The atmosphere of the quinjet was tense on the way home. In spite of a job well done - defeating Galactus, in a way that carried more weight and permanence this time, was no joke - they were all exhausted from a cross-dimensional jaunt followed by travel into deep space. Even Thor and the Hulk were quiet. Steve let Clint and Sam take over the controls (with the help of JARVIS) while he went to the back of the jet to check on Tony.
Tony looked tired and a little bit wilted, even in his armor; he still had his helmet off, laying on the seat beside him, and his hair drooped across his forehead. He had taken up residence at a computer console, but hardly seemed to be paying attention to the readings, his eyes glazed. He looked nothing, right now, like the glamorous billionaire who often graced magazine covers.
There was a lot that Steve wanted to say, but he knew it would all need to come after several hours of sleep.
Someone else had apparently decided that what they needed couldn’t wait, however, as the cabin was filled with a trilling noise, like the ringing of a phone.
“Seriously?” Clint demanded, looking around.
Tony started a little, like he had been dozing, but turned to give the console his attention as the screen flared to life. Steve watched as a smile spread over his face.
“Peter,” Tony said. “Hey.”
“Hey, Tony,” Peter Quill - the man otherwise known as Star Lord, leader of the Guardians of the Galaxy - answered. There was a deep familiarity in his tone that belied his team’s earlier attempts to stop Iron Man in his tracks.
Steve couldn’t help but wonder; though they had encountered the Guardians a time or two before, enough to be acquainted with the group as typical friends rather than foes, he hadn’t been aware that Tony and Peter had formed any real bond, but here they were speaking like friends. On the screen, past Tony’s shoulder, Steve could see that Quill was smiling, too.
Steve resolutely turned away, trying not to eavesdrop. The rest of the team didn’t seem to be paying attention, but it was hard for Steve not to hear, given not only his advanced hearing, but his proximity to Tony’s seat.
“I just wanted to apologize for earlier,” Quill said, “and make sure you’re okay.”
“Yeah,” Tony said. “It’s okay. You had no way of knowing that I wasn’t really trying to take out your team. I should be apologizing to you.”
Quill snorted softly. “If I recall correctly, Tony Stark doesn’t say ‘sorry.’”
“Well,” Tony said, a laugh in his voice, “last time we saw each other, I hadn’t done time as the Herald of Galactus, either.”
“Yeah, how about not pulling a stunt like that again,” Quill said. “You know what it’s like to look outside and see the Herald is someone you know? You nearly gave us a heart attack, and that was before the Avengers started trying to kick our asses.”
“It’s alright,” Tony said. “I don’t think Galactus is gonna fall for that one more than once.”
“Thanks to you,” Quill said, “I don’t think we’re going to be worrying about Galactus for a while, anyway.”
Tony was silent for a moment. “I don’t know,” he said at last. “I wouldn’t be so sure.”
“Don’t worry, Tony. The Guardians won’t be letting their guard down.”
It was a terribly cheesy thing to say, but somehow Quill pulled it off. Steve had to admit to himself that, for a guy who went around calling himself something as pretentious as ‘Star Lord,’ Quill was in fact pretty charming. The thought did not set well with Steve.
“If you ever need some backup from the Avengers,” Tony was saying, “don’t hesitate to let me know.”
“Hey, next time don’t wait for a crisis as an excuse to visit. You know you’re always welcome.”
“I won’t,” Tony said. “Thanks, Peter.”
“No problem. Talk to you later.”
By the time they made it home to Avengers Tower, Tony had fallen soundly asleep, chin tilted down to rest against the lip of his armor. Steve sighed softly and went to rouse him, but Clint beat him to it, jarring the shoulder of the suit with a punch.
“Hey, Shellhead! Up and at ’em!” Clint said loudly.
Some part of Steve wanted to protest the rough handling, but he wasn’t sure it would be Captain America speaking as team leader, or Steve Rogers speaking as ... well, he still wasn’t sure he could use the term ‘boyfriend,’ and that was part of the problem, wasn’t it?
Besides, Steve knew Clint meant well enough, and in many ways Clint could sympathize with Tony as Steve could not. They were both men with questionable pasts, physically normal human beings on a team full of superpowered humans and a god, making an example for a younger generation of heroes like Sam Wilson to follow. It was no wonder to Steve that Clint had actually tried to get through to Tony back on the planet, to speak to the man inside the power cosmic.
