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Falling Into You

Chapter Text

Tony hated magic. He really, really did.  So, it was with no small amount of surprised disgust to find himself standing around under the buzzing fluorescents of a hospital hallway, armored boots clicking loudly against the linoleum floor as he tried to stop himself from pacing, and discover that his first reaction to the news of Steve’s condition was one of a grasping, clawing kind of relief.  Though, guilt at the complete selfishness of that thought followed quickly on its heels, like the world’s worst consolation prize.  How could he think that, even for a moment?  This was Cap…Steve…and it was hard to think of someone who deserved this less than Steve.  Hell, Tony might have been willing to volunteer for Loki’s little treatment, if given a choice.  Last couple of years had not exactly been his best, all things considered.  Panic attacks.  Malibu.  Killian.  The break-up with Pepper.  And then…well, and then everything else that he was definitely not going to factor into his reaction to any of this.

“You’re sure?” Tony asked Natasha, who was holding a tablet in one hand, brow furrowed as she scrolled through whatever data was reflected on the screen. 

“We’re sure.  Every memory since the last time he saw Loki is just gone. Wiped away by whatever spell it was Loki hit him with,” Natasha said, almost absently as he eyes scanned the charts on the screen, no doubt looking for whatever it was Bruce asked her to send him from Steve's medical records. Jolly Green was still recovering in the Tower basement. 

“My brother’s spell was intended for me, to take my knowledge of the aether, and what it can do, and steal from me the truth that he sat the throne in our Father’s place,” Thor explained, sounding grim.  “Our Captain threw his shield and deflected Loki’s spell at the last moment, or that would have been my fate. Now, I fear, it is he who must suffer this violation. As Loki has escaped to realms unknown, I can only hope there is some aid for the Captain to be found on Asgard.”

“Might be the best recourse we have at this point,” Natasha agreed. 

“Then I shall be off, my friends.  I will return as soon as I have anything to report,” Thor said as he bid them both farewell.  He picked up his hammer and marched down the hall, nodding amiably to the man shuffling up and down the hall pushing his IV bags along on a pole who just blinked at him in confusion before going back to haranguing the nurse for more jello.

“Clint is with him,” Natasha rejoined after watching Thor disappear down the hallway, her lips pursing tightly.  “I think he wanted to be the one to tell him.  After what happened before.”  Tony just nodded silently, starting down the hall to the closed door.  It made sense for Barton to do it, of course.  He was the one who had experienced his own loss of self at Loki’s hand, after all.  At least he could offer some understanding of what Steve was going through.  So, yeah, it definitely made sense for Barton to be in there, for him to be the one…and if Steve really didn’t remember anything since they saw Loki back to Asgard the last time…then Tony’s presence would be…unexpected, if not actually unwelcome.

And really, why should he be in there?  It wasn’t his place just because of what happened between them.  Sure, they’d gotten better with each other since New York, and particularly, in the time since Steve and the rest of the Avengers moved into the Tower.  Hell, next to Bruce, he probably spent about as much time with Steve as anyone, going over some of the tech upgrades or helping him work the new gadgets Tony provided to the team, dissecting missions, coming up with ideas for what the team might be able to use in the field, or some problem that needed Tony’s help to fix, that kind of thing. 

He had to give Steve credit for always wanting to understand the technology he was expected to utilize, or, if not fully understand it, at least come to grips with what it could do and how best he could put it to use.  God knew, Tony loved to talk about his tech, and a willing ear was a rare thing.  When they actually managed to find a shared topic, they tended to manage surprisingly productive and engaging conversations, though not without their disagreements.  Though, to be fair, he was pretty sure Steve had goaded him into the whole Star Wars/Star Trek debacle by deliberately confusing the two then going all wide-eyed innocent when Tony went apoplectic. 

So, there had been something there that was vaguely like friendship.  Camaraderie, perhaps. They worked together often enough after the fall of SHIELD and what happened in California to allow a slow understanding and respect to replace the outright animosity, though it was like whatever impression had formed initially could never quite be let go, always sending them both skittering when anything got too close to personal.  Like the thing with the radio.  The god-damn, fucking radio.  It had been a joke—he hadn’t meant anything by it—well, okay, maybe he had wanted to needle Steve a bit after the lecture about Tony use of the comms, or lack thereof.  Well, the lack of what the good Captain considered a proper response to his increasingly vitriolic shouting.  Anyway, he hadn’t meant—but, fuck, when did he ever get anything right with Steve? 

“Got you something, Cap,” Tony said as he breezed past the kitchen table where Steve was sitting, reading one of those tree-killing history books of his.

“You—what?  You did?” Steve asked, looking up in confusion as Tony sat the gift bag down on the table in front of him.  “It’s not—is there a new holiday?  I thought I had them all…” Steve said, glancing over at the electronic calendar on the fridge and frowning in consternation.  Tony remembered Clint sharing a list of all the new holidays and celebrations that had been embraced in recent years and Steve looking it over in confusion before turning to Natasha and asking if there was anything they didn’t celebrate now.  “Equal pay,” Natasha had replied smartly.  “But there is a National Popcorn Day, so I can sleep at night.”

“Nah, just thought this might help with our communications issues,” Tony continued, helping himself to a cup of coffee from the fresh pot that was simmering.  “The ones you spent so much time pointing out the other day.”

Steve pulled the sheets of tissue paper out of the bag and then reached in to take out the box inside.  He looked at it blankly for a moment, staring at the picture on the front.  “Thought that might be more your speed, Cap.  Got the little dials and everything,” Tony said around a chuckle as he sipped the warm brew.  “Bet Dad has some recordings of those old Cap radio serials they used to do.  Hey, we should—“

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve said quickly, before going quiet for a long moment, a muscle twitching in his cheek as he carefully put the box back in the bag, tucking the tissue paper on top of it.  That was enough to tell Tony that he’d screwed up somehow, and suddenly he wanted to grab the damn thing from Steve’s hands and take the whole thing back. 

Tony huffed out a frustrated sigh and set the coffee mug down on the counter.  “Look, Cap…I didn’t mean—it was just—with the comm thing the other day—“ Tony stammered.

“I get it, Tony,” Steve said quickly, gathering his book and the bag as he stood up from the table.  “I should go put this away.  I’m supposed to meet Fury in a bit, anyway.”

“Yeah, uh—sure thing, Cap,” Tony replied, mouth flattening into a frustrated grimace.  “Here, look, give it over.  I’ll take the damn thing back.  I didn’t—it was just supposed to be funny—just, maybe lighten things a bit, you know?  I’m not—I read it wrong, okay?  Obviously.  Just—just give it here—“ Tony ordered, reaching out a hand and waving it towards the bag.

“It’s fine, Tony, really.  Like I said, I get it. It’s funny,” Steve cut in, obviously finding it anything other than amusing.  “I’ve got to get ready for the meeting.  If you—if you find those radio programs, that might be interesting to listen to.  Peggy said she used to get all fired up about them.  I should probably find out what all the fuss was about.  Might make her laugh to talk about it, you know?” 

“Yeah, yeah, sure, Cap.  I’ll load the audio files on your server,” Tony promised, picking up the coffee mug again and raising it in salute. “You can listen to them whenever you want.  Bring ‘em with you next time you visit her or something.”

Steve looked down at the gift bag on the table, then back up at Tony, his face oddly blank for a fraction before he smiled, soft and genuine, and damn if Tony’s newly repaired heart didn’t pick that moment to decide to start pounding out a drumbeat in his chest.  “Thanks, Tony. That’s real nice of you. I’m sure Peggy would like that.”  Then he was gone, gift bag clutched in his hand, and Tony was left with the certainty that he had screwed up, though God only knew exactly how.   

Why was he even thinking about that stupid radio now?  Whatever bug had crawled up Steve’s ass about it had apparently died anyway, because he’d seen the thing sitting on the bookshelf in Steve’s room some days later when he stopped by to hand off the latest specs for the suit upgrade, which, sure, he could have emailed, and it wasn’t like he was really concerned that Steve hadn’t come to the workshop since the thing with the radio. The thing was…he had actually found himself missing Steve’s visits, or at least noticing that they weren’t happening, which was weird because his workshop was a bit of a sanctuary.  If by sanctuary, you meant a place surrounded by nearly impregnable walls and monitored by an A.I. who was programmed to only allow people inside at Tony’s command.  They were all busy, so it wasn’t necessarily unusual for one or more of them to be gone for days at a time.  Still…he had found himself looking up at the door around lunchtime, half expecting to see Steve’s dark form outside the glass buzzing for entry with food and whatever the latest problem was he wanted to discuss. 

So, sure, he had maybe noticed that Steve’s absence seemed to coincide with the whole radio thing.  But, really, Steve’s room had just been on his way to…uh…the hallway or something, ah, fuck it, so, yeah, maybe he’d wanted to check in, make sure Steve wasn’t lost in some man-out-of-time funk or something.  But, Steve had been fine, thanking him profusely for the recordings and shaking his head in a bit of misplaced self-deprecation at how he had been depicted.  He said Peggy enjoyed listening to—well, mocking—them, leaving Tony feeling oddly buoyant as Steve followed him down the hallway to the common room.  Tony found himself promising to bring Steve what other memorabilia his dad might have stored somewhere, as if he didn’t know exactly where it all was and have a catalog of the entire collection on his private server.  Steve lit up at that though, and things seemed to settle back into the push and pull of whatever this strange routine was between them.  Being friends with Steve was a bit like catching sight of something out of the corner of his eye.  It was there, and he could see it when he really looked, but he could never seem to have all of it at once. 

It was as if there was always some kind of current running underneath everything, a sense of expectation, like standing on the high dive and looking down at the flat water beneath. It hadn’t seemed like this...whatever it was...would ever be something that either would acknowledge, even if Steve felt it, too, showing up in how closely Steve seemed to watch everything Tony did. Wouldn't want to miss a chance to find fault, after all.  Still, it wasn't like that generalized frustation couldn't be handled in other ways, Tony always figured, and if he dredged up a few old, almost forgotten fantasies late at night, spending himself into his hand with thoughts of strong, wide hands gripping his hips hard enough to leave marks, well, there were worse ways to deal with whatever tension might still lurk there.

Then…then that damn thing with the power grid and, sure, he hadn’t exactly meant for what came after to happen, but he hadn’t exactly not meant for it to, either.  After Malibu and Killian, Extremis and what Pepper went through, then the break-up, too long and slow in coming for both of them to have the acute pain of surprise, but almost worse for not actually being all that bad….and then Barnes and SHIELD and the giant shit-ton of wrong that went down there…God, with all that filling the space around them, it had probably been fuck or fight and thankfully, they’d ended up settling on the former. 

It had never been more than a release, anyway, something they both desperately needed.  Maybe it had always been somewhat inevitable.  Maybe the end, as abrupt as the beginning, had been inevitable, too.

“I swear to God, Stark, if you go off half-cocked in the middle of a battle like that again—“ Steve shouted as he stalked into the workroom, jerking his cowl off and twisting it in his hands, probably to keep from balling them into fists. 

“It worked, didn’t it?  Just because you didn’t think of it—look, I know what the suit can handle, and I knew what I could do with those relays with just a bit of tweaking.  See, and you may have missed this, but you shouldn’t play around power lines, kids, all the best Saturday morning message ads will tell you—“ Tony retorted, slamming the--okay, admittedly completely fried—gauntlet down on the worktable and turning towards a red-faced Cap, practically brimming with righteous anger at Tony’s inability to simply tow the line when a better option fell into his lap.

“You could have waited!  Without Thor here, we’re already down one Avenger.  You could have told me—us—what you were planning—“ Steve yelled back, eyes glittering and hard and so utterly full of focus on Tony, the way maybe only Steve ever really did,  when Tony had done something wrong, something he didn’t like, always to chastise and correct and tell him the ways he had screwed up, but it was there, a heavy, churning weight of attention screaming through his head and setting his nerves on edge.  He was cognizant enough of his own patterns of behavior to recognize what he was doing, though wholly unable to stop himself, the habit of seeking attention from authority figures, even negative attention, maybe especially negative, far too ingrained at this point to simply turn off.

“I did!” Tony interrupted indignantly.  Well, he had.  Maybe not exactly what one might call an excessive amount of warning, but he had.  And that was the crux of it, he supposed.  Whatever he did, it wasn’t going to be good enough.  He could always have done more, done better, made it faster, thought of something else, that was what he did, at least according to Cap, he cut the wire, and even when he didn’t, even when he did a  hell of a lot fucking more than anyone else, it was never going to be enough.  He still managed do it wrong, even when he got it right.  Story of his fucking life. 

“Right before the whole thing electrified, Tony!  You are in a metal suit for God’s sake!” Steve bellowed, setting Tony’s teeth on edge. 

“I know what I’m doing. I know what I’m capable of, and if I had to slow it down enough to explain it to you, we’d still be smashing robots down on Eighth. It worked.  Can’t you just fucking leave it at that, for once?” Tony demanded, shoving himself away from his desk and walking over to stand in front of Steve, watching the way the other man’s whole body tightened, as if preparing for a fight, though he didn’t step back.  He never gave Tony any fucking ground on anything.  Probably why Tony couldn’t seem to stop himself from pushing back so god-damned much, even when he knew, he really did, that he should let it go, that, hell, Steve even had a point, which, damn if that wasn’t the most fucking annoying part of this whole thing.  “How about, ‘Gee, Tony, thanks for making our job that much easier?  Golly, Mister Stark, that new fangled science of yours sure is impressive!’” Tony suggested sarcastically, pitching his voice a few octaves higher for effect.

“It isn’t always about what you can do, Tony. Sometimes, it matters what you should do, too,” Steve replied after a long moment, his words hanging in the air between them almost as if they had their own little cartoon bubble.  He might have hated Steve a little then, the niggling doubt in the back of his mind that always seemed to worm its way out when Cap was around coming to the forefront.  It had been close.  Closer than he expected, thus the charred gauntlet and blown repulsor. 

“There are a lot of things I do that I shouldn’t do, Cap.  We all do.  You want to criticize?  Take a fucking number and call me when you think of something better,” Tony shouted back, interrupting whatever other less than helpful bit of commentary Steve was about to offer.  “We won.  It worked. Can we just leave it at that?  For once?”

“Why am I even bothering?” Steve asked, throwing his hand in the air in frustration before letting it slap back down against his hip. “You aren’t going to listen to me, anyway.  You never do. You just do what you want, and damn the consequences to—to—the mission—“

 “Speaking of doing things and damn the consequences,” Tony started, surprisingly calm considering that his good sense had apparently been blown away with the right repulsor.  He took a deep breath then slammed his mouth against Steve’s, shifting his body to press against the warm length of him, still stained with dirt and flecks of cement, the smell of ozone and sweat mingling in his nose as Tony breathed in deep, bringing his hands up Steve’s arms to grasp at his shoulders.  He felt Steve stiffen in surprise, his head jerking back, tearing his mouth away from Tony’s.  Well, he should probably be glad he wasn’t getting decked, Tony thought dully, letting his hands drift off Steve’s shoulders to hang limply in midair, only to find himself floating, or lifted, if you really wanted to get down to it, head pushed back by the force of Steve’s mouth on his, slanting against his lips, tongue delving inside, and okay, then, no surprise Cap was a take-charge kind of guy, Tony thought, wrapping his arms around Steve’s shoulders again, trying to gain some kind of purchase.

Tony stumbled into the desk chair on suddenly graceless feet, sending it darting back to bounce off the wall, the backs of his thighs pressed hard enough against the edge of the worktable to leave marks, not that he gave a flying fuck at the moment, heat curling in his belly, driving away the surprise and questions as Steve wrapped one arm under Tony’s, the other braced against the table next to his hip.  Tony broke them apart long enough to get a hand between them, working the buckles and zippers on Cap’s suit, thanking God and whoever else would listen that he had been the one to redesign it. 

Steve was looking down between them, watching Tony’s hands, his whole body shuddering and stilling with a slight intake of breath when Tony finally got his hand around Steve’s cock.  Steve looked up at him then, just briefly, almost as if startled, then away again, focusing on some point behind Tony’s left shoulder as his breath left him in a long, low huff of air.

Tony pulled open a nearby drawer with his other hand and grabbed a wrinkled, rolled up bottle of lube and shoved the tub into the middle of Steve’s chest with a grunt, then set to work on his own pants, shoving them down in too much of a hurry, damn the fucking zipper, seriously, who made these things?  

Steve backed up, opened his mouth to maybe say something, probably something Tony didn’t want to hear, so he kissed him again, long and deep, his hand stroking up and down Steve’s cock, rubbing his thumb against the slit, until whatever it was Steve was going to say was gone. “Come on, Cap.  Get busy.  One way to maybe shut me up, anyway,” Tony suggested hoarsely, his voice coming out uncharacteristically ragged, all things considered. “Or not, let’s face it.  Don’t get your hopes up.”  Little hand job wasn’t exactly enough to—GodJesusfuckingChrist—Tony gasped as Steve wrapped a slick hand around his cock, stroking from base to tip, then swirled his thumb around the cockhead, almost exactly mimicking the motions of Tony’s own hand.  Tony grabbed the tube and coated his fingers with lube, rubbing them together to warm it, then reached around and pushed his index finger in to the knuckle, giving himself a moment to adjust before pressing in deeper, then adding a second, slick finger.   He was hurrying it, he knew, but fuck, he was not going to come all over Cap’s hand like some kind of rank schoolboy just because…just because…ah, fuck, that felt impossibly good, he thought as he hissed out a breath. 

“Almost ready, Cap.  Just gimme a sec, here,” Tony breathed out. Was that his voice?  High and needy and out of air and too full of breath at the same time?

“Are—are you sure…we don’t,” Steve stopped, swallowing heavily, his adam’s apple bobbing up and down, which seemed like a fine cue to Tony to set his mouth to work against the column of Steve’s throat, licking and sucking his way down to the small vee at the collar of Steve’s suit.  Steve released a harsh breath, his hips juddering into Tony’s hand in a small, aborted thrust, though he managed to keep up his rhythm on Tony’s cock, God bless super-soldier reflexes.

“Ah, admit it, Cap,” Tony chuckled lowly, breath warming the already heated air between them.  “You’ve wanted to pound me into submission since the helicarrier. Consider this a free pass.  Gonna feel so good, Cap, so fucking good.  Wanted this,” Tony stuttered out, between strokes and kisses.  “Wanted this for so fucking long.” Steve had just looked at him then, pupils blown wide, mouth slightly open, still wet from Tony’s kisses, and God, didn’t he have the most gorgeous fucking mouth, it wasn’t even fair.

“If that’s what you want, Tony,” Steve said, almost too quietly to catch.  Tony probably wouldn’t have heard it, except he was already leaning in to capture Steve’s mouth again, that fucking bottom lip was going to be his undoing, he just knew it.

It had been too fast, that first time, over far too quickly, though he had come, bent over the workstation, staring at the specs for the new Quinjet and one of those ball bearing desk toys rattling back and forth with each of Steve's thrusts.  Steve had apologized, managing to look both horrified and like the world’s most attractive kicked puppy at the same time.  Tony had just patted him on the shoulder and told him it was probably bound to happen, lots of pent up energy, not to worry about it.  He honestly had not planned on it ever becoming habit after that, but somehow, it did. 

After missions mostly, when they both were wired with unspent energy, still walking some line too close to death to call life.  Sometimes after Steve got back from one of his many fruitless Where’s Bucky? searches.  Cap was like a fucking gerbil on a wheel when it came to Barnes, not that Tony paid that much attention.  But when he returned, inevitably Barnes-less, Tony would find himself announcing that he was going to his workshop, and sure enough, like clockwork, Cap would show up sometime later. Tony would have himself loose and open already, slick and waiting, or maybe push Cap down on the workshop sofa, get down on his knees and pretend this was something they both wanted for other reasons than whatever it really was.  Point being, things had been fine between them. True, Cap didn’t come around for the other stuff as much, or, well, at all, when you got right down to it, which, admittedly, was probably for the best, considering they’d both agreed to keep this whole thing between the two of them by the simple inaction of not saying anything. 

But, it had been good, or he thought so, until Steve had come to see him in his office three days ago and told him they needed to stop, or, rather, he wanted to stop and got all Boy Scout about owning up to it.  Which, hey, fine.  Not like anyone had made any promises or, hell, actually used any real words, so fine.  Steve was done with this, whatever it was.  No problem.  Consenting adults and all that.  They’d both had fun, or some version of it. 

I can’t do this anymore, Tony.

Totally fine.

Sure, he would miss it.  Who wouldn’t?  The warm, wet drag of Cap sliding into him, hand splayed wide over his lower back, almost a caress, the way he lost his breath and kept stuttering out Tony’s name as his thrusts became more and more erratic, how he’d always run a hand down Tony’s neck, fingers carding through the damp curls there, so gently Tony almost couldn’t feel it…well, Tony would have to be dead not to miss that.  Literal God-damn fantasy come to life, after all.  So, sure, he was disappointed, if not surprised, when Cap called it off.  They were adults, in addition to being Avengers, and just because whatever this was hadn’t lasted, well, that hardly meant he was going to let whatever minute pang of regret he might have felt get in the way of doing their jobs.

Tony looked again at the closed door, the color coded letters on the wall next it a rainbow equivalent of ‘we don’t know what the fuck we’re dealing with.’  None of that explained why his first reaction to hearing Steve had lost his memories was so damn selfish.  Why did he care if Cap remembered their little trysts?   They hadn’t meant anything.  That much was clear enough, even for someone as emotionally blind as Tony to see.  Hell, they barely even liked each other most of the time, always waiting for something to set one or the other off, and usually managing to find it.  That wasn’t entirely fair, he knew, but it felt like something that should be true, too familiar and expected to simply let go of just because…just because sometimes Steve made him laugh out loud until he lost his breath and sometimes he looked at a problem in a way Tony hadn’t considered, not that he would admit that, but still.  He rubbed metal fingers lightly over his scalp, massaging absently at his temples.  It didn’t matter, anyway. They were done.  Now, more so than ever, he supposed.  The least he could do was help Steve deal with this crap as best he could.  He owed him that much.

“I’ll tell him about Barnes,” Natasha was saying.  “And SHIELD.  Get him copies of some of the mission reports or something—it’s all on the Internet now anyway, so that shouldn’t be hard.  Hey,” Natasha paused.  “You okay?  You were kind of freaking out on us out there.”

“Huh?” Tony mumbled.  “Oh, yeah.  I’m good.  Just—He didn’t—“ Tony started, for a moment, his mind racing back to looking down at Cap’s wide, glazed eyes, staring up at him, unseeing before he slumped over unconscious and unmoving.  “Just worried me for a bit there.”

“You flew him here without so much as a word to anyone, shouted at the doctors and then refused to leave so they could run tests,” Natasha reminded him.

“They were just standing there!” Tony protested loudly, pushing himself off the wall where he had been leaning. “And I wasn’t going to just leave him when he can’t so much as raise a pinky to defend himself.  Oh, whatever,” Tony continued, waving a hand in the air at her dubious look.  “Look, point is,” he began, then quieted at the sharp glares from passing hospital personnel.  “Point is, they don’t know what they’re dealing with here—we don’t know what we’re dealing with.   Magic on top of the serum?  Who the hell even knows how that is going to work?”

 “Well, the doctors say he’s fine, except for the memory loss.  He can leave whenever we’re ready.  I think we should get him back to the Tower as soon as possible,” Natasha said, casting a quick, furtive look to the nurse’s station.  “Maybe familiar surroundings…I don’t know.  Maybe it will help.  Like you said, we don’t know how all this is going to work,” she admitted with a slight shrug.

“I should talk to him,” Tony heard himself say.  “I mean, just, you know. Check in.”

“Why?  Last he remembers, you two managed celebratory shawarma after the forty-years-in-the-making-who-did-Daddy-love-best pissing contest,” Natasha replied.

“What—hey!  That’s not—That is not at all what that was about.  At all, okay? That was Loki and his damn scepter,” Tony sputtered indignantly.  “It had nothing to do with…any of what you just said.”

“Keep telling yourself that,” Natasha said evenly, going back to scanning the charts on the tablet in her lap. They both looked up when the door to Steve’s room opened and Barton stepped out, mouth flattened into a tight line.  “How is he?” Natasha asked carefully.

“As good as can be expected, I guess,” Clint answered, scrubbing a hand up and down his face, then through his hair, leaving it in spikes.  “You know Cap.  He can handle most anything you throw at him.  Better than most, at any rate.  If he could deal with the whole defrosting thing, well, I guess maybe this is just one more shitty thing in a long line of shitty things.  Just…makes you wonder how much you can lose before you break though, I’ll tell you that,” Clint said, shaking his head slowly.  “I told him you’d fill him in on the rest of it,” he continued with a nod to Natasha.  She rose lithely from the plastic chair, pushing the door to Cap’s room open with the flat of her hand, before stopping long enough to send a questioning look over her shoulder to Tony. 

“Just to check in,” Tony said quickly as he came to stand behind her, metal feet clanging too loudly on the hard floor.  Hard to manage subtle in a giant armored suit, he supposed.

“Fine,” Natasha replied.  “Do not upset him, Stark, or I swear to God…” she said, letting the threat hang in the air.

“Promise I’ll behave, Mom,” Tony assured her though found it came out far more serious than the words themselves.

“You’d better.  He doesn’t need it, Tony.  Not from you,” she said sharply, then turned and pushed the door all the way open.  Cap was sitting up on the bed in one of those God-awful hospital gowns, this one white with small navy diamonds on it, open a bit at the neck where the snaps in the back weren’t quite done right.  Tony could see leads connecting to his skin and the machines keeping time with his pulse and other vitals. His shield rested against the bedframe, within reach, Tony noted, a clear plastic bag sitting in the one chair containing what remained of his uniform.  He was staring out the window when they came in, though his head snapped around whip-fast as soon as the door opened, eyes wide and very, very blue, and for a moment, he looked so young and vulnerable, small in a way that Steve rarely ever was, and Tony’s mind flashed to the stack of faded photographs showing a skinny kid, bones nearly poking through skin, fierce eyes staring defiantly at the camera. 

“Hey, Cap,” Tony said, raising a gauntleted hand in greeting. 

“Agent Romanov,” Steve said with an easy nod.  He looked up at Tony, brow furrowing a bit in something that wasn’t quite a frown, but hid one behind it. “Looks like you get to bring the rest of the good news,” he continued, obviously aiming for light, but managing only to keep it from sounding bitter by the fact that he was Steve.  She nodded and sat with a hip just on the bottom of the mattress, her fingers lightly playing with the thin sheet there.  Steve looked up at him, almost curious, though there was a wariness that belied simple curiosity.  “Mr. Stark, thanks for coming.  Agent Barton said…he said we’re…I guess we’re friends.  I’m glad to hear that.”

“Uh, yeah,” Tony said, suddenly uncomfortable.  Natasha’s catlike eyes lifted to his and he felt himself swallow around the lump in his throat, a scraping, rough cough coming out as he tried to clear it.  “Yeah. We’re friends.”

Well, fuck.

Chapter Text

Tony locked in the coordinates for the auto-pilot and checked the course headings one last time, then turned the Quin-Jet over to JARVIS to control for the remainder of the flight back to the Tower.  Damn snipe hunt, he thought glumly, picking at a tear in the undersuit.  He had volunteered to go, so couldn’t exactly complain. Well, not too loudly anyway.  Birdboy and Jane Bond were off running down another tip when this intel on a possible Winter Soldier sighting came in, which naturally meant Cap decided to wait until they returned from their mission so that he wasn’t rushing off to parts unknown to possibly face a highly skilled foe with nothing more than his shield and good intentions.

Except, not.

Oh, no, we can’t possibly wait around for reinforcements. Why, the precious little woobie-amnesic-assassin might slip away if we waited!  Can’t have that. What a fucking tragedy that would be, Tony thought to himself.

One might, if one were not a ridiculously stubborn super-soldier, that is, one might think that Rip Van Terminator didn’t want to be found, what with all the…not being found.  But no!  No, let’s ignore that little tidbit of a logical conundrum and hop a flight with no back-up and no plan except to maybe offer to put some couch cushions together and get Thor to braid his hair, if he would pretty please not try to kill you.

Tony sighed and ran a hand through his hair, then caught his reflection in the jet’s windshield and tried to smooth it down again, largely to little avail.  Of course, their little jaunt across the pond had been fruitless.  Barnes, if he had ever been to the facility, certainly hadn’t been there by the time they arrived to find the lab, or what was left of it, a smoking ruin. 

Okay, so Tony suspected Barnes had probably been there.  But, the point was, Steve had a mile-wide blind spot when it came to his childhood friend, which was how Tony ended up riding shotgun on Steve’s latest attempt to make the Great Pumpkin appear by sheer force of will. 

On the other hand, Tony thought, rising from the pilot’s seat and heading towards the back of the jet…on the other hand, they had a good three hours to kill before they made it back to the Tower.  Truth be told, they really hadn’t had this much time to themselves since…well, since this whole thing between them got started.  Somehow, long afternoons in his lab had given way to quickies after a mission, and he wasn’t complaining, not really, because one did not complain when a literal walking fantasy come to life decides to…whatever it was they were doing. 

They were trying not to raise suspicions amongst their teammates, hard to do when you had a couple of master spies living with you and Steve had the poker face of a Kabuki performer.  And he understood Cap’s reasoning on keeping this…thing…on the down-low, he really did, though his own was a bit more nebulous even for him to parse.  This was the kind of thing he would normally want to print on t-shirts and drop off the top of the Tower attached to little red, white and blue parachutes. 

It wasn’t like he would trade…even if he did sometimes find himself looking over his shoulder while in the middle of a project, realizing he had been talking out loud to an empty room.  Sex with Captain America was exactly what you would think, if one spent time thinking about such things.  Tony absently rubbed at a small scar on the back of his hand, a remnant of a undergrad welding session that had involved just such a distraction.  Industrial propylene and super-soldier fantasies really were not meant to mix.  Still, he wasn’t even going to pretend to deny the thrill that went through him at the thought of having Steve’s undivided attention for the next few hours.  No training, no reports or de-briefings, at least not the un-fun kind, no reviewing tactics…just him and Steve, whatever the hell that meant these days.  

When he made his way to the back of the Quin-jet, Steve was sitting on one of the low benches that lined the side, staring down at a tablet showing JARVIS’s scans of the rubble of what used to be some kind of laboratory, which had supposedly been working on legitimate pharmaceutical testing, though the remains of those burnt and twisted cages were awfully big for monkeys. 

The lights were dim back here, without the glare from the cockpit’s windshield, low fluorescents washing out Steve’s pale skin, making him look drawn, stretched somehow, as if his skin was pulled too tightly over his bones.  Maybe it was, here, inside a metal box where everything was artificial, Tony probably most of all.  He was the one who flew around encased in a metal suit, his world reduced to readouts and numbers, projections of the world outside kept carefully distant.  Steve belonged to the sun, bright and shining and hiding from no one.  It was an odd thought, he knew, yet it felt more true than a lot of his thoughts, particularly lately.  Something like discomfort skittered across the back of his mind, disconcerting him for a moment before he realized Steve was speaking.

“He was there, Tony,” Steve said, without looking up.  “He knew what it was.  This isn’t random.”

“Not saying it is. Saying the opposite, in fact,” Tony replied, rubbing his hands against his sides and leaning against the wall opposite where Steve sat, the deep furrow in the middle of his brow working as some kind of barometer for his concentration, which was, once again, on Barnes.  “Guy knows what he’s doing.  And he’s doing it without us finding him.  It isn’t like people don’t know where Captain America lives.  You’re not exactly hard to find, you know that, right?”

Steve didn’t respond, not at first, his eyes still darting back and forth over the screens of information JARVIS was sending to his tablet, the rapid-fire results of being so close to what he wanted, yet unable to grasp it. After a long moment, a beat longer than Tony would have liked, Steve clicked the screen to black, set the tablet beside him on the bench and looked up at Tony for the first time since they boarded the jet after finding themselves late to the party. 

