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(what is hate) but jilted love

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The base wasn’t threatening enough to warrant canceling Rhodey’s rehabilitation weekend at the center.

“Are you sure? If you need me, I can do this later,” Rhodey said. His voice over the phone crackled with worry.

“Platypus, I got this. I’m a T-X to Hydra’s T-850. I’ll be in, I’ll be out, we’ll get dinner. Don’t worry about it. You—you work on those legs,” Tony said. He kept his voice as steady as he could. Ignored the memories of Rhodey splayed on the ground, immobile. Pepper had told him, once, that he was being more of an asshole by focusing on his guilt. Not in so many words, but. That was the gist. So Tony tried, worked with Rhodey through his exercises, suppressedthe stabbing feeling in his chest.

“Alright, but if you think it’s going south, you call me and Viz, okay? Don’t worry about interrupting his honeymooners weekend,” Rhodey said, insistent.

Tony grinned. “Technically it’s stealth stakeout training,” he said.

“Whatever they’re calling it these days. Dude’s out there boning down with his on-the-lam girlfriend. Your life is more important,” Rhodey said.

“Oops, speaking of, looks like the chain and whip is here. Gotta go honeycrunch, love you,” Tony said, turning around to watch Ross stalk across the lawn towards the Compound’s entrance.

“Yeah, yeah. Take care Tones, I’ll see you when you get back,” Rhodey said, hanging up.

According to Ross’s intel, the base was an abandoned Hydra research facility. Although Tony pointed out loudly for several minutes that it made no sense for Hydra to abandon a facility without destroying the research, Iron Man was still tasked with recon and evidence retrieval.

The dilapidated hospital in Sokovia’s countryside would fit perfectly on almost any top ten creepy haunted spots list. The gray cement building had cracks up the sides, the fluorescent lights painting an ugly stark white on asphalt that was littered with trash and weeds.

Tony activated stealth mode just as he landed, the suit turning black, the repulsors muffled. Rhodey had raised his eyebrows the first time he’d seen it, asked if this was the start of them wearing matching couples outfits. Tony had grumbled about wanting to fit in with the new goth look their boy band seemed to be gravitating towards, resolutely didn’t think of how quickly Barnes had trained his rifle on him in a forgotten cold bunker.

He entered the building through the ER doors, FRIDAY running multiple scans for heat signatures and movement as they walked around.

“Boss, looks like we’ve got something on the second floor,” she said. Tony hummed, looked up, watched the data feed out of the corner of his eye.

Two small rat-like creatures scurried around on the second floor.

“Cool, we’ve got the rats of NIMH here, watch out for tiny rat traps. FRIDAY, run an electric diagnostic, I wanna see where the power’s going,” Tony said, heading down another dark and echo filled hallway.

“I’ll keep an eye out for any signs of a highly advanced rat colony,” FRIDAY said. “The walls have a lot more electrical wiring than expected for a hospital abandoned in the 80s. I’ve traced the leads into the basement. I think that’s where we should go.”

“Got it. And Uhura, keep scanning communication frequencies, let me know if someone hears us coming, alright?” Tony asked.

“Aye aye, Captain,” FRIDAY said.

Tony found the door to the stairs and wrenched it open. The loud squeal as it moved for possibly the first time in ten years set Tony’s teeth on edge, but it didn’t seem to alarm anyone else, not even the rats above, so he shrugged and headed down.

The basement, it turned out, was the hidden entrance to the Hydra portion of the hospital, and led to several sublevels of increasing horror. Tony squashed down a growing sense of nausea as he trawled the halls, going down deeper and deeper into the ground, passing rooms that had lingering hints of torture and human experimentation.

“Coming up on the server room now, Boss,” FRIDAY said gently in his ear. She was monitoring his vitals, could probably tell his surroundings were the reason for the uptick in his pulse and his belabored breathing. Fuck, he hated Hydra.

“I’m picking up on a lot of electrical resistance in the walls. Seems like there are a lot of broken circuits. I think they’re leading to over there,” she said, using the HUD to indicate the room across the hall.

“Well, we knew it was abandoned for twenty years, no reason to clean your room if Mom’s not checking,” Tony said, walking into the mainframe.

The room itself looked run down and dusty, but the towers were still present, stacked in neat orderly rows. Tony scanned the place before letting his suit charge one of the servers to search and analyze its contents.

His eyes started speed-reading the data it fed him.

“Alright, Fri, let’s start with a basic keyword search. High priority for anything mentioning serum, soldiers, or human experimentation, got it?” Tony asked. He started coding a program to hack into the encrypted files.

“On it,” FRIDAY said.

“And done. Run that script for me also, won’t you baby girl?” Tony asked. He made a quick motion with his hand and the suit peeled away from his body. “I want to check that other room out, see if there’s an easy explanation for all the wires leading there. Just a minute.”

“Are you sure, Boss? We may not have detected any operatives, but our satellites can’t pick up on traps so far underground,” FRIDAY said, worried.

Tony shrugged, dismissing the concern with a wave. “Eh. This place’s been abandoned for years. No reason to boobytrap an empty nest,” he said, marching out of the room and across the hall.

He stepped foot through the doorway. Large wires draped across the walls, connecting to a sensor in the middle of the room. He heard a boot-up sound, watched as the computer terminal lit up. Large green numbers flashed on the screen. 60. 59. 58. Timer. Fuck.

Tony turned around and bolted back into the other room, his thoughts a mantra of fuck fuck fuck shitshitshit fuck me fuck me fuck me as he leapt into the suit and tore out of the room, yelling at FRIDAY that there was a bomb, fifty five seconds to detonation, get us out of here now, repulsors on blast as he careened through the halls.

“Boss? I’m picking up on electric current in the walls,” FRIDAY said, tone worried. Fuck, the trigger was activating something that was base wide. “Whatever it is, it’s going to be big.”

“Reroute power from visual systems to repulsors. It’s time to ditch this party,” Tony said, taking a tight corner as he sped towards the staircase.

“At our current speed, calculations put us at 500 meters from the blast center once the timer goes off,” Friday said grimly. “Odds of survival at that distance are not optimal. I would suggest going faster.”

Fuck,” Tony said, slamming into the stairway door and shooting up and around the stairs. “Wow. Language, Iron Man. Okay. How far are we from the surface?”

“Another ten floors,” FRIDAY said, pulling up a blueprint of the base she’d made from their scans.

“Let’s get to the top, see how we’re doing after that,” Tony said. He kept an eye on their relative distance from the epicenter as they climbed. 300 meters…..350 meters…...400 meters…..450 meters…..480 meters. In the other corner of the HUD, the timer ticked down to :10 seconds.

With a grim flash of acceptance, Tony landed on the basement floor, letting the suit peel back from his hands and torso.

“Boss? What’re you doing, we have to-”

“FRIDAY,” Tony said, fumbling as he pulled out the stupid black phone that he never seemed able to part from. Well, now he would be. “Tell Rhodey I’m sorry I couldn’t call, okay?” He pressed buttons furiously, clicking from contacts to messaging, managed to type out the word sorry. He pressed send just as a loud thwoomp came up from behind him. Tony slammed onto the ground.

The world went black.

 


 

Tony woke up in a hospital bed.

He groaned loudly as he opened his eyes, stared blearily at the bright fluorescent bulbs above his head.

“Why is it always so bright in hospitals,” Tony said. “Ow, why is it I’m always in pain in hospitals.” Tony looked down, saw his arms and torso covered in white bandages. He heard a scuffle to his right, turned and saw Rhodey scramble up from his slumped position in the chair.

“Hey Tones. You’re awake,” Rhodey said. He looked tired, circles under his eyes, his face more unkempt than usual. Tony reached out for him, grabbed the hand closest and squeezed hard.

“Well you know how I am, I oversleep and I’m nothing but cranky. ‘Sides, I’ve got stuff to do, many an unfinished plan to complete,” Tony said lightly. Rhodey gave him a small smile for his efforts. Tony took it as a win, let his eyes close against the throbbing light. Rhodey moved his hand next to Tony’s, kept it there.

“Does that stuff include writing a program that calls for backup once you’ve realized the building you’re in is wired to explode?” Rhodey asked, eyebrows raised.

Tony mulled it over. “It could be. Or, it could be a program that fakes my death, lets you deal with these messes instead,” he said.

“Absolutely not. If you were gone, then I’d be the de facto leader of the Avengers, and that would add to my stress lines, not a good look,” Rhodey said. He dragged the visitor’s chair closer, plunked right back down in his seat, his legs propped up on Tony’s bed. Their linked hands stayed by Tony’s side.

“There’s something wrong about you avoiding responsibility like this,” Tony said, looking around to take in his surroundings. The room they were in was a single, small. Tony thanked the God, Pepper, who had helped him get it.

“Hey man, I know what my limits are. No way am I giving up this face to run your team for you,” Rhodey said, gesturing towards himself. Tony gave him a long look.

“I mean, the wrinkles definitely work for you, in a ‘sexy old man’ kind of way. If you let your hair grow out, you’d be a real silver fox,” Tony said, flinching away as Rhodey flicked him on the forehead with his free hand.

“I am five years older than you, not twenty. Who do you think you’re calling old?” Rhodey asked. Tony grinned, pulled up their linked hands, brushed a teasing kiss across the knuckles.

“You sure you don’t want to lead the Avengers with me? We could be co-leaders, it’ll be like the Aeronautics Club at MIT,” Tony said, batting his eyelashes, his voice coming out high and wheedly.

“The Aeronautics Club was a total disaster, Tones,” Rhodey said flatly. Tony dismissed the point with his free hand.

“You say that, but did any other club get featured in The Tech five times in one semester? Notoriety is one measure of success,” he said.

“Yeah, because none of the other clubs managed to set their meeting space on fire for three weeks, consecutively. The Tech at least knew what was newsworthy,” Rhodey said, his face splitting in a larger smile.

“Well I still think you should consider it. It’s important to have an active social life in your waning years,” Tony said blithely. He ducked when Rhodey moved to flick him again. A dull wave of pain coursed through him. “Hey, who’s the invalid here? This is patient abuse. I’m calling a nurse, she’s going to remove you.”

“Too late, I already used my patented Rhodes charm on them, all the nurses love me,” Rhodey said, winking at Tony.

“That’s Stark patented Rhodes charm, I could sue for violation of IP,” Tony said. Rhodey guffawed, closed his eyes. They sat in silence for a few moments, before Tony started getting fidgety again.

“So what did I miss? Any celebrity hot goss I need to know about?” Tony asked.

“Never say ‘hot goss’ in front of me again. You’ve been out for about two weeks,” Rhodey said. He grimaced at the look Tony gave him. “Yeah, I know. FRIDAY got the distress signal out as soon as you tripped the bomb in the facility. We were on the scene about an hour after. It was bad, Tones. The explosion knocked you onto an exposed pipe and you were bleeding out when we found you. You also have second degree burns everywhere your suit was removed, and we will be discussing that later.”

“You know I hate to say it, but I’m actually getting tired of almost dying in fiery explosions. I know, I feel older just voicing it. Speaking of, why aren’t I dead?” Tony asked.

“FRIDAY thinks that the timer you found wasn’t wired properly, so the explosion wasn’t as big as it could have been,” Rhodey said. “By the way, in case you were wondering, this is why I blame you for my wrinkles.”

“You know, the genocidal bigoted tendencies would be a lot more threatening if they’d cash out on decent equipment. I’m almost—no scratch that—definitely insulted that I got only partially blown up because Hydra is too cheap to buy decent electrical equipment,” Tony said, looking up at the ceiling in irritation.

“Sure, because if you’d gotten completely blown up that’d make me and Viz feel so much better,” Rhodey said. Tony could tell without looking at him that he had his eyebrows raised at Tony in his silent you are being judged way.

“Viz flew you to a local Sokovian hospital, where they induced a medical coma to treat you,” Rhodey continued. “Ross made a big fuss though, insisted you come back stateside. He had them move you AMA.” Rhodey’s face twisted into a frown. “We were all against it. You were too unstable to move. Ross ignored us. Said the Accords afforded him the authority to determine where you should get care. So he moved you, and boy did the doctors here have a fun time stabilizing you.”

“I am incredibly stable,” Tony said. “I resent any implications otherwise.”

“That is the biggest lie you’ve ever told,” Rhodey said. “And I’m counting that time in Berlin in ‘05. FRIDAY uploaded the documents she had combed through at the base; she and Viz have been looking through them. There’s not much there,” he warned, seeing the look on Tony’s face. “It really was cleaned out before they abandoned ship. Looks like the faulty wires were something they didn’t bother dealing with before they left. Guess they didn’t really care what kind of mess they made.” Rhodey’s upper lip curled into a sneer.

“So, to recap: I went and got myself blown up, got put into a coma for two weeks, and got moved trans-Atlantically all for nothing,” Tony said. He worked his jaw. “Great, wonderful to know that I’m making sacrifices that are worth the safety of millions.” Rhodey squeezed his hand in comfort.

“I know. I’m pissed too. This was a shitty mission from the get go, and you got caught up in the cross-hairs. But, good news, you’ll be out of here in another week or so,” Rhodey said, his voice steady.

Tony held on tightly to Rhodey’s hand, mulled it over. “How’s the media’s reaction?” he asked, noting Rhodey’s flinch. “That bad huh? Let me guess, I’m a reckless self-invested murdering asshole who ruined the best team America had.”

“Best team in America is still the Eagles, I don’t care what that poll says, the Avengers can kiss my ass,” Rhodey said. He kept his voice steady as he continued. “They said you needlessly put yourself in harm’s way, that no one’s around to keep you in check. Claimed that you’re putting the safety of the whole world at risk because you’re too preoccupied chancing death to be there for the important fights.” Tony’s stomach twisted, and something dark must have shown on his face, because Rhodey squeezed his hand.

“Hey, hey look at me. They’re wrong, Tones. They’re completely wrong. Don’t you listen to them,” Rhodey said.

“When have I ever taken anything the press has said about me at face value?” Tony asked, then recanted at Rhodey’s raised eyebrows. “Okay, stupid question. They’re not wrong though. The Avengers do look weak, now especially since the world’s favorite Avenger is out for the count. We can’t look like an easy target.” Tony sighed, mulling it over.

“You wish you were the world’s favorite Avenger,” Rhodey muttered under his breath.

“I could get numbers you know, poll who America’s favorite is, get a definitive answer. Do you really want to challenge me, Rhodes? Although, hah, Cap’s still so popular, that’s maybe a box we don’t want to open,” Tony said, laughing when Rhodey moved to flick his head again.

They thought in silence, the clock on the wall ticking away the seconds.

“If I checked out early, we could play it that I’m recovering better than expected,” Tony said. He watched Rhodey’s eyebrows furrow in concern.

“You took a really bad beating there T, I’m not sure you should check out. And you’d have to avoid the press circuit for a while, which means laying low. Is that even possible for you in New York?” Rhodey asked, his voice tinged with amusement.

“I don’t have to be,” Tony said, thinking it out. “In New York, anyways. You know and I know that a lot of this observation stuff is just precautionary don’t let the rich idiot sue us. We could make it look good, especially if Cobra Commander was the one who announced it. That asshole never misses an opportunity to spout about how mighty his force is, which, when you think about it, sounds like he’s compensating for something.”

Rhodey hummed, looking at him. He wasn’t protesting yet, because he knew, like Tony did, that the Avengers had to look strong right now. They couldn’t afford taunting something big and bad these days if they could avoid it.

“Could head up to my cabin,” Tony said, an offer.

“You mean the one in Canada you bought after you learned about Barton’s hideaway farm?” Rhodey asked, eyebrows raised. “Have you spent more than a day up there before?”

“Enough time to set up running water and heat. There’s plenty of food too,” Tony said, waving a hand in dismissal.

“Didn’t you pick a spot that was as far from reception as you could get it? To quote, ‘relax and embody your Amish heritage’?” His fingers came up to make the necessary air quotes. “You still don’t have any, by the way,” Rhodey said.

“I caved and set up a TV,” Tony said. “But that’s it. No Wi-Fi, no reception, no landlines, no one around for a good fifty miles. Just me and some engineering projects. It’d be fun. Really. Stop giving me that look, you don’t know what I like.”

“Ignoring that. You could use a break,” Rhodey said, studying him. “You’re bringing a radio with you though. And a sat-phone. I do not want to have to worry about you up there. And you’ll follow the doctor’s instructions about your burns. Including,” Rhodey continued, interrupting Tony’s budding protest, “whatever warning signs that mean you have to check yourself back into the hospital.”

Tony sighed. “The things I do for you, my sweet Prince. Fine, yes. So, plan: I’ll check out AMA tomorrow, Ross can hold a conference that says I’m recovering faster than the doctors expected, the Avengers are still as strong as ever yadda yadda, all his typical ‘my dick is bigger than yours’ shit. By then I’ll be out of the country and out of the public eye so no one will have reason to think the team is vulnerable,” Tony said, laying back down. “Well, more so than usual these days. I’ll call Peter too, make sure he knows to be on high alert in New York.”

“You’ll check out AMA the day after tomorrow. I’ll deal with Ross, I can call him when I leave, make sure he’s up to speed,” Rhodey said. He reached over to the stand beside Tony’s bed, grabbed the remote. “Now, let’s see what’s on TV.”

“No news,” Tony said, voice slurring. Sudden exhaustion swept through him.

