiment was warranted, even if it stung a tiny bit.

“Fury ordered us to stay here.”

Well, it wasn’t a resolute no, and although Rogers still regarded Tony with suspicion, he wasn’t making an attempt to leave or pick up where they've left off on the hellicarrier. That… Tony could work with that.

“Yeah, that he did. He’s kind of a control freak, if you ask me. Not to mention his severe trust issues.”

Rogers arched an eyebrow, and Tony could practically see the sentence forming behind his eyes. Tony shrugged, not bothering with feigned guilt. He was fairly certain Rogers wouldn’t have bought it anyway. “What I did on the hellicarrier was completely warranted.” He grinned, tilting his head to the side and squaring Rogers with a pointed look. “Besides, you did the same. In your old timey way.”

“And now you want to disobey another order,” Rogers pointed out. He considered Tony with a steady gaze, but his posture relaxed minutely. Also, his frown lost at least forty percent of its potency. Those were all very good signs. Tony was starting to really warm up to this, however baffling, idea. “And drag me along.”

Tony stopped himself from rolling his eyes. Barely. “I don’t want to drag you along, Rogers. Not that I could since the suit is trashed and I don’t have a back-up with me. I want you to come along. Willingly.”

And the frown was back to its full strength.

“Look,” Tony said before Rogers could effectively end this conversation. “I don’t have an ulterior motive. Shocking, I know. I just want a hot dog. I deserve a hot dog. And so do you.”

“We do?” Rogers said, dryly. Tony was beginning to suspect there was a sarcastic bastard lurking underneath self-righteousness and outdated morals. It was simultaneously disconcerting and strangely satisfying.

“We'd pretty much saved New York. Potentially the world.” Tony grinned, wide and completely unselfconscious. “To be honest, I’d prefer a statue, but right now I would settle for a hot dog.”

The corner of Rogers’ mouth twitched in something that looked like a beginning of a smile. Tony blinked, momentarily stunned by a memory of Rogers looking down at him; face smeared with dirt, hair a wild mess, and smiling. A soft, bright, dazzling smile that had made him look so very, very young.

“Come on, Rogers,” Tony pressed on, ignoring a strange sort of flutter inside his chest. Rogers was unfairly attractive, even dressed in those atrocious old man clothes. That was acknowledging a fact, nothing more. Even if Tony were not in a committed relationship, pursuing that particular path beyond simple aesthetic appreciation… well. There was a difference between a challenge and a snowball’s chance in hell. While Tony enjoyed the former, he made it a point not to waste time and energy on the latter. “This place is depressing as hell. I can literally feel joy being sucked out of me. That’s probably Fury’s doing. It explains why no one at SHIELD has a sense of humor.”

Rogers looked around, shrugged. There was still a hint of stiffness to his posture, but that haunted look from before was almost entirely gone. Reduced to a faint shadow in the depths of his gaze. “I’ve seen worse.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, giving Rogers a pointed look, “but you grew up during Great Depression and fought in the ugliest war in history. Your standards can’t be that high.”

“Unlike yours,” Rogers stated wryly.

This time Tony didn’t bother with trying not to roll his eyes. “I’m starting to think you’re being difficult on purpose, Rogers. I’ve had less taxing negotiations with Japanese investors.”

Rogers folded his hands across his chest, giving Tony a look that was less weary and more curious. “I’m not going to try and stop you from leaving, Stark. Why are you insisting I go with you?”

That was the million dollar question, wasn’t it?

And the answer was… complicated. A part of it was the simple fact that Tony rarely knew when to stop pushing, and pushing Rogers was turning out to be a knee-jerk reaction at this point. The other part was purely practical. Tony knew his plan to turn Stark Tower into Avengers’ headquarters hinged on Rogers. If he could get Rogers onboard with the plan, the rest would follow.

(And if there was the memory of dark, vast space riddled with alien spaceships lurking on the edges of Tony’s consciousness, speeding up his heart rate… well. No one needed to know about that.)

“I’m offering you a hot dog of your choice and a breath of New York’s not so fresh air,” Tony said. He leaned against the railing, grin firmly in place. “You don’t need to worry about the quality of conversation. You don’t have to talk at all, if that’s your thing, I can talk for the both of us.”

“That I have no trouble believing, Stark,” Rogers said, folding his hands across his chest. The gesture probably wasn’t meant to advertise said part of Rogers’ anatomy, but Tony could not stop his eyes from darting down. Tony was sure Pepper would have understood. She had good taste, after all. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

For some reason, Rogers was obviously willing to take Tony’s special brand of charm with far less vitriol and judgment and a lot more sass. Which was kind of awesome; Tony could work with sass. A lot less awesome was the fact that Rogers also seemed to have a rather prominent stubborn streak.

Tony knew it was going to be a problem in the long run.

“Team bonding over food?” Tony suggested.

“Haven’t we already done that? The entire team?”

Tony grimaced. The shawarma itself hadn’t been all that bad, but Tony doubted anyone - except maybe Thor - had been awake and aware enough to appreciate it fully. “You mean the shawarma party? I admit, that was not one of my better ideas. In my defense, I was surprised with the whole still breathing thing. I wasn’t up to my best.”

A heavy shadow passed across Rogers’ face, gone before Tony could have given it a proper name.

Rogers unfolded his hands, looked down. Tony’s eyebrows rose, his interest piqued. If this were literally anyone else but Mr. Perfect, Tony would have interpreted the gesture as guilt.

“Come on, Rogers.” Tony pushed himself off the railing, spreading his hands in an impatient gesture. The novelty of the almost friendly banter with Rogers was wearing off, and that insistent presence in the back of his mind that made him think of an endless cold space was back with a vengeance. “It’s not like you weren’t thinking of leaving yourself.”

Rogers’ eyes snapped up, zeroing in on Tony’s face. He didn’t look startled by Tony’s statement. He also didn’t bother refuting it. “You think you can find a decent hot dog stand?” Rogers waved in the general direction of the exit, an almost challenging gleam in his eyes. “A few hours after an alien invasion?”

Tony let out a snort. “Cap, this is New York,” he said. “People are probably already setting up stands with Captain America plushies out there.”

“And what about Iron Man plushies?” Rogers said, arching an eyebrow. Tony was starting to suspect it was Rogers’ polite way of rolling his eyes. “Or the rest of the team? Stopping Loki had been a team effort.”

“Yeah, but only you are walking around dressed in American flag.” Tony grinned; a wide, toothy grin. Rogers’ face closed off instantly, any trace of goodwill gone. “Oh come on, Rogers, don’t make that face. You’re a symbol whether you like it or not.”

Rogers’ mouth pressed into a thin line, his brow furrowing. “I’m just a soldier,” Rogers said, and yeah, Tony could feel the temperature around him drop a few degrees. “Not a symbol.”

Tony saw anger heating Rogers’ gaze, and very unsubtle tensing of his shoulders. Neither stopped him from letting out an amused huff of laughter. “Sorry to break it you, but you became one the moment you painted yourself in those colors,” Tony said, lifting his hand to stop Rogers’ from… well, probably tearing him a new one, if the storm clouds gathering across his face were any indication. “It’s not a bad thing, Rogers. Those people out there just got one hell of a rude awakening. Now they know for a fact the aliens are real, and that they aren’t particularly friendly.”

“And what’s that got to do with me specifically, Stark?”

Tony’s mouth twisted into a smile that was probably laced with more bitterness than he would have preferred. “Thor is a walking theological controversy from outer space, Hulk is… well, Hulk, and as for the spies, James Bond has that market already cornered. And then there is you. A living embodiment of courage, honor and freedom. Of course people are going to go crazy over you. Well, until the dust settles, at least.”

“And what about Iron Man?” Rogers said, lifting his chin.

“Iron Man is cool, Rogers, but Captain America represents everything this country likes to pretend it stands for,” Tony said, voice flat. Rogers’ frown deepened. “And nothing incites bouts of patriotism like a tragedy.”

Tony had expected an outburst of righteous indignation, maybe a short inspiring speech. Or Rogers storming off in a huff. Not a hard, unblinking stare, and: “That is awfully cynical way of looking at things. Especially for someone who’d laid his life on the line to save others.”

For one excruciatingly long moment, it was like Rogers was disassembling him with his gaze, digging past Tony’s carefully constructed walls, making him feel exposed and vulnerable.

Tony forced himself to smile, a wide but empty smile he’d perfected a long time ago. It took far too much effort for Tony’s peace of mind. “Yeah, I’m contrary like that,” he said breezily, waving one careless hand. Glancing briefly toward the stairs, Tony straightened, slipping his hands into his jacket pockets, wondering what was about Rogers that threw him off his game. Granted, this time they haven’t come close to exchanging blows, but the uncomfortable weight that has settled low in Tony’s stomach didn’t count as much of an improvement in Tony’s opinion. In a way, it felt worse. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow then.”

With a parting nod, Tony stepped past Rogers, heading down the stairs.

“Stark, wait,” Rogers called after him.

A part of Tony wanted to ignore Rogers and continue onward, but curiosity got the better of him. “Yeah?” he asked, turning to face Rogers who was still standing in the same spot, looking determined.

“You were right, you know.”

Tony blinked, momentarily taken aback. “I was?”

“I had been thinking about leaving when you came.”

With that, Steve moved forward and down the stairs. It took Tony a rather embarrassing amount of time - and a raised eyebrow from Rogers - to get his mind back online and follow.

No one tried to stop them as they crossed the small lobby and went out into the street. Not that Tony actually expected anyone to intervene. Or, for that matter, Steve to hold the door for him.

The only reason Tony managed to swallow every remark that came to his mind - each one a pretty certain intro to another fight - was the fact that Rogers didn’t seem aware of it. Like being polite was something instinctual, and not a conscious effort.

Tony wondered if it were a forties’ thing, or a Steve Rogers’ thing.

This part of the city went unscathed in the attack. While the late day traffic wasn’t up to its usual chaotic levels, and notably less people walked along the sidewalk, there was no way of telling that just a few hours ago a portal had opened above New York, spewing horde of alien invaders.

They walked in silence, side by side. With each step away from Fury’s all-seeing eye, Tony could feel a tight coil of tension inside him unwind, replaced by a giddy sort of energy that latched onto the nearest interesting object available.

Unfortunately, said object was currently lost in thought; frown lines deepening on his forehead as his eyes darted along the buildings and stores they passed by.

Tony remembered his offer - hastily given, in hindsight; a joke, really - giving a valiant try to… well, not to poke at Rogers.

Tony’s resolve crumbled after ten minutes, right about the moment Rogers’ face twisted into a grimace that was an interesting amalgam of fascination, disbelief and disappointment. “Are you actively trying to dislike the future or has humanity as a whole managed to seriously fail your expectations?”

It probably wasn’t nowhere near the right side of sensitive, but Tony found himself strangely offended by the prospect of Rogers’ finding the future… lacking.

Rogers’ steps didn’t falter in the least. He dragged his eyes from whatever it was currently offending him by its existence, squaring Tony with a scowl. “What happened to not engaging me into conversation?”

“Come on, Rogers, are you seriously going to try and make me believe you bought that?” Tony said. “I know you’re smarter than that.”

“Believed, no. Hoped,” Rogers said. His voice had gone dryer than a desert, making Tony remove the tentative question mark he’d put next to ‘secretly a sarcastic asshole’ part of his internal assessment of Rogers.

“I’m guessing you’re the glass is half full type, huh?” Tony said. It earned him a small confused blink, followed by a deep frown. No wonder they were not getting along - Rogers’ sanctimonious bullshit notwithstanding - they were literally not speaking the same language. Which he really couldn’t blame on Rogers. Or take advantage of, no matter how tempting it was. Even he was aware how incredibly dickish it would be. “An optimist,” Tony amended quickly.

Rogers’ blinked, taken aback. A beat later, his eyes narrowed in suspicion, searching Tony’s face. Probably for a sign of mockery… which, yeah. An optimist, maybe, but sure as hell not naïve.

Tony was suddenly struck by a realization that the possibility of him actually coming to like Steve Rogers wasn’t as ludicrous and impossible as he might have previously believed.

The thought was startling enough that Tony almost collided with a guy walking in the opposite direction. He was saved the embarrassment thanks to Rogers’ quick reflexes; he jerked him to the side, fingers like steel bands around Tony’s upper arm.

“I grew up here, sickly and poor, during Great Depression,” Rogers said, voice so soft Tony barely heard him over the sounds of traffic. He probably only heard him because they were standing with barely any space left between them, the only two still figures on the sidewalk. Tony was distantly aware of Rogers’ fingers still wrapped around his upper arm and his own less than steady heartbeat, the majority of his focus dedicated to studying the sorrowful curve of Rogers’ mouth. “If I haven’t been an optimist, this town would’ve eaten me alive a long time ago.”

There was something painfully earnest in Rogers’ words, vulnerable and trusting. Somewhat dismayed, Tony found himself trying and failing to come up with something to say.

“Find a room, you two,” a male voice called out, breaking the spell. Tony rolled his eyes at the guy’s retreating back, clamping down on a few choice replies that sprung to his mind. It wouldn’t have been worth being recognized.

“So. We still have assholes in the future,” Tony said, drily, glancing at Rogers who was looking a lot less bothered by the comment than Tony would have previously believed. He’d let go of Tony’s arm, though.

The vulnerability of the previous moment was gone from Rogers’ expression, replaced by weary sort of annoyance. “I’ve never been that much of an optimist, Stark,” he remarked, drawing a startled chuckle out of Tony.

When Rogers started walking, Tony fell in step with him. It took Tony some time to realize they were simply wandering the streets of New York aimlessly, regardless of Tony’s initial offer. Then another few moments to realize he kinda liked it. Even the silence.

Well. Tony wouldn't have minded a little less silence.

“Okay, I know… well, not really, but I do have a vivid imagination,” Tony said, drawing a confused look from Rogers. He waved dismissively. “Anyway. Things must be confusing for you, Rogers. If our situations were reversed, and I had to go back to your time…” A shudder that run through Tony was not entirely an act. Even the thought of having to navigate the world where transistors haven’t been invented yet, made him panic a tiny bit.

“I am not frightened by the current technology,” Rogers said, a touch defensively.

Tony’s eyebrows rose. “You’re not?” The amount of doubt contained in his voice was probably insulting.

Rogers didn’t appear to be insulted. He looked at Tony from the corner of his eyes, an almost amused twist to his mouth. “You do realize that future actually began in the past, Stark? Besides, I thought there would be flying cars by now.”

Tony’s eyes went wide, then narrowed, as he debated internally whether to be offended or take Rogers’ words as a challenge.

“Apologies for the disappointment, Cap,” Tony said, if a touch testily. No matter Rogers’ apparent calm, waking seventy years into the future would have messed with anyone’s head. Poking further at this particular spot was not an especially wise move, Tony knew that. But Tony’s never known to leave well enough alone. Sliding his hands into pockets, Tony looked up at Rogers. “So. Aside from the absence of flying cars, what is it about the 21st century that makes you look like you’re sucking on a lemon?”

Steve’s expression hardened fractionally. The look he threw Tony’s way was carefully guarded. “I don’t think you will appreciate the answer.”

“That hardly stopped you before.”

Rogers hesitated a moment. Then, his jaw set, he stopped walking abruptly, nearly causing an elderly woman who was walking behind them to crash into him. She walked past them in a wide circle, giving Rogers a withering glare all the while. The fact that Rogers didn’t notice it at all, was testament how deeply he felt about the subject. Even more so than the fierce gleam in his eyes.

“I fought in a war,” Rogers said, low and heated. “It was ugly and brutal, and it stripped good men of kindness and faith. I managed to hold onto mine.” Rogers paused, something dark and pained flickering across his face. “I kept thinking: this was it, after we defeat the Nazis, something like this will never happen and all this will have been worth it. People will know better. They would have to know better.” Dragging his fingers through his hair, Rogers let out a laugh; harsh and bitter. “Maybe I am that much of an optimist.”

Tony cleared his throat, spreading his hands in an apologetic gesture. “Sorry to break it to you, Rogers, but war is a fixed constant in human evolution. Ever since the first caveman tripped on a wooden club and made a decision to use it as a weapon.” Rogers’ mouth was now pressed into a thin line, and he was scowling at Tony as if Tony was, somehow, responsible for that particular human trait. Tony swallowed a sigh, fixed Rogers with a reassuring gaze. Well, he hoped it was reassuring. It wasn’t really his strong suit. “In our defense, there hasn’t been a conflict remotely the scope of the World War II during your… away time.”

“Considering the fact the world is sitting on an enormous barrel of powder, that is not much of a comfort.”

“What have they been showing you at SHIELD?”

Rogers lifted his chin. “Am I wrong?” he insisted.

“Well, not really,” Tony admitted reluctantly. Then, hurriedly, added, “But in this particular occasion, the problem is also the solution. There is so much firepower in the world no one is crazy enough to shoot first.”

Rogers eyes went cold and hard. “It figures you would think that.”

Tony had to take a deep breath and swallow around the thick lump of anger in his throat. Anger that was mostly directed at Rogers. But also at that foolish part of himself that twisted with hurt at Rogers’ not so subtle accusation. He straightened, baring his teeth in a grin. “You know,” Tony drawled, “for an actual weapon, Rogers, you’re acting awfully high and mighty.”

Rogers went very still. “I’m not about to apologize for what I’ve done. I couldn’t have stood back and do nothing after having seen what was happening in Europe. I wouldn’t have been able to look myself in the mirror if I had. You’re right, though.” Rogers smiled bitterly, waving at himself. “I wasn’t born like this, but going through Rebirth had been the only way for me to make a difference, and I would do it again, if I had to. That doesn’t make me either a weapon or a symbol.”

Tony snorted in derision. “You’re hanging with the wrong crowd if that is what you believe, Rogers. Fury is going to use you as both.” He paused, giving Rogers a tight-lipped smile. “He already did.”