Tony could read Steve’s disappointment easily enough, and even though it wasn’t directed at him, not really, he seemed to absorb it nonetheless, feeling it bleed through the pores in his skin and settle low in his gut, the churning, sour feeling familiar enough.  A hundred thoughts of how he could fix this poured through his head at once like some kind of cavalcade of ways to make it right, or make Tony not wrong in whatever ways he had managed to be wrong this time.  He sighed and steepled his hand over his eyes, rubbing at his temples with his thumb and middle finger as if trying to draw out the thoughts.

Steve glanced up at the cockpit, then back at Tony, eyebrows raising in question.  “Auto-pilot,” Tony responded to the unasked question.  “JARVIS is running it.  He’ll alert me if anything comes up.  We’ve got about three hours before we make it back.  JARVIS is trying to get what he can on the lab fire.  Their files were largely fried, but I got a few of the hard drives that aren't too crispy and one of the servers was relatively intact.  When we get back, I’ll see if he can pull anything off them.  Might give us a lead,” Tony offered carefully, watching Steve’s face shutter with all the resolved determination of a man who was going to keep bashing his head against the wall until there was a hole in one of them. 

“Look, Cap, we’ll find him,” Tony heard himself promising. Damn.  What was it about disappointing Steve that got such a Pavlovian reaction out of him?  Might as well heel every time someone rings a fucking bell, he thought in disgust.  “He can’t hide forever, not from JARVIS.  Not from me.”  Steve relaxed visibly then, the crease in his forehead smoothing away as he managed to look at Tony like Tony had just said he could hang the moon and turn the stars on, and maybe Tony’s reaction actually really wasn’t all that hard to figure out. 

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve said, sounding both relieved and genuinely grateful because Tony was having his AI do stuff, and not for the first time, Tony felt a pang of guilt stir in his stomach at the thought that he hadn’t been more involved in the search from the get-go.  True, Cap hadn’t asked for his help, not outright, anyway.  But he’d known, of course he had.  Dropping three helicarriers in the Potomac gets a guy’s attention, after all. 

So does Captain America nearly falling to his death, which he had explained to Steve, at length, that afternoon in the hospital while Tweety and Spider-Lady bonded over frappuccinos and weaponry or whatever the hell it was they talked about.   He was pretty sure Steve had agreed with most of his points, but, to be fair, Steve had been on an enormous amount of drugs at the time.  Tony had checked his chart, which generally amounted to doctor-speak for ‘yeah, we don’t fucking know, please don’t let us kill him by accident,’ but most of it consisted of trying to find a dosage of pain medication that would have any kind of effect without the serum clearing it out of his system before it could offer any kind of relief.  You know, from all the bullet holes Steve’s bestie had put into him.  Things like that.

Sometimes, Tony really wondered what Erskine had been playing at. 

He offered a quick, twisted smile to Steve before ducking his gaze to look away. “Not a problem, Cap,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth.  When he looked back at Steve, sitting there so damn hopeful and determined, like a golden retriever just waiting for Tony to throw the shiny, metal ball and tell him to fetch, he realized he alternately wanted to be the one hand Barnes over to Steve on a silver platter and rather desperately hoped Barnes kept up his little cat and creepy killer mouse of Nimh routine for the foreseeable future. 

“You know,” Steve started, looking back and forth around the bay of the jet almost absently.  “Your Dad once flew me into Hydra territory to rescue Bucky and the other prisoners.  Peggy said he was the best civilian pilot she knew.  And probably the only one crazy enough to do it.” 

Tony frowned, then huffed out a breath, shaking his head as he pushed himself off the side of the jet and closed the space to where Steve was sitting.  He spread his legs on either side of Steve’s knees and nudged Steve back against the wall, scooting his own knees up to the bench and lowering himself to straddle Steve’s thighs between his own.  “Wait…you’re saying my Dad…Howard Stark, we’re talking about here…he flew Captain America on one of the most famous rescue missions in history?  No, no, I don’t think that ever came up.”

“Really?” Steve asked drolly, arms coming around to rub up and down Tony’s spine, one hand resting lightly against his neck. Steve ran his thumb up and down over the skin there, catching in Tony’s hair at the base of his scalp in languid, easy motions.  “Never mentioned it, huh?  Probably not one to brag.  Heard that about Stark men. Very humble.  Modest, even,” Steve teased, the gentle pressure of his thumb increasing, pressing Tony closer until their chests met and Steve could duck his head to the curve of Tony’s neck, pulling back the collar of the undersuit just enough to place light kisses along Tony’s collarbone, then dip his tongue in the hollow of it, swirling and licking at the sweaty skin there.

“Well,” Tony said, drawing out the word and shifting his hips a bit higher on Steve’s thighs, rutting against Steve with quick, sharp thrusts, making Steve pull back with a surprised grunt.  The undersuit didn’t offer much in the way of layers, and he could already feel the hard length of Steve’s arousal against the junction of his thighs.  He watched Steve’s eyes widen, then darken, going the color of the ocean beneath them, skin flushing with heat, his tongue darting out to taste his lips where they had just left Tony’s skin, and Tony couldn’t help the feeling of triumph at how quickly he could make Steve forget everything, even Barnes.  Maybe especially Barnes.  God, he did love how Steve responded to him, always so easy to read, so fucking honest and open in his reactions, something he knew Steve would rather wasn’t the case, but Tony was a selfish bastard and took what he was given.  He could probably get off just watching Steve, which seemed a theory that needed testing at some point, though he had other plans in mind now.

“He might have said something about it once.  Maybe twice.  I barely remember,” Tony said with a grin.

“Uh-huh,” Steve said, the syllables coming out as warm huffs of breath against Tony’s skin where Steve bent to press his mouth at the cord of muscle that stretched from Tony’s shoulder to his neck just above the undersuit.  Tony felt a hot, wet heat follow, then suction, light at first, then harder, a groan torn from his throat before he realized he was making a sound. 

“Hey, Cap?” Tony mumbled, voice already sounding high and slurry.  Tony moved his hips again, just a little, rocking back and forth just enough to feel the friction. 

“Yeah, Tony?” Steve responded against the column of Tony’s throat where he was steadily licking and sucking his way to Tony’s jaw, mouthing lightly over Tony’s goatee before scraping his tongue against it.

“Wanna fondue?” Tony asked huskily in an exaggeration of a seductive voice, waggling his eyebrows suggestively and grinding down against Steve’s cock at the same time.  Steve’s laugh came out half a groan against Tony’s neck, his hands tightening reflexively around Tony’s back and neck.  “Because I want to fondue.  I want to fondue you so very, very badly.  You have no idea.”

“You’re incorrigible, you know that?” Steve asked, though Tony could feel the curve of a smile against his neck and felt the warm puff of air at Steve’s low chuckle. Steve nudged his mouth against Tony’s jaw, using the pressure of his hand on the back of Tony’s neck to lower Tony’s mouth to his, a quick, light, nipping kind of kiss that wasn’t nearly enough for Tony.  “How long have you been waiting to say that?” Steve asked, returning his attentions to Tony’s jawline, tracing it up to where the earlobe dangled and drawing that into his mouth, sucking gently, then capturing it between his teeth, biting just hard enough for Tony to feel it all the way down to the tip of his cock. 

As easy as he found Cap to read, and fuck, Steve made it seem so simple, liking pretty much anything and everything Tony wanted to do to him, Cap seemed to have taken their first encounter as something of a tactical challenge to be revisited, tested and perfected, and damn if the man hadn’t figured out just how to get a rise, quite literally, out of Tony in what Tony would have sworn were not his erogenous zones until all that righteous patriotism started in on them.

“Since—Jesus, Cap—since I was fourteen maybe?” Tony suggested around a gasp as Steve started to peel his undersuit off, gloved hands finding skin, the rough, worn leather cool against his skin, then warming, and Christ, he was going to come in his pants exactly like that teenage version of himself if he wasn’t careful.  “Don’t think—fuck, yes—don’t think you’re the only one who plans things,” Tony panted, dipping his head to find Steve’s mouth and make it stop doing those things to his chest before the fireworks show started far too soon. 

“You know,” Steve began when they broke apart, his eyes passing over Tony’s face too quickly for Tony to catch his expression before he looked to the front of the jet, staring at the quilt of clouds passing outside the windshield.  “I never actually did get to try fondue.  For real, I mean.  Not much of that kind of thing to be had on the front lines.  Always told myself I would, when I got home.  Maybe….maybe when we get back to the Tower…we could…” Steve said with a small shrug, his mouth flattening into a line before he looked back up at Tony. 

“Sure, Cap, we can do that,” Tony replied quickly, both hands snaking between them to work on the buckles and zippers of Steve’s uniform. 

“Really?” Steve questioned, the words coming out high-pitched and a bit breathless as Tony’s hands freed him from the uniform and started stroking.  Where the hell had he put the lube, Tony wondered idly, eyes darting around the jet’s cabin.  Right, storage bin, he remembered, stretching a hand over Steve’s head to reach the compartment and rifle around until he found the tube, Steve’s gaze following his movements.

“Why not?  Though, as a rule, I’m against arming Natasha with pointy things at mealtime.  You know she gets surly when she’s hungry.  And I’ll probably have to order extra dozen of those little angel food cakes for Bruce, you know how he gets, and we do not want a repeat of the Pizza Roll Incident of ‘14, but yeah, we can do that.  I’ll have JARVIS add it to the grocery list.  You hear that, J?” Tony called out, flipping open the cap on the tube and squirting a generous amount onto his hands. He rubbed his hands together to warm the gel before wrapping one hand around Steve’s cock again and reaching behind him with the other, shoving the undersuit the rest of the way down until he found his entrance.  He worked one finger in to the knuckle, keeping up a rhythm on Steve’s cock while he stretched himself.   

“Indeed, Sir.  I shall make the appropriate arrangements,” JARVIS responded.  He felt Steve stiffen a bit beneath him, and tore his gaze away from watching his hand moving up and down Steve’s shaft to look up at Steve’s face.  He wasn’t watching Tony, looking at something or nothing over Tony’s shoulder before tipping his head back to let it rest against the bulkhead behind him, releasing a hiss of breath as he did. 

“Cap?” Tony called out softly, keeping up the steady pace of his hand and fingers.  “You with me?”

Steve lifted his head to look at Tony, eyes bright and gaze warm, and Tony would have wilted under it if he could have, undone somehow, coming apart in an entirely different way than he had intended.  He opened his mouth to say something, though he had no idea what, just that something needed to be said, to fill this space that had suddenly appeared between them, but then he felt Steve’s hand rise back up his spine to cup his neck, his thumb stroking again, anchoring Tony in some inexplicable way.  Tony arched into it, whatever it was that passed between them fading and the yearning need returning, hot and heavy as it thrummed through his body, sending pulses of need directly to his cock, which jerked and hardened in response. 

“Yeah, Tony.  I’m with you,” Steve responded quietly, like he was answering a different question than what Tony had asked, but then Steve’s mouth found Tony’s again, fierce and hard this time, taking with it whatever it was that may have floated through Tony’s mind away before it could become whole.

 Barnes.  Again.  Of course, Tony thought with an annoyed sigh.  Because why worry about a batshit crazy alien demigod stealing a few years’ worth of memories when all that mattered was Killer Zorro being decidedly not dead, oh joyous day.  Steve had listened to Natasha’s recitation of the events since New York and the Chitauri with stoic calm, right up until the part about the Winter Soldier’s identity, and then it was like some switch had been flicked and now, four hours and several doctors’ warnings later, Steve was still sitting in one of the Tower’s conference rooms going over everything that had been done to date in their hunt for Red October. 

Tony stared at the conference room video feed from his console in the workshop, the pieces of armor strewn about his worktable all but forgotten.  He should go in there.  Natasha and Wilson were with him, so it wasn’t like Steve was alone, not exactly, except that he looked at all of them like they were familiar strangers, and Tony hated it, this distance that had ebbed away so slowly that he hadn’t quite realized the loss of it until it was back.  Still, he should go offer to help, at least let Steve know he was working on it.  He had promised, after all. 

True, he hadn’t exactly jumped all over keeping that promise with his usual gusto, though he did have JARVIS running a modified version of Zola’s algorithm trying to track down the wayward killer while Tony wondered what his life had become.  He could tell Steve that, and watch Steve thank him with the dull sort of cool politeness that he used to thank Tony for being at the hospital with him or when he found out he lived in the Tower now.  The thing was, he was absolutely certain Steve was being completely sincere in his gratitude. 

It was annoying the ever-loving fuck out of Tony.  Honestly, if Tony got one more version of “That’s awfully nice of you, Mr. Stark,” he thought he might come unglued.  Where was the Steve who baited and goaded Tony and made smart aleck remarks that made people blink at him in confusion while they tried to figure out if Captain America just sassed the shit out of them while Tony grinned like a fool?  This Steve…this Steve did everything carefully, controlled in a way that…well, that his Steve…wait, not his Steve--whatever, point was this Steve was wound tighter than a South Beach face-lift. 

It wasn’t like Tony didn’t understand why.  After all, for Steve, at least for now anyway, the world was new again and the past was still closer than the present. Had this been what he was like after the defrosting?   No wonder he’d nearly lost it with Tony on the helicarrier.  Probably the first honest-to-God emotion the guy had allowed himself to have, even if it was due to Loki’s scepter.  Mostly due to the scepter.  Like, 70/30 scepter. Anyway, the last thing Steve needed now was to hole himself up and entrench himself even further in the past, but regaining something he thought he had lost a long time ago seemed to be the only thing about the future that held his interest at the moment.

“How much longer?” Steve asked as Tony scrubbed a hand over his face and ran it around to massage the back of his neck.  Really needed to consider some kind of fold-down cot for the jet, he thought, only slightly chagrined to realize he’d apparently fallen asleep, though he noticed there was a rolled up jacket underneath his head.  He could feel the low hum of the engines through the metal beneath him, oddly soothing, and felt warm, though the kind that was fading, like his skin held just the memory of it. He was sticky and pleasantly sore, still in that place between sleep and wakefulness where resistance to actually waking up remained possible, but Cap had asked him a question, and once it settled in, he couldn’t let it go.

 “ETA, JARVIS?” Tony called out, voice still rough with sleep.

“We should arrive at the Tower in approximately one hour and thirteen minutes,” JARVIS answered.  Tony waved a hand at Cap and let his head fall back against the bench.  Steve made no response, and the quiet, which had seemed comforting a moment earlier now held something else. He rubbed at his eyes and sat up on his elbows, finding Steve already up, sitting on the end of the bench towards the back of the jet.  It took Tony a moment to find what was out of place.  Steve’s shield was nestled next to his knee, one of Steve’s hands wrapped in a death grip around the edge as Steve bumped his head lightly against the wall in some kind of rocking motion.  A fissure of wrongness ran down his spine, tingling against the dark places in the back of his mind.

“You okay there, Cap?” Tony questioned, keeping his voice carefully measured. 

Steve nodded and said nothing, though Tony saw his hand flex around the shield and had the thought that if that was anything other than vibranium, there would be a handprint in it by now.  Steve slowly let his eyes fall closed.  Tony was about to let it go, decide to either get up and check the controls or try to find precious sleep again, when he heard Steve shift, the shield scraping against the metal floor of the jet.

“How much longer until we’re over land?” Steve asked quietly, the words coming out rough and brittle, as if they had form and had to be dragged from him.

Tony stared balefully at the console screen as the little confab continued unabated.  Seated at the conference table, Wilson was pantomiming someone ripping a car steering wheel out of his hands and then used his finger trace an arc through the air of what could only be intended to represent the minor problem with gravity Steve had getting off that overpass while Steve just sat there and watched, his eyes drifting back to the tablet in his lap where a picture of Barnes was visible on the screen.  Really, Nat and Wilson shouldn’t be indulging him like this.  It couldn’t be healthy.  Guy wakes up to find out he’s lost years’ worth of memories on top of waking up to find out he lost years.  Jesus fucking Christ, it was a wonder he wasn’t in some padded room somewhere in an I-love-myself jacket. 

What the hell had SHIELD been thinking, leaving Steve alone like that in the first place, Tony wondered, suddenly disgruntled.  Welcome to the new world, everyone you know is probably dead and by the way, we have this teeny, tiny little problem of an alien army from space, and we’re probably totally screwed.  Want to help with that?  Or had that been Hydra’s doing?  Who the fuck knew anything now?  Coulson’s fanboy obsession may have been the only reason other interests didn’t get their hands on Steve from the get-go, and wasn’t that fodder for nightmares?  Still, Fury, Hill, Coulson…they could have done a bit more…gotten him some therapy or something, called, well, okay, maybe not Tony, not then…but someone…someone who could have looked out for him, helped ease the transition a bit, maybe had one of the wonder spies keep an eye on him, anything other than setting him up in that shithole apartment and actually listening to him when he said he was fine, never mind the ever-growing line of punching bag carcasses.  

Yeah, because that’s not concerning at all.

So, he might have spent some time in SHIELD’s files.  Important to know your teammate.  Teammates.  All of them.  Whatever. 

Giving up on the project he was—well—not working on by the current state of it, he pushed away from the console and walked to the elevator bay outside the workshop.  The least he could do was offer to give Steve a tour of the place.  Again.   Tony took the lift to the conference room floors and swept into the room without knocking, drawing annoyed glances from Nat and Wilson, but little more than a curious pause from Steve before he went back to whatever report it was he was reading, probably something inspiringly entitled “Ode to Bucky” or “The Super-Soldier Memory Loss Buddy System for Dummies.” 

He wasn’t sure why Steve’s lack of acknowledgment rankled so much.  He should probably be glad of it, all things considered.  They had ended things on good enough terms, he supposed, though it had been hard to tell exactly how things were going to fall since Tony had spent the three days until the call came in about Loki living off takeout and caffeine in the workshop building the Mark…whatever the fuck it was he was on now.

“Thought you might want a break for a bit.  Maybe take a peek around the Tower.  You haven’t even seen your rooms yet.  Might trigger something, you never know,” Tony suggested mildly as he walked around the conference table to stand opposite where Steve was sitting.  He didn’t miss the side-eyed look that passed between Nat and Sam, though for fuck’s sake, it wasn’t like he was saying Steve should just stop looking.  Though, really, Steve probably should, at least until he regained his memories and had a better handle on exactly how far gone his old friend truly was.  The put-bullet-holes-in-you kind of far gone. 

“Go on, man, we got this,” Wilson said, stretching his hands above his head and popping his back.  “Anything comes up, we’ll let you know.”

“I’ll send the rest of the materials to your tablet,” Natasha promised.  “You should rest.”

“Think I’ve slept enough,” Steve said, too quickly, then caught himself and stood up with a nod.  “Thanks,” he said to Natasha and Wilson, then turned to Tony.  “You don’t mind?  I don’t want to take you away from something you’re working on.”

“Not a problem, Cap.  Not working on anything at the moment,” Tony replied, then looked down and noticed he had motor oil streaked on the back of his hands and front of his pants.  “Um…I mean I’m finished.  For now.  Nothing that can’t wait, anyway.  Come on, lots to see.  You’ll like it.  I mean, you do like it, so…you know,” Tony said with a slight frown, then cleared his throat and spread his arms wide towards the door.  “Let’s go.”

Steve seemed suitably impressed by the Tower, if by impressed you meant showed virtually no reaction to anything other than polite appreciation.  Olympic-size pool fifty floors up?  Well, you sir are no James Buchanan Barnes, that’s for sure.  Where were the questions about every, single God-damned thing?  The not-so-subtle trolling that no one would believe came out of Captain America’s mouth? 

“What does the toaster do?” Steve asked, gazing dubiously at the machine as Tony finished his spiel on the various options offered by the coffee maker and espresso machine. 

“It toasts things,” Tony explained drolly. 

“Is that it?” Steve questioned, actually bending over the thing and peering into the slots as if they held untold secrets.  “It doesn’t do anything else?”

“Yes, that’s it.  It just—you know—toasts things.  Bread and bagels and what-the-fuck-ever, I don’t know.  It toasts, okay?”  Tony grumbled, coming to stand by Steve and stare balefully at the toaster.  Why was the toaster a thing?  It was a perfectly good toaster.  Probably top of the line, as far as toasters went, whatever the hell that even meant. Granted, he could probably design a far better toaster.   “What the hell else would a toaster even do?” Tony asked in exasperation, turning to look at Steve, who had his hands braced on the counter, shoulders shaking with a poor attempt to contain his laughter. “Oh, shut the fuck up, Rogers!”

“Your Dad had a flying car, just saying,” Steve continued, tapping a finger at the toaster’s lever. 

“That car never did anything but hover.  Badly, I might add.  And I have a flying suit,” Tony countered. 

“And a toaster that toasts,” Steve said agreeably as he turned to walk out of the kitchen. 

“I’m programming it to burn yours, just so you know,” Tony called after him, shaking his head and grinning. 

Steve did seem fascinated by the gym, so Tony decided to count that as a win.  It wasn’t exactly as exciting as the first time Steve had visited the gym, but he did at least ask some questions about the equipment.  Steve circled the floor, inspecting a few of the pieces, most of which probably looked wildly unfamiliar to him.  He stopped in front of a standing heavy bag embroidered rather clumsily with the word “Shifty” across the front.  He turned back to look at Tony, raising a hand to point at the lettering. 

“It has a name?” Steve asked curiously. 

“Well, I name the ‘bots, and this…it was kind of an inside joke,” Tony explained. 

“Never thought I’d be so happy to have gym equipment that attacks me,” Steve said  as Tony pointed out the features of the gym, which included a number of bots programmed for various training protocols and proudly explaining how he had reinforced everything to stand up to Steve’s strength.  Tony had turned to see Steve hit one of the standing heavy bags so hard it slammed a good ten feet back into the wall leaving a punching-bag shaped dent in the drywall.  “It looked shifty,” Steve said evenly without so much as batting an eye, the insolent prick, as Tony stared dumbly at the bag leaking finely ground grains all over the wood floor and then promptly lost his shit laughing. 

“Oh,” Steve said, whatever interest that had sparked the question gone now.  “Looks like you have everything you could possibly need here.”

“I really don’t,” Tony replied, then blinked and ran a hand over his mouth.  Where the hell had that come from?  “I mean, gym is state of the art, which actually means something around here.  We’re not Apple.  Uh…forget it.  Not important,” he continued with a wave of his hand at Steve’s confused look.  “You spend a lot of time here.  And you run.  Early.  So fucking early.  Anyway, mostly through the park, but sometimes down to Brooklyn.  You help at a couple of the soup kitchens there.  Do some work at a one of the residences for the elderly the Diocese runs there.  You and Wilson volunteer at the Veterans’ hospital.  That kind of thing. You—you do good,” Tony finished lamely.  Why was he even babbling on about this?  It was just gym equipment, for crying out loud.  Still…it was the first thing Steve had shown any actual interest in, so there was that.

Tony knew Steve did those things and other good works, most of it without any kind of recognition, which was how Steve wanted it.  He had never considered the why of it, beyond that Steve was a good person and good people did good things.  Now…Catholics, veterans, the hungry, the old and forgotten…he wondered how much of that was Steve trying to find some kind of connection that was missing here, that none of them could give him.  Hell, Steve probably had far more in common with the folks he visited at those places than he did with the rest of them.  Hard to find someone with shared life experiences. Wasn’t that what Natasha said Steve had answered when she asked him about finding someone?  No wonder he clung to Barnes so damn hard, Tony thought glumly. 

“So, that’s about it for the Tower nickel tour, except for the private apartments. Each Avenger has his or her own, and Bruce has his own lab.  Heavily reinforced walls, don’t worry.  My workshop is a few floors down,” Tony explained.  “It has a coded entry, but you have the code.  I’ll make sure JARVIS sends the current one to you.”  And just why that was suddenly so damn important, he wasn’t going to examine.  “Ready to see your place?”

“Sure is great of you to do this for the team, Mr. Stark,” Steve said, looking around the gym.  “Sorry--Tony,” he corrected quickly.  Tony closed his eyes and sighed.  The fucking niceness of it all was going to be his undoing.  Hey, Tony, why did you smash up your gym?  Well, see, Bruce, Steve was being nice to me, and I couldn’t take it anymore. 

Yeah, probably not the way to go.

“It’s nice to have the team together.  I’ve been looking at some of the reports from the last couple of years.  We seem to have…difficulties…on our own,” Steve observed, seemingly oblivious to Tony’s discomfort. 

“Well, you’re not wrong there, Cap,” Tony agreed.  “Comes with the superhero territory.  No matter what you do, someone is going to want to take a swipe at you.  Just isn’t something we can really avoid,” Tony continued sagely, putting his hands in his pockets and rocking back and forth a bit on his heels. 

Steve looked up at him from where he had been studying the weight and strength trainer with a rather dubious expression.  “Didn’t you challenge a known terrorist to come after you on national television?” Steve asked with a frown.  “And give him your home address?”

“Well—yeah, but—I mean, technically, he wasn’t even a terrorist, not really,” Tony sputtered.  “Look, I know that was…not the best idea I’ve had.  I got that around the time they blew my house to dust with me and Pepper still in it, okay? I don’t need a lecture on how much I screwed up.  I handled it, alright?  Not all of us are—we can’t all be perfect all the time,” Tony finished, surprised to hear his voice rising with a sudden wash of anger, though he probably shouldn’t be.  It was always so close to the surface with Cap, a potent, bubbling concoction of disappointment, self-flagellation and impossible expectations.  Quite frankly, the very last thing on his list of Things He Wanted to Hear From Steve was a discourse on how he’d fucked up Heroing 101, first with the Expo and Hammer, that weaselly little shit, and then Killian and that whole debacle.  How had this gone from a tour to pin the flaw on Tony time?

“They used to show these news reels about the war in front of the picture shows,” Steve said, seemingly apropos of nothing.  “One time, this guy was yelling at the screen, trying to get the projectionist to skip over the reels, get to the entertainment, you know?  There was this woman there, watching it, and I could see her crying when they showed the soldiers.  The more the guy shouted, the more upset she got.  So, I told him to pipe down. Ended up in the alley behind the theater getting the stuffing knocked out of me until Bucky showed up.”

“Yeah, well, you were always the hero. Wasn’t that Erkine’s whole point?  Believe me, I get it, Cap, I really do.  I don’t need to hear whatever it is you think I did wrong this time—“ Tony started, feeling his control slipping bit by bit.  He did not want to start an argument with Steve, he really did not.  The guy just got out of the hospital and was dealing with a shit-ton of Loki’s fuckery.  Tony knew that, he really did, but damn it all, it was like the fucking helicarrier all over again, and all of Tony’s walls and defense mechanisms went from a pleasant background buzz to ear-shattering in the span of one smug, self-righteous comment.

“The lady stopped crying though.  She got to enjoy her afternoon out, maybe have a couple of hours where she could not think of all the things that she didn’t want to think about,” Steve continued as if Tony hadn’t spoken, walking towards where Tony was standing and reaching out to trace a finger over the embroidered word on the punching bag.  “Sometimes you stand up to bullies for the right reason even when it’s the wrong thing to do.  You made yourself a target so others wouldn’t be.  It isn’t always about doing the smart thing, Tony.  If it was, I wouldn’t be here.  We take risks, we put ourselves on the front line, we say let it be us and not them.  I watched you fly a missile into space, Tony, when you knew you probably wouldn’t make it back,” Steve reminded him, blue eyes boring into Tony so hard, it was like his gaze had force and weight behind it, making Tony’s chest tighten and breath catch in his throat.  

“I got no problem with you calling someone out when they have it coming.  None of us avoid trouble.  It doesn’t have to find us.  All of us…we stand out there and shout at it until it comes down on us, because that’s what we do.  That’s who we are.  Just…maybe don’t do it on your own next time?  We’re a team, right?” Steve pointed out, pushing lightly against ‘Shifty’ and letting the bag bounce back against his hand.  “We should act like it.”

Tony just stared dumbly at Steve, waiting for the world to right itself or a white rabbit to come hopping along complaining about problems with Outlook’s integration capabilities.  Something.  Maybe this Steve and his Steve weren’t so far off, after all.  Maybe he didn’t really know either of them.

“I don’t know if I ever apologized for what I said on the carrier.  I know Loki and that scepter were working on us, but I made a lot of assumptions about you from what I read in your file.  I was wrong, and that’s on me.  I guess--we’re friends now, you said, so--I guess we found a way to work it out?” Steve said, making the last sound like a question. 

“Well,” Tony croaked out, when he could finally make his mouth do more than gape open and closed like a fish.  “That’s one way of putting it.”

Chapter Text

“I’m glad,” Steve said with a ghost of what might have been a genuine smile before whatever it was in this Steve pulled it back in.  A part of Tony, okay a large part, knew that he should just tell Steve they had some kind of relationship beyond just friendship.  But, fuck, how to even begin that conversation with a guy who remembers you from all of a few hours together?  Hell, for Steve, Loki Lector had just left for Asgard with his precious Clarice earlier today.   How to get from there to the part where he and Tony ended up banging like the proverbial gong for the last few months?

For Steve, it’s only been a few weeks since he woke up in this time, Tony reminded himself.  Everyone he knows, save for Barnes, is dead or ancient and whatever life he was thinking about having is gone.  This isn’t a Steve who has discovered Thai food and Star Wars and other reasons to live.  This Steve hasn’t found a place here yet, but he thinks he can because he believes he already did.  How hard must it have been the first time when they’d all just let him ride off on his own while everyone else went back to someplace where they had people?  Tony and  Bruce, brothers in science, off to be brilliant together, Natasha and Clint back to SHIELD where they thought they had a family, Thor back to his place on Asgard…and Steve off to God only knows where, left to navigate a new world by himself. 

Sometimes, they were all giant assholes, Tony thought numbly. 

“How about we take a look at your place?” Tony asked, clearing his throat as the moment of opportunity slipped past unnoticed by Steve.  Steve nodded and followed Tony’s too-quick footsteps out of the gym without comment.

“Still can’t believe we all live here,” Steve said from behind Tony as they walked back to the elevator.  “Though, Natasha told me my last apartment got shot up by my non-dead best friend.  That seems to be something of a job hazard for us, come to think.  You sure you’re okay with that? Having a literal A-shaped target on your building, I mean. After what happened in California…” Steve trailed off as they entered the elevator.

 “The Tower has a lot of extra security features.  Not all of them obvious.  I can go through them with you.  Again, I mean,” Tony offered, trying not to sound overly excited at the idea of explaining everything again to an avidly-listening Steve who kept telling Tony how amazing everything was.  Sure, that was nice in a…life-affirming sort of way, fine, but he only listened to the recordings those few—ten—twenty--whatever, times.  “Besides, like you said, comes with the hero territory, and if they’re going to come at us, better we’re together, right?”

“Clearly,” Steve agreed.  “Ms. Potts is okay with it though?” Steve asked as the elevator doors whooshed open revealing the hallway that led to Steve and Clint’s suites. 

“Huh?” Tony said a moment before his brain caught up with his mouth.  “Oh—she, ah. We aren’t.  I mean.”

“Oh,” Steve said quickly, ducking his head in embarrassment.  “Sorry.  I didn’t—“

“No, no, its fine.  We’re friends.  Better that way, really.  I think we tried too hard to make a great friendship into something else, like that wasn’t enough.  And all of this—after Killian and Extremis…it was too much, I think,” Tony said absently, then caught himself.  “Um, anyway, she splits her time between here and California running SI, so you’ll see her around. But we aren’t together.  I’m not actually with anyone.  Like that, I mean.  Just me, you know—just…just me,” Tony said, clamping his jaw together so hard he was surprised it didn’t crack. 

Just stop.  Just fucking stop, he told himself sternly.  Say no more words. Words are bad.  Words are the enemy.  Why was it so damn important to tell Cap he was single anyway?  And definitely don’t answer that question, he admonished himself silently.  Clearly, never answer that question.  In fact, forget that question was ever even a question. 

“Okay,” Tony blurted out too brightly. “So, this is your suite,” Tony continued, gesturing towards a door.  He typed in the door code where Steve could see the numbers and pushing open the door to Steve’s room.  Tony stepped inside and allowed Steve to pass by him, walking into the space ahead of him slowly, his glance darting from one thing to the next without seeming to linger on anything in particular. 

