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Thank You Fics Round 3

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The music was loud.  Too loud. It was making his head pound. The bass thumped through the floor below him.  The sound occasionally made the lamp flicker on the nightstand next to where Tony slumped by the bed.  Disco lighting, Tony thought with a giddy sort of amusement that quickly went sour.  He closed his eyes and swallowed back a surge of nausea.  

Gingerly, Tony lowered himself towards the floor and lay his head against the carpet.  A large, unidentifiable brown stain disappeared under the bed. Tony thought it looked a bit like Australia, then wondered if it was some kind of drunk Rorschach test.  He narrowed his eyes at it.  Maybe it looked a little like Howard if he squinted, he thought, scrunching up his face, then letting out a stifled giggle at the thought.  There were dust bunnies under the nightstand.  For some unknown reason, he found that term incredibly amusing. Okay. Not an unknown reason. Vodka. Vodka was the reason. Vodka and grape Kool-aid and whatever the hell else had been in that drink Ty brought him, which Tony had almost entirely downed in a few gulps because he could and because it seemed, at the time, to be a way to impress.  

It hadn’t, of course.  That had been stupid.  Ty wasn’t impressed by Tony’s ability to chug party punch, so much as Tony’s mind, his brilliance, his—Tony couldn’t think of the word.  Usefulness came to mind, but that didn’t feel right, so he discarded it.  Of course, Ty was hard to impress, even in the best of circumstances, being a genius in his own right. Not just the way Tony was, with equations and machines, but with all kinds of things, Tony thought dreamily as he stared at the back of the bedroom door where someone had hung a dart board and one of those inspirational posters where the eagle told you how to be a good person.  

Ty was truly a man of the world. He studied philosophy, literature, religion. Hell, he could quote Nietzsche, the Dalai Lama and Hunter S. Thompson interchangeably.  He even spent a summer at some temple in Nepal finding his spiritual center or whatever he called it. Tony couldn’t remember.  It had sounded impressively cool when Ty talked about it, though Tony couldn’t quite recall why.  Something about chakras? Anyway, all Tony could manage was the occasional Monty Python reference and an encyclopedic knowledge of Lord of the Rings.  That was…definitely not as cool. 

He was trying though.  He read the latest Franzen after all.  Well, most of it, anyway.  Okay, like a couple chapters.  Jesus that dude was pre-tent-ious, Tony thought, elongating the word in his head.  Still, he went to all those lectures with Ty where the speakers talked about things that were Kafkaesque, whatever the fuck that was, and those poetry readings where guys with chin pubes and black turtlenecks recited line after line that all seemed to Tony to stack up to, ‘I can’t get laid, and it’s definitely not my fault.’  He visited museums and art galleries with Ty, where they stared at a black canvas and talked about how deep the artist’s message about the painful death spiral of life was.  Well, Ty talked. Tony mostly nodded.

Being cultured was sometimes really boring, Tony thought privately, then snorted, wiping his sleeve across his face with a low hum he only belatedly realized was coming from himself.  Not that he could ever say that to Ty.  Not that he even wanted to say that to Ty.  Like when Ty was droning on and on about the Dresden premiere of Schumann’s Second Symphony.  Nope, Tony thought with a low giggle that turned into a burp.  Definitely didn’t sometimes want to just…dump something on Ty’s perfect hair and tell him to shut the hell up.  

Steve had perfect hair, too, Tony remembered with a sigh.  Perfect hair, perfect teeth, perfect everything, really.  God, it had been annoying. Though, admittedly, Steve would have explained what the black canvas meant, at least, Tony thought with a frown.   In a way Tony could understand that didn’t make him feel like an idiot for not instantly seeing it that way.  Steve would have gotten all enthusiastic about it, probably.  Told Tony about how it was like one of Tony’s black holes or something.  Something that made sense.  Steve was good at that.  He’d always liked that about Steve.

He wondered what Steve was up to these days.  No. Wait.  No, he didn’t.  He definitely was not laying on the stained carpet of some midtown walk-up twenty something’s bedroom wondering about his ex.

Tony scrunched up his face into the carpet at the stray thought, shaking his head back and forth to use the friction to scratch his nose. Reaching up seemed like way too much effort at the moment.  Why was he thinking about his ex of all people?  He was at this amazing party with Ty, who was worldly and exciting and…downstairs.  Somewhere. Tony frowned. 

He should go find Ty.  Tell him he wanted to go.  Sitting up seemed like a monumental task at the moment though, he thought, somewhat blearily.  Maybe he’d just lay here a bit longer.  Yes. Here was good.  Here, with Australia/Howard and the dust bunnies. This was good.  

Also, he thought if he moved, he might literally die.  So. There was that.

Something bumped out in the hallway and the door burst open, spilling in the loud, thumping rush of music and two people, locked at the lips.  The guy’s hands were already under the girl’s shirt and she was reaching for the buttons of his fly before she caught sight of Tony on the floor of their intended boudoir.  

“Occupied,” Tony managed to garble out.  At least, he thought that was what he said.  By the looks the two interlopers gave him, he wasn’t one-hundred percent sure.  His tongue seemed to want to stick to the roof of his mouth instead of forming words.  “I’m here,” he tried instead, lifting his head just a bit.  They stared down at him, almost like they couldn’t see him or couldn’t figure out where the voice was coming from, and he had a sudden moment of complete terror where he legitimately wondered if he was really here.  Thankfully, the couple seemed to notice him then, and muttered apologies before swiftly shutting the door and moving on down the hallway to door number two. 

Ah, young love, Tony grimaced.  He wanted to vomit.  He wasn’t sure if it was the whole sucking-face thing or the booze, but his stomach was roiling sourly in his gut.  Tony closed his eyes and let out a breath of air.  Just breathe, he told himself.  He should try texting Ty again, he thought, though he made no move to dig into his jacket pocket for his phone.  It was too loud down there for Ty to hear anyway.  That must be it.  He should tell Ty to turn up the volume or switch it to vibrate or something.  Steve always heard his texts.  Or phone calls.  Or annoyed bitching at some grabby-hands at the bar even though he was halfway across the room holding them a table.  Whatever.  Point being, Steve would have heard the texts, and Tony wouldn’t be laying on some dingy carpet with Flopsy, Mopsy and Dusttail for company being scolded into excellence by an eagle with a dart through its tail.

Steve probably wouldn’t answer if Tony texted him now, Tony thought with a morose sigh and puff of air that made his lips vibrate against the carpet.  Not after the way Tony had ended things.  Steve would probably ignore it. If he hadn’t already blocked Tony’s number.  It would have been easier if Steve had stormed out or yelled or acted like a normal human being, but no, of course he hadn’t.  He’d just looked like a kicked puppy and told Tony it was okay, if that was what Tony wanted.

They’d dated for almost three years.  Okay, well, technically, they only started dating when Tony was nineteen. He had just started grad school at MIT, but in his head, Tony liked to think that he and Steve really started out in those two minutes of heavy-duty flirtation Tony had hit Steve with during one of Howard’s boring dinner parties right before Tony put down the glass of Scotch and admitted to being sixteen.   That had been a great two minutes, Tony remembered with a fond sigh. 

He should really sit up.  Struggling, he managed to get a hand underneath him and make it level with the bed before his head and stomach simultaneously informed him that was the worst idea ever thought in the history of the world.  Ouch.  God, his head hurt.  He usually handled his alcohol better, but Ty liked to drink wine and talk about tannins, so it had been a while, he supposed.  Plus, he’d largely stopped drinking while he and Steve were together, though he couldn’t quite remember why.  Not like Steve had ever been a teetotaler.  Just, well, he hadn’t really felt the need to get plastered the way he had when he was younger. Blot things out by blacking out, he always said.  Okay, not really, but that was catchy, and he totally should have said that, Tony thought with a huff of a laugh. Missed opportunity, he thought, though the words had an odd sting to them.  He groaned and buried his forehead against the carpet again.  He wished Ty would get his texts and come get him.  He really wanted to go. Or pass out.  Or throw up.  Probably some combination of all three, if he were honest.

He’d only been having the Scotch that night he met Steve because he’d figured he was basically owed a drink and some fun at that point, seeing as how he was still supposed to be “recovering from his ordeal” or whatever the therapist his mom hired insisted on calling some kind of post-kidnapping anxiety, which he totally didn’t have.  Sure, there had been some downsides to getting thrown in the back of a black, windowless van and zip-tied like a prize hog, but upside, he’d gotten rescued by Actual Fucking Captain America (Tony always capitalized it in his head), so it hadn’t been a total loss. 

Tony still remembered being ten years old and watching on the news with Jarvis and Ana when they announced they had found Actual Fucking Captain America in the ice.  Okay, Brokaw didn’t say it like that, but he definitely meant it, you could tell.  Tony’s father had helped with the expedition that found him.  Credit where credit was due.  Howard had managed to do a couple of good things in his life, even if parenting hadn’t been one of them.  In the long run, helping create and then find Actual Fucking Captain America was probably a lot more of a legacy than anything Tony would ever leave.

God, that whole thing had been amazing, Tony remembered with a dreamy smile.  Well, not the kidnapping part, which had been a huge inconvenience and largely annoying.  Actual Fucking Captain America busting down the door and knocking all those goons around, swooping Tony up his arms like they were on the cover of one of those romance novels his mom swore she didn’t read.  That part had been fan-fucking-tastic, in Tony’s estimation.  In fact, as life highlights went, that was pretty much at the top of Tony’s list.  It might also have been the only thing on Tony’s list at that point, but whatever.  He had not been traumatized, no matter what anyone said.  Getting kidnapped had at least been interesting, which was more than he could say for Howard’s stupid My Son Isn’t Dead And All I Got Was This Lousy Ransom party, so when he noticed a shoulder-to-waist ratio that looked like it was sculpted by the gods, who could blame him for trying to tap that? 

“Care to join me?  Plenty here to go around,” Tony said, leaning back against the sofa and spreading his knees apart just a bit as he held up the bottle of Scotch and blinked up at the man with what he was pretty sure was a suggestive look.  He’d seen some dude in a porno do it once and practiced in a mirror until he thought he had it down pretty well.  Rhodey said he looked like he was just really, really surprised about something, but he’d seen Rhodey’s attempt at a smolder, and, really, the guy had no room to talk.  

“Hmm?  Oh, no, thank you—sorry. I seem to be, ah.  Turned around I guess.  Sorry to bother you,” the man said quickly, turning back for the door.  “Wait…are you drinking?”

“Don’t rush out. Stay. Chat awhile.  I won’t bite.  Unless you ask nicely,” Tony warned, biting his lip and tilting his head just so.

“What? No—no, I—what?  Sorry.  I’m…” the man broke off, running a hand through his perfect blond hair.  “I’m not much for conversation.”

“Well, how about I sit on your lap a bit and we’ll just talk about whatever pops up?” Tony suggested, letting his mouth form a small moue.

It had not gone over well.

Tony snorted out a laugh and hummed low in the back of his throat.  Definitely not gone over well.  Though, he had, as he insisted to Steve years later, he at least managed to get Steve’s attention.  Oh, yeah, you definitely managed that, Steve would say, all grumpy and disapproving, but he would also sometimes pull Tony into his lap and they’d talk about whatever popped up, so Tony counted it as winning the long game.

