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Steve finds him clutching the truth in his hands. 

Tony flinches when he hears his name called, dark apprehension taking root inside of him at the sound of Steve’s voice. It lifts into something cheery toward the end of his name. Too familiar, too much. Wrong.

He snaps the journal close but doesn’t bother to hide it from view as he spins around and finds Steve descending the last couple of basement stairs.

Even if he wanted to drag this out, watch Steve scramble to deny the truth, he wouldn’t be able to concoct any elaborate schemes. Reduced to base instincts, everything that’s left is noise: his heartbeat in his throat, Steve’s too-loud movements in a too-silent room, his thoughts a thrashing mass of whys, whens and hows.

Tony has revisited this riddle countless times, wanting to solve it, thinking he was going to go mad with the inability to and wished any of it would just make sense because there has to be a golden thread somewhere, right? Something that ties it all together, that makes it computable, measurable, quantifiable–

Reality, on the other hand, comes crashing into him in a tidal wave of nonsensical truths and pulls him under, and there underneath the surface, he sees that it's all been but the tip of the iceberg. 

"Steve.” His voice comes out flat and shaky because confrontation isn’t easy even when you’re on the interrogator’s side. "What is this?" 

Steve freezes in his step when he catches sight of the leather-bound book and that's about everything Tony needs to know. Finding the truth was supposed to be liberating. Freeing. It feels like shackles made in an attempt to be free.

They stare at each other for a beat. 

"Everything that happened, everything that would happen–did you know?" 

Steve’s expression remains suspiciously neutral. "I don't… What are you talking about, Tony?" 

"Don't bullshit me, Rogers," he hisses, voice tight and vicious with suppressed anger clawing itself to the surface. 

And it's this, out of all things, that gets a genuine reaction out of the man. He jerks back like each word is a punch and each punch hits the same broken bone. An open fracture, bared to the world. 

"Did you know?" 

The words are a magic spell that possesses him to tell the truth. In one smooth motion, he draws himself up taller, squares his shoulders. He draws in a deep breath and his right hand flexes by his side. Ready: for battle, to kill or be killed. 




“Ugh." Tony stretches, wincing as something in his back pops. "What time do we have, J?”

The ensuing silence drags on for the better part of ten seconds. Tony glances at the clock on the screen, about to remark that 1 am isn't late enough to justify the silent treatment, and then recalls that JARVIS couldn’t respond even if ordered to. Tony sighs and rubs his eyes, the burnt skin on the back of his hand pulling uncomfortably. Someone should remind him not to play with fire without J around to babysit.

Server maintenance has an annoying habit of bringing to mind how much his A.I. isn't just all glib repartees to counter his snark. A weekend is what it takes these days, on account of JARVIS having become a little chunky over the years. No shame in that, but he’s definitely due for a defrag again. That should shave off at least a few petabytes. 

With a sigh aimed at no one, Tony calls it a day and pats DUM-E in passing as he exits the workshop. His concentration nosedived a while ago and he should put something on that burn. Steve's bound to get back home soon and if he sees it, he’ll scowl at Tony in that half-concerned, half-disappointed way of his and won't be persuaded into reunion sex until he’s played nurse.

Tony takes a quick shower and then fetches the first aid kit from the bathroom cabinet. As he slathers some ointment on and haphazardly wrapps it all in gauze, he reminisces about their last conversation on the phone. 

Steve pretended to be nothing more than exhausted, but frustration slipped into his tone at some point. Not without reason, either: they’ve been after the twins for close to a month with nothing lost and nothing gained. Natasha and Bucky usually manage to dig up new leads, but the Maximoff pair spooked badly after their last toe-to-toe. 

(Barnes was different. Their forever-to-remain-anonymous informant–Tony guesses a rat or someone with cold feet–pointed them toward a computerized Arnim Zola when SHIELD was still nazi-infested. Aside from the minor detail that HYDRA had taken Bucky against his will, well. It was also a lot more personal. Finding out about his parents was a lot on its own. Accepting that the hands of their murderer belonged to a man who was as much of a victim as they were? That took some time to digest.)

Tony wills himself to move on from the topic and climbs into bed. Steve’s smell has faded from his pillow a few weeks ago, but he hugs it to his chest anyway, curling around it as much as humanly possible. It’s not long until he slips into the haze that precedes sleep, teetering on the brink to oblivion.

The mattress dips behind him. Tony tightens his hold around the pillow and mumbles some garbled sounds into the stuffing he hopes communicates his disgruntlement to whoever pulled him back into consciousness. Is this how Steve feels when Tony keeps his ungodly hours? He should know best to be more quiet, then. 

Tony frowns. There’s something wrong with that thought, which is–Steve never gets into bed that late.

Steve is also in Europe. On the other side of the Atlantic. Or was, past tense, as the lips on his neck and the scratch of a beard tickling his skin suggest.

Tony hums appreciatively as Steve draws a line of kisses down his neck. It’s rare Steve lets his facial hair grow out at all–which is a damn shame, because God–but it goes a long way toward making him appear inconspicuous. Tony is pretty sure the only reason Steve didn’t shave it off earlier is to indulge him, which gives him all sorts of thoughts on how to make the most of this rare occurrence.

Tony smirks into the pillow when he feels Steve’s erection press against the small of his back, a line of heat that brings the promise of a good time. He bows his back a little, lets his head roll onto Steve’s shoulder and groans appreciatively when Steve leans down to suck a mark into his exposed throat.

“Someone’s missed me,” Tony mumbles, hears the smile in his own voice. It's not just Steve, either: three weeks have the potential to feel like an eternity, he’s found. It really isn’t fair, having hours of recordings to supply his spank bank but knowing that nothing will come close to the real thing. 

Steve hums in wordless agreement. His hand moves down Tony’s chest with sure, determined pressure that has a renewed burst of heat flare up in his gut. Steve’s always been an unexpectedly assertive lover and Tony, well–he’s always been more than willing to comply.

The hand slips under the seam of his boxers and wraps around his half-hard dick without much preamble. Tony groans and bucks into his hold, unashamed. Steve chuckles a little, a quiet and intimate sound that sends a wisp of air brushing across Tony’s jaw. 

Tony turns his head to smash their lips together. He relishes in the way Steve licks into his mouth, gentle and slow like he rarely is when they’re together like this. It’s almost as though he’s trying to find their rhythm again, cautious, probing with care. 

Steve is gasping when he breaks the kiss and leans away, but not long enough for Tony to take a proper look at him. Still breathing wetly against his mouth, Steve dives back in, now with an edge to the kiss that tells Tony everything he needs to know about the outcome of the mission. 

When Steve lets go of his cock, Tony whines. He’s not embarrassed. Going from at least once every other day to involuntary celibacy for close to a month takes a toll. Steve pushes him flat onto his stomach–no comment, no playful banter, nothing to play off of. Tony bites his lips and grinds his hips into the mattress, making sure to flex his ass when Steve goes to pull away his underwear.

The air is cool against his heated skin, and Steve’s fingers suddenly teasing against his hole are slick and unexpected. Tony gasps into the pillow and pushes against the finger. Yes.  

“C’mon,” he demands, voice just on this side of desperate. He pushes back against the palm resting on his asscheek, wiggles a little, and hears Steve draw in a sharp breath. Oh, Tony is very aware he isn't the only one who's had a tough month. 

Steve's thumb massages his pucker, gentle at first but pushing past his rim every once in a while. Tony releases a long, satisfied sigh when he finally sheathes one thick digit in him and slowly fucks it deeper. He keeps grinding his erection against the sheets down below. Steve lets him. At two fingers, Tony groans, impatience and want intermingling. Steve doesn’t have it in him to refuse his silent demands; he gives him another one. It burns for a few strokes, which just stokes the arousal coiling in Tony's gut. 

He knows Steve’s willpower is wearing thin, can feel it in the harsher, faster thrust of the fingers in him and the way his breathing picks up. “I’m done, c’mon, it’s been so long, Steve–”

This is everything it takes to break his resolve. Tony is pleased. Steve pulls his fingers out, other hand spreading him open, and Tony knows he’s watching. His face is hot. Steve has barely grazed his prostate and the pull in his groin is already all too palpable. He clenches a little around Steve’s fingers as they slip out. Steve groans, deep in his chest, evidently at both the sight and feel of it. Tony knows how to make him weak alright.