“Got your kitchen and living area here.  Bedroom’s back that way,” Tony pointed.  Not that he’d ever been there, their trysts mainly taking place in Tony’s workshop or other convenient locations, but he knew the layout well enough.  “On the right, you’ve got your bathroom and closet,” which is no doubt full of plaid shirts and khaki pants in some kind of color spectrum order that made sense only to Steve, Tony thought to himself, a fond smile starting to form almost against his will.  He studied Steve for a moment, giving him a chance to take it all in. 

“Anything familiar, Cap?” Tony couldn’t resist asking. 

Steve just shook his head slowly back and forth, but otherwise said nothing and made no move to enter the room further.  He did walk over to the bookcase and trace a finger along the spines of the various volumes there, histories and biographies mostly, Tony noticed, though now that he actually looked carefully, there were a number of art books, no surprise, and a somewhat battered Introduction to Electrodynamics textbook with part of the spine missing showing the tan board beneath.  The thing looks old enough to have been used by Edison, Tony thought, rather surprised to see something like that in Steve’s room.  Tony stared at it curiously, almost reaching out to pull it off the shelf before catching himself. 

Steve pushed himself up to a sitting position next to Tony’s hip, snorting out a bit of a laugh, then trying to cover it with the back of his hand.  He looked down at where Tony was sprawled on the workshop sofa, a fond, if somewhat bemused expression on his face.  Tony was still in the middle of mentally blessing Erskine and muscle control and lung capacity and America and science and the Army and who the hell knew what else, but God bless it, every one, so he almost didn’t catch Steve’s little huff of a laugh.

“Nguh?” Tony managed to croak out when his mind finally caught up or slowed down or at least stopped sending him mental images of Steve’s full, red mouth stretched around Tony’s cock, sliding up and down,  dark, hooded eyes watching Tony the whole time.

“You did the math thing again,” Steve replied with a blush starting to stain his cheeks, mouth still swollen, glistening and red, his hair still sticking up at all angles from where Tony’s hands had gripped it a few minutes earlier.  God, he looked fucking adorable like that, Tony thought.  It wasn’t even fair.  How was he supposed to have higher brain function when Steve looked at him like that?

“Excuse me?” Tony managed, scrubbing a hand over his face and trying to make his vision focus.  It was possible he’d blacked out for a moment there. “’The math thing?’” Tony repeated in question, making little air quotes with his hands, or trying to.  He probably ended up just looking like he was trying to claw his own face off.  Eh, motor control was overrated. 

“You--you say math when you…when you get all…when you’re…ah…” Steve started, making a wavy little motion with his hand that Tony assumed was meant to indicate aroused beyond all rational thought and lost in a sea of feeling where the entire world was reduced to the pure sensation of the hot, wet heat of Steve’s mouth sucking down Tony’s cock like a God-damn Indian sword swallower.  Or possibly something less poetic.  Anyway, not the point.

“I do what?” Tony sputtered as indignantly as he could manage while still trying to remember his own name.  “I most certainly do not…math or whatever during sex,” he objected.  That was just ridiculous.

“You do,” Steve grinned, looking rather loopy himself, though Tony supposed that could be the residual effects of a lack of oxygen.  “You start talking in numbers and letters…equations, I think.”

“JARVIS?” Tony called out to the ceiling above the sofa in the workshop.

“I believe that was an example of Ampere’s law,” JARVIS supplied primly.  “Correctly expressed, of course.”  

“Huh,” Tony managed, looking up at where Steve sat on the couch, one leg hanging off the edge, the other bent up underneath him.  Steve was still in his uniform, having just returned from a mission to recover one of the items that was lost when one of SHIELD’s storage facilities, colloquially referred to as the Fridge, because SHIELD apparently spent more time playing some fucked up version of spy Scrabble than actually spying, fell to Hydra. 

Tony knew he had come directly here from the Quin-Jet landing pad, since Steve hadn’t even bothered to change, and possibly also because Tony had been watching on the surveillance feed from the moment the jet landed.  Not in some creepy stalker way, of course. That would have been concerning.  Just in a way that involved fourteen separate cameras and an absolutely not a very hurried at all attempt to look completely nonchalant and taken by surprise at Steve’s arrival. So, not concerning at all.  Important to be clear about that.

“How about we order a pizza or three and discuss Faraday’s Law of Induction?”  Tony asked as he sat up and wound a hand between Steve’s thighs to palm at the hard length of Steve’s arousal through his uniform.  “I think you’ll find it fascinating.”

 “I think I’d like hearing about that one,” Steve said, lips already pursing with the effort of trying not to smile.  “Was always too sick to keep up with the math in school.  Reading and art, I could do at home, but the math…” Steve admitted tightly with a quick shake of his head.  Tony started to mouth at his jaw, scraping his beard against it because he knew it would redden Steve’s pale skin at least for a bit, and he liked to see that for some reason he wasn’t going to examine too closely.  

“Well then.  You’ll just have to make sure I explain it really, really thoroughly, I suppose,” Tony said, grinning as he pressed Steve back down on the sofa. Steve reached up to wrap his arms around Tony, one hand finding its way to the base of Tony’s neck, his thumb tracing some imaginary line there that seemed to have some kind of direct link to Tony’s groin, sending heat and tightness pooling there already.  When he pressed his mouth to Steve’s, he could still taste the tang of his own cum on Steve’s tongue, and he found he liked that, too.

Tony turned away from the bookcase towards the center of the living area where Steve was standing, looking around what must appear to be a stranger’s apartment.  “So, nothing, huh?” Tony asked again more carefully this time. 

“It—no.  But, it feels right, if that makes any sense,” Steve replied somewhat noncommittally.  “Like me, I guess.  Everything’s—it’s…where it should be,” Steve said with a wave of his hand.  Tony looked around at the neat, ordered room, and could see what Steve meant.  “It’s great, Tony, really.  Thank you.”

“Sure, Cap.  Like I said, every Avenger gets one,” Tony announced.  Though, every Avenger did not get one chosen to have a view of Brooklyn and offer good morning light in a space that could easily double as a studio. 

“That’s really very generous, Mr. St—Tony,” Steve amended quickly. “Sorry.  Sometimes you remind me of him.”

Tony winced.  “Yeah, I get that a lot,” he admitted sourly.  He didn’t like those words coming out of Steve’s mouth, even though he knew it was a common impression, and hardly fair to hold this Steve to whatever opinion the Steve with his memories may have formed on the subject. 

Still, though.

“You get that a lot, but you don’t like the comparison,” Steve said slowly, as if trying out the words for the first time.   

“It’s not that, not—not exactly.  It’s just--“ Tony started.

“Sorry.  I seem to be doing this all wrong.  I didn’t actually know Howard all that well,” Steve continued.  “He was there for Rebirth and then a bit during the War, but…” Steve shrugged.  “We weren’t exactly close.”

“He admired you.  A lot,” Tony heard himself saying.

“He admired who he helped to create.  Captain America.  He didn’t know the first thing about me,” Steve corrected, turning to walk over to the full length window, letting one fisted hand brace against the glass as he looked down at the city beneath them. Oh, Tony thought.  Well, that’s—that’s a different take on things, Tony thought mutely. 

Everything special about you came out of a bottle.

“Not that I don’t appreciate what he did,” Steve assured him so quickly, Tony wasn’t sure if he quite believed him or not.   “Must’ve been proud as punch of you, though,” Steve said with a slight smile as he looked over his shoulder at Tony.  “I read your file.  M.I.T. and all that,” Steve continued, pushing off the window and turning back to Tony.  “I’m sorry about what happened to them.  Your parents.  I’m sure they would have loved to be able to see what you’ve accomplished.”

“Uh, yeah—I mean, thanks.  For that,” Tony mumbled, the words seeming to stick in his throat. “He—we.  You know, I don’t actually have any idea what he would have thought of all this.  Maybe this would have been enough, who the hell knows?”

Steve frowned, but didn’t press it.  “So, you mentioned the gym and some charities,” Steve said, clearly searching for a new subject.  “With SHIELD gone, what exactly do I do around here when we aren’t saving the world?” Steve asked, looking around the room as if a daily schedule might appear, which, quite frankly, was entirely possible, knowing Steve and his damn lists.

 “You read a lot,” Tony said because he didn’t know what else to say, but the conversation had dwindled to the point where he knew an exit ramp was fast approaching, and he suddenly very much did not want to leave yet.  He swept out a hand, indicating the bookcase.  “Kept trying to get you to put books on your tablet, but you’d go to those library sales or used book stores and come home with bags full.  You said that way I couldn’t even give you grief for killing trees.  Uh—deforestation.  It’s a thing now,” Tony attempted to explain at Steve’s blank look.  “Anyway, you do use the art apps on the tablet sometimes, at least.  I can show you how to work them, if you want.”

“Can you really paint on this thing?” Steve asked, holding the tablet at arm’s length as if distance might provide some edification. 

“Sure.  All sorts of apps—uh, applications—that will let you paint, sketch, Photoshop, pretty much whatever you want to do, Cap.  Here, give over,” Tony ordered, taking the tablet from Steve’s hand and sitting down on the workshop sofa and motioning for Steve to do the same.  “This one, it’ll do painting and sketching, even has a charcoal option, and I know how you like getting your hands dirty, though not the fun way,” Tony said with a grin as he held the tablet out in the space between them.  He thumbed through the tabs on the program’s screen, then selected the one he was looking for.

“So, that’s about it,” Tony said an hour or so later after taking Steve through the different functions of the app.  “Now, what are you going to draw?”

“Hmmm?” Steve responded, blinking up at him, a blush creeping over his face for no apparent reason. “Oh, ah, I don’t know.  Hadn’t really thought that far ahead.”

“Come on, Cap,” Tony replied, throwing himself back against the workshop sofa with dramatic flair.  “Draw me like one of your French girls.”

“I understood that reference,” Steve said evenly as he nudged Tony’s legs aside to lean back against the back of the sofa, tablet still clutched in his hand, index finger gliding across the screen.

“Ah, where’s your sense of romance?” Tony teased, using his foot to push at Steve’s hand where he held the tablet to try to see, but Steve just shifted it slightly away and pushed Tony’s foot aside.  Steve’s finger was working the cursor tool too fast for Tony to follow anyway. 

“I already froze once.  Don’t fancy doing it again.  Romance would be you figuring out how to get both of us on that damned piece of door,” Steve deadpanned back to him without looking up from whatever it was he was doing with the tablet. 

“Door?” Tony barked out a laugh.  “Fuck that, I’d have never let us get on that deathtrap with its shit rivets,” Tony replied, folding his hands behind his head. 

“No doubt,” Steve said, holding up the tablet for Tony to see a quick doodle of the armor sprawled out on a sofa in the familiar provocative pose, the arc reactor replaced with a heart-shaped necklace.

“Oh, ha-fucking-ha, Rogers,” Tony grumbled, then grabbed for the tablet, which was promptly held out of his reach. 

“Really?” Steve asked as Tony gave up groping for the tablet and wrapped his arms around Steve’s arm, letting his weight try to drag Steve’s arm close enough for Tony to be able to reach it.

“JARVIS, grab anything off Cap’s new art app and store it on my server, would you,” Tony called out smugly as he let go. 

“That’s cheating, Stark,” Steve said without any actual malice. 

“And you’re shocked and appalled by this,” Tony retorted sarcastically, grabbing the tablet from where Steve had let it settle in his lap. 

“I could draw you, you know.  For real, I mean.  If you wanted. You’ve got—you’re very expressive,” Steve said, looking over at him quickly before leaning his head back against the wall behind the sofa, watching the displays rotate blue projections over Tony’s workstation. 

“I don’t know, Cap.  I kinda like this guy,” Tony responded.  “Might want to use him for next year’s Christmas card,” he grinned, turning the tablet back around so the drawing faced Steve.  “May Your Holiday Be Drowning in Good Cheer!”  Tony proclaimed loudly to the room.  “What? Too soon?”

“Thanks for the offer, Tony.  And for taking the time to give me a tour,” Steve replied to Tony’s ramblings about books and art and whatever else it was he’d managed to blurt out.  Steve moved away from the window to move back into the living area where Tony stood by the bookcase.  “I appreciate how good everyone is being about this.  I know it must be strange.”

“Strange for you, too,” Tony pointed out.  “I mean, mostly strange for you.  We’re just—we just want to help.”

Steve just shrugged a bit, hands going to his hips in such a familiar pose that for a second, Tony wanted to wind his arms through the triangles formed by Steve’s hands and make him forget whatever Deeply Serious Thoughts were running through Steve’s head, the way he had been able to these past few months.

“I slept in the ice for close to seventy years, woke up to aliens invading and a teammate who turns into a giant, green monster when he gets angry,” Steve began. “Strange, sure, but a little memory loss isn’t making the top three just yet.  Besides, maybe Thor will find something back on his world that will help. Loki can’t be the only Asgardian who knows magic.”

“Right, Thor.  With the magical mystery cure,” Tony muttered out of the corner of his mouth.  He had almost forgotten about that.  Of course, it would be a good thing.  Really good.   Really, really good.  If he kept telling himself that, maybe he wouldn’t feel like such an utterly selfish pile of shit for not immediately believing it.

“Still, this can’t be easy, Cap,” Tony protested.  “None of this.  Waking up to a whole new world, now this.  You just—you’re not alone, I want you to know that.  We all—we all have our issues. If you need anything…” Tony trailed off, unsure exactly what it was that he was offering, until his mind hit on something he could.  “Speaking of the whole future is now thing, you’ll probably need some help with the tech.  JARVIS runs the Tower, as you’ve already seen.  He can help you with most things, the gym and kitchen stuff, that kind of thing but the more advanced stuff and particularly the things I’ve modified for our…let’s say somewhat unusual requirements…you’ll probably have some questions.  You always did. I know a lot of this is new to you, so, my door’s open, Cap.  Anytime.  Happy to help,” Tony assured him, clapping his hands together, the sound coming out too loud in the quiet room.

“Oh—thanks, Tony.  That’s really nice of you,” Steve said with a slight frown as he bent to pick up the tablet off the coffee table where it rested. 

“See, with that, you’re going to want to—“ Tony began, stepping forward, closer to Steve.

“I think I got it,” Steve said, powering it on and taking out a small notebook from his pocket where he had written the new passcodes that someone, probably Natasha, had given him.  “SHIELD had something similar. Coulson showed it to me.  Usually, they just send me the manuals or a tutorial of some kind,” Steve explained, looking up at Tony with a diffident shrug.  “Serum, you know?  Enhanced memory and all,” he finished with something of a self-deprecating grimace. 

“Well, sure, but you’ll find that Stark tech is slightly more advanced than the crap SHIELD provided.  And by ‘slightly more advanced,’ I mean literally decades, possibly centuries, ahead, and without the hitchhiking Nazi shadow organization,” Tony countered.

“That’s—that’s really great of you to offer, Tony, but I know how busy you must be, between the company and everything you’re doing for the team.  I can probably find whatever explanations I need from JARVIS though, right?” Steve asked, his brow creasing a bit as his eyebrows drew together in question.

“I—uh—I guess,” Tony stammered.  “I mean, sure, you could.  But, you know, you might not be comfortable with an A.I. telling you everything, so…just, if you wanted to talk about it, or had questions or…anything.  Just, you know.  Feel free to ask, is all.”  Well, that didn’t reek of desperation at all, Tony thought bitterly.

“Oh, ah, sure,” Steve replied, sounding slightly discomfited.  "Will do,” he finished, gesturing lightly with the tablet before putting it back on the table, and turning his gaze back to Tony, at which point Tony realized he had probably overstayed his welcome and was now just awkwardly standing in the middle of Steve’s room. 

“Okay, so, like I said. Anything you need, just come find me,” Tony repeated as he headed for the door, Steve following behind him.  “Anytime.  Really,” he continued as he stepped to the other side of the threshold and turned back to face Steve, who had one had on the door and one braced against the frame.  “There’s a control panel on the table by your bed, if you need anything.  It’ll call me—or, really any of the team--or just have JARVIS put you through.  I’m usually up pretty much all hours, so it isn’t a bother.”  Oh, for fuck’s sake, just say ‘pretty please with a cherry on top’ and get it over with, Tony grumbled to himself, closing his eyes tightly as he tried to make himself focus.  “So, I guess this is goodnight then.”

“Thanks, Tony.  Night,” Steve said as he closed to the door, leaving Tony standing in the hallway staring dumbly at the door. 

“Jesus, Stark, just ask him to the prom, already,” Barton said under his breath as he walked down the hall behind Tony and stabbed at the elevator button with the end of an arrow he was twirling in one hand. 

“What was that, Barton?  I couldn’t hear you over all the not thinking about new arrow designs I was doing,” Tony called out over his shoulder.  Clint just stepped into the elevator car and saluted Tony with the arrow as the doors slid shut. 

Tony threw his hands in the air and walked down the hall to call the elevator again.  At least Steve knew he could come to Tony when he had questions.  That was something.  Tony hadn’t offered that in the beginning, not really.  He should have, but it honestly hadn’t occurred to him.  Steve had just kind of…shown up.  Mission-related questions at first, then later about whatever gadget managed to stump him.  Most of what Tony used in the Tower made that SHIELD crap look like the equivalent of smoke signals.  With a bit of an explanation, Steve got the hang of the new stuff quickly enough, Tony would give him that. 

Which was why, by the end of the next day, when Steve still had not shown up bearing a carefully ordered list of bullet-pointed questions or holding some piece of equipment that had lost a bout with super-soldier strength, Tony was…concerned.  Yes, concerned was really the best word for it.  Steve might not be comfortable enough to ask questions yet or worry that Tony would be upset because the telemetry receiver looked like a taco now or the training bot was in pieces.  So, really, it was just concern about how Steve was settling back in that led Tony to leave his caffeine and take-out and head up to the common room the next evening.

When Tony arrived, the team, minus Thor and including Rhodey and Wilson, was seated around the dining table, stacks of colored poker chips in front of each of them and a pile of in the center of the table. 

“Hey, look who decided to descend from on high and grace us with his presence,” Rhodey called out.  “Good to see you, Tones.  You look like shit, by the way.”

“No one told me we were having game night,” Tony objected, sauntering over to the table.  Obviously, the group had also been concerned about Steve, too.  Not that game night was an unheard of event, just that this was pretty clearly an attempt to make sure Steve wasn’t being left to his own devices.  Which was good.  It wasn’t like it had to just be him to worry about Steve.  Certainly, they were all going to try their best to help him adjust, which helped explain why Steve hadn’t sought him out.  Or, it could explain that, anyway.  You know, we’ll just say it explains it, Tony decided.   Still, pretty rude of them not to even--

“Texted,” Nat called out from behind her cards.

“E-vite,” Bruce said, mouth twisting as if in apology.

“Called,” Rhodey announced. “Twice.”

“Had JARVIS put it on your calendar,” Clint mumbled around a mouthful of popcorn. 

“In honor of my man, Steve, here, went old school with the note taped to your door,” Wilson said dramatically, making a square with his hands that was apparently meant to represent said note.  Wilson leaned over and clinked the neck of his beer bottle to the nearly full one in front of Steve, as if he had accomplished something. 

Really, since when did Darkwing Duck even hang out here? Tony wondered.

“Okay, fine, so I might have missed the invitation.  My bad,” Tony groused, holding his hands out in front of him in a placating gesture. “Not like I forgot to put the heart in the cooler.”

“You’re here now.  Why don’t we deal you in?” Steve offered. 

“Eh, I’m out if Tony’s playing,” Bruce piped up.  “What?” he asked at Tony’s affronted look.  “You count cards, and loser has to take Thor grocery shopping, so yeah, no.  After the toaster strudel debacle?  Clean up in Aisle All of Them?”

“Well, those are clearly not the same as Pop-Tarts, Bruce, what did you expect?” Tony observed, pulling out a chair and picking up the row of cards Natasha had dealt him. 

“Okay, first of all, they are, in fact, fruit-filled pastries that you toast. No, look, I’m just saying—“ Bruce protested. 

“Can we please not have this discussion again?” Clint pleaded.  “I cannot fucking take it if you start in on their flaky outer crust.”

“They’re better, is all…I mean, objectively, they are better,” Bruce argued, then held up a hand when the whole table, save for Steve, started groaning in expectation.  “Fine.  I’ll stop.  But I’m still not playing Tony.”

“Can you really do that?  Count the cards, I mean?” Steve asked, looking rather concernedly at his own array of cards. 

“Sure.  It’s all about playing the probabilities,” Tony replied.  “But, I won’t.  Just straight up playing.  No funny stuff.  Cross my shriveled-up, black heart,” he said as he stacked up his share of chips.  Steve was frowning at his cards as if they had personally offended him.  God, he literally did not have a poker face, Tony thought fondly, watching Steve across the table until a poker chip smacked against Tony’s forehead. 

Tony reached out to grab the stray chip where it bounced to the tabletop and looked around the table in annoyance.  Rhodey was staring at him, both eyebrows raised to the ceiling, slowly shaking his head back and forth.  Tony’s mouth flattened, but he waved the hand not holding his cards in the air and went back to pretending to study the hand he’d been dealt.

“Alright, ante up, everyone,” Natasha said, tossing a few chips into the center of the table.  Everyone placed their bets, then Natasha immediately raised, of course.  Her face card was a six of diamonds, and he had the seven, so she was probably bluffing, but it was impossible to tell. 

“Hey, uh,” Steve started.  “I don’t really know who to ask, but…was I or, I mean, am I…seeing anyone?  If anyone knows, that is?” Tony’s hand holding his cards twitched involuntarily, nearly knocking Clint’s beer bottle over before the archer caught it, giving Tony a long, narrow-eyed look. 

“What,” Tony squeaked out, then cleared his throat.  “Ah, what makes you ask?”

“Just…you know, just wondering,” Steve replied with a little bit of a shrug as if the answer didn’t matter, but then he was looking up at Tony so earnest and almost hopeful.  “I mean, no one mentioned it, so I assumed not.  Probably hard to meet people in our line of work.  But…there was a note on my calendar about an event this Saturday and to get flowers, so I…wondered.”

“Oh, that’s me,” Natasha spoke up quickly.  “I mean, not me-me,” she amended at Steve’s startled look.  “A couple of days ago, you finally said I could set you up with Anne from R&D, and she was going to go to the Maria Stark Foundation event with you.  Don’t worry, I already told her it wasn’t a good time.  She was disappointed, but she understood.  Like you said, our line of work and all.  Maybe when all this is over, you two can try again.  She’s nice.  You’d like her.”

He’s dating, Tony thought numbly, running his thumb up and down over the stack of chips in front of him, feeling the ridges rub against his skin.  He asked Nat to set him up.  Barely a day after breaking it off with Tony.  Moving on awfully quickly there, Cap, Tony accused silently.  Anne from R&D…Anne from R&D…Anne from R&D needed to get a big new project.  At the Shanghai facility.  He looked up guiltily at the thought, though no one except Rhodey was paying him any mind.  Rhodey was watching him with a sharp, fierce look that held something too close to pity for Tony to return.

“Oh,” Steve responded quickly, focusing back on his cards.  “Okay, that—that makes sense.  Thanks, Nat.”  By the looks exchanged between everyone else at the table, Tony wasn’t the only one who heard the hint of disappointment in Steve’s voice. 

“Awww, don’t be like that,” Wilson said, clapping a hand on Steve’s shoulder and giving him a light shake.  “More power to you if you can get him to put himself out there, though.  God knows, I’ve been trying to hook this guy up with someone for months.  But, all I hear is this ‘waiting for the right partner’-true love spiel.  What are you going to do?”  Wilson finished, shaking his head in mock sadness.  “Keep telling him he’s gotta just blow off some steam or something.  Have some fun.  It isn’t the forties anymore, thank the freaking Lord.  Live a little, man!”

Steve was blushing furiously, shoulders hunched and elbows on the table holding his cards up in his hand like a fan, as if he could fold himself in behind them if he just scrunched up enough.  “I know things have changed, Sam.  A lot for the better, which is great.  But, I don’t know…I don’t see myself really changing all that much on something like that,” Steve asserted evenly, clearly forcing himself to look around the table, though there wasn’t any real embarrassment exactly, just a tinge of discomfort, as if he was unsure if this was a topic he would normally discuss with them, despite Wilson and Natasha’s casualness.  “I’ve waited this long.  I don’t mind waiting for someone special.  It’ll be worth it, when is with the right person.”

Tony gaped at him, mouth opening and closing in his best fish out of water impression while his mind tried to process what it was that Steve was all but saying.  That…that couldn’t be right.  It just…no.  No, that—this was a Steve from years ago.  Lots of things had changed.  Lots of time for things to happen.  So many things could have happened.  Many, many times. With many different people.  Sure.  Obviously, it had, if Steve had been willing to play fuck buddy with Tony.  Guy can change his mind, after all.  Guy can change his whole belief system in a few years’ time.  Guy like Steve, who so clearly just shifts his entire moral compass after a few seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians.  Jesus. Fucking. Christ. 

This was not happening. This was not—no.  Just, no.  He had misread.  Misheard.  Missed something.  But, not that.  He wouldn’t have missed that.  He wouldn’t have.  Except…an insistent little voice in the back of his head kept reminding him of that first time, down in his workshop after the battle, Steve yelling and Tony shouting right back.  It had been too fast and too rough and Steve had been sorry, though Tony hadn’t cared, not really, because even then, it had been amazing and wonderful, and had he told him that?

“Of course it will, Steve,” Bruce assured softly. 

 “But—but you would tell them,” Tony blurted out, too loudly, even he could tell, drawing sharp looks from everyone.  “You would tell the—the person that you were with.  You would tell them that, right?  I mean, if—if that were the case.  You would tell them because they would need---want—it would be important for them to know that, Steve. They would want to know,” Tony ground out, voice low and rough and hell, even he could hear the desperation and panic lacing it.  He could feel the cards in his hand folding and bending as he gripped them with one hand, the other holding the table in a claw-like grasp.

Steve, and probably the rest of the table, blinked up at him, mouth tugging downward in the beginnings of a frown.  “Ah, yes?” Steve responded.  “I’m sure—I’m sure we would have talked.  About—about that.”

“Can we—can we talk about something—anything—else?  Please?” Steve asked after a long, awkward moment, causing everyone to immediately look away in vague attempts to seem occupied.

“Sure, Steve,” Natasha said calmly, mouth pursing into a moue as she considered her cards.  “Your move, Tony,” she said slyly, looking over at him from beneath her lashes.

Chapter Text

“What’s not to like?  Tiny food with pretentious names that definitely won’t fill you up, the kind of music that has words like “Ode” and “Variation” in the title and makes my ears bleed, a bunch of rich, white folks trying to non-ironically do their best Dancing with the Stars impression …I’m pretty sure all that was in the invitation,” Tony called out from underneath the roadster.  “Wrench me,” he commanded, sticking out the flat of his palm and feeling the answering weight a moment later.

“Really?  Because I’m fairly certain my invitation said something like, “Pepper is making me go, Steve. Please don’t abandon me in my time of need,”’ Steve replied in a slightly higher-pitched, lightly mocking voice as Tony slid out from under the car and grabbed a rag to wipe the grease off of his hands. 

“I’m pretty sure it didn’t,” Tony objected, rising to his feet and tossing the wrench back into the toolbox. 

“I read between the lines,” Steve said with an easy smile that Tony couldn’t resist returning. 

“So, you’ll come?”  Tony asked as casually as he could manage while a pit of…something…opened up in the space where his stomach used to be, churning with bile and something that might have been hope if he wanted to call it anything at all.  Which was ridiculous.  Schoolboy crushes were one thing, but he wasn’t fifteen anymore.  Or twenty-seven.  Whatever.  If Cap didn’t want to go, he’d get Clint or Nat to come along.  Nat loved those bacon-wrapped shrimp and could schmooze a crowd as well as P.T. Barnum when she put her mind to it.  Or just go it alone.  Not like he hadn’t done this routine since the time he was a teenager, when an open bar just took the challenge out of it. 

“I guess, if you want me to,” Steve responded with a shrug.  “Not much for the dancing, though,” Steve admitted quickly. “Bucky tried to teach me a couple of times, but, well.  Let’s just say that I was able to embrace the fact that I excel at drink-holding.”

“Ah, come on, Cap—you?  I’ve seen you move in the field enough to know better,” Tony protested.  That much was certainly true.  He had watched enough videos of their fights and sparring sessions to feel quite qualified to opine on this.  For research purposes.  Because of the…research reasons.  “Fighting and dancing aren’t that far apart.  You just need to learn the steps, which I know you can Neo in no time.”

 “I think I understood that reference,” Steve said around a laugh, and Tony grinned widely at the old joke that had somehow become part of their vernacular, careworn and familiar.  “Pretty sure you can’t download stuff into my brain yet, and even the serum doesn’t fix two left feet, Tony, but I’ll go,” Steve agreed with a shrug.

“Well, you have, what?  Six hours until Pepper hits def-con three over why we’re not there yet?  I can show you how to dance, if you want,” Tony offered, bending over the car door to reach across the seat to grab his tablet.

“Really? You can—uh, you would?” Steve said, voice suddenly sounding oddly nervous.  Steve glanced back and forth in the workshop as if expecting a disco ball to suddenly drop from the ceiling. Which, well, okay, technically that wasn’t actually out of the range of possibilities.  “You don’t have to do that, Tony.  I know you’re—“ Steve continued, looking at the pieces of roadster strewn on the floor like an automotive version of Hanzel and Gretel’s forest frolic. “Busy?” Steve finished uncertainly, clearly trying not to sound judgmental of Tony’s habit of taking things apart when he needed a distraction.

 “Eh, won’t take long.  No worries, Cap.  We’ll get you Timberlake’d in no time,” Tony responded, flicking a quick look over at Steve, who was moving his hands from his sides to cross his arms and then down again, as if he couldn’t quite decide what to do with them.  “Here,” Tony said, holding out the tablet he’d grabbed from the roadster.  “Everything’s on YouTube now.  Just type your search in here, like this,” Tony demonstrated.  “Say, maybe try something like Beginners Waltz,” Tony suggested as he typed the words into the search field. “Ta-da!  Shows you everything you need to know.  JARVIS, help Cap with some searches—waltz, maybe a foxtrot, tango—whatever you want.  Anyway, it starts slow, just showing you the basic steps, then speeds up, so you can see what it should look like in time with the music.”

Steve blinked at him as Tony held out the tablet, then slowly reached out to take it, looking down at the screen where YouTube helpfully played a video of dancers’ feet doing the traditional box step of the waltz.  Steve looked down at the screen for a long moment, long enough to cause Tony to lean over his shoulder to make sure it was playing correctly.  “Thanks, Tony,” Steve said, looking over at where Tony hovered at his shoulder.  “This is great.  Really.  The Internet, of course.  I should have thought of that,” he said, almost too brightly, his mouth flattening a bit in self-deprecation. 

“Yeah, you can pretty much get anything you want on there,” Tony agreed with a nod, stepping back over to nudge the toolbox with his foot, his desire hang out down in the garage tearing apart the roadster, which was definitely not an attempt to avoid Pepper, no matter what Bruce said, having dissipated considerably upon Cap’s agreement to join him.  “JARVIS, keep the parental controls on for Cap, here.  Don’t want him accidentally finding Last Tango in Paris.”

At least if he had to go to this thing, Steve would be with him, and they could mock the other guests and make it interesting, Tony thought, perking up a bit at the image.  Or, Tony could mock them and Steve could look at him disapprovingly while trying not to laugh, as it usually went.  Admittedly, Tony just took Steve’s resistance as something of a challenge, which only ended when Steve started laughing at some wildly inappropriate time because Tony kept doing things like describing Senator Lange’s companion--well, “date” was probably overly generous, let’s face it--as offering the Senator her “full-throated support” and hoping such enthusiasm didn’t “blow up in her face.”

Steve looked up from the tablet at him, but his stare was distant somehow, as if he was looking through Tony instead of at him, and for a flicker of a moment, it threw Tony off-kilter, like he had forgotten something, but couldn’t think of what it was. 