Steve, unfortunately, while somewhat annoyingly overly concerned about Tony’s drinking habits, had, of course, been too nice to take advantage.  It turned out that he was some kind of strategic analyst at SHIELD, which is how he knew Howard and how he ended up at Tony’s Post-Kidnapping Party that he supposed his parents threw with the money they saved by not paying the ransom the kidnappers had demanded.   Good times.

Anyway, he and Steve kept meeting over the years when Steve would show up at the house or SI, until Tony finally managed to get up the nerve to ask Steve out.  Okay, fine, so that had looked a lot like trying to grind on him in the backseat of a limo when Steve was doing some kind of chivalry routine by insisting on going with Tony to the airport, all because of some kind of “chatter” or whatever.  Tony wasn’t sure what Steve thought he was going to do other than talk any potential terrorists to death about the rise of neo-nazism, Steve’s area of expertise, apparently, but Tony wasn’t one to walk away from an opportunity when it presented itself in the back of a limo holding a cheeseburger, milkshake and some giant art portfolio thing that Steve sometimes used to lug around whatever art piece he was working on at the time, Tony had later learned.   Impractical and old-fashioned. Tony had tried to get him to upgrade to digital art, but Steve stubbornly hung on to the portfolio.

Then, Tony’s parents died, and he had been probably nanoseconds away from spiraling into a series of bad coping mechanisms when Steve found him at the reception after the funeral.  Steve had clapped a hand on Tony’s shoulder and said something nice.   Something consoling and perfect and impossibly sincere, the way Steve could.  Tony had somehow just…walked into Steve’s chest and stayed there where it was warm and safe and free of any expectation. Where someone seemed to understand what it felt like to lose everything and have everything you’d planned on taken away from you all at once.

Later, Steve would tell the story a bit differently, but to Tony, that was how Steve went from the insanely hot guy Tony randomly crushed on from time to time because it was fun and because it seemed to really piss Howard off, to Steve, the insanely hot guy who was kind and gentle, dryly funny and crazy smart, who might actually like Tony back a little bit.  So, dating ensued, because Steve was stupidly old-fashioned like that and thought they should take their time and get to know each other and not put hands there, Tony, come on, we talked about this.  Steve, Tony remembered with a wet, shaky breath, was sweet and funny and actually had seemed to enjoy being around Tony, when they did manage to catch more than an evening together.  Hanging out on the sofa watching movies, traipsing around the city, spending hours laying in the sun at the park while Steve drew landscspes of places Tony didn’t know and sketched faces that Tony always thought looked vaguely familiar and Tony drew and erased deigns over and over in his notebook. That had been fun, Tony could admit. Maybe not exciting. But nice.  

He should really sit up, Tony thought with a long, low hiss of breath.  Or drag himself downstairs.  He had the sudden image of slowly slithering down the stairs, winding in between feet and twelve-packs of beer, until he reached the bottom in a puddle of Tony that Ty would finally notice.  Okay, so, probably that was not a good plan.  Sitting up, though…he should probably try that again.  With a grunt that was more a moan, Tony managed to push himself up to a sitting position. Breathing heavily and fighting a wave of nausea, he leaned his head back against the bed and turned his head away from the lamp on the nightstand, letting his eyes fall shut.  

“Yay. Go me.  Excellent sitting,” Tony mumbled to himself.  Being off the floor honestly did feel like a major life accomplishment at this point.  What else had he done, after all?  Not much.  Good grades, sure.  A few well-received projects.  Ty said they could maybe co-author a paper once Tony got his PhD, and Ty finished the paper he was working on at the moment.  That would be fun.  He’d already been helping Ty a bit with his current project, so Tony thought they might actually work well together.  Could be neat. Co-authoring a paper with his…whatever Ty was.  Boyfriend was such a pedestrian term.  Ty didn’t like to use it.  They were more than that.  On a different level.  Two brilliant minds, shaping the future.  He wondered what their paper would be about.  Something important, obviously.  Something beyond anything anyone had ever seen. That was what Ty said, anyway, though he didn’t really offer a whole lot of specifics and seemed to think Tony’s ideas were “passé.”

Steve never thought Tony’s ideas were passé, Tony remembered.  Steve hadn’t usually quite known what Tony was talking about, true, but he’d listened and sounded all impressed.  Of course, he had, because Steve was just a regular guy.  Nice.  Good.  Regular.  

Sure, after a while, that had seemed, well…boring.  Staid.  Straight-laced.  Tony was moving on to his PhD, getting deeper and deeper into the world of elite scientists and engineers at the cutting edge of AI, and Steve was, well…just sort of there.  He’d listen to Tony talk, ask questions at the right times, sound encouraging and amazed, do all of that good boyfriend stuff, but he didn’t really understand Tony, not the way people like Ty did.  Tony was moving beyond him.  He should have been able to see that long before anyone pointed out what was right in front of his face.  Tony was creating the future, and Steve was stuck where he was. 

Hell, some days, it seemed like Steve was stuck in some bygone era, almost overwhelmed by everything around him to the point of inertia.  Especially after Aunt Peggy’s death.  The fact that Tony’s Godmother liked his boyfriend almost as much as she did him still mystified Tony, but it had been good for her in those last years when she got confused so easily.  Sometimes, she imagined Steve was someone she knew from back in the war, and to his credit, he had just rolled with it.  But, those hard days got harder and more frequent as time went on, and the inevitable cracks in their relationship had started to form, Tony supposed.  

Not that Tony had minded those hard days, exactly, even if he hadn’t understood them.  Sometimes, Steve had just needed to chill out, everyone did, right?  And it just so happened that often meant hanging with Tony, which that part had been nice, Tony could admit.  Stupidly nice. Really, really stupidly nice, Tony thought with a sigh.  Ty never wanted to just hang out. They always had to be doing something.  Creating, inventing, talking about how they were going to remake the world, talking about how great their ideas were.  Well, mainly Ty’s ideas, since Tony didn’t really have anything all that great yet, though Ty was helping. At least Ty understood what Tony was talking about. That was something.  Even if he didn’t ask questions or ever sound amazed.

Tony didn’t know why he was thinking about Steve so much all of a sudden.  Must be the alcohol.  Steve was a part of Tony’s past, true enough. An important part. But, it was a past that Tony was trying very hard to move away from.  Steve was the only person Tony had ever really dated, after all, and as he moved into grad school, he’d realized that he needed something new.  Something different. It had been nice.  While it lasted.  Of course, it was never going to last forever. Tony knew that. Eventually, Steve would have decided to leave.  Tony could feel him pulling away those last few months when he and Sam kept having to go off on work trips. 

Besides, Tony craved excitement.  Adventure. A little danger, maybe.  Just to live a little.  That’s what people his age wanted, right?  Not settling down and playing house, as nice as that had been for a time.  He was young and rich and full of ideas that were going to change the world.  It was heady and exciting and Steve…Steve just wasn’t that person.  Steve was…just Steve. Plain vanilla Steve Rogers. Perfectly good, nothing wrong with that, very dependable and all.  Steve was the kind of guy who would kick your tires to see if they had enough air and check for slippery patches of ice on the walkway before you left for class so he could melt them down and warm up your coffee cup with hot water so it kept the coffee hot.  Conscientious.  Helpful. Thoughtful.  But, not what Tony Stark wanted.  Needed. 

Nope. Not at all. 

Tony Stark, heir to Stark Industries and up-and-coming futurist, about to set the world on fire, did not need some regular guy holding him back.  He was pretty sure he’d thought that. Said that?  Or maybe Ty had been the one to point it out, he couldn’t remember.  And like Obie had said, Tony had this whole future ahead of him.  The responsibility of a company worth hundreds of billions of dollars.  Thousands of jobs, the lives of untold numbers of servicemen and women, and all of it was going to fall on Tony’s shoulders as soon as he graduated, so why not sow some proverbial oats while he had the chance?  Wasn’t like he needed to settle down right this second. 

Tony needed to spread his wings.  Get out in the world.  Practically everyone said so. This thing with Steve, it was too much. Too serious, too soon.  He was way too young to settle down.  He needed to live a little first.  Everyone did, right?  That was what you were supposed to be doing at this age, not hanging out in your apartment watching old movies and drinking hot cocoa with real milk and chocolate because someone was a cocoa snob. So, that’s what he’d been doing, and it was great. Living it up.  Sowing those oats.  Getting out there and rubbing shoulders with people who were his intellectual peers, like Ty.  Everything was great.  It was tons of fun. Parties, booze, bad decisions, and no strings attached sex with one of the most brilliant people he’d ever met. He was on top of the world. 

God, he missed Steve. 

No, wait.  That wasn’t…he hadn’t meant to think that.  It was the alcohol, Tony thought, glancing down somewhat dubiously at the red solo cup still perched precariously on the edge of the nightstand where he’d left it.  Some kind of punch, Ty had said.  He wasn’t sure.  Ty said it was good.  It had tasted like cough syrup to Tony and left a funny, bitter taste in the back of his now-dry throat, like he had sucked on a particularly vile piece of cotton, but God only knew what passed for a mixer at a place like this.

Why was he thinking so much about Steve?  He swiped a hand over his face. God, he was pathetic.  Laying on the floor, reminiscing about his ex while trying not to hurl.  He needed to stop.  Sure, he was frustrated, tired and extraordinarily drunk, and yeah, the booze and other stuff could really expand his mind sometimes, like Ty said, but the whole trip down memory lane thing had to stop.  He wasn’t usually such a maudlin drunk. 

The thought that none of this was actually any fun flitted through his head, but he discarded it. Of course, it was fun. This was what college was all about, right? This is what he had been missing out on.  This is what he wanted.  This was what he had been missing out on those two years with Steve.  This was why he broke it off.  Tony sniffed, a loose, wet, choking sound, and wiped his hand over his face.  He could still remember Steve’s face when Tony tried to explain.  Steve had looked like someone had gut-punched him. Though, to Steve’s credit, he’d accepted Tony’s decision about as well as someone in his position could.  

I just want you to be happy, Tony.

And just look at me now, Tony thought, with a derisive snort.  So happy. Yep.  Happy, happy, happy.  On the floor of some random asshat’s hetero-cave barely able to move.  Fun times. Really living it up, here, Tony.  Tony pulled his phone out of his pocket and looked down at the time. Nearly 2 a.m..  The music was still echoing through the floor, so no one had called last round yet, Tony thought with a dispirited sigh.  He tipped his head back and stared up at the ceiling.  It was one of those popcorn ceilings, and dear God, there was another fucking inspirational poster taped up there.  Clearly, whoever occupied this room was either going to turn out to be a televangelist, mass gunman or member of Congress.  Toss-up.

2 a.m., shit.  He wanted to go home and be miserable in his own bed.  Barfing in your own toilet was so much better than someone else’s, he found.  Really homey.  He wondered when Ty would be ready to go.  Hopefully soon. He should text him again.  Maybe if Tony offered to blow him when they got back to Ty’s place, he would be willing to leave his cadre of admirers currently fawning over him downstairs. 

Tony bit his lip and swiped a hand across his brow.  His stomach roiled, but thankfully, he hadn’t eaten dinner.  Or lunch.  Or…well.  Ty said they’d grab something on the way over, but then Ty had been busy.  He was close on one of his projects. Tony got that.  That was the thing.  Him and Ty, they got each other. Like, really understood each other.  That was what was so great about the two of them together.  They just had so much in common. Heck, they barely even needed to talk to each other most of the time.  Things could just…go unspoken, and that was cool.  Great.  Not having to talk so much, just knowing what the other one needed, just having that innate understanding, that—that made everything so much easier.

