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The morning was freezing.



New York had been hit with a cold snap over the past few days, and the mid-spring weather had turned bitter and nasty in result. There was actually frost sticking to the blades of grass underneath Steve’s feet.
He really should have avoided going outside. Especially what with his ability to catch bugs from a mile away.

And yet, here he was.

His mom was still asleep, so it wasn’t as if she could tell him off for it. Although if she woke up and found him out of bed at such an early time of day, there was no doubt she’d freak out. It was still only 7 am; the sun was barely even peeking above the horizon. She’d always told him stories about the little boys who wandered into the woods after dark- tales designed to scare, meant to keep the kids safe in their beds so parents didn’t need to worry- even Steve knew that much.

Anyway. He was 11 now. He hardly qualified as a little boy any more.

 

To be honest, there was no real reason for him being out in the cold at all. He could do his contemplative brooding in the safety and warmth of his bedroom, if he really felt set on it. After all, if what has mom said was anything near the truth, there might not be many more opportunities for him to use his nice cozy room after the end of the month.

There was a rock by the side of the road, so he kicked it, just to show the world that he really was brooding. There was no other reason. It didn’t exactly offer him any form of relief, or make all his mom’s bills disappear.

It was just a stupid rock.

Sighing, he walked a little further into the woods, rather than just skirting the edge. It was dark and cold but Steve wasn’t scared- he actually quite enjoyed it. The emptiness, the quiet. It made a change to usual mayhem of his city.

 

He wondered if they were going to have to live in the woods, if his mom couldn’t pay the woman who owned their house



He really hoped not. As much he liked the quiet, it wasn’t exactly a place he wanted to live. It was far too cold- he’d just get sick. And then he wouldn’t even have a bed to lie in, because they’d have to use rocks instead, which would just be uncomfortable- Steve already had to wear clothes that were too small for him, he’d had quite enough uncomfortable to last him a lifetime, thank you very much-

 

He was so caught up in all his brooding, in fact, that he failed to notice he was was still wandering deeper and deeper into the woods. It was only when the frown on his face got deep enough to actually obscure his vision and cause him to fall over an exposed tree root, sending him stumbling face-first into the dirt, that he actually discovered he was moving at all.

He hit the floor with a thud, air knocked right out of his poor chest as it met with unyielding forest floor, and he shut his eyes irritably, groaning a little as pain shot through his frame.

Maybe coming here in the dark hadn’t been such a good idea, after all.

Pulling himself up again, he brushed the dirt and frost off his jacket, determined not to let it stain. Washing clothes was just another expense; that was what his mom told him. And they needed all the spare money they could get in order to pay for their house.

As he got back up to his feet, he noticed there was a tiny break in the trees a few meters away from him. Barely visible in the half-light of early morning, but still there.

Steve frowned. He’d been in this wood plenty with Bucky, but they’d never seen this place before. Maybe he’d gone in further than he’d previously thought.

Whoops. He really hoped he hadn’t gotten lost. His mom would kill him.

Stepping forward cautiously, he wrapped his jacket a little tighter around himself and made his way through the trees, quiet as a mouse. He was good at being silent- probably because he barely weighed anything- but Steve liked to imagine it was useful anyway. In case he ever became a superspy or something.
As he crept into the clearing, his eyes widened in surprise as he looked around him.

 

It was all… lovely.

 

It was a small place; maybe about ten meters diameter, almost a perfect circle of treeless space, except for a large oak that stood right in the center. All around it was grass, wild and green and glistening under the starlight that shone above them. Steve realised that yeah, he’d definitely gone deeper than intended if he was far away enough from the streetlights to see the stars.

 

Steve gazed up at them in wonder for a few moments, before a gentle creaking sound caught his attention and he dropped his head, looking for the source.

 

And okay. He had to admit, he might not have been afraid of anything, but realising that you’re actually not alone in a clearing in the middle of a wood is enough to make anyone gasp.

Which wasn’t a good idea, really, because that just alerted person who was sat swaying on the swing tied to a branch of the huge oak, and Steve watched in fear as the silhouette leaped out of the seat it was perched on, facing him dead-on.

Steve was about ready to start running for his life before he realised that the person was small. About the same size as him, actually, which meant they had to be a kid. He was immensely grateful for that- he hated running.

“Who are you? What are you doing here? Did my parents send you? I’m not going with you, I’m not , they can’t make me, okay-“

“whoah whoah whoah,” Steve raised his hands, stepping back as the boy took one forward, defiant and angry, “I ain’t been sent by anyone. I was just walkin’.”

The silhouette stopped, and looked like he was staring at him. “At 4 in the morning?”

Steve paused, realizing how odd that probably sounded. Until he remembered that they were both in the same boat here, and the silhouette didn’t really have a leg to stand on. “Don’t talk as if I’m crazy, you’re here too, buddy.”

The boy froze, and then shrugged. “Touché, I guess.”

Steve frowned. “What does that mean?”

“Uh… point taken. I think.”

Steve nodded, and then took a tentative step forward. He wondered if he was dreaming. Or maybe this was like in the stories, and the boy was about to transform into a monster and eat him.

As he neared a little closer, the boy’s features became clear. He was skinny and small; with curly hair that hung over his huge brown eyes, hands that were playing nervously with one another and an outfit that looked like-

“Are you wearing pajamas?” Steve asked incredulously, squinting in confusion. He’d at least had the sense to put a proper change of clothes on when he’d gone walking into the forest.

The boy scowled, and tugged self-consciously at his sleeves. “Yeah. I like my jamas, okay?”

“But it’s freezing! You’re gonna catch a cold!” Steve said, shucking off his jacket without thinking about it and throwing it at the other boy, who was too surprised to catch it, and instead just let it land on his chest.

Instantly, he felt the cold wrap a little tighter around him. But he had three layers on, whereas this dummy only had one, and Steve would rather he caught a cold then the boy caught hypothermia.

“Put it on, or you’ll get real sick,” Steve told him, when it seemed the boy was still not planning on doing anything. He was just staring, eyes even wider than Steve had thought possible as he looked between the jacket in his hands and Steve’s frowning face.

“I… I’m not cold,” the boy stammered, trying to thrust it back at Steve, “you don’t even know me, what are you doing, why are you being nice-“

Steve frowned properly then, folding his arms tightly against himself and refusing to take it back. “Why am I being nice? Because… ‘cause that’s what people should do! Take my stupid jacket!”

The boy reared back a little, frightened by Steve’s loud voice, and Steve was both surprised and ashamed. That was the first time anyone had ever been afraid of him- but it wasn’t a nice thought. He didn’t like being scary.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, running a hand through his hair anxiously and debating whether or not he should just turn and walk away right now. But he wasn’t a chicken- just because they might have got off on the wrong foot didn’t mean Steve intended to keep it that way.

“I’m Steve,” he said suddenly, sticking out his hand and pulling up his chin. “It’s nice to meet you-“

There was a brief pause, and then the boy’s hand slowly rose up and grasped his. “Uh. Tony.”

“Nice to meet you, Tony,” Steve said confidently, before letting their hands drop and peering over Tony’s shoulder at the swing behind them. “So why are you here at 4am in your pajamas, anyway? And who did you think sent me? Are you hiding?”

Tony froze, and Steve watched him bite his lip anxiously. “I’m running away,” he whispered eventually, leaning in a little closer as if someone else might overhear.

Steve’s eyes widened in shock, and he gaped at Tony. “No way! That’s… you can’t just do that! You’ll scare everyone!”

“I’m only going for a few days,” Tony rolled his eyes, and he was really small, but it made him look a lot older when he did that. “My dad’s trying to make me speak at a big party, but I hate speaking at parties and he knows that, but he won’t let me out of it, so I’m just gonna leave until it’s over,” he said, like it was the easiest thing in the world.

“But… where will you go? Where will you sleep? You’re only... how old are you?”

“Ten.”

“That’s way too young to just be walking on your own!”

Tony shrugged, folding his arms stubbornly. “Walked all the way here on my own, didn’t I?”

“There’s a difference between walking out to your local wood and-“

“I live in Manhattan.”

Steve gaped. “You… you live in Manhattan,” he said slowly, giving himself a quick pinch to check if he was dreaming.

“Yep,” Tony declared. “Got a cab all the way to Brooklyn on my own. See- it’s easy.”

“I…you… cab drivers shouldn’t be letting kids our age do that, surely,” Steve said weakly, imagining himself trying to ask a grim cabdriver to take him all the way to Manhattan. Heck, the money alone would be his downfall.

Tony shrugged again. “It’s frowned upon, but if you ask the right people, they don’t care. That’s what Dad tells me,” he said.

Steve gave him a long, hard look. This boy was weird. He was impossibly young to be doing those things- wearing spaceman pajamas, but acting like he was a full-grown adult already. Such a small kid, already knowing so much about how life works.

Steve should leave him. He’d only come to brood, after all. He wasn’t… this was none of his business.

“Sit with me,” he found himself saying instead. “I’ll keep you company until you calm down a bit.”

“I…” and now Tony seemed back to being a kid again, because he was playing nervously with his hands once more and looking anywhere but Steve. “I’m not… uh… I don’t know how to be friends with people,” he blurted, and even in the dim light, Steve could see the blush on his cheeks.

“Then I’ll teach you,” he answered, grabbing Tony by the wrist and pulling them both forward, until they were back at the big oak tree, “it’s fun. You’ll love it.”

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

They talked until the sun came right up.

 

Steve was going to be in so much trouble when he got home. So was Tony. But at least Steve had managed to persuade him to go home at all, which he guessed was a win.

Steve found out his middle name and his birthday and played tag with him, because apparently Tony had never played before. “Little kid’s game,” he’d mumbled, like he wasn’t a little kid himself.

 

Steve still thought he was weird. But… a good weird.

 

And when Tony had gotten up to get his cab home, Steve had grabbed his wrist again. “Are you sure you’re going to be okay? I can wake my mom and she can get the bus there with you, if you want?” He’d asked, knowing that he’d probably have to skip out on breakfast if they did that, thanks to the cost of bus fares.

But Tony shook his head and smiled. “I know what I’m doing. I’ll be fine. It was nice meeting you, Steve Rogers,” he said, and he sounded genuine. His eyes were sparkling in the morning sun, and his hair went all jiggly as he pulled off Steve’s coat and handed it back.

“You could always meet me again, if you wanted,” Steve had said, even though he knew it was dumb- Tony lived in Manhattan, for goodness’ sake, he couldn’t just hop on a c-

 

Well. He could, actually. But he shouldn’t, and that was the point.

 

Except just as he was opening his mouth to tell Tony to forget it, the other boy broke out into a beam and started nodding his head vigorously, looking like Steve had just offered him the moon. “I’d love to. I… uh… I mean if you don’t mind, that is-“

“How would you get here, though?” Steve asked.

“Same way I got here this time ‘round,” Tony shrugged, “cab. Or the subway.”

Steve opened his mouth to complain, but he knew that Tony wouldn’t listen anyway, so he just sighed and then clicked up the pen that he kept in his coat pocket. “Do you want my house phone?”

“No,” Tony said quickly, his face going blank for a brief second before it was replaced with another grin. “I’ll just meet you back here in a week. 5pm, on the dot- don’t miss it, Rogers.”

Steve was about to open his mouth and ask why he couldn’t just give him his phone number, but at that moment Tony turned away and started jogging back into the forest, one hand waving behind him as he ran in the opposite direction to where Steve had come from. He was gone a few seconds later, hidden behind the trees and foliage.

Steve was left- still a little shellshocked- on the swing in the clearing. He briefly wondered if Tony had been one of the forest monsters his mom had talked to him about when he’d been smaller.

 

He quickly disregarded it. Tony was far too pretty to be a monster.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

It became their thing.

 

In fact, it was pretty much Steve’s only ‘thing’. Everything else involved sitting with Bucky in his room and trying not to get sick. Sneaking out into the forest with Tony was one of the only times he left his room at all, aside from school.

He loved it.

It was their special secret. Tony made him promise not to tell anyone about him, and Steve didn’t want to share their lovely place in the forest with anyone either. Except Bucky, of course, but he didn’t count because Bucky knew everything and he was Steve’s best friend. Tony didn’t seem to have a best friend, so no one else was told.

 

“Why do you always get cabs?” Steve had asked one time, while Tony was picking up the change that had fallen from his pockets after falling off their swing. “Can’t you just get your mom or dad to take you?”

And Tony had got that blank look on his face again- the one that made him look ten years older- before it smoothed out and turned into a grin once more as he’d flopped next to Steve, shoulder to shoulder. “Because it’s our secret place, Steve. I don’t want them to know. They’ll ruin it.”

And Steve might have only known Tony for a few months by then, but the thought of someone ruining this made his heart skip a beat, so he didn’t bring it up again.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

“You should really be more careful about who you let sneak up on you, Rogers. I could have been an axe murderer.”

 

Steve just grinned, looking behind him on the swing and seeing Tony’s smiling face as he wandered through the trees. “Great to see you too, Tony,” he said, because Tony had never told him his last name.

Steve was nearly turning twelve, now, and Tony had just turned eleven, but was still two years above Steve in year groups at the school he went to, because he was a genius. And not just in a way that put you on the gifted list, either- in a way that put you out of this world.

 

You wouldn’t think it, though- not when Tony was convincing them both he could reach the first branch of the Oak tree if he stood on the swing and jumped.

Steve laughed, choosing to sit back on the grass and laugh rather than help Tony up off the floor. “You owe me ten dollars,” he said over the mouthful of chips Tony had brought along with him.

Tony scowled, but forked over the money anyway. “When I get taller, just you watch.”

And he already had half an inch on Steve now, but they were still both pretty small.  “Might be a long time coming, there.”

Tony punched him on the shoulder and then leaned back against the bottom of the tree, popping a chip into his mouth and staring at Steve through his dark eyelashes. “So,” he said, crossing his arms over his chest, “how’s life treating the Rogers household?”

He was smiling, but there was a serious note in his eye- a note that said I can and will just pay for all your rent if I need to.

Sometimes, Steve really, really wanted to take up that offer. But he knew neither his nor his mom’s pride would let him- not unless they were truly desperate.

“Eh. Better than it was last week. Mom’s found a new job, and I’m working too now, so-“

“You’re working?” Tony cut in, eyes wide.

Steve lifted his chin, a little defiantly. “Yep. And don’t start- believe me, I’ve heard the same thing from Mom and Buck. But just because I’m a little ill-“

“Chronically ill-“

“-doesn’t mean I can’t pull my finger out and earn some money,” Steve finished, eyeing Tony challengingly. Even though the other boy had never said anything about him being weak before, Steve knew it was only a matter of time. Everyone did.

But rather than call him anything, Tony just flopped his head down on Steve’s legs and sighed. “I wish you’d let me help you,” he muttered, picking at the grass.

Steve shrugged. “You’re always helping,” he admitted, blushing when he said “seeing you is the best part of the week.”

Tony brightened considerably at that. “Yeah?”

Steve nodded, swinging gently forward on the swing. “Well, I mean it’s not like you have much competition,” he joked, but it was a little flat because of the truth that rang out underneath his words. Tony had seen him with multiple bruises from the kids at his school- he knew about how little money they had to spare, and how many days a week Steve spent sick. It was hard.

“Even if my life was the bestest thing in the whole wide world, this would still be my favorite part of the week, though,” Steve admitted, nodding his head and scuffing his worn out shoes along the grass.

Tony pretty much beamed from ear to ear at him, and then looked away as his thoughts were caught along some other train of thought.

“We should get married,” he said eventually, nodding approvingly as he looked at Steve.

Steve liked the thought of that. Being able to spend forever and ever with Tony. They could build a house right here, in the woods. And then Tony wouldn’t have to travel so far and Steve wouldn’t have to worry about whether he was going to get kicked out of it by the owner because it would be theirs.

“Can I let my mom live with us?” He asked, because that was a deal breaker, really.

Tony nodded enthusiastically, and Steve smiled. But his face dropped a little when he realized that it would probably be a lot more complicated than just saying ‘we’re married!’. “I think we’re too young, though. And we can’t get a vicar or anything.”

Tony just scoffed, jumping to his feet and pulling at Steve’s arm excitedly. “Who cares? We’ll just get married in secret, too- and then no one can tell us we can’t, and no one can say we’re too young. Next week, okay? I’ll get rings and everything.”

Steve laughed, and grabbed Tony’s hand to pull him in for a hug. “I think everyone should be marrying their best friends. Kissing is stupid anyway.”

“Kissing is stupid,” Tony agreed, before letting go and falling back to the floor with a flop, head facing the clouds once more.

Steve went down too, joining Tony in the long grass and watching the clouds move across the sky. “I can’t believe no one else knows about this place. It’s like it’s magical.”

Tony nodded, rolling onto his stomach. “People don’t come because they know it’s ours, and I cast a spell over it after our first meeting. Like I said- it’s only our secret now. No-one else could find it if they tried.”

“Oh, you do magic now?” Steve asked skeptically, pulling the face Bucky always did when Steve exaggerated things.

