Fury found him in Williamsburg. The neighborhood had changed, grown up, all around him. Almost nothing was the same. Not the landscapes, the new buildings that had cropped up and the old ones that had been renovated time and time again, and not the people. He still started every time someone with pink or blue hair walked past him, chatting seemingly to the air around them, tiny metal devices coming out of one ear like they were part cyborg. Blue teeth, Stark had called them, and Steve had thought it was an odd name for something that allowed long range communication between people.
The bridge, however, still looked almost exactly as it did in his memories. So Steve sat on a bench, jacket pulled tight around him and leather sketchbook open on his lap, ignoring joggers in high-tech clothing (Under Armour was the official provider of Avengers workout clothing, although Steve wasn't sure what the flimsy fabric was actually capable of protecting them from) run as he attempted to draw it. He liked to do that these days. Just walk and walk until he found something familiar, then attempt to draw it. His current notebook was filled with the past, filtered through the lens of this future.
There was a buffer of green space between his bench and the street, so Steve wasn't aware at first when the black sedan pulled up alongside of him. He was aware, however, when a hand landed on his shoulder and he looked up to see a familiar face.
"Good to see you, Soldier." Nick Fury smiled down at him, looking as happy as a man like Nick Fury could look.
And wasn't this disconcerting, looking at a man who he had fought with during the war, a man that had seemed to age just as much as he had. Steve had been told about Fury, of course. Fury and Stark seemed to have a history of working together, and now Fury and his special division were something of a liaison between the Avengers and the government. Steve had been surprised the man was still alive and working. He had been even more surprised to see a recent photograph. Jan had joked that Fury was actually a vampire, then Hank had mumbled something about some age-retarding formula, and that had been all there was to say about that.
Steve managed to conjure up a smile. On one hand, it felt better than he could put into words to see a familiar face. On the other hand, he couldn't help but begrudge Fury the luxury of growing and changing with the world, while he had been dunked into this brave new world head first. "Fury. It's good to see you."
Steve's notebook was shuttered to the side as the two men shook hands. Fury then took a seat beside him, both of them briefly curling into themselves when a particularly chilly breeze blew in from the river.
"Stark's been keeping you busy," Fury said. "Well, he's been keeping us both busy. I've been meaning to come meet with you for some time now."
"Better late than never," Steve replied.
"I suppose so." And it seemed as though Fury hadn't really changed. Still as confident as ever, speaking as though he were used to people following his every command. "You've been a great boon to this project, you know. Stark's influential enough that he already had the ball rolling pretty far along, but you should have seen how much more accomodating the higher-ups were toward his project when the real Captain America showed up and attached himself to it."
"Stark's a good man," Steve said. "He truly believes in the Avengers, puts more effort into the group then anyone. And I'm just glad to be able to help my country in whatever way I can."
"Still a soldier, through and through." A little chuckle from Fury as Steve wondered if either of them knew how to be anything else. "And how do you like the modern world?"
Steve shrugged. "Sometimes I see something that makes me think everything we did was worth it. And sometimes I see things that make me think it wasn't."
He still remembered the time he had intercepted a van trying to to cross the border from Mexico to Arizona. He had expected guns when he opened the back of it; instead, he found people, scared and huddled together, willing to risk their lives and leave everything they knew behind in order to provide a better life for their families. And the United States, home of the free, a nation built on immigrants, had turned them away. Captain America had turned them away.
He had been calm during the rest of his stay in Arizona. He had shaken hands with legislators who smiled and talked about how good it was to see him taking up his mantle once again. He had listened politely to the speeches at a dinner honoring him. He had watched out the window as a private plane flew him back to New York. And then he had gone back to his room in Stark's mansion and had, very quietly, punched a hole through the wall.
"A lot of veterans feel that way," Fury assured, jolting Steve back from his recent memories. "Not just the ones that have been asleep for decades."
Steve only nodded. He wasn't a loquacious man by nature, and there wasn't much to say about that.
"And how's the headshrinker coming along?" Fury asked.
The question made Steve smile, if only just a little. Apparently bi-weekly counseling sessions were mandatory if the Avengers wanted to keep government sanctioning; mentally unhinged superheroes were, after all, a public relations nightmare waiting to happen. "The modern world places a great amount of stock in psychiatrists and their medication."
Fury outright laughed at that. "Yeah. Probably most of New York is on some cocktail of anti-depressants these days. Your shrink try to give you anything?"
Steve shook his head. "She probably knows I wouldn't be receptive to it. Mostly I just try to answer the good doctor's questions as best I can. Sometimes she just lets me sketch."
Modern psychology wasn't something Steve understood, but he found it harmless enough. He quite liked his therapist, a kind, older woman who was an easy conversationalist.
"American taxpayer money well spent," Fury said, a quirk to his lips. "I'll have to see Stark about putting the therapy sessions on his tab."
"Somehow I doubt he'll mind," Steve replied. Stark was already pouring millions of dollars into the Avengers; what was several thousand more?
"You'll hear this later," Fury went on, "but it was recommended that you all have group therapy sessions every now and then as well. Are you okay with that?"
Steve shrugged. He saw no reason why he wouldn't be. It might be awkward, at first, but he could always think of them as team-building exercises. "As long as that's what the government feels is best and it doesn't interfere with Avengers business."
"Good to hear," Fury said, injecting some more enthusiasm into his voice. "So what do you say we go catch up? I remember you saying once in the Pacific theater that you could really go for a good old American hotdog. That still sound good to you?"
Steve couldn't help but chuckle, but it wasn't an entirely happy sound. "You know what's sad? Even the hotdogs taste different."
"I know a place that makes them just like they used to. Come on, Soldier. Let's get you a proper meal."
The room had obviously been set up for a group therapy session. It was being held in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, not the recently dubbed Avengers Mansion, and it showed in the setting. Plastic folding chairs with the thinnest of cushions, set up in circular formation. Off-white walls stained in several places. A mostly empty water cooler in the corner. It was basically what Steve had expected: spartan and functional. What he hadn't been expecting, however, was Tony Stark sitting on one of the chairs.
"Good to see you made it, Cap," Stark said, smiling over the cup of coffee that sometimes seemed to be embedded in his hand.
"Mr. Stark?" Steve asked. He was under the impression that these sessions were for the core of the Avengers team. He knew for a fact that Rick Jones hadn't been invited, and Rick was an honorary Avenger if not an official one, so he didn't see why Stark would be invited either.
"Please, Steve, how many times have I said it? Call me Tony."
"Apparently," Hank said, hunched over himself near a corner, "Tony is Iron Man."
Steve's mind assessed the new piece of information as Tony laughed a little bit. It made some sense, actually, although he would never have guessed it. He turned to look at Tony, at the way the man seemed so nonplussed about revealing his identity when Iron Man seemed to have guarded it so carefully. "Is it okay to let us know that?"
"Oh, sure," Tony replied. "You all signed confidentiality agreements, and I know all your identities. Besides, knowing my luck, if I didn't come clean now some super villain would probably give it away at the most inopportune time. And how foolish would I seem then?"
Any answers Steve or Hank would have given was interrupted by the sound of crackling thunder and Thor striding through the door in his typical dramatic fashion. The large man, who was now making the room seem even smaller than it already was, took a look over the setting and frowned.
"There is to be no food or drink?" Thor asked. "In Asgard, mead is an indispensible part of bonding with our fellow warriors."
"It's not that kind of bonding, unfortunately," Tony said. "Although I'll be sure to supply some snacks next time, since S.H.I.E.L.D. couldn't be bothered."
Steve and Thor took seats as the door opened once again. In shuffled a surprising young, well-kept man. He looked the image of a mousy college professor, complete with the requisite leather patches on his tweed jacket elbows, except that he didn't look a day over thirty. The therapist smiled as he and his notepad took a seat in the circle.
"I'm sorry I'm late," he said, eyes flickering among them all, constantly moving as though they weren't sure where to look. "I'm Tim Stevens, and I'll be directing these sessions."
"Dr. Stevens," Tony began, only to be interrupted.
"No doctor," Tim said. "I'm still a Ph.D. candidate. You can call me Tim, if you'd like."
Tony raised an eyebrow at the admission. "With all due respect, you seem a bit young. Are you the proper choice for this kind of thing?"
From the way Tim hemmed and hawed his way through an answer, Steve wasn't sure that Tim himself felt that he was qualified to assess the mental health of the Avengers. After awhile Steve realized the man was basically reciting his resume, talking about his schooling and something about being a practicum trainee and dialectical behavior therapy consultant, whatever those things meant. Steve took pity on man when he started talking about what languages he spoke.
"Is Jan not coming?" Steve asked.
"Oh, no," Tim replied. "Since your schedules are all so erratic, we'll try to keep things flexible. Whoever can make it to each session can make it, those who can't can't. As long as you come to at least half of them, we'll be fine from our side of things."
There was an awkward silence then as everyone waited for Tim to go on and Tim basically just fidgeted in his seat.
"Well, I guess I'll start," Tony finally said, raising his hand. "My name's Tony Stark, and what don't I struggle with? Alcoholism, father issues, narcissism, an inferiority complex and delusions of grandeur. How many people could pull off all that at once?"
"Umm, Mr. Stark," Tim said.
"Tony. That's not really necessary, this isn't an AA meeting. Although of course you can talk about those things if you want to. Do you want to?"
Tony shrugged. "I can talk about a lot of things if I need to. What do you want me to talk about, my good not-doctor?"
"Maybe we can talk about the Avengers," Tim said. "About how you all feel about being part of the group. Hank, would you like to go first?"
Hank visibly started as attention was turned toward him. He obviously would rather be doing something else, maybe experimenting in his lab with some new superpower. He started his answer, though, and Steve listened politely as they went through the circle. Eventually, talk of the group fell to the wayside as Thor started regaling them with stories of his many adventures, and Steve tuned him out in favor of looking out the window and watching birds flutter by.
It only took a few sessions before patterns started to emerge. Whenever Thor or Hank attended, discussion tended to be derailed by soliloquies of grand journeys and science, respectively. Jan's presence always led to pleasant enough conversation. Tony was capable of talking about everything and nothing all at once, a skill that no doubt served him well in the business world. And Steve. . . Steve was Steve. Participating as much as he felt he was expected to.
To tell the truth, he didn't see much value to the sessions. He supposed he was getting to know the others, but he was getting to know them just by living with them. He was starting to wonder if he should ask Fury to put an end to these things when he found himself alone with Tony at a meeting. Just the two of them and Tim.
"I'm actually glad that it's just the two of you here today," Tim said, by now settled in well enough to act like a respectable therapist. Maybe he had just been intimidated by the presence of multiple superheroes. "You two have a lot in common."
Steve's gaze flickered over toward Tony. He wondered what a simple soldier from the Lower East Side could have in common with one of the world's richest, most intelligent men. Apparently Tony was wondering the same thing, because his piercing blue eyes were turned on Steve.
"You two both have war experience," Tim went on.
Steve couldn't help that his eyes lit up a little. War was an awful thing, incomprehensible to people who hadn't experienced it; other people who had gone through it tended to understand him better than civilians ever could. "Did you serve?"
