When Steve woke up, Sam's hand was on his shoulder. "Easy, now."
He was disoriented. His lungs burned and his mouth was dry like the desert, but at least he was among friends.
"Got yourself into a spot of trouble, Cap," Natasha said from the other side. She still called him Cap; it was her little rebellion against the situation they were in. Fact was, Steve hadn't been Captain America for a while, and he didn't know how he felt about that. Captain America stood for freedom; Steve Rogers felt trapped. "You were out for a full ten hours, had us worried." Natasha smiled tightly. She sported a dark bruise at her temple.
"What happened?" That was all he managed with his dry mouth before Bucky pushed a full glass of water towards his lips. Steve drank an eager couple of sips before Bucky's metal hand took the glass away.
Looking about, Steve was in a simple one-bedroom, a bed with a dresser and a generic lamp, a little desk table off on the other end of the room, his friends crowding the bed on both sides. Some kind of a cheap hotel. Someone had changed him into a blue checkered flannel shirt, but he still had his uniform pants on.
"Mission went south. Varenski had intel on you," Bucky supplied. Steve recalled it getting very hard to breathe, then darkness. Some kind of gas. He coughed away the burn in his throat.
"That much I remember." Steve tried to rise up on the bed. The muscles of his stomach protested, and he lifted up the shirt to see the dark hematoma there, already turning yellow around the edges.
"Yeah, lucky you wore a vest," Sam said with a significant stare of someone who'd argued with Steve about it on several prior occasions. "He would have pumped your stomach full of bullets. I've never ran so fast in my life..."
Steve glanced away guiltily. He found that he could sit up, gingerly at first, then more easily as he adjusted to the discomfort in his body. The bruising would heal; his body always healed. The burning in his lungs would subside. The picture in his memories became a little clearer. He'd collapsed from the toxins they pumped into the air, then the smuggler's goons tried to finish him off with bullets. He was lucky to be alive. No doubt Steve had this bunch to thank for that.
"Bright side," Natasha said dryly, "you going down was captured on camera."
"That's a bright side?" Steve looked blankly her way, still rubbing his stomach with a thumb, remembering that moment the bullets hit, as his consciousness winked out.
"It's all over the Internet. Everyone thinks you're dead," Sam supplied. "That ought to make avoiding Ross and his cronies easier for a few months at least." Of course, what else. Steve felt like he was still slow on the uptake, his brain refusing to engage. The lives of fugitives they led now meant being always concerned with who had the most up-to-date information on their location, on their movements.
"I give it two weeks," Natasha said. "Steve won't stay down."
Even as Steve leveled her a dry glare, Bucky said, "A week," a touch smugly from the other side of the bed. Steve glared at him too, for good measure, before throwing his legs over the side, rolling out of bed. That was when Steve's eyes landed on a black flip phone, lying at the bedside table. His breath caught. What was it doing here? He always―
"That was in your utility belt," Natasha said in a disinterested tone which meant she was curious.
"The phone kept blowing up with calls for a while," Sam said, motioning at it with his chin, smirking cockily. "Some girl you're keeping on the side?"
When Steve threw him a horrified glance, Sam lost the joking tone. "I did send a coded text to Sharon. She knows you're okay."
Steve grabbed the little flip phone in his hands, opening it. Nine missed calls.
Zero in the past year, and today―
He thumbed through them. Of course, it was always the same number. There was only one number it could be. The phone had been called in rapid succession at first, barely any time between the first five attempts, then the timing between the missed calls increased to hours. The last phone call had been two hours ago. Jesus.
He didn't let the panic in his chest stop him from what he needed to do. Thumbing the call button he lifted the phone to his ear, ignoring the baffled looks of his friends.
Tony picked up on the second ring.
At least, Steve thought it was Tony. He was suddenly unsure.
They hadn't talked since Steve had sent the phone. They'd studiously avoided running into each other in their globe trotting; even though the hole left by the absence hurt, perhaps worse than any confrontation might have done. Steve had told Tony to call if he needed them, but he'd hoped, maybe...
