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Towards The Crimson Dawn

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Towards The Crimson Dawn

 

The red string of fate, also referred to as the red thread of destiny, red thread of fate, and other variants, is an East Asian belief originating from Chinese legend and is also used in Japanese legend. According to this myth, the gods tie an invisible red string around the ankles of those that are destined to meet each other in a certain situation or help each other in a certain way.

The two people connected by the red thread are destined lovers, regardless of time, place, or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but never break.

 


 

     Ever since Tony could remember, he'd known that the red strings tying everyone together were very, very important. They were wrapped at the base of the right pinky, and shot off away from the person; colored in varying shades from pale pink all the way to rich, deep, soulmate red. His parents' threads didn't connect to each other, his father's sagging to the ground while his mother's connected to someone else (and oh, that connection would come back to bite him hard later), and Tony would spend the rest of his life searching for anything but what they had. His parents weren't happy, not together and not apart, and all Tony could do was make it worse, it seemed. The older he grew, the more stubborn he got, the more they fought, the more Howard drank, and the more painful his parents' non-existent bond became to them, and him. Nothing Tony did, or could do was good enough for Howard, and Tony was certain, deep in his mind, that it was a combination of his parents' missing bond and his not measuring up to Captain America that was the cause. As much as he wished it different, his thread, though, hadn't yet led him to anyone, and the ache grew deeper in his bones as each and every year crept by. His thread sank to the ground next to him, listless, pooling limply before running out into the darkness, on an endless search. At the very least, it wasn't terribly, horrifically cut short like Nick Fury's. That thread had terrified him when he'd met the man when Fury had come to check with Howard, had given him some of his worst nightmares, and he prayed to anyone who would listen every day that that would not be his fate. Checking for his thread became a habit as he grew up, until he glanced over everyone's hand without thinking about it before he even spoke to them, hoping that one of them would have his match. He'd mentioned it to Pepper once, on one of their few dates, before he'd seen that Happy had the other end of her thread. She hadn't really understood, but she supported him as best she could.

 


 

      Tony gazed longingly at the mostly empty bottle of tequila, debating on whether or not he should finish it, or be semi polite and leave the rest for Rhodey. He leaned back against the couch, fingers dragging against the fabric weave and head lolling as the alcohol worked through his muscles. Finals were blessedly over, and at the end of June, he'd be MIT's youngest graduate at 17.
      'Tony, hand it over.'
He blindly held out the bottle in Rhodey's direction, feeling the other man grab it from his lax fingers.
      'So, what was the deal with that TA in the commons today? You were chatting her up just fine until you looked at her hand, but I didn't see a ring or anything. How'd you know she had a boyfriend?'
      Tony closed his eyes, swallowing against the sharp burn of bile in his throat, the burnished red of her thread painted against the inside of his eyelids. He'd forgotten to check her hand before talking to her, the stupidest mistake he could make, and she'd shot him down without even knowing it.
      'I could see it. Should have looked for it first, but didn't.'
      Shit, had he said that out loud?
      'Could see what?'
      Oh, he wasn't nearly drunk enough for this.

 


 

     The adrenaline that's been his constant companion over the last three months is slowly dropping off, and it's getting harder and harder to keep his eyes propped open. He knows he has to, though, knows that he can't let his guard down until he's safe at home.
     'Tony, I've got you, you can rest. Pepper's going to meet us at the airport when we touch down, and at this point I think you'd scare the living daylights out of her. Come on, your thread's still intact, right? You'll need all the beauty sleep you can get if you don't want to scare them off. I'll keep watch and make sure nothing happens. I promise.'
      He doesn't want to let go, but it's Rhodey, and Rhodey's one of the few people he'd trust with his life, and maybe a nap doesn't sound so bad after all...


      He dozes most of the way home, refusing to let himself go enough to fall deeply asleep and surging awake every time the plane shakes even the slightest bit, which lead eventually to Rhodey wrapping an arm around him, pulling him tight into his chest.
      'I'm here, Tony. I'll wake you up from any nightmares. You need the sleep.'
     Somewhere out over the Atlantic, not nearly close enough to home for his comfort, but at least far enough away from those damn caves that he's not in immediate danger, Tony gives up and slips under, trusting Rhodey at his word. It's not like he has a lot of options, and the doze and wake cycle is draining him more than it's allowing him to rest.


      Rhodey spends the next eight hours awake and alert, tuned into the smallest twitches beneath Tony's skin, poised to bring him out of the cusp of a nightmare. He traces a finger over Tony's hand, wishing not for the first time that he could see the threads that Tony told him about in college. It'd be an easier way to keep an eye on him, that's for sure. When they finally do land, Tony's gotten somewhere around four hours of solid sleep, and he looks somewhat close to human again, hopefully human enough that Pepper won't lose her composure. It's been hard for her, what with the way Stane tried to completely write Tony off, with that bullshit about Tony probably being killed instead of just missing in action. He's got an inkling in his gut that Stane may not be as trustworthy as he appeared, but until Tony realized the same thing, there wasn't much that he could do about it. Stane had been Tony's last rock when his parents had died, and now Stane was a father figure that couldn't be ignored. He was an obstacle to work around, and when Pepper had a free moment, they needed to have a planning session so that they could cover any potential fallout in case that relationship did go sour somehow. God forbid that Stane came up with a way to steal the company from Tony. As much as Tony hated Howard, and sometimes the company, it was really the only thing that he had left, and Rhodey wasn't sure what taking that away would do to Tony.

 


 

     It's three weeks in when Pepper slips into his bedroom, alerted to what had been happening by Jarvis, who was rightly afraid that Tony may do something irreparable if something wasn't done. There's already blood on the sheets, dragging streaks from where his fingers had clawed at the reactor during his all too frequent nightmares, and Pepper has to swallow hard to keep from being sick. Jarvis has told her that Tony won't wake, not for anything, until the nightmares have run their course, but she merely steels herself and climbs into the bed, keeping a careful eye on his hands. She may have been taller, but he was certainly the stronger, even after his captivity. She curls around him, heedless of the blood soaking into her tank top, pressing closer until he begins to calm, the tremors running through him subsiding. She isn't sure if he'll fully wake at this point, but he's already beginning to clot and scab, so she's sure that they can wait for the morning before she disturbs him for medical attention.


      When Tony wakes, looking around blearily, he finds Pepper already cleaned and dressed, working quietly on her laptop in a chair next to the bed. He can feel new bandages wrapped around his chest, and he's certain that these weren't the same sheets from last night, but he's not sure how they got changed. When he asks, Pepper merely smiles enigmatically, and he can't help but be pathetically grateful, even if he doesn't let her see it.
     'Don't forget we have a reservation tonight, Tony, and if you're more then twenty minutes late, I will ask Jarvis to lock you out of the lab for at least twelve hours. There are two board meetings later this week that you will need to attend, and no, I won't reschedule for you, I've already done that twice. You have a shareholder's meeting in an hour, I already have the presentation ready, and I just need you to sit and look pretty, so if you could please shower, Happy is already waiting downstairs.'
     'Pep, why don't you want to own my company again?'
     'Because then I'd be paying myself, and you wouldn't have to buy me shoes when you screwed up. Oh, wait. That sounds lovely, never mind.'
     Tony laughed softly, climbing from the bed and making his way to the bathroom.
     'I'll come sit and be pretty, Pepper, as long as you realize that I won't be paying any attention to the shareholders, and only to your very beautiful legs as you march in front of them.'
      He thought he heard her bite down on a snort, but when he turned to look, she was as composed as she had been before.
      'Will that be all, Mr. Stark?'
      'That will be all, Ms. Potts.'
      He waits until he hears the bedroom door close before starting the shower, quietly asking Jarvis to keep it at a steady rain. He can't take a full pressure shower, hasn't been able to since he got home and tried and nearly broke bones during the subsequent panic attack. He doesn't want her to know, doesn't want anyone to know how broken he is, like he left part of himself in that cave. Though, perhaps he did, perhaps he left some small part with Yinsen, hoping to keep him company until he could see his family. It would be a Tony thing to do after all. He gently traces a finger over his thread as he steps in, immensely grateful that it wasn't snapped, though it still sagged. That at least told him that whoever it was wasn't dead yet, and he was finding a much greater appreciation for life and being alive lately.


      It won't be the last time he wakes up to Pepper in his room, chest freshly bandaged and head throbbing dully in the aftermath of a nightmare. They don't mention it, circumspect by choice and by habit, Tony unwilling to let his mask down and Pepper unwilling to ask him to. He appreciates it, almost more then he appreciates everything else that Pepper does for him, because he knows that letting that mask down would be the end of him.

 


 

     The railing was cold against his back as Tony leaned against it, sipping at his glass of scotch as he stared up at the milky clouds roiling above him. Pepper had flown out to LA that morning for a company function so that she could work with potential investors, leaving him to his own devices for the next few days. He tried not to think of it as her running away from what had happened, from what he'd done (and not done), but damn if it didn't feel like that's what she was doing. He'd known that in the long run they wouldn't have worked out, their threads didn't meet and his was still lifeless and limp, but the actual separation was turning out to be surprisingly painful. He'd gotten used to always having Pepper around, always just a few steps from his shoulder if he fucked up royally (and was there really any other way for him?). He finished his glass, reaching back for the bottle only to find it empty, just a few drops splashing around inside. Damn it to hell. Or to a stockholder meeting, which was definitely worse. He didn't want to go back inside, where little reminders of her were everywhere, in all of the decorating, the knick-knacks, the paintings. Jarvis would lecture him before locking him out of everything except the bedroom, which still smelled like her perfumes and soaps. He just wanted to ease the burning in his chest, the ever-present lack, since when was that a crime? A soft scuff against the cement drew his attention and he turned slightly to see who Jarvis had let up without warning him beforehand.
      'Stark. Care to explain why one of my junior agents is in hysterics because she's convinced you're going to attempt suicide on her watch?'
      He could hear Coulson speaking, and vaguely registered what he was saying, but Tony's attention was drawn to the agent's right hand, where the vibrant red of his thread was shining like starlight. It took him a moment to realize that Coulson was still waiting for an answer, and Tony smiled.
      'Pepper's already told you everything, I bet. Do you really even need to ask? She always gives you a heads-up before she leaves, and honestly I was expecting you a few hours ago.'
      The thread stretched across the street, and Tony leaned out to follow its trajectory as it buried itself in the shadow of the roof on the slightly smaller building across the street, grinning as he imagined the junior agent panicking even further.
      'So who's your new friend? Must be a damn good agent to be so well hidden on open ground like that.'
      One of Coulson's eyebrows quirked before he could get it back under control, and Tony grinned, as that was as close to an exclamation of surprise as he would ever get out of the stoic man. Coulson raised a hand to his earpiece, speaking quietly as he eyed Tony cautiously.
      'Barton, stand down and come across.'
      Tony smiled wider, and climbed to his feet. This might just be more entertaining than getting wasted tonight.
      'So are we talking guy or girl here? Because female sniper sounds sexy and intimidating. I like it.'
      He blinked, careless smirk staying in place by force of habit alone as something came whistling out of the darkness to embed itself in the concrete above their heads. Only the copious alcohol in his system kept him from fleeing to cover, and he dug a knuckle into his hip until it hurt, trying to drag his brain back on location. When he could focus on Coulson again, Tony eyed the cord that now stretched from his building out to wherever that Agent had been stationed. It began to vibrate, the motion swiftly growing stronger, and Tony knew they were about to have company. A slim figure detached itself as they crossed the railing, diving into a roll and springing back up next to Coulson, who frowned.
      'Barton.'
      Tony watched them curiously, interested in how they interacted with each other in their pairbond, with measurements and minute gestures and body language all filed away in the back of his brain for future reference. He'd only ever seen acquaintances in pairbonds, no one close enough that he could study and watch to see how their interactions shifted and changed in response to each other over days and weeks and months. Maybe Pepper leaving him with a babysitter wouldn't be such a bad thing after all.
      'I know, unauthorized use of a blah, blah, blah. C'mon, Coulson, it was the fastest way over here with the least visibility, and you know it!'
      Barton's grin was quick and bright, but it was sharp, all ice and bitter cold, and Tony could see that it didn't stretch to his eyes, not yet. It had only been just over a week since he'd seen Coulson last, so it's not a great surprise that Barton must not trust him all the way; even though there was the potential for love between them, Barton was still testing his boundaries. Coulson must have met him on a mission, or Barton was new recruit, which led to who exactly had decided to bring him into Shield? Had Coulson felt something when they met? Had there been some sort of attachment from the thread itself? As he glanced over them, his gaze stilled on Barton's weapon as he shifted his stance, and Tony was on his feet and across the balcony before he realized that he'd moved.
      'You know the draw weight's off, right? You keep using this piece of crap, you're gonna bust your shoulder. I can make you a better one, I made Coulson a better taser, just ask him. Who the hell even made this? This is shit! Probably Shield. Definitely Shield. I can do way better then-'
      'Stark, enough.'
      Coulson's hand clamped down on his wrist as he reached for Barton's bow - who even used a bow anymore? - and Tony jerked to a stop. Barton's hand was clenched tight around the shaft of an arrow, knuckles white, and Tony shifted away slightly, keeping a careful eye on that hand, because he still didn't have a death wish. Coulson sighed, slipping between them to create a semi-safe buffer before removing his earpiece and motioning to Barton, who cautiously did the same.
      'Clint Barton, Tony Stark. Stark, you have four days to improve the bow before Barton's next deployment.'
      Conveniently just as long as Pepper was going to be gone. Tony had had his suspicions and made jokes about Coulson's babysitting, but really? He actually was the babysitter?
      'How'd you know I was there, anyway? Nobody ever finds me.'
      From Coulson's amused stillness, Tony knew that illusion wasn't going to last very long, and that it would probably end in embarrassment for Barton.
      'That is a long, complicated story meant for inside. I need more alcohol, a lot more, as I am still much too sober to be telling anyone this unaided.'

