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Inhale, Exhale

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They’re laying in a sweaty heap on the floor of Steve’s dorm room. His bed is barely big enough for him, let alone two bodies, so whenever Tony comes over, they sleep in a nest of blankets and not much else. Steve is sprawled on his back, limbs spread-eagled, content in a post-sex haze of endorphines and hormones. Tony, though, is sitting up, propped against Buck’s bed, looking out the window with a kind of glittering restlessness, like he might just take flight at any moment.

Outside, a gaggle of revelers passes, their drunken voices drifting up through the open window. Tony’s head tilts as he follows their noise, like some sort of curious bird. Then he turns to Steve. “If your mom was healthy, if you didn’t feel like you had to take care of her, what would you be doing with your life?”

Steve blinks slowly as the question penetrates his brain, working its way down past the pleasant, aching buzz in his muscles to the deeper layers. “Dunno,” he says finally. “Never really thought about it I guess.”

“Don’t give me that shit. You’ve thought about it. Everyone thinks about it.”

Tony rises, wrapping a sheet around his waist as he goes, and moves to the window, squeezing himself onto the narrow frame so he can press his skin to the screen, get a hint of the cool night air beyond the stifling dorm.

Steve sits up like lead is dragging his limbs, turning so he can take in Tony’s narrow chest and thin arms, the scraggle of a beard he keeps insisting on growing. Silhouetted by the sodium lights outside, his body loses all coloration, a smear of black and gray against the haze of orange city light.

“Why? What would you do?”

The younger man hums noncommittally, but Steve knows the hunched set of his shoulders, the defensive turn of his head. There’s always been something lonely about him, even when he’s packed in among bodies at a party and calling attention from the students around him like he’s worried they might forget he’s there. 

Reaching down absently, Tony fumbles for his pants and pulls a joint and a lighter from his pocket. Steve grimaces, but doesn’t ask him not to. Instead, he rises, forgoing a blanket, and crosses to the window, pressing himself to Tony’s back and capturing nervous hands in his grip. The smaller man is shaking, tremors running up and down his limbs like waves in a pond.

“What’s going on?”

Tony is silent, but he doesn’t light the joint. Instead he stares down at it, brow wrinkled in a frown, mouth pursed tight, as though he can keep the words in if he clamps down tight enough. Steve knows that if he says nothing at all, Tony will speak. It’s in his nature. He can’t stop himself.

“Obie called. The board wants me to quit school at the end of this semester and go take over the company. Says without a Stark at the helm, the stocks’ll just keep dropping.”

Steve squeezes his arms tighter, shifting and lifting so he can get Tony into his lap. The breeze picks up a little, soothing over his bare hip and ribs, cooling on the residual sweat. “’s’at what you want?” he asks, lips pressed into Tony’s hair.

“No! I want…I don’t know what I want.”

Inhaling once, twice, Steve takes in the scent of rotting city garbage from the breeze, Tony’s expensive cologne, his dark, spicy shampoo, and then he squeezes again. “What makes you happy?”

The smaller man shrugs, wriggling and shifting until he’s turned around in Steve’s lap, nose pressed to collarbone and hands clenched around broad shoulders. “You make me pretty damn happy.”

“Well, dating me and running Stark Industries aren’t mutually exclusive.”

“No. But I…Do you have any idea how close I am to cracking that polymer? And with the new input from Bruce I might just have it. It could save lives! And if I can keep researching it I can find permutations, other applications. I was gonna apply to Engineers Without Borders.”

“So do that,” Steve says. “Fuck the board. They can’t pick your path for you. You’re nineteen and you’ve got your whole life to run the damn company, if that’s what you decide to do eventually. Make them cool their heels.”

“But my dad…”

“But nothin’,” Steve growls, letting a little anger leak in. He never personally met Howard Stark, but he knows Tony, and that means he knows enough to dislike even the memory of him. “It’s his legacy. Not yours. You get to decide how to leave your own legacy, and if you want to do it differently than how he intended, well, tough shit for Howard’s ghost.”

Outside another group of drunken frat boys passes, one of them catcalling up to Steve’s window. “Give us a show!” Steve flips them off and then goes back to holding Tony, hands laced loosely at the small of his back. The drunken voices fade and are replaced by the night sounds of the city. The distant wail of sirens, cars whirring by, the occasional shout, mysterious crashes in the neighboring dorms. It washes over them, wrapping them in a cocoon of familiarity, and Steve sighs into Tony’s hair.

“You never answered my question,” Tony says finally, shifting again so his lips are pressed to Steve’s pulse.

“I like nursing just fine.”

“But do you love it? The way I love engineering?”

Unbidden, Steve’s eyes dance to his sketch book, filled with figure studies and still lifes, sketches in shade and light, the intricate folds of fabric littered across dorm room floors and the abstract scatter of crumbs across a cafe table. “Dunno,” he says again.

Tony snorts into his skin, but doesn’t call him on his bullshit. After a moment, the smaller man pulls away. “Come on,” he demands, his tone imperious and his eyes glittering. “It’s hot as balls in here, and I’m hungry. Let’s walk to Burger King or something.”

“When was the last time you ate a vegetable that didn’t accompany something deep fat fried?”

“Like I’d tell you,” Tony says with a smirk, stepping into his jeans. They dress in a tumble of sloppy kisses and then head out the door into the thick, late summer air. Steve snatches the sketch book from his desk as he goes.