Tony closed his eyes, and Steve watched the sunlight bounce off his face, fill the dents and curves of his cheeks, make his hair shine. “I’m a wizard and a genius. And also an astronaut, but that’s just a hobby, really.”

Steve smiled, shaking his head a little and choosing not to reply to that. Instead, he just sprinkled grass all over Tony’s face, causing him to yelp as the bits went in his mouth. Steve cackled delightedly- even when his hay fever started flaring up a few minutes later and he had to spend the rest of the afternoon with watery eyes and a runny nose.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

Tony wasn’t lying about the rings.

 

“You made these?” Steve asked incredulously, as Tony showed them to him the next week, a shy smile on his face as he looked down into the palm of his hand.

“Yeah- it wasn’t really hard. And they’re a bit lumpy, but it’s real silver! I melted down some of the candlesticks in the dining hall. No-one will notice they’re gone; we’ve got loads of them.”

Steve picked one out of Tony’s hand, sliding it on his finger and looking at it happily. “I think it’s awesome.”

Tony grinned, slipping his ring on too and observing it in the sunlight. “Does this mean we’re married now?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “Well duh - of course we are. We’ve got the rings an’ everything.”

His shoulder was jostled slightly as Tony bumped it, still beaming like Steve hung the moon. “Good. I told you this place was magic, didn’t I? Only good things are ever allowed to happen here.”

 

Steve nodded his head in agreement. “Only Good things.”

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

“Do you remember how we first met?” Tony asked, his head resting on Steve’s legs again; Steve sat on the swing with Tony at his feet.

 

Steve snorted. How the hell could he forget? “You looked like a fucking ghost sat rocking on the swing at four in the goddamn morning and scared the shit out of me, yeah, I remember.”

Tony sat up indignantly at that. “Uh, excuse me, I got there first- you were the one who looked like the ghost- do you realise how pale you look in the moonlight?”

Steve just rolled his eyes and flicked Tony on the top of the head. “Continue the story.”

Tony paused, looking out into the trees again. His hand was floating over the top of the grass; skin just brushing the tips of the blades. “I was going to run away, remember.”

It wasn’t a question. Tony knew Steve would remember all of it. The entire night- every night he spent with Tony, actually- was seared into his memory. “Yes.”

There was silence again. Steve was happy to be like that; he’d known Tony a few years by then, and they were completely comfortable with just sitting in one another’s company, watching the world turn around them. Not that they did it often- there was always something to talk about.

“I was thinking about it again. Seriously, this time,” Tony said eventually, eyes still fixed on the clearing.

Steve’s eyes widened, and he looked down, checking Tony over for an injury, a sign, anything that might have lead to that thought being brought up again. He knew, unfortunately, just how much of an asshole his dad in particular could be- Tony had spent a few afternoons over their time together just crying silently, sometimes letting Steve hold him through it, sometimes refusing to be touched until he could pack it all down again and make a joke, pretend it was all okay when it so obviously wasn’t.

“Did they hurt you?” He asks, unable to hold himself back from sliding his fingers across Tony’s jaw, tipping his face up toward Steve’s so he could see if there was any damage.

Tony indulged him, because he knew it was just something Steve had to do, but there was nothing to be seen. Tony backed it up with a shake of his head, and so Steve let his fingers drop away. “So why do you want to run?”

“Because they don’t have to hit me to be shit?”

“Touché,”

A ghost of a smile crossed Tony’s face, as he flopped back down so he was facing the clouds rather than the trees. “I taught you that word.”

“That you did,” Steve said quietly, letting himself remember that first day. They’d been younger back then, Steve himself just over eleven. And yet even then, Tony hadn’t been a kid. He’d never been able to be a kid, Steve didn’t think. Toddling around catching cabs in his spaceman pajamas, or sucking his thumb whilst building Steve his own phone from scratch- he was just a wild mix of the kid he was supposed to be and… the person it seemed everyone else in his life wanted him to be.

“-and anyway, don’t you think it would be cool? I’ve got a fake ID and more money than I know what to do with, I could just take a fuckload of it out of my accounts before Howard can freeze them and then rent out a place. Maybe near Brooklyn. And then I could see you all the time and I wouldn’t have to-“

“Tony, you’re thirteen. Come on, that wouldn’t work and you know it,” Steve said as gently as he could, biting his lip and wondering what he was going to have to say to convince Tony. It had been a lot easier the first time around, when Tony was able to be persuaded with a half-eaten candy bar from Steve’s jacket and the reminder that if he stayed, he’d be able to use the awesome swing again (it had been a lot more of a big deal a few years back).

“You know you can always come and stay with me if you need-“

“I know, Tony said, eyes flickering over to Steve for a second before focusing back on the clouds. “I know.”

Steve knew he wouldn’t ever get taken up on it, though. He’d learnt a long time ago that to Tony, outside of their weekly meetings; Steve didn’t exist.

 

It hurt. But he’d take what he could get.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

 

“Stevie, man, I have been covering for your ass for the best part of four years now- why can’t I meet the guy?”

 

Steve flopped back onto the bed, shooting his friend the same look he gave every time Bucky mentioned it. “You know why. Tony wants it to be-“

“And what about you?” Bucky asks for the millionth time. “What about what you want?”

Steve just rolled his eyes. “It doesn’t matter what I want. He… he needs this. For whatever reason. And I just want him to be happy.”

Even if it hurt every time Tony told him he didn’t want Bucky to meet him, or every time Tony refused to tell him his last name, or the refusal to do anything with him outside of meeting up every week, 5pm sharp by their swing in the clearing.

Bucky sighed, lying down with him and then turning so they were face to face. “Do me a favor, Rogers,” he said quietly, looking into Steve’s eyes like he knew exactly what was going on in there. “ Don’t fall in love with him. Or if you already are- fall out of it. You know this can’t work. It won’t ever work.”

Steve scowled. “I’m not in love with him.”



Lies.

 

 

 

 

 

***





“Fuck, Steve, what the hell did they do to you?”

 

Steve grimaced, sitting down gingerly on the swing and watching through a swollen eye as Tony buzzed around him like an anxious fly, falling to his knees and taking Steve’s face in between his hands, lips pursed and eyes harsh, but fingers so very soft and gentle as they traced the cut along his cheek.

“The fuckin’ usual, what does it look like?” Steve snapped back bitterly, because this was the fourth time this goddamn week- they assholes in his class had taken an unusual interest in him recently, and it was coming out in punches to the face and shoves into lockers.

Tony clenched his jaw and shook his head, looking up at Steve and then gesturing down to his midsection, asking if he could look. At first, Steve shook his head, but then Tony’s stupid eyes started doing the stupid pleading thing, and Steve had yet to learn how to say no to that, so he just nodded gruffly and tried not to hiss in pain when Tony’s fingers brushed across a bruise.

Tony sighed as his eyes flickered over Steve’s black and blue torso, and Steve had a brief moment of embarrassment at the fact Tony was getting up close and personal with his skinny frame, but it was quickly halted as Tony let his hand rest, feather-light against the bruises on his ribs. “Convince me why it would be a bad idea to get my fucking butler to run them all over,” he growled, eyes never leaving the angry marks that littered Steve’s body.

“You have a butler?” Steve asked incredulously.

“Yes, now convince me not to get him to ’accidentally’ clip them while they’re hanging about like fucking idiots on the corner of the fucking street-”

“Tony,” Steve cut in, unable to stop a pleased little grin curling on his lips at the other boy’s anger, “I’m okay. They’ll get bored soon-”

“That’s not good enough!” Tony’s eyes flashed, and Steve knew that face, that was his planning face, which undoubtedly lead to bad ideas all around. “That’s bullshit, Steve, come on, listen, I’ll make you something, I know my way around weapons-”

“You’re not going to design me a fucking gun, Tony,” Steve interrupted again, because that really was too far.

Tony just rolled his eyes. “Not a gun. Just… a self-defense measure that will teach them that you’re off-limits. Violently.”

“...I will allow light violence only.”

“Medium amounts of violence?”

“Light violence.”

Tony huffed, but nodded sullenly. “Fine. Light violence. But I still think I should get Jarvis to swing by in his car-”

 

Steve got his hand to Tony’s forehead and pushed him off lightly, laughing as Tony yelped in betrayal.

 

 

 

 



***

 

 

 

 



Next time they were waiting for him by the corner, Steve pulled out the gift Tony had given him and waited until they were in reaching distance before letting it touch their skin.

 

He had to admit, there was something incredibly satisfying about watching your bullies as electricity shocked through their bodies and sent them flying a good ten feet away from you at one simple touch.

When he thanked Tony the following Friday, the other boy just grinned and shrugged. “Hey- I’m always gonna be there to pick you up. Although you did most of it yourself, anyway.”



Steve smiled. He liked the thought of that.

 

 

 

 

 

***

 

 

 

 

“HA! I MADE IT!” Tony yelled, as he hung in the air, hands clutched around the first branch of the oak tree.

 

Steve laughed, grabbing one of Tony’s flailing feet and directing it toward his shoulder so that Tony could boost himself up higher. “Only took you three years.”

“Let me have my moment, Steve,” Tony chided, shimmying on to the bough and then bending down again, outstretching a hand that Steve could just barely reach. “Grab hold, I’ll pull you up.”

Steve snorted. “Tony, you’re not gonna be able to lift me th-“

He was cut off suddenly as Tony latched onto his wrist and yanked, and Steve felt the weird sensation of his feet leaving the ground as Tony somehow pulled Steve’s entire body weight up to his chest, until Steve got a grip on the branch and finished the rest of the journey off himself.

“What was that you were saying?” Tony asked, grinning from ear to ear and then winking when Steve’s eyes found themselves unbearably pulled toward Tony’s arms, and how fucking strong they’d have had to be to just pull him like that-

“I’m a blacksmith, baby,” Tony said, flexing and then kissing his bicep like the jocks did in movies. Steve laughed and shook his head again, letting his head rest on Tony’s shoulder, because the boy might be a year younger but he was still a head taller, damn him.

“Ooh! Idea!” Tony said, as he always did when he thought of something particular- stupid or genius. He shuffled around, digging a hand into his pocket before coming out with a penknife.

Steve raised an eyebrow, hoping Tony was going to continue with something at least slightly rational.

“Uhh, everyone carves their name into some poor tree at some point, Steve, come on,” was what ended up being said, which was… better than he’d expected, to be honest.

“What, and you were just randomly carrying a penknife on you, then?” Steve asked, pulling it out of Tony’s hands and then looking across the bark for a place to start.

“Okay. Perhaps a preconceived idea, then,” Tony admitted, as Steve got to work on the spot he’d picked.

He leaned in, tongue sticking out a little as he dug out a carving of his initials on to the wood- and then paused when he noticed Tony watching him.

Tony didn’t seem embarrassed by having been caught; he was still just smiling softly as he watched Steve work. Steve had to fight down a blush, as he always did when Tony settled his focus entirely on him. It was like being in the center of an impossibly bright stagelight- everything else just became invisible.

“You know, I’m pretty sure this what kids do when they’re like, six,” Steve said after a few moments.

“Well I didn’t know you when I was six,” was all Tony replied, and his voice was still soft, still full of so much emotion, Steve just wanted…



Well. That was it, really. He just Wanted. Pure and simple.



Because it was easier than brooding on that thought, Steve just got back to work, carefully carving out his initials until they were scraped forever into the bark, and then handing the penknife off to Tony again, feeling the zing of static as Tony’s fingers brushed against his own.

“How’s your project?” Steve asked after a few moments, leaning back against the trunk and watching Tony scribble an addition sign before getting on with his own initials.

Tony paused, before shrugging a little. “Okay. He’s still an idiot, but he’s coming on. He can make me smoothies now, but that’s pretty much all he can extend to. I… uh, I decided not to take him in as my project though. I’m gonna make something else-”

“What?” Steve asked incredulously. “But Tony, your robot is incredible! You’re fourteen, and you’ve already managed to make an early version of an AI? Jesus, you can’t just tuck that away, the whole world should know-”

“They’d ruin it,” Tony interrupted, eyes back on the tree, pointedly not looking at Steve. “They’d see what I’d done and they’d break it, or graffiti on it or whatever the fuck they think is funny, Steve, and you know it. You know them. I’m not gonna let them do that to him. He stays with me in the basement.”

Steve opened his mouth to try and argue, but he didn’t really know what to say. Aside from storming into wherever Tony went to school and having it out with them (which he thought about too much for his own good, honestly), there was nothing he could do to make that better. It had worn off a little for him; he’d had a growth spurt last summer, and now he was nearly turning sixteen it seemed he’d finally started catching up with the rest of the boys in his year. Tony, however, was still too small and too smart and too mouthy for his own good- it showed in the bruises he covered with jumpers and makeup.

He wasn’t sure who had put them there, school-kids or...someone else. Honestly, he couldn’t bear to think too deeply about it at all; either option was horrible, and both made his blood boil.

 

“You’ve got a face on, Steve, lighten up,” Tony told him, pressing the knife back into his hand and grinning theatrically. “Life’s life, and I’ll get by until I don’t need to any more.”

Steve wanted to argue with that so badly. Tony didn’t deserve that. He deserved… the best things that Steve could think of. He shouldn’t have to just put up with shit because it was easier than making a fuss. Tony hated it when Steve did that to himself, so it shouldn’t be any different for him .

 

Except when Steve opened his mouth, Tony turned his head and just gave him a look. He knew exactly what Steve was going to say already. It would be no different to the things Steve told him every week. They’d done this a million times.

It never changed things. Never magically made Tony’s problems go away, no matter how much steve wished for it.

 

So instead, Steve just sighed and bumped his shoulder against Tony’s. “What about the prototype of your spacesuit, then? That’s pretty much indestructible, and if they do somehow manage to ruin it, you’ll know what to improve next. Then when you go to space and change the universe, you can thank the fuckwads for keeping you alive.”

Tony chuckled, closing his eyes briefly, and then opening them up to glance at the sky. “Yeah. Yeah, maybe I will.”

There was a pause, where tony seemed to collect himself again, before he grinned and turned to Steve once more. “Anyway- you like it?” He thrust his head in the direction of their finished work; a stupid and simple ‘SR+TS’ carved messily into the tree bark that was eye-level with them.

Steve looked at it, and felt a grin spread across his face. SR and TS, their names together in the ancient tree that they’d grown up around.

 

He kind of loved it.

 

“Me too,” Tony said, nodding a little.



Steve hadn’t spoken. Again- Tony just knew.

 

 

 

 



***

 

 

 

 



When Tony’s fingers had gotten too big for the ring he’d made them, he put a chain through it and wore it around his neck.

Steve had been keeping it in his wallet, but when he saw the tiny gold chain peeking through Tony’s shirt, he decided that was a better idea.

 

 

 

 



***

 

 

 

 



“Rogers, that was the best game I’ve seen you play this season. Keep up with that and you’ll be looking at a place on the team,” his coach called out to him as he limped off the pitch, arm-in-arm with Bucky and Sam.

They both nudged him and raised their eyebrows, laughing when Steve just blushed and shoved them both away. “Awww, our five-foot ragemonster is growing up into a big bad linebacker- who would’ve thought,” Bucky said, clutching his heart dramatically.



Tony had always been convinced he’d make it. Although they had been eleven at the time, and Tony still believed he had magical powers that influenced probability. But still. He’d been nothing but supportive of him ever since he’d started pursuing it seriously, and it would be the first thing h e’d make sure to tell him when they met up later that night.



“No, seriously man, I’m proud of you,” Sam told him, patting him on the back lightly as they walked into the locker rooms. “You’ve worked hard. You deserve this.”

Steve smiled, “yeah, well I mean, I’ve got you two and Clint to thank for pushing me to try out in the first place. Never woulda had the balls on my own.”

 

It was odd, how his friends had come into his life so suddenly. It had been him and Bucky for so long, but when Bucky had tried out for the football team a few months previously, he’d been introduced to a whole new set of people. Of course, he’d introduced them to Steve immediately, and suddenly he’d somehow managed to go from two friends to at least seven.

And then had come the Second Growth Spurt.

Not just height, either, like it had been the first time. This had been a monster of a growth spurt, sizing up in all directions, muscle mass and height and God , his mom had been stretched thin buying a new everything for him, because he’d somehow managed to grow out of all his clothes in the space of a few months. Tony had been completely astonished; every week saying how different he looked, trying to make him take tests so he could scientifically observe the progress.

But the first thing he’d done upon realising the fact that he was finally growing had been to hit the gym, and work like the Apocalypse was imminent. The new football season was close to starting, and his new friends had been trying to convince him to go and try out for months before that anyway.
He’d figured he hadn’t had much to lose. And he’d been right. He was training with the team at practise now, and loving every moment of it.

It was… weird. But good. Really good. Kinda seemed like his life was turning around.

 

“Hey, you want to come ‘round to my house and celebrate your maybe-in-the-team status?” Sam asked. “Everyone’s going. It’ll be fun.”

Steve smiled, but shook his head, shooting Bucky a loaded look as he did so. “Sorry, Sam- my Friday evenings are booked from now until the foreseeable future. Another time, maybe.”

Sam shrugged, patting Steve on the shoulder. “We’ll miss you, Rogers. But have fun with whatever plans you got.”

