Stark Tower (briefly Avengers tower) was built for parties like this. Hundreds of guests on a dance floor, surrounded by open bars, lounge areas, and none of the trashy clublike bullshit that had taken over luxury spaces. Stark Tower parties had class, and they also had plenty of room for the VIPs to escape the noise and the clamoring of fans.
And honestly, every guest that wasn’t an Avenger was a fan. They always always were. The only exceptions were far worse: press.
“Have some wine, Stark!” Thor offered, holding out a glass.
A dull, thudding beat vibrated the floor beneath Tony’s Salvatore Ferragamo’s, but the lyrics were muddled. It was nice background noise, and gave him a bit of distraction from the fact that his ex-boyfriend was sitting two couch cushions away, chatting with Rhodey like they were old pals.
“I don’t drink,” Tony muttered, flicking his fingers to send the wine away.
Thor was drunk, and that meant he was insistent. “What if I cast a spell to relieve the alcoholic properties?”
Now that was intriguing. “How do you take the poison out of poison, Turtle?”
Thor grinned at him, the kind of grin that oozed intoxication. Tony should know, he’d worn that grin for most of his life.
When he pushed the wine forward again, Tony let out a defeated sigh. “Fine. But do your magic first, if I taste alcohol I’m kicking you out. I’m serious.”
Thor laughed, deep and rolling. “Of course, Stark.” He lifted his hand, and while Tony expected some kind of electrical current, a fine gold dust shimmered from Thor’s palm, landing in a film over the surface of the wine.
Tony leaned forward to investigate, watching as the wine glowed gold momentarily before fading back to a deep, blood red. He reached out, taking the glass by the stem and bringing it to his lips.
He drew in a breath, and caught no familiar scent of wine, just…fruit. So it was grape juice, then.
With a warning glance at Thor, Tony took a careful sip to find that the taste of wine wasn’t there, just something like gritty juice.
He could feel Steve looking at him, and that caused him to take a nice, healthy gulp. For grape juice, it was damn good.
“Looks like Loki isn’t the only one with magical powers,” he said a bit too loudly, just so Steve could hear. Last thing he needed was a Captain America lecture.
Anger was quick to billow in his gut, a white-hot track that had been hollowed out over the last year to something so refined that even the slightest comment could start him into a screaming match. He still couldn’t look at Barnes, even if he’d resigned himself to the fact that maybe it wasn’t completely Barnes’ fault that his parents were dead.
Thor moved on to Rhodey, who had been smart enough to grab a Moscow mule earlier. He was satisfied with that, and poured a nearly-spilling glass of wine for Steve.
“Captain, drink,” Thor prompted, offering the glass.
“Thor, I really shouldn’t.”
“It’s just wine,” Thor chuckled. “One glass will not intoxicate you.”
“You said that about that mead, too,” Steve muttered, but he reached out and grabbed the glass by the bowl. Didn’t even take a whiff of it before sipping it like a dog.
Tony fought to contain a laugh when Steve almost started coughing.
“A bit much for you, Cap?” Tony tested. Even totally sober, he could get drunken confidence when it concerned Steve Rogers.
“A little, yeah,” Steve chuckled, his voice wet.
And just like that, Tony’s chest pulled impossibly tight, constricted by his own malice. That was how it went now—he tried and tried to get Steve riled and it only ever ended with him feeling like a complete dick, rolling around in his own pit of feelings.
Because he still had something for Steve.
Tony stood with another draw of wine. “I’ll be back for more magic juice,” Tony told Thor, who might as well have been wagging a tail and slobbering around a tennis ball with the look he got back in return.
Tony didn’t look back as he headed down the staircase toward the dancefloor. Steve had had plenty of time to say corny Hallmark shit. Now wasn’t the time or place. Not when this party was supposed to be just a party, just an excuse get people back into the Tower and not see it as some Avengers mausoleum (and no, not to get Steve back to the Avengers mausoleum).
When the stairway opened up to the main dance floor, the crowd cheered. Tony smiled and waved, even as some people looked pointedly at the wine glass. He didn’t care if people thought he was a drunk slob. He was throwing a goddamn party—for free—so they could shove it all up their asses.
He quickened his pace when the crowd started cheering again for Steve, and made it to the DJ’s booth even as adoring guests reached and held out phones for selfies. Steve had never been good at ignoring fans, and a quick glance behind him showed that he had stopped short of entering the dance floor, but he was looking over the guests with a frown, clearly watching Tony.
With a sip of wine and a simultaneous motion for the DJ to hand him the mic, Tony was soon standing right on the stage, right where he knew he should be. Where he belonged.
“Good evening, rich New York elite,” he greeted.
Rambunctious cheers came in response. He loved to hate Manhattan.
Tony raised his glass before bringing the glass to his lips and tipping it all the way back, until only a little red film remained. It wasn’t quite as impressive as chugging a bottle of Patron, but he only had so many options as a—
Tony blinked, bringing the mic to his lips before he could think about it any further.
“Let’s have a real party, shall we? Drinks on me.”
He lifted his empty glass and handed the mic back to the DJ, who started into a base drop that did little to drown out the cheering.
Tony licked his lips, looking down at the glass. He wasn’t supposed to taste tannins. The back of his throat wasn’t supposed to feel hot after drinking virgin wine.
When he caught sight of reddish skin, Tony made his way through the crowd yet again and tugged forcefully on Vision’s silky, gold cape.
“Yes?” Vision asked as he turned, surprised.
“Tell me this isn’t alcoholic,” Tony said, shoving the wine glass toward Vision. “Test it.”
“Thor said he made it non-alcoholic,” Tony cut. He wasn’t going to throw away his sobriety for a goddamn party that meant nothing, and especially not one that Steve was at.
Vision swiped a finger along the inside of the glass and brought it to his lips.
“Tony, are you—”
“Is it alcoholic or not?” Tony snapped, stepping forward.
Vision shook his head. “It’s not. But—”
“Tony, where did you get this?” Vision asked. “I can’t identify what kind of grape was used.”
“Thor gave it to me,” Tony offered. “Put a spell on it.”
Tony’s brow furrowed as a warmth started in his stomach, a warmth that moved up his body where it settled at the back of his jaw, tingling there. This wasn’t right.
“It’s alcoholic,” Tony snapped. “I’m getting drunk, Viz.”
Vision shook his head. “Tony, I tested it.” But he paused, and Tony’s stomach sank. “There is a chance that the spell affects the wine in the glass, put perhaps it is not equipped to maintain its power inside a human body.”
“Fucking Thor,” Tony growled. He was seriously going to kill him, right after he kicked his ass out.
“Tony, can I please talk to you?”
Tony turned to see Steve there, way too close. His vision was getting pleasantly hazy, his blood warm. He felt like a middle schooler again. Aesir wine probably had a higher alcohol content than Everclear, so at least there was that. If it could get Steve drunk, one glass was definitely enough to down him even in his glory days.
“Did you finish your wine?” Tony asked, surprisingly coherent for how much he could feel himself spiraling. His cheeks weren’t even flushing.
“Uh, I’m working on it,” Steve offered, holding up his wine glass. By the bowl. And only about half of the alcohol was gone.
A least Tony didn’t feel the temptation to finish it off.
“You wanna talk?” Tony asked, tugging at the collar of Steve’s shirt. Just lightly. “Let’s find a place to talk.”
His vision was going hazy…and red. Unless his eyes were closing and he hadn’t realized it?
Well shit. This was not going to end well.
IRONCAP – IT’S BACK ON!
Tony Stark caught leaving Avengers Tower hand-in-hand with Cap!
BY DAISY MATCHES | 0 COMMENTS | POSTED TODAY AT 5:45 AM
‘They were all over each other by the end of the night,’ says a party guest.
Tony Stark appears to be having second thoughts about letting go of longtime boyfriend, Steve Rogers.
The two were spotted hand-in-hand last night in Manhattan leaving Stark Tower!
When the couple split last year, hearts around the world were broken. Sources claim that the Stark Industries chairman and New York’s favorite billionaire was fed up with Cap’s antics, and there are even conspiracy theories that Iron Man found out Steve was responsible for the deaths of Howard and Maria Stark.
With a rare show of PDA, it looks like things are back on for the two superheroes.
‘Tony definitely regrets saying goodbye,” our source confessed. ‘Now that they’ve been working together again, it’s been getting harder and harder for him.’
A LOOK BACK: Our favorite photos of Tony Stark & Steve Rogers.
FILED UNDER: Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Iron Man, Captain America, Stark Industries, Avengers
Steve woke to the sound of his coffeemaker’s automatic startup. He didn’t really need coffee, of course, but it was much more pleasant to wake up to the smell of a warm brew than it was to the screeching phone alarms he used to set. His tiny apartment barely had room for such a luxurious machine, but he’d really taken a liking to the minimalist lifestyle since coming back to the States.
When something stirred beside him, Steve nearly jumped from the bed. Grey light from the window filtered down onto his bed, and a tuft of ink-black hair stuck from the sheets.
Dread filled him immediately as he remembered Thor’s wine, and…Thor’s wine. He could remember following Tony down to the dance floor, but the rest had surely been a dream. There was no way it had actually happened the way he was remembering.
But Tony’s tie and suit jacket were haphazardly strewn over the mini fridge he’d wedged into his bedroom at the foot of the bed, and he definitely wasn’t wearing enough clothing to justify that they’d had a friendly sleepover.
His phone buzzed somewhere on the floor, and he could hear the ping of a text coming from his kitchen in a tone he didn’t use, but he knew it was Tony’s.
The body next to him jerked, and Steve heard the sharp inhale of realization before there was a flurry of movement from beneath the sheets as Tony yanked them from his face. His eyes were blown wide as he looked up at Steve, and Steve was sure his own look wasn’t much different.
“I don’t know,” Steve confessed quickly. “But I think we did.”
“Jesus.” Tony flopped onto his back, his hair a bird’s nest. He rested the back of his palm on his forehead and closed his eyes, clearly trying to think through the night.
Steve didn’t want him to remember. “Tony, let’s just get you home and we can pretend nothing happened.”
A little smirk came to Tony’s lips. “Right. Well, that’s not exactly what you said when you were drunk off your ass last night.”
Steve’s cheeks flushed. He didn’t remember saying anything that incriminating. “We were both drunk.”
“Were we?” Tony hummed, lifting his hand enough to peer at Steve from his lashes.
“Yes,” Steve said, determined.
“Friday,” Tony croaked, smacking his watch to project a hologram screen. “Is this—”
“Sir, I’ve been trying to wake you for several hours,” Friday responded a bit impatiently.
“So why haven’t you?” Tony muttered, wiping his eyes with his free hand.
“Last night initiated Project Get Him—”
“Yep, enough!” Tony cut her off, face flushing.
Steve dared to settle closer, arms crossed under his chin. This moment would end, and he knew it, but…he’d make it last as long as he could. Just to have something close to normalcy for just a moment, even though he knew it never would be the same.
“What’s the news?” Tony asked after a moment.
“Paparazzi caught you both leaving Stark Tower last night, and every major tabloid publication has a variation of the image on their front cover. Online news media outlets have been reporting on it all morning, and major political channels have been discussing the implications of your new relationship.”
“The UN has even commented on the positive implications, and I have fifty seven calls from various diplomatic leaders with well wishes, congratulations, and various charities requesting your first public appearance as a couple.”
“Because of some pictures?” Tony stammered. “Jesus, we haven’t even confirmed anything yet!”
“Sir, given Captain Rogers’ aversion to any public displays of affection, your handholding last night was quite enough to indicate the rekindling of your relationship in the eyes of the world.”
Steve frowned. “But we aren’t. We aren’t back together. Last night was just…”
The tabloid articles scrolled through the hologram screen, all plastered with the same picture of Steve holding Tony’s hand, both of them hurrying into a waiting Escalade. They even held hands getting into the car. So yes, it was a bit incriminating.
Several pictures from their relationship also scrolled through, photos of Steve and Tony laughing during interviews, holding hands at a charity event, and the world-famous photo of Steve in a vintage Dodgers jersey for the Celebrity Allstar game, hanging on the edge of the outfield wall while he gave Tony their first public kiss.
They both stared at the photo for a while, and Steve could remember clearly the joy he’d had in his heart that day. The way that kiss had tasted, the way Tony had laughed with so much happiness when Steve finally pulled away and the crowd nearly brought the place down all around them.
“Maybe we should,” Tony said quietly. Steve turned to look at him, an odd weight in his chest. “Just for pretend. I mean, it might be more awkward not to.”
Steve’s gaze traveled over the photo one more time. “I dunno, Tony. Last night—”
“Was a fluke, I know,” Tony finished. “But we’re friends. And we were never that public about being together anyway. We could make it work, and in six months we call it off.”
He could feel that this was the makings of a bad idea, but Steve Rogers had never been good at avoiding those. He didn’t love Tony anymore, and he knew Tony didn’t love him.
“Do you remember anything from last night?” Steve asked.
Something stirred in Tony’s eyes, but he shook his head. “No. Not after the wine.”
“Me either,” Steve lied. It was for the best for both of them.
“I’m going to kill Thor, by the way.”
“I’m right there with you,” Steve laughed, nuzzling into the sheets.
“Is that coffee I smell?” Tony asked, sitting up on his elbows, the hologram vanishing.
Steve could see his hands shaking. He reached forward, gently folding his over Tony’s.
It was strange that such an intimate action barely had any effect on him. They had really ended things badly, and Steve could feel that anger gnawing at his ribs even now.
“Pretending, Steve,” Tony warned.
“If I wasn’t pretending, I would have thrown you out by now.”
Tony let out a snort, but it wasn’t necessarily teasing. “You live in a shithole, by the way.”
“Pretending, Tony,” Steve hummed, thumbing over Tony’s knuckles.
“Yes, darling,” Tony replied, turning his palm. “Didn’t realize you lived in such a cozy place.”
“It’s charming,” Steve said flatly, grunting as he got himself up and crawled to the end of the bed. It was snug against the wall on all of the other sides.
“We really did last night, huh,” Tony said, sounding disappointed.
Steve shrugged. “There’s wet footprints on the floor.”
“Oh good, shower sex,” Tony said with a roll of his eyes, scooting from bed himself. “I’ll take a coffee for the road.”
“Leaving so soon?” Steve said as he pulled on a pair of sweats still on the floor from the afternoon before.
“You’re my new fake boyfriend, not my future husband,” Tony said nonchalantly as he shrugged back into his shirt. “Don’t get any ideas.”
“Just saying, you used to stay over here longer.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Yeah, back when you had a real apartment and a Nespresso.” He looked at his watch. “Gotta run anyway. Things to do.”
“Right,” Steve said, shuffling down the narrow little hallway into his tiny kitchen. A smirk came to his lips. “Kiss goodbye?”
“You wish,” Tony shot back. He patted Steve on the shoulder as he passed. “On second thought, I’ll pass on the coffee. Let’s see how this goes, and what to do.”
“Tony,” Steve’s voice turned serious. “I don’t really want to fake a relationship for the sake of public image.”
Tony scowled. “Don’t kid yourself, Rogers. I’m not exactly keen on this either, but backing out after photos like that--with our history?--It might be better to keep it going a little bit.” He shook his head. “We’ll discuss in two days, after we see what the news cycles spit out.
Anger burned low in Steve’s gut as Tony grabbed his phone and pushed past him to the door, yanking it open and sending it rattling on it’s hinges.
“And if we do this,” Tony hissed low. “You’re staying someplace with three digits in the square footage.”
The door slammed in Steve’s face, leaving him to glare at nothing.
And hopefully, that was exactly what would come of all of this.
*Tony calling Thor Turtle is a reference to your new favorite so-bad-it's-good surfing flick: North Shore
“Do you want to explain what happened the other night?” Pepper asked him as she cupped peppermint tea between her palms. Tony watched as the tea bag settled, ever so slowly tinging the water from a light green to something closer to dehydrated piss.
The view from her corner office was pristine—a perfect picture of Manhattan with a nice swath of Central Park green right in the middle. Her modern approach to the space had made Tony squirm in the beginning, but now he understood her need for no distraction. She actually did her job correctly as a CEO, something he’d never bothered to master in his day. Too many things to make.
“Don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony said, eyes back on his Starkpad. More and more articles about the photos had circulated, and the news cycles were pouncing. Paparazzi had been following a stupidly public Steve around all day, trying to figure out if his trip to the streetside fruit vendor somehow meant he was making dinner for two. And to see him walking back into that god-awful apartment building made Tony want to vomit.
“Drink that tea,” Pepper offered, gently pushing a cup toward him by the saucer. “You need to focus on something other than that screen.”
“Everyone thinks we’re something,” Tony said, ignoring her. “Just because we held hands.”
“Trust me, that’s not because of you.” He could practically hear her eye roll as she turned her wrist to glance at her smart watch.
“Yeah, what is with that?” Tony muttered. “I’m pretty public with the PDA, so why is it all about Steve?”
“Because you’re always public with PDA,” Pepper replied, sounding bored. “Steve was always more sensitive to that. It’s a pretty big deal that he was holding your hand in public—which, why was he doing that again?”
“Ha.” Tony pointed a finger at her. “Nice try, Potts.”
“So you two are back together,” Pepper murmured around a sip of tea. “Steve agreed to that?”
Tony shot her a look. “Excuse me?”
She smiled, and it was almost a little sad. It made Tony’s heart ache to see it, because he knew what she was thinking. God, they’d been good together. He knew Pepper still thought that they could be good together again. Their own little round two. And honestly, Tony knew they could be, but he also knew he had loved Pepper in a different way than he’d loved Steve. And looking back, his love for Pepper wasn’t going to be enough in the long run. Hell, even his love for Steve hadn’t even been enough.
“I know you wanted to be with him again,” Pepper continued. “But I wasn’t so sure Steve was ready. He tends to be stubborn in silly ways. You’re stubborn, but when you see you were wrong, you aren’t afraid to be the bigger man.”
“Steve isn’t afraid to be the bigger man either,” Tony replied way too quickly. “He just has to think it through a lot longer to decide how he wants to apologize.”
Pepper cocked a brow. “Is that what he told you?”
Tony straightened a little. He thought about telling the truth—that Steve had never said such a thing—but he could see Pepper was genuinely interested, and, well, he couldn’t look like a total loser. “Maybe.”
She raised her brows slightly before sipping more tea. Her computer pinged, and Tony watched her watch flash with a new message. Those only came through when things were pretty urgent, but Pepper ignored it.
“You discussed things, then,” Pepper tried.
Tony shrugged. “A little, yeah. It was pretty fast.”
She frowned in the way that made him want to frown too. “Tony…”
“Don’t say it like that, Pep.”
“Tony, he’s got a hold on you. I know you don’t like to acknowledge that, but he does. And he may not realize he’s hurting you. A one night st—”
“Steve Rogers doesn’t do one night stands,” Tony interrupted tartly. “It wasn’t like that.”
“But you aren’t together.”
Tony pursed his lips, fighting back an indignant reply. “Well,” he finally said. “I have a meeting.”
Pepper rolled her eyes. “No you don’t.”
“Not a work meeting,” Tony continued, standing up and putting the Starkpad away. “Equally important.”
He brushed off his pants and readjusted his sleeves.
“I’m serious, Pep.”
“I know you are,” Pepper said, setting her tea aside and standing up. She moved forward, reaching out to gently adjust his tie. “I just want you to be careful. If he isn’t committing to you, you need to let him go.”
Tony wrinkled his nose. “You sound like the mom in a teen romance movie. I’m an adult, Pep. I know what I’m doing.”
She searched his face, but he kept it schooled. “Just be careful. He hurt you enough the first time, and sometimes you’re overly fond of people who hurt you.”
If anyone else said something like that to him, Tony was pretty sure he’d freak out. Definitely fire them if they were an employee. But not Pepper. She’d long since perfected the ability to tell him things he didn’t want to hear.
“I’ll keep you posted,” he said instead of screaming his face off. “And I’ll try not to do anything too stupid.”
She saw him out, and Tony knew she was upset when she didn’t even chastise him for not drinking all of his tea. Tony didn’t think he could stomach anything right then, certainly not something smelly and warm.
Happy met him at the elevator, even though Tony insisted he was perfectly safe inside his own tower, and stayed with him for the ride down to the garage.
“Need me to drive?” Happy asked as they exited, which was his way of asking if Tony was emotionally available enough to be a proper human being.
“Not this time,” Tony said with a shake of his head. He checked his watch and caught sight of himself in the mirror of his McLaren P1. He paused, adjusting his collar and tugging at his sleeves to make sure they fit him just as they were tailored to do.
“Going to see Steve?” Happy asked.
Tony let out a huff. “Jesus, I sleep with my ex one time and all the sudden he’s my whole world? No , Happy. I’m not going to see Steve.”
Happy flushed, nodding sharply. “Right, yeah. Sorry boss.”
“Didn’t I hire you to be head of security anyway? So you wouldn’t be hanging around me and stressing yourself out anymore?” His tone was teasing, but only just slightly.
“Force of habit,” Happy said, smiling once again.
Tony popped open the suicide door, shooting Happy a grin before slipping inside. The hologram interface he’d installed flickered to life, giving him dashboard screen options and a continuous scan for potential threats. Couldn’t ever be too careful in a car.
When the door clicked shut and the engine yowled to life, Tony gave Happy a wave before peeling out onto the street.
An infuriating wait in traffic and a solid hour later, the McLaren squealed to a stop in front of an unassuming skyscraper. A valet ran from his post, stumbling over his shoes in an attempt to reach the car before anyone else could.
Tony dusted himself off as he emerged from the car, and pulled a pair of red-tinted glasses from his console before shutting the door.
“Parks itself, champ,” he said in greeting to the awestruck valet. He handed over a fifty. “That’s for not telling the NYPD.”
He continued to the front door, feeling a bit of anxiety for the first time since deciding to take this meeting. It was always a bit intimidating for him now when he didn’t have greeters and a posse of people trying their very best to impress him. Even though he’d wanted to be invisible during some parts of his life, this wasn’t one of them.
At least the receptionist knew who he was.
“Right this way, Mr. Stark,” she said, and he noticed her lipstick was feathered around the edges, spread a bit too thin over her bottom lip like she’d been sitting at that desk all night, waiting for him.
Businesspeople whispered amongst each other as he walked by, and Tony remembered why he’d liked having security. He felt naked walking around alone, not being shuttled.
Hell, Steve would probably laugh in his face if he ever admitted it. “It’s called being a normal person.”
Tony tried to maintain his breathing as he was led into a modern-looking legal firm. He hated firms with dark wood everywhere—they reminded him of when he’d been forced to endure his own miniature law school to “understand the meaning” of the trust fund his father had so loathed to give him access to.
So at least the glass and metal was welcome, familiar.
He was handed off to the receptionist, who walked him down an absurdly long hallway that fit way too many gawking people who pretended they weren’t gawking.
He’d always imagined this walk to be a little different, but maintained his composure as he was led to a corner office.
The receptionist didn’t immediately allow him in, and instead poked her head into the office, her face blurred by the frosted glass. She murmured something that had the tone of a question while Tony cleared his throat only a little bit loudly outside.
Finally, the receptionist stepped back and opened the door, gesturing for him to walk inside.
“Thanks,” he muttered, trying not to sound as annoyed as he felt. Honestly, waiting outside?
“Mr. Stark,” a woman greeted from the far end of the office, standing up from an impressive desk. Original paintings were tactfully placed on the walls, matching the Turkish rug that had enough color variation that he knew it was the real thing.
“Dr. Maddrey, I’m guessing,” Tony greeted stiffly. “You make all of your clients do the walk of shame?”
She smiled at him, but it didn’t reach her eyes. Her lipstick was not feathered. “I didn’t realize a bit of public scrutiny would make you so uncomfortable.”
Tony narrowed his eyes but extended his hand. “You know I’m paying you, right?”
Her perfectly gel-manicured hand met his for a firm shake. “Trust me, this is me being nice.” She gestured toward a white table. “Please, sit.”
Tony took another glance around the office before taking a seat in one of her fancy rolling office chairs. The centerpiece consisted of a plant that looked like an oddly stacked jenga tower made of thick leaves. It wound tightly around what he assumed was a hidden stake and the pods of flowers that clung to it were glossy--if they hadn’t smelled so pleasant he would have assumed they were fake.
“Tea?” Dr. Maddrey offered.
Tony let out a little snort, then thought better of it. “Sure. I’ll take tea.”
He reached out, gently touching the leaves of the plant to make sure they were real. The waxy texture confirmed it, and he found himself almost disappointed. Of course they were real. “By the way, should I call you Dr. Maddrey or something else?”
“Winona will do,” she replied without looking up from her teapot.
“Well, I prefer Dr. Stark,” Tony muttered. “Seeing as I have a few of those degrees.”
That got her to smile. “I meant no disrespect, Dr. Stark.”
He grimaced. “On second thought, Tony is fine.”
Winona placed his teacup on a saucer that looked all too similar to Pepper’s before bringing it over to him.
“I don’t have a lot of time here,” Tony began. “So I’d like to cut to the chase.”
Winona nodded, reaching over to a small box by the flower pot. She turned a little key in what was surely just some kind of spectacle before she removed a thick file.
“As you know, I’ve worked with many high profile clients,” she began, her finger splayed over the smooth cardstock. “But this case has been a challenge.”
“You’re welcome,” Tony smirked, but he felt the panic churn in his gut.
Winona looked down at the file. “Cutting all the bullshit, right now you have less than a fifty percent chance of being approved.”
Tony blinked. “What? How the hell is that possible? You’re telling me that me being me is—”
“A problem,” Winona finished firmly. “If this happens, it will be high profile. The agency will be in the public eye, scrutinized. And frankly, there are a lot of valid arguments as to why you shouldn’t be approved.”
Tony bristled, but didn’t speak right away because he knew it was true. “Like what,” he finally gritted out.
“There are three categories in which potential parents are assessed. Obviously, you far exceed the financial stability category, but home study and lifestyle changes are areas in which you do poorly. Not to mention what you do for a living outside of handling your company.”
Tony scowled. “I’m sober, you know,” he cut. “And I haven’t done drugs in over a decade. There’s no alcohol in any of my houses, and all of the people that—”
“There’s also a lab in which a new element was created, and several miniature nuclear reactors were made.”
“Technically that isn’t in my house,” Tony quipped.
Winona shot him a look. “As far as the agency is concerned, the fact that a child could come into contact with ingredients for explosives doesn’t look great.”
“This is bullshit,” Tony hissed. “I have more than enough to give a kid a great life. Any kid in the system would feel like they won the lottery if I adopted them—and they basically would!”
“Public perception doesn’t usually affect these cases, but it does here,” Winona said evenly. “There will be questions about your reliability and willingness to care for a child. Your public persona doesn’t exactly convey fatherly.”
“Oh please,” Tony scoffed with a roll of his eyes. “I’m not on a bender making this decision. I’m not stumbling in here on my way home from a party asking for a kid. I started this process months ago--this is the real deal--and people will see that.”
Winona could only give him a small smile. “There’s a chance we can make that happen.”
Tony sat up a little more. “Tell me what I need to do.”
“Recently you were seen leaving a party with—”
“Oh for fuck’s sake!” Tony threw up his hands before pushing himself away from the table.
“Tony, I was prepared to tell you to stop pursuing this process today. But my public relations team noticed a change after those photos came out.” Winona opened the folder, pulling several sheets of paper littered with charts and graphs. “Just giving the public a whiff that you and Steve Rogers might be together has been enough to show a five percent drop in perceptions that you’re selfish, a partier, and even a drop in perception that you pursued the Accords for the wrong reasons.”
Tony gritted his teeth. “I am none of those things anymore. And my support of the Accords—”
She put up a hand to stop him. “I believe you. I do. But until the public does, the adoption process will probably be fruitless for you. Any adoption agency that gives you a child right now could be slammed in the public arena for endangering a child. Even if that isn’t true, their reputation could take permanent damage.”
Tony removed his glasses, trying not to throw them down when he did so. “So the only way I get to adopt my kid is if I’m with Steve? Sorry, doc, that’s not gonna happen. We broke up. We’re broken up.”
Winona shrugged. “I’m not saying you need to marry him. We just need a window. A few months of a relationship, we announce the plans for adoption, you stay with Steve until the paperwork is done, then quietly part ways like you did during the Accords battle.”
Quiet. Right. Maybe in the public eye, but it certainly hadn’t been a quiet breakup on the way out.
His suggestion to fake date Steve had mostly been to sugarcoat getting the fuck out of his apartment, to offer a clean way out if they really couldn’t escape their friends’ talk. But this…
“How long?” Tony asked, looking down at his hands.
“For your relationship? A year at the longest.”
Tony closed his eyes. A year. He didn’t know if he’d be able to pin Steve down that long, or be able to convince him to help him adopt a kid. Steve had been very much against the idea when they were together, and he doubted their breakup had broken his heart and made him suddenly feel that Tony and children were two things that should be together.