Like tonight.  The MacArthur Fellowship.  The so-called Genius Grant.  Obviously, that was a big deal.  Huge.  Ty was excited and thrilled, of course he was.  Tony was excited for him.  Nothing got Ty going more than beating out the competition, and, hey, he wanted to celebrate his success. Deservedly so, of course. Tony got that. He was happy to oblige, really.  Sure, it hadn’t exactly been awesome, Tony thought with a small wince as he shifted on the floor, but it had been Ty’s accomplishment, after all, so of course, it was about making him feel good.  That made sense.  And Ty was—he was intense like that sometimes.  He just got a bit over-enthusiastic.

Couldn’t really complain about the guy you were with being really into you, right?  That would be a stupid thing to complain about, Tony told himself, staring up at the inspirational poster above the bed that helpfully told him the river always beat the rock because of perseverance.   It’s hydraulic action, Tony mentally corrected, then grimaced as he shifted again. It was nice to be wanted with a crazy kind of desperation.  Wasn’t it?  Ty was a passionate guy, and that—that was a good thing, Tony reminded himself with what he meant to be a firm nod that turned into more of a head bobble.  It was good to be wanted.  Sometimes, those last few months, Steve had been gone so much with work, it—well.  The point was, having the guy you liked want you so badly he couldn’t contain himself, that was a good thing.  Relationship goals, right? 

Right.

Not that Steve hadn’t been passionate.  They’d never seemed to quite make it out of the can’t-keep-their-hands-off-each-other stage, and Steve, Mr. GNC—eat your Wheaties—I Want to Pump //clap// You Up, was entertainingly strong.  That came in handy at times, and not just in a ‘he can open literally any jar’ kind of way, Tony thought to himself.  Though, the jar thing had been cool, too.  Anyway, point being, Steve had always been stupidly into Tony, though adorably inexperienced at first.  He’d just--maybe because of his size or whatever, Tony wasn’t sure—but, Steve had always been…oddly tender, Tony remembered.  Even when he was pushing Tony up against the wall like he weighed nothing.  He’d been careful, Tony could tell.  Caring. Like the last thing in the world he ever wanted to do was hurt Tony in some way.  It felt silly to think of it—the sex--like that, even now, except Tony was absolutely certain he was right about it.  Maybe it was something only apparent to Tony, he wondered, because he knew well enough what the opposite felt like.  

Not that Ty wasn’t careful, just that, well, he didn’t really have the same issue as Steve, despite what he seemed to think, Tony thought with a huffing snort of laughter.  Besides, Ty had been sorry he’d gotten carried away again and promised to make it up to Tony later.  Tony knew how sweet Ty could be when he put his mind to it.  Like the thing with Tony’s birthday.  Sure, it hadn’t actually been Tony’s birthday that particular day, but it was the thought that counted, right? Okay, sometimes, Ty got busy and forgot things, but that was totally understandable with everything he was doing.  Ty was super busy. Busier even than Tony.  And under so much pressure all the time, Tony told himself.  Tony definitely knew how that felt.  It could drown out everything else. So, sure, Tony could remind Ty, of course, but he didn’t want to sound too needy.  Ty hated needy.  Said it was weak. And he was right.  Tony Stark didn’t need anyone. 

Yeah.  Right. Because he was doing just great on his own, Tony thought, frowning as he looked around the room again and mentally urged Ty to hurry up.  Okay, tonight notwithstanding, he was doing okay, he told himself.  Classes were going well.  When he managed to make it to them.  Not that he really needed to go, as Ty pointed out.  He was well beyond the material.  He kind of missed it, though.  And a few of his professors had started to notice, but Ty said they were just blowing smoke because they’d get in trouble with the administration if they didn’t at least put up some fuss.  Not like anyone was really going to make a big stink about it, since he could pass his exams without actually going, no problem. 

Still, they had actually sounded a bit concerned, so maybe next week, Tony would try to make it to a few classes. At least put in a showing.  Tell Ty he was just getting them off his back or something, though he actually wanted to talk to Ruger about his latest article in the International Journal of Robotics Research.  Tony hadn’t quite thought it as pedestrian as Ty had.  There were some interesting ideas there, though it wasn’t worth arguing with Ty over. Still, he’d like to chat with Ruger a bit, maybe run some ideas by him before he mentioned them to Ty.   

His stomach flip-flopped again. The thumping in his head seemed to be keeping time with the music below.  

“Ugh,” Tony groaned and pulled out his phone again, staring accusingly down at it.  Finally, he sent another message to Ty.  Ready when you are.  That was…not needy, Tony thought.  Hoped.  It didn’t sound too needy.  

God, he needed to get out of here.

His stomach churned and growled.  Loudly. Okay, so maybe he was a little hungry.  That much alcohol on an empty stomach had probably not been his best life decision.  Ty had said he could eat here, but the chips and whatever had been poured into the bowls downstairs had been long gone by the time they got here. Point being, while an empty stomach was a blessing at the moment, some food might actually help, he decided, scrolling through the photos on his phone from last night out of sheer boredom.  

Ty, Ty, Ty and Justin, Ty and Justin and some other people from the grad program, a blurry pocket photo, a selfie of Tony with Ty in the background talking animatedly to a guy in a Boston U jacket who Tony didn’t know. Ty’s head bent low and close, Tony noticed with a slight pang.  They weren’t exclusive, of course. Him and Ty. Tony knew that. He didn’t even want that.  This was way better.  No frills, no attachments, just a mature relationship between two adults who weren’t looking to be tied down.  Freedom, really, that’s what it was.  

Yep, Tony thought, looking around the empty bedroom. This is what freedom feels like.  Ain’t life grand? Tony thought sullenly.  

Fine, so this whole night sucked, and he was miserable.  There. He admitted it.  It almost felt better just acknowledging it. He was drunk and maybe nauseous and hungry at the same time, if that was possible.  He wanted to go home, but even if he could get Ty’s attention, no way was Ty going to stay with him and hold his hair and rub his back or something.  Not that he needed that or anything.  He wasn’t a kid anymore, wanting Jarvis to comfort him, for fuck’s sake. He could handle himself.  The phone, still cradled in his hand, with its blank screen and no unread messages seemed poised to call him on his bluff.  He reached up and plucked the solo cup off the edge of the nightstand, peering down into it where a foggy swirl of grape-flavored mystery drink clung to the bottom.  That…did not look the least bit appetizing, he thought, face pulling an expression of intense disgust.  

He should get an cab or something, he told himself firmly.  Or call Rhodey. Rhodey would come get him, he thought, tapping at the phone screen and scrolling through his contacts until Rhodey’s name appeared.  Except he tapped too hard, and his cup tipped, which he clutched tighter, overcompensating and spilling a little on the carpet, making him jump out of the way and spill the rest of the cup’s contents, this time all over his pants and…great.  Just fucking wonderful, Tony thought with a sigh as he set the now-empty cup back up on the nightstand.  He shook his hands, sending little droplets of punch across the room, then wiped them on his pants, which were goners anyway.  Fan-fucking-tastic.  His hands were a sticky mess, his pants were a sticky mess, he was about to hurl and none of those were even for a good cause.

The phone rang once, then twice, and, fuck.  It was 2 a.m., Tony remembered, thumbing for the end button with punch-covered fingers. Rhodey was asleep, of course he was, and why the hell wasn’t he just getting a taxi?  He pulled the phone into his lap so he could see what he was doing, pressing his slick, sticky thumb to the red button for all it was worth, then noticed that the contact at the top wasn’t even Rhodey’s phone.

Oh, God.

Oh, fucking God, you have got to be shitting me with this!  Come on, universe, we had a deal!

It was worse.  Way, way worse. Tony stared in paralyzed horror for a moment.  He must’ve scrolled right past Rhodey’s name and into the S’s by mistake, though at least it was Steve’s work number, thank fuck, and not his actual personal line.  Sure, Tony wasn’t even supposed to have it, and he’d only gotten it by swiping Nat’s phone one day, since Steve insisted that Tony could always reach him on his cell, and technically, that had pretty much always been true, but Tony 1) didn’t like to be told no; and 2) didn’t like the idea that Steve’s fellow analysts like Nat and Clint got his super-secret, specially encrypted work number and Tony didn’t.  What kind of boyfriend didn’t share his work number?  It had rankled. And, also, that encryption had been fun for like thirty minutes one day in between Star Trek episodes.  God bless the government for picking the lowest bidder, Tony recalled, shaking his head in mock sadness.

Point being, at least he’d drunk-dialed his ex’s work number at 2 a.m. and not actually called Steve, who would probably do something obnoxiously dumb like…answer.  And then be understanding and helpful, the way he always had been, and maybe insist on coming to get Tony and taking him home, tucking him in bed and maybe staying for a while because he was concerned and wanted to make sure Tony was okay.  That would have obviously been terrible, Tony snorted, blinking as his eyes started to sting. Damnit Flopsy, this is all your fucking fault, Tony thought, giving a stern glare to the dark space under the nightstand. 

He tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling again. Perseverance. You can do it.  You’re having the time of your life, he told himself.  This is what you wanted.  No take-backs, he thought as he swiped his hand on his shirt to clear the last of the punch as best he could and reached for the end call button, thumb hovering for just a moment.  The fifth ring cut off mid-ring.  Tony’s stomach dropped to probably the house’s basement, then bobbed back up to his throat. 

Fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuccccccccccckkkkkkkk.

“You’re on a secure line.  This is Captain America. What’s the situation?” Steve’s voice sounded from the phone’s speaker.  

Tony slow-blinked, lowered the phone, and stared down at the screen that said Steve Work at the top.  He looked over at the now-empty red solo cup with wide eyes, then back down at the phone.  Maybe he was having some sort of auditory hallucination.  Maybe he was passed out by the side of the bed.  Maybe he’d already gone home and was having a very realistic dream.  He could almost remember actually having a dream kind of like that a few times.

“Who is this?” Steve demanded.  His voice sounded different than Tony remembered. Firmer.  More in command. But, it was definitely Steve.  “How did you get this number?”

“Uh…Steve?  It’s Tony,” Tony managed, bringing the phone back to his ear.  “Tony Stark.  Your Tony. I mean, not—look, the point is.  The point—I have a point, hang on.  Oh, right. I’m possibly–er, probably?  Yes. Probably very drunk.  Very, very drunk.  But, is your job pretending to be Captain America?” Tony asked, frowning down at the phone in his hand.  Wow. Talking while drunk was a lot harder than thinking while drunk.  Or, at least, it currently seemed to be. “Because that is way more interesting than strater–strateger–being an analysis.  Anal-yst.  Ha. That’s—I just got that,” Tony added with a laugh. “Has that always been funny? That’s really funny.  Anyway, can you come get me? I’m hungry.”  There, Tony thought triumphantly.  He had communicated the exact information he needed to in a concise and coherent manner.  He was so good at this adulting thing.

“Tony?” Steve said, sounding shocked.  Of course, he was probably shocked to find out he was Captain America.  Tony giggled.  He thought he might be tripping on something, though he didn’t remember taking anything.  Would he remember, though?  Eh.  Seemed like too much effort to think about.  “Tony?  Are you alright?  Answer me, Tony!”