“I will,” Steve said honestly, grabbing his duffel and swinging it over his shoulder before heading out to the front, unwilling to spend more time than necessary in the stinking locker room.

The air was chilly and Steve zipped his coat up to his chin, stuffing his hands into his pockets and watching as his breath crystallised in the air. There had once been a time when being in this weather might have been dangerous for him- but not now. Steve wondered if it was simply exposure. He’d spent hours and hours out in this cold with Tony for years now, despite the boy’s protests and demands for him to go back inside. It barely even affected him any more.

Leaning his head against the wall, he closed his eyes and zoned out, waiting for Bucky to finish up in the locker room so they could get moving back home. He didn’t mind the wait, but Bucky was notoriously slow to prepare himself, and no doubt he’d forgotten Steve was even waiting for him at all by this point-

He was pulled from his wanderings when his phone began ringing. Steve frowned; he’d been sure he’d turned it on silent for school- then again, he’d probably just turned it back up without realising.

“Good afternoon, Rogers here,” he answered to the unknown number.

There was silence on the other line, and then a beautifully familiar laugh that had Steve’s heart beating faster just by the sound of it. “Really? I’ve always wondered how you’d answer the phone- never thought it would be quite so ‘1940’s’ though-”

“Tony?” Steve asked incredulously, because Tony never… this was the first time he’d ever reached out to Steve outside of their weekly meetings at the swing. It was both exhilarating and slightly terrifying.

“That’s me,” Tony replied, and Steve might have been imagining it, but he could have sworn Tony sounded… off. Something was wrong.
Why else would he be calling?

“Tony, are you okay?” Steve asked quietly, because now that thought had taken hold, it was impossible to shake, and the happiness had quickly turned to worry, hands beginning to shiver a little more prominently against the speaker, because what if Tony was hurt, or in danger, or or or or-

“I’m fine, Steve, honestly, don’t worry. Nothing’s wrong. I just… I can’t come today. I’m so sorry, it’s just… important meeting, I can’t get out of it. Believe me, I did try, but it was impossible. And I don’t think I can next week, either- it’s unavoidable, I’m sorry-”

“Hey, hey, Tony- it’s fine. Don’t worry. I’m just surprised it hasn’t happened sooner- I mean we can’t just have every meeting and important event scheduled around our Friday, right?” Steve joked, trying to ignore the unexpected plummet of his mood at the thought of it.

 

Since he’d been eleven, he’d spent his fridays with Tony. Every single one. His mom had caught on within the first six months, but let him continue with it. They’d arranged trips and visits and dinner around their 5pm meetings. It was just… a part of his life now.



It was going to be so weird going home and- well- not going straight out again.



“I… yeah, I guess so,” Tony said, as if neither of them had been meticulously planning their lives around their weekly meeting at the swing on the Oak tree.

“Maybe just call me later tonight?” Steve asked hopefully, because now that Tony had reached out, surely they could continue this, let it grow a little more, allow Steve in-

“I’m… I’m sorry-”



Oh.



“Steve,” and Tony sounded horribly sad, and a little desperate as he said “you know I… I can’t. It’s complicated and stupid but I can’t- although I swear I’ll make it up to you next week, okay, I’ve got one of my new inventions to show you, it’s really awesome, I think you’ll like it.”

“Okay,” Steve said quietly, unable to think of a way to continue the conversation now that he knew there wasn’t much point; now Tony had let him know he couldn’t come, there was no reason to speak to him, right?

Don’t be bitter, he scolded himself, shutting his eyes and running a hand across his forehead. Tony had his reasons. Steve had to respect them. They were still best friends; they just… worked differently to everyone else.

Tony sighed, and he sounded old again. Steve hated when that happened; hated the fact that Tony was still a year younger than him, but so advanced for his age, so much more adult than he should ever have had to be.





A kid in spaceman pajamas, getting a taxi across the state. That had always been an image that stuck with Steve when it came to Tony.





“I’ve got to go Steve, I’m pushing it as it is, God, Howard’s gonna kill me,” Tony muttered, and Steve began to hear the jolting of the speaker as it brushed up and down Tony’s ear from the movement of him running. “I… you played really well today, by the way.”

“Thank y- wait. What?” Steve’s eyes widened to an almost comical level, and he whipped his head around, trying valiantly to spot Tony, despite the fruitlessness of his endeavour. “Oh my God, you’re here? Tony, what the hell, where are you-”

“I can’t talk, I really really have to go. I just… didn’t want to go a week without seeing you? It’s our thing, and I was messing it up, and- that sounds stupid but… whatever. It’s true. And if it helps- I am 100% certain you’ll make the team, Steve. You’re a great player,” he said, panting down the line as he ran wherever he was heading.

Steve was too surprised by the fact that Tony had been right there watching him, and Steve had not fucking spotted him, to reply properly. He just spluttered a little, and tried to think of a response.

Tony laughed, and his voice was soft as he spoke. “I’ll see you soon, Steve.”

The phone went dead, and Steve was left there, holding the phone to his ear and still searching wildly for someone who had probably left twenty minutes ago.

 

God. Tony had been there. If only Steve had noticed him- they could’ve- well-

He didn’t know what would have happened. He just wished he’d gotten to see Tony’s face.



He was still looking around him a little bewilderedly as Sam and Bucky walked out of the door, laughing together and knocking shoulders as they walked up to Steve.

“Hey- you okay?” Bucky asked, smile dimming a little as he stepped forward and looked at Steve’s frowning face.

He stared at his friend, opening his mouth a few times before giving up and satisfying himself with a shrug instead. “I… just misplaced something. Uh, Sam- if the offer’s still open, it turns out I’m actually free tonight.”

Bucky’s mouth fell open, but Sam, oblivious of the situation, just beamed and pumped his fist in the air. “Hell yeah the offer’s still open! I’m glad you can make it- I’ve not been able to introduce you to Sharon yet, and she’s coming over tonight. I think you’ll like her, Steve, she seems like your type.”

“Short, brunette, smart as a whip?” Steve asked absently, unable to help his eyes from grazing over every spare inch of land ahead of him, looking for something he knew he wouldn’t find.

Sam faltered. “Uh- she fills out one of those three factors? Definitely smart. Not so brunette. Or short. Still great though!”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed, shooting Steve a very obvious look, “I think you’re gonna like her, Stevie. Maybe even girlfriend material, you never know.”

“Hmmm,” Steve agreed absently, mind on other things as they walked toward the bus station.

“Oh, we’re gonna have some fun with you tonight, Steven,” Sam assured him fondly, with another pat on the shoulder.

Steve hoped so. He wasn’t quite sure if it would be enough to counteract the uncomfortable feeling that he was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and that this was Tony’s time , not anyone else’s- but it would do him better than being alone, anyway.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



They got drunk and half of them got high and it was a much bigger party than Steve had expected and he kissed Sharon in the corner of the dark room with a solo cup in his hand and didn’t think of Tony at all, definitely not.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



They were both squashed up on the swing, Tony practically in Steve’s lap as he absently made a daisy crown and listened to Steve talk excitedly about managing to make it onto the football team.

“I’m sorry, by the way. For the last two weeks. Were you okay? I didn’t mean to-”

“Hey, don’t worry,” Steve assured him, unwilling to let Tony feel guilty over something he couldn’t help, “I was fine without you. Just went and hung out with my other friends. It was great, actually.”

Tony froze, and it was tiny, barely even noticeable, except just as Steve was about to call him on it, he seemed to move back to life, mouth stumbling around a few times before he settled on an “Oh. Uh- I… okay. Good.”

 

Neither of them brought it up again. The topic moved on.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



“YOU MOVED TO MIT?!”



“Steve, come on, it’s not that big of a deal-”

“Boston, Tony! You live in Boston! That’s in a different state to this goddamn place- I don’t- why are you- why didn’t you tell me?” Steve asked incredulously, unable to believe that for the past three months, Tony had been getting the train down to fucking Brooklyn every week just to fuck about with Steve for a few hours.

Tony looked open, exposed, fragile for a moment, but he quickly steered it into something harsher. Same old, same old- Tony had had masks for as long as Steve could remember- less advanced, less intricate and well performed back when they’d been kids, but masks all the same. And as they’d grown, so had the different personas of Tony. The childish look of pure glee rarely came out any more- the blank stare when anything related to his family life becoming worryingly more frequent. Steve could read it all like a fucking book, Tony might as well have just not bothered.




“That’s where I was a few weeks ago. Meetings. They were arranging everything for me, and I couldn’t miss it,” Tony said, chin high, eyes gearing for a fight, readying himself to battle for- what? What did he think Steve was going to say? Why did Tony always have to just assume he’d have to fight tooth and nail for every good thing he had?
Steve would have to be forcibly dragged from Tony before he went anywhere. That wasn’t going to change.

 

“Tony… that’s amazing,” Steve breathed, quickly changing his tune and trying to ignore the instinctual guilt that came with the knowledge of how far Tony was now going for this, how much this stupid goddamn swing must mean to him if he was still bothering, still coming back when he had so much else in the world available to him.

 

It… it made Steve’s heart hurt. So many years of loving him had made that a constant in his life, now, but it was still a shock to feel the familiar tightening in his chest when Tony did something stupid, something selflessly kind, something…



Anything.



God. He had to stop thinking like that. It wasn’t… it couldn’t be like that. They weren’t… and Sharon…

Everything had become such a mess, lately.



Tony looked at him for a long time, before seeming to relax and smile a little, rubbing the back of his neck awkwardly, in the same way he always did when Steve praised him for something. “Yeah. I’m pretty happy. I mean, fifteen and in MIT? That’s pretty good, right?”

Steve rolled his eyes, walking forward and pulling Tony into a hug, his body enveloping Tony’s entirely as the smaller boy clung on around him. “Honestly- ‘pretty good?’ Tony,  you’re… I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone as clever as you. This is something you should be so, so, so proud of. I know I am.” He said, making sure Tony got it, Tony knew- because he didn’t have anyone else to tell him that. To tell him he was special or clever or that they were proud of him.
No one else cared.



Tony looked up at him from under his eyelashes, and how did they always end up like this- so close, always so close, they never knew what personal boundaries were when it came to one another, Jesus-

 

“Thank you,” Tony said, and Steve suddenly forgot everything else, even if just for a moment, because Tony’s masks had dropped, for the first time in what might have been months- giving way to the pure, unadulterated, childish glee that Steve adored with all his heart when it was on Tony’s face. “I’d say we were both doing pretty well right now, huh? Football champion and MIT nerd? Perfect couple,” Tony said, smiling like a 100-watt bulb.





God, Steve wanted to kiss him.





It was why he said what he did. That was the only reason. A panic response to the overwhelming urge that he’d been feeling for years now, but wasn’t allowed to feel any more, because-
“Hey, that reminds me- I’ve got a girlfriend now, you know,”




It was the wrong thing. It was the most idiotic, stupid, needless thing Steve could have told him at that moment. He should have been asking about MIT, about how it was at home, about anything other than that.

But he couldn’t take it back.

And Tony had frozen up in his arms like someone had paralysed him.

“Sorry,” Steve backtracked, shutting his eyes above Tony’s head and cursing himself, “that was a weird time to tell you, I just… uh- it reminded me of her, and she’s great, she’s called Sharon and we kissed at the party I went to when you couldn’t make it  that time- she hangs out with me and my friends some, and… yeah,” Steve trailed off, watching Tony step out of his arms, horrified as he saw the same blank expression he usually kept for ashsoles like his parents, now shown on his face. Because of Steve. Because he’d just gone and stolen Tony’s special moment in the one place where he was fucking allowed to be happy about one of his achievements- Jesus Fucking Christ, what was wrong with him-



“Wow,” Tony said, trying to squeeze a little piece of emotion into his face as he smiled at Steve. The whole aura around him had just completely changed in the time it had taken for Steve to talk, and it seemed as if all the blood in his face had just drained out. He looked exhausted again- more so than usual, even, which was definitely bad. “That’s...wow. Uh. That’s really great, Steve. I’m...happy for you.”

“No, forget that, it wasn’t important,” Steve said, grabbing Tony’s shoulders and pulling him toward the swing before sitting him down on it with a deciding thump. “I didn’t need to say that right now- this is about you. I want you to tell me… everything, okay? How did it happen? What did they say to you? How are lessons? All of it, Tony, okay, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to make this about me, don’t be mad-”

“You think I’m pissy because you stole my fucking thunder?” Tony hissed suddenly, pushing forward until again, he was close to Steve, too close, really, but Steve just didn’t want to pull away. “You think... really? Jesus. I... listen, Steve, I really can’t. I’m not- it’s just been a shitty day. I’m not going to deal with this right now. I need- I need to go.”

 

His movements were jerky as he stood up, and- holy fuck- his hands were shaking, and Steve could see that maybe this wasn’t all about him feeling like he was being ignored now, there had to be something deeper there, and whatever Steve had done just made it worse-

 

“Please Tony- stay. Talk to me- what’s wrong?” Steve pleaded, following him as he stormed off, horrified that he’d triggered such a bad reaction.

Tony whirled around, incredulous. “You’re really… you’re really that fucking dense? Holy shit.You really don’t…” Tony trailed off, shaking his head as he ran both his hands through the freshly-cut hair and took a deep breath. “Right. I… I have to go. Cool down. I’m… yeah. Bye, Steve,”



Steve watched him go, wondering what the fuck had managed to go so wrong in the space of less than a minute.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



That was when the cracks started to form.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



But not instantly. They still had some time left.

 

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



“James Rhodes?” Steve rolled the name on his tongue, like he could decide whether the guy was trustworthy enough for Tony through his name alone.

 

“Mmm hmm,” Tony assured him, half-asleep, head on Steve’s stomach as he let his eyes drift shut.

It had been a week since Tony had stormed off, and honestly Steve hadn’t been expecting him to come back the next time at all- yet Tony had, as usual, surprised him. And not only that, but he’d immediately flopped onto the grass next to Steve and begun talking about his week like nothing had happened at all.

Steve chose not to push it. He knew Tony. The boy would speak in his own time.

“Are we sure he’s okay? Like, he hasn’t… I don’t know, tried to sell you drugs or anything, has he?” Steve asked, resisting the urge to stroke his hand through Tony’s hair like they’d done when they were kids.

He had boundaries, now. He needed to stick to them.

“Uh, well aside from the crystal meth he offered me if I slept with him, he’s fine,” Tony mumbled, before breaking into laughter when Steve yelped. He didn’t even stop when the other boy jumped to his feet, removing Tony’s pillow in one quick swoop. “I’m kidding, Steve, relax- he’s fine. Great, actually. He did the opposite. Picked me up off the floor of some party last week, and took me home, made sure I was okay. He’s cool.”

Steve was about to sigh in relief before he realised what Tony was actually saying, and his eyes widened. “You were passed out at a party? Did you know anyone there?”

Tony shrugged, which was his way of saying no. “It was fine. Like I said, Rhodey took me home.”

“Tony, what the hell, you’re still only fifteen, that’s-”

“My choice,” Tony answered. He didn’t sound angry. Just… almost resigned. Like this was the fate he’d been expecting all along.



Howard drank a lot. Too much. Something he’d no doubt forced on to his son at some point.
Inevitable. That’s what Tony thought. Inevitable.



“Stop overthinking it, Steve,” Tony cut into his thought process with a wave of his hand, before it dropped back over his eyes and obscured the sun, “it was just a party. Now can you please sit your ass back down here- my pillow was rather viciously removed from me a few seconds ago and I’d like it back.”

Steve paused, a good portion of him wanting to talk to Tony properly about what had happened that night- but he knew it wouldn’t get him anywhere. .

Anyway. If Tony said it was a one-off, then it was a one-off. It was just what kids their age did, anyway. Drank too much and partied to hard and passed out on the floor where anyone could’ve-

“Steve.” Tony reached blindly for his hand, scuffling around a little before turning to point his closed eyes at Steve imploringly (how the fuck his stupid puppy-dog eyes worked when they were closed , he would never know) until he gave in and just held his hand out for Tony to grab. “Listen to me, Steve. I’m fine. It was just a party. Everyone was nice. I promise, no Tony’s were harmed in the making of this College Student.”

Steve rolled his eyes at that, and tried to push down the lingering worry and fierce protectiveness that made him want to run off to Boston the very next time Tony took the train back and just stick with him; hold his hand and throw dirty glances at any pervy college students and wrap an arm around his waist to let everyone know that he wasn’t for them , he was f-

 

Fuck.
Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



Steve choked on the five biscuits he’d managed to shove into his mouth while Tony timed him, egging him on and laughing, smiling, hair too long and falling into his eyes as he struggled to remain upright when Steve somehow managed to get the horrible cheap food down his throat and hold his hand out for another.

 

“I fucking hate you for making me think of this as a valid dare,” Steve said afterwards, legs swinging on the first branch of the tree while Tony swung smugly underneath him. They had hidden Steve’s vomit under a variation of grass and leaves. “Seeing how many biscuits I can swallow in two minutes is repulsive and childish and i’m quite frankly disappointed in you, Tony.”