That was pointless to think about.
Someone breathed in on the other end of the line, but neither of them said anything, as if they feared incriminating themselves.
"It's me," Steve said eventually, turning his face away from the curious stares in the room.
A hitch of breathing on the other end, and more silence.
Somehow, he knew it was Tony. It had to be. Tony who wasn't speaking to him.
"Are you okay?" Steve asked next. Fate couldn't be so cruel that Tony would be in trouble the one time Steve went down for the count. He was already trying to calculate how fast he could make it across the Atlantic if Tony needed Avengers to assemble.
"Hey, Steve..." Tony drawled. Slurred. Suddenly, Steve's chest compressed with a different emotion, not dark guilt or fear so much as a bright pain, as if the reeling notes of Tony's voice, the syllables of his name, pierced through his heart like needles. He couldn't remember hearing Tony's words drag like that, except... in those videos he'd seen online, of the party years before Tony became Iron Man. He'd heard that sluiced voice then.
"Have you been drinking? Tony―!" He broke off; bit his lip. It wasn't his place.
Stark? Sam mouthed.
Steve stood, ignoring the stares, pushing past his teammates to the tiny bathroom on the side of the room. He wanted to do this alone.
"Damn." Natasha put a palm to her forehead, just before Steve closed the bathroom door for some privacy.
"Just tell me you're safe," Steve begged, leaning his forehead against the door from the inside. He tried not to read too much into what he was getting from the other end, from the breathing that was too shallow and unsteady. Another moment of silence stretched between them.
"You were dead," Tony said in a terribly flat voice.
"I wasn't, it was a mistake," Steve hurried to assure, stumbling over his own explanation. "The others got me out. I just woke up. I missed your calls." He imagined himself in Tony's place, finding out one of his team had been killed, via a poor video clip online. If it had been Tony... He couldn't let himself think it.
"Sorry," Steve whispered, shutting his eyes.
Wordlessly, Tony cut the call.
By the time Steve composed himself and came out of the bathroom, the others had arrived at their own conclusions.
"You have Stark's number?" Sam asked.
"More importantly, he has yours." Natasha studied him carefully.
Steve clutched the flip-phone in his hand, and tried to meet their eyes. "I sent him a way to contact me when we first got to Wakanda."
Nobody asked him why.
"Can he trace us here?" Bucky.
"This is Stark we're talking about," Sam said warily.
"He hasn't bothered for a year," Steve said shortly, getting a slow nod of acknowledgment from Sam.
"You trust him not to come after us," Bucky said. He'd always had a way of deadpan delivery, but the flat notes of his tone now were dry as the Sahara desert.
"Look," Steve started, feeling their piercing eyes burrow into him. "This is under my responsibility―"
"Did he seem okay?" Natasha said suddenly. Her voice echoed with missed opportunities, unspoken words. Steve felt a sudden rush of affection for her, a warmth completely incongruous with the chill that has settled over the room.
"He sounded..." Steve started, and couldn't finish. Worn. Washed out. But then, wasn't everybody? He brought his palms up to rub his face. "I don't know. Damn, this is a mess." Steve pulled his knuckles over his eyes and looked up again, gathering himself. "How long do we have the room?"
"Another six hours," Sam said.
"If you're planning to nap, better hop to it," Bucky said, turning away, letting the other conversation go.
Not counting unconsciousness, Steve felt like he hadn't slept for days, weeks, months. Whatever sleep he managed to snatch for himself these days was always restless; he had too many thoughts, too many anxieties crowding his head.
"I'm good," he said firmly, grabbing the top half of his uniform off the chair, ignoring the tightness in his chest. "Let's move out."
They were half-way across the continent, heading back to Wakanda on one of T'Challa's planes with Sam piloting and Bucky in the co-pilot seat, when the flip-phone vibrated in his pocket. Steve froze for a moment, but he felt Natasha glance his way, her hearing sharper than most. She lifted a sharp eyebrow, like: you gonna get that? And Steve pulled the phone out. There was only one line of text.