Tony startled awake and spent a moment blinking in sleepy confusion before accepting Clint’s hand up. “I see the answer to ‘are we there yet’ is ‘yes.’”
“Yep,” Clint said, patting the armor on the back before he stepped away, toward the ramp out of the quinjet. “I want a shower, and like half a dozen pizzas. You hear that, JARVIS? Half a dozen pizzas!”
“Duly noted, Agent Barton,” JARVIS answered, “and the usual six dozen for our other Avengers shall suffice?”
“None for me, thanks, JARVIS,” Tony said. He lifted a gauntleted hand in a weak wave. “I just want to sleep this off. The post-power cosmic feeling is like about the worst hangover ever.”
Coming down the ramp behind Tony, last off the jet, Steve frowned. He wanted to point out that Tony would likely feel much better with food - using any kind of superpowers took a lot out of a person, no matter where those powers came from - but he didn’t want to mother hen. He would just make sure to gently suggest a slice or two once the pizza arrived; smelling food usually made the idea of having any a lot more appealing.
Tony got out of the armor while the rest of the team stashed their gear, and broke off from the group as they all began to go their separate ways. Steve began to follow Tony, but stopped short at a sharp look from Clint; Steve raised his eyebrows in question, and from the corner of his eye, saw Tony disappear behind the closing elevator doors.
Everyone else had filtered out by the time Steve caught up to Clint.
“Did you need something, Hawkeye?” Steve asked.
“Nah, right now, we’re just gonna be Clint and Steve,” Clint answered. He removed his sunglasses, as if to make that point more obvious, and gave Steve an expectant look.
Steve pushed back his cowl and tamped down a sigh. While Hawkeye needing something from Cap as functioning second-in-command of the team was one thing, Clint breaking things down to a personal level was unusual and Steve was, for the sake of bonding better with his teammates and friends, willing to listen.
“Look,” Clint said. “I’m just as pissed as anyone that Stark lied to us, okay?”
“I’m not -” Steve began.
“But,” Clint said, heading Steve off at the pass, “no one likes it when Mom and Dad fight, so ... I’m gonna give you a piece of advice, Steve: we all fuck up sometimes. Yeah, Tony lied to us, and yeah, he almost got his dumb ass killed, but everything turned out alright in the end. So ... you might wanna let this one go.”
Steve felt his face heating up, but could not decide whether it was from anger or embarrassment. It had become obvious to him some time ago that Clint knew about his relationship with Tony, but Steve wasn’t sure exactly when and how they had crossed the line from silent acknowledgment to Clint doling out advice.
Steve reminded himself, again, that Clint had been the one to get through to Tony earlier, the one whose conviction had convinced them to stand down.
“Okay,” Steve said. Clint was looking increasingly like he expected to get punched for putting in his two cents’ worth (and didn’t that startle Steve right into wondering when he’d earned a reputation as such a hardass among his teammates), so Steve placed a hand on his shoulder in reassurance and offered a grateful smile. “Thank you, Clint.”
Clint breathed a sigh, like relief. “No problem.”
“But,” Steve went on. “About that whole ‘Mom and Dad’ thing ...”
Clint shrugged. “Don’t worry, your secret - such as it is - is safe with me, Steve. I’m not saying everyone else doesn’t know already, but if they do, it isn’t because they heard it from me. Just, you know, remember I’m not the only one here with eyes.”
Steve flushed again; this time it was from embarrassment.
“Okay,” Clint said after a beat. “I’ve got half a dozen pizzas coming with my name on them, so I’d better head upstairs before Thor and the Hulk eat all of ’em.”
Steve glanced back toward Tony’s private elevator. “I should ...”
“Give Stark some space,” Clint finished. This time, his hand was the one to land heavily on Steve’s shoulder, steering him toward the elevator on the other side of the room. “You and I both know he’s gonna need some time to beat himself up over what happened.”
“That’s why I should go talk to him,” Steve said, shifting awkwardly.
“Come eat something,” Clint said firmly. “He’ll be there waiting when you get done.”