“No doubt I’m about to get an equally repulsive and generally childish dare in return. You’ll get your revenge, Rogers, don’t fret,” Tony replied, tilting his head back and raising an eyebrow at Steve.

“If only I could. But I’ve got to get off; Natasha’s arranged to drag me off for a pedicure, and honestly, if I don’t go I am genuinely scared for the fate of my genitals,” Steve replied cheerily, swinging down off the branch and landing next to Tony with ease that he’d developed along with the growth spurt last year.

Tony’s smile stuck on his face a little, but it was gone before Steve could properly register it, and  he just nodded his head and kicked Steve lightly on the shin. “She sounds terrifying and I think I love her a little.”

Steve ignored the flare of irrational jealousy that flared up at his simple words, and grabbed his bag from the floor instead. “Yeah- Sharon said something along those lines too. I think they secretly plot against me when I’m not there, which is why I’ve got to get there early. Leaves less time for them to decide evil things about me,” he, said, mostly just for a reason to mention Sharon, to remind himself about Sharon, who he always seemed to forget about when he was with Tony, because he was a shitty boyfriend and a shitty person and couldn’t sort out his stupid fucking feelings for one stupid fucking second.

Tony didn’t reply- just smiled a little and nodded. “Okay. Have fun, Steve,” he said quietly.

“I’ll see you next week,” Steve called back to him, waving as he jogged back through the trees.

“Hey Steve! Wait a second!” Tony called out, just before he went out of earshot entirely. Steve turned, watching Tony stumble after him, pulling on his jacket and looking his usual haphazard self.

“Meet me a bit later, next week. Like, 11?” he asked, when he reached Steve’s space again.

“Uhh, yeah, that’s fine. You got a reason?” Steve asked, bemused as he watched a tiny blush just begin to crawl up his cheeks.

“Well… I mean, i know this probably sounds stupid, I’m not… and you don’t have to-”

“Tony,” Steve cut him off, grabbing his shoulders gently and grinning. “I’m coming either way, and I can guarantee what you say won’t be stupid. Probably. Actually, okay- maybe a fifty-fifty chance. ”

Tony raised an eyebrow, and Steve was sure he mouthed the word ‘genius’, but Steve just laughed and gave him a little jolt. “Let’s hear it, Tony.”

Tony leaned in a little, like he was admitting a deep secret. “There’s.... You ever heard of the Perseids meteor shower? It’s this really cool astronomical event that comes ‘round every year, and I’ve never been able to see it before- Howard thinks it’s a waste of time, but I just thought that… I don’t know, like i said, it’s dumb, but. Yeah,” Tony finished lamely, avoiding Steve’s eyes.

Steve just smiled, shaking his head a little hopelessly. “Tony, you’ve known me for however long now- you really think I’d ever say no to an offer like that? What do you take me for?”

Tony looked at him then, face slowly spreading out into a happy little smile. “Serious? You sure it’s-”

Steve clamped a hand around his mouth before he could finish, because Tony could ramble on forever if Steve didn’t find a way to stop him. “I’d love to. You can show me where all the constellations and stuff are, too, right?”

“Right. Yeah. Okay. So… I’ll see you at eleven? It’s not gonna be inconvenient for you?” Tony asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet a little as Steve nodded.

“I’m glad it’s later, actually- Sharon wanted to go out and see a movie on Friday, and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to make it here on time. But now it’s all good!”

Tony seemed to choke on his next sentence at that, and the smile flickered on his face before he pulled it back again. “Right. Good. Okay, well- I’ll see you next week then. Have fun with Sharon.”

 

Steve watched him turn away and walk back the other way, wondering why the the hell Tony had spat out the last sentence like it hurt.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



“They’re beautiful,” Tony breathed, arms raised and pillowing his head as they both lay in the long grass, staring up at a sky Steve had rarely seen this clearly before. The last time he’d seen so many stars had probably been… well, the first time he’d met Tony, in the early hours of the morning when the lights had been off and the world had been quiet.

 

Steve turned his head, observing Tony as he stared upward to the heavens, eyes shining in amazement as they watched the meteors flash through the sky like sparks bouncing along a darkened surface. “Mmm,” he replied absently.

The meteors weren’t much to him. Pretty, yes, but not much. But to Tony, who adored the stars and the science and the phenomenons that came with it- this was stunning.

And so Steve would sit here for as long as Tony wanted him to.

“That’s the big dipper, right?” Steve asked, pointing a hand upward and then gesturing at the cluster of stars above them.

“Uh huh- all the summer constellations are visible right now- we can’t see a few because of the trees, but if you look just over there, you can see Cygnus-” Tony explained, rolling over and leaning over Steve a little as he pointed in the direction of the constellation he was talking about.



Steve wouldn’t have seen it if Tony hadn’t moved. But as he leaned forward, his shirt dropped lower, exposing his neck and collar.



They were covered, absolutely covered, in bruises.



“Are they hickeys?” Steve blurted incredulously, eyes widening at the severity of a few of them.

Tony froze, before pulling back and re-adjusting his shirt casually. “Yup,” and there was another mask, sliding effortlessly across his face and smoothing out any sign of emotion other than nonchalance. He’d been practicing, that much was obvious. It was more difficult to see through now, more fluid and easy.

“Tony- you’re fifteen. How… how old are the people giving you those?” Steve whispered, hand reaching out subconsciously, as he always had when Tony got hurt-

Except this time Tony slapped it away, eyes harder now, more brutal. “Does it matter? I don’t ask for a fucking birth certificate, it just happens-”

“You said you wouldn’t do this, Tony-”

“You’re not my Goddamn handler, Steve,” Tony snarled, sitting up, getting height on Steve that he couldn’t manage when they were stood upright. “You have your people. I have mine. Just leave it.”

“Oh, these are your friends, are they?”

“Yes!”

“What- because you pay them or help them with work and then accept the invitation to go to their sleazy fucking parties in order to get you wasted off your face so they can fuck you- that makes them your buddies? Huh?” And Steve didn’t even know what he was saying- but he was just terrified, absolutely terrified about what Tony was getting himself involved in, and horribly, bitterly jealous for no fucking reason, because Tony wasn’t his, Tony wasn’t even close-

“Yeah, Steve,” Tony said quietly, nodding his head. There was no harshness now, no anything. Just a blank face. The light in his eyes had gone. “It’s better than being alone.”

 

Steve was hit by that, like a punch to the face. Like a fucking blunt instrument, directly to his heart.



“You do not… you don’t have to do that, Tony, please, holy shit- you know where I am, you know enough about my friends to know they’re good, you can- please- you don’t need them, not when you’ve got me, if you’d just let me in-”

It was only when Tony shoved him away that Steve realised he’d been holding him at all. “Fuck, Steve, you don’t get it, I can’t-”

“Why?”

“Because I JUST CAN’T!” Tony screamed, and he looked like he was about to cry, holy fucking shit, why was this always happening now, why was everything going wrong-

“I… I need to go,” Tony said hoarsely, running a hand through his hair and stumbling to his feet.

Steve choked, jumping up to join him. “No, wait, Tony, just stay, you haven’t even watched the meteors properly-”

 

But Tony had run, and Steve was alone.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



Bucky was watching him, and he had a look on his face that let Steve know he had something important to say.



Rolling his eyes, he quickly kissed Sharon on the cheek and left her with Natasha and Sam, then made his way over to Bucky, who was sat on the other side of the dinner table. “Okay. Out with it, then. What’s with the face?”

Bucky remained silent for a long time, just looking at Steve with a sort of hopeless exasperation on his face as they sat together in the crowded school cafeteria.

“What’s Tony’s favourite colour?” He asked eventually.

Steve paused, thrown by the question. “What? I don’t see how that has anything to do with-”

“Just answer the question, Stevie.”

“...Orange. It’s orange.”

“Why?”

Steve threw his hands up in confusion. “He likes the sunset, and he thinks orange is the colour of life- I don’t know, something along those lines, anyway, he told me a long time ago-”

“What’s Sharon’s?”

He paused. Racked his brains. He’d been dating Sharon just short of four months now, and definitely remembered having a conversation about it at some point, but…

“I… I think it’s purple? Or maybe blue. Something along that end of the spectrum-”

“Why?”

“Jesus, Bucky, what’s with the interrogation here, how am I supposed to know the reason behind everyone’s favourite colour, I’m not a fucking psychic-”

“Steve,” Bucky said quietly. “You’re not in love with Sharon.”

Steve froze, completely shocked. It was so… so random, and… and so not Bucky’s place to tell him what he did and didn’t feel in the fucking first place.

“You don’t know shit, Bucky, don’t try and tell me you think just because I know Tony’s fucking favourite colour means I’m in love with him or something-”

Bucky laughed, shaking his head. “Steve, come on, I’ve known you longer than anyone else aside from your mom. I’ve seen you in every stage of your life, known how you deal with hatred and adoration and every goddamn emotion in between. I know what you look like when you’re in love.”

Bucky paused, sighing and glancing over at Sharon, who was listening to Natasha tell a story with a bright, beautiful smile on her face. She was brilliant- Steve had known that from the moment he’d met her, and that hadn’t changed now, she was still just as great as she had been when he’d first laid eyes on her-

“It’s not what you look like when you’re with her.”

Steve growled, but Bucky just steamrolled on, unwilling to let Steve intimidate him into backing down. “You look at her like she’s a good friend, like she’s a swell girl, and someone you can have a good joke with. You don’t look at her like you love her. But when you’re talking about Tony? Steve, you get a face like you’ve just seen the best thing in the entire world . Just the mention of his name brings a smile out on your face that I don’t see anywhere else, for anyone else. And that’s not even when you’re in his company. That’s just when you’re talking about him.”

“Bucky, shut the fuck up.”

“But Steve, you need to understand, because I don’t even think you realise-”

“Fuck yourself,” Steve hissed, eyes flashing angrily as he pushed himself off the table and turned on his heel, intending to storm out of the cafeteria and leave Bucky behind him.

Except the asshole just sighed and stood up with him, clearly unable to just let it lie. “Steve, come on, man, you know I’m just saying it how it is,” he whispered, following right behind Steve and refusing to budge.

“You’re wrong,” Steve said angrily, because he was, he was he was he was he was-

“No I ain’t. You know that,” Bucky told him. Not a hint of doubt in his voice.





He’d always known Steve better than he knew himself, anyway.





“It doesn’t matter anyway,” Steve whispered, voice breaking as he leaned against the wall. He felt exhausted. “Tony doesn’t… I don’t even know his last name, Bucky- he won’t tell me. I’m not a part of his life. I don’t… I’m not important enough for him-”

Bucky was there, suddenly, pulling Steve into his arms and shaking his head as Steve coughed a little and tried to hold back the fucking tears, Jesus Christ, was he five-

“That’s bull, Steve,” Bucky laughed, “utter, utter bull. Tony sounds… like a complicated person, that’s for sure. But from what I’ve heard, he thinks the goddamn world of you. That boy travels from Boston over to Brooklyn every damn Friday, just to see your dumb face. He wanted to fucking marry you-”

“We were eleven, Bucky-”

“And the sentimental asshole still wears the ring around his neck now, and he’s fifteen!” Bucky sighed, hand rubbing gentle circles around Steve’s shoulder as Steve breathed deep in the empty classroom they’d somehow managed to find themselves in.

“I don’t know what to do,” Steve admitted, small and quiet.

“Neither do I pal,” Bucky replied. “You can’t… he might care about you, but you can’t keep doing this. It’s been five years. You deserve to know his last name. You deserve to be a part of his life, Steve, and he has to either let you in, or you have to let him go.”

“Don’t say that,” Steve said, because he didn’t want to think about that- couldn’t think about that, it wasn’t something that would ever happen, surely.

“You know that’s what this is coming to,” Bucky told him, fucking bastard, why did he have to be right, why did he have to be honest, couldn’t he just lie, just once Goddamn him-

“He won’t tell me,” Steve said, almost hysterical now, breathing rapid as he thought of what might happen, what had to happen, if they kept up like this. “He won’t tell me and I don’t think he’s planning on it and I loved him so long but I’ve got Sharon now and she’s beautiful and amazing and I don’t fucking love her like I love him, I don’t think I’ll ever love anyone like I love him, and I’m going to lose him, I’m going to lose him-”

“Steve, calm down,” Bucky warned, gripping a little tighter and shaking his shoulders, pulling him from his spiral of thought. “You have to breathe, okay, breathe and tell me your plan.”

“I don’t have a plan,” Steve choked, throwing his hands in the air helplessly.

“Well I ain’t gonna decide this for you. It’s your choice, what happens with Sharon, what happens with everything. You have to do this yourself,” Bucky told him, and Steve knew that, but he wished he didn’t.



He wished they were kids again. When it had just been him and Tony and the swing on the oak tree- their special secret, the one Tony had cast a spell around, so it would just be them and no-one else.




But his wishful thinking wouldn’t solve anything. The only way to move was forward.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



Steve waited for 3 hours the following Friday, but Tony never showed.

 

 

 

 



*****

 

 

 

 



He was there the week after, though.



Waiting for Steve on the swing, staring out into the forest ahead of him and letting his stupidly expensive shoes scuff across the dirt.

They spotted each other at the same time.

Tony looked at him, opened his mouth, but nothing came out. He was a mess; hair tangled and wild, coat half hanging off him, and it looked like his shoes were on the wrong feet. He was listing a little to the side of the swing as well, like he could barely even keep himself balanced.

 

“You’re drunk,” Steve didn’t ask- Steve stated.

Tony closed his eyes, a tiny smile on his lips. “Correct.”

Steve didn’t even know what to say. He was… fuck, he was furious. How dare he just… fucking show up, at their place, wasted off his damn face?

“You promised only good things would happen here,” Steve said blankly, hands fisted by his sides. “But you brought your fucking bullshit here with you anyway.”

Tony just laughed, shrugging his shoulders. “That involved me telling you I was a magician and that I’d cast a spell over this stupid place, Steve, I think we’re both a little old for that now, aren’t we?”

Steve pursed his lips. “Why the fuck did you come?”

“I...I wanted to apologise.”

“Whilst you were fucking wasted?” Steve yelled, storming forward until he was properly in the clearing. “You seriously thought that would be a good idea? Really?”

Tony looked away. His eyes were bloodshot, and his skin was pale. “I didn’t know if I’d get the chance after this.”




Steve stopped, then. Froze up like there was a gun on his head. It felt like even his heart had been affected. “...What do you mean.”



Tony didn’t reply, so Steve stumbled the rest of the way and got to his knees, holding Tony’s s houlders in between his hands and gripping. “What do you mean, Tony.”

Tony shut his eyes again, resting his head against the rope at his side and taking a shaky breath. “I can’t do this any more, Steve.”




The world stopped spinning.




“I don’t understand,” Steve said, numb. This… this didn’t make sense. Tony wasn’t making sense, he was drunk, he was an idiot and he wasn’t making sense-

“This,” Tony waved a hand between them, his eyes were still closed, “I… Steve, I thought I could do it. Thought I could just keep this. Have this easy thing. This… pure thing. Only one in my stupid life,” he mumbled, and Steve wondered just how drunk he was, barely even able to sit straight, words quiet and slurred.

Steve was whispering; he could feel the words scraping in his own throat, unsure what he was actually saying, but Tony just kept talking, and Steve didn’t think he was even hearing anything else at that point.

“You were my escape, steve. For so long. You… everything was so fucked up and wrong and I didn’t have a place anywhere, and then I’d come here and it was jus’...you. Nothing else. Jus’ you an’ me and I didn’t have to care about anything else in my life at all. I didn’t bring that here. Didn’t ruin it. It was our magical place where nothing bad ever happened, remember? I made sure of it. ” Tony smiled, letting his eyes flutter open as he stared down at Steve, who hadn’t moved from where he was rooted, kneeling next to Tony with his shoulders in his hands.

“Stop,” Steve heard himself say, but Tony shook his head, so he said it again, louder and frantic and broken. “ Stop.”

“No!” Tony shook his head, untangling Steve’s hands from him and jumping to his feet. “No, Steve, I can’t… it’s not like that any more. I’m not… i thought I could just keep going like that. Let you stay with me, in whatever way I could have you without accidentally poisoning you in the process-”

“How the fuck would you have ‘poisoned’ me, Tony, for fuck’s sake, you’re just a teenager!” Steve screamed. “Stop talking bullshit!”

“I’m not a normal fucking teenager, though!” Tony screamed back, hands shaking by his sides. “Steve… you have no idea. I… my dad- he always wanted me to be… to be this high-flyer, who hung around with the right fucking people and talked the right fucking bullshit and lived with a perpetual silver spoon shoved up their damn ass! All my life, they’ve been setting me up for a job I don’t want, a life I don’t like, a world I don’t care about! My father’s fucking legacy, wrapped and packaged for me in a nice little fucking ribbon, just ready for me to take on when I need to.”

Tony paused, shaking his head. “If he had a single clue about you- about where you come from, and how much money you have, and the fact that I’m best friends with what he would think as a nobody from Brooklyn- he’d….he’d… God , he’d ruin us both.”

Steve stared, incredulous. “Tony. Who the hell are you.”