But maybe Steve didn’t have to know. He never watched the news, and Tony knew he could convince Steve that an adoption announcement was baloney. Even if Steve did figure it out, it wasn’t like they would really be together in the first place.
“If he breaks up with me after announcement, could we salvage it?” Tony asked, mind churning now.
Winona’s lips quirked. “If we plan ahead, I’m sure my team can spin it. We can get ahead of it and probably still pull it off. Make Steve out to be the one not ready to parent.”
“Which is probably true,” Tony muttered. “Even if he sticks around the full year—it’s not like he gets custody or anything, right?”
“No way, not unless you’re married. We may have to vet him, but I’m sure he’d pass with flying colors.”
Don’t be so sure , Tony wanted to say, but he knew better than to shoot himself in the foot. So instead he smiled, patting the table.
“Well, Dr. Maddrey, I’d say we have a plan.”
Steve had forgotten what it was like to be the public’s plaything. A few photos of handholding with Tony and suddenly he couldn’t leave his apartment without being bombarded with paparazzi. He’d never understood tabloid press, and he definitely didn’t like them, but he understood that the photographers were just doing their jobs. It was the writers and editors that spun stories out of nothing—much like they had done in this case.
Natasha taught him a few tricks for staying out of the limelight, but as Bucky had always said: he was really shitty at hiding. Leaving his apartment was impossible without being noticed, and even when he did manage to sneak out, he only found himself caught on camera from across the street or up in the neighboring apartment buildings.
It was all for nothing, though. Steve had no plans with Tony, and whatever he’d been talking about with fake dating had obviously been some kind of joke. It occurred to him to text Tony to clarify, but he didn’t want to give the impression that he was looking to see him again, or even talk to him again.
That party had been a fluke, as they’d discussed. The vulnerability he’d seen in Tony that night had disappeared when he’d sobered up and rushed out of the apartment the next morning. Steve couldn’t really blame him for that—he wasn’t sure he would have fared any better had roles been reversed.
But damn if his heart didn’t go haywire when his phone buzzed in his pocket. He realized three things when it happened: 1) he had to change his Tony-specific vibration pattern, 2) Tony hadn’t texted him since their breakup and 3) Tony was texting him for the first time in a year.
It was impossible to ignore the last texts they’d sent, and Steve figured Tony must have given them a long look before sending his message.
Come in and talk to me about it. – TS
So you can arrest me? Think what you want about my decision, but don’t insult my intelligence. – SR
I’ll take that as a no, then. – TS
It’s a no. Still love you though. – SR
Love you too. – TS
It was like a conversation between two ghosts. Two people who were no longer around to defend their actions then, to defend those words. It was funny to Steve that their last messages still included the ‘I love you’s when he remembered already feeling the pull toward something less than love. The discontent had started the moment Tony told him about the Accords, the moment he had tried to swing them as something empowering when they so obviously weren’t.
Meet me for lunch? Gravelle’s Manhattan, second floor. – TS
Lunch wasn’t as telling as dinner, but the fact that it was just going to be the both of then made Steve nervous. That party hadn’t magically changed things between them. Steve couldn’t think of one reason why Tony would want to meet him for lunch. They were simply coworkers now—and the fact that they could even run missions together was something of a miracle.
Maybe. Why? Will there be press? – SR
He’d lost the desire to sugarcoat anything when it came to Tony Stark. He’d tried that before, and it had landed him here.
Something smacked against his cheek and Steve jumped back instinctively just in time to catch Natasha’s grin. Her boxing gloves were dangling from one wrist, swinging in the low light of the boxing gym.
“Who are you texting?” she asked with a knowing grin.
“Tony,” Steve said, keeping his voice even.
She lifted a brow. “Oh, so you two are texting again?”
“It’s not like that.”
Natasha didn’t look like she believed him. “It’s not? That’s not what I’ve been reading.”
Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re kidding me.”
“Normally I would be, but I saw you both at that party, Steve.”
Shame made him flush just as his phone buzzed again.
No press. I want to talk to you about something. PR-related. Don’t get any ideas. – TS
“The party wasn’t anything,” Steve finally muttered.
You’re the one asking me out to lunch. Just tell me what time and I’ll be there, - SR
He realized that might seem to forward—too eager—the moment he pressed send. Too late now, he supposed.
“It’s okay to still like him, you know,” Natasha said, her voice going softer the way it did when she thought Steve was being too hard on himself (which had happened much more often in the past year).
“It’s not, and we’re over. I just regret how it happened.” The one-two punch. The breakup, then the betrayal in Siberia. Steve couldn’t recover from that and he knew it. He really didn’t blame Tony for that part of things: he wasn’t sure he’d be able to forgive if the tables were turned.
“You’re talking again,” Natasha said. “In Starkese that’s pretty much a miracle. Tony can really hold a grudge, and if he’s even talking to you after what happened? Pretty amazing.”
Steve fought down the well of pride. He knew it was misguided. “He’s great at saving face.”
He glanced at his phone to see that Tony wanted to meet in an hour. There had been a lot of times over the past year that Steve had ached for something like a lunch with Tony. Sometimes to scream at him, other times to apologize, and yes, sometimes to get back what they had lost.
Despite all of that, Steve just had a pressing numbness in his gut about the whole thing. He feared what Tony would say, but he wasn’t sure what words he was actually afraid of. He couldn’t imagine that Tony was calling him up on a date (he’d made it clear that wasn’t what this was) but there was always a chance that maybe Tony was just trying to get his guard down, to make him more susceptible to saying yes.
Steve didn’t know why he even entertained that daydream when he’d told himself over and over that he would never—not ever—get back together with Tony. Tony still hated Bucky, even if he was civil around him in front of others. Steve would not have a boyfriend who hated his best friend—Bucky was vulnerable enough as it was.
“Steve,” Natasha was saying, gently whacking him with her boxing gloves.
He blinked back to the present. “Sorry, Nat. I’m just—”
She shook her head. “We’re done for the day. As much as we should be practicing while you’re distracted, you should go see Tony.”
He hated the way she said it.
“Uh, right.” He looked up at her. “It’s just lunch, you know.”
“I know,” she said, clearly unconvinced. “See you tomorrow?”
He nodded, gently knocking her gloves with his taped knuckles. “See you tomorrow.”
She smiled at him, and he found he also hated the way she looked so sincere. Natasha was very good at reading people, but she wasn’t right this time. Yes, he still had too much invested with Tony Stark, but he knew better now. He knew what happened when he tried to protect Tony from things that could hurt him, and there was no going back now.
Gravelle’s was a restaurant that was supposed to look like something old and European. It was impossible to tell which country it was modeled after though, because it was clearly designed by someone so wealthy they had never stepped into real…whatever it was they were going for. The lighting was a warm gold, the walls decorated with sepia photographs, framed letters on worn paper, and a smattering of aged sports memorabilia. It didn’t look authentic to Steve, and he wondered if Tony had planned that.
He found Tony in a corner booth, tucked up against the wall. He was scrolling through his phone, but Steve didn’t buy the relaxed act. For one, Tony’s tie was still snug at his throat, and he was still wearing a watch on his wrist. That meant he hadn’t relaxed at all, which was unusual for midday. Especially when he was dressed up.
“Important day at work?” Steve greeted maybe too loudly.
If Tony had been startled, he didn’t show it. His gaze lingered on his phone for a few seconds longer, but he did finally lock the screen and pocket his phone.
“Steve,” Tony greeted with a smile, as though Steve hadn’t spoken to him at all. He motioned toward the other side of the booth. “Have a seat. I’ve got fried pickles and onion rings on the way.”
“Good,” Steve muttered. “At least I know you’re not gonna try to kiss me.”
Tony’s smile widened into something real as he let out a snort. “Told you, don’t get any ideas.”
Steve took his seat, cocking a brow at the menu: a piece of rough-cut paper on a thick clipboard that looked like it had one been part of a table itself.
“So,” Steve said after glancing over the menu. No prices. That was never good. “Why did you ask me to lunch? We haven’t had lunch in a few years.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Always ready to get straight to business, Rogers.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed slightly. “I’m sorry, I was told not to get any ideas. Is this a social thing or a business meeting?”
Well. Steve sat back against the cushion behind him as the pickles and onion rings arrived in all of their fried glory. Tony plucked a pickle chip from the pile and popped it in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. There was a hesitancy Steve could see in his eyes, something akin to fear. There was too much silence and not enough something .
“Then I want to get to the busi—”
“I have a problem,” Tony interrupted, hands retreating to his lap.
“A problem? Is everything okay?”
Tony frowned. “I’m not dying or anything, if that’s what you mean.”
Steve allowed himself to be relieved about that. He was glad that Tony was okay, even if he knew he shouldn’t be.
“Well that’s good,” he said when he realized he hadn’t spoken. “But something else is wrong.”
Tony blinked, mouth falling slightly open before he quickly recomposed. “Right, well. It’s about the whole…waking up in your bed thing.”
Steve’s heart leapt to his throat. He couldn’t find any words to say, because he had no idea what was going to come out of Tony’s mouth. Tony looked equally as pained, and for a moment they just stared at each other.
“What did you want—"
“It’s not like—”
They both closed their mouths again, and Steve set his jaw, determined not to speak first.
“I have a new project coming up,” Tony began. “A new…chapter of sorts. Totally new territory for me.”
Steve watched carefully as Tony spoke, looking for any sign that this was a trap. Instead, he read nervousness—and Tony Stark seldom showed anyone that he was nervous about anything. Steve sat up a little straighter in his seat and picked up an onion ring, taking a bite.
“But I can’t tell you what it is, and it requires a lot of public support.”
Steve stopped chewing. “Is It government related? Something like the Accords?”
Tony shook his head. “God—no, no, nothing like that. Entirely personal. A personal project. The public has to support me.”
“They do support you,” Steve said flatly. “According to them, you were on the right side of things.”
“People don’t think that so much anymore, you know that.”
Steve did. “I still don’t see why I need to be involved. Or why I should be involved.”
“I know,” Tony said, looking down at his hands. Steve grabbed a few fried pickle chips while Tony wasn’t looking. “I didn’t want to involve you. It really isn’t my choice to involve you.”
Steve met his eyes, not needing to examine too closely to see that Tony was telling the truth. This didn’t seem to be a ploy. “This have to do with the article?”
Tony perked up. “Yes—yeah. My PR team ran the numbers, and that little tabloid piece did a lot for my image. Of course, it’s fragile and I know it won’t do anything long term, but that’s what I need you for.”
At one point in his life, Steve would have known exactly where Tony was going with this, but that part of him was so warped now that he waited until things were spelled out to him. Better not to confuse things.
“I think we should do the fake relationship thing,” Tony finally confessed. His cheeks flushed, visible even in the low light.
Steve frowned, taking a sip of his water. “Why?”
“Because I need it.”
Now that was something Steve had never anticipated hearing. Tony never said the word “need.” Not unless he was desperate, or under threat. Or someone he loved was under threat.
Steve glanced around, leaning closer. “Are you sure everything is okay?”
The smile Tony gave him was cracked. “Nobody’s in any danger, Steve,” he said softly.
Steve sat back, unsure. “What would it entail?”
Tony shrugged. “We pretend to be in a relationship again. You can move back into the tower—on your floor, of course. Let everyone think you moved back into the penthouse.”
“That doesn’t sound very believable,” Steve said. “I would just move right back in.”
Tony snorted. “Sure you would. If you were in love with me and I was in love with you—what would we wait for? We’ve already done the living together thing. You’d move back in the second I asked.”
It was Steve’s turn to snort. “I would not.”
“Would too. We used to do shit like that all the time. How many baseball games did we go to? I don’t even like baseball, but whenever you wanted to go, all the sudden I was the world’s biggest fan.”
It was true. Steve had taken a long time to ask Tony to go to a game with him precisely because he knew Tony didn’t like baseball, so he’d been more than surprised when Tony showed up decked out in Dodgers gear, and it had taken a full hour for Steve to figure out that Tony hadn’t just memorized every baseball fact he could think of and instead had them scrolling across his sunglasses at will.
He’d loved those games. Celebrating plays with Tony, getting the best seats, meeting some of the players. Most of all, it had made Tony beyond happy to be able to spoil him. Steve had always made a point to keep Tony away from spending too much money on him, but baseball games were the exception to the rule.
“How long?” Steve asked, because he was an idiot and knew he was going to say yes already.
“That’s the thing,” Tony said, drumming his fingers on the table. “Six months. Maybe a year.”
“A year? Tony, I can’t fake date you for a year.”
Tony frowned. “Why not?”
“What if I meet someone else?”
“You…” Tony thought a moment. “If you meet someone else, we’ll dissolve it. But I need six months. You can tell whoever you meet that you have a contractual obligation. Avengers PR or something.”
“How together do we have to be?”
Tony grinned. “Thankfully, the bar is pretty low. Hold my hand, maybe a kiss on the cheek if we really want to get them going.”
He didn’t like this idea. His heart loved the idea, which was yet another reason why he should have said no immediately and left the restaurant.
“I’m not sure this is a good idea. You won’t even tell me what the reason is. That usually means it’s something I won’t like.”
Tony nodded. “Yeah, I thought you might say that. And I can’t tell you what the reason is. But it’s personal to me, and it won’t harm anyone. In fact, it’s going to only be good for people.”
“So why won’t you tell me what it is, then?” Steve asked, trying not to get suspicious or annoyed. It was a difficult balance with Tony.
“Can’t count my chickens before they hatch,” Tony said, and his face went a little somber. “If you do this for me, it would mean a lot. It would go a long way in repairing what, uh, happened.”
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “Are you referring to our breakup or the secret I kept to protect you?”
Tony met his eye, gaze fierce. “The secret, Steve.”
“So you’re trying to manipulate me into this scheme—am I hearing this right?”
“You’re allowed to say no,” Tony said defensively. “You know—” He cut himself off. “I don’t want you to say yes if you think I’m manipulating you. I’ve given you what I can, you can decide if you want to try this or not. You’re allowed to walk out whenever you want.”
Steve didn’t say anything, and that brought a little bit of panic to Tony’s eyes.
“Please, Steve. I’m just saying that it will mean a lot to me. I know it’s a big sacrifice, but if anything, we’ll learn how to get along again. To be real friends, not just tell people that we are.”
But Steve knew it was so much more than that. It would be for him, anyway. Here was a chance to make up for what he’d done, to win Tony over. To get back where they were before all of this happened. And if it didn’t work, they’d at least part friends. Actually friends this time.
He couldn’t turn it down.
“Okay,” Steve said softly. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Steve hadn’t been to church in a long time. He told himself it was because he was busy, because he’d been on the run, because the last time he’d been in a church was to carry out Peggy’s coffin. In all truth, he wasn’t sure the real reason. As he sat in his pew, he wasn’t intimidated like many people were. Church had always been a touchpoint for him. A community when he had none at home. His mother had done her best to tithe, to help the other ladies of the church bake pies for the bake sales or raise money for the homeless, even when most of them were dangling on the edge of homelessness themselves.
He remembered his mother’s rosary, he remembered the way it felt to be on his knees beside her, listening to her quiet voice recite prayers when he didn’t know the meaning. She’d gripped hard to her faith, and he’d seen it save her many times. When his father beat her, she had a place to turn. When she was scared of the future, she prayed. When she needed just a few minutes of peace, she prayed.
Of course, the church had its problems. Catholicism had plenty—so many that Steve only went to a Catholic mass on Christmas Eve and Easter, and that was mostly to appease his mother’s spirit.
When he did go to church, it was a modern one—small, full of mostly young people. There were no grandmothers clutching rosaries, no words to recite aloud, no confession. Sometimes he wondered if his mother would have disowned him by now, if her motherly love couldn’t extend to cover the fact that her son was gay, and not a practicing Catholic (though if anyone asked, he always said he still was). He also wondered if she would be angry at him for not living with less. For not giving more, for not serving the way she had.
“Grace can’t be deserved,” the pastor said, looking out among the room. Steve had taken a seat in the back after entering late, trying to make his presence as small as possible. “The nature of grace is that it’s undeserved, but given anyway. Think of a time when you have been so in the wrong, when you’ve destroyed a relationship with someone—and many times we willingly make the choice to ruin this relationship!—and this relationship doesn’t have the slightest chance of being fixed.”
Well. Steve sat back in his seat, arms folded in a subconscious way to protect himself from such a callout. But, he wanted to ask, what if you did it to protect the person? If it wasn’t meant to hurt them at all?
Disagreeing with the Accords had been a personal decision. It had expedited an already inevitable breakup, widening the cracks in their relationship they’d been able to gloss over before. “Taking a break” had come shortly before Siberia, and at that time, Steve had believed it would all blow over. He had truly—naively—believed that it was just a break. That maintaining a romantic relationship and a political war was too much to handle at once. And maybe they could have fixed it, if Tony hadn’t found out what Steve had hidden from him.
“When we’re found guilty, we want grace,” the pastor continued. “We need it. Sometimes we beg for it. But when we find others guilty, it’s exactly what we don’t give.”
Steve looked down at his hands. His phone sat beside him, turned off. He was sure when he turned it on again that there would be several texts from Tony there, continuing to try to plan their first outing as a reunited couple. They’d narrowed it down to either a charity event or an Avengers mission press conference.
He dimly wondered what this pastor would say about having a fake relationship, especially one with a man. Except he sort of had an answer for the latter, because the same pastor had smiled and waved several times when he’d visited before. Had greeted him by name after service on occasion, and had never once thrown a disapproving look his way, even if he probably saw wrong in Steve’s choices.
“It’s your choice,” the pastor said. “Extending grace when you’re put in the position to do so. Maybe it doesn’t seem fair—it isn’t fair! Grace isn’t fair. There are no ‘grace points’ you can cash in when you need them. If God only accepted ‘good people’ who had enough Goodness Points, sorry, but no one is getting in.”
Definitely not a Catholic church. He remembered a few times in the war when men had showed real fear—those rare and fleeting times of panic. If he closed his eyes he could still smell the acrid scent of spent artillery, the choking dirt and dust, the impossibly loud explosions that cleaved the earth all around. He remembered men praying to the Lord, or Jesus, or “Whoever’s Up There.” Screaming to live, screaming to die, begging to be good enough to find paradise. He remembered wondering if he was good enough, or if he was going to Hell forever for letting a team of scientists alter his God-given body.
“With his dying breaths, Jesus extended grace to the criminal hanging beside him. There was no hope for him, no chance to promise God if he could just get out, he’d change his life, no chance to turn his life around. No more Goodness Points to be earned—and yet Jesus gave him grace!” The pastor paused, staring straight at him. Steve didn’t flinch, mostly because he knew it was too dark where he was sitting for the man to actually make out anything in the inky blackness from the stage.
“Everyone knew the criminal was guilty. But he wasn’t condemned. It’s up to us to do the same—to recognize guilt, the consequences, and extend grace anyway.”
As the service closed, Steve said his prayers with an unsettling feeling in his gut. He’d done his duty—he’d extended his grace to Tony. Agreeing to be his fake boyfriend for potentially a full year? Yeah, he wasn’t afraid to say that was a big sacrifice. He was paying his debt and cleaning the slate. And if someone was going to make a grace argument, Tony was the one who was withholding.
The church started to empty, but Steve remained in his seat. As much as his mother would scold him for not being a good Christian and finding his community here, he knew what his being here could mean. Protestors, for one. A lot of Christian groups loathed him now that he was out, and they would definitely make trouble here.
When he finally stood to leave, the pastor turned from his conversation with one of the church staff. He waved and smiled, and Steve waved back.
“Good to see you today, Steve. Have a good Sunday.”
Steve just waved a second time, the lump in his throat too big to speak around. He busied himself with his phone turning it back on to receive several emails and yes, a few texts from Tony.
Or a social media blast. Instagram announcement? TS
That seems too millennial. Scratch that. TS
Steve ducked past the small crowd lingering in the church lobby, and headed back toward his apartment. No one called after him.
Whatever you want to do, he replied, and he meant it. Tony was the mastermind behind all of this, and the less he dictated, the better. He was doing his part to be Tony’s puppet, wasn’t that enough?
About time you replied. TS
Not the answer I was looking for. Let’s discuss properly, penthouse? TS
He stopped, letting out a sigh.
Right now? SR
Yes, right now. Do you have any other plans? TS
This was a power move and he knew it. The penthouse was a place he never wanted to be in unless he had to be, and Tony knew it. When he did have to be there, Steve always stuck as close to the lobby as he could, just in case he had to turn tail and get out of there.
Sure. I’ll head there now. SR
He really, really hoped he’d made the right choice in doing this.
When the doors opened to the penthouse, Steve had his hands clenched to fists in his pockets. Tony had redecorated months ago, but it was it was always a shock to see different furniture, rigs, and paintings on the walls. It was a clear message that he was gone from Tony’s life, and any shred of familiarity he may have found here was wiped clean. Even the kitchen appliances were new, and the granite countertops replaced.
“Living room,” Tony called.
Of course, it was a pretty much completely open floor plan, so the living room wasn’t actually a separate room at all. Steve took a big breath, trying to keep it quiet just in case Friday was monitoring him for signs of weakness or something to bolster Tony’s ego.
“Hey, Tony, Steve greeted, but his voice wasn’t as strong as he’d hoped.
Tony waved, but didn’t look up from his Starkpad. “Have a seat, Rogers. Anywhere you like.”
His usual spot was empty—all of the furniture rearranged so that the place where his favorite chair used to be was utterly bare. He wasn’t welcome here.
So he sat on the furthest edge of the sofa, folding his hands in his lap and trying to portray some kind of confident politeness.
“What do you think?” Tony asked, still not looking up.
Steve cleared his throat. “I’m sorry?”
“My ideas, what do you think?”
“Uh.” Steve looked around, as though the gas fireplace would offer up some kind of answer in the flames. “I’m willing to do whatever you want to do.”
“That’s a first,” Tony muttered.
Steve’s eyes narrowed. “If you invited me here just to insult me, I’m outta here.”
Finally, Tony looked up from his tablet. “I invited you here to discuss how we’re announcing our fake togetherness. And to practice.”
Tony sighed. “Yes. Because if how you’re acting right now is anything like how you’re going to act when we’re out in public, we’re not gonna sell it.”
Despite just leaving church, Steve was awfully tempted to stand up and cuss Tony out. “Right. Because that has nothing to do with the way you’re treating me right now.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed, indicating he knew exactly what he’d done. “I’ll be different when we’re in front of people.”
“So will I,” Steve countered. “And I think we should announce it relating to the Avengers. That way if anyone finds out it’s a sham, they won’t be able to pin it on a charity or something.”
Tony didn’t say anything for a moment, he just stared. “Fine. How?”
Steve didn’t have to think hard for that one. “When the fighting’s over, we find each other like we always did. Ask each other if we’re okay, big hug. Maybe kiss your head or something.”
It felt like a betrayal to turn something that had once been so meaningful into an act, but Tony clearly didn’t care about anything they had before, so Steve assumed he wouldn’t care about that.
“Sounds great,” Tony said flatly. “But you can’t make it awkward. You hesitate for one second and it could throw everything off. Everyone’s watching you like a hawk, because you’re the good and honorable one.”
“You mean they never expect me to lie,” Steve clarified. As soon as he said it, he knew he shouldn’t have, and Tony jumped right on it.
“They don’t know the real you, no.”
Steve looked away, fighting the hurt. They hadn’t even started this and Steve already felt used. Tricked. Tony had none of the softness or desperation he’d had before.
“If you’ve changed your mind, we don’t have to do this,” Steve said.
“I haven’t changed my mind,” Tony said firmly. “But this isn’t extending to my personal life. This is essentially a business move. It’s a PR stunt, nothing more. Maybe it helps our friendship, maybe it doesn’t.”
“Fair enough. But you don’t get to insult me. This is automatically part of my personal life. I’m going to lie to all of my friends and family for a year, for you. So you’d better respect that, even if you don’t respect me. “
Tony stood too, crossing his arms. “If we can convince them. If you can convince them.”
“What’s got you so angry?” Steve said, dropping into a soft tone, stepping in to cross the distance between them. “Talk to me. Tell me what’s wrong, Tones.” He leaned into Tony’s sneer, hands framing Tony’s face, looking him over as though he could find the answer in his eyes.
“Stop it,” Tony grit, but he didn’t shake Steve off.
“Whatever it is, we’ll face it together. Just like always,” Steve soothed, but his face had gone cold. “You and me.”
He forced himself to lean in further until his forehead rested against Tony’s warm skin, until he could feel Tony’s breath on his lips, too hot and thick.
“Convincing enough?” Steve hissed.
“I’m swooning,” Tony growled, snaking his arms around Steve’s waist. They felt bony and stiff compared to what Steve remembered. Constricting. “You’re right, babe. We always win when we’re together.”
Steve cracked a smile, something dark behind it. “Good.” He leaned back a little, thankful to be away from Tony’s breath. It smelled like celery about to rot.
With that moment over, Tony sighed. “We’ll have to be real about it in the moment, though. But the pose is good. Maybe accentuate the height difference a little, bend in a little more—that’ll make front page.”
Despite initiating the cruel little exchange, Steve was still surprised to hear Tony so flippant about it. “So…like this, then.” He leaned in again, and this time Tony didn’t resist, tipping his head back just a little.
“Better,” he mumbled. “Hands, though.”
Steve’s hands came up, trying not to be awkward as he cupped Tony’s face again.
“Like you mean it, Steve.”
He let out a little huff, closing his eyes. He tried to remember what it felt like when he used to do this for real, relaxing his palms just slightly, letting his nose brush against Tony’s.
Tony patted his hip. “Decent. Open your eyes, though, that part’s weird.”
Steve’s eyes flicked open and he stepped back. “I’ll get it down by the time we go on mission.”
“Good,” Tony said with a nod. The harshness from before had left his voice, Steve noticed. “I’ll work on a cheesy line. I think a little improve will make it more organic. Friday, how did we look?”
“Decent,” Friday replied. “Without audio, better than decent.”
Tony frowned. “So. Definitely work on it.”
“It’ll be easier if you’re civil with me in private,” Steve murmured. “You don’t gotta be extra nice or anything, just don’t…do this again.”
“Method,” Tony mumbled. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“No.” Steve shook his head. “You have to promise to be decent to me. I’m not going to let you verbally abuse me behind-the-scenes.”
The comparison to Howard went unsaid, but Tony flinched anyway.
“Fine. I promise.”
Steve slipped his hands into his pockets. “When do you expect our next mission to be?”
Tony shrugged. “A few days. I can come up with something flashy but not too dangerous. That way you won’t lose your head—figuratively or literally.”
Steve almost laughed, at the joke, but he didn’t. “Works for me.”
“Great,” Tony said with a false smile. “Now get out of my house. We’ll discuss living arrangements after we see how the reveal goes.”
Even though he’d walked way too far to get here just to immediately leave, Steve wasn’t going to complain. He wanted out of here. “Sounds great. See you soon.”
Tony didn’t walk him out, and Steve didn’t expect him to. He made his way past the unfamiliar kitchen, through the unfamiliar hall, and back to the unfamiliar entryway. He glanced back at the last second—
Tony was there, watching from the kitchen.
They locked eyes for only a second before the both of them quickly looked elsewhere, and Steve punched the button to call the elevator a few too many times.
It didn’t mean anything.
Just a PR stunt. He needed to remember that, or none of this was going to work.
“I need you to hurry up on those EMPs, Romanoff,” Tony gritted out as he barreled down a hallway, bullets bouncing from his suit as he did so.
The HYDRA cell they’d found in Jersey wasn’t much to look at, but even for a young cell it was teeming with weapons and people to use them. Tony would never admit HYDRA was getting stronger, but they were getting smarter. Survival of the smartest, in this case. They liked to rig doors with explosives, and remotely detonate C4 at will in small spaces. Each cell they stomped out had more and more traps, and was more and more dangerous for the less-immortal members of the team.
But they did give the Avengers something to do. New cells sprang up all the time. This one had been flagged only a day prior, and they had all been restless for a good tactical challenge. Good practice for the big bad guys.
“They’ve upgraded their protection systems,” Natasha murmured into the comm. “Not sure I’m going to be able to trip them in time. You okay in there?”
A bullet hit Tony square in the nose, likely denting his mask before it ricocheted. Tony lifted a hand and sent a blast down the hall, effectively silencing the shooter. He instinctively lifted a hand, metal fingers feeling along his mask. Yep, dented.
“I’m managing. I’d really like some help, though.”
“I should be in there.” Steve’s voice was clear through the comms, and Tony could hear his frustration.
“You can’t come in here, Cap,” he muttered, moving down the hall and scanning for explosives. “Way too dangerous.”
“I could at least follow at your back,” Steve growled. “You’re too at risk in there alone.”