“Thanks, Tony,” Steve repeated, though it sounded strained to Tony’s ears.  Nerves, probably, Tony thought, his mouth quirking up in a small smile.  Alien army from outer space, and Cap just rolls with it.  The possibility of stepping on someone’s toes, and suddenly he goes all adorably Longbottom-esque about it. It was a strangely pleasing thought, sending a spike of warmth through his chest, making it constrict around something that felt a damn sight too close to longing to be comfortable. “Better go practice, I guess.” 

“Sure thing, Cap,” Tony replied with a quick, jaunty salute that fell somewhat flat when Steve walked over to the elevator and punched the button without acknowledging it, shoulders hunched over the tablet in his hands.  Steve didn’t look back at Tony as the doors slid shut, and for some reason he couldn’t quite identify, Tony felt left adrift. 

“Isn’t this about the time you swoop in and do your thing?” Natasha asked, sidling up in the space next to him at the bar.  Tony looked down from the mirror that hung over the back of the bar offering a reflection of the ballroom and peered into the glass of amber liquid that was cupped in his hand, held almost protectively between where his elbows bent on the wood of the bar.  He ran a finger up and down the smooth surface, catching a drop of condensation on his thumb and rhythmically spreading it up and down the frosted glass, leaving clear, wet streaks in its wake.  With more effort than should have been required, he forced the leg that was propped up on the brass railing that traced the bottom of the bar to stop tapping out a tarantella against the metal.

“First of all, I do not swoop,” Tony objected, too bitterly, he knew, and wondered what Natasha heard, though she just gave him a long look in return.  He pushed himself off the bar far enough to brace his hands along curved edge and return Natasha’s stare.  Involuntarily, he would swear, his gaze flicked back to the mirror above the bar long enough to see the tall, blond head he had definitely not been watching bend over to better listen to whatever inane remarks a woman wearing what appeared to be a cocktail napkin was saying to him.  Might be a generous interpretation of cocktail napkin, come to think. 

There was a crowd around Steve, which was typical enough, though even from here, he could see it was bigger than usual, closer, too, pressing in, and he flinched when Cocktail-Napkin-Wearer wrapped her arm around Steve’s shoulders, or what of them she could manage to contort herself around, anyway, bright, long nails grazing up and down against the black of Steve’s tuxedo.  Another flash lit up the mirror momentarily as one of the crowd surrounding Steve took a photo and handed the phone back to the Handsy McClaws even as Steve ducked his head, shaking it rapidly, as if to clear it, against the flash or the hands or something else, Tony wasn’t sure, his hand flexing around the glass he held as he forced his gaze away. 

“And secondly, I do not, after not swooping, do a thing,” Tony insisted, but even he could hear the undercurrent of tension in his own voice, no matter how hard he tried for relaxed disinterest.  The woman moved away or Steve shifted them apart, he couldn’t quite tell, but it was only long enough for a breath of space to open next to Steve before a short, balding man was clasping Steve’s upper arm, smiling broadly and gesturing with the hand that wasn’t holding on to his newest bosom buddy.  Tony turned away from the bar, leaning back against it as he watched the scene unfold.  He raised his glass to his mouth and drank deep, relishing the burn down his throat, the way the smell tingled in his nostrils as he breathed it in.

“Hmmm,” Natasha murmured lowly, signaling the bartender and calling out her order as he came over.  “So, this isn’t right about when you would normally show up at Steve’s side and make everyone feel extremely charmed and appreciated and filled with the inexplicable desire to be somewhere else?”

“No idea what you’re talking about,” Tony replied carefully, because the thing was…yeah, fuck, that was the thing.  He knew exactly what she meant.  Everyone wanted Captain America, or some piece of whatever shine it was that Steve wore like a second skin, and Steve would give and give until every nerve was rubbed raw, whatever barrier Steve put up between himself and being the Captain worn down so thin you could see through it if you knew what to look for.  So, somewhere along the way—had it been the Weinstein’s fundraiser?  He couldn’t recall.  But at some point, he had just found himself standing next to Steve, deflecting, absorbing—Pepper would say performing—but it was a familiar enough role for him. Easy.  One he could slough off when the night was over in a way Steve could never seem to quite manage.  Then it happened again.  And again.  And at some point, you just had to give up and call it a routine. 

Except tonight, when he was apparently going to just watch the train wreck happen.

“Isn’t Clint supposed to be keeping an eye on Capsicle tonight?” Tony asked, watching more people cluster around Steve.  Moths to the fucking flame, he thought in annoyance. 

“Mr. Stark!   Mr. Stark!” a particularly zealous reporter called out, waving a small recorder high in the air amidst a sea of the same devices, all aimed at where the team, sans Bruce, who was still recovering, at a long table, facing the rapid-fire click of flashbulbs and whirring of cameras, almost sounding like a swarm of insects underneath the voices shouting out questions. “You say that Stark Industries is out of the weapons business, but a substantial number of the weapons used in the recent attacks on civilian targets in Eastern Europe were built by your company.  Can you explain why recovering your own weapons from the hands of terrorist organizations has not been more of a priority for the Avengers?”

“I—I—don’t. Okay, first--“ Tony started, mouth suddenly tasting coppery and gritty, sand and blood, memories, he knew, but damn, it was so close to being real. Words lodged in his throat as his mind flashed to his name emblazoned on a missile stuck nose-down in the desert right before it exploded, sending shrapnel racing for his heart, and he looked down and realized he had one hand fisted in the front of his suit and could almost feel the weight of a car battery in his other hand. 

“As you said,” Steve cut in.  “Stark Industries has been out of the weapons business for a long time.  Mr. Stark is, of course, Iron Man, an invaluable part of our team.  He also generously funds the team’s activities and designs most of the technology we use in the field.  But strategic decisions regarding the scope and parameters of the missions undertaken by the Avengers are mine, not Mr. Stark’s.  If you have questions about that, I’ll be happy to address them,” Steve announced loudly, voice ringing out over the din as he leaned forward toward the microphone in front of him, and Tony could swallow again. 

“He got a call.  Girlfriend issue,” Natasha explained, if you wanted to call it an explanation. 

“Tweety has a girl?  Good on him,” Tony replied.  “Still, he was supposed to…” Tony continued, waving in the direction of where Steve stood, nodding along with whatever it was the tanned piece of jerky in a muumuu was trying to tell him. 

Tony looked again at Natasha, who was swirling a cherry around by its stem in her drink, one delicate eyebrow raised in question.  When he looked back at Steve, there was a young man shaking Steve’s hand enthusiastically, holding on too long, long enough that it would require Steve to be the one to pull away, which Tony knew he hated to do.  Tony let out a choked-off huff of air as the young man leaned in and wrapped his arms around Steve in a tight, quick hug, patting him on the back and letting his hands linger there, as if he couldn’t quite let go once given the chance to hold on.

Tony would hate him, but he recognized the impulse. 

“He’s the one who wanted to come tonight,” Tony reminded her, mouth flattening into a semblance of a frown.  “I told him he didn’t have to do this.  Eternal Sunshine there insisted.”

“That’s true.  Implying to Steve that he probably couldn’t handle this given his delicate condition was definitely the way to get him not to do it,” Natasha observed evenly.  “Shocking that your strategy didn’t work.”

“Look—“ Tony started, then broke off as he watched Steve nod along politely with whatever it was the young man next to him was saying.  That wasn’t the thing that bothered Tony, though.  It was the way Steve had his arm up, slightly outstretched in front of him, hand fisted tightly across his chest.  Tony had seen the movement enough to know it from memory.  It was just that usually there was an actual shield there.  Fuck.  Seriously, just fuck my life, Tony thought, turning and slamming the glass down on the bar hard enough for some of the golden liquid to slosh onto the tips of his fingers where they gripped the glass. 

“Fine,” Tony ground out, catching Natasha’s look.  “So, I’m swooping.  He’s—he’s doing the thing,” Tony said vaguely, gesturing towards where Steve stood amongst the crowd.  He made his way through the crowd, ignoring the calls for his attention, until he found his way next to Steve, his stuttering heartbeat calming perceptively when he was finally close enough to catch Steve’s wide gaze, nearly startlingly blue against the paleness of his face.  He was just worried, Tony told himself.  About Cap.  That was it.

How much longer until we’re over land?

See?  Nothing whatsoever to do with—oh, just get the fuck off of him, already, the annoyed thought springing to his mind as clapped Steve’s shoulder with his hand, shaking him in a feint of friendly chatter, which had the desired effect of dislodging the young hanger-on.

“Hey there, Cap,” Tony said heartily, coming to stand by Steve’s side.  “Sorry,” Tony said with complete insincerity to the gathered crowd.  “Gotta borrow Cap for a minute.  Avengers business,” he offered, because that managed to both shut people up and make them feel the borrowed grandeur that came with being close to something that was actually important, like proximity mattered.  He tugged at the sleeve of Steve’s tuxedo and canted his head to one side in suggestion, the crowd melting away before them as they passed through.  Steve followed in Tony’s footsteps until they passed through the French doors out onto one of the balconies, the noise of the ballroom fading a bit out here, low-lit lamps flickering between the open doors. 

The city spread out beneath them, the glow of the lights and muted honking, rushing sounds echoing over the buzz from the ballroom.  Not as good a view as from the Tower, Tony noted, though you could see the large ‘A’ in the distance.  Never let it be said he was subtle, Tony thought rather proudly.  “Nice view,” Tony quipped, nodding towards the Tower.  “Thought you might need some air,” Tony remarked, loosening his bowtie and letting the ends hang down.

“I’m fine,” Steve responded stiffly, staring at the glittering panorama without really seeing anything, as far as Tony could tell.

“Yeah?  What’d that railing ever do to you then?” Tony asked, reaching out a finger to nudge at where Steve’s hand gripped the metal bar so tightly it had started to form a hand-shaped indention.  Or, that’s what Tony meant to do, he would swear, but then he felt the familiar warmth of Steve’s skin beneath the rough pad of his finger and found himself tracing the line of Steve’s hand around the curve of the railing before he drew his hand back as if burned when he realized the intimacy of the gesture.  He raised his eyes to Steve’s face long enough to see if he had noticed the action, but Steve was still watching the city’s movements, bright little ants tracing out a pattern of life far below.

Steve flexed his hands around the railing, but released some of the tension that had been tormenting the metal, then let his eyes fall closed for a moment.  “I shouldn’t have come tonight.  You were right,” Steve said, opening his eyes and looking over at Tony.

“I’m sorry, what was that?” Tony asked, leaning forward, his hands sliding into his pockets as he rocked back and forth on his heels.  “Can you repeat that last part?  I didn’t quite catch that.”

Steve huffed out a laugh, so Tony counted it as a win and grinned in reply.  “You shouldn’t have been left to your own devices,” Tony said, grin fading.  “Clint was supposed to—“

“I don’t need a babysitter, Sta--Tony," Steve interjected, voice tight. 

“Not saying you do, Cap.  Just…we usually…ah,” Tony floundered, searching for what he wanted to say and what it meant, exactly, that he wanted to say it.  “We usually do these things together.  The team.  But.  Well, you and me.  A lot of the times, anyway.  You don’t—you don’t like the performing.  Its second nature for me, so,” Tony stopped himself with a twisted grimace. 

Steve looked over at him, assessing in the way only Steve seemed to manage to be able to do.  “You don’t like it, either,” Steve said after a pause.  “I saw you. Earlier. That’s not even…you’re not even you in there.  I don’t know who that was.  The guy in the file, maybe,” Steve said with a shrug before turning back to face the city. “I may only have a few weeks of memories, but even I could tell that.”

“Part of the deal,” Tony replied weakly.  “Comes with the name.  Been doing it since I could get the silver spoon out of my mouth.  Most of ‘em are harmless enough, anyway,” Tony said, somewhat grimly, turning to look back into the bright ballroom before looking back at Cap.  "Seemed like you had a number of fans in there,” Tony teased lightly.  “Thought I was going to have to take a number.  Bit clingy for my tastes, but—“

“I met his grandfather.  Apparently.  I don’t remember him specifically,” Steve cut in.  “He was at Buchenwald when we liberated it.  That was…a couple of months ago.  Give or take seventy or so years.”

Well, fuck. 

“There was a smell there.  It got on your clothes, in your hair, in your skin.  This…this smell,” Steve went on, not waiting for Toy to answer.  “We didn’t really have showers in the field, just these things we’d rig up when we had time.  You got a ration of water that wouldn’t clean a baby, and you had to shave with that, too.  Guys called it a ‘dog’s lick’ bath,” Steve said with a grimace, shifting uncomfortably, eyes still hazy and unseeing.  “Mostly, you just covered up the dirt with the delousing powder and hoped for the best.  But this smell.  It was in the air, the dirt, the walls.  Everywhere.  You couldn’t get away from it.”

“You smelled it.  In there, just now,” Tony guessed, voice low and steady, though God knew that took some effort.  “That happen before?” Tony asked carefully.  When Steve didn’t answer, he grunted and took it for the answer it was. 

“Sometimes, I can taste the water.  Guess you know something about that,” Tony continued quietly, eyebrows raised in speculation.  He hadn’t really thought about that bit of shared misery and wondered at that failing.  They seemed so different, on the surface, but maybe not where they lived, not really.  How had he, who could see how all the pieces of a machine fit together, managed to miss that?  He shook his head, letting go of that line of thought for now.  Plenty of time for self-recrimination later.  “It’s in my throat.  Fills up my nose and mouth, this water, kind of metallic tasting, bit rank, like well-water, not this purified from the snow-capped pristine mountains stuff we drink now.  I can taste it.  Feel it.  It’s so fucking real.  Can’t breathe, even though I know—I fucking know—the air is right there.”

“They tortured you,” Steve bit out roughly, glancing over at him.  “Of course you—“

“Sometimes I dream of the stars, and I can see beyond them, and there are things moving out there, and they all want to kill us,” Tony went on, ignoring Steve’s comment.  “Sometimes the portal closes, and there is so much light, and I can’t see.  It’s too bright.  There’s no pain, just too much light.  Everywhere.  Around me.  In me. And then I wake up,” Tony finished, hearing the harshness in his own voice as he turned to stand by Steve and face the city, resolutely refusing to look up at the night sky.

“I’m sorry,” Steve replied heavily, running a hand through his hair and down over his face before gripping the railing again, his eyes dark and face pinched and tight with something Tony recognized well enough as misplaced guilt.  “That was my call.”

“It was the right one,” Tony acknowledged easily.  And it was easy.  He’d known going in that he probably wouldn’t make it out, and, quite frankly, wouldn’t have wanted it the other way, him having to make the choice, even if it was a no-brainer. 

A no-brainer, his mind bleated back to him.  He looked sideways at Steve, and wondered if he could have done it.  Maybe.  Probably, at least then, he thought, the horrible realization that he wasn’t so sure who he would choose now, Steve or the faceless innocents, buzzing through his mind like it had force behind it, slamming into his gut and sending the air whooshing out of his lungs in a choked-off gasp that he covered, probably poorly, with a cough. 

“I’m not sure it’s about being right,” Steve responded, almost too softly for Tony to hear over the noise leaking from the ballroom and rising from the city below.  Something about the way he said it sent a fissure of disquiet down Tony’s spine.

“What do you say we blow this popsicle stand and go get some real food?” Tony asked when the silence seemed like it was going to stretch on past the point of awkward into uncomfortable.  “I remember something about this burger joint a few blocks from the Tower that’s supposed to have the best onion rings in town.  We’ll be their best dressed patrons.  I’ll make us a white tablecloth out of napkins.  Come on,” Tony urged, sensing resistance in the way Steve’s face scrunched.

“We can’t just leave,” Steve objected, but it was half-hearted at best, even Tony could tell, so he just grabbed Steve’s arm and pulled, turning to head to the elevator. 

Which would have worked great, except that he couldn’t actually pull Steve anywhere, so it ended up with him basically twirling himself and stumbling a few steps away.  Way to be cool, Tones, he heard Rhodey’s voice echo in his head.  Steve caught him by the upper arm and righted him with a mumbled apology that was trying very hard not to turn into a laugh. 

“Totally meant to do that.  And sure we can,” Tony insisted.  “It’s my foundation.  Well, mom’s, anyway.  My party.  Pretty sure I can decide for myself when to come and go.”

“And Pepper left about ten minutes ago,” Steve said mildly, though Tony heard the gentle jibe behind it.

“And Pepper left about ten minutes ago,” Tony acknowledged.  “We’re free!” he sung out, waving his hands out in front of him. 

“Alright, fine,” Steve said with a huff of a laugh, turning to follow Tony across the length of the balcony towards the far doors at the end. 

“Thought I’d lost you two boys,” Natasha said from where she lounged against the doorframe as they approached, apparently materializing from behind the potted ficus.

“We were just going to duck out and get some food from some place Tony said Clint recommended.  By the Tower.  You want to join us?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, you should come with us,” Tony said slowly, enunciating every word carefully and tilting his head to the side, as Natasha’s narrowed gaze caught his.

“I could ea—“ Natasha started.

“No?  Too bad.  Well, maybe next time,” Tony broke in, shooting her an annoyed look that she returned with a smirk. 

“Are you sure?” Steve questioned, letting Tony pull him along this time.

“I’ll just make your apologies,” Natasha called out in their wake.

“Pretty sure she’s going to rat me out to Pepper,” Tony admitted when they made it to the elevator.  He pushed the L button for the lobby and hit his phone to call Happy around with the limo. 

“Yep,” Steve said without an iota of concern. 

“You’ve got my back though, right?” Tony asked. 

“I think I can swing this memory loss thing in our favor,” Steve replied evenly.  “I’m told it’s very sympathetic,” he deadpanned.

“Oooh, good call.  She’ll totally buy that,” Tony said gleefully, because involving Steve in his machinations was a source of triumph that was almost second to none. 

 Which is how two very well-dressed Avengers ended up at some Formica-tabled diner at nearly midnight, with only some college kids enjoying the free refills of coffee and trying to make a plate of fries and all the free condiments in the joint into a meal for company.  Tony sent them each a burger and a pointed look when one of them took out his phone to start snapping pictures.  “Don’t make me have to destroy you,” Tony warned around a mouthful of onion ring.  Still got it, Tony thought a moment later as the kid stuffed the phone back into his pocket. 

“This is good,” Steve said, wiping his mouth after finishing nearly half the burger in one bite.  Tony signaled their waitress to bring another.  They had both shucked off their tuxedo jackets and ties, and Steve had the sleeves of his crisp, white shirt rolled up to his elbows.  Tony had just unbuttoned the cuffs and shoved his shirt unceremoniously up his arm.  Both of their fingers were shining with enough grease to clog an artery, but as he leaned against the back of the booth, spreading his arms wide, he realized he hadn’t been this relaxed in…well.  In a while.  “Have you…have I, I mean, do we…” Steve stammered, cutting himself off abruptly. 

“Use your words, Steven,” Tony admonished lightly, a teasing grin forming as he reached for the last onion ring.

“Do we do this?  Come here…” Steve waved his hand, mouth twisting into a bit of a frown around the words. 

“Come here often?” Tony supplied with a low chuckle, waggling his eyebrows in mock suggestiveness.  Steve threw a wadded up napkin at him, hitting him square in the chest and bouncing into Tony’s drink, of course, the bastard.  Tony grappled for his own napkin, balled it up and launched his retaliatory strike at Steve, who shot him a look that clearly said he thought Tony was crazy for continuing that particular game.  Tony grabbed the silver napkin dispenser and dropped it into the booth behind him.  Better safe than sorry, he thought to himself and just shrugged at Steve’s exaggerated eye roll.  “First time.  At least for me.  I think maybe you and the spy bros came a time or two before.  Why?”

“Just wondering.  It’s strange not to know what’s normal for me now.  I mean, I know you said we’re friends, but I wasn’t sure what that meant.  Exactly,” Steve clarified, shifting a bit in his seat, like the words made him uncomfortable, and Tony had to try very, very hard not to send a prayer of thanks to the heavens that Steve apparently wasn’t going to pursue this line of questioning too far.  “But, it’s nice.  That we do this now.”

“Well, we—“ Tony started, then clamped his mouth shut.  Actually, they didn’t really do this.  Had they done this?  They’d eaten together at the Tower, sure.  Group meals when Tony could manage, or sometimes, Steve brought food down to the lab on the extremely rare—don’t listen to Steve on this---the extremely rare occasion when Tony forgot that lightheadedness wasn’t a natural state.  But they didn’t really do this kind of thing.  Whatever this kind of thing was.

“Okay, okay!” Steve said with a laugh that was half frustration, half enjoyment, his usual state of being around Tony, or so it seemed.  Steve leaned his head back against the wall behind the sofa and rubbed a hand over his face before opening his eyes again to look at Tony, lips pursing in an attempt not to smile. “That was…a very thorough explanation, Tony.”

“Too much detail?” Tony asked, somewhat chagrined.  He knew he got off on tangents sometimes.  All the time.  Whatever.

“I think you lost me somewhere around quantum tunneling effect,” Steve admitted, shaking his head.

“Sorry,” Tony winced.  “Didn’t mean to bore you, Cap. I keep meaning to go over Selvig’s notes on Extraction Theory again, maybe tease something new out of them, but just haven’t had the time.  I get a little…involved…in it, I know.”

“Not bored, Tony.  I like listening to—I like learning.  Just…overwhelmed.  And starving,” Steve corrected. “Hey,” Steve began, clearing his throat and shifting slightly forward on the workshop sofa. “There’s this burger place a few blocks away that Clint swears has the best onion rings he’s ever had,” Steve said casually, pushing himself up off the sofa and rubbing his hands over his arms.  “Want to grab a bite?”

“Eh, no can do, Cap.  Gotta finish this analysis on what SHIELD’s files had on the Tesseract and get the data to Bruce before he goes green on me,” Tony replied, spinning around to his computer monitor and watching the data stream scroll across the screen.  “Wasn’t that what you came down to check on?  I thought you said Bruce sent you?”

“Oh, right,” Steve said quickly.  “Of course.  Right. I forgot about the—the—well, that.  Ah—want me to bring you something back?”

“Huh?” Tony said without looking up. “Oh, yeah, great,” he mumbled.  “No—“

“No pickles, I know,” Steve said with an affirmative nod.  “I’ll bring it down when we get back.”

“We do sometimes,” Tony replied as close to truthfully as he could get, but it seemed enough to satisfy Steve.  The thing was, they didn’t really do this.  Go out together, and certainly not just the two of them. Not that he wouldn’t.  Of course, he would.  This was…nice.  The two of them.  Just being normal for a bit.  Or as close to it as the two of them could get. Two guys out together on what was definitely not a date.  Nope.  He was not thinking that he was on a date with Captain America.  Was not.  Was not. Was—okay, maybe a little, but only for his fifteen-year-old self who deserved this. 

By the time pie arrived, Tony was deep into a retelling of one of their missions that had lost a bit of its flavor in the dry briefing report that Steve had read on the subject when trying to catch up without his memories.  Steve was hunched over, one hand on his belly, shoulders shaking with laughter, whatever memories had been dredged up earlier, apparently forgotten.  Tony couldn’t help the rush of pride at that, at being the one to shift those memories to the side, at least for now.

“That’s—no.  No,  you’re having one over on me, Tony,” Steve wheezed out between laughs.  “Tell me that Thor did not really use you as a…as a blunt instrument?” 

“Well, he couldn’t get his hammer to him that quickly, and I was right there...”  Tony explained with a wide smile.  “I’m pretty sure that makes me worthy.  And possibly the ruler of Asgard.  Or something.  Anyway, it worked.”  Steve was shaking his head back and forth, alternately calming down, then looking up at Tony and clearly picturing the whole thing in his head, and bursting out laughing again. 

“We should probably head back,” Tony said when Steve finally caught his breath, though there was no real urgency in his voice.  Honestly, he didn’t really want this to end, not just yet.  He should be exhausted and have already felt the need to find his own space, and realized with surprise that the usual skittering sensation under his skin when was around someone else for too long hadn’t made an appearance. 

Even with Pepper, he had needed his time.  Sure, he had used some of that time to squirrel away a legion of secret suits, but he still thought the habit was overall largely a healthy one.  Everyone needed their own space, after all.  Maybe he was just used to Cap’s presence at this point  Before the whole fuck buddy thing got going, they had actually spent a lot of time together, which, yeah, that sounded messed up even in his own head.  He felt his hand stroking absently over the back of his neck and forced it to the table, fingers tapping lightly against the hard surface. 

“Yeah, it’s late,” Steve observed, sounding neither tired nor restless, though even as a twenty-four hour place, the diner had emptied out some time ago.  Tony stood, grabbed his jacket and threw some bills on the table.  He stepped out the door and onto the now relatively quiet sidewalk, holding the door for Steve to follow.  They walked in companionable silence until they reached the Tower, though Tony could practically feel whatever spell had seeped the tension out of Steve in the diner starting to fade.  He just didn’t know what to do about it.  Tony cast a quick look at Steve and caught him rubbing his temples with his fingers and thumb.  He punched in the door code that let them in the building, and they made their way to the bank of elevators, one already sliding open as they approached.

 “Welcome home, Sir, Captain,” JARVIS announced from above them as the elevator trundled to the top of the Tower. 

“Hey, J,” Tony called out.  “All the kiddies tucked in bed already?”

“All except Thor, Sir, who has not returned from Asgard as yet,” JARVIS informed him.  “Ms. Romanov said to tell you that Ms. Potts will be dropping by tomorrow afternoon and wishes to speak with you.”

Steve cast him a side-eyed look.  “Why do I have the feeling that means she’s probably coming first thing in the morning?” Steve asked.

“On a scale of one to Louboutin, how screwed am I?” Tony huffed out, slinging his jacket over his shoulder.

"Don't know what that is, but I'd say you're there," Steve replied with a tired smile. 

“So, that was fun,” Tony said, making it almost a question as the elevator doors pinged open, emptying them into the darkened common room.  JARVIS automatically adjusted the tint on the windows, so the lights of the city shone through, casting a low, golden glow through the room.

“It was,” Steve agreed, then smiled, the one he'd woken up to after the wormhole, the one that made him fucking feel those pieces of metal pressing at his heart, even if they were long gone.   Tony couldn’t help the rush of relief that went through him at that, at being the one to put that on Steve's face, a possessive sort of happiness filling him, like it was for him alone.  “It really was.  Thanks, Tony.  I know it was your party.  I shouldn’t have let you leave it, but—well. Thanks.  I’ll talk to Ms. Potts in the morning.  I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“Eh, don’t worry about it, Cap.  It was definitely a better way to spend an evening than some stodgy party anyway,” Tony said, nudging Steve’s side with his elbow.  “Even one of mine.”

“The party was nice.  I just never know what to do with myself at things like that,” Steve responded with a small shrug of his shoulders. 

“Eh, eat.  Schmooze. Dance. Talk to people you don’t know and pretend to be interested about their investments or their kids or whatever. The usual,” Tony replied, stepping around Steve. 

“Never quite got the hang of dancing,” Steve admitted lightly, causing Tony to stutter to a halt.  “Or—did I?  I mean, maybe I did.  I—I don’t remember.  Damn,” Steve finished in frustration, hands going to his hips as his head dipped.  He took a deep, clearly meant to be fortifying breath, and looked back at Tony. 

“Not really sure,” Tony told him.  “You were, ah, studying it, I think.  Working on it.  Never saw you actually take a turn on the floor though.  Evil sort of interfered with your dance card.”

“Yeah, that happens,” Steve whispered, a thread of something raw in his voice that made it go tight.  Tony flinched at the sound, hating it, whatever it was, hating hearing that kind of pain from Steve.  It hurt Tony somehow, which made no sense, but there it was, souring his dinner in his stomach. “Good night, Tony.  Thanks for…well, just thanks.”

“Want to find out?” Tony heard himself ask, then blinked, almost biting the words back, but letting them hang there between them instead. 

“What?” Steve’s head snapped to him, eyes searching his face, maybe looking for mockery or the joke that he was missing, Tony wasn’t sure. 

“Come on, Cap. You can lead.  Let’s see if you got your Astaire on already,” Tony said, crooking both of his hands in small waves to indicating Steve should come join him in the middle of the living room.  He wasn’t sure what he was even doing.  This was stupid.  What did it matter?  Except that it clearly mattered to Steve, meant something.  When was a dance not just a dance?  He didn’t know the answer, but stood rooted to the spot, unable to simply leave whatever it was well enough alone.   This was important to Steve for whatever reason, and that…well, that was something he couldn’t just walk away from, it turned out.

When Steve didn’t move, Tony knew, he really did, that he should let it go.  Say goodnight, and let the evening end, but instead found himself moving over to where Steve was standing, one hand finding Steve’s shoulder, the other pulling Steve’s hand to his waist. 

“At least you’ll know,” Tony said, the words coming out husky and dry, and when had the room gotten that quiet and still, where he could hear his heart beating in his ears and practically feel the blood rushing through his body? 

Tony felt Steve’s hand at his waist tighten, just barely a hold, but it was enough he could legitimately take it for a signal.  “Music, J,” Tony ordered softly, hearing the first strains echo through the room almost immediately.  He started to sway, shifting a bit closer to Steve when Steve continued to stand stock-still.  “Just move.  Nothing complicated,” Tony urged.  “Just a dance.  Won’t even ask you to dip me,” Tony said, trying to lighten the mood, though the words came out almost strangled, sticking in the back of his thoat. 

That was enough to at least spur Steve to move, though, his hands flexing a bit around where held Tony, and oh, dear fucking God, he had almost forgotten what this felt like, being this close to Steve.  Tony could feel the heat of Steve’s skin radiating off of him, filling the space between them.  He could smell the faint scent of diner and aftershave and that warm, musky scent Tony’s mind immediately used to conjure images of his face buried against a broad chest, eyes closed as his hips rocked against Steve’s, two of Steve’s fingers crooked deep inside him, his thumb rubbing along the line of soft skin behind Tony’s balls, pressing just hard enough for Tony to feel it against that spot deep inside, even as Steve’s fingers brushed against it…and holy fuck, he thought with a shake of his head, eyes darting down to his feet, suddenly glad he was wearing black pants. 

They were swaying together well enough, slowly at first, then more surely, Tony’s feet finding the steps from memory and Steve either figuring it out from Tony’s movements or his mind dredging up enough to get his body to remember.  Tony wasn’t even sure when the song stopped exactly, the realization that the room had gone quiet and they were just standing there coming in a crash out of nowhere, like waking up and finding himself wrapped in Steve’s arms, and that was not something he needed to be thinking about right now.  Not when he was this close and Steve was looking down at him like that, like Tony was answering a question he hadn’t known to ask. 

“Well, if that was your first dance, I’m glad it was with me,” Tony breathed out, voice sounding far more brittle and broken than it had any right to, though his mind caught up to his mouth a moment later.  He meant it, and he knew he wasn’t talking about dancing, maybe this had never been about that for either of them, not really, and he was allowing himself that admission only because Steve didn’t know, but God help him, it was true.  He was glad of it, sue him.  He shouldn’t care.  He was long past that himself and it shouldn’t matter, except it did, and he might as well just accept that about himself and hate himself for it later. 

How had they gotten this close anyway?  This was definitely not a good idea, not a good idea like at all, Tony realized.  At. Fucking. All.  All the blood in his head had apparently already departed for other regions, and that was going to become painfully obvious if Steve shifted even the slightest bit, and how the hell was he supposed to even begin to explain that?  Sorry, Cap, my body hasn’t caught up with the news that I don’t have a shot just yet, cut me some sl—

“I dreamt you were falling,” Steve said suddenly, eyes dark and hard with question.  “And there was no Hulk.  Just you.  Falling.”

“Everyone has nightmares once in awhile, Cap.  Hell, around here, we call that Tuesday night,” Tony assured him, too fast and too slick, he knew by the way Steve’s face shuttered and he drew back, though that was probably a good thing, all things considered, but Steve didn’t let go of him, and he couldn’t quite bring himself to move away, unable to let go once given the chance to hold on.  He closed his eyes briefly, and let out a low puff of air. 

He would hate himself, but he recognized the impulse.

