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Are we satellites?

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There's a road.

There's a road, in the middle of the Midwest, with the past speckled across its margins in broken farmhouses. Asleep on the expanse of its horizon are mountains of wildflowers. The road stretches on and on, and up to the sun. As the car curves along its crest, the sharp metal-woods become gentle with water and time. Nature takes over. The hard lines of the road turn to soft shadowed highlights.

This road, Tony thinks, this is what the inside of Steve’s elbow is like. Life worn and deep muscled forearm going soft, easy, when journeyed by the same person time and time again.

Tony’s not been here before, but he’s been here with Steve before.

Slung along the back of their seats, Steve’s hand just brushes Tony’s shoulder. Tony eyes the soft skin, licks his lips – looks away.

It’s the spring of things.

Four days down the road, Tony talks for the first time.

Oh, they’ve spoken; pass the salt, lock the door, second motel floor or first, nice sunset. But the purple hang of the clouds teases at the edges of the car, pushes words along the dewy windows of his mind.

“I’ve always wished I was more like you, yeah.” Nodding. “Me, dewy-eyed kid, homemade rockets in my pockets: WWCD, what would Cap do, what would Cap say. Then, me, dewy-eyed adult: it became WWSD. How to become more, more – not you, but like you, well liked by you. More more. Even –“ Even what Tony doesn’t remember, the swatches of his life wiped away with a dirty dishtowel – “Even when I was doing stuff,” not against Steve, never that, but against what Steve was doing, “not like you were, that helped. To imagine myself, wishing for myself,” I wish I was a real boy, Tony hears and feels a shudder of some memory smoke across his mind.

He fumbles to an inelegant stop.

His lungs haven’t been used this much in weeks.

A pothole in the road goes thunk. Steve’s hand is steady on the wheel. His fingers brush the back of Tony’s neck, soothing the catch of coma in Tony’s head, the past in his throat.

“I’ve never wished that,” Steve says, finally.

Simply as anything.

Tony tilts his head towards him, corner of his mouth pulling up.

“I know.”

The space in between towns grows.

Aspens branch to take up the absence. Pines tip-toe up to the stars. Prairie wildflowers paper the rolling stretch below. Soft strands of Steve’s hair halo the arch of his eyebrows.

When Steve suggested this, Tony didn’t expect this. This; them and the outside world sitting quiet together. He’d shown up with a rental, without words, but with a look in the corner of his eyes that echoed the tremble in Tony’s fingers and Tony hadn’t thought – just grabbed a wallet and a bag of too-big clothes and let them be swept off West. They’re not always good with talking, but it’s been low and little conversations between them, them cleaning up space in their heads after too-long battles without good endings.

Course, then again, Steve is rarely quiet for long.

Just 20 miles down the road, he gets loud, again. They’ve stopped twice now. A domestic disturbance – (“Fancy way of saying a cockroach not worth the air we’re breathing needs smushing,” Steve said, casually) and an overflowing fire-hydrant (“Here, lemme get that for ya.”) In this, one of the larger towns they’ve slipped through, a suspiciously EMP pop echoes from the south as they’re crossing the warehouse district. The car’s insulated, but it reverbs with a strange shudder Tony feels in his spine. Steve slings them into a parallel spot and punches the engine off.

They listen.

10 seconds and there’s no follow-up. No grand light works or magnetics. It’s probably a civilian, baseline human, Tony guesses. Someone unhappy and tool savvy. More Tony’s thing really but. Well. Tony looks at Steve and Steve looks back at him.

Tucked into the birds nest of the backseat is Steve’s uniform. He shucks it on while Tony crosses his stickly, unfamiliar limbs across his caved in, hollowed out chest.

Tony’s not much. Help, or anything at all. Muscles borderline atrophied, his psyche is struggling from being expanded into binary, compacted back into his body. Taffy stretched too far. He’s not fully in control. Oughtn’t to be trusted even with a wheel, let alone a field operation.

“Wanna hold the line?” Steve asks anyway.

“You’ve got too much faith,” Tony mumbles, picking a tranq gun out of Steve’s hide-a-cubby under the seat.

Steve grabs his chin, forces their eyes together.

“You feel like you can’t?”

“Didn’t say that.”

A moment passes. There’s a lighter splotch in the top blue of Steve’s left eye. A perfect imperfection. A part of the sky made cozy and human. Most people forget about it. Tony – well, Tony’s used it to tell Steve from evil dopplegangers before.

“Okay, Tony.”

Tony wants to tuck his chin into Steve’s hand, kiss his fingers.

He pulls away instead, looks down at the gun to thumb Steve’s code and adjust the dose level, even though he’s done it blind too many times to count. His hands slip, he has to redo the code.

Muscle atrophy, his mind loops. Cracked, molding branches of his limbs. If he cut himself down, would he regrow better?

He shakes himself.

“You dropping in from the East?”

“Mm,” Steve nods in the corner of his eyes. His hand is clenching and releasing. The same one he touched Tony with.

Tony bites the inside of his cheek.

“Mind the emergency lighting when you breach. It’s probably – “

“Yeah, think so, too.”

They look at each other for a moment.

Be safe, Tony wants to say.

It’s silly. For one, that’s not his place anymore, they agreed, too long ago now to be called recent, no matter the tenderness of Tony’s lingering glances. For two, there’s no question that Steve is going to go, but there’s also no question of this being a challenge for Captain America. It’s not just Captain America Tony worries for though.

With one last quirk of his lips, Steve jogs off.  

Tony waits, sitting on the hot hood of the car, feet swinging blossom-free, the gun in his lap.

The fight isn’t loud, unless you know what to listen for. A carefully timed metallic crash, a suspicious silence, then suddenly at once, a compression-slam,click,shout! A tumble like an afterthought. The silence after a tidal wave.

Shrill emergency sirens plod toward the warehouses.

Tony waits, putting away the tranq and popping the keys back in.

Steve comes around the last warehouse already out of uniform. They’re on the road, waving to farms, again.

Start to stop, less than 30 minutes. Lickity split.

The radio’s playing a U2 marathon. It’s a nostalgic backdrop to the corn fields.

“S’weird, innit?”

“Sure is,” Tony says into his own hand, elbow on the window sill, “You would think co-op irrigation drones would have become agricultural standard already. There’s hardly any solar infrastructure. I think I saw a John Deere back there. Know how much that hurts m –“

“That took half an hour.”

Tony shrugs, “Small towns.”

“Not just the – “

“Villain?”

Steve chuckles, “Misguided youth.”

“Pft.”

“But the emergency services – law enforcement. Clean up.”

“Mm,” Tony hums.

“Reminds me, almost, of,” Steve exhales, winds to silence.

“The good old days?” Tony asks quietly, rolling his head to look more fully at Steve.

Back at 890 Fifth. Before the world became so big it was small. Before everyone got a little taste of hero fatigue. Before they even had the term.

Battles used to have clear beginnings and endings. Put on your suit, become a hero, do your job, go home and take off the mantle.

“Yeah,” Steve says, eyes flicking to Tony’s, “Something like that.”

A moment, echoing a cul-de-sac between them. Fenceless land shared between homes, or something like that.

That night, Steve books them a single queen bed at the motel. The clerk catches Tony’s eyes and he refuses to blush. Sleep’s better than it has been all trip, the landscape of Steve’s arm stretched out across his pillow horizon. Memories crowd the space behind his eyelids, Steve, beside Tony, in too many beds to name, the mansion, the tower, the time before the space between them rent itself in two. Tony still remembers the brand of Steve’s shampoo.

They don’t talk about it.

Winding their way across the horizon, they stop to fuel up at a place in the trees with just one plug. They chug on. There’s a space stretching sometimes just wide enough for tires, between messy unnamed collections of trees and bushes and rocks. The way is clearing slowly, rolling hill after hill under white lines.

They ease over top a steppe. Surrounded by littered aged road signs, a town that pops up like a too-curious fox.

“Lunch,” Steve says, rather than asking.

Tony shrugs.

This morning his muscles couldn’t manage more than two of his prescribed stretches. He’s been wondering if it’s the threat of rain, or just the compromised chemical structure he carries inside him already. Wood rot left over from winter.

Another diner. This one smelling of new flooring and contractors.

The soft way Steve sighs into their booth should be illegal. The stretch of supple leather across his shoulders wearies Tony, so he keeps his sunglasses on, obnoxious.

Steve glares a bit at him, but bites his tongue over tea and greasy bacon.

One bite into a soggy BLT, a screech rends the dining room in two. It rattles down Tony’s arm. Steve’s over the bar and into the back of house before anyone gets their hands over their ears. Dishes crash down in his wake and Tony winces.

A cacophony of shouting follows, then silence, then a whisper-shouted, “Oh, god.”

“Oh my god, man. 911, quick, fuck.”

Rot forgotten, Tony’s muscles jump to permafrost. He’s halfway across the diner bar before he realizes.

“Steven Rog –“

“S’fine,” Steve voice calls. It sounds perfectly normal. Tony’s across to the kitchen door before Steve even continues, “Fine.”

“What’s fine?”

“Everything,” he’s placid, and Tony knows when he pushes open the door it’s going to be to chaos.

On the left side of the room, in the hallway to what’s probably offices, there’s a crowd of diner staff and contractors all crowded next to a spill of equipment – hammers, nails, and Steve at the middle, with a handsaw stuck all the way in the meat of his arm.

The door swings shut on Tony’s heel.

Steve glances up, a small smile on his face like this is the easy lunch they planned.

This entire god forsaken planet is moving through space at 30km/s and yet you’re the force that throws me for a loop, I can’t fucking believe you – Tony bites his tongue for something else to focus on while everyone panics until the medics arrive.

The paramedics burst in through the back door and wiggle around the delta build-up of bodies around Steve that he’s talking sports with. They shuffle him onto the gurney which he treats with a sort of amused tolerance. Tony trails after them, drops the bill he’d snagged from the waitperson, with a 705% tip on the cutting board. Everything will have to be sanitized anyways.

Steve smiles that same smile again at Tony when he turns up round the ambulance, with the response team techno-babbling above his head.

A patented alarm goes off in Tony’s head. “Don’t you da –“

Steve pulls the saw out.

“What the fuck!

“Oh, oh go –”

“Jesus Christ.”

“He’s fine,” Tony finds himself consoling the EMTs, wishing he was in their place instead, but also not because the rookie on the right takes one last glance at the bits of Steve’s arm stuck to the saw and starts looking for a place to barf, “He’s already healing, it’s just.”

“Don’t wanna heal around it any more,” Steve says, all Aw Shucks Boy, “But didn’t wanna scare the civilians.”

You absolute doodoo head, Tony thinks at him viciously.

Steve sticks his tongue out at him.

The pointy haired medic argues hotly with Steve about taking him to the hospital until he shoves their arm under their face and everyone watches the bleeding fade to almost nothing before their eyes. A lemon-biting look creeps across their face, even as the growing crowd is whispering about Captain America. They still insist on taking Steve to the local emergency clinic, which they partly win because Tony raises his eyebrow at Steve and dares him to say no.

Leaving Steve to fend for himself in the ambulance feels wrong but Tony doesn’t wanna do the whole back-and-forth legal shoulder shoving to stay, so. So, he follows behind in the car, left leg cramping with tension and thinks about the muscle relaxer the doc gave him before they left New York.

He turns the heat up instead.

The EMTs have stopped talking about hospital care by the time Tony walks into the clinic, but they also make like a good dog-pounced pile of leaves the second the doctor toddles in. Tony eyes Steve and he pretends not to notice.

The doctor asks a few pointed questions. Steve sidesteps them by wielding elementary honesty.

“Do you really think you should have caught the saw with your forearm, though?” Tony asks, leaning his head into the clinic wall.

Steve flicks his unharmed hand at him like he’d like to be giving him the finger.

“Doctor,” Tony asks the physician gently prodding Steve’s with metal, “Don’t you agree it’s a might reckless?”

The doctor chuckles, grey temples and deep eyes, “Doubt that matters to the likes of yous.” They’re maybe old enough to have grown up with tales of the Captain, definitely old enough to remember the days when to say Iron Man was to say Captain America and –

Tony breathes out and breathes in the too-familiar smell of Steve’s blood.

“It could have fallen on someone,” Steve says, for the second time.

“It did,” Tony says, for the second time.

The doctor hums and ignores them.

They get released right around when sinew starts to close up in Steve’s arm

Tony drives them out of the town, and pointedly puts on the classical station too loud. The air isn’t tense, per se, but it is tired. They barely get to the next exit before they turn off.

“Dr. Odair was good. There’s hardly any build-up,” Steve says, twisting his arm around and back in the motel mirror, after his shower.

“Mm,” Tony says to the pillow. Seeing Steve heal makes him want to take a repulsor to the skyline.

Tony knows Steve, anyways.

He doesn’t have to wait long before Steve tears it back open – a dislodged track on a railway in Nowhere, Upper Middle America, a day and a half of slow drive later. Maintenance drone broadcasting an alarm on the other side of the rain washed ravine and an honest-to-fuck train 4 miles down the road. Leaning against the wet car, Tony shoves his hands in his jean pockets and feels like dirty water.

“You’re gonna split your arm open,” he says, without raising his voice.

The sound gets lost between him and Steve, curled over the track, shirt sleeves up.

“It’ll fester.”

Steve braces his legs against the far rail.

“You hate the itch.”

Muscles bunching and twisting and shoving against Steve’s skin. His gloved grip on the track is Stark tech solid and Tony loves and hates it.

“You hate feeling even more hungry and tired.”

The sound of the train horn is screaming over the sound of the rain.

“Close,” Tony says as Steve gives one almighty heave and the metal slips over easy as a waterfall.

Breathless, he laughs up at Tony, and crawls out of the ditch, all gnarled roots and twisted spines. There’s nothing good to say then, except, “Glad you wore the gloves today.”

“Had a sense,” Steve nods and stumbles to the car.

Have an infection, Tony bites his tongue. You’re injured, Steve.

The train screams past them, bubbling the air and water up around it. Hydro-trains, impossibly fast and even faster in the rain. Tony pulls Steve close by the slop of his muddy shirt and Steve smiles indulgently at him and shuffles them farther away from the tracks, around the side of the car until the train passes them by. Soaked to the bone, he’s fairly jolly, all fluid motions to changes of clothes for the both of them in the car.

But, he lets Tony drive still, which says more than Steve means to tell.

An hour later, Steve’s arm locks up.

He sighs, looking down at it in the corner of Tony’s eye.

“DOMS or ecchymosis,” Tony says instead of asking.

“Just a bit of buildup,” Steve says, rolling his shoulder.

The arm doesn’t move.

“Sure.”

“Tony.”

Tony shrugs. Even this far past the storm, light has to beg to be let through the pine branches. The heavy smell of injury cloys in the car, rolling over Tony in waves of wet skin and blood.

This is the part where he normally leaves (and then they argue about it and then they have angry sex about it and then they just get angry about it and then – they agreed.)

Here, he eases his grip on the wheel and keeps an eye out for the next populated turn-off.

“Think it’s just simple edema.” He’s far too casual.

“Simple.”

“Sto –“ Steve cuts himself off.

One long moment; just the road rumbling to meet the car.

“I am,” Tony picks carefully through the noise, “deliberately trying to respect your right to tear your own muscles,” emotionless as can be.

“I know.”

Tony nods without looking over at Steve at all. He flips the AC on as far as he can get without condensation and murmurs, “Sandwiches still in the back beside the med kit.”

“Yeah,” Steve sighs.

The car smells like alcohol and menthol when Steve finally props his arm up across the cold dash and begins another sandwich. By the time they find a moth-green motel, the rain has slowed to a tentative pitter-patter.

It takes a day and change before the pressure cell between them swirls itself dead.

“Another day, another diner,” Tony sing-songs, catching the back of Steve’s leather jacket as he tries to make for the counter to ask if he can do some work for a meal. Steve’s rarely actually an old fogey, except, Tony is learning, in this goddamn proclivity. “Nay, José.”

“It’s only polite –“ Steve starts.

“Politeness would be lettin’ me sit my tush down after drivin’ us so long,” Tony points his sunglasses at Steve’s face.

“Hmm,” Steve hums, turning around slow. The fingers of his uninjured hand brush Tony’s taking the sunglasses. Tony lets him have them, watches as Steve runs an index finger along the sides of the orange hexagon frames. “I like when,” Steve steps closer. “you wear sunglasses,” Steve lifts the glasses to carefully slide them onto Tony’s head, nestles them in hair, “like these,” he tucks curls back around Tony’s ears.

The storm comes sprinting back into Tony’s own chest.

He checks the habit to peek down at the nonexistent chest-plate, make sure it’s still charged, and clears his throat instead. “These’re simple.” Just hexagons Tony liked the sparkle of in a gas station some days ago for $3.98. “Nothin’, really.”

Steve only smiles. “I like when you talk like me.”

Tony flushes.

They’re living in each other’s pockets here and beyond that, Tony can’t curb the urge with Steve to keep edging closer and closer to the surface of him.

“I like when you take care of me,” Steve continues, smooth and low like a hammock between palms.

It’s too warm. They’re in Minnesota. South Dakota. As the driver, Tony ought to know, maybe. Someplace way too cold, for the still-healing fever in Steve’s eyes being directed at Tony. They’re not doing this. They agreed –

“Stop,” Tony reminds him.

“Mm,” Steve hums again, so so close Tony can almost taste the vibration. “Nope.” He boops Tony’s nose, looks at him, all peachy dawn from under his mile-long lashes.

Okay, Tony can play this casual. “I’m calling law enforcement.”

“You do have my number,” Steve nods.

The Devil went up to Dakota, Tony thinks. And played fiddle with a saw on his arm.

“I have your phone,” Tony he says, instead, arctic dry to temper his toasting cheeks.

“Oh. Do you really?” Steve actually pats at his belt and pockets.

Tony rolls his eyes. “What, I was supposed to leave it out in the car as a Come-and-Steal-Me, I’m Patented-Avengers-Tech broadcast?”

“Keep it, then.” Steve shrugs and Tony doesn’t mention the strange set of Steve’s shoulders, the pinch this topic has brought to the hatch of his eyebrows.

“Yeah, yeah,” he says, gentler, “Are you letting me pay for lunch or are we gonna loiter some more?”

“I can,” a waitperson says from beside them, “take your order whenever you are ready,” looking like they’re seriously thinking about their minimum wage not including superhuman hazard pay. Tony will apologize with a 314% tip.

“Sorry, there,” Steve says, pushing Tony into the booth beside them like Tony’s the one that’s been holding them up.

Tony meets the waitperson’s eyes with his own dead look.

A glimmer of a smile flickers on their face before it’s washed away.

So many people decided over the years that Tony’s the flip-flop compass between them. The primrose blooming adamantly in the dawn of winter. But of the two of them, Steve’s the one with his temper in the red of his cheeks and his stubbornness chaining weights from his wrists.

He’s not inconsistent, really, but he is particular, self-decided. Sometimes, he swings wildly to balance his own beliefs.