“Steve, I swear to God,” Bucky hissed, the sound of gunfire in the background. “Leave it alone and start helpin’ me pick ‘em off.”
Tony smiled, even if hearing Bucky’s voice always made his insides clench. “Yeah, Steve. Listen to Terminator.”
The building shuddered around him, and bits of concrete clattered on the floor, followed by thick plumes of dust. Tony’s HUD immediately flipped to thermal to give him the best vision.
Things didn’t look good.
Tony hesitated at a corner, bracing against the concrete wall behind him.
“I dunno,” he said, mostly to himself.
“That’s it—Tony, get out of there,” Steve demanded over the comm. “It’s too unstable.”
“There could be hostages, like Texas,” Tony replied, turning the corner. He sent two blasts down the hall, destroying some storage crates and sending a HYDRA operative into a fit of screaming as shrapnel punctured his side. Tony silenced him with another blast.
“Can’t you send a drone or something?” Sam asked.
Well. Tony flicked through his display. “Yes, but it’ll be impossible to scan the whole bunker in time.”
“Then I’ll come in and help you,” Steve grunted, and there were sounds of a scuffle. Tony wasn’t worried—Steve could kill pretty much anyone with his bare hands.
“That’s a negative, I’m sending a drone.” A waste of time, he wanted to add, but he knew Steve really would come in if he didn’t. Thanks to Sam and his goddamn mouth.
A tiny metal ball shot from his forearm, and expanded into an arachnid-like metal structure that whirred to life before zipping ahead down the hall, providing infrared scans to Tony’s HUD. He sent two more drones to follow, just in case.
“Tony, switch to two,” Steve said in a tone Tony hated already.
His HUD displayed the channel switch, and a little icon of Steve appeared in the corner. As did one of Bucky.
“Barnes, scram,” Tony growled. “I can see you.”
Bucky’s icon disappeared.
“Do you want me to start worrying more?” Steve asked. “Because I’d really like to throttle you right now instead. I can’t keep up the worry act when I wanna kill you.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Don’t overdo it. You’ve been fine so far, barely more than normal, but—”
He paused as the drones finished scanning the building. Fake hostages tied and bound with real fucking C4. A trap in case they had sent someone else down here who couldn’t see worth a damn in all the smoke. The drones identified tripwires, mines, and other explosives rigged to blow, along with a radio signal he may have already tripped with the drone movement.
“Steve, get everyone out of the blast zone,” Tony said as he turned . He jumped into the air, kicking on his thrusters. “They’re going to self-destruct this one too.”
“Copy, going back to one—get out of there.”
It was strange to hear such a familiar phrase said without feeling.
But Tony had other things to worry about as he flew through the winding halls. Friday frantically assessed possible exit points as Steve yelled over the comms to get everyone moving away.
He didn’t have time to think when the explosion went off. He heard the blast and kicked on his max speed to try to outrun the oncoming fireball. The place was practically designed to send the explosion up through the halls, to incinerate any unsuspecting intruders.
He didn’t make it.
The flames engulfed him, lighting up his HUD with warnings and alerts as his suit coolers kicked on. They wouldn’t last long, but it would be enough. Hopefully.
Tony burst from the bunker, breaking through several tree trunks before hitting earth and sliding across the hard ground like it was made of butter.
“Shit,” he groaned, head spinning. He was getting too old for this. His whole body was going to be bruised.
“Status, Tony,” Natasha said.
“Alive,” he muttered, wishing he could open his mask. Debris rained down on him, including a large piece of concrete that sent his face back into the dirt.
He heard gunfire, but didn’t move. He didn’t see a point in getting up when his brain was still bouncing around in his skull and his every limb was aching, not to mention his back. Definitely too old for this.
“Armor piercing rounds!—cover—kly—” Steve’s voice started to cut out as Friday struggled to keep his comms working. She indicated on his HUD that his earpiece had been damaged, but he could still speak.
After only a few more moments of wallowing, Tony reluctantly got to his hands and knees, then up to his feet. The air was thick with smoke and dust as he flicked on his thrusters and moved into the sky to survey who needed the most help.
“Gonna have to get my shoulder looked at,” he hissed as pain flared in his shoulder blade.
“I’ll schedule an appointment with Dr. Cho,” Friday replied. “Be careful, boss. You took some big hits just now.”
Oh, he knew.
It was hard to see anyone with all of the trees in the way, and with his comms down he had no signal recognition to pinpoint people. Friday turned on the last locations for signals, and Tony headed down toward Natasha’s post.
A handful of downed HYDRA operatives were littered around her stakeout, but Natasha wasn’t there, and all of her tech was gone too.
A small explosion made him turn around, but it was just Sam raining hell on the remaining HYDRA personnel.
Tony touched down, too dizzy to keep flying. Nat had to be close.
“You should rest,” Friday instructed. “I’ll send out an alert signal.”
Too late. A ping showed up on his HUD indicating he’d sent out a distress signal. It was probably just a light concussion or something. Nothing serious. Or maybe it wasn’t even a concussion at all. He’d built protective technology into his suit for this exact reason, he was just exhausted, that was all.
When Sam landed, Tony found himself on his knees, but had no memory of getting there. Sam’s face was grave.
“Can’t look that bad,” Tony chuckled as he got back to his feet.
“I’ve got Stark,” Sam announced. “Let’s get them out of here.”
“I’m okay,” Tony grunted, waving him off. “Just dizzy.”
Sam wasn’t listening. “His comms are down. He can’t hear us.”
“I’m right here, y’know.” Tony finally flicked his mask up, sucking down a breath of…acrid air.
Sam looked at something behind him and ran toward it just as Tony began to hear the sound of leaves cracking under hurried footsteps. He had to turn slowly not to send his center of gravity haywire and immediately wished he hadn’t.
Steve was ghost white. Ghost. White. He was sucking down breaths in big gasps, eyes wide.
“Is he suffocating?” Tony asked, scrambling after Sam. “Did he get gassed or something? What’s—”
He froze as he got close. There were three holes in Steve. Not entry wounds for bullets lodged in his flesh, three holes . Clean through, like Swiss fucking cheese.
Armor piercing rounds. One hole through Steve’s lung, another at his hip, and one through his thigh. Each about the size of a quarter.
“Holy shit.” Tony didn’t know what else to say as he rushed over. Natasha tried to hold him away, but Tony had a goddamn role here. Steve had three holes in him.
“Hey there, Cap,” Tony said evenly ignoring Bucky’s scowl as Steve shifted from where he had leaned up against his friend. Or best friend. Whatever. “I’ve got sentinels coming, we’re gonna evac you Stark style to the nearest hospital.”
“Alerting hospital staff now,” Friday announced.
Steve’s eyes were locked on his, full of a primal fear Tony rarely saw there. He would survive, of course. Bucky had shot him in much worse places and it had taken Steve only two days to recover. But Steve was still human, and his body still reacted just like anyone else’s.
“You know you’re gonna be—” Steve’s hands came down on his shoulders, then moved up to his neck with his next gasping breath. It wasn’t aggressive, it was more…grounding. Tony’s head spun, but he planted himself there, lifting his hands to gently grip Steve’s forearms. “You’re gonna be fine,” Tony finished.
Steve just kept hiccupping for more air, just staring at him. Yet his grip didn’t tighten.
A sentinel landed, dispatching a chamber from its back to act as a stretcher and protect Steve during transport to the hospital.
“Come on,” Tony urged, gently prying Steve’s hands away. He was glad his fingers were encased in metal, so no one could see him shaking. Steve just kept staring ! He felt like he was supposed to remember a line, to say something they had rehearsed.
It didn’t help that everyone was watching him, also expectantly waiting.
“I’ll be…I’ll be right there with you,” Tony murmured. “The whole time.”
Wow. Good one, Tony.
He smiled, but it was cracked, like he’d forgotten how.
The sentinel applied nanobots to the wounds, effectively closing them for the time being before they helped Steve into the stretcher chamber. Thrusters activated to keep the stretcher level while Steve’s breathing turned shallow.
“It’s gonna hurt like a bitch, but you’re gonna be fine,” Bucky told him, gently gripping Steve’ arm. “Race ya to the hospital.”
Sam patted Steve’s shoulder with some encouraging words, but Steve’s eyes were locked with Tony’s, so it became a little difficult for Tony to hear anything.
Was this part of the plan? Something he didn’t remember? Tony was fairly certain they’d decided to make this a big public thing when they got back to the city, not…not making it a thing in front of just a few people. He didn’t get why Steve was staring so intently at him, but it made him damn uncomfortable.
The chamber closed, and the sentinel lifted off, bracing the chamber to help keep it steady as it rocketed toward the hospital.
It took several seconds for Tony to realize everyone was looking at him.
“You aren’t going with him?” Natasha asked.
“Uh, should I?” Yep, not what he should have said. But he’d been waiting to pretend in front of these people after the public knew.
“He kept saying your name after he got hit,” Bucky said with something dark and protective in his voice. “Asking where you were.”
Tony bit back a response and nodded instead. Steve was supposed to be with him for this.
“If you’re hiding somethin’—”
“We’re back together,” Tony blurted out. “We just—He didn’t—and I really didn’t want to tell anyone yet. Complicated and all of that. And, um, I’m still working on the forgiveness part so—”
Bucky’s face had twisted to a scowl, and probably rightfully so.
“Don’t tell anyone.” He kicked on his thrusters, still trying to keep his head from spinning. “Definitely don’t tell Steve I said anything.”
Bucky was advancing, looking ready to throttle him. Just like old times.
Tony leveled a blaster at him, sporting his own glare. “Stand down, Barnes.”
Bucky stilled, but he was clearly still angry. “Don’t put what I did on him.”
“I’m not doing that, actually,” Tony snapped. “But he hid it from me, lied about it, and didn’t really ever apologize, so.”
His fingers twitched, just aching to send an energy beam straight into Bucky’s face.
“Tony,” Natasha said gently. “Steve needs you now.”
He didn’t, but it was a good excuse. Tony powered down his blaster. “See you at the hospital, then. Don’t let Barnes kill anyone in the meantime.”
That send Bucky lunging, but Tony was already well out of his grasp as he sped toward the hospital. His mask flipped down, and he closed his eyes. Friday turned on autopilot as he took a moment to breathe, to not think about his innocent mother struggling against Bucky’s vice grip, his father choking on his own blood beside her.
About Steve discovering the truth—whenever that had been—and deciding the best choice was to say nothing. Not to protect him, to protect Bucky.
And now he had to go to the hospital and play the part of worried boyfriend, because Steve just had to go get shot and go asking about him.
It didn’t talk long to reach the hospital, though Tony had spent a few minutes fighting dizziness before he landed on the helipad and headed inside past bewildered medical staff. He kept his mask up because he wasn’t sure his face would read the way it would have if this were real.
He spotted a doctor who looked to be in charge and called out to him; “Hey Doc, where’s Cap?”
The doctor slack jawed for a moment, then pointed at the door beside him.
Tony strode past, his boots making satisfying clunks against the tile as he entered the room.
Medical staff were all around, frantically trying to access Steve’s wounds by attempting to cut the fabric of his suit that Tony had specifically designed to be cut-resistant,.
“Excuse me,” Tony said in greeting. “You’re gonna have to let me through if you ever wanna get this off.” He paused. “Actually, everybody out. Avengers secret.”
The staff resisted for a few more seconds before the doctor from outside called them all out. Tony waited until the door was firmly shut and the blinds shut before he allowed his mask to pop open.
“Can you sit up?” Tony asked, and he knew he was being too harsh for talking to an injured teammate, but this always happened when he thought about his parents.
Steve just let out a groan, turning his face away.
“Right, yeah, hard to look at me, huh,” Tony muttered. He pulled a little metal ball from his suit and it started to crawl with nanos. He placed it on Steve’s chest and the bots made quick work of the suit, cleanly slicing the fabric.
Tony stepped back, disengaging his suit to step out of it before returning to Steve’s side. He checked the door, but there were no eyes peering in.
“Friday, make sure we don’t get any onlookers,” Tony instructed, and his suit animated to stand guard at the door. Helpful little thing.
“Tony,” Steve gasped out.
“Shut up,” Tony muttered as he peeled bloody fabric from Steve’s chest.
Steve’s hand flew up, gripping his forearm.
“Let go of me, Rogers,” Tony warned. “We’ve got a whole host of problems thanks to you not using your goddamn shield. I had to tell them we were back together, after I made myself look like an uncaring boyfriend because this wasn’t part of the plan.”
“I’m sorry,” Steve wheezed.
Tony was momentarily tempted to stick a finger into one of Steve’s wounds. “No you’re not.”
Steve’s chest expanded under Tony’s hands as he let out a sigh.
“Repairs have started,” Friday announced. “Nanos are producing cellular tissue to assist in healing.”
“See? Nothing to worry about,” Tony murmured. “You’ll be fine.”
“Sit down,” Steve whispered.
Tony paused in his work. “No.”
“For them. Curtains up.”
Tony was tempted to say no again, but Steve had a point. He had been in this spot many times with Steve, but all of a sudden he couldn’t remember how to be caring. One look at Bucky tended to do that.
He pulled up a chair and sat stiffly, like he may have expected the cushion to be embedded with needles.
“D’you really want this?” Steve asked, turning his head to face him. His eyes were glassy and bloodshot.
“Yes,” Tony answered, but it sounded as forced as it felt.
“Maybe it’ll help to imagine me as someone else,” Steve offered weakly. Jesus Christ. Only Steve Rogers would be thinking about making this easier on him while he had three clean-through bullet holes in his body and a punctured lung.
“Rocky start, that’s all,” Tony said with a sigh.
There was a knock at the door.
“Let us in,” Bucky demanded. “Or I’ll break the goddamn door down.”
“Just pretend,” Steve murmured. He offered a hand over the little bedside railing. “Don’t think about it. We used to never have to think about it.”
Tony almost screamed at him, but instead choked up a smile and took Steve’s hand. Steve wiggling in his grip, and it took a second for Tony to relax and allow their fingers to twine together.
“Come in,” Tony said, staring at Steve’s face. Steve stared back, his face soft. Tony tried to match it, dimly wondering how he could have been stupid enough to fall for that face when it was so good at lying.
But Steve’s hand was warm, and it brought a little shred of peace just to have physical comfort.
Bucky stormed in, face full of worry as he rushed to Steve’s other side. “Hey. You’re an idiot.”
Steve cracked an easy grin as Bucky ruffled his hair. The medical staff rushed in shortly after, flanked by Natasha and Sam. Tony pretended not to notice that she was watching him.
“Easy, Doc,” Tony warned. “Nanobots. They’re helping rebuild tissue—that means don’t touch them. Just make sure I didn’t miss something.”
“Feel better already,” Steve croaked. He squeezed Tony’s hand, and Tony flinched.
“Better already,” he repeated, shooting Steve a “loving” look to get him to stop. He didn’t have to do things the others wouldn’t see. It was bad enough the medical staff were seeing this.
“I want him in my medical facility,” Tony said. “Once he’d cleared to move, we’ll take him there so he can recover properly.”
“Don’t bullshit me. I know my staff and facilities are better than here. Hate to say it, but it’s true. And we’ve got staff who know his healing speeds and how to check if something isn’t happening the way it’s supposed to.”
He squeezed Steve’s hand in return. Habit.
“I can’t advise that,” the doctor replied.
“As long as you don’t prevent it.” Tony looked back to Steve, who was still goddamn smiling. “He gets the best care, no exceptions.”
There. This wasn’t so bad.
They didn’t really even need to be in this hospital at all, but Tony could only have so much rational thought when he saw three holes in another human being. Especially Steve, who seldom took hits like that.
“Nat, want to go get the quinjet with me?” Sam asked.
“Please take him with you,” Tony muttered, glaring at Bucky.
“No way I’m gonna—”
“I’m fine,” Steve interrupted. “Need some time with Tony anyway. I’ll probably walk on when you get back, I’m not in any trouble.”
“Yeah, but you sure as hell find it somehow,” Bucky growled. He reluctantly stood and nodded to Sam. “Fine. I’ll go with you.”
“Glad you’re okay, Steve,” Natasha said, stepping up beside Tony to Pet Steve’s arm. “We’ll be back.”
They left as quickly as they had come, much to Tony’s relief. The medical staff wasn’t long to follow.
“You two fought,” Steve murmured.
Tony blinked. “Who?”
Steve just looked at him.
“I wouldn’t call it a fight,” Tony muttered. “He came after me, I fired back. Not literally, though I wanted to.”
Steve’s lips parted to say something, but he closed his mouth again, apparently thinking better of it.
“We’re not going to get along,” Tony said. “We can stand each other, and that’s a hell of a lot of progress, no thanks to you.”
Steve closed his eyes, smoothing his thumb along the side of Tony’s palm in a way that was as comforting as it was disturbing.
“Ain’t his fault,” he finally mumbled.
“Which is why I can stand him,” Tony growled. “You’re another matter entirely.” He pursed his lips. “But,” he added. “I’m going to try to get better at it because we have to sell this.”
Steve hummed, eyes still closed. “Well, don’t leave.”
Tony propped an elbow on Steve’s bed, leaning over. He was getting dizzy again.
“I know it wasn’t really his fault, but it still pisses me off, y’know? I have to look him in the face. All I can think about is how he couldn’t even do that when he was killing my mother. My mother, Steve. My—” He swallowed hard. “And you knew, and you just—Anyway. Seeing him isn’t getting any easier. And it won’t for a long time.”
Not even Steve Rogers—especially not Steve Rogers—could change that.
Bullet wounds hurt longer than typical injuries. Steve healed fine over the next two days, but it was a pretty lonely recovery. Bucky was called to DC to help translate Russian intelligence, and Natasha went as backup. Sam visited when he could, but he had to be at the compound to help coordinate Avengers missions. Everyone else thought Tony was spending all of his free time at his bedside.
In reality, Steve spent hours alone. His only company was the medical staff, and the occasional Avenger. News had traveled fast, and even Thor dropped by to offer congratulations.
Tony did visit daily, and always made sure to enter with food when another Avenger was visiting with him, just to give off the impression that he seldom left. It was a clever tactic that worked pretty damn well.
By day three, he only had soreness in his wound areas, and his lung function was at 90%. The medical staff had cleared him at lunch, but Steve found himself staying in bed anyway. There wasn’t much Sam would allow him to do at the compound and he was pretty sure the tower was empty except for Tony, so it wasn’t like he had anyone to hang out with in the city until Bucky came back.
The sound of his door opening had Steve blinking awake from a doze. Afternoon sunlight filtered through the tinted windows of his room in the medical wing, indicating he hadn’t slept long.
“I brought lunch,” Tony announced. He looked strained, his eyes unable to focus on anything for long as he wrestled with a brown paper sack. He produced two foil-wrapped burgers and set them on Steve’s meal tray. He never handed any food to Steve directly—evidently that came with a level of trust Steve still hadn’t earned.
“Burgers?” Steve rubbed his bleary eyes before sitting up. “Thanks, Tony. I’ve been craving real food since I got here.”
He’d already eaten his assigned lunch just an hour ago, but Tony didn’t need to know that. Steve unwrapped a burger and took a bite. Still warm. He hummed around his mouthful as Tony sat in the chair beside his bed and pulled out his tablet.
“Busy day?” Steve asked, voice muffled with burger.
Tony let out a distracted hum of agreement.
“Maybe we should announce it tonight.”
Tony looked up at him, but his gaze was empty. “I really don’t think that tonight’s a good idea.”
“Rumors are already circulating,” Steve said. “Friday told me all about the tabloid headlines.”
Practically every gossip mag had made mention that Steve was spending his recovery time in the tower when there was a perfectly good medical facility at the compound. Some had even suggested he wasn’t injured at all, that it was all a hoax to spend time with his secret boyfriend.
Tony passed a hand over his face and set the tablet down. He looked worn.
“Everything okay?” Steve asked, setting down his burger.
Tony sighed. “Just work.”
He let the silence settle over them, hoping to coax more from Tony without having to voice it. But Tony said nothing and continued a blank stare, a world away.
“Anything I could help with?” he offered. He tensed slightly, preparing for an insult or equally hurtful quip.
“You’re helping already,” Tony murmured, still staring. He blinked after a moment, refocusing. “I think once the relationship comes out, it’ll take some of the scrutiny off of the company.”
“Where’s the scrutiny coming from?” As much as he had tried to keep up with the world while he’d been in Wakanda, it was still hard to gauge how Stark Industries was doing on any given day. Sometimes it was too painful to look into, other times he didn’t have the energy to go digging.
“Everywhere,” Tony grumbled, putting his head in his hands. “They think I have too much sway—fucking amazing that they go after me for being able to influence government when they’re all funded by lobbyists and big businesses. Pep is nervous, which is terrifying.”
Steve frowned. “I don’t mean to sound insensitive, but it isn’t your responsibility to fix it.”
Tony’s gaze hardened.
“I just mean that you stepped down for a reason,” Steve added carefully. “You distanced yourself from the company when you moved to work with the Avengers full time.”
“That doesn’t change anything in their eyes.”
“It does legally, though.” He was pretty sure, anyway. “They can’t come after your company because you’re an ex-CEO.”
The sigh that escaped Tony’s lips told Steve to drop it. But there hadn’t been any insults, so he felt he could still mark it as a positive interaction. He picked up his burger and started eating again, allowing Tony to think in peace.
He still wasn’t sure what to make of the new scenario they faced. With the team being the only ones to know about their relationship, it felt more malicious somehow. Despite what Tony believed, he didn’t like hiding things from people. Especially when they were important.
Great, how hypocritical was that?
Tony turned his attention to his tablet again, and Steve finished his burger in silence. It wasn’t a bad silence, though. It almost felt like companionship.
He thought about when they used to be in this situation: Steve recovering while a battered Tony sat beside him, keeping him company with funny news articles read aloud, or sharing Instagram photos from the other Avengers because Steve didn’t have an account. He remembered the way Tony would always kiss his head before leaving, and held his hand during most of the time they were together, just on reflex.
Now he found a relief just to have a semblance of peace between them, all fondness absent.
“I’m cleared to leave, by the way,” Steve finally said after inhaling his second burger. “I was wondering what you want me to do.”
“You can stay here,” Tony said distractedly. “Your floor is all set up still.”
Steve had figured as much. Tony had probably not touched it since Steve had moved out into the penthouse to start with.
“You think I should?”
He wouldn’t admit that maybe he wanted to stay. That party with Thor had sparked the idea that maybe Tony did have something for him. Well, that and the drunk sex they didn’t remember having. But Tony was like him: slipping up didn’t always mean anything. One drunken night together wasn’t going to fix what they had, no matter how intimate. And with how rude Tony had been since, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to pursue it out of genuine interest or as a way to prove something to himself.
“I think it’d be the best thing to do if we plan to announce soon, yeah,” Tony replied.
“Okay, I’ll stay then.”
Tony looked up from his tablet. “Wait, were you waiting for me to come down here?”
Steve blinked, trying to think of an excuse. “Uh, yeah. I mean, I didn’t think you’d appreciate me moving in without permission.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed, but only for a second. “Right. Well. Room’s yours.”
He got the sense that Tony planned to leave, so he sat up a little more. “We should discuss how we plan to announce, though. When and where.”
Tony sighed. “Yeah. There’s an uppity party tomorrow night. Some kind of bullshit benefit. Might be a good place.”
Steve chewed the inside of his cheek. “I think maybe we do something different.”
Tony lifted a brow. “Oh? What do you think we should do, then?”
He didn’t want to start a fight here, and going against any of Tony’s ideas nowadays seemed to be like kicking up sparks next to gunpowder. “I think we’re falling into the trap of thinking about ourselves like they do.”
That seemed to pique some interest in Tony, but his expression careened toward dangerous.
“If we were really getting back together after everything happened, I don’t think I would want something public.”
“That’s not the point,” Tony muttered. “It’s about maximizing good PR. That means it has to be noticed.”
“Not necessarily,” Steve said with a shake of his head. “We’ll go to plenty of parties and get coverage. But I think our announcement shouldn’t be a big production. I wouldn’t want that. And I’d venture to say you wouldn’t either.”
“Here we go with you deciding what’s best for me again,” Tony growled.
Steve shook his head. “Please. I’m not trying to start anything.”
He could see the struggle in Tony’s eyes not to snap at him.
“Think about how we were. We never went to parties just so people would see us together. We never did anything to confirm rumors or refute them. It was just us.”
Tabloids had written articles every time Tony had gone away on business, snapping photos any time he talked to a woman or man that looked attractive enough to be a temptation. Everyone loved to pin Tony as a cheater, when Steve knew him to be kind and gentle and fiercely loyal. There had been so many rumors, but he’d never doubted Tony’s commitment to him.
“This is different,” Tony said quietly but it didn’t sound like he believed it.
“Doesn’t have to be.”
Tony’s gaze turned sharp on him, but Steve didn’t flinch.
“We can’t pretend there’s nothing between us,” Steve said evenly. “That party with Thor proved there’s something there.”
Tony’s face twisted to a scowl, but Steve wasn’t finished.
“You can be as angry as you want about it, but it’s true,” Steve continued. “We both made that choice that night. And then we chose not to do anything about it, and that takes strength. We aren’t that couple that flips over after one drunk night.”
“You’re absolutely right,” Tony hissed.
“All I’m saying is we can play off whatever is there. If you were really getting back together with me, would you honestly take me to an uppity party to announce it?”
Tony just glared at him.
“That’s what I thought.”
“So what do you think we should do?” Tony asked again. “Go out to dinner? A walk in the park?”
Both had crossed his mind, but they hadn’t felt like enough. They were still too in-your-face for what he would realistically want. The paparazzi would follow them anywhere they went, but their first photos had to convey intimacy, a sense of steadiness. Something real and not sensational.
“Shopping,” Steve blurted..
“It’s perfect. Something established couples do, so it implies we’ve been together for awhile. Great photo opportunity and very public, but doesn’t seem too extravagant.”
“What, want me to take you to Tiffany’s? Try on some rings?” Tony let out a snort, but Steve caught the bit of pain in his tone.
Before everything had happened, ring shopping had been a discussion. Taking steps to secure their future and all of that. Now they were both thankful it hadn’t progressed that far.
“I could use some new clothes,” Steve offered. “Or we could really get them talking and look at furniture.”
“People like me hire other people to pick furniture for them,” Tony muttered.
“Exactly. So it means something special if you go with me.”
Tony looked away, but he didn’t immediately say no. Steve knew that meant he’d won, but he also knew better than to say anything. He could also really use a nice table for his apartment. The breakfast nook he used could barely fit him, let alone two people.
“I’ll make an appointment,” Tony murmured. “The store will tip off the press, I’m sure.”
“Doesn’t have to be that fancy, we don’t need anything that costs a lot of money.”
“So we’re actually buying something? You got money for that?”
Steve’s cheeks flushed. “I thought—”
“Kidding,” Tony smirked. “I could use some new things for the penthouse. But first, you need to take a shower. Get the hospital smell off of you.”
“Trust me, this is better than iodine,” Steve chuckled. “I feel back to normal. No complications. How’s your concussion?”
Tony shook his head. “Wasn’t a concussion.”
“That’s not what Sam was saying.”
“I’m fine,” Tony replied. “Slept like a log that night and everything was back to normal. Did all the scans.”
Steve could only nod. He didn’t exactly believe that, but he was in no place to start getting overly concerned.
Tony patted his bedside railing and stood up. “Get situated and we’ll go furniture shopping. Wear something nice.”
Tony left, and Steve let out a sigh of relief. He was slowly getting better at holding conversation with him without devolving into a fight. It wasn’t great, but he felt he might actually be able to do this if he didn’t have to do it while withstanding verbal abuse the whole time, even if it was deserved.
Tony didn’t look back as the door closed.
Even so, there was some progress.
Tony had been to boutique furniture stores many times. He remembered visiting them with his mother when he was younger, listening as she asked questions about fabrics and grilled sales associates about the craftsmanship. She always had a fire in her eyes when she found someone who tried bullshit sales techniques on her. Tony liked to think his ability to negotiate had stemmed from listening to her dress down salespeople who had tried to rip her off.
Maybe that was why he never bought his own furniture. He hired designers to do everything from wallpaper to the little trinkets and vases on end tables. Everything was always expensive, but he never looked at the price tag. Pepper had always determined if he was getting something fair.
As they entered the little shop on 5 th Avenue, he found himself keeping back as Steve led the way.
“Any pieces you’re looking for in particular?” the associate asked. She was wearing Louboutins, and they clacked on the aged hardwood as she lead them onto the sales floor. The paparazzi were jammed up against the windows outside, cameras flashing so that they almost created a constant light.
“I’m looking for a new chair, and an end table. And whatever Steve wants,” Tony said, stepping forward. His hand found Steve’s, and he laced their fingers together.
