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Past Imperfect

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The worst thing about Steve Rogers is that he's impossible to hate. And Tony ought to know. He's done his level best, and he still can't do it. The closest he can ever come is supreme irritation mixed with a healthy dose of what-the-fuck?

But because no one's ever accused Tony of being a quitter (except for dear old dad, but that's a story for a different day), he really does try now. Just five hours ago he caught Steve practically fondling a photograph of himself, and if that isn't something that you can use to hate someone, Tony doesn't know what is.

"And you," he glowers, waving a pair of tweezers at nothing, "some good you are. Why the hell did you show him that?"

"It was merely a request for photographs," JARVIS says, as unruffled as ever. "I judged it to be harmless."

"Says you," Tony scoffs.

"I apologize, sir. In the future, I will not fulfill any of Captain Rogers' requests for photographs."

As much as he'd love to say yes – because, really? Fondling? – he knows he can't. Doing that will only give Steve more fodder for thinking that he's a dick. And in the same way that he can't bring himself to ever truly hate Steve, he also can't ever bring himself to take that final, irrevocable step into true dickhood. He doesn't know why he should care so much, and it actually kind of pisses him off that he does care, but there doesn't seem to be much he can do about it. So like with everything else weird and unexplainable in his life, he just goes with it.

"No," he sighs. "Just run them by me first."

So that's one thing taken care of.

But there's still this whole other thing to deal with. This business about the arc reactor.

At any given moment, Tony can tell you everything you need to know about the arc reactor. He knows exactly how much power it's producing versus how much it's using. He knows its size and weight intimately. He knows what materials are required to build it, and everything he needs to create the element at its heart, down to the last megawatt of power.

He knows perfectly well that it is not beautiful. It is a thing. An object. It was built to perform a function, and to that end it succeeds admirably. But it is not beautiful.

Steve was wrong to say he was ashamed of the device. He stopped being able to feel shame when his age was still counted in single digits. Growing up in public tended to do that to a person. So no, it's not shame he feels over the arc reactor. It's much more complicated than that.

A terrible privilege, he described it once to Bruce, but really that was a load of crap. The arc reactor is amazing and a lifesaver, and it's a curse and an albatross around his neck. It reminds him with every thump of his heart that a good man died so that he might live and that even now, four years later and despite his best efforts, the weapons he's tried so hard to destroy are still out there, taking more lives. The arc reactor is life and death and fate and karma, and sometimes he can't even meet his own eyes in the mirror, but still he makes himself look at that light in his chest, because some things just have to be done, no matter how painful they are.

And now Steve, with his damn pep talk and his words, and Tony wishes he could forget - but like most of his wishes, it's never going to come true.

****

"Sir, it is now three o'clock in the morning," JARVIS says, snapping him out of his work-induced trance.

"And you're telling me this why?" he says, squinting at the filament he's got hold of. It's tested well so far in his simulations; he's ready to give it a try for real. Unfortunately he's so tired he can barely focus his eyes, and fitting the filament into the hole designed for it is proving to be next to impossible.

"You asked that I inform you of the time," JARVIS says patiently. "Also per your request, I am informing you that Captain Rogers is upstairs as well."

Tony winces. Damn. He forgot. He did ask JARVIS to let him know these things. A couple weeks ago this was, in a strange fit of madness he could only blame later on a lack of caffeine and the vague idea that he had slept better on the couch for a few short hours than he had in his own bed for months.

"Let him stew," he mutters. "He can do his fondling by himself," and whoa that came out all wrong, he's suddenly not thinking about filaments and connections and gauntlets, but Steve sitting up there all alone, one hand reaching for his--

"Not fair," he sighs. He can't be expected to work under these conditions. He scrubs at his eyes and blinks rapidly, and okay that's better, he's not seeing Steve anymore, but he is seeing great sparkles of light now, and he's been doing this long enough to know that he's done for the night. Last night he had only fifteen minutes of sleep, and the night before that it was maybe an hour, tops. He's gone as far as he can go.

He needs sleep.

Slowly he trudges upstairs. The lights are off, but he can hear the television and see the flickering light it casts. He could just keep on going, take the stairs to the next floor and to the enormous bedroom he hardly ever visits, but right now that would take more effort than he's willing to put forth, so he veers to the left and shuffles down the hall and on into the living room.

Steve is sitting in the armchair he favors, dressed in a T-shirt and sweatpants, his hair sticking up at crazy angles. He looks up when Tony walks in, and he smiles a little, and just that fast Tony remembers that he's supposed to be angry with him, that in fact he is angry, a little. Waking up yesterday, watching Steve touching that moment in time from the past had felt like a kick to the stomach. In a flash he had tried on various emotions: hurt, anger, curiosity, outrage – before coming back to anger and settling on that one.