I want to see you.
That and a set of coordinates. Somewhere in Northern Europe; he could look it up. No date, no time. It meant come when you can. (If you want.)
The thought of seeing Tony again, in person, made blood rush from his head, leaving Steve almost dizzy. The memory of his face swam before Steve's eyes, losing none of its sharpness as Tony's eyes searched his. Steve shook the memory off before those eyes found him lacking. It was less than an hour since he'd tried talking to Tony, and that had been hard enough. Tony had sounded drunk. If this was the drink talking, he didn't know how to respond. Forget that, he didn't know how to respond in any case. He looked up to see Natasha studying him with the tiniest of frowns.
"Tony wants to meet," he said quietly, only for her ears. Not that he was trying to keep a secret, but it felt a little too revealing to say even that much aloud. He shied away from examining why.
"You want to go," she said; not a question.
He balanced on a thin wire of hope, between a sharp longing ― yes! ― and the yawning maw of fear ― What if this was a trap? What if this made everything worse? ― snapping with sharp teeth at his feet.
"I don't know," Steve said slowly, afraid of the intensity of his own reaction. "You think I should?"
"He asked you to come alone?"
Steve shook his head and showed her the simple message on the small screen of the phone. He needed a second opinion; he didn't quite trust himself to keep a cool head on this one.
Natasha studied the text, her lips thinning. She looked at the message, while anxiety gradually rose in Steve's chest. What if he didn't respond and Tony decided that meant 'no'. What if this was their last chance at... at something. Natasha was still frowning at the screen, lost in thought.
Suddenly, he couldn't take it anymore. Steve snatched the phone away, quickly keying in his response, feeling like he was late already, always too late.
I'll be there.
When he looked up, Natasha gave him a sad but understanding smile.
That was how Steve found himself hiking down a trail, in the snow, somewhere in the middle of nowhere (or actually northern Finland). It was low twenties Fahrenheit, slightly below freezing, and typical for December in the region. The wild surroundings were quite beautiful to look at, pristine and untouched under the cover of fresh snow. The evergreen fir trees on each side of him bent their weighted-down branches low; white, from the bowed tip to the ground. A foot of snow covered the ground, except for the thin, barely-maintained trail that led up to what was supposed to be a private cottage.
Steve had looked up the coordinates on the satellite maps before coming, and it was just a piece of private property, surrounded by the woods that isolated it from the neighboring villages. The owner of the cottage was listed as some kind of a corporation, seemingly unconnected to anyone he knew, but Steve bet if he dug deeper into it, the ownership would resolve back to Tony somehow.
The others had dropped him off in the neighbouring town some miles away, and he used a rental for as long as he could, through the country roads that steadily grew wilder, less maintained. Eventually he'd left the vehicle at the curb and started hiking on foot. That had been only a few minutes ago, but the car disappeared behind the bend in the trail, and Steve felt like he was in another world, one less constrained by any human customs or rules. Tony hadn't asked to come alone ― hadn't texted anything back after Steve confirmed he was coming ― but Steve wasn't parachuting into this one. This wasn't a mission for him. He hoped for something more human: two people meeting, two men who had at one point used to be friends. He wanted to come alone as a gesture of good will. There'd been an argument about that, too. Steve won it, by virtue of the fact that this was his decision. He was going. He had given his word.
He wore a white winter jacket over a blue checkered flannel shirt, and a thick grey scarf wrapped around his neck, rising to cover part of his face. Next to his mouth the wool was uncomfortably damp from the condensation from his breaths, but it kept his skin from freezing. The scarf wasn't high enough to cover the tips of his ears, so he shielded them with his thick leather gloves. At least the flurries had stopped. His boots were thick enough to handle what snow lay on the ground, and while his uniform's pants weren't exactly made for the weather, they were standing up to the cold pretty well. Looking ahead, the winding trail passed through the trees and disappeared around another bend, the path just wide enough for one person to pass through. Steve set off again.