Steve smiled at him, warm and inviting. Only Tony could see that it didn’t quite reach his eyes. There was no light there, but there was an earnestness. Steve really wanted to sell this. Tony knew he could, and it was a little terrifying that Steve could do it so well.
“Let’s start with that,” Steve said with a nod. “I don’t want to go too crazy.”
“He has a tendency to do that,” Tony hummed, throwing Steve a smile.
Steve gave him his best mushy look. It was almost genuine.
“Yeah, guess I do.”
Okay. Go time.
Just as they rehearsed, Steve leaned in, pressing his lips to Tony’s. Tony had kissed plenty of people in his life, but he seldom did a full-on kiss without wanting to. And he found kissing was a very awkward, almost disturbing action when all of the affection had been taken away. Steve’s lips were soft, and as full as Tony remembered. He tasted like the remnants of the ultra-sweet coffee he’d been drinking in the car.
Just as discussed, Tony grinned into the kiss before deepening it, his hand coming up to Steve’s neck, gently holding him.
“It needs to be endearing. Like we think buying furniture is the most romantic thing we could ever think of doing,” Tony had said.
The staccato of camera shutters had climbed to a dull roar outside.
Steve gently pulled away, smiling wide.
Tony smiled back, his heart rate climbing just a little. Holding his breath for that length of time made it a reasonable reaction.
Tony unlaced their fingers, opting to slip his arm around Steve’s waist as they entered the showroom. Steve’s ridiculously small waist. He was a goddamn size 28. On most men his size and bulk that would be cause for alarm, but not Steve. No, he just had to be perfect.
Steve’s arms swung around him, and Tony instinctively shifted into the hold to get more comfortable as the cameras clicked away outside, getting their last looks before the doors closed behind them.
“I hope I’m right in assuming the current designs were sent to you?” Tony asked, absently looking around at the artfully placed pieces. He knew better than to think the minimalist designs were cheaper, even if they were just a hunk of metal slightly warped. Art.
“Yes, we’ve done extensive research in the time we’ve had, and our curators pulled several selections from our other locations,” the associate said with a nod. She took them over to an end table that matched the metal accent of his couch, inlaid with wood.
“This one was crafted in Italy, featuring inlaid rosewood.”
“What kind?” Steve asked.
Tony let out a sigh, sinking a little deeper into Steve’s side. The guy was comfortable. This sales associate had to be treated like any other member of the paparazzi—Tony could see her hungering to use her phone to tell the world all about their visit.
“East Indian,” she replied, and her and Steve spent a split second measuring each other up.
It was sickeningly familiar.
“I don’t want it,” Tony said with a pat to Steve’s hip. “Not interested.”
“Of course,” the associate replied. “Let’s move on to the next piece. The craftsman is also from Italy—we wanted to match the producing area of the existing pieces in your space.”
She proceeded to show them a metal table that looked like it had been partially melted in a warehouse fire, the burn cleaned off of it, and put on a showroom floor.
“A truly modern piece,” the associate explained. “The designer is making waves in Paris, and we just managed to get our hands on this piece.”
“Did you pull it out of a dumpster?” Steve asked.
Tony let out a bark of a laugh and quickly covered his mouth to stifle it. Jesus Christ.
The associate was not amused, but put on a completely false smile. She was way too into her job.
“Babe, you can’t just say that,” Tony chuckled. “It’s modern art.”
“Well.” Steve let out a snort. “Then I guess have traditional tastes.”
“Anyone with a brain would know that, darling,” Tony hummed.
It didn’t take much longer for the three of them to figure out that they weren’t going home with any furniture. They almost found a coffee table that they liked, but when Steve found out it cost $50,000 Tony could see him roping back a tirade about unnecessary price inflation.
They still knew each other. Tony knew exactly what to say to stop Steve from going down that road, and Steve knew his preferences on luxury furniture before asking. The intrinsic knowledge they had about each other had held up over time apart. Steve still shot him looks when the associate waxed on about European woodworking technique, and Tony had to gently smack Steve’s hand away from touching a far-too-fragile vase just waiting to break.
“Look, all of your stock is great, but I think we just have a different idea of what we want,” Tony said, his hand continuing the absent thumbing at the base of Steve’s spine. He’d kept it up for several minutes now, mostly because it seemed to stop Steve from being a complete idiot. Like holding a kitten scruff.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” the associate said. She did not look sorry at all. “I hope you’ll come back when we get our next pieces in.”
Steve gave her a polite smile that Tony would have called bitchy if that wasn’t an offensive term. He patted Steve on the back as they headed out the back entrance to where Tony’s car was waiting.
“After you,” Tony offered, holding the door.
“Thanks.” Steve’s smiles could be so dopey. Tony loved them just a little bit.
The car doors opened automatically as Tony rounded the front of the car. The sound might as well have been a dinner bell. Paparazzi appeared out of nowhere at the end of the alley, rushing down toward them with cameras flashing all the while.
“Shit,” Tony muttered as he closed the doors. He gave them a smile as he started rolling forward, then gave up. “Friday, get us out of here without running anyone over, please.”
Handing over the controls of his car was always hard, but he couldn’t handle faking nice with Steve while simultaneously maneuvering out of a tight space in a car worth more than most houses.
“You did great,” Steve said with a grin.
“Careful,” Tony replied through a wide smile. “They can read lips.”
The engine revved loudly, and Tony clutched the center console as Friday sent the car in reverse and shot out the other end of the alleyway.
“You two are looking like you may be a sensation all over the world with this,” Friday said. “Gossip channels have already released early articles, and the price for photographs of your kiss is through the roof.”
“That’s good,” Steve said with a nod. “I think we really sold it.”
Tony hummed in agreement, silently taking back control of the car once they were out onto the street. He fought the urge to pick at the custom leather stitching of his steering wheel, all too conscious of the silence settling between them as reality returned.
A quick side glance showed Steve looking contemplative, his fingers lightly pressed against his lips. Tony dimly wondered if he was thinking about that kiss and all of its spectacular nothingness. He was. It made him want to throw up to think that someone he had loved so much could be sitting beside him and his only thoughts were about how plain an uneventful their first fake relationship kiss had been.
Tony worked his jaw for a moment while Friday turned on some upbeat music. She could read a room pretty well for a budding AI system.
They pulled into the basement garage of the tower, and Tony put the car in park.
“That was good,” he finally confirmed, looking over at Steve. “I think we can do this.”
“I think so too.” Steve offered a small smile and they both moved to get out of the car.
“House rules are the same,” Tony said to fill the silence as he got out. “You have access to all floors except the lab and penthouse. Those are accessible with permission or if I’m dying up there or something.”
Actually, he was pretty sure Steve’s clearance still didn’t work for life-threatening injuries but they could cross that bridge if they had to.
“I’m gonna stay down here and work on a few projects,” Tony explained. “Have a good night.”
Steve didn’t hesitate to head toward the elevator. He was learning. “Goodnight, Tony.”
“Did you pull it out of a dumpster?”
Tony let out a little snort as he thought back on the outing, and turned away to find his torque wrench. The engine had sounded just a bit off, and he had to make sure his oil pan hadn’t collected any gunk while the car had been sitting around down here.
He didn’t watch Steve go, but he did think about what would happen when Steve was gone. Could he really raise a kid here? Could he raise a kid at all? He wanted to, but there were plenty of people he’d met who thought they wanted kids until they had them. And as a man born out of necessity for an heir, he knew that feeling. He’d been a required addition to ensure future success. A tool to extend a family’s reach and deepen the roots of a company that had the government in a tactical chokehold all throughout his youth.
Sometimes he felt he knew Steve because he knew his father—he knew the mindset of the Greatest Generation. He’d learned as a means of survival in his own household.
Steve was no exception, even if everyone else thought he was. Howard had used his sense of entitlement to squash countless startups, to demand market share, to maneuver into weapons contracts deemed impossible to breach. Steve used his to assert his opinions on justice, to enforce his own judgements of situations. They both only changed their minds when the arteries were already sliced open and bleeding all over the floor.
Tony flipped his wrench in his hand, whistling to call his backboard.
“Let’s get to work, Fri.”
“Sir, aren’t you going to change first?”
“Don’t feel like it. There’s a ticking in here and it’s going to bother me until I find it. Let’s get some music going and figure it out—and I need jacks.”
As he shrugged off his jacket and tossed it to the floor, he could still feel the way Steve’s arm had slid around him, the way it felt to be pressed against the side of a supersoldier.
“And Friday,” Tony continued as he returned to his toolkit to make a few more selections. “I don’t want to see those photos anywhere on my devices. Just a rundown of where we stand, and any notes from Winona.”
Friday didn’t wait to reply with an affirmative, “Of course.”
There. Now he could really get to work.
The world became obsessed with them overnight. Tony was glad Steve had agreed to stay in the tower, as his apartment complex was overrun with paparazzi within the day (no, he did not have a security drone periodically checking on Steve’s place). The owners of the complex were presumably bribed, and Steve’s neighbor called to tell him that photographers were trying to break in at one point. To which Tony was quick to respond: “You talk to your neighbors? They have your phone number?”
Tony hired movers the next day. He made sure it was a public operation, and every gossip outlet on the internet was speculating within the hour. Suddenly everything was about Tony Stark and Steve Rogers. Fans all over the world were ecstatic about the new relationship, and many were talking wedding bells.
But those were just the bullet points. Tony let Friday brief him every few hours, and other than that he was purposely out of the loop. He would never admit that it was kind of fun to be in the spotlight for something positive again.
Steve was a good sport. Tony didn’t think he’d ever seen him be so compliant about anything before, even when they had actually been together. He always had a smile, always had something good to say. When photographers bombarded him during his pre-dawn run, all of the photographs showed Steve all sheepish and grinning. Even declining to comment made him front page news with that goddamn perfect facial structure.
Tony was angry at himself for not having a fake boyfriend sooner. Being able to go out to dinner with someone who didn’t want to talk about business was a welcome relief. Steve made it even better by also avoiding his personal life. They went to movies and ballets and anything else date-like Tony could think of where media might be present. Everyone ate it up.
Winona had high hopes for him. Everything was going to plan.
“Tony, wait up.”
Tony was busy sifting through the day’s headlines on his Starkpad when he heard Clint call out to him. He paused, lifting his brows but not turning his eyes from the screen. What the hell was Bruce doing getting a story about a socioeconomics summit without telling him? He could have gone, brought Steve along for their first trip together.
“Hey—” Clint’s hand was suddenly waving in front of his screen, and Tony clicked it off.
“What? Is this about what happened on that call? You know the Council is full of shit, Barton.”
Clint looked confused for a moment, then shook his head. “No, not here to talk about that, but it is about a mission.”
“Can’t do it,” Tony said, and began walking toward the elevator again. “I’ve got all kinds of events booked. I’m on call for priority missions only.”
“No offense, but I wasn’t gonna ask you to come on this one,” Clint said.
Tony paused, turning to him. He was a sucker for reverse psychology, what could he say. “Oh yeah? Not up to task?”
Clint shrugged. “You’re just a little too high profile. And you don’t speak French. Or German.”
It took maybe a half a second too long for someone with his IQ to realize who Clint was referring to.
“Steve,” he said, like an idiot.
“You’re asking me about a mission for Steve?”
Clint glanced around for a moment, as if anyone other than fellow Avengers even had clearance for the Avengers-only floor. “It’s a Class 7.”
Class 7 missions weren’t exactly uncommon. They were the highest classification for risk of death or injury, which usually meant they required only two to three people and had some kind of tactical challenge.
Tony still didn’t see why this concerned him. “Okay, Class 7 mission for Steve. Why are we talking about this if you’re not inviting me again?”
Clint’s brow furrowed slightly. “You don’t have any objections?”
“Why would I—” Tony caught himself. Steve was his boyfriend now. He cleared his throat. “Steve can make decisions for himself. I don’t call the shots for him.”
“It’s just dangerous, that’s all,” Clint said. “And I didn’t want you throwing me out for offering it to him without at least telling you. Y’know, with the whole getting shot thing last month.”
Jesus, had he really been that controlling before? Tony frowned. “I mean, is it a suicide mission or something? Now you’re starting to freak me out.”
“No, nothing out of the ordinary,” Clint replied, but he looked troubled. “I mean, mission’s in France, we fly out in two days. Intel extract, should only take three days or so.”
Tony shrugged. “Great. As long as Steve is up for it, I don’t have a problem.”
Clint didn’t look like he believed him, but he nodded anyway. “Okay. I’m on my way to ask him now.”
“Sounds good. Tell him I’ll see him at home.”
As Clint headed off, Tony wracked his brain at what he could possibly be missing. Clearly there was something, or Clint wouldn’t be looking at him like that, talking to him like he was out of the loop.
“Friday, Steve’s vitals, please,” Tony murmured under his breath as he waved goodbye as the elevator doors closed on Clint.
“You elected to have vitals—”
“Steve’s vitals. I know what I elected,” Tony muttered.
“Normal, boss,” came Friday’s prompt reply. “He’s at rest on his floor.”
“Good,” Tony said with a nod. “Great.”
He crossed his arms, gaze wandering around the hallway of glass panels that allowed views into various meeting rooms. There were rooms for tracking new potential recruits, labs for experimentation, strategy and tactical centers—anything they could possibly need. It was important to Tony that they all felt safe here. Avengers Tower was owned by Avengers. The compound was their home base, but the hard hitters of the team still gathered here out of habit.
Sometimes he wondered what it would have been like if he weren’t a billionaire. Maybe he still could have become Iron Man, but even he knew his role as the man in a can was becoming less and less relevant as his fine lines turned to wrinkles and his hair was less salt and pepper and more…Gandalf the Grey. His years as an Avenger were numbered, but his role as the financial and physical support for the team would continue long after his death.
His kid would get a portion of his wealth, but he planned on giving the majority to the part of his family that needed it most. His kid would have more money than he or she could ever spend, but after he was dead and gone, he wasn’t sure how long the team would be able to stay afloat. A few decades, sure, but what about after that?
Steve, Thor, and Vision might be alive to see the money run out. Two of them would be fine on their own, one would probably pick up shifts at the local supermarket before he ever tried to take a penny from a taxpayer.
“I’m going to the lab,” Tony informed Friday. “Let me know when Clint leaves Steve’s floor.”
Clint stayed for a long time. Tony didn’t get much work done. Every few minutes he was glancing at Clint’s location in the building, despite having asked for Friday to tell him when there was movement. He didn’t get what could be taking so long. Unless Clint was explaining the whole mission in depth, but that usually happened on the quinjet. Or maybe they were just catching up. Steve and Clint didn’t hang out much, though. It was probably something about Bucky. Clint seemed to like Barnes quite a bit, though Tony couldn’t hope to understand why. Bucky had been the reason he got himself locked up on the island.
“Conversation appears to be ending,” Friday finally informed him almost an hour later.
“Finally,” Tony muttered, continuing to fuse some parts. He needed a new soldering gun. Which meant he needed to build a new soldering gun with his current soldering gun before it went completely bad. He scribbled it down on a scrap of paper that had “TO DO” scrawled on the top, mashed in with about fifty other things marked as priorities.
He pulled off his goggles and set his work station back into some semblance of order before leaving it to the bots as he headed to the elevator.
“Steve’s floor,” he instructed.
“I’ll have to ask permiss—”
“Override,” Tony commanded. “Master of the house.”
The silence that followed felt indignant somehow.
“Captain,” Tony called to announce his arrival. “Popping by for a visit.”
He smelled something cooking, but he didn’t really have a nose to decipher dishes from afar. Tony made his way to the kitchen to find Steve standing at a steaming pot, stirring some bubbling noodles.
“Rigatoni?” Tony tried.
“Penne, but close.” Steve shot him an easy smile. He looked like he was happy not to have to greet him at the door. “Can I help you with something?”
It was at that moment that Tony realized he hadn’t visited this floor in over a year. He kept his gaze firm on the boiling pasta. No need to get sentimental here.
“I just wanted to check in and make sure, y’know. That everything is okay.”
Steve’s stirring paused and he looked up with a furrowed brow. “Why? Did something happen?”
“No, no. Just…Clint said something about a mission and he was being dodgy and weird about it.”
Steve nodded once. “Ah, right. He mentioned that he’d talked to you about it first.”
“Which—why? Did he say why he did that?”
Steve shrugged. “You used to get riled sometimes when I took missions without consulting you first.”
Tony let out a snort. “I did not.”
“Uh, you definitely did. You gave me the silent treatment for two days before I went to South Africa.”
Tony frowned. Yeah, he remembered that. Unfortunately. It was hard to recall why he had been so up in arms that time.
“And with Qatar.”
“Okay, that one was more Antarctica than it was Chile, and I don’t think it’s too crazy for me to be worried about my previously frozen solid boyfriend going to one of the coldest parts of Earth.”
Steve’s lips twitched into a smile. “Well, Clint wanted to clear it with you first. That’s a good thing, means he really believes it.”
Tony smiled, but he did get a nick of guilt for lying to them. He did have a conscience sometimes.
“Want any pasta?” Steve offered. “It’s almost done.”
Tony opened his mouth to say no, but he could feel the emptiness of the space bearing down on him even with Steve here. It felt rude to leave Steve to eat here alone. “I’ll have some, sure.”
“You don’t have to,” Steve said, watching him carefully. “But if you want to, there’s plenty here. I was going to put what I don’t eat in some Tupperware and have leftovers later this week.”
“You really have been single a long time,” Tony chuckled. “I’ll stay.”
It certainly hadn’t been his plan to spend the evening sitting at Steve’s dining table talking, but that was how things ended up. It was getting easier and easier for him to soften up around Steve, and there were only a few times that his quips were less than friendly. Otherwise they just talked, though Tony made sure to steer them away from anything too meaningful. Steve never pressed.
“I’ll see you tomorrow?” Steve asked from the elevator threshold.
Tony shrugged. “I think so. But if you don’t—”
He stepped forward and gave Steve a peck on the lips. Simple, meaningless. Force of habit.
Steve blinked in surprise. “What was that for?”
“For being my fake boyfriend,” Tony replied evenly, though his heartbeat was loud enough that Steve could probably hear it from where he was. That…he shouldn’t have done that. “See you when I see ya.“
The elevator doors closed before Steve could respond, and Tony pressed back against the wall of the elevator, letting out a big breath. Damage control. He definitely couldn’t see Steve at all tomorrow, not now. Dumb move.
Tony could work a whole night through subsisting on coffee and metal fumes. But things just weren’t going his way that night. It was bitterly cold outside, for starters, with high wind that subtly rocked skyscrapers enough that he couldn’t take proper readings with his equipment.
Drinking coffee left him with a film on his teeth and tongue that he could tell made his breath smell horrendous. Even eating a protein bar tasted like smelling peanut butter while eating chalk.
With a sigh of defeat, he wrapped himself in a blanket and headed for the gym floor. The indoor track was his favorite way to keep his mind slowed and his body moving. Sleeping had become pretty much impossible since Steve had left, though those two things were mutually exclusive.
But when he stepped out of the elevator, all of the lights were already on. For the whole floor.
His blanket puddled around his feet as he peered into the empty workout rooms, but he saw no bags or equipment that suggested a visitor had come to train here.
Tony shrugged the blanket around his shoulders a little tighter and headed for the track. He didn’t really care if anyone saw him wandering around in a blanket at 4AM because if anyone had a problem with it he would happily kick them out and let them find a place to stay somewhere else in—
Tony froze, momentarily deciding whether or not he should drop the blanket and run.
Because he knew what this meant the moment he saw Steve jogging barefoot with no shirt. He knew what it meant to see his shoulders hunched and tense, and Steve’s hair untouched by a comb. And why he was jogging the track this late—why he was even awake at all.
Too late to run.
Steve slowed, to a walk, chest rising and falling like he’d been sprinting a marathon. But marathon sprinting was on Saturdays, only in daylight and through Central Park.
“Hey, Steve,” he greeted, like it was normal to find Steve Rogers shirtless on the track at four in the morning.
“Just getting my morning run in,” Steve replied with a grin that sent the majority of the population swooning with all of its charm and handsomeness.
A staccato vibration at his wrist turned Tony’s attention down. Friday had taken to alerting him via text:
HE’S LYING, BOSS. HE’S ONLY BEEN HERE FOR—
Tony flicked the message away with a finger as he looked back up to Steve.
“Barefoot?” Tony asked, glancing down at Steve’s feet.
Steve just seemed to realize that he had no shoes. He shrugged. “It’s a new health craze. Kind of nice to feel the ground, I figured I shouldn’t try it on the sidewalk.”
“Steve,” Tony said his name carefully, watching the way Steve couldn’t stay still, the way his eyes were ringed pink and his pupils were dilated.
“What? It’s not like I can hurt myself on this track. Worst I can do is stub my—”
“Where were you this time?” Tony asked, searching Steve’s face.
The night terrors were supposed to be over. Steve had worked through them while they had been together. It had been one of their “things” in the beginning of their relationship. Tony would sit up at night whenever Steve woke terrified, gasping for air or fighting him off. Steve didn’t have the kind of terrors that were portrayed in the movies. His were always ugly, warped, and legitimately terrifying to experience as a partner.
Had Steve Rogers turned dark, he would have become the thing he was when he was lurched from a nightmare. It was easy to forget that all of the righteousness and warmth and goodness that was Captain America was also a PR masterpiece. Steve was basically untouchable, but he was not perfect like so many believed.
But Tony knew. He knew Steve in balance. All of the goodness and light, but also the ocean of blood spilled, the laws skirted, the orders disobeyed by an Army Captain. Steve had killed a lot of people in violent ways. That kind of thing stained even the cleanest hands.
“Come on,” Tony said, turning. His blanket swished behind him, trailing along the floor as he started walking.
Steve was beside him in a heartbeat, silent.
“The kid again?” Tony tried.
Steve had snapped the neck of a fifteen year-old German boy guarding an SS stronghold. A lot of kids got into the Army at that point in the war. Germany refused to accept defeat and instead kept trying to throw punches, disposing of men and boys like kindling to a fire. Steve’s job was to get in and get out. No witnesses.
“No,” Steve said quietly. Tony could see his hands shaking.
One of the Howling Commandoes had rigged up a roadside explosive, except the caravan that triggered it had been American. They’d been given incorrect coordinates.
Papers didn’t talk about that one.
“No.” Steve shook his head. “Nothing specific. They’re never that specific anymore. Can’t really even remember it.”
The night terrors were back then. Tony didn’t want to know when they had started up again, but it was hard to see Steve Rogers so…diminished. So human. Even Tony, who had dated him and at one point wanted to marry him, still thought of Steve as someone close to perfection. Good looks and infectious smile aside, Steve could handle immense pressure with ease. He was a beacon of hope to so many…but that didn’t mean he was perfect.
That didn’t mean Steve didn’t have his demons. His regrets. That things didn’t scare him stupid in the middle of the night.
“Wanna talk?” Tony asked.
Steve shook his head.
“M’kay.” Tony continued his leisurely pace around the track. “And no, I wasn’t trying to sleep. I was trying to work, but just—y’know. Focus. Couldn’t keep my focus. Figured I’d come down here and—”
Steve’s hand folded over his. It was just a gentle hold, but Tony pulled his hand away.
“Here, big guy.” Tony shucked off his blanket, and he had to do a little hop to make sure it got over Steve’s shoulders okay. Once it was nice and snug, Tony took Steve’s hand again, lacing their fingers together and squeezing tight. “You’re gonna be alright.”
Steve let out a sad little chuckle. “Not so sure about that.”
Tony frowned. “Oh yeah? Why do you think that?”
Steve shrugged. “This has been hard for me. You know me so well, and I know you pretty well too, but we aren’t friends anymore.”
He wanted to argue, but he wasn’t sure he could. The past month had felt like friendship to Tony, but did it really count? Did any of this count?
“I’m really lonely,” Steve murmured in a voice so sad that Tony couldn’t help but squeeze his hand.
Steve shook his head. “I didn’t say that to make you feel bad or anything. But I am lonely, and living here is pretty isolating even with the team around.”
“Isolating? Didn’t you have a movie marathon with Wilson Tuesday?”
Steve sighed. “I mean, yeah. But when people aren’t visiting I’m down on my floor by myself, and no one asks me to do anything because they just assume I’m with you.”
“Was I controlling?” Tony asked suddenly, looking over at Steve. “Before, I mean. Was I controlling?”
Steve looked at him, blinking in surprise. “Uh, yeah, actually. But it wasn’t like I felt controlled all the time. I wanted to be with you and spend time with you. But you did like to know everything that was going on with me, and you really didn’t like when I wasn’t here.”
“Jesus.” Tony let out a sigh of his own. Clint was right. “I’m sorry, Steve. I really didn’t—”
“I know,” Steve soothed. “I know you didn’t mean to. That’s why I never minded. I saw that it really stressed you out when I didn’t tell you.”
Tony couldn’t fight the warmth in his chest when he heard that, but he shook his head. “That’s still not okay. That’s like, a big red flag for abusive relationships—why did you put up with that?”
“I never saw it like that.” Steve shook his head. “An abusive relationship implies you had malicious intent. Maybe it wasn’t setting us up for anything healthy, but you were always so stressed. Keeping tabs on me made you feel like you could protect me better if something went wrong. And knowing about what missions I was taking helped you not rip your hair out with worry.”
“And I never had a problem with it. I mean that,” Steve said with a squeeze to his hand. “It wasn’t like you’d call every five seconds if you didn’t know where I was. I called you every night because I--because I loved you and I wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Tony remembered those calls. He used to be able to tell how difficult Steve’s day had been just by his tone of greeting, his choice of words. Now he couldn’t remember those cues and they had once been so ingrained in him that he could hear them in his dreams—and nightmares.
“Probably a good thing we broke up, then,” Tony said with a nod. “You shouldn’t put up with that kind of behavior from anyone.”
Steve nudged him with his shoulder. “You were trying to keep me safe.”
“Or I just had you convinced that was all I wanted,” Tony muttered.
“Well, was there another reason?”
“No. No? Subconsciously, maybe. Commitment issues and all of that.” Tony shrugged. He gave Steve a once over. “How are you feeling, by the way?”
Steve nodded. “Much better, thanks. I…mean that. Thank you for checking in on me.”
“I wasn’t—” Tony cut himself off. Let Steve think he’d come down here purposely if he wanted. “I wasn’t planning on discussing my problematic side while I was down here, but I can’t say I’m upset.”
Steve chuckled, but Tony recognized fear in his eyes. He knew that feeling. Returning to a cold, empty bed after it had been a place of terror just hours before. He gave Steve’s hand a gentle squeeze as they came around to the start of the track.
“Want to sleep in my bed?” Tony offered. “I promise not to be inappropriate.” He shot Steve a smirk.
Steve shook his head. “Oh—no thank you. But I appreciate the offer.”
It was a curious thing to see a man in so much pain still refuse help, but that was Steve. He would rather suffer than swallow his pride. It was as infuriating as much as it was familiar. Tony could certainly do the same.
“Another lap then,” Tony decided, tugging Steve along. “Just to get all the jitters out. You can tell me about all of the other shit I put you through.”
Steve looked like he might refuse that one too, but a smile spread across his face before he hurried along to his side again.
“I’d really like to discuss your Ben & Jerry’s flavor first—”
Tony turned his head away. “Off limits. I’m exercising conversational control over that one. Next.”
Steve didn’t know what had changed in Tony, but it was welcome. The defensive insults had faded, replaced by hesitant kindness. Tony still didn’t completely trust him, but Steve got the feeling that it was only his pride getting in the way of that. Steve was playing his part without flaw. He had no chinks in his armor, nothing by way of media that could throw him under the bus. Everyone seemed to have stopped looking anyway. They were the couple they always had been.
Work was always a bit of a different story. It had always been that way. They had never wanted their relationship to get in the way of tactical decisions. But even Tony’s disagreements there had become softer.
“I just don’t agree that we should be staying in a city,” Steve said with a shake of his head.
The next mission was in Brazil, a quick stint with only a one night stay. Ideally.
“It’s the closest to our operation,” Natasha insisted. “I’ve stayed at this safehouse several times. It’s solid.”
“I’m not worried about your contact,” Steve said. “I’m worried about the area. Everything is so packed together, the group of us is going to stick out. Someone will recognize us, then our cover will be blown.”
Natasha pointed to a drone photo map of the little area. “He has a courtyard. It’s maybe four feet from the car to the front gate. We’ll be exposed for all of ten seconds.”
“It only takes one sighting. Or one creak of the gate for the other people in the street to know he has visitors. This house is way too easy to access.”
Bucky shook his head. “Might be easy to access, but it’s fortified. As long as you aren’t in exterior rooms, you should be fine.”
Steve leveled his gaze at Bucky, and Bucky stared right back. He wasn’t going to budge.
“It’s Tony’s decision,” Natasha said. “He’s the one actually going on the mission.”