Also he rarely looks in the fucking mirror. Otherwise, he’d notice the catch of his jacket collar exposing the undersuit lines, the ripple across the room as Steve’s charisma and battle-sense smooths through the space. He’s something else, a Greek hero molded into modern metal. The kind Tony fancies himself, but real, bronze and diamond for bones. Tony’s always known this. He’s just not sure if Steve knows that other people beside Tony know it, too.

It’ll be cameras, soon.

Meanwhile, Tony has waffles. Blueberry syrup.

“I still think,” Steve’s bullheadedness surfaces from his eggs, “it’s not wrong to offer support to their business in exchange for a meal.”

“We’re supporting their business by paying.” The syrup clings to Tony’s fingers and he has to resist licking it off. The taste feels sharp on his relearning tongue.  

“Yes, but –“

“How many years have I run a business?”

And Steve pauses, taps his fork on the plate. “I – ‘m not sure.”

“Too long,” Tony says shortly. “Let people be successful on their own terms.”

“Helping with dishes isn’t on my terms.”

“And how,” Tony’s voice cuts low enough it’s barely a breath. Words only for Steve, “effective a social media campaign is it for Captain America and I –“ Tony’s throat goes a little hoarse, “Iron Man to eat at a place like this and say how much they like it, maybe leave an original Steve Rogers doodle or two on some napkins?”

Some of the napkins get scrunched up in Steve’s fingers.

Tony waits out the snowstorm silence of Steve’s temper with just the barest tremble to his hands. When he looks up, Steve’s eyes are on his hands, though. He resists the urge to bury them under the table with the rest of the chewed up and spit out remains.

“And what about,” Steve breaths out audibly, “a signature from Iron Man?”

 The doctor warned Tony not to judge his own handwriting too harshly, but how is he supposed to not – “Think I’m not the fan favorite here, honey, you know?” he says, to distract himself. He pokes at his food. The syrup’s really seeped too much into the waffles now.

“Honey?”

“Huh?” Tony glances up. Confused softness is smoothing across Steve’s face.

“You just called me honey,” Steve thumbs at his bottom lip.

“Uh,” Tony drags his eyes away from Steve’s lips. He’s flushing, again, annoyingly. Is this a normal fucking side-effect, Tony wants to email his doctor, what the fuck did you give me? “Sorry, didn’t mean to.”

A fork spin, two, later, Steve smiles softly and Tony is back to looking at his lips. “It’s fine, sweet.”

For a moment, Tony’s ears roar.

His fork taps too loud against the plate. “Sweet?”

Huh?” Steve’s eyes invite Tony in for joke.

Tony swallows, rocky voice clanging too loud, “You just called me sweet.”

“Uh,” Steve says, sprawling wide as the sun, words bright on Tony’s sky-starved heart, “Not sorry, meant to.”

“I – uh,” Tony jerks his eyes away, “okay.”

They haven’t talked near enough over this parody of a roadtrip, for this kind of tense interplay between them. Like pulling the waffles up to cover his ears, Tony hums responses to Steve the rest of the meal. It’s been years. The memories of Steve’s lips – the curling way he holds endearments in his mouth and passes them along right down Tony’s throat like the best summer iced tea, are hazy with too much revisiting and so many cold, empty winters in between then and now.

It’s always been too dangerous for them to slip-slide back into that though, the heat that thrums beneath Tony’s skin calls to it, whispers of soothing a constant ache in his chest.

It could be so easy, could be so much.

Like always, Tony is too much of a coward to press for it. Better to hold onto what little he has, he argues with himself, wrapping an arm around his rolling stomach, than to try for something that might go wrong, might rubberband Steve back into himself, completely away from Tony.

He’s lived a long time with this decreased sliver of light to see by. Managing isn’t so hard.

Steve catches the door for them both on the way out. Tony catches his own hand before it squeezes Steve’s hip in thanks. Thanking the wait staff, the twitch escapes Steve’s notice. See, there you go, he thinks at himself, easy, you can do this, ignores the ice pick clench of yearning.

They wind the day away and Tony makes sure to get two beds at the motel. The yearning fades to backdrop noise and Tony sighs in relief. No more endearments between them.

Over a week in, Tony finds the right moment to ask, “So, we’re avoiding big cities, I see. We skipped St. Paul. More importantly, really –”

“Tony –“ Steve huffs around the construction crane trying to sit on him.

“The Mall of America.”

Steve mumbles something and a metal cracking sound follows.

His neck is probably aching. Tony watches the gnarled sunset curve of it and pops his bubblegum louder.

“Could you stop?”

“I’m not doing anything,” Tony says, honestly, fingers sliding along the smooth curve of the car’s trunk. Past two days, it’s finally felt like he can almost tell the difference between metals. It’s relief, shocking in its icy flow across Tony’s chest. He thought maybe he’d finally lost sensation and muscle memory, was gonna be left with the hollowed metallurgic remains of his mind. He’s been sitting here the full 20 minutes Steve has been wrangling pipeline equipment out of shape. The security drones hadn’t even taken a minute to short out, barely worth the tooth-filled grin Tony had given as they’d crashed in a heap.

The ground roars with the thump of the crane as Steve levers it finally into a broken place above the flat plate of sandstone. He pants for a moment, then puts his hands on his hips, “A mall isn’t a city.”

“Depends on the person,” Tony says.

A handful of breaths.

Steve’s sweating. The glance he cuts across the grounds is squinted, pointed as a pine needle to Tony’s veins. “Depends on the trip,” he says, soft but careful, just loud enough for Tony to hear.

Gum suctions to Tony’s teeth.

“Okay,” he says, finally, when Steve won’t look away, “yeah.”

And Steve nods like they’ve agreed on something.

Which, Tony supposes, as Steve meanders back to Tony’s hands, patient under heating bands and Tony’s awakening fingers checking for muscle pulls – they have.

The next time they stop is a bit away from Rushmore, another construction site for Steve to leave his mark on, leave his card tucked in the ruined remains. Tony pops through another bubble of gum, cinnamon this time and by the end, hides his grim smile in a breakfast taco. There’s grease on the hood of the car and Tony rinses his hands twice with alcohol before he touches Steve’s arm.

It’s doing okay, mostly. No one heals like Steve but that’s exactly what worries Tony. Methuselah of white cell counts, mythic, hidden away from study for fear of axes prying him apart to figure out how he grows back time and again.  There’s a lot of Steve’s physiology that Tony’s spent time dedicating himself to not thinking about, not recording anywhere.

When he lets Steve’s arm go, Steve catches his hand and rubs his thumb along the quick of his wrist. “Thank you,” he says quietly.

He nods, and even that feels too revealing.

The radio stays turned down low, on the road. Places too small to have names chase the sides of the horizon, lining the highway stitches across the land. A pocket unaffected by the tourism rock monstrosity to the South.

As they pass yet another billboard to it, Steve’s face goes splotchy. Tenth nerve finally struck.

“Punched someone the day they wired camp it was finished.”

1941, Tony thinks. Steve’s never called it Rushmore, Tony thinks. Lots of Captain America documentaries like to avoid more than one generation back, on half of Steve’s family tree, Tony knows. The aching clench of Steve’s jaw, Tony knows even better.

“Need me to find any more cranes?” Tony asks, instead of talking about that.

Steve closes his eyes for a moment, reaches forward with his right hand to touch the back of Tony’s neck. He can’t help it – Tony’s eyes flicker shut, a shiver contained in his spine. Steve sighs out, long, and his index finger brushes up the side of Tony’s neck just for a second before he moves away.

Tony stays still.

“How about dinner and a bed?” He sounds tired.

“I can do that,” Tony jolts his eyes outside the car.

Burgers, that night, hard on Tony’s throat but he doesn’t say anything. Queen bed, at the motel, hard on Tony’s heart, but he touches his hand to Steve’s. The sun’s stretches pink in the morning and Tony follows, holding onto the couch frame for balance, muscles in earthquake uproar. Afterwards, Steve touches his arm unerringly at a knot of tension, levers it out with a press of his fingers.

It’s loud in Tony’s heart.

They pass a series of –mans and –sons towns. Tony raises one eyebrow higher with each one. They probably contract with the same grungy gas station sign artist. It’s quite talented, the level of readable rust.

Tony shares a glance with Steve. “Maybe we’ll come across Steveman soon?”

Steve pretends to lose his hearing, humming loudly.

“All the towns around here,“ Tony explains loudly, “are named names. Name name towns, if you will.”

That manages a snort out of Steve, even as he turns the radio up a notch. Someone’s singing about torn tarps and waterfalls on Sundays.

“Hopefully,” Steve says as Tony grimaces at the radio, “they’re all after westward settlers who died in avoidably mundane ways.”

“Yeah,” Tony likes this thought, “like how did Dickinson get stuffed?”

Silence except for a banjo.

“You’re terrible,” Steve says finally, “But,” he gives a sighing sort of laugh, “Relatable.”

“Oooh my,” Tony pushes off the door and flattens a hand to his chest. “Share with the hungry readers of the nation, Rogers.”

“Stop,” Steve rolls his eyes, laughing outright now.

It’s old news; Steve’s past with guys, girls, people in between and beyond – his bold-lined 1930’s queer power flyers in museums. But sometimes, people like to dust it off for the news and make sour faces about it again. Less talked about, between them actually, is Tony’s own limelight, barlight history. Still, Tony can empathize in a rather unique way. For years, this has been a casual conversation they return to every now and then, even outside of whatever intimacy swings back and forth between them.

It’s nice to still be Steve’s safe space for something.

Tony’s smiling and for once it feels good, doesn’t resist looking at Steve’s warm silhouette beside him.

“Let’s go see Yellowstone,” he gestures towards the 94 turnoff sign outside, “Yellows a good color on you,” he pauses. “Marigold accents on navy, to be exa – “

“I don’t have the Nomad uniform anymore,” Steve butts in.

“Dream crusher,” Tony plonks his chin in his hand. “It was beautiful. Everyone loved the infrequent and heartily-enjoyed glimpses of your navel.” Like an acorn dug from deep in the earth, Tony remembers touching gauntleted hands to the triangle of skin and wanting desperately to take a picture, to take off the gauntlets and leave them off between them. He hadn’t, but.

Swaying like a handful of petals between them, Steve’s laughter flutters. He cuts them across, west on the highway.

They make good time slanting across South Dakota, meandering occasionally up and down, caught up in the pace of the tires and the rhythm of gas stations. At night, Tony drives, breathing deep the freeze. Winter always exists this far north, hidden in the folds of mountains and half-remembered dreams.

Two days, winding in this direction. Something like.

A day ago, someone they helped – Steve helped – gave them a blanket. Woven by hand, strong triangles, circles like blessings, warm, warm wool. It’s heavy. Tony hovers between sweating and toasting under it. Steve rests, forehead pulled soft with window glass instead of dreams.

Tires eat miles and miles.

The person with the blanket (young, weathered fingers, grey eyes, unarmed, ambidextrous, 5’4”,  stop Tony --) talked with Steve quietly and rolled just a glance at Tony, didn’t give the blanket to Tony, because they didn’t talk to Tony – but maybe meant the blanket for the both of them. In between sunrises on the road, Steve is speaking, eating, stepping into diners to save people like coming back to his childhood home. Spring baby steps. And Tony, Tony is watching him. Tony is relearning being awake, touching texture over shape around objects contextualizing space to rebuild his internal database. Autumn muscle quakes.

Together, they’re a full moon phase, and people are watching their progress across the sky. Tony stuffed their phones into the middle compartment to shield them from the slipstream. Now, it’s them and fleeting thems and the trees.

“Warm,” Steve’s voice whispers.

“Enough?” Tap to the dashboard controls.

“No,” Steve shakes his head, “Yes. You.”

A chuckle builds waves in Tony’s chest.

“You’re not awake.”

“N’Im.”

“Not.”

“Mm.”

The moonlight curls into the space between them, stark and open.

They hit the Montana, North, South Dakota junction around 3AM. 

It’s a stillness so loud it hurts Tony’s ears. But, there’s truths here. Some science of land and scape from an old, old marrow in Tony’s human bones. Helps him relearn which way is up.

Innate.

Tony idles the night in the car, staring back at the Milky Way, surrounded by cragged rock torn by time and yet, unyielded still. Space has always felt safe in its intangibility, unjudging. Tony sits on the trunk while Steve sleeps and presses his hands up towards the satin sky like the stars will seep into his skin.

I wonder, he thinks at them, therefore I am.

He closes his eyes to Steve opening his.

A day more, twisting directly down, now. The evergreen on the breeze tickles at Steve’s tongue. He drives, one arm across the front seats, whispering against Tony’s nape once again.

“Ma,” he starts, picking at the silk thread of the previous night, “she used to hum through the cold. Tell me to hold the sound, in my chest, hands to here,” taps his lungs – maybe his heart, with his driving hand, “Like it would keep me warm. Night ‘for we hit Zugspitze, the sweat was freezing on us, marching. Did it a lot. Dum-Dum thought the cold had gotten to me.”

“He would,” Tony says, not interjecting.

A huff of dry laughter, “’Was fine. Better than the rest of ‘em.”

“You usually are.”

Steve shakes his head, breath gusting out.

Tony’s not very good at saying it, but – “Sorry, go on.” Sorry I think of the world as divided into You and The Rest.

One mammoth pine, two, four, unnerving in the low steppe bushland.

Steve continues. “It’s like she’s there. When it gets too –”

Cold.

“Always lookin’ back on it weird, now. Like my life being cold, havin’ t’work hard to use simple muscles every day, knowing right and wrong of my own goddamn organs, was some sort of pre-emptive . . . somethin’. Like she knew. Like she never thought I was just–”

Tony’s heard all this before. Snippets pieced together like old negatives. Here, though, it’s less like a photograph. It’s more. Textured, true as the stubble on Steve’s chin, the missing button on Steve’s plaid. So much of Steve belongs to the world around them, so much of Steve he’s given away to make the world around them stay –

It’s hard, even for Tony, to find him. To listen and hear him, instead of just his echo down the mountain peak. Especially now, with the delay in Tony’s hurt-old processors and cobweb memories –

Tony shakes his head like that will clear the coma from it. Anyways, they’re them. And.

Too much, they’ve left to rest placid between them. Drawn as a lake, frozen still and artificial. Their past a picture in locket they keep under the surface.

Tony breathes. Puts a foot down on the ice.

“Early days, with the chestpiece, it was so hot, blistering. Reactor used to rash up my skin awful. Joked to myself I’d not know the difference between the red of the armor and my own chest if I ever got to take it off again,” Tony’s throat clicks, “some- days, I’d, I’d be dying and not even notice it, and when I’d finally notice, I couldn’t let anyone notice, which was fine –“

“I hate that,” Steve cuts him off.

Tony swallows. “I did too,” he tries to joke.

“Stop being,” Steve’s voice is too loud, “so casual about your goddamn life, Tony.”

Whip crack across the lowlands, sharp and harsh between them. Air feels harsh in Tony’s nose. He’s gone and plummeted through the ice instead. Balance lost. Around the wheel, Steve’s hands are white.

“I’m not being casual,” Tony whispers.

“Sorry,” Steve says, after a long moment, “I just.”

Well, I was just trying, Tony wants to say. Instead, a bristly pinecone comes out. “You think it’s easier watching you cover up sepsis or broken ribs or a goddamn gut slash? You’re far,” Tundra, now, chasing after the whip crack. Tony’s shaking in the wake of his own anger. “More casual with your life, Steve Rogers, than you like to lecture. So, don’t you dare.”

Steve’s not so good with the giving ground thing, though. “That’s not true and not the point. Why is it so hard for you to accept that people just might care if you’re hurt?”

Neither is Tony. “Why is it so hard for you to accept that you do actually get hurt?”

“Maybe,” Steve’s Captain voice is delicate concrete lacing between them. “We shouldn’t talk about this.”

They’re both breathing hard.

Fatigue pulls on Tony’s limbs. It’s so fucking tiring, dealing with both Steve and his temper. One or the other, he can manage. But Steve getting mad at him for doing the same things that he himself does, simply because he wants to grandstand an argument about someone maybe caring about him or whatever. Tony isn’t desperate enough yet to fall for that.

Maybe one day, maybe soon, but not here, not now.

“I was trying to say,” Tony tries one last time. “That I used to think of my mom, too. She always had cold hands, when I was sick. Felt,” his words are tacky, “good, better. Is. All.”

Deflating, Steve’s hackles lower.

“Yeah,” Steves voice is barely there, a peace offering against the ice.

In for a penny. Tony takes one final step. “Made me feel more human.”

Beside him, Steve blinks his eyes shut for one infinitesimal second, opens them wet, “Yeah. It did.”

There.

The distance between them, chopped up and ground to glass and still, just a little, crossed. Under the surface, the spring-summer-trying-past; still alive, still moving fast.

Lungs short, Tony nods.

For the rest of the day, they’re quiet, cautious.

“Burgers?”

“Sure.”

“You want first?”

“It’s okay, you go.”

“Night.”

“Night.”

Fresh air rolls in with the morning. Tony loads the car while Steve checks them out.

“You Tony Stark?”

Tony looks up.

Every once in a while, there’s a civilian overly interested in them. They always think they are overly familiar with Iron Man and Captain America and they usually smell like box matches, like a place in Tony’s past he tries hard to forget has ever existed. They set Tony’s teeth on edge.

This civilian is in a rumpled suit, holding a brown paper bag with a bottle neck peaking out that makes the back of Tony’s neck screech.

If you know my name, Tony feels like shouting, why for fuck’s sake would you –

“Yeah,” Tony says shortly, instead, hand clenched around the car door.

The civilian nods, wobbling a bit and Tony knows this far, far too well.

“You’n Cap’re travellin’,” they gesture with their free hand.

Too familiar by far.

“Yeah,” Tony says anyway, trying yet again, “road to recovery, journey to find the center of the earth, etcetera.”

“The road to recovery is just a metaphor,” the civilian sloshes forward to glare at him, “dipshit.”

Steve’s checking them out. 30 seconds for credit card verification. 10 seconds for receipt signing. 2 minutes for niceties –

Be nicer, Tony. We’ve talked about this.

Tony exhales until he feels lightheaded.

“Sorry you feel that way,” Tony says and meets the angry grey eyes. “But we’re trying our best.”

A hand, against the small of his back. “We are,” Steve’s voice thrums against Tony’s side.

The civilian burps to an unhappy stop, cow-towed in light of a Captain America using the full of his height advantage, the press of his hip and leg so firmly into Tony’s. Together, they’re always stronger.

“Let’s go,” Steve says, and almost pulls them out of the lot before Tony’s even shut the door.

He jams his seatbelt on and catches Steve’s eyes.

Small, private, a bit of old sadness, Steve’s smile responds. His hand finds its place behind Tony’s head, fingers tucked into the back of Tony’s tshirt against the knot of his spine. Soothing.

When they stop to recharge the car, Steve leaves to snag pizza and comes back with an aunt’s missing person’s plea.

“Yeah,” Tony says, when Steve’s eyebrows pull up at him, mouth set. “I can do it.”

And he can.