His thoughts were surprisingly orderly.
If Tony wanted to see him, Steve owed it to him to try and be there.
If the phone had changed hands, if the person behind the text was not Tony but an enemy, he'd deal with it. If someone had forcibly taken the phone from him, it meant Tony himself was in danger and Steve wasn't sitting that one out.
If it was a trap....Well. Steve couldn't bring himself to believe it was a trap, couldn't even begin to expect it. Underhanded wasn't how Tony operated. If he truly wanted to catch Steve, to take him in, he'd probably have come through their front door months ago, repulsors blazing, while everything in the vicinity exploded sky-high. Subtlety wasn't Tony's forte. Steve had a feeling that if anything, Tony had tried hard not to run into him on any major scene up until now. (That smarted.) But now he had asked to see Steve, and so Steve would give him that. All he could do was try his best.
If they talked... If they didn't talk...
He couldn't control that.
Steve half convinced himself there would be no answer by the time he rapped the wooden door of the cottage with his knuckles. Then, hearing only silence in response, he lifted his fist to pound against the wood, louder this time, but the door opened a crack. Steve lowered his hand.
A slice of the familiar face showed through the gap for a moment, before Tony opened the door wide. He wore a dark three-piece suit, its restrained, stylish lines at odds with the wilderness surrounding them, but somehow very uniquely Tony, as Steve remembered him. Always the dashing hero.
Steve's hands were suddenly clammy inside his gloves, his heartbeat accelerated, his mouth dried up.
"Hi," he said, clumsily.
A complicated mixture of emotions passed over Tony's face. His eyes flickered across Steve's entire frame, intense as they roamed over his civilian clothing, before he lifted them up again to meet Steve's gaze. The moment balanced delicately on knife's edge, then Tony stepped back to let him in. He held the door.
Right in the doorway, Steve hesitated. "Tony," he said, and didn't know where to go next. "You wanted to talk?"
Tony shrugged one shoulder, not glancing away. "Mostly I just wanted to see you." Discomfort showed in his eyes, and he jerked his chin in the direction of the insides of the cottage. "Coming in?"
Steve stepped inside. He stomped his feet against a small welcome mat, knocking the remains of the snow off.
"Make yourself at home," Tony invited, voice so perfectly casual it couldn't be real. He shut the door, locking the cold out and walked past Steve.
Instantly too hot, Steve pulled his gloves off, and unwrapped the scarf, taking the jacket off as well. After a glance towards Tony for permission, he set the outerwear on the low stand by the door.
Steve finally took a quick look around the spacious, warm room, the wooden logs making up the walls, and thick beams supporting the high, slanted roof. At the edge of the room, there was a hallway healing into the back of the cottage, likely to other rooms. This room looked as if a professional cleaner had made a pass: all the windows framed with white lace curtains were gleaming, and the little kitchenette with a fridge tucked in the corner looked spotless. There were two brown leather armchairs turned towards the fireplace, with a colourful red-and-orange comforter thrown haphazardly over the back of one, and a light mahogany coffee table separating them both. An empty coffee mug next to one of the armchairs indicated it had recently been occupied. Behind the armchairs, a fire crackled, licking the logs in a large fireplace and giving the room a dreamlike, almost cozy feeling. Steve had seen the wispy white steam coming from the chimney outside and known someone would be in.
While he was taking in the room, Tony went to the coffee table and swept a bunch of metal parts that had been lying on top of scattered papers into a cardboard box on the floor. They landed with a clatter that seemed startling in the otherwise quiet room. He'd been fixing something, or fiddling with something before Steve came in. He had the impression Tony hadn't thought this through, when he asked Steve to come, that he didn't actually have a plan for what to do now that Steve was here. Tony gave a shrug by way of explanation: "Kept myself busy while I waited." He kicked the box out of sight under the table with his foot, walked over and wiped his hands with a nearby towel, leaving dark smudges on its weave.
"I... Your message didn't specify a time."