And finally, finally, he nudges Tony’s legs apart and positions himself behind, pulling Tony's rear end further up to meet his pelvis. Tony moans at the feel of the thick length against his thigh, feels the moisture of precome smeared against his skin. It’s a heady feeling, to be wanted this much, and he doesn’t think he’ll ever quite get over it.

Steve rubs the globes of his ass and then pulls them apart. After a few seconds of teasing his slicked length up and down his crack, Steve presses against his hole with intent. Tony bites back something he knows would’ve been a needy whine. 

With a little force, Tony’s body gives and he slides in, slick and hot and good. Anyone who says a fake dick is practically the same thing is lying to themselves. Fuck. Tony exhales a shuddery breath into the pillow, arches his back a little bit more. As Steve glides deeper and passes over his prostate, he can't stifle the long, wanton keen that seeps out of him. 

“Missed you, Tony,” Steve says. He's close, bowed over Tony’s back, his warmth surrounding him. The words have a reverent, desperate quality to them that makes something in Tony’s chest stir. 

As their bodies meet, joined so tightly you couldn't fit a sheet of paper between them, Steve lets them catch their breath for a second. He places fleeting pecks across Tony’s shoulders, ghosts of kisses as tender as he’s ever been, the beard a magnificent contrast to the softness of his lips. (Tomorrow, he’s going to want that between his thighs. No self-respecting man passes up some good beard burn.)

His breath flows across Tony’s skin in gentle puffs as he whispers, almost inaudible, “Missed you so much, y’don’t even know.”

He drags his hips back, barely enough for Tony to tell a difference, and then pushes back, working them up to an actual fucking. The tenderness surprises him–there’s still an understated urgency, but ultimately, Steve’s slow and gentle, rubs his hands up and down Tony’s sides, legs and everywhere else he can reach. Tony fists one hand in the bedsheets and holds onto the back of Steve's thigh with the other, needing the contact. 

Steve's pace grows more confident after a while, long pulls and deep pushes that leave Tony breathless. He’s close already–a little harder and a hand on his cock might tip him over the edge. Tony considers telling him to go slow, doesn't want it to be over so soon, but then Steve grips his hips in earnest and starts pulling Tony back onto him in time with his more urgent thrusts and the thought evaporates into nothing. Instead of words everything that comes out of him are small, needy noises that keep rising in pitch, Steve wringing his pleasure out of him with each movement. 

Tony brings both hands up to hold onto the pillow. Steve folds over him, all heat and tight muscle, and interweaves their fingers. Tony keeps his ass canted up as much as he can, but at a particularly hard thrust, Steve shoves him flat against the bed and that's that. 

He's so full and he's been ready to burst practically since the beginning, so when his cock drags against the rough cotton of the bedsheet with every push–well, it's over quickly. 

Steve captures Tony's surprised moan in a kiss, his tongue and dick claiming him as Tony comes apart underneath them. And then, as Tony is panting and shuddering against him, Steve follows him over the ledge, Tony's muscles working around him. 

Tony gasps as he comes down and finds Steve shallowly fucking into him, riding out the last waves of pleasure. His pulse is still knocking against his throat and there's a pleasant blur to his sight, a little bit of cotton softening the edges of his every sensation. He groans as Steve slips out, and blinks in wonder at the lacking trickle of spunk he's been expecting. 

Indeed, when Tony rolls over and blinks at Steve, he rolls a condom off his soft cock. Hm. Tony made a mess anyway, so that hasn't helped much. With a content sigh, he lets Steve drag a blanket over them, the sweat cooling now. He rolls into the other man's chest with a happy hum. 

"Welcome back," Tony mumbles. "Love you." 

Steve stiffens but then holds him tighter, almost in a clutch. Tony doesn't hear his answer. 

Sleep is just around the corner, and he drifts off quickly.

Tony wakes to an empty bed, a blue sky behind the city skyline and aches in places that have his morning wood twitch when he thinks about how they came to be. 

He’s only a little offended that Steve thought it acceptable to skip the morning cuddles. Tony allows himself to lounge for a while, peels the sheets off and lets the sunlight warm his skin. Only for a while, because then he sees the number blinking at him from the digital clock on the nightstand and figures he’ll at least be in for some pancakes if he gets up now.

And he’s right: in the kitchen is Steve, performing an artful dough-flip. He must’ve heard him approach, but seems to be too preoccupied to lift his head until Tony slips into his field of view. His subdued smile grows tenfold when he lays eyes on Tony. It’s an easy smile to return. Tony settles at the kitchen island, making grabby hands at the steaming jug already sitting by the coffee maker.

It takes approximately 74 seconds, 140 mg of caffeine and Steve pulling him across the counter to press a kiss and a mumbled “I couldn’t ask for a more enthusiastic welcoming committee” to his lips for Tony to notice all things strange about the picture greeting him.

Steve’s in a uniform that looks like it hasn’t been in the wash or patched up in a hot minute. There’s a smudge of dirt across his clean-shaven cheek. His expression, though mostly smooth and neutral, says he feels put out about something or other. And his voice, now that Tony replays the words in his head, sounded more piqued than playful.

What are the odds he slept through an unannounced, late-night call to assemble that left Steve looking like this? More importantly, if the situation was that dire, why wasn’t Tony invited?

Tony slides his empty cup across the island and receives a helping of pancakes in return. He should probably ask what that’s about, but Steve’s words have presented him with the perfect opening and he’d be a fool not to make use of it. 

“Is this your way of telling me last night wasn’t enough for you? Cheeky, Rogers.”

To his immense disappointment, the flirtation doesn’t get the desired response. “Last–?” Steve’s brows draw together and his mouth falls agape as he forms the word with his lips. “We landed the quinjet fifteen minutes ago.”

It’s Tony’s turn to frown now. His huff is accompanied by the creak of the barstool as he leans back and promptly learns to regret putting more pressure on his behind. “I think my ass can testify to your being here last night.”

Steve slows; hIs movements are oddly calculated as he turns off the stove and adds the last pancake to his own stack. “Tony, what do you–” He cuts himself off and shoots Tony a stern look. “Did you pass out in the workshop and hurt yourself again?”

Tony keeps his jaw from falling open just so. O-kay. What’s that now?


Steve sighs, fondly exasperated, misconceiving his tentative denial as a joke. “I’m honored your dreams are so vivid when I’m not around, but you promised me to be more careful.”

Tony blinks down at his breakfast, a little dumbfounded and suddenly without appetite. He flexes his fingers. The bandage around his hand isn’t exactly conducive to making him seem more responsible. He shifts in his seat again and winces. Yeah, no, this particular flavor of ache isn’t workshop-related–unless one were to count getting railed over the workbench as a workshop-related incident, which he isn’t. 

Steve makes an inquisitive noise through his next bite of pancake, asking for a reply. It crosses Tony’s mind that the unease prickling under his skin is something he should be taking a closer look at, but he brushes it away against his better judgement. Stranger things have happened, right? 

“Yeah, I know. Sorry,” he answers and pushes down the swell of guilt as soon as it burgeons in his chest. No need to agonize about a lie of omission when there’s nothing substantial to hide. “That was one hell of a dream.”

He receives a kiss on the cheek and a smile-almost-leer that makes something in his gut stir awake, chasing the discomfort away for the moment. Steve nibbles at his earlobe, his breath cool on the spit-wet skin when he says, “I trust you’ll tell me all about it later.”

Later, Tony gets into the shower and washes off the confusion alongside yesterday’s sweat. There’s rarely a time the whole team is around the tower at the same time, and he’s looking forward to spending the obligatory movie night with them. Refreshed, he hums a little tune as he dries himself off.

The sound gets stuck in his throat as he catches his reflection in the mirror. His gaze is drawn to the blue-purple splotches on his hip and the finger-shaped bruises wrapping around his waist. Like Steve’s hands did yesterday. 

As though his reflection could tell lies, he looks down to check whether the marks are there on his physical body as well–and feels all air escape his lungs when they match the image in the mirror.

One hell of a dream.

Tony takes another shower.

Days pass. He doesn’t, as promised, tell Steve all about it.

Weeks pass. Tony tells himself he’ll come out with it, but one day the bruises have faded and he shrugs it off.

Nothing else happens.