He reaches for that anger now and is relieved to find that it's still there. "So," he says, a little more snidely than he intended maybe but oops, oh well. "Anything interesting on TV tonight?"

Steve's smile vanishes. Now he looks wounded, and Tony takes one giant step closer to total dickhood. He's been accused of shamelessly using puppy dog eyes to get his way before – an accusation he cheerfully acknowledges is true, by the way – but Steve does it unconsciously, and with far more devastating results.

"Jeez," he says irritably. "It was just a joke." He drops down onto the couch in what he's already come to think of as his spot. It occurs to him that this is a bad thing. Having a spot implies ownership, commitment, permanence, which are three things he will normally go very far out of his way to avoid.

"Oh," Steve says. He shifts a little in his chair, then he says, "I have something for you."

"Is it another pep talk?" Tony eyes him warily. "'Cause I sure could go for another one of those right about now."

He feels he ought to get a medal for not even mentioning the weirdest thing about Steve's little speech yesterday, that whole that means you're here with me bit, because what the hell was that about Tony doesn't even know. What he does know is that he is not going to ask, no way no how never, because at least this way he can let himself pretend that Steve really meant it, instead of having to listen to some blushing, fumbling explanation of what was actually meant by it.

"Not a pep talk, I promise," Steve says with a little smile that makes him look so adorable Tony would reach out and ruffle his hair if he wasn't sitting across the room – and, you know, if he wasn't pissed off at him.

Steve gets up and starts walking his way. He's holding something about the size of a Starkphone, maybe a little bigger. He stops in front of the couch and holds it out. "Here."

"Ah." Tony shakes his head. "I don't like people handing me things, ack!" Steve is shoving the whatever-it-is practically in his face and it's either reach up and take it or end up eating it, so with an exasperated huff, he snatches it out of Steve's hand.

"Not so hard, was it?" Steve teases. He sits beside Tony.

Tony glares at him. "Remind me to tell you a story some time," he says, because jeez, it's not like he just randomly decided to have a quirk one day, he has his reasons, thank you very much.

"You could tell me now," Steve offers.

"Ancient history," Tony waves him off. "Look it up some day. I bet JARVIS would be happy to help you, traitor that he is." It won't be hard to find; the incident was all over the news at the time. With hindsight he's a little surprised it only happened once. Trying to kidnap the famous billionaire's only son for a huge ransom is actually so clichéd that he always did wonder why no one else ever tried it.

"No, I—I wouldn't do that," Steve says, all loyal puppy dog now.

"Whatever," Tony says. He gave the guy permission to do some digging, what more does he want?

An uncomfortable silence falls between them. Then Steve clears his throat. "Are you going to look at that?"

Oh. He almost forgot. He looks down at the thing Steve gave him.

It's a photograph slid into a protective plastic sleeve. It's old, the colors washed out and mostly gone over to a sepia tone. In it, an older man with flyaway white hair and a lab coat is shaking hands with a short, scrawny boy barely past adolescence. The kid looks scared half to death. The man in the lab coat is smiling kindly. Behind them, a woman with dark hair, dressed in a military uniform, watches them both with interest.

"Okay," Tony says, not quite sure what he's looking at, or what he's supposed to say.

"Do you know who these people are?" Steve asks. He points to the man in the lab coat. "That's Dr. Abraham Erskine."

And that's when it clicks. Tony's eyes widen in recognition just as Steve points to the scrawny kid and says, "And that's me."

He stares down at the picture, totally entranced now. "Holy shit," he breathes. "Look at you! I was taller than you!"

Steve smiles ruefully. "Most people were."

Tony looks up at him in amazement. "And look at you now," he says with an appreciative smile.

Steve blinks rapidly and looks flustered. Abruptly Tony remembers – again – that he is supposed to be pissed off at Steve. He shoves the photo in Steve's general direction until the other guy takes it back. "Okay, so as far as trips down Memory Lane go, that wasn't half-bad. But why did you choose this particular day to take this trip?"

"Because," Steve says, "you're someone who values change. And sometimes we need to remember that change can be a good thing." He holds up the photo and gestures to himself. Then he reaches toward Tony's chest, one hand aiming for the arc reactor.

Tony is off the couch and across the room so fast his feet don't even touch the floor. One second he's sitting there, watching Steve's hand approach his chest, and the next thing he knows he's standing in front of the TV, both hands raised in the reflexive gesture of attack; if he was wearing the gauntlets right now, Steve would be one very dead star-spangled man with a plan.