Oh.  He sounded worried. Tony figured he should say something.

“How are you Captain America for work?” Tony asked.

“Tony, where are you?” Steve asked. His voice sounded like he was trying very, very hard to stay calm.  “Nevermind.  I’ll track your phone.”

“Track my—you can do that?” Tony said, pulling the phone away from his ear and staring down at it. “No, you can’t.”

“Stay where you are,” Steve ordered.  “I’ll be there in a few minutes.  Fifteen tops.”

“How can you track my phone?  You don’t know where I am.  I don’t know where I am.  Can we get milkshakes?   I need to throw up,” Tony said.  “You can’t track my phone. That’s like the movies or something.  I told you.  It doesn’t work like that.  Because of the…there’s like…cell towers and shit.  Tri—tri—angle.  Triangle action.  Something. That sounds dirty.  I want to go home, but he doesn’t hear my text, and it’s fucking annoying, is what it is, but I’m at a house.  There’s like, two really obnoxious posters.  Oh, God.”  He frowned and rubbed at the side of his head with his fist. 

“What is it?  Tony?” Steve demanded.

“There’s three.  I missed the one over the desk.  Fuck, I think it’s about teamwork.  I hate it here,” Tony groaned, letting his head loll to the side.  “I don’t know where here is.  Ty drove.”

“I’ll find you, Tony.  I’m on my way.  Just stay put, okay?” Steve urged.  

He sounded upset.  His voice got all tight and low when he got worried, and then he just started giving orders.  Ty didn’t really worry about him too much, which made sense because Ty knew Tony could handle himself.  But, Steve worried, and okay, so maybe at the moment that was actually kind of nice.  To be worried about.  Made his chest feel all warm and his head a bit light.  Steve was worried, his mind hummed pleasantly. 

Tony privately thought giving orders made Steve feel better when he worried, like that time when Tony was almost involved in that crazy stuff down on that freeway in D.C. with that crazy terrorist dude shooting at cars and taking out a city bus.  That had been cool.  Okay, not—destruction of property was not cool, but Actual Fucking Captain America showed up, and that had been all kinds of awesome. It had been amazing.  Actual Fucking Captain America going toe-to-toe with this masked, metal-armed terrorist guy in the middle of the highway.  Tony had nearly lost his shit in the middle of the student union while everyone gathered around the TV, Snapples temporarily forgotten.  

Steve had been away at some conference with Sam at the time, though Tony had been able to get through to him eventually.  He must have seen the show on TV because he got all testy about the whole thing, truth be told.  Don’t go to the apartment, Tony.   Stay off the roads, Tony. Wait for Clint, Tony.  Lots of orders, that day.  Orders, orders, orders, Tony thought with a fond sigh. Steve did like his orders.  Sometimes, that could be a boon for Tony, admittedly, but that had not been one of those times, which sucked because watching the whole thing go down on TV had been, um, stimulating, Tony recalled.  Still, Tony had obligingly followed Steve’s very strident suggestions, at least that time, if only because Steve did truly sound panicked.  Tony had complained about it a lot after Steve finally got back from his conference, though.  Two weeks at Clint’s farm?  No one deserved that.

“I wasn’t sure if I was really here earlier,” Tony told him. It seemed important, though he wasn’t sure why.  “But, I am,” he sighed.  “I’m here.  I don’t know where here is. How do you know where here is?”

“There’s a tracker in your phone,” Steve said.

“No!” Tony gasped and pulled the phone away from his ear.  “Where? How?”

“Tony, please don’t take the phone apa—” Steve’s voice cut off as Tony pounded the phone onto the edge of the nightstand to crack open the back so he could see inside.  

“Hey, there’s a tracker in my phone!” Tony said brightly, holding up the tiny piece of tech that he’d pulled out of the insides of the phone.  “Where’d you get this?  Steve? Steve?” Tony repeated blankly, then looked down at the pieces of his phone. “Oh. Whoops.”

Tony leaned his head back against the edge of the mattress again and closed his eyes with a groan.  His head was pounding again, and his stomach made a rebellious noise of what Tony considered to be warning.  He wanted to go home.  He should get a cab.  Or find the bus stop. Did city buses run this late?  Early.  Whatever.  Or text Ty again, he thought, lifting his head and holding up his phone.  Or…not.  Right.  Phone is a no-go.  Maybe Actual Fucking Captain America would come rescue him again, Tony thought with a giggle.  

Not Actual Fucking Captain America, but Steve was coming, Tony reminded himself.  Steve, who would see him like this and look all disappointed and upset about it.  Fuck.  He didn’t want Steve to see him like this.  Steve was supposed to think Tony was off having a great life with amazing, brilliant people who got him.  Who understood.  Tony’s kind of people.  

Tony looked around the room.  It was theoretically possible that his kind of people were basically total dicks.

He wiped a hand over his face and tossed the useless phone aside with a frown.  Slithering down the stairs seemed like the better part of valor at the moment.  It might be that or he hurled mystery punch all over Hunter or Declan or Grayson or Whoever’s carpet.  God, this sucked.  He just wanted to get out of here, go home, barf, and sleep it off in peace like a normal 21-year-old multiple PhD candidate, but now his ex was rushing to rescue him from his awesome life and then Steve would know what everyone else knew.  That Tony Stark was a big, giant loser who no one wanted to be around unless he was useful.

Well.  No one except Steve, who just looked crushed and devastated and told Tony he wanted him to be happy.  

Tony’s eyes burned.  He wiped his sleeve over them and sucked in a breath.  A wave of misery and self-loathing hit him and he blinked against the sting of it, then closed his eyes with a sigh.  What the hell was he doing?  Ty said something about them, how they were destined for greatness, how they complimented each other, how they pushed each other, made each other better, but it was all bullshit.  What was so great about huddling on the floor hoping your not-boyfriend would notice you were missing and care enough to come look for you? 

Steve would have noticed, Tony thought, giving the carpet a bitter, vicious kick that did nothing but leave a darker stripe where his foot had skidded through the fibers.  Steve always noticed.  Even those last few months, when he’d been all distracted with work and gone so much, Steve would have fucking noticed.  He didn’t want Steve to notice that he was falling apart.  Fuck.  God.  Steve was going to notice.  Steve was going to know.  

The sound of the bedroom door opening made Tony jump, then he sagged against the bed with relief as Ty walked in, followed by a guy Tony didn’t know and a guy Tony recognized as the Boston U-wearing douche from the club a couple of nights ago.  Fucking finally, Tony thought with a grimace, though he didn’t say it out loud. 

“There you are,” Ty said, walking over to stand in front of Tony.  “I’ve been looking for you.”

“I’ve been texting you forever,” Tony retorted, then winced and rubbed at his temples.  The little man who apparently lived inside his head seemed to want to pound a railroad spike into his skull with each word.   

“Sorry, love, didn’t hear them,” Ty said smoothly.  “This is Dan and Preston,” he added, nodding his head towards the two men who had followed him in.  “I was telling them about you. They wanted to meet you.”

“Oh.  Hi,” Tony said. He gave them a little one-handed wave. Preston—God, what a fucking asshole name—seemed amused.  Dan kept looking back and forth between Ty and the door until Preston closed it. “Can we go? I’m—” drunk, he wanted to say, but Ty hated it when Tony got all wasted.  “I don’t feel so good. I think maybe ‘cause I didn’t eat or something.  I’m just…I’m tired.”

“Sure, yeah, we can go soon,” Ty agreed.  “It’s just, well…” he trailed off, biting his lip and raising his eyebrows.  It was a practiced move.  Literally. Tony had seen him practicing various looks in front of the mirror one morning when he’d come back to get the Nanorobotics paper he’d left at Ty’s apartment.  Tony wanted to roll his eyes, but he was too dizzy to try.  “See, I told the guys here all about you, how much you like to party, you know, and I thought maybe it might be fun if we all hung out for a bit.  Just the four of us.  None of that craziness downstairs. Bunch of losers, am I right?  No wonder you wanted to duck out.  What do you think?  You’d like that, right?  Just us?”

“I want to go home,” Tony sighed, dropping his head to the side.  “Please, Ty.  Can we just go?”

“Sure, sure, we will, we will,” Ty said soothingly. He sat down on the bed next to where Tony was sitting on the floor, then shifted Tony forward and scooted over until he could lean Tony back between his legs.  It was nice, Tony could admit. Ty was stroking his hair, which Ty knew he liked, and he could rest his head against Ty’s knee.  This was good.  Nice. He might actually not hurl if he stayed exactly like this.  Maybe Ty knew what he was doing.  They could hang here a bit, then when Tony felt up to it, they could go. 

“Sorry,” Tony murmured to Preston Carrington Taylor Howell III and…Dan.  He was just…really, really tired. “Not good company r’now.”

“I think your company’s just about right. Don’t you, Ty?” Preston said with a slight smirk, mouth pursing like he was considering something.  

Tony blinked up at him, then closed his eyes again.  He felt like he should think something about all of this, but he just…didn’t.  It was too much effort all of a sudden.  He’d come up here because the music was too loud.  It was making his head hurt, and his stomach wasn’t happy with him on top of that, and then the carpet and something about Australia and…it was all just kind of fuzzy now, though that didn’t seem especially concerning.  Nothing seemed especially concerning, in fact.  There had been something he was concerned about earlier, but it didn’t make any sense when he tried to think about it again.  He frowned.  There was something he should say. Something he should tell Ty, but he couldn’t—it didn’t make sense.  

“Captain America is coming,” Tony managed.  No.  Wait. That wasn’t right.  Something—the thought was gone before he could even begin to chase it.  

“I’d say just about,” Ty huffed with a low laugh, still stroking Tony’s hair.  It was nice.  Everything was nice, Tony decided.  His head was hazy, but the pounding was dissipating.  A frisson of something cold snaked up Tony’s back, but then it, too, was whisked away, and his mind was floating.  Nothing hurt.  Nothing bothered him.  Nothing mattered.  “What do you think, Tony?  I was telling Dan and Preston how good you are, but they didn’t believe me.  Shocking, I know.  You’re a good boy, aren’t you, Tony?”

“M’gd,” Tony mumbled.  His eyelids drooped and his head dipped down to his chest.  God, he was just so sleepy. 

“See?” Ty said, raising his head up to the other two men.  

“I don’t know, Ty.  He seems pretty out of it,” Dan said, a wary, troubled tone lacing his voice.  Out of what? Tony didn’t know.  He smiled.  That was funny.  Dan was funny. He wanted to go home.  

“No one’s making you be here,” Ty said curtly.  Dan looked towards the door again.  No, hey, don’t go, Tony thought.  

“S’ry,” Tony slurred.  “I’m fine.  Good.   You should stay.”

“See? He’s fine, I told you,” Ty said brightly.  He sounded happy.  Pleased. That was good. Tony was doing good.  Maybe they could go home soon.  “Hey, listen, I’m sorry about earlier, okay? And then leaving you all alone tonight?  Not cool of me, I know.  I was all focused on myself and celebrating.  I didn’t mean to leave you out.”

“It’s okay,” Tony said.  He leaned his head back between Ty’s legs and looked up at him, a wave of dizziness hitting him as he did.

“So, I thought, I should make it up to you.  I owe you, right?” Ty continued.  “Shouldn’t be all about me.  You should get to have some fun tonight, too, right?”