Tony glanced up. "It's fine. I didn't mean― That wasn't aimed at you."
"I came directly here," Steve offered quietly.
"Yes, I wasn't―" Tony stopped himself. He shut his eyes briefly, before opening them again. "Thank you," he said instead.
"You're welcome," Steve answered.
For some reason the simple words made his eyes burn. This was how far they'd fallen. To the point where this stumbling small-talk felt like an accomplishment. The two of them stared at each other, and he had a strange feeling that Tony's thoughts ran along the same lines. Steve didn't know how to fix it. He didn't want to force his apologies on Tony. But the longer he went without saying the words, the more it felt like his chance was slipping away. It was the worst kind of Catch-22 because it was self-inflicted. And Tony was just looking at him with a serious expression, almost as if studying him, as if comparing the lines of Steve's face to his old memories. Steve thought he might be integrating the beard into his mental image of Steve. They hadn't seen each other in a while. The skin under Tony's eyes was smudged dark with a seemingly permanent lack of sleep.
"Tony," he said finally, heavily, deciding to face up to what had to happen. There were a lot of things that given the chance he'd have liked to have done differently, not all, but many, and one stood out sharply among the rest. "Before anything else, I have to say how truly sorry I am―"
"Don't," Tony said quietly, making Steve pause, mouth still half-way open. He snapped it shut, while Tony went on, "I'm not...I didn't call you for some kind of a reckoning."
"I don't understand," Steve said. "Then what?"
Something like a huff of air flew off Tony's lips and for a flash he looked irritated. Another moment he pressed a clenched fist to his mouth, then took it away with a jerk.
"I promised myself I'd just say it if I saw you again," he said, the irritation directed inward. Abruptly, he swirled around as if breaking free from some sort of chains. Tony paced, his back to Steve and said, out to the furthest wall. "But now I look at you and I can't."
Steve whispered, "Say what?" He almost took a step forward, but held himself back just in time. Outside, behind the clean windows of the cottage the snow was starting to fall again, turning the world white. The fire crackled loudly in the fireplace, but for the moment that was the only sound in the room.
"I thought you were dead," Tony said, as if that explained something. He crossed his arms on his chest, immediately rethought it, and shoved them into the pockets of his pants. He turned sideways to Steve. It was as if he was afraid to look at him again, as if that would make it harder for him to talk. Steve kept still. "I saw on the news, you know, it―" Tony waived a hand. "It looked very realistic."
"You just can't help yourself now, can you?" Tony said waspishly. "God, that almost makes this worse."
Honestly stumped for words, Steve shifted foot to foot. Tony took a look at him, just a peek, before he sighed and turned fully back to Steve.
"I know, okay? I know you're sorry. I know why you made the choices you made. I know you didn't mean for things to turn out the way they did; I get that, trust me." Tony checked the torrent of words for a moment, giving Steve a slow, careful look. "I hope you'll believe that I never wanted any of it to happen either."
"Yes, I―I― I know you didn't!"
"Okay." Tony looked immensely relieved. "So then. We're both sorry, right?"
"Right." Steve's voice was hoarse.
"Okay. So why are we doing this?" Tony spread his hands at his sides, in question. His expression looked lost.
"Just tell me," Tony said, "if you know. Because I watched you die and I couldn't― I couldn't have saved you. I couldn't have fixed anything, if it had been real. If something had happened to you." He shook his head, a hand clenched into a fist at his side, clearly struggling for each word, voice suddenly trembling with repressed emotion. "There was no trick, no miracle, no God I could have prayed to, and believe me, I'd thought of it all." Tony's eyes were bleak. "And I promised myself, if you were alive, I would stop this stupid fight. I'd do anything." Tony breathed in deep and let it out slowly, visibly trying to get a handle on himself.
Anything Steve might have said felt inadequate. He had been so prepared to be raked over the coals, and this was, if not forgiveness, then an amnesty of sorts. Him, Steve had already forgiven back during those long, long days in Wakanda.