 


 

     Months pass, and Tony watches their relationship deepen and their threads intertwine, until they are no longer two, but one. He's there for Clint to drink with when Fury has Coulson buried in work that's still too classified for the archer, though Tony has Jarvis hack in anyways, just to make sure everything's alright. He waits, in furious, frozen silence, when they are sent on missions, when he goes days and weeks and four horrible, painful months with no word from them, and Jarvis can't find anything in the Shield database to reassure him. He's there when Clint brings Natasha home to Coulson, small and wounded and still the most dangerous woman he's ever met, and he hopes Pepper never ever takes lessons from her. He's there for Coulson's panic about taking advantage of someone who's past relationships have obviously hurt him deeply, and Clint's own panic about not being worthy enough for the agent. He watches, and he waits, and he prays that someday, his bond will come even close to the strength and depth of theirs.

 


 

     It's during Pepper's trip to China that the status quo breaks, shatters into fragments that Tony can't even begin to put back together, no matter how much he tries. He's so used to Pepper's quiet presence at night soothing his dreams, that he slips neatly into a panic attack when he wakes from a nightmare and she isn't there. He's locked himself in the bathroom before he can think, scalding water washing over him in a vain attempt to feel anything but the fear and the sensation of cold water covering his mouth, seeping into his lungs. He doesn't know how long he lies there, mind stuttering and hitching and stuck on the fact that if Pepper's not here that means something is very very wrong and- and Coulson breaks down the door, tie just the slightest bit askew and then soaked as he reaches in to pull Tony out of the shower, yelling at Jarvis to shut everything off. Clint barrels in behind him, out of breath and dragging every towel Jarvis could lead him to, and Tony shakes and shakes and can't stop, even after Coulson, after Phil, has stripped him out of his clothes and wrapped him in the towels. Both Clint and Phil are talking to him, but Tony can't focus enough to understand what they're saying, still trapped in the caves, in the dark, with no Yinsen to get him out.
      'Damnit, Stark, what have I told you about interrupting my one day off a year? Next time I really will taze you, don't think I won't. Jarvis will even taint your tv with my episodes of Supernanny.'
      'I'll reprogram him if he dares...'
      There's a dry chuckle against his chest, and a soft sigh of relief against his back, and when Tony opens his eyes, he's dressed for bed again, the familiar padding of bandages soft against his chest.
      'How much would the tabloids pay me for a story about ending up in bed with you, Stark?'
      'Not that much anymore, Barton, it's old hat now. Though you might get a little more since you're a guy and all, so that's new. Fury and Coulson might kill you though, unless you were an 'anonymous' with no picture attached.'
      He could feel Phil rolling his eyes behind them, and Clint rolled his eyes right back at him over Tony's shoulder, smile creeping onto his face. Tony knew they were going to have to talk about this sooner or later, but he was warm and relaxed now, and even if Pepper wasn't here, he still had Phil and Clint and that was more than enough for him.

 


 

     Tony staggered upstairs, absolutely exhausted after a three day stretch in the garage, trying to figure out a new engine design for the Helicarrier. The one they had now was serviceable, but it could always be improved, could always be made more powerful, more efficient. He dragged himself towards the shower, shedding his clothes to lie in rumpled heaps as he stumbled through his room. He leaned against the shower door, dozing as Jarvis started the water and quickly brought it up to temperature. At a soft chirp, he straightened and climbed in, sleepily washing off all the accumulated dust and grit as he tried to focus on the engine and not Pepper's date tonight. Happy had asked her out (finally) last week, and Tony had watched their thread deepen from the blush pink of attraction to the bright red of young love over the last few days. He was sure that, given time and opportunity, their thread would deepen into soulmate red. While some people bonded instantly, like Clint and Phil, others needed a little more time. With a sigh, he had Jarvis shut the water off, and he scrubbed roughly at his body with a towel before tossing it to the side and climbing into bed to pass out. He slept deeply for several hours, for once with no dreams, despite not having Pepper or Clint there to share the bed with him. In the early hours of the morning, he was yanked into wakefulness so hard that he cried out as he shot up in bed, hand throbbing in pain in time to his heartbeat. When his eyes had cleared, he stared at his finger in amazement and disbelief as his thread drew taught as it stretched into the darkness. He wasn't alone now, and if he could just find them, just find the other half of his soul, he would never be again.

 


 

      'Sir, Director Fury is on the phone for you. He says it's to do with with an old Stark Industries project.'
      'Which project, Jarvis, because if it's weapons, I'm not even going to bother answering.'
      Not like he usually answered anyways, but there were easier ways for him to get truthful information from Shield then out of Nick Fury's mouth.
      'No, sir, he says it has to do with the Strategic Reserve. The Strategic Reserve was what began the Captain America project, sir.'
      Tony leaned back, scrubbing his face with his hands as he pulled up every scrap of information that he'd read in his father's files, that he remembered from all of his father's stories. Howard had never stopped trying to make him more like Steve Rogers, had never stopped comparing him to the legend, and Tony doubted that there was anything he he'd forgotten. The Strategic Reserve had eventually formed into Shield, after Captain America had been lost to the ice while fighting Red Skull.
      'Go ahead and put him through, Jarvis, before Coulson has to come out here on his one day off a year.'
      He needed to know why this project, why now, and why Fury was the one contacting him instead of waiting for tomorrow and Phil. Fury knew how much Tony loathed his methods, hated the secrecy, the supposedly necessary evil that came from leading Shield.
      'Stark, there's someone I need you to come pick up. He'll need a place to stay.'

 


 

     The moment Tony set foot on the 'Carrier, he could feel his thread throb into insistent life, a foreign heartbeat pressed against his skin as the thread wrapped through corridors, leading deeper into Fury's territory. It took all of his self control not to break into a run, but he would not give Fury any more advantage here then he already had. When Fury stopped in front of one of the labs, there was no way that Tony could pay attention to what he was saying, not with how strong the pull of the thread was, yanking at him with no mercy. Tony nodded at Fury absently, already brushing past him toward the door and reaching for the handle. He knew what was on the other side, and the 'he' Fury had used only gave him the slightest hesitation. The thread thrummed in counterpoint to his heartbeat, leading him in, and he was helpless not to follow as he entered the room. The man staring at him was certainly not who he had been expecting, exactly, and all of Fury's circling suddenly terribly clear sense. After all, if the man had just up and said 'I need you to keep an eye on Captain America', Tony would have said no, emphatically, but as his eyes caught sight of the thread pulled tight between them, he knew this man was it for him. There would never be anyone else, this man was the other half of his heart and there was no going back. Not now. Not ever.

 


 

      Tony let himself slide down the wall of the empty office he'd found, fumbling his phone from his jacket pocket and cursing. There was a white-hot, molten liquid feeling directly behind his arc reactor, and while he didn't recognize it, he knew at the very core of himself that it was connected to the thread wrapped around his pinky. The thread had been slowly flushing into deep, rich, soulmate red over the last forty minutes, ever since he'd found Steve Rogers on the other side of a door, and discovered that his other, his mate, had been encased in ice for the last seventy years. It was no small wonder that Tony's thread had never come alive the way it had that night two weeks ago. He shakily asked Jarvis to call Rhodey for him and set the phone on the floor, burying his face in his knees as he tried to calm down.
      'Tony, what did you break this time? Tony? Tony, hey, what's going on?'
      Tony took several deep, shuddering breaths before he could swallow past the lump in his throat. He wasn't alone anymore, there was someone out there that he could love!
      'Rhodey, he's here, and I met him, and I may have acted like a twelve year old girl with a crush in front of him. I don't think Barton will ever let me live it down.'
      There was a long silence on the other end of the line, and Tony could almost feel the gears turning before Rhodey let out a sigh.
      'You're absolutely sure, Tony? You're not drunk? Or hallucinating? Because I don't want you hurt, Tony, I really don't, and you've been waiting so long for this to happen.'
      Tony laughed breathlessly, tilting his head back against the wall. The soft thrumming of the engines, his engines, was familiar, and it shivered up his spine to soothe him as he closed his eyes.
      'I'm not drunk, Rhodey, I swear, though I'd kill for a drink right now. I walked onto the 'carrier and I damn well nearly led Nick Fury to him instead of the other way around. He's right there at the end of my thread, I can feel his heartbeat, and I know that he's nervous but determined, and it's the most amazing thing.'
Rhodey laughed quietly, and Tony relaxed even further. If Rhodey was okay, then Pepper would be too when he got around to calling her.
      'Do you need me to come out there? Because I will.'
      'Not today, Rhodey, but if you want to make a weekend of it I'll see if I can't introduce you. You'll love him, I promise. He's fucking Captain America. Steve Rogers himself, Rhodey. I think I'm fine for right now, I'm pretty sure that Agent Coulson suspects something, but for once I'm inclined to tell him.'
There was a flash in the corner of his eye, and he smiled at the unassuming vent. That would be Barton, and hopefully he'd bring Coulson back with him.
      'I'll swing by this weekend if I can, Tony. Your armor needs some work anyways. And really, only Captain America would be enough for your ego.'
      'Oh, so it's only my armor when you want something fixed, is that right? And enough about my ego.'
      He tilted his head as the door slid open, and caught Coulson's amused gaze. Tony figures that it's about time Clint and Coulson get to see someone else bond.
      'I have to go, Rhodey, there's an agent at the door and I still need to call Pepper.'

 


 

      Steve kept as still as possible, not wanting to give anything away to the agents that still remained in the room after Stark, Tony, had left. He didn't want them to see how overwhelmed he was, not after their first acts when he had woken had been to try to convince him he was still in the forties. He couldn't figure out why that game had been wrong, though. Everything else had been perfect, even the fake view out his window, and the sounds of the city. So how could they have chosen a game that not only had happened before he went down, but that he had actually gone to? Hopefully Stark could get him out of here before he went crazy from them staring at him.
      'Everyone out.'
      The other agents turned to stare at the man in the doorway, eyebrow raised as he gazed placidly back. This was a man more dangerous then any of the agents in the room, no matter how plain he looked, and Steve was inclined to think him all the more deadly because of it.
      'Agent Coulson, sir, Agent Hill ordered us to keep an eye on him until they find quarters for him.'
      A second eyebrow raised to join the first, and the other agents scurried out the door as fast as they could without looking like they were running. Steve had to hide a smile as the door closed behind the Agent, but it dropped quickly as the vent slid out of place in the ceiling and another agent dropped through.
      'Relax, Captain Rogers, we're here to rescue you.'
      The agent who had come out of the vent cracked an infectious grin at the expression on Steve's face, and he couldn't help but smile back, stiff muscles loosening as he shifted.
      'Stark should be here in a few minutes to take you home, and we'll escort you out, Captain.'
      'Thank you.'
      'Hey Coulson, did you ask him to sign your trading cards, yet?'
      Steve laughed as a blush spread across Agent Coulson's face, even as he tried to glare at the other.
      'Barton, I will not have you turn this into comedy hour.'

 


 

     They didn't get along at first, Steve too used to giving orders and Tony too used to flat-out ignoring them, or even worse, doing the exact opposite of what he had been asked to do. They grated and ground against each other, sharp edges digging into open and still weeping wounds. Howard was a subject that neither brought up, not after Tony had done his best to knock Steve on his ass after just mentioning his name. It took time, each shifting slowly until they could have a civil conversation without it devolving into raised voices and flying fists. Their lives moved forward, circling around each other in an unending spiral of attraction. Tony was falling more and more in love with Steve, and he desperately hoped that Steve was falling for him in return, he wasn't sure if he could stand Steve walking away, not after everything.

 


 

      'Tony? Hey, Tony!'
      He blinked and put down the tablet he was working on, Jarvis helpfully lowering the volume of his music as Steve stepped into the room. He was holding a paper in his hands, and while Tony rolled his eyes at Steve still using such mundane things, he could kind of understand the other man's desire for something physical to hold onto in the moments when your mind slipped from one memory to another.
      'What can I do for you, Cap?'
      Steve turned the paper around, and the headline immediately caught Tony's attention. He'd forgotten that it was almost time for the Pride Parade, and he had an inkling of why Steve was coming to him.
      'Jarvis said I'd probably get a more honest story from you then if I looked it up like I usually do.'
      Tony cleared his screens with a flick of his fingers and gestured to Steve to take a seat.
      'Alright, Captain. This is a long story, but one of the big highlights and the reason that they're having the parade happened in 1969. It really started here in New York, at the Stonewall Inn...'

 


 

      'They're gone, Tony. In the blink of an eye to me, everyone I've ever known, loved, ever even thought about, gone. After I woke up, and when Fury told me that Stark was, that you were coming to get me, I had this sudden, irrational hope that it was your father, if only for the familiarity. I'm not saying I wasn't glad to meet you, because I was, I just wanted... A touchstone, I think. Something, anything, that would make this whole transition just that little bit easier.'
      Steve swallowed hard, wishing that Tony's scotch would have any affect at all, and damning his metabolism when it didn't. The man himself sat next to him on the table, slouched back against the wall, and he was already well on his way to being drunk as he tapped his fingers on the counter top. They were both in the basement, Independence Day fireworks silently flaring into life against the far screen. They didn't handle explosions well anymore, to close to gunshots and mortar fire for both of their comforts.
      'Howard and Bucky used to tell me that I attached to people too easily, you know? Loved too easily, cared too much. I told them there was no such thing as loving too much. Oh, how they'd laugh at that line, but it was true. They... They were never as open as I was. They had me, but I had the whole of the Howling Commandos. Oh they all got along well enough, sure, but they didn't see each other as family like I did. People were my touchstones out there, kept me anchored, focused. Without other people, I wouldn't be nearly as... Anything, as I am now. They were all I had, and I loved them, and sometimes... Sometimes I hate this time so much, and I just want to go back... I'd do anything to go back...'
      Tony sat up straight, glass dropping from his nerveless fingers to shatter against the floor as he turned to face him with terrified eyes, and Steve bit his cheek, horrified at what he'd let slip. He'd not meant to ever say that out loud, had wanted to keep that buried in his mind, because he knew it wasn't what he was supposed to be thinking. He knew he was supposed to be acclimating to this time, be forming new bonds and all that, and he was, but that didn't mean it hurt any less, and that wasn't Tony's fault.