Rogers’ mouth opened, but nothing came out. Tony watched as he visibly struggled with himself, noting the way his chest rose and fell with each deep breath, and the white-knuckled clench of fists. For one surreal moment, Tony found himself wondering had he finally pushed Rogers too far.

Fury probably would have had an apoplexy if the story about Captain America and Iron Man duking it out on the street managed to overshadow alien invasion. Which, given the human nature, was not entirely impossible.

(Not that it would have been much of a fight, obviously. One punch would have probably done the trick.)

Tony didn’t back down - he couldn’t, not from this, stubbornness, pride, ego and perhaps a tiny bit of guilt holding him immobile - he held Rogers’ gaze unflinchingly and braced himself.

The punch didn’t come.

(Tony should have known it wouldn't. If Tony wanted to be honest with himself - something he avoided if at all possible - a part of him did. Rogers was far too honorable to punch someone weaker than himself out of anger.)

Rogers blinked, fury giving way to confusion as his eyes took in Tony’s posture and expression. He blinked again, then took a careful step back, loosening his fists. It was fascinating to watch, the way the last traces of fury seeped out of his face until there was nothing but carefully constructed blankness.

Rogers opened his mouth, but seemed to reconsider his decision. He shook his head, straightened, and then turned and walked away without saying a word.

Tony didn’t move. He stared after Rogers’ retreating back, feeling dizzy and drained from… whatever he and Rogers have been doing since Stuttgart. Maybe it was just a pissing contest taken way too seriously, or a game that had no clear rules, or maybe he and Rogers were just too good at drawing the worst out of each other.

Releasing a low, dry chuckle, Tony dragged his fingers through his hair. Whatever it was, it was over for today. He felt a brief flash of almost-but-not-quite guilt at the thought of Rogers roaming the streets alone, but he quickly stifled it. Rogers could take care of himself, and it wasn’t like Rogers had held back in their verbal sparring match.

Fixing his jacket, Tony took a glance of his surroundings, trying to decide whether or not to completely ignore Fury and his order, when his eyes caught the sight of the familiar blond head towering above other passer byes further down the street.

Waiting.

Now, Tony knew what curiosity did to cats and that, in some cases, winning meant refusing to play, but he found himself walking toward Rogers before his conscious mind has had a chance to intervene.

“You know,” Tony remarked casually when he reached Rogers. He swayed lightly on the soles of his feet, squinting up at Rogers. Who might as well have been made out of marble: still, silent, expressionless. “Storming off works much better when you actually storm off.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Rogers said, and while his tone didn’t actually scream ‘I’m sorry, be my friend’, there was a notable absence of hostility in it. “And I wasn’t storming off.”

“Uh-huh,” Tony said, noncommittally.

Rogers shifted almost imperceptibly: a barely there straightening of shoulders and a tiny lift of the chin. “I remember you said something about a hot dog,” he said, throwing a pointed look across the street. Tony followed his gaze, and yep; there it was, a hot dog stand. When he looked back, Rogers was regarding him carefully, one eyebrow raised. “Unless you had a change of heart?”

Tony blinked. Was Rogers even for real? A brief glance at Rogers’ face ensured him that the answer was, in fact, yes. Tony shook his head, grudgingly amused, raising his hands in a gesture of defeat. Well, Tony decided, Rogers was definitely winning ‘who was the most stubborn Avenger’ category.

“I think I’m done disappointing living legends for one day,” Tony said. He decided not to try and analyze this new twist in their interaction and just go with the flow. With an overtly dramatic gesture, he pointed at the hot dog stand. “Age before beauty, Rogers.”

Rogers gave him an unimpressed look and Tony decided, then and there, that he would make him roll his eyes. An actual eye roll, and not any of the substitutes Rogers was so fond of.

Aside from the guy at the hot dog stand squinting at Tony and asking, “Hey, aren’t you Tony Stark?” which Tony dealt with by neither confirming nor denying his identity, no one looked twice in their direction. And Tony, being Tony, had gone and asked the hot dog guy what he thought about the group of so-called heroes that had saved New York.

(He didn’t appreciate the answer he got.)

Tony had paid for their hot dogs, then waited until they were safely out of earshot to glare at Rogers. “Don’t look so smug,” Tony grumbled. “He didn’t say Cap was his favorite.”

Rogers gave a one-shouldered shrug as he took a bite of his hot dog. “I have no issues with his choice,” Rogers said matter-of-factly. “Thor seems like a nice guy.”

Tony frowned, but decided not to bring up the entire alien with extremely unfortunate familial relations part. Besides, Thor was… okay. For someone who came straight out of ancient European myths. And outer space.

For the next few moments, Tony entertained himself by watching Rogers… well, inhale his hot dog. Tony estimated it took about seven minutes before they - by an unspoken agreement, which Tony found amusing considering their less than stellar communication so far - settled on one of the wooden benches in a nearby park, and by then Rogers had already finished his hot dog.

Aside from that dazzling smile that had greeted Tony after his little trip to the outer space - Tony still wasn’t completely convinced it hadn’t been some kind of hallucination - Tony’s never seen Rogers look quite this relaxed: gone was the frown and clenched jaw, even that look of intense determination has mellowed down into an expression nearing content. It made him look young.

(It also made the inside of Tony’s chest light up with something warm, almost fond.)

“What?” Rogers asked, a touch defensively, when he noticed Tony’s regard. His brow furrowed. “It was a good hot dog.”

Tony looked down at his own hot dog. He’d only taken a bite of it, finding that he wasn’t really hungry. He offered it to Rogers. “Here, I’m not hungry and you obviously are and I’m not going to buy another from a guy who thinks Iron Man is less cool than a guy with a magical hammer.”

Rogers looked down at the hot dog, then back at Tony. Just when Tony was starting to feel ridiculous, Rogers took the offered hot dog, murmuring, “Thanks.”

Rogers finished the second hot dog with less speed, but not enthusiasm.

“After Rebirth, my appetite increased,” Rogers said, glancing at Tony with a sheepish sort of look. He leaned forward, folded his hands in his lap. “Doctor Erskine didn’t mention it would happen when I signed up.”

“It’s your metabolism. Your body operates on a higher level than that of a baseline human. It burns more calories. Hence the appetite.”

Rogers bowed his head, the corner of his mouth curving faintly. He rubbed the palm of his hand with his thumb. “I guess the Army wasn’t worried about the expenses of keeping their weapons well fed.”

Tony resisted the urge to squirm guiltily. It took two to fight, and he sure as hell hadn’t been alone back on the hellicarrier. Or… well. Half an hour ago, give or take a couple of minutes.

Tony tapped his fingers against his knee, took a deep breath. He could do this. “I’ve been informed by various parties that I’m kind of an asshole.” Tony paused, gauging Rogers’ reaction. Rogers’s gaze flicked Tony’s way, considering and slightly wary. He made no attempt to rebuke Tony’s statement. It wasn’t unexpected. It kinda stung a bit, though. Tony waved his had casually. “I’m working on it, it’s a process. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that I was out of line. You’ve made us into a team out there, Cap. And that includes the Hulk.”

For one long, and extremely uncomfortable, moment, Rogers remained silent. He regarded Tony with a sort of blank expression that could have indicated any sort of emotion. For what Tony knew, it might have even been boredom.

“We got off on the wrong foot, yes,” Rogers said solemnly. “But fighting beside you had been an honor, Iron Man.”

It took Tony a moment to realize this was it; this was Rogers acknowledging his part in the train wreck that was their relationship so far. It wasn’t a tearful apology or an offer of undying friendship, but it was something. Clean slate.

(It was also the opening Tony needed to make his pitch.)

“So. I was thinking. Stark Tower is pretty big. Lots of space.” Tony grinned, a surge of thrill sparking along his nerve endings. He could already see rough outline of his plan unfolding in the back of his mind. He felt almost giddy with it. “It’s a mess now, sure, but that’s not a problem. I have some ideas, but I guess if you’ll be living there, you-”

“What?”

Tony frowned at Rogers’ bewildered expression. “What?” Tony repeated a tad harsher than he intended, but he was on a roll before Rogers interrupted.

“What are you talking about?” Rogers asked, slowly and carefully.

Tony’s grin widened. He spread his hands. “I want you to move in,” he said, then promptly rolled his eyes at the almost comical widening of Rogers’ eyes. “Calm down, Rogers, I’m not asking you to be my kept man. The invitation is not exclusive. I meant the entire team. Well, I’m not sure how it’ll work with Thor, but I’ll think of something.”

“You want us to move in with you,” Rogers said, still looking slightly dazed. Tony nodded enthusiastically. “In the Tower.”

Tony nodded again, this time with less enthusiasm. The expression on Rogers’ face wasn’t promising. The bewilderment was fading, making way for something that was decidedly not joyful acceptance.

Slowly, Rogers straightened. Unconsciously, Tony followed his example. “Not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I don’t quite understand why are you making it,” Rogers said, voice calm and even. Tony felt his grin waver. “You are signed up as a consultant only with SHIELD.” Rogers paused, briefly, a flicker of uncertainty passing across his features. Then, he exhaled, squaring Tony with a steady gaze. “No offense, but you’re not exactly a team player, Stark.”

Tony’s grin was now razor thin. Technically, Rogers wasn’t wrong. Following orders wasn’t Tony’s forte. Never has been. But as the six of them stood together in the middle of the chaos, facing an invading alien army, Tony felt something click. Okay, it wasn’t a life-changing revelation, followed by the sound of trumpets and golden light, it was more like a glimpse of a possibility.

“Usually I’m not,” Tony admitted, giving a small one-shouldered shrug. “The Avengers… well. I can recognize a good thing when I see it.”

Rogers regarded him silently one moment. “I cannot speak for the others, but I must decline,” Rogers said, finally. Tony felt a sharp stab of disappointment, but kept it out of his expression. Rogers already looked vaguely uncomfortable, and the last thing Tony needed was his pity. He would take disparaging of his character over pity any day. Rogers frowned and looked down, as if deciding something. Then, with a deep exhale, he looked up, meeting Tony’s gaze. “I’ve already accepted to go and work for SHIELD. I am taking some time off. After that, I am moving to Washington.” Something softened in Rogers’ gaze for a fraction of a moment; earnest and open. “I-- I do appreciate your offer, Stark.”

Tony wasn’t surprised. Annoyed, sure, but not surprised. Fury was a manipulative and paranoid son of a bitch with enough skeletons to fill a dozen closets, but he wasn’t stupid. Of course he would go and snag Captain America for himself.

Tony waved his hand dismissively. “Don’t sweat it, Rogers. Go and work for Fury if that is what you want,” Tony said, keeping his voice purposefully light even as he carefully studied Rogers’ face. “It is what you want?”

“It is what I am good at,” Rogers replied curtly, and yeah. Tony could recognize deflection when he heard it.

“You don’t actually owe Fury anything, you know that, right?” Tony said, because Fury sure as hell wasn’t above using Rogers’ antiquated sense of honor and duty to get him to sign up. “Just because they fished you out of the ocean, doesn’t mean you’re obligated to sign away your soul to SHIELD.”

Rogers’ mouth pressed into a thin line. “I didn’t make a deal with the devil, Stark,” Rogers said, his brow furrowing at Tony’s snort of derision. “I’m not fooling myself. I know what kind of a man Nick Fury is.”

“A major dick?”

Rogers’ frown deepened. “The war might be over,” Rogers continued, opting for ignoring Tony; Tony hated when people employed that tactic when dealing with him. “That doesn’t mean I cannot still serve.”

Tony looked at Rogers, feeling frustration build in the pit of his stomach. He had a strong urge to shake Rogers. “Yeah, okay, the world can be a shitty place,” Tony insisted. “You are not obligated to clean it up single-handedly.”

Rogers’ eyes went flint hard. “You and I have very different views on duty and obligation, Stark.”

Tony breathed around the hurt and anger twisting beneath his ribcage, schooling his features into blank expression. “Who would have thought? There is something we actually agree on,” Tony said, flatly. Then, he took a deep breath and stood up, throwing a glance at his wristwatch. “I think we should head back before Fury sends out a search party.”

Rogers blinked, dismay clear in his gaze for a brief second. He looked up at Tony, making no move to stand up. “You’re going back?”

“I wasn’t planning to,” Tony admitted. “But Nick probably expects me not to show up and I hate being predictable.”

Rogers opened his mouth, only to close it shut without saying a thing. He looked away for a moment, the fingers of his right hand curling into a fist.

Tony regarded him silently; his gaze followed the curve of Rogers’ slightly hunched back, catching briefly on the tight clench of his jaw. Tony felt caught between bewilderment and curiosity, and completely out of his depth. He could push people’s buttons, easily and often, but the finer points of empathy mostly eluded him.

Then he remembered the haunted look on Rogers’ face back at the SHIELD’s facility. And his admission.

You don’t want to go back,” Tony breathed out, his voice tinted with something akin to wonder.

Rogers whipped his face in Tony’s direction so fast Tony almost flinched. Tony caught a glimpse of something raw and pained in Rogers’ gaze before he covered it with steely resolve. “No, I don’t.”

“Okay then,” Tony said after a moment, surprising both himself and, if the dumbfounded expression on his face was any indication, Rogers. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Rogers’ hesitation lasted as long as it took him to sweep an inquiring gaze across Tony’s face. Then, he set his shoulders, nodding once. “Okay.”

The walk wasn’t exactly what one would call eventful. They didn’t talk much. Rogers would sometimes ask a question, and Tony would offer an answer, but for the most part, Rogers seemed content to walk in silence, either staring straight ahead or taking in the scenery.

Tony should have been bored in the first ten minutes, but, for some reason, he was not. Even when daylight started to dim, replaced by the artificial lights of New York.

“See something familiar?” Tony asked when the silence has gone on for too long, more to distract himself from his body’s increasingly insistent demands for rest.

Rogers glanced at him for a split second. He shrugged; an awkward and stiff gesture. “Not really my neighborhood.”

“Then how about a better view?” The words were out of his mouth before Tony had a chance to think about them.

“Better view?” Rogers asked, confused.

“The best in the city,” Tony said, grinning. He watched as confusion bleed into realization then into something that looked very much like amusement on Rogers’ face.

“Okay,” Rogers agreed, the barest trace of laughter lacing his voice.

One cab and an elevator ride after, Tony was staring mournfully at the state of his penthouse, a glass of scotch in hand. The only bright side to the wreckage was a Loki-shaped hole in the middle of the penthouse. A part of Tony was almost tempted to keep it.

“It really is a nice view,” Rogers commented. He stood a couple of feet away, looking out the window - one that wasn’t ruined by a Norse god, friendly or otherwise - his ridiculously broad shoulders outlined by the city lights from outside.

“I’m relieved this big, ugly building has at least one redeeming quality,” Tony said, lifting his glass in mock salute.

Rogers threw him a level look over his shoulder. “I’m sure you didn’t build it for the aesthetics,” Rogers replied, looking nowhere near chastened.

Tony felt his mouth twitch into a smile. Rogers was right. Tony wanted big and flashy and obvious. And that was exactly what he got. “I needed a place on the East Coast, and New York seemed like an obvious choice.” Tony glanced at the glass in his hand. Strictly speaking, that was the truth, just not the whole truth. There might have been a tiny bit of nostalgia mixed in there somewhere. “Clearly, I didn’t take an alien invasion into the account.”

“I am certain predicting a hostile force from outer space had been beyond even your capabilities, Sir.”

Rogers turned abruptly, scanning the room with wide, startled eyes. “What…?”

Tony swallowed a snort. JARVIS did like to make an impression. “Relax, Cap, that’s just my AI, JARVIS. He basically runs this place.” Taking a sip of his drink, Tony waved in Rogers’ direction. “J, meet Steve Rogers, otherwise known as Captain America.”

“My apologies for having you startled,” JARVIS said. “It is an honor to meet you, Captain Rogers.”

“Kiss ass,” Tony grumbled under his breath, downing the rest of his drink.

Rogers visibly relaxed, even if his eyes were still scanning the ceiling. “I-- Thank you, JARVIS,” Rogers said politely. He drew his eyes away from the ceiling, throwing a faintly impressed gaze Tony’s way. “You made JARVIS?”

“Yep,” Tony said, heading for the bar. “The excess of sass is an unfortunate side effect of JARVIS’ learning sub-programs for which I refuse to take credit.”

“That is unusually modest of you, Sir,” JARVIS remarked. “Also incorrect. The entirety of my programming is your work.”

Tony snorted. “I knew I should have gone with blind adoration with you.” Tony caught Rogers’ gaze from across the room, unable to formulate an adequate response to the small smile tugging up the corner of Rogers’ mouth. In the end he settled for reaching for the tumbler of scotch, huffing out an impatient sound when Rogers’ smile disappeared, replaced by a frown of disapproval. Tony squared him with a narrowed gaze. “Don’t give me that look, Rogers. This has been an exceptionally long and shitty day. I deserve this drink.”

For a moment, it looked like Rogers would disagree. Tony’s fingers instinctively tightened around the glass in his hand, annoyance burning in the back of his throat.

“You’re right,” Rogers said, dragging his fingers through his hair, weariness etched onto his face and into the downward slope of his shoulders. “This really has been a long day.”

Tony blinked, perplexed by Rogers’ sudden meekness. He looked down at the drink in his hand, swallowing a curse. He could finish his drink. He just didn’t want to. With a sigh, he put the glass down, carefully ignoring the flash of surprise in Rogers’ eyes.

“This place is a mess, obviously,” Tony said, fingers drumming a nervous beat against the marble countertop before Tony caught himself and curled them into a loose fist. “But there’s a perfectly comfortable bed and a shower in the guest room if you want to stay. Or,” Tony hurried to add, “I could call you a cab if you’d prefer to go back to Fury’s funhouse.”