The Cilento Coast is a colorful dichotomy of rocky cliffs and endless cliffside beaches, with all the same charme of Amalfi but plagued by only a fraction of the tourists flocking to the more popular regions of Salerno.

Spring in Italy comes with pleasant warmth: the days are slow, the weather is magnificent and his company–Steve and then nobody for miles on end–leaves nothing whatsoever to be desired.

For breakfast, they sit outside on the terracotta-tiled terrace under a canopy grown over with wine. He'll enjoy his first sunbath under the gentle, early rays of the sun as it rises in the east, and listens to the waves crash against the shore down below. 

When it gets warmer, they'll follow a footpath to a weather-worn staircase nestled into the rock of the cliff. This bay doesn’t get any visitors but the two of them and they make the most of it: Tony forgot his swim trunks once and he's forgone them ever since. Out here, you can taste the ocean on the back of your tongue and the salt on your skin. (In all fairness, Steve’s tastes like sunscreen more than anything, but Tony isn't about to be deterred.)

As afternoon blends into evening, crickets chirp and seagulls cry. Some nights, they find a bite to eat in a cozy restaurant in a sleepy, little town nearby. The staff is always delighted to find him ordering in fluent Italian, Steve loves to watch him have animated exchanges with them, and the food takes Tony back to the brighter days of his childhood. More often than not though, they'll stay in, cooking and existing just by themselves. Night falls quickly and fireflies swarm the patch of wildflowers next to the patio, their lights mingling with the bright dots of faraway neighborhoods on the other side of the coast. 

Tony can't remember the last time or place he's been so at peace as he is out here. 

The last weeks were quite the journey, and this getaway isn't only the perfect opportunity to relax for a bit but a much-needed reminder that they'd do well to take some time for themselves more often. Tony doesn't want to have to wait for the next time Thaddeus Ross practically strangles him with red tape to go on a vacation again. 

Not that he isn't glad they got the matter resolved. The Maximoffs aren't off the hook, but that isn't what getting them under the Avengers' care was about in any case. As long as they have any say in it, these kids won’t be rotting in a supermax for the rest of their days–because the place is, if Ross' word is to be believed, as super-secret as its inhabitants are powered, and nobody who goes in ever leaves.

As it turns out, joining a glorified coalition of neo-nazis gets you pretty far up on the UN's shitlist, so the initial skepticism was to be expected. If there's one thing Tony hates it's bureaucracy, but damn him if he's going to disallow someone the chance to atone for past mistakes. (Without redemption, what would he be? Just the man who killed the last generation of Maximoffs?) 

Today, it’s late when they pack and leave the beach. The sun’s glowing orb melts into the ocean as they climb the cliffside staircase. On the way back to the house, there's bootprints on the trail that weren't there before, and Tony gets pulled out of his musings.

When he slows, Steve notices the imprints in the dry grass as well and looks around, then shrugs. 

"Hikers, probably." 

"Think they saw us?" 

They might've made enough noise to alert someone in the vicinity to their presence. He wonders how that looked from a distance–bouncing on Steve's dick, throwing his head back, sweaty in a way that had nothing to do with the sunny weather.

Steve laughs when he sees him bite his lip, obviously hung up on the thought. 

They make love again later, under the full moon that hangs low and bright over the hills in the distance. Just for a moment, Tony gets distracted by the strange glitter of moonlight against the grass–it’s bright and concentrated as though reflected off a surface–but the thought gets chased away by another kiss. 

Nobody is around here during these hours, not even hikers, and yet Tony's exhibitionist streak gets a little kick out of being outside and bare. If there’s a bad influence between them, it’s Steve, because there’s no doubt in Tony’s mind that he can tell and is enabling him. 

The next morning, Tony stirs awake when Steve slips out of bed. 

He grumbles a little but enjoys the pleasant warmth trapped under the covers despite the noticeable lack of Steve's familiar shape next to him. (He hasn't given up hoping for a day their tumble in the sheets will burn off enough energy for Steve to skip his thirteen morning miles. It'll be like Christmas, but better.) 

After a while, Tony trots down to the kitchen, stretching his arms over his head through a content yawn. The first order of business is coffee, but then he decides to take a shot at breakfast again. He's been told his last batch of omelets was only a minor insult to a self-respecting person's taste buds. 

Tony is in the process of double-checking the ingredients on his phone when the door to the patio creaks open in the adjoining living room. He frowns a little at the time displayed on his screen–it's been no more than ten minutes since Steve left–but keeps scrolling through the recipe, undeterred. 

Arms wrap around him from behind. 

Tony smiles as Steve nuzzles into his neck, about to question what made him return early, and then sounds a surprised little huff when the other man presses their bodies together and there's a telltale hardness straining against his low back. 

"Hello, handso–oh–mmh, okay," he chuckles, breathlessly. Steve’s hands leave his waist and undo the knot in the cord holding his sweatpants up. "Okay, that's happening now."

It's sudden, but Tony sure isn't opposed to it. When is he ever? His dick is already beginning to harden, pressed against the kitchen counter, and he groans as he rocks into it and then into Steve's hand as it cups him through his boxers.

“Couldn’t wait any longer,” Steve says, as though their last time wasn’t just nine hours ago, and presses open-mouthed kisses to the back of Tony’s neck. There's a distant strain in his voice that gives Tony pause, but it’s hard to think with Steve’s hands down his pants. 

Tony most definitely has a few questions–because while Steve can be spontaneous when he wants to be, this is something else–but he doesn’t much care about anything once Steve’s other hand worms down the back of his sweats. He squeezes the softness there a few times in tandem with his fingers tightening around Tony’s cock, and–oh, Tony has a feeling this isn’t going to last long.

Steve likes to take his time and drag the main event out as much as he himself can bear it, but this time, his movements are hasty and a little jerky, as though he can’t stand to waste even one second. Tony hears him spit into his palm and then shove his hand back down again. His cock twitches in anticipation.

As loose as he is, he doesn't need much prep. 

Steve, though–Steve fucks his fingers in and out not even a handful of times before he pulls out entirely and rips Tony's pants down. Tony gasps, both in surprise and want, and willingly cants his hips up when Steve bows him further across the counter with a hand on the small of his back. Really, he has no choice but to obey, and that–

"Steve," he moans, dropping his head and clawing the edge of the sink to his right as Steve teases his cockhead into the cleft of his ass. 

He’s slicked with only spit, and Steve presses bruises into the skin where he’s holding him open. The tip of his cock nudges Tony’s opening immediately–Tony hardly has time to take a breath and try to relax. Steve pushes in, and not slow either, opening him up with sheer force of will. And then just force. 

Tony whimpers when something pulls inside, a resistance that Steve, although he must feel it too, completely disregards. He breathes out Steve’s name, his voice an octave higher due to either shock or pain. Steve doesn't stop or even falter. He works himself deeper in tiny rocking motions, and Tony feels more raw and open with each one.

Part of him doesn't like it. It's not a pleasant pain. Steve is never this inconsiderate, and Tony wants to ask what the hell has gotten into him when just yesterday, Steve asked "You ready?" and shot him a reproving look when Tony nodded eagerly, knowing he wasn't, and continued to stretch him without another word. 

Tony wonders where that Steve has gone. 

For a moment, he's uneasy. There's copper on his tongue when he swipes it over the patch of skin he's gnawed the top layer off. Steve's hands dig into his hips and Tony thinks, morbidly, that this man could crush him and take him without breaking a sweat and Tony would be able to do nothing at all. 

And then Tony thinks that same thought again and this time it creates a little spark that sets something aflame inside of him. 

It's painful and it hurts and it's–arousing in a way it's never been between the two of them. Steve has never been like this because he just isn't. This is so different and dirty and wrong that Tony almost comes right then, when Steve's length drags past his prostate and the pain enmeshes with a sudden surge of pleasure. 

Fuck, he wants this. He might want it a little too much. 

"That's it, give it to me," he hears himself mumble through a breathy exhale, followed by a mewl when Steve obliges. (Tony is sure he would've shoved back in with the exact same amount of force even if Tony hadn't asked, which only fuels his want.) 

"Gonna make you take it, Tony." The words come out in time with his movements, hard and in increments, again and again, his hips pistoning back and forth. "'m gonna give you all of me and you're going to take it." 