 


 

      Tony's workshop was his sacred space, was where his heart and soul lived, when they weren't in Steve's hands. When Steve had moved in, he'd reconfigured the security system at least three times before he'd been anywhere close to happy with it. Pepper was the only other person with entrance codes, though she'd probably given them to Coulson already, not even Rhodey had them after everything that had happened with Obie. Well. Not that he didn't trust Rhodey, that wasn't the case, it was just safer to have as few people as possible who knew those codes. It took Tony five weeks to realize that Steve had taken over a corner next to the windows at some point, setting up a desk and light table with boxes and cases of his art supplies ranged out around them.
      'Jarvis, when did I agree to all that? Was I drunk?'
      He gestured to Steve's corner, shoving his goggles off and running fingers through his sweaty hair, mussing the strands even further.
      'Approximately one and a half months ago, sir. Captain Rogers had complained about not being comfortable without other people around. No sir, you were sober at the time, though you then proceeded to consume the majority of your alcohol stock.'
      Tony frowned, chewing on his bottom lip. What on earth had he been thinking, letting Steve in here? This was where he escaped to when he couldn't stop thinking about piercing blue eyes, a lush mouth, or rock hard muscles under his hands and lips. He shook his head to clear it, frowning at the desk as his mind spun over and over. Everywhere he turned, Steve was creeping in around the edges of his heart. He'd known he would love Steve, the threads had shown him that, but actually falling in love with him was flat-out terrifying. Tony had never felt more vulnerable in his life.

 


 

      There were some things that Steve found embarrassingly attractive when Tony was working in the garage. For one thing, he never wore a real shirt, only a grungy, oily, stretched out tank over worn in jeans. It was the most human Tony ever looked, and Steve enjoyed every second he could of it. What really got to him, though, what really made his heart race and his palms sweat, were Tony's gloves. Supple leather, stretching up to mid forearm, the only protection from the sparks thrown by his welding that Tony would deign to wear. When he needed a bare hand for fine tuning, or for picking up a small piece, he'd tug a glove off with his teeth, regardless of whatever happened to be on it, which usually led to oil and grease smeared over one cheek and back into his hair. Steve swore more than half of his sketches these days were of Tony in the garage. He was at his most expressive there, fewer masks sitting between him and the world. There was just so much movement contained within him, like a vibration just under his skin, and Steve could barely keep from staring at him all the time. He was constantly in motion, mind working in six different directions at once as he worked his genius, and making Steve's fingers itch anytime he was near paper. Charcoal was Steve's favorite medium lately for Tony, soft enough for quick and dirty lines, but malleable enough that Tony's movement wouldn't be lost on the page. He was grateful that when he'd asked Pepper for a sketchbook, she'd had a whole case delivered, since just living here for a few months, he'd already gone through nearly a dozen of them. He never could convince himself to go back through the sketchbooks, though, unwilling to face what each and every picture said about himself, about what he'd tried so hard to hide while he'd been enlisted. He shivered slightly, despite the heat of the room, trying to shove those thoughts into the back of his mind, where he could hide them. He couldn't bear even considering them, what they meant.

 


 

      He was buried in the chest piece of his suit when Steve rapped his knuckles against the glass next to the door, and he cursed as he straightened, tipping his welding shield up so he could see. Steve had company, it looked like, and Tony tilted his head in curiosity as they entered the lab.
      'Tony, Johnny has something to talk to us about, regarding another superhero.'
      Johnny Storm, that was it. Youngest of the Fantastic Four, and who's usual guardian in the form of Ben Grimm was interestingly absent. Well, not that Johnny couldn't handle himself, but Ben was always more then happy to come to the Tower, where Tony didn't care what he looked like, only that his kind of humor was entertaining. He set down his torch, and pulled the mask all the way off, stripping out of his gloves and setting everything on the table.
      'So what can we do for you, kid?'
      'There's a superhero you guys should keep an eye on if you have the time. Reed's not all that good with people, but he won't let Sue go check him out alone, and Ben's not so good with jumping rooftops to keep up with him. He's a kid, I'm pretty sure, can't be more then eighteen at the very oldest, most likely still in school, and he's on his own out in Queens. He goes by Spiderman, and I don't know if his abilities are a mutation or whether he built his own tools, but he can shoot webs from his wrists and climb straight up walls. He mostly sticks to small time criminals, robberies, muggings, helping out firemen and the police. The Daily Bugle's got it in for him though. Jameson hates him with a passion, thinks he'll be the next big super villain.'
Tony could see Steve's frown growing deeper with every word, and covered a grin. Johnny had him at 'kid', and they both know that they'll be out in Queens tonight, trying to find him.
      'Any ideas where we'd be likely to see him?'
      Johnny shook his head, and Steve sighed lightly.
      'He's not big on sticking around when we show up, but I usually catch at least a glimpse of him when you guys are around. A patrol might be flashy enough, just paying attention and seeing if he pops his head up. Actually, you... Might want to try near the docks. It's been so dry that there have been fires breaking out all over down there. Emergency services would appreciate your help even if he doesn't show up, but that's probably where he's likely to be. Anyways, I should probably go before Reed decides to come fetch me for some experiment or other.'
Tony nodded, burying himself in a tablet, heedless of the grease and oil everywhere, and let Steve lead Johnny out. Queens, hm? That was a lot of ground to cover, but maybe if they started with the police reports...
      'Jarvis, patch me into the police scanners, focus on Queens. Pull any chatter with 'Spiderman', 'Spidey', or anything else you think might pertain to this guy.'
      'Of course, Sir, searching now.'
      When Steve came back down, he'd see about coming up with a functioning plan to find this kid, but first he needed to put this suit back together.

 


 

      'Rhodey! It's about time you swung around here! Need upgrades for the armor? You haven't brought it around for a while, I was starting to worry that you'd really destroyed it and just didn't want to break my poor heart.'
      'Tony.'
      Tony frowned up at him and slowly set down the circuit board he was working on, turning off the welder and pushing up his goggles. Rhodey was usually a very serious person, but today was different, even if only because he was in full uniform.
      'Tony, I came to ask a favor of Captain Rogers. Do you know where he is? I didn't see him upstairs.'
      'That's because he's he isn't upstairs. Stay here, I'll be back with him. What do you want him for?'
      'With Memorial Day coming up, I'm to ask him to make a speech at Arlington.'
      'Why do they want me, Sir? I haven't been in a war for seventy years.'
      Tony turned to find Steve coming up behind him, wiping his hands and forearms clean of charcoal with a rag before saluting Rhodey. There was black smudged all up one cheekbone, and Tony had to hold tight to the table to keep from reaching out and cleaning it off himself.
      'Besides, Shield bought me from the Army, so I'm pretty sure I'm not actually enlisted anymore, Colonel, Sir.'
      Steve frowned as he set the rag down, and Tony raised an eyebrow as Rhodey shifted slightly. Rhodey never did anything awkwardly, and he was puzzled for a moment before he remembered that Rhodey was secretly a Cap fanboy.
      'They wanted you because you're a national hero, even if you're not Army anymore. The military is hoping you'll make a good impression.'
      Steve blinked, before nodding slowly, and Rhodey smiled.
      'Thank you, Captain. I appreciate it.'

 

      Fury had forbidden Tony to be there, not wanting to cause an 'incident' or some such bullshit. Tony didn't care, didn't give a flying fuck as to what Fury wanted. Steve was doing something that was potentially incredibly painful, and Tony would be there for him, come hell or high water or Nick Fury's flapping black coat. He wasn't going to leave Steve alone for a speech that would bring up every bad memory he had of the war, of Red Skull, of losing friends, brothers, family.


      The ride to Arlington was silent, as Steve read over his note cards one final time, Tony pressed warmly against his side as he tapped absently through blueprints. The silence seemed to spread, overtaking the cemetery as he walked past identical rows of crosses and rows of soldiers, neat and pressed in their dress uniforms, seated before the podium. A light rain began to drizzle as Steve stepped up to the microphone, and he thought it morbidly fitting for such an occasion, as if the sky itself was weeping for the soldiers they would be remembering today. He kept his eyes on Tony, patiently standing behind everyone, shoulders hunched against the damp air, because if he looked at these soldiers, these men and women, he won't be able to say anything through his tears.
      'We all know why we are here today, each of us here for a fallen friend, a brother or a sister, a father or a mother. Some of you may be here for all of those.'
      He had to stop and swallow, chest tight as Tony tried to smile encouragingly, but he could see that it was painfully fragile.
      'I was asked to speak to you today because someone up top thinks I'm a hero, and that I'll inspire a whole new generation of soldiers. That's not why I agreed to come here, not today of all days. I'm here to tell you that I'm not a hero. Not really. You deserve to have someone up here better than me talking to you, telling you that we appreciate everything you do for this country, for all of us. You are the real heroes, you are my heroes, every one of you. Every soldier who has given for their country is a hero, every soldier who is serving and has served is a hero. I'm just a kid from Brooklyn, who got lucky and had a whole lot of help from some very smart people. You guys are doing it all, every day, without the serum, or special abilities. You are heroes.'

 


 

      'Stark. Captain. I'm afraid that we need to call you in. '
      Agent Coulson stepped out of the elevator, files in hand as Tony and Steve turned towards him from where they were sprawled over the living room.
      'We need wheels up by tomorrow morning, and I still need to collect two more people.'
      He passed a file to each of them, a small thumbdrive pressed into Tony's palm without acknowledgement. Steve raised an eyebrow when Tony took the screen willingly, without protest. He'd never seen him take anything from anyone but Pepper, and Tony wouldn't even take a sketch from him yet.
      'Stark... Tony.'
      He covers his earpiece for a brief moment, and Steve stills. That was certainly not the usual, not anything like what he'd seen in the rare instances that Agent Coulson had come to the Tower to see Tony. Come to think of it, usually Agent Barton accompanied him on these visits. So where was the archer tonight?
      'Tony, Barton's been compromised. I'm only supposed to be calling the Captain in, but I managed to convince the Director that you'd find a way to tag along anyways. He's not happy about it.'
      Tony was terrifyingly still next to him for a heartbeat, eyes wide as he stared at Agent Coulson, before hurriedly shoving the thumbdrive into the nearest tablet. Files flared to life around them, Tony desperately flicking through them as he searched for any relevant footage. Steve could tell that it was going to be a long night as he opened his own folder with a sigh.

 


 

      Banner frowned at the screen as it shrilled violently to him about the Tesseract, and Steve watched him cautiously while still keeping an eye on Tony by his side. The staff had obviously affected Bruce just moments ago, and Steve was concerned about it affecting the rest of them. Something was itching at the base of his skull, a low pounding through his muscles dragging his mind down, down, down. He hadn't been this angry at Tony this morning, when he'd flown them both up here, hadn't even been thinking along the lines of what he'd just thrown at the other man. He'd never had a problem with Tony touching his shoulder before, either, and yet he found himself brushing Tony off, away from him, and Tony's hurt look twinged something deep in his chest. He tried to focus, but he couldn't pull together a thought as to why or when his attitude had changed, he only knew that it had. They'd struck up a burgeoning friendship in the few months that Steve had been staying at the Tower, but this mission seemed to be hellbent on ruining everything that they'd gained.
      'Oh my god...'
      Out of the corner of his vision, a bloom of red and orange and white caught his attention, and searing heat had a split second to register against his skin before he was flinging himself over to cover Tony, doing his best to protect the man's all too fragile body. When the ringing had stopped echoing in his ears, and he had caught a breath through the smoke, he scrambled to his feet, pulling Tony up with him and pushing him towards the doorway.
      'Put on the suit!'
      'Yep!'
      Steve couldn't see Bruce or Natasha, but he knew he needed his shield before he could be of any real use in the fighting. His comm crackled to reluctant life as he and Tony hurried down the corridor, and Agent Hill's voice fought against the static.
      'Somebody's got to get outside and patch that engine!'
      'Stark, did you copy that ?'
      'I'm on it!'
      They raced through the ship, weaving around crew members and downed lines as they made their way towards the engine. They came to turn off, and Tony slowed, Steve turning to look at him in question.
      'Engine Three, I'll meet you there.'
      Stark must have been grabbing his suit, as this looked like one of the storage bays, and Steve nodded, hurrying the rest of the way. Looks like he wouldn't be able to fetch his shield after all. There  was frantic pounding on the bay door when he reached it, and he eyed the metal, warped and bowed, stuck fast. He settled a strong grip on the door, pulling steadily until it swung free and he hurried through, letting agents helping the injured pass by him. He could feel the adreneline overtaking him, feel himself slipping into The Captain's mindset, and as he told Tony that he had made it, the last of Steve was lost in the rush. He hoped he'd remember everything afterwards, as he'd neglected to warn Tony, which had been a severe oversight on his part. There was nothing for it now, only a prayer and a wish, and the sensation of ice steadily creeping beneath his skin.

 

      'Agent Coulson is down.'
      'A medical team is on it's way to your location.'
      'They're already here. They called it.'
      Steve can see Tony shatter a little further in front of him, another piece of who he was ground into dust beneath the turn of a wheel, and he aches to make it better, easier. He can't, though, not with this pain, this guilty ache that he knows all to well. He knew the scenarios Tony was running in his mind, the what-if's, the I-could-have's, the if-only's. He'd done the same for Bucky, still does, and he knew there was nothing to ease this pain.

 

      'Do you know what it's like to be unmade?'
      'You know that I do.'
      Tony slipped in the door, catching Clint's eyes as he settled back against the wall. Damn, but he looked like shit. Hell, they probably all did. Clint nodded before turning back to Natasha, and Tony watched him, wondering how to break the news. Only... His thread wasn't cut. Tony stared at their thread, cold shivers working their way down his spine and his stomach sinking. If Phil wasn't dead, then what the hell was Fury playing at? The Director had to know what Phil meant to Clint, hell, what Phil meant to all of them now. If Phil was alive, and Fury hid it and Tony could find proof? Shield would be in flaming pieces by the time the team was done with their rampage.
      'Why am I back? How'd you get him out?'
      'Cognitive recalibration. I hit you really hard on the head.'
      'Thanks. ... Natasha, how many Agents-?'
      'Don't. Don't do that to yourself, Clint. This is Loki. This is monsters, and magic, and nothing we were ever trained for.'
      'Loki? He get away?'
      'I don't suppose you know where?'
      He shook his head and Tony cursed silently. He was right, then, and this once he didn't want to be right.
      'Didn't need to know, didn't ask. He's going to make his play soon, though. Today.'
      Clint stood and made his way into the small bathroom to wash his face, and Tony watched him go, eyes on the still-bright thread, mind twisting and weaving and begging for it to be the truth.
      'Where's Phil? He should be here.'
      Tony couldn't hide his flinch, or Natasha's forced stillness, but before he could say anything to Clint, Steve pushed through the doorway, every inch Captain America about to take on the world.
      'Time to go.'
      'Go where?'
      'I'll tell you on the way. Can you fly one of those jets?'
      'I can.'
      Steve looked to Natasha, who nodded to him, and Tony could see Clint shove everything else to the back of his mind. He was in for hell at their next sparring match.
      'You got a suit? Then suit up.'