Tony's face darkened in proportion to the way Steve's lit up. "No, no, not at all. I was giving supervising a field test in Afghanistan when I was captured by terrorists."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Steve said, meaning every word.
"Yes, well, I only spent a few weeks in their little bunkers. You lived out years in the war."
"I was just doing my part," Steve replied. Given the atrocities being committed, there was really no other choice. "You were put into a situation that, as a civilian, you never should have gone through. It's the job of people like me to protect people like you."
Tony shrugged. "I knew the risks going over there."
When silence settled over them, Tim cleared his throat and spoke again, a little softer, a little more hesitant. "You both lost people you think you could have saved."
A young man appeared in Steve's mind. I can't believe the clumsiest guy in camp is actually Captain America. Bright brown eyes. Parents? I guess you could call me a war orphan. A smile that never disappeared for too long, even in the darkest of situations. First thing I want to do when I get home? Visit the Grand Canyon. Dad always talked about it. Sometimes, sleeping in these dull grey barracks, I swear I dream about it. A lithe body jumping onto the wing of a moving plane, making its way toward the cockpit without any hesitation. Oh, God, Cap. I see a fuse.
"Of course. Everyone loses people in war, don't they?"
Steve's head snapped toward Tony's voice, pulled from the forties back into the present time. The other man had a strangely blank expression on his face, and Steve wondered if he was lost in his own memories.
"I'd much rather hear about Steve's missions with Fury. Those must have been fascinating stories."
It wasn't the smoothest deflection Tony had ever made in conversation, but it was enough. Neither Tim nor Steve were about to force him to talk about something he didn't want to talk about. The rest of the session was spent talking about Fury, about Steve's missions with him during World War II and the work Tony had done over the years with S.H.I.E.L.D. And afterward Tony invited him out to dinner.
"This isn't going to be a repeat of the last 'night on the town' you took me on, is it?" Steve asked. At Tony's half-embarrassed, half-horrified expression, Steve rushed to complain. "Not that I'm not grateful. I truly did enjoy that night; it's just that it was a bit extravagant for a Lower East Side boy like me."
That night Tony, in what must have been an effort to get Steve to join the Avengers, had done several rather ridiculous things that Steve, still in shock from being awakened, hadn't really appreciated until after the fact. He had staged a private concert with Radiohead, a band whose cultural importance Steve hadn't even been aware of. He had directed the attentions of beautiful woman after beautiful woman at him. He had flown him on a private jet of his own design to Washington D.C., where he had given Steve a private, after-hours tour of the Air & Space Museum.
That had been Steve's favorite moment of the night. Alone in that huge, empty museum, watching Tony's eyes light up as he had recounted advancements in flight and space over the last several decades. Some of the discussion had gone right over Steve's head, but he had enjoyed listening to it nonetheless.
"A bit too extravagant," Tony repeated. He thought a little bit, then he nodded. "Okay. No jet ride to Washington D.C., then. We can just do dinner. At one of New York's finest restaurants?"
"Do they have hamburgers?" Steve asked.
They ended up in a run-of-the-mill bar, one of a thousand in the Lower East Side, and Steve was still surprised that most of the tenements had been replaced by restaurants and boutiques. The bar itself wasn't like any place Steve had ever found himself. He hadn't had the opportunity. In his previous life Steve Rogers had been a scrawny art student with no social life, and then he had been Captain America. Sometimes during the war, on the rare night in the rare town when war wasn't an entirely pressing matter, the other Invaders would go find some way to forget about the fighting for just a moment. Jim and Namor always had other things to occupy themselves with. Bucky and Toro might look for a dance hall among the bombed out rubble of whatever town they were in, just two servicemen overseas enjoying a night off. But Steve. . . Steve would always rather be learning new codes or poring over intel reports and maps, just to be better prepared for any missions that might be given to them in the near future. He remembered joining Bucky and Toro one night. Captain America having fun, Bucky had said. It's a Christmas miracle. Steve had danced with a lovely brunette once around the floor before finding a seat and watching everyone else swirl about in their full skirts and dapper suits.
That experience had been nothing at all like this one. This was all loud music, thick crowds, and voices clamoring over one another to be heard. Steve and Tony managed to snag a small, high table in the corner, but the rest of the space was full of people standing in thick lines as they tried to get the attention of the bartenders. Steve was certain that he could feel an elbow digging into his side.
"It's a bit crowded," Steve said. As he looked at the short menu he felt a bit hesitant. There were five types of burgers, one made out of lamb and another using goat cheese, but the prices seemed reasonable enough. He had been certain that Tony would take him to a place with fifty dollar hamburgers and was glad that didn't seem to be the case.
"What?" Tony questioned. It was hard for either of them to hear over the increasing crowd of people who were coming in.
Steve leaned forward and spoke up. "It's a bit crowded."
"It's a popular bar," Tony yelled.
Apparently so. It was a young crowd. Hip. Much different than the working class immigrants Steve remembered from this area before.
There was a noise to Steve's right, and he paused from his scan of the crowd to look over. It was Tony, of course. The man had moved his stool so that they were sitting kitty corner instead of opposite to each other.
"Can you hear me better now?" Tony asked, and considering how tiny the table was and how close they were, the answer was obviously yes.
"I don't imagine you come to these kind of places often," Steve said.
"To be completely truthful," Tony replied, "I don't. I just picked this bar at random. Hopefully the burgers are to your liking."
Steve smiled a little bit. "I'm sure they'll be fine."
They were absolutely delicious. Steve had been skeptical about some of the fancy ingredients, but he had to acknowledge a good burger when he ate one. Tony ordered them a round of Yuenglings, saying something about how America's oldest living legend should be drinking America's oldest beer, even though Steve had never drank anything but cheap, watered down alcohol of unknown origins. As one round turned into two, then three, Tony pointed out things and people around the room as he continued his education of Captain America.
"Those," Tony said, pointing to a group of youths in clothes so tight Steve swore he could see the contents of their jean pockets, "are hipsters. Recognizable by their general air of smugness and 'ironic' enjoyment of things sane people would never admit to liking."
"They seem nice enough," Steve said back.
"Oh, but wait until you actually talk to them." Then, at another point, Tony pointed out a man wearing a t-shirt with the words 'Roxy Music' printed on them. "Impeccable musical tastes. Oh, the things you've missed in music alone, Steve, it's a tragedy of the highest degree."
"You'll have to introduce me to some records."
At Tony's answering smile, Steve hoped he hadn't opened the floodgates. When Steve had asked where he could buy an electric guitar, just wanting to maybe try it out, instead of giving him an address Tony had sent five obscenely expensive guitars to his room. Jarvis had helped him return all but one, which he was advised to keep as not to offend his host.
"I remember it exactly," Steve said at yet another point in their conversation. "The way this street used to look."
"You're a liar," Tony countered, but there was a warm smile on his lips. "You can't possibly remember one street from so long ago. I wouldn't be surprised if this street didn't even exist in those days."
"I've always had a good visual memory," Steve assured. "After the serum, it became photographic. I'll draw the street for you."
Tony had a pen; he always had a pen. It was paper that was a problem. Their napkins were soaked and the bar was a few yards and countless throbbing bodies away. It would take no small amount of time to make their way over there. So Tony rolled up a sleeve and offered a forearm, and Steve's solid hands worked over warm flesh as he detailed the scene on Tony's skin.
They were so close now that their shoulders pressed together and Tony's breath lifted a few smaller strands of Steve's hair with each exhale. Steve felt heat rise at the back of his neck with their proximity, but he ignored it to focus on making little pen strokes on Tony's skin. And there it was. A cityscape come to life, just as it appeared in Steve's mind, without the bars and restaurants and with the fruit stalls and now classic cars parked along the curb that Steve knew.
"You've really got a fair bit of talent," Tony said when Steve was done, fingers running over all those lines and little details. They parted, slowly, first Steve and then Tony.
"I try," Steve replied. He had to admit it looked good for something done on someone's forearm. The thin black lines were strangely beautiful etched on there, and Steve couldn't help but wonder how brush strokes of actual paint, with its slippery sensuality, would flow on Tony's skin.
It wasn't until Tony stumbled out of the bar, Steve's arm wrapping around his torso to stabilize him, that Steve realized that he had made a horrible mistake. Tony was a recovering alcoholic. Steve never should have agreed to go to a bar for dinner. He should never had let Tony order all those drinks. With a sinking feeling in his stomach that he recognized as guilt, Steve tugged Tony into a taxi and held him close as they made their way back to the mansion.
Jarvis, of course, was the one who opened the door. His eyes were disappointed as they swept over Tony's frame, which was barely capable of standing by itself and half-propped up by Steve's arm.
"Jarvis," Tony said, on the verge of passing out, head lolling forward.
"It was my fault," Steve told Jarvis. "I wanted to eat hamburgers at a bar. I completely forgot about Tony's addiction."
"Mr. Rogers," Jarvis said, his voice dry, "while it's admirable of you to take the blame, Mr. Stark is perfectly capable of making his own decisions. This is, I am sure, no one's fault but his own."
Steve frowned and nodded. "I'll help him to his room."
When they got there, Steve deposited Tony onto the bed as gently as he could and made short work of removing the inebriated man's shoes. When he made to leave, he found a grip pulling on his jacket and looked down to see dull blue eyes staring up at him.
"You don't understand," Tony said, his voice a low mumble, his words half-slurred.
Steve blinked. "What don't I understand, Tony?"
"You just don't understand. I was at a low point in my life, you see. My personal life was in shambles. My company was on the verge of a hostile takeover. I was drinking again. And then Thor, Bruce, Hank, and Jan showed up, and I thought, this is something good, something I can throw myself into, something I can make work. Except I couldn't. I got it as far as I could, but then it stalled, and then you came along. You came along and all of the sudden we had government backing and the Avengers were actually happening."
Steve thought that the words should have been happy. At least, they should have been pleasant. Wasn't that all a good thing? But Tony didn't sound happy. He sounded lost and a little scared.
"Don't you see?" Tony asked, his hand reaching out to wrap around Steve's wrist.
"I'm sorry, Tony," Steve replied. "I really don't."
"I was at a low point in my life and you came along." There was pained expression on Tony's face now, and for the life of him Steve couldn't figure out why. "It's like you appeared out of nowhere just to help me along."
Tony's thumb pressed, firm and insistent, against the inside of Steve's wrist. Right at his pulse point, Steve realized. Steve remembered their therapy session, the fact that Tony had been held captive and possibly tortured by terrorists for weeks. There was no way the experience hadn't left any scars; Tony had every right to be a little eccentric because of it. And Tim's comment about losing people they both felt they should have saved echoed inside of Steve. Survivor's guilt, his normal therapist had told him, and he wondered if Tony felt it too. Without even meaning to, the words started to spill from Steve's lips.
"His name was Bucky," Steve said. "The man I couldn't save." He had known that something was off. He had known something bad was going to happen. He should have grabbed Bucky, grabbed him and jumped off that plane together before it could explode. "He was my friend and the best soldier I knew."
Tony was quiet for long enough that Steve wondered if he had fallen asleep with his eyes open. But then that thumb dug just a tiny bit more into his wrist.