"Yes," he gasps out, his voice carrying a desperate edge. At a particularly rough thrust, he slams his fist onto the counter, curls his fingers so hard his nails cut into his palm, the sole outlet for his wanton fervor. "Fuck, do it, don't stop–don't want you to stop even if I tell you–" 

And he doesn't know where that notion came from, is positive it wasn't there a moment ago, but now it is and he craves

"Mine, Tony." Shit, that’s a growl. Tony's knees buckle. He struggles to hold himself upright with the way Steve keeps thrusting into him with his whole body, and the caveman act isn't helping. 

Tony meets his next thrust with a hard shove and almost doubles over when Steve cock glides over his sweet spot all the way through. The sound that escapes him is half moan and half breathless laugh. This is filthy, and he’s into it so much he already knows there will be an epiphany or two waiting for him when they're done. 

"Yeah. Yes. Only–ah–yours–" 

Steve groans, if because of the words or the way Tony keeps clenching around him–he’s already so damn close–Tony isn’t sure, and he isn’t sure he cares. He cares about the way Steve’s grip tightens around his waist, how he bites into Tony’s shoulder and doesn’t let up, how his breathing grows labored and choppy because he’s close too.

Steve might smash his face into the counter and simply keep going if Tony lets go to wrap a hand around his weeping dick and fails to steady himself because of it, so everything he can do is rub himself off on the protruding edge of the cutlery drawer. It requires him to hitch his hips forward a little, which in turn makes Steve chase his heat until he’s pressed flush against the counter. It’s good, so good, and the sensations keep piling up, both teeth and fingers digging into his skin, marking him, and fuck–

They're out of rhythm. Everything is uncoordinated and messy, but Tony bucks back against him and then Steve bows him further over the counter, and somehow it’s one of the hottest things he’s ever done. Steve’s hands fit themselves over Tony’s that are still gripping the edge of the counter for all he’s worth. 

The new angle is his undoing: Steve catches on his prostate with every other thrust. Tony spreads his legs, can’t do much else now that Steve's caged him like this. No escape, nowhere to go–it’s a thought that makes him shudder with pleasure.

Tony can’t hold back anymore and doesn’t bother to. He lets the torrent swallow him, drowns in Steve and his need for him and moans out a guttural, ugly noise that seems to do it for Steve. Feeling him spill inside chases another prickling surge of arousal through Tony. His own jizz splashes against the counter and onto himself, and Steve keeps fucking him through his own climax until there's nothing left to chase. 

Their gasps and the wet slap of their bodies, the slide eased by Steve’s copious amounts of come, are the symphony of their pleasure, a filthy thing that makes Tony think more, even though there's no way he could get it up again right now. 

Steve is breathing heavily in his ear when he finally slows. Tony’s arms shake and he utters a surprised yelp as Steve releases him and he barely manages to keep himself from falling. One hand squeezes his neck and brushes down his spine before it falls away, only the shadow of it lingering in the shape of gooseflesh covering Tony’s skin. 

“I’ll go on that run now,” Steve says, pulls out and leaves Tony standing there, trembling and messy and used.

When he gathers the strength to turn around, the kitchen is empty. Steve is gone like he said, has disappeared as quietly as he came. 

“Holy shit,” Tony mutters to himself. What was that? 

He does an inventory of the various aches in his body–there’s his ass, for one, but his hips and waist and shoulder are some of the main sources as well. He’s definitely marked as Steve’s now, that’s for sure. With an incredulous little chuckle, he pulls his sweats back up and hobbles up to the bathroom. 

Whatever Steve has planned for them today, he’s more than intrigued now. Tony is never opposed to spicing up their sex life. He winces a little as he strips himself and several pains make themselves known. Hell, as long as they come with a mind-blowing orgasm, he’ll take them any day. 

Clean and sated, he goes back downstairs–not before admiring the many marks littering his body in the mirror–and decides to get started on those omelets anyway. (After he’s cleaned the kitchen, because while they might not be grossed out by each other’s bodily fluids, he’d still like a sperm-less breakfast.) 

Tony whistles a little tune to himself when he hears Steve return. He’s just finished the first batch of omelets. They're far from perfect but edible, and that's everything that can be asked of him. 

Steve smiles at him as he enters, sweat causing his running gear to stick to him in a way that makes Tony turn his head to watch him cross the kitchen. He presses a kiss to Tony’s cheek in passing as he fetches a gatorade from the fridge and then disappears upstairs without another word.

Why, this promises to be interesting.

Tony sets the table for them and finishes cooking in time with Steve appearing in the doorway. Steve sits down with a grateful smile and doesn’t seem to be noticing Tony’s suppressed flinch when he takes a seat across from him–maybe because he’s preoccupied poking his omelet and taking a tentative bite. 

His face lights up when he starts chewing. “These aren’t bad,” he says, with no small amount of surprise. Tony would be offended if he himself hadn’t had the same reaction to his unlikely culinary success. 

Steve doesn’t make any off-hand comments, doesn’t even shoot him a telling smirk or any of these other things Tony thought he would be on the receiving end of. Yet again, he defies expectations, and Tony–likes this pattern of not being able to predict what comes next.

"You okay?" 

That sure is a strange thing to be asking when you fucked someone’s brains out less than an hour ago.

"More than," Tony says around a mouthful of omelet. He grins and knows it's more likely to be a leer. "I don't know what you're gunning for with this, but it's kinda hot. Actually, not knowing is what elevates it to the next level."

Steve stops chewing for a moment. When he resumes, he lifts a questioning eyebrow. 

Tony gestures between them animatedly. "This," he clarifies. "Jumping me in the kitchen. Disappearing. Coming back and pretending nothing happened?"

The fold between Steve's brows deepens. Set on keeping up the play, then. He puts his fork down and lays his hands facedown on the table, but instead of matching Tony's playful tone, the words that come out of him are serious. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Okay, come on," Tony huffs, rolling his eyes. "I'm always down for some power play, but you have to give me a little more to work with."

Steve's eyebrows finally uncouple from another, but it's only to travel all the way up his forehead instead. His gaze flits over Tony’s features, almost like he’s searching for something to indicate that Tony is making a joke at his expense.

“Whatever you think is happening, I’m not even remotely in the loop." 

His voice is slow and calm in that very same way you’d explain something to a child, but there’s an underlying urgency. Tony snorts, affronted. The piece of omelet he just stuffed into his mouth is only half chewed but he swallows it anyway. Predictably, it hurts going down, and Tony pounds his chest with a fist to relieve the pain. 

"I feel like I'm talking to a wall," he croaks through a cough. "Steve. You came onto me, right here. Then you came in me, and then you up and left–"

Tony's grin dies. "...why are you shaking your head?" 

"Tony, I left you in the bedroom and came back fifteen minutes ago. We didn't have sex." When Tony only stares, he sighs. "I'm happy your wet dreams are so photorealistic, but you sound a little out of it right now."

"It wasn't– You were right here. I wasn't dreaming."


"Do you want me to go upstairs and get my jizzed up pants from the hamper? Because I'll go and get them if you need physical evidence. There's paper towels in the bin because I came all over the– I'm not fucking delusional, Steve, I–" 

Tony throws his fork down and pulls at the wide collar of his shirt to expose the teeth marks on his shoulder. Steve's eyes widen, and it would be comical were his expression not so very far from anything qualifying as humor. 

The realization comes to him in a rush. 

"Oh, God." Tony pushes his chair away from the table and turns away, hunching over to bury his face in his hands. His stomach flips upside down. There's not enough air in the room. 

Oh God, he wanted it. He begged for it. Someone with Steve’s voice and face broke into their house and he spread his legs and got off on being violated. 


"Talk to me, Tony." 

The request is quiet. It’s how Steve gets when he’s tense: flat-voiced, no nonsense. (But then, who is Tony to say what is unique to Steve and what isn’t? As evidenced, he’s easily fooled.)

"I don't know what I– I didn't think anything of it, or I did but I didn't know how to bring it up and it happened again and I should've told you but I didn't," he says in a rush, the words muffled in his palms but without doubt still intelligible to Steve. 

There's the scrape of a chair against the floor and then a hand comes to rest on his shoulder cautiously, as if Steve isn't sure whether it's a comfort or will only fuel his anxiety. Funnily enough, Tony doesn't know either. 