“You are staying here, then?”

“I followed enough orders for one day. I don’t want to risk breaking out in hives.”

“What happened to you not wanting to be predictable?”

Tony shrugged, mouth stretching into a grin. “I changed my mind. It happens sometimes.”

Rogers regarded him silently a long moment. Tony was somewhat taken aback by the notable absence of disapproval. “But you intend to be there for Thor’s departure tomorrow?”

Tony’s grin widened, showing all of his teeth. “Cap, I’m honestly hurt. Do you think I would miss seeing Loki with his tail between his legs?” Tony said. “And I need to pick up Bruce. So that is a definite yes.”

“Okay then,” Rogers said, exhaling deeply.

Tony blinked, frowning. “I’ll need more words than that, Rogers. I’m a genius not a mind reader.”

Rogers straightened, his gaze calm and steady as it settled on Tony’s face. “I would like to stay here,” Rogers said. “If the offer still stands.”

Tony’s eyes went wide before he managed to gather himself. “Fury is going to eat his eye patch” he said, not bothering to hide his glee. “You were supposed to be his golden boy.”

Tony only grinned wider at Rogers’ flat gaze. And then almost choked on nothing when Rogers rolled his eyes.

Actually rolled his eyes.

“I am not plotting to bring down SHIELD, Stark,” Rogers said, voice dry. “I just don’t want to go back.”

“You’re mean, Rogers. A national icon shouldn’t be mean,” Tony said, rounding the bar. He threw Rogers a pointed look over his shoulder. “Come on. I’ll show you the room.”

Rogers followed him silently. Tony managed to hold off a grin when Rogers’ eyes widened in obvious awe when they entered the room.

Rogers’ mouth parted slightly as he took a step forward, his eyes catching on the painting that hung on the wall opposite to the bed.

He took another step forward, something almost reverent in his gaze as he studied the painting.

Tony slid his hands into his pockets, a giddy sort of thrill shooting up his spine. Art wasn’t his thing. He couldn’t understand what made people want to stare in blind admiration at a bowl of fruit, or a starry sky, but Pepper had assured him it was a good investment.

And staring at Steve Rogers, wide-eyed and breathless with awe, Tony couldn’t help but agree.

“You were an artist, right?” Tony asked, remembering bits and pieces of conversations he’d thought he’d long since forgotten.

Rogers drew his gaze away from the painting with some difficulty.

“That is art.” Rogers inclined his head toward the painting, a rueful sort of smile flickering across his features. “I liked to draw. I wanted--” Rogers cut himself off abruptly, his next breath coming out through his nose. He shook his head, visibly composing himself. “Well. That hardly matters now.”

Tony swallowed thickly, trying his best to ignore an uncomfortable twist low in his stomach that was part unease and part sympathy.

Clearing his throat, Tony gestured toward the door on the far side. “Bathroom is over there. I would offer you a change of clothes, but… well. I have nothing that comes in super soldier size.” Fidgeting nervously, Tony forced his mouth in a strained smile. “If you need something, ask JARVIS. I wasn’t joking; he really does run everything here. From the lights to security.”

Rogers nodded. “Thank you. I-- We started off on the wrong foot. That was as much my fault as it was yours.” Rogers paused, taking a deep breath. He straightened fully, leveling Tony with a solemn gaze. “I made assumptions that were unfounded. I would like to apologize.”

“That was Loki’s freaky stick messing with our minds, Cap. There was a lot of hostility going on in that lab.”

“That doesn’t change anything. I misjudged you, Stark, and for that I am truly sorry.”

“Okay then. Apology accepted,” Tony said, not quite managing to keep his voice casual. He steadfastly refused to delve deeper into the reasons why Rogers’ apology made him want to turn tail and run. He waited a moment, then he spread his hands wide, a grin flashing across his features. “No hard feelings.”

Rogers nodded, slowly. “Thank you.”

It was only when Tony was safely inside his own bedroom that he felt like he could breathe normally once again.

He leaned heavily against the door, dragging his hand across his face. “J, make sure we have no unwanted visitors. And--” Tony hesitated briefly, “wake me up before Rogers leaves in the morning.”

“Very well. Will that be all, Sir?”

A tired chuckle left Tony’s mouth. “I don’t suppose you can make it so the past twenty four hours have never happened?”

“I am sorry to say that manipulating time is out of my considerable range of skills.”

“Then that will be all, J,” Tony said, heading for the bathroom.

It wasn’t until the spray of hot water was beating down on him, soothing the ache in his muscles, that Tony became aware how tired he was.

Tony’s plan for the night didn’t include actual sleep. Well. Much of sleep. He’d meant to go over the damage done to the Tower, then head down to the workshop and start the work on a new suit.

When he almost had to fight to keep his eyes open in the shower, Tony was forced to reassess his plans, scraping everything but sleep. Lots of sleep.

He’d changed into a tank top and a pair of sweatpants then crashed into the bed. He was almost fully asleep before his head hit the pillow.

Tony was suffocating. His chest felt tight, constricted, and his lungs struggled for air. He was cold, and there was nothing but the dark blue of space all around him, and he was falling, falling, falling…

“Stark. Stark? Tony? Tony!

Tony snapped his eyes open, his unfocused gaze settling on the figure looming over him, face obscured by the dim light. Tony tried to get up, to move but found that he couldn’t, his arms held securely in a tight grip.

A surge of panic made Tony struggle against the hold, his chest heaving with panting breaths, his entire body drenched in cold sweat and shivering. The grip on his arms tightened, then loosened, and with an almost violent lurch, Tony found himself sitting up and scrambling back, until his back hit against something hard and cool.

His heartbeat was an almost deafening roar in his ears, but there was something else: another sound, almost soothing, that gradually became clearer as Tony’s panic subsumed.

“… safe. Breathe, Tony. That’s it, you’re doing well.”

Another sort of panic was slowly forming on the edges of Tony’s conscious mind, the kind that wasn’t influenced by invading armies and the endless coldness of space, but a sense of mortification and shame twisting behind Tony’s sternum.

“JARVIS, lights,” Tony managed, his voice sleep rough and laced with something heavy and sharp. He dragged shaking fingers across his face, his other hand holding the covers in a death grip as another shudder went through his body.

Tony knew, in that part of his mind that wasn’t paralyzed with fear and panic, what he would see when the lights flicker to life. Knowing… didn’t make the sight any easier.

And yeah, there was Steve Rogers - dressed only in a white T-shirt and boxer shorts, hair sleep rumbled - sitting on the edge of Tony’s bed and looking at Tony with concern and, perhaps, pity, his hands still half-raised as if he didn’t quite know what to do with them now that he was no longer holding Tony.

“Fuck,” Tony cursed underneath his breath, shutting his eyes and fighting the urge to bang his head against the wall. The last traces of his dream were fading from his consciousness, leaving behind a sick sort of feeling in the bottom of his stomach. Tony sucked in a harsh breath, forcing his heartbeat to return to normal.

Another nightmare was exactly what Tony didn’t need. Some nights, he still woke from dreams about having his head submerged under water, struggling to keep his breath, but being unable to. And Rogers’ presence made it all the ore worse.

Pressing his palm over the middle of his chest, Tony struggled to get his breathing under control. He could feel the rhythmic thrum of the arc reactor, and underneath, his, not quite as steady, heartbeat.

Tony took a deep breath, mentally steeling himself for facing Rogers, when he heard Rogers’ voice, calm but taking no shit, say, “JARVIS, dim the lights, please.”

Frowning, Tony opened his eyes just in time to see Rogers, face set in a determinate expression, pull up the covers and slide into the bed next to Tony.

Tony’s brain kind of went offline for a moment or two. Or ten.

When Tony regained his higher brain functions, his bedroom was submersed in shadows, and there was another body - hard, warm, male - snuggled against his back, a strong hand wrapped around his waist.

Tony swallowed down a surge of hysterical laughter. “Rogers,” he said, indignation and incredulity giving his voice a shrill note. “What the fuck you think you’re doing?”

“You’re cold,” Rogers said, sounding far too calm and reasonable for their current situation, his breath hot on the nape of Tony’s neck. “You are still shivering.”

Tony scowled, trying to wiggle himself free, but having little success. He abandoned the struggle when he became aware that he wasn’t going anywhere without Rogers’ permission, and that certain parts of their anatomies were getting real friendly. “And that’s a valid reason for you to get into the bed with me?”

“JARVIS alerted me that you were having a nightmare,” Rogers said in lieu of an answer.

Tony glared at the darkness, shifting so his right hand was no longer trapped underneath him, and pulling his left one as far away from Rogers’ hand as possible. He swallowed an aggravated noise when Rogers tightened his hold minutely.

“J, don’t we have a protocol set in place?” Tony asked, far too annoyed to think about what he was inadvertently revealing.

“I am sorry, Sir,” JARVIS announced, “but I was unable to rouse you from sleep. Therefore, I alerted Captain Rogers.”

Tony groaned into the pillow, irritation burning away the last remnants of dread and panic from the pit of his belly, leaving only indignity of having had Rogers witness his nightmare. It must have been quite a sight considering Rogers was currently cuddling him like an overgrown teddy bear.

“We’ll be having a nice, long chat about this, JARVIS,” Tony forced through clenched teeth, cautiously trying to extract himself out of Rogers’ hold but managing to move about an inch before Rogers tightened his hold again.

“I am sorry, Sir.”

Rogers sighed. “JARVIS made a call and you shouldn’t blame him for it, Tony.”

Tony’s eyebrows rose. “Tony? What happened to Stark?”

Rogers remained silent long enough that Tony thought he had no intention of answering.

“It is your name,” Rogers said, sounding defensive. Tony was almost certain he was blushing. Which was ridiculous since he was plastered to Tony’s back, wearing very little, and showing no intention of releasing Tony and moving away.

Tony pretty much ignored the part of himself that had decided it was kind of nice having a human space heater in bed, and he definitely didn’t want to acknowledge the fact that having Rogers hold him grounded him, made him feel safe.

“Rogers,” Tony said, allowing annoyance to seep into his voice. He debated whether or not to turn, but decided against it. “You can let go now. I’m awake.”

Rogers shifted behind Tony. But instead of away, he moved closer. “Back in the war everyone dealt with nightmares differently.”

“Oh great,” Tony ground out, rolling his eyes. “A bedtime story.”

“Some men would pray, some would read letters,” Rogers continued, ignoring Tony’s remark. “And sometimes they would hold each other.”

Something stuttered in Tony’s chest; hot and aching. “I don’t need your pity, Rogers.”

Tony didn’t try to break Rogers’ hold, but Rogers’ fingers twitched briefly. Tony was very much aware of their warmth, with nothing but soft cotton between Rogers’ fingers and Tony’s skin.

“It isn’t pity,” Rogers said, fiercely.

“Then what is it?” Tony said, voice sharp with defiance and derision.

“I wasn’t asleep,” Rogers offered, voice low and soft, and completely inappropriate for their current position. Or, depending on one’s view, very appropriate. If things were different… well. Tony would have found himself in a lot of trouble. “When JARVIS alerted me.”

Tony frowned. “So you were still awake. How does that in any way relate to our cuddling session?”

Rogers sighed, a deep and heavy exhale that tickled the hairs on Tony’s nape. Maybe it was hesitation, or annoyance, or Rogers finally coming to his senses; Tony wasn’t sure. But he found himself tensing fractionally, unconsciously holding his breath.

“I don’t sleep,” Rogers said, finally, voice heavy with something that went far beyond simple weariness. “Not more than an hour or two. Some nights even less.”

Tony swallowed, feeling as if he were about to step into a minefield. “Everyone needs sleep, Rogers. Serum couldn’t have changed that.”

A sound that tumbled out of Rogers’ mouth couldn’t be considered laughter by any stretch of imagination: mirthless and broken as it was; his fingers flexing against Tony’s sternum.

“It’s not the serum,” Rogers said, his voice reminding Tony of a thin sheet of ice; a slight pressure, and it would splinter and crack. “I spent seventy years trapped in the ice. I’d rather not go back there every night.”

Tony’s stomach bottomed out. He couldn’t even begin to imagine… no, he didn’t want to imagine how it must have felt, to be trapped in the ice, unable to move or to call for help, the cold seeping into the very marrow of his bones.

Tony sucked in a harsh breath. “Fuck,” he breathed. Surprisingly, it drew another sound from Rogers’ throat, this one, however brittle and strained, sounding a hell of a lot more like an actual laugh.

“That sounds about right.”

Tony contemplated his next words very carefully. “Were you,” Tony broke off, swallowed, tried again, “Were you aware? In the ice?”

The few moments of silence that ensued, Tony measured in careful breaths and speeding heart rate. And a gnawing guilt at his inability to keep his damned mouth shut.

“No,” Rogers replied, finally, voice measured. Tony’s eyes fluttered shut for a second, the weight in his chest uncoiling along with the tension in his muscles. “Not really. I remember the cold, but only vaguely.” There was a short pause before Rogers spoke again, voice a faint whisper. “I should consider myself lucky. I could be dreaming about worse things.”

“Worse than being trapped in the ice?” Tony said, the words tumbling out of him by virtue of sheer incredulity of Rogers’ statement. “Then you have one hell of imagination, Rogers.”

“Not really,” Rogers said, low and bleeding raw, naked grief. “Just a whole lot of ghosts.”

Tony bit his lower lip, just in case his mouth decided to run unchecked again. Rogers was offering him something, something far more precious and fragile than simple body heat and sense of safety: his trust.

(Tony wasn’t good with trust. On either side. Someone always ended up hurt.)

“Okay,” Tony conceded, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “It isn’t pity.”

Rogers breathed deeply, his body tensing suddenly. “No, Tony, it is comfort,” he said. His fingers coiled and uncoiled against Tony’s sternum, his grip going lax. “If you want it.”

Another offer, and it was Tony’s choice what to do with it.

In the end, the choice was not all that difficult to make.

Tony shifted but not to put space between their bodies, just the opposite, then moved his hand, his fingers brushing Steve’s - and he was Steve, right then and there it would have been ridiculous to pretend otherwise, and Tony was not up to denial - for a brief, lingering moment.

Steve obviously got the message; his body relaxed against Tony’s back, his hand settling on Tony’s hip, a gesture that could have been proprietary and suggestive - and in some remote universe maybe it was - but was nothing but what Steve had offered: comforting.

“Steve?” Tony murmured, his mouth stretching into a grin at the notable pause that followed suit. He could easily picture the frown on Steve’s face as he debated whether or not to acknowledge the change of address, possibly remind Tony of his own reaction.

“Yes?”

Tony’s grin grew. Smart man. Or maybe Tony was really predictable in some cases. It was a pity, though. Some of the remarks Tony's had in mind were guaranteed to make Steve blush. Probably.

“That offer I made you earlier?” Tony said, keeping his voice casual.

“What about it?”

“It doesn’t have an expiration date.”

“Okay,” Steve said, sounding almost fond. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

Tony patted Steve’s hand, not fighting against the sleep that tugged at his eyelids. The last thing he heard before sleep claimed him was a soft whisper of: “Sleep well, Tony.”

 

All of your flaws and all of my flaws, they lie there hand in hand. Ones we’ve inherited, ones that we learn.

 

“You’re late, Stark,” Steve said, arms crossed over his chest, brow furrowed in unmistakable disapproval peppered sparsely with annoyance.

Tony waved one dismissive hand. “Only fashionably,” he said, a slow grin spreading across his face. “What happened to calling me by my name, Cap? Haven’t we kissed and made up?”

Steve’s brow furrowed further. “I’m not sure how much Fury had told you,” Steve said, completely ignoring the bait, and gesturing toward the reinforced steel door behind him. “But we are on strict timetable here.”

Tony huffed out an exaggerated sigh and took off his glasses, giving Steve a thorough once over. His uniform - dark navy blue, with muted silver lines stretching across his chest, with a single silver star in the middle - left very little to imagination. Not that his old one had made that particular effort. This one merely substituted iconic for badass. “Love the new outfit. It really brings out your eyes.”

Steve’s face did that complicated thing where it looked like he couldn’t decide whether to roll his eyes, sigh or ignore Tony altogether.

But that brief moment of levity passed as quickly as it came. Steve tightened his jaw, then turned on his heel, stalking toward the door, and leaving Tony to stare after him, confused and mildly irritated.

And yeah… hurt. He’d actually been tentatively looking forward to seeing Steve. An occasional drop of information hadn't been enough to keep his curiosity sated.

Pocketing his glasses, Tony followed after Steve, deliberately keeping his stride casual. He was aware his behavior was the opposite of professional - despite his promise to Fury - but if Steve had decided to regress to their initial not-so-subtle animosity… well. Tony could play along.

“What is this place, really?” Tony asked when he finally caught up with Steve. It looked half-finished, high ceiling overlooking a large, mostly empty space and half a dozen glass cubicles with electronic equipment. It seemed like the owner couldn't have decided whether to use the space as a storage for some seriously dangerous stuff considering how thick the walls were, or turn it into a research facility. “If this is supposed to be SHIELD’s weekend resort, I’m sorry but I wouldn’t give it more than one star. Provided there’s drink in this place.”

The muscle in Steve’s jaw ticked. He glanced at the woman tapping away on a computer a few feet away. She was wearing a lab coat and had an intensely focused expression on her face. A scientist, not one of Fury’s regular foot soldiers. Although, Tony has seen few of those too, somehow managing to blend in their dark uniforms even in this place.

“I suppose a modicum of professionalism is too much to ask from you,” Steve said, putting zero effort in masking his displeasure.

“What happened to you, Rogers?” Tony said, tilting his head to the side, eyes darting across Steve’s face. It was only partly meant to get a rise out of Steve. “Working for Fury sucked what little humor you possessed?”

Steve’s nostrils flared, annoyance shifting into outright anger in the blink of an eye, only to be forcibly smothered a moment later.