Rhodey flipped through the channels, stopping on one that had Spanish audio. “I’ve been watching this telenovela while you were under and I gotta tell you, I need to know who slept with Marissa’s brother.”

“Go at it, bumblebee,” Tony said, his eyes drooping. “Think I’m gonna take a nap now.”

“You rest up. I’ll see you in the morning,” Rhodey said, and the last thing Tony felt was a soothing hand running through his hair. It was nice, to be touched so casually. Tony missed that.

 


 

Both the medical check out and press conference went off about as well as Tony expected. The doctor looked at him hard for a long minute before listing care instructions and warning signs of infection. Tony politely listened and then asked for the paperwork.

Ross, who Tony had not spoken to and planned to keep it that way until he could think about it without getting mad at him for risking his life twice, held an incredibly boring press conference that conveyed the necessary facts: Tony was doing better than expected, he was released from the hospital with a good prognosis, he was back at the Compound effective immediately, and he was hard at work on updates to keep the Avengers ready for when the world needed them.

The phone had been lost in the explosion. Tony had asked, as neutral as possible, if Vision had seen it. Rhodey had given him a Look, told him that they were a little distracted by the idiot who was bleeding out to use their Find My Phone app. Tony tamped down on the surge of anxiety, pushed the entire episode from his mind. It probably didn’t matter now anyway.

Once he got back to the Compound, Tony threw together a bag of clothes and put it, a radio, and the satellite phone he promised Rhodey into his most discreet car. After a quick check in with SI and Peter, he was ready to go. He left within the same hour he got back.

He drove up to the Canadian border that day. The border patrol either didn’t recognize him or didn’t care, and he made it all the way to his cabin without any sort of fuss.

His call to Rhodey was short. Tony told him he’d gotten in safe, his burns were fine, no unexpected increase in pain, and yes, he did know about the snow storm heading his way, thank you Rhodey, how could he have missed that he was spending time in a cabin in Canada in February?

Tony closed the car door with a small click, took in the discreet cabin in front of him.

It was small, only one floor with three rooms. When Tony had bought it, its description had “rustic charm” inserted in almost every sentence, as if it made up for the lack of running water, heat, or electricity in the house. Tony had bought it for the location alone and had dedicated his spare time to updating it.

He built the bathroom up where the office space was, because Tony may have been intrigued by the country lifestyle but he wasn’t an animal. The outhouse, which, really, who had an outhouse in 2017, he knocked down and filled, and then proceeded to never think about again.

It wasn’t modern. Tony had meant it, when he told Rhodey he wanted something unplugged. He didn’t need a lot to tinker with his toys, little stress-relief projects that weren’t the next big thing for Stark Industries. He just needed a couple of motors and his toolkit.

The heater he installed kept things warm, but if he wanted to, he had a huge fireplace, and a Hulking pile of firewood, in the center of the cabin to keep things as Hamilton themed as he pleased. In a pique of amusement, Tony had bought a massive fur rug and threw it down in front of it.

Aside from the TV, the coffee machine, and the lights, there wasn’t an electronic thing in the house. The low wooden coffee table held most of his mechanical projects, scattered across in various states of assembly. They were all he really wanted.

Tony looked through the massive windows that showcased a snowy landscape, dotted with fir and pine trees. It was almost nauseatingly picturesque. But the weather looked good so far. He wasn’t too worried about that snow storm.

He pushed into the bedroom, began unpacking his bag. The bed was piled with quilts he’d taken—stolen, a voice like Rhodey insisted in his head—from Rhodey’s mom. At the foot Tony kept more of them in a chest, mostly to aggravate Rhodey when he was helping him move in.

It was incredibly bucolic, and Tony briefly wondered if he would manage to stay here without going out of his mind.

Before dinner, Tony sat on the king bed, cleaned his burns and reapplied salve and bandages. All told, Tony was grateful he had been knocked out while the worst of the burns were treated. The armor had done its job though. Coupled with the treatment Tony had undergone he had been left with painful but manageable sores across his stomach and arms. They hurt like a bitch, but would be healed up soon enough.

His stab wound was similar. The stitches from his brief stint as pipe fodder pulled when he moved, and it hurt to walk or strain his abs, but it was healing well.

It was dark out as he heated up dinner. He sat down on the couch gingerly. It was time to get to work. He threw on a nature documentary as background noise and dove into finishing one of his personal projects. First, improving the hydraulics and maneuverability in the bots’ arms.

Tony must have fallen asleep at some point, because when he awoke it was dark out and he was stretched across the couch, arm hanging loosely by his head dropping towards the floor, blanket draped across his legs.

Across from him in the arm chair was Steve.

Tony blinked, stared at him for a second before bolting up, scrambling to right himself. His burns pulled at his skin and he felt his eyes water at sudden onset of pain.

“Jesus fuck, what the goddamn fucking shit are you doing here Rogers?” Tony asked. He looked at Steve. Good Christ that was a beard. A full faced, grizzly beard. It was nothing like the manicured facial hair Tony kept. Steve looked good with it, older and a touch darker than when Tony had seen him last. His eyes were solemn, but sad. Sad like the day in Sokovia—which Tony was resolutely not going to think about.

“Hi Tony,” Steve said, hunching his shoulders a bit, as if to make himself look smaller. His hands were clasped between his spread legs. “Guess you weren’t expecting me so soon, huh?”

“I was expecting you like I was expecting the Spanish Inquisition,” Tony said, seething anger creeping up from his bones, seeping out through his blood like a poison. He inched himself away from Steve on the couch, until there was more distance between them and Tony couldn’t see his sadlonelyresigned eyes so clearly. “Which—hey, reference for you—I wasn’t. I’ll ask again, what are you doing here?”

Steve stared at him, blinking for several moments. “I thought you wanted me here,” he said. “You sent that text in Sokovia before you got blown up, and then right after the press conference with Ross, who said you were staying at the Compound, you left the country. I—weren’t you trying to send a message?”

Tony stared at him for several seconds, almost flabbergasted, as the anger rolled in his stomach. “If I wanted to meet, I would have said as much. You get a message from me? Asking to meet me by the bleachers after practice?” he asked.

“Shuri said the phone was destroyed in the explosion. I assumed that’s why you did the dance with the press conference and Ross,” Steve said, frowning. “Why did you send it at all then? I don’t—why reach out?”

“Because I thought I was about to be killed. Christ, Rogers,” Tony said, throwing his head back on the couch and staring up at the ceiling. “I didn’t want to die without at least some resolution between us. FRIDAY was sure that we weren’t going to clear the blast radius, that the explosion was going to knock us out for the count permanently.”

Steve paled.

“So, that’s the only time you’d reach out huh,” he said, his voice doing something funny. Tony realized with a start that he was angry. “You won’t call for help, but if you think you’re dying, you’ll call me then, just to make sure you have the last word, is that it, Stark?”

“I wanted to apologize before I left for good, tie off any loose ends!” Tony shouted. He’d missed Steve like he missed JARVIS, but five minutes in his company and all he could feel was anger and regret. It burned hot through him.

“Well maybe I’m not some end you can just tie off with a fucking text message!” Steve roared back. Tony could see the whites of his eyes.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, next time I think I’m about to be blown to pieces, I will be sure to call you in advance and read out a long apology I’ve written out,” Tony said. His heart was hammering in his chest. Tony swore he could see red along the edges of his vision.

“I don’t—that’s not what I—Goddammit, Stark,” Steve said, dropping his head into his hands.

Tony stared at him for a long moment, waiting. Counted his own breaths to get some control of his own body back.

“I have been waiting for you to call, or text, or. Or. Skywrite that you were ready to talk. And the first goddamned message from you is this—text. And all it says is ‘sorry’, and. And next thing I see is ‘Breaking News: Iron Man in an Explosion in Sokovia’,” Steve said, his voice thick.

“You gave me a phone, you know,” Tony said, because he was nothing if not petulant when he wanted to be. “You didn’t slide me a number on a napkin in a bar. You sent me a phone, Steve. You could have called me just as easily as I could have called you.”

“I know,” Steve said, his hands gripping his hair. Tony realized it was longer than—than before. “I just—God, I wanted to give you space. Wanted to let you make the first move. If I reached out first, how selfish would that be?”

“Well gee, Cap, maybe it would have been better than making me crawl to you and beg you to come back with our entire fucking team!” Tony said.

Steve exhaled noisily through his mouth. He dropped his hands, looked up at Tony. His eyes were wet, and Tony was struck with how miserable he looked. How miserable he himself felt.

There was a pause, as they took each other in. They stared at each other, eyes wild. It felt like Siberia again, standing in the wreckage of a burning house.

“I—I’m sorry. I wanted to call, but I kept telling myself I didn’t want to put that pressure on you. But maybe that wasn’t the only reason. It wasn’t to make you beg—the others, they would’ve come the minute you asked. And if they didn’t, I’d—I’d make them go. I would. God, I would never let them humiliate you. Not like that,” Steve said, his voice choked but strong. Insistent. Like he had to convince Tony.

“I didn’t want you here,” Tony said. “For this,” he gestured angrily at the space between them, “exact reason. You should go.”

Steve took another breath, watched him with the same focus he gave to studying battle plans. He seemed to calm himself, strengthen his resolve with whatever he found, looking at Tony.

Maybe he saw the conflict Tony struggled with, the anger and the pain interwoven with the desire to talk and reconnect, all mixed up like a jumble of cables. Maybe he saw how lost Tony felt, these days.

“I was so happy,” he said, his mouth twitching up at the corners in a thinly veiled semblance of a smile. “That you reached out. I was—I was ready to talk. To apologize, God, and. And start rebuilding. I wanted that. I want that. So please,” he looked down at his hands again, clutched together in his lap, “can we, can we try? Just. For a little while. Can we?” He looked up again, met Tony’s eyes.

He wasn’t begging. But he was trying. Trying to find a thread between them that wasn’t broken, trying to reach out, build something, fix them.

Tony exhaled through his nose, watched Steve watching him. A small part of him wanted that too. Wondered if—hoped that this could be a turning point. Find out if what was between them could even be fixed.

The rest of him was just exhausted.

“No,” he said.

Steve flinched.

Tony hurried on. “Not tonight, I mean. I’m tired, I’m cranky, my everything hurts like a bitch, and honestly all I want to do is watch TV and finish this project.” He gestured towards the TV screen, realized belatedly that the episode was paused. He wondered if he’d done that as he was falling asleep or if Steve had.

He suspected Steve.

Steve nodded, almost imperceptibly, and slumped back into the armchair. He was still studying Tony intently, like he was a new enemy on the field that needed to be analyzed to formulate a better attack.

“You checked yourself out AMA again, didn’t you?” Steve asked, and there was that ghost of a smile again.

Tony shrugged, turned to face the TV. “Had to make it look like I was okay,” he said, reaching down to rearrange the blankets. “There’s only three of us now, and Viz keeps spending his time going on dates with an escaped convict in Europe. There isn’t much downtime.”

Tony could hear the frown in Steve’s voice as he answered. “I’m sorry about that, Tony. I never intended for things to end up like this,” he said.

“Yes, but you did intend for some of those things to happen,” Tony said, pushing down the spark of anger he could feel in his gut. “I did too,” he offered, when he felt Steve was about to say something unendingly harsh and truthful all at once. “Just. Not now, okay?”

Steve exhaled again. “Okay Tony, whatever you want,” he said. He angled his head towards the TV screen, his profile illuminated by the light cast from it. Even after all of this, he was still beautiful.

Tony nodded, reached for his glass of water, noticed all too quickly that he had very little left. He drank down the rest, wondered if it was worth it to get up, limp past Steve into the kitchen to get more.

“I can get that,” Steve said, pulling the glass gently out of Tony’s hand before he realized what was happening. Tony watched him walk into the kitchen, realized he was wearing civilian clothes.

Steve poured water from the island sink, caught Tony watching and tilted his head, a silent question.

“I didn’t expect you to be in civvies,” Tony said, turning to look down at his own rather casual wardrobe. He was in pajama bottoms and an old MIT t-shirt he’d maybe-sorta-definitely stolen from Rhodey.

“Nat didn’t think it’d be very incognito if I showed up in the suit,” Steve offered. He came back to the coffee table and placed the full glass down in front of Tony, before sitting back down in the armchair. Tony felt a rush of gratitude that he hadn’t tried to hand it to him.

“She also didn’t think you’d like what I did to it much,” he said, after a minute’s pause, chuckling. He was trying, Tony realized, to act like things were normal, to help them regain the easy camaraderie they’d had before. His insides twisted at the thought. A part of him wanted that. Another part despaired, that they had to try so hard to get back there.

But, Tony had missed Steve so, so much. He wanted that too.

He looked at Steve, his eyebrow raised in question.

“I uh, took some artistic liberties with it once it became clear we had to go into hiding,” Steve said, mouth quirking to the side.

“Please tell me you didn’t add a cape,” Tony said. “Or, ugh, did you change the design? Because a lot of that was tailored to give you maximum coverage and as much maneuverability as I could manage, Cap. If you changed it a lot it won’t protect you as much. Not with your style of fighting.”

“Nomad,” Steve said, quietly. “I gave up the shield. I’m not—I go by Nomad now.”

Tony’s brain stuttered on that, caught on the vestiges of Steve throwing down the shield, limping away. He pushed past it.

“Nomad, Cap, Bull Headed Man, whatever you’re calling yourself,” Tony said, waving his hand in dismissal, “it’s important that if you changed the fit of the suit that it still protects you.” Concern leaked into his voice.

“It does,” Steve said, almost smiling again at Tony, even though his eyes were closed off, pain locked away and buried deep inside with all of his other losses. And God, Tony hated that he could still tell when Steve was in pain, after all of this. “It’s honestly just a dye job, to make it look darker. And I, um, cut out the star out.”

Tony blinked, thought that piece of information through. “How My Chemical Romance of you, Rogers, but hey, it fits with your rebellion phase,” he said, shrugging.

Steve hummed a little in agreement, leaned back in his chair, a clear sign he was putting aside their discussion for now. He gestured towards the screen. “What’s this?”

“Something nature-y,” Tony said, grabbing the remote. “You’d probably know a whole lot more about it now than I would.”

“Do you want to watch it?” Steve asked, seemingly ignoring Tony’s jab. Which. Fair. Tony was trying to get a rise out of him. Tony deflated a little in his seat, ejected the DVD.

“Let’s just put something else on. I have this uh, sitcom here. Brooklyn Nine Nine. You ever watch it?” Tony asked, stretching across the miniature forklift he was going to work on next. He picked up a different DVD case, held it up for inspection. Steve’s gaze studied him intently.

“Sam loves that show,” Steve said after a moment, offering it like an olive branch. Tony supposed that was warranted, the peace between them frail like too thin ice. “I haven’t seen it from the beginning though.”

“Well there you go,” Tony said, handing him the case. “You can set it up, I’m still an invalid.”

“You? Never,” Steve said with a small grin. He grabbed the case and swapped out the DVDs.

Once he sat down, Steve spoke again. “I guess congratulations are in order.”

Tony looked at him as the DVD started playing through the copyright warnings. He figured he conveyed what the fuck well enough, by the duck of Steve’s head.

“Your engagement? Not your injuries, God, Tony,” Steve said. His lips quirked a little in self-awareness.

Tony looked down at his ringer clad finger, pulled it off. “We called it off,” he said. A part of Tony screamed at him to stop. Opening up to Steve, after everything, hurt like he was being pushed into a dirty bucket of water with a car battery in his chest. “After—well, after the announcement, we were good for a while. But then I got the surgery to put the arc reactor back in. It didn’t go over so well. Only our friends know. Turns out Iron Man being engaged to a world-renowned CEO was doing wonders for both the Avengers’ PR and SI stock.” Tony shrugged, twirling the ring between his fingers.

“Friends,” Steve said, flat. Tony thought he saw a flash of hurt in his eyes, but couldn’t be sure. Didn’t know how much of that was wishful thinking, his own stupid heart reading into expressions, seeing more than was really there. Hadn’t he done that exact dance already?

“If you expected me to call you in Madagascar to tell you that I got engaged and then that I got unengaged, you severely mislabelled that phone,” Tony said.

“Haven’t been to Madagascar yet,” Steve said with a small smile. His eyes looked sad. “Not much out there for us to help with.”

“You clearly haven’t been in many conservation education programs,” Tony said. He put the ring down on the coffee table. “Although, I’m not sure you could punch endangered species back into repopulation.”

“Could punch the companies responsible for deforestation,” Steve offered, eyes drifting up to the ceiling in thought. “But honestly, I’d prefer to send Nat in, do some recon.”

“Agreed,” Tony said. He drummed his fingers on the coffee table. “For the record, I would have told you. If you were uh-”

“Not hiding in Madagascar,” Steve said. He smiled. As if Tony telling him that was cause for relief. “I get it. And I’m sorry, about you and Pepper.” He looked like he wanted to say more, but didn’t.

“If you want to say you saw it coming, go for it,” Tony said. “Honestly, I’m pretty sure Rhodey was stocking up on ice cream and romcoms for months before we called it. But uh, thanks.”

“No, I don’t think—I don’t know that I ever understood how you acted in relationships. I completely missed it when you two broke up the first time. Maybe because I wasn’t paying attention, or—I don’t know. I was looking so far in the other direction, I missed how much you were hurting,” Steve said. He looked frustrated, sad. Tony’s stomach jerked. He didn’t know how to react in the face of Steve caring about his feelings. “I hope you’re not hurting much now.”