Steve looks stricken. "Tony?"

He becomes aware that he's breathing heavily, possibly even shaking. His heart is going a mile a minute and all in all the whole thing is incredibly humiliating.

"I'm sorry," Steve says. He is as white as a sheet. "I didn't think. I'm sorry."

Slowly he stands down, lowering his arms to his sides. It takes everything he has not to touch the arc reactor along the way, just to reassure himself that it is still there. "No harm, no foul," he says. "It's just, the last person who did that actually took it and left me to die. So now I have a complex. But hey, you couldn't know." He smiles big and wide, amazed at how easy it was to put the horror into words, and struggles not to throw up. That would be really embarrassing himself, and he's already done enough of that tonight.

But no, evidently there is more humiliation in store for him, because Steve's eyes grow very wide and actually seem to fill with shocked tears, and that's just a trick of the inconstant light from the TV, he decides, because it has to be, it can't be real, can't be.

"My God, Tony." Steve still looks stunned.

In a way it's almost gratifying to see Steve's reaction. To know that all this time he's been right to harbor that fear, to be haunted by the old nightmare – Obie looming over him, pain burning in his chest, lungs seizing up –

Movement startles him back to reality. He's standing, not sitting, and the light is all wrong, it's that ghostly flickering TV light, not the steady light of the lamps in the living room in Malibu, but there is someone right there in front of him, and he can still feel that phantom pain and it's hard to breathe and he makes this horrible frightened noise and backpedals so rapidly he nearly trips over his own feet and "Jesus, fuck," he says in a high, trembling voice that sounds nothing like his own. "Would you just back off?"

"I'm sorry," Steve says again, Captain Broken Record. "I thought you were going to faint."

"Starks don't faint. We're made of iron," Tony says automatically, thank you again dear old dad for that one. But the platitude works, gives him time to clear his mind and take a deep breath and get a hold of himself.

God, he needs a drink.

"Are you all right?" Steve asks, all concerned blue eyes and a worry line between his brows, and it's really annoying how cute he looks when he's worried.

Although Tony isn't going to lie – it's sort of nice, too. It's been a long time since anyone bothered to worry about him, instead of worrying about the crazy things he does and the effect they have on everyone else. Steve, though, has been making a habit of it ever since Tony's failed attempt at death-by-nuclear-missile in their first fight together. By now he's perfected that look, too. Practice really does make perfect, apparently.

"Never better," he says, and thankfully his voice is back to normal. His pulse and respiration are almost there, too, which is even better. "So you still think this thing's beautiful?" He uses the words as an excuse to reach up and tap the arc reactor. Just to make sure.

Steve nods. "More than ever," he says firmly.

"Then you've got a pretty warped idea of what constitutes beautiful," Tony says. He'd really like to move away from the center of the room and the invisible spotlight that feels trained on his head, but Steve is blocking the way forward, and anyway he can't think of a way to leave that won't look like an undignified retreat. So he stays put.

Steve gives him a little smile. "No," he says. "I think I have a pretty good idea what it means." And he looks Tony up and down.

Tony's breath catches. All he can think is holy crap, did that really just happen?

But evidently it was all just in his overstressed and overtired mind, because Steve doesn't follow through. In fact, some new trick of the light makes him actually look disappointed for a moment, then his expression clears.

"You know, as much fun as this has all been…" Tony starts to say, and Steve steps right up and plants one on him. And his brain just shuts right the fuck down.

Steve's mouth is warm and soft, and his breath still smells like the mint toothpaste he uses. Tony is still frantically trying to process what exactly is happening when Steve steps back and looks at him with some anxiety.

Tony just stares. As far as kisses go, he's had better. He's also had a lot worse. And just the fact that he's trying to figure out where a kiss from Captain America fits onto the sliding scale he keeps in his head for just this sort of occasion breaks his brain all over again, and he can only stand there like an idiot.

"Was that okay?" Steve asks. That worry line between his brows is back. He licks his lips nervously, and Tony actually gasps a little at the sight, unable to stop himself.

"Was that... You just… What the hell kind of question is that?" he demands. And then, "Didn't anyone ever teach you to finish what you started?"

Now it's a proper kiss. Steve's mouth is scorching hot and his lips part eagerly and Tony can taste him and it feels like he's burning up from the inside. And if he's really asleep down in his workshop, slumped over a table with a wrench digging into his cheek and Dummy hovering overhead then he never wants to wake up, because this is the best dream he's had in months, hell, in years.