Bucky wasn’t allowed to go international yet.
Tony rubbed his jaw, looking over the map. Steve and Natasha watched intently as he assessed the locations and bullet points laid out on the screen that made up the table before them.
“I agree with Steve,” Tony said after a moment. “I don’t like the idea of staying in the city. Farmland is close enough, we can land and take up residence without anyone seeing if we use the cloaking tech on the quinjet.”
“That’s what I—wait, you’re agreeing with him?” Natasha’s eyes widened. It wasn’t often that Steve heard Natasha surprised, but he was glad to hear it now.
Steve grinned, giving the table a little victory whack. “Thank you, Tony.”
No one dared to claim that it was because of their relationship. Everyone in that room knew better than to think Tony would agree with him just for the sake of their relationship.
“It’s the right choice,” Tony said, eyes on Natasha. “Not worth the risk in there. Send your friend our kind regards, though.”
Natasha let out a sigh. “Fine. I’ll see about finding a safe place outside of the city.”
With that, the meeting adjourned. The screen went black, blending into the dark granite as they made final preparations for the mission. Bucky was shooting looks at him that said he wasn’t happy with the outcome, but Steve ignored them like he had for the past century. If Tony agreed with him, it couldn’t be too stupid of an idea.
“Wheels up in two hours,” Tony reminded them before he ducked out into the hallway to take a phone call.
Steve turned, offering Bucky an apologetic look. “Look, Buck, I know it’s not what you wanted, but I think it’s the right call.”
“Maybe it is, but maybe it isn’t,” Bucky replied, arms crossed. “Just be careful out there, okay? Don’t make me get arrested again because I gotta cross borders to save your ass.”
“Won’t let that happen,” Steve assured him.
“Which part, the having to save your ass or the getting arrested part?”
Steve laughed. “Both.”
“C’mere.” Bucky pulled him in for a hug, and Steve happily returned it, patting Bucky’s back before pulling away. He reached up to ruffle Bucky’s hair, but Bucky beat him to it with the metal arm. Steve doubted that was an accident.
“Shut up.” Bucky gave him a firm metal pat on the forehead just for good measure. “No hearts in your eyes while you’re on mission, got it?”
Steve rolled his eyes. “Has that ever been a problem?”
“Sure was when you got shot last time,” Bucky muttered. “And now the whole world knows about you two, so. Just be safe.”
Steve’s smile faded a little. If only. “I’ll be okay, Buck. Promise.”
Bucky shook his head. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Steve.”
The mission was forgettable, though it was one of the rare occasions where their intel was bad in a good way. The hard drive they needed to extract was only manned by a small task force that was easily taken care of with no casualties. Tony pulled the data like clockwork and Natasha ruptured the system shortly thereafter. They got out without so much as a ding in Tony’s armor. Easy. Steve might have thought it was too easy, had he been less focused on Tony not getting himself killed.
Dinner was canned peaches and something close to chili from one of Bruce’s prototype MRE packages that were supposed to better support their superhuman abilities. Namely Steve’s.
The farmhouse they’d taken shelter in was quaint, but nice. Everything was covered in a thin film of dust, and field mice unabashedly watched them eat from the holes in the floor. The house was shrouded in ferns and palm fronds, making it nearly invisible even from drones. Natasha’s contact had been fairly certain the owners of the property didn’t even know the house was there at all.
“Well,” Natasha said as she stood. “I think I’m going to call it. Wake up at eight?”
Steve nodded. “Sounds good to me. Have a good sleep, Nat.”
“I will. Don’t wake me up.” She glanced between the two of them, a little smirk on her lips. “I mean it.”
Steve blushed (he wasn’t even that embarrassed!) and took another spoonful of chili.
“Oh, innuendos, huh?” Tony shot back, but Natasha was already in the doorway to her bedroom.
“Night night, boys.” She held Steve’s gaze for a second and gave him a wink before she closed the door. Great.
Silence hung in the air, something pressing and insistent—like he’d been asked a question. He blinked, eyes running over the room as he tried to pinpoint exactly what was causing the issue.
Wait a minute—
“There’s only one other bed,” Steve whispered stupidly.
Tony snorted, clearly amused. “Yeah, there is. Hope you still like to cuddle, because it’s a full.”
“I can sleep on the floor,” Steve offered.
Tony cocked a brow. “And leave a dust snow angel for Nat to find? No way.”
Steve sighed. “You’re right, you’re right.” He supposed it wouldn’t be so bad. It had been quite a while since he’d had Tony sleeping beside him. Natasha was actually his most recent bed partner—they had shared a bed a lot while they were on the run.
“I’ll get it ready,” Steve murmured, setting his empty meal container in their waste bag. Tony was typing furiously on his hologram keyboard, skimming through the intel they’d recovered on mission.
Steve shuffled into the master bedroom, and found it was actually more like home than his floor in the tower. The bed frame was rough wood that looked to have been made by hand. A simple mattress with dusty blue sheets and one pillow made up the bedding. Steve unrolled their sleeping bags on top of it all anyway. Bed bugs were not fun.
Their window faced East, so sunrise would probably wake them before their alarms did, as there were no blinds, just sheer curtains that did little to shield them from prying eyes—If there hadn’t been so many ferns doing that for them.
Most noticeably, the room was quiet. And clean. No decorations to clutter up space, no rugs or furniture to distract the eye. Steve smoothed out the sleeping bags, relieved that they could actually sleep at all. He’d expected the mission to take longer—they always did—and yet he didn’t have the pent up feeling of dread that came when a mission wastooeasy. Maybe he really had been too focused on Tony.
“Ready,” he called as he fluffed up Tony’s pillow. He gave Tony the most protected side of the bed, just in case. Steve had just recently proven he could take a few more bullets than most.
“Coming,” Tony murmured distractedly in a way that meant he definitely wasn’t leaving his work anytime soon.
“Come on,” Steve hummed, leaning against the doorframe.
Tony sat cross legged, eyes constantly moving as he read over the screen, absorbing information in languages Steve couldn’t begin to comprehend. He’d always been fascinated with how fast Tony worked. Every limb in his body was tuned to a minute frequency where even the slightest wiggle of an eyebrow was indicative of profound discovery. His fingers were always moving, but contrary to popular belief, Tony wasn’t always typing. He liked to keep his fingertips just grazing along the surface of his keypad, as though trying out a thousand methods before finally selecting his final choice and tapping away.
Steve had sketched him a thousand times like this.
Tony blinked once, his focus vanishing in an instant. “Yes. Coming.”
The finesse of his movement slid away, returning him to mortality as he put the tablet away and got to his feet. Steve could see the beginnings of age in the way he moved, the slight intake of breath as his body prepared for pain. A man like him wasn’t meant to take repeated beatings.
Tony rubbed his face as he shuffled across the floor and Steve turned on his heel, padding into the bedroom.
“Mm. Sleeping bag,” Tony muttered, moving over to his discarded backpack to drop the tablet inside. “Don’t wanna roll around in the sheets?”
Steve smiled, crouching to finally pull off his boots. In a matter of seconds he was crawling into bed after Tony, carefully avoiding touching him despite the small size of the mattress.
“Really?” Tony cocked a brow as Steve nestled into what little mattress there was left.
“Really what?” Steve asked.
Tony frowned, then after a moment just rolled his eyes. “You’re allowed to touch me. Hell, I’ll even allow cuddling.”
“Hm. Noted.” Steve made no move. He knew better.
Tony waited a moment, then sighed. “So you’re just going to sleep like that. All twisted up.”
“Mhm.” Steve closed his eyes. It was nice to feel Tony’s body heat, even if they weren’t touching. His body began to relax, as though it knew the weight of the body next to him was the one he had been waiting for. “Slept a lot worse ways,” he added after a moment, a little smile coming to his face.
“You’re welcome to sleep on the floor, if you’ll be more comfortable there,” Tony muttered, shifting his position.
“Thought you said I wasn’t allowed to sleep on the floor.”
Steve’s smile grew wider.
The darkness was a gentle presence as he settled a little deeper into his position on the bed. He thought about how it wasn’t too long ago that he had thought they would spent the rest of forever sharing the same bed. He still thought of his ideal future as one where he woke up beside Tony. But he understood that wasn’t going to be the case now, and he’d resigned himself to accept it.
“Can I know the secret now?” Steve asked into the quiet.
There was a pause, then Tony shifted, clearly confused. “Secret? Uh, what do you mean?”
For a moment he wondered what had come to Tony’s mind first, but he decided not to entertain it. That kind of thing only made all of this harder. “That” being the fact that he was stuck still caring for a man who cared for him only just enough. Just enough to bring him into this false world where he could have Tony again, but only for now. Like sand through his fingers, he was going to be gone again soon.
“You said I had to accept your terms, but you couldn’t tell me why. Well, wouldn’t.”
“Mm. Right.” Tony shifted, rolling over to face him.
Steve could only make our the basic features of Tony’s face in the dark and it reminded him of the sketches he used to draw while he had been on the run. Something so familiar to him should have been so easy to capture and recreate for himself on paper. But as time had gone on he’d lost the wisdom in Tony’s lashes, and lost place of the little lines at the edges of his smile. No sketch was ever completed, all of them too unfamiliar.
Tony observed him for a moment, then moved again, this time resting his cheek on Steve’s stomach. Steve tried not to let his breath catch too audibly, and moved his hand to gently card his fingers through Tony’s hair. His heartbeat echoed in his ears so loudly he was sure Tony could hear it. If he did, he didn’t say anything.
“Do I get to know now?” Steve asked, gently massaging Tony’s scalp. That always used to put him right to sleep.
Tony’s eyes closed, and Steve felt the weight slowly growing on his stomach as Tony began to drop off right then and there.
“Mm.” Tony jerked slightly, then shifted his head.
“Do I get to know?”
He felt Tony hesitate, but then heard the sleeping bag rustle as Tony sat up, completely moving off of him. Steve frowned.
Suddenly Tony’s lips were on his, gentle and pressing. It wasn’t the type of kiss Steve was expecting—and he hadn’t been expecting a kiss at all. But as he closed his eyes and lifted his hands, he knew something wasn’t right. The rush of adrenaline settled in his throat, welling there and sticking. But he didn’t pull back. He knew this could very well be the last time he ever got the chance to have this, even if it wasn’t genuine. And he knew it wasn’t.
Tony’s lips parted, coaxing Steve to taste him. He readily complied, slipping his tongue past Tony’s lips. His fingers bunched into Tony’s shirt, but he didn’t dare tug. He didn’t want to devolve into sex. Not when Tony clearly just wanted to distract him.
Tony had kissed him like this before. He really was a great actor—all of his PR grooming from his childhood took center stage when it came to putting on a show in the bedroom. Tony had slept with women all over the world for various reasons. And later, he’d done the same with men. Most of them meant nothing to Tony, even his summertime flings that lasted months on end. Fuel for the gossip rags, faked for attention. But Tony didn’t like his partners to be in on the game.
Steve’s eyes opened mid-kiss.
Steve gently pushed him away, though he kept his hands wrapped around Tony’s shoulders.
It was Tony’s turn to frown, though only slightly. “Kiss me again and I don’t have to tell you bad news.”
Steve let out a choked laugh. “If only life worked like that, but you know it doesn’t.”
“I know,” Tony said softly.
Steve let him go, but Tony didn’t roll away. Instead he crawled closer, this time resting his head on Steve’s arm. Steve didn’t have to see his face to know Tony was thinking; there was a special kind of silence that came when Tony was deep in thought.
But he knew he wouldn’t be learning that secret. That much was obvious.
“I can’t tell you,” Tony interrupted. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to.”
Steve’s brow creased. “Are you in danger?”
Tony laughed, but it was a bit pained. “Aren’t I always? But no, not right now. I told you that last time.”
“But it’s bad enough that you’ll try to kiss me to shut me up,” Steve tested.
Tony sighed, but didn’t turn away. “Yes. That.”
“You can’t treat me like that, Tony,” Steve finally said. “Of all people, you can’t try to sucker me into this. I agreed to be your fake whatever. I agreed. So don’t try to pull the wool over my eyes.”
“That’s not what I’m doing,” Tony said, and he sounded so defeated that Steve couldn’t be angry. “I told you that I couldn’t tell you. Even if things have changed, I still can’t say anything.”
Steve’s lips parted, but he didn’t say anything immediately. “Changed?”
He swore he could feel heat from Tony’s cheeks as he flushed. “Well. I didn’t see you pulling away when I kissed you just now.”
“Technically I just di—”
“You know what I mean.”
Steve supposed he did, though it made his chest tighten to acknowledge it, and he wasn’t sure that was a good thing right now. This was supposed to be a favor. His way to finally find some sort of redemption with Tony so that maybe they could be on good terms again. It wasn’t supposed to develop into something else, even if he wanted that.
“Yeah,” he finally replied. “Yeah.”
This wasn’t what he imagined it would be.
Tony didn’t respond, he just nuzzled into Steve’s arm a little more and went still. It was clear the conversation was over, and Steve was glad for it. They didn’t need to talk about it. They shouldn’t have brought it up at all.
Steve turned his head, nose brushing Tony’s hair before he settled his lips to the crown of Tony’s head. He would miss this. When everything inevitably ended, he hoped that this time he could properly remember this moment and not lose the lines to feathery sketches once more.
Tony glanced down at his timepiece, impatience gnawing at his gut. Winona was already five minutes late, and he really didn’t have the stomach to be held up when bad news was coming his way. He also didn’t have a whole lot of time before Steve came sniffing around. He always showed up at lunch, both to polish off any leftovers and yeah, probably to see him. Tony pretended it was just about the free food and it made it easier on everyone.
“Just arrived, boss,” Friday informed him. “We’ll send her up once she clears security.”
“I don’t need her to clear security. Just send her through. Please.”
He didn’t have time for protocol, and if anything were to happen he had a very strong not-boyfriend somewhere close that could probably defend him from whatever came his way. Not that Tony Stark needed protecting, but he did like to give Steve a job.
When Winona entered, she was dressed in pale blue. Her pumps clicked as she walked, and Tony noticed the way she picked her steps carefully. She must have been a model. Or maybe she still was. A little short for runway, but Tony was more than proof that height stopped no man. Or woman.
“Mr. Stark,” Winona greeted, extending a manicured hand. “Thank you for meeting me.”
Tony shook her hand and smiled on reflex, but it didn’t reach his eyes. His heart was in his stomach, and the room would start to spin soon if he didn’t get some answers.
“Can we, uh, get on with it?” He was going to throw up. He was definitely going to throw up.
“I think we should sit first,” Winona said carefully.
That was enough of an answer for him. “Shit,” he hissed, scrubbing his face with his hand. “Fuck.”
“Tony, sit,” Winona offered, gesturing toward his desk. “There’s a lot we need to discuss.”
“But I’m not approved,” Tony cut. “That’s the short of it.”
“You’re making assumptions.”
“So tell me I’m wrong, then!”
Winona blinked, her lips settling into a flat line. “Sit first.”
It took every ounce of willpower not to blow up at her in that moment. Tony let out a frustrated huff, hands balling to fists at his sides. This was supposed to be fixed. The past few months were supposed to have smoothed out all of the rough edges, to have made everything good again.
Tony sat on the edge of his chair, his spine locked, his fingers wound together as though he might haul off and hit something when the inevitable truth came.
Winona watched him carefully, her voice quiet when she spoke: “You’ve been approved.”
“I fucking told—”
He choked on his own words, his brain finally catching up to his mouth.
He sat back in his chair, nearly falling to the floor thanks to how forward he’d been sitting. Approved. He hadn’t ever expected to hear those words, and he’d been too afraid to look into the next steps because that always seemed to guarantee failure.
“Approved.” He felt the word out on his tongue, fumbling through it like a toddler’s first word.
Winona nodded slowly. “Yes. It doesn’t mean that we’re out of the woods, but it’s a major win. I’d say with your resources you could have a child within a few months, if not sooner.”
Tony nodded, but his eyes were vacant. He was actually getting a kid. He wasn’t so sure he was ready anymore. Juggling Steve the past few months had been difficult enough, but a kid?
More so, Steve’s presence here had reminded him how overwhelmingly alone he had been before. Raising a kid by himself seemed impossible all of a sudden. Before all of this he’d been sure. Pretty damn sure.
Now, with the words still floating in the room around him, he felt vastly unprepared.
“What about Steve?” he found himself asking.
“I was going to ask you the same thing,” Winona said, leaning back in her chair. She sat with her back straight, perfect posture and poise. She was someone who could adopt a kid no problem.
Tony rubbed his jaw, frantically trying to remember their previous conversation about this. He’d dumped everything in the back corner of his brain to be forgotten about. A year with Steve. God, had he really agreed to that? They hadn’t even made it six months. This wasn’t supposed to happen so early.
“They were very impressed,” Winona continued. “And the emphasis was on you. Of course Steve Rogers isn’t hurting things, but the way you’ve projected yourself in the social atmosphere really has been quite amazing.”
Her tone reminded him of his third dissertation. He’d been too drunk to remember much of that one, but this all sounded sickeningly familiar.
“And when Steve finds out about this and gets all righteous?”
Winona’s brow furrowed. “What do you think he would do?”
Tony let out a snort, something close to terror in his eyes. “I don’t know.” He swallowed hard. “Something terrible.”
Winona frowned. “You didn’t seem to think that before.”
“I thought I had more time before,” Tony muttered. “I was told a year.”
“I said the relationship needs to last a year,” Winona corrected. “I said you’d have a few months before we had a decision. It’s been a few months.”
Tony chewed his bottom lip, trying to work out what to do now. Steve needed to know about this before the media got ahold of it, but he didn’t know how he was supposed to say anything after finding out that their whole relationship might not be so fake after all. He’d gotten too used to Steve being in his life again, and to know that a man like that still had feelings for him after all he’d done was more than Tony deserved, and he knew it. Not that he would ever admit it.
“Let’s move forward. Whatever that entails, but no one tells Steve. I’m telling Steve when it’s the right time. Hear me?”
Winona frowned. “I can’t make that promise. The very nature of this is public, Tony. Trying to hide that you’re adopting a child could seriously impact your standing.”
“I don’t care,” Tony replied too quickly. He winced, realizing how that might sound. “I mean, I do care. I want a kid. But I need—Steve has to hear it from me.”
“So tell him.”
That made him prickle. “It’s not that simple, Winona,” he growled. “As I’m sure you can imagine, this relationship is a little unconventional, and the other half of this unconventional relationship just so happens to be the poster boy for everything perfect all the time.”
Winona did not seem pleased by his answer. She sat back in her chair just slightly, just enough that Tony could read the disappointment in all of her angles. “The longer you wait to tell him, the greater the chance of him finding out from some other source. I can’t guarantee that this will stay out of the public eye. My priority is getting you a child, not protecting Steve.”
“Boss,” Friday interrupted. “Captain Rogers is heading this way.”
Tony stood abruptly, offering his hand. “Figure out how to keep it hidden. I’ll let you know once I’ve told him.”
Winona narrowed her eyes, but shook his hand before standing up. “I’ll do my best. But I’m not making any promises. In fact, I’m telling you this could blow up in your face in a very big way—”
“And here comes my darling,” Tony announced far too loudly, all but shoving past Winona as Steve rather hurriedly entered the room.
At sight of Winona Steve stopped, blinking at her for a few moments. “Oh. Hello there, I’m—I didn’t mean to interrupt. Friday told me no one was—”
“You’re not interrupting anything,” Tony purred, looping his arms around Steve’s waist. That always seemed to work. Steve relaxed into the hold, and Tony knew any suspicion that might develop was melting away with Steve’s surprise. “Just catching up—old lawyer friends.”
“Lawyer?” Steve glanced down at him, cocking a brow.
“Yes, lawyer,” Winona said, offering a plastic smile. “But I was due back at my office twenty minutes ago. I’m afraid I’ve taken up too much of your time again, Tony. I’ll be seeing you soon—now, if you’ll excuse me.”
Winona collected her purse and left without a word, not even glancing at Tony as she did so. Somehow that made him feel even worse.
“She seemed upset,” Steve said.
“She’s getting a divorce,” Tony said gravely, scratching Steve’s back through his shirt. “And she’s not much warmer when she’s happy, if that counts for anything.”
Lying to Steve came so easily. It didn’t even feel like lying, and that made his stomach twist up on itself.
Steve frowned. “I’m sorry for intruding.”
Tony clucked his disapproval. “Like I said, you weren’t intruding. Now, what did you want to see me for?”
He let his arms fall away, though he did linger slightly. If Steve noticed, he didn’t say anything. He never said anything.
But this time, Tony could see real worry in Steve’s eyes. The deep kind that said he wasn’t going to like whatever came out of Steve’s mouth.
“Out with it,” Tony murmured in a tone barely above a whisper.
Steve laughed, but it was pained. “Right. You can always tell.”
“Course I can. How do you think we lasted as long as we did?” Tony returned with a snort. In the scheme of things, they hadn’t been together all that long. They weren’t some married couple that watched their world burn away. They had been two people who had become two very different people all at once. That kind of pain never healed, not fully.
There was still a bite when Steve spoke his name. Something that flinched inside him.
“Natasha asked if I could run point on this mission she’s cooking up. Wanted to—”
“You should definitely go,” Tony said, almost too quickly. “I think it’d be great for you.”
Steve slackjawed for a moment, his big blue eyes searching for the words he seemed to have lost.
Tony cocked a brow. “Yeah?”
Steve looked away, clearing his throat. “I, um. Before I agree to anything, I wanted to see if you’d…”
Now that was interesting. “If I would what?” Tony pressed, curious now.
“If you’d like to go on a date with me tonight.”
Well. Today was just full of surprises. Tony was fairly certain he’d lost all the color in his face, because Steve started to look horrified.
“Oh, Tony, I—”
“No,” Tony shook his head, reaching out to gently grab Steve before he could bolt. He could see that look in his eyes that said he was definitely going to bolt. “Not no—I just—Steve, I’m not exactly sure what you’re asking here.”
Steve swallowed hard. “I don’t really know how I can be more clear.”
He looked sad. Tony saw it behind the fear in his eyes, and he knew exactly what it was. He’d worn the same look years and years ago, standing there shaking in the threshold to Steve’s room at the compound, trying to figure out how not to fuck up asking Captain America out on a date.
His heart twisted in his ribcage, flexing and pulling as though the already weak tissue there was splitting open again. It wasn’t supposed to hurt like this. Steve asking him out was a good thing. It wasn’t supposed to hurt.
Last time, things had been a dream. That should have been his first cue that it was going to end in a fiery blaze. He’d spend every waking moment obsessed with Steve Rogers. Inspired by him to work harder, and convinced to work smarter with PB&J’s and the occasional distraction. He’d been so swept up in it all that he’d forgotten how dangerous it could be to give someone everything. Just how gruesome the hurt could be that even now, years after the fact, he was closer to throwing up than he was being happy when Steve was offering a real chance to start again.
Worse, he wanted to take it. The pain of betrayal was salved over with those kind eyes and the adorable way Steve struggled so much when he should be the most confident person on the team when it came to a date. Tony had always admired that humility in him. And laughed whenever Mr. Optimism crumbled at the very suggestion of a candlelit dinner.
“Where would we go?” Tony asked.
Steve cleared his throat again, looking around. “I got free tickets to the Air & Space exhibit. One of those kinda pop-up things?”
Tony fought back a laugh. “You do know you could get free tickets anywhere anytime, right?”
Steve gave a small smile. “Well. I won these on the radio.”
Steve meant it as a funny thing, but all Tony could think about was Steve Rogers sitting alone, calling into radio stations for museum tickets (as if it could get more sad) for entertainment. He did so love to torture himself.
“In that case, I think we have to go, don’t we?”
Steve shook his head. “You don’t have to do anything.”
But I want to.He almost said it, but he didn’t, because he wasn’t sure if he believed it. That wasn’t fair for someone who was already hiding things from Steve—what was one more possible lie?
Instead he reached out, gently pressing a palm to Steve’s cheek. “Let’s go. All I have to do is change—don’t need to look so flashy for a date with my guy.”
“I didn’t think so many people would be interested in air and space,” Tony said with a sigh as he dumped his wallet on the penthouse countertop.
“Someone must have said I was coming,” Steve muttered, fidgeting with the cuffs of his sleeves. It was endearing to watch a man so beautiful struggle with something as simple as clothing. It could also be incredibly frustrating in the right context.
“I imagine that’s what it was, yeah,” Tony said with a shrug. “Not your fault. I had fun.”
The words hung in the air a little too long, twisting them from something positive to something less so. He hated the way it echoed in his chest like notes gone sour, because it was all a lie. He could have fun at a pop up exhibit with Steve Rogers, but it didn’t change that he was hiding a pretty big secret, and would be hiding one for some time still.
“You brought me home, must count for something,” Steve teased, and for once he seemed oblivious to Tony’s unease.
Tony smile wide, and it rang genuine because he was so relieved. “Didn’t bring you home, I just let you walk me to the door.”
Steve cocked a brow. “Well, if I’m not mistaken, we’re a lot further than the door.”
Tony meant to tease back, but suddenly Steve was there, his arms wrapped around Tony’s middle. It was familiar and warm, but not in the way Tony remembered. Somehow it felt like this wasn’t really Steve, just one of the dopplegangers Tony had called in during his darkest moments.
He looked up at him, past those impossibly long lashes and into those familiar blues. It was hard not to admire the perfection in human form that was Steve Rogers. The way his jaw set, the subtle curves of his cheekbones. The little tiny dent in his nose from a fight Tony never wanted to hear about. This was indeed his Steve. But this was a Steve who had accepted defeat and come back to him willingly.
“Sorry about the field trippers,” Steve murmured. His voice had that little distracted tone that meant he wished he was kissing him right now. Tony knew it well.
“They were smart kids,” Tony hummed, eyes trailing down to Steve’s lips.
“Can I kiss you?” Steve asked quietly, and it nearly made Tony laugh that he even asked. Honestly, he was too much of a gentleman sometimes.
Tony just kissed him in response, humming contentedly when Steve pressed to meet him. He was such a good kisser. Tony claimed credit for at least helping in that, and Steve had only gotten better with age. If he kept his eyes closed, he could forget the face he was lying to, and believe that everything would work out okay.
His fingers curled at the nape of Steve’s neck, hugging him closer. Steve responded in kind, and Tony let out an amused little noise when Steve got a handful of his ass.
But Steve hesitated, and Tony pulled back to get a good look at his face again. Something was off that he hadn’t noticed before, a look in Steve’s eyes he couldn’t read. But it was bad—definitely bad.
“Something you wanna tell me?” He couldn’t hide the uncertainty in his voice, and yeah, maybe it would sound like fear to some. To Steve.
Normally, Tony would assume Steve just wasn’t comfortable with potentially tumbling into bed with him. But given that they’d started this relationship waking up in bed together in Steve’s tiny apartment, and judging by the look of dread in Steve’s eyes, he had to assume that wasn’t what this was about. No one dreaded having sex with Tony Stark. Especially not Steve Rogers.
“Natasha found me today while I was training. She needs my help.”
Tony’s brow furrowed. “Right…so help her? I’m not following.”
“She wants me running operations for her and Clint’s next mission.”
“Still don’t see why that’s a problem,” Tony said cautiously. Steve going on mission wasn’t exactly ideal, but they’d discussed this before. They would make it through and everything would be fine. Actually, it would be better than fine—it would give him time to put together the plans for adopting his kid without worrying about Steve stepping in on things.
Steve worked his jaw a moment. “We’ll be off the grid for three months.”
“Three months? What kind of op is this?” Tony looked over Steve’s shoulder, as though Natasha might be standing there to tell him what could be so important that she was taking Steve out of the equation for three damn months.
“Long term surveillance of a high priority target, very skilled in tracking signals. We have to be low to the ground on this one.”
“Some kind of timing, huh,” Tony grumbled, pinching the bridge of his nose. This couldn’t be happening. He needed Steve around. Three months was way too long.
“That’s what I said,” Steve murmured, thumbing at Tony’s hips. “It won’t be too long, though. It’ll fly by, then I’ll be back and we can figure all of this out.”
“Figure—” Tony cut himself off, blinking up at Steve.
Steve obviously wasn’t thinking in terms of the child he didn’t know Tony was adopting. No, instead he was thinking about them. About the relationship that was ever so slowly becoming real again, but that Tony knew would ultimately shatter when a kid entered the mix. He’d seen the way Steve looked at the kids on the field trip: with gratitude that he didn’t have one. Steve was amazing with children, but Tony had very well seen today he didn’t want one of his own. But Steve wanted him.
“Will I be able to contact you at all?” Tony asked, trying not to address it. He’d always operated on the stupid thought that avoiding the problem was the best way to deal with it.
Steve frowned and shook his head. “Might be able to get a letter to you or something, but that’s about it. You wouldn’t be able to write me back.”
