When Steve opens the door, the first thing he sees sends him into a swearing streak so wide and foul that his mother stops messing around with her flour in the kitchen and comes over to see what set him off. Tony is standing in the Rogers' doorway, one side of his face bruised, holding his shoulder funny. His expression is withdrawn and broken and far, far too old for someone who is only sixteen, dammit. He catches sight of Sarah Rogers and attempts to hide behind the cool mask that Steve is so used to seeing him use in awkward social settings. As if showing up looking like he went three rounds with Clint again qualifies as a social setting.
“Sorry to intrude,” the so-very-young genius says stiffly, like talking hurts. Tony's smile seems to get lost somewhere around the edges, and his eyes are full of shadows that make Steve's hands curl into fists. “I, ah. I didn't have anywhere else to go.”
Sarah doesn't say anything, just opens the door wider and lets him in. She's used to Tony coming and going at odd hours, in several questionable conditions, and at this point it would take a lot to surprise her. It could anger her, yes, but not surprise her. Hell, it's not even the first time Tony's shown up looking like hell, and Steve knows that his mom has some kind of question hiding behind her gentle acceptance, but neither Tony nor Steve ever answer it.
It's not that Tony's old man slugs him that often, or that Tony doesn't push as many buttons as he can, when he can. Steve's stopped trying to actively decode the fraught relationship between father and son long ago, but his mind can't help but return to it. They push at each other, tug and hit and tear, until one or the other breaks and lashes out. Howard Stark is a hard man to throw off-guard, but his son manages it almost every time, and Steve is left trying to pick up the pieces.
Sarah maneuvers Tony onto the patched couch, sitting him on the side that doesn't have the years old coffee stain (left there by Tony himself while he was recovering from a hangover). Steve sits next to him and examines his best friend from the side.
Tony's tired; anyone can see that. His father's been hounding him for more inventions and advancements lately, trying to drive up the stock, keep every penny he can get his company's claws into. Tony is the golden goose, one that Mr. Stark is all too eager to put on display. Meanwhile, Tony's graduated from MIT, taken over the Research & Development Department, and made several extraordinary discoveries – all before he hit seventeen. He's too jaded for someone younger than Steve (three years younger, which seems to matter less and less as they get older) has any right to be.
Not that the heir to the Stark fortune ever had a chance to be anything but jaded.
Sarah comes back from the kitchen with ice for Tony and a pointed look for Steve. She retreats to the kitchen again, flour dusting off of her calloused hands, and leaves her son to it.
Tony and Steve have been friends ever since Tony flopped down next to him at Central Park while Steve was drawing and stole his water bottle. Steve was sixteen. Tony was thirteen.
Since then, Steve has been harassed by reporters, chased by the paparazzi, kicked out of an untold number of night clubs he shouldn't have been allowed into anyway, and generally bothered more than he had been in his entire life. Tony is like an annoyingly cute, ultra-destructive puppy that you just can't leave on the curb, no matter how much you know that he's going to chew the legs off your coffee table and piss on your shoes and never, ever let you have a moment's peace. He's demanding and spoiled and possibly bi-polar, but he's also smart and loyal and the best best friend Steve could ever ask for.
He's never regretted their friendship for a second, not even when Tony insists on drunk dialing him at three in the morning on a work day. Okay, maybe a little. But not enough to ever do anything about it besides bitch and demand that Tony grow at least one ounce of common sense, please. Or at least invent some.
Tony sleeps – crashes – in Steve's bed, like always. It doesn't matter that Steve is nineteen and far too old for sleep overs, or that Tony is sixteen and has had questionable experiences in the past. It doesn't matter that they're two guys sleeping in the same bed, side by side. They're best friends, have been for over three years, and it feels like a lifetime. Of course, they don't sleep, much. Mostly they stare at the ceiling and talk.
Tony and Steve lay side by side, crammed onto Steve's narrow bed. It's actually bigger than the one that he'd had when he and Tony met, way back when. This one had been a gift for Steve's seventeenth birthday. One of several gifts, actually.