"Ho Yinsen," Tony replied. There was a vaguely distant look in his eyes, and Steve wondered if he was thinking of sand and confined spaces. "He saved my life in that bunker. He gave me the support I needed to get through it. I never would have survived Afghanistan without him, and then he sacrificed his life so that I could live."
Tony's grip loosened, and as Steve pulled away he realized that the other man had finally fallen asleep.
Once Steve got back to his own room he laid on his back in bed, pillow pushed aside and head resting on crossed arms. Sleep was somehow eluding him, so he just stared at the glossy fabric that formed the canopy of the large bed. His mind drifted once more back to his first night out with Tony. More specifically, to the jet ride they had shared to Washington.
The dames from the private concert had come with them. Two on Tony's side, one on Steve's. Steve's arm had been slung around her, more because she had wiggled herself there than because he had initiated any physical contact, and as embarrassed as he had been to be holding a woman he didn't know he hadn't been about to protest the attention. There was a bedroom on the jet. At one point Tony had disappeared inside it, two women in accompaniment, and the sounds coming from the room had almost made Steve blush. When he had proven himself not so stellar company with his gal, she had disappeared inside the room with them.
Which had left Steve alone in the cabin. He had felt stiff and awkward sitting there, as out of place as he could possibly be. He had stared at his hands. Stared out the window. Tried to focus on the whisper-quiet throb of the engine instead of the not-so-distant giggling and moaning. Eventually a steward had handed him some modern magazine for him to pretend to read, his large handlings fumbling with the thin, slippery pages. And then he had sat in place some more, until Tony had come out of the room and had taken a seat across from him, looking as smooth and polished as ever and not at all like he had just been enjoying the intimate company of three women.
"Look," Tony had said, gesturing out the window, "we're flying directly over the Potomac now."
Steve's eyes had flickered over to the window, and they had watched the landing in silence.
All the Avengers had been invited to the fundraiser being thrown for the Yinsen Educational Fund. All the men save Steve had been fitted in custom tuxedos, and Jan was twirling about in a dress of her own design, a fact she was quick to tell any reporter who wanted to hear it. Steve had been given modern dress blues, decorated with an array of medals the President had presented him with a few days before. Everyone assured him that he cut quite the dashing figure.
During the cocktail hour, the other Avengers were able to go off and keep to themselves. Steve wasn't afforded the same luxury. As soon as he stepped through the door there were politicians and businessmen flocking toward him, wanting to know what how he felt to be an American icon, to be a living legend. He was just a normal man doing the best he could, he told them, and tried to direct attention toward Tony's charity.
At one point Steve caught sight of Tim, looking extremely uncomfortable in pants two sizes too big and a jacket a size too small. He excused himself to head over, grateful for the respite.
"Tim," he said, stopping in front of the man, "I'm glad to see you here. This doesn't seem like the kind of event you'd go to."
Tim looked a little sheepish as he stuffed half a canapé into his mouth. "Officially I'm here to support Tony's endeavors, but I must admit the free food was the main drawing point."
Steve smiled and nodded. "This is what you were talking about, wasn't it? At the therapy session with just the two of us, with your mention of people we've lost to war."
Since that session, Steve had tried to do research on Tony's kidnapping, thanks to Hank's laptop and the wonderful database that was called a google, but was surprised that he couldn't find anything on it. The government records he could access were just slightly more informative. There was a report on how a marine named James Rhodes returned to base with a man in a metal suit, inquiries and issues of security before discovering the man was an employee of Stark Industries, and that was that. Whatever it was that Tony had gone through, it wasn't a matter of public knowledge. He only found information on Ho Yinsen in interviews Tony had given when he started the fund. A scientist who had been in Afghanistan promoting higher education scholarships for third world children when he had been kidnapped as well.
"Yes, well," Tim said, "Yinsen is a very important part of how Tony dealt with his experience and who he is today. It's actually a very interesting case. . . well, I'm not really at liberty to discuss it, but you'll probably find out eventually."
Steve nodded politely, but he felt like he already understood. Even though Tony had known Yinsen for so little, the two had been through unimaginable things together, and it was no wonder that Tony wanted to honor him. You didn't need a psychology degree to see that, although Steve could see how relationships forged during war might be of interest to a therapist like Tim. Bonds with the people you fought with, the people who you relied on to stay alive, were much deeper than civilians could really truly grasp.
"I'm glad that he's keeping his friend's memory alive," Steve said, before his thoughts and tone of voice turned a little dark. "It's good that people remember him. No one remembered Bucky."
Well, maybe they remembered Bucky, Captain America's sidekick, but no one remembered James Barnes. No name on a memorial. No posthumous medal. No record at all, really, except for the record of his birth in Shelbyville.
A hand squeezing his bicep turned Steve from such thoughts.
"You remember him," Tim said with a smile. "I'm sure he's happy with that."
At that point a reporter interrupted them, and Steve was forced to talk to her about the Avengers until dinner was announced. He was escorted to a round table near the front, one set aside for just the Avengers and no one else, and Steve breathed a sigh of relief as he joined his teammates.
"Mr. Popular, aren't you?" Jan said with a wink.
"You lend yourself quite well to Midgardian politics," Thor commented. "Perhaps one day you might hold high office here."
Steve only smiled a little bit as the lights dimmed and the emcee came out to welcome everyone. Steve only half paid attention, never one for these kind of events, no matter how many he had been put through since being awoken.
"And now, I present you the man who made this possible, Mr. Tony Stark."
To polite applause, Tony walked onto the stage. There was a glass of water in his hand, and he was as suave and smooth as ever as he leaned against the podium.
"I'll try to keep this short," he began, "since I'm sure everyone here is eager to get to the meals they paid five thousand dollars a plate for."
Steve could hear Tim spit out his drink and start coughing from the next table over. Everyone else laughed at the minor joke.
"You can all rest assured that your money is going to a much more worthwhile cause than just an impeccably catered meal," Tony went on, his whole demeanor shifting from casual to serious. "There are roughly twelve million school-age children living in Afghanistan. Of that, about five million don't attend school. A mind-boggling number, I'm sure you'll all agree. That's almost half of a country's future deprived of education."
Murmurs of sympathy and shock rumbled through the crowd at Tony's words.
"Some children can't attend school because their families can't afford the costs, as marginal as those costs would seem to us. Some children can't attend because insurgents attack the ones that try to, making the rest fear for their safety. And some can't attend simply because there are no schools nearby. The Yinsen Educational Fund, through work with organizations such as UNICEF and HASCO, is trying to change that. Our goal is to build more schools, to see those schools safe and well-supplied, and to see more children inside their walls. We like to think that we're helping a country's future reach the promise they so clearly show and deserve. From the bottom of my heart, thank you all for being a part of that."
There was applause as Tony left the stage and gentle music from the four-string quartet started up. Shallow bowls of soup were placed down before them, but Steve's eyes were on Tony. The man was sitting at another table. A table, Steve suspected, was full of the more potentially generous donors. As Tony smiled and made them laugh, Steve thought about how admirable it was that he was using his charisma and natural business sense for such a good cause. Steve didn't think he himself could ever organize something like this.
Tony looked up then, eyes catching on Steve. He winked and Steve smiled back before turning to his own table, realizing that he should make conversation with his friends as they all enjoyed their meals.
The dinner was very much like any other dinner Steve had been ordered or persuaded to go to. Eat food. Nod politely when others were talking. Interject his own comments from time to time, when the very modern subject matter wasn't too much out of his depth. It was all rather rote, really.
It was halfway through the champagne sorbet intermezzo when it happened. It started with explosions, of course. So many things these days started with explosions. There were sparks from the stage before it collapsed in on itself to almost beautiful effect, like an origami sculpture folding into flatness. After that was shattering as the glass of the floor-to-ceiling windows broke in violent symphony. As Steve put down his tiny silver spoon, he was surprised to identify the feeling inside him as he tugged away his jacket to reveal the bright blue scales underneath it. Relief.
"Do you always wear your Captain America uniform underneath your clothes?" Jan asked, giving him a look that was equal parts amused and befuddled.
"Of course," Steve replied. "You never know when you need to be ready. Don't you have your costume nearby?"
"No. But I suppose I should start."
The frenzy was starting in earnest now. Guests were screaming, running away from the loud noises in a rather directionless way. It made it all the more easy for them to be corralled, which is what was being done by a group of black-clad people with ski masks over their faces and guns in their hands.
"Don't move! This is a robbery!"
A little over the top for a robbery, but Steve supposed that in this day and age run-of-the-mill criminals had to do something to stack up to all the supervillains.
"Jan," Steve said, "start getting the guests out of here. Hank, help me gather up these criminals. You take the three by the stage and I'll take care of the ones by the windows."
As soon as he had issued the orders his team was moving. The number of people and general hecticness of the situation made it easy enough for them to move around; the criminals were obviously amateurs if they couldn't control the crowd for long enough to rob them. Steve looked over at Tony, who was attempting to usher his table guests toward a fire escape. Then he made his way around toward one of the men.
A few moves were all it took to bring the man down, but then Steve found himself at the wrong end of a machine gun. It was shaking almost as much as the hands holding it.
"Don't. . . stop or I'll sh-shoot," stammered the man in black, eyes wide and on Captain America.
"Easy, son," Steve said, holding one arm up, one arm still on his shield as he inched forward. "You don't want to do that."
Taking a human life wasn't such an easy thing. Steve remembered trained infantry soldiers during the war who, in the heat of battle, ended up being more afraid of killing than they were of being killed. He remembered guns recovered from dead bodies that hadn't fired a single shot. And it was easy enough to see that this man just didn't have it in him. Sure enough, Steve was soon close enough to wrestle the gun away and knock the guy out, but not before he fired a round into the ceiling.
"I said don't move!" screamed a voice from the middle of the room. "Or we'll blow up every motherfucking last one of you rich pigs!"
More explosions. It was obvious now how haphazardly the things were placed; this latest round brought down parts of the roof and elicited more screams. And bringing the space crumbling down around them certainly didn't help with keeping everyone still. Instead, people panicked even more, the criminals set off another round of explosions, and Steve watched as one would-be thief disappeared as the floor beneath his feet broke apart.
The good news was, most of the guests were gone and there were only two criminals left. The bad news was, even after the explosions were done the building didn't stop falling apart, its support structure more damaged than the bad guys probably anticipated. Steve could hear yelling from people on the floor underneath as tiles and concrete fell all around him. As the lights started to flicker off and on, Steve took out one mugger and swung him over his shoulder as he saw Hank to the same. He was several yards to the large double doors when he felt the floor give way underneath him, but he was quick enough to throw the man to the others before he fell through to the floor below.
The main lights went off. Little, dim dots started to glow in their place, all along the periphery, or what Steve could see of it. The emergency lights. The floor was a mess but at least that mess seemed to have settled. There was still dust in the air, tiles and metal and drywall littered in small mountains along the floor.
"Is anyone here?" Steve shouted out. It looked empty, but he wasn't going to preclude the possibility that people had been trapped by the falling debris. "Does anyone need help?"
"Cap, over here."