“You agreed to come here and do a job,” Steve said, each word carefully pronounced and steel-hard. “And I am here to make sure you do it. Not to play games with you.”

Steve turned to go. Tony’s hand shot out, grabbing Steve’s wrist before the actual intent had fully formed inside Tony’s mind.

Steve looked down at Tony’s fingers, incredulity and warning both written across his features. He could jerk his hand out of Tony’s grip easily and both of them knew it. He didn’t.

“I’m sensing a bit of hostility from you, Rogers,” Tony said in a low voice, aiming for sarcasm but missing by a mile. “Which I find a tiny bit puzzling since we parted on friendly terms and even I can’t claim the ability to piss people off through time and space.”

Steve flicked his gaze somewhere above Tony’s left shoulder. Tony craned his neck, following Steve’s gaze until it landed on a tall, muscled guy standing next to one of the cubicles and looking straight at them.

Tony snorted, pulling his hand away. “Wonderful,” he remarked, wryly. “Apparently Fury’s paranoia is catching.”

“It isn’t paranoia,” Steve said, straightening. “I simply see no reason to give these people a show.”

With that said, Steve once again left Tony staring after his retreating back, not bothering to check whether or not Tony was following.

“So there’s going to be a show after all,” Tony muttered to himself, his fingers tapping a nervous beat against his thigh.

Schooling his face into a neutral expression, Tony went after Steve, mildly surprised when he found him standing in front of what he’d originally thought was… well, wall, and not a door. Heavily reinforced, with an electronic lock that obviously demanded a retinal scan as well as a code.

“You’re right,” Tony remarked, his grin skirting the edge between sardonic and just plain obnoxious, waving in the direction of the lock after Steve was done punching in the code. “I see no paranoia whatsoever here.”

“It is protocol,” Steve said as the door opened with a hiss, then stepped aside to make way for Tony. “And sound judgment.”

The look he threw in Tony’s direction spoke plainly what his thoughts were on Tony’s grasp of either of the two.

Tony ignored it, feeling giddy like a kid on Christmas morning as he stepped past Steve and entered a wide room, empty save something that looked a hell of a lot like something that came out of a Sci-Fi movie.

Tony made a beeline for it, dismissing entirely Steve’s warning of, “We don’t know what it does. You should be careful.”

Tony climbed the stairs that led toward a metal platform, his eyes glued to the round arch that seemed to be welded into the platform.

“Oh, quality stuff here,” Tony murmured to himself as his fingers glided along the smooth metal of the arch. He could hear the sound of booted feet climbing the stairs, ignored it in favor of holding up his hand and bringing his watch-slash-portable AI to scan the arch. “What do you think, J? Tita-hey! Hands off, Rogers!”

Steve didn’t seem at all inclined to listen. He tightened his grip on Tony’s elbow - this side of painful, of course - and kept dragging Tony along until they reached the end of the platform, JARVIS’ reply all but drowned out by the sounds of Tony’s ineffectual struggle.

“I am sorry, Sir, but I did not have enough time to do a full scan.”

Before Tony's had a chance to voice - strongly and colorfully - his indignation, Steve spun Tony around, placing himself between Tony and the arch. He let go of Tony’s elbow and straightened, his eyes gleaming dangerously.

“You are not touching anything until we’ve set some ground rules,” Steve said, voice low and edged with warning.

Tony’s eyes went wide, incredulity momentarily overriding the anger that was building like a tidal wave in the hollow of his chest. “You’re kidding me, right? Touching that thing is why I am currently in the middle of nowhere in Colorado.”

“And I am here to prevent anything harmful happening to those stationed here.” Steve’s chin rose higher, his shoulders setting into a tense line. “And for the duration of your stay, that includes you, Stark.”

“I didn’t come here to blow up this place, myself included,” Tony bit out. “And I resent the implication that I need you to take care of me.”

Steve’s eyes narrowed, mouth tightening into a thin line. “I am not saying it has to be me, but you need someone.”

“Still acting like you had me all figured out, huh, Rogers?”

“There was nothing to misunderstand about you taunting the Mandarin on national television,” Steve pointed out, voice heavy with disapproval and sharp with barely restrained anger. “Or was that someone else spelling out his home address to a known terrorist?”

Tony blinked, mind shifting from stunned disbelief to outright fury so fast it almost gave him a mental whiplash.

“You can’t be serious,” Tony managed, finally, voice high with incredulity, only barely managing to stifle the outburst of hysterical laughter that was rising inside his throat. Steve’s jaw went tight and yeah, there was no mistaking his expression. It was a full on judgmental stare that made Tony taste the fury in the back of his throat.

“For fuck’s sake,” Tony snapped, gesturing wildly. “I did what I had to. I think I did okay, given the circumstances.”

“Which you partially created.”

“Fuck you, Rogers.” Tony stepped forward, well into Steve’s personal space, teeth bared, eyes narrowed. “It wasn’t Avengers’ mission. I didn’t step out of line or disobeyed any of your orders, so save your judgment for when it is actually warranted.”

“You are impulsive and reckless,” Steve said, voice dangerously low. “And your disregard for personal safety is nearly synonymous to a latent death wish.”

For a brief second, Tony saw red; there were literal red dots sparking along his vision. Then, with a sharp exhale, he took a step back, his own voice sounding distant and foreign to his ears, “If you don’t move and let me do the job I came here to do, I’m leaving and you can explain Fury why he wasted his time getting me to agree to come here in the first place.”

Steve’s mouth twisted derisively. “I am surprised you’d agreed to come. The last I heard, you had destroyed the suits.”

Steve’s words circumvented all Tony’s defenses, hitting dead center: a wound that refused to heal. Tony released a hiss of breath; schooling his face into an expressionless mask, but obviously not quickly enough.

Steve blinked, once, twice; derision turning to confusion turning to regret. “I-- I didn’t mean-”

Tony cut him off with a raised hand. “I think we’d already had this conversation, but let’s try again. Unlike some people, I actually do have talents that go beyond wearing a suit.” Tony’s gaze - cool and unimpressed - slid down Steve’s body and up again. “Spangly or otherwise.”

To Steve’s credit, he didn’t flinch. Much to Tony’s displeasure he also didn’t immediately revert back into fight mode.

“I know that,” Steve said, and damn the bastard if he didn’t sound like he actually meant it.

“Then how about you put your money where your mouth is, and let me pass.”

They stared at each other for a long, tense moment. Tony was more than a little surprised when Steve backed down first. He exhaled a heavy breath, then stepped aside.

When Tony took a step forward, Steve pressed a hand against his chest. “Just be careful,” Steve said. His hand lingered a moment, splayed wide over the place where the arc reactor used to be. A memory rose unbidden from the back of Tony’s mind; waking up enveloped in strong hands, the glow of the arc reactor muted by the hand covering it, protective not menacing.

Tony grimaced, annoyed at the memory, almost missing the slight widening of Steve’s eyes and a spot of red coloring his cheeks. He pulled his hand as if burned, looking away for a moment.

Tony opened his mouth, then closed it shut. Some things were definitely better left unsaid.

When Tony stepped forward this time, Steve let him pass.

After fifteen minutes, Tony was inclined to believe this thing was a highly expensive modern sculpture. Or a movie set prop.

He examined the arch thoroughly, finding absolutely nothing that remotely resembled controls. Steve didn’t interfere with Tony’s examination, opting to stand on the far side of the platform. Tony didn’t need to turn to ascertain that Steve was watching him intently; he could feel his gaze on the back of his neck.

“J, anything even remotely useful showing up on your scans?” Tony asked, straining to see the underside of the arch.

“I am afraid-- A moment, please. I may have found something.”

“Come on, buddy, don’t fail me,” Tony murmured, a surge of thrill shooting up his spine.

“There appears to be a cavity in the structure. It is emanating a faint sort of energy.”

Tony frowned. “Tell me we are not talking radioactive here, J.”

“No, but I am yet unsure of the exact energy signature.”

“That’s a relief,” Tony said, throwing a quick glance at Steve, then snorting softly. Steve was standing in an approximation of parade rest, with his hands crossed over his chest, watching Tony’s progress. “We wouldn’t want Rogers to throw a hissy fit. So, that cavity? Where is it?”

“Sir, if I may suggest waiting until I have the results on the energy signature?”

“Belay that, J, found it,” Tony said, grinning as his questing fingers caught on a tiny dent in the otherwise smooth metal. A slight press of his finger made the metal retract, revealing a glowing orb inside and a two identical switches underneath. “Bingo.”

Tony sucked in a harsh breath, his fingers hovering over the switches, recalling Steve’s warning in digital surround sound inside his head. “JARVIS, anything new on the energy signature? Anything likely to go boom?”

“Nothing, Sir. I recommend caution, though.”

“Screw caution,” Tony murmured, flicking the left switch.

The next few moments blurred together in a series of disjointed fragments: the arch came to life with a whirring sound and a flash of golden light.

Tony - who was standing directly underneath it - didn’t have enough time even to swear before he felt like something was tugging inexorably on every cell in his body. Then he was falling and falling and falling, the sound of Steve crying out his name just a faint whisper compared to the rush of blood in his ears.

Tony landed on his side on something soft and wet, his breath kicked out of him. He rolled gingerly onto his back, blinking up at the receding golden light and trying to catch his breath.

Ant then, a breath later, his mind finally caught up with the rest of him, prompted by a realization that it was below freezing and the soft and wet substance he’d landed on was, in fact, snow.

“Fuck,” Tony swore, pushing himself up on his feet, and brushing snow off his jacket and pants. He glanced back at the light, swallowing thickly when he realized that he’d landed just a few feet away from what appeared to be a lake, its surface covered in a thin sheet of ice.

The relief of barely escaping a dunk in what must have been freezing water turned into stunned horror as a figure fell from the flickering golden light, crashing through the ice and straight into the water below.

Tony was running - okay, it was more like stumbling, considering the snow went up to his knees - toward the lake, the erratic beat of his heart spelling out the name before it fell out of Tony’s mouth, shaken and breathless, “Steve.”

And yeah, it was Steve, and by the time Tony stumbled his way to the edge of the lake, Steve had already managed to drag himself out, and was now standing there, panting heavily in a uniform that was completely drenched, his hair plastered to his face.

There was a half-formed apology ready on Tony’s tongue which didn’t make it past Tony’s mouth since the moment Tony came within a grabbing distance, Steve’s hand shot out, latching onto Tony’s elbow. For a second, Tony was sure Steve was going to punch him… which, yeah. Was completely deserved.

What actually happened went straight to the top of the list of the most unexpected things that have ever happened to Tony - including that time when Steve climbed into the bed with him - and so when Steve yanked him close, gathering Tony into a bone crushing hug, Tony was too stunned to do anything but go with it.

Before Tony’s mind could shift into gear and process that Tony was currently pressed against a dripping wet super soldier while severely under-dressed for the Arctic climate, Steve took a step back, his fingers digging painfully into Tony’s biceps.

“What were you thinking?!” Steve demanded, giving Tony a rough shake, somehow managing to convey righteously pissed off while looking like a bedraggled cat. “I asked you one thing. Just one goddamned thing, Tony.”

Tony blinked, guilt and defiance warring with each in the wake of Steve’s mostly justifiable anger. In the end, he went with common sense.

“Look, Steve,” he said, placating. He kept himself still, holding Steve’s gaze. Steve eyes narrowed in suspicion, even though he loosened his grip on Tony’s arms. His face was a shade paler than usual, other than that, he didn’t seem to be feeling the cold. Which was not possible. Serum was good but not that good. Tony was barely holding off his teeth from chattering, the base of his spine stiff from the effort of not shivering, and he wasn’t the one who’d taken a swan dive into a frozen lake. “How about you yell at me later? When we find a shelter and you’re not in danger of reverting to Capsicle?”

Steve regarded him with narrowed eyes, and… yeah. He was seriously pissed off, given he was actually considering the merits of freezing over postponing his shouting session.

Common sense won, but it was obviously a hard won victory.

Steve took a deep breath, then released it. He loosened his hold on Tony by increments, then pulled his hands away entirely and took a step back, not even for a second removing his gaze from Tony’s face. His steely-eyed glare spoke volumes. “We are not done,” Steve said, voice low and laden with barely restrained anger.

Tony’s mouth twisted, and he had to look away for a second, his breath stuttering with a sudden stab of guilt. He’d… fucked up. And while an accident wasn’t an entirely unforeseen development - Tony was impulsive not blindly optimistic - he’d obviously failed to include Steve under the ‘acceptable risk’ part of the equation.

And that? Was not acceptable.

“Any idea where we are?”

Steve’s voice dragged Tony back to the present and the more immediate need of finding a shelter from the cold.

Tony’s eyes snapped back toward Steve, who was presently in a full-blown Captain mode, eyes alert as the scanned their surroundings.

“Well, we’re not in Kansas anymore, that’s for sure,” Tony said, wrapping his arms around his torso in an effort to conserve some warmth. How the hell Steve seemed unaffected by the biting cold, Tony had no idea. His money was on a combination of Erskine’s serum and Steve’s innate pigheadedness. He was also fairly certain it was not going to last. Steve might be peak human, but he was still only human. And humans did not get along well with temperatures well below freezing. Tony’s gaze flicked down Steve’s still dripping clothes. Especially wet ones.

Steve gave him a flat, unamused stare. It shifted into something close to relief as he took a deep breath, glancing at their surroundings. “At least we’re still on Earth.”

Tony, who was fiddling with his watch, went still. He looked at Steve with a touch of baffled amusement. “Why would we be anywhere else?”

“I apologize for making wild assumptions,” Steve remarked, sounding nowhere near apologetic. He folded his arms across his chest, squaring Tony with a withering glare. “Based on nothing but the fact that in one moment you were a couple of feet away and the next you were no longer there.” Steve paused, his teeth visibly gritting together. “Gone in a flash of light originating from still unidentified piece of technology.”

Tony blinked, then tilted his head to the side, considering. “Well, when you put it that way…” He trailed off when he caught the flash of warning in Steve’s eyes. “JARVIS,” he muttered, rubbing his hands together to try and get them warm. “Tell me you can pick up a signal. Any signal. We could use a ride home.” A shudder shook his body, the cold seeping through his flimsy leather jacket with ease. His chest tightened with the brief flash of panic. A baseline human and a soaking wet super soldier lost in the frozen wasteland; it sounded like the beginning of a really bad joke, and Tony already knew he didn’t want to stick for the pun. “But I’ll settle for somewhere warmer.”

“I am sorry, Sir, but there is nothing.”

“Anything on the sensors, then?” Tony scrubbed a hand across his face, feeling another shiver build along his spine; one that didn’t have anything to do with the cold. He pointedly avoided looking at Steve, focusing his gaze on their surroundings. It wasn’t the most thrilling sight, consisting of snow, a semi-frozen lake, and more snow. The only spot of color in the seemingly endless white, came in the form of pine trees that were following the upward slope of a hill in the far distance.

“Without the satellite connection, the range of my sensors is severely limited.”

Tony knew this. He let out a frustrated noise. “JARVIS, when we get back, remind me to upgrade your sensor array.”

“Noted, Sir.”

With a heavy sigh, Tony threw a sidelong glance at Steve who still looked unnaturally unaffected by the biting cold, watching Tony carefully.

“We can’t stay here,” Tony said, stating the obvious. It was better than ‘we’re screwed’, though.

Steve nodded. “Yeah.” Steve looked grimly determinate, but there was unmistakable flicker of concern in his eyes as his gaze slid down Tony’s jacket and jeans. It made Tony’s throat close with indignation and something soft and confusing that felt entirely too much like affection. “Staying here is not an option.”

“Where to, Cap?” Tony said in a feeble approximation of casual. “You’re the tactical expert.”

Steve tilted his head in the direction of the hill. “Maybe we’ll find a clearing among the trees, build a fire.” Tony’s body decided that was the perfect moment to have another full bodied shudder. Steve frowned, two deep lines of concern creasing his forehead. “We need to get you warm.”

Tony bristled at that. Before he could express his opinion on being treated like a damsel in distress, Steve had already turned away, shoulders set in a rigid line, and Tony had no choice but to follow.

They walked in silence, interspersed only by Tony’s harsh breaths and an occasional curse as he stumbled in the snow. After about half an hour of walking, when Tony had pretty much gone numb with cold, Steve had finally started showing signs of being affected by the cold, an occasional shiver wracked his frame, his shoulders hunching and lips turning blue.

That, however, didn’t stop him from matching Tony’s slower pace and supporting him every time he stumbled. The only reason Tony refrained from snapping at Steve was the nagging, bitter truth that were it not for Tony’s less than stellar impulse control, Steve wouldn’t have been stuck traipsing through snow in the ass end of nowhere while slowly freezing to death.

There was another truth. And each minute they've spent in search of an illusionary shelter, its shape solidified inside Tony’s mind. Tony was slowing Steve down, and the longer it went on, the less chances Steve had of surviving this. Steve’s sense of duty and honor were killing him, just as surely as the cold.

And that was something Tony wouldn’t - couldn’t - allow. His life was already weighed by far too much death, the last he needed was to add Captain America to the list.

“Tony?” Steve said, turning and walking back to where Tony was standing, confusion and concern written across his features. “You need a moment?”

Tony gritted his teeth at the understanding in Steve’s voice. He’d have preferred anything but understanding.

Tony lifted his chin, viscerally aware that defiance of that gesture was severely undermined by the near violent shudders that were wracking his body on almost regular intervals.

“What I need is you to stop playing a hero and start thinking practically,” Tony said, silently thanking whichever deity made it so his voice came out steady and strong. “I’m a dead weight to you, Rogers, and we both know it.” The heave of his next breath was loud and harsh in the ensuing silence, echoing with something final. “And it’s about time you cut me loose.”