Tony nodded slowly, his stomach knotting. He knew he should just tell Steve now, but he knew he wouldn’t.
“Guess we’ll just have to figure it out, huh.”
Steve’s hand came to his cheek, but Tony didn’t allow a kiss. He was too afraid he might throw up. Things had just gone from bad to worse, and now he had to spend three months knowing he was going to ruin Steve’s life when he came back, because he couldn’t wait around. He’d be a father by the time the quinjet touched down on Stark property.
“Should I leave?” Steve asked like a fucking idiot—always thinking he was the problem when he was in fact the opposite.
“No,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “But we should head to bed. All of that science made me tired.”
He put on a cocky grin, taking Steve’s hand to lead him toward the master. Steve hesitated a moment, clearly not buying it, but he didn’t say anything as he followed Tony through the living room.
“And that was a joke, by the way,” Tony said over his shoulder. “I don’t get tired from science.”
Steve woke with the sun, and immediately knew where he was before he even opened his eyes. The penthouse master was his second home. He’d woken up with the scent of Tony’s silk sheets in his nose more than once. The last time he’d slept here had been years ago now, but everything was exactly as he remembered. Tony was an innovator, but he seldom changed his habits at home. Tony liked routine—it comforted him the same way it comforted Steve. There was familiarity in repetition.
He buried his nose into the pillow, smiling to himself. He knew this place, and he was so glad to be there. All he was missing was—
“I was wondering when you’d wake up,” Tony murmured.
Steve’s eyes flicked open, and he was surprised to find Tony awake and alert, tablet in hand. He rested against the headboard, tapping away.
“You already working?” Steve dropped his face into the pillow again, this time with a sigh.
“Oh, don’t sound so disappointed. Usually I wake up and you’ve already left hours ago to go on your morning marathon.”
Steve smirked into the pillow. He couldn’t combat that one and he knew it. “Fine,” he mumbled, reaching over to smooth his hand over Tony’s thigh. It felt too intimate, but Steve tried his luck anyway. They weren’t going to get anywhere if they avoided everything that felt like it used to.
“Easy there, Cap,” Tony warned. “I know you like to get all handsy before deployment, but that’s not in the cards today.”
Steve let out a little laugh despite himself, and rolled over onto his back. Leaving for three months normally wouldn’t faze him—in the scheme of his extended and potentially infinite lifetime it was just a blip. But leaving Tony for that length of time was harder to stomach than he’d wanted it to be. Everything felt too fragile to leave behind now. But duty always came first, no exceptions. If Natasha needed him out there, he had to go. Tony at least understood that.
“Any way you want to swing this in the media?” Steve asked after a moment. “Me leaving and everything. Might stir up some rumors.”
“I’ll just play up the pining Army spouse role,” Tony assured him. “Don’t worry about that stuff, Steve.”
Steve turned his head, gazing over at him. He couldn’t help but feel that Tony was awfully focused on work when his boyfriend was lying in bed next to him for the first time in years and leaving soon. But this was also new, and even Steve felt raw if he thought about it too much. Tony had carved something out of his heart he wasn’t sure he would ever get back, even if Tony did return to his life like he wanted. And he did want that now. He wanted this.
“You’re thinking,” Tony murmured.
“I am,” Steve said with a nod.
“Wanna share with the class?”
Steve smiled, reaching over to fold his hand over one of Tony’s. The typing paused, but Steve could feel the way his fingers twitched, betraying the irritation Tony was trying to hide. He didn’t take offense—Tony couldn’t help it.
“I’m leaving for three months,” Steve reminded him.
Tony snorted. “If anyone else said that to me, I’d think that they were trying to pressure me into sex.” His eyes finally met Steve’s. “But Captain America would never dare.”
“I’m not,” Steve clarified.
Tony’s gaze softened. “I know, Steve. You’re too good for that.” Tony’s hand lifted from beneath his, and Steve hummed as fingers carded through his hair. He heard the tablet click off, and opened his eyes when Tony slid back down beneath the covers, arms winding around Steve’s middle.
“Didn’t think I’d ever hear you say I was good ever again,” Steve murmured, resting their foreheads together.
“We all do things we shouldn’t,” Tony said. “Granted, some of them are a lot more terrible than others, but.” He gave a little shrug.
Steve couldn’t fight the stinging guilt, the anger that pricked him afterward. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be able to get past what happened in Sibera—not with Tony, at least. Sometimes it felt dooming, other times it felt like a challenge. Surely someday he could be truly good again in Tony’s eyes. Wasn’t that the reason he agreed to this mess in the first place?
“When do you go?” Tony asked. “Do you have everything ready?”
“Soon,” Steve sighed. “Two hours. I think. But I’m already packed.”
“Two hours,” Tony repeated slowly.
“Doesn’t feel like enough, hm.” It never did. Steve remembered how anxious he’d always been before Tony left on a big trip (with reason – Tony liked to pack everything last minute and often forgot important things like his toothbrush and clothes), but Tony seldom had the same worries about him. Steve always had his bags packed, and he never forgot anything. Tony had stopped asking.
It would have been nice, though, for Tony to ask this time. Just in case he’d changed, just in case he wasn’t the person Tony had known before.
Of course, Steve was still the same, his bags were already packed, and he hadn’t forgotten anything.
Tony was the same too. His furniture was still in all the same places, his clothes in the same dresser, and all of the same suits in the closet. They weren’t men who changed. It was a blessing as much as it was a curse, because never changing meant never forgetting.
Tony would never forget what Steve had done to him, and there wasn’t much of a way to get past that.
“Can we go get breakfast?” Steve asked.
“Sounds like a wonderful plan,” Tony hummed, clicking off his tablet. “You pick, soldier.”
2 MONTHS LATER
Natasha is going by a post office later, so I wanted to make sure she had something to send you. Not sure what country she’ll send it from, but rest assured the postmark on this letter is probably wrong in about fifty different ways.
Things have been okay here. I won’t say they’re great (everyone knows a soldier who says that is lying) but they haven’t been terrible. Most days, at least. It’s been boring, most of the time. But it feels familiar. Writing letters feels familiar too. My pen is just as bad as it was back in the day – though I used pencil most of the time. Between sketches and all of that artsy shit I used to do. Still do, sometimes. Particularly lately, drawing you.
I keep a few photographs on me—old ones that don’t really look like you anymore. You used to have a different smile. The only word that comes to mind is fragile—a fragile smile. A lot of things were up in the air back then. Before the Avengers, before me. But I’m glad that smile has changed. Now when I see you smile, it makes me smile too, always. Someday when this is all over, I have a feeling that your smile then will be so much bigger. Hopefully I’ll be around to see it.
Not that I’m planning on dying or anything. That’s not what I’m saying Please don’t worry Nothing bad is
I just mean that I know things aren’t solid with us. As much as I’d like to believe you feel the same way I do, I’m also aware you’ve never really made those feelings clear unless I’ve asked you directly. Or, y’know, otherwise provoked them from you. Maybe provoked isn’t the right word. I haven’t slept in a week or two, so you’ll have to forgive my incoherent thoughts. Anyway, what I’m saying is that I can only hope I’ll be in your life when you finally decide to take a step back from the Avengers. I think it would be good for you. At least it would be less stressful.
I really don’t like being out in the field like this when we left things the way we did. I haven’t seen so much as a newspaper in weeks. When I do see things, they’re all in a different language and none of the pictures make sense. Natasha keeps me briefed when she can, but she’s been just as busy. I said I’m bored earlier but that boredom has come from busywork like fire guard. I haven’t pulled a fire guard since the war and they’re just as boring as I remember. The enemy doesn’t know we’re here, so there isn’t even anything to look out for when I’m on watch.
I know I can’t actually ask you how you are since you have no way of writing back, but I hope you’re okay. I hope you’re eating and sleeping. I worry about you a lot out here. One thing those fire guards are good for, I have plenty of time to run circles in my mind, spinning all kinds of stories. For as much as I might worry, I do trust you to take care of yourself. I just feel better when I’m there to make sure.
I’ve also been thinking about your lawyer friend. Did her divorce end up going through? Either way, I hope she’s happy too. I’m not sure I could ever get divorced. Then again, I said there would never be anything that would break us apart either, and look where we’re at. Well, I guess I never thought we would be able to fix things either.
Nat’s getting ready to leave, so bye for now.
Tony read the letter over a hundred times in the first week, and he never overestimated anything. Or underestimated, for that matter. Steve had been gone for months, and despite this not being the first time Steve had to be away, this time felt worse somehow. Guilt was a heavy weight in Tony’s chest, and he couldn’t go a solid minute without imagining all of the ways Steve was going to come after him when he got home. Some ranged from cold indifference, other nights he woke up in a cold sweat after a nightmare that Steve Rogers might come try to kill him. The worst was that those nightmares were based on factual memory. He knew what it looked like when Steve Rogers had bloodlust in his eyes, his vibranium shield a circular razorblade above his head.
But now he had someone else to focus on. A little girl with dark hair and eyes just like his. Same long eyelashes too, and probably the same brain. Except, you know, without the alcohol poisoning. For a kid who’d grown up in foster care, she was a wildly happy toddler who saw every remotely sharp object in the penthouse as a personal challenge.
Her name was Morgan. Tony had considered changing it, but that made her seem a little too much like a pet. Her name was Morgan, and that was that.
She’d only been with him a week when Steve’s letter arrived, and stepping into fatherhood cold was a lot more stressful than he’d anticipated, even though he’d spent the previous month reading every book he could get his hands on and watching about fifty thousand YouTube videos with tips and tricks for everything from eating vegetables to stitching up ripped teddy bears.
He wasn’t anywhere close to getting the hang of it, but his very expensive transition counselor, Dr. Roberts, often reminded him that even his worst days as a father were lightyears better than the treatment his daughter had suffered in her previous home. Tony didn’t dig too deep into what had happened to her—that had been part of his selection process. He didn’t want to pick a kid because of their story—every kid deserved a home, even the ones who hadn’t been through horrific trauma.
Whatever had happened to Morgan, Tony decided he didn’t want to know until he had to for now. Because without Steve around to come after him to stop him from hunting down and murdering whoever had hurt her, he would definitely hunt down and murder whoever hurt her.
But right now he had to focus on his daughter. He was only just starting to learn what time of sound meant what, and that her little grin turned sly just before he took off running toward the nearest dangerous object.
And being a single father didn’t involve as much alone time as he’d anticipated. Pepper was a constant presence in the house, though Tony was pretty sure that was because she was concerned about him getting lost in work and forgetting he had a little person to feed.
Instead, work had fallen completely to the wayside. He found himself wanting to work on one—and only one—project: his family. A piece of that family was missing, but he wasn’t sure that piece was even going to come back. Yet the bed did feel empty every night, and the sole letter he had was feathering at the edges and starting to come apart in his hands.
He was pretty sure he knew where Steve was, but pinning their exact coordinates was a risk Tony didn’t want to expose. He just wanted Steve home, just as much as he never wanted him home.
In the limbo period, he could daydream of a life where Steve wanted a kid. He could imagine Steve playing with Mr. Snail, Morgan’s favorite stuffed animal that was literally just a large, puffy snail with a glittery shell. She carried him everywhere. Steve would love it. Steve probably would have painted a picture of her and Mr. Snail or something cute like that. The best Tony could do was build a little snail house for Mr. Snail to sleep in at night.
There was no telling when Steve would get home, though he would hopefully get a seven hour heads up from Natasha once the mission was complete. Tony’s job would be to make sure no one tailed them home, which was going to be difficult if it coincided with Morgan’s art class.
Morgan’s art class consisted more of spilled and splattered paint than actual art, but she loved it like nothing else. Several of her finger paint drawings already littered the fridge and she’d only started the class a week before. Dr. Roberts said it was a good thing to enroll her in an art class to let her express herself.
He told himself that was the only reason he’d suggested it.
“C’mere, Noodle,” Tony all but begged as he tried to get pasta sauce wiped from chubby cheeks.
Morgan turned her head away even further, smacking him with those sausage roll fingers.
“If you want to see any robots, you’ve gotta let me wipe it off,” Tony argued. Sometimes bartering worked.
Morgan did turn her head around, then grabbed a handful of leftover spaghetti noodles and chucked them right at his face. Pasta hit him on the nose, giving him a nice pasta sauce stripe across his face.
“Oh, you think that’s funny, huh?”
Tony reached forward, scooping up tomato sauce on his fingertip. He dabbed it on his nose, watching at Morgan’s eyes went huge.
“What, something on my face?” He grinned, then plopped a little spot of red on Morgan’s round little nose.
She squealed with joy, smacking her hands on her tray and flinging noodles and sauce everywhere as she did so.
It was the little moments. The ones he didn’t remember with own father.
A half hour later and they were headed down to the lab, Morgan perched on his hip as he carefully navigated the stairs, a small drone hovering nearby just in case something unexpected happened and he ended up flinging his brand new daughter down a flight of stairs. Couldn’t be too careful.
Morgan loved to look at his creations. DUM-E was her favorite, since he liked to dance with her and show her things. Tony always had to watch, though, because sometimes DUM-E tried to hand her things he shouldn’t. Like glow sticks. Where he’d found glow sticks, Tony didn’t know.
Tony liked to think Morgan was fascinated by his creations because she knew he’d created them, but he knew that it was probably just because sparkly things and little kids went hand in hand. Especially potentially dangerous sparkly things.
She really liked to hold onto his helmet while he went over notes, and if she didn’t have it in her hands she screamed until she did. It made his heart swell to see her love a hunk of metal so much, even if it terrified him to think about the next time he had to put it on.
While he was confident Morgan would be safe from whatever danger might come their way, he couldn’t be so sure about himself. He was getting older, and every battle took longer to recover from than the last.
His other worry had been the media circus, but thankfully news of Morgan’s adoption had hit right when some politician landed in hot water with uncovered HYDRA ties. The tabloids swarmed them whenever they left the house, but it hadn’t been nearly as tough as anticipated. The world was already forgetting about Tony Stark’s new little family.
Hell, if he had known adopting a kid would be the thing to throw him out of the spotlight, Tony would have done it ages ago. Now he was just an old dad. Soon to be a washed up old dad when the public found out Steve Rogers dumped him for lying. It wouldn’t matter that Tony had already explained the lying part from the beginning, he knew. Steve wouldn’t be understanding of this, and Tony couldn’t blame him. All he could do now was his best.
“You’re sure she’s not you’re long lost kid?” Rhodey said one evening as they sipped mocktails in the living room. Morgan was busy playing with her Iron Man action figures that Uncle Rhodey had introduced pretty damn quick. Tony suspected it was because the paint machine had clearly misfired all over what was supposed to be his face.
“Pretty sure,” Tony chuckled. “She does look like me, huh.”
“A lot,” Rhodey said around a sip of his drink. “Still like being a dad?”
“Love it,” Tony said with a grin.
“And what about Steve?” Rhodey’s brow quirked. “Oh, right, you haven’t told him yet. That’s not important or anything.”
“I can’t exactly tell him right now,” Tony quipped.
“You could have told him from the beginning when you hatched this fatherhood plan of yours.”
“Then he never would have agreed to it,” Tony snapped.
Morgan looked up upon hearing his tone, and Tony offered her a wide grin. She smiled back at him and turned back to her toys.
“Ever think maybe there’s a reason for that?” Rhodey returned. When Tony shot him daggers, he corrected himself. “You hid this from everyone until Steve left. Of course we support you, but hiding it from us kinda made it feel like this was one of those rush decisions you make.”
“When have I ever made a—” Tony shut his mouth, turning his gaze back to his drink. Shirley Temple. A favorite of someone not currently in the country. “It wasn’t a rush decision.”
“I know that now, but Steve hasn’t been here to see you like we have. He’s not going to—”
“I’m aware,” Tony said flatly. “I don’t anticipate him sticking around.”
Rhodey frowned at that. “He really likes you, Tony. You don’t have to blow this up.”
Tony let out a snort. “Too late now, Rhodes.”
“It doesn’t have to be.” Rhodey leaned forward in his seat, looking Tony over. “But if you wanna save it, you have to tell him. You can’t let him find out on his own.”
Tony shifted in his spot, uneasy. He did not like that idea. Confrontation really wasn’t his thing in his personal life. He would rather things blow up in his face, yeah. He was pretty used to making things blow up in all aspects of life at this point.
“I can’t contact him right now even if I wanted to,” Tony said indignantly.
Rhodey pushed out a sigh. “I’m sure you could find a way.”
“Yeah, and put him at risk. Not really worth it when he’s going to leave me when he finds out anyway.”
That got an eyeroll from Rhodey. “You’re making excuses, Tony.”
Morgan smacked her Iron Man figure into the carpet, murmuring under her breath as she dragged her father’s face through the fibers. Tony watched with a little smile—he always smiled when Morgan was around. Even when she was screaming her head off in the middle of a very important lab session, he never minded. He would never understand how his father could have ever been so furious with him as a child. He’d never screamed bloody murder around his father in the lab, and he still got the shit beat out of him more than once just for being there.
“I think I’ll give her a Cap figure next time I come,” Rhodey murmured.
Rhodey laughed, but the kind of laugh that meant he was absolutely going to bring a Cap doll. He drained his drink with finality, indicating their evening was coming to a close. That was just fine with Tony, as he could see Morgan’s eyelids drooping as she continued grinding his action figure’s face into the carpet.
They said their goodbyes the same way they always did, quick and to the point. Rhodey never wanted it to feel like maybe this goodbye was the last, even though they both knew that was possible. Missions popped up at any time, and though Tony was taking a break from them, sometimes the world just needed saving.
“Tell Steve,” Rhodey said quietly as they waited for the elevator.
Tony adjusted the sleeping toddler on his chest, throwing Rhodey a look.
“I will.” At some point.
Rhodey gave him a smile that said he’d heard Tony’s unspoken words anyway.
“I just don’t want to see you hurt, Tony.”
“Well, you’re definitely going to see that,” Tony said with a snort.
Rhodey chuckled. “I just mean I don’t want to see you hurt when you could have prevented it in the first place.”
Preventing it the first place would have meant not asking Steve to do this at all. No—it would have been declining that goddamn wine Thor had given him at that goddamn party.
“I’ll tell him,” Tony said again, and this time it sounded like it might actually be genuine.
That got a real smile out of Rhodey, and he patted Tony’s shoulder.
“You’ll do the right thing. You always do.”
Steve had imagined this meeting a thousand times over the past three months. He’d played out scenarios where Tony leapt into his arms, kissed him at the door, or just grinned in that soft way he did when he was so, so happy. Of course, he’d also played through the scenarios where Tony just stared at him coldly, greeted him with a sarcastic remark, or just avoided him entirely.
And he had to admit the more nightmareish scenarios were starting to look more and more like reality.
Steve didn’t have a sweetheart during the war (and Peggy couldn’t really be considered his sweetheart, as much as he had wanted her to be at the time), but the stories at mail call were endless.
Mail call had been a godsend or a trip to Hell for many men. Letters from home inspired men to do better, comforted them in dark times, or cut them off at the knees. He’d seen men begin to openly sob as their sweethearts left them, wives told them of other men, and fiancé’s broke off engagements. Worse was when there was no letter at all, just a maddening mind game.
Three months was a long time. Tony easily could have moved on, found someone else. Their façade had probably gotten old, and maybe Tony had realized that he didn’t care at all about the man who had hidden the truth about his parents’ deaths.
Steve gripped tightly to his duffel, the base of his fingers hot as the nylon straps cut into his hand. He hadn’t been denied at the door, so that was at least one good sign.
But Tony hadn’t met him at the tarmac. Natasha had to drive him back home, because his bike was at the tower. There were no new texts or voicemails on his burner phone when he reactivated it. He didn’t dare open up the internet, too afraid to see Tony with someone else.
The elevator stopped at the penthouse floor—another promising sign. Tony hadn’t denied him access. That probably meant his new lover wasn’t living here yet.
Steve swallowed hard, shoulders drawn and tense as the doors opened.
He peeked out, but there was no call of surprise, no confetti, no indication that Tony had been hiding for good reason. No, the penthouse was utterly silent, washed in shadow and warm light as the sun sank between the skyscrapers outside.
He knew Tony wasn’t there. He could feel it in his bones that he’d come home to an empty house.
Steve set his duffel by the door and crept into the living room, eye on the bedroom door. Maybe Tony wasn’t at home, but someone else could be. That would be quite the dramatic way to give Steve the message, and Tony did like his share of drama.
It was hard to steel his heart like this. The past three months had been inner turmoil, but Steve was an optimistic man. He did his best to think about only the good things happening with Tony, but as he looked around the penthouse, it was clear to him that maybe his worst fears had come true.
The furniture was different, for starters.
Gone were the hard lines of Tony’s modern style. The edge of his custom half circle couch had once been made to look like slate, but was now shaved and smooth with rounded edges and no corners. The glass coffee table had been replaced with one made of wood, and the raised floor had been coated in some kind of rubbery material that made it look the same at first, but was most certainly not the rock it had once been.
Someone had gotten Tony to change his habits. Not even Steve had been able to do that in all of their years together. Buying a piece of furniture on a date was probably one of the only times they had jointly decided to make any alterations to the main house. He was pretty sure Tony had even been adverse to Steve’s clothing moving into his dresser at first. The man did not like change in his household.
The kitchen was different too. Steve didn’t even remember what had been on the countertops before, but they were totally clean now. Not even so much as a decorative fruit bowl adorned the granite, and the fridge was blank, no trace of any of the photos they had taken together, or even the saved notes Tony had attached to the door from months prior.
Someone was sending a message.
Steve glanced at the elevator door, checking to make sure it hadn’t moved. No one was coming. Tony had to know he was here by now, and yet hadn’t appeared. His mysterious lover hadn’t either. And whoever they were, Tony was keeping evidence locked up tight somewhere.
Against his better judgement, Steve crossed the living room again and went into the master suite.
The bed was perfectly made, but with a new comforter. A trunk also sat at the foot of the bed, one made of heavy wood that didn’t match the rest of the space. Tony would never allow such a contradiction in style, yet there it was, plain and oak, and fastened shut with iron.
But the stuffed snail made Steve’s stomach drop. It was plush, but clearly well loved. It was a kid’s toy—or had been one long ago, a least. But now it was slightly singed in some places, stained in others, and had crusted pasta sauce on parts of its body that hadn’t come out in many washes.
That was a kind of total trust, total enveloping love that Steve was shocked could even come from Tony in such a short time. Steve had been with him for a few years and he didn’t think Tony would ever be the person to share a bed with a stuffed animal. He didn’t get attached to inanimate objects that weren’t made of metal. Yet this person had stepped into Tony’s life in a matter of months and flipped him on a head.
Steve wanted to meet this person—a woman, he guessed—just to see what he lacked that she had. All the years fighting beside each other, a friendship turned romance, all of that history amounted to a big fat nothing now.
He backed away, his heart already aching in his chest. As much as he didn’t want to hear an explanation, he needed to know who had turned Tony from him.
“Mr. Stark is in the elevator, Captain,” Friday announced, and Steve couldn’t help hearing a little coldness in her tone.
Steve’s eyes were still locked on the childhood toy, rooted to his spot. He wanted Tony to know he’d looked. That he’d seen the life Tony had removed him from.
He heard the elevator doors open and there was a sound of rushing feet, a soft ‘shit’,a bag being tossed to the ground.
“Steve,” he heard Tony say, but the room started spinning a little.
Who was the reason Tony hadn’t been there to pick him up? Why hadn’t Tony at least given him the decency of a ride home?
Tony slid into the doorway, nearly missing it entirely as he pushed through the threshold.
“Steve,” Tony said again, this time out of breath.
Steve tore his eyes away from the snail, leveling them on Tony.
He looked…younger. His eyes had life in them Steve hadn’t seen since the Accords, his skin glowed, his small wrinkles looked smoothed out. This was not a man who looked unhappy, who looked like he had been pining after the man he’d dumped at the tarmac three months prior.
“What is that?” Steve asked, pointing at the snail.
Tony blinked, then followed Steve’s finger. He relaxed slightly. “Oh, that? Nothing. Just…that’s Mr. Snail.”
“Mr. Snail,” Steve repeated, voice cold.
“Steve…I wanted to write. I wanted to—”
“No. No, Tony.” Steve closed his eyes, a fresh wave of hurt crashing straight into his chest.
“Just meet her, Steve, before you decide anything—”
“Meet her?” Steve scoffed, eyes welling with tears. “What, now? Where is she?”
“I didn’t want her here when you got home,” Tony confessed, voice tight. “I wasn’t going to bombard you with that.”
“Oh, great,” Steve snorted. “Just leave me to see all the evidence alone, come to the conclusion myself because you don’t have the decency to tell me to my face.”
Tony flinched, but didn’t refute it. “I wanted to tell you before you left,” he said quietly. “But I was too afraid—”
“Before I left?” Steve couldn’t hide his shock. “This was happening before I left?”
“It was in the works,” Tony replied weakly. “Before we started…before we made our deal.”
“She was the secret.”
Steve had been hurt many times in his life, used even. And Tony had warned him, to be fair. But this was something else. Tony was a liar like Steve had never seen. She’d been here the whole time.
“My lawyer friend? Yeah. She’s not my friend.”
Steve was reeling now. That couldn’t be the mystery woman. That woman—what was her goddamned name?—had been cold with Tony, formal. Lawyer-like even in a private meeting. But then again, Steve wouldn’t be all that kind to the man in a pretend relationship with the man he loved.
It made sense, though. She was probably a hotshot lawyer Steve didn’t know about but should. Divorcing her husband, keeping things out of the media until enough time had passed, and then got to be together with Tony.
“Let me take you out to dinner,” Tony offered quietly. “I’ll answer any questions you have.”
“You just love to cause me pain, don’t you,” Steve snarled. “No, I don’t want to go to dinner. I’m done being your puppet, Tony. I thought I could handle whatever it was, but this? This is cruelty and you know it.”
Tony actually looked surprised. “Cruelty? I may be an asshole sometimes, but this isn’t cruelty. I’m not saying you have to stay part of this family, but…but I do want you to.”
Steve looked up at him, unable to process what that meant. “Stay part of this family? What the hell are you talking about? What—so I can be your boyfriend during the work and you can have your lawyer powerhouse girlfriend on weekends? What the hellare you talking about?”
It was Tony’s turn to look confused. “I have a girlfriend? What are youtalking about, Steve?”
He blinked, gesturing around the room. “Are you being facetious?”
Tony looked around, as though something may have appeared in the room he hadn’t noticed before. Steve waited, heart in his throat. Tony must have really thought he was an idiot to believe this was the way Tony’s room had always been, that nothing had changed, that there was no evidence of a woman sleeping here.
Steve shot a look to the snail, just for emphasis.
Finally, it seemed to dawn on Tony.
“Oh shit—Steve, no.”
But he had already taken a step back, ready to bolt.
“Steve, no.” Tony moved to take up the doorframe. “I don’t have a girlfriend. I don’t have a boyfriend. I have…whatever you want to call us. That’s all I have.”
Steve scoffed. “Right, and you just sleep with stuffed animals now.”
The color left Tony’s face, and he looked pained. “I…Steve, I wanted to tell you—”
“So tell me,” he growled. “I think I’ve waiting long enough.”
Tony ran a hand through his hair, a motion of ultimate stress and frustration. But Steve wasn’t backing down just because Tony was uncomfortable.
“I don’t know how to tell you,” Tony blurted out. “I don’t—I have a kid, Steve. A daughter.”
It took several moments for Steve to understand what words had just been spoken, and even when he did understand he couldn’t really comprehend. Surely he’d misheard.
“What?” It was the only thing he could think to say.
“A little girl,” Tony said, looking very much afraid now. “Her name is Morgan. She’s…she’s little. A toddler. Little kid. Doesn’t talk yet—we’re working on that—but she’s my kid now. And before you say anything, this wasn’t a split second decision. I started the process before we got together but they weren’t going to let me adopt. My public image was too fucked, I guess. And with whatever happened at that party that I still don’t remember, Winona said you were my only shot. Winona’s not my friend—she was my lawyer was handling legal for getting Morgan. She’s not—nothing like what you’re thinking.”
Tony gave a little start, then dug into his pocket, producing his phone. He clicked it on, holding it out to Steve.
There was a picture of Tony with a massive grin, clearly overwhelmed with joy. A chubby toddler was on his hip. Her hair was dark like Tony’s, with a cute haircut that ended just past her ears. She looked a little shocked at being photographed, with big puffy cheeks and dark eyes. She looked like she could be Tony’s biological daughter, but yet he somehow knew she wasn’t. Some familiarity about her was missing that he knew Tony’s biological child would carry.
But this little girl was Tony’s daughter.