This at least, isn’t beyond him, even if he had to ask Steve pull the tap to turn on the shower three motels ago. They pop into the public library and Tony uses a Stark logo’d laptop to command line into what he privately calls his Teenager Doing Teenager Things VPN Locator. He averts his eyes from the rest of the commands he could type in, the channels he could plug back into with a flick of his fingers. The prickle at the back of his brain almost numbs his tongue trying to connect to ports no longer loaded with the right wetware. He’s not that anymore, and none of that is here.

Two and a half towns over, a leaning warehouse of a nightclub, with the bass creeping out beneath the torn asphalt and Steve looking down at their car wrinkled and t-shirt and body-underarmor attire somewhere between amused and abashed. They stand in the dusty sunset for a moment.

“I don’t think we’ll be carded,” Tony offers.

“Prob’y not,” Steve agrees, “you’ve got too many laugh lines.”

“Catch up, babyface,” Tony says without thinking.

A glance cut across the roof of the car, digs deep in Tony’s memories. The last time he said that, his hand was on Steve’s face, their bodies locked together and Tony urging Steve faster, c’mon, c’mere. He refuses to blush and the apology gets stuck in his throat as Steve licks his lips. Christ, but he’s dangerous.

This isn’t the time of place for this.

He turns them towards the door and smiles blankly at the bouncer that snorts at them over their cig.

The inside is a wall of sound. It crashes hard into Tony before he gets four steps down the sticky hallway. Dark, intense, a baseline made more for 2AM than 6PM, but that fits the expanse of space around the building, the shades of dark leather on most of the people grinding on the dance floor. It’s packed.

He breathes out and reaches for Steve’s hand.

Steve’s hand meets him halfway.

“Hold on?” Steve near shouts just to be heard – as if that’s even a question.

The dance floor is a mess of bodies pressed against each other and sweat sliding against sweat. It’s claustrophobic, tight and impossible to see anything beyond two steps in front of them. Movies always get this bit wrong. It’s more and less. Tony’s hyper aware of Steve, of the top to bottom press of their bodies, a choice, to stay together, but everything else is a blur, a mix of too much color and movement and conversation.

The sound is harsh on Tony’s senses. Memories crowd on the edges of the unsteady sea of his mind; last time he was in a club with Steve, the slick heat of Steve’s mouth, the pulse of their heatbeats. Steve dances showy, human, but flashy sure. Tony shakes his head, feeling more disoriented then he wants to admit.

Steve is both the only steady rock, and the tide that pushes them out towards the bar. He turns the two of them so that Tony is on the outside, murmurs right into Tony’s ear, “Crowd watch, Iron Man.”

And the tingle in Tony’s spine, the zing that says he’s close to alcohol turns into a different sort of desperation, a familiar steady wave. He misses being back to back with Steve. He’s never a better person than then, he knows.

“Aye, Captain,” he says, under his breath, just for the smile he knows Steve can’t contain.

Steve’s conversation with the bartender is inaudible. Tony keeps his gaze on the ebb and flow of the crowd, young faces sliding into and out of his view. Then, there.

A back door to backstage, small, paint chipped yellow.

Tony nudges Steve and Steve taps one finger against the back of Tony’s hand.

Heard.

A second later, Steve is twisting them through the crowd, using his lovely honed spatial prediction skills to find gaps in bodies and maneuver the two of them to the door.

“I’ll wait,” Tony says, when Steve glances between him and it.

A question, on Steve’s face.

“I think he’s fine,” Tony says honestly, leaning just a bit in for Steve’s superhearing, “I just don’t wanna be around that much cocaine.” Or that much jack and coke. The smell is prickling Tony’s senses, seeping out from under the door. “Also you need space to do your heart-to-heart.”

“Mm,” Tony feels more than hears, “Okay. Call for me, if you need.”

“It’s just a night club,” Tony says, but feels pleasure twist itself along his spine like a well-fed cat, anyways.

Steve squeezes his hand, and then his side, and then goes to offer a lost kid a lifeline.

Like always, Tony stands watch, and admires both the shape of Steve’s ass, and the bold purpose of his heart.

“I think,” Steve says, afterwards in the car, his voice echoing a sharp ringing in Tony’s aching ears, “he’ll call.”

“That’s good,” Tony says without really hearing himself.

“Hope so,” Steve says, quieter.

“You can’t do anything more, Steve,” Tony says, switching lanes.

“Mm.”

“That wasn’t a challenge,” Tony nudges Steve’s shoulder with his elbow to get a laugh. That night, they do laundry hip to hip, talking meaningless smack talk about baseball and Tony’s roots prickle with the nourishment. Tony does his exercises in the same room while Steve does the crossword.

It’s homey.

They continue south.

There’s no map in the car.

The car, much like their destination, like their path to their destination; Tony doesn’t know.

Doesn’t want to.

They’re somewhere south of Yellowstone, Tony judges from the slashes of grey mountain peaks across the sky and the mist in the air, and that’s good enough. It’s a tourist town without tourists. A town with edges lapped by lake waves, and they stop to let Steve fix a problem with a corrupt project manager, to sit on the top of a husk of a hospital. The kids are being airlifted out. They linger, both letting old memories settle.

Steve’s knuckles are raw and bleeding, but Tony doesn’t say anything.

He flips the burner phone. Waits for the final SMS before he pulls apart the plastic blocks and drops it into the recycling. Wanders back over to Steve and his apricot-new knuckles.

“Thanks for that,” Steve says, looking up at the mountain line. His jaw is smoothing out.

“For recycling?”

A dark chuckle bubbles in Steve’s chest, “Sure. And for the intel, for getting the permit docs to Ms. Grayson.”

Tony scuffs his boots on the gravel. There’d been no question what he was doing buying a recyclable, no presumption of him doing the digital lifting, and yet. Steve knew. Steve trusted him to do that. Trusted him with this ugly thing that brought angry tears to his eyes.

“S’what I do.”

“I know.”

And like a star held too long in his hands, a burning through to his soul, sudden and incandescent -Tony thinks,

I would have followed you across the country even if you hadn’t asked me to. Even if you hadn’t pulled me from the pod and made sure your arm, your sad, honest face was the first thing I saw. I would have watched you through the joint bank account we don’t talk about and the tracker we do and the cameras we pretend you don’t know about, but –

“I’m glad.”

That you asked me to come.

Steve smiles and for a moment there is just that.

Then, he jumps down the 20 feet from the top of the rebar pile, “Let’s swim.”

Swimming.

Tony pushes on his bottom lip with his thumb. Thinking. Sometimes these days, even that makes his arm feel strange. “Not sure I’m quite water lily capable yet, Cap.”

“I’ll be there,” Steve says, easily.

It’s a lot to ask, but Steve doesn’t ask for more than he thinks Tony can give.

They watch each other.

Steve moves closer, still post-battle-adrenaline smooth. Tony admires the shift of his broad chest, is suddenly all too aware of how he looks in comparison. It’s not bad to be scrawny, to be thin, to even be weak. But Tony feels unknown, feels slopped into a body not his. Time’s run over wild with it, turned the terrain from one kind of habitat to another. He’s not sure how to retake it.

Not sure how to be, Tony Stark, Iron Man, Superhero, Golden Avenger, without it.

Steve is watching him, with his red-tinged blue eyes.

“What don’t you trust?”

Tony snorts.

“I mean,” Steve rolls his eyes, now, “besides yourself.” His voice has gone flat.

“What,” Tony tries to laugh, “that’s not enough?”

Quiet, stretched to its limit between them. This is an old bruise.

Steve’s jawline firms up again. “Trust me.”

“I do, Steve.” If nothing else, that will always be true of Tony. This has never been their problem. “It’s just, I’m.” He gestures down his body. “You prob’ly don’t wanna see it, either.”

Moss to the wrong side of the rock, Steve keeps on, “You think I don’t like your body right now?”

And this. This is what they’re not talking about. “I’m not talking about that,” Tony says. He can’t.

Steve opens his mouth and Tony’s leg muscles spasm with stress. For the first time, this trip, he doesn’t clench up, doesn’t prevent the tip of his body.

A hand on his arm catches him before he falls. He lets it support him, doesn’t shy away from needing the bracket.

“This is what I mean,” he says, quietly.

Steve’s hand tightens on him, the lean of him alights Tony’s nerves but that’s just the thing.

Tony hasn’t even been aware of his body outside of what it responds to Steve with, for this trip. It’s helpful, in some ways, to not have to look at it too long in the mirror, to hand over thinking about nutrition supplements. Comforting, almost. Less stressful than trying to think about both becoming human again, and becoming well put together, groomed and attractive again.

His hair’s long, his nails bitten. That’s what he knows.

He shrugs.

Steve’s glancing down between them, over Tony, cataloging. Tony lets him look. He’s rueful when he says, “I didn’t mean to.”

“So. Don’t.” Make it about that, then. Ignore Tony’s messy forest floor body littered with broken branches and strewn leaves, then.

Steve’s eyes flicker in between his. Frustration is in the valleys of his neck and shoulders. “I want to swim,” he exhales, “I want to feel clear. I think,” he’s picking through his words now, around the forest of Tony. “It could help you, too. If you want to?” his voice rises at the end, a question, a question about the question.

A long time ago, so long it feels impossible to have been so devastating an eruption, Steve had helped Tony return to the water, relearn how to put his face below the surface.

Steve’s grip on his arm is solid. It’s nice to know that Steve wants this for him. Needs the escape. But, selfishly, the tug on Tony’s wrist, the pull of Steve’s hands on him casually, is more. The desire to keep Steve touching him while being cautious, careful with Tony’s bones. Sap on Tony’s tongue. Springwater on his parched skin.

“I’ll try.”

Instant, Steve brightens, jumps in the car to speed them to the lake shore, pulls out towels and nearly upsets the delicate piles of the backseat.

Slow down, Michael Phelps, Tony would joke, but he’s breathing unsteady, stepping into the rush of water. The bottom is crystal clear, unreal rainbows spun into liquid. Steve’s here, just out of reach, sliding in, glancing over.

He buoys, lets the lake take him in. One fleeting rush, as water gets in his ears, and Steve makes a small unnecessary sound.

Here, Tony closes his eyes.

Breath.

A slight splashing.

Breath.

A single finger double tap to his wrist. Check in, Shellhead.

Tony turns his hand, makes a thumbs-up at 45 degrees.

Steve moves closer, water signaling his smooth strokes to just left of Tony, 45 degrees.

Breath.

He’s there when Tony finally opens his eyes.

Larger than life, bigger gravity than any other body Tony has known. Sun breaks crests across the hills of Steve’s muscles. He’s the morning. Tony finds him sweet as dew, yearns to press the spring-shoot-green grass of Steve against his lips, his cheek. Fingers can only tell you so much.

Especially, Tony thinks, drawing the tips of his across the glass turquoise water, someone with fingers as scuffed and scarred and picked as Tony.

“Shush,” Steve whispers, floating beside him.

“Didn’t say anything.”

“Loud.

Tony swirls his fingers.

“Tell me something,” Steve says, “Quiet.”

Sea creatures they are: cryptic and messy photo filtered. This is Steve, giving him a telephoto lens.

“Glacial flour.”

Stillness. Steve balancing Newtonian law, without a single wave.

“S’why,” Tony snapshots the image of Steve’s outstretched forearm, for his memory. Click, boom. “The lake looks like this.”

“Flour?”

“Grinding makes small quartz, feldspar,” Tony waves his hand, watches droplets tumble through the air, “particles in the meltwater. Turns it aqua.”

Humming. Thoughts, in Steve’s chest, circling. Tony, allowed to see, to remember. A wave brushes his side.

“So it’s food coloring.”

Tony smiles against the sun’s glare.

“Yeah, nature’s food coloring.”

As the sun stretches itself across the sky, its gravity carries them inwards to land. Lunch is simple, fruit, roast beef sandwiches, the flex of Steve’s legs he slides against his own because Steve doesn’t say no.

Quieted. Tony’s muscles held him afloat with Steve’s help.

“What do you think?” Steve asks him, sun-browned and loose, at the next day’s junction “Still wanna see the ocean?”

And Tony cuts a glance across the front seat, the lived-in car MacGyver’d to suit their predilections – heating blankets like curtains against their battle-brains, bulletproof and complete with a built in ice chest. He catches Steve’s eyes, soft at the edges and laser focused. Layers and layers of blue between them today, like a petrified pinecone Tony is hiding in his hoodie to bring back from summer vacation.

“No,” he says slowly, “I think I’m good.”

Steve’s mouth curls up at the corner. Dimple. The flash memory of touching his nose to it, to hear Steve’s surprised laugh, streaks across Tony’s brain. He has to close his eyes.

“Wherever,” he says faintly.

Instead of sliding to the back of Tony’s head, Steve’s hand touches Tony’s temples, scarred fingertips gentle at his hairline, down to the top of his cheekbone. “Y’okay?” he murmurs.

“Yeah,” Tony breathes out, entire body feeling through the place they are touching and breath caught in his lungs.

“Kay,” Steve says, thumb rubbing across the hot apples of Tony’s cheeks.

It takes him a while to pull away. Tony opens his eyes reluctantly, feeling a bit like a plant hefted in the arms of a gardener for hopeful transplant. Rolled under, just a bit, just a small amount, just from that one touch. He can’t remember so much, but the last time he was in subspace he knows was years and years ago – from a moment between them they don’t mention, and now, now.

If you knew your own strength, Tony thinks before the thought fades.

“Rest, Tony,” Steve coaxes.

He does. Thank you, on the tip of his heavy tongue.

Steve wakes him for a sandwich lunch, but he loses most of Idaho and the corner of Oregon to tender, shapeless fog. The hand on the back of his neck holds him tethered, brings him back to earth. It’s another queen bed, another night. Habit or hope, Tony wonders.

The next town they stop in, Steve deals with a pesky bug problem. Tony finds other ways to occupy himself.

“Be honest, do you actual have powers?” Steve’s voice follows his shadow over Tony and Meredith’s lego castle. It’s been a while since the last crashing stopped. The sick squelching of mutated cockroach crunch.

“Sure,” Tony says, “A 6th sense of tomfoolery that manifests i – “

“How do you always find a kid that needs a playmate?”

Tony shrugs, smiles at Meredith, who narrows her eyes and points back at the blocks.

“Aye, aye,” Tony murmurs and goes back to building his basilica.

Steve flops down next to them, watches the way Meredith adds and adds to her plans, adjusts to the amount of blocks they have by removing a staircase.

“She’ll make a good captain one day,” Steve murmurs.

She’ll make a good civilian one day. Tony thinks, I hope to god she knows no more war. Tony buries the words under a noncommittal shrug. Steve’s glance cuts over to him, mouth twisting. He reads him easy as newsprint. They’re quiet then, building and building for a good while.

When they leave, Meredith presses a nibbled on yellow 6-block lego into Tony’s hands. He offers her a hug. She gives him a pat on his tummy. Her foster parents wave at them, leaving.

It’s Steve that smiles softly all the way to the car.

It’s Tony that bandages the slash marks on Steve’s hip, without touching his skin, without a word.

It’s Tony that buys twine and a punches out a hole to thread the lego onto a chain he tugs them off-track to buy from a jeweler.

The next couple of towns are quiet. They lose time to the slow rhythm of it, falling into the hill silence with a classical radio station and the stretch of sycamore.

A brushfire, caught before it turns into a rampage. Tony and Steve are both soot covered afterwards, Tony holding six year old Luis hand, talking about forest regrowth and how deep tree roots really go while they watch Steve stop a barn from collapsing on the horses. Luis sniffles and clings.

“Give him a minute,” Tony says to the firefighters.

He holds him for the full hour it takes Luis mother to get back from Belden. Talks calmly with the shaken babysitter. Steve wields a hose, an endless supply of hot chocolate.

Before he lets go to attach to his mom, Luis hands off his sweaty, tiny plastic horse to Tony and Tony whispers, “Thank you.”

Tony adds it to the necklace. Adds more alocane to the shopping cart to shove at Steve’s wrists. Another day down, he adds a silver dollar from little, wobbly Joanie to necklace. The next gas station has a set of star sunglasses, bright fuchsia frames and gold mirroring.

So, Tony’s magpie heart grows. 

Taffy sticky stretch of Nevada desert between their fingers, Tony rolls his head against the motel wallpaper when Steve starts fidgeting, pacing, refolding clothes, cleaning the grooves of his gloves.

“Is it,” Tony’s words stuffy in his mouth. “A desert thing?”

Steve narrows a glance over his way, “What?”

“I just mean, you’re,” Tony flops a hand between them. The heat’s gone and pulled all the energy right out of him.

“I’m fine,” Steve exhales, loud. He slides down on his bed by the door and window. Back straight, arms crossed over his stomach.

You don’t sleep like that, Tony almost says. “Kay,” he yawns instead.

“Sleep, Tony,” Steve orders.

He does.

The world’s just beginning to warm up. Chassis thrumming with capacitors refilling, Tony’s contemplative, touching his hand to the roof of the car in the late morning. Spring is steady on the ground here, and Tony nearly calls to Steve to stop pacing and leave the grass and flowers alone. Let them sleep in, he wants to say.

Agitation makes Steve willow bark and cactus bite.

Tony’s been contemplating this too.

It’s now been four days since the fire. Since Steve got to put his hands to something that helped someone as it hurt himself. Tony’s nothing if not familiar with the shadow creep in the back of the mind that comes paired with that, like fine molding cheese to set at the base of your tongue. Cloying thoughts.

“You can just enjoy the travel, you know,” Tony says, lightly, unplugging the car and retracting the plug cord.

“I am.”

“Sure,” Tony grabs the receipt even though it’ll just end up slotted in the handbook in the glove compartment with the rest.

“But you don’t always have to be lurking for a,” Tony switches out the word fight with, “task.”

Around the charger, Steve’s coming back with his thumbs in his pockets. It’s a bad sign.

“Every time we stop,” Tony starts. Stops at the cloud roll across Steve’s face.

“What?” Steve’s voice, thrown into the dirt between them.

“I just think.”

“You usually do,” he cuts in.

Tony’s eyes flicker, feeling wet. “I’m just saying,” he’s stupidly hoarse, “you seem to be looking for something I’m not sure you’re finding. And what you’re finding is,” Tony cuts his tongue on the quick of his words. Another layer of scars; he’d like to say. Would have said, back when Steve’s body was a territory shared tenderly between them, instead of a passing, grudgingly accepted pit stop tire change. Tony gestures towards Steve with the receipt instead.

Knowledge, clinches at the sides of Steve’s eyes. He knows.

“You don’t always know,” Steve starts and Tony closes his eyes. So. They’re not going to talk about what Steve knows, then. “What’s best or what’s gonna happen or what my choices are, for god’s sake Tony.”

He pauses, maybe to see if Tony will open his eyes, maybe cry. He’s already decided he’s not, though. And Steve’s not the only one who can be stubborn.

“You don’t get to tell me what to do,” Steve’s breathing hard, audible for once.

No one’s ever told Steve Rogers to do anything, honestly. But that’s a useless old outcropping to bring them to again.

“Funny,” Tony feels his lips curling, humorless, “I thought we were on this trip together.”

“Quit misdirecting.” The space before Tony adjusts, warmer. Steve, closer.