Ha hadn't expected Tony's pain-tinged voice, but he supposed it it wasn't outside the realm of impossibility. Tony was really just a normal man when he didn't have his suit on. A brilliant and physically fit one, yes, but one with none of the extraordinary capabilities the others had. Steve made his way toward the voice, careful to look out for any unconscious bodies around him. It wasn't exactly easy to navigate the rubble, though, and it took longer than he expected to make his way to Tony.
"What's the situation?" Steve asked, once he got there. The lights were mostly blocked in the crevice Tony had managed to find himself trapped in. Steve could barely see Tony's silhouette, as hidden as it was among the large pieces of metal and wood that used to be floor, wall, and support structures.
"I can't feel my legs," Tony replied. "It seems as though I've been pinned by this little mess of ours."
Steve reached out, fingers coming into contact with the soft fabric of Tony's suit leg. There was a knee underneath it, and then, as Steve's fingers made their way upward, hard thigh muscle. The fabric became wetter as he made his way up, slick with something he deduced was blood, and then he felt it. A plane of metal jutting out of Tony's thigh. His fingers felt around it, as gentle as he could, although he didn't miss Tony's sharp intake of breath at the exploration.
"Is it bad?" Tony asked.
"Your right leg's almost completely severed," Steve replied.
"You don't beat around the bush, do you?"
"I've seen worse. You'll be fine."
"Of course," Tony replied, voice more jovial than you would expect from someone in this situation. "They can rebuild me. They have the technology."
Steve was sure that they did; the modern world was a marvelous place. He didn't really understand, however, why Tony had laughed a little at the end of the statement, but Steve didn't understand a lot of things in this era. He continued his exploration of Tony's body, fingers moving along cloth-covered flesh. There were tender patches that might be bruises along Tony's abdomen and chest. A broken rib. A bloody gash on his arm. Nothing so pressing as the metal sticking out of his leg. Steve's fingers left Tony's body then, confident in their search.
"It's too bad," Tony murmured. "Under different circumstances, that little exploration might have been rather enjoyable."
For a second Steve froze. But then he realized that Tony had lost a lot of blood; he didn't know what he was saying. "Stay with me, Tony, you're fine."
Steve was about to get up and go get help when Tony's fingers closed around his wrist.
"Don't," came the voice, and Tony sounded on the edge of consciousness.
Steve frowned. His fingers wrapped around Tony's, about to pry them off, when he felt something nuzzle against his ear.
"Cap." Jan's voice, small but audible next to him, and he realized Jan had flown down to see what had happened. "The building's evacuated and the criminals are in custody. If you want to stay here I can go get help."
"Get a group of paramedics in here a.s.a.p.," Steve agreed. "Have them drop whatever it is they're doing."
"Sure thing, Cap."
Steve listened to the sound of tiny wings flutter away. Then he turned back toward Tony and settled beside him, making himself as comfortable as he could. Tony's fingers had moved away from his wrist, ghosting across his palm, before entangling with Steve's own fingers. The touch was warm and intimate in a way that made Steve somewhat uncomfortable, but he didn't pull his hand away. Maybe it was okay now for grown men to hold hands with their friends.
"Don't fall asleep, Tony," Steve said.
"I won't," Tony replied, rather unconvincingly.
Steve squeezed the palm in his just a little more tightly. As they sat in comfortable silence, he observed Tony's breathing, Tony's heart rate, making sure that they didn't seem to fall outside of normal parameters. He tried not to think about how warm Tony's hand felt in his. He tried not to think about how neatly their fingers fell together. And, when the paramedics finally reached them, he tried not to think of how sorry he felt to have to let go.
Manhattan had always been a lively place, but to Steve it seemed much more crowded than it used to be. Much more claustrophobic. Sometimes he couldn't jog five steps before having to sidestep yet another pedestrian too busy on their Starkphone to pay attention to where they were going. Sometimes he jogged down several blocks covered in shade despite the clear blue sky above him, thanks to the structures of glass and steel that reached upward on both sides of the street. Manhattan was now a frantic, delirious place, and near the center of it all was Avengers Mansion. Huge and imposing, taking up a whole city block, a landmark for tourists and natives alike.
Steve jogged back there now, having made a good run through a path of streets he hadn't run through before. As he said hello to Jarvis and stepped into the large, lavish foyer, it was like stepping into another world. Gone were the sounds of traffic and crowds chatting, the constant movement and frenetic energy of the city. Instead, there was quiet and peace. Just the stillness of the antique furniture and paintings that Tony's mother had decorated the house with. Steve assumed that everyone was caught up in their own activities: Hank in his lab, Jan squabbling with Hank in a bid to garner his attentions, and Thor at his downtown clinic acting as Dr. Don Blake.
A shower and a fresh pair of sweatpants later, Steve sat on the edge of his bed and wondered what he should be doing. Barring the appearance of some villain, his day was oddly open. The first whole day he had free since. . . well, since he before had first taken the super soldier serum. He was a bit at a loss as to what to do with himself and looked around the room for clues.
On his nightstand sat his newest sketchbook, which was filling up with pictures of the Avengers in action, caught from his memories and put down on paper on nights when unfocused thoughts would keep him awake. On his desk was an array of guidebooks and maps, a half-forgotten dream he wasn't sure he would ever get to.
What about you? When we've won this war and you go home, what do you want to do?
I don't know. Catch up on some sleep.
Sleep. He'd had enough sleep for several lifetimes, and he didn't feel any less tired.
He could draw, but even he got sick of drawing when it was all he knew to do to pass his time. He could train some more. He could see if Rick wanted to spar. Or maybe he could go visit Tony in the hospital. He could show Tony the newest sketches of Iron Man; Tony always seemed to enjoy them. Mind made up, Steve pulled off his sweats in favor of his uniform and an outer layering of clothing, more at ease when the familiar material of his costume wrapped around his skin. He grabbed his sketchbook and was on his way.
The trip to the facilities didn't take long, and soon Steve found himself listening to some nurse trying to convince him to convince Tony to stay with the hospital for some time longer. Apparently Tony was already making preparations to return to the mansion, recently attached leg or no, against the advice of all his medical practitioners here. Steve figured that Tony Stark was intelligent enough to make his own choices and had access to the best doctors and technology on the planet, so he half-tuned the nurse out as he was led to Tony's room.
When they opened the door, it took Steve a few moments to process what was happening inside. The first thing he was aware of was a man jumping away from the bed. It didn't take long for him to realize that the man had jumped away from a position on his knees. Between Tony's legs. And Tony was sitting on the edge of the bed, slowly pulling the thin hospital blanket over his lap, slowly enough that Steve couldn't help but glimpse-
Steve tore his head away and focused on the cheap blue tiles on the floor instead. He stood there as the man mumbled something, wiped his lips with the back of his hand, and rushed to exit the room. The nurse turned and left at almost the exact moment. And then it was just the two of them, door swinging shut with a tiny, strangely final noise.
Steve still wasn't looking at Tony, but he could imagine the fear in the other man's eyes. The fear he himself had felt, a scrawny boy growing up in the Lower East Side, fumbling into a stolen moment with someone he knew he shouldn't be with. Someone he knew he shouldn't be attracted to. It was something shameful. Something to be hidden and never spoken of. Because not doing so could get you arrested or even killed, and as stubborn as Steve could be he had been smart enough to realize that.
"You don't have to worry," Steve said. "I won't tell anyone."
When he looked up, he was surprised to see that Tony's expression was blank.
"Oh?" Tony asked. "And what won't you tell?"
"That you're a. . . homo. . ." The word hurt to say because of the way it had once been used against him, and it came out almost like a curse word. "Homosexual."
Tony stared at him for quite awhile before he eyes shifted into a dull, hard glare and the lines around his mouth tensed. "Of course. You're a man of the forties, it shouldn't surprise me that you would have a problem with it."
"You must think I'm the worst."
Steve wasn't entirely sure what had led Tony to that conclusion. In his head, 'the worst' conjured up fat cats in his old neighborhood with enough money to avoid being drafted into the war. The officers who were content to sit back in their tents, away from the front lines, as the men underneath them died just a mile away. "Everyone has their flaws. Their problems. But you're a good person, Tony. Maybe the best person I know right now."
At first Tony just looked confused, and Steve wondered if he had said something wrong. Then that hard glint returned. "So it's a flaw to you."
Steve's eyes narrowed. Of all the things for Tony to pick up on, it had to be that one? "That's not what I meant."
But the words were already out there, and Tony's expression was all defiance and pride. "So what did you mean?"
"Well, I apologize if I'm misunderstanding you, considering how communicative and articulate you're being." Tony seemed offended. Almost angry. "And what would you think if I told you that Captain America was the first person I ever jerked off to? That, even now, when I touch myself in the shower it's your face I'm thinking of?"
Steve felt a tidal wave of heat and shock crash through his body.
"What would you say if I told you that all I want right now is for you to fuck me right through my mattress?"
The words might have been intended to drive him away. No, they surely were, considering Tony's mood. And Steve knew that he should turn and leave, should just forget about this strange situation he had found himself in.
"I would say yes," Steve said, wondering how his words could sound so confident when he himself felt so small and unsure. But there it was. Voice given to desires he hadn't ever acknowledged, hadn't ever given thought to. He turned as quickly as he could, hand almost slipping off the door handle as he moved to open it.
"Wait. Steve, wait-"
There was the sound of movement and a crash. Steve spun around even more quickly than he had turned before and rushed to Tony's side, helping the other man up from the pile he had found himself in on the floor. He looked over Tony's injured leg as he lifted him back onto the bed. The metal braces seemed like they were in the same shape they were before, and there was no fresh blood leaking through the bandages.
"Are you okay?" he asked, resting Tony back against the pillows.
"Never better," Tony said, through teeth that were only half-clenched.
His hands were wrapped around Tony's sides. Tony's hands were resting on his forearm and his bicep. They were much too close, and Steve would have pulled away if Tony's grip were just a little bit looser. As it was he just stood there, feeling even more uncomfortable in his skin than he ever did as a scrawny, skinny youth.
"Tell me I didn't imagine what you just said."
Steve swallowed. His eyes stayed fixed on a loose thread in the neckline of Tony's shirt. "You. . . you didn't."
Hands moved up his arms and onto his shoulders. Pulled him down just a little. He couldn't see Tony's movements until the last few seconds before it happened, but he could sense them, and then Tony's lips were on his, moving firm and insistent even as he couldn't bring himself to reply in kind.
Tony moved away. He blinked up at Steve, considering, and all Steve could notice was that Tony's eyes were a rich hue somewhere between blue and cyan. Azure.
"It's okay," Tony finally said. "It's not illegal anymore, being with other men. It's more of less accepted in this country."
Steve wasn't sure if Tony was lying to him (and why would he be?), but this time when Tony pulled him down, he kissed back. He let his lips fall open and let himself experience the heat and wetness of Tony's mouth, of Tony's tongue. The gentle scratch of Tony's facial hair against his skin. It was an intimacy he had always longed for and had only once before given in to. But now, even with Tony's little murmurs of encouragement in between their kisses, Steve couldn't help but focus on the door and the fact that it could open at any moment. When Tony's hand slid underneath his shirt Steve drew back, almost thankful for the excuse to do so.