“Yeah. I—I guess,” Tony sighed.  

“I thought you might like to show our new friends a good time,” Ty suggested.  “I know how much you love that.  They’d really like that.  I’d like that, too. What do you say?  A little private celebration?  Just us.  You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” Ty said, running his hand down Tony’s cheek and cupping his chin, tilting Tony’s head up to look at him.  “You’d like to do that for me, wouldn’t you, Tony?”

Tony stared up at him.  His head was…blank. White.  Nothing was there.  He knew what Ty was asking, and he supposed there should be some reaction to it.  Interest, excitement, disgust, anger, but nothing was there except the thought that he wanted to go home that kept scrolling across his mind like the banner on the bottom of the television news and the memory of being tied to a chair, blindfolded, his lip split and his mouth filled with blood, and Captain America being there all of a sudden and how it hadn’t been awesome, he’d been terrified out of his mind, so scared he couldn’t stop shaking, and how Captain America clapped him on the shoulder and told him he was very brave, and how he had believed it for that one bright, shining moment.  

“I want to go home. Please, Ty, I—” Tony broke off as Ty’s grip on his chin turned bruising.  Ty leaned down close, so close that Tony could smell the alcohol on his breath, sending a danger signal blaring in the recesses of Tony’s mind.  

“If you embarrass me, we are done, do you understand?” Ty hissed into his ear, his fingers tightening on Tony’s chin.  “It’s just a couple of blow jobs, Tony.  Don’t be a fucking prude.”  Tony stared at him for a long moment, then nodded. Ty let go of his chin, leaned back up and patted Tony’s shoulder with one hand.  Tony looked down at the floor, blinking back against the burning behind his eyes.  Ty rubbed at his shoulders, giving them a light squeeze.  “We’ll go home as soon we’re done celebrating, okay? Deal?” Ty said.  Tony nodded, something sick twisting in his gut.  His eyes stung.  He could feel hot tears running down his cheeks.  He just wanted to go home.

“Pres, come on,” Ty said, motioning the other man forward.  “You’re gonna love it,” Ty said in a placating tone, patting Tony’s shoulders and pushing his hair back from his forehead.  Tony wasn’t sure who Ty was talking to.  He wasn’t sure it mattered. 

“About fucking time, man,” Preston said, stepping forward and reaching for the buckle of his belt.  “Jesus, look at those lips, will you?”

Tony swallowed, or tried to.  He could do this.  It would be okay.  Not like he hadn’t done it plenty.  It was fine.  Everything was fine.  He had a moment to wonder that he couldn’t seem to muster any emotion to go with the words.  There should be something there.  Excitement, fear, anger, disgust, arousal, something.  But, there was nothing there, just the dull throb of the thought that he wanted to go home in the back of his mind, distant and fading.  Preston had his button open and his hand on his zipper.  Calvins. Of course.  Tony licked his lips.  Breathe through your nose, he thought.  It’ll be okay.  Ty was right. It wasn’t a big deal.  Not like he hadn’t done it tons of times before.  It’ll be over soon. Then he could go home. Ty promised.  

That was when the door imploded.

Imploded might not technically be correct, Tony had time to think somewhat blearily, but it seemed to fit pretty well. The door slammed open and rebounded off the wall behind it, sending the dartboard careening to the ground and leaving it hanging limply by one hinge at the top.  The whole room seemed to jump at the same time.  Dan plastered himself against the wall, arms flailing, nearly knocking over the lamp.  Preston jerked away and grabbed at the buckle of his pants with a bitten-off curse.  Ty’s whole body startled, one knee knocking into the side of Tony’s head.  Tony reached up to rub at his temple and shot Ty what he hoped was an annoyed look.

“Oh. Right. Steve’s here,” Tony said into the moment of silence that followed, raising his hand and vaguely pointing in the general direction of the man standing in the doorway. He gave Ty a wide, flat smile, proud of himself for finally remembering what he had wanted to tell Ty, not that Ty was paying him any mind at the moment.

“Hey man, this is kind of a private party, so…” Preston said.  

“Tony,” Steve said.  His voice sounded funny.  All tight and angry.  Crap. He was worried.  He was probably going to start ordering people around, Tony thought with a long, drawn-out sigh.  He blew a puff of air, intending to get the hair that had fallen in front of his eyes out of the way, but it didn’t work, so he determinedly did it again. Then again.  “Tony, are you okay?” Steve asked, gentler this time.

“M’good. Fine,” Tony said.  Then he looked at Steve and he wasn’t good anymore.  He wasn’t good at all. Everything was wretched and awful, but Steve was here, so it was somehow simultaneously worse and better.  He didn’t want Steve to be here.  To see him like this.  This was bad.  He was bad, and now Steve was going to know how much everything sucked, and that was somehow even worse than everything sucking.  But, Steve was here, he came when Tony called, and that was impossibly good, too.  The best, most wonderful thing in the world.  It was all just too much, so Tony ducked his head and closed his burning eyes.  “I want to go home,” he said finally in a wet, choking voice.

“Look, I don’t know who you think you are, but you can’t just—” Preston started.

Whatever it was that Steve couldn’t just do—which, if he’d been in a mood to do so, Tony could’ve told Preston was really not a good approach with Steve-- but anyway, whatever it was ended up lost forever, probably somewhere with Preston’s dignity, Tony assumed, since Steve just grabbed the poor man by the shirtfront and tossed him out the open door behind him with a flick of his wrist.  Preston hit the far wall hard enough to make a deep, round indentation in the drywall and splinter the wood behind it.  He sort of just slowly slid down the wall to the carpet below with a wide-eyed stare and his mouth forming an ‘O’ of surprise as he titled over and slumped to the side.

“What the fuck!?!” Ty shouted.  He started to get up, jostling Tony to the side as he tried to untangle his legs.  Tony gave one knee a hard shove, and tried to scoot out of the way, but it was like his limbs were buffering or something.  They wouldn’t quite cooperate with what his brain wanted to do, at least not as quickly or as smoothly as Tony thought they should, and Ty’s legs were in the way, making it that much harder.

And then they just…weren’t.  That was easier, Tony thought, half-dragging himself towards the nightstand.  There was a loud, crunching sound, and Tony looked up in time to see Ty bounce off the ceiling and drop face-first at Steve’s feet onto the floor by the bed. Chunks of drywall and a spray of fine, white dust followed. Above the bed, the inspirational poster rippled as it hung by one corner from the ceiling next to a large, person-sized hole.   Ty groaned and got one arm under himself like he was going to try to get up, then looked over at Tony out of the corner of his eye.  His hair was covered in white powder and a piece of the ceiling was plastered to his forehead.  Another wedge fell and landed at the top of his back.  Ty let out a shuddering breath, then his eye rolled up in his head, and he went limp with a huff.

Steve turned and looked at Dan, who was currently trying to slink out the door, Tony noticed.  Dan held up his hands in front of him, eyes wide and panicked.

“I don’t even like these guys,” Dan said, giving Steve a pleading look.

“Get. Out,” Steve ground out after a moment.  Dan, not being a total idiot, immediately fled.

Tony looked out the door at where Preston’s legs were still visible in the hallway, then over at Ty, then up at Steve.  “How’d you do that?” Tony asked, blinking in confusion.  He tried to stretch out and nudge Ty’s leg with one hand, but the movement caused his stomach to roil in protest again.  “Can we go? I don’t want to throw up on Australia.”

That made perfect sense in Tony’s head, but somehow, when he said the words, they didn’t sound quite right.  He looked up beseechingly at Steve, who dropped down to one knee next to him and cupped Tony’s face in his hands, staring into his eyes with a searching look.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked again.  His hands moved over Tony’s face and head, then down his arms and sides, like he was checking for injuries.  Maybe he was, Tony didn’t know.

“Just want to go,” Tony said.  He reached for Steve and slumped forward, letting his head fall against Steve’s shoulder and squeezing his eyes shut.  “Please. Just—I just want to go home.”

“Then we’ll go,” Steve replied.

Tony hadn’t quite realized until that moment how badly he just wanted things to be that simple.  He sagged against Steve’s shoulder in relief and let out a broken sob before he caught himself and sucked the rest of it back in.  Tony started to pull back, only to find himself scooped up in Steve’s arms and lifted up, bridal-style, in one smooth movement.

“Oh—oof,” Tony startled, then glanced down as Steve nimbly side-stepped Ty’s prone form and Preston, who was starting to moan and rub at the back of his head in the hallway.  Tony buried his cheek against Steve’s chest and sighed.  This was nice.

“Move,” Steve said, and the throng of people who were hovering at the top of the stairs, probably trying to figure out what all the commotion had been, parted like the Red Sea.  Tony harrumphed a bit at the sight.  No slithering down the stairs, after all, he thought as Steve maneuvered them down.  The music was still loud and thumping all the way to the back of his brain, but it wasn’t quite as bothersome, not with his ear pressed against the curve of Steve’s arm.

Steve carried him out of the house and towards the small lawn where a black SUV was parked half-jumped over the curb.

“Hey, your car talked to me like fucking KIT or something, dude,” some guy in a MIT hoodie said as they passed.

Steve didn’t slow down, just stalked towards the car with Tony in his arms.  He opened the passenger door and carefully set Tony down inside, leaning the seat back a bit and buckling Tony in.  Tony’s head lolled to the side and he looked up at Steve, then quickly let his gaze fall back down to his lap.  Steve looked pissed.  He had that sharp, tight-jawed look he got when he was truly angry about something.  A well of hot shame emptied into Tony’s chest and stomach.  He had screwed up.  He had screwed up, and Steve knew about it. Steve had seen.  Really seen him, in some deep, dark way that Tony had been so careful to hide, and now, Steve would despise him.  He would know how weak Tony was.  How there was this wrongness inside him that people like Ty and Preston and others (Howard) saw in him.  He’d been so careful. So good.

But, now, Steve would know, and he’d be glad he got out before things went any further with Tony.  He’d be relieved.  That thought, more than anything else that had happened tonight, was the thing that pushed everything else aside, leaving only despair in its wake.  How had he screwed this up so much?  Why did he ever involve Steve in this?  Just because he got drunk and all maudlin over his ex. Because he was weak, and he wanted to have Steve’s attention on him one more time.  Because he wanted someone to look at him the way Steve used to, to make him feel like he was worth something, the way Steve always did, but of course, that had backfired, and now…now, Steve knew what he was.  Steve would leave him for real this time.   It had been building before, but Tony had been good at hiding this part of himself, but now, there was no hiding it.  Steve would know who he really was. And Steve would hate him.  Tony blinked rapidly, trying to stave off the inevitable meltdown, and wiped the back of his sleeve across his face.  Steve started to close the car door, then stopped and leaned down, one hand reaching up to cup Tony’s chin.  It was both the same as what Ty had done, and the complete opposite, Tony had time to think as Steve gently cupped his cheek and swiped his thumb across the wetness there.

“Hey, no,” Steve said quickly.  His eyes had gone soft, wrinkling just a bit at the corners.  “Whatever you’re telling yourself, no, okay?”

“I don’t want you to hate me,” Tony said in a thick, shaky voice, then squelched his face together, his whole body shaking with the effort to hold back the emotional tide that threatened to overwhelm him.

“I could never hate you, Tony. Please don’t do this to yourself,” Steve pleaded.  “Please.”