Steve's ceiling isn't particularly interesting – there's a stain in the north corner that looks vaguely like a rocket, and there are several resilient cheap glowing stars hanging on from his childhood. A bunch of them are clustered over the bed in the shape of a crooked smiley face. Steve traces the familiar curve of it, looking at the faint light radiating from the stars and thinking dark thoughts about Tony's father. He resists the urge to roll over and compare the blossoming bruise on Tony's cheek to the width of his hand, to see just how much bigger Howard Stark is. In three years, Steve has somehow managed to avoid much contact with the man, which is probably due to the fact that he's hardly ever around when Tony drags him to the mansion.
There are rules for dealing with Tony, ones that sometimes don't make sense. They aren't formally defined, of course, because then Tony would feel compelled to break them, but they always loom in the back of Steve's mind, these things he's learned through trial and error. One of them is to Not Ask.
Even Steve breaks rules every now and again.
“What happened?” It slips out almost without him noticing it, and the minute he realizes what he's said, what rule he's broken, Steve expects Tony to withdraw. Tony, however, loves going against people's expectations.
"It was a philosophical disagreement,” Tony says. He falls silent; Steve wonders if that's all he's going to say.
“About?” he prompts.
Steve shifts until he's leaning on one elbow, peering over his friend in the darkness. The only light in the room comes from the streetlight outside and Steve's glowing stars. They cast shadows on Tony's face, making his expression unreadable. It's at times like this Steve wished that he could read minds – or at least read Tony's mind.
“I don't want to make them anymore,” Tony continued. “I don't—I don't want to die and have the only thing anyone remembers about me be how many people my tech killed.”
“I'd remember,” Steve says. And it's true. He doesn't think of Tony as his father's son, the boy who graduated from MIT ridiculously early and took the scientific world by storm. He thinks of Tony as the scrawny kid who stole his way into Steve's life and made himself at home there.
Tony snorts. “You won't be around forever. One day, you'll finally do what you've been talking about for years and join the army, and then you'll leave, or worse, die. And then what? Who's going to remember me? My dad? My dad's business partners? The media?”
Steve frowns. There's nothing, really, that he can say to that.
“I wish I could just get away from it all.”
“What do you mean?” Steve asks, a prickling of nervousness jolting up his spine.
Tony turns to him and blindly reaches out until his fingers skate off of Steve's jawline. “Steve. I don't mean—I'm not. I just want to, to steal a car and drive until it all just goes the fuck away.”
Steve catches Tony's hand in his and holds it there. “Tony. You have to do whatever makes you happy, okay? Just don't...don't forget about me, alright?”
Steve can hear Tony's smirk. “Impossible. No one could forget you.”
They fall asleep like that, side by side, their hands touching. Outside, the streetlight flickers one last time before cutting off entirely.
The next day, Tony is gone when Steve wakes up, but he didn't go far. Steve's mom is making scrambled eggs in the kitchen, her bare feet ghosting over the cracked tiles. Tony is sitting in one of their mismatched bar stools, sipping coffee from Steve's favorite mug. He looks much better this morning; the only sign that last night even happened is the bruise covering most of the left size of his face.
He smiles brightly when he catches sight of Steve and pats the other bar stool – as if he owns the place.
(When he had first found out that his new friend was Tony fucking Stark, he'd frantically checked to make sure that his building was not, in fact, owned by the Stark family. To his relief, it was not. Though Tony had offered to buy it for them as a gift at one point.)
“You boys sleep alright?” Sarah asks. Something in her tone makes Steve blush foolishly.
“Yep,” Tony says with an easy grin. Steve recognizes it as the one that he uses to charm the people he actually likes. “Not that Steve's snoring helped.”
“I do not snore!” Steve squawks, slumping against the stained counter-top. The eggs smell delicious. The cake resting two inches from Tony's elbow on the counter looks better.
Sarah laughs. “Well, he's right, Stevie,” she smiles, “you do snore. Like a chainsaw.” Steve sputters uselessly while the two most important people in his life snicker at him.
Tony doesn't return to his father that day, or even go into work. He telecommutes, phoning people in his department and telling them off for their gross incompetence. He sends emails and texts and even commandeers the Rogers' (shiny and gifted) desktop and uses its webcam to shout at someone for the better part of an hour.
