Steve jerks awake, and it is so cold, and all he can see is the darkness. He can’t breathe. He can’t breathe. He—
There’s a hand on his shoulder. There wasn’t anyone in the ice with him; this is wrong. He tries to shake it off, but it’s firm. It feels familiar, the weight of it, the warmth of a hand in his shoulder thawing the ice surrounding him, but it’s still too dark and Steve can’t bear to reopen his eyes only for them to sting with the cold of the void that he is sure is before him.
But the hand on his shoulder is insistent. It parts the sea of whispers that Steve is drowning, that he’s suffocating, that—
There’s a voice. It matches the hand. Steve doesn’t know how he knows this but he leans into it all the same, the rich undertones of his name rolling off someone else’s tongue. The heat of the hand on his shoulder spreads through him, slowly but surely, and his icy prison melts away.
What if he opens his eyes and the darkness is still there and he tries to breathe and when he tries to breathe there’s water in his lungs—
Steve, wake up!
There’s the voice again. Steve knows this voice. But who is it? He can’t remember, and he can feel the ice nipping at him again.
No. He will not be swept up in his nightmares again. He leans into the reality he knows is beyond his closed eyes, and the hand on his shoulder anchors him down.
He focuses on the voice when it comes again. This is his anchor, with a hand on his shoulder, keeping him from washing away in a tide of memories threatening to return.
This is his anchor, beside him.
He opens his eyes. It’s Tony (of course it is, who else could it be?). He’s biting his lip, which should be illegal for how pretty it makes him look, and he’s backing away slowly, in case Steve lashes out as he’s prone to do after nightmares. The faint light of sunrise is streaming in through curtains that someone else opened.
But Steve is fine. As long as Tony is beside him, he knows he will be safe. He would trust Tony Stark with his life. He has—he does, on a regular basis.
“Thanks,” Steve says. His voice sounds rough. Maybe in his sleep, he was screaming. That would explain Tony being here.
Tony doesn’t reply. His eyes are focused on Steve’s exposed shoulder, where his hand was resting moments ago.
“I’m sorry,” Tony replies, finally.
“You told me not to touch you when you were—um, and I just did.”
“It’s fine, Tony,” Steve tells him. This man never fails to surprise him, really. He can’t imagine an uncaring playboy Tony Stark who functions before four cups of coffee and doesn’t laugh at the worst jokes and has a heart of ice and not of gold. Steve only knows this: Tony in the morning, hair wild and uncombed, Tony in his workshop four hours after he promised to come up for dinner, Tony right after they’ve won a battle, exhilarated and alive, Tony in this moment, considerate and caring and so beautiful in the half-light.
Steve’s Tony is not the one the world sees, the one they think they know.
Steve still loves Tony, no matter what mask he’s wearing. He’ll never tell Tony that, though. He’s read enough books and watched enough movies to know that it only ends well when it’s just a story.
He’s okay with what they have, though, especially in the quiet in-betweens like this when the silence wraps them in an embrace like a warm breeze on a spring day.
Tony breaks it, as he always does. He’s smiling, now that it’s over. “Want to go for a fly?” he asks. “I just added in some handholds so we don’t have to rely on the old hug-and-fly.” His voice sounds fond, and a bit forcefully light, but Steve can tell when Tony is smiling a fake smile. This isn’t one.
“Sure,” he agrees. “Let me put on some better clothes.”
“We might be able to catch the end of the sunrise if you hurry your star-spangled ass up,” Tony adds, and Steve grins at that. He turns away to change into some comfortable jeans and a washed-out blue T-shirt and pretends not to notice the heat in Tony’s gaze when he thinks Steve isn’t looking.
There are lines Steve has drawn, and he’ll be damned if he crosses them.
Steve shivers as they step into the elevator, his body remembering the feeling of the nightmare, even knowing it’s not real. He shakes it off like a particularly annoying fly, and it’s gone, he tells himself.
The little voice in his head that tells him that Tony could never want him also whispers that the nightmares will return. It is harder to shrug off than the nightmares themselves, but he’ll tune it out. Like he always does.
Tony notices, of course, and because he’s Steve’s best friend (and also the love of his life, but see: lines drawn that will never be crossed) he doesn’t say anything. He only places his hand back on Steve’s shoulder and anchors him down.
Steve loves him so much it aches. It’s harder to suppress than even the loudest of little voices.
But they’re at Tony’s workshop, and even after all this time Steve watches with the same sort of awe as Tony spreads his arms and the armor forms around him, magnificent even in the basement’s fluorescent light, resplendent in a suit of armor only a man of his genius could have created.
Tony Stark was second to no one, and he was standing right in front of Steve with a sheepish smile on his face, and this version of him was all Steve’s.
He winks. Steve’s heart does not flutter. “Ready, Cap?”
They step into the elevator; they step out of the elevator; they’re on the roof; they’re in the sky.