“I’ve dreamed it every night since I woke up in the hospital after Loki’s spell,” Steve continued, as if Tony hadn’t spoken, eyes still locked on Tony’s face.  Oh.  Well.  That’s.  Oh.  What is that? Tony’s mind rumbled, grasping for anything that resembled purchase.  What is that even supposed to—okay, first do not read anything into that, because Steve’s head is not in a good place right now, and you can’t just assume it means something because…because… “It’s always you.  Why is it you, Tony?” Steve asked, no, demanded.  Tony knew the tone well enough to hear the difference.  “Why is it you?”

This wasn’t going to end well, he knew.  Ending well had left the building a long time ago. Tony looked up at the familiar features, formed into a frown of consternation now, and he never had good impulse control to begin with, and that was with things he didn’t want so damn much it hurt, so really, it was hardly a surprise, he thought with something akin to the resignation of someone facing a firing squad.  “I honestly have no fucking clue,” Tony replied, finding he actually meant it, then leaned up and pressed his mouth to Steve’s.

Chapter Text

“Where did you even get this?” Steve asked, somewhere between aghast and impressed. 

“Dad kept everything from Rebirth, thought you knew?  Half religious shrine, half world’s most self-indulgent fanboying,” Tony replied, taking the piece of yellowed paper from Steve’s hands by the edges.  Hardly seemed worth mentioning that he’d kept everything after Howard’s death.  Just a bunch of old memorabilia crap, really.  Not even valuable.  Kept carefully categorized under glass in a climate-controlled, subterranean vault, as one did. 

“Why, Steven Rogers, it says here you swear to the U.S. Army, to these very United States of America, Steven!” Tony said in exaggerated accusation.  “You swear that you have not engaged in, sought, attempted or ever even considered, let’s see, how do they put it?  It’s so adorably quaint.  In a bigoted sort of way, but still.  Quaint. Ah yes, “deviant sexual intercourse or behavior,” which includes…huh, yep, pretty sure we’ve hit every box here.  I’m so proud.  It’s like they literally gave me a ‘How to Corrupt Captain America’ checklist.”

“I said a lot of things trying to get into the Army,” Steve admitted, mouth twisting into a grimace.  “I’m not proud of lying. About this or any of it.”

“Well, it was a stupid rule.  You ever seen a brassed off queer?  Seriously, that’s who we need on the front lines.   They’d have that shit put right in no time,” Tony assured him with a wave of his hand.  He tossed the paper onto the desk and sat back down at his console, tapping the schematic back into 3D projection and trashing the coupling with a swipe of his finger.  “Think of the throw pillow air-lift.  It would be fabulous.”

“Tony,” Steve breathed out in exasperation, cradling his head in his hand and rubbing his thumb and forefingers against his temples.

“What?” Tony barked out around a laugh.  “It’s fine, it’s fine.  We’ve taken back our stereotypes. It’s empowering. Or something.  Anyway, point is, I say we ceremonially burn this thing while having tons of deviant sex.  I’ll bring s’mores,” Tony suggested over his shoulder with a slight smirk. 

Still, he couldn’t help looking askance at the all too familiar paper thrown casually down on the desk.  A joke, now.  Nothing more.  Something to mock, from a time that should be more distant than it was.  He blinked back the surge of anger that ran through him, and turned back to the schematic, staring at it unseeing.  It was wildly unfair to hold it against Steve, who had only ever wanted to serve and had no control over the rules or attitudes of the time.  If Steve had refused, taken some useless stand, he wouldn’t be here now, and the world would have lost something it never knew it had. 

But like everything between him and Steve, it was never quite that simple, he thought dully, remembering the first time he saw the paper, reaching across his father’s large, wooden desk to take it from where it shook in his father’s hand, and just how much he hadn’t wanted to see it, to know, really know.  He’d been summoned home after the school had reported certain behavior it considered inappropriate to his parents.  Schoolboy crap.  Hell, they were twelve and horny and curious and complete idiots, but he couldn’t shake the way his stomach swooped to his feet even now when he looked at the words on the page.  There had been a lecture, some shouting, not much different than a hundred others, but it came down to Captain America was a good man.  The best.  That was a simple, unassailable truth.  And Captain America wasn’t like this.  Look, son, he said so. Swore so.  And Captain America doesn’t lie.  Which meant these feelings, these thoughts were wrong…which meant Tony was wrong, or, when you’re twelve, meant something was wrong with Tony.

He looked over his shoulder at where Steve was sitting on the sofa, caught his eye and gave him a half-smile, for a moment, a thrill spiking through him that he recognized as a vicious sort of satisfaction.  He’s far more mine than he ever was yours.  Sure, it was immature as hell to feel spiteful triumph towards a ghost, but there it was. 

“Couldn’t have been easy for you.  Back then, I mean,” Tony finally said trying to keep his voice mild as he tried to focus on the hologram in front of him and push the darker thoughts down where they belonged. 

There was a long pause before Steve answered, and Tony could practically feel Steve deciding exactly how much he wanted to say.  “Not sure it was the time that made a lot of difference.  Bucky knew, and he didn’t care.  That made it easier.  Mom probably knew, though she never said, not exactly.  Just kept telling me to be careful.  I thought she meant about the fights, but now…I don’t know,” Steve said quietly.  “I think she asked Buck to keep an eye on me.  He had some sort of sixth sense for when I was in over my head, which was more often than I’d like to remember.”

“Guess back then it wasn’t just the risk of those Westboro freaks protesting,” Tony replied.  Of course, Saint James the Understanding had been there, Tony thought, eyes narrowing as he focused on the schematic. He was glad Steve had that kind of support.  Really.  He totally was.  It was great.

Back then.

When that was needed. 

In the past.  In the far, distant past where he--that---whatever--refused to just fucking stay.  He wondered what it would be like when Steve got Barnes back, which he would, because Steve wasn’t exactly the walking away type.  He was going to keep at this until one of them broke, and Tony was pretty sure it was going to be Barnes.  The guy had followed Steve around Europe, chasing down Hydra after being imprisoned and tortured.  Winter was coming back at some point, that much was certain.  He honestly had no idea how he’d deal with that, except that it felt like a loss every time Steve went on one of his Where’s Bucky? jaunts, and it felt a lot like relief when he came back with that space next to him still empty.  Tony had plenty of experience hating a ghost who thought he loved Steve, after all.  This was nothing new.

“No,” Steve answered slowly.  “No, it wasn’t.”  Steve fell silent for a moment, and it felt heavy in the room, filling it with the weight of the unsaid.  

I should ask, Tony thought.  This was an opening, he knew, but it meant risking having a conversation that had no place in whatever kind of relationship it was that they were having.  Except that he both wanted to know what it was that Steve saw when he closed his eyes, wanted to offer him whatever solace or comfort he could, and wasn’t sure if he could handle the knowing, having to see, really see just how right his father had been, though for all the wrong reasons. Whatever the impulse, it didn’t belong here, not between them.  Not like this.  If he tried to turn this into something it wasn’t, he’d lose what little he had, and he wasn’t ready for that.  Not yet. 

He should talk to Wilson, though.  Wilson was some kind of trauma counselor at the VA, and, despite Tony’s occasional annoyance with far less impressive flight apparatus, Wilson was not an idiot.  He could at least make sure Steve did have someone to talk to, even if it wasn’t Tony.  He swallowed thickly.  Finding an answer wasn’t supposed to leave you feeling hollow and dug out.  It made far more sense for Wilson to help Steve deal with whatever it was that needed dealing with than Tony, God only knew. He was hardly the poster child for mental health, considering what happened in Malibu.  What were a few decimated punching bags compared to creating your own personal army to fight your battles rather than actually deal with them?  He wasn’t good at handling the risk that came with caring about people, he knew.  Which was just another reason why keeping this thing with Steve as something casual was better for both of them.  Their lives would never even approach the definition of safe. 

At any rate, Steve didn’t want or need his protection, inadequate though it may be.  Try to hold on too tightly, and he’d end up driving him away, just like he had Pepper. Not much he could offer Captain America anyway.

Tony rubbed a hand against the back of his neck, massaging it a bit, finding the motion soothing.. “I know things are different now,” Steve continued.  “Never thought I’d see the day when two fellas or two ladies could get married, even if some folks still don’t like it.  Did…did those people, the Westboro people, really protest because of you?”

“Yeah, a few of them.  After the Tower opened.  Ironically, I was the very soul of hetero-bliss with Pepper at the time, but some old pictures resurfaced, as they tend to do whenever there’s a lot of publicity,” Tony explained with a slight hitch of his shoulders.  “Those assholes show up whenever the cameras roll.  Don’t worry your pretty head though, Cap.  I hacked their phones and changed “God bless you” to autocorrect to “I love to suck dick,”’ Tony said, tossing a grin over his shoulder.

“Tony!  Tell me you didn’t do that!” Steve said, face scrunching in what Tony took for supreme effort to be disapproving. 

“Fine.  I didn’t do that,” Tony assured him.  Eh, he had totally done that. “You ever think about going public?  Opening up what should be the one part of your life that you get to keep completely private?  Enjoy a nice side of unasked for mass scrutiny and criticism?  It’s so much fun,” he said, trying to keep his tone light, though he couldn’t help the slight grimace that formed around his words.  “Really, you’re missing out on a true slice of Americana, I’m telling you.  Puritan roots, I guess. No one does judgment like us.” 

He tried to tell himself it would be good for someone of Steve’s stature to come out, but his head suddenly filled with all the nasty headlines, the talking heads spewing damnation, and for a moment, he hated everyone, blinding and pure and true, that they would judge this man who had given them so much.  It was one thing for people to come after Tony.  He hadn’t entirely signed up for this, given his name and what came with it, but he hadn’t exactly walked away from public life either.  And hell, part of him had relished sticking it to the old man, letting his face be plastered across first tabloids and Page 6, then websites, becoming the thing his father always accused him of being.  Talk about embracing your stereotypes, he thought, the familiar rush of self-disgust almost a balm at this point.  But to go after someone like Steve?  Whose only sin was to want to serve his country?  To try to pull him apart, tear him down, because of something so completely not wrong with him that even Erskine’s fabled serum left it untouched? 

He was fairly sure phone pranks didn’t even begin to touch what he would be capable of doing.

“Sometimes,” Steve said from behind him, voice heavy and low, sounding weary in a way Steve rarely did.  “If I had a reason…sometimes, I think about it.”  

It was like finding something you didn’t realize you’d been missing, the unexpected rush of familiar pleasure spiking through Tony’s chest with enough force to make the hands still gripping Steve’s shoulders curl, digging in hard enough to hold on or keep them from moving, he wasn’t sure.  Steve’s lips were impossibly soft, they always were, surprising, and he knew them, knew just how to tilt his head, knew the sounds Steve would make, low in the back of his throat when Tony’s tongue traced the seam, knew how his mouth would taste when Steve parted his lips with a warm huff of air against Tony’s cheek, how Steve’s tongue would feel sliding against his own.  It all slammed back into him right around the time Steve stiffened under his hands and jerked his head to the side so fast, Tony would swear he heard the air whoosh past his ear.

“I-I’m sorry,” Steve stammered, face flaming, visible even in the dim light, and actually fucking looked over his shoulder.  Tony dropped his hands to his sides, and to his credit, Steve didn’t back away, turning back to look at him instead, eyes wide with shock and confusion and probably a whole mess of other things, but it was the look over his shoulder that got stuck on loop in Tony’s head, heartbreaking and gut-wrenching and all those inadequate adjectives for things that tore you apart.  “I’m sorry.  I don’t—I’m not like that.”

“Steve,” Tony started, as gently as he could, because he was an utter asshole who hadn’t even thought, hadn’t even considered this, but he wasn’t quite that big of an asshole.  He should have thought of this, he knew.  Of course, he should have.  For Steve, the Forties were, what, a month ago?  

Tony ran a hand through his hair, then brought it down, scrubbing his face with it and taking a deep breath, more to buy himself some time than anything.  What could he say, anyway?  Pretty sure you are, Cap, considering how much you seem to like shoving your dick in my ass?  Probably not the best approach, all things considered.  And Pepper claimed he lacked tact. 

“Steve,” he tried again.  “It’s okay.  There’s nothing wrong with you.”

“I didn’t say it was wrong,” Steve corrected quickly, though Tony caught the slight change in the words parroted back to him.  Steve’s eyes were darting around the room, refusing to land on anything, looking for all the world like he would choose to spend the evening in a walk-in fridge rather than have this conversation.  Tony recognized panic when he saw it.  Fuck.  “I didn’t say that.  I would never judge you for…for that.  I’m just…not that way.  I’m sorry.  I didn’t think—I mean, you said we were friends. I’m sorry if I—if you thought…” he finished, actually backing away, out of Tony’s grip, like he didn’t want Tony’s hands on him anymore, and he wasn’t going to even pretend that didn’t sting a bit.

“No, no, it’s fine.  I shouldn’t have—I shouldn’t have done that,” Tony replied, finding he meant it.  That had been a boneheaded move, for any number of reasons.  “Nothing to be sorry about, Cap,” Tony assured him, probably too quickly for it to be entirely believable.  “Look, it’s late.  Long night.  We’re both tired.  Let’s just…can we just forget this?  I don’t know what the hell I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking, let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

Steve was frowning, looking anywhere but at Tony, though his gaze couldn’t seem to quite find a place to land, like actually focusing on something required too much effort.  Steve opened his mouth as if to say something, then promptly closed it again, looking down at his shoes, a dark frown marring his features. 

Why had he even done that? Why ruin a perfectly good night?  And it had been going well, damn it all to hell.  It was like he couldn’t just have enough with Steve.  He always had to try for more, push at whatever boundary there was between them just to see if he could get that line in the sand to move a bit further.  Tony could only imagine the thoughts that must be running through Steve’s head.  This was all so very, very fucked up.  Granted, a large part of why was Tony’s fault, but if there was ever any proof needed of why he’d made the right call not just outing their past relationship from the get go, here it was.  This Steve, the one just out of the ice, wasn’t ready to deal with this, not even close, though it was, admittedly, hard to convince himself he’d done any of it for Steve. 

“Sure, Tony.  That’s…sure,” Steve finally managed, though it sounded strained to Tony’s ears.  Steve had his arms crossed over his chest, using his hands to rub up and down, seemingly not even aware of the motion.  “We can do that.”  It wasn’t hard to tell which of them Steve was trying to convince.  The poor guy’s face was an open book.  Someone get him ‘Gay Panic for Dummies,’ Tony thought, rather hysterically.  He had so screwed this up.  Why, damn it, why did he have to keep poking at whatever chinks he could find in Steve’s armor, even now, when Steve was clearly more vulnerable than he’d ever been.  Of course, maybe that question answered itself, Tony thought in disgust. 

Tony let his eyes slide closed, blowing out a huff of air, not quite sure if it was frustration or resignation.  Probably both.  He knew he could press the issue.  He wasn’t sure if it wouldn’t be kinder in the long run not to let Steve just walk away from this, chalk it up to too much drink, too much exhaustion, too few inhibitions.  He could, he knew.  Hell, he was familiar enough with Steve and his reactions that he had a fair idea what was flailing through the poor guy’s head at this moment, and he could use that, push a little, scrabble at whatever walls Steve wanted to throw at him.  Because he knew, he fucking knew, how Steve responded to him.  He may not know much else, but he knew that. 

Hadn’t that been how this whole fucked-up thing got started?  Tony pushing Steve’s buttons, moving the playing field to something far more in Tony’s own territory, something he could give that he knew would be accepted, even if not entirely welcomed.  He could make Steve feel, make Steve want him, even if Steve didn’t want to, but what was the point?  There was no way this ended in something…else, though when he tried to name that blank, black space where an alternative to pain and disappointment might live, there was nothing there. 

He wasn’t blind to what he had been doing, but at least it got Steve’s attention again, and that---wait.  What?  He shook his head to clear it.  That wasn’t—no.  There hadn’t been anything in particular, just heat of the moment, really.  He’d been mad about getting yelled at, again, for whatever it was Steve thought he’d done wrong in that battle, and, sure, things had been simmering between them since the helicarrier.  He wasn’t blind.  But why then, he wondered, trying to recall the battle and subsequent argument that had somehow led to Tony bent over his desk with his pants around his ankles, before giving up as his gaze kept finding its way back to where Steve was standing, arms clutched around himself almost protectively, and something about that was going to make him do something stupid again if he didn’t get out of here.

“I’m calling it a night, then,” Tony finally said into the lingering silence.  He honestly wasn’t sure which one of them needed the distance more at this point.  “See you in the morning, Cap,” Tony called out as he walked out of the room, leaving Steve to watch him go, which he did, Tony knew, because he could feel the weight of Steve’s stare follow him as he walked casually out of the room.  Definitely not fleeing.  Nope. 

By the time he got to his suite, he had almost convinced himself that hadn’t gone as badly as it probably had.  He shut the door behind him and toed off his shoes.  He’d left his jacket downstairs and actual Jacket Police could not make him go retrieve it now.  He unbuttoned the dress shirt and slung it over the back of a chair, his eyes catching on the rolled up sleeves as he did.  The thing was, he started…the thing was, up until he’d blown it by trying to turn the evening into something it wasn’t, it had been, well, nice.  Very nice.  Steve was easy to talk to, smart, funny and there was that whole super-secret boy band thing they shared.  Hard to find someone who accepted that, let alone understood it, not that he didn’t respect Pepper’s reasoning, what with getting turned into a fire-breathing mutant.  To be fair, not your usual dating hazard. 

The truth was, he and Pep been fraying almost as soon as they started.  In so many ways, Pepper was his opposite, and that was supposed to complement him, let them bring out the best in each other, but he was fairly sure, looking back, that it made him try to be someone that he wasn’t. Someone who remembered birthdays and allergies and didn’t build weaponized armored suits as a coping mechanism.  At least, that was one part of it.  Probably good aspirational goals, truth be told, but the problem was, he thought as he shimmied out of his tuxedo pants and padded to the bed…the problem was that she also needed him to not be the guy who flew missiles into wormholes in space or rang the  dinner bell for terrorists to come and get him. 

She wanted the guy who cut the wire, and he wasn’t sure he could be that person anymore, or that he really even wanted to try.  She had wanted Tony, miracle in and of itself, and that should be enough for him, but it wasn’t.  Not now.  She wanted Tony, not Iron Man, and somewhere along the line, he stopped being able to separate them anymore.  Tony lay back on the bed, the lights flicking off automatically.  He ran a hand over his chest, fingers stopping to tap out a rhythm where the reactor used to be.  It had never been the reactor or the suits, or, at least, it had never been just those things. 

All of us…we stand out there and shout at it until it comes down on us, because that’s what we do.  That’s who we are. 

He watched the blue numbers on the digital display click off the time as he lay there in the darkness.  He had always assumed Steve was more his opposite than maybe anyone on the planet, and no mystery where that impression had originated.  Steve was everything he wasn’t able to be.  That had been drilled into his head so often that it had the ring of truth.  Captain America was good and pure and righteous.  Right, where Tony was wrong.  Or where something was wrong with Tony.  Same difference, he told himself, but tonight, for whatever reason, the usual refrain lacked its familiar harsh bitterness.  He couldn’t quite muster it.  The thing was…except for that disastrous encounter on the helicarrier, Steve himself had never actually made him feel that way.   It was the idea of Steve, the one his mind threw up like a shield any time he got close to thinking about Steve Rogers the person, that made all Howard’s crap resurface.  And he did know it was largely crap.  Maybe not all of it, but enough of it. 

Knowing that and believing it were different things though. 

But sometimes…sometimes, when he was with Steve, it was so close to being believable that he forgot it wasn’t.  His mind started replaying the months since SHIELD had fallen and Steve, Natasha and Clint had shown up on his doorstep like the world’s most deadly band of homeless kittens.  He and Steve hadn’t really had much to do with each other in the beginning.  Sort of a carefully orchestrated dance of polite distance at first.  They had been busy enough, cleaning up the mess that was the downfall of a massive renegade spy network infiltrated by Nazi henchmen, and, with time, working together slowly led to a camaraderie, if not quite friendship. 

Then…then what?  Then, Steve had started showing up in the workshop, asking questions about the suits and what they could do, how they might make better use of the tech in battles….and somewhere along the way it had gone from Avengers stuff to Steve’s stupid little list of things he needed to catch up on, which had been woefully inadequate.  Really, Marvin Gaye and Nirvana, but not a single band from the heavy metal renaissance period?  And the guy had watched the reboot movies and just crossed Star Trek off the list, la-ti-da, the heathen, and then actually watched the prequels first.  It was madness.  It had been Tony’s moral imperative…one might say a prime directive…to set Steve on the path of righteousness. 

He’d just…gotten used to having Steve around.  Bouncing ideas off of him.  Talking things through.  It was…nice.  Easy.  Somewhere along the way, he’d forgotten that he wasn’t anything like Captain America, and let himself believe that he might be a little like Steve.

The thing with Steve was, he could question Tony’s decisions and somehow manage not to make Tony question himself, which was a God-damn Christmas miracle when you got right down to it.   And if they sometimes did their talking over a Lord of the Rings marathon, while Steve shouted at Aragorn to form a shield wall on the high ground in front of the Black Gate and then got so frustrated when they just let Sauron’s army completely surround them that the bowl of popcorn in his lap ended up all over the floor when he stood up to apparently make his point more thoroughly by yelling at the screen, well, all the better as far as Tony was concerned. 

“I’d like to point out that, technically, it was the large flying creatures that saved the day, not your Orc-fodder soldiers down there,” Tony said smugly from the sofa, feet propped up on the coffee table, a nearly empty bowl of popcorn in his lap.

Next to him, Steve squinted at the screen and leaned forward, elbows folded on his knees as he peered intently at the screen.  “Those falcons sure are amazing,” Steve whispered, eyes intent on the screen.

“Those are not falcons!” Tony shouted, flustered all of a sudden, back bowing with indignation.  “They’re eagles.  For crying out loud, those are obviously eagles, and you of all people should recognize an eagle—oh, shut up, Rogers!” Tony bit out, crossing his arms in frustration as Steve tried to cover his laugh behind his hand.  Tony threw a piece of popcorn at Steve’s head in retaliation. 

He had spent his life both loving and hating Captain America.  This thing that had sprung up between them had an air of inevitability about it, a giant fuck-you to Howard combined with his own personal fantasy fulfillment…how was he supposed to resist that?  Seriously, who got to literally exorcise their demons in the best possible way like that?  That should be enough for anyone. More than enough.  

So, why was he laying here, staring at the ceiling at—God, 2:43 a.m.—wondering if Steve was laying in his own bed two floors below, thinking of Tony?  What if Steve was down there having some sort of identity crisis because Tony couldn’t keep his hands to himself?  He’d never exactly asked Steve about how he came to terms with his sexuality, just taken a thorough fucking as affirmation that Steve had dealt with it, but, looking back, that was just another thing he, all of them, really, had left Steve to deal with on his own. 

The smell, he recalled, their earlier conversation resurfacing.  Steve remembered the smell, he thought.  He wondered if Steve remembered piles of clothes with upside-down pink triangles sewn on them.  Talk about taking back your symbols, Jesus fucking Christ, he sighed, running a hand over his face in frustration.  He should never have left Steve tonight.  They could have talked about this.  It had been years since he had to deal with this, but it wasn’t like he didn’t remember what it was like, at least enough to be there and listen and not judge without trying to jump the guy.  God, he was such an asshole.

Had that been why Steve had broken it off with him?  Fuck it all, if what Tony suspected about Steve’s level of experience was true, then it was hardly a wonder Steve panicked at some point.  Chalk it up to yet another thing they hadn’t talked about.  He should have asked.  He knew to ask, dammit. Then tonight, he’d kissed Steve and just left him to handle the fallout.  And why?  Because even knowing where Steve’s head was, it had felt too much like a rejection to stay and actually deal with it.  Sure, blow the poor guy’s compartmentalization to hell and then rabbit.  Good call, Stark.

“JARVIS, is Steve in his room?” Tony called out, giving up on getting any sleep tonight.  Today.  Whatever.

“Captain Rogers is in his quarters, Sir,” JARVIS confirmed. 

He was going to hell.  That was probably a given.  Might as well just smooth the ride a bit. “Give me an infrared scan,” Tony said with a sigh.  The projection hummed to life on the console next to the bed, Steve’s warm form in red against a blue overlay of the room.  He was sitting in a chair in his living room, just sitting, facing an empty wall.  Tony couldn’t tell if he was asleep or awake, but the television wasn’t on and there was no computer or tablet near him.  “Is he asleep?”

“His vital signs do not indicate sleep,” JARVIS informed him.  Tony detected the note of judgment there, but ignored it.  “He does not appear to be in any distress.”

“Can you tell what he’s doing?” Tony asked, unable to hold the question back, though he winced, face scrunching in the glow of the projection.  This was so fucked up.  He could tell himself he was just worried and even believe it right up until JARVIS, the helpful bastard, had told him everything was fine.  Now, it was just flat out high-tech stalking.

“He appears to be listening to the radio, Sir,” JARVIS told him. “Some of the Captain America Radio Hour recordings I previously downloaded from your personal server for him.”  That fucking radio.  Honestly, Tony was going to accidentally-on-purpose break the damn thing one day.  He ran a hand up and down over his face, a confused frown forming.  He had loaded the audio files on the radio for Steve, as promised.  Well, JARVIS had.  Tony hadn’t wanted to touch the thing with a ten-foot pole, for whatever reason.  He’d forgotten about the recordings, with everything that had happened since then.

Why had Steve even kept the damn thing?  He obviously hadn’t liked it, though, admittedly, it had been something of a joke, not that Tony had meant anything by it, not really.  Okay, he admitted to himself.  Okay, that wasn’t entirely true. Actually, it wasn’t even a little true, not really, not when you scratched off the surface and got down to the black center of it all.  Truth of it was, he had meant it to hurt, to mock, to put Steve in his place.  He had.  He wasn’t proud of it, but it was hard to lie to himself now, here, in the dark, after watching the guy have a near panic attack because he remembered what it smelled like when you burned people to ash.  Because Tony had meant it, right up until the moment it had actually accomplished its goal, and then he would have given anything in the world to take it back, to undo what he’d done, and wasn’t that just the story of his life with Steve writ large?  Fuck it up, and then try to fix it and make it worse.

He’d been annoyed about the whole proper comm protocols chewing out, and, true he hadn’t actually been using proper comm protocols, but still, having it pointed out—okay, having it pointed out by Steve—he’d been…well.  He hadn’t liked it.  He didn’t handle criticism well on the best of days, and when it was tied up with a nice, neat, red-white-and-blue bow of pseudo-parental disappointment, he really didn’t handle it well.  What had Steve even said?  He’d been too pissed to really listen, to be honest.  Something about not reporting in.  Tony was sure must have had a good reason.

Tony looked over at the time display again.  If he fell asleep right now, he could get…well, actually as much sleep as he wanted, seeing as how he didn’t really  have to get up in the morning.   Perk of being a billionaire. Except…maybe he wanted to get up.  Early, like.  Right around when someone returned from their morning run, say.  He would apologize, again, for last night.  Offer to make it up to Steve.  Something all friendly and non-hetero-threatening, Tony thought with a small, wistful smile. 

He spent the rest of the night thinking about what might be an appropriately conciliatory activity, finally settling on ‘breakfast,’ right before he dragged himself out of bed and to the sink, where he splashed cold water on his face.  He looked up at his reflection in the bathroom mirror.  He looked…tired, yes, true enough, but…he braced his hands against the marble and let his head dip down to his chest.  Damn it.  But he also looked excited as hell, and he wasn’t exactly blind to the reason. 

He pushed himself upright and turned on the shower, letting the hot water sluice over his shoulders and back.  He stayed there far longer than necessary, then shaved, taking more care than usual and refusing to examine why, though he supposed the answer was obvious.  By the time he made it downstairs, he had come up with and discarded numerous ideas for a possible outing for the day that Steve might be tempted to agree to—heh, ‘outing,’ that was funny in an ironic sort of way—and yes, he was a tad punch-drunk at the moment, what of it? 

“Coffee, J,” Tony called out, hearing the satisfying beep of the coffee machine turning on a moment later.  Ah, sustenance.  He stood by the coffee pot, eyeing while it slowed time and apparently waited for Juan Valdez to personally deliver the fucking beans to it. 

“Did I miss the day?” Clint asked around a yawn as he shuffled into the kitchen. 

“Huh?”  Tony grunted, not taking his gaze off the precious.

“What the hell are you doing up at…holy God, is it even 6 a.m.?”  Clint remarked, stretching his neck to look around the corner into the common room where the sun was just beginning to lend a bit of light to the room. 

“Barely.  And just waiting for coffee, like every poor soul up at this hour,” Tony replied. 

“Yes, but why?” Clint demanded.  “There’s no alert.  You and Steve ditched us together, so you aren’t trying to avoid an awkward morning after.  You pull an all-nighter building Iron Giant or something?”

“Just up,” Tony said with a shrug.  “Couldn’t sleep.  Might as well get started.”

“Right. Sure. You’re just…ready to face the day.  Why the two cups,” Clint asked, eyes narrowing. 

“Uh, can you count, Hawkeye?” Tony questioned, looking back and forth between Clint and the set of mugs sitting rather accusingly on the counter.  “There are two of us.”

“Yeah, but you had those out when I came down.  Now…let me think…who else would be up this early?  Hmm…wait, wait…its coming to me…oh, right!  Steve usually heads down here after his run and shower, which I’m sure is totally unrelated to your presence, because it isn’t like you’ve memorized his schedule or anything,” Clint said, sitting down in one of the counter stools and leaning over, cupping his chin in one hand, all innocence.

“No idea what you mean,” Tony replied through clenched teeth, a flash of annoyance sparking through him.  He honestly just…wanted this to not get screwed up, just this one thing.  Cap would come in, freshly showered from his run, and Tony would have coffee ready and maybe he could whip up an omelet or, you know, grab Steve and take him someplace where Tony could pay someone to make an omelet that was actually edible, whatever.

“Dude,” Clint said with a huff of air as he leaned back.  “You cannot do this.  I seriously can’t take it.  Not again.  I thought we were past this shit?  He’d gotten better.  I thought he was finally moving on.  And now the same crap starts right up again?  With his memory wiped?  Man, that’s just not fucking on.”

“What are you even talking about?” Tony demanded exasperatedly, turning away from the coffee machine while it apparently individually ground each and every bean.

“You!  Steve!  This whole thing you do with him, God, I can’t deal with it again,” Clint grumbled, running a hand over his face. 

“What—I do not do a thing, whatever the hell that means,” Tony objected. 

“Yeah, you do.  Over and over.  You push him away and keep him at arm’s length until he actually almost gets out of reach and then wham!  You pull him right back in.  Like one of those blow-up punching clowns that kids smack down and the damn thing just comes right back up, grinning like a fool.  I can’t watch this.  Not when he’s…like he is.  Whatever your issue, Tony, you need to deal with it and leave him alone,” Clint protested.

“What the hell are you on about?  I do not—that’s not at all what—it’s just coffee!” Tony nearly shouted. 

“No, just no, Tony.  I’m not going to sit here and watch him ask you to spend time with him over and over and have you give shitballs about it until he actually takes you at your word, and then show up and dangle a carrot in front of the guy,” Clint went on.  “I can’t watch this while he’s too out of it to even know what the hell is going on.  At least before, it was just pathetic watching him get shot down and then go digging for scraps.  Now—you can’t do this to him now, Tony.  It’s just…so very wrong on so many levels.”

“That’s not…Okay, that’s not at all what was going on. Like, at all.  I never—shoot him down?  Why the hell would I—I didn’t—“ Tony sputtered.  He hadn’t.  Had he?  There as a sickening pit opening up in his stomach, and he was fairly damn sure it was filled with realization. 