"Do you always wear your costume underneath your clothes?" Tony asked, fingers sliding off the chain mail.
Steve shrugged and wondered why that was so odd. He was sure that Tony kept his Iron Man suit nearby for emergencies. Maybe not now, with the braces embedded in his leg, but usually.
"You never struck me as the type," Tony said.
"What?" The type to be ready for danger whenever it came?
Tony's fingers traced over the waistband of Steve's pants. "The type to bow down to societal mores when you know they're wrong."
Every muscle in Steve's body went tense as he wondered who the hell Tony was to judge. He didn't know what it was like growing up in the time and place Steve did. He didn't know what it was like being a child and realizing that there was something sick and wrong about him, even though he wasn't yet sure what that something was. And as easy as it was to stand up for others, it was just as easy to push down the part of himself that the world at large seemed to detest so much. "Who the hell are you-"
But he was interrupted when Tony pulled him back down again and their mouths met in a tangle of lips and clash of teeth. It was an awful kiss but Steve grabbed Tony's shoulders and pressed into it. Poured all his anger and frustration into Tony's waiting mouth. Tony's tongue moved against his in a way that was almost coaxing, slowing him down and evening things out until they were kissing properly, Tony's hands on either side of his face and nothing but heat between them.
Steve pressed forward, nerves firing with the feel of Tony's mouth and the scent of Tony's aftershave. All Tony. Tony, who he had been attracted to since maybe that first night they met, when Iron Man had left him sitting in a dark, luxuriously-appointed room and Tony Stark had appeared minutes later. Tony, whose company he had grown to enjoy more and more over the scant time they had spent together.
Tony's hands moved under his clothes again. Under his uniform. Tony's fingertips were large and rough as they ran over his skin, and then Tony's mouth was breaking away and trailing kisses down his jaw.
"I'm going to give you a blow job now."
Steve felt heat creep up his neck, but he didn't try to stop Tony. Instead, he nestled his fingers against the short hairs at the back of Tony's head and stood up straight as Tony, still laying in the bed, shifted down his body. He watched as Tony pressed a cheek against his groin and nuzzled against him, trying not to think about what was going on. It was overwhelming enough—he could feel so clearly Tony's heat and the firm, shifting pressure pushing against his hardening cock—without thinking about it.
His fingers, slow and tentative, threaded through Tony's hair; Tony's fingers wrapped around his pants and pulled down. Only one layer between them now. If Steve thought the sensation had been too much before, it was doubly so now. Tony's cheek rubbed against his uniform a few times before turning, and then Tony was actually mouthing the now noticeable bulge, mouth open and wrapping around the outline of Steve's cock. It was all heat and moisture and Steve could feel Tony's tongue through the fabric. His breath hitched and his lips parted. Without even noticing, his fingers tightened just a little bit, pulling Tony's head closer to him.
Was it wrong, Steve wondered, to want to fuck that mouth as badly as he did? Apparently not, because Tony was a step ahead of him, peeling fabric away from his hips and lapping at the tip of his cock. Steve shuddered at the sensations. A wet, firm tongue. Darkened eyes under heavy eyelids looking up at him.
"Tony." It wasn't a moan, wasn't a gasp, but it certainly wasn't said in his normal tone of voice. Steve brushed his hand over the side of Tony's face (his skin was dry and rough with stubble) as the length of his cock appeared from behind receding fabric. He was hard, so hard, and dripping pre-cum all over Tony's perfect, pink lips.
Tony ran the his mid-finger knuckles over Steve's shaft, up and down, as he pressed open-mouth kisses all around the head. And Steve could come right now just from being teased this way, just from seeing the pleasure written all over Tony's face and knowing it was his cock that was putting it there. But then Tony made a fist around him, rough and tight, and moved it down toward the base of him as he tried to swallow Steve whole. Just as Steve was about to come, the soft heat of Tony's mouth just too much, Tony gagged and pulled away.
"Okay," Tony said, voice thick and heavy. "Let's try something else."
Tony moved so that he was laying on his back on the bed, his head hanging off the side. His fingers wrapped around Steve's hips and pulled him forward, until Steve's cock nudged against his chin before settling near his lips.
"Get to work, soldier," Tony teased, fingers gently digging into Steve's hips.
Steve let out an audible breath as Tony's mouth fell open, and it was easy enough to let his cock sink back into its inviting warmth. He slid in slowly, inch by inch, ever conscious of Tony's fingers and whether or not they they ever tried to push him back. They never did. He watched as his cock disappeared between Tony's lips, until it was as far in as it was going to go, his balls nudging against Tony's nose and Tony moaning all around him. Steve shut his eyes and stayed still for several moments. He didn't trust himself to move, not with the way Tony's throat was moving around his dick with every enticing noise that Tony made. When he opened his eyes again, he had the perfect view of Tony's cock: exposed, hard, and dripping a thin stream of white pre-cum over Tony's frantically stroking hand.
Steve shuddered and started to move, hips rolling back and forth. Fucking Tony's mouth just the way he had wanted to. He could come ten times over doing this, fucking Tony's throat raw, but he held himself back until Tony came first. And Tony did. Thick, white streams shooting out of his cock, landing in pools on his hospital gown, as his hand worked to squeeze out every last drop.
Tony's other arm wrapped around Steve's ass and pulled him forward, pulled him as deep down as possible, and as Steve let himself go Tony made the most delicious-sounding moan he had ever heard.
Afterward, Tony kept sucking on him until he was limp and too sensitive to take anymore, and Steve pulled away. He stood there, unsure of what to do with himself. Tucked himself back in as Tony tidied up using some tissues. Stood there some more. Eventually Tony turned to him and they just stared at each other for a few moments. At which point Tony, apparently having come to a decision, tugged him to sit down beside him on the bed.
"There's nothing wrong with what we just did," Tony said. "Society's accepted these kinds of things."
These kinds of things. The way Tony said it, it all seemed so simple. Steve looked down at his hands, then back up at Tony. "Men can go steady with other men now?"
The question seemed to throw Tony for a tiny moment. "Well, yes, but I prefer to casually date a person first. Get to know them before deciding whether an exclusive relationship is in order."
"There's nothing casual about what we just did." Steve narrowed his eyes a bit disapprovingly at Tony.
"I suppose that's true," Tony said, in a careful tone. "Alright. I suppose this can work. It's not as though I'll be able to do any better than Captain America."
Steve nodded. The discomfort was still there, as was a little of the fear, but if society was okay with this then maybe he could be too. He relaxed a little bit, noting that when he did so Tony did as well. Tony looked quite a bit happier, as well, after coming to terms with the fact that they were going steady now.
"Have you ever done that before?" Tony asked, attempting some semblance of pillow talk. "Oral sex?"
"Of course." There had been women. Betsy and Peggy. Women who he had loved, whom he could make love to, whom he could see himself marrying and being happy with even as he recognized his physical attraction to them was lacking. "During the war, you never really knew if you were going to live to see the next day. People took love where they could find it."
"What about with a man?"
Once. Only once, in a dirty alleyway behind an art annex when he was still a skinny little nobody, and the police sirens that had interrupted them (the car had been on the way to an accident scene, but they hadn't known that at the time), had scared Steve away from trying anything ever again. He didn't want to talk about that, though. He moved his hands to trace over Tony's bandages instead. "Will your leg be okay? It was in an awful state."
Tony was silent for a little bit, probably contemplating whether to go along with Steve's non sequitur before deciding to cut the guy some slack. "Limb replantation has been around since the sixties, but medical advances by Stark Industries have made the surgery almost routine. I should have it back as good as it ever was after a little physical therapy. And if not I can always put money into developing cybernetic limbs or a cloned body that I could transfer my mind into."
Steve wasn't sure whether to take the comments seriously. It was hard for him sometimes to know whether Tony was joking or not, but it's not as though he hadn't seen odder things dealing with the Red Skull and working with the Invaders. "You won't be able to be Iron Man for awhile."
"Not until the braces are off. But even if my leg isn't completely functional at that point, I can reconfigure the suit so I can still use it properly." Tony's eyes took on a bright gleam then, like a cartoon character with a light bulb over his head. "You know, things have been quiet lately. There's no reason why we can't take some time off to get to know each other, continue the activities of today."
Steve frowned even as Tony continued.
"I guess it would be too much to fly you to Castro," Tony said with a private chuckle, "although I'd love to do that eventually. I have a few islands in the Caribbean, we can go down there and spend lazy days fishing and. . . other things."
"If something comes up here, we'll have to handle it."
"If something comes up anywhere, I'll fly us there in a heartbeat."
As long as they could still help if the need arose, Steve didn't really mind going away. And he realized that there was a place that he wanted to go. "We could go to the Grand Canyon. Bucky had always wanted to go, and I thought it would be a nice tribute if I went in his stead. I've already been researching a trip."
The initial disappointment in Tony's face soon turned to understanding as Steve explained. "The Grand Canyon it is, then."
They spent the rest of the afternoon talking and looking over Steve's sketches, until Mrs. Arbogast came by with Tony's lunch and Steve decided to leave. Tony gave him a peck on the lips that Steve tried (and failed) to avoid. When he looked over at Mrs. Arbogast immediately afterward the woman only smiled at him, and he had to remind himself that this was all okay now. And with an odd, partially comforted but still mostly unsettled feeling at the pit of his stomach, he left to go home.
Steve woke up to find Tony staring at him. It was unsettling and strange, and he wondered if he should just roll over and face the wall before going back to sleep. But then he realized that this was the first night Tony had been home since coming back from the hospital, and maybe it was odd for Steve to be sleeping in his bed.
"Is something wrong?" Steve asked.
Tony blinked a few times, as though surprised by the question. "No. It's just, it's hard for me to believe you're still here."
"Do you want me to go back to my room?" Another foray into the internet had given Steve more information that he needed on Tony's love life. The rumors about Henry Hellrung and about a dozen other stars and starlets. The promiscuity and open "bisexuality." Steve wasn't sure if he approved, but he wouldn't be surprised if Tony was the sort to persuade his paramours to leave directly after sex.
"No. That's not what I meant. My apologies, I'll just. . . go to sleep now."
Steve rolled over and went back to sleep, but not before noticing the hand that pressed softly against his back.
The world hadn't changed as much as Tony had led him to believe when it came to homosexuality. While it was true that it was much more widely accepted than it had been, and a lot of progress had been made, Steve still found a good amount of hate for it on the internet. A plain and angry kind of hate that hadn't changed at all from the world Steve had known. It made him nervous, although those nerves were assuaged to some degree when the other Avengers hardly reacted to the news of their relationship. Jan even told them that they made a cute couple.
So Steve didn't feel entirely uncomfortable watching primetime dramas in the living room, with Tony sitting just a little too close. Tony was watching some medical show that was too much soap opera for Steve's tastes. Steve was checking over their itinerary one last time and casting glances at the Tony's right pant leg, under which Steve knew there was a strange mechanical device Tony had built that allowed him to walk without crutches. It wrapped around his leg like an intricate, metal cast.