Tony stared at him. He was wasted and swaying where he stood and totally, utterly heartbroken. “Anthony Edward Stark- heir to Stark Industries, the biggest weapons manufacturers in the world.”

Steve had a split second to be shocked at that, before he discarded it, stepping forward again. It didn’t matter. Nothing else fucking mattered, he just needed to… to do something, to stop this, to turn back time, make it all okay again-

“See, look- now I know, it’s fine, it’s out there, you don’t need to hide it any more-”

“YOU DON’T GET IT, STEVE!” Tony yelled, throwing his hands up in the air and stumbling back a few steps. “Why do you fucking think I don’t do anything outside of this with you? Why do you think I refuse to text you, or meet your friends, or be seen with you? Because my Dad would find out, and he’d make us both pay  for it! He’s a fucking psycho, and he’d be horrified that I’m spending all my time on this rather than studying, or- I don’t know- schmoozing with the richer assholes of America. We come from different worlds, Steve- you don’t belong anywhere near mine. You’re… you’re too good for that, and i refuse to do that to you.”

“I don’t care,” Steve stepped forward, grabbing Tony again, holding on, feeling the warmth under his fingers. “I don’t care, Tony, about how famous you are, or what Howard Fucking Stark will do if he sees me with you, I don’t, I don’t-”

“I do,” tony said miserably. “Steve… when it was just us, I could be selfish. Say that it was good for both of us, worth the risk, because we were both lonely, and both needed each other. But you… Steve, you’re popular now. You don’t need me any more. You’ve got your life together, and I will not be the one responsible for ruining it. I won’t. You’ve got friends, you’re on the football team, you have a great girlfriend- I’m just a mess. Look at me! It’s 5 in the evening and I’m wasted, Steve. I woke up on the floor of a stranger's house again this morning and then collected my fucking PhD and graduated early from MIT in the afternoon-”

“I don’t have a girlfriend any more,” Steve cut in. He could feel his heart, beating faster than he had ever felt before in his life. “You wanna know why Tony?”

“Steve, it doesn’t matt-”

“Because I am in love with you,” he pushed on, not even knowing where the hell he was going with this, just knowing he had to say it, whatever it took to get this stupid shit out of Tony’s head. “I’ve been in love with you for years, Tony, and I couldn’t date Sharon because I didn’t feel anything close to what i feel for you. You… Jesus, Tony, you make me feel like there’s nothing I can’t do. You take my breath away, every single time I lay eyes on you. You laugh and I just feel like the world is perfect. Seeing you is the best part of my week. Every single time. Even when you’re moody or argumentative or quiet or sad- it doesn’t matter. You’re you, and that’s always been perfect for me.” Steve paused, sucking in a breath of air. “I love you, Anthony Edward Stark, you fucking idiot.”



Tony froze, mouth parting a little in surprise, and then suddenly he blinked. Surged forward on shaky legs, threw himself at Steve, hands wrapping tightly around his neck as he slotted his mouth against Steve’s and kissed him. Really kissed him, hard, passionate- groaning a little into Steve’s mouth as Steve responded, bending down and grabbing the back of Tony’s knees in order to pull him up. Tony latched his legs on to Steve’s waist instinctively and leaned over, hands moving to clutch Steve’s neck as his teeth nipped on the other boy’s lip.

Steve had never felt anything like it before. It wasn’t something he could easily describe. Maybe a little like every single intense thing in the world rolled up into one- rain and snow and sun and thunder and panic and joy and love love love love love.

He twisted, walking a few steps forward until he was pushing Tony up against the tree, rolling his hips, hearing the sound Tony made in response and feeling like he was high on it, on the noise he could pull from Tony’s mouth, the way Tony pushed against him and held on like it was all he had left, and maybe it was, Steve had no idea what was going on his head, he just wanted Tony to stay with him.

His fingers slid across the hem of Tony’s shirt, pulling upward, hand splayed against Tony’s stomach, and he felt it when Tony groaned this time; the vibrations of the low, guttural noise travelling across Steve’s fingertips, pulling him in. He needed more, everything, anything Tony was willing to give.

Tony’s hands moved, too- sliding across Steve’s shoulders, arms, waist; mouth still moving against Steve’s like they were meant to fit together. Steve felt it as those fingers brushed across his belt, reaching for the buckle with swift ease, and suddenly Steve was reminded that Tony had been drinking, Tony could barely even walk straight, and not in the right place to be making decisions like that.

His hand grabbed Tony’s, wrapping their fingers together and holding him in place. “You’re drunk.”

Tony stopped, made a sound that was almost like a whine against Steve’s mouth. “Please, I’m not going to get another chance, Steve, I need-”

“Then don’t leave me,” Steve begged, pressing into Tony’s mouth again. “We’ll just... keep doing this, secretly, for the rest of our goddamn lives if we have to, I don’t care, just don’t leave. Wait until you’re sober, and then we’ll talk, we’ll figure something out-”

“Steve,” Tony said it quietly, the sound rolling off his tongue like it was made of silk. He’d always had a beautiful voice. “This hasn’t been working for a while now, and you know it. I can’t give you what you want and it’s hurting you.”

“It would hurt a damn lot less than you not being here at all!” Steve argued- would’ve yelled it, except he was still holding Tony up against him and there was barely a centimeter in between them.

Tony smiled. “You’re not alone any more, Steve. You don’t need m-”

“Shut up,” Steve growled, kissing him harshly .”Shut up with your self-sacrificial bullshit, Tony, I do need you, I fucking love you, Jesus, you can’t just do this!”

“I have to,” Tony whispered, and Steve could feel the wetness on his cheeks, but he wasn’t sure if it belonged to tony or him. “Steve, I have to go, they want me to start work in R&D as soon as possible and they’ll know , they’ll know if I just take every friday off- then they’ll find out about you and Howard will find a way to… I don’t know,  ruin your credit score or make sure no one hires you for a job because he is an evil  asshole who would literally choose to put someone on the streets just to punish me-”

“Tony, please , don’t do this, don’t-”

“I love you, Steve,” Tony kissed him, softly, and he was crying but Steve couldn’t see it, because his eyes were screwed shut and he was resting his head against Tony’s chest, whispering “no” and hearing it break each time it left his mouth. “I love you so much, and I have to leave. I’m sorry-”

“No.”

Tony slipped out of Steve’s hold, tears dripping down his cheeks as he pushed Steve away. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, you’re better off like this, you are, I promise-”

“No,Tony, don’t go, come on, we can find a way, you can just text me and then we can meet up when you’re free or your fucking asshole dad is out of town-”

“He’s got Obadiah monitoring my phone, Steve, they already know something’s up- have done for months now- I keep having to cancel meetings and go mysteriously missing every Friday,  it’s just a matter of time-”

“Then let them find out,” Steve choked, grabbing Tony’s hand, tugging him back. “Let them find out and see if I give a shit, I’ll beat the fuck out of them if they even come close to me, Tony, just don’t go, you’re my best friend, I love you-”

“Steve, stop it,” Tony choked, turning his head, pulling his hand away again. “I can’t...please, just let me go. Don’t find me. I need you to just live your life, okay? Your normal life. With your friends, and your partners, and without my mess.”

“But I want your mess,” Steve said stubbornly, unable to raise his voice to anything more than a whisper. It didn’t feel real. It just... couldn’t be happening. Tony wasn’t leaving. Tony was his best friend; Tony knew him better than anyone other than  Bucky. Tony had been his secret friend, who he’d met when he was a kid and fallen in love with as a teenager and was completely, utterly devoted to, and he wasn’t going to just leave-





“Goodbye, Steve,” Tony murmured, lips brushing the top of Steve’s hair, because apparently his knees had given out somewhere along the way. “I love you, okay? Please don’t hate me for this. I’m sorry. I have to. I’m sorry, I’m sorry-”





Steve watched Tony run his fingers along the knuckles of Steve’s hand, take a jerky breath, and then turn on his heel.

 

Walking away from the swing, from the Oak tree, from Steve, for the last time.

Chapter Text

*****










 

******



 

That was how it went for a while, after that. Time just passed. Steve felt sort of… detached from it all.

 

Time just passed.



 

*****



 

Ironic, how you spend your whole life not realising something exists, and then as soon as you see it once, suddenly it’s everywhere.

It was like that with Tony.

Steve saw him on the news- Prodigal son of Howard Stark designs first weapon prototype for the US military at 15 years old.

Saw him in the magazine rags- Howard Stark’s greatest creation, but will he also be his downfall? Tony Stark may usurp his old man before he even manages to kick the bucket.

Saw him on his phone- Technological Master turns 16, seen having the time of his life out with friends in New York nightclub.

He laughed at that one. For two reasons. For starters, they weren’t Tony’s friends. They were the leeches- it was obvious from the drinks that were too expensive for them and the hands that seemed to always be somewhere on Tony’s body. They weren’t there for his company.

Secondly- time of his life? Really? Tony might have been grinning from ear to ear, but that wasn’t real. It wasn’t soft around the edges, with crinkly eyes and a dimple above his left cheek. It was just empty. Or, at least, it was to Steve.

He’d always been good at reading Tony’s masks, after all.



 

*****



 

He thought about throwing it away, sometimes. Crushing it, melting it, destroying it in whatever way he could, just out of spite.


Tony had left him. Tony had looked him in the eye and ignored his protests; assumed he’d known what was best for Steve and walked out of his life. Maybe he’d known he was never staying long in the first place. Maybe everything had just been a fucking lie; a pastime for him, a halfway house until he could move on to better things.

Steve didn’t know what to do with himself, he was a fucking mess, and not even Bucky could pull him out of it. It was all Tony’s fucking fault. Fuck him.

(He couldn’t throw it away, he kept it around his neck; fiddled with it and cleaned it religiously and hated himself through every minute of it)



 

*****



 

Fridays went from being the highlight of his week to the day he dreaded.

He hated that Tony had tainted that, too.



 

*****



 

But whatever he did, he never managed to hate Tony himself.



 

*****



 

“Steve, I swear to you, if you don’t get out of your goddamn room and come join us for fun and frolics out in the real world I’m going to call Clint and get him to shove an arrow up your stubborn ass.”

Steve lifted his eyes away from the book he was reading and watched as Bucky slammed open his door, announcing his presence with the usual loudness and aplomb that seemed to follow him everywhere.

“Bucky- it’s 9 in the evening, I think it’s a little late for fun and frolics-”

“Steven,” Bucky’s hands clamped down around his shoulders, looking at him hard and earnest. “You have just turned seventeen. You are at the height of your potential. The world is your oyster. You need to seize it! We are all waiting for you outside, and none of us are leaving until you agree to come out and join us.”

“For fun and frolics, I assume,” Steve deadpanned.

“Correct.”

Steve sighed, putting down his book. “Bucky, I really don’t think I’m up for going out tonight-”

Bucky cut him off with a hand to his mouth, the other shaking at his shoulders again, more vigorously this time. “No, Steve. You have to… you have to get out of this slump! Look- I know what happened was bad. Real bad. But Stevie- Tony seems to be doing fine. He’s become even more famous than he was before, he’s out partying every night, he’s-”

“-A fucking mess, that’s what he is! Jesus, Bucky, stop talking about him like that’s a good thing,” Steve hissed, feeling the usual swell of involuntary worry and panic envelop him, as it always did whenever he heard news (looked for news) of Tony. It was clear to see the boy was spiralling out of control- alcohol and drugs and, fuck, so many adults around him, acting like his friends, using him for God even knew what, it made Steve sick.

 

He’d tried to find Tony, once. Just lingered outside the Stark Industries headquarters, sat on the bench opposite, waiting hopelessly for a miracle that never came. Tony had never walked through the door, and after two days, Steve realised how stupid it was.

He could have gone to their mansion- the address was pasted all over the internet anyway- but honestly, Steve had been too afraid. Too scared of what Tony would tell him, of another rejection that Steve didn't think he was strong enough to take.

 

“-Steve? Are you even listening to me?”

He zoned back in on Bucky, who was stood over him in exasperation, fingers tapping against Steve’s shoulders. “No,” he replied dully.

“I’m telling you, Steve, that you can’t keep doing this. He doesn’t deserve that from you. You deserve to be happy. Tony Stark was an asshole, but… fuck, man, he did it to try and make it easier for you-”

“How the fuck is this easier for me?” Steve yelled suddenly, jumping away from Bucky’s touch and turning to face him, anger etched on every inch of muscle. “How the fuck was this the better option for me, huh? Why couldn’t he have, I don’t know, maybe fucking asked me what was best for me-”

“BECAUSE YOU WOULD’VE SAID HIM!” Bucky bit back angrily, throwing his hands in the air. “You would have chosen him and then you would be having to deal with this- with him, the mess, the rich kid who’s entire life is pasted on the fucking internet, who’s hounded by the fucking paparazzi and building bombs for his daddy because that’s what the fucking world wants him to do, Steve- he was saving you from all that-”

“Oh, don’t give me that bullshit, Bucky, this ain’t Romeo and fucking Juliet, we could have done it, I wouldn’t have cared-”

“But that’s the thing! It was! Steve…” Bucky seemed to deflate, shaking his head and looking out of his window. “You were from different worlds. And no matter how much you might have thought you could do it, it just wouldn’t have worked. Not with his dad there, not with the legacy he has to live up to. None of it was compatible with you. You’re a kid, Steve. And his fate might already have been sealed, but he didn’t want you to have to deal with the same.”

Steve stared angrily at his friend, facing him on the other side of his room. “So you’re on his side.”

Bucky laughed. “Oh hell no. He hurt you, Steve, and I think he’s a fucking asshole. I will always be on your side- but I just see where he was coming from, that’s all. I probably would’ve done the same.”

“You would’ve abandoned me too-”

“I would’ve stopped you from being exposed to the same bullshit as me, yeah!” Bucky raised his voice again, hands fisted at his side, and Steve mirrored him; so much fury, so much sadness suddenly pouring from all the tender wounds he had been trying to ignore for months now, but still weren’t leaving, still weren’t fucking leaving-

“Oh, Steve,” Bucky sighed, jumping forward to wrap his arms immediately around Steve’s shoulders in a tight grip as his face crumpled and his hands covered the wetness that was staining his cheeks.

“I miss him, Bucky,” he whispered, feeling Bucky’s hands gripping at the fabric of Steve’s sweater and thinking of Tony- smiling, laughing, kissing, crying, always Tony, still always Tony, “I miss him so much.”

“I know, buddy,” Bucky soothed, “I know. And that’s okay. It’ll always be okay to be sad. It will always be okay for you to miss him, to feel your heart break and experience the pain of that. ‘Cause you’re human, Stevie, and that’s what loss does to us.”

Steve sucked in a breath, eyes screwed shut, face buried in Bucky’s chest and listening to the steady beat of his heart.

“But you know what you’re not allowed to do? You cannot  just fucking give up. That’s not what Tony wanted when he left, and it’s not what you want for yourself, either. You’re only seventeen. I know it sucks to hear, but you’ll find what you had with him again. You’ll get through it.”

“It doesn’t feel like it,” Steve said quietly.

“Yeah, I’m not surprised. You loved him a hell of a lot, Stevie.” Bucky sighed again, stroking Steve’s hair like he’d used to when Steve had been bedridden and miserable from illness. It soothed him back then, and soothed him now. “But you will. And maybe you’ll never stop loving him. Sometimes people don’t. But you’ll find a way to live with it, and find happiness somewhere else. Like with friends. Friends who are waiting for your sorry ass outside, with a questionable amount of alcohol and a plan to get you laughing again.”

Steve gave a watery chuckle and pulled away from Bucky, peering out of the crack in his curtains and seeing all his friends- Clint and Sam and Peggy and Natasha- sat in Bucky’s beat-up truck outside his front door. “Did Nat bring her disgustingly potent Russian Vodka?”

“Of course.”

He paused. Mulled it over. Took a deep breath. “Right. Okay. Let’s go.”

Even Bucky seemed a little surprised at that. “Really?”

Steve nodded, wiping any stray tear-tracks off his face and bumping his shoulder against Bucky’s. “Really. I want to drink questionable amounts of alcohol and laugh again. That sounds nice.”

Bucky’s smile alone was enough to make it worth it for Steve. “Excellent. Come on then, Steven, let’s have some fun and frolics.”

 

When they got outside, all his friends greeted him with a tight hug, even Natasha, which was rare. “Are you ready for the night of your life?” She asked him, eyebrow raised.

“Absolutely not.”

“Perfect. Put your foot down, Clint.”

Natasha held out her hand, and Steve grabbed it, taking another steadying breath and squeezing their fingers together. It still hurt; an ache deep inside him that he didn’t know how the fuck he was ever supposed to get rid of. But he knew he had to try. And Bucky was right, anyway- he was still young. Really young. It was stupid, really, for him to be this… affected.

Although, then again, maybe it wasn’t. Because Steve hadn’t just lost the person he’d loved most- he’d lost his best friend, too. And that was probably what hurt worse.

“Rogers, this is the only time I’m going to tell you to do something as dubiously irresponsible as this, but… don’t think, drink,” Sam nudged him, handing over something that smelt stupidly strong, and then patting him lightly on the back.