"I was never gonna use the phone." A thin veneer of defensiveness in those words covered the vulnerability underneath. "That would show you, right?" Tony shook his head, looking like he found his own words amazing and amazingly ridiculous. "That'd mean you didn't beat me. That I was right all along. As long as I didn't call, it was as if I didn't want anything to do with you. And that meant I was more in control than you were." Tony swallowed and kept going, face growing steadily blank, as if he'd poured it all out, as if he was empty. "And the worst nearly happened before I realized that's something I can't live with. That I don't want to be right, if that's what it costs."
"Tony, don't." The expression on Tony's face was scaring him a little.
"You win," Tony said, like an offering.
Steve stood frozen, completely unclear on what to do, how to act in the face of this apparent capitulation. He felt as if whatever he said next had to be gentle so as not to spook Tony, not accidentally shatter him. Tony looked brittle enough for that.
"This doesn't feel like winning," Steve said finally.
Tony nodded, like he understood that, too.
"Winning, losing," Tony lifted his hands to his face, covered it with his palms. "I don't care anymore." Briskly, he took his hands away, looked at Steve again, clear eyed, honest. "You're alive. That's what matters. I can deal with everything else." He looked at Steve, as if asking for forgiveness back. "Can you?"
Steve felt himself tremble, tried to bring his voice back in check. "When I saw that you called while I was knocked out, I thought... If something had happened. If you'd needed me and I wasn't there... I would never forgive myself."
"I know," Tony said. His face twisted. He ran the cuff of his shirt over his eyes. "Damn it. Same for me." Tony jerked his chin up, his straightforward stare almost a weapon in its own right. "I called you thinking it was too late. I just wished I'd been there. Next to you. You know?" Tony made a sound that pretended to be a laugh. "Might have done something. Instead of sitting on the floor in my office feeling lower than low. Watching it happen on TV and feeling useless. Because I didn't stop it. I didn't try hard enough."
"Sure would have been nice, to have you there," Steve said tentatively, trying for a smile. "Anytime, really." Then he had to set the record straight. "But if something happened, it wouldn't be on you."
Tony sniffed and rolled his eyes. He obviously didn't believe Steve.
"It wouldn't," Steve insisted, almost angry, angry with Tony for thinking like that. "I don't want you to blame yourself and get drunk on my account or whatever."
"I wasn't drinking." When Steve gave him a skeptical stare, Tony insisted, "I wasn't. Viz gave me something to calm me down." He tapped his sternum in a gesture that seemed unconscious.
"I'm sorry," Steve said and when Tony looked ready to protest again, Steve stepped forward, lifting his hands, placating, "No, it does matter." Steve suddenly couldn't believe it himself, how much. "It matters because I hurt you and that's the last thing I want. You matter." All of their fighting, all of the time they'd spent together and apart, it was as if it was leading up to this realization, this moment. He could finally acknowledge his feelings to himself and say, yes, this was it. The one thing that mattered as much as being right, or being free.
"I know," Tony breathed out shakily, answering him. "For a few months, I tried telling myself you don't give a shit―" he ignored Steve's aghast look, "―but it didn't work. So." He waved a hand. Like: here we are.
They looked at each other and Steve let go of his fears, his reservations, almost helplessly, let go of the still distantly kindling frustration, all the things that were true but didn't matter as much as this, now. Tony next to him. Tony believing in him again, against all odds. The same way he had tried so hard believe in Tony all this time, by keeping hope alive that they could get through this some day.
Steve took an unsteady breath of his own. "I'm glad you called me."
"Yeah, well," Tony shrugged and looked uncomfortable, as if his words were catching up with him now. "Friday thought this was a good place to meet up. Neutral territory, right? I guess I own the property, but I'd never been here before." He was obviously wrestling his emotions down, shoving them out of the way, but like water from an overflowing cup they kept spilling out in his rapid speech, in the way he couldn't seem to tear his eyes from Steve's face. Tony never was any good at hiding how he felt. "I guess we could have talked this out on the phone," Tony rubbed the back of his neck, "but I wanted―" he didn't finish.