 

      When Loki takes out their engine, every step Steve has made towards taking himself back from The Captain is lost, a fresh round of adreneline pushing through him and pushing him down as Natasha and Clint struggle to keep the plane level. When they hit the street, destruction all around them, he goes willingly, knowing The Captain can handle this better then he can.

 

      'Stark, you know that's a one way trip.'
      'Sorry, Captain. You know there isn't any other way.'
      Steve knew how Peggy had felt, now, when he'd taken the plane down, and had still promised to meet her for that dance. It didn't make him feel any better about losing yet another friend, and he had never expected to be seeing it from her perspective, unable to do anything but hope in vain. Telling Natasha to close the portal is one of the hardest things he has ever done, even though he knows that it has to be done, and any relief that he feels when he sees Tony come back through is lost when Thor notices that he's not slowing. The ice beneath his skin steals his breath as Hulk catches Tony, bringing him down to their level and standing guard over him with a snarl. Steve can see that the arc isn't lit, and the ice creeps up his spine until he feels like he's choking. When Hulk roars, and Tony jerks, gasping for air, his chest stuttering to life, Steve thinks it's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. When Tony asks if anyone kissed him, Steve finds himself wishing he had before swiftly burying that desire deeply in the back of his mind. It wasn't important right now.

 


 

      Steve frowns, surveying the ruins of his corner in Tony's shop, rubble and dust everywhere, and he's not sure any of his supplies are salvageable. Loki and Hulk did an excellent job of shaking down most of the building, though the load-bearing structures are still in place for the most part, and he's grateful for that small mercy.
      'Hey, Steve, come here if you want any input on your floor design. I'm putting one in for every Avenger, so we can all be in one place if we're needed again.'
      Steve knows a little of what Tony's not saying; that he's afraid if they all leave, they won't come back, that once he has people he considers 'his', he doesn't ever let them go if he can help it.
      'Just make sure that you actually have a separate lab for Doctor Banner, Tony. I can't imagine that he'll find your music calming.'
      There's a slightly wild grin from Tony, and Steve thinks he might be one step closer to understanding the man in front of him.

 


 

      'Tony? Do you have a moment? I know you're busy...'
      Tony glanced up from where he was buried in the gears of one of his repulsor gauntlets, and carefully set his tools down on the coffee table when he saw Steve. He raised a brow in question, and Steve fidgeted.
      'What can I do for you, Steve?'
      Steve shuffled his feet, and Tony watched in fascination as a light flush spread across his cheeks and the tips of his ears. He'd thought that they were past the easily embarrassed stage with Steve, but apparently that wasn't the case. Oh well, one more thing to work on.
      'I wanted to apologize, Tony, for what I said in Bruce's lab. I should have apologized before, and it was wrong of me to say that you were nothing like Howard. You really are more alike than you know.'
      Tony sat frozen in front of him, mind racing at a thousand miles a minute. The very last thing he wanted was to be like was his father; too busy and too drunk to notice or care about his own son. He especially didn't want that comparison coming from the only person that his father had ever really loved, and oh didn't that just burn to think about, that his father had been in love with his soulmate. That Howard had compared him to Steve and found him wanting, and yet here they were.
      'I am nothing like him! I refuse to be anything like that bastard!'
      Except that he was. He was too much like his father when it came to Steve, so much so that it hurt in ways he thought he couldn't anymore. He surged to his feet, and Steve stumbled back at the force of his rage, face paling.
      'Tony, I...'
      But Tony wasn't listening as he hurriedly gathered everything to his chest and raced down the stairs to the garage. He wasn't, couldn't, wouldn't be that man. But he was. And there was nothing he could do to stop himself. Nothing at all.

 

      Steve stared at the wall above the computer screen, one knee pulled up to his chest as he tried desperately not to cry as Jarvis read aloud in a soft voice. He'd had Jarvis take over half an hour ago, after Steve could no longer focus on the text in front of him through the tears swimming in his eyes. He'd wanted to know why Tony had been so very angry when Steve had compared him to Howard, and these articles were describing a completely different person than the man Steve had known during the war. This Howard Stark was still fiercely intelligent, but he wasn't Howard any more, not really. Steve wasn't sure if he could handle that big of a change. He'd known everyone was dead, had accepted that and mourned the memories he had of them, but this...
      'Jarvis, that's enough for today, I think.'
      Jarvis shut down the computer and raised the lights with a quiet 'yes, sir', and Steve looked over his shoulder to find Tony, who hurried closer as their eyes met. He blinked back tears as Tony rested a callused hand on his shoulder and turned Steve towards him.
      'I'm so sorry, Tony... This isn't... I didn't... This is not who I wanted to compare you to... This man is... Isn't Howard. And... What I said, about the armor? If you took it away what was left? I didn't mean so much the physical armor as much as I meant the masks you have between you, your heart and the world. I want to know you, because I think you're worth it, but all I can see is a doll, taken out to play and put back until it's needed again.'
      He gestures roughly at the computer before leaning forward into Tony's chest and sighing sadly. Tony ran his fingers awkwardly through Steve's hair before resting his hands back on his shoulders, and squatting down to eye level.
      'Steve, I understand that now that I've had a few days to drink and sleep off the hangover, and now that Pepper's chewed me out a few times, okay? He was a changed man after you went down, and I should have realized that he would have been a new stranger to you. Howard's not an easy topic for me, probably never will be, and maybe someday I'll be able to tell you, but not yet. I didn't want to say anything, didn't want to ruin whatever picture you had of him, because that would have been cruel, even for me. I'll try not to jump into assumptions in the future. Come on, I'll take you out to eat. Go wash your face and change.'

 


 

      Sometimes, when the nightmares were too much for him to handle, when everything was freezing water and he can't draw a breath, only more water, Steve would find himself wandering the Tower, slowly padding through the halls and pausing at doorways, making sure everyone was alright and still breathing. If anyone was still awake when he made these solitary rounds, they never mentioned it the next morning, and Steve was unashamedly grateful that no one brought it up. His teammates were more then capable of taking care of themselves, well, most of the time anyways, and he felt... Presumptuous, checking in on all of them like this. Eventually though, he would find himself in the living room in the wee hours, plate full of whatever leftovers hadn't been labeled, and Jarvis had taken it upon himself to introduce Steve to the wonders of modern Disney. That's not to say that Steve didn't like other genres, but Disney seemed to most suitable for the situation at hand. He could always watch more with the rest of his team if he so chose. Steve had seen Snow White as a teenager, one of the last outings to the cinema his mother had been healthy enough to come along on, but he'd seen Fantasia with Bucky, and Pinocchio on his own. He hadn't been able to stomach watching Dumbo and Bambi at the time they had come out, as the loss in each movie had been too much for him. Was still too much for him, really, and Jarvis had listed them as movies to watch only when other people were present. Steve had started with 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, and gave Jarvis free reign from there. Watching them in order wasn't all that important to him, and as he grew more familiar with the societal overtones, he began testing himself, seeing if he could place the movie at least reasonably close to when it was produced. Several weeks into his ritual, Bruce ghosted out of the hallway as Steve was settling into the couch, and slipped over to join him, curling up at the other end.
      'Dr. Banner, is everything alright?'
      'Yes, I just thought that you always check in on us, so maybe it was time one of us checked in on you.'

 


 

      Steve tried to keep his footsteps soft as he gently carried Tony down the hallway leading to their rooms. It was on the wrong side of four in the morning, and the last thing he wanted to do was wake up Natasha because he liked his skin attached, thank you very much. Tony stirred in his arms, and Steve leaned down to softly kiss his temple before he could catch himself, hoping that he'd fall deeper asleep when Steve got him actually into a bed. Tony was coming down from a long stretch in the garage with no real sleep, and Steve meant to make sure he got at least six and preferably closer to ten hours before he got up again.
      'Jarvis, hold all our calls unless it's from Shield or Pepper, and let everyone else know where we are, please?'
      'Of course, sir. I will also order food to be brought up for everyone.'
      'Thank you, Jarvis.'
      Steve shifted Tony slightly so that he could pull the covers back on his bed, and gently lowered him to the mattress before carefully undressing the smaller man down to his boxers and removing his own clothing. Tony sprawled like a ragdoll beneath his hands, and some nights it took his breath away to see just how much Tony trusted him, even after everything. He climbed in next to Tony, slowly pulling him in against his chest and he held his breath as Tony whined softly before settling down and curling against him. Steve pulled the covers over them, tucking them in around Tony's shoulders and settled down to watch over him. Thanks to the serum, he only needed about four hours of sleep, but he'd promised Pepper that he'd stay with Tony now that she and Happy were off on their (long overdue) honeymoon, and make sure that he wouldn't have to endure the nightmares alone. In an hour or so, he'd creep out of bed, untangle himself from Tony's clinging limbs, and check on the rest of the team before locking everything down and climbing back in next to Tony. Natasha would check everything again when she woke, but it never hurt to be overly cautious.

 


 

      'Hey, Steve, are you you busy?'
      Steve looked over his shoulder from where he was washing the dishes to frown at Tony, who was smirking at him as he leaned against the counter.
      'Depends on what you had in mind, Tony. If this turns into another 'club' incident where you leave me to fend for myself among the vultures, I can and will call Pepper, no matter how much you complain about my tattling.'
      'You wound me with your lack of trust, Steve.'
      Tony clapped a hand to his chest, wilting slightly, and Steve tried to hide a smile at the other man's dramatics.
      'As it turns out, Pepper can't make it out here for the fundraising dinner I have tonight at the Met, and since I know you wanted to go, I thought I'd take you with me.'
      'Do I need one of the suits Pepper bought for me? Or one of the ones you took me to be tailored for when you saw them.'
      'Neither, actually. We're going to be leaving soon and getting you fitted for a tuxedo on the way. It's a black tie affair after all.'
      Steve scowled, draining the sink and drying his hands, before turning to face Tony.
      'I'm not going back to the same place as the suit fitting. They wouldn't keep their hands to themselves!'
      'Can you really blame them? You're the pinnacle of human perfection! I'm just surprised they didn't try to sneak into your room while you were changing.'
      'They did, Tony. As well as gave me their phone numbers, their addresses, and their work schedules for the next two weeks. Just in case.'
      Tony snickered, crossing his arms and tilting his head to the side, and Steve scowled deeper.
      'No, we're not going back there, though I shouldn't be surprised you didn't take advantage of the opportunity. Tuxes and suits are two completely different animals, so go get dressed and we'll go.'

 


 

They spent so much of their time together, whether Steve kept him company in the garage while he worked, or dragged him to some new art exhibit, or Tony dragged him to a car show, or a party. Things were excellent, and Tony was happy, and he thought Steve was happy, too.

 


 

      ' ... Steve? What are you doing up? It's-' he glanced at the clock on the stove, 'near on three. You should be asleep.'
      Steve turned from the sink, and Tony blinked in surprise as he struggled to keep his jaw from dropping. Steve was in slim black slacks, and a button-up that helped shade his eyes an even more piercing blue.
      'I just got in, Tony. Sorry if I bothered you, or interrupted something.'
      Tony shook his head and held up his mug.
      'Time for a refill is all. Got in from what? I don't remember you leaving, and last I knew your table was still set up. Though that was about eight hours ago, give or take, when you dragged me up here to eat.'
      Steve smiled bashfully, leaning back against the counter, and Tony couldn't help dragging his eyes down the long, lean lines of the man in front of him. Did he know how hot he was, especially dressed like that?
      'I had a date tonight, but I had to wait until she got off shift.'
      Tony's heart stopped in horror, right there in the middle of the kitchen, and his eyes immediately shot down to their hands. Their thread was still red, but it was soft and muted, and it had begun to sag and fray between them. When had that happened? When was the last time he'd looked down at it? How had he missed this?
      'That's great, Steve. Did you have a good time? Who is she?'
      Now that he was looking, he could see the signs that he'd missed. Kiss-bruised lips, with a hickey just peeking out of his collar. His shirt, offset by one button. His hair mussed. Putting a smile on his face sent shards of pain through Tony's chest, but he would damn well be happy for his best friend despite his own feelings. How could he have expected Steve to know? Telepathy? Tony listened as Steve told him where they'd gone and what they'd done, absently wrapping their thread around his fingers, hoping to pull it taught again.
      'I'm taking Sharon out again on Friday, Tony, I need to find somewhere else to take her, though I should probably be asking Pepper and not you. Tony? Hey Tony, I think you need to go to bed, not have more coffee. You look like you're going to fall asleep standing. You've been in the garage for almost three days now.'
      Tony nodded, smile slipping slightly before he caught it and shoved it back into place.
      'I think I will. I'll tell Jarvis not to look you out of the garage in case you want to put your things away if they're still out. Goodnight, Steve.'
      He could feel Steve's eyes on his back, burning against his shoulders the entire way to his room as he tried to convince himself that he wasn't running away. He, Tony Stark, wasn't even good enough to keep his soulmate interested. Maybe Howard and Obie had been right about him after all, maybe there was something wrong with him. God knows what everyone else would say if they knew the truth.