“I screwed up,” Tony burst out.  He pinched the bridge of his nose and sucked in a shuddering breath.  It didn’t help.

“This wasn’t your fault, Tony,” Steve said.  “You will not blame yourself for this.”

He sounded tired. And angry.  Tony gazed up at him.  Steve was looking away, back at the house, where the party goers milled on the porch and in the lawn amid a smattering of cups, bottles and plastic bags that floated around on the night air like urban jellyfish.  Finally, Steve looked back over at Tony, his brows drawing together into a frown and his mouth flattening for a moment before his expression softened.  He brushed a hand through Tony’s hair, moving the sweat-dampened curls back from where they had plastered themselves to Tony’s forehead.  Again, Tony was struck by how similar the motion was to what Ty had done, and how different it felt.  He wasn’t sure why, and his mind was too foggy to try to figure it out, but he leaned into the motion anyway.  He’d almost forgotten how good it felt to be touched like this.

“Here,” Steve said, opening a compartment in between the two front seats and pulling out a bottle of water.  “Drink this.”  He opened the cap and held the bottle up to Tony’s mouth encouragingly.  Tony obliged, drinking a couple of sips before he realized how fucking good water was.  He grabbed for the bottle and tipped his head back, drinking deeply.  “Slowly,” Steve cautioned, reaching for the bottle and pulling it away long enough for Tony to cough through the spasms that wracked through his body.

“Sorry,” Tony gasped out.  Steve held the bottle out to him again, and this time, Tony took only small sips.

“Better?” Steve asked.  Tony nodded. “Ready to go?” Tony nodded again.  Steve started to close the door, but Tony reached out and laid his hand on Steve’s arm, stopping him.

“Steve?” Tony said.  “Thank you for—you know—coming to get me and all. I’m sorry.”  Thank you for putting my not-boyfriend through the ceiling?  That was very cool, Tony had to admit, though he frowned at the memory.  That…that couldn’t be right.  He was way too out of it to think clearly, admittedly, but hadn’t Ty sort of…bounced off the ceiling?  That didn’t make any sense.  He shook his head, trying to clear it.  The whole night was fuzzy and fading into snapshots of images that kept invading his mind in no particular order.

“I will always come and get you, Tony,” Steve husked out, then bent forward and wrapped his arms around Tony, one hand pressed to the back of Tony’s head.  “Always.  I promise, okay?”

“I’m sorry,” Tony breathed out into the curve of Steve’s neck. “I’m sorry I’m like this.  I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

He felt the warm breath of Steve’s sigh against the back of his neck as Steve’s arms tightened around him.

“There’s nothing wrong with you, Tony,” Steve replied tightly.  He pulled back and held Tony’s face between his hands for a heartbeat.  “I’m sorry anyone ever made you feel that there was.  You’re…you’re the most amazing person I’ve ever met.” He stroked the pad of his thumb over Tony’s cheek and smiled sadly.  “You’re so smart and incredibly brave.  Funny, kind, generous…I just wish you could see yourself the way I do.”

“Sometimes, I almost could, when I was with you,” Tony replied, then blinked and looked down.  “I’m going to throw up now.”

That was all the warning he was able to give, though to Steve’s credit, the man could move when the situation called for it.  Most of it made it outside the car, and for that, Tony was grateful.  Not that Steve said anything, just found a towel, wet it with some of the water, and dabbed the mess away from Tony’s mouth as best he could, then gave Tony the rest of the water to rinse out his mouth.

Tony faded in and out of wakefulness as they drove back to his apartment.  The lights flashing by outside the window were too much for him, so he kept his eyes closed.  Steve drove with one hand on the wheel and one hand on Tony, though he seemed to manage what little traffic there was this time of the morning just fine that way.  Tony was fairly certain Steve even went over the speed limit, which just went to show how upset he was because Steve was a stickler for that kind of shit.  Proper use of blinkers.  Obey the traffic signs. Full stop at the stop sign.  Two car lengths between you and the car in front of you.  Tony huffed out a laugh, causing Steve to glance worriedly over at him.  He just hummed and smiled, leaning his head against the cool glass of the window while Steve’s warm hand covered his.  This was good.

There was something niggling in the back of Tony’s mind about all of this, but he couldn’t seem to latch onto it and the effort to try seemed insurmountable at the moment, so he pushed it away and focused on the way the glass felt, the way Steve’s hand felt, the way the water tasted, how the car was warm and quiet, how he was safe and Steve thought he was amazing, even though he had seen with his own two eyes that Tony was broken and wrong.  Steve would probably come to his senses soon.  He was just being a good guy, because Steve was like that.  Good.  It was nice, though.  Even for a little while.  

The SUV pulled to a stop in front of Tony’s apartment building just below a No Parking sign.  Steve was really living on the edge tonight, Tony thought with a small, amused smirk.  Steve hopped out and came around the front of the car to open Tony’s door.  He reached for Tony, but Tony held up a hand to stay the motion.

“I can walk. I got this,” Tony said, sliding out of the car.  Steve caught him before he hit the ground.  “I don’t got this,” Tony amended, blinking up at Steve.  Steve shot him a long-suffering look, then lifted Tony up again.  Actually, this was nice, Tony decided.  Walking was overrated.  Steve-mobile was good.  He patted Steve’s chest.  Good.  He kept patting it.  Really good.  God, he’d missed that part, too.  He traced his finger over the curve of Steve’s pecs, then down the center of his chest.

“Tony,” Steve said with an admonishing sigh.    

“Steeeee—eeeeve,” Tony sing-songed.  “I missed you,” Tony added as Steve punched Tony’s code into the building door and shifted them through it.

“I missed you, too,” Steve replied softly, like he was sharing a secret.  He took the stairs in slow, careful steps, like he was afraid if he jostled Tony too much, he might break him.  Tony snuggled up against Steve’s chest.

“I meant your chest,” Tony said after a moment, giving it another quick pat.

“No, you didn’t,” Steve retorted.  Tony could hear the smile in his voice.

“No, I didn’t,” Tony agreed with a contented hum.  He was quiet for a little bit, thinking back over the bits and pieces of the night that kept filtering through his mind like an out of sync Viewmaster, where he could just see parts of the image and then a blank, white space. “I was thinking about you,” Tony began with a slight frown, “and then you came to get me.  That was nice.  Wait. Did I text you?”

“You called me,” Steve said after a moment.  He sounded slightly uncomfortable.  Maybe it was carrying Tony up four flights of stairs, though to be honest, Steve didn’t really sound the least bit winded.

“Oh,” Tony said.  “Ty never hears my texts.”

“Tiberius Stone is an asshole,” Steve bit out, his jaw working around the words.

“I’m hungry,” Tony said.  “I thought he liked me.”

“I know,” Steve replied.  Tony wasn’t sure which statement he was replying to, though he supposed it didn’t matter.

The door to Tony’s apartment was ahead.  Crap.  He’d left his keys…somewhere.  At Ty’s maybe. He couldn’t remember.

“Key,” Tony said, letting his head fall back with dramatic sigh as they passed under a bright red Exit sign in the hallway.  Maybe he could jimmy the lock, Tony thought.  Or go bang on the building manager’s door.  Tony was already on the guy’s shit-list on account of him having to write a building policy about the use of precision lasers, so it wasn’t like the guy could really hate him more at this point.

It was on the cusp of Tony’s lips to offer, when, miraculously, Steve tried the door and it…just opened.  Huh.  Maybe he had left it unlocked, Tony thought with a mental shrug.  Steve got them inside and kicked the door closed behind him, then wound his way through the darkened apartment to Tony’s bedroom by memory.  DUM-E whined softly from the corner.

“Hey there, Scrapheap.  Say hi to Steve,” Tony mumbled, flinging a hand wide and nearly hitting Steve in the nose. Steve caught his wrist and pressed Tony’s arm back in to his chest as DUM-E whirred and beeped excitedly.  The bot had always had a soft spot for Steve.  “Traitor,” Tony snorted gamely.  “No more upgrades for you.”  The bot’s crane arm drooped and his pincers spun, then pointed downwards.  “Maybe one more upgrade,” Tony called out as Steve carried him through the bathroom door and flicked on the light.  DUM-E’s claws spun happily, and he rolled in a circle in his corner until he hit the wall.  Stupid bot, Tony thought fondly.

Steve sat him down on top of the toilet.  Tony watched as he got the water going, checking the temperature before putting the plug into the bottom of the tub.

“I can shower,” Tony protested.

“Your legs collapsed getting out of the car four minutes ago,” Steve reminded him.

“I’m better,” Tony assured him with several very firm nods.  His head kept bobbing for a bit longer than he intended, but he finally managed to stop.  “Four minutes is a long time.  Lots can happen.”

“Stone tell you that?” Steve asked, looking over his shoulder where he was hunkered by the bathtub.

Tony stared at him for a few seconds, mouth hanging open in disbelief, then a spluttering laugh spilled out.  It spilled out and over everything, and suddenly, Tony wasn’t sure if he was laughing or sobbing, it was all wrapped up together. Joy, terror, amusement, regret, relief, shame, happiness, anger, all of it bubbled up to the surface like a spicket had been opened.  He was falling forward without realizing it, but it didn’t matter. Steve would catch him.  And he did, wrapping Tony up in his arms and pulling him down onto the tile floor of the bathroom, cradled on his lap, just rocking him there and murmuring soothing nothings in Tony’s ear while he trembled and shook.

“I didn’t mean it,” Tony hiccupped out when he was finally able to catch his breath.  “What I said about you not being enough.  Or being boring,” he added with a wet sniff.  “I didn’t mean it, I swear,” he sobbed, looking up at Steve.  “You have to believe me.  It wasn’t you.  It wasn’t ever you.  Please.  Please, Steve, you have to believe me.”

“I believe you, Tony. It’s okay,” Steve said reassuringly, rubbing at Tony’s back while he tried to get himself under control.

“I thought you were going to leave me, like everyone always does, and I panicked, and said it first. It’s not supposed to hurt as much that way, but it did.  And I don’t know—I don’t know why, or—or what I’m supposed…how I’m supposed to do this,” Tony said.  “I hate it.  I hate all of this.  I don’t want to be like this.  I don’t want you to—to think I’m—I’m weak or—”

“You’re not weak, Tony. For God’s sake, you’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met,” Steve cut in sharply.

“Stark men are made of iron,” Tony repeated dully.

“Do you think that’s what it means to be strong?” Steve demanded, giving Tony a little shake.  “That’s not strength, Tony, that’s armor.  This,” he said, softly tapping his knuckles against Tony’s chest, “is what makes you strong.  The way you care, so damn much.  The way you try so hard to help, to do what’s right, even when it should be impossible.  The way you give and give and try to give some more, I swear, you would give your last breath if you could,” Steve continued.  “It’s your heart that makes you strong, Tony, and yours is the strongest one I’ve ever known.”

Tony stared up at him, wide-eyed, too stunned to speak.  He didn’t know what he would say, until he did.

“I love you,” Tony said.

“Tell me that again tomorrow, how about?” Steve prodded, running his hand through Tony’s hair.

“I’m not—I’m fine, and I’m serious, Steve, I do. I love you,” Tony insisted.  “I love you so much.  It’s like, it’s crazy how much and it scares me sometimes, and everyone kept saying it was too fast and we’re too young, but I do. I love you. I lov—” he broke off with a muted squeak as Steve shifted him on his lap.  “Hey,” Tony admonished.