“You are not going to stand there and pretend you didn’t know.  Come on, Stark, not even you are that blind.  ‘Look, Tony noticed I was in the room, I have to go sit in his lab now and listen to him blather on because maybe he’ll pay attention to me then.’  ‘Tony did something dangerous, nevermind that we all pretty much do that on days ending in Y, let me freak out about it.  Just walk off the bleeding, Clint, you’re fine, Tony got a hangnail though, so I’m gonna have to check on that.’  ‘Sure, I worked with SHIELD tech just fine for months and knew how to take out a Quin-Jet with a giant Frisbee, but this gosh-darn phone just has me stumped, Tony, can you help a fella out?’” Clint jibed in what was obviously meant as a mock-Steve voice.  “Jesus, Stark, you don’t want something with the guy, fine.  You’re an idiot, but your call.  But back the fuck off, man.”

Tony just stared at him, mouth working, but no sound coming out.  That couldn’t be right.  Could. Not.  He would have noticed if Steve had been, what?  Asking him out?  That was ridiculous.  They’d been friends, and sure, Steve had spent a lot of time in the workshop or garage, and true, Tony had done a lot of the talking, but they’d done other things, too.  The occasional movie.  The Star Trek marathon.  Sparring.


Granted, all of those things sounded a lot like things Tony wanted to do.   But that wasn’t because of any particular reason, not really.  It was just, well…that was just what they did.  That was what they did, he mentally repeated.  Fuck.  They did things Tony wanted to do.  Had he ever done something Steve invited him to do?  He…fuck.  He couldn’t remember.  He couldn’t remember if he’d spent any time with Steve doing something that Steve asked him to do unrelated to avenging, anyway.  That was…well, hell.  That couldn’t be right, though. He would have noticed.  Steve would have said something, if he…if he...

I never actually got to try fondue….Maybe…maybe when we get back to the Tower…we could…

I could draw you, you know….If you wanted.  You’ve got—you’re very expressive.

I can show you how to dance, if you want.  Really?  You can—uh, you would?

“Is that coffee?” Steve asked, walking into the kitchen, rubbing at the back of his head with the towel slung around his shoulders, still slightly damp from his shower.  He came to a stop as soon as he saw Tony, a blush creeping up his cheeks, and Tony’s first thought was ‘beautiful,’ and that was probably all he really needed to know in order to answer the question he hadn’t realized he was waiting to answer and therefore utterly and completely panic, totally reasonable reaction, though, all things considered. 

“Maybe,” Tony answered honestly.  “I don’t know. Have at it.  All yours.  The coffee, I mean.  It—you can have it.  I have—I need---there’s work.  For me.  My work. So, I’m just going to go.  Because of the work.”  Smooth.  Completely believable.  Natasha could take lessons.  He closed his eyes in abject horror and pushed himself off where he reclined against the counter, heading for the stairs that led down to his workshop.

“Don’t you want some?” Steve asked after him, looking over at the coffee machine as if it held answers.

“Man, just take the coffee and run.  Stark normally only disavows his coffee if a virgin buries a potato on a hill under a full moon,” Clint muttered, scooting off the stool to grab a mug off the counter.  “Get it while you can.”

Tony hurried down the steps before anyone could gainsay him and nearly fell into the workshop in his haste to get inside.   He strode across the workshop floor and flopped into one of the rolling chairs, letting his head fall back.  He opened his eyes and stared at the fluorescent lights overhead until they burned a black spot in his vision, then let his eyes drift closed, trying to focus.  How much had he missed?   Think, dammit. 

The thing with the radio.  Why did he keep coming back to that?  Because he’d hurt Steve.  That made sense, but…he forced his mind to draw away from its usual need to relieve whatever guiltapolooza was available and think back to what had led to the whole craptastic exchange to begin with. Steve had been pissed. The thing with the comms.  Tony hadn’t followed protocol or…something.  He tried to remember, letting his mind drift back, past the actual radio-gift-debacle.

“Didn’t get enough of this off your star-spangled chest out in the field, Cap?” Tony demanded as he punched the code into the workshop door.  “If I promise to do ten God Bless Americas as penance will you make like Elsa and let it the fuck go already?”

“Tony, you can’t just go off and not report your position!  I didn’t know—no one knew where you were!” Steve yelled at his back as he followed him into the workshop, JARVIS, the Judas, letting the door stay open long enough for Cap to slip through.   Apparently, they were going to do What Tony Fucked Up: The Sequel, because, quite frankly, he’d already had his fill of this and then some after the battle.

“Oh, for the love—I fly, Cap.  You want a permission slip next time?  ‘Please allow Anthony to chase the bad guys getting away with the modified alien tech.’  I was a tad busy with the Hydra goons you let slip past your precious perimeter, Cap,” Tony retorted, spinning around to face Steve, fast enough to see that one had struck home.  Good.  Stings, doesn’t it, he thought with an inward snarl.  “Jesus fucking Christ, it was fine.  I handled it,” Tony shouted as he turned around and stalked through the workshop. 

“Look, I’m not—I’m not saying don’t do what you think is best.  Just—just let us know.  Half the compound blew, and you weren’t answering!” Steve said, raking a hand through his hair in obvious frustration, all but stomping his foot, though Tony expected that to come soon enough.

He’d been worried, Tony realized, the truth of it startling him.  Steve had been worried about him.  No, not worried.  Scared.  Steve had been scared.  He could hear the echo of it in the memory of Steve’s voice, now that he was actually paying attention to something other than how much he hated being berated, and particularly coming from Cap. But there it was. Steve had been scared. Because of him.  That’s why Steve flew off the handle like that.

Tony’s mind skipped ahead to their next blow up, the one that had led to a frankly fantastic method of anger management.  Steve had been pissed at him because…he tried to focus, which was a bit of a trial, all things considered.  He had electrified the grid, taking quite a bit of voltage in the process. Enough to basically turn that particular suit into a lovely paperweight.

And Steve had been pissed.  No shocker there, really, but—well, looking back…Steve’s eyes had been wide, body practically vibrating, with anger, or so Tony had thought, but that honestly wasn’t really how Steve did anger.  He was more of a tell you straight up what was wrong kind of guy and then explain with bullet points and a slideshow how you could fix it.  No, he hadn’t been angry, not really.  Or, okay, he had been a bit angry, Tony amended thinking back.  But not just that.  Steve had been scared.  Again.  For him.  Because…he reached for the thread of thought, somehow precariously floating around his brain, like grabbing for the string of balloon trying to drift away.  Steve had been scared for him because…because he cared.  Steve cared. 

About him.

Steve cared about him, he mentally repeated, his mind trying it on, overlaying it onto their interactions to see if it fit.  Testing a hypothesis, like any good scientist, he told himself,  his mind going through their encounters like one of those picture books you had to flip through quickly to see the story come to life.  It didn’t make sense until you saw it all together. 

Steve likes me, he thought.  Steve likes me. 

Those were manly chortles of happiness that ensued.  He would deny the description of giddy giggling to his grave, though it would probably be best to scrub JARVIS’s video of the moment so as to avoid confusion.  Steve likes me.  He like-likes me.  God, he might as well draw their initials connected by a plus sign on his Trapper Keeper, though he couldn’t quite muster the disgust that thought should produce.   He was pretty sure he was practically Joker levels of grinning at the moment.

Of course, there was the minor complication that whatever Steve may have felt for him once upon a time, Loki had removed all of that from his memory, and this Steve either didn’t know or refused to acknowledge that anything beyond friendship with Tony was even a possibility.  So, a bump in the road, as it were.

Until he let himself think it, he hadn’t realized just how badly he wanted it.  How had he ever thought that something physical with Steve would be enough?  Of course, it wasn’t.  It couldn’t possibly be enough, but it had honestly never occurred to him that Steve might want more, and probably best just not to knock too hard on that particular door, he demurred. 

But why, if Steve had feelings for him, why didn’t he say something?  Why let it just be about sex, if he wanted something more?  And then break it off without so much as even the fake kind of ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ speech?  He would blame Barnes, if only because that seemed to be the party most responsible for Steve’s actions lately, but if it was Barnes’ potential return that led Steve to break things off, why agree to a set-up with dear Anne from R&D, who held two Master’s degrees from Caltech, liked hiking, riding her Harley and volunteered with animal rescue.  Which Tony totally did not know about.  Shame she accepted that offer of promotion at the facility in Shanghai. 

What had changed though?  If Steve had really spent months trying to get Tony’s attention, why suddenly settle for, well, that kind of attention?  Steve was hardly the fuck-and-run kind, which, dear Lord, do not pick at that thread, he told himself sternly.  That was jumping way too far ahead. 

Though, honestly, Steve would look fantastic in his military dress uniform at the cerem—Nope.

“JARVIS, scan the video feed from the workshop, jet and common areas over the past, say, six months.  See if you can find any instances of Steve asking me, just me, to do something non-vengeful with him,” Tony ventured, his stomach twisting a bit. 

“I have calculated twenty-seven such occurrences, Sir,” JARVIS replied after a moment.

"Twenty-seven?  That—no. That can’t be right.  I’m pretty sure I would have noticed if Captain America asked me out twenty-seven times,” Tony objected.  He would have noticed.  He would have.  He was…very close to being something like sure of that.

“Okay, of those, how many times did I agree to do something with him?” Tony asked.

“I do not have any record of—“ JARVIS began.

“Fuck. Me,” Tony said, letting his head fall forward to thud against his worktable, then repeating the motion until a dull enough ache started to form.  He finally sat up and rubbed the heel of his hand against the spot on his forehead, taking a deep breath before continuing.  “And how many times did I ask him to do something non-world-saving and not—not ‘you know’--with me?”

There was a weighted pause before JARVIS answered, almost like the AI didn’t want to say. “My scans show you proposed an activity outside of those parameters that involved the two of you six times,” JARVIS finally replied.  “Captain Rogers accepted on each occasion.”

“You couldn’t have helped a guy get a clue a little sooner, J?” Tony asked grimly. 

“I’m sorry, Sir, getting you a clue is outside the scope of even my programming,” JARVIS responded primly, the snarky bastard.

“Can you—show me the last time he asked me to do something before we started—before the Mark 40 got fried,” Tony ordered, bracing himself.  He watched the video fill the screen in front of him, his mind instantly recalling it.  It hadn’t been a big thing.  Unremarkable, really.  They’d been sitting in the workshop, talking about the Tesseract and Selvig’s notes.  Or, rather, Tony had been talking and Steve had been doing a lot of forceful nodding.  Steve had asked him to hit up that burger joint, the one they’d ended up at last night, thanks subconscious, awesome Freudian onion rings we got to have. 

Tony had declined the invite, something about work, which had probably been true enough, though he wanted to reach through the screen and throttle himself for being an idiot.  If someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes.  When Captain America—when Steve—asks you to spend time with him, you say yes.  Ground rules for living, people.  Catch up.

Okay, but there was nothing special about that day.  Nothing happened.  Nothing that would make Steve suddenly decide to go from asking Tony out to pounding him into next week, not when Steve wasn’t that guy to begin with.  Or Tony, didn’t think he was.  Who the hell knew?  Maybe Steve was fine just getting his rocks off, particularly if he’d been waiting.  Had he been waiting?  What did that even mean? Waiting for what, exactly?  Opportunity?  Not easy to find a discreet outlet for this sort of thing if you were a superhero who maybe didn’t want to become more of a gay icon than the outfit already made him, and yes, Tony could do discreet, if only for shits and grins. 

Hell, if you took out the ice nap, Steve was a lot young—ah, he was youngish, young-esque? Well, really, who was older entirely depended on your mathematical assumptions, so probably best to just leave that.  Point is, maybe that was what Steve had wanted all along, and yes, yes, he fucking knew how ironic it was that he was worrying that Captain America was just using him for sex. 

But this Steve had said he was waiting for the right partner.  Whatever the hell that meant. 

“That—that doesn’t make sense,” Tony stammered.  “None of this makes sense.  This is Steve we’re talking about.  He’d say something.  Hell, this is the guy who announces to a base full of possible Hydra agents that he’s there to take down their wannabe-Nostradamus flying death ships.  He wouldn’t know subtle if it hit him with a vibranium arm.”

“If I may, Sir, I believe this might offer some clarification,” JARVIS intoned, and a new video popped up on the screen.  It was obviously from the same day as the previous one, because Steve was wearing the same clothes, khakis and a blue plaid shirt, though to be fair, that could really be any day.  Steve tapped his code into the workshop door and came in, a plastic bag dangling from his fingers with several Styrofoam containers inside. 

“Tony?” the Steve on the screen called out.  “Got your dinner,” Steve continued, walking further into the workshop, head swiveling around as he searched for Tony.  “You could come eat upstairs, if you want.  Clint says we have to watch some kid’s movie about a talking bear named Ted.”  Steve paused in the middle of the room and turned first one direction, then the other.  “JARVIS, is Tony around?”

“Sir has gone out for the evening, Captain,” JARVIS replied, almost sounding regretful. 

“Is anything wrong?” Steve asked with a slight frown, looking over at where the suits stood sentinel, untouched.

“Not that I’m aware of, Captain,” JARVIS intoned carefully. 

“He—oh,” Steve started, then cut himself off.  “Oh.  Okay.”  Tony could see it, would probably always be able to see it, that moment when Steve looked down at the bag in his hands, shoulders slumping ever so slightly, then stiffening.  That was it.  That was the moment Steve gave up.  “Well,” Steve said, clearing his throat as he swallowed and ducked his head again, then lifted his eyes to the ceiling, as he always did with JARVIS, and Tony suddenly hated his state of the art video system because it was so easy to see the glint of pain there behind the blue.  And worse.  Acceptance.  “Will you tell him I put his dinner in the fridge?  Remind him to eat it, okay?”

“Of course, Captain,” JARVIS responded. 

Ah, damn it all to hell, Steve.

Chapter Text

“It was a damn spitball Casey threw, I’m tellin’ ya,” Steve asserted.  If by asserted, you meant shouted while he looked like he’d just as soon punch the ex-Dodgers’ pitcher as Hitler.  “No way Owens’ drops that third strike on a stinkin’ curveball.  The thing practically shone,” Steve continued bitterly.  “We had ‘em, too.  Eighth inning, and we had ‘em on the ropes.  We were up by 1, two outs, and suddenly Owens gets slippery hands with the pitch, then can’t get the throw to first.  Then DiMaggio gets a single and suddenly the damn Yanks are rallying.”

“No joy in Flatbush that night?” Tony recited the bit of poem from memory, mouth curving into a teasing grin.

“I think Bucky cried,” Steve remembered with a half smile, tipping his head back against the wall behind the workshop couch.  “We were—God, that was ’41.  Buck was just getting ready to be shipped out for the first time.  I was still getting 4F’d right and left,” Steve said with a shake of his head. “I was supposed to be working that day, but no one was working in Brooklyn.  We couldn’t afford tickets to the game, but Buck’s parents had a wireless.  We took it up on the roof of the apartment building, sat there listening to the game.  We could see Ebbets Field from there.  Hear the crowd every now and then,” Steve finished, then fell silent for a long while, though it was the expectant kind of break.  Tony knew him well enough to know that Steve was thinking about how much he wanted to say about just how lean things had been, a wide gulf of privilege that would always separate them. 

“It’d been about a year since Mom died,” Steve finally began again, voice low, but steady.  “I’d dropped out of art school.  Worked a bit at the grocer when I could, sweeping up, helping stock the shelves, that kind of thing, but with the war getting started, there wasn’t as much to stock and not as many buying what you did, and my hours kept getting cut.  I was worried about Bucky—the 107th was seeing casualties already.  A war that had seemed a world away was suddenly being delivered to a mom or wife a few doors down,” he continued, mouth flattening into a frown. “I was about to get kicked out of the apartment.  Didn’t have the rent and owed part of the last month’s.  I’d started halving my meds to save money.  I was pretty well panicked, to tell you the truth,” Steve admitted quietly, rubbing a hand through his hair to cup at the back of his neck.  He shook his head back and forth once, slowly, then looked up at Tony, though his eyes were far away this time.  He took a sip from the bottle of beer he was holding, letting his head dip down as he leaned forward, elbows resting on his thighs.  “Guess you know how that ended up,” he said with a quick flash of a deprecating smile.  “Always do make my best decisions when I’m on the ropes.”

“But there we sat, listening to the game, coming so close, cheering along with the crowd.  Bucky’d gotten us some pop and Cracker Jacks.  I got a decoder ring, and he was pissed because he got one of those stupid charms,” Steve remembered with obvious fondness.

“Weren’t you two like, twenty-three?” Tony teased.  He could see them in his head so clearly, sitting up on some tenement roof, huddled around a radio, having their soda and Cracker Jacks and cheering along with the crowd from behind the high walls of the field.  Boys, really.  Almost men, but not quite yet.  They would be soon enough, he knew.  If nothing else, the war took away those years when you could be both.

 “Doesn’t change the fact that the decoder ring is the best prize, Stark.  Though, Buck gave that crappy charm to a girl a few days later at the Expo, and you’d have thought it was the Hope Diamond, the way she acted,” Steve said with a disbelieving puff of breath.   “Mr. Fratinelli was down below knockin’ on the ceiling with a broom when the boys did something good.  It was October, so the weather was nice.  Not too hot, even up there in the sun.  I remember thinking I was going to burn and regret it, but I didn’t care.  It was…a good day.  Weird to say that, considering we lost and everything going on—I think we were both terrified for our own reasons, though neither of us would say it--but, it was.  One of the best.  Heard they finally won it in ’55, though,” Steve said, a bit of wonder echoing in his voice.  “Wish I coulda seen that.”

Tony shrugged slightly in understanding.  “Not so strange.  I mean, I get it,” he said over his shoulder as he used his finger to trace over parts of the schematic he was working on, elongating one of the torso panels for the new suit so that it curved into smooth edges that would fit around his stomach more naturally.  Not having anything whatsoever to do with the fact that Steve had pointed out that the last version had enough flashy panels to get a grip on and pull off. 

Certainly not having anything to do with Steve grabbing one and ripping it off with his bare hands to prove said point. 

Technically, that might have had something to do with the fact that Tony had been standing there explaining that it was an important design feature and how ridiculous Steve’s concern was at the time.  Damn, he was really going to miss the eight-pack look that gave him.  Ah, well.

“One of my best days was right after my parents were killed,” he heard himself say.  Then started in surprise at the admission, though not really at the truth of it.  He knew, as soon as he said it, what Steve meant about the oddity of feeling that way, but there was a raw truth there that he couldn’t deny.  Even when the whole world seemed wrong, in those last, best days before everything changed, there was something good there.  Something you couldn’t recapture again no matter how hard you tried.  He looked over his shoulder again and caught Steve watching him with a bright sort of intensity, found himself blinking at a prickling behind his eyes and turned back to the schematic dancing in front of him.  He hadn’t talked about this with Steve, with anyone really, outside of a really expensive, bored looking therapist at Obie’s insistence at some point when he had been cratering bad enough to gain that much attention.

 “I was at MIT when I got the news,” Tony began, his throat suddenly thick and parched.  He reached for his bottle of beer and took a long drink, then turned to face Steve, swinging the bottle by the neck between his fingers, watching the amber liquid slosh inside. 

“There was this stretch of days between when my dad’s lawyer pulled me out of class and when they finally released the bodies for the funeral…inquest and all that.  I didn’t know what—I mean, what do you do then? With that time?  Just…go on to class?  I had no fucking clue what to do, to be honest.  Talk about panicked,” Tony recalled. “Obie wanted me back in California, Cal-Tech or something, but that was one time I actually put my foot down about anything with him.  Well, before he tried to kill me, anyway,” Tony amended quickly at Steve’s look.  “I had friends at MIT.  Okay, I had Rhodey at MIT.  And school was, at least, a routine, I guess.  Something to do that wasn’t just waiting,” Tony explained, his voice echoing in the silent workshop.  He was staring at the schematic, seeing something else entirely, but it gave him something to focus on, so he kept the familiar blue lines swimming in front of him.   

“There wasn’t anything for me in California.  I don’t think there had been for, well.  A long time.  I thought when I went back, it would be, I don’t know, triumphant or some shit.  Show up on the heels of my Edison or Nobel,” Tony remembered, a shaky smile forming.  Ah, youth.  “Show the old man.  Show up the old man, maybe more like it,” he admitted, softer than he meant to.  He wasn’t even sure what he was trying to chase anymore, he thought, looking at Steve.  He would never equal his father’s greatest creation, but he suspected Howard’s role had always been more of what Howard needed it to be than what it really was. Maybe, in that, he wasn’t so different from his father.

“Must have been hard, though.  You were pretty young when it happened,” Steve responded after a moment.  “Would have been a shock to anyone.”

“You were—what?  Twenty-one?  Twenty-two when your mom died?” Tony asked.  Steve just nodded in reply. 

“Wasn’t a shock though. She’d been sick for awhile,” Steve said quietly, looking away again.  Tony could hear it all underneath the words though.  He knew enough of Steve’s history to fill in whatever blanks there were.  She’d been sick for a while. Tuberculosis she caught on the job.  Steve, too sickly to get much work, not with all the able-bodied women flooding the workforce, trying to take care of her and keep a roof above their heads, wanting out and feeling guilty for it.  Watching Barnes and all the other young men go off to serve.  What makes you volunteer for a highly experimental government project run by a German scientist who already had a version of his serum turn a man into a monster?  Probably the same thing that drives you to build a weaponized suit of armor from scraps you find in a cave. 


Desperation and a chance for a beginning you didn’t think you’d get again.

“Not sure that’s a distinction that matters when it’s a parent.  Anyway…anyway, when they finally made the arrangements, I got this idea in my head that I’d drive from college to California for the funeral.  Now, keep in mind, I was, God, seventeen.  Seventeen,” Tony repeated with a note of disbelief, shaking his head a bit at that thought.  Seventeen, he mentally repeated.  Knew everything and nothing, a scared little boy who suddenly found himself wanting the parents he despised. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I couldn’t get this idea out of my head, that I’d drive out there and, I don’t know, show up after some epic, life-changing journey and it would be different.  I’d be different.  You always see those movies or read it in books where they find themselves out on the road, learn some life lesson kind of bullshit.”

“So, did you do it?” Steve asked when Tony fell silent.

Tony huffed out a chagrined laugh.  “I did.  Well, sort of.  Bought this beat up old heap of a car off some senior, fixed a few things on it, got a map at a gas station and took off,” Tony remembered, a slight smile forming.  “Took off for all of about four miles, after which point I remembered that I was seventeen and had no idea how to drive right around the time I ended up in a ditch.  Jarvis had driven me everywhere.   Just never learned.  Thought I could figure it out,” Tony explained quickly when Steve huffed out a startled laugh. “I mean, I knew how it worked in theory.  And look at all those knuckle-draggers driving around campus!  How hard could it be, right?  Walked to a payphone and called Rhodey.  He got there and just…just asked me where we were heading.  No judgment.  Nothing.  I think that first day of driving, we maybe said twenty words to each other, but…it was a good day.”

“Is that why all the cars now?” Steve asked, eyebrows raised in question. 

“Huh?” Tony mumbled, then snorted out a laugh and leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out and using his heel to move the chair back and forth on its wheels.  “You know, maybe.  I hadn’t thought about it.  Is that why you still follow the Dodgers even though they’re in LA now, and we all know that was a terrible and wrong-headed decision?” Tony finished quickly as Steve opened his mouth to interrupt.

“You agreed not to speak of that.  There was a team meeting.  You signed a pledge,” Steve reminded him. 

“I still can’t believe you made us do that,” Tony chuckled.

“Yeah, well” Steve acknowledged after a beat.  “To good days,” he said, raising his bottle of beer in salute. 

“To good days,” Tony repeated, picking up his own bottle and toasting the air.  He hadn’t thought of that day in, God, years.  He wasn’t sure why he was talking to Steve about it now, except that Steve had shared something, and maybe he felt obligated to do the same, but, well…it felt oddly good to talk to Steve about it, like something he didn’t know he’d been carrying had been lifted from his shoulders.  For all their differences, Steve was surprisingly easy to talk to about things.  On paper, their lives, who they were, just…everything about them was seemingly so vastly at odds. But when they talked, actually talked about things, no matter what it was, there seemed to be a kind of common ground that he never would have imagined until he saw it through Steve’s experiences.  Who would have ever thought he’d be able to relate to Captain America?  Long list, he supposed, and he knew who went right at the top.

“Speaking of my dear Sourpatch, tonight’s date night.  He’s dragging me to some kind of bad horror movie marathon in the Village.  He fucking loves those things.  Don’t tell the President his number one line of defense can quote all of Plan 9 and keeps a Vampira poster in his bedroom.  I don’t know how I’m supposed to sleep at night with the knowledge that one of the people guarding the nuclear football thinks Attack of the Killer Tomatoes is a classic,” Tony shrugged in a what-can-you-do manner.

“But you don’t even li—“ Steve started, then stopped.  When Tony turned to look over his shoulder, he caught a flash of a sharp, strange look from Steve before he dropped his gaze down to the bottle of beer wrapped in his hands where they dangled in the space between his knees.  “That sounds like fun,” Steve continued, nodding his head, though it sounded for all the world like Steve was trying to convince himself of it.  Well, he wasn’t wrong there, Tony supposed. He didn’t particularly relish the evening, except that it was Rhodey, and they’d have fun no matter what it was.

“It’s good of you to go with him.  James is a good person,” Steve said as he leaned back again, plucking at the words carefully, like the strings of a guitar.  He was picking at the label on the beer bottle, not looking at Tony.  “I’m glad you have someone like that to spend time with,” he added, though it sounded weary and worn somehow as he peeled off a strip of label, letting it curl around his finger.  Tony supposed he was thinking of He Who Must Not Be Named again.  Tony sighed heavily.  Just when you thought you’d steered the conversation to violent fruit.

“Rhodey’s the best,” Tony agreed.  Not just a best friend, but the added advantage of currently not trying to kill Tony.  Really, if there was some kind of best friend competition—which there wasn’t, of course—but if there was, he would definitely win.  “Granted, I’ll spend most of the evening mocking him incessantly for his inexplicably poor taste.  But that’s just a Wednesday.”

“You knew all the words to that movie with the angry tree people who wanted the shrubbery,” Steve pointed out, not completely unreasonably.

“Okay, first of all Monty Python is a genuine cinematic masterpiece,” Tony protested, spinning around in his chair. 

“There was a killer rabbit in that one,” Steve continued.    “I’m just saying, rabbit, tomato, neither seem very threatening.”

“Which is exactly the thinking that led to several unwary knights losing their lives!” Tony argued, throwing his hands up in the air.  Steve huffed out a laugh, then scrubbed his hand over his mouth to try to cover it.

“Well, game’s about to start,” Steve said as he rose from the sofa.  “You—ah—you sure you don’t want to watch.  I think Thor’s going to be there.  I tried explaining some of the rules, but he just wanted to know if the losers were ritualistically flayed for their incompetence.  I think the idea of sports might be a little different on Asgard.  Anyway, might be fun.  You could work on your tablet.  Wouldn’t bother me.  If you wanted.”

“Nah, you go ahead.  Never been a big baseball fan, Cap,” Tony called out as he turned back to the schematic.  Useless, he thought, and used a finger to arch it into the glowing trash can.  “Gotta get this done before I suffer through Fire Maidens from Outer Space.  Though, if Major League Baseball ever does institute ritualistic flaying, I’m there.”

 “See?  See?” Tony demanded.  “I mean, how was I even supposed to know, you know?  It was all so casual.  ‘Hey, Tony, how about we hang out doing this random totally-not-a-date thing?’ Not like he straight up asked me out to dinner or anything,” Tony explained in exasperation. “Okay, well, if you want to be really technical about it, sure, he did ask me to dinner,” Tony amended at Pepper’s raised eyebrow.  “Three times,” Tony admitted in frustration, rubbing the heel of his hand against the center of his forehead.   

“Uh-huh.  How about how it kind of sounds like you basically told him you were happy to spend time with James doing something you hated because, hey, it’s James!  But you didn’t have any interest in doing the same with him,” Pepper questioned, steepling her elbows on her desk as she peered around her computer monitor at him.

“I know.  I know, okay?  I screwed up,” Tony groaned wearily.  “Big time.  I just—I never thought—I mean, it’s Steve.  Why would I even think he would--But, look, can we just focus on the problem at hand?” 

“Sure, let’s just set aside your massive blackhole of self-esteem issues that have been intertwined with Steve since you were a child, because I’m sure that has nothing to do with the problem at hand,” Pepper muttered as she stretched back in her chair, massaging her temples with her fingers.

“Exactly, thank you,” Tony rushed on, earning an eye roll.  “Look, the problem now is that he doesn’t remember that he like-liked me—hey! Don’t make the face, that is a legitimate colloquialism—and he’s all confused about his sexuality, which, by the way, is me, let’s just take that as a given and move right on past that question, and, okay, sure, maybe he’s a tad obsessed with his Walking Not Dead reject of a best friend, who may or may not have something to do with why he called it off in the first place, but if that were the case, why jump right into a date with that R&D chick?  Makes no sense. Was he just over me—it?  I mean, that’s obviously crazy,  and we should reject that premise for a lot of reasons that we can just leave unspoken, but, come on, casual sex? That’s not Steve.  Fuck, he watches Lifetime movies with Clint and gets all misty-eyed.  What if he never even gets his memories back?  What then?  Do I just…start over?  Never tell him?  That seems bad.  You’re about to tell me why, I can tell.  Not to mention—“

“Wait, wait.  ‘That R&D chick’?” Pepper stopped him, holding a hand up in the air when he took a breath. Damn the need for oxygen, it just gave her opportunity.  “You mean Anne Rollins, our new Head-of-the Shanghai-Division-Anne-Rollins?  Tony, please tell me that you did not give a promotion to someone because they agreed to go out with your not-boyfriend?”

“Wow, Pep.  First, of course I did not “give” her that promotion.  She earned it. What kind of feminist are y—okay, okay, ow, don’t throw things!” Tony pleaded, ducking behind a stack of files on Pepper’s desk as she tossed a pad of post-its at his head.

“So, let me get this straight.  Steve liked you.  You didn’t realize this for months, and then, when Steve finally gave up, you panicked, and managed to maneuver the two of you into having angry sex,” Pepper recounted. 

“Fabulous angry sex,” Tony interjected.  “Which had absolutely nothing to do with…the other thing.  I mean, that was because of the battle, and Steve yelling at me, again, completely—mostly—unreasonably, I might add.”

“You just told me that you watched the video where Steve seemed to decide that you were never going to reciprocate his feelings, or ‘like-like him’ to use your words,” Pepper stated, making air quotes with her fingers.  That one wasn’t going away any time soon.  He was fairly certain that at some future Board meeting, he was going to agree to a contract and Pepper was going to ask if he “like-liked” the contract. 

 “So, he leaves you to your own devices for a few days—always a questionable strategy, let’s be honest—and then you decide to do something dangerous in the middle of a battle, which, no!  I do not need to hear about again,” Pepper insisted, heading off his interruption, which would have totally explained why he was right.  Mostly.  Like ninety-percent right.  Give or take.  “When Steve comes to discuss it with you, which, Tony, really, you knew he would, you end up basically inviting him to have sex with you.  Now you’re trying to tell me that had absolutely nothing to do with Steve ignoring you?  Tony.  Please.”

“That is a gross misinterpretation of the sequence of events,” Tony said slowly, his brow drawing together in a frown as he thought back.  It was…wasn’t it?  He’s busy, Tony.  He couldn’t make it.  He’s out of town.  Business, Tony.  It’s important.  He was working late last night. He wanted to be here. I’m sure he just forgot.  Don’t bother him, he’s working.  Emergency at one of the factories, Tony.  You know how he gets when he has an idea. Try to stay out of the way, Tony.  Yeah, it was just an absolute fucking wonder how he came to associate attention, any kind of attention, with affection. 

“Um-hmm, because you’ve certainly never treated negative attention as foreplay before,” Pepper replied, staring across her desk at him for a long beat, then coughing loudly into her hand around what sounded a lot like ‘Christine Everhart.’   She pushed her chair back and stood up, walking around to lean against the front of the desk next to where Tony sat in one of the chairs. 

Tony leaned back in the chair, scooting himself down until he could rest his head on the curved back, staring at the recessed lights in the ceiling until a bright spot appeared in his vision.  “It wasn’t just angry sex.  Not after that first time.  Maybe not even then.  I don’t know what it was.  But, it wasn’t that.”