 


 

      He buried himself in his work after that, trusting Pepper to keep the company running while he blew off meetings and phone calls and isolated himself in the garage. He slept there, curled on a cot in the corner, only braving the kitchen on rare nights when no one was awake and moving. He didn't want to sleep in his own bed anymore, as Steve wasn't there to share the empty expanse with him anymore. He only left for Avenger calls, and even then, he vanished back downstairs right after. Pepper was kind enough to forward him everything on the R&D table for Stark Industries, and he hoped the designs would keep him busy long enough for the violent ache in his chest to go away. Tony couldn't even look at threads anymore, couldn't force himself to shake hands with anyone who had the slightest red tint to their thread out of the corner of his eye. Every time he saw one, his heart froze in his chest, and the pain that shattered through his nerves was so much worse than anything that the Ten Rings did to him in Afghanistan. When he absolutely has to speak with someone, he keeps his eyes over their shoulder or on his current project, and he can't help but laugh painfully at the fact that he's turning into Reed Richards. He's finding a brand new appreciation for video calls, because he can't see anything but a face on the screen, but it is only a small mercy. He still lives with two bonded pairs, and he can't even be in the same room as Thor any more because the god talks as much with his hands as his mouth. Jane came by once to have dinner with them, and Tony had had to leave the room, despite Pepper's protests and threats, because he couldn't escape seeing their newly deepening thread. Clint's bond, though, has been the rich red of solid partners for as long as Tony has known him, and it gets harder and harder to look at him every day, which hurts so much worse because he used to take comfort in the fact that someday Tony's thread with Steve would look like his bond with Phil. He knows Pepper has noticed his new aversion, and he's fairly certain Rhodey has too, though he's only been over once since That Night. Pepper had probably talked to him, but Tony couldn't really bring himself to care. The bottle was quickly becoming his new best friend when he wasn't busy, to try to mask the pain, but he knew it couldn't last much longer. He responsibilities far larger than himself, to his team, to his family. He was going to have to brick up his heart once again.

 


 

      Tony stumbled into his room, snarling as he caught his shoulder against the doorframe. God, but he was exhausted, and he hoped to whoever was listening that that meant he wouldn't have any nightmares tonight. He couldn't share a bed with Steve anymore, Sharon had apparently thrown a fit about it, and Tony wasn't really sure if he could be that close to Steve without his heart breaking further anyway. Pepper was his next option, but she was in LA, playing nice with potential investors, too far for her to come here every night and it wouldn't be fair to Happy. He jerked to a stop in the middle of the floor, jeans halfway undone and undershirt rucked up over his reactor, squinting as he tried to focus past the fuzziness of his vision in the dim blue light. There was someone already curled up in his bed, and he blinked several times before recognizing the slope of Clint's shoulder.
      'Get in bed already, Stark, before Natasha convinces Pepper that sedating you is actually a good idea.'
      Tony awkwardly finished changing, pulling on a pair of sleep pants before climbing up next to Clint, who shifted to accommodate him.
      'And Bruce is okay with you being in my bed and not his?'
      That had certainly been a revelation this morning, to sneak upstairs for more coffee and find Clint sprawled over Bruce's lap as he played Mario Kart with Thor, a collar around his throat and Natasha watching with a sad smile. Tony hadn't thought that Clint would be okay without Coulson, had been doing his best to find Phil, because Clint's thread was still red, still strong, but he hadn't made any progress. Not even Jarvis could find a trace of him, and Jarvis was the best in the world. He'd dug through every Shield database he could find, and some that probably shouldn't have existed, but he would find Phil for Clint if it was the last thing he did. After everything they'd been through, everything Fury had put them through, they deserved time together, not these lies and half-truths. He took careful note of how Clint made sure that he kept his right hand out of sight, and couldn't help but be grateful, even as he felt like a jerk for it.
      'He'll have his turn later. Right now, you're most important to me and he understands that. Besides, he doesn't really get why my nightmares involve thread, or why I can't wear my red shirts anymore, and I haven't told him. I don't know if I ever will. Now sleep, and if you behave the next few days, I'll steal one of Steve's shirts for you.'
      Tony nodded and curled around his pillow, already dropping off at the sensation of Clint's heat washing against his skin. He'd missed this, missed the contact that he'd shut himself off from. After all, if his bonded didn't want him, how could anyone else?
Clint was still there when Tony woke several hours later, shaking and biting down so hard on a scream that he tasted blood, calmly making sure that Tony hadn't done any permanent damage to himself before wrapping his arms around Tony's shoulders, and Tony leaned into him with a shudder. God fucking damnit, they were getting worse. They were no longer just nightmares of the Ten Rings, and what Obie did, but now there were dreams of him losing Steve in a fight. Of looking down mid-battle to find his string cut short like Fury's, and not being able to feel Steve at his end of their threads. Shit. He focused on taking slow breaths, listening to the steady beat of Clint's heart under his ear as he struggled to calm down. The last thing he wanted was to work himself into a panic attack.


      Three nights later brought the worst nightmare Tony had ever experienced, as he woke up trying his best to claw his reactor out of his chest and fighting hard against Clint's hold. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he heard Clint yell for Jarvis to get the rest of the team in here, but before he could blink, he was back under the heavy hand of the dream. It took Natasha slapping him twice to bring him around again, and he struggled into wakefulness, ears ringing with the echoes of his screams. She and Clint each held one of his arms down, and Thor was anchoring his legs to the mattress as Bruce checked his pulse before climbing down to fetch the first aid kit from the bathroom.
      'Jarvis, where's Steve?'
      'Captain Rogers is not currently in the tower, Doctor Banner, and he is not expected back for another hour and half. Would you like me to call him?'
      'No, that's fine. Just let us know when he gets in.'
      'Of course, sir.'
      Tony watched Bruce frown and mutter to himself before sending Thor to get a damp washrag from the bathroom, and all he wanted to do was escape downstairs to the garage so he can work off the taste of blood on his tongue and in his teeth. Bruce gently wiped down his chest, and Tony fought to keep still under the burning drag of the fibers. Fuck, he didn't want them them in here, not when his barriers were so terrifyingly low, still shattered in the aftermath of the nightmare. He didn't want them to see what a failure he was.


      Bruce carefully disinfected his hands before rubbing antiseptic into the marks scored into Tony's chest, bleeding only sluggishly now that they'd been cleaned. Where on earth was Steve, that Jarvis didn't expect him home until three in the morning? Clint cursed viciously, and Tony turned away, closing his eyes against the pity that he knew was in Clint's face.
      'Steve's fucking out with Sharon.'
      Bruce frowned, climbing down from the bed to pull up a chair.
      'What does that have to do with anything? He's been dating Sharon for two months, why is tonight any different?'
      'Because he's at her place, not just out to dinner. He's sleeping with her!'
      Tony jacknifed up, growling and shoving against Clint in a desperate effort to get him to shut the hell up. The last thing he wanted was for everyone to know how weak he was, and he wouldn't allow Clint to ruin everything. He hissed as Natasha wrenched him back down, raising an eyebrow in threat as he glared up at her. Bruce looked between them curiously before placing a gentle hand on Clint's wrist, a silent request for the truth.
      'What does that have to do with Tony's nightmare?'
      'Because he's bonded to Steve, even if Steve doesn't know it, he can feel Steve on the other end, and it's hurting him.'
      Tony tilted his head back and closed his eyes. God he did not want to do this.

 


 

      'Sir, Reed Richards is at the door, along with the rest of the Fantastic Four. Shall I let them in?'
      Tony pushed back his chair, propping his bare feet up on the table as he fiddled with a tablet, tapping against the screen absently. He shifted screens of notes on the Tessaract to the background, pulling forward the blueprints for his latest incarnation of the Helicarrier before he answered. If they were going to come in, the last thing he wanted was for Reed to begin asking questions that he shouldn't be hearing the answer too.
      'Go ahead and let them in, Jarvis, and... Call the good Captain down as well, will you? He'll probably want to be here for the argument we're about to have with Reed.'
      'As you will, Sir. I will also endeavor to keep Johnny Storm from interacting with Agent Barton, as per your standing instructions. I have also informed Agent Romanoff of their impending arrival.'
      Tony hummed quietly, already lost in the blueprints and chewing on his bottom lip as new calculations and configurations unfolded themselves in front of him. He didn't want to deal with Richards today, or at all ever, really. He'd be much happier if it was just Sue and Ben, but he can't be that lucky, not with how things were going lately. He didn't work well with Richards, not unless there was a world-ending emergency, and he sincerely hoped that Steve and Sue would be enough to keep them from trying to kill each other. Well, keep Richards out of his stuff, and keep him from killing Richards. The door slid open with a hiss, and he spun the chair slightly so that he could see them come in. Interestingly enough, they were in civilian clothes, which boded slightly better for Tony's continued good mood, and Sue waved slightly as they came closer.
      'So it seems we missed the party while we were in another dimension, but no one seems to want to give us the whole story, and we're getting the runaround from Shield. Care to share?'
      Johnny grinned sharply at him as he spoke, Sue frowning over her shoulder as she kept one hand on Reed's wrist so that he wouldn't mess with Tony's tools. That had nearly gotten the team banned from the Tower last time, just before Steve had moved in, and nearly led to a new ulcer for Agent Coulson when Tony had come storming into his office to complain. Tony vaguely recalled demanding that Coulson talk to whichever agent was in charge of the Fantastic Four and figure out some other method of communication, because he refused to deal with Reed Richards in person any more. Tony had to bite down on a scowl when he realized that Coulson probably hadn't had a chance to take care of that before everything had gone to shit. Richards just couldn't accept that occasionally he was wrong, very wrong, and Tony couldn't resist pointing out his mistakes. Steve padded in behind them, barefoot and toweling his hair, obviously just coming from working out, and Tony nudged the thermostat up slightly on his tablet. No need to leave Steve uncomfortably damp while they sat around and talked. He gestured for them all to find seats, raising a brow as Johnny merely hopped up onto one of the tables, and Steve leaned against the table behind Tony's shoulder. Well, at least Steve was still content to watch his back. That was good.
      'Let's start from the beginning, shall we? About three months ago in New Mexico...'
      He spent the next few hours covering the basics of what had happened, Steve interjecting and adding details when necessary, and when he was finally finished, Tony was more then ready for a drink. Sue was frowning across from him him, and Tony didn't object when she picked up one of the tablets laying on the table behind Johnny.
      'Jarvis, I need into Reed's mainframe. I know Tony's had you link with us.'
      'Certainly Ms. Storm. You are now linked to the mainframe.'
      Reed gave Tony a wounded look, and it was a struggle for Tony not to simply stick his tongue out at him. Steve shifted against his shoulder, and when Tony looked up, he merely raised a quelling eyebrow. Tony settled deeper into his chair with a grumble of complaint, but his attention was swiftly stolen when Sue turned the tablet around.
      'Are these what you were fighting? Because they're what we were dealing with in the alternate universe. This Loki character didn't seem to be in charge, nor did they come through a portal, but there was an entire armada in orbit around Mars. They must have simply come through space there.'
      Tony nodded, and grabbed for the tablet, flicking through the photographs and scans that they had made.
      'I need to send this on to Shield right now, Sue. They're trying to integrate the Chitauri technology into their weapons and hardware, but most of these scans look like there's a biofeedback link that's necessary to their capability. If that link isn't in place, there'll be no control over their functions. Jarvis, upload this into Phil's private server and flag Maria Hill, not Fury. Fury won't take no for an answer. Steve, call Doctor Foster and see if Thor's around. If he isn't, have her signal Heimdallr or whoever to get him back down here. Jarvis, call Bruce down, and then order enough food for a party. We're going to be here a while.'
      With a flick of his wrist, he sent the information from the tablet into the air around them, enlarging a few of the scans so that he could peer at a minute detail.
      'Richards, come here but for god's sake don't touch anything.'
      Tony lost track of everyone else for some time, only noticing when Bruce came down to join in the discovery, and he was only slightly sure that Steve had fielded the call from Agent Hill. He had no idea what had happened to the rest of the team, but he knew Jarvis would have informed him if they needed something.

 


 

     Weeks went by without him marking time, only known by the fight he had came home from last. Cap's absence only grew stronger with his desk empty, the drawing supplies unused, and Tony was too much a coward to ask Jarvis how many times he'd gone out with (fucking) Sharon Carter. He finally shoved it to the back of his mind and stacked crates in front of his corner, so that he wouldn't keep seeing it glaring at him like everything was his fault. Well. It was, but he hadn't quite figured out how yet.

 


 