“I’m not,” Tony said. He couldn’t tamp down the urge to tell Steve everything. “I mean sure, it fucking sucked the first time she broke up with me. And then well—everything that happened after with the team. It was good, when we got back together. More settled. But I think we both knew there was an end-date coming at us. Even when we were making wedding plans, I don’t know if we gave a timeline to any of the planners. It’s—I’m fine now. Pepper’s a great friend. We’ve moved on.”

“Good,” Steve said. It came out in a rush. As if he were embarrassed by the outburst, Steve cleared his throat. “That’s—I’m glad you’re doing good. That’s really—good.” He swallowed. “The arc reactor looks different now.”

Tony looked down, where it was glowing through his clothes. “Modified the design a bit, so it could hold the nanobots. Pepper said it looks like a heart.”

“It does look like a heart,” Steve said. “Nanobots?”

“Suit upgrade,” Tony said. “Like the gauntlet watch only—bigger. More badass.”

“More portable, too,” Steve said. He watched Tony like he understood something. He looked sad.

Tony decided it was time to move on. If he talked any more about his feelings he’d break out in hives.

“Portable and convenient, the tech industry’s motto. So, tangent, are we watching TV?” Tony asked, gesturing towards the screen.

Steve studied him for a moment, but nodded, settled back into the armchair.

It was a quiet night, after that. They were both hushed. Still pretending that everything was fine. It was forced, neither as relaxed as they could be, spending time in each other’s company. But Tony could feel that they were adjusting to the other, adapting to their presence again. It wasn’t bad, just delicate. They were walking on eggshells, acting in a shadow puppet theater.

But soon Tony needed it to end. It hurt too much, to be exposed again to Steve. Tony felt as if he was going to burst out of his skin.

After the first disk was through, Tony excused himself to bed, rushing out a goodnight and belated offers to use his couch and blankets. He hurriedly limped from the room, Steve’s quiet goodnight, Tony chasing at his heels.

As Tony curled himself up in bed, his heart was racing, a combination of anxiety and something else that he was too afraid to put a name on. Hope or—possibility.

He lay there and slowed his breaths, forced himself to relax under the covers. He entertained himself with the idea that he could hear Steve’s steady breathing through the solid door that was closed between them, found his breath slowing more. As he slipped off to sleep, a thought, about how nice it was to have him nearby again, slunk in.

 


 

When Tony woke up again, it was the middle of the night. He was freezing. Tony grumbled, wanted to curl up in the sheets and go back to sleep, but couldn't. The cold seeped into his skin, left him wishing he was in Malibu. He rolled himself out of bed, cracking open the door to go fiddle with the thermostat.

It was colder in the main room. Tony shivered, stumbled quietly past the couch, though he realized quickly it was a moot point. Steve was sitting propped up on the arm, wrapped in the blankets, clearly awake and motionless.

“Hey, sorry, I didn’t realize it was going to be this cold,” Tony said, hobbling over to the small box on the wall. He squinted at it, upped the temperature by several degrees, staring at the numbers impatiently as he heard the heater click on.

“‘S fine,” Steve said, after a long pause.

Tony turned back towards him, studied him. He had his hands wrapped around himself, looked like he could be knocked over if Tony breathed on him wrong. Ungrounded. He was staring down at his lap, lost somewhere in his mind. He looked wrong.

Tony made a noise, limped back towards his bedroom door.

“Sleep well,” Steve said, subdued, to Tony’s back. Tony ignored him.

In his room, he crouched by the big chest, flipping open the lid. He rummaged until he found the heaviest blanket he had, pulled it up and dragged it back into the living room. Steve was leaning back, eyes closed, chest moving steadily with his breath. Tony knew he could hear him, but he didn’t move or acknowledge Tony’s approach.

Unceremoniously, he dumped the large blanket on Steve’s lap. Steve startled, opened his eyes to see what it was.

“This should help until the heat kicks in,” Tony said, gaze skittering away when Steve’s eyes looked up to catch his. They were so blue in the dark cabin, lit only by the moonlight reflected off the snow in the windows.

Tony swallowed, moved back quickly. “Anyways. Give a holler if you need more, I’ve got a literal chest of them back here,” he said. “That I definitely did not steal from Rhodey’s mom. Not that you talk with Rhodey’s mom so really, there’s no reason to even bring that up. Ah ha. Right. Night, Rogers.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, quiet but sincere. “Goodnight.”

Tony closed the door again quickly, leaning back on it. Tried to ignore his racing heart. Steve being vulnerable and pretty was not a fair condition to put on an injured man. Tony didn’t have any defenses to fight against it.

 


 

In the morning, Tony found out exactly why it was so cold last night.

“Snowed in,” Tony repeated, opening the cabin door to see for himself. A wall of snow greeted him. “That’s just—wow. This is taking a page out from a romance novel. I am the world’s worst romantic heroine, I have some complaints.”

“You did buy that absurd sex rug,” Steve said.

Tony closed the door, turned and stared at it in thought. “Huh. You know I haven’t been laid recently enough if I managed to miss that I bought myself a sex rug, fuck.”

“Yes, that would be the idea,” Steve said, shoving eggs into his mouth when Tony turned to level him with his stare.

“You, shut up. I do not want to hear opinions on my sex life from America’s next gothic model. Are you even getting laid these days? The beard is very ‘fuck me, daddy,’ I guess, if that’s your thing,” Tony said, coming over to get a closer look at it in broad daylight—or well—filtered through snow daylight. Fuck, it looked even better when the morning sun reflected off of the hairs, like little specks of gold. Tony swallowed, turned towards the stove.

“I’m sure I wouldn’t mind it if it was my partner’s thing,” Steve said, musing aloud. “Mind you, we didn’t have a lot of time to step foot in sex clubs on the run.”

“But you did have some time? Did you practice knots? Positions? I’m stealing the rest of your eggs now, my cabin, my right to plunder,” Tony told him, grabbing a fork and eating the eggs straight from the saucepan.

Steve smiled at him, small but, Tony noted with a stomach jerk, sincere. “Got to practice lots of things,” he said, and Tony’s breath stuttered. “And I know you know I made extra for you. If I’d known you’d lost all your manners the minute you left the country I would have plated them for you.”

“That is a bald faced lie, I never have manners, where have you been,” Tony said, deliberately chewing with his mouth open just to see Steve make a face of disgust.

“Europe, mostly,” Steve said. They were both silent then, pause heavy with all the things still between them. Before things could grow awkward, Tony shoveled the rest of the eggs into his mouth, headed back towards his room.

“I need to deal with these,” Tony said, mouth still full, gesturing towards his burns.

“And leave me with the dishes, I see,” Steve said, eyebrow raised.

“Uh, nice try, all those dishes were yours to begin with,” Tony said, opening and stepping through the bedroom door. Steve’s chuckle followed him.

When he came back out, dressed and new bandages applied, the dishes had been washed and set to dry by the sink. Steve was back in the armchair, studying the miniature forklift Tony had left on the coffee table from the night before. His ring was resting right in front of his place. Tony wondered if Steve had moved it.

“I’m building a construction site,” Tony told him, sitting down on the couch. The blankets Steve had used were folded neatly and placed on the back. “I’m working on a crane next.”

“I think it’s cute,” Steve said, putting the forklift down gently on the table. “It’s good to know that even billionaire philanthropists still play with toys.”

“I’m never taking you to a model train show, you’d get into a fight in ten minutes and get us both banned,” Tony said, picking up the forklift himself. He needed to program it, so that it would move and pick up construction materials. He put his ring on one of the prongs.

“You mean a convention where people show off their toy trains?” Steve asked innocently, eyes wide. Shit, Tony had missed sarcastic Steve so much. Tony sat the forklift down with a snort.

“See, that—right there—is why you can never go. Absolutely no respect for manly and adult hobbies,” Tony said. Steve tracked the forklift as it drove around the table, putting the ring in a corner that Tony’s programming had demarcated for storage.

“I can think of better adult hobbies you could be doing,” Steve said, and that made something in Tony’s brain screech to a halt. He looked over at Steve, found him staring at him intently, and nope, that train of thought—hah—was stopping right here.

“So, let’s talk about how we’re snowed in for the foreseeable future,” Tony said. Deflecting was, after all, his superpower.

Steve sighed. “I know you said you weren’t expecting this,” he said. “I’ll leave as soon as I can. I don’t want to pressure you when you aren’t ready.” There was a joke there, didn’t you do a Cap PSA on peer pressure, that Tony wouldn’t make. Couldn’t, when his feelings were so tangled up in his throat.

“Not sure I’ll ever be ready,” Tony said in a bout of honesty. He saw the flash of pain on Steve’s face. “But I am glad you’re here, now that it’s already happened. Pretty sure I’d have blown something up already, if I realized I was snowed in alone.”

“That would have been counterintuitive to your stealth plan,” Steve said, corners of his mouth slanting upwards. “Which is still terrible, by the way. If you needed to show the Avengers looked stronger, you could have done a lot of things that didn’t involve isolating yourself in the countryside. Called Spider-Man, for one.”

“Peter’s aunt doesn’t like it when I involve him in national news,” Tony said. “She has a whole thing about it. Wrote out a set of rules. I’m—I’m trying to not fuck him up.”

“You won’t,” Steve said firmly.

Tony hummed noncommittally, bent over the coffee table to recollect himself. Picked up a small helicopter.

“There’s not much up here, in terms of distraction,” Tony said, instead of why do you trust me after all of this. Wondered if it was the same reason Tony trusted Steve. “There’s whatever DVDs are in the cabinet there, these little gremlins,” he gestured to the coffee table, “and I think I brought up a few books. They’re mostly Italian though.”

Steve looks over at him. “From your dad?” he asked, eyes sharp, like he was dissecting Tony and trying to understand everything about him. Isn’t it too late, Tony thought, even as he met Steve’s gaze head on. He’d match Steve every step of the way.

“Grandparents mostly,” Tony said, getting up. He nodded towards the books with his head. “Some are my mom’s from when she was a kid. I think there’s also a journal or two Helen gave me to read over. Did you want to look, see if there was something?”

Steve studied the shelf, turned and shrugged at Tony.

“Sure, I guess. Whaddya got for me, Stark?” he asked, eyebrow raised in challenge. Tony’s mouth twitched up. He strolled over to the shelf to browse, Steve following him.

“Italian, Italian, Italian, I hope that’s Italian—can you read Italian by the way?” Tony asked, fingers flipping through the titles.

“I’m getting the feeling I should have learned,” Steve said, wry. “I can read French pretty well, if you’ve got that.”

“Hmm, no, doesn’t look it. I do have—ooh, there’s Helen’s journal, I knew it was around. I do have some of Rhodey’s guilty pleasure books up here, if you wanted to mock his tastes.” Tony pulled out a thick paperback book, presented it to Steve with a flourish Vanna White would be proud of.

Steve read the title, his mouth growing wide with a grin. “Is that a romance novel?”

“Yup,” Tony said, popping the p. “Total bodice ripper. You know when I first found these, he told me they belonged to his mom.”

“Did you buy it?” Steve asked, taking the book and flipping it over to read the back cover.

“At first, until I found more of them in our apartment,” Tony said, shrugging. “He has very particular tastes.”

“Have you read it?” Steve asked.

“Never,” Tony swore. “I have actual taste.”

Ilana Vintros isn’t anybody,” Steve read aloud. “She’s poor, has no connections, and as her mother tells her often, isn’t even pretty. She has one dream in life: to sail the seven seas. It seems impossible, for a peasant like her, until one day, a mysterious Captain pulls into port. Dashing and elusive, Ilana feels herself pulled towards him like a ship is pulled towards shore. Will he help her escape her boring life in Portsmouth?”

“Pirate romances,” Tony said, shaking his head. “Rhodey can’t get enough of them. That’s probably your best bet, unless you have a sudden interest in neurogenesis in adult brains.”

“Looks like I’m about to see what this pirate fuss is all about,” Steve said, grinning. He thumbed through a few pages, his stance easy.

“Oh, you missed the big comeback in the 2000s, when that movie came out,” Tony said, walking back to his little bots.

“Sam and Nat made me watch it,” Steve said, following him. “The sets were nice.”

“Oh God, if Rhodey finds out Wilson also likes pirates, we will never hear the end of it,” Tony said, shuddering.

Steve hummed, sat back down in the armchair again. They spent a few hours like that, Steve reading, Tony building more robots for his miniature construction site. Tony was pretty sure he could coordinate their programming so they could build the old Stark Tower, so long as he networked their A.I. together.

He got so lost in the coding that he missed it when Steve got up to make lunch, only looking up when Steve tapped on his shoulder, a plate of sandwiches next to him on the table.

“Lunch time,” Steve said. “How’s the workshop going, Santa?”

Tony took one of the sandwiches, bit into it greedily. It was his favorite, roast beef and tomato. Tony stopped himself from drooling on the ground. “Santa doesn’t really build the toys, he’s more of the delegate to underlings type. If anything, I am head elf,” Tony said. “I’m pretty sure I could program these to build a bust of me now, so it’s going well.”

“Isn’t there a bust of you already? In that one art exhibit?” Steve asked, that one eyebrow raised again. Tony took another bite of the sandwich. Steve had added mustard too, Tony was going to marry it.

“Not sure why you think I’d only need one, Rogers, I am a billionaire playboy. Should have at least one at each end of my bedroom,” Tony said.

“One to greet people as they enter and one to watch over them from the headboard,” Steve said, as if it was obvious.

“I like that. I’m stealing that,” Tony said, pointing with his sandwich. “When Vanity Fair does its next piece on me, I’m going to make sure to point them out, say they were tastefully suggested by Steve Rogers.”

“Outlaw extraordinaire,” Steve said, one corner of his mouth pulling up.

“Admittedly, the breaking the law schtick did increase your artistic status in some circles,” Tony said.

“That’s good to know,” Steve said sincerely. “It’s important to me that I constantly work on my social mobility.”

“Well, going from America’s darling to dashing criminal definitely did something to your social mobility,” Tony said. “Not sure which direction it took you. We’d have to do some canvassing, some focus groups, though I have a hunch you’re in with the millennials.”

“Gosh,” Steve said, voice turning saccharine. “Humdrum fuddy duddy old me? Getting along with the youths? That sure is swell of them.”

Tony startled out a laugh. Steve looked pleased, smiling bright at Tony.

“I missed you,” Tony found himself saying.

Steve looked at him, eyes wide. Tony couldn’t blame him, he wasn’t sure what depths of his mind that had come from either.

A beat, but then Steve moved, telegraphed his movements clearly, rested a hand gently on Tony’s knee. Tony let out a slow breath when he realized the anger hadn’t surged up.

“I missed you too,” Steve said, smile fragile.

Tony cleared his throat, moving back. Steve picked up his hand, but stayed leaned into Tony’s space.

“More Brooklyn Nine Nine?” Tony asked. “Where did you and Sam pick up anyways?”

“Not for a while,” Steve said. “I can put the next disk in?” He got up before Tony could say please.

Tony tracked his movements, ignoring the small rise in heat he felt as he watched Steve’s forearms peek out from his shirt, stretching up to put the disk in. Tony clearly needed to get laid, and soon, if Steve showing a little arm was doing it for him.

Tony sighed, slunk back into the couch, and ignored the growing part of him that wanted to ask Steve to come back.

 


 

Waking up in the middle of the night was a trend Tony was fast becoming sick of.

Tony blinked blearily at the windows, glowing through the snow and curtains with a white light. A full moon was probably due soon. He wasn’t sure what had woken him up, but something felt off. Tony slipped out of bed into the thankfully warmer room. He had learned his lesson about temperatures in nighttime Canada, thanks.

Tony opened the bedroom door carefully, slipped out into the main room, and immediately realized what the problem was as his eyes were drawn to the couch. Steve was tossing and turning on the cushions, panting heavily. Tony knew a nightmare when he saw it. His stomach lurched in sympathy. He padded around the couch, saw the furrow between Steve’s eyebrows. He resisted the urge to smooth it away.

Tony perched on the coffee table. He couldn’t touch Steve, so he had to help him get through his trap of a mind in other ways. He starting talking about the new code updates for FRIDAY, listing all the new features he wanted to establish with her. He’d just gotten to the new Rhodey catchphrase music list, when Steve jerked up, gasping.

“Hey hey hey, it’s alright. Do you know where you are?” Tony asked. Steve looked around for a minute, before focusing on him.

Tony,” Steve gasped.

“Yep, that’s me,” Tony said. “Do you remember where you are?”

“Canada,” Steve grunted out. “Your ridiculous jealousy cabin. Snowed in.”

“Good, that’s good. I’m ignoring the part where you blatantly insulted me,” Tony said. “Do you remember what happened?”

Steve nodded, a little jerky and fast. “Nightmare,” he said. He took a deep breath. “I’m fine now. Really. You can—you can go back to sleep.”

“I,” Tony said, like a declaration, “did not get up for you. I got up to make myself hot chocolate. Really, Rogers, don’t act conceited, it’s not a good look for you.”

Steve turned his head a little towards him, probably tried his best at a smile, but it looked terrible. Tony immediately wanted him to stop. “Can I touch you?” Tony asked, fingers twitching where he gripped the table beneath him.