I wanted to see you.
Tony had been scared, and it hadn't been enough, to talk on the phone. He had needed to see for himself that Steve was alright. It was different, when you could see the other person, feel their moods, touch them.
Then Tony gave a crumbling laugh, "Now that we've hugged it out..." He yanked his gaze away, cast around the room, searching for a distraction, a plausible excuse to shift the subject, eyes pausing on the papers lying scattered on the coffee table.
What he was thinking seemed impossible, but Steve wasn't afraid of the impossible. "Actually, we haven't done that yet. And, uh, maybe we should?"
"What?" Tony turned to him with his eyes wide, his mouth dropping slightly open. He obviously knew exactly what Steve was talking about, otherwise he wouldn't have appeared nearly so gob-smacked.
"I. Just." Steve didn't think. Tony needed this. Steve took another step forward, so there was barely a foot between them. Tony swayed, as if he had visibly held off from stepping back, held his ground. His eyes lifted up to Steve's, wide like dinner plates.
"What are you doing?" Tony asked thinly.
In the interminable silence left by the question, Steve paled, flushed, and paled again. "May I hug you?"
"This is crazy."
"Yes or no," Steve said. "Please?"
"Okay?" Tony blinked and trembled. "Yes? Sure?"
Carefully, as if he was putting his hands around a startled, injured bird, Steve put just one arm around him. His hand felt across Tony's broad back, the silk of his jacket ghosting against Steve's fingers. Feeling horribly awkward, he didn't dare for more. When Tony didn't resist, just stood rooted to the spot, his breath hot next to Steve's ear, Steve sort of patted his back a little, hoping that might help.
"This is an awful hug," Tony complained, and Steve heard the eye-roll in his voice at the same time as Tony leaned into him.
Tony wrapped both arms around Steve, tucked his chin against Steve's shoulder, suddenly going soft and pliant in the embrace. Encouraged, Steve wrapped a second arm around him, holding him a little tighter, but still very carefully. Slowly, piece by piece, he felt his own barriers drop down as Tony didn't move away. Steve let himself relax into the cradle of his arms, feeling how good it was, feeling safe enough to press his luck.
"Better?" He whispered, feeling the tug on his lips.
Tony dug his fingers into Steve's back. "Keep going," he murmured, sinking somehow even more into their embrace.
"Guess I really scared you, huh?" Steve said, hugging him tighter yet. He needed this, too. It had passed a friendly embrace some while back, but the awkwardness that would have pushed them apart just wasn't there, and now Steve was mostly hoping Tony either didn't notice or didn't mention the length of their hug.
"I called. You didn't pick up," Tony whispered, one hand twisting the fabric of Steve's shirt. "You promised me."
"Knockout gas," Steve answered simply, stroking his back once. His cheek lay against the side of Tony's head, against the softness of his dark hair.
"I didn't know what to do," Tony admitted and shivered against him.
That shiver running through his body changed something, altered the mood irrevocably. Steve leaned back to look into his face and there was no more pretending this was a friendly hug. Tony's eyes were open and bottomless, deep enough to drown in. Steve's gaze involuntarily dropped down to his lips, but only for a moment before their eyes met again.
He didn't know which of them moved forward first. The kiss simply seemed to happen, a natural extension of the intimacy of the moment, a perfect exclamation point to the feelings inside him all this time. Eyes sliding shut, he let himself fall fully into the kiss, let himself feel Tony's mouth on his, his tongue brushing against Steve's, tangling with it. Tony's mouth tasted of coffee.
"This seems ill-advised," Tony gasped against his mouth. And, "I don't care." They kissed again. Steve wanted to keep kissing him so that Tony wouldn't have time to start thinking and maybe think himself back into what a bad idea this was. After a while, Tony moaned against his mouth and pulled back to breathe. "Good Lord, Rogers―" they exchanged a few more kisses, brief and seemingly dwindling in length, before Steve placed a hand up against the back of Tony's head, tilting his head at an angle, and their mouths slotted together again. For a while it was perfect. Steve forgot about time and place and anything except the feeling of being open and tender, right there, with Tony kissing back as if he needed Steve to breathe. Tony made delicious sounds, one arm clasping Steve to him around the torso, the other threading through Steve's hair.