“Are we really fighting about this?” Tony asks, turning to put the open landscape at his side, the comforting red, red, desert gold. His chest hurts, but that’s familiar, too.

“We’re not fighting.”

Lip sucked between his teeth, breath pushed out, Tony mutters, “It feels like fighting.”

“No,” Steve’s rolled well and prepared into battle, “when we fight you’ll know it.”

Is this why you brought me? To barely touch me and then to talk to me about your mother and then to press your thumbnail into the bruises we’ve left on each other in the past? Tony wants to ask. He wants to go back to before this conversation and just continue their empty conversations and nature full car drive to nowhere.

“Okay,” Tony says.

Taps out.

Nothing wrong with admitting when you can’t go any further without help, Tony hears Rhodey’s voice. Misses so sharply for a second he opens his eyes and puts a hand on the car to bring himself back to the present.

When he looks up, Steve’s temper is sliding back behind the glass pane he keeps it in. Tony’s tapped out and he’s always been Tony’s sparring partner. For better or for worse. He catches the keys that Tony tosses him and doesn’t comment when Tony picks a heavy metal station to try and drown himself to.

In the late afternoon, Tony looks in the mirror and at the side of Steve’ glacier posture. Sunburn is threatening the edges of his reflection, Tony sees. In contrast, Steve’s pan browned butter, rolling warm and slight stickiness.

It seems fitting. He takes well to fighting with Tony.

The next town, there’s a bank robbery and Steve settles apple tight into his own skin again. Tony bandages him while talking about florescent lights.

Wednesday, maybe, Nevada-California, most probably, and Tony wakes up to a Bad Day.

No reason except the usual, except the always there reason. Except that they fought but didn’t fight and things like that, Steve, like that, has always rippled across Tony’s mind with too much power.

Rolling over in bed is too much energy. The pillow covers his eyes and his mouth. He pushes deeper into it.

“Tony?” Steve’s voice is low, coming from the direction of the bathroom.

He doesn’t answer.

“Y’kay?”

A spit of toothpaste. Rush of water.

“Tony?” His voice was closer now.

A spasm runs down Tony’s spine. Pain claws along its wake. Breathe, Stark, breathe.

Air shudders between his lips.

“Oh,” Steve says quietly.

He touches Tony’s hip overtop the coverlet and leans one knee on the bed. “Is it okay, if . . .?”

If he holds Tony like he used to when this happened.

Nodding hurts. Being folded into Steve’s gentle arms helps, and hurts worse.

The day stretches on. PTSD is a plane that rides the sunset along the curve of the earth, refuses to be landed or banished into the atmosphere. Tony finds himself both losing time and being more aware of it than is possible. He can hear the seconds, like being hardlined into Greenwich again, electrons alight with information. Except, that’s not him, not anymore.

He blinks against the pillows and it takes 10 minutes.

“Water,” Steve whispers, at one point.

Tony crosses his fingers. No. Knows Steve can see the movement.

Hesitation, like a distant rockslide heard through seismograph.

“You haven’t had water for almost 20 hours, Tony.”

So? Tony thinks, muddled mutiny.

“So I know you’re saying no, but are you gonna feel up to it soon?”

Why are you still here?

Silence, a minute or an hour.

“I’ll ask again soon.”

The warmth of a sun presses again to Tony’s side.

He wants to cry.

That’s too much energy too.

When Steve asks again, Tony keeps his eyes closed, and lets Steve move his body. It’s always responded better to Steve than Tony anyways. Lowest, low. Loss of altitude but still flying. This, again and again for Tony Stark. Tomorrow, he’ll face the earth again. He always does. But today, it’s hard. Always is.

Eventually, the plane begins to lose to the sky.

Sleep rolls over.

Tony’s awake before Steve the next day.

He touches shaky fingers to where Steve’s arm is a panel of armor across his lower stomach, holding him from falling apart.

“Ton’?” Steve mumbles

“Yeah,” Tony croaks.

Morning, between their bodies, tired and aching for light.

“’ow you?”

Tony considers.

His muscles hurt. A long pulling stretch like winter saplings searching for the sky. Continuous state of growing pain. His right side, more than left. His legs more than his hands. But both are shaking. He’s not sure if it’s lingering sleep, or if the coma is stretching its spiny fingers back into his bones. His body hasn’t been his own in a long time.

Tony closes his eyes and tries to think nothing.

“Tony?” Steve says again, more awake.

“How long,” Tony’s throat catches, “Shaking?”

Stillness.

“On n’ off,” Steve whispers, “Inconsistent but 4 hours, ‘so. Spasms since noon, yest’day.”

Tony tries harder to think of nothing.

“Knew bout the atax’a,” Steve continues mumbling, casual like he’s not dropping a ton of rock on Tony’s stomach, “But th’ hemiplegia, the spasti – “

“Stop.” Tony can’t handle talking about it today.

Steve stops.

Shame isn’t what this is. Old grown fear of an oak with too many limbs cut and regrown, maybe. Tony has protocols for weekly concussions, has cut off his own foot and regrown it, has sprouted anew from ash and blood and being broken and – he’s so –

“I know,” Tony says. 

Arm tightening, Steve says nothing.  

He’s aware finally, in an unpleasant twist of his guts sort of way, of how he looks. He pushes Steve away to start the shower.

“I’ll,” Steve hesitates in the doorway.

“I’ll leave the door unlocked,” Tony drops his gaze away from Steve, refuses to see his relieved shoulders except from the corner of his eyes.

The shower makes him feel better, makes him more dehydrated.

He sits, lightheaded with a bottle of water on the bed, while Steve showers army-quick and packs up the room. Only comes out to the car when Steve comes back to get him after checking out. The pineapple sunglasses are Tony’s pick from his shoe box collection today. They’re metal, sturdy, cold against Tony’s temples. Today, Steve monitors the AC, uses it to monitor Tony.

Tony lets him.

The radio is doing a bubblegum oldies marathon. On a different day, they’d both be singing along.

“I didn’t mean to,” Steve whispers sometime around the stale midday.

If Tony wasn’t always looking to Steve like a signpost, he might have missed the texture of it under the cadence of the music. He’s not sure if it’s better or worse that he heard.

He’s tired.

The Temptations, Jackson 5, The Foundations. One more small town that streams by in the space of two of Tony’s blinks.

“Do you,” Steve asks, getting back in the car after charging it up, picking up that Tony hasn’t moved, “wanna talk about it?”

Tony has been very carefully not talking today. As much as he condemns himself for it all, Tony doesn’t really like to think about it. Highway stretches make it too easy to fade into your memories. And Tony – Tony has the cave, lab, hospital, walkup, New York battleground, graveyard, life pod –

There are so many goddamn places to find the dirtiest puddle of your soul.

To drown in it.

Pass, he wants to say. He’s always passing this, ignoring the overgrown hedge of his health.

Steve’s not good at lawn care either, though, really.

Tony draws his arm up over his eyes to block out the light.

He’s too tired for metaphors.

“Later,” Tony manages, instead. Mumbles the, “please.”

“Okay,” Steve says.

They do a drive through today, salads and greasy fries for an appetite neither of them have. The night doesn’t come soon enough for Tony, who looks away but nods when Steve books the queen room, but then curls around his pillow instead of touching Steve. Close, but never close enough.

The next day isn’t better, but it’s clearer. Less summer asphalt haze.

Stretches, shower, shaving, even. Tony fiddles with the too-long curl of his hair but then leaves it alone. He has to sit again on the bed with water, waiting for Steve to load up the car. Arizona still, and the slanted brush strokes of cacti jumping up from the ground almost seem to expand when looked at. The heft of them is surprising, a little alarming.

“Big and red,” Tony murmurs, as they drive along, dwarfed by the mountains.

Flickers of wide blue from Steve’s glancing eyes, “You must approve.”

Tony smiles. “I do, actually.”

He’s always liked mountains. Soothing, open spaces you can perch on and focus on your breathing on and no one ridicules you for it. Cold at the top, magma at the bottom. Wonders.

The diner today is attached to the charge station. Plonked in the middle of nowhere, full on chrome and solar shingles. Tony admires the run-off recycle on it from behind his blue cloud glasses as Steve helps a couple with a flat tire.

“You notice anything?” Steve asks, holding the tire impossibly on his hip with two fingers.

“Yeah,” Tony breathes in the midday sun, “You’d make a good milkmaid.”

“Too late. Austria, 1940. And I was a great milkmaid, thanks,” Steve nudges Tony’s shoulder as they both laugh. “I meant, though, the two in the weird SUV.”

“Yeah,” Tony glances over. A lumpy scarf wearing parent, holding a small bundle of happy-feet-kicking gingham, who’s holding a hemp sac of vegetables in strange colors that peek over the string top. They’re getting into a vehicle that’s more a cross between a carriage and a farm truck, than an SUV. Tony doesn’t look too long. “Fae, probably.”

Steve nudges him harder, “Stop joking.”

The wind kicks up, flinging Steve’s hair across his eyes. At the carriage-truck, the parent situates the child, and the door closes on its own. Their nails are so bright, Tony can see them from over here. A glint of green pops against the sun from their eyes as they get into the vehicle, and slide smoothly out of the parking spot less than four seconds later.

“What are you thinking about?”

“We should eat somewhere else,” Tony says, honestly.

Steve rolls his eyes, goes to give the nice Northern couple, Stasia&Lavender, Tony couldn’t make this place up if he tried – back their tire. There’s a faint bell tolling on the wind, coming from the north and Tony knows for a fact they haven’t seen a church for days.

“Really,” Tony says, as Steve comes back.

“Fine, it’s on you,” Steve says, popping open the car doors.

“It always is.”

They drive for another hour or so, until Tony feels the bell tolling fade from his mind. Magic. This kind always reminds him too much of extremis. He pops his gum, annoyed.

“What’s the sitch?”

The depth of Steve’s modern filmography knowledge delights Tony so unexpectedly, sometimes.

“Even if you are Kim Possible, I refuse to be Ron.”

Steve grins, then thinks for a minute. “You could be Shego.”

“We do have similar hair,” Tony allows.

A pause, like Steve testing out what’s allowed, “You both look great in a bodysuit.”

“It’s the hips,” Tony says, mouth a little dry. “And not being straight. That always helps.”

“I’ll have to try one out, then,” pauses again, “Never top you in that getup from New Year’s, ’03 though.”

“You,” Tony hard swallows. New Year’s ’03. Steve did top him, then. Top him and fuck him so far into subspace Tony didn’t even realize when he came. “That was a specially made suit,” he manages.

“I liked it,” Steve’s blushing. Blushing and looking out his window, tapping a finger on the wheel.

“I know,” Tony says, not sure what else to say.

The conversation fades, but the blush lingers on Steve’s cheeks. He’s flushed until long after lunch, long after Tony disables a security network so Steve can hop into a paper works factory and get documentation of OSHA violations that Tony can send to Imogene in D.C., long after they both slip on a trail of ice water someone left by the ice bin at the motel and have to hold onto one another laughing.

The morning is bright.

Behind his huge tortoiseshell sunglasses, Tony layers himself in cut offs, a sunflower tank he bought for 8 dollars apiece, and a barely there iridescent shirt he doesn’t remember buying. He feels good. Capable. Aware of himself and his body.

Aware of the look in Steve’s eyes looking him over this morning. Beavertail cacti wink pink blooms from their colonies along the dusty road. Everything is shades of red, today. He breathes out and lets Steve finish his chamuco. 

“Is it later?” Tony asks.

“Later from what?”

“That,” Tony says, mouth tilting up, “Is the question, isn’t it.”

Steve rolls his knuckles in a line across Tony’s shoulder. “If you wanna talk about it, I wanna hear about it.”

Tony doesn’t, not really. But. He maybe needs to. He hates being alone with himself.

“It’s not really.” He exhales, organizes himself, “I mean it is the PTSD. But it’s more the coma, the way all the supplements,” Tony kicks his bag beside his feet and hears the distant rattle, “and shit are interacting. The way my brain is healing. I get,” he taps his fingers on the shorts, messes with the threads, “tired, easy. Lots of side-effects. You, you noticed.”

“Yeah,” Steve says quietly.

“Part of it’s the AI. Part of it’s the coma. Part of it,” Tony smiles, rueful, “Is just good old me.”

“We’re done av –” Avoiding; Tony knows was what Steve was starting with. He watches Steve’s decision to not. “You, you remember, the AI, the fight, us as – what we. Were, as us.”

It’s tricky, with head injuries. Jess woke up once and couldn’t remember her cat. Everything else, fine. But the cat, nothing. Like an eraser’d come along and took him away. Steve doesn’t say its Tony’s fault and he doesn’t assume.

Tony swallows, doesn’t say thank you.

“I remember, yeah.” Most of it, he thinks. “I didn’t forget,” he wants to clarify. He would never ever choose that again, but to choose slowly to return to himself, to have the option of a gentle reintegration with his body post binary, post brain trauma . . . “I just programmed –“ but there, Steve hates that aspect of him, that he knows.

“Go on,” Steve says, perfectly civil.

Watching him carefully, Tony does, “Just programmed the pod to ease me into things. Intentional fog. The coma wasn’t ever intended. It’s not like hibernation. I don’t come out ready to hunt, but the pod, it keeps the necessary going, lets me take time to . . .”

Steve’s face is etched with some stone thought, but he’s not radiating anger, not threatening to rattle apart his walled in temper.

“Heal,” he says, finally, voice soft.

“Yeah, it’s coded in my brain, jumpstarting new connections to fire up old ones,” Tony doesn’t really want to go into the technique of it, but. He did talk to other PhDs than himself, building it. “It’s helpful, to revisit old people you knew, familiar sensations. But it’s more helpful to not push yourself to do things, remember, if you can’t. I’m just letting it,” he gestures between them. “Fall into place. Doing the pills, exercises.”

“I’m glad,” Steve nods, thumb on the wheel tucked into his own hoodie for comfort, hunched inwards. “To see you taking care of yourself. Glad you have the time, to,” He rubs his fingers across Tony’s shoulder, “you had the time to come along.”

“Wouldn’t rather be anywhere else,” Tony answers honestly.

Steve’s fingers trail across Tony’s bicep, down across the inside of his elbow, trailing goosebumps. He nudges Tony’s hand with his own and Tony takes his hand and holds on.

A full day, no one but them on the horizon.

Tony drives them through the night, ACDC on almost low enough to miss, while Steve not-quite sleeps. The desert isn’t quiet, or empty, it whistles, creaks, chitters and skitters outside the car walls, but Tony’s not too worried. Before dawn, there are boxes on the skyline. Stucco and adobe brick converge around wavering lights.

He stops them at the first charging station to stretch, shares a smile with the tired parent rocking a baby with two scaly wings back and forth across the parking lot.

Steve wakes on the east side of town – it’s a bit bigger than their usual. Skirting around populations has become habit now, but Steve still smiles like he did something great when they switch and he takes the wheel.

Lunch, empanadas.

Dinner, pasta.

Motel, queen bed.

Steve, close, close, close.

Tony’s humming in the morning, but Steve’s bouncing back and forth. He can’t get situated in the car, restless. The speed limit is 65 but he goes 50, then 76. He’s scratching a bit at his leg.

“What is wrong with you, alley cat?” Tony finally asks, sick of the watercolor backdrop of the landscape overlaying Steve’s cloying, sticky energy, drawing out his nerves.

Steve grins at him, but when Tony exhales and looks away, actually taps Tony’s face to get him to turn around. His face is lined, confusion and drama fighting for space.

“I thought,” Steve pauses, “we were done,” his voice drops low, “avoiding everything.”

“I mean,” Tony frowns, “Everything is a bit big, but I was honest, I swear.” Is he defending this again, to Steve?

“Okay well, what about us?”

“What about us?” Tony says slowly.

“I’m in love with you,” Steve says it, like it’s so clear, like it’s nothing, like its rushing out of him, dam burst open to river shore, spilling over too much.

Flash fucking flood.

Tony closes his eyes and tries to catch his breath against it.

Steve’s pulled them over on the side of the road and they’re really going to have this conversation here in the desert. It’s a tossup whether Tony will live long enough to have a heat stroke or whether he will die of this heart attack.

He doesn’t want to say, no you’re not, because that’s the worst, second only to a blasé, okay. But he really –

Steve loves him. He knows that, he’s not an idiot. It’s just that the rest of it is in the past, is left somewhere strewn across battlefields in dimensions they can’t return to and bedrooms that they, themselves burned down. Steve hasn’t been in love with him for years. And they agreed.

“We agreed,” Tony says, because that’s true and that’s a response. Steve knows what he means. Steve started the fucking conversation back then.

“What if,” Steve’s picking the center console, fingers pulling at the wood, pushing it back, “What if we were wrong?”

“Steve,” Tony’s eyes ache, “I don’t know how to do this.”

I don’t know how to love you more than life and then have you only be in love with me.

Their problems have always been here, not in the ocean breaks where their lives and loves and morals meet up, but in the shore tide where tiny difference in their density intensities build them to choking foam.

“Don’t know how to what, Tony?” He wants to reach for Tony, Tony knows. “It’s just, just us.”

This is not what Tony meant. Avoiding this? Tony’s living his life head stuck in the ground screaming over this. He can’t pretend and he doesn’t want Steve pretending for him. When they can’t even look at each other too long? It doesn’t even make sense.

“You won’t even let me touch you,” Tony whispers without meaning to. It’s not true, but it is true. Every bandage is a tentative neutral zone, not a welcome committee.

What?” Steve’s voice escalates.

“You act like,” he has to stop to press the heel of his hands into his eyes, to sniff embarrassing tears, “like me trying to stop you from getting hurt is the worst thing I’ve ever done and I can’t do that.”

“Tony –“

“I can’t feel like shit for wanting to keep you –“

“I never –“

“Safe.”

Shared pain, striking lighting across the tension conduits of their bodies.

This now, Tony latches onto as he struggles to breathe steady, this is what he was avoiding. This pain. The minefield of silence between them runs deep. Tony sniffs again, breathes, coughs, tries again.

“Tony,” Steve says, deceptively steady, and turned in his seat with his two jackets rucked up, utterly focused on Tony. “You don’t touch me.”

“Because you yell at me,” Tony’s voice sounds more like a plaintive child than himself. The chaser thought with that, because I can’t let myself hope, I can’t try forever, sounds more him, but he clamps his mouth shut. He won’t.

“For stopping me from stopping a rampaging cockroach, not from –“ Steve cuts himself off.

The lighting echoes between them again. Tense breathing while the car rocks occasionally from passing cars.

“I’ve had my hand touching you literally this entire trip,” Steve’s right hand shakes back and forth, gesticulates between them, towards the nape of Tony’s neck, “What did you think this was?”

“I don’t know,” Tony answers, honestly, “Just you, being you.”

He didn’t wanna think about it for too long, lest it hear his lingering thoughts, like cloud iridescence catching him with a camera, laughing and telling him to fuck off for thinking he could capture happiness.

“It is just me being me. Me being in love with you,” Steve rests his hand on the console, so close to Tony’s arm.

He holds his breath and Steve, eyes stuck to him, notices with a confused shake of his head.