Steve had never even imagined Tony with children. Not beyond an occasional daydream of what life might look like if they stayed together. Tony was good with kids, but he’d always seemed so against having his own. Then again, they’d only discussed it briefly, and that was many years ago.
And now Tony was a father. The kid was already here, a little girl named Morgan.
Steve didn’t take the phone, he just stared at the photo.
He realized he hadn’t spoken yet, but he wasn’t sure how. What could he possibly say? What was he supposed to feel?
“I couldn’t tell you,” Tony said quietly. “I could notrisk her, Steve. If you left me, if the media caught wind and turned on me, game over. I didn’t want to hide it, I didn’t want to hurt you. But I had to do whatever I could to get her.”
Steve shook his head. He couldn’t process this here in Tony’s penthouse. Where baby things were now scattered around, carefully tucked away into little corners so they didn’t tip him off. Tony was still hiding from him, still keeping things.
“So I was just a means to an end?” Steve asked pathetically. “So you could adopt your daughter?”
Tony frowned. “I told you from the beginning that this was going to be a fake relationship. Of course it started out as a means to an end, but Steve, that’s not what I want now.”
Steve chewed his bottom lip. He still didn’t know what to think.
“I want you now,” Tony said quietly. “And I know that’s a big ask, but I do want you to stay with me. With Morgan.”
“I think I need to go,” Steve said quietly. As soon as the words left his mouth, he knew it was what he needed to do. He couldn’t stay here tonight, even if he’d been dreaming it for the past three months. Not if Tony had a kid here. He’d been around enough orphans in his lifetime to know that some new person in their home—especially a person there to stay—could ruin whatever Tony had built over the past few months.
To his surprise, Tony didn’t argue. He just nodded slowly. “Can I give you a ride?”
“I wanted a ride from the tarmac,” Steve blurted out. “I wanted you to be there. I mean—I guess you have a daughter now and of course she comes first but I’ve been gone for three months. If you really want me here, why didn’t you come see me? I waited for you.”
He’d waited until Natasha couldn’t stand to see him standing there any longer. Until he had to give up hope.
“I planned on being there—”
Steve put up a hand. “That’s worse. Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me you planned on being there and still couldn’t make it.”
“I panicked,” Tony explained. “I planned to pick you up with Morgan, but I couldn’t decide if that was better or worse. I thought better, then worse. So I drove her over to Pepper’s place, then she started telling me to bring her. Then Morgan started crying--and I can’t stand to see that kid cry, Steve and—” He looked defeated, running his hand through his hair again. “I dunno, I fucked up. I fucked up a lot.”
Steve nodded. “You did. You adopted a kid without me, but you still plan on me sticking around.”
“I haven’t planned for anything involving you,” Tony returned with a bit of an edge. “I want you to stick around, but I won’t blame you if you go.”
Anger was bubbling up in him, the cold kind that made him nervous. He didn’t hate Tony. He couldn’t hate Tony, not for this. Even if he did feel betrayed, he wasn’t yet sure if he was allowed to feel that way. And where in his past he would have charged back swinging, Steve wasn’t the same person now.
“I think I just need to be away from this,” he said, shaking his head again. “I don’t want to say something I regret, and I don’t know how I feel.”
“Do you want to meet her?” Tony offered weakly.
“No,” he replied quickly. “Not until I decide what I’m doing.”
He hated the look of pain that came to Tony’s face, but he knew it was the right decision. He would immediately feel attached to the kid, and he didn’t need that clouding his decisionmaking right now.
“Okay,” Tony finally said, stepping away from the threshold to give Steve room to leave. “I guess I’ll just…wait to hear from you then?”
Steve didn’t let his gaze linger as he headed out, slipping past Tony and back into the living room. This was not the homecoming he had wanted. His gut was churning, his head spinning, and his heart didn’t know whether to break or turn to mush in his chest, so all it did was hurt.
He grabbed his duffel, punching the elevator call button about fifty times, hoping like hell Tony didn’t leave the bedroom to come after him.
“To the garage, sir?” Friday asked as the doors opened.
“Yes, please,” Steve said, his throat closing up. His eyes were hot with tears, which made him feel even more stupid. God, he needed out of here. “Quickly, please.”
He ducked into the doorway, hiding the penthouse from view just in case Tony came running out. But there was only silence, then the sound of the doors closing and the jerk of the elevator as he descended to the spacious garage.
At least seeing his bike made him a little happier. He loved his bike, and it would be good to ride back to his apartment with the wind in his hair. Back to the apartment he hadn’t lived in for almost half a year. He wasn’t even sure he had any furniture in there anymore.
Well, time to find out.
Low candlelight reflected in the swooping curve of an empty wine glass, dancing along the smooth surface as waitstaff walked quietly past, not one of them whispering about the table’s only patron until they were out of earshot.
Tony sat with a paper straw bouncing between his lips. He’d chewed through two already. He wasn’t sure the sea turtles were any safer. He glanced at his timepiece, the minute hand a quarter past seven. A full half an hour after Steve was supposed to show up. Well, a full half an hour since Steve had been invited to show up.
Tony tried not to have expectations. He told himself (and his therapist) that he knew expectations set him up for failure. Steve had to show up on his own accord. It was Steve’s choice, and Tony had to be happy to see him when and if he did appear.
His therapist did not know he’d been sending a text every week for two months with a time and place. He never got a reply. He tried not to expect one. Steve was still figuring things out. Right now that involved not talking to him, looking at him, or making any kind of suggestion that he was even acknowledging Tony’s existence.
It helped that he hadn’t been present at any Avengers functions since he’d adopted Morgan. He was consulted on a few things, but kept them to video chat while he was tinkering in the lab and Morgan was doing her own tinkering in her pack-n-play. Mainly, she was devising ways to sneak out of the pack-n-play to grab his legs and nearly give him a heart attack.
But now he was alone and kidless, just the way Steve wanted him to be. Morgan was with Pepper, who had taken to her in a way he hadn’t really expected, but wasn’t opposed to in the slightest. Pepper was by no means Morgan’s mother, but she’d taken up quite the role in making sure she was always dressed nicely and—more importantly—a giggling mess of happy.
Tony still didn’t understand how he could love his little girl so much and his own father couldn’t even come to his science fair in seventh grade.
The front door opened to the restaurant and Tony’s eyes snapped up to the figure in the doorway. A man and woman stumbled in, their dopey grins giving away their drunkenness. He looked back down at his napkin that he’d folded and refolded about a hundred times, now creaseless and perfectly flat on the table, every corner square.
Steve was never late to anything by five minutes, much less thirty. But yet he always waited at least an hour, every time.
Because he knew Steve was a hopeless romantic, and he also knew Steve liked to torture himself.
Tony had no problem imagining Steve ‘s internal debate whenever he got the text (every Thursday at 4 o’clock on the dot), deciding whether or not to cancel his Friday plans, thinking about what he would say if he did show up, thinking about doing this whole relationship thing. That was why Tony sent the text: because it meant that at least one time a week, Steve was thinking about them. About him. It was selfish, but he needed that little shred of hope to stay functioning.
Breaking things off with Steve had been one of the more horrible things he’d ever done in his life, but somehow this was worse. Probably because he had no finality, no tangible end, so he could obsess about every moment, lead his mind down the well-worn paths he’d made for himself that always ended in the same place. He was on a treadmill, and he had a hard time believing it wasn’t intentional—Steve giving him a taste of his own medicine from the three months he’d been away on mission.
God, he should have gone to the tarmac. He regretted that more and more every day. He should have been there. Just him, no Morgan, told Steve when they got home. He should have been there.
His waitress walked by, only giving hurried eye contact to see if he wanted anything.
He lifted his empty glass and she swerved hard to come back to his table.
“Black cherry this time,” Tony said with a nod and a pasted-on smile.
The door opened again. An old couple.
He thought about abusing his power and checking Steve’s GPS signal. Just to see if maybe he was a block away, considering. But his therapist had warned him about that. Said it was sabotaging Steve’s trust.
He checked his timepiece again, then his phone. Nothing.
He almost texted. Almost.
Just to see.
The waitress turned on her heel, rushing back over.
“I’ll close out.” He fished out a hundred dollar bill. “That should cover it, I’d say. Keep the change.”
She nodded, too well trained to give him a look of surprise. Not to mention he was pretty sure she’s been his waitress last week. He couldn’t ever remember. “Thank you, Mr. Stark.”
“I’ll see you next week,” he said, so she didn’t have to. Another pasted-on smile as he stood.
Tony shrugged on his jacket and pulled his sunglasses from his pocket. It was dark outside, but it was one habit he wouldn’t break from his days of drugs and drinking.
He tapped his glasses as he strode to the door, and quickly scrolled through the preset commands to summon his car. The valets had stopped trying to get him to let them have a go at it.
He had a little girl waiting at home. A little girl who would be ecstatic to see him home a half an hour early.
The low purr of his McLaren P1 greeted him as he stepped onto the side street next to the restaurant, and the butterfly doors rose to meet him.
But as he rounded the front of the car, a shadow moved down the street. Tony had a good sense on gauging danger, and something in him snapped alert at the movement.
A blaster materialized around his hand, and nanobots flowed from the reactor under his shirt, giving him a skin-tight bulletproof vest in a matter of seconds.
“Wanna say hello?” Tony called, because he loved the idea of being shot in the face by a random scumbag.
A red dot appeared on his chest.
Friday scanned rapidly to try to identify the source of the laser point, but as his glasses went infrared the laser vanished. Tony set his jaw, more frustrated than scared.
“If you’re trying to be threatening, you’re—”
Something hit him hard from his right, and Tony could only make a choked noise as he crashed into the side of his car. Nanobots flashed over his face, and his sunglasses clattered to the ground as his nano lenses came to life.
“You’re gonna regret that,” he muttered. He threw a hand up, firing a blast that hit the wall of the building across the street. Light bathed the alley in blue, but his attacker was nowhere in sight. Fast little fucker.
“Friday, get me—”
Something hit his reactor and Tony could hear the crackle of an electric current as his armor started falling away. What the fuck!?
“If I wanted to kill you I would have shot you in the head when you walked out, idiot.”
Tony’s face twisted to a scowl. He knew that voice. “Get the fuck out here, Barnes. What the hell are you doing?!?”
Bucky seemed to solidify from the shadows, removing the mask from his face. Tony had read in a file somewhere that the limited oxygen helped him stay focused. Or some shit like that.
“Stop bothering Steve.”
Tony brushed off his suit and turned to examine his car for dents. Fucking Bucky. “I’m not bothering him. I’m extending an invitation.”
“Yeah, well stop.”
Tony let out a snort. “I don’t remember you having power of attorney over his personal life.” He ran a hand over the side of his car, only slightly relieved to find no dents. He turned, eyes set in a glare. “So get lost.”
Bucky’s metal arm whipped toward him, and Tony’s arms shot up to defend himself from what could very well have been a lethal blow.
His arms were still up protecting his face when Bucky’s hand clutched his chest, ripping a small metal ball from over his reactor, leaving Tony looking pretty pathetic standing there basically cowering. Goddammit.
“What the hell is that thing anyway?” Tony snapped, hurriedly standing up straight again. “Who the hell designed it?” Friday was taking scans as the nanobots spread out over his torso again. Just in case.
“I designed it,” Bucky said. “I can do more than hold a gun, y’know.”
“News to me,” Tony snarled. Oh, he did not like that. Who the hell had given Bucky access to a lab?
Bucky scowled at him and looked like he might be reconsidering throwing a punch. Instead, he let out a sigh. “Steve didn’t send me, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“I figured,” Tony replied. “He’s not one for attack dogs.” He folded his arms. “I’m going to keep texting him.”
“I’m asking you not to.”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “I really don’t care if you’re asking. And you’re throwing me into cars and pointing guns at me. That’s not really getting you any points.”
Bucky produced a laser pointer and wiggled it at him. “Had to get your attention.”
“You could have just said something, like a normal person.”
Bucky cocked a brow. “And you’re telling me you wouldn’t’ve just gotten into your car and left me by the side of the road?”
Tony pursed his lips. Fair point.
They both stood there for a moment in tense silence, but Bucky’s gaze was turned away. Uncomfortable. He clearly didn’t want to be here, and Tony didn’t either, but neither of them made a move to leave.
“Is he doing okay?” Tony found himself asking.
There was a heay pause before Bucky answered.
“No,” Bucky murmured. “I haven’t seen him in two days. He stopped responding to my texts.”
Tony turned to him. “Do you know where he is? Did he—he’s safe, right?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Bucky said dismissively. “He’s okay. I checked on him just before I came here.”
“You just said you haven’t seen him.”
“I more meant he hasn’t been social with me. I check on him every night, he just doesn’t know it.”
Tony rolled his eyes. “And he said I’m obsessive.”
“He’s all I have,” Bucky snapped. “And if you keep fucking around with those text messages you’re going to ruin whatever shot you have at salvaging you two.”
“It’s not fucking around,” Tony growled. “I’m giving him a weekly opportunity to fix this.”
“You’re torturing him.” Bucky worked his jaw, clearly upset, but it wasn’t angry. It was…worried. For Steve. Tony wasn’t sure he’d ever seen Bucky not angry about something. Usually him.
“I need more of an explanation than that,” Tony said.
Bucky shoved his hands in his pockets, taking a breath. “To him, it’s pressure. And when you put pressure on Steve, it generally doesn’t work out in your favor. Not in his personal life, anyway. He doesn’t do well with timelines.”
There was something knowing in Bucky’s eyes that Tony didn’t think he liked, but he didn’t say anything. He’d asked Steve once about his relationship with Barnes, and Steve had always rolled his eyes. Everyone on the team had thought it, he was sure. Bucky Barnes was a heartthrob, there was no denying it. Those big blue eyes and sad, pouty lips. But Steve was no liar (though he was a truth-withholder) and when he said nothing had happened with Bucky, Tony believed him.
But that didn’t mean Bucky felt the same way. Bucky, who only ever smiled when Steve was in the room. Who only showed gentleness and kindness when he was making Steve coffee or throwing a blanket over him when he’d fallen asleep at his desk. Bucky, who had staked Tony out on his own accord so that he wouldn’t keep hurting Steve.
“Are you speaking from experience?” Tony dared to ask, but there was no malice in his tone now.
“Does it matter?” Bucky said quietly.
“Might help me decide if I should send another text next week.”
Bucky’s eyes turned upward, and for a moment Tony could see the twenty six year-old kid who went from working in a shipyard to waging war in countries he probably couldn’t have even pointed out on a map a few months prior.
“He’ll sabotage himself every time,” Bucky murmured. “He wants to show up. Every week he’s gotten so close to stepping out the door. But he has a lot of pride. He got rejected a lot when he was a scrawny stick of a kid. Still carries that with him, even if he doesn’t think so.”
Bucky’s eyes went to his feet then, and he toyed with a piece of gravel under his boot.
“He wants to be with you. And the kid,” Bucky said. “But it has to be his choice. When you invite him here, it becomes your choice that he’s accepting. He won’t do that. He’ll feel like you forced his hand. Like you might not think he’s genuine.”
“Why wouldn’t I think it’s genuine? It’s Steve. I don’t think it’s possible for him to fake something like that,” Tony said, trying not to think about the fact that Steve wanted to show up.
Bucky shrugged, and a sad smile came to his lips. “All I’m saying is that if you want this to work, you gotta stop texting him. I know him better than anyone, even you. He’ll come around, and he’ll let you know. He won’t…he’ll never leave you hanging.”
Tony snorted. “Kinda feels like he already is.”
Bucky shook his head. “Maybe on your side of things, but I can promise you he’s always thinking about it. And when he comes to his decision, you’ll know.”
For maybe the first time ever, Tony felt a twinge of sympathy for Bucky’s big, sad eyes.
“I bet you wish I didn’t exist, huh,” Tony murmured.
There was deep pain in Bucky’s chuckle. “Some days, yeah. Just because you’re an asshole.”
“But if I wasn’t here—”
“No.” Bucky shook his head again. “Wouldn’t change anything if you were here or not.”
“Stop,” Bucky said firmly. “Whatever you’re thinking about saying, don’t.”
Tony worried the inside of his cheek, debating. He supposed he could always ask Steve later.
“Fine,” he finally said. “I won’t text him this week. Or next. I’ll let him…make his decision or whatever.”
Bucky nodded quickly. “Good.”
“Good,” Tony repeated. “Now, can I go home?”
Bucky stepped back into the shadows, but Tony could still see light reflecting in his eyes, maybe a little more than usual. Tony turned to his car, checking one last time for dents before slipping into the driver’s seat.
“Hey,” Bucky said, but he didn’t step forward.
Tony turned back. “Yeah?”
“Don’t tell Steve, okay?”
Tony looked at him then, wondering just how much of this Steve was aware of. “About this conversation, or about you being—”
“Any of it,” Bucky cut. Then, softer: “Please.”
A part of him wanted to call Steve right now, to try to inflict maybe a sliver of the pain Bucky had caused him. But something uncomfortable welled in his chest at the thought, and he told himself it was just because it would upset Steve. Even on his worst day as a human being, Tony could never inflict that kind of pain, not knowingly.
“I won’t tell him. But I won’t lie to him if he asks me.”
Bucky nodded slowly. “Yeah, I get it. I wouldn’t lie to him either.”
“He won’t ask,” Tony assured him. Yes, he was comforting the man who had murdered his parents in cold blood.
Bucky didn’t move. “Goodnight, Tony.”
“Night, Barnes.” The car doors descended and clicked shut. Tony glanced out the window to see if maybe he could discern some kind of meaning in Bucky’s figure, but he was already gone. So he put the car in drive and floored it for home, wondering just how he’d come to a place where he was being even remotely cordial to Bucky fucking Barnes.
Steve. Steve was how. Steve was the reason for most of the good decisions he’d made in this chapter of life.
Tony just had to hope it wasn’t too late to get him back.
Tony found himself thinking of Steve the moment he woke every morning. Steve’s name was in his mouth as though he’d just spoken it, and as he snapped to consciousness he always saw a flash of Steve’s face behind his eyelids. Even when he woke to Morgan thrashing in her crib, crying or screaming, he still thought first of Steve.
It was hard to take the advice of Bucky Barnes for something so serious, but he did know Steve better than anyone. If he said that the way to fix this was not contacting Steve, then Tony had to listen. For once, he just had to listen.
But he didn’t like the way the penthouse was evolving without Steve there. Morgan’s toys started to pile up in odd corners, and he was usually too tired to pick them up when he was stumbling to bed. She was a bright little thing, and sometimes liked to show him just how bright she was by hiding toys in places she wasn’t supposed to be in the first place.
Steve had so much to catch up on when he came home. Tony feared that it would feel insurmountable. It was hard enough for him to come home after a weekend away and he saw her every day. Morgan grew so much in so little time.
And sometimes Tony just really needed someone to care for him. Of course he had Rhodey and Pepper and a host of others, but they didn’t ruffle his hair, cook him dinner, and kiss him goodnight (thought Rhodey probably would if Tony really nagged him to). He wanted Steve. He wanted Steve’s arms around him, someone to pull him to bed when he tried to stay up late. And someone to share the burdens of parenting, because they were significantly more straining than any course load at MIT or deadline for Stark Industries.
“I’ve given her Motrin,” Tony explained, trying to be patient. “And I understand it’s late. But you’re a pediatric doctor, aren’t you?”
“I was for a stint, yeah,” Bruce muttered on the other end of the line. “But I think you’d be better off calling her actual doctor, Tony.”
“They keep pushing me to voicemail and she’s burning up.” Tony smoothed back Morgan’s hair where she lay in his lap, her breathing shallow. She only stirred to make little groans of pain and to curl up tighter.
“Did you take her temp—
“Of course I did,” Tony growled. “It was 101 last I checked about thirty seconds ago.” He had Friday monitoring all vitals.
“Kids get fevers, Tony,” Bruce said, clearly exasperated. “You can’t prevent all of them, and sometimes they just have to run their course. If it gets worse, then you can take her to urgent care.”
“Or you can just come and bring urgent care to me right now.” It seemed like a reasonable enough solution. “She’s really warm, Bruce.”
“You’re not the first parent to have a kid with a fever, you know,” Bruce reminded him. “She’s going to be fine, I promise. If it gets worse, you’ll know and you can call me.”
Tony frowned, unconvinced. Morgan had been through fevers before, but this one just felt worse than the others. She’d been sluggish and cranky all day, and just wanted to sleep—all of which was very unusual for her.
“I’d feel better if you just came over here and checked her out,” Tony murmured.
“If I still lived in the tower, I would,” Bruce replied with a yawn. “But I’m not getting out of bed and driving across town to tell you the same thing I can tell you over the phone.”
“But you haven’t seen her, Bruce. You haven’t felt how warm she is.”
“She’s not going to be comfortable. It’s a fever, Tony.” Bruce let out a sigh. “Once she starts sweating—”
“I do know how fevers work,” Tony muttered. He’d only researched practically every study ever done on them while she got worse. He was fairly certain he’d know more than whatever doctor her took her to at urgent care.
“Well, I’m sorry she’s not feeling well, but I’m going to bed. Call me if it’s not better by morning.”
“I hope you go to bed and think about my suffering child while you drift off to dreamland,” Tony said petulantly. “Sweet dreams.”
“Oh come on—”
Tony hung up before Bruce could finish, and gave Morgan a kiss to the crown of her head. She didn’t stir, not even when he rested his cheek against her forehead. Still hot, and she was burning up in his lap.
He thought of putting her in her crib, but there was always a chance she could get worse. If he fell asleep, how would he know? (Friday—but maybe she would malfunction!) He didn’t dare give her another dose of Motrin, and she was in no state to be asked to eat food.
His fingers started moving before he even knew what he was doing. His brain had found a solution faster than his thoughts could catch up.
But when they did catch up, it was because there was a familiar voice at the other end of the line, soft and scratchy with sleep.
“Tony? Is everything okay?”
Honestly, it didn’t occur to him until that moment that maybe he should have tried calling Steve at some point before this. But phone calls were always a bit too personal to him (laughable considering his history with Steve) and there was something almost negative in the connotation. Calling someone to have a conversation had once been the only purpose, but now? If he didn’t call with something to say, some plan to be made, what was the point?
“Uh, hey,” Tony managed to get out, shifting on the couch.
Morgan let out a little whine, and he gently shushed her, smoothing her hair and pressing a few more kisses to her head.
“Is something wrong? It’s three.”
“Yes, um. I mean—nothing’s wrong. It’s—yeah, it is three, huh.” He cradled Morgan’s little head in his hand, already bigger than when she’d arrived in his life just a few months ago.
“So can I hang up then?” Steve asked, but the silence afterward was delicate, like he regretted saying it.
“Morgan’s sick,” Tony said quietly.
“What?” He heard rustling. “Does she need to go to the hospital? I can be there in ten minutes.”
“No, no, Steve,” Tony said with a shake of his head that Steve couldn’t see. “Just a fever. I called her doctor and they didn’t pick up. I called Bruce, told him what was happening, he just said I had to wait it out. Wait ‘til it breaks.”
“Ah.” A pause. “But you wanna do something for her anyway.”
He could feel Steve considering it. “Well, I can tell you what helped me when I was sick.”
“Could you?” he choked out—definitely not close to crying or anything. That would be stupid, and he wasn’t that.
“What’s her fever?”
“Hundred and one.”
“Hm.” Steve was quiet for a moment, and Tony tried to imagine where he was. At home, probably. Back in that shitty little apartment that barely had enough room for a bed. Tony could just see him all sleepy-faced, sheets haphazard on his mattress, shoes neatly tucked at the foot like a good little Army boy. He was probably eyeing that coffeemaker, trying to decide if he should just start his day or try to sleep.
Tony hoped Steve’s heartbeat was faster now, that his skin was cold with the pressure to impress him, to fix his daughter and save the day.
“Is she sleeping?”
“Yeah,” Tony murmured. “She’s in my lap. We’re on the couch.”
“Okay, well, as comforting as it is being held, it’s pretty uncomfortable. You’re too warm.”
He tried not to imagine just who was holding Steve when he had his fevers. “So what do I do?”
“Get a damp cloth—cold water. She’s probably going to wake up and she’s not going to like it, but just dab at her forehead, her arms. Really a lukewarm bath is best, but she’s not going to like that at all.”
“I could see about a bath,” Tony offered.
“You don’t have to,” Steve said. “It’s helpful, but she’ll feel cold. It’s pretty uncomfortable, even if it helps the most.”
“Well, if it helps the most, shouldn’t I do that?” Tony asked, already shifting to rest Morgan on the couch. “Friday, please get this phone off my face.”
There was a little hiss, then his phone began to hover on its own, setting itself down on the side table. A small metal pill drone emerged from the base of the phone and zipped in front of him, ready for hands-free communication.
“Okay,” Tony said as he finally let go of his daughter. “She’s on the couch, I’m gonna go get a cloth.”
“I’m retrieving cooling cloths from the gym, boss,” Friday announced.
“Oh, those’ll be good,” Steve agreed. “Those are the best. Didn’t have those when I was sick.”
“You had coke in your Coke, you had it made.”
He could feel Steve rolling his eyes. “First of all, that’s not true.”
“No,” Steve said flatly. “I looked it up because Sam said the same thing once. Coca leaves. It was coca leaves.”
“And do you know what comes from coca leaves, darling?”
“It’s not the same.”
Tony let out a little snort. “Whatever helps you sleep at night.”
He realized he’d called Steve darling and hadn’t been yelled at, but it was late. Early morning hours allowed a lot of things to happen that shouldn’t.
Steve seemed to recognize the discrepancy in their interaction, because when he spoke again his voice was oddly formal. “Did you get the cold rag?”
“Yeah,” Tony said, wringing it out in the sink so it wouldn’t be soaked.
“Good. Just dab lightly – too much and it feels way too cold.”
Once again, Tony was having a hard time getting the image of Bucky taking care of a sick little Steve out of his head. Tony would never have that chance—Steve didn’t so much as have an off day. When he did, it was usually his fault anyway.
He sat down beside Morgan and gently dabbed her face with the damp cloth. She lazily swiped at him with a pudgy hand, and turned her face away with a groan when he continued.
“She doesn’t like it very much,” he whispered, terrified to wake her. He hated to hear her cry.
“It’s good for her, though,” Steve assured him in that gentle tone he always used when he was worried about Tony getting upset.
“Yeah.” He patted the cloth at her hairline, smoothing it back.
“Dada,” she warned, burrowing her face into the couch cushion. “No.”
God, he couldn’t do this.
“It helps break her fever. She may not like it now, but it does help, I promise.”
It was like Steve could read his mind, even…wherever he was.
“Where are you?” Tony asked, trying to distract himself as he continued making his child suffer.
“My apartment,” Steve replied. “You okay?”
There was silence where there should have been a question. Want me to come over?
“I’m fine,” Tony muttered. “How’s your apartment?”
“Currently? A little messy.”
Tony let out a snort. “Your drill sergeant gonna come yell at you?”
Steve chuckled. “Sometimes I have dreams like that.”
He wondered what other dreams Steve had. If he was in them. If Steve ever even thought about him. He wanted to ask, he wanted to go against every suggestion Bucky had made that night, just to see. Because Steve still hadn’t spoken to him, even after his texts had stopped.
But he’d picked up the phone tonight. That had to mean something.
“I had a dream about a babysitter who didn’t show up,” Tony said, instead of asking. He told himself it was because he knew better, but it was really because he didn’t know what he’d do if Steve rejected him now.
“Do you even hire babysitters?” Steve asked.
“No. That’s why it was a nightmare. I had to do background checks and an interview and everything.” Morgan started to pout, and Tony shushed her gently. “It’s gonna be better, Noodle. Just wait.”
“Sounds like you’ve got it handled,” Steve said, but his voice was distant.
Tony swallowed hard. “Yeah, I got it. Thanks, Steve.”
He wanted to say more, to say he’d talk to him later, see him later—anything else. But he’d already broken the rules by calling.
He heard the click of the call disconnecting as he dabbed Morgan’s forehead. As much as she was protesting, Friday indicated that the fever looked to be going down a little. She was going to be okay. Of course, he’d known that all along, but somehow he was certain now.
“C’mon.” He gently scooped her up into his arms and made his way to her little bedroom. Her toys were strewn all over the floor, and her kiddie workstation was a chaos of drawing supplies and dried paint. She really had a thing for art.
“Dada, no,” Morgan groaned as he patted her face again. She was only half awake, but she was going to be a terror if she regained full consciousness.
“Daddy’s gotta,” he soothed, dabbing her face one last time before he laid her down in her crib. He covered her in a blanket when she started to shiver, thought he wasn’t sure that was the move Steve would have made.
“I’m gonna take a nap and come check on you in just a bit, okay?” He leaned down, pressing a kiss to her temple. Still warm, but he knew that would fade. If not, he had an excuse to come kick Steve’s door in when his daughter was hospitalized for a fever.