Steve hesitated, breathed out, nodded, his hand shooting out, seeking. Tony leaned into it as it came to grasp his shoulder. Steve tipped forward, rested his forehead in the juncture of Tony’s shoulder and neck. The rasp of his beard prickled Tony’s skin through the shirt. Tony suppressed a shiver.

Tony’s hand came up, combed through the back of Steve’s hair. Steve was shuddering minutely where he sat.

“Do me a favor? Take a deep breath for me?” Tony asked, letting the hand in Steve’s hair start petting in a steady rhythm. Steve inhaled like a stuttering engine, but on the exhale seemed more in control. “Good, that’s good. Another?”

Steve complied, his breath stronger this time. He snorted a little, into Tony’s shoulder. Tony felt the ends of his hair as they brushed his neck. “What?” he asked, amused.

“Smell nice,” Steve said.

“Pepper,” Tony said, figuring that explained enough. “I think this one was uh, a green tea infusion? Something horrifically pseudo-science marketed.”

Steve hummed a little. Tony let his hand drop down, started tracing designs across the nape of Steve’s neck. Steve sighed, melted into Tony’s shoulder.

After a few minutes, Steve drew back. He looked like he was schooling his features. Tony tamped down on the desire to reel him back in, tell him he could stay there as long as he wanted.

“Thank you,” Steve said. He was rigid. “I really am fine now.”

Tony made a disbelieving noise, studied him a little. “Do me a favor? Stretch out for me,” Tony asked, instead of saying you don’t have to be fine right away. Steve looked at him, confused, but acquiesced, stretching out.

The problem was, Tony realized, trying to help someone through the aftermath of a PTSD nightmare was a lot simpler when said subject wasn’t incredibly hot. Tony did his best not to stare at the taut stomach muscles that came on display as Steve’s shirt rolled up, but he still noticed the smooth skin, the dark blond hair teasing at the bottom that Tony wanted to follow with his mouth down further.

Steve grunted a little, some of the knots in his shoulders smoothing out, and Tony jerked his eyes back to Steve’s face. Steve looked at Tony, question obvious in his expression.

“I find it helps, after,” Tony said in explanation. His heart was beating faster than before. “Whenever I had my, you know, New York thing.” He waved his hand to encapsulate the PTSD and anxiety attack Stark package. “I would be wound up super tight, and Pepper would make me stretch out, recenter myself.”

Steve nodded. “It did help,” he said. Tony felt his mouth curling up in a small smile.

“Good. So, don’t take this the wrong way—and this is not me asking you to talk about it—but do you need a better bed?” Tony asked. “Because I have no strong feelings about switching, my mattress in there is definitely what Thor would call one of Midgard’s finest.”

But Steve was already shaking his head no. “I actually sleep better when I’m not on a bed,” he said. His face was trying to pantomime a smile again. Tony wanted to claw it off of him. “Too soft. Couches work, the lumpier the better.”

“Huh.” Tony processed that. “What about futons?” he asked.

“What about them?” Steve asked, sounding tired. Red was spreading out on his skin. Tony could feel the growing defensiveness as if it were palpable. He raised his hands in a peace offering.

“You said beds were too soft right? And dear, don’t take this the wrong way, but you can’t sleep on lumpy couches forever. Serum or no, that kind of prolonged strain on your back cannot be good for you.” Tony did not say and I think that sensory memory is making your nightmares worse. “A futon’s soft, but it’s on the ground, so it’s firmer, better on your back. I don’t have any here but it’s—something you should look into, when you go back,” Tony stuttered out, a dawning horror growing when he realized he’d almost said but it’s something we can try, when we get home.

Steve had been here for two days and already Tony was at the Freudian slip stage of asking him back. Fuck. He should go.

“I—sure, Tony. I’ll give it a shot,” Steve said, thrown. Tony nodded, getting up and suppressing a groan at the strain on his stomach. But he had to be quick, had to leave before he said something he meant too much. He clapped a hand on Steve’s shoulder, forced himself to pull it off quickly, instead of lingering, feeling Steve’s body heat.

“Right then, that’s it for me. I’m off. Night,” Tony said, heading back to his room.

“I thought you were up to make hot chocolate?” Steve asked, astute, and Tony cursed his excellent memory.

I lied, Tony wanted to say, and I’m afraid that if I stay and look into your eyes any longer, I’m going to do something regrettable.

“Good point,” Tony said, turning and limping towards the kitchen. “In fact, why don’t I show you Rhodey’s secret recipe? He makes the best kind.”

“Okay,” Steve said, swiveling off the couch and meeting him in the kitchen. Tony turned on one of the overhead lights, blinked as a mussed and flushed Steve Rogers came into sharp focus. His beard was unkempt, and all Tony wanted to do was run his fingers through it. Tony clamped down on the desire to turn the light off again, re-encapsulate them in the hazy white-blue glow of the night that didn’t let the details of Steve come into focus, like his eyelashes brushing against his cheekbones. Tony offered a prayer to any gods, Pepper or otherwise, listening.

Tony wrenched himself to face the counter.

“Now, the only reason I know this recipe is because of a deal I made with Rhodey’s aunt, who then recruited her younger sister to trick Rhodey and his mom into giving it up. It is therefore, theoretically, a stolen tradition, but I’ll deny that to my grave. Pay attention,” Tony said.

 


 

Bringing up the nightmare the next day turned out to go as well as Tony had expected.

They were eating by the coffee table again, which made Tony consider if he should bring up a kitchen table for his next visit, seeing how much time they were spending on the living room furniture. Steve had made omelettes, sauteed tomatoes and onions folded neatly inside.

Tony figured now was as good as time as any and slid over the bound journal he’d dug up from the bedroom. Steve gave it a cursory glance, before returning to his food.

“This is still me not asking about it,” Tony started off. “But it might help if you wrote out what those nightmares of yours are somewhere. Get it out of your mind.”

Steve said nothing, although the tensing in his shoulders told plenty.

“I’m not trying to ignore my glass house here,” Tony said. “But even if I’m not the picture of mental health I know some tricks. Writing stuff out helped me, used to help Rhodey.”

“I’m fine,” Steve said, scooping more egg into his mouth.

“Of course you are. Because when I think fine I think ‘has to avoid certain furniture to sleep at all’,” Tony said, frustration leaking through.

Steve’s shoulders drew back as he straightened up. He looked ready for a fight.

“Leave it, Stark,” he said. “It’s none of your business.”

“Right, of course,” Tony said, his voice dipping into a sneer. “I can’t possibly imagine how you dealing with—or spectacularly avoiding—your business would ever affect me. Oh wait.”

“That isn’t fair,” Steve snapped. “I’m sorry about that, I’ve apologized to you, what do you want from me?”

“Well maybe we wouldn’t have had to deal with this at all if you dealt with your fucking problems!” Tony shouted. He felt an immediate stab of regret, hot and unforgiving, as he watched Steve’s face crumble. “I’m sorry,” Tony said. “That was me throwing stones. Shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it.”

“Yes you did,” Steve said, closing his eyes. “You’re right. I should be dealing with this, if it’s managed to affect the. Well, us.” Tony had a sneaking suspicion he had been about to say the team. He wanted to tell him that Tony still thought of them as a team too, in the dark corner of his mind which he couldn’t smother completely.

“Still, it’s not like I or anyone else you know is the model of taking care of yourself. Except maybe Rhodey. And probably Wilson. It’s just-” I want to take care of you echoed through his mind, “I’ve been seeing a therapist. Rhodey and Pepper teamed up, made me go. And she thinks that—there was probably a lot going on that day, that led up to how things spiralled out of control.”

“You talk about me in therapy?” Steve asked, his voice hoarse. His shoulders were tense, back ramrod straight. Tony shrugged, fingers tapping a fast beat on the coffee table. He tried to tamp down on the swell of defensiveness that surged up.

“Well yeah. Had a lot to unpack there,” Tony said, looking down and picking lint off his jeans. “That day. Sucked. Obviously. For me. But uh. Probably also for you?”

Steve stared down at his knees. Tony wasn’t sure what was going through his head.

“Look, if you could just—I’m trying here Rogers,” Tony said. He couldn’t help the curl of anger that made its way into his voice.

“Of course that day was bad Tony, what do you want me to say? My best friend who had been captured and tortured for years was on the run from a bunch of people that I frankly still don’t trust, Peggy had just died, and you weren’t with me,” Steve said, tendons in his neck bunching up, his eyes dark with anger.

“How was I supposed to be with you? You didn’t even try asking me!” Tony said, throwing his hands up.

“You had already made up your mind! What should I have said? I didn’t think you’d—follow me,” Steve said. His hands clasped together, gripping tight, before he seemed to force himself to pull them apart, rest on his legs again.

“I wasn’t the one who threw everything away and didn’t look back, Rogers. I came to you in Siberia as a friend. Maybe a shitty one! But it’s not a day ending in y if Tony Stark isn’t an asshole,” Tony said.

“Not like I was doing so hot either,” Steve said. His voice was sardonic even as it trembled. “I. I fucked up that day in a lot of ways. I shouldn’t have been so scared to tell you about what the Winter Soldier did, let this happen to us. But I had to keep Bucky safe. I couldn’t let him be hurt. Not—not again. Not after I failed him so much already.”

Tony breathed, heart caught in his throat. Steve’s pain was like an ice storm, silent but excruciating when it struck.

“Rogers, it wasn’t your fault Hydra captured him,” Tony said. “You can’t do that. It’ll only fuck you and Barnes up more.”

“I know, but everytime I think about that day on the train I—if I had only just-” Steve cut himself off, turning his head and blinking furiously. Tony twitched, wanted to touch, wasn’t sure if it was welcome. Took a steadying breath.

“I get it. What happened to Barnes, it’s—it’s fucked up. It’s inhumane. And Hydra will fall one day for it,” Tony said, hoped Steve believed him. “You’re gonna make it happen.”

“Shoulda been done already,” Steve said, voice thick with anger. “Shoulda stopped them in the war when I had the chance.”

Steve’s back was a line of tension. His eyes, when they met Tony’s, were bright with fury. His knuckles were white where he gripped his jeans. Tony wondered how long this guilt had been there, how much of this Steve had been feeling for years.

“I couldn’t lose Bucky,” Steve said again. His voice was a wreck, but his gaze was steady, as he looked at Tony. “Not after—everything I did wrong. I wasn’t in the best spot that day, but I should have done better. I hurt more people because of it. I’m sorry Tony. I really am.” His eyes were sad. Tony could almost count his individual eyelashes, in the light.

“You’re forgiven,” Tony said.

He inhaled sharply, surprised at himself. But it felt right. “Maybe it took awhile for me to process that but—that fight was on the both of us.”

Steve smiled at him, a fragile thing. Tony’s heart flipped, and he wondered for a moment if he could capture that look, tuck it away somewhere and keep it for himself. The room felt warmer, but Tony refused to think about why.

“It was about Peggy,” Steve said, after a beat. “The nightmare. It was—I—we were in Italy somewhere. There was a bomb. I knew I had to find the Commandos and warn them, but Peggy was bleeding and crying and I couldn’t leave her. Then the bomb went off.” Steve’s eyes were glassy.

Something in Tony’s stomach clenched. Tony briefly wondered if there would be a time when Steve Rogers didn’t manage to break his heart.

“That,” Tony said, “is fucked up. I take back what I said, you definitely should be writing that down. Consider this an order.”

Steve took a shuddering inhale. His shoulders relaxed a little, saw the out Tony was giving him. “If you’re gonna boss me around,” he said, “I want a safeword.” His smile was weak and didn’t reach his eyes. Tony didn’t call him out on it.

“Fine, but if it’s something related to the army, I’m out,” Tony said. He got up slowly, bracing himself against the couch, and headed towards the kitchen. They both needed some of Rhodey’s hot chocolate. He clapped his hand on Steve’s shoulder as he passed, lingered. There was a small shiver from Steve, but Tony didn’t comment on it. They were going to be okay.

“You’re no fun,” Steve said, getting up and following him.

“Insulting. And to your host no less. I’m ignoring you. Get me marshmallows, you military fetishist,” Tony said.

 


 

The afternoon was spent in the same way as the last. After about an hour Steve finished Rhodey’s romance novel, and he paged half-heartedly through the neuroscience journal Helen had sent. Instead Tony offered to show him how to solder wires, to help with his construction project.

Tony already had blueprints for all of the upcoming bots sketched out, and once Steve could read them he followed the schematics to a T. Steve was good with the tools, hands steady and focus intent on the task. They spent several hours together like that, building the equipment for Tony’s model site.

It was nice.

After dinner they finished the first season of Brooklyn Nine Nine. The penultimate episode was the first one Steve recognized.

“Should we stop?” Tony asked, watching as Amy lied to Captain Holt about her wisdom teeth.

“No, no, it’s fine, I like this,” Steve said. He smiled nervously at Tony. Tony’s stomach flipped over.

“Alright, but if you feel a sudden compulsion to talk over the episode we’re changing series,” Tony said, mock authoritative. Steve’s smile turned crooked, and he gave him a sloppy salute.

“Yes, sir,” Steve said, chuckling. Tony curled into the couch more, blankets a tangled mess in his lap. It was freezing, the temperature having dipped lower overnight again. Tony alternated between tugging on blankets and rearranging his legs, his stomach wound a dull ache in the cold air.

Steve turned his head towards Tony, eyebrow raised in question. Tony took a minute to feel sorry for himself in the face of such cocksure beauty.

“You seem cold,” Steve remarked mildly. Tony forced his hands to still on his lap.

“I’m not sure you noticed, but we’re in Canada,” Tony said. He gestured to the windows, still iced over.

“We could build a fire,” Steve said, seemingly too cheerful at the prospect. On screen, Amy was lying through her teeth to Holt’s dentist. “It’d set the perfect scene for your romantic heroine moment on the sex rug.” Tony leaned over the couch, stared at the rug in thought.

“Exciting. But I’d need a dashing hero to make that work,” Tony said, turning back.

Steve hummed, as he leaned forward, his hand held out. “Steve Rogers,” he said, grinning. “Dashing criminal, sometimes hero, at your service.”

Tony barked out a laugh, surprised. Steve looked delighted.

“Yeah okay. Fire sounds nice, Nicholas Sparks. Want me to pause this?” Tony asked, gesturing towards the screen. Steve was already getting up, shook his head no as he headed over to the fireplace.

“You relax, I’ve got this,” Steve said, pulling wood from the large stockpile and placing it by the grate.

Despite Tony’s doubts, Steve managed to pull together a respectable fire. The wood was good, only the occasional quiet pop sounding from the grate. By the end of the final episode, Tony was warm enough that he didn’t need the blankets piled on top of him anymore. Steve was sprawled out in the armchair, legs spread wide. It was the first time he looked relaxed since he’d shown up.

Which was maybe why Tony found himself opening his big mouth before he could stop.

“Why did you throw the shield away?” Tony asked.

Steve turned to look at him. Whatever he saw on Tony’s face made him sit up, lean on his knees with hands clasped, stare at him. Tony felt himself grow warmer under Steve’s scrutiny.

“Down. I threw the shield down, I wasn’t throwing it away,” Steve said. “I couldn’t be Captain America anymore. There were—things I had to sort out. Relearn who Steve Rogers was, maybe. Get Bucky somewhere safe, face the consequences with you. But I knew you would take the shield, and I thought—hoped you might keep it.”

“I do still have it,” Tony said. The look on Steve’s face was grateful. It sent his brain into overdrive. “Fair warning, I did update it a little. Don’t give me that look. You left it with me, you knew I wanted to modify it. No take backs. I uh, always assumed you’d want it back, some day. I had a whole speech planned too. About how we needed to put our differences aside to fight whatever was coming.” He waved his hand like he would to dismiss notifications from FRIDAY. “It doesn't matter now. If you want it back, I can arrange to get it to you. Wherever you’re hiding out.”

“No,” Steve said, looking at him intently. He had a slight smile. “No, you should keep it. I want to hear that speech someday, when I get back.” He paused, his next words coming out with a slight hitch. “I can come back, right?”

“Well,” Tony said, watching Steve go through a flurry of emotions he couldn’t parse, “I always assumed you would. Someday. Either because Ross keeled over or the big bad showed up and we’d have to assemble to stop it.”

“But can I come back, Tony?” Steve asked, insistent.

“You’re the one who left,” Tony said, snappish. “The only one stopping you from coming back is yourself. Well, and 117 countries. But that’s never stopped you before.”

“The only thing stopping me is you. If you say the word, I’ll be there,” Steve said. Tony frowned, a little lost and ungrounded. Shaken.

“Well don’t stop on my account,” Tony said. “You wanna come back, then come back!”

“I need to hear it from you,” Steve said. His voice was pleading. “Please, Tony.”

“Steve,” Tony said, serious. Something broke, using Steve’s name, some hidden barricade Tony was hiding behind. “I’m not—I don’t-” he exhaled sharply. “You can come home. Okay? This whole mess is—it’s—something we can fix. And when we do, if you want to, you’re welcome.”

Steve exhaled a little, and it was as if all the tension bled out from him. His eyes looked bright, but Tony couldn’t be sure that wasn’t just the firelight.

“Thank you,” he said. He was smiling, a soft, small thing. “I—it means a lot.”

“Yeah well,” Tony said, suddenly finding the plaid pattern of the blanket beneath him very interesting. They lapsed into silence. It didn’t feel awkward, just a potent kind of heavy. As if there was potential energy buzzing in the air, goading his synapses. To do what, Tony didn’t know, but he should leave, before he broke it. Did something regrettable that would change everything.