“I don’t get it.”

“What’s to get,” Tony asks flatly.

“Why’re you going all no-homo, here,” Steve says, so out of the blue it startles a hacking in Tony’s throat when his body tries to laugh and he tries to hiccup in surprise. “I’m serious,” Steve continues over the sound of Tony.

He waits, until Tony fumbles for the water in the cup holder, takes a deep breath, two.

“I’m,” Tony says finally, “not.”

“Then what is it?”

“I just don’t see,” he pauses, reorders, “What do you get, from this? What’s to be gained by this.”

“You, Tony,” Brow drawn, voice crunched in confusion, “I hope to God I get to have you.”

“We agreed,” Tony’s voice cracks down the middle. “We said, we said that it was time. You said. We had our time. It was better, more. For everyone, if we just. If Iron Man and Captain America were just them. Not us. Because.”

The universe couldn’t withstand us picking each other over it.

Steve’s crying.

“I want us to be wrong,” he whispers and Tony hurts.

Steve’s reaching for Tony and Tony is helpless, yearns, years to smudge away his tears, kiss the snap in his voice to softness. He lets Steve hold his hands, holds Steve back. “Don’t you want us,” Steve takes a shuddering breath, “to have been wrong?”

I’m nothing like the superhero you loved then, I haven’t seen him in years and I can’t be him and I can’t be with someone who wants him.

“I’m not,” Tony manages. “Maybe, you want, you love, the me of then, but I’m not,” he rubs his thumbs along the line of tension Steve still carries in his forearms, “I’m not him. We’re different, now.”

“I know. I’m not the same either,” Steve’s beautiful lips quirk up at one end. Tears are still caught in the starglass of his golden eyelashes. “I like that.”

Tony bites his lips. That’s not really, that’s no sort of guarantee at all.

“You can’t know. There’s nothing here,” Tony sweeps their joined hands in between them, out towards the windshield, “That says we were wrong, Steve. I’m,” the air feels humid in his lungs, “sorry, Steve.”

But Steve mouthing something, shaking like containing too much hydrogen, one of his tears landing on Tony’s arm. He pulls away before Tony can ask him anything, leans back in.

“Tony,” Steve presses his hands to either side of his face, presses closer and closer until they’re sharing breaths. “I would not have asked anyone else in the world on this trip.” This is familiar, Tony in between Steve’s hands. He closes his eyes, just for a second, then opens them to Steve’s watery gaze.

“What about in the universe?” Tony smiles sadly.

“No,” Steve shakes his head, his thumbs fluttering against Tony’s cheeks. “I needed. Wanted. Just.”

Me, Tony thinks. Stops himself from reflexively pushing the thought away. Allows it to stay.

“Just us,” Steve says, again. Like that’s the most important thing. “I want us and I want us to be wrong and I think, Tony, I think even if we weren’t wrong then, we really are wrong, now. Without you I would just be trying to work, I’d be floating instead of going.” He swallows, “I wouldn’t have taken care of any of the injuries.”

“You’re an idiot,” Tony bites out.

“I know,” Steve bumps his forehead gently against Tony’s.

Tony closes his eyes, to feel the satin of his skin, the barely there bump of Steve’s nose against his own. Years ago, this was the landscape on earth that Tony knew best. His suits, New York, the chemical structure of beta-blockers, Steve’s face against his own.

How is he supposed to cross over to that now that the space between them is unknown, rocky cliffs and lost promises?

What does Steve want him to do?

“I don’t know how to get to the place where you are,” he admits, and it hurts. That Steve could be surefire drawing a map for this while Tony’s not even sure it exists. Steve Rogers, in love with him, Tony Stark? Point A to point 93.

“Oh,” Steve murmurs. His body is the warmth of a forest for the hungry blue of the sky. A whole expanse of fire rebirthed time and time again to give the world lungs.

“How do you even know I belong there?” Instead of floating off to the side, launched orbit decay, fuel ignition malfunction.

“Tony, baby,” Steve says sweetly, and no, no Tony was wrong, this – this is maybe the most important thing. “We’re already there. We’re already in love.”

Tony’s crying.

“I can’t,” is all he can say.

I want to, oh god, I want to. But I can’t, Steve, I can’t I can’t. I’ll do it, but you can’t ask because I can’t.

“Okay, okay,” Steve’s gentling him, like he’s heard. “I don’t wanna make you do anything, okay? Promise I won’t.”

He tries to give Tony space, tries to take back his hands, but Tony grips them hard, holds them against his face. Clings to Steve and turns his head to gasp into the pulse of Steve’s wrist.

“Tony,” Steve repeats, softer.

I think I’ve forgotten how to leap before looking. I don’t know if I can fly again. I miss you so much.

“I want to,” Tony says.

The hardest substance known is some of the softest and Tony puts his heart out for Steve to decide which to touch him with.

“I want to love you, the way you love me.” And here, at the bottom of the top of Tony’s lungs, right behind his heavy metal heart is the most important thing Tony will say, “I want it to be easy.”

Rain soft, tears sprinkle onto Tony’s arms. Two rainclouds, one storm front.

“It doesn’t work like that, Tony,” Steve says gently.

“Well, it should.”

Steve is caressing his skin.

“Baby,” he says, like he needs to, “You view every love like a penitence, like it’s got to hurt a little so you can feel it, but I want to, I want to stop hurting you, honey. If, if you’re wanting, I just need you to work with me, on the how,” his voice lowers a bit, evens out, “It’s not gonna be easy. I can’t promise that.”

Tony knows that. He knows that it’s too much to hope for and that’s what he can’t do. Tony will burn starbright forever for Steve, but even stars run out of fuel, turn into darkness even as they keep reacting, keep spinning in place. Love isn’t penitence, but Tony’s got so much wasted time to make up for and his oxygen and iron are almost out. The small tiny chemical reaction, he wants to keep alive.

“Back then,” Steve goes on, headless of the galaxy in Tony’s mind. “It hurt, we didn’t know and we were young and in love and we hurt each other,” Tony opens his mouth and Steve raises one eyebrow, continues, “We did. We didn’t know better and it wasn’t intentional, but we did and,” Hand cupping around Tony’s ear, he’s petal-soft, before falling away slowly. “I think you took that into your heart. That was what was wrong, Tony. Not us, but how we went about us.”

Tony misses his touch already.

“We’re not wrong about being wrong,” Tony says quietly, echoes Steve with, “It doesn’t work like that.”

“I think,” Steve says slowly, “It ready has.”

“When did you get so sure?” Tony can’t help asking, even though the hope claws the sides of his throat crawling out.  

Steve leans his head against the seat and smiles across to the dashboard, the flickering sunlight through the window. “You looked for me first,” he says, then looks back to Tony, “when you woke up. That’s why I asked if you – “

“I remember waking up, yeah.” Tony keeps his voice blank, tightens his hold on his heart.

Steve’s small shrug is almost bashful, a lover recounting the story of how they first saw their other. “You looked for me first, Tony. Out of a computer and a coma, you looked and. You always look for me first and you trusted me without even being all in your body again. And I wanted, I want you to know that you’re not alone. That I love you, too.”

He exhales a hum, eyes drawing familiar lines over Tony’s face. The shape of a faceplate Tony would know reflected and refracted and broken before him.  “I’ve loved you as a lot of people, Tony. Still do.”

Electric, in Tony’s stomach, Steve looking for Iron Man in him, looking for Tony Stark in Iron Man, looking at him.

Tony wants to believe him.

He want to be with him.

He wants to get out of this sweaty, dusty car and breathe clear air.

It’s too much to ask.

“Tony,” Steve’s finger tugs at his shirt sleeve.

“What?”

“Just say what you’re thinking.”

He swallows, feels the desert on his tongue. “Can we bench this conversation till we’re . . . “

Steve inhales for a long time, and glances down at the wheel, out at the layered mountains. “That’s fair,” his voice is just a bit rusty at the edges. “Motel?”

“Yeah, I’m just.”

Tired. Again. Confused, and thrown for a 640.

“It’s fine,” Steve rubs his fingers against the soft of Tony’s upper arm, seemingly without thinking of it – just because his hand is there.

Tony releases a soft sigh. “Thank you.”

Steve murmurs something that might be, “Thank you for asking,” as he pulls back to look over his shoulder and merge them onto the highway again.

At a steady 65mph, now. They move back to quiet, in the car, but without the fog roll from their miles in the Midwest. Contemplative, almost.

Tony’s mind is churning. Delta river water rushing under ocean salt water, density exchanging one ecosystem for another. Too many particles too keep track off, only the knowledge of flowing to the base of things. He didn’t think he’d return to here, ever again.

There’s so many things to think of. So many questions he has to –

“Tony,” Steve’s voice eases between them, “you okay?”

He jerks a glance over, “Yeah, fine. Why?”

Steve half-smiles. “You’ve taken apart the thermal scanner twice now in 10 minutes.”

“Oh,” Tony looks down at his lap to find the pieces of it. He watches himself absently put it all back together again. It tucks away neatly in the glove compartment.

“Just thinking.”

“S’okay.”

Motel number weird round tanks sprawled behind the office. They check in, settle in, and spend a bit apart. Steve goes to get pastries to give Tony space to himself in the baby blue of the motel room and Tony spends it laying sprawled on the floor, staring at the ceiling.

Here’s the thing. They agreed.

And when they’d agreed to not be them anymore, Tony had thought he was closing this between them. Not his love, which would remain and seep through the walls of every moment with Steve, just a toxic sludge he had to learn to keep out of ignoring from the corners of his eyes, but the potential for a future where his thoughts meant something big to Steve. Where Steve took care of his needs and Tony got to take care of Steve’s and together they gave and took the tide between them. Where Tony could bring up the bank joint account they don’t talk about and the layers of scar tissue on Steve’s back and it would be okay, because that would be his business, his right to be a part of Steve.

He’d learned how to live with that.

He turns, face smushing into the couch pillow he’d tossed on the ground by the wall.

But it’s not that he doesn’t want that.

It’s that there’s an entire list of needs in his head that never feel like they weigh the same amount as the sheer mass of his love for Steve and if, if they’re together, Tony’s got to protect himself from losing himself in that. He’s got to still be the person, reformed inventor, superhero, Tony Stark, that Steve loves, while being with Steve.

How does someone say that?

It smells overwhelmingly like Lysol in the room.

When the door handle clicks open with Steve and his pastry haul, Tony has packed up the room and is tapping on the disposable cell he’s Gerry-rigged into a CO detector. Steve sees the packed bags by the door before Tony and freezes. A sliver of lava curls itself into Tony’s limbs.

“Steve,” Tony says, softer, “I’m not going anywhere okay?”

“Oh,” Steve exhales shakily. “Okay, sorry. I just.”

“It’s okay,” Tony gets up from the bed to put his hand on Steve’s wrist. “Really.”

Steve nods, settling himself.

“Also, there’s a gas leak and we need to go right now. I’ve already reported for evac, but I think there might be some people a few doors down fucking with the music turned up too loud to hear the door banging,” Tony slings his bag over his shoulder as Steve blinks at him, “Could you knock, pretty please?”

Laughter that could turn the sun envious.

The knocking goes fine. The town’s small enough that everyone turns out at 7PM to see the only motel evacuated and the bald owner arguing with a no-nonsense sheriff.  One of the HOA members, Laurell, offers them rooms in her nice two story stucco, smiling with a lot of teeth. Even before Tony can shake his head, Steve is declining politely for them both

“I’d like to drive,” Tony agrees, letting Steve hand over the keys.

It is nice to drive a bit.

“We’ll talk tomorrow?” Tony asks and Steve hums in agreement. He picks up the leftover pastry flakes on the car with spit-sticky fingers and eventually dozes with the blanket tucked under his head against the door. It settles Tony’s nerves, to see his face smoothed and his chest rise and fall steadily.

Outside, the saguaro brush up against the edge of the road like eager window washers and Tony drives until they fade and turn to messy, shadow balled figs. The motel sign has a nice cactus theme that Tony feels fits right in. Behind the desk, the flame haired attendant passes over the room key with their metal, gear-work hand and says, “Thanks, Iron Man.”

Tony grins.

Steve resettles with a sigh in the queen bed and reaches for Tony without opening an eye.

“Gotta go to the bathroom, kay.”

Steve grumbles and Tony falls lightly into sleep 30 minutes later, with Steve’s arm pressed against his.

The morning is cool, filled with a gentle breeze from the south and the smell of the 2$ breakfast tacos Tony picks up and brings back to the room. He sets them gently on the note he’d left stuck to Steve’s forehead about getting them, now on the bedside table.

For the first day this trip, Tony’s wearing his sun dress.

He’s not testing the give of Steve’s commitment, the depth of his love supposedly brought back from the past spring anew, but he is wondering. For himself, and for Steve – what design this garden built of dreams and needs between them – would take. The fit of their mismatched carrots and honeysuckle.

Because today is the 12th.

It’s t-shot day, and Tony still knows the most about Steve that he thinks anyone except maybe Sam or Sharon does in this, because he knows that Steve woke up and sighed and reached for his bag for the needle before he opened his eyes. Used to be, Tony’d make ‘em margaritas as Steve did it, a little celebration just for Steve being Steve. But Tony also didn’t used to talk about wearing dresses or using different pronouns sometimes or his own color-coded past. There were so many other hoops and barriers to the identities of their relationship, that it was just. Better, to focus on Steve, to not mention it.

But now, anew, he starts by getting out the Topo Chico and lingers in the bathroom doorway until Steve senses him.

Steve looks up and smiles a welcome, memories catching in his eyes, seeing Tony with bottles in his hands, and slow cascade of blush across his face at the dress draped across Tony’s thighs, cinched at his waist.

“It’s just.” Tony’s throat catches.

“I know. Thanks, Tone,” his voice’s low. Tony wants to roll in it.

“No prob.”

“You look really lovely,” Steve continues, catching Tony’s eyes like he’s waiting for Tony to say not to compliment him.

Instead, he nods. He know he does. He wants to know if Steve’s ready to go beyond that.

Quiet, for the space of Steve cleaning the needle, pulling out the alcohol wipes. Tony props himself against the sink and waits for it.

“Are you testing me?” Steve finally asks, not offended, but maybe a tired prickly pear.

“No,” Tony swirls the bottle, gestures with it, “I’m testing us. Full topography of the land.”

A moment, held long while Steve loads the needle.

“There’s a lot of stuff we never talk about.” There he is, Steve picking up on Tony’s battle language, as always, the first language shared between the two of them.

Exhale. “Which, if we’re not,” Tony shrugs, “but if we are . . . “ He lets the moment hang.

“We gotta.”

“Yeah.”

“So,” Steve’s turn to exhale now, “What’s this conversation about?”

Steve’s readying the injection, balanced on the side of the tub. The graceful line of his scarred body is more known to Tony than his own. The deep breath in preparation, the particular sort of relief this brings to the set of Steve’s shoulders – like rain on a house plant that’s turning colors, trying to hold on.

“Would you,” Tony starts, reminding himself to not breath in tune with Steve, “be okay if I was,” he gestures at himself, dress to hardwired computer brain, to being himself in public, “too?”

“Tony,” Steve says, snowflakes of exasperation flying, melting between them, “I’m shooting up on T and I fell in love with you wearing a robot suit and I’ve called you bird in bed for 10 years and you’re just now asking me –“

“That’s. I mean, we never talked. It’s not. –“

“No, but I knew, though. What did you think –“

“What if I wanted to, now?”

Tony’s flushed, feeling too much in such a small space of time, a small bathroom with something more intimate than their hearts on display, high contrast against white tile.

Steve exhales, long and hard, pulls the needle out and rolls his shoulders, “I’d ask after ya.”

Fair. But, even if Steve knew, it’s less about Steve himself and more about Tony setting separations for himself, things for himself, for the future, not about Steve. And yeah, if Steve asks, that could be a dialogue, a space between them filled with the colors of Tony’s self exploration, and Steve’s an artist, he gets it. But that still means Tony’s relying on Steve to do the front lifting.

Deep breaths. Tony tries to find a response.

Steve knows, of course, always. He’s watching the quake of Tony’s fingers.

“It’s not about having the right answers, Tony.”

Gender or their relationship or Tony himself, he’s not sure what Steve means. His voice comes out in a whisper. “Then what is it?”

“I think,” Steve rolls his words over his tongue, jaw moving. Tony can see how long the thought is, the miles and miles Steve’s now put into it. “S’about the right questions.”

He’s leaning into Tony’s space, boot cut jeans brushing the hem of Tony’s dress.

“I was asking a question,” Tony says, and maybe it ought to come out sharp and defensive, but it’s confused, a rain-tired rose.

“True, and you should ask them,” Steve packs the needle away safely, turns back to Tony, “not me.”

“Well,” that Tony agrees with. That feels better than someone asking after him. On the horizon, in the valleys between metal and skin, he’s got to find his voice. “So, what do you mean?”

The moment stretches between them, fills with salt water, tart, warm, waiting for the gentle roll of a tide.

Precipice.

“Steve,” Steve says, knowing, cloud-cover painting what Tony cannot, “will you love me no matter what?”

Rocks, lodged in Tony’s throat.

“Steve,” Steve says, “will we make it through everything, by talking through everything?”

Sun, blinding in Tony’s eyes.

“Steve,” Steve says, “what are we?”

Butterflies, tensed in Tony’s stomach.

No air, between them, just the wisps in their lungs. The storm front of Steve sparks all dry lighting across their skin. The whole of their combined landscape, laid bare and asked for. A burgeoning planet, brought back from barren. No oxygen, not yet, but. Growth, evolution in the slime.

“Tony,” Steve whispers, “Why do you get to be in love with me but I don’t get to be in love with you?”

Earthquake fracture.

Tony’s shaking his head. Steve reaches for him, the revealed longing line of Tony’s throat, then checks himself, slips his hand into Tony’s hanging loose at his side.

Tony looks between Steve’s hand and his face.

“S’a lot of questions,” he says, eventually, throat raw from the thunder in his bones. “Is the important bit the journey to answer them?”

Steve smiles, shaky thumb rubbing circles on the back of Tony’s hand. “Right question.”

Tony would ask another, would ask how Steve knows just where to point the camera to see the beach break of Tony’s worries, but if he’s done kidding himself, he already knows.

All the years Tony has spent reading Steve, coveting the curve of his arm; Steve’s been reading right back, curling his hand to hold the air around the back of Tony’s neck. He’s used to being loud. This is screaming. Screaming where the world’s carved out space between mountains that used to be one, and hearing your voice echo back.

Somewhere, maybe. The right answers are actually in the right questions.

If listened for, loud.

Just one question, then. Just to spark the green.

“You want to try again?”

Spasm, around his hand, Steve’s grip tight,loose,tight, his voice, trailing behind it, “Yes.”

I can fly to the moon and back with nothing between me and space but five inches and a hopeful face. I can get up broken and lost and build a compass made of screws and faith. I can pull a sword from a stone and not use it to hurt. I can try, just this one more time.

“Okay,” Tony says. “I want to try again, too.”