He drops his hands back into his lap and lifts his head to glance at Steve, whose pinched features are lined with worry and a looming apprehension that sucks the oxygen out of the room. Tony can't bear to look at him for the next part, so he keeps his eyes fixed to his hands, watching as they undo the stitches of a thread on the inseam of his sweatpants. 

"Remember that time you got back from Europe and I was convinced you came back the night before?" 

There's a momentary silence. When the similarities become evident, Steve releases a slow breath through his teeth. Now that a correlation between the two is on the table, the amount of possible implications are overwhelming. Little does he know the worst is yet to come. 

"There's something I didn't... tell you. I had bruises. I thought maybe they weren’t from that night, maybe it wasn't what I thought it was, so I just…" 

His skin is crawling. He feels sick. Tony eyes the sink and swallows a mouthful of bile. 

The hand on his shoulder disappears, and then Steve's up on his feet, taking a staggering step back as he spreads his arms. "Jesus Christ, Tony!” The words are intercut by a disbelieving, sudden half-laugh. “What else is there? Why did you never tell me?" 

"Gee, I don't know, maybe because I sound like I've got a screw loose? I mean, what, your doppelgänger invading our home life? You gotta admit that’s pretty out there. Hence I figured, benefit of the doubt. So what if the bruises look like handprints? Nothing else happened and I wrote it off as a weird coincidence. And it was, it was just that. Until…"

He shifts on the chair and realizes his mistake a little too late. The movement sends another spike of discomfort from his raw asshole up his spine. Because he let someone bend him over and fuck him raw to the point of agony and he liked it. Wanted to be wrecked and desecrated even when there were so many things hinting at the inherent wrongness of the act, and he’s a sick bastard, isn’t he, fuck–

Tony rushes to the kitchen and throws up his breakfast. His stomach rejects everything he’s eaten until it's contracting around nothing and he's dry heaving into the sink. When it’s over, there’s tears in his eyes and the sharp burn of acid in his mouth, and Tony hangs there over the drain for a moment, suspecting the peace treaty of being a ceasefire.

With wobbly legs, he straightens and leans his back against the counter. Steve passes him a glass of water from the pitcher on the table and steps back again, hands on his hips, as if he isn't sure whether he's allowed in Tony's space. Steve looks away, drops his chin to his chest. He licks his lips and hesitates for another moment before he raises his head. 

"You're not… on anything, right?" he asks, all soft and cautious like he hasn’t just implied Tony's been hiding an addiction to hallucinogens for years on end. 

Tony barks an incredulous laugh. "Are you seriously asking–" 

“Yes? No? I don't think you're doing drugs. But this is–this is a lot, Tony. "

"I'm sorry, you think it's a lot? I had some of our best sex with someone who isn't you, but I'm sure this is really hard on your sanity."

Steve's expression shutters off and Tony immediately regrets everything that ever came out of his mouth. He shakes his head and lifts a hand in a placating gesture. It's shaking. Steve's already seen but Tony hides it in his front pocket anyway, self-conscious. 

"Sorry. I know you didn't mean it like that. But I can't, I mean–I wish this was an acid trip. Would leave a hell of a lot less questions unanswered."

After a moment, Steve nods and squares his jaw, already formulating a plan in his mind. "Okay, I'll… I'll do a round of the house and check the locks, and then we can go through everything that happened one thing at a time. We'll figure this out." 

Tony can't help but scoff. "Whoever we're dealing with here had no problem getting undetected into the 82nd floor of one of the safest buildings on Earth. Do we really think a lock is going to keep them out?" 

Steve's swallows, his expression suddenly turning less determined and more miserable. "Well, I didn’t get an opportunity to do anything that might have mattered and there's an asshole wearing my face running around and taking advantage of you, so can I just… have this?"

The guilt in his eyes gives Tony pause. He nods through a sigh. Steve disappears to do as he said and Tony takes a walk around the house as well, not expecting to find much. 

Over by the terrace are fresh bootprints in the grass. 

Tony sells the beach house on such short notice the quote he gets should be considered theft. 

He ignores Pepper's calls and question mark-riddled Emails. 

If he’s more distant, jumpy and irritable than ever before, Steve doesn’t call him on it. At first.

They have him strapped to a table. 

His stomach lurches because he thinks, operating table, and he hasn't had what you’d call a good track record with those. 

What's above him is worse than what is below. There's five of him, back-lit by glaring, fluorescent light, bowed over Tony. Their faces are carbon copies and yet at the same time grotesque imitations of someone Tony has loved for so long the fear that chokes him feels wrong, a foreign object in a space that was once reserved for good things only. 

That space he carved out for Steve is tainted now–wrong, it's all wrong, everything is wrong. The eight arms of the emblem stretch across each of their chests like the star once did. A caricature. Five skulls for five men. Tony doesn't know why he ever assumed there would be just one. 

The more the merrier, after all. 

"Why would they stop at one if they can have five? Ten? An army?" Steve #3 at his right smiles a shark's smile, and Tony is positive he hasn't spoken a word (because he won’t give them this too) but he's as much of an open book to them as he's ever been. 

"I didn't figure you this naïve, Tony," says another at his left, brushing a hand over his throat in a gentle threat. His breathing falters and stutters to a halt all on its own. Tony squeezes his eyes shut and tries to force air back into his lungs.

The next time he looks down, he's naked. 

There's hands everywhere, voices in his ear, close, overlapping. One of the blurry shapes emerges from the mass. The man leans close and his hand comes up to lay over the arc reactor, and Tony’s heart pounds violently against his ribcage at the idea of being robbed of the device keeping it alive.

"We've made you feel good before, haven't we? C’mon, Tony. You remember. I know you do," Steve says, a strange lilt in his voice. The following sigh sounds rueful. "But I'm afraid we'll need something else from you this time.”

Another one of him appears, and in his hands is something Tony recognizes. Something that makes his thoughts spiral back to Obie and Afghanistan and–his whole body twitches as he thrashes in his bindings to no avail. His efforts are only rewarded with a sharp, agonizing pain in his possibly dislocated shoulder and a rattling breath. 

Above him, Steve smiles. The claws of the device hug the reactor, and the voice that comes out of his mouth is Obadiah's, "The golden goose had one more egg to give." 

He pulls. 

Tony shoots swake with a gasp. His hand flies to his chest on instinct. He doesn't feel the edge of the arc reactor casing cut into his palm. 

He doesn't feel the edge of the arc reactor casing cut into his palm.


Tony looks down and is met with darkness. 


With a racing heart and tremors skitting over his spine, he casts a glance to the right and sees–Steve on the mattress next to him. Tony jerks away so quickly he dives backwards off the bed. The sound of him crashing into the nightstand is what wakes the man in bed to the situation. 

"Tony?" he asks, sleep-addled. A front. He knows what he's doing. "Are you–?" 

Alarm overtakes his face as he registers that Tony is scrambling for leverage on the floor, and he throws the covers aside and comes running. The concern in his face is contrived, it has to be. Or maybe not: maybe he's concerned Tony will escape. 

They already took the arc reactor, what more could they want? (Lips against his neck, an ache deep inside and the bruises on his hips remind him: you know what else.)

Cold sweat gathers at his temples, in the hollow of his throat, joining the moist patches that are already there, making his undershirt stick to his back and chest. 

Wake up, Tony begs himself. wakeupwakeupwakeup. 

Only when Steve is plastered to the opposite wall with hands raised in surrender does Tony realize he's backed into a corner and half-screaming the words at himself. 

Minutes pass in silence. Tony's legs threaten to give in on his way from the corner to the bed. He makes it far enough to collapse on the edge of the mattress, gripping the sheets with clawed fingers for support and an outlet. Only when Tony has steadied his breathing does Steve slowly lower his arms. 

"I think I'll go sleep in the spare room."

Tony dares to look over, sees two emotions fighting within him, indrawn anger and sympathy on either side of the rope. It's on Tony to decide which one he's going to aid.

He doesn't want him to stay, so he says, "Okay." 

They ease into a routine. 

In the mornings, Tony drags himself into the kitchen. Steve will be there reading the paper and Tony will cast a glance at the ceiling. "I can confirm Captain Rogers is currently in the right place," JARVIS will say.