“You sleeping on the couch again?” Tony asked, moving the blankets so he could free himself from his fabric pit. Steve eyed it consideringly.

“Was thinking I’d try by the fireplace, actually,” he said. He grinned a little self-consciously as Tony looked at him curiously. “It’s not a futon exactly, but that sex rug of yours is pretty plush.”

“It’s not a decent sex rug anyways if you can’t lie comfortably on it for the afterglow,” Tony said. He eyed where the rug was in comparison to the windows and the heating vent, did a few quick thermodynamic calculations. “Alright, I have no problems with you being my sleeping lab rat. You’re gonna need a few extra blankets though, it’s draftier by the windows. I’ll get them.”

Tony got to his feet as quickly as he could. In his bedroom, he pulled the heaviest blankets he had out from his chest and carried them back out towards Steve. Steve was arranging two couch cushions with the other blankets from the couch. He looked at the pile Tony brought towards him dubiously.

“Am I being the lab rat for the sex rug or for how many blankets you can put on a super soldier before he overheats?” Steve asked. His eyebrow was raised again. Tony found himself hating it a little more each time, heat pooling in his stomach.

“These floors are wooden, they’re gonna leach the heat out of you,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. He pushed the blankets into Steve’s hands. It’s not an overreaction when the cold is literally one of your triggers, he didn’t add.

“Alright,” Steve said, but he didn’t seem convinced. Tony ignored him. “It okay if I leave the fire going?”

Tony brushed the concern away. “Sure, knock yourself out. There’s not really anything in here that can catch fire anyways,” he said.

“Except the wood floors,” Steve said. He sounded amused. He was still holding the blankets. Tony slanted an eye at him, feigned annoyance.

“Sealed with protectant. If they do catch fire I will be very surprised. And disappointed in my realtor,” he said. He felt a grin pulling at his mouth regardless. Steve mirrored it back at him.

“I’ll help you write a strongly worded letter,” Steve said. He put the blankets down, stood up and flashed Tony with the most sincere smile he’d seen yet. “Good night Tony.”

“Night Steve,” he said. His heart was hammering in his chest. Tony refused to think on why. He turned and went back into the bedroom, leaving the door open a crack.

It was the best night’s sleep he’d had yet.

 


 

“I think the snow’s melting,” Steve said as Tony trundled out of the bedroom in the morning. He was standing in the kitchen, frying something in one of the pans.

Tony came over, wincing when he bumped his stomach into the kitchen bar. “French toast,” he said, surprised. He looked up at Steve. “You’re making French toast?”

Steve kept his eyes glued to the pan. “It’s your favorite,” he said. He shook his head a little, looked up just enough to scan Tony’s torso. He was still in the sleep tank he’d pulled on before bed. Tony could feel Steve’s eyes trace up his arms, likely categorizing the bandages he saw. Steve turned back to the skillet, flipped the pan and neatly turned the slices of bread over in the air. “Your injuries okay?” he asked, his voice too casual to be genuine.

Tony swiped one of the sliced strawberries from a bowl, shrugged. “They hurt, but most of it now is just morning stiffness,” he said. “I’ll stretch after breakfast, that should help.”

Steve nodded, turned off the heat under the pan. “Food’s up. Let’s eat, then I can help you,” he said. He slid the food onto two plates, two for Tony, four for Steve. Then Steve knelt, pulled a tin-foil covered pan out of the oven.

Tony stared as the smell hit him. “You made me bacon,” he said. Already the drool was collecting in his mouth. “I didn’t even realize I stashed some up here.”

Steve shrugged, looked at Tony from the corner of his eye. “I brought it up,” he said. “Thought a peace offering would help settle things between us.” He partitioned the bacon out onto the two plates.

“I am not even insulted,” Tony said, moving around the bar to sit on one of the stools. “That is how much I love my fried pig meat. It probably would have worked too. I’m a slut for bacon.” He wriggled his fingers at the plate, willing it to come to him quicker.

Steve slid it across the counter, the plate coming to a perfect stop in front of Tony. It was a little concerning, how easily Steve took into account an object’s weight and shape and then used its own physics to do what he wanted. He could probably calculate how to get a body exactly where he wanted it too, when he had sex. Tony froze that train of thought, refocused on the food in front of him.

Steve had managed to make them just the way Tony liked, with vanilla and cinnamon and topped with the sliced strawberries. The urge to moan, or chain Steve to his kitchen forever, was high.

Whatever showed on his face was enough though, because Steve laughed as he came around, slid into the seat next to him with his own plate of food. He’d taken the larger portion of bacon as well, not that Tony would complain.

Tony was momentarily distracted by the sight of Steve’s bare feet resting on the rung of the stool. It was distracting and delightful all at once, to see evidence of a comfortable Steve.

“Good?” Steve asked, gesturing with his fork towards Tony’s plate, already half demolished.

“If you agree to come back with me and be my personal chef, I will not only get Ross to pardon you, I will not make more than two comments about what I’m sure is the worst makeover to your suit yet,” Tony said without thinking.

“Somehow, I think Ross will want a little more than ‘he makes me breakfast’ as your reason for pardoning us,” Steve said, mouth curled up. Tony twirled his fork, thinking it over.

“I think you’re underestimating my desire for breakfast food,” Tony said.

“Yeah, that’s the factor I’m not taking into account enough,” Steve said. His eyes were dancing. Tony couldn’t look away. “How much you love breakfast.”

Tony pointed his fork at Steve’s face. Steve watched it come towards his nose. “Look, the Breakfast Pardon, it could be a thing. You could even make a Breakfast Club reference, subtly indicate to the general populace that you’re not as out of touch as people like to pretend you are,” he said.

Steve chewed his piece of bacon. “Maybe I like people not knowing how in touch I am,” he said. “It puts their guard down.”

“Okay, I’m making a note, don’t let you go on the run with spies anymore. They have infected you,” Tony said. “And I don’t even think they did it in the fun, pillowtalk way. I literally believe that you have just spent so much time crammed together with them that you’ve obtained their personalities through osmosis. Horrifying.”

Steve shrugged. “‘S not so bad,” he said. “It reminds me of the time with the Commandos.”

That hurt.

Tony didn’t want to think about that, about Steve traveling the world like a U2 concert on the lam and it reminding him of war. Even as his heart ached, something bitter rose up in his throat. So Steve thought it was more fun to hang out with all of his law-breaking friends than be in the same hemisphere as Tony.

Which was—it was fine. That was Steve’s prerogative.

“Well, I think we’ve already demonstrated that you can take the Cap out of the war but you can’t take the war out of Cap,” Tony said, pushing his stool back and hopping down onto the floor. If his voice was tight, prickly, he didn’t dwell on why. “Good news is you’ll be able to continue on your merry way playing band of thieves very soon.”

Tony moved past Steve.

“Tony, wait,” Steve said.

An arm shot out, curled around Tony’s chest. It wasn’t a firm hold. It was soft, delicate, like Steve was afraid that if he held on too hard Tony would snap away like a rubber band.

Tony turned his head, stared head-on into Steve’s searching gaze. He had nothing to be ashamed of.

A muscle in Steve’s neck jumped. Time seemed to stretch between them, as they held each others eyes. Being near Steve was like working near a black hole. His perception of time and space warped, extended. Every moment lasted an infinity, every breath and heartbeat palpable.

“Look, I’m happy for you,” Tony said, into the silence. “It’s great that you’re taking this chance to build meaningful relationships, really work on those interpersonal skills. And hey, looks like you’ve got everyone you need out there to do that. That’s swell. Way to make the most out of your situation, Rogers.”

Understanding dawned in Steve’s eyes. The arm around Tony tightened, for a moment. A squeeze. “I could never replace you,” Steve said, sincere. “Never. I—missing you is like someone tore a chunk out of me and then expected me to keep going. It wasn’t fun, without you there. It was just—better than it could be, with all of them.”

Tony exhaled sharply. “Look, it’s fine if you’re enjoying yourself without me, we all know I’m exhausting to be around-”

“Tony,” Steve interrupted, louder than before. “Believe me. I mean it.”

Tony studied him. Something in him soothed, at the determination on Steve’s face. “Yeah, okay. And I—I’m glad that you aren’t alone, out there,” he said. He leaned briefly into the warmth of Steve’s arm. “Really.”

Steve smiled. It was more wobble than grin, but it warmed Tony to his toes. He pulled his arm back. Tony cleared his throat. The tension broke.

“I need to go change these,” Tony said, gesturing down at the bandages. His burns were throbbing, but whether it was because of Tony’s accelerated heartbeat or their brush up against Steve’s arm of marble, Tony wasn’t sure.

“Oh no,” Steve said. He leaned back, crossed his arms. “I am not on dishes duty again. Nice try.”

Tony laughed. “Can’t get anything by you, can I?” he asked. If his voice came out fond, Steve didn’t call him out on it.

Steve hummed, circled his fingers gently around Tony’s wrist, pulled it towards him. His fingers trailed across the bandages, touch feather light. “Do you want help changing them?” Steve asked, hand resting on the curve of a bandage around his elbow. His thumb brushed lightly along the inner crease of it.

“I, uh. Sure,” Tony said, thrown. “You call me Freddy Krueger though and I’m kicking you out.” He pulled out of Steve’s grasp slowly, padded across the living room.

“Can’t kick me very far, the snow’s still out there,” Steve said, following Tony into the bedroom.

“Snow that is melting,” Tony reminded him. He pulled off his tank top with a wince, started undoing the dressings. “Salve and fresh gauze are in the bathroom.”

Steve took a minute, looking dazed, before nodding and heading into the other doorway. “Why do you have a clawed foot bathtub?” he called from inside.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time!” Tony said back, voice raised. He winced as the tape pulled on his skin. Steve came back out again, arms laden with the medical supplies Tony had left in there.

“How many romance novels exactly did you read before you—oh,” he said, stopping short. Tony looked up, found him staring at his stomach.

“Apparently Hydra doesn’t have an on-call plumber,” Tony said, voice light. “Bursted pipe got me.”

“Jesus, why weren’t you in the suit?” Steve asked, crowding Tony to look it over. He tossed the medical supplies on the bed behind Tony. His thumbs landed on Tony’s hip bones, twitching over his skin like he wanted to touch but knew he shouldn’t.

“Had most of it on,” Tony said, his face angled down to look at the wound. They were close, Steve’s hair brushed against Tony’s temple. “I can peel off sections now. The nanobots, remember? The suit’s made of them, so you can remove or rebuild anything that breaks off. You’ll like it, I think. It’s very sci-fi.”

“I’m sure,” Steve said. “Why weren’t you in it?” His fingers gripped a little harder into Tony’s skin. Not enough to bruise, but firm.

“I told you, I thought I was dying,” Tony said. Steve’s face told him he put together the rest. His expression went blank.

“I did this,” he said. His voice wavered. He dropped his hands from their grip on Tony.

“Oh, so it was you who took out Hydra’s plumber. I know we’re taking down all of Hydra, Rogers, but seriously, the man needs a job,” Tony said. He kept his tone glib.

“Tony,” Steve said. Tony assumed he was going for firm, but it came out more desperate than that. He sounded angry and lost. Tony reached out, wrapped his hands around Steve’s biceps.

“Steve,” he said. “Unless you started moonlighting as a bomb tech on the side, you played no role in my brief interlude as a kebab.” He shook Steve’s arms a bit, jostled him. “Okay? Look at me.”

Steve inhaled, wetly. He looked up, met Tony’s gaze. He breathed, matched a few of Tony’s breaths. “Okay. Okay. Sorry. I just—I,” he stopped, eyes catching on Tony’s stomach again.

“This is not the kind of look I am used to getting with my shirt off,” Tony said. He reached around, picked up the salve from the bedspread. Pressed it into Steve’s hand. “Guilt later. Do the burns first, then my tis but a scratch wound.”

“I understood that reference,” Steve said. He was smiling a crooked, broken little thing at Tony. Tony mirrored it back.

“I’m going to expose you someday for the pop culture connoisseur you are,” Tony said. He lifted his arms up for Steve’s probing fingers. “Rue the day Steve.”

Steve exhaled slowly. Seemed to recollect himself. “Consider it rued,” he said, mouth turned up.

Steve was gentle, redressing his wounds. Tony did his best not to hiss like an angry cat while Steve rubbed the ointment on, dabbed gently at the stitches on his stomach.

When they were done, Tony was tense, but not in a lot of pain. Steve had done a good job. “That is so much easier with a second pair of hands,” he said, staring off into the middle distance. He was still clutching at Steve’s arms, feeling light-headed, although he’d moved without realizing it to grip at Steve’s forearms instead.

“I’m glad,” Steve said. He kept his arms out. Only once Tony had recalibrated and dropped his hands did Steve step back. “And now, dishes.”

“You were just guilt tripping over my injuries, and now you’re making me do chores,” Tony said, flat. He still followed Steve back into the kitchen and took the scrub brush that was handed to him.

“Sorry Cinderella,” Steve said, tone not apologetic at all. “You wash, I dry.”

“Aren’t I supposed to be keeping my bandages dry?” Tony asked, musing, as he turned on the tap and stuck the brush under it.

“Nothing in here needs a lot of water to be washed. Also, your bandages are waterproof,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. Tony drew out a long sigh.

“Whatever, Evil Stepmother,” he said. “You better let me go to the ball after this.”

“I will take you there myself,” Steve said.

 


 

Once they had finished the dishes, they found themselves in front of the TV again.

On impulse, Tony moved over, sat down on the couch with a wide berth between him and the armchair. The invitation was clear. Steve paused, for a second, before sitting on the couch next to him. In reward, Tony tossed the other end of the blanket on his lap over Steve’s. They didn’t talk about it.

“So, what’re we watching?” Tony asked. “Guest can choose.” He gestured towards the cabinet. Steve slanted him a look.

“Sure is convenient the one who picks has to get out from under this blanket,” Steve said, tone mild. Tony hummed as if in thought.

“Is it now,” he said. He threw his head back, looked at the ceiling. “Unfortunate side effect. Hurry up, chop chop, TV time.”

Steve shuffled off the couch. Tony started tracing the path of dust motes in the air, tried to predict where they would drift. When Steve sat down again Tony picked up his head slowly, looked at Steve.

“Ready?” he asked. Steve nodded, handed him the remote. “Excellent, let’s see what you picked.”

The title card for 10 Things I Hate About You greeted them. Tony sighed.

“It felt appropriate with our current theme,” Steve said innocently, indicating Rhodey’s romance novel that was still on the coffee table.

“Well as long as we’re staying on brand,” Tony said. “That’s a very Peter thing to say, actually. He’s very worried about it.”

“Kids,” Steve scoffed, voice mock gruff. “Playing on my lawn.”

“Yep, my thoughts exactly,” Tony said. He gestured to the screen. “Final chance, you sure about this?”

“As sure as I am in the constitution of the United States,” Steve said, voice turning saccharine. Tony guffawed, elbowed him. Steve eyed Tony, grinning. “Also I wanted to see why it was in your collection of favorites.”

“For Rhodey, obviously. It’s not bad, for a high school romance,” Tony said, pressing play. “Heathers is good, but that’s satire. This is genuine.”

“Scott likes that movie,” Steve said, eyes trained on the opening credits. “We watched it while I was showing him how to knit a sweater.”

“When did you learn to knit?” Tony asked, head swiveling to look at Steve head on.

“Before you were born, mister,” Steve said, grinning. “Back in ye olden times. Had to knit our own socks, uphill, both ways, in the snow.”

“Bullshit. You have never knitted me anything,” Tony said. “Ever. I’m not sure I’ve even seen you in the same room as a skein of yarn.”

“Didn’t do it much, out of the ice,” Steve said. He shrugged his shoulders as he sat further back in the couch. “Nat did find a knitting group for me, in New York.”

“There’s a more sympathetic reason for you to be pardoned,” Tony mused. The movie’s music started blaring out of the speakers. “Reunite you with your knitter’s society.”

“Knew we could find one,” Steve said. “Quiet now, movie’s started.”

“Technically that’s my line,” Tony said. Steve nudged him with his knee, and Tony smirked, but he stopped.

It was late by the time they finished. The room had grown dark, and the remains of their dinner rested on the table in front of them.

Tony stood up, wincing when his stiff muscles tightened around his stitches. Steve caught his grimace, picking up the dishes. “Sore?” he asked. Tony nodded, shoving his fists into his eyes.

“Just a minute,” Tony said. He stretched his arms out over his head, his back popping as his muscles realigned his spine. “You know, I think Pepper has a point. My posture is terrible.” He followed Steve into the kitchen, started washing the dishes as Steve piled them into the sink.

“Your posture when you stand is good,” Steve said, aiming a critical eye at him. Tony suddenly felt hypersensitive under his gaze, fought against the desire to shift his hips and position his shoulders in a way he knew looked good. “It’s only really when you’re sitting on the couch that it goes bad.”

“Yeah, it’s a cheap sofa. I mostly bought it to piss Rhodey off,” Tony said, looking out over the island at it.

“You know, I may be crazy, but I think I’m noticing a theme in this cabin,” Steve said, voice dry.

“Initially I planned on gutting and reworking the entire skeleton. Make it a Stark Lair, for when I was ready to also become a war criminal and commit crimes,” Tony said.