And really, it’s a soft sort of becoming. Evolution is in the quiet strands of the basest things, filaments and microns. Tony takes one step forward into Steve’s waiting arms and it’s an easy rewrite.

Can’t becomes want.

Steve holds on and doesn’t let go.

They don’t go anywhere. Just to the bed, to shared quiet murmurings.

Little things, filling every cranny in Tony’s heart where the slime used to live caged, now changing, filtering itself to golden stream, with every sweeping motion of Steve’s fingers across Tony’s back. Eventually, Steve checks them in for another night and they just sit and rest, side to side, hand in hand, the sun surrounding them.

Morning. A queen bed they don’t talk about. A lingering look passed back and forth between them.

Tony wears an apron dress the next day, denim, his hexagon sunglasses again.

Leaning against the car, Steve smiles Mississippi River wide. Tony fidgets with his backpack.

“You can keep wearing ‘em,” Steve says, curling into Tony so the words are just for their bubble, “It’s gonna keep being okay.”

Tony breathes deep and tries to feel the ice inside himself settle into spring. Poster perfect, Steve’s face is all I’m Here and Ready To Have a Conversation. Tony could say that he just felt like it and that its not like he’s been hiding, he’s just being a bit softer about letting himself look for the inclination, that sprig of mint gender, in himself right now.

“Not a test, just felt like it,” Tony says instead and makes to get in the car. “What’s for lunch, today?”

Stepping aside, Steve replies, “Soup,” with relish.

“You’re such an old man, god.”

Steve flicks his ear and dances off before Tony can get him back. He does manage to sneak cracker bits all down Steve’s shirt half-way through lunch though, so a late win is still a win.

The day’s a nice bit of routine, balanced slightly off kilter by the way they keep reaching for one another, only to stop, only to start again. Tony laughs, the third time he sees Steve second guess putting his arm up on the seats.

“The whole trip’s been fine, but now?”

“I don’t know,” Steve flings his head against the headrest. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Lungs, lifting with laughter. Hearts, growing bolder, faster.

Final day, in the desert, the stretch of it feeling like the bottom of a basin, the final scoop of cracked dirt packed on a hard winter history. Mirages of bright cut flowers dance across Tony’s eyes whenever he switches out his glasses. He’s well toasted, in the sun, sweat stains on display and Steve’s all bronze and freckles, squinting beside him as they get mystery meat from a roadside vendor.

Tony checks for green glints in their eyes but finds only a familiar sort of soft delight. He tips big, winks, and the vendor grins.

“Want any mayo?” Steve asks, from the condiment plate.

“You’re really brave,” Tony says.

They eat under a tiny umbrella, watching people crowd in ebbs and flows around the cart. Over the speaker, is an acoustic cover of Build Me Up Buttercup.

Tony hums, bobbing a bit back and forth. A finger creeps into his eye line and he lets Steve steal a pepper in exchange for a tomato.

“You’re gorgeous in the sun,” Steve says, after they’re done eating.

You are the sun, Tony thinks, says, “You’re gorgeous, period,” means the slope of Steve’s eyebrows, the confidence of his hands, his silly snorting laugh. The peach-round of his high cheek bones.

The radio switches stations. A burst of static.

“What are you doing after this, darlin’?” Steve says, watching Tony watch him. The blush across Steve’s face is holding fast, no sign of melting.

Tony licks his lips, burns.

“What a good question, Captain,” he says, finally.

The drive into town is interminable, and the motel owner is named Lilliana, remembers Steve from one of many wars, wants to talk in a dialect that lights up Steve's eyes.

“I’m gonna shower, change,” Tony whispers to Steve, snagging the keys.

“Mm,” Steve hums as a response, one big hand catching the curve of Tony’s hip before letting him go.

Tony showers quick, cold, muscles aching. He’s just clothed when Steve pops back in.

“It’s strange,” Tony says, a bit breathless. “Isn’t it? How small the world is.”

Door locked behind himself, bag dropped, moving closer and closer, Steve says “Could be smaller,” and Tony’s focus compresses down to him, just him.

Its boiling hot now, in the middle of the day, in the motel. Bed clean but creaky, older than Tony but younger than Steve, probably. Steve leans into Tony, leans them into it and Tony is breathing so hard.

He takes Tony’s dress off like clearing space for laying kisses at the base of Tony’s neck. Eager.

“Been wanting to do this so much,” Steve whispers. His mouth is slick, hot, open.

“Ah,” Tony digs his nails into Steve’s arm across his stomach, to see if he still inhales as sharp as he used to. It’s sharper. Tony feels high on victory. “I just put this on.”

“We can leave it on if you like,” Steve starts to offer.

Tony pinches his wrist, “Rogers.”

The simple touch of Steve’s finger following along the zipper line, just barely brushing Tony’s skin, makes them both shudder.

“I’ll put it back on you later.”

“Okay,” Tony lets himself be pulled out of the fabric, be turned. He grabs Steve back, finally, finally gets his palms up against the heaving landscape of Steve’s chest, pulls off his illegally tight athletic shirt. They pause, like that, for a second, air humid and scarce. Tony, propped on pillows and Steve kneeling in front of him.

“How do you want to do this?” Steve asks, one hand coming up to wrap around Tony’s on his pec, like he needs the balance. Quieter, like fear, “I don’t want to hurt you.”

They’ve done that, before. They’ve done a lot of things together. Things with technical names like bondage or rimming and better names like, keep me safe under you and I want to hear you be loud.

That’s what Tony chooses.

“Stay close,” he says, moving his free hand to wrap around the sensitive place on Steve’s ribs under his arm.

Steve nods, leans into Tony’s touch.

“Go easy,” Tony says, almost a whisper.

Around his hand, Steve’s flexes, unerringly rubs the spot where the pod’s cannula tied to Tony’s vein with his finger.

Tony looks up at Steve, waits.

He smiles, crooked and eyes an endless blue. “Talk to me,” is what he says, “Tell me what feels good.”

That sounds really good.

“I like that,” Tony says.

Harvest moon, huge and honey sweet, across the planes of Steve’s face.

Happy, he’s happy.

Me too, Tony thinks, and eases Steve in between his legs.

Touching Steve’s hand alone is too much, never enough, so much, everything, casual, breathe Tony breathe. His mouth is fire, sketching easy devastation across Tony’s thighs, neck. His stomach is the mantle, pressing magma across Tony’s stomach, chest.

Tony gasps smoke.

Steve swallows it.

(The first time, the mesh of their bodies was continents too long pulled apart, but once – once one. Scars horizontal and vertical across Steve’s chest – voice quiet, “Before the Project –“ Tony flower pressing his smile satin gentle, it’s okay, it’s, “Your body, my body. Here.” There and then: Discovery! Oh, of a new, rich planet. Space between them flowing rich and heavy and wondrous, a language across waves, radio, electromagnetic, ultra-ultra violet. The memory Tony hoards, of the flush of Steve’s cheeks, the still confident press of his fingers inside Tony’s body, the shape they smoothed into each other, gentle, push, pull, ocean wet, salt on their lashes, laughing the air out of their bodies, high,high,high into the stratosphere. Flying was always Tony’s first love.

(He should have known.))

This time, they are learning a new landscape.

This entire journey Tony has wound his devotion into a longing wrapped hard around his neck, wore it under a threadbare shirt and pretended it wasn’t burning his skin to not be close. Steve touches the scars across Tony’s chest, casual, caring. He tests Tony’s feeling around his nipples, the still-too thin stretch of his ribs, the always tender slope of his pelvis. He watches Tony with his face alight and their hands tight and Tony clings to him.

“I’ve got you, I’ve got you,” Steve kisses to Tony’s forehead.

I missed you, Tony wants to cry. “Please,” he says instead.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Steve murmurs.

His body is still unfamiliar to himself, but Steve must have been watching, because he knows how to touch Tony’s joints, the strain on his back. He knows just how long he can kiss Tony, can open his mouth and take Tony in, slick smooth, old practice to hold Tony’s hips up, fit his arm behind the curve of Tony’s back and fit their bodies together in a slide that makes himself gasp.

“Yes,” Tony breathes back.

Rhythm caught between them, shakes and shudders and finally, finally, Tony let’s himself fall apart.

Steve’s shaking too, lowers himself onto Tony, hands still locked together. The layer of sweat and come between them is welcome, evidence. Tony’d forgotten how much he loves to see Steve working like this. Flushed all the way down, lips bitten quick and bruised from the push of Tony’s body. He’d made himself forget.

Time beats gentle between them.

Tony runs his fingers through Steve’s messy hair, while Steve rests against his chest.

“I liked that,” Tony says, into the stillness and feels all over his body when Steve laughs.

The second time, Tony feels less fragile, feels put back together with gold glue.

All I needed, he thinks nonsensically, desperate for oxygen but more desperate for the arch of Steve’s body and the taste of his pleasure, was a touch of you. It’s not true, but it’s a nice thought and Tony flushes with it, gets sloppier and more eager.

Steve gets louder.

“Shhh,” Tony breaks away to bite down on Steve’s thigh. The pastry gold soft and sticky curve of it is so beautiful.

Steve gets even louder.

This though, this is why they had so many gags in their toy box. The thought makes Tony get a hand on himself, makes him push forward again to gag himself on Steve’s wet skin.

After, he aches. Good, stretching ache all the way from the crown of his head to the base of his feet, and Steve’s rolling his hand across Tony’s body absently, just, Tony thinks, for the sake of being able to feel it.

Separate showers, but both of them crawling into bed, a little wet, reaffirming exploratory.  

The morning should maybe be complex than it is. But instead, the sky is one big lavender canvas and Steve’s flicking his wet hair at Tony and they’re stopping for chicken wraps.

Except that Steve touches Tony and Tony touches Steve. They’ve launched clear over their second guessing cliff face and locked onto one another all the way down. Freefall with Steve in his arms. Trajectory home.

Steve wants to go south down the interstate instead of across the Texoklahomarkana line. Maybe it’s the name. Tony should have said it was north, city boy, giddyup.

“We’re gonna spend 14 years driving across Texas,” Tony grumbles.

Shrugging, Steve winds them through the gust of a cement mixer. “I don’t mind.”

“You owe me fried ice cream, then,” Tony sinks into the seat, head leaning back into the pillow of Steve’s hand. The AC gets shoved to hyperdrive.

“Okay,” Steve says, a beat too late. A flash of pleased surprise is fading from his face when Tony glances over.

It’s probably the first time Tony’s voiced wanting a food since they set out. It doesn’t mean anything, except for the poppy shape of familiarity between them, red with buried wounds. Tony used to cook a lot, when they were . . . when they were. He fiddles with the radio, letting the color of the conversation fade.

The past Tony Stark is a place they’re not going to find on this trip. Neither of them are searching, really, but one can’t help being human, Tony supposes. They’re both trained to look for familiar ground on the horizon, to make shelter where they best can stand.

Tony lets it go, and that feels more sun-spot green.

Two civilian-helping busy days, touching each other in new-old ways, across the line into Texas endlessness, the sun creeps down on Steve’s mood.

“Always had shit timing, the two of us,” Steve rasps.

It’s a dark morning, for Steve, for the sky. They’d meant to try and talk more today. Tony’s been up and to the burn of the exercises and the bathroom and snack bag. Carbon-smooth in his bones is the energy to stand under Steve’s weight. To give back the day given to him.

“Or,” Tony whispers, “did we just never realize how good?”

A conversation, river mouth wide between their bodies. Thunderous.

“M’ere” Steve manages. His arm is ice slow from the chill of his mind and Tony is careful, careful as he takes Steve’s hand and wraps it around his own, wraps Steve in a blanket and their arms and presses his face to the top of Steve’s spine and thinks about the lifetime of blue stars.

One hour, two, four.

Tony eases water into the both of them and slips in and out of the bathroom without a response from Steve.

The day drips molasses slow.

Steve sleeps and the still absence of nightmares makes Tony’s heartrate climb. When they’re both awake in the evening, time takes even longer, but at least then, Steve makes small sounds, shifts of breath and mumbles Tony can soothe away.

It feels good to help with his hands.

They leave the next day. Steve remembers to thank the inn owners, Lucille and Gigi, and he lets Tony take the wheel.

They don’t say much.

Halfway to the interstate, Tony leaves his hand open on the center console and Steve takes it and holds on. It’s warm, sunlight splashing on his skin.

Eventually though, Tony cramps up and Steve notices before Tony can ignore it.

He moves, easy assurance with Tony’s body. Untangles Tony’s claw hand from his own, moves it gently overtop his and resettles them both on Tony’s thigh, rubs back and forth with their fingers, squeezes periodically to confirm blood flow.

(Later, later down the road, the next time they see cabins, they stop for their own four walls for 12 hours, Steve mimics that – presses his hand down overtop Tony’s against the pillows and holds him there, warm and secure, cocksure inside Tony’s body, once, twice, hours, until Tony’s cramping, response times shot to hell – and Steve pulls out and pulls Tony’s hands down, rubs warmth back into them, twists Tony overtop him, along his spine and there, puts Tony’s hands on his own, braced on the bed and presses back, takes Tony all the way inside his body in one wet, wet slide.

When Tony cusses so loud it echoes, Steve laughs like windchimes.)

Tony shakes his head a bit, throat feeling weirdly sticky.

Steve looks away from him, watches the landscape sweep past.

They stay touching all the way through the county line. Two, three, five, hours in the overcast and Steve holds Tony’s fingers individually as he paints them in a car speeding down the bumpy interstate.

Panhandle kickstart grasslands, now. No water in sight, so when they clear the next city, an ocean of brightboldblue springs up among the green grass, splotchy like water thrown in a paint smear across their eyes – Tony gives a gasp without meaning to. The sky too, is picturesque, impossible paintbrush clouds and crystalline blue.

Steve is shaking his head, agreeing.

“Wow.”

“Wow.”

They share the moment, watching the waves take over the land.

Tony wonders what kind of flowers the masses of blue are. Even with the empty metal click in the back of his head where extremis used to hoard the answers to these things – Tony thinks for a moment, it’s nice to not know something. To not know but to share.

They stop for a while, bagels in one bag, brisket in another. For the first time, Tony lingers in the texture, feels the butter-melt of good meat in his mouth and the crisp crackle of bread toasted just right. A pinic, them and the blue and the rest of their lives, gloriously gloriously open.

“Here you go,” Steve murmurs, after, ticklish against Tony’s ear. His arms around Tony’s body are better than any blanket, “Here’s your ocean.”

Half of my life, Tony thinks. 14 and a half deaths between us and we are still alive.

He kisses Steve because that’s all he wants to.

A town with a motel sign covered in paintballs. Steve tossing Tony a glance like ‘You would,’ and Tony gives him a look fitting of the 14 different paints named after Captain America. Turns out the paint balls are actually rain activated acid and there’s scientist out there with a vendetta and way too much time. They get crepes in celebration of taking less than 2 hours to wrangle him away.

That night, they lay curled together in the queen, Steve under Tony’s arm and them doing a crossword puzzle out of the local gazette.

Corn country, now. Harvesters, 40 feet high, walk carefully among crops, tending, In the late afternoon, the shine of them is a flag across the horizon. The corn looks plump, heavy under its own growth. Metaphors, Tony thinks, wry.

Steve’s driving, watching Tony watch the harvesters.

“’emember those tacos in Germany?”

“Mm,” Tony’s memories are gelatinous. “City?”

“Munich, after that thing with Doom and the –“

A ping, “Ah, when Logan threatened to eat Peter.”

Steve grins, wide, “If only he had a little –“

“Mustard, yea –“

Laughter, a springwell between them.

Steve’s still smiling a few minutes later, “But yeah, you remember?”

“Münicher Freiheit,” Tony says, the memory blooming up behind his eyes. “Yeah, you went 3 chilis.”

Smile growing, Steve hums. “We should go back,” he says, that easily.

“Should we?” Tony asks.

Curbs his fight or flight response that says, don’t do anything beyond these four wheels. The solitude is good for some things, and not so good for others.

“Yeah,” Steve drums his fingers on his jeans on Tony’s legs. “Do you want to?”

Wants Tony wants usually matters very little, but this is his haven for filling the cup of his need over until it becomes actual wants. He’s allowed this, he reminds himself.

“Yeah,” Tony says, “I do.”

And that’s that.

The future, opens up in front of them.

That night, Tony maneuvers himself into the little spoon spot.

“Alright, alright,” Steve mumbles, shuffling back, a little rosy on his left side from the force of the Texas sun today.

Tony wiggles himself under his chin.

I like this, too, he thinks.

Another day, another corn field.

“I’m bored,” Tony kicks his feet against the floor board.

“Read a book,” Steve suggests, cloyingly sweet.

Tony heaves a giant sigh, “Hoooney.”

Warm, against the side of his face, Steve’s palm pushing on him. Tony licks it.

“God, you’re gross. If we eat something other than diner eggs will you calm down?”

“Yes,” Tony says, popping up, “Let’s have something fancy, a little modern retro.”

Steve mumbles something that sounds like, “So, you wanna eat me,” and Tony leans over to kiss his cheek.

“You’re dessert, darling. Turn here.”

The shop’s nice, looks sweet from the outside, flowers and BBQ and then – gin, sharp, smooth, right over Tony’s palate like a 2x2, overwhelming like its been dumped on the floor and used as mopwater.

“Oh,” Tony says, swaying, his eyes drifting halfway shut.

Steve’s gone rigid beside him.

They’re the only ones here at 3PM, and there’s no good qay to say, Wait, haha, just a mistake, but I can’t stay here because I want to lick your floor.

The bartender glances up from wiping a glass, takes one look at him and classifies him – bark to bite.

“And what’ll it be today?” their voice carries across the room and a burning flames across Tony’s face.

He hates this. Not this, of his own doing, being the most public alcoholic in America. But this, this stranger handing him a drink with a label. Not a drinking label, but an ugly label, a label that got scribbled on by a past-Tony or a past person who had Tony for a millisecond and this person in Fuckton, West United States knows it. Knows Tony on sight.

A label that hates Tony, just because he’s Tony.

Steve leaves his hand on Tony’s lower back and says, “Nothing,” for the both of them.

Tony looks at him, distantly. He looks like on another day, without Tony, he’d respond with violence instead. He looks like he’d fight a war for Tony.

And maybe, maybe there are roots of shame dug into every column of Tony’s muddy soul but Steve doesn’t – Steve’s never gone digging up bits of Tony just to find out. If they’re surface, that’s fine. If Tony grasps for Steve’s hand in the middle of a not-diner and feels like crying, Steve takes his hand and guides them out of the building like they’re leaving for him, instead and that’s fine.

In the car, Steve’s voice has too much carbon in it, “We can just get noodles.”

“Okay,” Tony says, not much of anything in his voice.

He watches the shades of blue blur past in the window.

Alcohol is always a rock slide waiting to happen in his mind. The rubble, waiting for the right shake of the earth to unlodge itself and tumble down.

Tony’s been sober for a clock count he doesn’t want to be watching.

With Steve, it’s easier, but harder. Back then, the alcohol dulled the sense of needing Steve to something bearable, never long enough to last, but enough. Then, he’d tumbled to the lowest point of his life and then further and then he’d quit and then he didn’t have it anymore. He’d sacrificed some things, to save other things. Now, it’s different, but it’s not. Tony will always be scared, but he will always not want it more.