Steve sighed softly, but conceded the point and stepped into the elevator along with Clint. He had to remember there were other members of the team besides just himself and Tony, and if Clint was right - that everyone was feeling betrayed and upset right now - Steve should really step in and set a good example for all of them.
Tony’s bedroom door stood ajar, which Steve took as a good sign - an unspoken invitation - but it was dark and quiet inside. He knocked on the doorframe anyway before stepping in, and closed the door behind him with his heel.
The lights came up to a dim setting, likely thanks to JARVIS, enough for Steve to make out Tony’s silhouette in bed. He was sprawled across it, rather than under the covers - what was it about Tony and his insistence on not using a blanket? - looking freshly showered with damp hair and his t-shirt riding up his stomach.
Steve felt guilty waking him, since Tony needed sleep just as much as he needed food, but as far as Steve was aware, even a body powered by an arc reactor couldn’t create energy without food. Steve set the tray he was carrying on the nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed, reaching out to tug Tony’s shirt back down.
“Tony,” he tried again, louder this time.
Tony snuffled a little and sat up when he awoke, groggily focusing on Steve. “Huh?”
“I brought you dinner,” Steve said. He nodded toward the table, where the tray held a plate of pizza, along with some aspirin, a glass of water, and a bottled sports drink.
“Oh.” Tony scooted toward the edge of the bed and went eagerly for the water and aspirin. “Thanks.”
JARVIS brought the light on the nightstand up to a higher setting, and Tony settled in with the pizza, eating ravenously once he got started. Ever so often, he sneaked a glance at Steve, until Steve finally shifted uncomfortably and asked, “What?”
“I don’t know,” Tony said. He set the empty plate aside and wiped his mouth with a napkin before tossing that onto the tray as well. “Just kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop, I guess.”
Steve wanted to move close, to hold Tony, to do something to comfort him and make them both feel better after a very long day, but he held himself in place and asked, “What do you mean?”
“I mean ... no lecture?” Tony asked. “No guilt trip?”
Steve sighed, feeling a spike of guilt of his own. It was true, Tony did lie - to Steve and to the rest of the team - and it wasn’t as if it was just a personal issue between them. Captain America was functionally Iron Man’s second-in-command, so it was Steve’s responsibility to confront the matter, but he didn’t have it in him to argue.
“How about we just talk about it,” Steve suggested. “Calmly and rationally.”
Tony still looked wary, but he nodded. “Okay. Calm and rational, I’m your man.”
“Can we start with the fact you lied to me?” Steve asked. “To us.”
“I knew you would disapprove,” Tony said.
It was less the answer and more the shrug that accompanied it that rubbed Steve the wrong way. He pressed his lips together to subdue a frown and said, “Tony, we’re supposed to be in this together.”
“I knew you wouldn’t approve,” Tony said again. “You didn’t approve, enough that - in spite of the fact it worked - you’re upset about it now.”
“I’m not ...” Steve paused, taking a deep breath, and forced himself to remain calm and objective. Except that objectivity was difficult for him, when Peter Quill’s easygoing smile kept popping into Steve’s head.
Steve refused to rise to the bait. “Tony, your decisions could have had consequences for the entire team. And not just the Avengers, but the Guardians and the people of that planet, too.”
“It could have,” Tony agreed. “But it worked. God, Steve - can’t you budge for just a minute and give me credit that it worked?”
Steve sighed. “Believing that the ends justify the means -”
“Is perfectly fine when those means are my own choice,” Tony interrupted. “I did what I felt I had to. I did what I felt was right. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Steve’s face was hot with his rising anger, but he worked to keep his temper in check and his voice level as he answered, “We thought you were dead, Tony.”
Tony’s stubborn expression softened. “Steve,” he said quietly. “All I want is to look outside and see this city is still standing, and know it’s because I made the right call. Just because my decisions look rash, it doesn’t mean that I haven’t thought them out, and considered all the possibilities in advance. I run all those calculations because I can’t second guess myself once I’m out there.”
Steve shifted closer and put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “I know you felt you were doing the right thing. It ... was the right thing, Tony.”
Tony released a soft sigh, his shoulders sagging beneath the touch.
Steve took that as a good sign, and closed the rest of the distance between them, to wrap his arms around Tony’s waist. Tony relaxed as he leaned into the embrace and Steve relaxed with him, relieved that some of the tension between them had finally ebbed.