Steve didn’t spare another moment of hesitation. Aside from Bucky, who was their designated driver, everyone cheered as he swallowed his first mouthful and then drained their own drinks in reply.

 

Dubiously irresponsible indeed. But Steve felt like he kind of needed that.



 

*****



 

It took him a long time (far too long for someone that he, in all honesty, had never known that much about) for Steve to wake up on a Friday morning and not hurt.

It took a long time until he was able to walk the outskirts of that forest (their forest) again.

Or until he could smile and really, truly mean it.

But he got there. It took too long, and hurt more than it ever should, but he got there.

 

(He never took the chain off from around his neck, though. He didn’t know why and he knew it was ridiculous to continue holding on to it, but… whatever. He did it anyway..)



*****

 

 

 

On the sixteenth of December, when Steve was 22, he saw him again.


A total, utter shock to his system. Like a direct punch to the face, or suddenly being submerged in water- completely consuming, and something that was impossible to imagine.

Tony. In the snow under the streetlamp. He’d gotten older, that much was obvious, but it was so much weirder seeing the differences in real life than it was on the magazine covers. His eyes were red, and he wasn’t even wearing a jacket in the freezing cold.

It really was him.

The series of emotions he felt at that moment were almost similar to the moment his lips had first touched Tony’s, years ago now. Startling him with their intensity, knocking the breath straight from his lungs and sending him reeling backward a few steps.

It was insane, that Tony could still make him feel like that. Steve hadn’t thought about him in months. Turned the channel if there was news of him. Ignored the chain around his neck that he had yet to take off.

And yet here they were; one look at Tony’s face- gaunt and exhausted and messy- and Steve suddenly felt like he was 16 again.

 

 Tony’s eyes met with his across the sidewalk, and his mouth parted in shock. Obviously, despite whatever reason he’d shown up for, he still hadn’t expected Steve to actually be out and about at this time of night.

They looked at each other for a while. Steve had forgotten how beautiful those eyes were; huge and framed with thick, dark lashes that curled over his eyelids. They were clumped together now, from the snowflakes and liquid that clung to his face- even in the darkness, a whole street separating them, Steve could still make out every detail about him. Maybe it was just memory that filled in all the less noticeable parts, but Tony hadn’t changed much. Aside from the height, the frankly pathetic attempts at a beard and the fact that he’d gained a bit of muscle tone, Tony still just looked like...Tony.

 

Steve opened his mouth- but Tony got there first. It seemed whatever idea he’d had, whatever thought that had inspired him to come here was suddenly gone, replaced with what looked like mortification at being caught.

Steve wondered, absently, how many times Tony might have done this without Steve knowing.

 

“Sorry,” Tony blurted, slurred and quiet ( and drunk. He was drunk again), before jerking to life, twisting back around the corner he’d come from and stumbling away.

Maybe if Steve had been thinking straight, he would have followed. He was faster than Tony, always had been, and if he wanted to he could catch up. Find him. Do...something.

But Steve wasn’t thinking straight. He’d just seen Tony. In front of him. Looking for Steve. Except by the time the thought really settled in his brain, Tony was long gone.



He wasn’t too sure how long he stood, stock-still, in the middle of the sidewalk and 11 in the evening while snow filtered through the clouds and landed around him. But eventually he pulled out his keys and stepped the last five steps toward his apartment, numb.



 

*****



 

Tony’s parents were dead. That was headline news when he switched his phone on at the threshold.

Both of them. Car crash. Their butler had been with them, and he’d died too.

Tony was 21, and he was now heir of Stark Industries, the biggest weapons company in the world.

 

All he’d ever told Steve he had wanted to be was an astronaut.



 

*****



 

Steve called Stark Industries. He visited the tower again. Tried desperately, using whatever information he could, to reach Tony.

Wherever he was, Steve didn’t find him.

Of course, there was the funeral. But even then, it was a private ceremony, and Steve couldn’t bear to be a part of the crowds that were going to be waiting for Tony as he left the building later that day. It was sick and wrong and Steve refused to join them, even if it was for different reasons entirely.

He knew he was going backwards, losing all the progress that he’d carefully made for years after Tony’s absence, but he couldn’t stop- Tony had been there, Tony had gone to find him, and that meant something.

Because Steve may have been lonely as a child, but in the end, he’d always had friends. Family. People he could rely on and trust and spill his heart to.

Tony had only ever had Steve. Even now, when his parents were dead and the weight of the world was falling on his shoulders, forcing his hand, making him into someone he had never asked to be.

Steve just wanted to be there for him.



Except wherever Steve looked, Tony was nowhere to be found. Steve pondered the possibility that he’d just been dreaming, but immediately discarded it.

Dreams never felt like that. Ever.

 

In the end, though, he searched for nothing. Tony showed up again, a few weeks later, on the other side of America, where he had apparently moved. Away from everything. Away from New York, and his past, and Steve.

“Don’t even think about getting a plane to Malibu, or I will personally hunt you down and drag you all the way back,” Natasha warned, as she caught Steve scrolling through the news again.

He looked at her the same way he’d looked at Bucky, years ago, as he’d warned Steve not to fall in love. “...I wasn’t going to.”

Natasha sighed, grasping the mug of green tea and bringing her knees up against her chest. “I don’t know what your history with that man is, but I’m telling you, he’s not the same person you knew. He doesn’t care about anything, or anyone. He’s just... chaos.”

And it wasn’t funny, but Steve smiled anyway. “He always was. From the moment I met him.”

 

Catching cabs in spaceman pajamas. Armani sweaters covered in grass stains. Tongue sharp as a knife and heart soft as silk. A walking fucking contradiction-- chaos-- was Tony’s birthright.



 

*****



 

It was a spur of the moment decision, joining the army. He’d just seen them recruiting, one day, and then...signed up.

 

He’d always wanted to protect people. And he’d been unemployed for months now, despite the fact that he had multiple companies who, for whatever reason, wanted him. It was boring and dull and Steve had turned them down, one after another, in the search of something, well, more. The army just seemed like the next step in his life.

 Of course, he hadn’t accounted for Bucky flipping his shit and yelling himself hoarse for half an hour before slamming off and then immediately signing up with him.

And then Natasha.

And then Sam.

And Clint.

And Peggy.

And suddenly he found himself in the middle of a screaming match with all of them, no idea what he was even shouting for, just knowing that he was… emotional over something, whether it be anger or excitement or panic or-

“Shut your fat face, Steve, we’re fucking doing this, okay, end of discussion,” Clint yelled, throwing his hands in the air and then slicing them downward. “It’s stupid and incredibly fucking rash and we are goddamn going to do it, because we’re all bored out of our fucking minds trying to look for humdrum jobs in this stupid fucking city and so have all decided, on our own backs, to follow you. Deal with it, asshole.”

Steve paused, thrown by what else to say. Peggy took the opportunity to pat him on the back and smile, all lovely teeth and perfect red lips. “Say another fucking word, Steve, and I’ll beat the shit out of you.”

“That’s… mean,” Steve said sullenly, looking at the wall with a scowl on his face.

Peggy shrugged, patting him again, a little harder. “So I’ve heard. Now, are you going to keep pouting at us, or are you going to stop pissing around and help us all pack?”

And so that’s what they did. That’s how it went. One day, Steve was living in his one-man apartment on the outskirts of Brooklyn, and the next, he and all his friends had been sent to a training camp in order to go through Basic. They were all incredibly fit individuals, and possessed particularly useful traits (Natasha, Steve and Peggy excelling in hand-to-hand, Sam with his remarkable natural talents for piloting and Bucky and Clint both outdoing everyone else by a mile when it came to weapons work, especially handling a sniper), and so they passed through the training process with flying colours.


“I still can’t believe we actually fucking did it,” Clint said a few months later, sitting down with Steve and offering him a bottle of beer as he stared out of the window of their barracks one night.

Steve laughed, taking Clint’s offering and sipping. He didn’t speak for a while; content with just sitting in Clint’s company for a moment. It was rare they got a free space like this; that was one thing Steve found hard getting used to. It seemed wherever he went, there was always something going on. Not a quiet place in the whole damn barrack.

“Neither can I, to be honest,” he admitted after a while. “Doesn’t really seem real. I just think I’m gonna go home, back to my apartment, see my ma, get the newspaper. I guess it’s because we haven’t actively been shot at or blown up yet, but this just seems pretend.”

“Give it time,” Clint replied dryly, and Steve chuckled again, shaking his head and leaning against Clint a little more.

“You think you’re better, here?” Clint asked, after another long silence. “Easier to forget...stuff?”

Steve opened his mouth to reply, the beginning of an easy brush-off forming immediately on his tongue. ‘It was so long ago now, it doesn’t matter, that wasn’t the reason, come on, don’t be stupid’-

“Easier to forget stuff,” Steve agreed in the end. “There were too many memories back home. And I know it’s been so long now, I know it shouldn’t matter, but…”

“It does,” Clint finished, nodding his head.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “It does.”



 

*****



 

Bullets were hailing down, and Steve had already yelled himself hoarse; he couldn’t see his team, he couldn’t see Bucky, and Bucky was supposed to have his back, where the fuck was Bucky, fuck, there was smoke everywhere-

 

Someone screamed something, and Steve threw himself to the ground on instinct, bracing his head as the shockwave of a grenade ripped through the street. There were even more screams then, which Steve could do nothing but ignore as he scrambled to his feet again, gun in hand, ready to fight. The terror cell they’d encountered had taken their unit completely by surprise; this hadn’t been anything more than a routine check, they were only supposed to have been stationed in Afghanistan for a few more weeks, this wasn’t supposed to be happening-

 

“BUCKY!” He screamed again, slamming into the side of a car before another shower of bullets ripped apart the space he had been standing seconds ago. He had no idea where he’d lost him at- no idea where the rest of his friends were either. He just knew he had to get out, had to get all of them out, alive.

Yelling orders to anyone near enough to hear, he fired a round of bullets at a nearby truck full of enemy soldiers, watching as the driver lost control due to his sudden death, which sent all his passengers crashing into a wall. Wasting no time, Steve sprinted forward, crossing the road to the other side where there was a run-down building and diving head-first through the door.

A bullet brushed his shoulder and he yelled in pain, but hit the floor alive. Which was good. Steve needed that right now- he still had to find the rest of his friends.

Once more scrambling to his feet, he poked his head around the corner, taking in the street that had exploded around him. Enemy soldiers were running through the smoke, some of them stumbling back with their hands covering their head as-

Steve couldn’t help himself- he grinned like a madman as he saw bullet after precise bullet fall from the sky, hitting their targets with deadly accuracy. That was Clint, high on a bell-tower that seemed almost directly above Steve. And where Clint was, Natasha tended to follow.

Which left Sam, Bucky and Peggy.

He took a steadying breath. Felt the gun beneath his fingers, the sweat on his brow, the weight of the chain against his chest.

Calm. Focus. You can do this. You’re Steve fucking Rogers.

He didn’t have time to think about why those words came to him in Tony’s voice- just yelled for the two men in his unit who were currently giving all they had from behind a car in the middle of the road to cover him as he ran out and went to join them.

They barely registered the order, but Steve ran anyway, because there was no time, there was barely any fucking time and so many of his unit were already lying lifeless on the floor, he couldn’t let his friends be one of them, he wasn’t going to.

“We need to scatter and retreat!” Steve yelled to them over the sound of gunfire and explosions, ducking his head when he heard the whistle of another missile shoot past them.

The terror cell was armed; heavily so. This hadn’t been planned, though- it couldn’t have been, they were too small a unit to have posed that much of a threat to them. They must have been transporting all their weapons somewhere, and then upon spotting Steve and his unit stationed in their way, decided to just give them all a fucking test run.

There was no way they could fight back. They weren’t prepared, they’d barely had the time to scrabble for their own fucking weapons before their whole tent had just gone up in flames and killed half of them in one fell swoop. Retreat, much as Steve hated to admit it, was their only option.

But Steve could see his Captain, lying lifeless a few feet to his left, and knew that they were all going to die unless someone started shouting things. Fast.

 

He didn’t have time to dwell on the fact that he’d just lost over half of his unit; people with friends and family and wives and husbands. He just started yelling at anyone close enough to listen, whilst simultaneously trying to find his missing friends amongst the chaos and the dust. He was coughing up smoke as he ran, but kept going; calling to the remaining soldiers to fall back whilst he himself did the exact opposite, running closer and closer to the enemy, eyes never ceasing in their search.

He’d lost Bucky somewhere along the way, caught up in the chaos of it all. And they’d come from this direction, they’d run from here, Bucky had to be somewh-

There was a battle-cry from in front of Steve, and he watched as a heavily-armed enemy soldier came charging through the smoke. Steve raised his weapon, but someone else got there first- a single bullet, cracking through the air and planting itself directly between the man’s eyes. Steve ducked on instinct, but the voice that called to him from behind sent a wave of something indescribable over him. Something stronger than relief- more than just happiness. He felt like he could breathe again.

Bucky reached out for his arm, and Steve grasped him tight as they huddled behind the car and blinked back dust from their eyes.

“Steve, we gotta get outta here, fast,” Bucky yelled, and Steve just nodded grimly.

“I told everyone else to retreat. Clint’s working on holding them back, but we don’t have a lot of time.”

Bucky checked his own gun, grimacing. “I got a few bullets left. We’re gonna have to run for it.”

 Steve nodded, wiping the sweat from his brow. He’d gotten all the way over here- he could get all the way back. “Watch my six. You ready?”

Bucky nodded, and took in a shaky breath before standing up.

 

They ran.

 

They ran and they ran and they ran for their lives, and Steve fought the urge to shut his eyes and just stop, curl up in a ball and wait for the shooting to cease. He couldn’t do that.

It was just a game. That was all. Like he’d played when he was a kid. Running through the trees whilst Tony tried to get him with a water-gun. Don’t get hit, don’t get hit, hide away, you’re good at that.

God. If he died here, now, Tony probably wouldn’t even know.

And why the fuck did he even care? He was surrounded on all sides and about to be shot to shit, and he was thinking about the guy who had left him when he was a teenager? Seriously?

Something hit his hip, and Steve was pretty sure that was a bullet, but he barely even noticed. They were coming up to the bell tower where the rest of his unit were waiting, holding them off, they just needed to keep g-

 

“GRENADE!”



 

*****



 

Steve sat by Bucky’s side and stared at the wall.

 

He was resting. The man’s eyes were shut, brow smooth, which was nice. Bucky hadn’t looked that relaxed since he’d woken up in the first place.

112 troops had gone in. 54 had come back.

Steve should have felt grateful. He’d made it. All his friends had made it, through some incredible good fortune. Steve had only been shot once, after a run that should really have killed him 10 times over.

Bucky had lost an arm in the explosion.

They were talking about all sorts of shit. Therapy. Group sessions. There were whispers of steve getting some sort of medal for whatever the fuck they’d thought he’d done- led what was left of his terrified unit to safety, they were saying.

Whatever. Didn’t matter. It wasn’t going to bring Bucky’s arm back.

Steve had seen Bucky at low points in his life. He’d seen him through serious breakups and the loss of loved ones and teenage angst. He’d never…. He’d never seen Bucky like this.

 

It had been so many years since Steve had felt as helpless as he did at that point, staring at the hospital walls and pointedly not looking at the place where Bucky’s arm had used to be.



 

*****



 

The Ten Rings. That was what they were calling themselves.

 

The ones who’d attacked Steve’s unit. The ones who had murdered his colleagues. Who’d almost taken Bucky from him.

Jesus- the only reason Steve had found out was because he’d seen them on the news, a few days after Bucky had been released from the hospital. He’d recognised the logo. They’d plastered it all over their cars like a badge of fucking honor.

“Are you going to go back?” Bucky asked, and he wasn’t wearing anything but a t-shirt, even though it was freezing. He never did, not since… not since the sleeves had become strangely empty.

Steve stared up at the tv, feeling all sorts of things as he watched the clips. Fury. Sadness. A bitter, swelling need for revenge.

“I don’t know,” Steve said softly, “I want to, but I... don’t. If that makes sense.”

He thought about all his friends. Clint- who’d barely spoken more than a few words since returning after killing all those people in one fell swoop. Sam, who looked ten years older than he should’ve as he tried to keep them all together, keep them all afloat, even though it wasn’t his job.

“I know. I understand,” Bucky replied, and he even smiled. He hadn’t done that much, lately. It was nice.



 

*****



 

Steve woke up screaming, and he wondered when exactly his life had started falling apart quite so badly.



 

****



 

“Steve?”

 

He sat up with a jerk, hands automatically going out, reaching for the person sat by his bed, but the man caught his fists, and Steve quickly realised a few seconds later that it was only Sam. Behind him, Natasha was leaning against the door, and he couldn’t really see her face in the darkness, but the backlight from the corridor she was stood in highlighted the creases in her brow, the rigid way in which she was stood.

Something was wrong.