It is, sadly, not anywhere near the craziest thing Tony has done in their apartment, one of the most memorable of which would probably be the time Tony had built what was supposed to be a revolutionary eco-friendly car engine in their living room. It was one of Tony's rare epic failures, and Sarah had made him call a cleaning service to get the stains out of the carpet.
When Tony had first followed Steve home and inserted himself into their lives, Sarah had been resistant to accepting the Stark heir. She had the strange notion that Tony was usingSteve, which didn't make sense, considering that the kid was thirteen and desperate for any kind of friendship with someone around his age. An isolated childhood combined with entering college at an absurdly young age, being surrounded by people a decade older than him who saw him as an oddity rather than a person – it all took its toll. Steve has always been thankful that Tony had picked him rather than someone who would lead him towards a more uncontrolled coping method.
Tony is wild enough as he is; he doesn't need anyone urging him on in his determined self-destruction.
However, no one can resist Tony's charm once he hones his targeting systems on them, and it took a mere three months for Sarah to start setting Tony a place at the dinner table on her own. She bugs him about his sleeping habits, his eating habits, his work habits. She encourages him to come over whenever he feels the need. She even, to Steve's surprise, gave Tony a key to the apartment after Tony's fifteenth birthday.
Tony might as well be a part of the family, for all his name is different and he mostly sleeps somewhere else.
He's like a little brother. Well. No. Not like a little brother at all. But then, Steve has never figured out what to do with that particular thought, so he ignores it, hoping that it will go away.
“You going to call in sick today?” Sarah asks as she gets ready for work later. Steve's done it before, usually when Tony's needed him for whatever reason – ranging from deathly illness to surprise tickets to an exclusive art show that Steve had mentioned wanting to check out. Steve's boss, bless her, thinks that Steve has some kind of immune disorder that leaves him constantly ill, and Steve, in a surprising act of duplicity, has never corrected her. It makes it easier, and she never begrudges him the time off.
“I think so,” Steve answers, sending a fugitive glace towards Tony, who is manically typing something into his StarkPhone. The bruise is beginning to take on a royal color, dark enough that make-up would be shit at covering it up. He can't go out where a paparazzo might spot him and snap a front-page picture. Enough tabloid-space has been devoted to the turbulent relationship between Howard and Tony without possible child abuse being added to the mix. Books have even been published, which Tony alternatively treats with humor and distaste. (He once sent a copy of a more graphic one to his father anonymously, which hadn't fooled the corporate mogul at all. Tony had slept at the Rogers' for a week after that.)
Sarah nods as if she that was what she had been expecting him to say. Which it probably was. Steve is a rather predictable person when it came to the people he cared about.
After she leaves, Steve turns and finds Tony considering him with a serious expression. The bruise makes his face look lopsided; it would be ridiculous if it isn't so horrible.
Then Tony drops the bombshell.
“Let's run away together.”
The thing is, Steve's dad – his real dad – died when Steve was young – far too young to remember him beyond vague impressions of a deep voice, strong hands, and a scent that Steve later learned was alcohol. Over the years, he's collected information about his father like some people collect stamps or Tony collects unhealthy relationships. One factoid at a time, he builds a picture of his father as precisely as he can, using whatever he can find. He knows that his father was tall like him. That he spoke with an Irish accent, that he was an immigrant. That he loved Sarah more than anything. That he could never stand by and watch someone get hurt – when he was sober.
He was a drunk.
He was Steve's father.
He's dead, and Steve will never be able to understand just how these pieces fit together because he'll never get to meet the man himself.
Steve grew up in his mother's care. She calls him Stevie, even when he protests, and makes sure that he does his homework and brushes his teeth and washes behind his ears. She puts food on the table as best she can and always makes sure that they have drawing supplies on hand, just for him. The older he gets, the more amazing she seems, in every detail.
She's always telling him that he needs to get out in the world, have adventures, learn his own way. Now he has the opportunity to do so, all while keeping Tony from doing something stupid and possibly blowing up his father's factories. But it would mean leaving her. Can he do that? Can he chose between the only two people in the world that he considers family? Tony is his best friend, his—well. Sarah is his mother, and she needs him.