      The opening of the hall door was timed perfectly to hide in the music that Steve had playing as he cooked dinner, and had it been any of the others save Natasha, likely no one would have noticed the shift in air pressure or the half-familiar booted steps against the hall tile. Steve frowned in concern, quickly turning units and the oven off, his eyes flicking to the tablet laying silently on the counter next to him. Jarvis hadn't said a word, hadn't even buzzed a notification, and Tony hadn't come up from the lab as none of the private elevators were moving, so how had Fury made it all the way up without anyone noticing? And why? He never came to the Tower, hated coming into what Tony considered his territory. Not that the 'Carrier wasn't Tony's, of course, but Fury could at least maintain the illusion of control there. He began cleaning up, nonchalantly sending out a meeting alert to the team as he worked around the tablet. If Fury had bypassed Jarvis somehow, Steve had to try the next best thing, and hopefully, the lab being on a completely separate mainframe from the Tower would give Jarvis an edge over whatever was causing the problem. After all, Tony still needed Jarvis to use the suit, and they might just need Old Shellhead today. He dried his hands against his jeans, lowering the volume of the radio before turning to face the director.
      'We weren't expecting you, sir, or I'd have made sure to have enough made for your agents as well.'
      Thor padded into view from the hall, a dark scowl crossing his face as he caught sight of Fury, and thunder rumbled ominously outside as his spine straightened. Natasha slipped in behind him, face perfectly blank and calm as she ignored the director and nudged into Steve's side, leaning into him just slightly. Steve wasn't sure Fury would ever get her loyalty back, not after what the man had done to Clint, and he couldn't say he felt even the least bit sorry.
      'If I had told you beforehand, none of you would be here, much less in the same state.'
      In this, at least, Steve reluctantly admitted that he was probably correct. The team had made an obvious point to avoid him over the last two months, without the slightest smidge of subtlety, and only acknowledging Hill and Sitwell when they absolutely had to. After everything that had happened with Clint, and that had almost happened with Bruce, Fury should be damn grateful that they hadn't up and turned rogue.
      'I have successfully eliminated your 'distraction', Director Fury, and Mr. Stark will be up momentarily to deal with you. How would you prefer your obituary to read?'
      Steve smothered a grin, seeing Thor do the same out of the corner of his eye, and he felt Natasha's shoulder shift against his ribs in what was probably a laugh. Tony came storming out of the elevator a moment later, anger palpable as he nudged in at Steve's other side, and Steve wouldn't have been surprised if Tony had tried to physically attack Fury. Jarvis was one of his most important things, and Fury had done something potentially dangerous to him. He gently wrapped one hand around Tony's wrist, and hoped that that would be enough to keep him from taking a swing at the Director. Clint and Bruce ghosted in from one of the side halls, crossing the kitchen to cover Natasha's other shoulder, Bruce standing between them to try and keep any violence to a minimum. Steve was surprised to see that Clint's neck was bare, as he preferred to keep the collar on at all times, but with Fury, perhaps it was a sound idea.
      'We're all here,' Tony snarled, 'so get on with it already. I have a shit-ton of better things to do then stand here and listen to you flapping your mouth.'
      His glare ratcheted a few degrees hotter, and Steve gently ran a finger back and forth over Tony's pulse point, because as much as they all wanted to, assaulting Fury was a bad idea right now.
      'There are some things that I need to inform you of, Stark, so do us all a favor and put your big girl panties on and listen up.'
      It was Steve's turn to stiffen in outrage, and another roll of thunder sounded over the tower before Bruce caught their eyes and shook his head. Steve clamped down on his anger, feeling it roiling against his ribs, and leaned back against the counter.
      'You've been assigned a handler, and they will be starting today. I expect you all to behave and not run this one off like you have the rest.'
      Frigid silence swept over the team, and Steve snagged Natasha's wrist with his free hand, seeing Bruce do the same on her other side and pin one of Clint's as well. He hoped they were reaching for knives and not explosives, and winced as Natasha spewed a vitriolic flood of Russian at the man in front of them, Tony's sharp Italian rising to join her.
      'That is not a wise decision for anyone involved, Director Fury. You have my word that they would not last an hour here, and I will not promise that they will be returned alive. Or whole.'
      Bruce's voice was quiet, but there was a violent undertone of the Hulk, and Steve could see that his skin and eyes were bleeding green, muscles beginning to shift under his skin.
      'I assure you, Dr. Banner. Your handler won't have any trouble at all.'
      With a savage snarl, Bruce dropped the wrists he was holding as he took several large steps forward, and Steve grinned madly as Fury shifted back, eye on the rest of the team as they came together to cover Bruce. As good as he must be to hold his position in SHIELD, there was no way he could survive them all. A soft noise from the hallway caught their attention, but Steve didn't turn fully, still keeping one eye on Fury.
      'Dr. Banner, I'm afraid that we do still require the Director, so if you could limit yourself to maiming, rather than outright manslaughter, I would appreciate it. After all, the paperwork for murder is exhaustively tedious.'
      Phil Coulson stepped into the kitchen, faint smile lurking in the corners of his eyes as the team stared at him in shock, and Steve felt Tony's pulse skyrocket from where he still had a grip on the other man's wrist. Bruce slid an arm around Clint's waist as he paled milky white, and Phil's face fell as his eyes flickered between them all. Clint's knees gave out beneath him, and the team surged forward as Bruce carried him to the ground.
      '... Sir?'
      Clint's voice was soft, soaked in wonder and hope and such terrible, awful fear, and Steve had to swallow a lump in his throat as Phil's eyes widened. Clint had been so alone, even with Bruce, and to have Phil back, within reach? Vicious, cold anger swept over Phil, and when he turned to Fury, Steve could see the resignation on the Director's face. Phil's relationship with Clint must have been something that Fury hadn't figured into the equation, though Steve didn't understand why. It had been obvious to him after the battle with Loki that Clint's true loyalty had been to Phil, not SHIELD, but apparently SHIELD hadn't realized that it worked the other way around as well.
      'I seem to remember you telling me that they were aware, Director. In fact, I'm quite certain that you informed me that my isolation was the only reason they had not come to see me. I have told you multiple times that they were my own, Agents Barton and Romanoff especially. I thought you had learned your lesson from the last time you interfered with my team.'
      Fury winced minutely, but as he opened his mouth to respond to Phil's accusations, annoyance apparent in the set of his limbs, Tony's voice cut across anything he was going to say.
      'Nope. Don't care. Take your tails and get the hell out of my Tower. If you are very, very lucky, you might still have a team at the end of the week.'
      Thor reached out, gently pulling Phil in next to Clint, Tony and Natasha coming around to form a protective circle and block Fury out. Phil carefully lowered himself onto his knees, taking care to avoid jarring his ribs, and pulled Clint close, running a soft hand through his hair.
      'I'm home, my Hawk, mine own. I'm here.'
      Clint sucked in a deep, shuddering breath that rattled through his lungs, and Phil held him closer, hands gently moving over bare skin as he assured Clint that he was here, that Clint wasn't dreaming. Steve caught Bruce's eye, tapping at his collarbone before nodding at Clint, who was shaking in Phil's arms. Bruce nodded back before he unwound himself and slipped from the group, hurrying to the lab to fetch Clint's collar, knowing that having Phil become Sir again would certainly help Clint stabilize. He pushed his way back into the circle between Natasha and Thor, carefully setting the case down next to Phil before straightening up. Phil traced his fingers over the clasps before he opened the case, reverently removing the collar and holding it in front of Clint.
      'Is this what you want, my Hawk?'
      Clint shook, fine tremors running through him as his hands fisted in Phil's jacket.
      'This is all that I want, Sir.'
      Phil buckled the collar around Clint's neck, gently shifting it until his tag hung properly against Clint's collarbones. He rubbed his thumb over the 'Sir' imprinted in the metal, the last bit of tension releasing as Clint relaxed and surrendered to him. Steve watched in slight awe, catching Tony's eyes across the circle before looking back down at them. He'd never seen two people more suited to each other then Clint and Phil, and he was glad that they had found each other again.

 


 

      'Tony, care to explain why there's a young man here to see me with one of your 'hire this person right now' cards? I didn't know you even still had those on you, I thought I got rid of them after that incident with the call girl. He says you told a friend of his to come to us if they ever needed help?'
      Tony's hands stilled where he was working on blueprints for a new suit, turning slightly to face Pepper in one of the screens with a smile. He'd forgotten he'd given that card out, it'd been a long time since that night down on the docks.
      'Pep, hi! Does he happen to be roughly 5' 4" and look about fifteen?'
      Pepper nodded, nonplussed, and Tony grinned.
      'Because I want you to hire him of course, if he's who I think he is. He's a genius, should have graduated high school years ago, and I want him working for me before someone else has a chance to snap him up. Definitely don't want Osborn getting a hold of him, that would be a disaster. Jarvis, let Steve know that we might have a link to Spiderman, and that he needs to come down here please. On second thought, tell Bruce to come down as well. We'll blind the kid with science. Pepper, if you could bring him over, or if you could have Happy bring him over, that would be excellent. I know you'll need paperwork from him, and if you send that over with Happy too, I'm sure Bruce will make sure that it gets done.'
      Pepper sighed and put her face in her hands, before laughing quietly.
      'Well, I'm glad you found yourself a project, Tony, since R & D is running out of things for you to work on, and our lead researchers are nearly in tears. I'm pretty sure they want to just download your brain and make it do all the work since you're so much faster then everyone else.'
      Tony smiles softly, softer than he thought he had left in him, and he's about ten seconds away from apologizing when Jarvis lets Bruce into the lab. He has to admit he's been neglecting Bruce lately, too, but Bruce does have his own lab to play around in, so maybe it's not all that bad.
      'Hey, Bruce, want to go play science?'
      Bruce smiled and agreed, greeting Pepper quietly and making small talk as they waited for Steve, who came pounding down the stairs ten minutes later.
      'Sorry, Tony, Bruce, Ma'am. I was on my run when Jarvis told me you needed me back here.'
      'That's alright, Steve. Now, gentlemen, Tony has sent me a very interesting young man, and I'm about to send him to meet with you. Tony apparently knows who he is, and has been expecting him, however he didn't remember to inform me. His name is Peter Parker, sixteen, and he's a senior in high school. Now, that means he's still a minor, so please keep that in mind when he arrives. Before you do any sort of recruitment or invite him to participate in anything life threatening, please do contact his... Aunt May, it seems. Do you all understand? We don't need a lawsuit on our hands, no matter how much fun you think you could have with him.'
      A chorus of 'yes, ma'am' answered her and she smiled sweetly before hanging up.

 


 

     Weeks turned into months, and he started seeing flashes of Steve in his periphery as he worked; sandwiches would appear on his work table, his coffee would be refilled while he wasn't looking. They were only flashes, even when they happened while he was in Bruce's lab with Peter. When he stopped and took the welding goggles off, or looked up from whatever project he was elbow deep in, he'd still be all alone.

 


 

      'Tony, no matter what, I'll be here.'
      Yeah. Sure. He'd heard that one before. No one had kept to that before, he didn't know why he'd expected Steve to be any different. He swallowed the last of his scotch and refilled his glass. The others had started keeping him company at night, but he didn't, couldn't, wouldn't, trust in it lasting. They'd take one look at the heart of him and laugh before leaving. He threw back the glass and poured another. Vindictively, he wrapped his hands around their thread and gave a hard yank to it, hoping that Steve would feel it and think of him while he was out with (fucking) Sharon. God. Peggy's fucking niece. Didn't that just figure. Someone Steve could settle down with and have a white picket fence and a dog and 2.5 perfect fucking children. Everything Tony could never give him. He tossed back another drink, hoping the burn would finally drown out the ache behind his reactor. Tony lasted maybe another twenty minutes before Natasha ghosted in, taking one look at the mostly empty bottle of scotch and wrinkling her nose.
      'Come to bed, Tony. I have to be up early tomorrow.'
      He stood slowly, absently rolling the glass in his hands until Natasha took it away before dragging him towards the bedroom. He thought he heard the elevator open as Natasha undressed him, but he'd finally had enough to drink that he simply didn't care anymore. She sat next to him as he sprawled over the bed, softly singing half-remembered lullabies in Russian until he passed out.
      'Son, malysh lev... Ne lezhatʹ ryadom s krovatʹyu storone... V protivnom sluchayeseryy volk pridet... I ukusitʹ vas...'


      Natasha stirred when she heard Tony whisper sometime later, in the dark hours of the morning. She blinked one eye open, thinking that he's merely mumbling algorithms again, but she froze as she saw a tear slip down Tony's cheek. He was massaging his right hand, near silent as he begged Steve not to leave him alone, not again, he knows he's not worth it, but Steve, god damn it, please! Natasha bumped his shoulder gently, making it appear as if she had only shifted in her sleep, but it was enough to bring an end to his nightmare, and Tony settled down once more. Bozhe moy, when was Steve going to pull his head out of his ass?

 

      Steve quietly asked Jarvis to show him the feed from Tony's room as he put his head in his hands. He'd very nearly fled in the middle of his date, sudden panic wrapping steel bands around his chest in between one word and the next of his sentence, squeezing so tight he couldn't take a breath. He'd excused himself as soon as he could, though he was certain that Sharon would have her suspicions, and rushed home, fearing that something awful had happened at the Tower. He'd come out of the elevator just in time to see Natasha putting an obviously very drunk Tony to bed, and shit, he looked absolutely terrible. When was the last time Steve had paid attention to whether Tony had eaten, or slept, or even showered? What kind of a terrible friend was he? When had everything started going so wrong, and how had he not even noticed? Tony was his most important person, even more so then Sharon, so surely Tony would have come to him? He spent the next few hours watching Natasha soothe Tony's nightmares, wishing that he could man up and climb in with them, pull Tony close until his shaking stopped, until Jarvis cut the feed.
      'You must rest as well, Captain.'

 


 

     Some time after that, he found Steve watching him from the stairs, and he froze, before throwing himself even harder into his work. He knew it was stupid, and childish, but maybe if he could just ignore everything, he'd be okay.

 


 

      'Look, Steve, we need to talk.'
      Steve frowned, head tilted to hold the phone against his shoulder as he set groceries on the kitchen counter, absently sorting and putting away perishables.
      'Sharon?'
      'Lately it hasn't felt like we've really been working, and we both know you've had someone else on your mind. So, this is me making it easier on both of us. I think you and Tony have something that could be great if you worked for it, and I'm tired of only ever coming in second to him.'
      Steve doesn't remember the rest of the conversation later, only coming back to awareness when Clint and Bruce stumble over him in the kitchen, phone crushed in one fist. His hands are shaking, and he can't seem to get them to stop, or even open his fist to put the remnants of the phone down.
      'Steve? You okay?'
      'Sharon and I... We broke up.'
      He'd pretend later that he didn't hear Clint's quiet 'Finally' and Bruce's hummed agreement as he massaged Steve's hand until he could drop the phone shards, too overwhelmed with the fact that here was one more thing he couldn't make work.

 


 

      Steve leaned down, his forehead pressing against the mattress as he closed his eyes against the sight of the man curled up in Phil's arms, who was oh so politely pretending that he didn't exist. Christ. He'd really fucked up if even Phil was mad at him. Steve had lost his rights to nightmare duty the moment he'd let Sharon tell him no and hadn't even argued, and most days it seemed he'd lost Tony's friendship with it.
      'Tony... I... I broke up with Sharon. I wanted... She just... She's not you, and I wanted her to be you but she wasn't, and she couldn't be, and that wasn't anywhere near fair to either of you. I am so sorry it took me this long to admit that to myself and pull my head out of my ass.'
      He lifted his head slightly, and smiled sadly, wishing he could just reach out and take Tony's hand.
      'I met you, Tony, and everyone made sure to pull me aside and tell me you were an ass, and was I sure that I knew what I was doing? But here you were, treating me no differently from anyone else, making sure that I integrated back into society, that I didn't just isolate myself. I never did thank you for all of that, for all of the places you took me, even when you were busy with meetings and shareholders and everything else. I loved it. I miss it. I... I miss you, most of all. I thought... I thought Sharon would drown out what I was feeling for you, because I didn't want to accept it, didn't want to admit to myself that... That I... That I've fallen in love with you, and have been in love with you almost since we met. I promise... I promise someday I'll have the courage to tell you that when you're awake. You of all people deserve to hear the truth.'
      He straightened up, scrubbing at his face to cover the hitch in his breathing.
      'Steve?'
      He glanced over at Phil, who was watching him with what Steve thought was hope and pride in his eyes.
      'You have the courage, Captain. I know you do.'
      Steve nodded and backed away from the bed, turning one last time to look over his shoulder at them before he quietly closed the door.
      'I hope you're right, sir.'