“Wow, I’m flattered, you were considering copying little old me? Gosh, to have such a modern man of the future look to me for advice. I sure am flattered Mr. Stark,” Steve said. He batted his eyelashes at Tony. Tony scoffed.

“I’d be an actual villain, not just a politically radical protester who recently went through a Kiss phase,” Tony said. He waved the scrub brush in Steve’s face. “Which means kidnapping, threatening, inefficiently timed bombs, monologuing.”

“You’d really have to work on that last one,” Steve said, frowning. “Your current conversational skills only center around you 65% of the time, and it’d have to be over 75% to qualify for an Avengers response.”

“Somehow I think I could take you,” Tony said, leaning into Steve’s space. Steve smiled, moved in closer.

“Big words,” Steve said. “Think you should put on the suit, we can go a few rounds.” He grinned, his eyes shining with mirth.

Tony’s stomach twisted into knots. He drowned in Steve’s gaze, sharp and alluring. He could never have this. The thought lanced through him, sharp and jagged. It hurt, to share space with Steve again. Growing closer only reminded him of things he’d wanted but couldn’t have. Tony wasn’t deserving of them. And even if he was, he wasn’t what Steve wanted.

Tony swallowed, stepped back. Turned his gaze back to the drying dishes.

“Looks like we’re done here for the night,” Tony said. “I should turn in. What’s your plan?” He forced his eyes to move back towards Steve. His breath caught as he took in Steve’s expression, scrutinizing. Tony was bolted in place.

“Was thinking I’d read a bit,” Steve said.

“Knock yourself out with whatever’s on the shelf,” Tony said. “I’m not sure there’s much else, aside from that journal Helen sent. There might be one of Rhodey’s old engineering textbooks, if you wanted to read up on circuits.”

“I’m sure I’ll find something,” Steve said. He was still looking straight at Tony. It was overwhelming, to be at the center of his focus. He looked like he was formulating a plan. “You know, I didn’t ask why you were building those construction bots.”

Tony shrugged, shifted on his feet. “Just experiments in learning AI,” he said. He held up his hands in a placating manner. “Nothing like Ultron, promise.”

“Yeah, because my first thought when I saw that forklift was ‘this will destroy my home and threaten Earth’,” Steve said, grinning. “I know that. What are you testing for? Does it have something to do with DUM-E and U?”

His voice was gentle, probing. Tony could feel the curiosity in Steve’s tone, his gaze prodding Tony and looking for openings, ways to peel him apart, learn how he ticked. Tony wanted to tell him he was all openings, always had been.

Tony wanted to deflect. Wanted to disengage from this conversation, before it pried him open and left him vulnerable. He could never have Steve, not the way he wanted. Giving him his heart was a terrible decision. But Steve had asked, and all Tony wanted was to share with him. Let him learn Tony.

“Yeah. The bots are running on some seriously dated code,” Tony said. “Which, hah, you have in common with them. They’re like a plant that’s grown out of the largest pot available. They can’t develop more, with their current operating system. And I can’t move operating systems without doing a wipe of their core code.”

“Which would be like killing them,” Steve said.

“Slow down on the dramatics there, you’re channeling that romance novel again,” Tony said, raising an eyebrow. “More like a rebirth. They wouldn’t have any of the connections they’d learned from the old system, their personalities, wouldn’t be able to access them again. The construction bots are a test of one possible solution: network their two A.I.s together. They could develop new connections over the interface, like a bridge.”

“Is it working?” Steve asked. He looked over at the coffee table.

Tony made an ambivalent sound. “Not in the way I wanted it to,” he said. “They’re acting more like a hive-mind than linked bots. It’s fascinating though. Probably has applications for the suit.”

“Just not for the bots,” Steve finished.

“Exactly. Which means I’m going to have to try option B, and I do not like option B.”

“And what’s that?” Steve asked.

“Take the OS system they’re on and build a brand new one from scratch that interfaces with theirs seamlessly,” Tony said, shuddering. “I did their coding on Oberon, it’s going to be a nightmare.”

“But you’re going to do it,” Steve said, mouth curling up at the corner. “Aren’t you.” It wasn’t a question.

“Yeah, now that the connection idea is pretty much moot. Those hellions better not burn my stuff for at least a month to show their appreciation for it.”

“I’m confident they’re gonna think the world of their dad for working to make sure they can keep learning,” Steve said. There was something in his tone, something fond and yearning and caring all at once.

“Of course I would,” Tony said. The words spilled out of him, a river unleashed. “Even when I didn’t have anything, I had the bots. You know the first smoothie DUM-E ever made me was after my parents’ funeral? He saved my life too, when Obie tried to kill me. They’ve always been with me. They’re probably the closest thing I have to family. I’d—I’ll never abandon them.” He forced his mouth shut.

Steve was staring at him, understanding in his eyes.

Tony panicked. His feet were backing away before he realized it, leading him towards the bedroom door.

“Well it’s late and sleep is nature’s best healer. I’m gonna go,” Tony said, words tripping over themselves as they tumbled out. He gestured a hand over his shoulder, towards his bedroom door. “Activate my body’s own personal slow mo Cradle tech. Night.”

Steve’s expression was hard to read, as Tony turned and bolted. Tony tried not to focus on his eyes, soft as they pierced through Tony, the way his mouth was parted, his hand outreached towards Tony’s retreating form. Those things didn’t matter, in the end. Steve could wrench him open, see him in all his flaws, but then he would move on.

Tony closed the bedroom door against Steve’s murmured good night. It didn’t matter.

It would never matter.

 


 

Breakfast the next morning wasn’t awkward, for all the secrets Tony had poured out of himself the night before. They’d slipped out of him, darted towards Steve, wrapped around his body. A silent plea to pay attention, to reciprocate in kind. To open up to Tony, receive him and all his flaws with open arms.

Instead they’d disintegrated on contact.

Breakfast was cereal. Tony didn’t remember buying powdered milk, but Steve had procured the bag, flashed it at Tony with a flourish.

“Fancy some calcium?” Steve asked. He had already mixed together the powder with a pitcher of water. “Eat up some of the cereal you have a lifetime’s supply of?”

“You can never have too much raisin granola,” Tony said, sliding into a bar seat with only minimal pain to his stomach. “This is fact.”

“You can if it all goes bad before you touch even half of it,” Steve told him, placing an already filled bowl in front of him. “Was your plan to just eat cereal for a whole week?”

“Dry grain seemed like an appropriate staple to have a large stock of,” Tony said. He tried a spoonful. Recognized it immediately. “Oh my stars and stripes, this is Rhodey’s milk. I remember this taste.” Tony snorted a little. “God, we used to drink this all the time at MIT. He was too cheap to buy the real thing, and I was useless at grocery shopping and cooking. We drank this with almost every meal. He used to tell me it’d help me stop being such a pipsqueak.”

“You were shorter then?” Steve asked, his forearms leaning on the kitchen counter. He was smiling at Tony, encouraging.

“I was fourteen,” Tony said, flipping a hand in dismissal. “I’m not sure I even had body hair yet. Rhodey got to deal with me in all of my pubescent glory.” He laughed as another thought came to him. “When we graduated and Rhodey was commissioned by the Air Force, he started buying real milk. Something about having a real paycheck meant that he should buy real drinks. He shot up like, four inches.”

“After he started active duty?” Steve asked, smile tugging at his lips.

“After they had given him his uniform and everything,” Tony said. “He had to deal with so much shit, the week it took them to get him new fatigues. His arms and legs stuck out like beanpoles. They kept calling him scarecrow.”

“I’m sure that didn’t stick,” Steve said, grinning. “Military guys using nicknames? Never.”

“I’m pretty sure some of his squadron’s kids still call him Uncle Scarecrow,” Tony said, musing. “It’s his icon image on my phone, you know.”

“A scarecrow?” Steve asked.

“From Wizard of Oz,” Tony said. “I change them out periodically. For a while it was the scarecrow from Howl’s Moving Castle. My own turnip head.”

“So that was why he kept giving you turnip salads,” Steve said. “Nat was positive it was payback for lying about your checkups to him.”

“Rhodey’s friends with my doctor. They text,” Tony said, rolling his eyes. “I couldn’t lie to him about my checkups even if I wanted to.”

“Pretty sure that’s a HIPAA violation,” Steve pointed out. His tone was still amused.

“Yeah there was a form I had to sign, Rhodey made me do it. Compromising pictures were involved, it was all very illegal,” Tony said, waving his spoon in the air.

“I can’t picture you being blackmailed by compromising pictures,” Steve said, his head tilted. There was a gleam in his eye.

“These were very scandalous,” Tony said. “X-rated, very lewd. And, he was going to show them to Pepper, who would never let me near a lingerie show again.”

“Now, lingerie, that sounds like a fun time,” Steve said. His voice was pitched lower. “Not something to deny you the pleasure of enjoying.”

A tendril of heat coiled through Tony. His throat was dry. “Pretty sure it was the stealing the designs from the runway part that would’ve bothered her,” he said. His heartbeat picked up. “She was very open-minded.” He hurriedly ate another bite of cereal, to give his hands something to do.

“I think I’d need to see these photos myself,” Steve said. He was leaning closer, his eyelids drooped. “To decide if they really were as bad as you’re thinking.” Tony’s heart stopped.

“Okay,” Tony said, putting down his spoon. He couldn’t handle this. “What’s the deal with the come ons?”

Steve froze a bit, his expression shifting. He dropped Tony’s gaze, looked down at his arms.

“There has to be a deal with them?” Steve asked.

“Well, no, but they are new. You have literally never expressed an interest in me before, what’s happening here? The post Shawshank Redemption life not getting you the quality personal time with Tastee-Freez you want? Help me out,” Tony said, gesturing with his spoon.

Steve looked back up, frowned at him. “I wouldn’t flirt with you as a substitute, Tony,” he said. His fingers twitched on the countertop, before he slid them back as he straightened up. His eyebrows were furrowed. “It’s not-—you’re not-” he exhaled noisily. The words came out harsh, frustrated. “You think I showed up here and went ‘oh good, a warm body, this will tide me over’?”

Tony thought back to Steve’s expression last night, the way he reached for Tony. How his eyes looked soft. Tony’s back shifted as his muscles tightened. Something hot and desperate flooded through him. This wasn’t fair.

“I get it, Rogers,” Tony said, anger building. “I’m an unstable mess. That doesn’t mean I need whatever this,” he waved angrily at the space between them, “is. Pepper wasn’t the only thing that kept me grounded. A few quick lines and a subtle wink to keep me from feeling lonely or whatever isn’t necessary.”

“I know that,” Steve snapped. “Christ Tony, is it that strange to think that maybe I mean it?”

“Not sure what you expect me to think,” Tony said, bristling. “You were the one who walked out arm in arm with your long lost boyfriend.” Tony’s fingernails cut into his palm, where he had them clenched into fists. At some point he had moved, so he was standing, leaning over the island into Steve’s face.

Steve stared him down, nostrils flaring. He hadn’t moved back. Tony could feel Steve’s breath coast across his face.

“You think I picked Bucky,” Steve said, his voice slow and pointed. “Over you. When I—when I left with Bucky, that’s what you thought I was doing.” It wasn’t a question. His eyes burned into Tony’s.

Tony grit his teeth. “Not sure what else there was to get from that,” he said. “Seemed crystal clear to me. You threw down the shield and fucked off to some hostel in Amsterdam to be with your soulmate. Fine. But I don’t know what you’re doing here.” He jabbed his finger into the countertop.

“Bucky’s my friend and someone I care about,” Steve said. His eyes bore into Tony’s. “But I’m not in love with him, and I don’t want to date him. I-” Steve closed his eyes for a second.

He opened them again, focused. “I was lost,” he said. “That day. I’m not sure I can explain it. It was like I didn’t know who I was, anymore. And you were there, but you were—so angry and, and hurt. Just looking at you was like a knife to the gut. It felt like the ice. I—I couldn’t bear it. Still, I had to go, and I had to try, even though I’d already fucked up, to keep Bucky safe. But—but leaving you? There?” Steve’s voice cracked. “It was like I had ripped out my heart and left it on the ground.”

There was a roaring in Tony’s ears. Tony stared. He was frozen, caught, petrified. Steve swallowed, kept his eyes steady on Tony’s. He breathed out, slowly. “Why would I ever want Bucky,” he said, and he sounded sure, even as his eyes bristled with hurt. “When there’s you?”

Tony’s heart hammered in his chest. He wasn’t breathing. He stared. He had to go. This wasn’t, couldn’t be, whatever Tony hoped it was. He couldn’t let himself dream. It would break him when he found out it wasn’t real.

But he couldn’t move either. Steve’s eyes were riveted to his. There was so much in them, shining fervent bright. Tony willed his legs to move. He was a statue.

“I,” Tony said. He wasn’t sure what he was going to say, just knew that he had to say something. Had to stop whatever this was, break the tension that was thick in the air. “I-”

“I’m in love with you,” Steve said. The tension seemed to bleed out of his shoulders as soon as he said it. His eyes never left Tony’s. “I have been in love with you for a very,” he laughed, “very long time. You are one of the most interesting and frustrating men I have ever met. I—I love you. Please believe me.”

Tony’s mouth opened, but no sound came out. He gaped at Steve. He thought he might have a heart attack, if his heart didn’t slow down. He was sure it was going to hammer out of his chest. And, and Steve had serum-enhanced hearing, didn’t he. He would be able to tell. Tony shut his mouth again with a click. But he had to say—something. Anything.

“I love you too,” Tony croaked out. He blinked, startled at his own admission. He’d said it. He’d told Steve. He’d—he’d regret it now. Steve was going to take it back, in the face of reciprocity. Reel back and tell him that he was trying to be encouraging, trying to patch things up between them so that they could be ready for the next fight, when it came.

Steve smiled at him. It was the happiest thing Tony had seen on Steve’s face ever. “Yeah?” he asked. His hand reached out, ran lightly across Tony’s forearm and up to his shoulder. “You mean that?”

Tony’s head jerked, nodding. He wet his lips, tried to think of something else to say. “I love you,” he said, when he opened his mouth again. Steve didn’t look annoyed, to hear that, instead of something useful like yes, always, or how could I not fall in love with you.

Steve pushed off the countertop, quickly walked around the island to come face to face with Tony. He stood close, his hands twitching as they gently traced up his bandaged arms, smoothed over his shoulders. One settled along the base of his neck, a thumb pressing over his collarbone. The other wrapped around his jaw.

“Tony,” Steve said, voice a whisper. His eyes, blue blue blue, were bright, focused completely on Tony. Tony inhaled, sharp.

This was real.

He brought his hands up, stroked them along Steve’s chest and sides, settling on Steve’s hips. “Hi,” he said, his gaze flicking down to Steve’s mouth, looming closer.

“Hi,” Steve said back. His lips, pink and soft, pulled up at the corners. “Is it okay if I kiss you?”

“Yeah that would uh, that would be great,” Tony said, stumbling. “Good plan. Definitely go with that one. I am in agreement.”

“Good,” Steve said, amusement ringing through.

Then he pushed in and his lips were on Tony’s and Tony couldn’t think anymore.

Kissing Steve was one of the best experiences of Tony’s life. His lips were soft and firm, moving gently against Tony’s. The rasp of Steve’s beard against his own a perfect contrast. His hands were warm where they were wrapped around Tony. Tony felt safe. Protected.

Steve pulled back with a soft gasp. His eyes were half-lidded. He was still smiling. His thumb stroked along Tony’s jaw. “I love you,” he said. He pressed his lips to Tony’s cheek. “I love you.” He kissed Tony’s temple. “I love you.” He kissed his forehead, nose, and chin in quick succession. “It feels so good to be able to tell you that.” Tony’s heart raced, his stomach tightening with every declaration.

He pulled back just enough so Tony could see his eyes. They were shining, overbright. Tony’s hands gripped Steve’s hips tighter. He rubbed his palms up and down over his hip bones. “You too,” he said. Cleared his throat. “I love you too, Steve.” Steve’s chest hitched as he breathed.

Tony ducked forward, pressed a series of kisses from Steve’s chin up his jaw to his ear. His beard prickled Tony’s lips, made them more sensitive as he dragged his mouth across. Tony delighted in the moans it elicited from Steve. He sucked on Steve’s earlobe gently, tracing the outer shell with his tongue, before nuzzling into the sensitive skin behind his ear, dragging his nose down Steve’s throat. At the base, he sucked hot kisses into Steve’s skin, alternating little bites with laves of his tongue. Steve groaned, pressed up into Tony’s mouth.

Tony ran his hands from Steve’s hips up his chest. He rested them there, against Steve’s pecs. Couldn’t resist feeling the shape of them, following the curve of the muscle. Delight curled around his heart. He could touch, now. He leaned in for another kiss, captivated by the way Steve opened and responded to him. He pulled back for air.

They stood for a minute, chests heaving. Their breaths hot where they intermingled. Steve’s grip on Tony’s jaw tightened, for a moment. Their eyes caught, and Tony felt sparks dance along his spine. He moved in again, this time the kiss more hot and desperate.

Tony opened his mouth, was immediately greeted by Steve’s tongue. Tony moaned, let Steve guide his head to the side to deepen the kiss. Steve’s other hand uncurled from around Tony’s neck, ran across his collarbones and down his arm. Tony shuddered, ground his hips against Steve’s. They both groaned at the contact. Tony could feel the bulge in Steve’s pants, where it pressed against him.