He doesn't know what he'd do without Tony to take care of. He doesn't really want to find out.
He tells Tony he'll think about it. His friend's jaw tightens like he's struggling not to say something, and his shoulders slump like the weight of the world just got dumped on them. Steve feels like a tool, and he's not entirely sure why.
Tony leaves. Steve's not quite sure where he's going, since it's obvious that he's not going to return to his father just yet. He hides himself behind one of Steve's sweatshirts, a hat, and the biggest aviator sunglasses he has on hand. He looks ridiculous and miles away from Anthony Stark, genius and billionaire's heir apparent. Which is kind of the point.
Steve has already called in sick, and he can't exactly call back and tell his boss that, actually, he can totally come into work today because his best friend decided to go sulk somewhere else. Instead, he grabs a blank canvas from his cluttered room, a few odd paint brushes, and, of course, what's left of his paint supplies. He doesn't sketch an outline before he applies paint to canvas; he usually doesn't, when he feels overwhelmed and just wants a moment to clear his mind. He lets the strokes of paint take on a life of their own, shaping up into whatever form comes to mind. Such paintings usually end up being nothing more the abstract splotches and dashes of paint – pure emotions translated into color and movement. They help Steve meditate on what he's feeling.
He sets up his easel in the living room, the only place in the apartment big enough to contain it.
This painting starts in anger and frustration. He layers on thick swaths of red, bold and demanding across a field of white. Like Tony. Then comes sickly greens and turbulent blues, his fear about what Tony is possibly offering him. Freedom or damnation? Having an adventure with his best friend or the loss of everything he loves? Yellow shows his uncertainty, purple shows his torn heart, and gold shows his ultimate desire.
“Oh, Steve,” he hears from behind him. He whirls around and sees Sarah framed in the front doorway, eyes soft and sympathetic. He turns back and looks at what he's created, and his heart sinks.
The places where the red shows through are brilliant in their contrast. The gold glimmers on top of moody purples. The yellow edges around the green, weak against the strength of the red underneath.
He has his answer, but he's not sure he likes it.
“Mom, I think.... Tony's going to leave. With me or without me. And I think. I think I would prefer if he went with me.”
“I know. I. I want to go. But I don't want to leave you—”
“Sweetheart, I've been taking care of myself for years. Go. Follow your dreams. Just don't forget to call your poor mother every once in in a while.”
It takes him less than three hours to track Tony down again. He should have known that this is where he would go, the sap.
“Central Park, eh?” he says as he collapses next to the figure in the god-awful hat, sunglasses, and over-sized sweatshirt. “Rather sentimental, isn't it?”
“Shut up,” Tony grumbles. “You suck.”
“Hey,” Steve protests mildly. He tugs on the sweatshirt's hood. “That's not the way to talk to your new partner in crime. Or whatever.”
Tony pauses, and Steve sees in that moment how much asking him had meant to Tony. It makes him feel humbled and a little sad that he's the only one, really, that Tony has to ask. Any one of his girls would say yes, of course, but they wouldn't be saying yes to Tony, they'd be saying yes to the Stark name. Steve has always been just Steve, but Tony has always been caught between Tony and Mr. Stark's son. No wonder he wants to get away.
“Hmph,” Tony snorts after a moment. His lips quirk into a smile not at all concealed by his disguise. “We can be the Bonnie and Clyde of the twenty-first century. You can be Bonnie.”
“Like hell!” Steve shouts, punching Tony lightly in the arm. “If anyone is Bonnie, it's you, pretty boy.”
Tony retaliates with a tickle attack, which Steve fends off, and the day dissolves into friendly banter and scattered laughter.
Steve: What are we going to do?
Tony: We can join the circus.
Steve: You don't know how to juggle.
Tony: I can learn.
Steve: You hate clowns.
Tony: We'll find a circus without clowns.
Steve: Is there such a thing?
Tony: I dunno, maybe. Cirque du Soleil.
Steve: I don't think they really count.
Tony: Whatever. Hey, want to watch me steal our getaway car?