“Bath now, how about it?” Steve asked.  “Then food and bed.”

“I want a cheeseburger and a milkshake,” Tony replied.

“Soup and crackers,” Steve corrected. Tony scowled.

“You’ll stay?” Tony asked. “I’m going to tell you I love you tomorrow.”

“I’ll stay,” Steve sighed.  He reached out for the hem of Tony’s shirt, then stopped, hands hovering.  “This okay?” he asked.  Tony shrugged and peeled the shirt off.  Well, mostly off. It got stuck around his head and his arms sort of flailed around a bit until Steve helped get it the rest of the way off.  He kicked his shoes off and then somehow shimmied out of his jeans, leaving himself in his boxers and socks, sitting half atop the bathmat and half on Steve’s lap.

“Christ,” Steve said with a sigh, wiping a hand over his face.  “When did you…” he stopped and shook his head.

“What?” Tony asked in confusion, looking down at his boxers.  “You like?” he asked, waggling his eyebrows at Steve, who was determinedly not looking at Tony.  Apparently, Steve approved of Tony’s Captain America boxers. "Don't mock.  You know I still have my fan club member card."  Steve just shook his head and looked away, though Tony caught a bit of color on his cheeks before he hid it.  He grinned.  He always did enjoy making Steve blush.

Tony tugged his socks off one by one, then Steve helped him out of his boxers and lowered him into the bath.  Tony figured he probably should be embarrassed, but since he’d just spilled his guts while sobbing on Steve’s lap, a little flash of what Steve had seen plenty of times before wasn’t really going to push him over the edge.  The water was nice.  Just the right temperature.  Steve got up to put Tony’s dirty clothes into the laundry room, and that instantly made the bathroom smell fresher, Tony had to admit.  He wasn’t gone long, then was back at Tony’s side.  He’d picked up a washcloth along the way and used it to rub hot water up and down Tony’s back and over his shoulders.  It felt amazing.  Tony couldn’t remember when he’d felt anything so good as the constant motion of the cloth on his skin like that, a heady combination of warmth and care and Steve.

Exhaustion seeped into Tony’s skin and sank down into his bones.  He was so, so tired.  The water had dulled to lukewarm.  His head was resting on Steve’s shoulder, as Steve’s motions with the washcloth slowed.  He felt Steve shift a bit, and a moment later, heard the gurgle of water as the tub drained.  A fluffy towel was wrapped around his shoulders and back, and then he was lifted out of the tub.  It all happened in a pleasant, half-asleep, warm haze.  Steve helped him get what Tony assumed was a Steve-approved pair of boxers on, then tucked him under the comforter.

“You should eat,” Steve suggested.

“In the morning,” Tony mumbled, rolling to his side.  “Cheeseburger.”

“At least drink some more water,” Steve said.  Tony hummed agreeably, while Steve went to fill a glass from the kitchen tap.  He brought it back and held it to Tony’s lips while he drank, until Tony smacked his lips in satisfaction and pushed Steve’s hands away.

“Sleep now,” Tony breathed out.

“Okay,” Steve said, pulling the covers up to Tony’s chin.  He hesitated a moment, then bent down and pressed a soft kiss to Tony’s forehead.

“Don’t go,” Tony said, one hand snaking out to blindly grope for Steve.

“Are you—are you sure?  I can take the couch,” Steve offered, voice hesitant and halting.

“Stay,” Tony replied.  “Please.”  He heard Steve blow a puff of air out of his nose in acquiescence and felt the bed shift as Steve took his place between Tony and the door.  Tony rolled over and flung an arm over Steve’s chest, pillowing his head there and nudging Steve’s arm up and around his shoulders.

“Settled?” Steve asked.  His voice sounded warm and fond, and it ran down Tony’s spine with a shiver.

“Yup,” Tony replied, burying his head a bit against Steve’s side.  Steve was always so warm and solid.  He smelled good, too.  Hell, Steve even had good morning breath.  It was really unfair.  But, it had its perks, Tony could admit.  He’d missed this so much.  Just the feel of Steve being near, how it always made him feel safe and cherished.  He could feel Steve’s fingers tracing a light line up and down his back from over the covers and snuggled closer.  This was good.  He’d tell Steve he loved him in the morning, when Steve would  believe it was Tony talking and not the alcohol, and then…and then they could go back to what they had before.  He frowned a bit, forehead scrunching up with the effort.  There was something…something he was supposed to remember.  It nagged at him, like a piece of gristle stuck in his tooth he couldn’t quite shake.  Something about Steve…he tried to concentrate, but nothing came to his mind, so he pushed the thought to the side.  It couldn’t be that important, he figured, drifting lightly as he sank into sleep.  His fingers were tracing patterns on Steve’s chest.  Steve didn’t seem to mind.  A star, Tony thought dreamily as sleep claimed him.

Slants of light spilled into the room through the curtains when he woke, drawing lines across the floor.  His mouth tasted like something had crawled in there and died, and he was alone in the bed, two not great things as far as Tony was concerned.  Tony sat up in a rush, then grabbed for his head as the room tilted and his brain banged against his skull.  He assumed that was what it was, anyway.  His head cleared after a moment, and he could hear the soft, puttering sounds coming from the kitchen.  Steve.  He’d stayed.  Relief rushed through him, making his limbs go boneless as he sagged back into bed.

Steve stayed.

Gingerly, Tony swung his legs over the side of the bed.  He stood up slowly, making sure he could manage upright before he tried walking.  A few careful steps later and his legs seemed to decide to work in something resembling actual coordination as he stumbled for the bathroom and rinsed his mouth out as best he could before heading for the bedroom door.  He stood there in the frame of the door for a long moment, watching Steve bustling around in the kitchen.  Tony could smell the coffee already, and his mouth watered.  A white Styrofoam cup and brown paper bag with the name of Tony’s favorite greasy-spoon diner sat on top of the bar.  He got me a cheeseburger and milkshake, Tony realized with a surprised lurch somewhere deep inside his chest.  His stomach, which seemed to sleep in a bit longer than the rest of him, roared to life all of a sudden, making a loud, gurgling noise that drew Steve’s attention.

“Morning you,” Steve called out, raising a hand in greeting. “How are you feeling?”

“Starving,” Tony said.

“That’s good,” Steve said. “Got you a couple of things,” he added, nodding at the bag and cup on the counter.  “You should probably take it easy, though.  Maybe some toast first, see how it goes.”

“Yeeeeaaaah,” Tony said agreeably, then frowned.  “Did I throw up in…Knight Rider last night?  Or was that a weirdly specific dream?”

“You mostly got the ground,” Steve told him, shooting Tony a commiserating look.

“Um, so, yeah, sorry about that.  About, you know, everything really,” Tony said, walking across the living room towards the kitchen.

“I told you last night,” Steve began, bracing his arms on the counter and dropping his head down for a moment before lifting his gaze to Tony.  “You don’t have anything to apologize for about last night.  I’m glad you called me.  I’m glad I got there—” he broke off and cleared his throat.  Tony could see the Adam’s apple bobbing there as Steve struggled with his words.  He wanted to go wrap his arms around Steve, if for no other reason than it was strangely nice to actually see how upset Steve was on Tony’s behalf. “When I did,” he said finally, then went back to viciously scrubbing the counter with one of the dishtowels.

“Me too,” Tony said after a beat of silence.  Steve glanced up at him, mouth flattened into a grimace, and looked at Tony searchingly for a long moment.  He nodded jerkily, but his shoulders relaxed a bit, Tony noticed.  “I should probably report them or something.”

“It’s taken care of,” Steve said with a careful nonchalance. Tony thought he should probably ask what exactly that meant, but at the moment, he honestly just didn’t care. For this one moment, he was going to let himself be taken care of.  Give himself permission not to have to think about it or deal with it. Steve had taken care of it.  He firmly believed that. It was enough.

“Think you got that spot,” Tony said, nodding down at where Steve was all but digging a hole into the granite with his scrubbing.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled, tossing the towel over his shoulder.  “Here.  Eat,” he said, putting a plate of buttered toast and a steaming cup of coffee down in front of Tony.

Tony slid into one of the barstools and picked up the coffee.  Ah, heaven, he thought, inhaling the aroma and following it up with the first, glorious sip.  It was just the way he liked it, strong, with just a bit of cream.  He was oddly pleased that Steve remembered.

“So.  About last night,” Tony began, then let the words sit there between them.  “I meant what I said.  About everything,” he said, looking down at the plate and picking at the crisp edges of the bread.  “I was sitting up there in that room, trying to convince myself I was happy.  Or that I should be happy.  And all I could think about was you.”

“I only ever wanted you to be happy, Tony.  I know, those last few months we were together—I know I wasn’t here for you like I should have been,” Steve acknowledged with a frustrated puff of air.  “I let—things, work, I don’t know—get in the way.  And…there’s something—something I have to tell you.  I guess it took me awhile to really see it, and then I did, and I knew I had to tell you, but…I didn’t want to hurt you.  And I let that be my excuse for so long, I--” he broke off, running a hand through his hair, then dropping them both to his waist in what Tony liked to think of as the Classic Steve Rogers Decision-Making Pose.  Tony grinned and took another sip of his coffee.

“Whatever it is, you know you can tell me, right?” Tony said.  Steve looked away with a grimace.  “Steve?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, gaze snapping back to Tony.  “I know.  I never meant to push you away, Tony.  You have to believe me.  It was never you.  I just…I kept trying to find a way to make everything work.  Like if I just thought it through one more time, I could figure it out.  A way to keep everyone from getting hurt, and—I don’t know.  I guess I screwed that one up, didn’t I?”

“I’m pretty sure I did a fairly bang-up job of screwing things up, too,” Tony replied. “I was the one who broke it off,” he pointed out.

“After I made you feel like you had to,” Steve replied, mouth twisting around the words.  “I’m sorry, Tony.  I never meant to make you feel that way.  That’s the last thing I wanted.  And I’d never leave you, not in a million years, not unless you wanted me to.”

“I don’t want you to!  I never did, not really,” Tony said, rubbing at his face with his hands to shake off the haze of emotions.  “It’s always been you for me.  I’m—I’m pretty sure it always will be.  If you want me.”

“If I want you?” Steve huffed in question.  “Being with you makes up for everything else.  A hundred-fold. It’s not even close.  I don’t think,” Steve stopped and reached up to rub at his forehead.  “I don’t know if I could do this if it wasn’t for you.  That’s…God, that’s not fair.  I just—there were days when making sure you were okay, it got me through one more day, you know?”

Tony didn’t know, actually.  He had no idea what Steve was talking about.  It was an odd way to put it, but Tony thought he understood where Steve was coming from.  He climbed out of the barstool and circled around the counter to reach Steve, finding himself pulled into a tight embrace without a word.  He clung to Steve or Steve to him, he wasn’t sure it mattered.  Finally, Tony peeled his head back and tipped his neck back to look up at Steve.

“I love you,” Tony said.  “It’s the morning, I’ve had coffee, so it counts.”

“I love you, too,” Steve replied.  “More than anything.  I have—there’s something I have to tell you, though, Tony.”

“Then you’ll tell me, and we’ll deal with it,” Tony shrugged.

“It’s not that simple,” Steve sighed, voice heavy.