 


 

      As days flowed by, the crates by Steve's desk began moving, one by one. He merely turned his work table far enough that he would face away from it. He didn't want to accidentally catch a glimpse of Steve's hand, didn't want to cause himself that much more pain. He refused to acknowledge the fact that Steve was there, often sketching him while he worked, like he used to before Sharon. In fact, he was spending a whole lot of time down here. Why wasn't he out with Sharon? He shook his head and shoved it to the back of his mind. Not important.

 


 

     The lab is boiling hot, sweat running down his skin and stinging against his cuts and scrapes as he furiously pounded the dents out of his suit. The fight that morning had been long and vicious and brutal, and though Tony had been told to take it easy afterwards due to his cracked ribs, he had immediately retreated downstairs, under Steve's knowing and disapproving eye. Maybe if he could lose himself in this, in the rhythm of the repetitive motions that his body knew so well, he could push past the pain and finally get some sleep. He couldn't even drink the pain away, as much as he desperately wanted to; he didn't know how soon the next fight would come, and after one drunken mistake of a fight had nearly gotten Steve and Clint killed, he'd had Jarvis promise to lock the suit down if his blood alcohol level was higher than 0.04%. All the team had been doing lately was fight, it seemed, and Tony didn't know what is was about the end of summer for supervillians, but he was getting tired of it. A loud thump and the muffled scatter of heavy paper behind him had him cursing and lifting his goggles as he spun to glare at Dummy, who dipped his arm in apology, gears and servos whining. A dust rag was still in his grasp, as Tony took in the sight of Steve's portfolio spread over the floor.
      'Dummy, I swear to God, if you do not leave his desk alone like I told you to, I will donate you to the local community college! Go clean somewhere else!'
      As Dummy slunk away dejectedly, Tony rolled his eyes and awkwardly crouched down to gather the pages. The well-worn corners of one caught his eye, and he gently separated it from the rest, lifting it up into better light. Harsh black lines inked out the scene in the kitchen from That Night, the moment that still appeared in his nightmares and probably always would, when Steve had come home from his date with (fucking) Sharon. The terror he remembered is written plainly over his face, his horrified gaze on his hand where a faint, shadowy line shot out of the frame. Tony paled, an unfamiliar fear sweeping through and sending ripples of panic through his body as he paged through the other drawings, finding sketch after sketch of himself, his walls down and his emotions shining through in charcoal and pencil and ink. How long had Steve been able to see through him like that? How long had Steve been watching him? Was this why he had been spending so much time in the lab with him? Certainly the rest of the Avengers had to be more interesting subjects!
     Most of the sketches are bits and pieces of himself, a gloved hand here holding a welder, two pairs of hands there working on the War Machine gauntlets. There are a few scattered pages, though, that are similar to 'That Night', all precisely inked, full pages of his emotions pouring off the paper, and he spreads them on the floor in front of him. One was from Before Loki, when he'd met Steve for the first time in the 'carrier, and the wonder and joy was written in every angle of his body. He would never forget the bliss that had overtaken him as he had walked through that door, the realization that he wasn't defective, wasn't broken, wasn't cursed to be alone and miserable for the rest of his life like his parents had been. He'd been so afraid that because their threads didn't meet, his never would either. There was one After Loki, too, sitting beside Clint and fending off the Shield vultures when they tried to poke and prod at the man. Clint had shut himself down, all blank eyes and shuttered face, trusting Tony to watch his back as he struggled not to break down in public. There were a few more after that, scattered between After Loki and That Night, focusing on a laugh or a smile as he interacts with the other Avengers, and they were true smiles, not the blatantly false 'Tony Stark Media Smile' that he puts on for anyone outside the team, outside his family.
     The last three, though, were after That Night, and they were of a wounded man, bleeding out slowly, hurt soul deep, never healing. His faint line still stretched into the distance, but he was a corpse walking, a mostly empty bottle always in the background or in his hand. The circles under his eyes grew deeper, the frown lines more pronounced, the bones in his wrists and shoulders pushing further through his skin. He set those aside, face down so that he wouldn't have to look at them anymore, and flipped through the others, sinking to his knees and ignoring the ache in his bones. He has no idea how much time he spends looking through the sketches, the passage of minutes and hours marked only by the dull heat in his ribs growing stronger. He's so lost in thought that he almost misses the door slipping open quietly, and Steve's still familiar footsteps padding along the floor.
      'Hey, Dummy. Have you seen my portfolio? I thought I - Tony?'
      Tony stared up at him from his position on the floor, heart thundering against his reactor as he sat still and silent. Steve stared back down at him in surprise, eyes flicking from Tony's face down to where the sketches are spread out in front of him and back again. Tony doesn't know what he expects, maybe a little anger, because he knows Steve is protective of his sketches, but the small smile that breaks out is not it.
      'I was just looking for that. Sorry, Tony, I hope you don't mind that they're mostly of you.'
      He holds out his hands to help Tony to his feet, and Tony doesn't know if he can take them, can bear to touch the man he's so in love with, but isn't in love with him. He sits for so long that Steve's smile begins to slip, and Tony finds himself taking Steve's hands just to keep that brightness from leaving his eyes, and oh, he has it so bad.
      'Why?'
      Steve bends to pick up the sketches and slide them back into the folder, fingers lingering on That Night, and Tony wants to snatch it from him, keep it for himself, hands twitching in aborted movements. He wants to frame it, keep it somewhere safe for the nights when he thinks he might drown, that little line in ink wrapped around his finger might be the only thing to save him.
      'I hope this doesn't seem forward to you, Tony, I know I didn't ask permission or anything. You're a fun subject to draw, you know. You always have been.'
      He fiddles with a corner of the drawing, the dog-eared paper soft already, and Tony has to wonder how many times he's pulled it out to look at it, just like this. He meets Tony's eyes for a moment, making sure he's okay before going back to the drawing.
      'Steve, what... What's the thing on my finger?'
      He grins brightly, pulling out a couple of the other sketches that Tony had noticed the thread in.
      'It's something Bruce told me about a while ago, when I asked him about Clint and Phil. It's a proverb, he said, about an invisible thread that connects people who are destined to meet. It doesn't care about time, place, or circumstance, and it might stretch or tangle, but it'll never break.'
      He traces over the line with a finger, and Tony's stomach plummets. That's it? Steve just decided to add it because Bruce had mentioned it? Because Tony was apparently fun to draw, and Steve thought it was interesting? No other reason? Steve looks up at him again, and Tony's not sure how he does it, but sometimes he swears that Steve can read his mind, can tell what he's thinking or feeling just by looking at his face or hearing something in his voice, and he knows exactly what Tony's feeling or saying or not saying. His sharp eyes are doing it now, reading him and fitting his expression against countless others that Steve's seen on his face, and Steve gently sets the sketches to the side. Tony's not sure what's going through his mind, and the unknown, in this moment, scares the hell out of him. Steve reaches out to him, and Tony nearly flinches away, but his hands are cradled in Steve's before he can move. There aren't a lot of people that can make him feel small, especially after building his suit, but looking down at his hands in Steve's, he feels like Steve could just swallow him up.
      'You used to always stare at your hand, you know.'
      Steve's voice shocks him out of his thoughts, and he jerks slightly at his words. He didn't realize that he did it often enough that anyone could see it. There's always something to look at one his hand, after all. Steve's hands wrap around his wrists for a heartbeat before stroking surely down his palms, and Tony shudders slightly, mouth going dry.
      'Your hand, other people's hands...'
      Steve shifts Tony's hands in his, laying out his right so that his fingers rest in Steve's palm.
      'When I first noticed you doing it, I thought you just had a thing for hands, since you can tell a lot about a person from their hands. I thought it was odd, but not terribly unusual. Your eyes, though, would always slip away slightly, like you were following something from their hand.'
      He draws his fingertips down the back of Tony's hand, callouses scrapping gently over skin and across his knuckles, and it's the most intimate act Tony has ever been apart of. He shakes slightly, heat rushing through him, and Steve is only touching his hand.
      'You look to their hand before you even meet someone's eyes, like you have to know before they even greet you, and you focus in on their little finger.'
      His hand is curled around the outside of Tony's now, framing his little finger while Steve's other hand is wrapped around his wrists again, snug up against his pulse, and Tony is sure that Steve can feel how his pulse is rabbiting, scared and confused and still hopeful. The red of their thread is so vibrant that Tony swears he'll paint the suit that color when he gets a chance, wants to shout to the world that he's found his other half and that this might just work out. For the first time since That Night, he lets his gaze wander down the rest of the thread, and his heart skips a beat when Steve's end is the same color as his own. The line between them, the line that Tony has spent his whole life mourning, the line that Tony has drunk himself into oblivion over, his soulmate thread... Is just a short length stretched between Steve's pinky and his. So clear to Tony's eyes that for the first time in his life, he thinks he might be able to touch it. Steve is stroking his pinky, from the base of the knuckle up to the nail and back, maybe oblivious to how hard Tony is shaking, but probably not, and he has to struggle to focus on what Steve's saying.
      'You focus here, and then your eyes follow something away from their hand. It doesn't go too far, most of the time, because you stop at a wall or a little ways off into the distance. Sometimes you follow whatever it is to someone else's hand, and I'm never sure if I like those, because sometimes you look happy, but those smiles always seem so painful. You shut down, close off, become Media Tony Stark.'
      Tony's definitely shaking now, couldn't hide it if he tried, and he wants to yank his hand away from Steve's burning touch. There was no way he was that obvious, was there? Had the others noticed? He'd thought he'd been discrete enough, but Steve had apparently seen through him. Steve releases his finger, only to wrap both hands around his, and their string wraps around their hands, tangled and knotted. To Tony, it looks impossible to undo.
      'I don't know what it is you see, but I know I will never forget the look on your face when you looked at my hand after I told you about Sharon, and I will never forgive myself for ignoring you holing yourself up down here. I won't let it happen ever again, and it's awful that I let it go on for so long. Do you even know how much weight you've lost? I've been trying to think of ways to draw you out, but you won't even look at me, much less talk to me anymore. You don't even look at my hand anymore.'
      Steve's eyes are sharp and clear and so terribly sad that Tony loses his breath as Steve pulls their hands to his chest, tugging him just that little bit closer.
      'I think that's what scared me the most.'
      Tony gasps for a breath as it's punched out of him at Steve's words. He had shut everyone out, had shut out everyone with red looped around their fingers, and he had certainly included Steve on purpose. Even just the memory of Steve's string, pale and lifeless, has Tony clenching his hand around Steve's. The bright color helps Tony, but the way Steve is looking at him, the honesty and passion in his eyes, eases the shattering pain behind his reactor. Tony wraps his other hand around Steve's, pulling them closer, and leans down to press his lips to the tangle of Steve's thread. Of his own thread. To theirs. To their invisible, except to Tony, link with each other. It's what joins them together, but it's not what will hold them together. That's their job, Tony realizes, something that they'll have to work for, have to fight for to make it happen. Steve gently lets go of Tony's hands, bringing his own up to frame Tony's face, and leaning down slowly, careful not to startle the other man. The kiss is chaste, just a sweet press of lips that shakes Tony to his core. When Steve pulls back, leaning his forehead against Tony's, Tony tells him everything.

 


 

      Pepper was silent for a moment when Steve asked her for a recommendation to a good jeweler, and he could feel it stretch almost uncomfortably long before she replied.
      'Well, that would depend on what you're looking for, Captain.'
      There's hesitation in her voice, and beneath the wince that 'Captain', rather than 'Steve', caused, he realized that she might think that it's for Sharon. She's been out of the country on business the last few weeks, and he doesn't know if anyone's informed her of what's happened between him and Tony.
      'I... I need a ring, ma'am. One that will stand up to Tony being an idiot in the workshop.'
      He's not certain, but he's pretty sure that he heard a muffled squeal over the phone, and he pulled it away from his ear to stare at it nervously.
      '... Ma'am?'
      'I'll email you a list, Steve, don't worry. And it's Pepper, remember? Do you need anything else? Reservations? Tickets?'
      He smiled, and he could practically feel her happiness from all the way across the country.
      'No, thank you, ma'am.'
      He really doesn't. Bruce had promised to help him make some of Tony's favorite things when he'd explained why he needed the help. He said his goodbyes to Pepper, and picked up the sketch he'd spent the last week working on. He could only hope now.

 

     Tony's heart stutters the first time Steve reaches for his hand in front of the others, torn between staring at their joined hands and taking a swing at Clint when he whistles at them. Steve only holds his hand tighter, though, and Tony is shocked to find a blush rising in his cheeks. The last few weeks have been wonderful, since the night in his lab, and Tony is falling in love with Steve all over again. He's not scared this time, and he shifts to lean against Steve's chest, relaxing into him. He's really found his soulmate and it's an equal relationship now.

 

      'I'd rather not have woken up at all, Tony, then go through the rest of my life without you.'
      Tony stares at the box in Steve's hand, heart leaping in his chest as he takes in the ring staring at him and Steve's hopeful eyes. He reaches out a shaking hand to take it, sappy grin breaking onto his face when he realizes that it's sized for his pinky and not for his ring finger. It slides down to a perfect fit, glinting warmly against the thread, and his heart feels so full he doesn't know how he hasn't exploded yet. He has everything he ever dreamed of when he was younger. He has a family, as odd as they are, and he has Steve, he has his soulmate, and just for once, everything is perfect.