"It's not an easy hike," Steve said. "There are drastic elevation changes. Are you sure you're up for it?"
Tony's eyes didn't even leave the television screen. "Are you insulting my technology?"
It was only two days. They'd fly to the motel tonight so that they could make an early start tomorrow. Then it was an overnight trek from rim to rim of the canyon, with a stop at a campsite in between, then a flight home just in time for Tony to meet with his private physical therapist. Steve was about to look over the checklist one more time when Jarvis came into the room.
"Master Stark, Mister Rhodes is here."
Tony's eyes lit up. "That would be our ride."
They got up and made their way up to the roof, where there was a man in a blue jumpsuit waiting next to some kind of small jet plane. There was a familiarity to the man's posture, his bearing, that Steve recognized at once. The man was military, through and through.
"Steve," Tony said. "This is my best friend Jim."
"Lieutenant James Rhodes, U.S. Marines. It's an honor, Captain." Jim's smile turned into a kind of smirk as he held his hand out. "Well, as much as an honor as it can be to meet an army guy. "
Steve chuckled as he took the offered hand. Jim had a nice, firm handshake. "You're a marine, son? Well, I won't hold it against you."
Jim gave him an odd little look before letting out a little laugh of his own. "This is a trip, man. But, hey, before we go do you two want to grab something to eat? I'm starving, and there's some business I need to talk to Tony about anyway."
"Jim's also an employee," Tony explained. "He's my personal pilot and chief aviation engineer."
"But I spend most of my time just keeping him company." Jim smiled at Tony before turning back toward Steve. "So how does that sound? Feel like eating?"
"You two go ahead," Steve said, holding up his hands. "I probably wouldn't understand half the things you two will take about."
"Are you sure?" Tony asked.
Steve nodded. "I'll see you both soon enough."
"We won't be long," Tony said with a smile. "In a little bit, then."
Jim gave Steve a little salute. "Nice to meet you, Captain."
"You too, Jim."
They all walked back into the house together before Jim and Tony left through the foyer. And even though he had turned down their invitation, Steve found himself at something of a loss. Strange how he was just now noticing that Tony had friends. It was a natural thing, after all, even if Steve himself only had the Avengers.
Steve stood there for several moments, alone in a large hallway, wondering what to do with himself now. He remembered dinner with the other Invaders. Sometimes there wouldn't be time for it and sometimes it would just be half-empty rations, but it was a little amazing how often they managed to eat together. Even if they were in some godforsaken foxhole near enemy territory, they might take the time to cook some beans to share among them. Steve would smile and watch as Bucky and Toro joked around and hogged more than their fair share of food (the adults tended to let them; they were growing boys, after all). Jim would tell them off if they ever got too rowdy, but he always laughed at their antics. And even Namor would sometimes cracked a smile.
Maybe some of the other Avengers were in the mood for dinner. A walk around the mansion, however, showed that Thor and Rick were gone, Hank was busy in his lab, and Jan was getting ready for some society event. Which left him alone. Eventually he made his way down to the kitchen and just sat on a stool, watching the dots on the digital clock fade in and out.
Steve turned to see Jarvis standing there and smiled at the elderly servant. "Good evening, Jarvis."
"Are you hungry, sir?" Jarvis asked, voice open and warm. "I could fix you a meal."
"I don't want to be a bother."
"No bother," Jarvis said. "It's my job, after all."
Steve thought about it for a moment. "Actually, that sounds good. As long as you let me help make it, and you help me eat it."
A smile stretched over Jarvis' lips. "Very good, sir."
As Steve got off the stool and followed Jarvis around the counter, he tried to strike up a conversation. "You weren't in the war, were you, Jarvis?"
"Actually," Jarvis said, "I was. And I have a very interesting story about the time I thought I saw a certain Captain America in a London bar. . ."
Talking with Jarvis was very much a pleasant experience. They reminisced about old London landmarks and wartime experiences, and it was enough that Steve lost track of time. It wasn't long before Rhodey and Tony appeared back in the kitchen doorway.
"We'll carry the backpacks up to the jet," Tony said. "Take your time coming up."
Steve nodded. "I'll be up in a few minutes."
It took him exactly six minutes to finish up his conversation with Jarvis, and then he grabbed his jacket and walked back up to the roof. He had made his way to the open door of the jet when he heard Tony and Rhodey's voices from inside it, and something in their tone made him stop and listen.
"Are you seriously doing this?" Jim asked, his voice concerned.
"You used to read his comics. You dressed up as him at the company Halloween party. The last thing you need to be doing is dating someone that you idolize, it's not healthy. You look up to childhood heros. You don't sleep with them."
"I don't see why I can't do both."
"Look, I've mostly kept quiet in the past when you've dated people who. . . weren't right for you. But I'm just going to come out and say it: you shouldn't be dating someone you put on a pedestal. He's not good for you."
"How can he not be good for me? He's Captain America for God's sake. If anything, I'm the one who's not good for him."
"This is exactly the kind of attitude I was talking about. This isn't a healthy dynamic to build a relationship around."
"I appreciate the concern, but really, I can make my own decisions."
Silence, for a long while, and Steve could imagine Tony and Jim staring each other down. Eventually he heard a small sigh and Jim's voice.
"Right. Your life."
"Thank you, Rhodey. And thanks for looking out for me."
Steve stood there for a few moments before realizing he couldn't stay in the shadows all night. And he couldn't, in good conscience, pretend that he hadn't just eavesdropped on the others. So he cleared his throat and stepped through the open doorway.
"Jim." Steve nodded in greeting. "Tony."
There was an extremely awkward silence among them before Jim got up and went to pull the door closed. "Right. Glad to have you on board, Cap. Why don't you take a seat and I'll have this bird off the ground in a jiffy?"
They were in Illinois before any one of them said a word.
"I hate to interrupt such lively conversation," Tony said, "but I believe I need to go use the little boy's room."
Tony got up and made his way to the back, at which point Jim only wasted a few seconds before he got to the heart of the matter.
"About what you overheard," Jim said, "it wasn't anything personal. I like you, man, I grew up liking you. But Tony. . . Tony hasn't always made the best decisions when it comes to relationships."
"It's fine, Jim," Steve said, and he meant it. "It's good that Tony has people who care enough to look out for him. We could all use those in our lives." Steve couldn't help but wish that he still had them in his.
Jim smiled and nodded. "I'm glad you understand. And call me Rhodey. Everyone else does."
Maybe it was their shared military background, but Steve decided that he liked Rhodey. The man was direct and honest, and Steve could see why he was Tony's best friend. "I suppose that Tony's talked to you about. . . us."
"Sure," Rhodey replied. "Couldn't get him to stop talking about you during dinner. Kept asking me things about you, like what you looked like when I met you, what you were wearing, what you said to me."
Steve's eyebrows creased in confusion. Tony had been right there when Steve had met Rhodey. And even if he hadn't been, Steve wasn't sure why he would be interested in all those things. "Those questions are a bit odd, don't you think?"
A vaguely surprised expression crossed Rhodey's face as he turned to look at Steve. "He's still playing that charade with you? He hasn't talked to you about Yinsen?"
Now Steve was even more confused. He hadn't even thought about Ho Yinsen since the foundation dinner, and had a hard time imagining how the man fit into the current conversation. "I have no idea what you're talking about, Rhodey."
"Man." Rhodey shook his head. "I don't know what the boss is thinking. Look, it's not my story to tell, so you'll have to ask him about it."
Steve could respect that, even if he didn't like it. And Tony was coming back from the bathroom now anyway, so it seemed like a bad time to keep pressing the subject. At least things were more relaxed between the three of them now. He sat and listened as Tony tried to entertain him with little misadventures he had gotten into with Rhodey, and tried not to compare with his own memories of Bucky and the Invaders.
"Hey, Boss," Rhodey said, interrupting a rather terrifying tale that involved Mrs. Arbogast and a tank of fish, "we're right near the canyon. Want me to fly through it?"
Steve frowned. "I don't think you're allowed to do that."
"I had to make an extremely substantial donation in order to get last-minute camping permits," Tony said. "A little harmless fun on our end won't hurt them. But I suppose there's no point, considering we wouldn't be able to see anything, would we?"
"Good point," Rhodey replied. "Guess there's no lighting built into those cliffs, huh? Buckle up, then, and I'll drop you off at your motel. And, remember, you run into some trouble down there and need me to pick you up? Give me a call and I'll come flying to the rescue. As soon as I sober up, of course."
Tony laughed a little bit. "Going to have some fun in Vegas?"
"What else? There's a showgirl by the name of Krystal who's waiting for my call right now."
"Let me guess," Tony said, teasing. "Krystal with a K?"
Rhodey's lips spread into a slow, easy smile. "Always with a K."
Steve ignored the little exchange; at this point, he was used to ignoring things that he didn't understand and that didn't seem to be that important. Soon enough they were landing, thanking Rhodey, and saying goodbye. In front of them was a motel that looked like it had been built during Steve's time. A little white house, elongated and bent at ninety degrees to wrap around the large parking lot, uniform little doors popping up at equal distances. It was old but well taken care of, with potted plants along the windows and what seemed to be a recent coat of paint.
"This wasn't what I expected from you," Steve admitted.
"I thought you'd be uncomfortable in anything too luxurious, and this seemed like a little piece of retro americana." And then, in a somewhat darker tone, "And I've stayed at worse."
The front office had a large glass window, through which they could see a rotund woman in a floral nightgown watching a program on a small television, and that's where they headed.
"Reservation under Collins," Tony told the woman, and Steve assumed it was because Stark was too well-known of a surname. "A room for two."
The woman glanced up at them for one second before turning back to her show and absent-mindedly pulling out a key. "Room 12. One of the beds might have a stain, but the couch folds-"
"A room with one bed is fine," Tony interrupted.
The woman looked up again, but for much longer this time. Her large, wide eyes landed on Tony, then shifted to Steve. It was a heavy kind of stare that had Steve's stomach unraveling. Before he could say that they should just go and find some other place, the woman fumbled for another key.
"Room 5," she said, her tone even more curt than before. "Sign here."
"Can we get a taxi to pick us up tomorrow and take us to the canyon?" Tony asked.
"We have a free shuttle that leaves every hour."
Tony frowned as he signed the paper. "Grand."
Even after they were in their room and Steve had locked the deadbolt, he couldn't help but still feel unsettled. Even if he knew that the world was more accepting of it, it was hard to push down the instinctual need he seemed to have to hide it away.
"Tony," he said, "that woman didn't approve of us."
"Does it matter?" Tony asked. He was already removing his clothes. "She's a nobody in the middle of nowhere. She's used to dealing with tourists, so I'm certain we're not the first gay couple she's taken money from."
Steve tried to force himself to relax. Tony was familiar with the modern world, and Tony didn't seem at all concerned about it. Steve supposed he shouldn't either. Still, it was easier said than done when he had spent his whole life in fear of discovery. By the time he had removed enough clothes to be comfortable getting into bed, Tony had removed the mechanical support from his leg and was re-wrapping his bandages.
"Did you know this bed vibrates?" Tony asked. "A little campy for my tastes, but it could be fun nonetheless."