He wants Steve to know this, he thinks. Wants to share this convoluted AA meeting sharing with Steve who’s still worried, beside him, still angry not at him, but for him.

The difference is blissful.

As they pull into the diner parking lot, Tony sighs out with relief. He stops Steve from turning to the door, tugs him so they’re close, leaned in across the console. Steve’s watching, picking up cues to touch his hands to Tony’s lace them in a pile that can’t be divided easily.

“I don’t,” Tony starts, “have the luxury of a past tense. With drinking. I am an alcoholic.”

Steve’s face, crumpling in like a can against rock, “To – “

“No, it’s not,” Tony inhales pushes the air back out, “You haven’t been to one of my meetings, but that’s part of it, Steve. That’s a part of me and I can’t ignore it by saying it’s in the past. That’s not the way to deal with something.”

“Well,” Steve’s voice comes out unbaked, crumbly, “Don’t be philosophical now.”

Tony smiles wobbly, squeezes Steve’s hands. Takes strength where Steve is offering it,  to continue with, “I’ll always be scared of needing it. But what you did there was,” he fumbles and Steve squeezes his hands back, “Was good, because I don’t want it.”

Inhale, exhale.

“So it’s okay, if you,” Tony’s voice fades into a mumble.

“I won’t leave you,” Steve whispers, urgent and ashamed.

Not again, echoes between them.

Tony kisses the downward turn of Steve’s eyebrow, “Thank you.”

Philosophical or not, somehow it starts them talking again. A thrashing river spoiling everything in it’s path. A dam built and holding back miles and miles and then finally, a balance of holding back and letting through.

Dinner is anecdotes; is Steve shuffling around his past and trying to reiterate that he doesn’t see Tony as his father without saying that and Tony trying to reiterate that he’s uh, really glad for that, without saying that.

That night, Tony kisses the taste of burger and milkshake out of Steve, pressing him back against the bathroom sink and Steve wraps his hands around Tony’s hips and lets him take control.

The morning is cranky with rain and they eventually follow lead suit right into it.

A sudden flash of lighting that sends a tree limb into the road just before another small town and Tony and mostly Steve full on log roll it out of the way for a camper van. Tony hates being cold and wet. It’s not quite a triggerpoint, but enough to set him vaguely anxious, leg shaking in the car, muscles disobeying. Steve’s more used to it, but it’s also not a good sensation for him, fingers scuffed from shoving and coldness seeping in around him.

They crank the heater and mumble to each other about the warmest nights they’ve spent, trying to keep a fire alive beside them. It’s a technique, Tony knows. He also knows it works annoyingly well.

Next available motel. They shuffle through showers. Tony curls onto Steve’s lap in the armchair, because he is still underweight enough to, and because he’s allowed to. Steve’s warm, safe. Arms surround him, clinging. They stay like that for long enough the sky changes color and the storm grows distant, alternating earthquakes between the tectonic plates of their bodies.

Tony rubs his hand up and down Steve’s soft hoodie sleeve and mutters, “What even are we?”

A drip-drip outside the room grates on Tony’s ears.

“You’re in love with me,” Steve shrugs, moving the both of them. “I’m in love with you. We’re kinda in shambles.”

“Well,” Tony huffs a laugh, pressing his cheek to Steve’s arm, “be honest, won’t you.”

“I am.” He sounds tired. Worn in a way that motel bed’s won’t fix. He rubs his nose against Tony’s shoulder like Tony will hide him away from the world and Tony remembers, the taste of coconut in his mouth, repulsor, repulsor, the metal line of his body over the Kevlar skin of Steve’s.

This is how they keep going, by holding onto one another, and taking turns taking the hits.

“I miss you,” Tony says, stupidly. “I don’t wanna be in shambles.”

Sniffles, from behind him, Steve’s ratty voice, “I don’t wanna be, either.”

“Then,” Tony hiccups a breath, “Then we won’t,” he whispers it to the tuck of Steve’s elbow. Finalement, promised.

Too late to almost be late anymore, they fumble against each other, crawling into bed. Mishmash on top of one another.

Exercises in the morning pulling on Tony’s taut muscles and Steve eyes him from over his to-go tea.

“I heard,” he said, when Tony finishes and lays starfished out on the floor. “Bout a strange series of lance attacks over east. ‘Bout an hour.”

Tony blinks sweat. “Lance attacks?”

“Medieval mounted spear,” Steve tsks and heads to the bathroom, “Where did you go to school?”

“Are you just,” Tony props himself up on an elbow, “trolling for missions, now?”

“Mm,” Steve hums and shuts the door. “I can’t hear you.”

“Horseradish!” Tony calls after him.

He saves the, “My PhDs have PhDs, mister,” until they’ve had beautiful kolaches and are nearly across the state line. It’s been all green grass, yellow grass, brown grass all morning and Tony is eager to be rid of it.

The town’s a decent size, larger on the spectrum than they usually make their way through and Tony raises an eyebrow at Steve who pointedly ignores him. He’s on the lookout, eager to find whatever the hell it is could be carrying a –

“Oh,” Tony says. Confused, but admiring, but confused.

“What?” Steve glances over at him, looks away and then slowly, turns back around. “Oh,” he says, quite calmly.

A horse is strolling along an alley between two building, holding a metal lance in between its teeth, stomping rhythmically. Riderless, Wearing a fedora.

“This kind of weird shit only happens when you go looking for it,” Tony warns Steve, even as he’s sliding on the gauntlets.

“Categorically untrue,” Steve says as he’s getting out, almost sounding like he’s trying to –

“Don’t you dare roleplay Star Trek outside of the bedroom,” Tony flings himself from the car to glare at Steve over the roof.

“Is this the time?”

No,” Tony emphasizes, “I just said that.”

“Ton – Tony!”

He drops down to the ground, barely a second before the lance skids where he was standing, sliding a nice gouge in the paintwork of the hood of the car.

“Wha – “

Tony jerks around to see the horse standing on the sidewalk, pointing a hoof at them. It fucking threw a spear at him. What the shit.

“This,” he emphasizes as he flings himself to the side and rolls around to Steve’s side of the car, “Is what happens when you go looking –“

“I know,” Steve’s looking around, but there’s no cover here, where they’re randomly stopped in the road. “Already, okay?”

“Yeah, yeah. How do you take your meat?” Tony’s bracing his shoulder, ready to take aim over the mirror.

“You cannot repulsor a horse.” Frustration, sharp in the Captain’s voice.

“Uh, categorically untrue.”

Steve pinches his side. Hard.

And then, that moment, Tony sees the lance readjust itself, sees it skitter off the side of the hood and begin to line itself up right with Steve’s heart and everything in Tony surges forward.

He pushes Steve to the floor, heart cracking on his ribs. Not Steve, not to a goddamn horse. He’s already stepping up to be the target, letting the lance draw it’s tracking to the grey of Tony’s shirt and fire –

When he’s pushed to the car, cheek close enough to the lance to feel the sizzle of whatever magic lives in it. He rolls over to see Steve, holding the lance in his arms, muscles bulging fighting the surge of popping magic to crack it in half over his knee. Louder, larger, a popping snaps behind them and Tony tilts his face back to see there’s no more horsie. Just a naked fedora-wearing town menace.

And the whole town, creeping out of their houses to see what’s up, babbling a stream of exclamations.

Tony’ would laugh, if all the blood wasn’t streaming to the tips of his ears. He props one elbow up on the hood and looks up to –

Steve’s hyperventilating, folded almost over, trying to catch his breath.

Tony slings himself off the car.

“Love?” Tony whispers, sliding one arm across his chest to hold him up. “We have to go,” he says to the crowd, doesn’t wait to hear anything before shuffling them both back into the car.

Steve sits with his head in between his knees and up on the dash the whole way Tony drives. 32 minutes to the nearest town, a motel with an older couple behind the wheel, too understanding of Tony’s need to have room 12 right by the car.

Tony doesn’t have to walk Steve in though, he’s pulling the bags out of the car, face marble blank.

The keys jingle loud across the parking lot as Tony opens the door. It’s typically a bit stale smelling. One bag dropped, two, three and Steve drops himself into the bed.

“Okay,” Tony says, tentatively, “Can we talk about this, please?”

“No’ ri’now,” comes the mumble from the pillows.

“Okay,” Tony says again, off-kilter and wobbly to the bathroom, back to perch on the edge of the bed. He hesitates until Steve pats twice at the coverlet.

Sun’s down, Tony thinks, looking at the untidy golden mop of Steve’s hair. He doesn’t sleep, too worried, too confused. Instead, he curls himself around Steve, just barely not touching, feeling the weight of his sleeping breaths. One hour. Two. Till nearly 4AM, he lingers, fingers rubbing against themselves to not reach out and touch him.

Then, the cadence changes. Steve comes quickly into wakefulness.

Tony shuffles a bit back as he sits up, gives him space.

Rueful shadows split Steve’s face.

Tony picks at the coverlet. He lets Steve climb off the bed to the bathroom, water splashing a strange lightness to the room, lets Steve come back to bed before he speaks.

“Is it now?”

“Yeah,” Steve croaks, “It is.”

Tony nods into his own shoulder. He gestures over Steve’s shoulder first. “Water.”

Steve hard swallows, “Thanks.” He leans from where he’s sitting, pulls a bottle out and downs it in 20 seconds. Fiddling with the bottle after, he glances at Tony.

“I’m fine,” he says, quietly.

Steve nods.

“What’s going on, Steve?” he says, finally.

Eyes sliding shut, Steve sits hard on his knees and speaks slowly. “You nearly got stabbed with a lance today. And it happened because I was right there and it was meant for me and you stopped it and I nearly didn’t stop it.”

Tony bites his lip to not interrupt with, It didn’t happen though.

And then, Steve’s body curls itself inwards, like the pain is pulling him in. Tony holds his breath to weather through it.

“You took a shot meant for me. That’s how you,” Steve’s voice cracks shards down the middle, spinning to places Tony doubts they’ll come back from, “You ended up in a coma protecting me and Miles.” Steve’s fingers go right through the plastic bottle. “That’s my fau –“

Not your fault.” Tony can’t sit here for this.

“It doesn’t matter,” Steve shakes his head, “That’s what I carry, that happened. That plays in my head every time you brush off yourself like everyone else’s life comes first. That plays when it gets too quiet and I haven’t done my job.”

He tosses the bottle over the bed.

Tony goes quiet. He’s not sure what to say, what to feel.

“I love you so much, Tony. I just want to.”

“I know, Steve,” He does.

“But, I still gotta be me,” Tony tucks his fingers under Steve’s chin and levers up, “You know I’m Iron Man, too.”

He pulls away, sniffling

“Can I hold you?” Steve asks.

Oh, love.

“Yes,” Tony cradles Steve’s face to kiss him, before shuffling over, drawing Steve’s arm over him. Close, they hold each other, wolves in the night, tired from the hunt.

They’re lying there for only a little while before Tony feels the tears on the back of his neck. He freezes, but doesn’t push Steve’s arm around and turn. Lets him have the cover of true darkness before dawn.

Still, “Steve?”

“I wish,” his voice is gummy around tears, “That you thought about how much people love you before you stepped out in front of a hit that the other person could walk away from.”

Tony rolls the words over himself, trying to let his temper just roll under them, trying to feel the immediately mountain ice pushback and then not let it come rushing out to bury Steve.

He doesn’t really succeed.

“It gets a little tiring,” he blurts out, “You telling me to always value myself, but,” he shudders to a stop, restarts, “You won’t even give me the benefit of the doubt, sometimes, Steve,” Permafrost pine, his voice is all cracks and needles. “You don’t just get to believe in me when you agree with what I think. I can make my own judgements.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve whispers. “I’m not. I’m trying to. You can make your own eval – ” He exhales, tickling the sharp back of Tony’s neck, “You will never value yourself equally as another factor to consider. You never care when I say protect yourself instead of me,” his voice is rising, clarion, tensing, “I love you and I don’t want you to die for me.” He cuts himself off at almost a shout, breathing hard.

Tony’s immobile in his arms, facing away and glad for the reprieve.

“Not when I can take it and live,” his arms are shaking Tony. “Does that make sense?”

“Please don’t yell at me,” he manages.

“I’m sorry. I’m trying to not,” Steve’s lips are shaking against his skin, “But why don’t you hear me?”

“I –“ Tony’s voice cuts out.

Endlessness, the stretch of Tony’s apathy for the rest of himself, is so dark in comparison to the brightness of loving Steve, the golden rule of young ones and people with no planet. What’s the universal equation in that, where’s the logic there. He’s not worth –

“Please, please remember that I love you.”

There.

What Steve wanted to ask, 3 states and thousands of miles ago and didn’t because, because he knew. Tony remembers, but he doesn’t always believe. Steve’s not the only one not giving the benefit of the doubt, and Tony is so tired by having to be the one to reach out, to give and remember and internalize and take into himself and his body, crashed up against the shores of the world he carries on his shoulders.

“I do,” Tony says, because he wants to. He holds onto Steve’s arm like a teddy bear, takes a step he can’t see the bottom of, “But how do I, go about – “

“You gotta let me,” Steve says, low violin cord strung.

“Let you what?” He’s quiet, in exchange.

“Love you.”

Tony closes his eyes.

Aches.

Half my life. Half your life. Half of me and half of you and every memory I cling to; we -

“You gotta,” he’s crying, “let me save you.”

Please. You are in love with me, and I, I live for you. Please, please not without you.

Tony opens his eyes because Steve already knows he’s crying, is turning Tony in the circle of them to face the sun rise.

And there. Words, fighting so obviously for space in Steve’s soft mouth. He rotates his jaw under Tony’s gaze. His fingers push into the folds of the quilts, rucking them to death valleys. Air quakes in Tony’s lungs, gets lost somewhere between his throat and the world.

A moment, two.

A heart, two.

“I have to save you,” Drum beat, highway streak, code complete. Tony’s soul, beating out on the prairie dirt between the break of their tree line bodies. “I –“

Fistfuls of stars breaking skin, the entire multiverse asking him to choose and there’s never even a choice – anything, anything, please just not –

Gentle, drawing him back, Steve’s thumb at the hinge of Tony’s jaw. His fingers curl around the jack-rabbit track of Tony’s throat. Soothing. Staying.

Eye-contact.

“You have to ask me first, Tony,” Steve’s voice; too soft to match his battle hands, “Ask me to save me.”

Polaroid, repeat.

Click.

Boom.

Relief.

“The right questions,” Tony says.

“You’ve always known them,” eyes closing, opening, Steve’s voice rising, lowering, “I know.”

Beloved.

Be, love(d).

“I want to.”

“You do.”

“I’ve always loved you.”

A smile, small, treasure, his, to love. “Never been the issue.”

Dawn draws Tony’s eyes closed for one infinitesimal blink. Steady, against Steve.

The world starts spinning.

“I see you,” Tony says, feet dangling over the edge of the bed later, watching Steve brush his teeth. He’s raising an eyebrow across the room. “I see you trying to ask me how to be in love with me.”

A small blush, dapples across Steve’s cheeks.

“Thank you,” Tony says, and waits for Steve to come to him so he can kiss the taste of mint, can pull their blanket over their heads and ignore the world, just for a moment, for each other.

They wake in stages, mumbling over each other and lazy. He feels scrubbed to the bone, brought out washed and roasted under the force of Steve’s care, the tips of his fingers as he brushes back Tony’s bangs, still laying on the bed.

Tony kisses his fingertips.

They agree, slow, today.

Still, Steve has another new bulletin when he comes back from the vending machine and Tony is categorically putting his foot down this time. He throws on a lumpy sweater and ripped jeans and shoves Steve in just his slacks and under armor in the car. He waits for Steve to run out and get them breakfast tacos at the first shop that’s open.

“We are not,” he says pleasantly, catching the scheming on Steve’s face, “chasing a maybe-demon across Georgia. Isn’t that some X-Men team’s job?”

“It could find other people,” Steve’s already tucking their haul away.

“Yeah, hopefully a time-travelling pissy mutant,” Tony kicks a heel against the car, doesn’t hop down. “Course, Storm’d be within her rights to electrocute me for letting it happen. Know I’d kill me, if something bad did. ” He laughs, dry.

But Steve’s watching him, watching the honesty settle across his face.

The conversation lulls between them. Tony coughs a bit and slides down to get in the car.

“I can drive,” he mumbles.

Four hours later, the iceburg finally melts enough for Steve to find his voice in it.

“I know we already talked about it,” he starts and Tony bites down on his tongue in preparation, “but I wish you would value yourself.”

“I do.”

“As what?”

Tony sucks on his lip, “Tech support?” he says, already knowing Steve will want to clock him one for it.

Sure enough, Steve’s arm comes up to fling itself across his face. “Yeah,” he says, eventually, “that’s what I was afraid of.”

“Well,” Tony’s voice calls to the prickly ash on the sides of the road, “what would you rather?”

Steve shakes his head, jostling his own arm. “Not about me.”

“This therapy session has run long,” Tony says, flatly.

“Well,” a huge mess of underbush and flowers rolls across the window behind Steve. Probably a metaphor on the loose. “This is probably the best place for it. We can’t get away and there’s only us to hear us yell.”

“No,” Tony says, “that makes it the worst place.”

Steve exhales, but not like his temper’s flaring, more like he’s resigned, but annoyed about being resigned, “I’m sure there’s a reason why that’s true.”

“If you try and have hard conversations,” Tony says, voice overlaid with memory, “In the same place every time, you’ll begin to associate that place with negative or tumultuous emotions. It can ruin safe places.”

Steve swallows, loudly.

“I asked, about. Our bedroom, at the mansion. Why.” Old ache. Still blisters.

Now, a small head shake but not like a no.

“We have to try and be, actually be, adults about this.” A shocking stalacmite of reality, there.

“So, we, what,” The hem of Steve’s hoodie is curled over and under his fingers, “Just set a place to talk about it and only there?”

“Honestly, I could do with talking in diners. I’d like to really set in my growing dislike for them, and this could help my negative associations a lot.”

Sharp laughter pulls from Steve’s chest. “They’re not that bad.”

“Scrambled eggs? Every time? Every single time?”

“They’re good.”

“You’re an old fart.”

“We’re being adults now, Tony,” Steve says, primly.

Tony sticks his tongue out

 “It’s too public,” Steve says, and that is a valid point. “Motels?”

“Not a bedroom,” Tony shakes his head.

“Ah, yeah.” Chagrin, across Steve’s face, easily wiped away with a boop to his nose.

“Rest stops?” Steve kisses the side of his hand as Tony pulls it back.

“Sure. But the next fae we come across I’m not saving you.”

“They were not.”

Mhm. He can roll his eyes all he wants, but Tony knows the truth. And when the fae come looking, well.

“What about,” Tony broaches, “Just over the phone, Steve?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that we hit the Tennessee state line a day ago, Steve.”

A consideration, between them. Steve’s fingers clenching and releasing.

“What are we gonna do when we’re not around rest stops?” Tony stops himself from saying back home. “Drive out to the nearest one?”