Steve palmed at Tony’s bicep, moaned into Tony’s mouth as he gripped around it. He pulled back again, and Tony made a noise of protest, following Steve with his mouth.

Steve didn’t deny him, pressed hard, short kisses to Tony’s mouth. “I love your arms,” he said, panting. “I love your shoulders, I love your chest, I love your hips, I love your thighs, I love your calves, I love your ankles.” He shuddered. “I love you. So, so much.”

Tony stared, tried to catch his breath. Steve’s eyes were fierce on Tony’s, pupils blown wide. He was glowing, lips red and shiny with spit, hair tousled. Steve looked even better debauched than Tony could have ever imagined. His heart swelled. He got to see this. He got to make Steve look like this.

“You’re so hot, fuck,” Steve said, tipping his head forward until he was resting on Tony’s shoulder. His hands gripped both of Tony’s biceps.

Tony snorted, ran a hand through Steve’s hair. He looped his other arm around Steve’s waist, pulled him tight against his chest. Touching Steve felt like a dream. He was all solid strength, emanating warmth. Tony tucked his face into the side of Steve’s neck.

“Right back atcha, handsome,” he said. He dragged the palm of his hand up and down Steve’s spine, enjoyed the way Steve relaxed into Tony’s hold. They stood like that, wrapped up in each other’s arms, until their heart rates started to settle. Their breaths evened out. The rush of hormones ebbed away and left Tony, standing in a quiet cabin, embraced by Steve. Tony wriggled his toes against the hardwood floor, noted the cold touch. He was awake.

Steve shifted then, his hands falling from Tony’s arms to his hips, pressing his mouth along the exposed skin of Tony’s shoulder and up his neck. Tony shivered. Steve was going to leave him covered in beard burn. When he reached Tony’s jaw he kissed down it, stopping at Tony’s lips. He kissed him once, twice, three times before pulling back.

“So,” Steve said. His smile, when aimed at Tony, was blinding in its brightness. He carded a hand through Tony’s hair. His smile grew wider when Tony leaned into the touch. “In my fantasies now would be the time I’d ask you out, but I think we’re still snowed in.”

Tony grabbed the hand in his hair, pulled it down to press a kiss into his knuckles, as his gaze slid towards the windows. “Looks like,” he said. He tried to sound remorseful, but couldn’t. Steve being stuck here with him lead to Steve in his arms. From the way Steve’s grin turned loose, eyes crinkling at the corners, Tony figured Steve was thinking along the same lines.

“Did you have other projects you were planning on working on?” Steve asked, nodding towards the coffee table.

Tony stared at him, confused. “Okay, Mr. Non-sequitur. Yeah, I wanted to see if I could make a miniature bot for the worktables, capable of doing nanoscale work,” he said.

“Let’s do that then,” Steve said. “You can explain it to me, and I’ll be your extra set of hands.”

“I, uh, okay,” Tony said, stupefied. But then Steve leaned in, kissed him like he was the most precious thing he’d ever held. His eyes were soft as they bore into Tony’s. It was going to be okay. Steve wanted him. Wanted to get to know him. He relaxed more into Steve’s grip. Steve made a delighted humming noise.

When he pulled back, Steve ran a hand gently along Tony’s arm, intertwined their hands.

“C’mon,” Steve said, dragging him toward the couch. Tony followed.

It was nice, to sit with Steve and be able to touch him like he wanted to. Once they were settled, Tony threw his legs over Steve’s lap, leaned into his chest. Steve looped an arm around his shoulders, pulling him in. It was alarmingly domestic, cuddled together under the blankets.

“Declarations of love aside,” Tony said, catching Steve’s eye as he rolled out his toolkit. “I feel I should state that I have rules about what’s allowed when I’m working. No groping, for instance.”

“Do your rules extend to kissing?” Steve asked, as the hand wrapped around his shoulder skated up and down his arm, palming the skin.

“No,” Tony said, breath catching at the fire in Steve’s eyes, intent on him. “I’ll allow that.”

“Thank you,” Steve said, leaning in. His voice was low. He pressed his lips to Tony’s. “Very,” another, “very,” another, “much.”

“This reward system is going to be trouble, isn’t it,” Tony said, sighing as he readjusted to face the coffee table. “I’m already reacting to your Pavlovian ways. You’re going to be trouble.”

“I only give as good as I get,” Steve said, voice light. “And you ask for a lot.”

“Do I,” Tony said, breathless. “You gonna make it worth my while?”

“Yes,” Steve said, so sure that something in Tony melted at the sound. “As good as I can.”

“Good,” Tony said. His stomach twisted, nerves lighting up. “Me too. I’m—I’ll try.”

“I know you will,” Steve said, confident and warm. Tony could feel the rumble where his chest was pressed up against Tony. “We both are. That’s why this is going to work.”

Tony pressed back further into Steve, felt the warmth of his body seeping into his own.

Despite a valiant effort not to, Tony was dragged into a make-out session after only thirty minutes of building the chassis. Having Steve sprawled out under him was a delight that Tony could bear to repeat often.

Steve’s sweater was rucked up his chest, giving access to acres of golden skin. Tony couldn’t resist palming and groping at his pecs, his fingers tracing patterns down across his navel. Steve’s hands were slipped into the back of Tony’s pants, palming at his ass. He gripped Tony hard, canted his hips up to brush against Tony’s. Grunted at the sensation.

Tony leant back, enjoyed his handiwork. Steve’s neck was a patchwork of red skin. His eyes, when Tony caught them, looked almost black in the glimmering daylight. Tony moved in, sucked Steve’s swollen bottom lip into his mouth.

“You feel amazing,” Steve said, panting when they broke away. “Do that again.”

Tony laughed. Then he kept laughing. He tucked his head into Steve’s neck, overcome with hysterics. His body shook with it.

“What?” Steve asked, amused. One of his hands let go of Tony’s ass, came up to wrap around his shoulders, draw him in closer. “What’s so funny?”

“This is so easy,” Tony said, shaking. “Why is this so easy?” How long could we have been doing this?

Steve smiled, shrugged. “I don’t know, but I’m glad it is,” he said.

Tony made a noise of agreement, shifted so he was looking down at Steve. He planted his hands on Steve’s chest.

“We’ll have to work out the rest,” Tony said. He nodded towards the door to the cabin. “When we can leave.”

Steve nodded. His hands came up, gripped Tony’s triceps. “I know,” he said. “And we can. I’ll—I’ll call you.”

Tony grinned, shaky. “Yeah,” he said. “Past evidence shows that we’re both pretty unreliable at that. I think we should try to meet. Partly so you don’t forget my beautiful face out there in the wide world. But also we—we work better, when we’re in the same space.”

Steve’s grip fluttered on Tony’s arm. “Yeah,” Steve said, a rasp. “I know. It can’t be stateside, but I can meet you anywhere else.”

Tony nodded, buried down into Steve’s neck. “I have a vacation house in Tuscany,” he said. “You’ll love it. I’ll bring the sex rug.”

“Anywhere you are, I want to be,” Steve said, into Tony’s hair. “You could bring Ross and the entire UN and I would still be there.”

Something tight in Tony eased at that. “Me too,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I don’t want to do this, without you.”

“Then let’s not,” Steve said. He dragged his hand up and down Tony’s back.

Tony settled, relaxing into Steve’s grip. He pushed his hands up under Steve’s sweater, rested his hands there. Steve’s body was like a firm mattress. Tony felt his mind quiet. Even his injuries hurt less. Tony breathed deep, let all the tension go.

He turned his face into Steve’s chest, his nose pressed up against coarse fibres. “This is my new favorite bed,” he said, voice muffled.

Steve chuckled, his hand scratching at Tony’s scalp. “Do I get a reward, for being the best bed you’ve ever slept on?” he asked.

“I didn’t say best,” Tony pointed out. “Maybe Rhodey’s the best bed I’ve ever slept on, you don’t know.”

“I’ll take that challenge,” Steve said, grinning.

“Note, if you beat my best friend, I may have to break up with you if he asks me to,” Tony said. “He gets final say, sorry.”

“But what if I made it really worth your while?” Steve asked, promise dripping with every word.

Tony suppressed a shiver. “I’d take it into consideration.”

“That’s all I can ask,” Steve said, soft. His fingers pressed into Tony’s skin for a moment. “Does winning best bed mean I can make a request?”

“Mm, it might,” Tony said, eyes closing. “What is it?”

“Please don’t make me go to NASCAR races,” Steve said.

Tony laughed, startled. “What?” he got out, between snorts. He pressed up on his elbows, came face to face with Steve. “Run that by me again.”

Steve grimaced. “Nat and I watched a lot in bars,” he said. “It was—boring. It’s not athletic prowess, it’s just cars going obscenely fast around an oval.”

Tony stared at him, speechless. “I’m speechless,” he told him. “I just—how can you—it’s a sport!”

“Baseball is a sport,” Steve said, insistent. “Pushing a pedal and turning a wheel really fast is not.”

Tony’s eyes narrowed. “I’m offended. This is offensive,” he said.

“You don’t take Rhodey with you,” Steve pointed out. “He stays at the hotel, doesn’t he?”

“Car racing is all about expertise,” Tony said loudly. “You gotta be able to time turns, know when to gun it. And it’s about teamwork, working with your pit crew to get your car back to optimal performance. It is an elegant mixture of individual and team oriented skill sets. It’s the best sport to watch.”

“Has that argument ever worked on Rhodey?” Steve asked, amused. Tony scoffed as he rolled off of Steve and onto the ground. “How many races has he been to?”

“Rhodey has been with me on so many trips, he has his own drink named after him on the airplane. He’s allowed to take time for himself,” Tony’s eyes skittered off towards the TV, away from Steve’s eyebrow of skepticism.

“So no,” Steve said. He sat up on the couch, his sweater falling loosely down.

Tony mourned the lost sight of skin and muscle. “So no,” he said. He grinned at Steve. “But Rhodey’s not dating me. He has less to lose by not going.” Tony froze. They hadn’t really discussed what they were yet. But Tony just had to act desperate, didn’t he? He was already coming on too hard, too fast.

“You notice how my reward system is giving you more kisses and yours is threatening to take them away?” Steve asked, squinting at Tony. “I think you should follow your boyfriend’s lead.”

Oh. Tony exhaled, relief warming him. Steve was with him. Steve wouldn’t let him do this alone. They were in this together.

“You have no established proof that your method is more effective,” Tony said. He stretched his arms up, tall. Caught Steve staring obviously at his bare midriff. He grinned, felt warm. “Bring me a published paper and I’ll adapt accordingly.”

“Or I could persuade you,” Steve said, standing. He was close.

Tony wondered at how familiar it felt, to share this much personal space, and yet still be filled with such an unknown thrill. “I am always willing to discuss ideas in an open forum,” he said.

He caught the expression on Steve’s face, as he leaned in further. That was Steve’s planning to kiss Tony face. Tony felt a surge of delight, knowing that he was already learning to parse how Steve felt about Tony. His eyes locked on Steve’s lips again.

“I think you’ll be very excited to hear these,” Steve said. His arms looped around Tony’s shoulders.

Kissing Steve would never get old.

 


 

Sleeping that night was difficult for a whole new volley of reasons. Tony’s heart beat as he thought about Steve, lying in front of the fireplace again.

Agreeing to spend the night apart was a short discussion.

Tony hissed as pain flared through his arm, pressing too hard into the side of Steve’s neck.

“You should-” Steve said, panting into Tony’s neck again. “Get some rest.”

“Yeah,” Tony said, dropping his arms reluctantly. “Past my bedtime anyways.”

Steve nodded, although his eyes burned into Tony’s. “I’ll sleep out here again.”

“Yeah, good plan, some space might be, uh, good,” Tony said, swallowing. He couldn’t look away, Steve’s mussed form a siren call tempting him forward. He took a step back, pulling out from Steve’s hands groping his ass. “I’ll be going then.”

“Yeah,” Steve said. He turned to stare at the fireplace. Seemed to refocus. “It okay if I start a fire again?”

“Knock yourself out,” Tony said. He was stepping back quickly now, the distance growing. “I’m just gonna,” he gestured towards his bedroom door, let the sentence trail off. Steve looked back at him. He smiled, his eyes softening. Tony wondered, as his heart lurched, if he’d ever get used to that look.

“Good night Tony,” Steve said. “I love you.”

“Night Steve,” Tony said, throat dry. “You too. I-I mean, I love you. Too.”

Steve grinned, teeth shining in the moonlight.

But it was good, too, lying there in bed. Tony felt warm and more content than he’d felt since he and Pepper had first gotten back together.

That didn’t mean sleep was easy though. Tony tossed around, tried to find some way to get to sleep. All he could think about was Steve, in the next room.

Steve.

Something crystalized in Tony’s mind. A train, switching tracks. Tony didn’t want to do this, act like things were the same. He got up, headed out towards the living room. Steve was sitting sprawled in front of the fire, staring into the flames. He looked up as Tony entered, his eyes intent where they focused on Tony.

“I don’t want space,” Tony told him. He moved forward, drawn to Steve, always drawn to Steve.

“No,” Steve said. He reached up, circled his hand around Tony’s wrist as it came into reach. He tugged, and Tony came down, sprawling in Steve’s lap. “I’ve wanted this for—for a while.”

“Me too,” Tony said. His free hand came up, rested on Steve’s chest, over his heart. Tony pressed his palm in, until he could feel the faint thumping, steady, rhythmic. “I don’t—I feel like all we’ve done is wait. For years. I don’t want to, anymore. It’s like-”

“We’ve finally realized what’s important,” Steve finished. He grinned, sloppy. “Yeah. Me too.”

Tony raised his hand, traced the shape of Steve’s beard. Steve watched him, his eyes hooded and dark with intent. He tightened his grip on Tony’s wrist.

Tony flattened his palm against Steve’s jaw, leaned in and kissed him soft. He always wanted to be soft with Steve. He turned it filthy by degrees, tilting Steve’s head, opening his mouth up with his tongue, coaxing moans out gently with each swipe.

He pushed his hands under Steve’s sweater, pulled it off quickly when they parted for air. Tony was immediately distracted by the sight of skin and muscles. Of course Steve was gorgeous, but now Tony could touch, taste, feel. He was beautiful and he was Tony’s, and those two facts combined made something twist in Tony’s stomach, his heart beating faster. Tony ran a palm from across his shoulders, enjoyed the twitch of muscles it elicited from Steve.

“You’re beautiful,” Tony said, honest in this space that was only them. He leaned in and mouthed across the path he had traced. Steve gasped, arched into his mouth as his tongue found a particularly sensitive spot at the base of his throat. He sat back, grinning at Steve. “Why aren’t you naked already, c’mon, clothes off.”

“You too,” Steve said, his hands coming to rest on Tony’s waist. His fingers petted the skin there. Tony suppressed a shiver, but Steve caught it anyways.

“Are you ticklish?” Steve asked, gleam in his eye.

“Depends on your definition,” Tony said, leaning away from Steve’s fingers.

“My definition is the same as everyone’s,” Steve said, eyebrow raised. His fingers danced along Tony’s sides.

Tony laughed, tried to curl away. But Steve was persistent, grin large on his face.

“Okay, yes, fine, uncle! I’m,” Tony hiccupped on a laugh, “maybe a bit, a bit ticklish.”

Steve hummed, pressed his mouth along Tony’s jaw. His beard prickled. “I’ll make a note,” he said.

“Oh god,” Tony said, looking up. “As an incentive to forget this, I give excellent blow jobs.”

“I’ll make a note of that as well,” Steve said. Tony could hear the smile in his voice. “Help me get this off of you.”

Tony nodded, raising his arms so Steve could make quick work stripping him out of it, mindful of his bandages.

Shimmying out of his boxers was easy, once Tony pulled back far enough to be out of reach of Steve’s interested hands. It gave Tony ample time to watch as Steve canted his hips up and slid out of the sweats and underwear he’d been wearing.

It was almost too much, the way Steve’s hips moved, fluid and sensual. Steve caught Tony staring, winked at him as he tossed the clothes aside, his cock, thick and already beading precome, drawing Tony’s gaze. Steve spread his legs deliberately, beckoning Tony closer with an uplift of his chin, challenge alight in his eyes.

Tony’s mouth went dry. He surged in to kiss Steve again, show him exactly how much he appreciated his reaction.

As Tony pushed, Steve tipped down slowly, letting him guide them, mouths locked together. Tony was sure he was doing it to avoid Tony falling, but Tony couldn’t help but be turned on by the show of core strength from Steve.

Once Steve was flat on his back, Tony moved down, mouthed across the broad plane of Steve’s shoulders, dipping down to lay kisses leading towards his nipples.

Steve’s hands came up, clenched in Tony’s hair as Tony sucked one bud in, his hips grinding up against Tony’s. It was amazing, their cocks caught on each other, the friction sending sparks up Tony’s spine.

Tony came off of Steve’s nipple with a pop, looked up the expanse of Steve’s chest to catch his eyes. They were dark, fixed on Tony. It felt good, to be at the center of his attention.

“Tony,” Steve said, tugging him forward with his grip in Tony’s hair. Tony went willingly, laying down on top of Steve as he drove their mouths together. He groaned into Steve’s mouth.