He looked up at her long enough to see her face fall a bit with something he was fairly sure was pity, so he turned his gaze back to the lights.  Better to burn out his retinas than see that.  Less painful.  “Tony, look, you are making this entirely too complicated,” she said finally. 

“Okay, what part of magic alien mindwipe did you not understand?  I think that is pretty much the definition of complicated,” Tony pointed out.  Then sighed, pushed himself up to a sitting position again and scrubbed his face with his hand.  “How could I have missed this?  How, Pep?  Tell me that.”

“Well, as someone who recalls our pseudo-first date involving me standing on a balcony waiting for a drink while you flew a weaponized metal suit to a foreign country to single-handedly take out a bunch of terrorists, I can’t say I’m entirely shocked,” Pepper replied lightly, one side of her mouth pulling up at the corner.  “Not to mention that I have an MBA and spent years getting you to sign things, spending your money on art you hated and occasionally performing other, less pleasant duties.  You think that was all just to pad my resume?” she teased, nudging his shoe with the point of her heel.

“I thought you just…liked art or something,” Tony mumbled, his face contorting into a frustrated grimace.  “I liked you, too, you know?  Who wouldn’t?  You’re amazing.  I just didn’t know that I liked you until Afghanistan happened, and I realized I might never--ah.   Yeah, I see what you did there.”

“Wow, it’s almost like there is some kind of a pattern there,” Pepper said with a slight smile.   Not for the first time, he was struck with just how remarkable she was.  He’d taken the loss of their relationship hard, though he had realized some time ago that it was the loss of her in his life he feared more than the loss of her in his heart.  Which probably told him a lot.

Could he do the same with Steve?  Slot him into a friendship and be content, if that was all there was to be had?  Maybe.  Maybe that could be enough.

He thought about Steve’s face when he promised to help him find Barnes, the absolute certainty that Tony could do, would do it, because he said so, the unwavering faith he hadn’t had in…well.  A long time.  That’s how it starts, he thought.  He fell in love with how Steve made him feel about himself almost before he fell in love with Steve.  Maybe that’s what love is, when you got right down to it.  Steve didn’t lie, which meant he could be the person Steve saw when he looked at him like that, and he wanted that more than he would have thought possible.

So maybe not, he thought dully, the familiar hot flash of annoyance that he could now, at least, recognize as something else entirely, running through him.  At one time, maybe he could have.  He liked to think that, anyway, probably better for his psyche.  But now, after coming so close to everything, the idea of having part of Steve, but not all of him, made something sour and bitter curl in Tony’s stomach, tightening like a vise around his chest until he couldn’t breathe.  He was familiar enough with panic to recognize it at this point.

“Pepper…” Tony whined.  “I know, okay?  I know I’m bad at this stuff.  I get it.  But…it’s Steve, Pep.  Tell me I can fix this.  I need—I have to fix this.  I can’t…almost have this.  This can’t be a regret.  I can’t do that.  So…so you’re just going to have to help me out here, because if I’ve fucked this one up, I don’t know if I can walk away from that, Pep.”

“I know,” Pepper said around a sigh.   “Look, Tony, that really wasn’t a criticism of you.  Well, maybe a little,” she amended, her mouth thinning into a flat line.  “You keep people who might hurt you just out of reach.  So close that it’s hard to even see the distance.  I know you don’t mean to, and I have an idea why you do that, but, that wasn’t actually what I was trying to say,” Pepper continued quickly.  “I was only pointing that out to say this:  Steve could have avoided a lot of this by just being honest with you about his feelings.  Take it from someone who knows.  I could have said something when I first realized I wanted something more from you, but I didn’t, for a lot of reasons that felt perfectly justifiable at the time.  You were my boss, my friend, and I didn’t want to lose what I had with you by trying for something more.  But those are just excuses for not taking a risk.  This mess isn’t all on you, Tony.”

Tony leaned forward, placing an elbow on the glass top of her desk, one finger idly tracing up and down a stack of files.  “It kind of feels like it is, Pep.  You didn’t see his face.  I did that.  All I had to do was pay a little fucking attention to something other than me and my stupid—“

“Tony!  Enough.  Yes, you missed his interest, but I know you.  You pay attention.  So damn closely, it’s overwhelming at times.  You didn’t catch on that Steve was asking you out, and, I’m not saying that was well done, Tony, because it wasn’t, but…you don’t miss the really important stuff.  You knew when he was upset the other night at the benefit,” she went on. “You got him out of a situation that could have gone a very different way.  You talked to Sam about making sure he got Steve to come early to pick him up from the VA so that Steve could stand around waiting for Sam to be done and basically attend a meeting that Captain America needs but can’t have.  You spent three days in your shop making him a better uniform after what happened over the Potomac.  One that can stop bullets and bring his shield to him when he loses it,” Pepper continued. 

“Drops it on purpose,” Tony muttered harshly under his breath. 

“You modified your suits to carry him.  You trusted him with the override codes.  Nat tells me everything,” Pepper explained with a dismissive wave of her hand at his stunned expression.  “You’re having JARVIS help find Barnes because Steve wants his friend back, even though I know that the thought of it absolutely terrifies you,” she finished gently.

“But months, Pepper.  Months.  He thought---he thought that I don’t, but I would, I mean, I do—I…” Tony stammered.  She hadn’t seen Steve’s face.  She hadn’t seen that, and she hadn’t been the one to put that there. 

“I’m not…I’m not saying you did everything right, Tony.   You didn’t hear the question he was asking, true, and I think you should seriously think about why that is, but everything you did, Tony…everything you did for him was an answer,” Pepper said, her voice going soft, one hand reaching out to rub at his arm.  “You’re already more than half way there.  You like Steve.  Steve likes—or liked--you.  Those feelings don’t just disappear over a bag of takeout, Tony,” she continued, so sure that he could almost believe it, though he was fairly certain that was desperation trying to convince him she was right.  “Maybe he doesn’t remember he cares about you, but he’s the same person, give or take a few years.  Whatever it is in him that made him fall in love with you in the first place, it’s still there, somewhere.  You just have to find it again.”

“That’s pretty much what Rhodey said when I called him last night,” Tony admitted, slumping back in his chair.  “Well, what he actually said before he hung up was that I should man up and tap that American pie, but I think it was the same basic sentiment.”

Pepper closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  “Gee, it’s almost like James took the words right out of my mouth,” Pepper ground out through clenched teeth.  “Tony,” she started again after a deep breath.  “You know Steve pretty well at this point.  You said he’s been asking you to spend time with him for months.  So, here is what you do, and I know this is going to sound crazy, but bear with me.”

“Okay,” Tony said, nodding eagerly and leaning forward in his chair. 

“Talk to Steve,” Pepper continued firmly.  “Ask him to spend time with you doing something that he might enjoy.  It’s a rarely used tactic, admittedly, and you might need to do some significant research on the subject, as it is very arcane, but I understand it’s called ‘dating.’”

“I tried that!” Tony burst out.  “He likes baseball, right? I do pay attention, Pep. Granted, not when he actually asked me to join them watching the stupid game, but let’s stay positive.  So, I asked him to go to a Yankees game with me, box seats, private chef, the works.”

“And what did he say?” Pepper asked curiously.

“That the season ended two months ago,” Tony grumbled, flopping back in his chair and running a hand through his hair.  Seriously, a hundred and sixty-something games and they can’t even manage to be playing when Tony needed them?  Steve was right to hate the Yankees, Tony mentally groused, however adorably irrational his vitriol may be at times. 

His sudden dislike of the pinstriped wonders had nothing to do with the fact that when he’d stopped by to invite Steve, he’d caught a glimpse into Steve’s suite, and noticed that the wall at which Steve had been staring the night before, while Tony worried he’d broken Captain America, had been filled with surveillance photos, reports and the like, long red threads spider-webbing between things where Steve apparently saw some pattern in the chaos that was Barnes’ current movements.   So, not exactly sitting around, agonizing over whatever feelings Tony’s kiss might have stirred.  Or, worse, Steve was, in fact, wondering about those feelings, just going all Tommy Lee Jones over his favorite fugitive instead of thinking about Tony.  God, he was such a fucking idiot.  It would be funny if it weren’t completely horrible.

Pepper pressed her lips tightly together, clearly trying to contain a smile.  “So, genius, come up with something else.  He’s an artist, right?  What about a gallery opening or something?” Pepper suggested.  “Show him you’re interested in him.”

“You said the ‘minimalist nature of the piece invites the viewer to consider the visual qualities of the work.’ That the ‘simplicity of the form allows the work to become more direct and incisive.’  That it was a ‘mirror to our collective human subconscious,’” Tony accused, pointing at the object on the wall.  “It’s a fire extinguisher box, Steve.  An empty fire extinguisher box, so not only is it definitely not art, but it’s not even up to code.”

Steve was hunched over, shoulders shaking and breath coming in wheezes.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said through bouts of laughter that sounded decidedly unapologetic to Tony’s ears.  “I just couldn’t stop myself once I got going.  You just kept nodding and agreeing with me,” he said, shaking his head in apparent disbelief.

“I tried to buy it, Steven!” Tony ground out, though he was trying not to grin.  He’d spent the last fifteen minutes listening to Steve wax poetic about the importance of the ‘piece,’ all the time pretending he, one,  had any idea what the string of words Steve was putting together meant, and, two, gave a rat’s ass beyond the fact that Steve seemed so enthused about it.  And Pepper said he didn’t appreciate art.  He’d only come tonight because she browbeat him into it since the company supported the students who were exhibiting here through a number of grants and fellowships, which they could one day no doubt put to good use drawing those cute cartoons on the Starbucks board.  He was so proud. Though at least he’d been able to convince Steve to come along,  since there was art and food and if he could just round up a couple of bad guys for Steve to beat up, it would pretty much hit Steve’s trifecta of a good evening.

“It’s great that you’re so supportive of the arts,” Steve replied with a condescending nod, then completely blew the pretentious look by doubling over in another fit of laughter. 

“I can’t take you anywhere,” Tony groused, nudging Steve’s shoulder with his own.  “Pepper is going to hear about this, you know that, right?  She’s going to make fun of me.  Which means, I going to have to take it out on you, somehow.”

“Probably not with a fire safety lecture,” Steve said agreeably. 

“Okay, you know what—“ Tony started, shaking his head and having to stop and bite the inside of his cheek to contain his laughter.  “You know, Rogers, it’s the fact that you went to the trouble to have a label made for an empty fire extinguisher box that raises it to art.  No, wait, I take that back.  It’s the fact that you actually fucking named it ‘Dum-E On Duty,’ and probably didn’t even mean that ironically, that raises it to art.” 

“My respect for him grows every time he douses you,” Steve replied evenly.  "I really thought you'd notice that sooner.  Good thing you're not in a line of work that requires keen observational skills." 

“You’re a shit, you know that, right?  Captain America is trolling me.  About art.  Someone needs to know about this,” Tony called out lightly, twisting his head around from side to side, until Steve grabbed him and pulled him further off into the alcove that housed, well, a fire extinguisher box when you got right down to it.  “Fuck it, I need it.  Where’s the curator?  Might be the most interesting thing in here,” Tony observed disdainfully, looking over his shoulder at the guests pretending to give a shit about the artwork while not-so-subtly watching him and Steve. 

“Stop it, you’re not buying that.  If you want to invest, there are several good pieces here.  Any of these kids would love the bragging rights of having you pick one of their works.  I have to admit, though, some of this is over my head,” Steve admitted, a slight frown forming.  “I know a lot has changed since I was in school, some of it amazing, really.  That Pollock you have?”  Steve said, shaking his head.  “I’ve never seen anything like it.  The layers of color, the way they intertwine, some of the lines abrupt, some slow and arching…you can see his emotions in the paint.  Some of these pieces though…I know I never finished art school, but I’m pretty certain that one over there is a framed white canvas.  And it’s called ‘Colors of My Life,’” Steve pointed out with a slight shake of his head. 

“I’m hanging ‘Dum-E On Duty’ next to the Pollock,” Tony said out of the corner of his mouth.  Mainly just to see The Furrow of Serious Disapproval appear, which should happen—yep, there it was, Tony noted with a grin.

“Now who’s trolling?” Steve muttered, running his hand up and down the edge of the silver metal box. 

“You’re always so critical of my decorating choices,” Tony teased lightly. 

“You hung a Cezanne in the kitchen!” Steve sputtered indignantly. 

“It had fruit in it!” Tony countered around a smile.  “Of course it went in the kitchen.  Just like the Degas with the bathers goes above the toilet.  It’s a whole aesthetic.”

“Toooonnnyyyy,” Steve groaned, drawing out his name like he was in pain and shaking his head.  “Tell me that you are not serious.  Even if you are.  Just tell me you’re not.”

“Lies?  Deceit? From you? For shame, Cap,” Tony admonished, then ruined it by pumping his fist into the air. “Success!” Tony chortled gleefully. 

“You should come with me to the Met sometime,” Steve suggested, clearing his throat and looking over Tony’s head to the gallery beyond where a number of guests still mingled. If by mingled, you meant pretended to look at art while they exchanged their phones with other patrons to take selfies when they thought Tony and Steve weren’t paying attention. “At least I can understand a bit of what I see there.”

“Pepper would be so proud.  Concerned I had a head injury, but proud.  Not really my thing, though, Cap,” Tony answered, a brief grimace marring his features. 

“Yeah,” Steve said tiredly, turning his head to the side and picking at the silver edge of the fire extinguisher box with one fingernail.  “Yeah, I’m beginning to see that.”

 “Pepper, you’re brilliant,” Tony announced clapping his hands together and standing up in one swift motion, sending the chair rocking on its back legs.  “The Met!  Steve likes the Met.”

“Tony—you—you do know that you can’t buy the Metropolitan Museum of Art so Steve will like you, right?” Pepper asked carefully, eyes narrowing.

“I’m not going to buy—of course, I know that.  Things aren’t love,” Tony quoted from memory, either from an old therapist or four or a fortune cookie, he couldn’t be sure.  “Why?  Do you think there’s something there that he would—okay, no, fine, right, I’m going.  God, one giant bunny and suddenly it’s like you don’t trust my gift-giving instincts. You have a meeting,” he said, recovering quickly under Pepper’s glare.  He followed Pepper out the frosted glass doors of her office and into the hallway, tapping his hands together in anticipation. 

“I had a meeting.  Two hours ago.  When you first showed up,” Pepper corrected, striding towards the doors of her office, which apparently meant his little impromptu relationship advice session was at an end.  Tony dutifully shuffled behind her down the hall, plans pinging around in his head.  He could take Steve to the Met, let him blather on about art stuff, do a convincing job of pretending to care about any of it, then dinner, and Steve would love him.  Again.  Or something.

Possibly he was overreaching a tad, he admitted to himself, scrubbing a hand over his face as he trailed after Pepper.

The problem was, Tony had finished a race he didn’t know he’d been running, and Steve was supposed to be here waiting for him to catch up, except Steve didn’t even know he’d signed up to run.  It was frustrating as hell. 

“I hear they are having a fantastic Cubism exhibit,” Pepper told him over her shoulder as she pushed open a door. 

Had there been something he’d done or said that had made Steve say, yeah, Tony would work, he wondered as he followed Pepper.  What if he missed it this time around?  How was he supposed to even know what would make someone like Steve think that way about someone like him?  What if he was misreading this entirely?  Clint could be wrong.  What if Steve never wanted anything more than sex and was old-fashioned enough to think he had to, you know, do something crazy like get to know the person first?  Or, worse, what if Steve actually spent time with him and realized that he was more show than substance?  Or that shared life experiences could be better had with someone who had lived in the past, in Steve’s past, at that?  Or maybe Steve got his memory back and remembered why he’d broken it off in the first place?  What if Steve only saw Tony as a connection to his past and now a better connection had shown up?  Or maybe—

“Tony,” Pepper said tiredly, leaning back against a counter in front of a porcelain sink, arms crossed over her chest as he looked up in surprise.  “You do realize this is the women’s restroom?”

Tony blinked and looked around, then back at where Pepper was giving him a droll, disapproving look.  “I thought it would be pinker,” Tony offered.  “With…” he waved his hands in the air, spinning half-around on his heel.  “Like, unicorns and rainbows and maybe a hair-braiding station.”

“It’s hard to believe we didn’t work out,” Pepper said evenly.  “Get. Out,” she ordered, grabbing him by the shoulder and pushing him out the door.

“Right.  Going,” Tony assured her, backing out the door and stumbling into the hallway.  “Thanks again, Pep,  you’re a—“  Apparently, it would have to remain a mystery what exactly Pepper was, Tony thought as he stared at the door that had been not so gently slammed in his face.  He looked back and forth down the hallway, where several employees busied themselves pretending not to look at him while no doubt posting this on today’s social media website du jour.  “If this shows up on TMZ, you’re all fired.”

The good thing, he supposed as he took the elevator from Pepper’s office up to his workshop, if you could find a thread of a silver lining in all of this, was that he had an actual list of things Steve would enjoy doing.  Because of all the times Steve had actually asked Tony to do things with him, and yes, he knew that was stretching the definition of silver lining pretty fucking bare.  God-dammit, he mentally cursed himself, digging his fingers into the center of his forehead where a headache was starting to form.  How could he have been that much of an utter ass?  No, wait, do not open that door.

Because he knew, he did actually know it, no matter what he might say when jinxed accessories broke through his, admittedly thin, mental walls, that Steve was everything his father had said and so much more than Howard had never known.  He had gotten the chance to know that, though.  He got that part of Steve, or got a glimpse of it, and what had he done with it?  He’d made it sordid and shameful.  Because that was what he did.  Honestly, if he were a better man, he would end this now, walk away and leave Steve in peace.  Steve could have anyone, and that probably wasn’t even an exaggeration.   He should do that, he knew.  Let Steve go.  Let Steve go, he snorted derisively.  As if he ever really had him in the first place.  What a generous fucking soul he was. It wasn’t like it wasn’t tempting.  Walking away.  It would be so much easier.

The elevator doors pinged and slid open.  Steve was standing in front of him wearing one of those damnable plaid shirts and khaki pant combination that made Tony want to put Prada on speed-dial, body poised in the motion of stepping into the elevator before realizing it was occupied, a flash of surprise arching across his features, then embarrassment, before he carefully schooled them.

Yeah, walking away might not be easier.  It might be impossible. 

 “Sorry,” Steve said quickly, stepping to the side to let Tony exit.  Instead, Tony shoved his hand out to hold the elevator door open.

“Want to go to the Met with me?” Tony heard himself ask, then winced at the sound of it, words spilling out too fast, pleading and hopeful.  Just ask him to the prom already, he mentally recited Barton’s words.

“What?” Steve asked, still standing on the threshold of the elevator, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, clearly unsure whether to climb in or abort and run for cover. 

“Art museum.  There’s some exhibit on Cuba that’s supposed to be great,” Tony told him hurriedly.  “You like art.  So.  There’s art there.”

Steve was staring at him in confusion, probably because Tony was speaking as if he had lost two hundred IQ points on the ride up.  “I—I was going to—you said I volunteer.  I checked my schedule, and I go to the soup kitchen today,” Steve replied with the hint of a frown forming around the words.  Tony’s stomach dropped to his knees, his face tightening, and he wondered if this was what it had felt like for Steve each time Tony told him no or found something else that he could put in front of Steve.

“It--it isn’t like I have to go to the museum now.  I mean, I’m not on a schedule, not really.  Well,” Tony corrected grasping at any kind of opening.  “I guess there are like, hours or something, but—you know what?  Let’s just go to your soup thing and then we’ll hit the museum, how about?”  Say yes, he silently implored.  Please say yes.  He realized he was holding his breath, and slowly forced the air out, then in again, acutely aware of every tick of his body all of a sudden, what his arms were doing, dangling heavily with nothing to really do, the way his heart thudded in his ears, how hard it was to look at Steve and how impossible it was to focus on anything else waiting in the span of time for Steve to answer.  God, how had Steve done this?  Over and over, never actually expecting to get what he wanted?  It was excruciating.

Really?  You can—uh, you would?

Steve had been surprised, Tony recalled.  He hadn’t thought Tony would say yes.  Steve.  Steve had been surprised that Tony would offer to teach him to dance.  He could hear it now in his mind.  He’d watched the videos too many times not to hear it, the sharp, shocked pleasure in Steve’s voice, the mix of disbelief and hope.  And of course, Tony hadn’t actually done what Steve thought he was offering, because Tony was too busy being sure he didn’t get hurt to realize he was hurting someone who deserved it the least.   

“I appreciate the offer,” Steve replied, though he sounded more frustrated than appreciative, truth be told.  “You all really don’t have to keep drawing for short straws.  I’m fine.  Really,” he ground out, hands going to his hips in the way that made Tony’s arms itch to fit themselves around Steve’s waist, tease him a bit, distract him enough to lift some of the weight from his shoulders, if only for a moment, make it just a little easier, just a little better, the way Steve’s utter confidence in him could calm him enough to break through the sometimes overwhelming cluster of thoughts, relieve a bit of the pressure, like a valve opening, giving him some room to think when it was all too much and---huh.  Well.  That was.  That was an interesting thought.

“I want to.  The soup thing, I mean, not the babysitting thing.  You can do your Jason Bourne routine all on your own,” Tony said, sweeping a hand out to indicate Steve should join him in the elevator cab.  He could see a muscle twitching in the side of Steve’s jaw, a sure sign that he was not happy about this, but Tony knew he’d already won.  Steve’s desire to tell him to go pound sand was losing a hell of a mental battle with the idea of an extra pair of hands doling out food to the homeless.  Good deeds for the win, Tony thought rather grimly as Steve stepped into the elevator.  He punched the button for the garage, then looked at their slightly distorted reflections in the elevator doors.  Steve was staring up at the floor numbers as they counted down, posture rigid with displeasure.  Tony knew him well enough to know he felt he’d been manipulated, and how much Steve would absolutely hate that idea.  

“Jason Bourne?” Steve asked finally. 

“Oh, right.  Sorry.  Movies.  CIA guy gets his memories wiped, people try to kill him, it doesn’t work out for them,” Tony explained.  “We watched them—the movies—you liked them, I think.  We spent a lot of time playing Who Would Win in a Fight, and you felt strongly that a half-drunk Dum-Dum Dugan would kick Bourne’s ass.  Not sure about that, but damn would I pay good money to see it.  We did agree that Peggy could probably take him out with like a pencil, a wad of gum and one of those mirrored compact things.”  Steve looked over at him then, a strange, assessing look, like he couldn’t tell if Tony was messing with him or not, which, to be fair, was probably the most Steve thing he’d done around Tony since the memory wipe.

“Sounds about right,” was all Steve replied, but Tony counted it as a win, since the outright animosity at Tony’s presence seemed to have dissipated on the ride down to the garage.  Tony drove, which meant Steve spent the ride to the soup kitchen clutching the dash and digging his foot into the floorboard in a vain attempt to assist Tony with braking.  How the man could throw himself out of buildings and land on the equivalent of a large dinner plate without blinking but get his knickers in a twist over a few minor traffic infractions was beyond Tony. 

By the time Tony shoved the apron over his head and handed it back to another volunteer, he had to admit, serving the unwashed masses with questionable food was, well, surprisingly not awful.  He wasn’t going to pretend it hadn’t started off a little awkward when they pulled up in the Bentley, but the Director turned out to be the most non-judgmental woman on the planet, who just welcomed Steve back and pointed them towards the crate of clean aprons and a food station without a word. 

Many of the patrons turned out to be veterans, which didn’t surprise him, not exactly. He knew Steve well enough to know what would draw him here, and he knew the statistics.  But, it was different when someone stood in front of him, wearing fatigues and a cap bearing the name and insignia of their unit, talking easily with Steve about Army food or sleeping on the ground, joking about the size of their Waldorf latrine papers in comparison to the smaller British versions used by their counterparts. 

This was a side of Steve he didn’t get to see too often, if at all.  The one who had used rocks for pillows, made foxhole radios out of razor blades and pencil leads, ate the chocolate wafer of D rations known as Hitler’s secret weapon, drank water that tasted of iodine and occasionally used a helmet as a cooking pot, though Steve assured one of the men asking for a second helping of whatever mash up of foodstuffs it was that they were serving that it had been Jones’, not his own, because Jones had the biggest head.  He vaguely remembered Steve once admitting that the only thing he missed about the war bonds show was the hotel food. 

He’d spent entirely too much time in his youth imagining the adventures Cap and his Commandos, but it wasn’t those stories he heard Steve share with the men here.  It was the little things, the horrible, almost tragic parts of war that they reduced to jokes and stories that got progressively more incredibly awful, the soldier equivalent of walking uphill to school both ways, he supposed.  Maybe they had to own those parts, take those memories and force them into something frivolous or let whatever darkness lurked there win.  Maybe that was the battle they couldn’t leave behind, and why Steve still sought them out. 

Tony had always thought there was so much of Steve he kept tucked away, hidden behind persona and uniform, but maybe it had been Tony who was hiding from it, he reflected as they thanked the Director and Tony shoved a check into her hand.  Had he wanted to see the part of Steve that talked in hushed tones to a grizzled, wiry-haired old man about the sounds of shells whistling through the air, or worse, the feeling of waiting for them, constantly being on alert, never able to relax? 

Had he wanted that part of Steve that hated to fly over open water and knew the smell of burnt flesh or had he only wanted the man on the posters?  Or had he thought that was the only part of Steve he could have?  The same part Steve shared with the rest of the world, but this…this part he let Tony only barely glimpse, and even then, it had always been so careful, cautious, as if letting Tony know too much would ruin whatever it was he thought Tony had built up in his head.  He wasn’t sure, if he was honest with himself, but he was here now.  He only hoped that counted for something. 

He pushed his sunglasses onto his face, picked his phone out of his pocket and checked the time.  He grimaced and let out a long, resigned sigh, then made a quick call, probably making Pepper’s damn day.  Steve finished his goodbyes and jogged over to where Tony leaned against the car.  He looked happier than Tony had seen him since the hospital, Tony noted, for all that the past few hours should probably have been depressing.  Oddly enough, Tony felt lighter himself.  Wow, it was almost like helping others made you feel better about yourself, he thought with chagrin.   These charity people should really get that out there more.

“Ready for some art?” Tony asked, clicking the button to unlock the car. 

“Isn’t it too late for the museum?” Steve replied with a slight frown, glancing up at the darkening sky. 

“Not for us,” Tony huffed, moving around the front of the car to the driver’s side and sliding into his seat.  “Hop in, Cap.”  Steve followed his instructions, dropping into the seat next to him, gripping the handle on the door like a lifeline.  “Okay, seriously, you jumped out of a plane without a parachute into the middle of an ocean.”

“I did?  That…sounds like a questionable life decision,” Steve replied as Tony grinned and gunned the engine.    “Were you with me?” he asked, looking over at Tony almost furtively, before pasting his eyes to the road again with a deepening frown as Tony angled the car in and out of traffic.

“Huh?  Me?  Oh, ah, no.  Not that time. Heard about it from Nat.  She was with you.  You know, for a super-spy, she is really, really chatty when she wants to be,” Tony mentioned as he maneuvered through the streets.  He remembered that conversation because it had largely consisted of Tony shouting ‘He did what???’ over and over again.  “I was on SHIELD’s Naughty List at the time.  Or HYDRA’s as the case may be.  They weren’t exactly sharing.”  Voluntarily, anyway.  Wasn’t like he hadn’t been keeping tabs on St--his teammates.  Again, all of his teammates.

Who happened to be on missions with Steve.  Whatever.   

He shook his head and pulled up to the curb in front of the museum where Happy waited to take the car back to the Tower.  “Here we go.  Time for art!” Tony said, too exuberantly, he knew, the words sounding odd and tinny to his own ears, but he couldn’t seem to help himself.  He saw Steve’s gaze snap to his face in question, then look away again as he loosened his death grip on the door handle and unclicked his seatbelt.  This was something Steve had asked of him, one of those things he missed, those very many things he’d missed, the ones that hurt, and he got a chance to make it right, so fuck it all if he wasn’t going to make the most of it. 

Tony tossed the keys to Happy and circled around the front of the car to where Steve stood, staring up at the massive stone entrance of the museum.  “I remember coming here to see the Matisse,” Steve remarked quietly.  “The Met was the first to put one on public display, you know?”  Tony could hear the wonder lurking there, the memory of it anyway.  He probably had a Matisse in storage somewhere.  He should give it to—giant bunny, giant bunny, giant bunny, Pepper’s voice sounded in his head. 

“Well, you’re going to love what they’ve done with the place,” Tony assured him as they walked up the steps to the front doors.  A small, wiry man in a tweed suit waited for them, a wide grin splitting his face as he greeted them, shaking both their hands with profuse enthusiasm.  They followed the man inside, the door echoing through the large, empty entrance hall as it closed. 

“This way, Mr. Stark,” the man, whom Tony assumed was the head of the Development Office.  “We cannot tell you how pleased we are that you’ve decided to—“

“Visit,” Tony interjected.  “Visit.  We’re visiting.  Just like anyone else,” Tony finished quickly.  Just like anyone else who was probably getting a wing named after him, but it was all going to be worth it because…because Steve liked art, and so would fall in love with him.  Again.  Yeah, he so far gone, it wasn’t even funny.  “So nice of you to arrange a private tour.”

“Of course, of course, Mr. Stark!  Anything for one of our most generous patrons,” the man continued enthusiastically, reaching out to grasp Tony’s hand from his side. 

“He has an amazing collection,” Steve said, dragging his gaze from the arching hall down to where Museum Guy was still pumping Tony’s hand in gratitude.  “Some of the new stuff is a bit over my head though.”

“Pepper did it,” Tony replied truthfully.  “My aesthetic is more dogs playing poker,” Tony said with a grin, causing Museum Guy to drop his hand as if burned. 

“I’ve seen your suits enough to know that’s not true,” Steve countered, still trying to take everything in as they walked further into the museum, past the ticket kiosks and information desk.  Tony looked at him out of the corner of his eye, wondering, not for the first time, what it was about Steve that let him look past the flash and bang and see the beauty underneath.   It took him a moment, but he realized he wasn’t thinking about the suits, not really, his stomach suddenly clenching as he squinted at Steve.  I’m not going to lose this, he vowed to himself.  Not now that I know I had it. 

“If you’d like, I’d be happy to show you to some of our most exquisite—“ Museum Guy started, then stopped at Tony’s insistent shake of his head.  “Ah.  Of course, Mr. Stark.  Call if you need anything.”

“Come on,” Tony said, tugging at Steve’s sleeve just below the shoulder.  “We can look at the Cezannes and you can tell me why these paintings of fruit bowls are vastly different from the one we have in the kitchen.”

“Wait—what?” Steve spluttered, coming to an instant halt.  “That—that’s real?  The one in the kitchen.  That’s a real Cezanne, and you have it in your kitchen.  Where we cook.  With food and grease and that toaster that does God only knows what—honestly, I think it has more buttons than the jet and who really needs a toaster to do more than toast? And it burns anything I put in there, though even Thor manages it just fine, and I do exactly what he does, so I don’t under---anyway, that’s—that’s a real Cezanne?”

Tony was probably grinning like a maniacal fool by Steve’s odd look, but he didn’t care.  This was Steve, his Steve, maybe more than he had been since Loki got his Wicked on.  It crossed his mind, fleeting and almost too quick to catch, that maybe Steve needed him to right himself as much as he needed Steve, one unable to quite balance with the other.  “You kind of want to go back to the Tower and take it down, don’t you?”

“No,” Steve said mulishly, jaw jutting out, hands on his hips, the familiar furrow forming on his forehead.  “Yes.”  Tony laughed out loud, slapping a hand against his knee, the sound echoing through the empty hall. 

“Come on, Cap.   Show me why I’m wrong, and it’s an amazing fruit bowl,” Tony challenged.  Two hours later, Tony was ready to admit defeat.  Not because he had been moved to care deeply about art, but because Steve did, and he cared about Steve, and actually, listening to Steve talk about something he was passionate about was, well, interesting in and of itself.  He’d mainly put the piece in the kitchen to get a rise out of Steve anyway.  Who knew art could be so fascinating?  Really, the Met should just have Steve narrate the tours.  It was almost as if seeing someone you loved enjoying themselves so much made you happy, too.