 


 

      Steve absently fiddled with the glass of juice in his hand. watching Bruce and Tony attempt science in the living room with Peter as a captive audience leaning over the coffee table. Watching Tony had become a habit for him lately, one that he didn't quite understand yet, but the soft rush that swept through his body had him smiling, warm and loving. Tony tipped his head back as he laughed at a quip from Peter, and Steve ran his eyes over the line if his throat, heat blooming in his chest as he pictured a bite mark, his mark, prominent on Tony's collarbone. His gaze flickered up to Tony's face and caught there, held in place by dark, heated eyes. Tony stuttered to a stop mid-sentence, Peter craning his head around to see what the problem was.
      'I think that's our cue to scram, Bruce, Mom and Dad want some alone time.'
      Peter bounced to his feet, dragging Bruce out with him, and Steve nodded to him in thanks before focusing completely on Tony.
      'Jarvis, shut everything down and hold all of our calls, please.'
      'Of course, Captain. May I suggest you adjourn to a bedroom? I do not believe that you share Sir's appreciation for exhibition.'
      Steve swallowed a groan as Tony wet his lips and climbed to his feet, padding closer.
      'My room, Steve.'
      He nodded, his hands curling into fists in an effort not just to reach out and take, take, take. He could fell his cock swelling with each step closer Tony came, sparks flashing up his spine as Tony took hold of his arm to drag him down the hallway.
      'It's about time, Cap, I mean, I've been trying not to push you, but-'
      'God, Tony-'
      Steve pressed him into the wall, bracketing him in and kissing him hard, one thigh nudging between Tony's legs. Tony kissed like he fought, all flash and bite, rolling his hips against Steve to gain any friction he could against his groin.
      'God, I want you so much, you have no idea, I thought you were never going to look at me the way I wanted you too, didn't want to push you, didn't want to ruin anything-'
      Steve bit down hard on Tony's neck, sucking a mark into his skin, and he shook under Steve's hands, legs weakening. Steve lifted him, carrying him the rest of the way to Tony's room, and he shouldered through the door, kicking it shut behind him and hearing Jarvis engage the locks. He turned, pressing Tony against the wall again as Steve kissed him deeply, hands fumbling on Tony's fly and tugging his pants down around his thighs.
      'No underwear, Tony?'
      'Didn't- ah, fuck, Steve!- Didn't expect anything exciting to happen today.'
      Steve smiled against his neck, dragging his knuckles along the underside of Tony's cock, already flushed and hard, standing out from his stomach.
      'I've been thinking about this for weeks, Tony, wanted to try this with you almost since I met you, even if I didn't want to admit it to myself. Wondered how you'd feel, what you'd sound like, how much you could take. Kept waking up hard from dreaming of you, god, I wanted so bad just to come to your bed and climb in and see what you could do.'
      Tony groaned, thighs shaking as he wrapped them around Steve's waist, full body shivers rippling across his skin as Steve growled in his ear.
      'I wanted to, but I knew I couldn't, not until I'd earned your forgiveness for the mistake I made with Sharon.'
      Steve wrapped his hand around Tony's cock, stroking slowly as he kissed his shoulder.
      'Then you agreed to all those dates, and I knew that it was almost okay, and I've been dreaming about this for long enough.'
      Tony was mumbling against him, fractions and equations and algorithms spilling from his mouth like filthy prayer as he rutted into the heat of Steve's hand.
      'I want to see you, Tony, I want to watch your face when you drop your masks for me. I want to see you.'
      Steve closed his hand just that little bit tighter, and with a soft cry, Tony was breaking apart against him, heat washing over his palm and wrist.
      'Christ, Steve... We didn't even make it to the bed.'
      Tony looked down at him, lifting Steve's hand to slowly lick it clean, finger by finger.
      Steve growled lowly, stepping over to the bed and dropping Tony down onto it, watching him sprawl out, loose-limbed and panting. He kneeled next to Tony, tugging his pants all the way down and off, running his hands up the inside of Tony's legs.
      'You're beautiful like this, Tony, just perfect for me.'
      He unzipped his own fly, hoping to relieve at least a little of the pressure, and he groaned as the air cooled the damp fabric straining over his cock. There was a dry chuckle from Tony, and Steve felt his skin flush, Tony watching entranced as it spread down his body.
      'Flag boxers? Really?'
      'Pepper thought they were appropriate, so they're all this way.'
      Tony shook his head with a grin and pulled him closer, propping up on his elbow so that he could kiss Steve deeply, lewdly, tongues twisting and dancing. Steve groaned, bitterness flooding his tongue, and he rucked up Tony's shirt as he kissed back hard and ran his fingers over Tony's chest. He ghosted gentle fingertips over the scar tissue surrounding the reactor, and Tony writhed beneath him, muscles bunching and flowing underneath his skin. He slid down the bed, carefully, slowly, kissing down Tony's body, pausing to lave at his nipples and biting down gently. He licked the edge of the reactor, sucking and kissing at the scars, the proof that this man had survived against all odds. He could feel Tony's cock begin to fill again against his stomach, and pressed down slightly as he moved, Tony groaning sharply at the almost painful drag.
      'Steve.. Fuck! Steve, top drawer, on the left.'
      Steve looked up at him, taking in the dark, lust-blown pupils and flushed, sweating face with a smug grin. He leaned up and over, pulling open the drawer before looking in and freezing. What on earth were all the... things... in here?
      'Bottle on the left, Steve, ignore everything else. I'll get around to teaching you how to use them sometime when my dick isn't about to explode, alright? Can we get back to the whole fucking me deal? Because I like that plan.'
      Steve grabbed for the bottle, averting his eyes from everything else and leaning back over Tony. He fumbled slightly with the lid, nearly dropping the bottle, and Tony stretched out his hand for it.
      'Give it here, Steve. I'll start the prepwork while you finally get out of those clothes. I have a bet riding on how big you really are, and you can't have sex fully dressed. Well. You can, but it normally involves some level of trying to hide and that's not what I want. At all. Don't want to hide this, hide you, ever. Hell, for all I care, you can take out a full page ad in the Times telling the world you've taken me off the market and I'd be happy as a clam. Not sure Pepper would appriciate-Mph!'
      Steve kissed him hard, teeth biting down into Tony's lower lip as he struggled to free himself from his jeans. When he finally managed to shove them down, the boxers followed after, and when he pulled back to look at Tony, he found that the man had already slicked up one hand, the tip of one finger toying with his entrance. Steve's mouth dried at the sight, barely remembering to grab a condom from his discarded jeans, his entire focus on the pushpull, pushpull of that finger, and the soft groans caught in Tony's throat. Tony's cock was weeping against his stomach, precome pooling into a sticky mess across his abs, and Steve couldn't stop the urge to lean down and lick him clean. Tony swore as Steve lapped at his head, broad strokes of his tongue cleaning up every drop as he moved down to mouth at his shaft and balls.
      'God, Steve, just- just take it in, just a little- fuck! Yeah, like that, god...'
      Steve sucked and licked at the head of Tony's cock, swallowing him deeper, a fraction of an inch at a time, and stroking what he hadn't reached yet. He had to pin Tony's hips to the bed with one hand as they rocked up mindlessly, afraid of choking before he'd really gotten into the swing of what he was doing. Tony was arching underneath him, hand clutching at the comforter as he began to babble, and Steve listened carefully, changing his technique as Tony's sounds shifted. Tony's finger stuttered to a stop as he panted, and Steve snaked his free hand down to take over and press his own fingers in instead. Tony's hands came up to thread through his hair, tugging lightly with each aborted roll of his hips, and Steve groaned around him, sucking and licking at his shaft. Steve worked two fingers in, gently scissoring and stretching, and grinning as fractions and equations flooded from the man beneath him. He carefully pushed in a third finger, twisting and thrusting slowly, and he released Tony's hip, sliding his hand up to pinch and tease at his nipples. With a groan, Tony came a second time, muscles spasming as he fell into pieces, and Steve coughed, pulling off as he was overwhelmed. Once Tony had relaxed, melting into the bedspread, Steve leaned back down and licked him clean as Tony watched with hooded eyes. He gently pressed in a fourth finger, now that Tony's muscles were relaxed and pliant, trying to stretch him just that little bit more before he replaced his fingers with something bigger. He pulled his fingers free with a lewd, slick sound, fumbling for the condom packet, and Tony shuddered, legs spreading a little wider in anticipation.
      'Fuck, Steve, what the hell?'
      Tony stared down at him with glassy eyes and ruddy cheeks, and Steve had to grip the base of his cock to keep from coming too soon before tearing open the package and rolling the condom on. He stretched out over Tony (and fuck, if that wasn't the hottest thing for Tony, the way Steve covered him up and anchored him down), kissing the skin surrounding the reactor, licking and nipping at the edge of the metal, and Tony shivered, stretching beneath him. Steve shifted, stilling as his cock pressed up against Tony's ass.
      'You ready for this, Cap? Because, honestly, you have to have some serious blue balls by now.'
      Steve kissed him in response, licking into his mouth as he pushed in inch by very slow inch, and Tony shuddered, muscles trying to relax despite the sharp burn.
      'God, Tony, you're so tight, I should have used another finger, I don't want to hurt you-'
      'Steve- fuck!- for god's sake, Steve, just shut up!'
      Tony was riding the delicate line between pleasure and pain, and he wrapped his legs around Steve's waist, pulling him further in. Steve lost his breath as he found himself fully seated inside Tony, and had to clamp down hard on the desire to just rut into that beautiful heat until he came. He held himself still, knowing it'd take Tony time to adjust, but damn if a not so small part of him didn't want to be nice about it.
      'Jesus fucking Christ, Steve, move!'
      He couldn't help but obey, mind caught up in the tight, gripping heat wrapped around his cock, and he thrust slow and deep, grinding down as he raked his eyes down over Tony.
      Tony's hands clenched into the sheets as he groaned, eyes falling shut only to fly back open a moment later as Steve stopped what he was doing.
      'Tony, are you okay? Am I hurting you? Do I need to stop?'
      The sight of Steve above him, bright eyed and flushed was nearly enough to bring him hard again, and he grinned lasciviously as he realized why Steve was worried (not that he should be, but it was a nice feeling).
      'Fuck no, Steve, why would you even ask that? If it's about me not being hard, you just blew my brains out twice in less than twenty minutes. Give me half an hour or so and I'll be back with you. I'm not a teenager anymore. Shit, that didn't mean stop! Jesus!'
      He clenched down hard on Steve's cock, and locked his ankles behind Steve's back.
      'It still feels awesome, and I'm enjoying you enjoying yourself. So fuck me, will you? I want to feel it tomorrow, want everyone to know you've had me, that you've been buried so deep in me that we're one person.'
      He lifted his hand and gripped Steve's, watching their thread tangle and knot around their fingers. God, he'd been waiting so long for this, for their threads to be this red again, to be able to feel him again. Steve brought up their hands, gently kissing each of Tony's fingers, paying special attention to his pinky where the thread was wrapped, and Tony felt every last wall he had shatter at the expression on Steve's face. Such love, and wonder, and awe, and when Steve looked back up at him with a soft smile, Tony was struck speechless.
      'There you are, Tony. I've been looking for you.'
      Tony stared at him, his heart hammering against the reactor, and Steve began to rock gently, kissing along his jaw.
      'I'll fuck you as hard as you want the next round, Tony, but right now, I want to make love to you.'
      Tony could only nod, drowning in the blue of Steve's eyes as they focused on him. He could feel everything outside of this man fall away as Steve rocked a little faster, grinding down against him, and he clutched Steve tight as his hips began to stutter. He clenched against every slow slide out, arching into every thrust in, wanting to make this feel as good for Steve as he possibly could. Steve bit down on his collar, and Tony moaned lowly as he felt burning , heat rush into him, Steve's muscles jerking as he rode out his orgasm. He ran gentle fingertips down Steve's back as he panted against Tony's neck, warm gusts that sent shivers down his spine as he marveled at this man who loved him, even without all of his masks. Steve was everything to him, would always be everything to him, and he groaned softly as he felt Steve slowly harden again inside him, before pulling out to take care of the condom and grab another.
      'How long can you keep this up for, Cap?'
      Steve grinned at him, kissing his jaw as he ran a hand down Tony's side, fitting his hand over the prints on Tony's hip.
      'Haven't really found a limit yet.'
      Fuck, this was going to be awesome.

 

      Tony blinked his eyes open slowly, leaning into the hand gently carding through his hair. He rolled slightly, turning his face into Steve's shoulder and sighing in contentment. Last night had been everything he'd ever wanted, ever dreamed of with Steve, and so much more, so much better than he ever could have hoped. He ran his fingers lightly over Steve's chest, face flushing slightly as he remembered Steve's quiet, ecstatic 'There you are, Tony,' and it still sent a wave of warmth through him. His hands trailed down Steve's side as he mused, and he frowned as he realized that all of the marks he'd left last night had healed over already. That wasn't nearly fair, as he knew that there were hand prints bruised into his hips and thighs, and bite marks scattered over his body, with one obvious on his collar. He knew he wouldn't be able to hide it, and he really didn't want to, wanted to show everyone that he belonged to Steve. He wanted Steve to watch him, wanted Steve to be possessive, like he'd shown signs of over the last few weeks of dancing around each other, and oh, didn't that just lead his mind into all sorts of fun places. Steve's chest rumbled underneath him, and Tony blinked as he realized that Steve was talking to him, and that he had probably just babbled his entire train of thought out loud.
      'What? Sorry, was paying more attention to you than you, you know?'
      Steve only smiled softly as he pressed a heated kiss against Tony's lips before climbing out of the bed and stretching, muscles flexing and shifting beneath his skin, and Tony stared, mouth watering.
      'I said, I'm taking a shower, and you're welcome to join me.'
      'Oh you bet your fine ass I'm joining you in the shower. Fucking Christ.'

 


 

     'I fell in love with you for the first time when I was eleven, I think. Howard had told me all these stories about you, how heroic and good you were. I had a poster of you on my wall until I left for college. All the stuff in that box I collected when I was younger. Even after he started comparing me to you, I still kept them. '
      Tony gestures to the box sitting innocently between Steve's feet, contents spread around them in a mostly delightful explosions of memories.
      'I couldn't bear to throw any of it away, even when I thought I'd outgrown the desire to be a superhero and the thought that I might find you.'
      He smiles at that, and Steve laughs softly, pulling Tony down into his lap for a kiss, wrapping his arms around the other man. Tony had waited his entire life for someone he wasn't sure would ever exist again, and Steve promised that he would make up for each and every one of those lonely years.