"What would be the point of a vibrating bed?"
Tony sighed in a way that conveyed disappointment. "Really, Steve? Can't figure it out?"
Steve could guess that it was something sexual. Tony seemed to be a very sexual person; even now, he was dressed in one of his silly little thongs while Steve was wearing briefs and an undershirt. After Tony was finished with his leg, he lounged back in a pose that was surely intended to show off his muscles.
Tony's mouth spread into a slow smirk. "My kingdom for your lips around my cock."
"We should go to sleep," Steve said. "We have an early day ahead of us tomorrow."
Steve reached upward to flick off the light beside his bed, although the one of Tony's side remained lit. The effect served to cast long shadows over the room and accentuate the disappointment written clearly on Tony's face.
"When I suggested a little getaway," Tony said, "I had imagined that we might be able to take advantage of the honeymoon phase of our relationship."
The bed was uncomfortable. The setting was uncomfortable. No matter how much he had been trying to convince himself that times had changed, part of Steve couldn't help but think that two men just didn't get a single-bed motel room together. "Sorry, Tony, but I'd rather just get some sleep."
It took a few moments before Steve felt the bed shifting beside him. There was a soft click and then the room was cast into darkness, shifting silhouettes only visible because of the moonlight that managed to leak in past the curtains.
The free shuttle turned out to be a fairly old, burgundy red van. In the dark of the early morning there were four other people who would be sharing the ride with them, a family whose father was trying to tug two sleepy children along after him. Steve wondered if they would be able to appreciate the sunrise the way their parents wanted them to. Still, as they were shuffled in and seatbelted and bribed with favorite toys, he couldn't help but smile at the quaint domesticity. He and Tony climbed into the very back of the van, where Tony sipped on a paper cup of complimentary coffee and made small talk with the woman of the household.
"Oh, it's quite possible," Tony said, after she asked whether two days was too short a period to complete their trek. "In fact, there are people who go from rim to rim and back again in under twenty-four hours. I believe it's called the Death March."
The woman laughed, a full, boisterous noise. "I can guess why."
The ride was pleasant if quiet. By the time the van dropped them off at the visitor's center it was already just a bit lighter, the pre-dawn sky an almost purple color, and they found a good position facing northwest to view the canyon. It really was beautiful. The scope was still hard to imagine even though they were right in front of it. . . grand really was an apt word to describe it. It was as though those ancient rocks could swallow them all up if they wanted to.
And the colors. The rock faces were layers or reds and browns, and as the sun rose they seemed to catch on fire. Steve watched them take on every shade of yellow and crimson and purple. Light and shadow were splashed onto ridges and crevices like they were watercolor paints, shifting and flowing over time.
"It's like a moving painting," Tony said, and Steve had to smile because that's exactly what it was. Maybe he could paint it once they were back in New York.
Sunrise over the canyon was a slow, languid affair, and the cliffs were still changing colors when they went to look for the shuttle to the trailhead. It wasn't hard to find; they just had to look for a group of people waiting around and dressed like them. Layers of clothing for varying temperatures, floppy hats to provide shade from the sun, and large backpacks with trekking poles strapped to them. Not long after they found the shuttle they were at the start of the trail, ready to start their trip.
They didn't talk much on their walk, mostly because they were busy breathing in the full, clean air and constantly scanning over the scenery around them. Sometimes one of them would point out something interesting for the other, and sometimes they would feel the need to vocally commiserate over just how beautiful everything was, but for the most part they were content to trek in comfortable silence. As they cut down through the upper rock layers and into the heart of the canyon, Steve couldn't help but feel as though he were descending through time, to a world created millions upon millions of years ago.
There were views of all types of limestone and sandstone formations. What looked like fossils embedded into the rock face. Switchbacks that cut deep into the stone. From inside the canyon the sky above seemed to look even more blue, unnaturally so, and Steve swore he saw streaks of color in those rocks that he had never seen before. Even the beiges and the greys looked vibrant.
It was past midday when they reached the Colorado River. When they had started their hike it was rather cool, but the sun and physical activity had conspired to warm them. Their outer layers had been shed along the hike, and the cool spray from the river was a welcome change. They shared the bridge with ambling mules crossing from the other side. Groups crossing from north to south. Not long after the river crossing they found themselves in the shade of green cottonwood trees that lined first the thin creeks that ran over the canyon floor and then quaint brick buildings, as they approached Phantom Ranch.
"A little more than halfway to our destination," Tony said, sitting down at a wooden table that was shaded by some rather lovely, low-hanging branches. "And the rest of today's hike is relatively level."
Steve joined him and took a large swig of water. "How's your leg holding up?"
"Marvelously. I would expect no less from something of my own design."
Steve couldn't help but chuckle a little bit. If not for the truth behind the statement it might have come across as arrogance, but Steve found it rather endearing. It was a very Tony thing to say, at any rate. Steve smiled and leaned forward in order to say something else when blue and white checkered fabric flew into the air in front of them. It landed over the table, and Steve turned to blink at a young woman with a warm smile and mousy brown hair.
"Mr. Stark and guest," she said, her words a little bit of a rush. "We've been expecting you. What would you like to drink while we get your steaks ready?"
"Some sparkling water would be good for me," Tony said.
"Tap is fine."
The woman nodded and ran off. She might have squealed something about serving Tony Stark as she did so.
"Tech groupie," Tony said with a chuckle. "I asked the canteen to keep an eye out for us, but I didn't realize they would be so exuberant about it. This isn't their typical service, of course, but you've probably guessed that. They don't even serve proper lunch usually."
"Isn't steak a bit too heavy?" Steve asked.
"I don't know about you, but I could eat a mule. The ones they have in their stable look particularly appetizing right now."
Steve laughed a bit. "Maybe they wouldn't mind making a menu substitution for the great Tony Stark."
"Is that a bit of sarcasm I detect in your voice?" Tony's tone was light and teasing. "Why, Captain, I didn't know you had it in you."
They joked and talked about their favorite parts of the hike so far as they ate their lunch. Steve couldn't help but think that the setting was a bit too intimate, what with the tablecloth and steaks and fancy silverware in the middle of a park, but he told himself that there was nothing wrong with two men eating a meal together. Still, it didn't help that other people passing by would always give them second glances, the weight of which made the hairs on the back of Steve's neck stand on end.
"They're just looking at us because we're eating steaks and they're wondering where they can get some," Tony finally said, and Steve wondered if he were that transparent.
After lunch Tony went inside the canteen to see what else they were selling and maybe pick up a few snacks. Steve decided to take a walk around the ranch. It helped with his digestion, and he wanted to see if he could find the pit houses or ceremonial kivas that native american tribes had left here over a millenium ago. If they were even still around. He was so caught up in taking it the sights and the flora and fauna that, by the time he finished refilling his water bottles, he realized he was late to meet Tony at the continuation of the trail. He ran over, but Tony was nowhere in sight. He looked in the canteen and around the trail to no avail. Finally, his waitress was able to tell him that Tony had already left. Confused and a bit angry, Steve set out at a quick pace to find Tony.
The open grassy area of the ranch quickly narrowed into a thin gorge. Here the near-vertical rock walls were almost black and reached up high above him, almost seeming to enclosing the path and thin adjoining creek on both sides. It was maybe the most stunning part of the hike so far, but Steve had a hard time enjoying it as he looked for Tony. He found him about fifteen minutes later, crossing one of the many little bridges that ran across the creek.
"Tony!" he grabbed Tony's arm and spun him around, maybe a little too rough, and the motion had Tony stumbling a little bit before Steve helped to stabilize him.
Tony just blinked at him for a little bit before answering. "Steve?"
Steve forced himself to breath a few times and loosen his grip on Tony's arm. There was no point in getting angry. Maybe Tony was loopy from his painkillers (was he even on painkillers?), because this was certainly not normal behaviour. "Why did you leave without me?"
"Sorry, I. . . I might have made a mistake. I got confused, I think."
Steve's eyes narrowed. "Confused? What could there be to possibly be confused about?"
For some reason the question made Tony tense up. "I'd rather not discuss it."
Tony turned and started to walk away. Steve started to reach out for him again, intending to stop him so they could discuss this, but then he became aware of a group of hikers coming closer to them. He didn't need them to think that he was having a lover's spat with another man.
The second half of the walk was just as silent as the first and exponentially more uncomfortable. Steve tried to enjoy the scenery, but it all seemed a bit tainted now, even as they walked past changes in rock and plant life and even a waterfall. By the time they got to the campground they were both tired, physically as well as mentally, and they set up their tent and ate dinner (lentils, broccoli, and couscous cooked over a campfire grill) without really saying anything to each other.
Later on in their tent, they laid with their sleeping bags side by side. Both of them stiff on their backs and staring upward.
"I suppose sex is out of the question," Tony said.
Steve wondered if he should dignify that with an answer. Even if they weren't a little irritated with one another right now, there were other people camping not too far from them, and Tony wasn't exactly quiet. "Why is it always about sex with you?"
"It's not. It's about the fact that we're in a relationship and sex should be a healthy part of that. Especially at the beginning."
"We have a healthy amount," Steve protested. He lowered his voice, hoping Tony would do the same, not wanting others to hear them. "We have a good amount."
Luckily, Tony took the hint and started to speak in a loud whisper. "We have some. And we haven't even had anal yet."
Steve couldn't help but tense. Sodomy wasn't actually something he was even remotely interested in trying, despite what he had said to Tony in the hospital the day this trip had been set into motion. "Why is that a requirement for you? What's wrong with Princeton first-year1?"
"What does that even mean? I thought you've researched gay sex on the internet, have you not picked up more modern terms?"
Steve rolled over onto his side. "We have over 4,000 feet in elevation to cover tomorrow. I'm going to sleep."
After that, there was just the sound of crickets.
Steve woke up to the sound of water falling on the taut fabric of the tent. It was light and sparse, but still a little worrying. He made his way outside as Tony shifted beside him. As if to fit their moods, the sky was dull and grey, clouds in the distance threatening to spill open even more as the day wore on. At least they had packed rain gear.
Soon enough the duo had their things packed away and large, waterproof ponchos on over their clothes. The hike today was about half as long as it was yesterday but it was steeper, and Steve wasn't looking forward to the climb. Added to that were the facts that the lack of sunlight had seemed to suck all the color out of the scenery and he and Tony weren't really speaking to one another, all of which made the trek more tedious than enjoyable.
It took a few hours before Steve noticed that their pace wasn't as quick as he was expected. He realized that he had subconsciously slowed down to keep pace with Tony, and that Tony was leaning on his trekking poles more than he had been yesterday. Steve's minor irritation with the man gave way to concern.
"Are you doing okay?" Steve asked.
Tony cringed at the question, although Steve wasn't sure if it was his leg or his pride that was hurt. "The weather seems to be having adverse effects on either my leg or the device I made so it could function. I'm not exactly sure."
"Do you need to stop?"
"No. It should be fine if we just slow down."