Steve blinked, then frowned, looking as if Tony’s words made no sense whatsoever. Then, the realization dawned, and with an in-drawn hiss of breath, Steve stepped forward, made as if to grab Tony but pulled away his hand at the last moment. “Are you honestly suggesting I abandon you?” Steve asked in a low, deceptively calm voice. He looked like he was vibrating with fury. It even brought a spot of color to his cheeks.

“I am telling you to do the fucking math,” Tony snapped, refusing to be cowed. “One of us getting alive out of this is better than both of us freezing.”

“Yeah? Well, you can shove your-” Steve cut himself off abruptly. He took a deep breath, his eyes falling shut. When he opened them a beat later, there was an air of careful, strained control about him. “No. It’s out of the question. Now, move or-”

“Or what, Rogers?” Tony challenged, baring his teeth. “You’re going to drag me?”

“If that is what it takes,” Steve said without batting an eyelash, his fingers clenching into fists.

“Sir,” JARVIS announced, interrupting their staring contest, “I may have good news. My sensors are picking up something that appears to be a cabin about fifteen miles to north east.”

Tony let out a deep breath, faintly amused by the fact that, more or less, they have been heading in the direction of the cabin even without JARVIS’ input. He darted a glance toward their goal, hidden by the thickening line of trees, before returning to glare at Steve. The tension between them had abated somewhat, no longer incendiary but still present.

Steve squared Tony with a flat gaze. “Are we done wasting time, Stark?”

Tony gritted his teeth, his mouth stretching into a tight-lipped grin. He gestured up the hill. “Lead the way, Rogers.”

For a moment, Steve seemed as if he wanted to say something, a flicker of uncertainty passing across his face. It was gone almost instantly, covered by an expression of steely resolve. A moment later, he turned, heading in the direction JARVIS had given them.

And Tony followed.

Tony had lost track of time after approximately twenty minutes into their slow march up the hill, concentrating on nothing but the next step, next breath, doing his utmost to ignore the biting cold and Steve’s watchful eyes.

In the end, Tony was so successful at blocking everything that threatened to sap his already depleted strength, he’d nearly crashed into Steve, blinking confusedly at the naked relief on Steve’s face as he turned to face Tony, his fingers locking around Tony’s upper arms.

“We made it, Tony.”

And Tony could only nod, feeling tired and numb all over.

The inside of the cabin was the most beautiful sight in Tony’s entire life. Sure, there were cobwebs hanging from the corners of the ceiling and it looked like no one had been here in a long time, but that was something Tony could overlook, easily, his chest expanding with pure, undiluted joy as his eyes moved over quite a lot of wooden furniture toward the stone fireplace in the center of the cabin.

A loud crack from behind him made Tony crane his neck. A faint sort of annoyance ghosted through Tony’s chest as he saw that Steve’s already gone from thinking about making use of the fireplace to tearing apart one of the chairs.

Tony blinked, dimly aware that he should be doing something useful, and not just stand there, staring at Steve, appreciating the view.

Steve caught him staring, but, fortunately, gave it no second thought. “Could you check the wardrobe?” Steve asked, reaching for the second chair. Well. It was fortunate at least one of them didn’t have his priorities seriously mixed up. “Maybe there are some blankets there. I’ll get the fire started.”

Tony swallowed thickly before valiantly dragging his eyes away from Steve’s straining upper arms and going to search the wardrobe.

There were, in fact, blankets in the wardrobe. Tony dragged all three of them out, then proceeded to give them a less-than-vigorous shake due to the numbness of his fingers.

Well, Tony decided eyeing the blankets, a little dust never killed anyone.

By the time Tony was finished, Steve was done with the chairs, and was in the process of dismantling the table.

“What?” Steve said when he noticed Tony’s regard, pausing in his work. He was still holding onto one of the table legs. A crease formed on his forehead as he threw a glance at himself then back at Tony. “Is something the matter?”

“You seem to be good at destroying private property,” Tony said, arching an eyebrow. “Is there something you’re not telling me, Cap?”

Steve’s mouth twitched faintly, wry amusement taking place of the wary confusion. “I’m not too keen on either of us freezing to death,” Steve said. “And I plan on leaving a note for the owner.”

Tony let out a sound that was two thirds a chuckle and one third a sigh. “Now, that sounds like something you would do.” Tony paused, frowning. “Wait. How are you planning on leaving the note? Carve it into the wall?”

Steve gave him a deadpan look. Then he pulled out a pen and a small notebook from one of his pouches. “I’m not that old.”

Tony tilted his head to the side, watching as Steve scribbled something into the notebook before putting both the pen and the notebook back. “What else do you have there?” Tony asked, allowing just a touch of innuendo to seep into his voice.

“Useful things,” Steve said, the unimpressed set of his eyebrows telling Tony exactly what he thought of Tony’s lame bait. “A lighter, for example.”

“You’re like the ultimate Boy Scout, Rogers.”

A ghost of a smile tugged at Steve’s mouth; fond and sad at the same time. “Actually, I was never a Boy Scout.”

Tony glanced away, recognizing Steve’s words for what they were: a memory and a potential minefield all the same. For once, Tony decided not to take a step forward, but couldn’t stop himself from smirking and glancing at Steve’s messy hair, sticking in all direction.

“Love the new hair, Cap.”

Steve blinked, a faint flush coloring his cheeks for a second. Tony’s smirk widened as he turned and went to check what seemed to be a small pantry hiding behind a simple curtain.

Tony didn’t expect to find anything useful considering the state of the cabin. He grinned as he reached for one of the cans. He blew the dust off the can, momentarily distracted by the loud scraping noise coming from behind the curtain.

“You don’t need to tear down this entire place, Rogers,” Tony called over his shoulders, receiving no response. He inspected the date on the bottom of the can, his eyebrows rising in amusement as he saw the year. He grinned, putting the can back on the shelf.

“Hey, Cap, this canned corn I found is almost as old as you,” Tony said, stepping out from behind the curtain. “What do you-- oh.”

Tony froze in his tracks as the sight that greeted him. Apparently, the noise from moments before had been Steve dragging the large bed across the cabin and placing it in front of the fireplace which was now lit by the warm glow of the crackling fire.

Steve paused in stripping off his pants, leveling Tony with a serious gaze. “You should take off your clothes.”

“I’d appreciate if you bought me dinner first,” Tony deadpanned.

Steve’s mouth pressed into a thin line. “Modesty, Stark?” He sounded weary and exasperated, as if he had exactly zero amount of patience for Tony. He continued stripping out of his pants with quick and efficient moves that were slightly hampered by the uncooperative fabric of his still largely wet uniform. “Honestly?”

Tony tried very hard to keep his gaze trained on Steve’s face, not allowing it to stray lower. Which wasn’t an easy task considering that peak human wasn’t an exaggeration in the slightest. Not even Pepper would have blamed him.

“Not my thing, Rogers,” Tony said. “But I’m beginning to wonder about your habit of getting half-naked into the bed with me.”

Steve’s expression went from annoyed to carefully blank in a matter of seconds. And really, no one should be able to look imperious dressed only in shorts and socks, but Steve did.

“Finding this cabin was a stroke of luck, but we are still lost and cut off from civilization,” he stated in a flat voice. He pulled up the only remaining chair next to the fireplace, arranging his uniform on it as best as he could. A breath later he climbed into the bed, giving Tony an impatient stare. “We cannot stay here, and we have no idea how far we are from the nearest settlement. When we head out again, we need to be in top shape not half frozen.”

Tony glared at Steve, annoyed, but aware that any objection would be irrational and, in the long run, potentially dangerous for him. He’d barely managed to make it up to the cabin, and he hadn’t been impaired by wet clothes.

Tony rolled his eyes, shrugging out of his jacket. “That scowl isn’t so impressive when your lips are the color of your uniform, Rogers.”

Steve remained silent, but apparently appeased by Tony’s obvious capitulation, considering his expression softened as he lied down, pulling the covers up to his chin.

A few moments later, Tony was down to his boxers and socks, shivering in the still less than warm cabin. Tony dumped his clothes on the top of the fireplace, before turning and eyeing the bed with raised eyebrows.

Steve didn’t say a thing. He locked his gaze with Tony’s and scooted back on the bed, making room for Tony.

“I don’t see why you always get to be the big spoon,” Tony grumbled under his breath. He lifted the covers, climbing into the bed, only to find himself pulled back against strong but cold chest in the next moment. Tony hissed, craning his neck to glare at Steve. “Fuck, you’re cold. The last time we cuddled, you were freakishly warm.”

“The last time I didn’t have to traipse for two hours through snow in wet clothes.” There was a moment of pause before Steve added in a perfectly serious tone of voice, “You’re not so hot yourself, Stark.”

Tony let out a startled chuckle. “Oh god, you made a pun. An awful, awful pun. Don’t-- don’t ever do that again.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Steve said. It was a blatant lie, Tony could almost hear him grinning. “You really are cold, Tony.”

Tony snorted, but decided to let it slide. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes for a moment, welcoming the warmth that was slowly but surely returning to his body. Instinctively, he scooted closer to Steve who was no longer feeling like human icicle but a steadily increasing source of warmth. Steve made no comment, merely shifting to find a better position, throwing his right hand over Tony’s waist.

A faint ache - like a ghost of a long lost dream - closed around Tony’s sternum, not squeezing just there; a steady pressure where the arc reactor used to be.

“I never wanted this to happen,” Tony said after a few moments of silence, the admission falling out of his mouth almost without his conscious though. “I’m sorry you were dragged through the portal with me.”

Ensuing silence stretched beyond comfortable, becoming an almost palpable presence in the cabin, loaded with tension and barely quelled anger.

“That part wasn’t your fault,” Steve replied finally, voice carefully void of emotion.

Tony snorted, staring at the flames flicker in the fireplace. He quelled the urge to shift forward and put some space between their bodies.

“Actually, it was,” Tony said, the words tasting bitter on his tongue. “Which we both know. Not that I don’t appreciate the reassurance. However unexpected.”

“I’m not saying you’re not responsible for tampering with something dangerous-”

“Now, that sounds more like the Cap I know.”

“- when I explicitly asked you to be careful,” Steve said, ignoring Tony’s remark. There was just the briefest hint of hesitation, punctuated by a heavy sigh that ghosted across the nape of Tony’s neck. “I wasn’t pulled in by the device.”

Tony frowned. A thought began to take shape inside his mind, his throat suddenly going dry. “Mind elaborating on that, Rogers?”

There was no hesitation this time. “There was a flash of light and then you were gone,” Steve said, voice steady and strong. “Then the light started to dim… to retract. I had to make a call. And I made one.”

Tony’s eyes fluttered shut for a second. He could almost taste the anger in the back of his throat. “You jumped in.” It wasn’t a question.

“I did.”

“You hypocritical son of a bitch,” Tony hissed, pushing himself up and away from Steve, dislodging the hand Steve had around him in the process. He glared at Steve, who was slowly pushing himself up into a sitting position, his eyes - weary and defiant all at once - never leaving Tony’s. “You go on and on about how reckless I am, and then you go and do something like this.” Tony let out a hiss of breath, the inside of his chest lit aflame by fury. “What the fuck were you thinking?”

Steve’s jaw grew tighter, chin going up. “You disappeared. What was I supposed to do?”

“How about not jump after me!” Tony exclaimed, trembling with fury and something he couldn’t quite name but equally as strong.

The look Steve gave him made it plain just what he thought about Tony’s suggestion. “That wasn’t an option.” He paused briefly, eyes flashing with unwavering resolve. “It still isn’t.”

Distantly, Tony was aware how ridiculous they might seem: sitting in a bed half-naked, with blankets pooling around their waists, and hissing at each other like particularly vicious cats. He was too pissed off to care, though.

“Yeah, that was an exceptionally wise tactical decision,” Tony ground out. “Instead of you coordinating a rescue mission with SHIELD, now we’re both stuck in the ass end of nowhere.”

“I didn’t exactly have time to ponder every possible angle of my decision. I did what I had to.”

“It’s amazing, really. You did something exceptionally idiotic and reckless and you’re still acting all high and mighty,” Tony sneered.

Steve’s eyes narrowed. “If you hadn’t gone and disregarded common sense, neither of us would be here.”

“I never asked you to jump after me,” Tony said, anger thrumming through his veins in sync with his heartbeat. But it was not anger that made him attempt to get out of the bed, only to be stopped by Steve’s hand shooting out, fingers wrapping around Tony’s wrist like steel bands.

“You didn’t need to,” Steve said, each word carefully pronounced, heavy with the weight Tony wasn’t ready to carry, or even understand fully. “If your own safety means so little to you, next time stop and think before you do something impulsive and dangerous. Chances are someone will jump after you.”

Tony swallowed, anger draining from him no matter how desperately he’d tried to hold onto it. Anger was safe and didn’t sting like guilt or burn like shame. It also didn’t burrow inside his chest with a soft sort of ache that wasn’t exactly longing but wasn’t far from it.

Anger was also what held off the feeling of cold that even the roaring fire from the fireplace couldn’t quite quell. Void of it, Tony could feel its icy touch skirting along his spine.

For a long moment, there was nothing but silence in the cabin occasionally broken by a crackle of fire or the howl of the wind from outside.

To Tony’s surprise, Steve was the one to break it. He sighed, then slowly, reluctantly, loosened his grip on Tony’s wrist, his expression drawing into a frown as Tony’s shoulders twitched with a half-suppressed shiver.

“Can we hold off fighting until we find a way out of this? Or at least until both of us have all our clothes on and freezing is no longer an issue?”

There wasn’t anything to say to that that wasn’t downright childish or just plain petty, so Tony opted for lying down onto his side and pulling the blankets around him without another word.

A beat and one heavy sigh later, Steve had done the same, but made no move to close the distance between their bodies.

And if some irrational and weak part of Tony’s mind missed the warmth and solidity of having Steve’s body pressed against his back… well. No one needed to know.

Silence has never been on Tony’s list of favorite things, and the one that settled over the cabin after Steve’s plea, was no exception. It made Tony’s mind drift in the direction of a cave and a man who’d traded his life for Tony’s. Tony might not have much patience for Steve’s self-righteousness and impossible moral standards but he was under no delusion about who was the better man of the two of them.

“Have you found something worthwhile about the future?” Tony blurted out, and while it might not have been the most sensitive of questions, Tony hoped Steve wouldn’t take it as an affront but a peace offering. A sentiment that summarized their relationship rather accurately.

Tony could almost feel the tension in the air shift from awkward into wary and guarded. He swallowed an exasperated groan. Steve was the one who’d proposed they should attempt to be civil to each other. He hadn’t mentioned they had to do it silently.

“It hardly matters,” Steve said in a voice that made an answering machine sound cheerful. “I am here now.”

Tony took a deep breath, tried another tactic. “It’s been over a year, Rogers,” he said, keeping his voice casual. “I’m expecting you to understand at least a third of my pop cultural references.”

“You do remember I’ve been frozen for over seventy years?” Steve pointed out, voice dry but not leaning toward pissed off. Tony felt a tension that was gathered in the pit of his stomach lessen fractionally. “And to be honest, sometimes I’m not fully convinced I would be able to understand you even if I’d been born in this century.”

Tony opened his mouth but managed to swallow a remark that was inappropriate on at least three different levels.

“But you are working your way up from Wizard of Oz?” Tony insisted.

“Yes, Tony, I am. Although, sometimes matters of national security get in the way of me watching the newest episode of Grey’s Anatomy. Terrorists can be so inconsiderate sometimes.”

For a second, Tony was shocked into speechlessness. In the next, however, he was rolling onto his side to face Steve.

“Why do you even know about Grey’s Anatomy?” Tony sputtered, far too indignant to take into account how quickly the expression of wry amusement on Steve’s face had morphed into wide-eyed dismay. And while their aborted cuddling-for-warmth session was no less intimate than Tony all but plastering himself to Steve’s chest, a distant part of Tony’s mind supplied him with an entirely unnecessary fact that all Steve had to do was lean forward a bit and they would be… well. Breathing each other’s air.

“Someone mentioned it to me,” Steve replied slowly, looking less and less dismayed by the second. He didn’t attempt to move away from Tony, but Tony could feel him tensing up, even if he couldn’t see anything below Steve’s neck thanks to the blankets. “I haven’t watched it yet.”

“Do yourself a favor and keep it that way. And just so you know, I’m deeply offended by you allowing random strangers to shape your education in pop culture. Aren’t we supposed to be teammates?”

“They are less likely to take advantage of my ignorance in order to make fun of me,” Steve pointed out.

Tony didn’t even consider denial. Steve was many things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. “Fair point,” he conceded. Then he allowed his mouth to curve into a smile. “But you have to watch Star Wars if you haven’t already. It’s mandatory. Just stay clear of the prequels, okay?”

Steve blinked, eyes darting across Tony’s face. He was most certainly attempting to find something that would indicate a ruse. “Okay,” he said after a moment, still looking somewhat suspicious. “I’ll put it on the list.”

“There is a list?”

“Yes. And no, I’m not letting you see it.”

“I’m beginning to think you don’t trust me much, Rogers.”

Steve’s mouth twitched, but the ghost of a smile that crossed his face wasn’t exactly a happy one. It made Tony’s own smile flicker and fade. “I would like to, Tony. You are making it difficult.”

Tony suddenly regretted his decision to face Steve. There was more than one form of being naked, and this close to those intent, solemn eyes, Tony felt exposed. Vulnerable.

“For someone who decided to trust Nick Fury you’re setting some seriously double standards, Cap.”

Steve’s face grew harder. “I decided to continue to serve my country,” Steve said. “Nick Fury made the best offer.”

“Have you even entertained the idea of doing something else?” Tony said. It probably wasn’t his place to ask that question and now certainly wasn’t the time to do it, but there was something about Steve’s single-minded dedication to ‘serving his country’ that bordered on having a martyr complex. “Anything else?”