“Just ...” Steve said, not wanting to upset the moment but needing to get it out, “next time I have an idea you think is bad or unnecessary, tell me? I can’t promise I won’t get upset, but I can promise that I’ll get over it.”
Tony was quiet for a long moment, long enough that Steve had to check he was still awake. “Okay,” he said at last. “The next Galactus contingency plan we come up with, it’ll be together.”
Steve smiled. “Good.”
“And ...” Tony hesitated. “I’m sorry. For not telling you.”
Steve tightened his arms around Tony, thinking of Quill’s earlier words: Tony Stark doesn’t say ‘sorry.’ It was obvious to Steve, now, that it was ridiculous of him to feel jealous of whatever bond Tony shared with the outlaw known as Star Lord. Trust was as important here as it had been on the battlefield, and there was no reason for Steve to doubt this.
“I understand why you didn’t tell me, even if I don’t agree,” Steve said. “I’m sorry if I overreacted. It was just ... for a moment there, until Sam figured out what happened, I thought I would never see you again.”
“I didn’t mean to scare you,” Tony said. He paused, then added, a hint of reluctance in his voice, “But I was prepared for that to be the case.”
“I know,” Steve admitted. “I think I should be better at it - with the nature of what we do, I should be better at accepting the reality of ... of what’s possible. But it’s hard to be objective when you ... when you care for someone.”
“I know,” Tony said.
Tony didn’t, Steve thought. Because he meant to say when you love someone, not ... that. But all he said next was, “I should let you get some sleep.”
Tony looked reluctant, but the lure of sleep was clearly too much for him. He let Steve help him get settled under the covers, but Tony reached out and caught Steve’s hand when Steve turned to leave. “Stay with me,” he murmured.
Steve hesitated, unsure; they had only ever shared a bed after sex, and that only recently, but Tony asked, and Steve had a hard time saying no. He climbed into bed next to Tony and settled in, closing his eyes.
Steve didn’t think he much wanted to sleep, but his body was tired, and it took merely closing his eyes before he drifted off. Hours later, he woke to the feeling of Tony’s lips on the back of his neck, and a hand on his hip. Steve murmured soft, sleepy approval for the touch, and the fact that Tony was pressed warmly against his back.
“You awake?” Tony murmured.
“Yeah,” Steve answered, his voice hushed against the pillows.
Tony’s hand worked its way up from Steve’s hip, rucking up the hem of Steve’s t-shirt as he went. Steve tensed with anticipation as Tony’s fingertips skimmed over his stomach and back down, barely past the waistband of Steve’s pants. This was the slowest he could recall them ever taking things when Steve wasn’t the one holding the reins; Tony usually let impatience get the better of him, driven by the need for release. Maybe a good night’s sleep, or a near death experience, was enough to change that.
Tony took his time now, palming Steve through his sweatpants, until Steve’s cock was hard and straining against the fabric. Steve made a sound that came out much more like a whimper than he would readily admit to, his hips reflexively moving into the touch. He pressed back and found that Tony was just as hard, and the contact of Steve’s ass brushing against him inspired a muffled curse from Tony.
“Can I ...” Tony breathed, rocking harder against Steve.
Steve groaned. “Yes.”
“Nightstand drawer,” Tony said, distracted as he began tugging down Steve’s pants.
Steve muffled a louder noise against the pillows when his cock was freed to brush against the soft sheets. He reached for the bedside table, nearly pulling the drawer off its track in his search for lube and a condom.
Tony’s fingers were cool and slick when the first one worked inside Steve. He moaned quietly as he was stretched, biting his lower lip to keep from being too loud in the stillness of the early morning. It was not often that he and Tony did things this way, although Steve loved it when they did; there was something about the way Tony opened him up, fingers skilled and careful.
The full force of Tony’s focus and attention was intense, and he plied at Steve for what felt like ages, first one finger and then two, gently twisting and thrusting, finally curling until the tips of them pressed against Steve’s prostate and sent sparks flying off behind his eyelids. It was impossible to remain quiet then, and Steve was failing to see the point in doing so any longer, giving in to the needy noises that wanted to make it past his lips.