Steve was careful to let Tony set the pace after that, always staying a few steps behind. The weather itself wasn't as accommodating. The rain grew heavier as the day went on, and with the increased rain came a decrease in Tony's mobility. So Steve wasn't surprised when Tony eventually collapsed. He was there to catch him, arm wrapped underneath Tony's shoulders as Tony's leg buckled out from under him.
Tony pushed Steve away as he attempted to get up by himself. "I'm fine. I can walk."
"I'm not sure you can," Steve said. He helped to lift a frowning Tony to his feet, then walked them over to a cluster of trees that provided some measure of protection from the elements. Not much, but it was a bit better. He lowered Tony down to sit on a large, exposed roots underneath the tree. "Should we call Rhodey to pick us up?"
"He won't be able to fly that jet in this rain. Not inside of canyon, at least.." Tony sounded almost petulant, and Steve wondered if his pride was that badly hurt. "We'll have to wait for it to clear up some."
Steve stood there and listened as the drops of rain fell on the small, waxy leaves above them, as they fell on the hard ground around them, and as they fell on the slick material that covered their bodies. He watched as Tony ate some trail mix and tossed what looked like a few ibuprofen down his throat. He wondered why they had decided to hike from rim to rim when Tony only had one fully-functioning leg. "Why did we think this was going to be a good idea?"
He was really asking himself, but of course Tony answered, with a reply that was more accusing than Steve expected. "If I recall correctly, it was your idea to begin with. I wanted to relax on the beach."
Steve couldn't help but bristle. He never would have gone through with this if Tony hadn't assured him that he was capable of handling the hike. "And if I recall, you went along with things easily enough."
The rain continued to fall all around them. They were mostly covered by their ponchos but that didn't mean they still weren't getting wet, water leaking up their pants legs and down their faces.
"We're both too stubborn," Tony finally said. "We get an idea stuck in our head and we do everything we can to see it through. It's just that this time, we were both stuck on the same bad idea."
Steve resisted the urge to sigh. At this point Tony was pulling his pant leg up underneath his poncho and starting to tinker with the device, and Steve decided it might be a good idea to scout ahead. If it wasn't too bad maybe he could just carry Tony the rest of the way. He slipped away and hiked about a mile (it seemed like it would be fine for him to trek, even if he was supporting Tony's weight) before turning back to return to Tony.
When he got there, he found Tony slumped against the tree, head leaning back against it, and talking to himself. There was a slump to the man's shoulders and an almost defeated look on his face.
"Now you've done it, Tony," he was saying. "How are you going to get out of this situation by yourself?"
Steve's eyes narrowed as he stepped closer. He couldn't believe that Tony had actually said that. "Did you actually think I would abandon you?"
Tony opened his eyes and looked up at Steve. There was a little bit of shock in his expression, a little bit of relief. "No. I thought you had disappeared."
If that was supposed to be an excuse, it wasn't a very good one. Steve wondered if Tony was making some kind of fool out of him. "Disappeared? You mean into thin air?"
"Does it matter?" Tony lifted his chin up and glared, more defensive than Steve felt the situation called for. "I was wrong, clearly, since you're here now."
"Yes, it does matter," Steve said. "Sometimes you act so oddly. Why did you leave without me yesterday? Why were you so quick to think I would leave you today?"
Instead of answering, Tony grabbed his trekking poles and stood up. "The rain's lighter and I fixed the device. We should go."
"Fixed" though Tony claimed his device was, he still stumbled quite a bit, and Steve decided to stay close to him in case he started to fall again (which he did several times, later along their trek).
"Rhodey told me that there was something you should tell me," Steve said. "Something about Ho Yinsen. Is that what this is about?"
From the way every muscle in Tony's body seemed to freeze up, Steve assumed the answer could only be yes. Instead of answering, though, Tony just started to walk away, apparently content to ignore the question. Steve followed after him and repeated the question, several times in different ways. The response was always the same. Tony had closed himself off and wasn't saying a word.
Eventually, Steve got tired of pressing and stopped asking altogether. The silence that followed them the rest of the trek was an angry, frustrated one, with Steve unable to understand why Tony was acting the way he was. This wasn't the trip he had in mind. This probably wasn't the trip Tony had in mind, either.
At the very least, Mother Nature took some pity on them. As they walked the rain lessened, and by the time they were near the top it was completely gone. Once they reached the North rim, the sun was out again. Tony all but collapsed into a seated position on a ledge, but Steve stood on the edge as he looked into the canyon they had descending into and climbed back up. He could see the other side of it, imagined he could pinpoint their starting location.
They had done it. In that moment, staring into the abyss of the canyon, Steve almost forgot about the drama of these last two days.
"Penny for your thoughts," Tony said, and a petty part of Steve wanted to ignore him.
"Tim suggested something called scream therapy." It had sounded like mumbo jumbo when Steve had heard about it, so he was surprised to find himself contemplating it now. "He said I should scream whatever I wanted to say to Bucky when I got here. He said it would give me closure, but I feel like a fool yelling into the canyon."
"What would you tell him?" Tony asked.
Steve's eyes darted toward Tony before darting back to the canyon. "That I'm seeing someone insufferable."
"You can do better than that. There must be some darkness you're keeping bottled inside yourself that you need to get out."
"You're one to talk."
In one of their therapy sessions they had talked about the necessity of communication. Steve had listened to the discussions and agreed, his mind turned to thoughts of battles and war, where the lack of open communication could be a matter of life and death. He hadn't realized that they had been talking about interpersonal dynamics between the group.
Steve's eyes caught on something in Tony's backpack. A little piece of glossy ink. He came up close and pulled out several postcards that Tony had apparently bought at some point, all of them stunning vistas of the canyon. He turned them over in his hands and debated. Coming to a decision, he put all but two back into Tony's backpack and took out a couple of pens.
"Here," Steve said, sitting beside Tony and handing him a postcard and a pen. "Write down whatever it is you're not saying. Whatever it is you're keeping locked away, that you really should be screaming out into the canyon."
"Postcards to Bucky?" Tony asked. There was a mean little laugh in his tone, but it was easily enough ignored.
"Postcards to each other."
Tony tried to hand the postcard back to Steve. "I'm not doing this."
"Do it, Tony," Steve said, his voice stern. "Or this relationship ends here. We can't be together if we can't even talk properly to one another."
This was beneficial to both of them, Steve told himself. It was healthy and not as ridiculous as screaming into the air. And whatever Tony was hiding from Steve, he'd have to tell him eventually, so better sooner than later.
Steve finished writing first. When he looked over at Tony, he frowned to see that Tony's hand was almost shaking as he wrote. Tony was slow in committing script to paper, and there were sentences and words on the card with thick double lines running through them. When Tony was done he turned the postcard over instantly, as though it hurt him to look at what was written there.
"Give it to me," Steve said.
For a long while Tony didn't move, and Steve wondered if he was going to. When he finally did it was a minute movement. Just the lifting of his hand maybe an inch from its position, and Steve had to reach into Tony's lap to tug the postcard away. He flipped it over and read the words there.
Ho Yinsen wasn't real. My mind made him up to cope with the trauma of Afghanistan. Sometimes, I think you're not real either.
Steve's breath caught in his throat. As softly and as gently as he could, he whispered Tony's name as though it were a question.
Tony didn't look at him. His eyes were focused on some distant point beyond the canyon, but at least he started to speak, albeit in a low, defeated tone. "Yinsen got me through the experience when I was captured. He gave me support when I didn't know if I would live through each day. He saved me and changed my entire outlook on life. And then I got home and started to do research on him. . . and he didn't exist. There was no scientist named Ho Yinsen. No body recovered from those bunkers except for the terrorists I killed to escape. He was just a figment of my imagination the whole time."
"Tony. . ."
Tony looked downward, eyes glassy. "I didn't want to believe it, so I let myself believe he was real after all. It was harmless enough, and the fund I set up in his name does a lot of good work. It's just that. . . sometimes I look at you and I think you can't be real either."
"I'm real, Tony. I'm here." Steve put his arm over Tony's back and squeezed his shoulder. He wasn't sure what else he could say. What else he could do.
"Are you?" Tony asked. "Did you know I imagined Yinsen interacting with other people? I imagined him helping me with my designs. I imagined him causing a distraction so that I could live. And as real as I imagined him, he still didn't exist. It was all just me. And as much as I try to verify that you exist, I just can't escape that niggling thought that maybe you don't."
Not even caring that there were a few people milling about in the distance, Steve drew Tony to him, until Tony's face was pressed almost uncomfortably into his neck and his arms were wrapped around Tony's body. "I exist, Tony. I don't know how, but I'll prove it to you. No matter how long it takes."
If there was a strange moisture on Steve's skin, he pretended not to notice. Just remnants of the rain. He could feel Tony clinging to and nestling into him, and he stroked Tony's back while whispering "I'm here" like a litany. He didn't know how long they stayed there like that, but when Tony pulled away it seemed to have helped. Maybe he still didn't completely believe Steve, but he looked brighter and more relaxed. Like he could believe it one day.
Maybe there was something to this modern psychology, Steve thought. Maybe it was a good thing to say things out loud.
Tony smiled and gestured toward Steve's postcard. "I believe it's your turn, now."
Steve stiffened as he remembered what he had written. "I'm not sure it's a wise decision to show you anymore."
"That's hardly fair. Hand it over, Rogers, I have a right to read it."
"What I mean is that it's a bit ironic, considering what you wrote on your postcard." Steve was actually debating just ripping it up right now. "I'm not sure it won't be detrimental to you."
"Now I have to read it." Tony went to pull the postcard out of Steve's hand, then turned it over so that they could read it together.
Sometimes I think Steve Rogers doesn't exist any more. I think I left him in the 1940s, and I'm not sure who I am anymore.
Tony was still for a long time. Steve watched him carefully, looking for any signs of unease. Instead, Tony let out a large guffaw that seemed to rock through his body. His eyes lit up like he was infinitely amused and he turned to look at Steve.
"What do you mean you don't know who you are? You're my potentially imaginary boyfriend, that's who you are." And then his voice softened, a little more serious and a little more affectionate. "You're you. Isn't that enough? And if you're not sure of your place in the modern world, let me help you find it."
Tony placed his hand on top of Steve's hand, and even through the discomfort and vague sense of fear, Steve let him keep it there. It wasn't as bad as what they had been doing before, clinging to each other, even if that had happened when emotions had been clouding his judgment. And if Steve was going to find a place to fit in the modern world, he would find a place where he could be open about his feelings for Tony. Holding hands in public was at least a start.
"Oh, I nearly forgot." Tony drew his hand away to dig through his backpack. When his hands appeared again they were holding a wooden box, smaller than a laptop but with similar dimensions. He handed it to Steve. "I know that you have a photographic memory, but I thought you might like to capture it while it's still fresh."
Steve opened the box to find an array of pastels in every color. A slow smile tugged at his lips. "Tony. . . thank you."
Tony pulled out a sketchpad next. They stayed there until sunset, Steve drawing picture after picture of the canyon in front of them and Tony watching from behind his shoulder.
"Next weekend," Steve said, when Rhodey's jet finally came to pick them up, "we'll go to one of your beaches."
Tony laughed. "Only if we can do the Princeton first-year while we're there."
1 Forties slang for intercrural sex.