A deep crease on Steve’s forehead smoothed out suddenly, a wistful sort of a smile tugging at his lips. “I spent a month working as a kitchen help in a family diner.”

Tony went over Steve’s words twice in his head. Then he tilted his head, carefully studying Steve’s expression. He found nothing that would indicate that Steve was fucking with him. “You worked as a kitchen help in a diner,” Tony repeated, each word dripping with disbelief. “For a month.”

“Yes.”

“And no one thought to ask why exactly Captain America was washing dishes for minimal wage?”

“Actually, I was washing dishes in exchange for room and board,” Steve said, looking faintly amused by the sputtering noise that came out of Tony’s throat. “And I didn’t tell anyone I was Captain America. They knew me only as Steve Rogers.”

“That still doesn’t explain why you did it,” Tony said, trying but failing to wrap his mind around the picture of Steve in an apron and yellow rubber gloves. “Washing dishes has to be one of the least desirable jobs in existence.”

“I liked the town,” Steve said, shrugging faintly. The gesture made the blanket slip down past Steve’s shoulder. Tony’s eyes flickered instinctively to the newly exposed patch of naked skin stretched taut over muscle before his mind could offer protest. Steve didn’t seem to notice Tony’s slight distraction. “The people were kind and friendly, and while I was there the worst thing that had happened had been rain ruining the annual pie baking contest.”

“Pie baking contest,” Tony said, eyebrows shooting up. “Of course.”

A spot of color appeared on Steve’s cheeks. “You don’t have to make it sound… dirty. It was a fun, friendly event until the outpour.”

Tony was caught between feeling amused and mildly horrified. “You’re from Brooklyn, Rogers,” he pointed out.

Steve jutted out his chin. “Doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate something different.”

“What made you leave the small town paradise?”

Steve looked away for a second, the blush spreading down to his neck. Tony found himself deeply entranced by it. “Bob and Mary, the owners of the diner I worked in, they have a granddaughter, and… well.” Steve trailed off, still refusing to look Tony directly in the eye.

Tony grinned. “Rogers, are you trying to tell me you broke some elderly couple’s hearts by refusing to marry into the family?”

Steve gave him a flat look. “You know, I saw you on TV once while I was there,” Steve remarked. “Bob thought you were a loud-mouthed peacock.”

Tony snorted. “I’ve been called worse. A lot worse, in fact.” Pausing, Tony gave Steve a considering look. “You, of course, defended my honor. Right, Cap?”

“First off, you are a loud-mouthed peacock,” Steve said, which… yeah. It wasn’t exactly untrue. “And second, I couldn’t very well talk about knowing you personally without revealing how I actually met you.”

“So you basically trash talked me with your buddy Bob,” Tony said, barely managing to keep a straight face. “That’s not very Captain America-like.”

Tony didn’t like the gleam that lighted Steve’s eyes. “There was no trash talking. Mary announced that you were, and I quote, ‘a sweet if a bit lost boy who was doing his best’ and that she wouldn’t stand for badmouthing in her house.”

Tony blinked, then blinked again. And again. He gave Steve - who was now grinning unabashedly - a dirty glare. “I think I liked loud-mouthed peacock better,” he grumbled. He gave Steve another glare before rolling onto his back, securing the blankets safely around him and continuing to glare at the wooden ceiling.

“What happened to-” There was a brief pause before Steve finished, a bit awkwardly, “Your arc reactor?”

Tony snapped his gaze toward Steve, who was still lying on his side and staring expectantly at Tony. He had his head propped on his hand. Tony felt a distant and brief flicker of regret at the fact that Steve had once again pulled up the blanket, denying him a peek at those amazing muscles.

“You haven’t read a report about it?”

“I’ve read a report, yes,” Steve said without hesitation, holding Tony’s gaze firmly. “Now I would like to hear the complete truth.”

Tony’s mouth twitched briefly. “That almost sounded like you don’t fully trust your new boss.”

“I trust Fury to fully utilize my unique talents where they are most needed,” Steve said. “Do I know even a fifth of SHIELD’s business? Probably not.”

“Fifth? That’s very optimistic of you.” Tony sighed, then rubbed his face when Steve kept looking at him with unwavering eyes. “I got tired of living with pieces of metal inside my chest. Those that were trying to kill me and the one that was keeping them from succeeding.”

Steve nodded, slowly. “And the suits? The report stated you destroyed them all.”

“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” Tony said, keeping the twist of longing out of his voice. He’d done it for himself, for Pepper, and now? He missed being Iron Man. Badly. If the growing tension between him and Pepper was any indication, he wasn’t doing a good job of hiding it.

Steve tilted his head, giving Tony a solemn gaze. “You don’t miss it? Being Iron Man?”

Tony fully intended to not tell the truth, but when he opened his mouth, the truth somehow slipped out, “Yes, I do.”

The corner of Steve’s mouth lifted in a faint smile that made Tony’s chest feel tight all of a sudden, his stomach doing a strange fluttering thing that Tony refused to acknowledge as anything but hunger.

Steve shifted suddenly, laying his head down onto the bed and using his forearm as a pillow. Instinctively, Tony matched his position, choosing not to listen that small voice inside his head that wouldn’t shut up, using the words like ‘intimate’ and ‘inappropriate’ and ‘half-naked’.

“When you were dealing with the Mandarin, I was on a mission out of the country,” Steve begun, voice soft but not exactly giving away anything. Was this a prelude to apology for not having been there to help? Or to another Stark-you-are-a-danger-to-himself-and-others lecture? Tony honestly couldn’t decide which one he would have preferred less. “It had been a deep cover mission. I had no contact with SHIELD.” He paused for a moment, his expression drawing into something that looked decidedly unhappy. “I was in a bar when they showed the news about your death.”

Tony’s throat went dry. Steve wasn’t looking at him with that annoying judgmental stare, not that Tony could interpret it for what it was. It made his heart beat less steady, though.

Tony forced his mouth into a grin, arched an eyebrow. “I’m beginning to think you would have missed me, Cap,” Tony said, trying to lighten the mood.

“I would have,” Steve said, solemn and steady, and fuck if Tony’s chest didn’t fill with something soft and warm and grateful. “You want to know what I would have missed the most?”

“My sparkling wit?”

“The chance to actually get to know you. Which was why I asked Fury to give me this assignment.”

Tony’s grin froze, then faded entirely. He ignored the warm flutter inside his chest, coaxed to life by Steve's admission. Some things were best left untouched. Safer, too. Instead, he chose to focus on something that still remained a sore spot. “You said no when I invited you to come and live in the Tower.”

Steve chuckled, low and faintly amused. “I know what I said. And that’s a cheap shot, Stark.”

Tony shrugged, unapologetic. “I already told you I’m an asshole.”

“Well, I’d like to know better the man behind the asshole.”

“A polite thing would have been to tell me I am not an asshole, Rogers,” Tony pointed out.

Steve smiled, a soft and warm thing that made him look… well, adorable. “Are you ever going to call me by my name?”

“We’ll see.”

Steve arched an eyebrow. “Really?”

“When we get back, I’ll let you buy me dinner,” Tony said, keeping his voice casual. “And we’ll see if that inspires me.”

“You will let me buy you dinner?”

“This is the second time you’ve dragged me into bed,” Tony said, looking pointedly at Steve. “I think dinner is the least I deserve at this point.”

The ensuing laughter - warm and sincere - was one of the best sounds Tony has ever heard.

“Okay,” Steve said when he’d stopped laughing, a smile still tugging at his lips. “You got yourself a deal, Tony.”

And the best thing? Tony didn’t doubt him in the slightest.

 

There was a time when a moment like this wouldn’t ever cross my mind.

 

“You know,” Tony said, closing the door after himself. He took in the sight of Steve, his shoulders hunched and hands folded in his lap, sitting on the only bed in the room and shrugged. “I’m not even going to try and feign surprise.”

Steve frowned. “Surprise?”

Tony gestured toward the bed. “Barton is a dick and someone somewhere obviously wants us to end up in bed together. Hence my lack of surprise.”

Steve’s frown deepened. “I could sleep on the floor,” he offered, and since he was Steve fucking Rogers, he actually meant it. No matter his current feelings regarding Tony. Which were probably nowhere near warm and fuzzy. “And I think it was Mrs. Barton who organized our sleeping arrangements.”

Tony went further into the room, then stopped when he realized his feet were deliberately walking him towards Steve without his mind’s input.

“Yeah well,” Tony said, hoping his face did its job of hiding that he’d very much like not to be in the same room as Steve. Or even on the same continent. Sliding his hands into his pockets, Tony gave a one-shouldered shrug, looking everywhere but at Steve. “Barton’s still a dick.”

Pausing, Tony glanced at Steve from the corner of his eyes and found him staring unblinkingly back. It wasn’t that challenging and accusing stare from earlier today, when Steve had split a log in half with his bare hands, everything about him radiating fury held firmly in check. But there was nothing fond in his eyes. It wasn’t even that familiar look of exasperation tempered by affection. Steve was looking at him blankly. Not as a friend, not as a teammate, not as his Captain.

It was as if they have somehow reverted to mere strangers with shared past. And that? Hurt like a son of a bitch.

(Tony was good at building things. It was a shame he was just as adept at breaking them.)

“And if someone is going to sleep on the floor, it’s not going to be you, Rogers,” Tony said, with more vehemence than was his intent.

Steve’s shoulders went tense instantaneously. Only to sag in the next moment. He looked down at his hands, “I guess we’re back at Rogers,” he said in a low voice. Almost as if Steve was talking to himself, not Tony.

Tony blinked, honestly perplexed. “I call you Rogers all the time.”

Steve lifted his head slowly, and what Tony previously had thought to be a blank look was anything but. A tired and sad sort of a smile gathered in the corner of his mouth. “Not like it is a dirty word. Not since the first time you stayed overnight in my apartment.”

Smile tugged on Tony’s mouth at the memory. “You made me sleep on the couch.”

“You said you were fine with it,” Steve protested, a glimmer of light breaking through the shadows in his gaze.

Tony rolled his eyes. “Obviously, I was lying,” Tony said. The moment the words slipped past his lips, the smile that was starting to widen on Steve’s mouth froze, then disappeared entirely.

For a long moment, Tony was caught between two equally strong but conflicting impulses. One that demanded Tony to turn on his heel and go and spend the night at the damn barn if that was what it took to put space between the two of them. And the other, a steady pressure beneath his breastbone that urged him to cross the space that separated them, and try and see if there was a way to salvage this complicated, fragile and precious thing they have been building since that surreal moment years ago when Steve’s gotten into bed with Tony to stave off his nightmares. Nightmares that have been dragged back to the forefront of his mind again, made infinitely worse by the fact that Tony now knew how Steve’s eyes looked void of life; the sound of his last, gasped breath still echoing inside his skull.

With a shaky exhale, Tony dragged his fingers through his hair, swallowing down a noise of frustration. He was too stubborn to run and too much of a coward to reach out toward Steve and have his hand slapped back. And so he remained standing in the middle of a room that had only one bed, frilly drapes in an awful shade of teal and a drawing of a pink unicorn framed and hanging on the wall. Tony could feel laughter building in the back of his throat, shrill and rough-edged, but he swallowed it down, still held in place by the gnawing guilt that was picking the inside of his chest apart, inch by torturous inch.

Trying to at least appear like taking each step wasn’t one of the most difficult things he’s ever done, Tony forced himself to move across the room, until he reached a large double window, his fingers grabbing the wooden windowsill in a desperate grip.

Tony leaned forward until his forehead was almost touching the glass, his breath fogging up the glass. A stray thought flashed inside his mind, coaxing a soft but not-quite-humorous chuckle out of his mouth.

“Maybe I should follow Barton’s example. Find a nice, solitary farm. Grow corn or wheat. Sit on a porch and drink beer,” Tony said without turning around. “What do you think, Cap? Would I make a better farmer than Barton?”

“You would get bored in less than two days,” Steve said. Tony swallowed a snort. Two days was an overly optimistic estimation. He’d probably get restless after few hours and possibly do something ill-advised with the tractor. Well. At least it wouldn’t have beaten creating a genocidal robot. “But I think it’s more important what would Miss Potts have to say on the matter.”

Tony’s mouth twitched, forming a faint half-smile. He knew exactly what Pepper would have said to that. Just as he knew it was time to stop lying to himself and put an end to their relationship. Pepper would forever own a piece of Tony’s heart and a special place in his life, but it was apparent that holding onto Pepper was selfish, futile and would, in the long run, poison one of the few good and clean things in Tony’s life.

(Especially in the light of what that damned vision uncovered about the nature of his not-as-platonic-as-he-previously-believed feelings for Steve. Tony might be fairly proficient at denial, but not with the memory of Steve’s lifeless face burned onto his mind forever and utter devastation he’d felt in that moment; as if someone had reached into his chest and ripped out his heart.)

“She would probably let me do it,” Tony said. “And then use the inevitable failure of that plan against me in the future.”

“Huh,” Steve said, sounding contemplative. “Sounds like a viable tactic.”

Tony grit his teeth, frustrated and not a little confused with Steve’s apparent willingness to stave off continuation of their earlier argument. His little display with that log had been about as subtle as a sledgehammer. And now he, apparently, wanted to joke about Tony’s highly unlikely future as a farmer.

“--only twenty four hours in a day.”

Tony forced his fingers to loosen their hold on the windowsill, pressed the heel of his hand against his forehead as he felt another surge of potentially hysterical laughter build inside his throat. Wonderful. Now he was spacing out. All he needed now was his brain-to-mouth filter to go offline to make this fucking day truly complete.

“Come again?” Tony sighed, staring out the window and into the darkness.

Silence stretched from one moment into four, only to be broken by the sound of bed-springs creaking and feet scraping against wood.

“Are you all right, Tony?” Steve asked, sounding genuinely concerned. It pierced Tony’s chest like a point of a knife, guilt and fury rising up in its wake.

I might have signed our collective death sentence by creating a robot with truly astounding chip on its shoulder, but other than that I’m fucking peachy.

(Tony held his anger behind tightly clenched teeth. Those were not the right words. The words he’d come to say even before he'd known he would be given a chance to say them. The truth he dreaded to voice.)

Sighing, Tony pushed himself away from the window, his eyes catching a brief glance of his reflection as he turned around.

He looked old. Old, and about as tired as he felt. Unlike Steve, who looked young and unfairly handsome dressed in that ridiculously tight undershirt, with his hair mussed as if he’d been dragging his fingers through it. Not even the deep frown on his forehead marred the image of the perfect All-American golden boy.

Tony knew it wasn’t exactly healthy to want to punch Steve so bad he could taste it and simultaneously yearn to have him smile and say that everything would be all right. But it perfectly encapsulated their relationship.

“Not particularly,” Tony said, his mouth twisting into a sharp grin. “Why do you even care? Is that the reason you’re not yelling at me? You don’t get that righteous tingle if I already feel like shit?”

Tony could see Steve’s eyes flash and nostrils flare, his shoulders going tense in the span of a heartbeat. Something dark and vicious rose from the pit of Tony’s stomach, only to deflate in the next moment as Steve exhaled heavily; anger slowly fading from his eyes with each careful intake of breath.

“I don’t want to yell at you,” Steve said finally, each word carefully pronounced.

Tony snorted, crossing his arms over his chest. “You don’t want to yell at me,” he repeated, looking pointedly at Steve’s hands, clenched into loose fists.

Steve glanced down at his hands, then back up at Tony, his mouth pressing into a thin line. He took another deep breath, loosened his fists. “I do want to yell at you,” he said, eyes fixed steadily on Tony’s. “But I’m not going to.”

“And why the hell not?” Tony moved forward on instinct, body guided by the tangle of anger, guilt and regret wedged inside Tony’s chest. Steve went rigid, but otherwise he didn’t react. Not even when Tony stepped past the boundaries of Steve’s personal space. “I made a genocidal robot. You’ve yelled at me for much less.”

Steve’s chin went up fractionally, eyes gleaming with resolve. “Yeah, I have,” Steve said. “And then you yelled back and I yelled some more. It never once solved anything.”

“You want a solution, Cap? I’ll give you a permanent solution,” Tony said, baring his teeth in a challenge. “Once Ultron is nothing but scrap metal, I’m off the team. Effective immediately.”

Steve blinked. Frustratingly, it was his only reaction to Tony’s words, considering how his expression turned blank all of a sudden.

Tony let out an annoyed huff of breath. He shook his head, and stepped past Steve, disappointment tasting ashen in the back of his throat. “I wasn’t expecting you to beg me to stay,” Tony said, voice far too bitter for his liking. Far too revealing. He craned his neck to get a better look at Steve. “But I expected some reaction, Steve.”

Steve turned his head to meet Tony’s eyes. Now that Tony got a better look, he once again had to reconsider his previous assessment. Steve looked dazed. As if Tony’s announcement wasn’t something he knew how to deal with.

“Steve?” Tony said, voice careful.

Steve shook his head as if clearing his mind of sleep. He let out a shaky breath, drew his fingers through his hair.

Tony watched him with growing unease. Angry - well, justifiably angry in this case - Steve he knew how to deal with. Over the years, he’d even gotten a chance to see relaxed, humorous side of the man behind the mantle of Captain America. But he’d rarely seen Steve drop his guard and show even a glimpse of vulnerability. Especially like this.

“We should go to bed,” Steve announced suddenly, jaw set tight, all signs of his previous vulnerability erased from his face.

Tony’s mind stuttered to a halt for one second. “What?” Tony said, and if there was a touch - okay, more than a touch - of hysteria lacing his words, it was completely justifiable.

Steve merely looked at him steadily, if a bit impatiently, as if Tony didn’t have the right to freak out a bit over Steve’s suggestion. “This has been a really long day and we both need rest.”