When Tony leaned back eventually, he was panting, his eyes gleaming darkly.
"This works," he said, at a breath. "Wow. Okay." His eyes fluttered shut, the long eyelashes like dark smudges against his flushed cheeks.
"I'm recalibrating." That apparently took another moment, because Tony opened his eyes and something about the expression in them was light and joyous in a way that Steve hadn't seen in years. Years.
"It figures," Tony said. "I don't know what I expected. You can't stay within the lines for anything."
"You love it."
Tony's response was a look of unmistakable heat.
Steve wanted to kiss him again. He had a feeling if he started, he might never want to stop. Tony's mouth looked, for once, imminently approachable, lips flushed and wet.
He tried to focus on something else, not the heat pooling in his groin, not the way Tony's fingers were rubbing a spot just above his belt, as if seeking something. Face heating, Steve said, "I should probably call the others, let them know things are okay." He had a feeling he wasn't leaving for a while, not with Tony holding on to him like that. Steve recognized his own longing only as it left him, as the possibilities between them exploded in a shower of sparks and electric desire.
"Ah, yeah, hold on," Tony said as if reminded, and pulled out his own, high-tech phone. "I have to text Pepper I'm alive." His other hand stayed wrapped around Steve's waist.
"Pepper?" Steve asked, suddenly feeling like he'd missed a step. With a sensation of falling, he started to back up, but Tony purposefully pulled him closer, slotting their hips together and keeping Steve right there. Like he was making a statement by keeping him close.
"She'll be thrilled," Tony said, looking into the phone. "God, you're doing her a favour." He glanced up from his typing, and upon seeing Steve's curious look, smirked mischievously. "We promised each other if we're both still single when she turns forty that we'll get married."
"Right..." He flushed harder at Tony's quick assumptions, at his show of blithe confidence that just barely covered the hopeful, sweet uncertainty in the dark eyes that stared up at Steve.
"You're practically saving her," Tony said. Steve hesitantly set his hands back on Tony's hips. Then Tony cocked his head in consideration. "Well, she'll only be thrilled for us if we clear your name. She doesn't need the bad publicity. We're trying to woo this Japanese investor and it's been uphill all the―mhmmmm..."
Steve was kissing him again.
Later, he put his forehead against Tony's, trying to catch his own breath. "About that, about my status... I know clearing my name would take a while. If it's even in the cards...I―"
"It's tricky, but not impossible." Tony leaned back to look into his eyes, brushing a hand down his cheek, the affectionate smile playing on his lips turning his whole expression impossibly kind. "I've been in contact with the Office of the Pardon Attorney, and there's certainly precedent." While Steve just stared at him, Tony's expression turned flustered, as if he couldn't bear for Steve to look at him like that. "Ellis owes me one anyway," he said defensively.
"You'd do that?" Steve said in wonder. He thought of Sam's face when they reminisced of times gone by, of the permanent weariness in Natasha's eyes, of Bucky, who might be able to go home again, of Clint and his family, and Wanda, and Scott Lang.
Tony blinked, his forehead creasing in a consternated frown. "I'm sorry, did we have that conversation where I said some pretty painful things and you said some things back, or did I hallucinate? Because I meant it, Steve. I'll do whatever it takes."
"No, I hear you. I just..." This wasn't supposed to be easy. Nothing was ever easy, as far as Steve's experience was concerned.
But Tony was looking at him with eyes soft and knowing. He shifted in Steve's arms, pressing up close, and sending electricity up Steve's spine.
"Okay, then," Tony nudged him. "Work with me?"
"Yeah. Okay." Steve's mouth was completely dry. The world of possibilities he saw in Tony's eyes was like the most amazing flying dream. "I'm with you."