“I love you.  You love me.  I’ll make it that simple,” Tony replied.  “Whatever it is, Steve, it’s okay.  You went out at, what, 6 a.m. and got me a milkshake and cheeseburger, which they don’t even serve until eleven?  You—you came to get me at some random party at fuck-all o’clock.  You stayed.  And you love me, and—and you think I’m strong,” Tony said, lifting Steve’s hand up to cover his heart.  “I’m not so great at liking myself sometimes.  Most of the time.  But, I think I could like the person you see.  I think I could like the person who is loved by Steve Rogers.  Maybe…maybe that’s good enough. For now. I think that could be enough. I think I could be enough.”

“You are,” Steve replied softly, bending down to brush his lips across Tony’s forehead in a light, warm tease.  “More than you can possibly understand.”

“In case I didn’t mention it last night, thank you for, ah, rescuing me and all,” Tony said.   “My hero,” Tony added, smiling shyly up at Steve.

Tony’s smile hung there for a moment, then his face froze, and he blinked up at Steve.  “Wha—wait.  Did I—I called you.  I called you last night and…”  Tony stepped back and shook his head, trying to jog loose whatever thought kept trying to unscramble itself.

“Tony,” Steve said, low and urgent with a plea.  “Let me explain.”

“I called you.  I called your work number, and—and you answered, but…” Tony trailed off, face screwing up into a confused frown.  “Oh my God.”

“Tony, please, just give me a second to expl—” Steve started.

“Oh my God.  Oh MY GOD, Steve!  The fuck?” Tony shouted, pulling back from the tangle of Steve’s arms and glaring up at him.  “You’re Captain America.  Holy shit. Holy shit, Steve! What the fuck is going on???” Tony demanded.

“Tony,” Steve said again, reaching out a hand to try to calm him, but Tony batted it away.

“You threw Ty through the ceiling,” Tony remembered.  “And tossed poor Thurston Howell the Third out into the hall like he was a ragdoll.  You’re gone for ‘work’ when weird shit goes down,” Tony continued, making air quotes with his fingers around the word work.  “And Captain America just happens to show up.  Oh my God, you saved me from the kidnappers.  You saved me, then you came to the house to—to what, check up on me?  And then you…you kept showing up.  Like the time with the airport ride and the chatter…fuck, there was really chatter wasn’t there?  Wait.  Do you have the shield?  Of course, you do. It’s in your art portfolio that I’m never allowed to look at because ‘you aren’t done with those pieces’ and oh my God, you’re Captain America.  Holy fucking shit.  Holy. Fucking. Shit!” Tony grated out. “How the hell did you not tell me?  We’ve been dating for two years!  Jesus. Wait.  I got that number from Nat’s phone, which means…”

“Nat’s Black Widow,” Steve sighed.

“Are you fucking kidding me with this?” Tony shouted, tossing up his hands and starting to pace.  “No, wait. That actually kind of makes sense.  Who else? Who else is involved in—in your little super-secret superhero club?”

“Sam is The Falcon,” Steve admitted, looking weary.

“Of course, he is.  Those wings suck, by the way, I’ve said that like five hundred times,” Tony reminded him.

“I know.  It really annoys him,” Steve replied, wiping the smile from his face with one hand, though not before Tony caught it and gave him an annoyed look. “Clint’s Hawkeye,” Steve said.

Clll----iint?!?” Tony squeaked out, his voice going high in disbelief.  “So that’s why he always beats me at darts.  What a dick.”

“I’m sorry,” Steve said.  “I wanted to tell you, so many times, but…”

“But?” Tony pressed.

“But,” Steve began with a sigh.  “We were just dating, and I didn’t know where it was going, and then, well.  You didn’t have clearance.  Fury—

“I knew he was shifty,” Tony cut in.

“Wanted to keep the whole superhero initiative on the down-low,” Steve continued.  “Plus, you could be a target, if too many people knew about you.”

“I’ve been a target my whole life, as you can attest, since you fucking rescued me, don’t give me that bullshit line,” Tony shot back.

“Then it got complicated,” Steve said.

“Oh, then it got complicated,” Tony parroted. “What happened then?”

“I fell in love with you,” Steve replied.

“Oh,” Tony said, momentarily thrown off course.  His anger dulled a bit as he digested the shock of it.  It wasn’t like he didn’t understand at least the concept of security clearances and a need-to-know.  He had grown up in the military industrial complex, after all.  Still, it rankled.

“Exactly. Oh.  I fell in love with you, and I knew I had to tell you the truth.  And I was.  Had it all planned.  And then D.C. happened,” Steve said.

“D.C.?  Oh, you mean that thing on the freeway, right? With the—you sent me to Clint’s farm,” Tony recalled.  “Why? Was I—was I in danger?”

“Yeah.  Yeah, you were.  A lot of people were.  But, I thought, maybe especially you,” Steve said, his voice going low and slow, like he was trudging uphill through the words.

“Why?” Tony asked, bewildered.

Steve turned his head to the side and looked down at the counter, one finger tracing a line along the edge.  “Because the man on the bridge, the one I fought, his name is Bucky Barnes, and I—I think he…he did some terrible things,” Steve said, dragging his gaze back to Tony.

“Bucky…Bucky Barnes?  As in Bucky Barnes. From…but, I mean you—holy fuck, you…Steve,” Tony stammered, the import of what Steve was saying, all of what Steve was saying, starting to dawn on him now that the anger and hurt and confusion was slowly dissipating. “Jesus, Steve, you…”

“Yeah,” Steve said grimly.  “They tortured him,” Steve continued, his voice shaking and eyes staring off into the distance.  “They turned him into something he never was.  You have to understand that, Tony.  It wasn’t him, not really, but…it was.”

“Barnes?” Tony asked, frowning in confusion.  Steve nodded. Not that he didn’t care about Barnes, but holy hell, Steve—Steve had to be…how was the guy even functioning?  He reached out for Steve, wrapping his hand around Steve’s where it had been picking at the edge of the counter, and pulled Steve to him.  “Hey.  Whatever—whatever it is, I’m right here, okay?”

“It was him that night,” Steve began.  Tony had a sudden, nearly overwhelming impulse to tell him to stop. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, and coldness spread down his back.  But, he forced the words back.  There had been too many secrets pulling them apart for too long.   “On the road back from the Pentagon.  Your father was transporting something—something that Hydra wanted—and so they sent Bucky,” Steve explained slowly.  “There couldn’t be any witnesses.  Do you understand what I’m telling you?”

Tony swallowed thickly and nodded once.

“Tony?” Steve said when Tony didn’t say anything.   

“I’m thinking,” Tony replied.  “My mom,” he said, sucking in a shaky breath. He wiped a hand across his eyes.

“Yes,” Steve acknowledged. "I'm so sorry, Tony.  More than I can say."

“It's just...I thought I was done having feelings about that,” Tony responded on a shaky breath that he couldn’t quite catch.  He closed his eyes for a moment and covered his face with his hands, then shook his head clear and dropped his arms to his sides.  “Jesus. Fuck.  You're Captain America.  The--the ice, and--and God, seventy years, Steve, fuck.  And now, you're telling me Howard didn't manage to slam them into tree all on his own, and Bucky Barnes...Sorry, I just, it's--it’s a lot to process at once.  I'm gonna need a minute here.  A week. A year, I don't know," Tony finished on a shaky breath, running a trembling hand through his hair.

“I know.  I know, and I’m so sorry, Tony,” Steve rushed out.  “I should have told you a long time ago. I didn’t know how to say it, and then…”

“Then I broke up with you, and you didn’t have to,” Tony filled in for him.  “Is that,” he broke off, blinking hard and biting his lip as he tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. “Is that why you didn’t argue? Didn’t try to…”

“Yes,” Steve said after a long moment.  “Losing you felt like no less than what I deserved.”

“But, you love me,” Tony said, lifting his eyes to Steve.

“More than anything,” Steve replied. “I was wrong.  I shouldn’t have let you go without telling you the truth and letting you decide.  I told myself you were happier without me.  You even said so, and as long as that was true, I could justify it to myself.   But, then you called, and I—I realized last night that you weren’t happy. And it was my fault.”

“My terrible life choices are hardly your fault, Steve,” Tony gently corrected.  “I didn’t have to go running to Ty the first sign of there being an issue with us, but I did.  I didn’t have to push you away the exact way I knew would work.  I did this, too.”  Steve shook his head and opened his mouth to protest.  Tony reached up and covered Steve’s lips with his hand, hushing him.  “How about, and I know this is wild, but how about we are both adults and we both made some bad choices here.  And maybe next time—next time there’s some issue,” Tony broke off, rolling his bottom lip between his teeth and sucking in a shuddering breath.  “Next time, we talk about it?” he suggested, dropping his hand back down to his side.

“You’re—you really—you still want to…even though you know about Bucky?” Steve asked.

“Jesus, Steve, I don’t even know what to do with that,” Tony huffed out.  “I’m going to need time. A lot of time. I can’t—I can’t deal with all of this right now.  It’s too much.  I just, I can't right now.  If I try, I'm going to fall apart.  Last night, and then this, and--I thought I put all that behind me, you know?  And now…you just have to give me time. And probably a lot of therapy.  Let’s face it, that’s not entirely unneeded,” Tony snorted, giving Steve a quick glance before lowering his eyes again.

“Okay,” Steve said.  “As long as you need.  Whatever you need.”

“I need you to stay,” Tony said, reaching out for the front of Steve’s shirt.  “I need you to stay with me, even if I push you away again.  Even if I’m horrible.  Because I can be, you know that.  I’m probably going to get really pissed about all of this when I can think straight again. Just…stay, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve replied. “I’ll stay.”

Tony leaned in to Steve’s chest and fisted his hands in the front of Steve’s shirt, tugging at it until Steve got the hint and wrapped his arms around Tony’s back in an embrace that got tighter the longer it went on.  It took Tony a moment to realize Steve was shaking.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Tony said.

“I thought I’d lost you,” Steve replied, drawing out a shaky breath from where his head bent into the shallow of Tony’s neck.

“You’ll always come and get me,” Tony reminded him gruffly.  Steve choked out a low, wet laugh and pulled Tony up against him, nearly lifting Tony off the floor.  Which he could do. Because he was Actual Fucking Captain America.  Tony let out an involuntary giggle.

“What?” Steve said, pulling back and looking askance down at Tony.

“Sorry.  Sorry. It’s just…I only realized,” Tony said quickly, then giggled again.  “It isn’t funny.  None of this is funny. It’s awful,” he laughed.

“What is?” Steve said, his frown slowing dissolving into a confused half-smile as Tony continued to grin up at him.

“I love you,” Tony said, his smile widening.  “This is ridiculous and crazy, and I love you.”  He stretched up on his tiptoes and pressed his mouth to Steve’s.  It took Steve a couple of seconds to catch on, but he returned Tony’s kiss with equal gusto when he did.

“I love you, too,” Steve told him when they finally broke apart.  “Care to fill me in on what’s so funny about this?” he asked with a bemused frown.

“It’s just…it’s stupid.  This inside joke thing. It’s funnier in my head.   I don’t know. It’s probably still the alcohol and whatever the fuck else was in that.  It’s—it’s just that I kind of just now realized,” Tony began, shaking his head and biting his lip as he gazed up at Steve.  “I’m Actually Fucking Captain America.”