This time when they're done it's his turn to give the slightly anxious look, because he probably just went too far, the way he always does. He really, sincerely, truly hopes not, though. Because this, whatever it is, is not something he wants to screw up. He really, really wants to get this right. Whatever it is.

"Now do you believe me?" Steve asks with a smile.

Tony freezes. Just that fast, it's over before it even began. He wants to laugh. Hysterically. Loudly. Of course. He should have known. Steve's just taken a page from his book, the whole concept of proving that something is possible just because someone told you it couldn't be done. In this case, it's just another damn pep talk, only without words. It's let me show you how unafraid I am of the arc reactor and what its made you into, and since you won't believe my words, I will prove it with my lips some other way and damn you, Steve Rogers, damn you.

"Never doubted you for a moment," he says, too hearty, too loud. It's his public voice, the one he uses with reporters and paparazzi and people who are too stupid to know when to shut up. In the darkened living room, it sounds extra loud and crass.

He doesn't care.

"Good," Steve says. "Because I've wanted to do that for a long time now."

Yep, that's exactly what he expected all right, and—

Wait. What?

"—and I think I just finally got up the courage for it. I'm just sorry I scared you first, making that move like that, I don’t know what I was thinking."

Tony stares at him. "You're still talking."

"Um," Steve says. "Yes?"

"This isn't about trying to prove something to me?" he insists.

"What?" For a moment Steve looks bewildered. Then he gets it, and his hurt surprise is so genuine that Tony feels instantly contrite for ever having doubted him. "No! Tony, I would never…no."

He's not so sure of that; in fact he's pretty sure Steve can be plenty devious when it suits him. But in this instance he believes him. "Okay."

"I—Okay? Just like that?" Steve still seems worried, while simultaneously managing to edge toward adorable yet again.

"Just like that," Tony says.

Steve eyes him for a long moment, then sort of shrugs in surrender. "Did anyone ever tell you that you're a hard man to figure out?"

"All the time," Tony says cheerfully.

"So now what?" Steve says. "I mean… I've never done this before."

Tony smiles. "I have."

A faint flush rises on Steve's cheeks. "Can we just… Take this slow? Enjoy the ride?" He gives Tony a hopeful little smile. It makes him look utterly ridiculous – and incredibly sexy at the same time.

"Sure," he says, because why not? He's done this before, yeah, but not this, and his first instinct about wanting to get it right is back with a vengeance. He wants to keep from screwing this up so badly, more than he's ever wanted anything.

"Okay," Steve says. "Great."

"Great," Tony echoes, pretty sure that there's an equally ridiculous smile plastered across his own face right about now, and not caring in the slightest.

"And now?" Steve asks, letting the question hang out there.

What he'd really like to do now is throw himself at Steve and do things that are probably still illegal in half the union, but even he knows that would truly be going too far and anyway, he just promised to go slow so all that is going to have to wait. That's okay, though. Good things come to those who wait, and he happens to know that saying is actually very true.

"Now?" he says, and really, he deserves a whole rack of medals for this. "Now I'm going to collapse in my spot on the couch. You can sit where you like. And we are going to get some sleep. After all, that's why we came out here, isn't it? Besides you wanting to show off how incredibly underfed you used to be, which for the record, is a little bit creepy."

"You forgot how I wanted to tell you again that you were beautiful," Steve says.

"I thought that was this," Tony says with a gesture to his chest.

"That too," Steve says. "Because it's a part of you."

"Not the best part," Tony says with a wicked grin, and sits down with a flourish.

Steve chuckles. "I would never dream of assuming so."

"Good man," he says.

Steve sits down on the other end of the couch. "I don't think I can sleep," he confesses.

It would probably be for the best if he said the same thing, but suddenly it's all Tony can do to keep his eyes open. He's been running on adrenaline since his earlier fright, but it's wearing off now and the crash is imminent. "Hm-mm," he says, so wonderfully eloquent it's no wonder even the great Captain America is falling at his feet.

"Go to sleep, Tony," Steve says. He sounds like an indulgent parent, and Tony knows he ought to be offended, but he can't muster enough energy for it right now. "I'll still be here."

Was a time when such a simple statement would have freaked him out, and in fact it may yet do just that – he has a sinking feeling that he's not going to forget any time soon the utter panic of seeing Steve's hand reaching for the arc reactor. That's going to be a problem down the road, he suspects, but it's one he's willing to deal with when the time comes.

Not tonight, though. Tonight he just wants to sleep, snuggled here in his spot on the couch, the TV turned down low in the background, Steve close by.

Just before he's out completely, he hears Steve whisper, "You are beautiful, you know."

Sometimes, he thinks, and the thought follows him down into deep, dreamless sleep.

********