“Tell me,” he said immediately, “is it Bucky? Has he-”

“It’s not Bucky,” Sam interrupted him, and Steve would’ve exhaled in relief, but something let him know he wasn’t out of the water quite yet, “it’s not… we saw it on the news, Steve, I- I think you need to watch it for yourself,”

Steve looked at him, eyes narrowed, but he pulled off the covers and followed them out into the living room all the same. The screen was already on, and there were blankets and pillows which showed that Natasha and Sam must have been watching it before waking him.

There was a red banner running along the bottom of the footage, which signified important news of some sort. Steve looked between his two friends a little curiously, before sitting himself down on the couch and turning to watch.

Upon seeing Tony’s-- Stark’s-- face, he flinched. “What the hell is this, guys-”

“Watch,” Natasha told him, nodding back to the screen.

Steve turned again, listening in to the presenter’s voice as she explained the weapons demo Tony had attended, and how during the ride back to base he’d been-

 

What.


“Is this a joke,” Steve asked quietly, turning to face his friends.

It had to be. It had to be some sort of fake, a prank. There was no way…

“Reports came in this morning,” Sam said, “there were only a handful of survivors, and- and they didn’t find Tony Stark’s body.”

Steve stared at the screen, numb. “He’s been kidnapped,” he tried the words out in his mouth, and they felt wrong, fake. They didn’t belong with Tony. The man was 22 now, but all Steve could think of was the 15 year old boy who was still too skinny for his own good, with a wild mess of hair and a smile that could make Steve’s stomach do backflips.

It didn’t fit. It didn’t make any sense.

“I’m- I’m so sorry Steve, I know you have… history with him,” Sam said, hand rubbing a little helplessly against Steve’s shoulder as he simply continued to watch the screen with a little frown on his forehead. “We just thought you should know, before you found out somewhere else.”

Steve continued to stare at the screen, unable to process. His brain felt like it had just shut down completely. It was- it was insane. Tony wasn’t… he didn’t- that was not possible-

Someone was holding a hand on his shoulder, trying to keep him steady, but Steve shrugged it off and stood up abruptly.

 

He didn’t… he had to get out. He had to breathe.



 

****



 

Their swing was old, now.

 

The wood turned green, the grass a little longer, the open area somehow so much smaller than Steve had last remembered it being. Maybe the forest had grown. Maybe it was just him.

Around him, the darkness of night was like a blanket of familiarity. He could still remember their first meeting in such vivid clarity, despite how young he’d been. He’d stood right where he was now. And Tony had been on the swing in front of him.

That all felt like a lifetime ago, now. Hell- it had been almost half his lifetime ago. He was 25, now, and Tony had left when he was sixteen...

 

He shouldn’t even care.

 

Tony was a long ago memory of a boy who had been very different back then. They’d just been kids. Steve had been hopelessly, utterly devoted to him and then Tony had left, and that was just the way it was. It had hurt more than anything, but he’d gotten over it. He had.

And now Tony was somewhere in Afghanistan. Probably dead.

 

Suddenly the air wouldn’t come to his lungs, and Steve fell to his knees, backed up against the gnarled oak tree he’d had some of the best moments of his childhood at. The whole scene felt distorted, now; tainted with the detached sense of loss Steve was feeling. He hadn’t come here since Tony had walked away, hadn’t even stepped foot near the forest- and now here he was, mourning for a man he didn’t even know any more at the place they’d used to share their childhoods.

God. Everything felt so foreign to him- the intense emotions and easy ability to be swept away in everything that made Tony Tony was hitting him full force all over again, just like it had never left in the first place. He hated that Tony had always been able to do that to him. His lifelong weakness, the chink in his armour. Tony made him feel things in a way that no one else ever would, even now, nearly ten years down the line.

He was choking on tears before he knew it; fingers tracing lightly against the rough bark as his chest seized up. If he looked up, he might still be able to see his and Tony’s name, carved into the wood on the first branch of the tree. They’d been so convinced it was forever- all of it- the tree, their names, their friendship. Steve remembered Tony like he’d never even left- the tone of his voice and his hands and the way he smiled still so deeply engraved on Steve’s mind, he wasn’t sure he could ever possibly forget.

People talked about soulmates all the time. He was pretty sure none of his friends believed in it, though. Too far fetched, right? No one could love anyone that wholly, it just wasn’t what happened. In films, maybe, but real life wasn’t like films, and people changed all the time. Steve got that, he really did.

But sat there; fingers tracing across the ancient bark, feeling every single memory he had ever shared with Tony Stark pouring through the wood like a physical connection- Steve knew without a shadow of a doubt that Tony was his. Was his soulmate, in any means of the word. There was no way he’d still feel so… still feel like this, if they were anything less.

Tony was his soulmate. Had been his soulmate.
Now he was just dead.

Steve had never been able to fulfill any of their childhood dreams. He hadn’t been able to grow old with Tony, or marry him, or even fucking know him, because Tony had left before any of that could happen and then he’d gone and fucking gotten himself blown up before they could grow up a little and try again. And of course, Steve had always believed they’d be able to try again, one day- because it was them. Because they couldn’t just Not.

Turns out he was wrong about that. Turns out he was wrong about a lot of things. They didn’t even know where Tony was, anymore, and if they ever did eventually find him, Steve guessed he’d be arriving home in a casket. Because life just wasn’t fair, and life took young boys and made them into men far, far too soon for their own good. And then it ruined them before they could take a step back from it all.

 

The dawn was just beginning to peek through the trees; not enough to put anything into more than a sliver of light, but enough to know Steve had spent far more time there than he’d previously thought. The birds would start calling, soon. He probably needed to leave.

In the early morning darkness, Steve bowed his head and grieved.



 

****


 

 

“They’re going out to try and find him, y’know,” Buck told him, patting his shoulder gently as Steve stared emptily at the newspaper in front of him, Tony’s name and face stamped over the front of it like a punch in the face. “Just a handful of soldiers, led by one of Stark’s old friends. They’re accepting help from any ranking officers, too.”

Steve stopped, noting how Bucky seemed a little shifty, bouncing back and forth on his toes and staring at the paper intently. “You okay, Buck?” Steve asked slowly, pushing the paper away, face down, so he didn’t need to look at his face.

Bucky huffed, and his one remaining hand clenched a little tighter around Steve’s shoulder. “I think you should join the search unit,” he said after a short silence.

Steve paused, looking at Bucky for a long time before clenching his jaw. “No,” he said softly.

Bucky made a noise, and his fingers slipped off Steve’s shoulder to fly around the air. “Stevie, look. You’ve never been able to get over him, he’s always been this… this Achilles heel of yours, and I know that it’s only gonna eat at you if you just sit here and-”

“Bucky, no,” every line of Steve’s body was tense, he could feel his heart beating, heard his voice crack a little as he said “I will not carry Tony home in a body-bag. I won’t.”

Steve couldn’t even imagine it. The thought made him want to tear things apart, piece by tiny piece. Tony had been so young, only 24, he’d been-

“So you’re just gonna sit here and read the news every damn minute until we get word from someone, when you could be one of the first people to know if you went out there-”

“What if he’s dead, Bucky?” Steve asked, finally turning to him, his voice barely above a breathless whisper, cracked and broken through each word.

Steve had only seen Tony bleed once. Usually it was Steve, and Tony was the one looking over the grazes and bruises with a frown as his deft hands worked against the skin, feather-light and comforting. But one day Tony had shown up with a long, thin cut running across his face, and it had been gently trickling with dark red, dripping down his cheek and falling onto his collar. He hadn’t said why or what had happened; but he’d let Steve fuss over him for a bit anyway, smiling softly and telling him not to worry, he was fine, it’d be gone next week. Steve had remembered how it had made him feel anyway- angry and fiercely protective and slightly sick, because at the time he’d known full-well that it was from Howard Stark, even if Tony never admitted it to him.

 

“What if he’s not?”

 

Bucky was looking at him, and his arm jerked, just for a second, like he’d been planning on folding them before realising he couldn’t do that any more. He shrugged, in the end, and patted Steve’s shoulder once more. “Just think about it, okay? I know you, Steve- and I know that it’s gonna kill you if you just sit here and go crazy from news-reading.”

With that, Bucky left the room, and Steve was left to the silent kitchen with nothing but his thoughts for company.



 

****



 

Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes was highly regarded, efficient, and brilliant at his job.  In his time during the army Steve had heard his name a handful of times, but never met or spoken to him. What he did know, though, was the he was an aeronautics master, he was highly intelligent and a valuable asset to the US Air Force.

 

He was one of the best chances Tony had.

 

It had been a long time since Steve had stepped foot in a military airfield. They’d visited one during basic and then occasionally made their landing on one whilst touring, but never stayed for very long. It was foreign ground for him.

But he’d come this far. And his mind was made up- he was following through with this now.

His friends had understood, when he’d said he was going back out to help the search. They’d all known his history with Tony. They’d known, as soon as Bucky had mentioned it, that Steve would go- even before Steve himself had understood it. Guess they just knew him better than he knew himself- which wasn’t surprising, really. They’d seen him at his best and his worst and been there for him throughout it all.

He wondered how much it was going to break him, when they found his body.

Or how euphoric you’ll feel if you find him alive, Bucky added in his head.

After a good twenty minutes of wandering about and asking around the base, he finally ended up catching sight of the guy himself. Lieutenant Rhodes was having a talk with a group of pilots, and it was easy to see by the way they were all staring at him in awe that he was a man who knew what he was doing. Steve was glad- he wasn’t sure he’d have been able to cope with the search being led by someone any less than 100% competent.

He stood a little straighter, adjusting the cap on his head as he waited for Rhodes to finish his speech. Now stood there, he wasn’t quite sure what to say. Was there an official way of joining- should he have signed a form or something? He had no idea what he was doing, in all honesty- the desire had just hit him one night, maybe a few days after his talk with Bucky, and that had been that. He hadn’t really thought of anything else- just packed his bag and left the next night. He knew they were leaving soon, and couldn’t risk wasting any more time.

All this for a man he didn’t even know any more, he thought a little hysterically. Love made good men foolish, indeed.

After another minute, the pilots disbanded, leaving the Lieutenant on his own by the plane. He turned away- but stopped halfway around when Steve began hailing him.

“Colonel Rhodes!” He waved a hand and jogged forward, feeling his heart begin to beat nervously when the man turned and laid eyes on him. “Colonel- a minute of your time, please?”

Rhodes raised an eyebrow. Closer up, he looked worn. Tired. “What is it, soldier?”

Steve slowed down as he reached him, swallowing down the nerves. “Your rescue mission. For Ton- for Stark. I want in.”

He watched the man’s eyebrows lift a little higher, and turn properly to face him. A small frown creased his forehead as he looked Steve up and down. “You’re not air force.”

Steve shook his head. “On the ground touring for nearly two years, Sir. Put on leave after an attack that left my friend without an arm. They were the same terror unit that took- that took Stark.” It was easier to sell the fact that he was out for revenge than it was to try and retell the story of their shared childhood. More believable.

Across from him, Rhodes sighed. He palmed a hand over his forehead and then looked back to Steve with a small frown. “Have I seen you before, Captain?” He said suddenly, “You look familiar.”

Steve just shook his head again. Hearing himself being called Captain still felt so strange in his ears. “Don’t think so sir.”

Colonel Rhodes just nodded, and then remained silent. Steve stood straight and waited.

“We were really looking for pilots, Captain,” he said in the end, and Steve felt his heart sinking all the way down to his shoes, “and you left it pretty late, we’re already preparing-

“Please,” Steve interrupted desperately, stepping forward hurriedly, “please, I need to… I learn fast, and you could use extra feet on the ground, surely? I won’t be a nuisance, I swear.” It surprised even him, how badly he wanted this. How the need to just try- to just reach out blindly in the hope that Tony was out there somewhere- was consuming him. He wouldn’t be able to walk away if Rhodes said no, he knew that. Rejection was not an option.

“This is not something I can afford to take risks with,” Rhodes told him firmly, “Tony Stark is an asset to the Military, but more than that, he is my best friend. I can’t-”

“He was mine too,” Steve blurted, shutting his eyes and praying Tony had mentioned his name, at least once, to the other man whilst they’d been at college together. “Steve Rogers. My name is- I grew up with him. I need to… I have to do this, Colonel. Please.”

Rhodes froze, mouth dropping open. He didn’t say anything for quite a while, and Steve just waited there, trying not to fidget under the man’s stare.

“Holy fucking Christ,” the man breathed in the end, “you’re… you’re Steve? The Steve?”

So he did talk about me, Steve thought to himself. Rhodes knew him. Rhodes had thought he looked familiar, which had to mean Tony had shown him pictures, he’d shared Steve’s existence with someone else.

It was stupid, how much that meant to him.

“I…” And suddenly Rhodes was at a loss, shaking his head in disbelief as he looked Steve up and down “you’re really him. He said you’d joined the army. I…”

“Please let me come with you,” Steve said quietly, pushing for an answer. “Please, I need to… I have to try. He never let me help, he always… please, just this once. Let me try.”

Rhodes was still gaping at him like he was looking at a ghost. “I can’t believe it’s really you,” he said softly, “I never thought I’d get the chance… he always spoke about you like you were this- this-” he broke off before finishing,  shaking his head and patting Steve on the back solidly as he cleared his throat, “I really shouldn’t be doing this, but- you can come. I’ll talk to some people, pull a few strings. I know you’ll… well, at least you give half a damn about him.”

All at once, a tidal wave of utter relief and gratefulness swept over him, and he breathed out in relief. “Oh thank God,” he whispered, shutting his eyes and thanking whichever deity was looking out for him, “thank you so much, Colonel, I really appreciate it-”


“You know,” Rhodes began, biting his lip softly as he took a deep breath and visibly swallowed, “we might not… there’s a chance we won’t get him back.”

Steve just smiled, nodding his head. “There’s a chance we will, too.”



 

*****



 

The air was hot and familiar, and the memories of the last time he’d been on Afghan soil followed him out of the plane as he stepped off.

He took a deep breath and pushed them back, blinking from the harsh sunlight and then wincing when his hand ran over uncomfortable stubble. He prefered clean shaven if at all possible, but the past few days had been so hectic he just hadn’t had the time.

He wondered how his friends were doing back home. It had been three weeks since seeing them last, and the worry was a familiar feeling in his gut. Bucky had been doing better, though. He had Natasha, he had Clint and Sam and Peggs- they’d all do fine together. And they’d sent him messages, wishing him luck and sending him good thoughts- Bucky had even managed to get a call through to him, even if it had only been for a precious few minutes.

“You’ll be okay, Stevie,” he’d assured through the crackly line, “you’ll find him- all good and safe, and you’ll bring him back. I know you will.”

Steve had laughed, appreciating the firmness of Bucky’s voice. “Yeah,” he’d murmured quietly, fingers working around the chain on his neck, “I hope so.”

“Then you can bring him straight back to me, so I can kick his ass for hurting you, right?”

“I’ll do my very best, Buck.”

 

Rhodes caught his eye as he swung his kitbag over his shoulder, and they both nodded at one another. As Steve had said before, due to the packed schedule of the past few weeks, he hadn’t really had a chance to talk with the man properly.

And man, did he want to.

He wanted to know what Tony had been like, all those years after. He wanted to know how he’d done at college. He wanted to know if Tony had missed him in the same way Steve had done- like a lost limb, like something huge and irreparable had been taken from him. He knew it was stupid, wishful thinking- Tony hadn’t ever felt as strongly as Steve had, or he would never have left- but he wished it all the same.

He was an idiot and he wished for Tony, still, after all these years.


The air was hot and familiar, and Steve clenched his jaw and hitched his kitbag higher up onto his shoulder. On his lapel, the Captain’s badge flashed in the light, reminding him of what he’d already survived. He could get through this too.

And so could Tony. Goddamn bastard had always been stubborn enough, anyway.



 

*****



 

“What was he like as a kid?”


Steve turned, watching in pleasant surprise as Rhodes made his way through the pretty much empty tavern and then took a seat next to Steve. They were all staying in a small village on the outskirts of the desert, and the little inn had just about housed all of the team. Steve himself wasn’t ready to sleep just then- it never really came easy any more, especially not here. He was happy to nurse a beer and just watch the world pass him by from out of the window.

Somewhere out in that desert, was Tony. He just knew it.

Steve laughed a little, shrugging as he looked back out into the quiet streets. “He was… like nothing else I’d ever known, and probably will ever know,” he said quietly. The memories came to him easily- of course they did, they’d never really left- and he allowed himself to revel in them for a few precious moments. “He was crazy. Intelligent. Caught in a limbo between being a grown adult and a child, he just… the first time I met him-”

“He was running away,” Rhodes interrupted, sounding just that little bit excited, “I know, he told me. He… he told me a lot, actually. Usually when drunk. But he never forgot, Steve. Never. You gave him chocolate to make him go back, didn’t you?”

Steve felt his face warming. “Hey, it worked.”

Rhodes laughed, shaking his head and frowning a little. “I remember he always had a thing for that weird cheap chocolate, and I never really knew why until he told me you’d always kept it on you.”

They both chuckled, until it descended back into comfortable silence. When Steve turned his head, Rhodes was watching him with a slightly cocked head.

“How much do you know about me?” Steve asked softly, meaning how much did Tony tell you.