They’re in the sky.
Serum or not, it takes Steve’s breath away every time.
He blinks, and around him is a watercolor landscape of cotton-candy pinks and blues. He blinks, and it’s turned to autumn red-orange-yellow, and there, beyond the grey of passing clouds, is the sun.
Words can’t do it justice, not really. For once in his life, Tony is silent, which is a feat in itself. So they don’t say anything for a moment or two. Steve feels weightless, free. He never wants to touch the ground again.
“I always dreamed of flying,” Tony murmurs so quietly that Steve almost doesn’t hear. “It’s part of why I had to improve the original suit, you know. Even though I was halfway to death in that desert—“ He chokes, continues. “I finally felt the thrill of flying of my own accord, my feet off the ground, and I had to—I had to preserve that. How many people can say that they can fly?”
Even through Iron Man’s voice modifier, Steve can hear the emotion in Tony’s voice. Why now? he wonders. He’s all for soul spilling and heartfelt moments, but why here, why now? He doesn’t want to ask. He wants to keep this moment alive for as long as he can.
So he says nothing, and Tony continues, “When I flew into that wormhole, I thought: this is why I can fly. It all came down me, a billionaire in a suit of armor, giving my life for millions, giving up my flight to save a city.
“Take away my armor and I’m nothing, Steve, you were right. I was born to fly.”
God, the memory of his barbed words hurts Steve more than it could possibly hurt Tony. Surely he had apologized for his insults on the Helicarrier, months ago?
They had, he remembers. They had been empty shells of words, Steve avoiding Tony’s eyes and saying, “You’re a brave man, Stark,” and Tony laughing drily, shaking his head, telling Steve, “You’re more of a legend than a lab experiment yourself, Rogers.”
And that had been that.
Well, until now. It is too much to ask for that little battle of words to be forgotten, it seems. Steve doesn’t hold it against Tony, not at all. But Tony’s holding it against himself, and Steve can never stand for that. Not when he’s the one who caused it.
“Tony—“ Steve tries to put his thoughts into words, apologies endlessly queued on the tip of his tongue,
He’s stopped by a finger on his lips. Tony’s finger, armored in red and gold. Tony could kill him with a single word, here; before Steve could even draw breath, his body plummeting to the ground below.
Steve opens his eyes, and Tony is looking at him, his eyes shining. When had he put his faceplate up? Surely it wasn’t safe for him to do that at this altitude.
Steve can feel Tony’s breath on his face. He feels warm, then cold, then warm again.
Tony lowers his finger. Behind him, Steve faintly registers the sun, fully risen. They had caught the sunrise after all.
“As a little kid,” Tony murmurs, much quieter than before, “I told myself that I would invent a way to fly. And when I did, I would fly far away, far from my dad and my future company and this legacy I wanting nothing to do with. And—and I would never come back.” His eyes are closed, locked in some faded memory, the pain of times past etched onto his face.
“But then I met you—and Clint, and Bruce, and Nat, and Thor, but you—you gave me a reason to come back to the ground. Maybe I gave you a home, but you gave me an anchor. You’re my anchor.”
Tony laughs, but it sounds off. He’s not looking at Steve anymore; he’s looking somewhere behind him at a skyline that is undoubtedly stunning right now, but also not nearly as stunning as Tony himself is. “You know what they say about the best laid plans, I—“
It’s Steve’s turn to cut Tony off. He cups Tony’s cheek with his hand. As soon as he’s done it, he wants to take it back, but now he has Tony’s full attention. There’s no turning back now.
They breathe for a moment. Seconds pass by. How long have they been in the sky?
“You anchor me,” Tony tells him, and Steve feels the swoop in his stomach that comes with falling and flying and this: Tony’s words like a confession in the air, Tony’s skin under his hand, Tony’s smile like the sunlight just after dawn.
Steve kisses him.
Or maybe Tony kisses Steve first.
It doesn’t matter, not really. Steve’s mind races and races and rails against him, the little voices beating at new walls, screaming that it’s not real, that he’ll lose everything again, that the nightmares always return.
Steve’s life has always been like the books and movies he’s seen too many of. Maybe for once he can have the kind of ending that only happens in stories.
Hey, he’s kissing his best friend, right? Anything can happen if he just takes the leap.
He’s kissing Tony Stark, billionaire, genius, philanthropist, and they’re flying, and Steve has never fallen harder than right now.
Tony anchors him to reality, and Steve anchors Tony to the ground, and that’s so much more than enough.
Fate has tethered them together, and they are here, they are now, they are and then.
The past haunts everyone that it once had in its grasp, but the air will be cool in Steve’s face, and the ground will be solid under his feet, and Tony’s hand on his shoulder will be enough to melt away any nightmare that may come.
For now, though, he doesn’t mind if they stay in the sky just a bit longer.