Without another word, Steve turned on his heel and strode over to the bed. Tony watched him prepare the bed with quick, efficient moves, caught between annoyance and bewilderment, and unable to force his mouth to form actual words.

“So you won’t yell at me, but you’re too pissed off to actually talk to me,” Tony said when he finally found his voice again. He shot a glare at Steve who was now in the process of removing his shoes. “Isn’t emotional immaturity more my kind of a deal?”

Steve sighed, back bowed, his left shoe still in his hand. Slowly, Steve put down the shoe on the ground next to the other one. Then he straightened, lifting his gaze.

“I didn’t say anything about not talking,” Steve said, regarding Tony carefully. “We do need to talk. Even more so now you announced you are quitting the team.”

“And you honestly think we should be half naked and cuddling for that conversation?”

“How you want to sleep is up to you,” Steve said, standing up. “And we’ve done all right the last two times, haven’t we?”

Squaring Tony with an almost challenging stare, Steve proceeded to unbuckle his belt and take off his jeans. Ignoring Tony completely, Steve calmly folded his jeans and placed them on the nightstand. Then, he took off his socks, which he placed on top of his jeans.

Pulling up the covers, Steve paused briefly, throwing Tony a look over his shoulder. “You joining me or not?”

Tony knew he was being manipulated, and quite un-subtly at that. But he found himself gritting his teeth and unbuttoning the shirt he borrowed from Clint even before Steve properly settled under the covers.

Tony has never been more thankful for his utter lack of shame because, unlike the last time, getting undressed in front of Steve wasn’t an act of necessity, but a knee-jerk reaction to an unspoken dare.

(And if the memory of how it had felt to have Steve’s hands around him refused to fade from Tony’s mind… well. Denial was a perfectly fine coping mechanism.)

Tony could have made a show of stripping down to nothing but his shorts, just to spite Steve who was watching him with carefully guarded eyes. He didn’t. He left his clothes in a pile on the floor. Then he went over and climbed into the bed.

Tony rolled onto his side until he was facing Steve. Folding one hand under his head, he arched an eyebrow. “Are we going to have that talk now, or do we need to cuddle first?”

Steve sighed, shifting until he mirrored Tony’s position. “I already told you I’m not interested in a fight,” Steve said calmly. It was ridiculous how he managed to look dignified even now, lying in bed with messy bangs falling onto his forehead. “And we will fight if your plan is to act like a contrary jackass.”

“I am a contrary jackass most of the time. It’s part of my charm.”

Steve shut his eyes for a moment, resignation and weariness washing over his features. “Okay then,” he said, pushing himself up. “I guess we’re done here.”

Tony’s hand shot out before he's had a chance to contemplate his decision, something very much like panic rising up inside his chest. He grabbed Steve’s elbow, knowing full well he stood no chance to hold Steve there against his will.

“Don’t go,” Tony blurted out, the words ‘I’m sorry’ a heavy weight lodged inside his throat. “Just… let’s try this again.” He forced his mouth into a tight, strained smile, forcing his fingers to unwrap from around Steve’s elbow. “I’m going to behave, I promise.”

Steve looked conflicted for a moment. A beat later, he let out a deep breath and slowly lowered himself back onto the bed. “You’re the most infuriating person I’ve met in my entire life, Tony.”

“To be fair, you’re not the easiest person to get along with, yourself,” Tony said, his mouth a fraction of a second faster than his mind.

Much to Tony’s surprise, Steve’s mouth turned up in a somewhat rueful smile. “Sometimes, yes,” he said in a soft voice. “But I thought we were past the stage where you deliberately wound me up.”

Tony let out a low, humorless chuckle. “I think I’ve done a little more than that in the last twenty four hours, don’t you agree?”

Steve’s face grew serious. “Ultron was a mistake, yes. A big mistake.”

“He shouldn’t have been. He was meant to protect us. Protect everyone,” Tony insisted, unsure whether he was trying to convince himself or Steve. “I-- I don’t know what went wrong. I honestly don't.”

Steve’s mouth twisted bitterly. “I don’t know anything about what went wrong with Ultron, but I know when it went wrong,” Steve said, voice thick and strained. “When you got Bruce to help you but decided to keep what the two of you were doing from the rest of the team.”

Tony dragged his fingers through his hair, the simple gesture not enough to calm the tumultuous myriad of emotions raging inside him. He felt ridiculous, and he wanted to pace, to yell, to explain, to make Steve see what he’d wanted to accomplish. What he so desperately wanted to prevent.

“And what if I had told you?” Tony said instead, staring at Steve defiantly. Well. As defiantly as one could manage while laid on a bed. “You would have shot me down.”

Steve’s eyes flashed dangerously, the hand under his head balling into a fist. “You don’t know that.”

Tony shook his head and rolled onto his back. He glared at the ceiling, his hands fisting the covers. “Yeah, right. Because you are so open minded.”

Tony could feel the mattress dip, the bed-springs whining as Steve moved, his voice snapping sharply, “Don’t. Just don’t.” Tony could hear the warning in Steve’s voice, roughened by barely restrained anger. “Don’t put words in my mouth. Don’t act as if you know everything. You have no idea what I would have said or done.”

Steve cut himself off abruptly, his harsh breaths loud in the ensuing silence. Tony’s heart thudded an uneven beat against his breastbone, guilt and regret burning hot in his throat, even as something sharp-edged and desperate crawled on the edges of his consciousness, whispering about holes in the space and broken bodies and it was all his fault.

“You didn’t give me a chance to say a damn thing,” Steve said, softer, quitter, the sharp edge of anger substituted by something heavy and aching.

Tony frowned, his head rolling on the pillow even before the thought fully formed inside his head, and regretting it the moment his gaze fell on Steve: sat on the bed, shoulders hunched and head bowed, his hands folded in his lap.

“You should probably yell at me,” Tony blurted out, carefully pushing himself into a sitting position. He gestured between them, giving a small shrug. “Not to put in question your tactical genius, Rogers, but this is obviously not working.”

Steve looked at him from the corner of his eyes, shook his head. “And what would be the purpose? You don’t even get why I’m mad at you.”

“Well,” Tony said, mouth quirking into a ghost of a grin. “A killer robot might have something to do with it.”

Steve looked up at the ceiling, a frustrated sound falling from his mouth. “God, Tony, it’s not about Ultron,” Steve said, frustration evident in every line of his face.

“It’s not?”

“I know it wasn’t your intention to make Ultron a global threat. That is not the main issue here. The problem is you made unilateral decision instead of including the rest of the team.” Steve paused, the air leaving his mouth on a long, heavy exhale, his eyes set unblinkingly on Tony’s. “You didn’t trust your team, Tony.” A briefest moment of hesitation, a flicker of hurt in those blue eyes, followed by, “You didn’t trust me.”

Tony looked down, stared at his fingers for a long moment before he forced them to loosen their death grip on the covers. He couldn’t argue against Steve’s statement. He didn’t even consider mentioning Bruce. Ultron was his mistake, his responsibility, his mess, from start to finish.

“Bruce wanted to speak with me earlier,” Steve said, making Tony’s gaze snap up immediately.

“It wasn’t-”

Steve stopped him with a raised hand. “Are you going to decide for him, as well? Haven’t you been listening to a word I said?”

Tony let out a frustrated sound, anger pushing through guilt and shame. “It must be lonely up on that moral high ground, Rogers,” Tony intoned bitterly. “Maybe you could step down and visit us ordinary, fallible humans every once and again.”

Steve’s spine grew stiff, his shoulders straightening. But Tony’s attention was caught on a glimmer of regret that flickered and faded from Steve’s eyes.

“I never claimed to be perfect, and I damn well know that sometimes life backs you into a corner and you are faced with a bad choice and a worse one,” Steve forced out, eyes gleaming with something Tony could not name for all he couldn’t drag his gaze away. “And what happened here, Tony? It wasn’t it.” Steve paused, dragged a weary hand across his face. “You may be a genius, but you don’t always know best, Tony. Neither do I. Or any of us. That is why we are a team. Or have you forgotten that?”

Something sharp and vicious twisted in the hollow of Tony’s chest. “Soon that won’t be an issue, Cap,” Tony said, mouth curling into something that was less a smirk and more a sneer. “I’ll be out of your hair. I even spared you the trouble of kicking me off the team.”

The look Steve gave him left no doubt about Steve’s current level of frustration. “I don’t want you off the team,” Steve exclaimed fiercely. The echo of his near shout was still lingering in the air between them when Steve glanced away, looking momentarily abashed, as if his admission was wrenched out of him against his will.

Tony cocked his head to the side, frowning. “You don’t?” Tony said, dubious.

The incredulity on Steve’s face was instant and genuine. “Of course I don’t,” Steve said, looking at Tony as if he was seriously doubting Tony’s IQ.

Tony sighed. He tugged on the covers pooling in his lap, doing a lousy job of feigning nonchalance. “Not that I don’t appreciate the sentiment, but let’s be honest here, Rogers. Thanks to me there is psychotic robot running around the world doing really naughty things.”

“Oh for-” Steve cut himself off. Tony wasn’t sure was it the bitten off curse or the press of Steve’s fingers - careful, mindful of the strength they were capable of - around his upper arms that stayed the reply that was forming on his lips. “Look where we are. I am so mad at you right now, and sharing a room with you, let alone a bed is the last thing I need for a peaceful rest. But I don’t want to fight. And this,” Steve let go of Tony to gesture between them, “dumb idea was the only thing that occurred to me to prevent us from escalating further. Especially now.”

“Now?” Tony said, voice faint and distant over the sound of his thudding heartbeat.

Steve’s mouth turned up into a small, hesitant smile. “I am already losing a teammate, I’d hate to lose a friend as well.”

“Friends,” Tony repeated blankly. “Is that what we are?”

“Unless the definition of the word has changed in the last seventy years,” Steve said, eyes locked on Tony’s. “That is what we are, Tony.” A small frown appeared on his forehead, a touch of uncertainty seeping into his gaze. “At least on my part.”

Tony regarded Steve one moment, the tight coil of anger and guilt inside his chest loosening a tiny bit. “I’m a shitty friend, Rogers, just ask Rhodey,” he said, but couldn’t stop his lips from tugging up minutely. “I call in ungodly hours and forget lunch dates. I’ve been informed that my taste in movies and music is terrible. And sometimes people shoot at me.”

“I don’t need much sleep and I already know about your taste in movies. After all, you talked me into watching Star Wars.”

“I specifically told you not to watch the prequels,” Tony sputtered indignantly, then glared at Steve when he noticed a hint of a smirk in the corner of his mouth.

Steve ignored the glare. “And people tend to shoot at me as well. Sometimes those are the same people that are shooting at you,” he said, raising an eyebrow in challenge. “Anything else you got?”

I’m a liar and I destroy things even when I try to make them better. I have trust issues and my feelings for you may not be strictly platonic.

Tony shook his head, then bit on his lower lip just in case his mouth decided to completely fuck up his life by uttering those truths.

“You’re unbelievable, Rogers,” Tony said, letting out a soft chuckle. He shook his head once again, shooting Steve a look that was as amused as it was impressed. “I can’t believe you got in bed with me so we wouldn’t argue. That’s… ridiculous doesn’t begin to cover it.”

“It worked, did it not?”

Tony rolled his eyes. “Yes, Rogers, you’re a master tactician. Although, if you start applying this tactic to dealing with super villains you can kiss your reputation goodbye.” Tony’s mouth curved into a wry smile. “Actually, the same would happen if the word got out about me. I think Twitter would implode on itself.”

And Steve - the magnificent bastard - merely gave a shrug. “Not my problem. I don’t use it anyway.”

Tony’s eyebrows went up, up, up. He tilted his head to the side, studying Steve’s face intently. “Huh. I made a hell of a lot wrong assumptions about you, Rogers,” Tony said, thoughtful. “You’re not half as stuck up as I previously believed.”

Steve snorted. “Thanks, Tony. That’s mighty big of you,” he said drily. Then, a moment later, his face grew serious. “I think it is safe to say we’re both guilty of the same thing.”

Silence that settled in the room after Steve’s words was almost peaceful, void of the tension that has always been present in the air between the two of them.

Tony found it downright ironic, considering the current circumstances, but he wasn’t about to let this chance slip from his fingers. No matter how undeserved.

“Did we just reach an agreement?” Tony said after a moment, feeling… well. Not content - there was zero chance of that - but as close to it as was possible with Ultron still on the loose and his personal life getting even more a mess considering his newest realization.

“I guess we did.”

“And we didn’t even have to cuddle this time,” Tony said, wiggling his eyebrows at Steve.

Much to Tony’s surprise, Steve’s reaction didn’t take form of an exasperated sigh, a wry twist of lips or - Tony’s personal favorite - an eye roll, but a wistful sort of a smile that went nowhere near Steve’s eyes.

“Actually… that night at the Tower…” Steve trailed off and looked away, rubbing at his neck.

“Yeah?” Tony prompted. Steve didn’t have to elaborate to which night he was referring.

Steve let out a long breath, eyes rising to meet Tony’s. There was something soft and vulnerable in them. “That was the first night I slept without nightmares in this century.”

It wasn’t an invitation or a suggestion, Tony was ninety-eight percent sure of it, but it didn’t stop him from taking a deep breath before lying down - slowly and deliberately - holding Steve’s gaze all the while.

“Well?” Tony said, arching an eyebrow. When Steve merely frowned down at him, making absolutely no move to follow Tony’s example. Tony sighed, squaring Steve with a steady gaze. “You don’t have to do it if you don’t want to, Steve. But if you do… This has been a long ass day and tomorrow probably won’t be any better and both of us could use a peaceful sleep.” Tony paused, the corner of his mouth twitching into an-almost-but-not-quite smile. “It’s up to you.”

With that, Tony rolled onto his side, turning his back to Steve. He rearranged his pillow and folded his left hand under it, his eyes drifting shut.

Silence that ensued stretched from one moment into three into five, and then: a long exhale followed by shuffling of fabric and creaking of bed-springs as mattress dipped under Steve’s weight.

Tony didn’t open his eyes or say anything when Steve sidled closer. But he did allow himself a small, fleeting smile as Steve reached out - slowly and hesitatingly - and wrapped an arm around Tony’s waist. His fingers trembled, just a tiny bit, but Tony chose not to comment on it.

“Good night, Tony,” Steve said, voice just a whisper of breath.

“Night, Steve,” Tony replied. He ignored the impulse to entwine his fingers with Steve's - a gesture that would have been too much and not enough, all at the same time - and let the sleep claim him.

 

If we’re only ever looking back we will drive ourselves insane.

 

“May I come in?”

Tony let out a slow, controlled breath, a coil of dread tightening in the pit of his belly.

“Has something happened?” Tony asked, mind flicking through all the details of the plan they’d set up earlier today. “A change of plan? Is T’Challa-”

“No,” Steve cut in. “I am not here about Thanos.”

Tony’s grip tightened on the doorjamb instinctively. He frowned, eyes catching on the tense line of Steve’s shoulders and the familiar clench of his jaw, then darting up to meet Steve’s eyes; grimly resolved and openly nervous at the same time.

The coil of dread in the pit of Tony’s stomach didn’t loosen in the slightest. Instead, it took another shape, the edges dulled by regret and bit of shame, and a whole lot of longing. Tony’s fingers twitched, the impulse to shut the door in Steve’s face nearly overwhelming.

Steve must have noticed it because his hand shot out, fingers splaying wide against the smooth wood. “It won’t take long,” Steve said. He didn’t say ‘please’, but Tony could see it in his eyes all the same.

Letting out a heavy breath, Tony stepped to the side, allowing Steve inside.

Tony spent a bit longer than was strictly necessary to close the door, trying but not quite succeeding to ignore the pressure that was building inside his chest, forcing his lungs to shift into higher gear.

A spark of annoyance lit up underneath the apprehension and every brittle, rough-edged and miserable scrap of emotion that has been pilling up inside Tony since Steve uttered a single word in that godforsaken bunker in Siberia.

Tony was perfectly fine with the tentative truce they had established after this entire potential-end-of-the-world mess had brought them back together. He was especially fine with maintaining a careful distance from Steve and reducing their interaction to business only conversations. Up until few moments ago, when he'd opened the door and saw Steve standing on the other side, Tony had been under the impression Steve had wanted that, as well.

And now Steve was in his room in the middle of the night, the world could very well end in two days, and Tony honestly could not tell which of the two frightened him more. Not when he still couldn’t entangle anger from longing, regret from betrayal, shame from forgiveness.

Taking a deep breath, Tony put his game face on and turned around. And promptly regretted doing so.

This wasn’t their first meeting since Siberia. Hell, it wasn’t even the first time they were alone in a room together. But the realization hit him, then, as subtle and gentle as a sledgehammer: Steve was here. Looking weary, rugged and brittle, but alive, and if Tony wanted - if Tony dared - to cross three steps that separated them, within touching distance.

Well. Three steps and an entire chasm full of anger, betrayal and guilt.

Folding his hands across his chest, Tony tilted his head to the side, pointedly not moving away from the door. “I assume you are here to talk to me,” Tony said, keeping his voice perfectly blank. “And not just gawk.”

Steve’s brow creased faintly. Tony couldn’t tell whether it was brought on by annoyance or something closer to anger. It stung, the knowledge that he couldn’t even read Steve’s expression anymore, and the entire world-weary, disillusioned thing Steve got going alternately pissed him off and made his stomach twist with something that was far too similar to guilt for Tony’s peace of mind.

“Does it hurt?” Steve asked, looking pointedly toward Tony’s bandaged right hand.

Tony frowned, glancing briefly at his hand, something ugly and vicious rising from the pit of his belly. “I am perfectly capable of doing my part,” Tony said, voice razor sharp. He lowered his hands, took a step forward. “You are not making me sit this one out, Rogers.”