Tony ground down as they kissed, enjoyed the dual sensation of their tongues and cocks rubbing together. He pulled back enough to slip a hand between them. Steve, eyes still closed, whined, reared up and starting nosing at Tony’s jaw, panting breaths against his neck. Once Tony had a grip on Steve’s dick he leaned in again, pressed desperate kisses on Steve’s mouth. He hadn’t been able to touch Steve before. Now he could. He would make the most of it.

Tony tried not to feel overwhelmed as he slowly stroked Steve. Getting to touch him, getting to make him feel good, was almost too much. Steve’s eyes slitted open as he looked at him. Tony felt something warm spread throughout his chest. He leaned in, kissed Steve, sucking on his lip as he twisted his hand around the head of his cock.

He had a theory, that Steve’s super-senses could be super-overwhelmed. He hoped Steve would like that, would like being overcome with pleasure thanks to Tony.

Steve pulled back with a groan. “Wanna touch you,” he said. “Please?”

Tony pressed furtive kisses to all of Steve’s face. “Steve,” he said, panting. “Fuck. Okay, one minute, let me just-”

Tony’s hand fumbled as he adjusted himself on top of Steve, careful to avoid straining his stomach. Steve reached between them and grabbed his cock, stroking slowly. His free hand dug into Tony’s ass, fractured strength that sent shivers up Tony’s spine. Tony settled into Steve’s hold, setting an even pace with his own hand as they worked together. Steve turned his face into the side of Tony’s neck, moaning when Tony palmed at the head, murmuring please and so good and Tony.

Tony turned his head a little, kissed Steve’s temple.

“Shit, that feels amazing,” Tony said into his curls. Steve nodded, pressed kisses into Tony’s jaw. Tony felt the beard prickle, wondered if he’d have beard burn tomorrow. He delighted at the idea of being marked up by Steve.

“You feel—you feel so good,” Steve said, gasping. “Oh fuck, I’ve wanted this, I’ve wanted you for so long. Please, please, harder Tony please.”

“I’ve got you,” Tony said. “C’mon, come for me Steve, that’s right gorgeous.” Steve started sucking at the hinge of Tony’s jaw. Tony moaned, ground down onto Steve.

“Maybe I want you to come first,” Steve said, whispering into Tony’s ear. Tony tipped his head, caught Steve’s eyes. They were dark. His entire face was flushed, his hair a mess. Tony mouthed along his beard, tracing down to Steve’s throat. Steve’s head dipped back as Tony’s lips brushed along his adam’s apple, licked down across his collarbones.

“Game on,” Tony said when he pulled back again. Steve’s mouth tipped into a grin. He canted his hips up. Tony closed his eyes, the sweet friction almost too much. He gripped firmer around Steve, just to see the way he shivered. “Does the super-serum mean super-endurance?” he asked, although he had an inkling when Steve pushed up into his grip with a whimper.

Steve shot a glare at him, but his hand kept firm on Tony’s ass, kneading into the flesh as he pressed a thumb under the head of his cock. Tony’s breath hitched.

“Wouldn't you like to find out?” Steve asked. The smile he shot at him was so beautiful that Tony couldn’t help it. He pushed forward, grinding down on their cocks as he kissed Steve. Steve rewarded him for it with a long stroke, the heat from his palm enticing Tony to thrust up.

He let go of Steve’s cock to reach down further, find and fondle Steve’s balls. Steve moaned, even as he managed to raise a thigh, pressed it up between Tony’s legs. The added pressure on his perineum and ass made Tony moan.

Steve let go of Tony’s ass, wrapped his hand around Tony’s neck and pulled him closer, mouths brushing against each other. Their breaths intermingled in the little space between them. Tony couldn’t look away from Steve’s eyes, kind and loving and hazy with lust and stuck on Tony.

“C’mon sweetheart, come for me,” Steve said, murmuring against Tony’s lips. Tony shuddered, his balls tightening as he came suddenly. He burst over Steve’s hand and their dicks, covering them in warm come.

Steve moaned. “God shit fuck, Tony,” he said, and then he was coming too, Tony stroking him through it. Steve shivered all over, his come lacing up Tony’s stomach. Tony twitched as the warm wet substance hit him.

They came down slowly. Tony took a shuddering breath as he relaxed, feeling warm and comfortable. He melted onto Steve, who’d relaxed back into the rug.

Steve’s hands petted Tony’s back, one finger tracing designs across his shoulder blades and up across the nape of his neck. It felt nice. Tony’s eyes dipped closed, the tender, sluggish feeling in his body pulling him closer to sleep.

“Tony?” Steve asked, voice gentle. Tony grunted, buried his face in the center of Steve’s chest. It was nice here. It was warm and smelled of Steve. Tony swept his hands down Steve’s sides, damp with sweat. Steve chuckled. Was Steve ticklish? Tony filed the thought away to think about and possibly exploit later, when his head wasn’t swirling with thoughts of Steve, Steve’s eyes, Steve’s laughter, Steve saying I love you.

“Tony,” Steve said again, this time nudging Tony off of him and to the side, one arm bracing him. Tony slid down onto the rug gently with Steve’s guidance, made a whiny noise as Steve started to move away.

“No, bad Steve, come back,” Tony said, reaching for Steve’s body even as his eyes stayed closed. His fingers grasped at empty air, but a hand suddenly carded through his hair, cradling the back of his head. Lips were pressed to his forehead.

“I’ll be right back,” Steve said, and then there was cool air where Steve once was. Tony grumbled, rolled a bit over to be closer to the fire. The heat was nice, but it wasn’t Steve. Tony threw a hand over his eyes. He wanted Steve, and he wanted to cuddle him without Steve calling him out on it, and he wanted them to stay here like this forever.

That last one wasn’t happening, but the first two weren’t completely unreasonable requests.

Tony heard the sound of Steve walking back over, the floorboards creaking under his weight.

“God Tony, you’re so gorgeous,” Tony heard from above him. He let his arm fall, opened his eyes and saw Steve standing there, naked, holding a cloth in one hand and a stack of blankets the length of his chest in the other. Of course he could balance that in one hand, the hot show-off.

Tony grinned, spread his legs as he propped himself up on his elbows. He arches his chest a little. “You want a show?” he asked, voice dipping lower.

Yes,” Steve said. He dropped the blankets by Tony’s feet, crawled between Tony’s legs. Instead of touching him though, he pressed the cloth, warm and wet, against Tony’s stomach.

Tony stared curiously as Steve cleaned him up, before folding up the cloth and tossing it across the room into the laundry hamper Tony had stashed by the laundry machines.

Hot. Show-off.

Steve kissed Tony, gentle and claiming and fierce all at once. When he pulled back, he smiled at Tony. It was the sweetest sight Tony had ever seen. His heart stuttered. But Steve was pulling away, leaning back towards the blankets and shaking them out, lying them over Tony and himself as he situated his body next to Tony’s.

“But sex?” Tony asked, Steve’s arm coming up to pull him against his chest again. Tony couldn’t resist the nuzzle into Steve’s pec. His chest was the comfiest.

“We just had sex. Sleep,” Steve said. He smiled at Tony. “You’re still healing.” Tony felt it as Steve pressed gentle fingers into his abdomen, checking for infection.

“Healing is for the weak,” Tony said. His words were slurring. “Real men science the shit out of a solution.”

“Uh huh,” Steve said. Tony wouldn’t look, but he knew deep in his heart that the asshole was smirking at him with his eyebrow raised. “Sciencing sure takes a while. Almost as long as a regular human does to heal, I would say.”

“You would say wrong,” Tony said. He threw his arm across Steve’s chest, really snuggled in. Steve hadn’t mocked him for the cuddles yet, and his wounds weren’t hurting. He was taking full advantage. “To the naked eye I am healing at a regular pace, but to a trained technician, I am actually improving at 1.025 times the normal speed.”

“Really,” Steve said, chuckling. “A whole 0.025 times faster than normal huh.” He was close, his head tilted so his cheek was resting on Tony’s head.

“Yes,” Tony said. “You wouldn’t be able to tell if you looked at my body, of course.”

“Of course.”

“It’s an accelerated growth curve in my brain. Neurons maturing, synapses firing, new connections being made. It’s very,” Tony stifled a yawn, “interesting.”

“So, your body is healing at the standard rate, but your neurons are developing 0.025 times faster than normal,” Steve summarized. Tony could hear the smile in his voice. “You know, I don’t think you grow new brain cells.”

“Oh god, don’t start up that debate,” Tony said. He rolled over until his chin was propped on Steve’s chest and he could look up at him. “Helen believes that there are, and I believe Helen. Ergo, neurogenesis is a thing.”

“Helen managed to build a device that could stimulate neurogenesis,” Steve said. “That doesn’t mean it occurs in baseline humans. And I read the study, Tony, they proved no new cells grew in the hippocampus.”

“Helen sent me that journal to find holes in it, not for you to be converted,” Tony said, pushing his face into Steve’s chest again. He rubbed his nose in a little, let his facial hair scratch at Steve’s skin. Steve’s breath hitched. Still sensitive then. Tony made a gleeful note to his growing data on sex with Steve.

“Only a poor scientist sticks to his beliefs over evidence to the contrary,” Steve said.

“Only a poor scholar immediately jumps to his conclusion after reading one paper,” Tony countered. Steve’s hand scratched lightly over Tony’s scalp. Tony sighed. Steve felt amazing.

“Then show me the other papers,” Steve said, his chest moving as, Tony assumed, he shrugged. “We can talk after. Have a debate.”

Tony grinned a little in delight. “I look forward to it,” he said.

Tony realized he meant it.

 


 

Fortunately, the sex rug was comfortable and warm enough that Tony slept well. In the morning, he woke up in Steve’s arms.

Tony breathed shakily. He stared across at Steve, his head pillowed on Steve’s shoulder. Steve was relaxed, breathing easily. His eyelashes looked so long, when Tony admired them in profile.

Tony let his fingers ghost over the shape of Steve’s cheekbone, drifted over the hairs that fell over his forehead, went down his temple to trace the air over his ear. Even though he tried to be careful, Steve’s eyes still fluttered open. He turned to look at Tony, hitting him with a sky of blue.

Steve smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling up. His eyelashes reflected gold in the sunbeam that cut across his cheek.

“Morning,” Steve said, his voice rough. It sent immediate heat to the base of Tony’s spine. Steve leaned in, pressed a kiss to Tony’s forehead. His eyes cut to the window behind Tony. They slid back, catching Tony’s. He grinned. “Snow’s melted.”

Tony sat up, the blankets pooling to his waist, as he turned to look. Steve made a noise of interest, his hand coming up to skim down Tony’s skin, resting gently above the bandages on his stomach. Tony scooted closer to Steve, let Steve’s arm wrap all the way around him as he took in the sight from the windows.

The snow had indeed melted overnight. Tony stared out of the windows, still partially frosted, at the landscape, the dead grass and evergreen forest dotted with small clumps of white snow.

“Huh,” Tony said. The sunbeam that Tony had noticed before sliced across the wooden floors of the cabin. Small dust motes glowed in the light. It was early and quiet.

Tony turned back towards Steve. His breath caught as he watched Steve stretch in the daylight. The sunbeat cut a swath right across his chest. Tony leaned down, pressed kisses that followed the path up to Steve’s collarbone. Looked up, met Steve’s gaze.

“Good morning,” Tony said, smiling.

Steve reached out, pulled at Tony until he was straddling Steve’s hips again. Tony leaned down on his chest, chin propped up on his crossed forearms.

“I can’t believe we actually had sex on here,” Tony said, foot tracing up and down the fur rug to indicate his point. “Tell me something, is it your goal to make me act as much like a romantic heroine as possible?”

Steve hummed in thought. His hands skated up Tony’s hips, smoothed across the planes of Tony’s chest. They traced around the arc reactor.

“Most of those tropes are just extreme demonstrations of affection,” Steve said, shrugging. His fingers outlined the shape of Tony’s collarbones, drew delicate swirls across Tony’s neck and shoulders. “So, probably.”

“You read one romance novel and now you’re the expert,” Tony said, looking heavenward as if to ask for help. “If Rhodey finds out he will pull you into his book club.”

“He has a book club?” Steve asked. His grin was amused.

“He’s trying to make it Avengers official,” Tony said warningly. “Vision will read anything. If you start going to it, it’ll be an actual club. Don’t do that to him, the power will go straight to his head.”

“I’ll take your comment into consideration,” Steve said, his tone serious. The glint in his eyes indicated otherwise.

“If you don’t, I will withhold sex,” Tony warned. “I’m an old man, my libido is less, this will hurt you more than it will me.”

“I think I’d manage,” Steve said, raising his eyebrow at Tony. “All I really need is to be around you.”

Tony gagged, even as his heart fluttered. He was going to ban all romance novels from the Compound after this. “Stop. Please. All you’re doing is making Rhodey stronger. That book was a hideous amalgamation of stereotypes.”

Steve grinned wildly, his teeth showing as his hands gripped Tony’s waist, and then they were being flipped. Tony marveled at how gentle the landing was. Even now, Steve was being careful with him. “That sounds to me like you’ve read it,” Steve said. His fingers fluttered along Tony’s sides. Tony curled up in laughter. “Admit it.”

“Stop, stop, this is extortion!” Tony cried out, trying to squirm away from Steve’s hands. Steve didn’t relent though, and soon Tony was laughing so hard he had tears in his eyes. Eventually he gasped out, “Alright, fine, yes I was curious!”

Steve stopped, looking pleased and fond as he stared down at Tony. Tony’s eyes were caught on Steve’s, unable to look away. Not that he wanted to.

“You know, to the casual observer, it might look like you like romance,” Steve said, glint in his eye. “Seems a little suspicious, don’t you think, that you have all those things for Rhodey in a place where you didn’t plan on taking him?”

Tony grinned. “I think they’d need more evidence,” he said.

Steve leaned down, kissed him soundly. “I love you,” he said. “And trust me, I’ll get it.”

“I love you too,” Tony said back. His heart still fluttered as he said it. Tony hoped one day it would be the easiest thing in the world, to hear it and say it back and just know that it was true.

They got up by degrees. Pressing into each other, kissing and feeling skin. By the time they were standing, Steve folding the blankets, Tony shutting the chimney, the sunbeams had shifted, and even Tony’s stomach was rumbling with hunger.

Steve made breakfast, and they ate it on the couch, only dressed in loose pajama pants. It was nice. But it couldn’t last.

“I’ll need to head out soon,” Steve said, putting down his plate. Some of the disappointment must have shown on Tony’s face, because Steve grimaced. “I promised Nat I wouldn’t be more than a few days. Obviously the snow would have changed that, but they’ll be expecting me soon.”

“I need to call Rhodey anyways,” Tony said, looking across the living room to where the sat-phone was resting on a side table, charging. “We’ll have to talk about how we want to handle things.”

“And he needs to know about his new book club member,” Steve added. Tony shot him a glare. He shrugged, mouth curling up on one side. “You can’t stop me from joining.”

“Believe me when I say this, I will find a way to make you regret this,” Tony said warningly. Steve ducked in, pecked his cheek.

“I look forward to it. I’ll even knit you a scarf as an apology,” he said. He pulled Tony’s empty plate out from his hands. “Let me just wash these and I’ll come help you with your bandages okay?”

“Oh, you’re not making me help today?” Tony asked, tipping over the backseat of the couch to watch Steve amble into the kitchen. “Did I finally fuck that notion out of you?”

“Consider it added incentive for letting me join the book club,” Steve said.

“Yeah no,” Tony said, hopping up and walking into the kitchen. He grabbed the scrub brush from Steve. “Nice try.” From the smirk on Steve’s face, Tony couldn’t help but feel like he’d been tricked.

After they dealt with the dishes and his bandages, Steve stood in the middle of the living room, dressed. His bag laid at his feet. Tony stood awkwardly in front of him.

“I’d say don’t forget to write, but I think I would have to report that,” Tony said, into the silence. Steve didn’t say anything, instead reached out and pulled him in for a kiss.

Tony opened his mouth immediately, let Steve’s tongue in. It wasn’t quite desperate, but it was close, dirty and heated. They pulled back, gasping into the quiet. One of Steve’s hands wrapped around Tony’s.

“I love you. We’ll figure this out,” Steve said. He brushed a hand through Tony’s hair. “I’ll see you soon.”

“Unless the others convince you that this is a terrible idea,” Tony said, nerves suddenly ratcheting up. “Uh, and I love you too.” Steve snorted, pressed a light kiss to Tony’s chin.

“They won’t. Pretty sure Sam and Nat had a bet going about this, actually,” Steve said. He studied Tony’s face for a long moment, before nodding, picked up his bag. “Okay. I need to go.”

“Okay,” Tony said. Steve stood there for a minute longer, before he squeezed Tony’s hand, stepped back. “Send me a better phone next time.”

At the door he paused, looked back at Tony. “Maybe I’ll send you sealed scrolls by bird,” he said. “Although it’d probably be a falcon, not a swan. Scott had a bad experience with a swan.” He opened the door, a gust of chilly wind flowing past him and into the living room.

“Stop referencing that book, it wasn’t good,” Tony said. Steve laughed. He smiled and waved at Tony, a little flutter of his fingers, before stepping outside.

Tony counted his breaths until Steve was gone, out the front door and trekking out to wherever his pickup point was. He waited until his heartbeat settled before he moved.

He went over to the sat-phone, flipped it open. Found Rhodey’s contact info.

It was time to get to work.