“Could do,” Steve says, but it’s flat.

“You don’t want to,” Tony says, knows.

Long, like three weeks coming around to a place you came from, Steve exhales. “I don’t. I think you’re right.”

“I like that,” Tony says, nudging him, sharing a private sweet smile, an ever sweeter kiss.

That night, the moonlight streams just right in the window crack to pull across Steve’s shoulders, the valley of his back. He’s still sweaty from being inside Tony, from holding down Tony’s hands giving them an ache to share. It makes the light refract, change the texture of his skin into a tessellation of beautifully crafted desire. He’s been drawing doodles across Tony’s skin with a pen Tony thinks might have been stuck in the bed, body muse nude and leaned against Tony.

Tony’s touching him, can’t help it, as they talk about old body modifications. He knew about Steve’s RFID implant, but he didn’t know about the piercings.

“What about . . . “ Steve trails off, one big hand wrapping around Tony’s forearm.

He’s not sure what to say.

He hasn’t allowed himself to think about them in a long time. They’re no longer part of his code. Shaking his head is easiest.

“Would you,” Steve’s cheek against Tony’s thigh is smooth, warmly intimate. “Get ‘em again?”

Tony’s gotten tattoos since Before. The codes on his back, the chemistry across his knees. He got the ones Steve’s really talking about after his body had become not his own, used them to take back stake, rock and mortar. But that was a while ago. Before.

Before the rewrite.

Rewrite, clinical, plastic. Not the burning of becoming in reverse, metal in his veins and stardust 1101010 chilling the nerves of his teeth. The memory forgets what the body remembers – but.

But they’re all –

Not what the others were, not what Tony never remembers not to look down and see across his skin. Steve knows.

“No,” he says, finally, “hard to rebuild that.”

Intertwined across the stretchmarks of growing into his mantle, he'd inked formulas of experiences not to forget, abstracts of growing up into a person that was real, wasn’t a camera wisp or a bottle missed. They used to be across his neck, down his arms, flowing to his fingers like inspiration brought to life. He’d worked for years on them and then one day he woke up and he’d forgotten to program them in.

Flashbang, gone.

Steve rolls the pen over his fingers. The thought breaks across his face in a language Tony understands all too well.

“You want to design me a tattoo?” his voice is low.

Steve almost nods, stops. Considers and says, “Want you to let me.”

Tony pauses. “You want me to let you tattoo me?”

Boulder shoulders, rolling rolling, “Yeah, to want to let me.”

“Oh.”

This is getting convoluted. Except that Tony finds himself understanding. The curve of Steve’s spine towards him, their bodies under the same blanket. They’ve had more sweet tea today and Tony knows, with a 17th decimal of pie assurity that he knows what Steve would taste like if he leaned forward and brought their lips together. Has drunk from him so much today.

“Where?”

Steve moves immediately. None of the winter thaw hesitation Tony was expecting. His hand moves up to the inside of Tony’s elbow, thumb fitting into the smooth concave joint.

Quickfire, in Tony’s heart.

“Oh,” he says.

“How would you feel about it?”

“I don’t know,” Tony answers honestly.

“What are you feeling?”

Like I love the way you want to give me everything you think I want but don’t know it yet. Steve’s starting to smile, watching him, knowing him.

“You could,” Tony clears his throat, “Could draw it and then, we could see.”

Steve’s still for a moment, looking down at the space he’s claimed as his canvas. He glances up, then drops the pen down on the blanket. “Not here,” he says, finally. “Later.”

Hopscotch heart.

“Okay,” Tony says, warmed by the idea, the promise for the future tense. He wants to stick around and know. He wants Steve to stick around and show him, the image of himself Steve thinks he could be.

They sleep, curled naked, late into the morning. It’s bright outside, today. Tony looks for a new pair of sunglasses at the store, something more fit to the heartland. Strawberries catch his eye. The prop nicely in the waves of his hair. He ends up behind Steve in the frozen breakfast aisle despite his best attempts.

Boredom pulls him over to the ice cream.

“Cinnamon peach biscuit?” Tony reads outloud.

“Mm,” Steve hums, turns away from reading the zucchini waffles box, “yeah, babe?”

Tony stares at him.

Steve stares back for one long moment until the flush takes over.

“Oop,” he says, quiet softly.

Tony pulls him close by the hook of his belt loop to kiss him solidly on the mouth in the middle of the store.

“I can fix the CCTV if you need to,” he whispers in between kisses, but Steve just grumbles and pulls him back in.

Loud, loud, love, a chorus in both of their hearts.

Tony gets the strawberry sunnies. After lunch, Steve smiles at them and they talk about fruit, fruit salad (does not need pickles) and food in the humid drive onwards.

“Felt like,” Steve taps his thumb and index finger along the wheel, “I could eat and eat and never have enough, you know?”

1941, post serum.

“Yeah,” Tony remembers, “I know.”

“Felt bad for asking, felt bad for not. Everyone was talking ‘bout it, bout my body like it was just a science study. Hard to have a body when people think they own yours,” Steve says shortly. Tony looks him over with something like permission.

Steve’s 200 something, round shoulders and broad, boulder body with tree trunk thighs. ‘Could lift a car’ hasn’t been a euphemism for Steve in 80 years. The first month Tony knew him he hefted a building out of the way. He’s also, soft covered in ranges of scars, and always, always aware of his size. Tony could get lost for days in the gentle copper summer of his skin, the reflecting starlight of his eyelashes, the snowflakes of his strong feet.

“You’re a mountain.”

Steve cuts him a glance.

Right as he opens his mouth a roar blisters across the landscape. It screeches across Tony’s eardrums loud enough to sting. Steve, infinitely more sensitive, petrifies next to him, hands locked around the wheel and foot leaden on the brake.

They squeal to a stop.

“Well,” Tony says, without really being able to hear himself, “It’s been a while since we had a good old monster bout.”

Jaw rolling, Steve un-peals his hands from the wheel. Tony subtly checks for blood from his ears. Outside the car, there is a rumbling, like something digging through the earth, unhappy with the dirt it is finding.

“Y’kay?”

Steve shakes his head, but it’s not a no.

He takes a quick moment to tug off his shirt and Tony pops open the hidden dash compartment to snag his uniform top and pass it over. Steve mutters a thanks and shimmies into it. This feels like old times, here and forever. Except the bit where Steve launches himself out of the door and heads off to fight alone.

Tony smooths his hands along his slacks.

“Y’coming?” Steve pops his head back around the car frame.

“Wh – “

Steve’s waiting for him.

“Oh,” god, he didn’t expect to be given this bit too, to be brought back so soon, “Yes,” he says, and wants it. Wants himself out there with Steve, but more. More for himself. This was the first arena he fought in that felt like one he chose for himself, instead of him being dragged in. this was the first place he knew that people could be saved.

He pulls the gauntlets out and on, reflex quick and easy.

He’s back in.

“Fuck, I need to do more squats,” he complains to Steve as they’re jogging.

Steve smiles, a little tense on the edges, but mostly fine.

“Thank you,” Tony whispers. He knows this isn’t easy.

The smile goes soft.

It’s not a fight so much as it is an organized tussle to get an imported bilgstype back to it’s adoptive mom, a golden retriever. The absurdity is perfect. Tony could kiss everyone present for it. He still gets clocked a good one by the tail, but it’s worth it. Definitely worth it. Steve didn’t even hyperventilate, he just looked at Tony from his perch and rolled his eyes.

“Maybe,” Tony says later, sitting on the curb, still tasting old blood in his mouth, “You’re a bear, instead.”

“What?” Steve says, from stabbing a torn-off road sign directly into the grass.

“Bear. Gay hefty dude with body hair and often leather chaps and part of a very loving, protective, community often lovingly unpolite to people who hurt kids – ”

“What the fuck you talking about, man?” A civilian with a broom stops sweeping beside them.

Tony gives them a peace sign. They follow up with a dark mutter that makes Steve’s shoulders go back and the Steve Rogers of 1930s pop out looking for a good alley fight. Tony pops the civilian a middle finger instead then, cause he’s mature and reliable like that.

Steve’s eyes glint.

“How goddamn,” the civilian starts to lift the broom, “rude of you –“

“I’m not interested in being polite,” Steve pauses and Tony gets a familiar sense of Captain foreboding, “or heterosexual.” He nods to the baffled broom holder and reaches out to tug Tony up off the ground.

“Time to go, sugarplum,” He says, “It’s cock o’clock.”

“For Thor’s sake,” Tony says faintly.

“But I don’t think I’m a bear.” He smiles at the civilian. “I’m just grizzly and ready to eat.”

God, has Tony ever missed the ability to keysmash in his head more than now. “Hgk,” he says instead, allowing himself to be tugged along to the car by Steve, as he quivers with laughter.

“Ohhhh my god, babe,” Tony uses Steve’s chest for balance, “Babe, I love you.”

Steve’s got such a great grinning face.

They tumble themselves into the car, heedless of blood splatter, giggles skating between them.

Five miles down, Tony’s finally settling, feeling sore and a useful sort of good. He’s ready, he thinks, to go on back to his real team.

“Do you wanna get some bear claws, by the way, think there’s a patisserie up ahead.”

“Oh, sure.”

They hit junction for 75 North/South the next day. Tony’s messing with his hair, bobby pins stuck in his mouth when the radio changes to a special safety bulletin about a possible biohazard leak two towns back. Steve’s already merging into the exit before Tony can even spit out the pins and say wow.

“Ste’be,” Tony mumbles.

He’s not listening, laser focused and Tony watches the look in his eye for a moment before he tucks away the pins and reaches over to tap two fingers to Steve’s wrist.

“Pull over, Steve.”

“I’m gonna use the U-turn.”

“No,” Tony taps again, “Pull over.”

He does. They sit idling for a moment before Tony reaches for Steve’s neck this time, turns his wild eyes and adrenaline pumped body towards him. He rubs his fingers across Steve’s scruffy chin, then moves down to hold his neck.

“It’s enough, Steve. There are dispatched hero teams all over the country. The emergency responders were already on scene. It’s enough.”

Steves wide, afraid eyes. “What if it’s not?”

“Stop, Steve, just stop.”

“I.”

“There’s always gonna be people who need help,” Tony says, one thumb smoothing back and forth across Steve’s neck.

“And I can help them,” Steve moves as if to nod.

Tony presses down slightly, nudges Steve’s chin towards him. “When are you gonna go home, Steve?”

34 days. A list of things Steve misses begins with Bucky and ends with waffles from Jarvis and in between there is his heating blanket and making fun of Clint with Natasha, is New York food carts and painting nails with Luke and squash with Sharon and there’s so much that Steve needs aside from Tony, too. This is growing. Tony wants to see him with canvas, his shield.

“I.” Steve’s throat bobs a tell-tale buoy under Tony’s hand. He’s looking at Tony now, like he’s never looked at anything else.

And Tony thinks ah, marinas trench deep. The whole world is the ocean and here, in the sway of Tony weathering the back and forth of Steve is the treasure, the truth.

At the beginning and the end of Steve's list, still, irrevocably, is Tony.

“I’m here,” Tony whispers, and presses his lips to the rough stern of Steve’s chin.

When Steve cries, Tony kisses those away too. 

Tony’s not been here before, but he’s here with Steve, and that’s really, really quite it.

“So when I said I missed you and you didn’t say anything?” Tony jokes, later in bed, Steve’s arm tucked up along his back, hand cradling the back of his neck and Tony’s hand tracing memories over the scars on Steve’s chest. “Were you just thinking, golly, me too, shellhead?”

Steve snort-laughs inelegantly. The array of his lashes twitch.

Miraculously, maybe, he’s a bit worn out.

Sweetness seeps maple strong in Tony’s bones. He kisses Steve’s sternum just because.

“Smug scoundrel,” Steve mutters.

“Maybe,” Tony kisses his nose.

Steve breathes out, air fluttering a heartbeat against Tony’s skin. “Missed you, shellhead,” he whispers, “Love you.”

Tony closes his eyes and breaths in. “Love you.”

Spoken and agreed, they head North. They’re cutting down now, leaving things behind like stray seeds that have no place on their native ground. Behind them, maybe, they’ll grow roots, shoot to the sky and shade them, future them, picking back at the dirt of their past.

Its hope, Tony’s learning.

He keeps just two of his sunglasses. The hexagons and the strawberries. The misshapen charms still hooked on their chain under his shirt.

“Would you have done this,” Tony’s hand shakes a bit as he smooths it along the glove compartment, but his heartbeat is steady, “without me?”

Steve pulls up short, blushes.

It’s the right question.

Tony’s thumb in Steve’s jean’s belt loop.

“Not this,” Steve answers, with his mouth pressed to the soft slope under Tony’s ear. Words just for them. All this, just for them.

“Not this,” Steve says again, looking down at their souvenirs. Bags of evidence that tell of a history made and a memory well tucked into shirt front pockets.

“I know,” Tony says. 

“I needed –“

“You’ve got.”

A polaroid flipbook collection of days –

Tony opens his eyes to Steve and closes his eyes to Steve and the world around them goes muted and then bright and cities tearing up gas stations to put electric pumps welcome modernist solar powered farms and every day is a place that Tony settles in for the space of Steve’s arms.

A finger curled around Tony’s tiny, falling ponytail.

One dingy ocean scene toothbrush holder.

Morning fog, rolled out over a canopy of metal.

The blanket shared between two warm bodies. 

Steve’s worn leather, hoodie cloud layers under Tony’s cheek.

On, and on, and on, into the sun. It’s not looking back, if the filter is the future.

Something like that.

Anyways, day 36 and Steve offers and Tony shakes no; sleepy and lets Steve have the wheel.

New York creeps in somewhere around middle-Virginia. Steve finally glances at the phone buzzing in the center console and Tony finally rolls his eyes and it open and out. Passes it over, already knowing; it’s Bucky.

Tony turns his head to the side, but leaves his hand on Steve’s strong thigh.

He hums along with Enya while Steve fiddles with the phone.

“You don’t hafta,” Steve mumbles, hand squeezing as if to draw Tony’s gaze back. There’s the tiny tap of fingers on glass.

“I’m not bothered,” Tony answers honestly. He likes the piedmont hills. Likes seeing them instead of just the data racks at the end in Loudoun. To retrace his roots with Steve is something of a watershed he never knew was possible.

Steve’s said something now.

“Sorry,” Tony squeezes his thigh, does turn to him now. “Again?”

Steve sighs. “What if I was?”

Tony makes a popping noise. “Nope. Right question.”

Laughing now, unwilling but easily, Steve props the phone behind Tony’s coffee in the drink holders and squeezes Tony’s hand on his thigh.

“About Barnes or about this,” Tony gestures forward like that’s towards New York, “or about leaving?”

“Well,” Steve’s voice, untreated wood-rough, “him and Clint are doing something secret together – “

“Natasha’s gonna kill them.”

“But the third one, yeah.”

Tony hums.

“You don’t gotta be,” Tony says, “I don’t want you to be. We have technology again you know. There is such a thing as vidcalling and texting and even holograming.”

“We’re not having sex on holo while I’m with Bucky,” Steve says, pinching at Tony’s wrist.

“Shame,” Tony giggles, twisting away.

“But,” Steve says, quieter, “I hear you.”

“I’ll remind you,” Tony promises.

Steve smiles, for that.

They’re stopping at a storage place, first. Southwest side of the greater NYC area. It looks almost abandoned and Tony clocks the forcefields in place, the DNA verification as Steve strolls up to his box and pops it open with nothing more than his hand. There it is, Steve’s bike, hauled by Steve, one armed into the trunk. He pops the divider to the backseat to angle the front wheel with his free hand and closes it all up without adjusting the fit at all.

“You practice that?” Tony asks, legs curled up underneath him, comfortable and unwilling to move more than tipping his head towards Steve sliding back into the car.

“Practice what?” Steve asks, distracted as he watches traffic stream by, looking for an opening.

Lips twitching, Tony drums his fingers on Steve’s thigh, “And that’s a good question.”

4 weeks in rural liminality and Tony’s forgotten that Steve’s city driving is learned from haphazard military vehicles, Peggy Carter, and Tony’s not-exactly-standard-build cars.

Whoops.

Tony grins.

The city curls around them, brushing against their elbows like old lovers stayed friends.

This is where their hearts are. Not in the mansion somewhere beside them, the distant laughter of people twining through the rain – but in finding a home in each other and then, miraculously, wonderfully, thank whatever deity exists that hasn’t yet become a supervillain – they’re here choosing a home in each other. In rebuilding and rebuilding and coming back to themselves, anew together, becoming new, together.

Somehow, they’ve become pretty good at that.

Tony lets Steve pull them back out to the opposite edge of the city, out where the land flattens to meet the cusp of a storm. Watches the red lightning smooth the city horizon into foggy hills. Watches the sharp play of electricity over Steve’s face before tipping out of the car after him.

Between them, Steve’s over-moded other love of his life, warms Tony’s hip.

The rain picks up.

There’s nothing that is sure, really. If you think long and hard and search the sky and the earth, cover your hands in dirt and dust and you ask the right questions you still may not understand the answers. It still make take time to iron out the crinkled imperfections. It may take mathematically forever. But, Tony’s lived a life of superheroes and the thing you learn is that anything can change, the world likes to rip its land out from under you and spin you into space. Nothing’s sure.

Nothing’s sure.

Steve’s hand under his, warm, always warm.

Nothing’s sure.

Steve leans forward, too close to be anything but assured intimacy. He knows Tony will meet him halfway and he is asking, wanting –

Nothing’s sure.

“I’m not,” Tony swallows, “gonna kiss you in the pouring rain. This isn’t the notebook.”

“Too late,” Steve murmurs, audible only because Tony is staring at his lips.

Tony is meeting him halfway.

Nothing’s sure but there are right questions.

Slick, smooth, like Steve pulled the moment into a glass, something vital made just for pouring down Tony’s throat. Quenched.

If it was possible to live on requited feelings alone –

I live for you, Tony thinks again. I live to love you. I live.

Gasping for breath against the sweet wet skin of Steve’ jaw. Echoed, between them. Steve’s lungs can take miles and miles but under Tony’s lips, they catch and tremble; beautiful weak. Tony feels powerful, not in the weakness of Steve, but in the strength Steve gives to him, the breath they are sharing between them.

A life, not given, but requited, molded by both of their hands.

Steve touches him like no one else, and Tony blooms in his warmth, whole. There’s a smudging across Steve’s jaw of sunset watercolors. Tony watches the delicate umber of Steve’s skin mix itself with rosy resolution. He blushes like a dove song. The thunder Tony’s heart coos to match. Soft in its might, more powerful for its gentleness.

“I trust you,” Tony presses the words to Steve’s rough, beautiful cheek.

Deep, ocean rumbles in Steve’s chest against Tony’s. “To come back?”

“That’s not the right question.”

Steve, swallowing. Swallows, fluttering in Tony’s chest. Resting their wings, calm against the wind, serene on his skin.

“I trust you,” Tony says again.

To come home, his heart finishes.

“Leave the light on?”

“There you go.”

There, Tony watches him go.