Depending on the day, Tony then locks himself in the workshop or leaves for SI. Either way, they won't see one another until the sun's set over New York, which gives Tony enough time to prepare for Steve's bitter expression the next time he enters their living room and JARVIS says, "I can confirm Captain Rogers is currently in the right place." 

Tony has never been in the habit of looking over his shoulder–paired with ignorance, that is what landed him in Afghanistan after all–and he would've never called himself paranoid. Overly invested in security, plagued by nightmares about an obscure threat from space and somewhat obsessed with keeping an eye on everything that happens everywhere? Yes. Paranoid, no. 

Ask him again today and the answer might be a different one. 

A year ago, he would've traded the wormhole for any other dreamscape in a heartbeat, ignorant to the reality that for one monster to replace another, it needs to be capable of much greater atrocities than its predecessor. (The Ten Rings, the Chitauri, Steve. Somehow Steve is always the superlative, be it as a soldier or a nightmare.) 

Steve will try to feign normalcy one moment and then turn around and start arguing about how they should talk to the team, a discussion which Tony consequently shuts down each time or doesn't even entertain. Contrary to what Steve seems to believe, he knows the smart thing would be to let them know. The more dignified solution however is this, and Tony isn't ready to get over himself yet. 

How do you admit to mistaking someone else for the man you love? How do you explain the why when it shouldn't be able to happen? 

Coding new safety protocols is a reasonable countermeasure and also alternative to letting the Avengers know. They argued about it again just last weekend ("There's a pattern here. Whatever their goal is, it's something to do with me. Not the Avengers." – "What if it's about getting to the Avengers through you?" – "So you're just concerned about what this means for the Avengers?") and although Tony won him over with the compromise that they'd come clean about everything the moment anything remotely suspect happened, the peace of mind he’d been expecting to find didn’t make an appearance.

There used to be a time it didn’t, not by a long shot, but now the door to the workshop will keep Steve out, an insurmountable barrier no matter whether it’s locked or not. On the rare occasion he does overcome it, Steve appears with food and an apology. Tony feels queasy thinking about both; he should be the one apologizing. It's not Steve's fault someone not only impersonated him but copied his likeness from the exact octave of his voice to the proportions of his dick.

One evening, Tony's working and Steve's sketching on the couch close by. He’s done it dozens of times before, but it’s become a rare sight now. For once, they're not arguing, and Tony can’t keep it all to himself anymore.

"It has to be–clones, or, or something in that ballpark, right? There's no other…" He starts typing furiously, pulls up reports and documents from missions past. "We thought we took care of their main operations, but what if we didn't, what if there's more?" 

And if what he's suggesting is the exact premise of his every other nightmare, well. It's not like he's in the habit of talking to Steve about his nightmares anymore. Roundabout is everything he has to offer these days. 

Steve leans back, looking into the air with a contemplative wrinkle between his brows. "Chances are there are more clusters around, but something of this scale? Clones sound a little ambitious." 

Tony doesn’t respond, already distracted by the numerous holograms JARVIS has pulled up for him. “What if we just… missed something,” he mutters, sifting through the data. In his peripheral vision, he sees Steve still lounging on the sofa, but he’s put the sketchpad away and his arms are crossed over his chest. Tense. 

If there isn't anything here, that means the monster under the bed is faceless again–at least in the figurative sense. HYDRA, he knows. What they are, how they operate, what they want. They're predictable in that way. Something new and different means he doesn't know what to look out for, what to fear, what he's up against. And that eclipses the horror of having his nightmare come true hundredfold. 

“Okay,” Steve finally concedes, as he always does and as Tony expected him to. This is everything he can do, after all, to atone for this thing he had no actual hand in. “Run me through it again.”

They’re just where they were five weeks ago. 

Steve's worry and unsolicited sympathy is all too evident when he looks at Tony and the mess he is: bags under his eyes, three days of grease and sweat stains on his shirt and possibly a manic glint in his gaze. 

There’s nothing here, but he needs there to be something. Because he can’t sleep next to Steve even though he wants to, and he can’t bear his touches even if he aches for them, and he’s tired from not sleeping at all or sleeping and dreaming and he just wants it to stop. 

Tony is determined to keep digging through the nothing until he strikes gold. The first minor problem presents itself when he digs and digs and finds… more nothing. 

Tony does not cry out of sheer frustration. Then, after he hasn’t cried out of sheer frustration, he picks himself up and focuses on something other than the big picture for once.

Until they get to the bottom of this–because there is one, Steve just needs some imagination–he might as well give himself some peace of mind in other ways, starting with an uncomplicated way to verify Steve’s identity. Steve is resigned to JARVIS controlling and monitoring every aspect of his schedule by now, but there's got to be a more elegant solution. 

In fact, Tony already has a few ideas. 

Tony had hoped, foolishly, that giving up the CEO position to Pepper would bring his number of intercontinental business trips down to a close zero, but no such luck. Hence he spent the last two weeks putting out fires–figurative and real ones–at their production site in Shanghai after something (multiple somethings) went awry in the robotics department and the whole place shut down as a result because nobody could quite figure out the why.

The gist of it is, he's tired, irritated and properly jetlagged when he returns to the compound. It's evening in New York and the five hours he's slept on the plane have left him only more exhausted, which is fine by him because he absolutely plans on crashing in bed in a few minutes. 

When he arrives at their suite however, Steve's in the kitchen with an assortment of pans and pots scattered around the stove and something baking in the oven. Tony's eyes dart to the dinner table, which is already set. There's folded napkins, cloth ones, and a '78 Château, which gives him the impression that something’s to be celebrated. 

Shit. Shitshitshitshit. What now? Did he miss an anniversary? No, JARVIS would've reminded him. Steve's birthday? His own birthday? No, Central Park is orange, their birthdays aren't in fall–

"Tony!" Steve calls upon his entry, beaming at him over his shoulder. He wipes his hands on a rag and then walks over to where Tony's standing, frozen in place. 

Steve's almost by his side when Tony's eyes drop to his right hand, but Steve pulls his sleeve back and reveals the identifier bracelet before he has to say anything. A little more at ease, he lets himself be wrapped in a crushing hug, and some of the tension leaks from his shoulders. 

"So," Tony prompts, resolving to get it over with, "what's the occasion? Is this one of the minor anniversaries? First kiss? First time you left your toothbrush in my bathroom, maybe? Uh, first time I farted during–" 

Steve laughs and leans back to look at him. Tony immediately misses the close contact. "There's no occasion," he says. "Can't a guy treat his fella to a nice dinner without any ulterior motives?" 

Tony snorts but feels his smile grow soft. "He can, yeah." 

He leans in for a kiss, winding his arms around Steve's neck as he does. It's slow and intimate but ultimately innocent, and he backs off a bit to see Steve look back at him with a fond little crook to his lips that makes his eyes crinkle. 

Tony cards his fingers through the hair at the back of his skull. Strangely enough, it's too short to play with like he usually does. And come to think of it, the shape of it's different at the front too. 

"Did you get a haircut?" 

Steve's muscles grow taut underneath his fingers, but he relaxes again before Tony can pinpoint what might've caused the reaction. "I did," he says, trailing a finger down Tony's spine. Tony leans into the touch, not quite ready to let go. 

After a minute or so, a suspicious sizzling sound begins to drift over from the kitchen and Steve releases him to check on his (potentially burnt) dinner. Tony settles at the table, throwing his suit jacket and tie over an extra chair. By the time he pours both of them some wine, Steve is already serving dinner: something savory and smelling of curry, the recipe of which he most likely stole from Bruce sometime before big green's sudden disappearance. 

They have a more or less quiet meal. Tony is busy shoveling food into his mouth–once he got a taste, he realized he wasn't just tired but starving–and Steve keeps glancing at him between bites and then starts all-out staring with something in his eyes that Tony would call enchanted if he were one to use that word. 

Once he isn't preoccupied with the repeat action of lifting the fork, chewing and swallowing anymore, Tony returns Steve's not-so-clandestine glances. "What is it?" he asks in between two swigs of red, his lips hitching upward when Steve blinks and clears his throat, almost a little bashful. 

"Nothing," he says, "I just love you." 

Tony feels a tired but warm smile overtaking his features almost instantly. He wipes his hands on the fancy napkin and then reaches out for Steve's that's laying palm up on the table, fiddling with one end of his own, unused napkin–a nervous habit Tony has only ever observed in himself. 