Rhodes grinned, leaning back. “Everything,” he said, and that- that lodged itself right under Steve’s ribs, into his heart. “ It took some wheedling, and sometimes you’d have to coax him, but when he got going… he never stopped A new story every time. Maybe because he could never tell another soul in case it hurt you, but…” Rhodes’ eyes softened as he looked into Steve’s, “he loved you so much. You were- when he was still seeing you back in the earlier years of college, Fridays were the best day of the week. He lived for those evenings he got to spend with you. I asked to go with him once and he nearly bit my damn head off- he wanted it to be for him only. You were… man, I still can’t believe you’re actually even here. I’ve only heard stories- I feel kind of like I’m meeting someone famous.”

Steve looked down at his hands and cracked a small smile. “Then why did he leave?”

A long silence followed, and Steve just sighed through it, resting his head in the palm of his hand. He knew it was stupid to dwell- but he could still remember the hurt so viscerally in his chest. He at least wanted to know why. To know if it had been worth it, in the end.

“He was- in his own fucked up, stupid way- trying to keep you safe,” Rhodes sighed deeply, shaking his head softly as he looked out the same window as Steve, “I tried, Steve- when he came back and told me what he’d done, I tried to make him see… but he was stubborn. He really believed it was the best way to keep you from being hurt. I can’t tell you what was going on in his head- but I know it killed him. Leaving you tore him apart- he was a wreck for months and months-”

“But I don’t understand why,” And Steve’s voice had risen, it was angrier, a little more wavering toward the end as he clenched a fist against his head and shut his eyes. “He did all that to try and keep me safe or whatever the fuck it was, but to what end? It was all for nothing- he hurt me just as much from leaving as he would have done from staying around.”

“When I was a few months into college I got a girlfriend,” Rhodes interrupted quickly, holding a hand in the air and asking Steve to let him continue, “she was someone I’d met at a party. I was crazy about her- she was funny and witty and great.”

He paused, raising an eyebrow as he added “turns out, she was also hired by Tony’s uncle to spy on him and me. Wanted to check us out, see what he was getting up to- whether I was fit to hang out with him. It was fucked, man- I was heartbroken when I found out.”

He sighed, picking at the label on his beer and then cocking his head over to Steve. “He shouldn’t have decided for you, Steve. That was your call to make. But when people found out about you- and believe me, they would have- it would most certainly have not gone well for you. Lower class background, not with any particularly obvious talents- no offence intended- the media and his family would’a torn you apart. And I’m pretty sure Tony would rather have set himself on fire than hurt you.”

Steve clenched his jaw and remained silent, trying not to think too bitterly about it. It was a long time ago, now. He needed to let it go.

But he was halfway across the world in some Afghan desert, desperately searching the sands for clues to where that damn man was now, so what did that say about him letting things go, huh? That he wasn’t very damn good at it, that was what.

 

“Do you think-” Steve started, wanting to finish with do you think he will talk to me after this, do you think he still feels how I do- did he stop loving me somewhere along the way? Let me go in the same way I tried so hard to do with him?

But what did it matter? What did it matter, what Tony thought now? No doubt the man had long forgotten about their past- too busy blowing things up and living it up in a way that only the 1% ever could.
Steve wondered, really, what the hell he was doing here. Chasing after a ghost in the desperate hope it would bring something back to him, maybe. Or maybe he was just an idiot who’d never quite managed to not love Tony Stark.


He turned back to the window and stared into the vast desert. The ring was warm against his heart.



 

*****



 

They’d spent two months looking through desert and sand and villages and more desert, and all to no avail.


Troops were getting hopeless. Pressure was building from back home to pull them out and give up- but James was fighting tooth and nail to keep them there, and Steve was grateful for every second he spent arguing. They were the only chance Tony had left at this point, and Steve would not give up on him. Not now.

It was funny, but Steve was only more convinced than ever that Tony was out there somewhere. Waiting for Steve- them, to go and find him and get him home.  ‘What if he’s not dead’ was all he needed to keep going, to keep searching with hope and faith in his heart. Tony was stubborn- he always had been, from the very first moment of meeting him- and he was also remarkably hard to stop when he put his mind to it. He was smart- insanely smart, and he would be working just as hard to get himself home as Steve and Rhodes were. Steve just knew it in his bones. If Tony had been killed, there would be a body, There would be a message boasting about it- any unit who ended the life of Tony Stark would want to use that to show off, to mark their notch on the wall of fame. It was just how those sorts of people worked, and it was all Steve had to hold onto just then, so he was damn well going to take it, thank you very much.

On the news, they spoke about him as if he were already gone. Dead. Finished.

Steve didn’t watch the news much, these days.

He’d grown accustomed to having sand in every orifice- to burning heat and an unnatural tan that didn’t really fit with his Irish complexion. The weight of all his equipment on his back was familiar- he knew the ridges of his gun better than the back of his hand, and he’d even learned how to fly the planes and choppers that they took out. Everything about his life was militaristic, and Steve liked that just fine. Order was good. Order kept him together.

The villagers watched them when they passed through- sometimes with awe, a lot with contempt. Steve mostly blanked it out, mostly, but sometimes he found himself wondering what the whole point was, to him joining the army in the first place. He’d wanted to help- but in the process, he’d ended up joining a military that was responsible for very often doing more harm than good.

And he’d been the one raising an eyebrow at Tony’s choice in career path- yet he had been the one firing his weapons at people.

It was a very easy place to get lost in, if you thought about it for too long.


“You ready to head out?” James asked him with a pat on the back. His eyes were tired and his body even more so- they’d been working around the clock for such a long time, now.

Steve nodded, grabbing the strap of his gun and sliding it over his head. “After you,” he said with a tight smile.



 

 

*****



They were in hospital, and Steve was waiting.

His fingers clutched around Bucky’s hand- the one he had left, and waited. There was nothing in the room except for him, Bucky, and the cot he was sat on. But Steve could hear the beep of the heart monitor anyway, incessant, never-ending but never changing either. The emptiness, the stillness- it was consuming. Except suddenly he wasn’t in the hospital- suddenly he was back in the battlefield, and the smoke was curling up his nose, he could taste gunpowder under his tongue and it mingled with his own blood, and he was screaming for Bucky, screamed loud enough that it scraped on his throat in agony. He reached out a hand, trying to pull Bucky away from the line of fire, except when he got his arm around the man and tugged, it was Tony, it was Tony, and he was already dead-

 

“-Eve, Steve! Wake up!”

He scrambled upright, taking in a sudden and sharp breath as wide eyes surveyed the area instantly. The place was dingy and dark, even in the watery morning sunlight, and he remembered the bunkers they’d been staying in at the US embassy for a few nights. Safe- somewhat, anyway.

He focused in on James who was shaking his shoulder, fast and frantic, and then frowned. “Wh-”

“There’s been an explosion,” James said it so fast Steve barely even heard, standing up once Steve was awake and then marching over to Steve’s uniform, “in the desert near where Tony was taken.” He thrust the clothes onto Steve’s bed, and by that time Steve was already sat bolt upright, heart beginning to race frantically in his chest .

“Oh God,” He choked throatily, curling his fingers around the folds of his uniform and then leaping out of bed with the efficiency only a soldier could manage, “does that mean-”

“Maybe.” James spun back around, and he looked grave, but his eyes were shining with a renewed hope, “maybe if we are really, really lucky.”

Wordlessly, Steve shucked his pajama shirt and then yanked at his uniform. His fingers were shaking, his mind was racing. An explosion. That could mean a lot of things, and many weren’t good, but-

But it was Tony. He and explosions came hand in hand.

“Liftoff in five, ” James reeled off, beginning to march back out of the room again, “be ready for conflict.”

Steve nodded, rushing messily to the foot of his bed and hurriedly packing his kitbag. He checked his rounds and pocketed his knife, filled with a fierce and intense desire to get what he came for, or destroy the very thing that created this mess in the first place.


It had been a long time ago since Steve had seen Tony. But it would not be his last. This was war, and they weren’t children any more: Steve was ready to fight this time around. Buttoning up his shirt and slinging his bag over his shoulder, he glanced at himself in the mirror for a second- spotting someone he hadn’t seen in years. He was wearing the face he’d used to make when Tony was being difficult.

That, at least, prompted a laugh out of him. Difficult indeed- getting yourself kidnapped in the middle of an Afghan desert was certainly not the most simple of situations.

He took a deep breath and stood in the middle of the room for a second, trying not to get his hopes up too high. After that failed, he just sighed and then jogged out of the room, heading down to the meeting point in the lobby where the rest of the squad were waiting for him. James patted him excitedly on the back as he passed, and then called for the team to follow him out toward the cars. From there, it would be a twenty minute trip to the nearest airfield, and after that, who knew? The search radius was still going to be huge- it could take them days.

He shrugged to himself, climbing on board the vehicle and then resting his gun in his lap. He could go a few days without sleep- it wasn’t the end of the world.

 

But God Dammit, whatever happened, they were going to find Tony Stark, and they were going to bring him home.



 

*****



 

The explosion had been a couple of klicks from Gulmira, a tiny village hidden in the middle of the mountains, and took 7 hours to reach by chopper from Kabul. Seven hours that were excruciatingly, painstakingly long.

Steve looked out of the window- checked the equipment, monitored the airwaves. He was manic with it- with the desperation to locate and find the person he’d spent three months (ten years) searching for. Across from him, James was piloting the plane, and hadn’t spoken a word to anyone since boarding. People dealt in different ways, he supposed.

He moved over to his weapon, rechecking the rounds, just in case. His squad were shooting him funny looks but he didn’t really care- he needed to do this or he thought he might go insane with the wait. He was expending so much energy trying not to think about worst case scenarios, he had no time to focus on anything else.

Tony had to be alive. He had to be.

Steve remembered when he’d fallen out of the tree, one time. Really high up, too- he’d been messing around up there and suddenly he’d just lost his balance and come tumbling back to earth. Steve had screamed, thinking Tony had surely broken something at the very least- but when he’d scrambled over to him, Tony was just looking rather dazed on the floor. Not a scratch on him. He’d started goddamn laughing, damn him, and if that didn’t say something about Tony’s insistence to survive, then Steve didn’t know what did. Guy was like a damn cockroach.

He had to be alive.

Slipping into the copilot’s seat whilst he was out on break, Steve looked at the desert ahead of him as the sun slowly began to dip lower into the horizon and tried to imagine Tony somewhere in there. It was so vast and barren, even he found it difficult. But explosions of that size didn’t come from nowhere, and never say Tony wasn’t good at making his entrances.

“We’re gonna find him,” he said into the quiet cockpit, and from the corner of his eye, he watched James flex his hands against the steering wheel. “I just know we are.”

“Mmf,” James harrumphed, clenching his jaw, “we better. He owes me over three thousand dollars and promised me he’d take me to London for my birthday, and I’m holding the asshole to it.”

Steve looked out again, eyes sharp over the horizon as their chopper scoured the area. He thought that if he had to look at nothing but empty desert for much longer, he’d snap. Never had he developed such an intense hatred for something as mundane as sand before, but he was pretty sure he wouldn’t ever be going to a beach again. It got everywhere- he’d be cleaning the shit out of his hair for goddamn weeks when he got home.

Man, he really wished he was home. He missed his friends. He missed non-military grade food and clothes. Even when he’d been touring, there’d been a little time off. With this, it was constant work.

Seriously- Tony better not be dead, or he was gonna be so pissed.


He ended up staying in the copilot’s seat next to James for the next few hours, making slightly tense smalltalk as they flew over dune after dune, mountain after mountain. He felt his hands tapping insistently against his thigh and made an effort to stop them- only to start up again on his toes.

He was anxious, dammit, so sue him. It had been eight hours, and they still hadn’t seen-

 

Wait.

 

His body lurched forward like a man possessed, hand pressing into the glass as he looked at the dark figure just passing the peak of one of the dunes. “James, James are you seeing this?” He yelled frantically, stabbing a finger into the glass and pointing down at the dark shadow. “James, holy shit-”

“That’s Tony,” James said through clenched teeth, and Steve felt the helicopter lurch, dropping altitude and slowing at the same time. “Boys, prepare for landing!” He called into the comm, just as Steve turned tail and then passed the actual copilot, pushing him into the cockpit to take his place as he ran for the entrance. Shortly after, James himself followed, his eyes focused with a pinpoint intensity against the door.

Steve’s heart was wild in his chest, and his mind was a mess. This was it- they’d really… they’d actually found him. Moving- alive. Nearly ten years, and Steve was going to see him again. What the hell was he going to say? Do? Act like? What if Tony didn’t even want-

What if he no longer wanted anything to do with him? How was Steve just supposed to get up and deal with that?


Jesus Christ, Tony was alive. He’d made it through three months of whatever the hell those bastards had put him through. And now he was probably going to take one look at Steve’s face and- and-


He was so distracted by the sudden wave of panic, in fact, that he missed the door opening completely, and before he knew it, the rest of the squad were leaving without him. Unwilling to overcrowd him and utterly terrified of the reaction he was about to receive, Steve found his feet locked in place by the door, staring out into the sands where James was leading the little group of men toward Tony’s body. He felt… like he was going to throw up, to be honest. He wasn’t sure what he would do if Tony rejected him now, after he’d set all his hopes on…

On what? What had this been about? Steve had never asked himself that, in fear of the answer, but now he was stood there and Tony was getting near and oh, fuck, the reason behind it was clear as day and stupidly obvious. It was because he still loved him. Because a piece of him always had, from the moment they’d met, when he’d been too young to know what love even was, he’d still managed to love him. And six, seven, ten years down the line, he was stood there and Tony was leaning on James’ shoulder and his stomach flipped in the same way it had done when they were kids- like nothing was different, like he was still just staring at his beautiful best friend and trying to hide it.

 

He loved Tony and he just wanted him to be safe. That was it. Whether he rejected Steve or not, it didn’t matter. He was safe now. And that was… that was what Steve had come for.


He stood to attention as James half-dragged Tony through the sand, closer and closer toward him. The rest of the squad took position outside the chopper and raised their weapons in case Tony was being followed, but James continued to make his way forward, closer to Steve’s waiting arms. At the distance they were at just then, Steve could see Tony’s smile. His beautiful, if a little delirious smile. His body was a mess of blood and dirt and burns, but his smile was perfect as the day Steve had left it.

His eyes flicked up to the chopper, to Steve- and that smile promptly fell right off his face.

Steve only had a moment to feel his own spirits plummet, and heard Tony utter a dejected little ‘oh’ before James hauled him upright and then directed him into Steve’s hold. With strong arms, he pulled Tony’s weak body into the chopper, pushing back the familiar euphoria of being able to just hold Tony in order to focus on the task at hand and get him safely to the medical unit on the side of the helicopter whilst firmly not looking him in the eye.

Tony let him move them both without fuss. His hands curled, tentative, around Steve’s shoulders- not the touch of a stranger, but the embrace of someone who had done it many times before. Steve could feel Tony’s eyes on him as he quickly lifted him into the cot that had been fitted to the side, not wavering even once. “We’re going to get you home, Ton- Mr. Stark, okay, we’re going to get you safe, I pr-”

“I’m dead, aren’t I?” Tony whispered quietly, whilst Steve turned and watched Rhodey and the rest of the team clamber back on board. When he turned his head back, Tony’s fingers curled themselves around Steve’s wrist. “Oh God, I’m dead, I’m dead-”

“Tony, you’re not dead,” Steve said softly, a frown marring his face as his hand curled automatically around the rough edge of Tony’s jaw, “you’re safe, I prom-”

“I thought…” Tony slurred, head rolling sideways, falling into Steve’s hand, “I thought I’d made it out. But then… you wouldn’t be here if this was real, would you?” He smiled softly, blinking continuously to fight off the exhaustion- and Steve could feel James rush to his side, jostle his shoulder as he fussed over Tony, but all Steve was focused on was the way Tony was looking at him. Like he was something… someone worth missing.

“If this is what the afterlife is, then I should’a bit the dust sooner,” was the last thing he muttered before his eyes rolled and his hand slipped limply from around Steve’s wrist.

Steve stared down at Tony’s unconscious form, broken and older and alive, and felt like all the air in the world wouldn’t fill his lungs well enough in that moment. As James shoved him out of the way and then began to call out orders to the rest of his troops, Steve just kept his fingers twined tentatively around Tony’s own; something truly haunting in the familiarity of the other man’s touch. That touch had patched up his cuts, stroked back his hair, pushed him into the long grass and clutched desperately around Steve’s hips as they’d kissed for the first and last time.

It was almost unbearable. Steve was blown away by the storm of memories, the ghost of every emotion that he’d ever felt as he looked across at the face lying in front of him now. He didn’t even know what to do with any of it.

He just looked up at Rhodes, throat dry as the desert they flew over. “We saved him,” he whispered. It was a phrase he'd wished to say for months, but secretly never believed that he ever would.

James looked back at him, something a little hysterical in his eyes as he laughed. “Yeah,” he breathed, clapping Steve on the shoulder and then turning his gaze down, looking at Steve and Tony’s entwined fingers, “yeah, we really did.”