Behind him, Tony was making soft murmurs of his own, but his were real words, almost breathless little things that Steve would have missed if not for his enhanced hearing; Tony was rambling on about how hot Steve was, how gorgeous, how good, in such reverent detail that Steve began to feel warm from more than just Tony’s touches.
When Tony at last slid his fingers free, Steve groaned protest for the loss of contact, only for that sound to turn satisfied when the blunt pressure of Tony’s cock replaced it. Tony went slowly, so slowly, that Steve was gasping and trying not to tense up by the time he finally felt Tony’s hips flush against him.
“God, Steve,” Tony said, his words a sigh that ruffled Steve’s hair. Tony pressed one leg forward, turning Steve more toward his front, and Tony’s arm went around Steve’s waist, holding him close as Tony began to move.
The slow pace that Tony took, long and deep and gradual, pulling out nearly all the way before he pressed completely back inside, had them both shaking with self-restraint. He was careful, gentle even, and Steve couldn’t even think of what they were doing as sex so much as Tony sweetly making love to him.
By the time Tony’s hand came down to wrap around Steve’s cock - Steve determinedly, stubbornly, leaving things very literally in his lover’s capable hands - Steve felt like the slightest stimulation would send him right over the edge, he was so wound up from their languorous pace. Tony stroked him once, twice, then Steve was spilling into Tony’s hand.
If sex between them typically ended in something like an explosion, then this was a sweet release in comparison, and all the more intense for that fact. Steve was relaxed and boneless as he rode out his orgasm, murmuring soft encouragements to Tony to keep moving.
Behind him, Tony pressed soft kisses along Steve’s neck, his shoulder, his jaw, as Tony kept up his lazy rhythm. His only outward sign of impatience, of desperation, was the way that his hand shifted to Steve’s hip and tightened, in that moment spent teetering on the brink, right before Tony came, chanting Steve’s name in a murmur.
Tony sagged against Steve in the seconds after, and Steve rolled all the way onto his front, grabbing Tony’s wrist to haul him along. Tony was not a small man, but his weight was just solid and comforting along Steve’s back. Steve was feeling too blissful to worry about much except for the kisses Tony was still showering on his shoulders and neck, the warm breath and tickling scratch of Tony’s beard on his skin, for a few minutes, at least.
Gradually, reality had to come crashing back in, and the longer they lay there, the more conscious Steve became of the sheen of perspiration drying on his skin, the way it made their bodies stick together where they touched. He was lying on a wet patch on the sheets, and Tony was growing restless, too, finally giving in to the inexorable demands of biology when he had to raise up and pull out.
Steve grunted softly when Tony’s weight left his back; he rolled over and propped himself on an elbow, waiting until Tony was settled onto his back and looking at Steve to speak.
“That was ...” Steve hesitated, searching for words.
“Swell?” Tony suggested, grinning. He looked rather like the cat who got the canary just now.
“I was going to go with ‘amazing,’” Steve said. “But if you want ‘swell,’ sure. It was swell.”
Tony laughed, reaching for Steve’s hand. He laced their fingers together, and spent a quiet moment studying Steve’s face in the dim light that spilled between them from the arc reactor. His expression sobered, and he said, “Look, Steve ... I just wanted to let you know ...”
Steve squeezed Tony’s hand, a sudden swell of emotion in his chest in spite of how relaxed the rest of his body felt. “Yeah, Tony?”
“Earlier, today - yesterday, now - I thought I might never see you again, either. And I was thinking about what you said, about the danger in the things we do, and ...” Tony paused, tongue darting out to lick his lips; he was nervous. “I wouldn’t want to die without telling you that ... you’re the best thing to ever happen to me.”
Steve exhaled a startled breath. “Tony ...”
“No,” Tony said, soft and insistent. “Look, I’m not good with feelings, but -”
Steve leaned in and cut off Tony’s words with a kiss. “It’s okay,” he said quietly. “I love you, too.”
Tony blinked rapidly, a stunned expression on his face. It was the kind of look that, under other circumstances, might have had Steve reaching for his phone’s camera, to mark the occasion where he rendered Tony Stark speechless.
Then Tony relaxed, his features softening into a small, private smile. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” Steve answered, kissing Tony again. “I don’t think I’m that great with feelings, either.”
“It’s okay,” Tony said. “I love you anyway.”