Go figure, he thought, recalling all the times Steve spent sitting in his workshop, listening to Tony blather on about whatever project he was working on.  He thought about the book on electrical engineering sitting on Steve’s bookshelf, and realized, as he walked past the giftshop with a number of art books on display in the window, that Steve had wanted to try to understand something of Tony’s world.  There was something truly heartbreaking about thinking about Steve sitting in his room, trying to share something of what Tony loved just because Tony loved it, with no expectation that it would ever mean anything to Tony.  Somehow, that made it mean all the more.  He stopped in front of the display long enough to snap a photo.  He could have JARVIS order the books for his tablet later. 

“Ready?” Tony asked, as Steve lingered in the hall.  “We can stay longer, if you want.”

“No.  No, I’m good,” Steve replied.  “That was…nice, Tony.  You didn’t have to do all this today, but thank you. I’m sorry I was rude. Earlier.  I just—I want everyone to treat me the same, you know?  I’m not going to fall apart.  I don’t need to be coddled.”

“No coddling,” Tony said, raising his hands up in a placating gesture.  “I enjoyed it, too.  No, really, I did,” he assured at Steve’s skeptical look. 

“You looked kind of dazed back there,” Steve observed. 

“I was,” Tony admitted.

“Too many fruit bowls?”  Steve teased, his voice sounding light and happy, the way Tony remembered.  This is how he is with me, Tony thought, the idea startling him.  This is what’s been missing since the damn hospital.

“Something like that,” Tony said quietly, shoving his hands in his pockets and looking down at the marble floor.  “So, how about dinner?  You must be hungry,” Tony offered exuberantly, letting the moment pass. 

“I—yeah,” Steve acknowledged, almost reluctantly.  “I could eat.” 

“Great!”  Tony said, too brightly.  He nodded to Museum Guy, who was hovering in a doorway, and led Steve out of the museum and down the stone steps, sending pigeons scattering from where they were pecking at crumbs left by countless tourists.  “I know a place I think you’ll like.  Not too far. We can walk it.”

When they made it to the restaurant, Steve stopped outside and cast a side-eyed look at Tony.  He could tell Steve was trying to decide if it was better to ask if the choice was deliberate or pretend he had no idea why this might at all be about him, and apparently settling on the latter being the better part of valor.  Tony grinned and pulled open the door to the fondue place, sweeping a hand forward to indicate Steve should go in.  The maître d’ showed them to a secluded table in the back of the restaurant, and Steve sank into the seat across from him, holding the menu up in front of him just a tad too high for it not to be intentional. 

“Now,” Tony began.  “If this is your first time with the fondue, I should warn you that it can take a few times before you really get the hang of—“

“I knew it,” Steve huffed out, dropping the menu and glaring at Tony. “You’re having a go at me,” Steve accused, though there wasn’t any real malice behind it, a lopsided smile tugging at the corner of his mouth already as he shook his head back and forth. 

“Me?  Never!” Tony shot back in exaggerated protestation. 

“Well, get in line, Stark.  You shoulda heard the Commandos when they found out about that one,” Steve admitted, a smile forming, though even in the low light, Tony could see Steve’s cheeks reddening at the memories.  “God, for months Dernier would randomly use French food words as suggestively as possible just trying to get a rise out of me.  To this day, I can barely say ‘croque monsieur’ and, no, I’m not telling you what he said that meant.”  Tony spat out a surprised laugh, then couldn’t quite stop himself once he got going, imagining the Commandos giving Steve hell over fancy French food words, and ended up hunched over and wiping tears from his eyes while trying to catch his breath.

“Tell me about them,” Tony asked when he managed to suck in enough air to calm down.  “Not just the French stuff.  I heard stories, of course, but…I suspect the history books lacked a bit of, dare I say, flavor?”  Steve smiled and ducked his head, but he did talk, one story after another at Tony’s encouragement, and like the art before, something warm and pleasant settled in Tony’s stomach just listening to Steve talk, getting to share something this personal with him.  He found himself occasionally adding his own story from MIT, and the feeling he got when Steve laughed, eyes bright and face completely open, enthralled by Tony’s tales of the various hacks and pranks they pulled, including mounting a police cruiser on the Great Dome and hacking the Harvard stadium scoreboard to change their ‘Veritas’ slogan to ‘Huge Ego,’ doing their part to uphold the MIT tradition.

They were the last ones to leave the near-silent restaurant, though Tony tipped well enough that no one seemed to mind.  It was late when they got back to the Tower, most of the lights already dark when they stepped out of the elevator into the common room.  He wasn’t ready for the day to end, truth be told, but had no idea beyond abject begging how to extend it any further than he already had. 

“So, ah, thanks again, Tony,” Steve said into the darkness after an awkward moment of them standing there, silence hanging in the space between them.  “I—I really had a good time.”  This is when we’re supposed to kiss, Tony thought, somewhat hysterically.  All the movies say so.  He was pretty sure that would go disastrously poorly for him, though, given how his past terrible decision-making on that score had gone.  “Well,” Steve continued.  “Guess I’ll call it a night then.”

“Uh, yeah.  Sure, Cap.  We’ll do it again sometime,” Tony replied, then scrunched his face into a mask of disgust.  When had he gotten so absolutely awful at this? Probably around the time he started caring what response he got, he assumed.  Steve started off down the hall in the direction of his room, then stopped abruptly, turning halfway around towards Tony again, sending Tony’s heart into his throat.  He wasn’t sure if it was fear or anticipation or hope or some horrible mix of all three that was making his breath catch and stomach twist into knots, but dear God, he couldn’t keep doing this.  How had Steve managed for all those months?

“Okay, I have to ask,” Steve said, nodding his head towards the far wall of the living room and gesturing with his hand.  “I know a lot of your collection is modern, and I meant what I said. It’s amazing.  Really.  But…what’s with the professionally hung empty fire extinguisher box next to the Pollock?”

Tony let his eyes fall shut for a fraction of a moment as disappointment washed over him, taking something away when it receded, leaving him hollow and empty, and fuck, he hated this.  “Inside joke,” he responded, trying for light and probably not making it.  At all, by the looks of Steve’s startled expression. 

“Like the punching bag,” Steve replied, though the sound of it was odd, like he was testing the words.

“Hmmm?  Oh, yeah, right.  Like the punching bag,” Tony repeated dully.  “Well, night then,” he said, then stood there stupidly for a moment, as if Steve was going to stop him, but he didn’t, and Tony was too tired to lie to himself that it didn’t hurt.  But, he was apparently a sadist, so heard his own voice cutting into the darkness, “So, ah, tomorrow.  I thought, maybe, if you wanted, we could check out that new Thai place down on the corner.  If you want to see more art I can’t understand, there’s always the MoMA.  Or we could try the Guggenheim.  The space is incredible.  You’d probably like—“

“Are--are we dating?” Steve broke in, sending Tony to a stuttering halt.  Steve turned to look at him from across the living room while Tony’s mouth opened and closed around words that refused to come out.  “You—you seem to know a lot about me.  The museum, the fondue, baseball.  You said we’re friends, and, okay, some of that, sure, but at the gala the other night…you knew.  That I was…that I wanted to leave.  Then you, with the,” he said, waving his hand in the air, which apparently was meant to indicate the fuck-up of a kiss.  “And  tonight…tonight, you knew things…things I wouldn’t just…you knew about me,” Steve ground out, frustration and confusion leaking into his tone. “About Bucky and…and you knew me.”

“You said you weren’t like that,” Tony reminded him, his mind grasping for any kind of purchase amidst the mounting panic. 

“Why do I get the feeling we both know that isn’t true?” Steve retorted, his eyes meeting Tony’s and there was a question there, uncertainty, sure, but there was something else, too.  Tony had seen it too many times not to recognize it, felt it too much lately not to know it.  Hope.  “The dreams, the inside jokes, the drawings—why is it always you, Tony?”

“Drawings?” Tony asked stupidly.

“I’ve got sketch after sketch of you.  Your eyes, your mouth, your hands—I must really like your hands, because I’ve drawn them from every possible angle,” Steve continued, embarrassed, but clearly determined to get answers Tony wasn’t sure he had.  “Last I remember, we could barely tolerate each other when we weren’t saving the world, and now…now we have inside jokes and you—you touch me.  All the time.  I don’t know if you even realize you do it.  But it’s—it’s familiar.  Comforting, and I—“ he stopped himself.  “Just tell me.”

“I—we,“ Tony started dumbly, his whole body vibrating, heart banging out a rhythm in his chest, filling his ears with pounding.  “We’re not dating,” he blurted out, then winced as Steve’s whole body seemed to deflate, losing whatever energy had been momentarily animating him.  “I mean, we’re not actually dating, but…but, I want to.  I would.  With the dating,” Tony stammered quickly. 

“We weren’t.  But, we,” Tony tried again, stomach curdling around the words.  This was where he could say it.  Admit that they had been fucking, and that was all.  Except that wasn’t all.  Had never been all there was to it.  Could he explain how blind he’d been, make Steve understand?  How did he even begin?  God, this was so fucking messed up.  Not to mention that Steve had called it off, whatever his reasons, moved on even, and he should probably tell Steve that before they took this any further.  And he would.

He was going to give himself a day.  He’d known that before the justifications for it even flowed through his head.  If this was all he got, then he was going to take it. 

“I think we could.  Date. I think…I think we would be really good together,” Tony finished, looking down at his feet, his hands shoved so far into his pockets he could practically feel his knees shaking. 

“Oh,” Steve said after a long moment, drawing Tony’s gaze to him, and God, did it hurt to look at him and think that he might have screwed this up so badly he wasn’t going to get this.  Steve cleared his throat, letting his head dip to his chest for a moment, then returned Tony’s stare.  “So, Thai tomorrow then, huh?”

“Yeah,” Tony squeaked out in surprise, feeling relief flow through him, leaving him almost giddy, as if he’d been holding his breath and finally got air.  “Thai tomorrow,” he repeated.  

Chapter Text

Thai tomorrow actually turned out to begin with a stack of burnt toast placed in front of Tony’s face where he hunched over the kitchen counter.  “I don’t understand.  I swear, I use the same settings as everyone else,” Steve ground out in frustration.

“There’s a touchpad temperature control that’s programmed to your fingerprint,” Tony informed him.  “Gimme,” he pleaded, stretching fingers out towards the coffee mug Steve was apparently holding for ransom in return for uncharred bread. 

“Okaaaaaay.  But, why is the toaster programmed to burn my toast?” Steve queried, probably reasonably, but really, coffee.  Seriously.  It was right there.

“Because you mocked my boring toaster and needed to be punished,” Tony said around a yawn.

“You have a very odd sense of justifiable retribution,” Steve observed mildly, sipping the coffee and making a satisfied face.

“I hate you,” Tony answered, burying his face against the cool of the countertop.

“No, you don’t,” Steve continued, utterly unperturbed.  He took another mug from behind where he leaned against the sink and set it by Tony’s nose.  Tony groaned and sat up, grabbing for the brew gratefully. 

“No, I don’t,” Tony murmured agreeably as he swallowed the first, bitter sip. 

“About fucking time,” Barton grumbled as he swept into the kitchen and grabbed for the bag of sliced bread, plopping a couple of pieces in the toaster, looking back and forth between Tony and Steve like watching a tennis match.  Tony realized he was grinning like a fool and didn’t care, because Steve was smiling back at him, open and guileless and it was like stepping out into the sun after you’ve been cold all day, every part of him warming in response, everything brighter and better somehow.  He could do this.   He could do this and not fuck it up.  So help him, God. 

Please, he silently prayed.  Seriously, he needed all the help he could get.

They had Thai for lunch, Tony ordering what he knew Steve liked.  Tony suggested the Guggenheim afterwards, but was overruled by Steve, who took him to a small gallery in Soho that was hosting an exhibition of Rube Goldberg cartoons and sketches, as well as a few model inventions based on Goldberg’s designs.  Tony was completely taken in by the depictions of the complicated contraptions, his mind whirring as he described the physics behind the elaborate mechanisms to a rapt Steve, who remembered the original cartoons that were published for years in the New York Evening Mail. 

“He had a degree in Engineering, you know?” Steve told him.  “Actually worked for the Water & Sewers Department out in California for a bit.”

“So, you’re saying he got tired of the same old shit and moved on to cartooning?” Tony joked.  Steve just shook his head and squelched his face together at the bad pun. 

“That’s terrible.  You should be ashamed.  I'm ashamed on your behalf," Steve intoned evenly. 

“Oh, come on.  I’ve got like a hundred of those,” Tony promised.  “Want to hear number two?”

“You’re incorrigible, you know that?” Steve muttered, though clearly biting his cheek to keep from encouraging Tony, and Tony’s mind flashed back to that time on the Quin-jet, just the two of them, when Steve had said the same thing, voice low and full of fondness because Tony had been needling him about the fondue thing.  For the first time, he remembered not just everything he’d missed, but the things he hadn’t.  He’d been happy.  So fucking happy.  Worried about Barnes and what it meant, sure, but he’d been practically shaking out of his skin with excitement at the thought of a few hours of Steve to himself because he’d missed that, even with all the sex, fabulous though that may have been.  He’d missed teasing and talking and this.  This thing when they were together that made everything lighter, easier, where he felt like he could do anything, where he almost believed this wasn’t all a façade, because Steve believed it was real. 

He swallowed thickly, then followed Steve out the exit.  “You should get to your meeting,” Steve reminded him.  “Ms. Potts texted my phone, and I’m not sure what would happen to me if you didn’t show, but I really don’t want to test those waters.”

“I’d say you’re wise beyond your years, but let’s be real,” Tony said agreeably. 

“Mocking the elderly, Stark?” Steve chided.  “You can take your new-fangled rock-n-roll music and get off my lawn,” Steve said mildly, setting Tony to grinning.

“Hey, so, tonight, movie night, okay?  Got something special in mind.  You’ll like it,” Tony assured him, trying to keep the excitement out of his voice.  He’d gotten a copy of game seven of the 1955 World Series, the first the Dodgers managed to win and the only one they won in Brooklyn, and had JARVIS digitize it and clean it up, adding color and reformatting so they could watch it on the big screen in Tony’s media room.  He’d even gotten some soda in glass bottles and special ordered some Cracker Jacks with the original toys in them, a decoder ring for Steve, of course, and a Captain America card for him, because, really, if you were this far around the bend, just embrace it.  They could grill hot dogs and make an evening out of it.  Take that, Major League Baseball and your annoyingly abbreviated game schedule, Tony thought gleefully. 

“Sounds good, Tony,” Steve replied, ducking his head a bit and looking at where Happy waited for Tony with the car.  “See you then.”  Should he kiss him?  It was probably too soon.  Better to wait.  But what if Steve was expecting him to kiss him?  He’d initiated it last time.  Steve hadn’t exactly reacted well, though, so there was that.  He didn’t want to push it, move too fast, try for more and end up with less than nothing, but if Steve did expect it and then he didn’t, well, maybe he should---

Steve’s lips brushed against his, light and soft, a warm sigh of air filling Tony’s mouth, his hand curving around Tony’s neck, thumb stroking lightly up and down in such a familiar motion that Tony’s heart faltered, his breath sticking fast in his throat.  Steve’s mouth pressing firmly against Tony’s just long enough for Tony’s mind to quit treating the idea as a decision tree and catch up, feel the promise of wet and heat and deeper, and then Steve was pulling back, stepping away and looking for all the world as abashed as Tony felt.   It was sweet, almost chaste, and over too quickly, but full of promise, and the best kiss Tony had ever had. 

Steve gave him a little half-smile, nodded, and turned to go, walking briskly down the sidewalk.  Tony watched him until he reached the corner, because he could, because it was okay now if he wanted to openly stare, and sure enough, Steve turned around long enough to catch Tony’s gaze and gave a quick wave before he rounded the corner. 

The meeting went well, or he assumed it did.  He didn’t pay an iota of attention to what was happening.  He signed stuff Pepper put in front of him without looking at it, to her ever increasing exasperation.  “Oh, just go,” she finally implored him.  He didn’t need to be told twice. 

After he got back to the Tower, he stopped first in the media room to make sure everything was set up, then headed down to the kitchen to grab a few more supplies.  As soon as he walked in, stopped, and let out a sharp bark of laughter.  The Cezanne was down, a truly obnoxious version of Dogs Playing Poker in its place, and there was a new toaster on the counter, a simple, two-slot model with a dial for the temperature settings.  Someone, and by someone, he meant Steve, had taken a red sharpie to the side of it, drawing a Iron Man helmet in circle with a line through it.  Had to give the guy credit for moving fast, Tony thought with what he knew was a fond, goofy sort of grin that only the insane and in love must wear. 

He grabbed a few plates, napkins and the six-pack of bottled soda from the fridge, then turned to head back.  Steve was standing on the other side of the kitchen island, watching him, a mix of emotions playing across his face, none of them good. 

“Thor came back,” Steve said, voice low and clipped. Tony almost dropped the bottles. 

“He…uh, he did, huh?  Did he,” Tony swallowed, clearing his throat a bit.  “Did he have any luck?”

“Yes,” Steve replied simply, not taking his eyes off where Tony stood, now feeling ridiculous holding what amounted to a partial picnic for the guy who probably hated him at the moment. 

“Oh,” Tony said stupidly.  What could he say?  He should have said something yesterday, when Steve asked about them dating, and he’d known that.  He’d fucking known that.  But he’d been selfish and, if he were honest, absolutely terrified he’d already lost something he didn’t know he had, and he’d wanted a day, just a fucking day to enjoy it.  Naturally, that backfired completely.  Why wouldn’t it? 

Steve dropped his gaze and braced his hands on the counter, the muscles of his shoulders bunching against his shirt, and Tony could practically feel the anger radiating off of him across the room, but when Steve looked up at him, it wasn’t anger there, it was far, far worse.  Hurt. Betrayal.  Disappointment.  Ah, Tony thought, at least it’s familiar enough then.

“What was this, Tony?” Steve demanded, jaw clenching so hard it was a wonder Tony didn’t hear his teeth grinding.  “Was this just some kind of game to you?”

“What?  What—no.  No, no game,” Tony stammered, momentarily taken aback by the bitter vehemence in Steve’s tone. 

“You should’ve told me!” Steve snarled back at him, then took a deep breath, pushing off from the counter and running a hand through his hair, the other going to his waist as he twisted, shifting back and forth on his feet, as if suddenly unsure what to do with his body. 

“Yeah, okay, fine, I should’ve told you.  There were a few things you left out, too, there, Cap,” Tony shot back.  Dammit.   He could practically feel the defensiveness snake up his spine.  He put the plates and bottles down on the counter, then turned back to Steve, who was watching him warily, eyes darting around the room then back to Tony, body poised like he was at the starting gate of a race.  Steve was going to walk away from this, Tony realized.  He already had, once.  And Tony was going to have to watch him and pretend to want him to be happy with someone else.  He looked over at where the Cezanne had been, then down to the new toaster, and back up at Steve.  I made him happy, he thought.  For a few days, I made him happy. 

There really never was a world where a few days was going to be enough.  He’d been an idiot to even think that had been on the table.  They were going to love each other or destroy each other and there really wasn’t much in between, because he couldn’t walk away from this and be Steve’s friend and wish for his happiness with someone else, and he didn’t think Steve could do that with him either.  Really, it was always going to be Steve.  Had Pepper known?  Had she seen it before he even had?  There had been distance after New York, he knew, though he’d thought it was because of his own issues, because of the suits and the whole superheroing thing, but maybe that had been what he wanted it to be about.  Something he could control, not something he had to fight for.

“Steve,” Tony said quietly, but it was enough to snap Steve’s gaze to his own.  

“You can’t just do this, Tony.  We were done.  Over,” Steve insisted, and okay, yeah, that hurt, Tony admitted, trying to find enough saliva to wet his suddenly dry throat. 

“Yeah, I noticed you’d moved on.  Pretty damn quickly, too,” Tony blurted, anger spiking through him, then bit the inside of his lip.  He hadn’t meant to say that.  Okay, yes, he had, that had been the thought rattling around in his head since the fucking poker game. 

“What?” Steve frowned, confusion flashing over his features.  “Oh.  Oh, that.”

“Yeah, ‘that,’” Tony bit out.

Steve was quiet for a moment, and Tony could practically see the wheels turning while Steve decided what he wanted to say, and God-dammit, he just wanted to shake him.  Shake him and ask him why, why was it so easy to move on?  What had Tony done that made Steve want to end it in the first place?  Had Steve met this person and felt a connection, something he wanted to pursue, but being the upstanding guy he was when he wasn’t fucking Tony into oblivion, decided to break it off first?  What was it about her—this random no one who wasn’t---she wasn’t—she’s not me, Tony thought dully.  Why her and not me, wasn’t that really the question?  Did he honestly want an answer or did he just need to hear one?

“I seem to recall telling Natasha that I wasn’t ready to date anyone just yet,” Steve said around a grimace.  “In other news, I should probably change my calendar password to something other than ‘password.’”

Tony stared at him, opened and closed his mouth, then shook his head.  “She played us.”

“Looks like,” Steve responded noncommittally.  He took a deep breath, as if bracing himself, then looked over at Tony again, or, rather, at the apparently fascinating refrigerator ice dispenser just behind Tony’s shoulder.  “I know there were…things…I should have told you.  I’m not proud of how I handled everything.  But, you didn’t have to,” he stopped, blinking and looking down and away again, and it nearly broke Tony to see that.  “You didn’t have to pretend, Tony.  You didn’t have to---I didn’t need to be coddled.  I was fine.  I was fine, and this…this thing with you…I can’t do this.  I told you that.  But then you---why couldn’t you just let it go?” Steve demanded, voice rising with each word until he was nearly shouting, but under it all, under the anger and the pain, Tony could hear the plea in his words. 

“I can’t.  I’m sorry,” Tony admitted, and he almost meant it.  Almost. Steve snorted in disgust and turned away.  “I wish I could.  No, I take that back, I don’t.  I wouldn’t change feeling this way for anything.  Even if it hurts.  It’s better than not feeling it.  Than not ever getting to feel what this is like.”

Steve could move fast when he wanted, Tony reminded himself a moment later when his back jarred against the edge of the counter, Steve pressing the length of his body against him, hands wrapped low on Tony’s hips, pulling him against the juncture of Steve’s thighs.  His mind stuttered to a standstill as pleasure and arousal shot through him, chasing away everything that wasn’t Steve’s hands, his mouth slanting over Tony’s, so close, Tony could taste the air of his words. 

“Is this what you want?” Steve panted, voice tight and thready.  Tony’s hands reached out, grabbing for anything, everything, bunching in Steve’s shirt and pulling him closer.  Their mouths clashed, teeth and tongue, hard and punishing. Tony groaned into Steve’s mouth, the kiss turning sloppy and wet, Steve’s tongue sweeping inside Tony’s mouth, swirling around his own, flicking along the soft edges of it, up and down the sides, and for a moment it was enough to wipe everything else away.  He could feel Steve hard against him, and he reached down a hand between them, catching Steve’s moan against his lips as he stroked Steve through his trousers.  It was good, so good, to have Steve’s hands on him again, wanting him, so close to what he wanted, but the whole thing was wrong, off somehow that his arousal-fueled brain couldn’t seem to catch.  Steve pulled him closer, drawing their hips together, trapping Tony’s hand between them for more friction.  One hand gripped Tony’s hip hard enough to bruise, the other settling in its familiar place, gentling against the back of Tony’s neck, rubbing at the skin just above Tony’s collar, ghosting over the fine hairs there. 

Steve tore his mouth away, Tony chasing it with his own, and moved back as suddenly as he’d begun, hands flailing in front of him, crossing, then uncrossing, as if he didn’t know what to do with them.  When he finally looked at Tony, it was a look Tony had seen before, on a video with Steve holding a bag with a take-out hamburger with no pickles Tony wouldn’t remember to eat because no one was there to poke at him until he did. 

“Steve,” Tony implored, not quite sure what he wanted to say, but he had to say something. 

“Was that it?  Was that why?” Steve asked, sounding strained. 

“Was what why?” Tony parroted numbly. 

“Why you—why you were---why you spent time with me?  I couldn’t even remember, Tony.  How could you…how could you do that?” Steve pressed, clearly aiming for demanding, but it came out pleading and broken, and fuck it all, he was messing this up again, Tony thought in disgust. 

“What?” Tony blinked up at him in confusion.  “What?  Wait, what?  You think…you think I spent time with you so we could…that wasn’t…okay, look, that had nothing to do with, I mean, not that I don’t want to, but that was not why I spent time with you.  I wanted to be with you.  I want to be with you.  I meant what I said, Steve.  I—I want this.  I do, I swear.  You have to believe that. I wouldn’t—not when you didn’t know.  I was going to tell you.  I just, I wanted a day.  It was stupid, I know, but I wanted a day.  To get it right.  Finally.  To show you I could, I guess, I don’t know.  Maybe you’d give me another chance then or something.  Fuck, I don’t know what I was thinking.  I wasn’t.  I just wanted—I wanted a day, okay?  Which, yeah, obviously did not work out, understatement of the century,” Tony grumbled, scratching at the back of his head, then letting his hand drop to rub against his neck in unconscious mimicry.   “Why would you even think that?” Tony snapped.

“Everything special about you came out of a bottle?” Steve quoted his words back to him.  “You never wanted me, Tony.  You wanted Captain America.  I thought I could—I thought that would be enough.  Just being with you would be enough.  But it wasn’t, and I told you that, and you still---you couldn’t just leave it alone,” Steve ground out, frustration and hurt leaking out of him like a sieve.

“Whoa, whoa, Ca—Steve, that’s not at all--I mean, maybe at first, but only because I was an idiot, and didn’t think,” Tony sputtered, hearing the panic in his own voice. 

“Forget it, Tony.   Just forget it.  I don’t know what I was thinking,” Steve mumbled, turning to go. 

“That’s not…that was never about you,” Tony called out.  “That was never about you, Steve.  That was me and my own bullshit and years of insecurities that, okay, well, I can’t say they had nothing to do with you, but it wasn’t your fault.  For years you—you were this impossible standard that I’d never be able to meet.  No matter what I did, I was never going to be good enough for—for Howard.  I wasn’t you.  And you were the son he wanted.  I was the one he got stuck with.  You can imagine how well that went over.  I thought—before I met you, I told myself--if it was the serum.  If it was the serum, then that was something that I couldn’t replicate.  No one could.  So, Howard was just wrong and unreasonable, and it wasn’t me, because if it was the serum, then it was out of my hands.  I needed it to be the serum, Steve.  It was a shitty thing to say, but it wasn’t about you.  Not really.”

“Tony,” Steve started, sounding pained, then seemed to redirect himself.  “Did you ever think that maybe your father was just an asshole?”

Tony breathed out a laugh, half relief and half something else, something warm filling him, pooling in his stomach.  “That thought has occurred to me from time to time.”

“Would you believe it just honestly never entered my mind that you would be interested in me like that?  That I’m really good with machines and numbers and an absolute fuck-up with people I care about?  And you’re the most dangerous sort, Rogers.  You’re the kind that can hurt.  The one I can’t come back from,” Tony admitted quietly.  “I know I messed up.  I was trying…Loki’s spell, it was like I got a second chance.  To get it right.  I was going to tell you, I was, I swear.  I just, in case you didn’t…I mean, you’d called it off, and you were dating already, or I thought you were, and I…I…well.  Truth is,” he said, clearing his throat and watching Steve’s gaze flick over him, before sliding away again.  “Truth is, I can’t seem to walk away from you.  Or let you walk away from me without a fight.  I’m not saying I was right, but dammit, Steve, you could’ve been a little more upfront about things.  A lot of things, Steve.  Things you really should have told me!”

“I know,” Steve acknowledged.  “I told you I wasn’t proud of that.  I thought…I thought if I told you, you wouldn’t.  You wouldn’t want to.  Because you wanted something casual.  And you wouldn’t.  With me.  If you knew,” he stammered. 

“That’s the single stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life, and that includes every word Justin Hammer has ever spoken,” Tony said, dumbfounded. 

“You really know how to put a guy at ease,” Steve groused, but it was half-hearted. 

“I’m just saying, you should have told me, Steve,” Tony pressed, half frustrated, half pleading.  “You should have told me you liked me, just asked me out like a normal person, not this secret code bullshit where I have to read between the lines and figure out that some invitation to dinner and a movie is a date!  Okay, not the best example!”  Tony admitted at Steve’s raised eyebrows. 

“Okay, yes, I lied a little bit after the memory thing and I was an absolute idiot for months, I know that.  I’ve literally watched the videotape, and it kills me, but you could have just said, or, you know, if that didn’t work, then just grabbed me and shaken me until I came to my senses or something, because how am I supposed to ever think that someone like you would ever like someone like me, when I don’t even…I mean, I’m just saying, you could have been more clear, is all!  No, wait, I’m not done,” Tony continued in a near shout when Steve opened his mouth to say something. 

“And I told you last night that I wanted this, you, the whole thing, and then you come down here and shove your tongue down my throat, which is fine, by the way, feel free, but then you act like that’s all I want, when it isn’t, because I made baseball for you and have Cracker Jacks, and there’s a ring inside—wait, not that kind of ring,” Tony corrected quickly as Steve’s eyes went wide.  “Wait, you know what, yes, yes it is that kind of ring.  It is that kind of ring, because I don’t want to date you.  We’ve been doing that, okay, really badly, but we have, and the reason I know that is because you draw me, and you dream about me and we have inside jokes, and I know when you’re upset, even though  you try to hide it, which you shouldn’t, and I know your Thai food order, and you know that I don’t like pickles and how to ask me questions to get me to focus when I get too much in my head, and you actually listen to what I say and spend your own time trying to learn more so you can talk to me , and I’m ridiculously in love with you, you and your stupid toaster and your fire extinguisher box, and the way you laugh at my bad jokes, and how you make me feel about who I am, and how you look at me like I can do anything, and how being with you makes everything fucking brighter and better somehow, and I can’t go back to not having that, not now, and it’s a damn decoder ring, anyway, because you said you got that on your good day, and don’t tell me that isn’t just fucking perfect for us.  So, there.”

“Just so I’m clear,” Steve said slowly when Tony finally took a breath.  “We’re fighting about how much we love each other, and you just asked me to marry you with a Cracker Jack toy?”

“I—I—yes?” Tony spluttered.  “I did.  I do.  I am.  Are you?  Wait, what?”

“I love you, too, Tony,” Steve said, voice warm and thrumming around Tony as he stepped around the counter and pulled him closer. 

“I know!  That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” Tony muttered into Steve’s shoulder.  “You love me.  You do.  I don’t know why, but you do, and no take-backs.”

“Not gonna take it back,” Steve assured him, trailing a hand up and down Tony’s spine.  “I want my decoder ring,” Steve said after a moment.

“All about the material things with you,” Tony teased, winding his arms tighter around Steve’s waist and indulging himself by burying his head into the crook of Steve’s neck. 

“I’d also like toast that doesn’t rival the shield for hardness,” Steve huffed against the side of Tony’s head.

“It’s cute that you think that’s going to happen just because I love you,” Tony said mildly, lifting his head enough to start trailing light kisses up the column of Steve’s throat. 

“Figured I’d go for broke,” Steve breathed out, aiming for teasing, but it came out high and needy.  Steve drew back enough to look down at Tony, one hand coming up to cup Tony’s jaw. There was wonder and hope and even a little something like fear there, and Tony was fairly sure the same was reflected on his own face, though whatever Steve saw there must have been enough to convince him, because his expression softened, the edges waxing away, leaving something in its wake that was too true and pure to be anything other than what it was.  “While I was getting everything I wanted.”

This is what it feels like to be loved, Tony thought.  He knew it, because it was familiar, it had been there for maybe longer than he’d realized.  Love wasn’t a surprise, it was a promise, a choice, made every moment of every day, again and again, and it was a pattern they’d both fallen into a long time ago.  It just took a little forgetting to realize it.

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