"I love you too." 

Steve seems to melt at that, slows a little and averts his eyes, his throat working as he swallows. Tony gears up to ask if something happened while he was away, but then Steve squeezes his hand for a last time before letting go to stand up and look at the ceiling. 

"JARVIS, would you put some music on? Something slow, maybe."

Out of all things, Etta James starts playing, which furthers Tony's belief that his A.I. has become majorly invested where his and Steve's relationship is concerned. As skeptical as his creation was of the concept at first, he's taken to Steve like a duck to water and they are, much to Tony's continued dismay, the biggest co-conspirators next to Rhodey and Pepper when it comes to his personal wellbeing. 

"That's little dramatic, J," Tony comments as the first verse of a vaguely familiar song begins to waft from the speakers.

Steve places himself there in the middle of the room, stretching out his arms in invitation. He looks so full of hopeful anticipation that Tony feels almost bad saying, "You're weird today."

Something flickers across his face at that, but Tony is too tired to catch or chase it. 

"Indulge me." 

Tony heaves a long-suffering sigh but gets up anyway. As he fits himself against Steve, he places his own sock-clad feet on top of Steve's and winds his arms around his shoulders from below. 

"You lead, then," he grins, pillowing his head on the other man's shoulder. It's comfortable enough he thinks there's a good chance he might nod off during the dance.

Steve doesn't miss a beat and begins to slowly  guide them across the room. Having to balance Tony's weight on top of his own, he starts out a little awkward until he figures out the right rhythm. Tony nuzzles into his neck and allows himself to close his eyes. For a while, there's silence between them but for the woman's soft voice sounding from the speakers. At last the skies above are blue, she sings, and Steve holds him closer, grows a little bolder in his movements. 

"I missed you," Steve breathes against his temple, squeezing a little tighter. 

Tony places a kiss on the skin under his ear. "It's been two weeks, babe."

For some reason, he feels Steve smiling against him at that. 

"Felt a little longer, is all." 

One evening, they’re cuddled up on the couch together, watching–to Tony’s immense suffering–a rerun of Grey’s Anatomy that is periodically disrupted by late-night commercials. Tony suggested they have JARVIS put on whatever episodes he liked best, but Steve considers sitting through the commercial breaks ‘part of the experience’.

The choice of entertainment surprised him when Steve took his pick. They watched an episode or two a few months after the Avengers had moved into the tower, and he recalls Steve not being into it then. Tastes change, Tony supposes. (Not always for the better, but it is what it is.)

Tony is half reclining against Steve’s chest, the other man’s hand clamped in his as he twirls the bracelet around Steve's wrist. It’s too tight to slip up or down but loose enough to move. Tony thinks it’s one of his better designs, especially with that holo-shield he managed to fit into the paper-thin casing. Multi-purpose is his thing. 

Now, the unassuming piece of technology is just a reminder of something he’d rather push out of his memory entirely. But he can’t. It’s been bugging him for weeks (months) (a year) now. Nothing is out of the ordinary and it drives him mad.

He swallows, licks his lips. Have his eyes been burning the whole time? 

“Do you think I’m crazy?”

Steve tenses behind him and looks down, noticing that his attention isn’t on the TV and clearly hasn't been for a while. The arm with the bracelet slips out of Tony’s grip to wrap around his chest and pull him tighter against Steve's front. 

“I think everything you said happened did happen," Steve says, voice firm and breath wisping over Tony's cheek. “Maybe something got in their way, or they know it won’t work. Could be there's more to come.”

A pause. Tony pushes out a breath between his teeth and lets his head drop onto the other man's shoulder, squeezing his eyes shut. 

“But we'll be prepared and we’ll be together, and that’s all that matters.”

Thanos comes with an army and four Infinity Stones.

They're not prepared. 

Bruce precedes Thanos; he’s traumatized and fidgety and Tony wants to ask where the hell were you, because while puny Banner had alluded to wanting to disappear many a time, Tony certainly never expected his angry alter-ego to jump aboard a quinjet one day and take a trip through space of all things.

But Bruce brings news of what awaits them and Tony feels a not minor rush of vindication despite being out of his skin with terror. He doesn’t mean for it to spill out of him like it does, because they'll soon have what could turn out to be the biggest fight of their lives on their hands–and it happens anyway.

“I’m not gonna say it, I won’t–no, you know what, what did I tell you? Suit of armor around the world. 'Tony, we’re leaving the scepter alone, that’s a team decision.' 'Tony, you know it wouldn’t have been worth the risk.' I’m not hearing any of that now, am I?”

The reactions are as positive as one would assume, but Steve surprises him. Tony expected him to argue, maybe shut him down with a ‘we don’t have time for this’ or a curt request for him to focus, but all he does is heave a deep breath and pinch the bridge of his nose. 

When he looks up, his gaze isn’t drawn to Tony but instead to Wanda right across the table. Tony doesn’t know if he’s imagining it, but he could swear he feels her subdued anxiety thrum through the rest of them.

“SHIELD,” Steve says, finally. It’s directed at the agents in the room, Natasha and Clint, but his eyes are still on Wanda, which makes Pietro step a little closer to her on instinct. “They still have the scepter?”

Someone sounds an affirmative, and he nods. “Good. We can't risk him getting his hands on all of them. Which means you, Wanda–you need to be ready to destroy the stone if there’s even the shred of a doubt that we can take him.”

Everything stops for a moment. 

Tony looks on, a little dumbstruck by the turn of events, while a few people raise legitimate concerns and ultimately join him in his staring when Steve slams down a fist on the table and yells, “I can’t do this!”

He gulps, notices his outburst, and collects himself. Defeat lines his suddenly slumped shoulders. When his eyes meet hers again, he's pleading. “Just–the stone, Wanda, please. We can't take the chance."

That’s when the ships arrive.

They just about manage to keep the fight confined to the vicinity of the compound. The building gets leveled in the first fifteen minutes, but Tony would take that a million times over the casualties they’d see in the city.

Thor comes in pursuit of Thanos; he comes with an axe, one eye and new friends, and that’s when it ends.

Two days later, they finally come to rest: the wounded are taken care of, the stones returned to opposite sides of the universe, and Tony offers up the mansion as a temporary homebase. The estate isn’t doing much but collecting dust–he could imagine turning it into proper headquarters with time. It probably says something that he keeps giving his homes to the Avengers, but then–and that thought gives him a stunned little pause when he catches it–whom is a home for if not your family?

Steve sits hunched over at the edge of the mattress when Tony all but stumbles out of the bathroom, dead on his feet and yet immediately alert when he sees the man’s back shake. He sits down next to him and doesn't even have a second to register what’s happening: Steve lifts his head out of his hands, revealing red-rimmed eyes, blood and dirt littering his features, and then Tony's dragged into a hug he couldn't break out of even if he wanted to. 

Steve buries into Tony’s chest, his grip crushing. Tony lets it happen, disregards his own bewilderment to comfort Steve with slow, steady strokes up and down his trembling back. 

"Thank God," Steve says, sobs, and rocks them both a little, back and forth and back and forth. 

Tony tightens his arms around him and cradles his head in one hand, tight and secure. The answer is another violent sob that echoes through his own chest. 

Tomorrow, he’ll ask. For now, he drags a hand through Steve’s hair and holds him close.

The few things that survived Thanos’ onslaught on the compound get unearthed by the clean-up crew in the following weeks. Tony is digging through the remains, looking for whatever is left of the bots. Hopes against hope there is something to salvage. 

Among the leftovers is a steel box with a combination lock that likely got crushed underneath the debris. Tony gets distracted.

He peels the dented casing open and gets even more distracted by the things it contains.

Inside, he finds an old, torn-up uniform that can only be Steve’s, a StarkPhone he's hard pressed to admit is years ahead of anything SI is putting out right now, a journal and a strange, watch-like device that displays the date 3-21-2012.

Tony puts the watch away and flips the journal open. There must be hundreds of entries, all marked with a year and a number. All in Steve's handwriting. 

Tony starts reading and the world lifts out of its hinges.


Tony feels his grip spasm around the thick leather of the journal. He expected it. He doesn't know why it feels like he's choking around nothing (nothing but the betrayal and wrong) when the answer was but an affirmation of something he already knew. 