Steve blinked, looking perplexed. “That wasn’t my intention,” he said. “I wouldn’t-” Breaking off, Steve turned sharply. Muttering something that was too low for Tony’s ears to pick up, he strode forward and grabbed the edge of the table, leaning forward.

Tony studied the bent curve of Steve’s spine, easily defined under the stretch of grey cotton.

Well, Tony thought wryly, he still hasn’t managed to figure out his shirt size.

“I am not here to bench you, Tony,” Steve said without turning around.

“That’s a relief. Not to mention time saver,” Tony said, putting zero effort in keeping the sarcasm out of his voice. “Because I wouldn’t have listened anyway.”

A sound that was as far from mirth as it was possible tumbled out of Steve’s mouth. It dug inside Tony’s sternum, picking and prodding at wounds that have only begun to scab over. Pressing his mouth into a thin line, Tony scowled at Steve’s back, watched as he suddenly went very, very still, then leaned further, one hand abandoning its hold on the edge of the table and reaching forward.

Tony blinked, mind flicking through the assortment of things he’d left on the table: coffee mug, BARF glasses, tablet, and… fuck no.

Tony felt the bottom of his stomach drop, heart stuttering in his chest. He cursed himself silently, but it was too late for that. Now, he could only stand there and watch, silently and helplessly, as Steve slowly turned around, eyes glued to the small object in his hand.

“You know,” Steve said, eyes flicking up from the phone he was holding. “In the first month, I actually thought you were going to call.” Steve’s mouth twisted into a ghost of a smile. “To tell me to go fuck myself if nothing else.” Fingers closed tighter around cheap metal and plastic, but the expected crack didn’t come. Steve loosened his grip, expelling a heavy breath. Then, he carefully placed the antiquated phone back on the table. He tilted his head to the side, regarding Tony carefully. “That was dumb of me. Not even the potential end of the world had been incentive enough for you to call. And yet you kept it. You still have it.”

Tony felt the corner of his lips twitch but he couldn’t quite manage a grin. “I’m not in the mood for digging up the past, Rogers,” Tony said. “But if you must know, I was about to call you when the phone rang. If you’d waited five minutes, I would have made the call first.” Tony paused, mouth twisting derisively. “Or do you think I’m petty enough to put our… disagreement over the fate of the world?”

“That wasn't what I was implying.”

“Then choose your words with more care, Rogers, because that was what I heard.”

Steve opened his mouth, only to snap it shut. He raked his fingers through his hair, making a mess of it in the process. He dragged in a heavy breath. “I didn’t come to pick a fight with you.”

Tony snorted. “Then you probably shouldn’t have bothered to come at all.”

“You’re not going to make this easy on me, are you?”

Tony gave Steve a flat stare. “Disregarding the fact I have no clue what you’re talking about, my original plan was to slam the door in your face. Considering you’re here, I’d say I’m not the one making things difficult.”

Steve remained silent one long moment. Then he did something utterly unexpected: he smiled. “Maybe you’re right,” he said, voice gone soft. A shiver snaked its way down Tony’s spine, coiled low in his belly. “But I’ve had this conversation all planned out, and you managed to derail it in the first two minutes.”

“Look, Rogers,” Tony said in a calm, reasonable tone. He rubbed his knuckles against his forehead as he started to pace, suddenly unable to stand still underneath the weight of Steve’s gaze. Which kept on following him anyway. “There are things we need to discuss. We both know it. But now is not the right time. And I can’t believe I am the one to say it, but we need to focus on Thanos and leave dealing with our personal issues for later.”

“And what if there is no later?”

Tony froze in his tracks, his eyes going wide. “What?”

“I said-” Steve began but Tony cut him off with a raised hand.

“I heard what you said,” Tony said, voice sharp with impatience and something that was far too entwined with Tony’s messy and conflicted emotions centered on Steve. “I simply can’t believe you said it. What happened to you, Rogers? Besides the hair and the beard. You've never backed down from a fight in your life.”

Even when I was begging you to stand down, Tony thought bitterly, teeth gritting together. Even when you faced the entire world.

Steve straightened fractionally, grim resolve flashing in his eyes, but his smile, when it flicked across his face was fragile and small thing. “I am not backing down now. I couldn’t even if I wanted to,” he said, voice steady. As was the look he was giving Tony. “But I am done waiting for the right moment. I am done keeping silent. I've done it once already, and I ended up with nothing but a memory of a single kiss and a promise I knew I would break.” Steve paused, eyes burning with fierce determination. Tony swallowed, took an instinctive step back, following an impulse he couldn’t even begin to understand. It wasn't fear, though. He’s never been afraid of Steve. Well. Maybe just once. And even that had been more an instinct. “Done piling up regrets.”

Steve moved forward, no trace of hesitation or nervousness on his face, in his movements. Tony forced himself to stand still, tilting his chin up, eyes locked on Steve’s.

Steve stopped just shy of stepping inside Tony’s personal space. His right hand twitched briefly, fingers curling and uncurling. As if they wanted to reach out and touch, held back by an iron will.

Confused and wary, Tony stifled the urge to do something highly embarrassing as turning on his heel and running away, putting as much space as was possible between himself and Steve.

Steve tilted his head to the side, his gaze slow and focused as it studied Tony’s face, as if his intent was to memorize each and every line. A small smile - wistful and fond and infinitely sad - tugged the corner of his mouth up.

“I am in love with you,” Steve said, voice soft but steady. “Have been for a while now.”

Tony blinked up at Steve, the last conscious action he managed before his mind disconnected fully, leaving Tony to deal with the increasingly louder echo of Steve’s words inside his head and a myriad of conflicting impulses waging a futile, chaotic battle behind his ribcage.

Tony’s mind came back online gradually, sorting carefully through a violent rush of sensations: a drumming, erratic thud of a heart, a harsh rasp of breath, and a sharp sting of nails digging into a palm.

Tony shook his head in less than successful effort to make sense of the words that were replaying itself in a constant loop in the privacy of his mind. He forced his fingers to loosen, then brought his hand up to his forehead, pressing tightly. A sound, high, sharp and unhinged, left his mouth.

“Tony,” Steve said, slowly, carefully, as if trying to calm a wild, dangerous animal. “I-- It wasn’t my intention to upset you.”

Tony took a step back, flinching away from Steve’s outstretched hand. He lowered his own hand, swallowing thickly. “Then why the fuck did you say…” Tony’s voice cracked. He dragged in a shaky breath, gathered himself. He spread his hands, glaring at Steve. “You cannot say things like that, Rogers.”

Steve blinked and lowered his hand, slowly and carefully. His jaw went stubbornly tight even as his eyes flickered with something raw and aching. “Why not?” Steve said, voice low and flint-hard. “It is the truth.”

“For fuck’s sake, Steve,” Tony exclaimed, the words tumbling out of his throat angry and confused and hurt. “You don’t love me.”

Steve went still as a statue, expression darkening. “You don’t get to decide that, Tony,” Steve said after a moment of tense silence, a sharp edge of warning creeping into his voice. "You get to tell me to go fuck myself but you do not get the right to tell me what I feel."

Tony let out an angry hiss of breath, his chest feeling too small all of a sudden, making each breath a struggle. “And who gave you the right to come here and unload this on me? Now?”

Steve’s expression softened a bit, a self-deprecating smile ghosting across his features. He glanced down, then back up, one shoulder lifting a fraction. “Coming here was selfish of me, I know that. I’ve known that.” Steve’s words trickled into silence, only to be broken by a sigh: heavy and resigned. “I tried to stay away. Honestly, I did. I guess I was weak. And selfish.”

Tony let out a harsh laugh. He shook his head, then clamped his jaw tight against the words - sharp-edged and vicious - that were gathered in his throat, but he couldn’t stop himself from throwing a dirty look at Steve as he stepped past him.

Reaching the table, Tony braced his palms against the polished wood, gaze drawn toward the clamshell phone as if it held the key to clearing the mess inside of Tony’s head. And his heart.

Two years. Two fucking years Tony’s been trying to get Steve out of his thoughts and out of his heart. And then Thanos had appeared, and… well. There was nothing quite like potential end of the world to put certain things into perspective.

And now Steve had gone and effectively shattered what tentative hold Tony had managed to get over his unruly and contrary heart.

Pressing his mouth into a thin line, Tony pushed himself away from the table before he did something childish and petty such as throwing that damned phone at Steve’s head.

The bastard would have probably caught it.

“What now?” Tony sighed, not quite ready to turn around and face Steve but doing so anyway. “What am I supposed to do with the fact that you-” Tony paused, the word ‘love’ refusing to leave his throat. He cleared his throat, fingers tapping restlessly against his thigh until he stopped them. “With what you said.”

Steve mouth curved just a little. “Nothing,” he said, simply.

“Nothing?” Tony repeated, dumbly, perplexed and not a little frustrated by the fact it was Steve who seemed to be fully in control of himself, while Tony… wasn’t.

Steve’s smile turned just a touch brittle on the edges, but otherwise it held. “I didn’t come here expecting anything. I only wanted to tell you how I feel about you. Just this once.”

“And I don’t get a say?”

Steve sighed, smile fading from his lips. His eyes flickered shut for a brief moment. When he opened them, they were carefully guarded. “You’ve made your opinion quite plain, Tony,” Steve said. “And I’d rather we avoided insults and yelling.”

“Thanks for that assessment of my character, Rogers. It’s really flattering,” Tony remarked, wryly. “Also, fuck you.”

Steve’s brow furrowed, mouth pressing tighter. “I think that’s my cue to leave,” he said, sharply, turning on his heel.

Tony crossed his arms, waited until Steve reached for the door knob, “So you’re running again. Not really hero-like, Cap.”

Steve halted instantly, giving Tony a clear view of his back muscles tensing underneath the tight-fitting shirt. Slowly, he turned around, eyes going steely grey. “Don’t call me that.”

Tony arched one unamused eyebrow, ignored the warning. “I think I’m quite done with you telling me what to do for one night, Rogers.”

“Like you ever listened to me.”

“Oh screw you, Captain Hypocrite,” Tony snapped, moving forward until he was close enough to count the flecks of green in the blue of Steve’s eyes. “You come here after avoiding me the entire time I’ve been in Wakanda to say you love me, two days before the big showdown and now you want to walk out that door without allowing me a chance to say something? Well, think again.”

Steve’s eyes flashed, anger and hurt and helplessness burning brightly in their depths, a pained grimace twisting Steve’s features.

Steve threw his hands in the air. The gesture was both frustrated and helpless. “I fucked up! That what you wanted to hear?” The words burst out of Steve, raw and quivering. “I hurt you, Tony, and I cannot be sorrier than I am, but I am not going to stand here and let you use what I feel for you to flay me alive.” Cutting himself off abruptly, Steve took an unsteady breath, running trembling fingers through his already mussed hair. “I can’t,” he added in a low, rugged voice. “Don’t ask it of me.”

Tony swallowed around the tightness in his throat, but it didn’t ease the burn inside. His heart was thudding erratically against his sternum, still conflicted, still confused, but now, for the first time, also hopeful. It… terrified Tony. But it didn’t stop his hand from reaching out and cupping Steve’s cheek.

Steve’s eyes went wide, almost panicked, his entire body going deathly still. When Tony brushed his thumb against the pulse point on Steve’s neck, he felt his mouth tug up faintly at the staccato beat of Steve’s heart.

Steve’s fingers closed around Tony’s wrist, warm and faintly trembling, and… just stayed there, a faint pressure that felt more like a plea and reassurance than a warning.

“Tony,” Steve managed in a wrecked tone of voice Tony has never before heard from him. “Don’t play with me. Not about this.”

“Steve,” Tony said, moving forward until there was no space left between their bodies. Steve inhaled sharply, but otherwise stayed completely still. “I’ve been to outer space and almost lost my hand.” Steve flinched, his fingers tightening around Tony’s wrist, possessive, protective. “The world could pretty much end in two days, and I’m lugging around a crappy piece of plastic everywhere I go because I can’t shake the habit.” Tony paused, watched as realization slowly dawned across Steve’s face. Watched as hope - fragile and tender - lit up Steve’s eyes. Tony smiled, traced the line of Steve’s jaw, the scrape of beard new and unfamiliar. “So. You tell me if I’m playing with you.”

Steve’s eyes flicked down to Tony’s mouth, then back up to his eyes. His thumb rubbed softly against the pulse point on Tony’s wrist. “I’m not entirely certain this is real,” he breathed, his hand winding around Tony’s waist all the same. “I want it to be real.”

Tony grinned. Decision made, he felt confident, the hollow ache inside him lessening with each erratic beat of his heart. “Need me to pinch you?”

Steve hesitated only a fraction of a moment. “Would you kiss me instead?”

Tony didn’t hesitate at all. He tilted his head up just as Steve leaned down, their mouths meeting somewhere in between. The kiss grew from a gentle, almost tentative press of lips into something heated, urgent, verging on desperate as Steve’s mouth parted on a groan, his fingers sliding onto Tony’s hip, digging dip and trying to pull him nearer, even as there was nothing separating them. Tony slid his fingers into the soft hair on Steve’s nape, deepened the kiss, the prickle of Steve’s beard not as strange as Tony thought it would be.

Steve pulled away first, leaning his forehead against Tony’s, his breath hot and wet against Tony’s face. “Tony,” he said, something broken and bleeding creeping into his voice, his fingers still clutching desperately at Tony’s hip. “I’m s-”

Tony pressed a hand against Steve’s mouth before he could finish the sentence and drag forward every ugly and bitter thing that still stood unresolved between them. “No,” he said. “I don’t want to hear it. Not now.” Confusion and a flicker of wariness flashed in Steve’s eyes. Tony sighed, pulling his hand away. He pressed a soft, chaste kiss against Steve’s mouth. “After. We’ll talk after. Sort everything out. Now...” Tony sighed, brushed his thumb against the corner of Steve's mouth. “We don't have time. Not nearly enough. You know it, Steve.”

Steve’s eyes darted across Tony’s face, intent and searching. “You want that?” Steve hesitated a moment, looking small and lost and so very alone for a second. “Us?”

Tony smiled, then leaned in for another brief kiss. “Yeah, I do.” He took a step back, his smile widening as Steve’s fingers slid up to his waist, holding tighter. “Come on, Rogers,” he said, grabbing Steve's other hand and tugging.

Steve frowned. “Where?”

“To bed. You’re staying the night.”

Steve blinked, his frown deepening. Slowly, he pulled his hand away from Tony’s waist. “Tony, I-” He released a deep breath, squaring his shoulders. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“To sleep, Rogers,” Tony said, tugging at Steve’s hand again. It was like trying to move a mountain. “I’m too old and too tired for anything else.” When Steve still didn’t move, Tony sighed. “Please, Steve. I-- I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

I need you.

“Okay,” Steve breathed, entwining his fingers with Tony’s and squeezing briefly. “Okay, Tony.”

Tony took off his shoes, but left his clothes on. He lied down onto the bed, not bothering to pull up the covers. Then, he looked up expectantly at Steve, who was standing at the foot of the bed, looking as if he still wasn’t all that certain this was real.

“Rogers,” Tony said, arching an eyebrow. “You invited yourself into my bed on our first date. Don’t tell me you’re getting shy now?”

“That wasn’t a date,” Steve stated firmly, but the corner of his mouth rose up.

“You keep telling yourself that, soldier boy.”

Steve shook his head, but then he strode forward, all traces of hesitation gone from him as lied down next to Tony, lifting his arm in clear invitation.

Tony didn’t waste a moment, he slid closer, and then he was enveloped by two strong arms, pulling him closer, until he ended up half sprawled across Steve’s chest, his head resting against Steve’s collarbone, his uninjured hand splayed over Steve’s heart.

“Steve?” Tony whispered after a moment of silence.

“Mhm?” Steve murmured, fingers carding through Tony’s hair, while his other hand rested possessively on Tony’s hipbone.

Tony swallowed, trying to keep his voice steady. “I need you to promise me something.”

“If it is in my power, sure.”

Tony’s jaw went tight, something sharp and terrified clawing at the inside of his chest. He pushed himself up and grabbed Steve’s chin. “No caveats or clauses, Rogers,” he all but growled. Steve blinked, his fingers stilling against Tony’s nape. “Just your word.”

Steve sighed, sliding his fingers up until they rested against Tony’s jaw. “It doesn’t work like that.”

“Promise me you’ll live,” Tony demanded, fingers tightening around Steve’s chin.

Steve’s eyes drifted shut for a second. A pained expression ghosted across his features. “You know I can’t promise you that.”

Tony released Steve’s chin, opting for cradling the side of his face. “Yes, you can,” Tony said, steady and strong. He'd never thought he could have this... have Steve. Not even before Siberia. And now, with hope burning brightly in the place where there had been nothing but misery and longing, the thought of losing Steve before they'd gotten a chance at building a relationship... well. It wasn't happening. “Now say it.”

Steve remained silent one long moment, his eyes gleaming in the half-dark of the room. Then, decision made, he reached out and pulled Tony up, placing a hard, heated kiss against Tony’s forehead.

“I promise,” Steve said, low and fierce. “I’ll come back to you. I'll come back for you and you better be there when I do, Stark.”

Tony breathed a sigh of relief, something inside his chest unwinding for the first time in two years. He nestled his head in the crook of Steve’s neck, shutting his eyes. “You got yourself a deal, Rogers.”

Tony was almost half-asleep when he felt a gentle brush of lips against his temple, a soft whisper ghosting over his skin. “You’re still the most infuriating person I’ve ever met, Tony.”

“And you love me,” Tony murmured without opening his eyes, snuggling closer.

Steve let out a startled sort of a laugh, his grip around Tony’s shoulder tightening. “I do. God help me, but I do.”

Tony smiled, lazy and content, reaching out blindly with his hand until it once again rested above Steve's heart. Only then did he allow himself to fall asleep.