Nothing was ever coincidental. The last six years–from his parents and Barnes to Thanos and the stones–didn’t happen the way they did just because. None of it was their doing, not really. They were just puppets.

Tears glitter in Not-Steve’s eyes. Tony wants to sink his fingernails into them. This man doesn't have the right to cry, not with the things that journal alluded to he did. 

"Who the fuck do you think you are, that you can–can come into this world and think it's yours to do with as–" 

"I watched you die," he says, eyes distant, fogged with lives past, "over and over and over again. I watched you die because nothing I did was ever enough. It took… a long time to get here, Tony, you have no idea. Everything that happened, everything I did, it was all for you."

"I have some idea," Tony sneers, waving the journal in front of him demonstratively. The laugh that escapes him is sharp, and he can tell it leaves an incision from the way Steve takes a faltering, almost involuntary step back. "Am I supposed to be flattered by this? Do you think this is–" 

"No.” The word is deathly quiet. Both his hunched posture and small voice are so unlike everything Tony knows about Steve Rogers it throws him for a loop. "But the first time I understood what you were, who you were to me, it was already too late. I didn’t–do this because I wanted you for myself, if that’s what you think, it’s just that–we needed to be together for you to make it."

Tony staggers back as though the words came with their own, physical shockwave. "Are you out of your mind?" 

"I always believed you deserved a happy ending, but it was–almost impossible to get it right without being there when I needed to be."

"Stop. Shut–shut up! Just stop," Tony barks. "The real Steve. My Steve. Where?" 

Not-Steve’s face does something strange. It's a grimace, half laced with resignation and guilt. He begins to shake his head ever so slowly, a few degrees left, the exact same amount to the right. Robotic, pre-programmed. Again. Again. 


"You have to understand, Tony. It was the only way. I needed to be there to protect you. Nobody else could, certainly not him. I'd know. I was him."

Tony feels the floor drop out from under him. 

The floor disappears, and Tony goes with it, falls and falls. For a blissful moment, he floats somewhere far away where none of this has meaning and the whole world hasn't collapsed in on itself with none of the beauty and all the destructive force of a neutron star. 

Molten metal burns through his skin, meat and bone, shoots up his arm and into his heart. His chest contracts on impact, an almost unbearable pain that hits so suddenly it makes him gasp out loud. 

Tony clutches at his shirt and tumbles, almost-falls until his back collides with the wall behind. 

This might just be the least shocking development this evening, he thinks, a little giddy. His doctors, nosy SHIELD medical staff and even Pepper told him it would happen if he kept going the way he did. He expected his heart to protest his lifestyle sooner or later. But never like this. Nothing in the world could've prepared him for this. 

After a brief struggle, his legs fold in on themselves and he slides down until the floor greets him. The floor, he finds, is still there. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise–rock bottom is an old friend that has never failed to welcome him with open arms. 

His back curls inward in hopeless search for a respite from the pain. Every breath is fire in his lungs, but he can’t let it go. “What did you do?" It's supposed to be a demand but the words leave him in a strained wheeze that belies only the effort it took to voice them. "What the fuck did you do?”

Steve squeezes his eyes shut and exhales a long breath. 

His being turns staccato, his lips twitch, hiding a laugh or a sob. The metronome gets stuck halfway to horizontal, loses the secure tick tick tick that measures his harmonies, because Tony isn't playing along anymore. They can stop pretending to perform together when what they are is worlds, decades and a pile of bodies apart. 

Then again, the bastard did play him like a fiddle until the very end, so maybe there is one piece they’ll finish under the thunderous applause of no one at all. Betrayal, Tony thinks they should name it. 

"We could've had a good life," Not-Steve says and has the audacity to be wistful and bitter at the same time. "We could've been happy. You would’ve never known any better and I'd have taken care of you. I've known you for over a hundred years, Tony. Your past, your future, everything. I know how to make you happy better than anyone."

Steve retreats, disappears. Someone else comes back. He isn't different, not in any physical way that matters. Except where before there was the Mediterranean sea in his eyes there's now the antarctic–he might have crawled out of that block of ice but he’s never gotten warm again. 

"Why'd you have to ruin it?"

The reality seems to sucker-punch him like it did Tony a few minutes ago: he has already lost. There’s nothing he can do to change the past. (Except he can, he’s done it before and not just once if his written and spoken word is worth a damn, and Tony is only one of many failed attempts, nothing more than another line on the tally.)

Steve’s hands curl into fists at his side.

“Why is it that you always choose to suffer? What is it about you and not wanting to be saved?"

The punch doesn’t hit. Tony feels the misplaced air zip by his cheek. 

A gust of pulverized drywall sends his lungs into a coughing fit and his mind to a sandstorm in the Afghani desert. His heart and airways compete for the number one place on the pedestal: for just a moment, it's a tie between them, both equal sources of agony. 

Next to his head, the wall is now branded with a fist-shaped dent. A mark that belongs to Steve, the wrong Steve, the intruder Steve, who kneels by his side and knocks his bloodied knuckles against Tony's chest and looks at him with glassy, reverent eyes. "It's in there, isn't it? There always was too much, more than even the universe could handle. So, one day, it decided you had to go. Can you imagine?"

Tony shivers as another surge of pain shoots through him, seething hot in his veins. The truth tastes like rancid milk in his mouth, sour and left standing for too long. All the pieces were right there all this time and he never figured out what to do with them–so in a way, it’s his own fault. He could’ve prevented this if he’d stopped and used his brain for a damn second. He could’ve saved his Steve, and he failed. (The irony of being concerned about his own safety while Steve was the one in danger all along doesn’t go past him. It’s a cruel one.)

The wrong Steve lays his palm over Tony’s heart, tilts his head and frowns a little. Feels it breaking, maybe, whether physically or the other way is hard to tell.

"I promised myself when I walked out of that bunker–" He shakes his head, eyes hardening. "I keep breaking you but I'm the only one who can keep you from destroying yourself. Strange paradox, isn't it?" 

He pauses, takes a few shuddering breaths. The novel crook of his lip belongs to a bitter, self-deprecating smile. "Don't worry, I've had decades to work out the balance. I'll get it right this time. Promise."

Infused with renewed determination, as though he’s shoved Steve Rogers aside and slipped back into Captain America’s boots, he gets up and walks to the box. He picks up what Tony's blurry vision identifies as the watch-like device and something even smaller. A vial, colored as deep a blue as his eyes. On his way back over, made in measured steps that reverberate in the too-large basement floor of the mansion, he tightens the strap around his wrist. 

"What're you doing?" Tony croaks, tracking his movements. 

It's a question he does neither need nor want an answer to, but asks regardless. Hope is the perpetrator: he hopes hearing it will wake him from this nightmare the same way you’ll shoot awake shortly before sleep because your body’s confused equilibrioception tricks you into thinking you’re falling from a high ledge. 

Maybe the prospect of imminent doom is all it takes. 

Maybe in just a moment, he’s going to wake up. 

Just a moment. 

Steve doesn't answer, doesn’t even spare him a glance until he's punched a new date into the watch. Then, he squats down next to him. Tony would flinch back if he could feel his extremities but as it is, he sits there, enduring the unwanted affection that resonates within the brush of Steve's thumb against his jaw. 

He leans forward and kisses Tony's forehead, chapped lips rough against his skin. "I have an appointment a week ago," he smiles, a wet gleam in his eyes as he leans away. 

"See you then, Tony."


Last week, Steve comes home late from his morning run, with a cut on his jaw and more injuries mottling his arms and torso. He says, “They didn’t think that one through,” and nothing more until Tony finishes tightening the last bandage around his forearm.

His hand looks bad. The one with the bracelet. Nothing short of crushed, but already healing. Tony wants to tell him to get it checked out–it would be far from the first time he's healed wrong–but Steve's good hand pulls Tony in for a searing kiss, and he doesn't let up until they're both gasping into each other's mouths. 

One evening, they have a little get-together at the heap of turned-up earth and rubble that not so long ago was the compound. A final sendoff. There’s a little bonfire. It’s cozy. 

While the others add more wood, Steve chucks a wad of loose paper into the dying flames.

Tony asks about it. Instead of an answer, he gets a question, a ring and the promise of forever.


your absence has gone through me

llike thread through a needle;

everything I do is stitched with its color. 

separation — w. s. merwin