“If you aren’t better, we’re going to the doctor.” He needed to put that out there. “And you’ll meet Steve, because I’m going to make him feel so guilty he’ll finally…he’ll come meet you.”
He smoothed back Morgan’s damp hair and forced himself to take one step back. Nothing he could do now. He had to step back. He had to.
With a final check to her vitals, Tony turned to head back to an empty bedroom to curl up in cold sheets and wonder if a man across town had fallen out of love with him.
“C’mon, kiddo, you’re gonna be late.” Tony handed over Morgan’s little lunchbox as she came flying around the corner of the kitchen island. Tony had picked out a lovely purple dress for her—velvet—with a little white collar and matching white sunhat. Pepper said she looked like Madeline, but Tony thought she looked adorable, even if that was true. Morgan seemed to love it, and that was all that mattered.
He’d discovered recently that she had quite the vocabulary, but wasn’t fond of using it. She kept her words to herself, and with her little frame and puffy cheeks no one thought it strange yet. They would, someday, but Tony knew they’d work through it. He still hadn’t gone digging about her past, but there were things he noticed. She trusted him now, but it would be a long time before she fully knew he wouldn’t leave her.
Morgan laughed as he scooped her up, her shiny black shoes gleaming as she kicked wildly, shrieking with delight.
“What’d I tell you about running in the kitchen?” Tony mock-scolded, doing a little spin. “It’s dangerous, you know.”
He plopped her back down and she was off again, dashing around the living room at full speed, lunchbox swinging in her hand. Part of him worried that she’d fall and hurt herself, but he’d been slowly learning to take at least a smidge of a step back on the helicopter parent thing. It helped that he’d been consumed in a new bio-engineering project recently that involved trying to 3D print organs.
But tonight was all about art class graduation. Morgan’s biggest and best projects would be on display, and Tony couldn’t wait to see them. More so, he wanted to see how she interacted with her classmates. Whenever he dropped her off at class she would zoom right to a table of other kids, but she never talked about them. When he asked, she rolled her eyes. Teenage years were going to be fun, he could already tell.
“We’re leaving, Morgan,” he said in his dad voice. It sometimes worked.
“Okay, okay,” Morgan shrieked, barreling toward him again.
Tony ducked and caught her around the waist as she went by, scooping her up. She kicked and struggled for a moment, then just giggled as he carried her into the elevator. She was a happier kid now, and every day Tony saw her coming to trust him just a little bit more. He hoped he never broke that trust.
Which was why it was getting harder and harder for him to see Steve becoming part of this family. He’d been away almost too long now, and Morgan had no idea who he was. If he started showing up all the time and taking his attention, he feared Morgan would feel left out, or like he didn’t love her more than the whole world.
And really, if Steve was going to come back into their lives, he would’ve done it by now. It was one thing to take time, it was another to take months and miss vital parts of Morgan’s growth—especially if he planned on co-parenting as Tony’s husband someday.
No, each morning Tony had to swallow the pill that Steve Rogers probably didn’t love him anymore, and probably never would again. He was starting to get used to sleeping alone, to not thinking about Steve as obsessively as he had before.
He hefted Morgan into her carseat and activated the safety protocols he’d designed to keep her protected while driving in New York. She was probably the safest kid in the world when she had his tech guarding her, but Tony didn’t like to take chances in cars. Especially when his parents’ murderer was still running around cornering him in alleyways.
They peeled out of the garage and headed out, and though Tony saw the back end of the cab in front of him, he wasn’t paying attention as they crawled along the street. He really didn’t like being grouped in as a single parent, but that was what he was. He preferred the all-or-nothing approach (though only because that was all he knew). Even his distant father had still been there, lingering on the sidelines of his childhood until he’d been killed. Tony liked to think that maybe one day they would have fixed things, but instead he’d never gotten the chance. Some days he was thankful for that, other days it made him angry.
He wasn’t so sure Howard Stark would be proud of the way things had turned out, for one thing. An adopted kid was less than ideal in his eyes, preventing the continuation of proper Stark blood. Not to mention the fact that Tony was openly attracted to men, and dating (well, used to date) his father’s favorite hero. But he doubted even Steve Rogers would have been able to turn Howard’s thinking into acceptance.
Though he did wonder how that would go over. He could almost picture the look on Howard’s face as he tried to compute that Steve was attracted to his son—that Steve Rogers wanted to marry the kid who was never good enough. Howard had always seen Captain America as an ideal, both as a person and a symbol. God, he would pay to see what his dad would have done if Steve came up and planted one on him. It might actually have short circuited Howard’s brain.
But Bucky had taken that away from him too, along with any chance of acceptance he might’ve had from his mother. He couldn’t even count on her approving. She had certainly been more loving than Howard as a parent, but her image in society had always been of great importance to her. The scandal a gay son would have brought might’ve gotten her if Bucky hadn’t.
As he pulled into the valet line, he wondered if Steve would approve of a kids art gallery that had catered dinner and actual art critics in attendance. Steve bucked societal trends like his life depended on it, but he also never complained about rich people things unless Tony asked him about it directly. Steve knew full well that Tony stressed out when he thought people were disappointed in him, so he never said anything negative about where they were or who they were with. And usually he had plenty of reason to.
Even still, he could see Steve getting angry about a bunch of rich kids and their parents spending a bunch of money on art class for toddlers. For Tony it was a matter of security. This place had the protection and discretion that he wouldn’t be able to find publicly, and he wasn’t going to put Morgan at risk of a media frenzy or a security issue. Of course, he didn’t trust the art class facility to provide enough protection either, so he always had a sentinel on standby on the roof of the building in case anything were to go amiss.
Morgan clutched her lunchbox, clearly a little nervous about the whole thing.
“Big night, huh?” Tony said, gesturing out to the line of cars in front of them.
She nodded distractedly, still looking out the window.
“Look, we already know your stuff is going to be the best there,” Tony assured her. “It’s just a matter of showing everyone else.”
He turned to grin at her. He gave him a weak smile in return.
“And we’ll meet all your friends, see all of their stuff. Then we can go get stroopwafels.”
“Really?” Morgan asked. “Can we?”
Tony nodded, glad he’d found something to get her mind off of things. “Absolutely.” He glanced up as their valet walked toward them. “All right, kiddo. Time to go.”
He stepped out of the car and instructed the valet that he wouldn’t need keys, that he wouldn’t be able to take any joyrides, and that the car would come to him when he was ready to go. He rounded the side and opened the door for Morgan, her seatbelts slithering back on their own as she hopped into his arms.
Tony set her down and took her little hand, watching as all eyes turned to them. Yes, they were the most high-profile people here, but Tony wasn’t going to let Morgan suffer for that. He offered a wave at the program director and led Morgan inside.
Where normally the place looked like your typical posh school for socialite children, it was set up today with modern furniture, bright lighting, and spotlights on ornately framed children’s drawings. The atmosphere was cheery, and warmer than Tony had expected, and almost no one looked like they particularly cared if he was there or not.
Morgan tugged him toward a hallway, her white hat flopping playfully as she tried to force him along.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Tony assured her as he hustled. Morgan seemed comfortable here, and she was smiling wider than ever. This place had become something of a home to her, a place of safety and refuge. Exactly what he’d been hoping for when he started all of this.
The first exhibit showed off their first project: the forest. Crude drawings of trees, deer, and other forest animals were all framed on the walls. The frames were made up of branches, some with overhanging leaves to give guests a canopy for viewing.
“Where’s yours?” Tony asked. “What did you draw?”
Morgan smiled at him and skipped at his side, so he lengthened his stride to match. Attendees turned, giving wide smiles and looks of genuine happiness. Little kids waved excitedly at Morgan, and Tony was surprised to see her wave enthusiastically in return. It seemed everyone adored her, and he was pretty sure none of these parents had ever even met her.
Unless…Tony blinked as worry began to creep up. Had he missed something? A parent-teacher thing? He’d only met Morgan’s main teacher once, but they used a new teacher every other class. She’d been a kind older woman with small glasses and a big smile. She looked about as safe as he could have imagined.
God, he hoped he hadn’t missed something. Maybe kids had made fun of Morgan when she hadn’t shown up, or if they heard her father hadn’t been there.
“Hey, Noodle,” Tony started, but Morgan let go of his hand and ran forward, hopping up and down in front of a drawing.
“Well, look at that,” he said instead of asking if he was a bad father.
It looked…a bit unlike Morgan’s usual art. She was very smart, picking up on things many kids hadn’t—like the sky not just being a blue bar above the trees. But her drawing was just a bunch of sloping lines and circles all over the page. The color palette was nice – blue, purple, and red crayon.
“What is it?” Tony asked, because for all his brainpower, he really had no idea.
Morgan frowned, but it was the kind of frown that asked why are you so stupid? And not a frown of disappointment. She really was his daughter.
“Wood,” she said. She crouched to the floor, her little finger tracing the lines in one of the decorative planks creeping from the walls.
Well, he really was an idiot. Tony chuckled to himself as he crouched down with her, following her finger with his own. “Wow,” he breathed, genuinely impressed. “You’re smarter than me, you know that?”
Morgan giggled. “Nu-uh.”
“Uh-huh.” He tugged the brim of her hat down to cover her eyes. She gave a little shriek of laughter and pushed it back up again, jumping to her feet.
“Next one, Your Majesty?” Tony offered, extending his hand.
Morgan grabbed his finger and pulled. He pretended to be knocked off balance and yanked forward. It occurred to him as he “regained” his balance that this may very well be the first time he’d ever attended a public event without nerves. Without eyeing the champagne trays, without a knot in his stomach.
The next room was sea themed. The walls were lined with seashells, with piles and piles of them at the base of every exhibit wall. Of course, kids were trying their best to steal away from their parents to attack the piles, but from the looks of things, so far only a few had succeeded.
The voice belonged to a young woman with red cat-eye glasses and so much of a hipster aura that Tony swore he could smell coffee grounds.
Morgan smiled, but retreated back to him, hiding behind his leg as the woman approached.
“Hello,” Tony greeted, extending a hand. “Tony Stark.”
“Tony, great to meet you,” the woman said with a bright smile. “I’m Mrs. Freeman. I taught this session and had a lovely time working with Miss Morgan here.”
Morgan his her face in his pant leg, almost knocking off her sunhat.
Mrs. Freeman didn’t seem concerned. “Let me show you her drawing.”
Her red pumps clacked on the floor (which was a blue resin made to look like calm seawater) as she walked down the exhibit hall. Tony led Morgan forward, and she gradually regained the confidence not to hang onto his leg as they followed.
Mrs. Freeman presented a drawing that Tony instantly recognized. He had a few black and white photos of angry waves in the living room, and Morgan had clearly based her drawings off of them. Once again it was mostly just swooping lines, but black paint had been sloshed across it. He wasn’t sure if Morgan had meant for the dumped paint to give it even more of a stormy wave feel, but it did.
“She’s extremely talented,” Mrs. Freeman said brightly. Where usually Tony would see that as a surface-level compliment, he believed she was being genuine. “We truly hope she’ll be joining us next class.”
“Absolutely,” Tony said with a nod. “She has a great time here. It’s really helped her open up.”
“I agree. We don’t see many kids her age taking this experience as an actual mentorship in art—I mean, their little kids, of course they don’t—but she genuinely wants to learn.”
“Sounds like me,” Tony grinned.
“She’s really taken to all of the instructors here,” Mrs. Freeman continued. “And the kids. She has a great time.”
It made Tony’s heart ache with joy, an intense relief flooding over him. Maybe he’d actually been a good father after all. At least for this one tiny thing.
Until Morgan suddenly let go of his hand and rushed into the next room.
“Sorry, I have to go handle that,” Tony said, hurriedly excusing himself to chase after his daughter who was not supposed to be running off. She didn’t even look back as she ducked between a group of parents taking up the whole entryway talking, and Tony almost bowled someone over to get after her.
Her hat at least made her stick out among the kids, and Tony could track her by watching which direction those little faces were looking, and a few anxious little souls trying to run after her.
“Morgan!” a voice called from the other side of the room.
Tony stopped in his tracks, his heart leaping into his throat.
Everything in his mind suddenly went dark, and the crowd seemed to melt away before his eyes except for two people across the way.
He knew that voice. He knew exactly who it belonged to, so intimately that he didn’t have to second guess, even though there was no way the owner of that voice should be there.
Steve Rogers was crouched on the floor, and Morgan was jumping to him. Jumping. Her little arms wrapped around his neck for a big hug, and Steve was laughing as his stupid fake glasses were knocked right off his stupid, pretty face.
Tony wanted to smack himself, to force himself to wake up.
Because this had to be a dream. There was no actual reality in which his own daughter had a relationship with Steve and he did not.
Morgan pulled back, grabbing Steve’s glasses off the floor and offering them to him sheepishly. Steve smiled at her, saying something Tony couldn’t hear before he took the glasses and slipped them back on. He was wearing a navy sweater that made him look like the world’s hottest yacht club dad, but it was definitely Steve Rogers. He was way too beautiful not to be.
“Morgan,” Tony croaked from where he stood. She didn’t turn—she probably couldn’t hear him. Or maybe he hadn’t actually spoken at all. Morgan was talking with his ex-boyfriend, saying something while looking at the floor, grinding an invisible hole in the ground with her shiny black shoes. Steve adjusted her hat, but Tony saw the moment when it registered that if Morgan was here, her father must be too.
And in typical Steve fashion, he looked up exactly in Tony’s direction and exactly into his eyes without even knowing where he’d been. Tony’s heart locked up in his chest, and panic began to rise when Steve stood, taking Morgan’s hand and leading her back over to him.
Tony suddenly wished he could be one of these children and run to hide behind the legs of someone bigger than him, someone who would send Steve away. But instead he could only watch as Steve came closer and closer, as his daughter gripped Steve’s hand like maybe he’d just missed out on the whole part where he and Steve had gotten back together and were co-parenting.
Steve swallowed hard, but didn’t look as scared as Tony had xpected. As he should have been.
It was his voice. Tony hadn’t heard it in months now, not in that soft cadence that said personal not professional. Warm in place of distance.
“What are you doing here?” he blurted out. “What the he—” He stopped himself. There were children around, after all. “Explain.”
Steve smiled down at Morgan, but it faded when he met eyes with him again. “Um. I started teaching here a few months ago. Needed something to pass the time between missions.”
“Here?” Tony didn’t believe it. “This hardly seems like your kind of place.”
Steve’s face didn’t change. “I wanted to practice drawing again. I wanted to teach. And I wanted to meet Morgan without putting pressure on her.”
Tony puffed up for a sharp reply, but instead he just stood there shaking.
“Dada,” Morgan said softly, leaving Steve’s side to hug his leg again.
“Daddy’s fine,” Tony assured her, crouching both to avoid Steve and make sure Morgan could see he wasn’t lying. “No need to be nervous, okay?”
Morgan gave him big puppy eyes full of concern, and damn if it didn’t melt his heart. He took her hand and gave her knuckles a kiss in promise.
“Everything’s wonderful, Your Majesty.”
Morgan didn’t look convinced, but gave a little curtsy anyway. “Okay.”
“Who’s your friend?” Tony asked, as though he wasn’t in love with him.
“Mr. Steve,” Morgan announced proudly. “He’s good at art.”
“Is he?” Tony stood up again, a little more prepared to go on the defense now. He warily met Steve’s eye.
“Yes,” Morgan piped up, sensing the tension. She hopped at Tony’s side, silently asking to be lifted up. But he was frozen in place again, unable to move without fear of faltering.
“Morgan,” Steve said, looking down at her. “You know the way to the art room?”
“Want to go there and grab your special drawing?” Steve asked.
That seemed to spark something in her, and she broke into a grin, nodding.
“Go find Mrs. Freeman and have her go with you, okay?”
Morgan raced off even as Tony reached out to stop her. Steve had her under his spell too, it seemed. His own daughter, whom he had tried so hard to protect from people who would abandon her the way Steve had abandoned him.
“Where the hell do you—”
Suddenly Steve was on him, his lips warm and safe and everything he hadn’t been for the past six months. Tony tasted sadness, bitter and awful and so sour it make the inside of his cheeks tingle. The lump that had formed in his throat sank into his chest cavity, a deep-seated grief that sucked life from him in a massive draw.
He could no longer tell if he was tasting Steve or if it was just the taste of everything that had been taken from him.
When Steve pulled away he was quiet and still, his glasses still settled neatly on the bridge of his nose.
“I waited too long,” he said first, instantly smacking down the resolve Tony scrambled to gather. “But I couldn’t let you think I was using her. I wasn’t ever going to say anything about this if I’d decided differently. I would have just stopped teaching and gone on my way.”
“Steve, there are about a million other ways you could have handled this,” Tony hissed, unable to hide the hurt, his cheeks hot. “Instead you just—you’re here? Kissing me? And you’ve been hanging out with my daughter? Doesn’t that seem a little fucked up to you?”
He glanced around to make sure no one had heard his profanity. He had to represent Morgan here, after all. Plenty of people were staring, but these people were used to staying silent around hot gossip.
“It was the first thing that came to mind,” Steve admitted, cheeks flushing. “It wasn’t—can I talk to you somewhere else please?”
Tony’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not here to talk to you. I’m here for my kid, Steve.”
“I’m here for her too,” Steve said quietly. “And you.” He looked increasingly uncomfortable standing there with everyone watching him, but Tony took some pleasure in watching him squirm. Maybe that was cruel, but he’d been under the impression this man wanted nothing to do with him until a few minutes ago.
Even so, Tony couldn’t watch him suffer for long.
“Come on,” he said, turning and heading in the direction of the sea exhibit room, where they found Morgan showing off her lunchbox to Mrs. Freeman. A few other kids were there too, awestruck by the shiny tin. Tony smiled, genuinely warmed to see his daughter socializing, having fun.
“She knows,” Steve said with a nod toward Mrs. Freeman. She looked up as if on cue, offering a wide smile and raising her eyebrows at Steve. “She’ll watch Morgan,” Steve added with a sheepish wave in return.
Steve took his hand like nothing was wrong, like they hadn’t been apart for as long as they had been. And the worst part was that Tony blindly followed, stumbling along after him.
Steve only let go to pull out his keys, unlocking a door to one of the art classrooms and holding it for him to go inside.
That was when his heart started pounding. All of the emotions that should have been hitting him already were attacking him all at once—pride, hurt, anger, confusion—and he had no idea what to do, no idea how to fix it. Because he did want this. Of course he wanted to be locked up in an art classroom with Steve Rogers staring at him through fake glasses that somehow made him even more attractive. But it wasn’t supposed to be like this. He couldn’t just…accept what Steve had done.
“You backed out,” Tony started, because that was where it all began. “You came back and didn’t even want to meet her before you left.”
“You adopted a kid while I was gone on mission and didn’t tell me about it,” Steve countered, his voice even. “I needed time.”
“You took half a year of time,” Tony growled. “You barely spoke to me. I had no indication that you even liked me anymore. You just vanished from my life.”
“I didn’t want to mislead you.”
“Oh, really.” Tony let out a snort. “But meanwhile you’re teaching my daughter’s art class? Making nice with her? I’d call that being misled.”
“I wanted to meet Morgan on my terms. And I wanted her to meet me without you there. I didn’t want to put pressure on her or make it seem like I was pushing into her life.”
Steve wandered over to a sink covered in old paint spots and ink stains. He plucked a brush from a jar, running his finger over it to check if it had been cleaned properly. He looked gorgeous in thw low light, the way he always had.
“I’ve been that kid,” Steve continued. “My ma tried to date a few times after my dad was gone. I think mostly to have some more money coming in. I hated all of them, even the nice ones. Didn’t matter how they treated me or my ma, I just didn’t like ‘em. And since I wasn’t there when Morgan came home, I couldn’t just stay in your life, Tony, not the way I had been.”
Tony crossed his arms. “Well you could still text me. Call me sometimes, just so I wasn’t sitting there thinking you didn’t love me anymore.”
Steve stopped messing with the paintbrush and turned to face him. “What?”
“C’mon, Steve,” Tony said with a shake of his head. “You left. You didn’t reach out. I gave you time, but I didn’t plan on it being this much time. You never said anything to me—what was I supposed to think?”
Steve just kept staring at him.
“What now?” he snapped. Discomfort was starting to set in.
Steve blinked slowly. “I never said I was in love with you.”
He might as well have smacked him across the face. Tony’s ears even rang, the hurt was so sharp and sudden.
“Of course, yeah,” Tony croaked, taking a step back. “Look, Steve, I’ve got to get back—”
“No, Tony,” Steve dropped the brush and rushed over to him, hands gently going to his arms.
“Steve, please.” Tony stepped back again. “I get it. I’m going to try to be an adult about this.”
“Listen to me,” Steve said, firm but gentle. “I’m not going to let you leave here thinking whatever you’re thinking. Just hear me out.”
“You haven’t spoken five words to me in six months. I think that’s all I need to know.”
“It’s not,” Steve said, almost begging. “Please, just—”
“Do you love me?” Tony asked quietly.
He’d read plenty of times that pupil dilation was an indicator of love, of attraction. But he also knew Steve just had bigger pupils than most people as an attribute to perfect vision, and the room was dark. But there they were, big as saucers, crowding out that pretty blue.
“Because I know what it’s like when you love me,” Tony murmured. “And before you left, you loved me. But now I can’t tell. And I had to let myself come to the only logical conclusion.”
Steve’s mouth opened to speak, but no words came out. Tony’s gaze flicked down to those beautiful lips before they moved back up to that furrowed brow and those dumb glasses.
“It’s okay, Steve,” Tony whispered. “I’m not trying to force anything out of you. I just needed to know.”
“I do,” Steve blurted out. “I do love you, Tony.”
Tony actually shrank back, looking at Steve like he’d just taken a swing. “You—what?”
Steve’s hands came to his face this time, holding him in place, grounding him. “I do love you. That’s why I did all of this, Tony. So I could have you back the right way.”
It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that Steve got to talk his way back into his life without a punishment for what he’d done. But in that moment, Tony really didn’t fucking care. He’d gone through enough shit at this point in his life, and he wasn’t about to push back the only person in his life he’d ever truly seen forever with. The one he’d lost but was now back.
His hands moved to Steve’s hips, wary and unsure. He shook his head, though he let his lips brush the base of Steve’s palm.
“You didn’t even check in. You never even asked if I was okay.”
“I didn’t ask you, no,” Steve said quietly, thumbing Tony’s cheekbone. “But I asked Pepper all the time. Asked Rhodey, even got Happy to give me a few details every now and then. But Morgan told me the most.”
Tony shot Steve a look. “She doesn’t talk.”
Steve shrugged. “She talks to me. A lot, actually. And she loves talking about you.”
His eyes narrowed. “You using my kid as leverage?”
“I don’t think I need to, but I can.” Steve smiled softly. He cocked nhis head just slightly. “She loves you. She’s a totally different kid than when she first walked into my class on my first day, and it’s all been because of you.”
“No, Tony,” Steve shook his head. “That’s what changed my mind. When you first told me you adopted a kid I was terrified. Honestly, I didn’t think you were ready for a child and I didn’t want to be part of it more than I already had been. I know that’s why you set all of this up in the first place.”
Tony looked away.
“And when I started teaching this art class to meet her, I still wasn’t convinced. She was nervous every day. But then she started saying a few words to me, and after a few weeks she was always willing to talk to me. She used your phrases, your mannerisms, and it wasn’t hard to tell all that confidence was coming from you.”
Steve smiled wide, looking him over with a wide grin.
“I fell in love with you again before I left,” Steve admitted. “But I knew it was going to be different this time because I did this. I love the person you are now. The Tony who takes his daughter to art class and cares about her more than anything.”
Well, he was never good at deflecting compliments. Tony just stood there a moment, then lifted a hand.
Steve nodded, and Tony grabbed his glasses off his face, tossing them to a workstation with a clatter. There. That was the Steve he knew.
“I love you too, you know,” Tony said softly. “But if you ever pull something like that again I swear it’s over.”
They gravitated toward each other, breath mixing as they sought out their familiar places. Tony looked up into those warm eyes and smiled, his chest swelling with affection.
He tipped his head up, catching Steve’s lips in a kiss. This time he tasted sweet. The ache was gone, replaced by tenderness as Steve’s arms wound around him, hugging him tight. Tony moved against him, settling into Steve’s chest as he deepened the kiss.
He decided he didn’t care what Steve had done, whether or not it was right. He just wanted this, forever, and he wasn’t going to argue about the past anymore. They could have a clean slate, start over with everything put behind them.
Maybe this was what forgiveness truly felt like.
But Tony did have to pull away after several heated kisses, though he did so reluctantly. “Gotta get back out there, babe.” He carded his fingers through Steve’s hair, trying to fix it up a little bit. But it would be hard to hide the red of his lips where Tony’s teeth had been, the flush to his cheeks and that goofy grin. “Will you come home with me?” he asked, taking Steve’s hand as they left the art room.
“You want me to?” he asked with a squeeze of Tony’s hand.
“I do,” Tony said with a nod. “My only limiting factor would have been Morgan, but looks like she likes you more than I do.” He glanced back into the art room when he noticed Steve hadn’t put his glasses back on, but decided not to say anything. He wanted everyone to know he was leaving with the most handsome man at the party.
Though as they walked back into the exhibit room, Steve’s sole competition was standing there with children hanging off of him like Christmas ornaments, wearing Morgan’s sunhat cocked on his head.
“Stark!” Thor boomed, startling several of the children. He carefully untangled himself from the crowd of kids, except for Morgan, who raced up to Tony with a piece of construction paper in her hand.
“What’s this?” he asked, letting go of Steve’s hand to scoop up his daughter.
“My special drawing,” she announced before tucking her face into his neck. Tony hoped he didn’t smell like Steve’s cologne, but he probably did.
Tony took the drawing and held it out to examine it. He recognized Iron Man, and but there was also a smaller Iron Man—or, Iron Morgan. She was dressed in a purple and yellow suit, complete with a mini arc reactor. They were holding hands (circles with lines sticking out) and flying through the clouds. A wobbly heart hung in the air between them.
“Is that you and me?” Tony asked, trying his best to keep from tearing up.
Morgan nodded against his neck. Tony turned his head, pressing a kiss to Morgan’s hair.
“This one’s going in the lab,” he announced, looking over the picture again. He owned a museum’s worth of art, and none of it touched the piece of construction paper in his hands. A year ago he wasn’t even sure he’d be able to adopt at all, let alone find the perfect daughter. So many things had been uncertain. And Steve had been the key to finding what he wanted most. Steve, who had rested a comforting hand on his back and started to rub gently.
“She worked on it in my class,” Steve said. “Our theme was family.”
“I’m trying notto cry right now, okay?”
Steve just laughed and leaned over to press a kiss to his temple.
“I am glad to see my plan as worked,” Thor said with a grin.
“Your plan?” Steve asked, pulling away.
“What are you doing here, anyway?” Tony asked, finally realizing that this wasn’t an Avengers event.
“Morgan invited me,” Thor said proudly. “After we were acquainted over iced cream a moon ago.”
“That still doesn’t explain how you got an invitation.”
“I asked Friday,” Morgan whispered into his ear. “She sent him a letter.”
Right. Thor still didn’t have email. Morgan was way too smart for her age.
“But what’s this about a plan?” Steve asked.
“The wine!” Thor laughed, as though that meant anything to them.
Tony looked over at Steve for an answer, but Steve looked lost too.
“Gonna have to be more specific there, Johnny Bravo,” Tony said.
“The night of the party,” Thor explained. “I had just returned from Asgard. Seeing how miserable you both were, I brought back an elvish potion. One derivative of the Aether.”
“Are you admitting to poisoning us?” From what Tony recalled, the Aether had almost killed Thor’s ex-girlfriend. Hell, maybe Thor had poisoned her too.
“I took away your pride, Stark,” Thor chuckled. “And the Captain’s love of self-torture.”
Steve flinched. “I’m not following.”
“When you both drank the wine, it had been laced with the potion. I suppose it manifested itself in a way similar to drunkenness at first, but the purpose is to shape your reality into your true ideal.” Thor grinned at them, his unkempt blond hair making him look like a stray Golden Retriever. “What do you remember after you left the party?”
“I don’t think a children’s art show is the time to discuss that,” Tony growled.
“Uh,” Steve shrugged. “I mean, nothing happened. We took a shower, made some food, went to sleep.”
Tony turned to him. “Excuse me? That’s a little PG-13 from what I remember.”
“And what do you remember?” Thor asked, clearly amused.
“Something a little more raunchy,” Tony said in a warning tone, very much aware of his daughter on his chest, slowly falling asleep against him as he swayed left and right. “Some very consensual things.”
“What?” Steve blinked. “Maybe physical, but not that kind of physical.”
“Steve, you—” He tried to somehow convey fucking with just his face. He wasn’t sure if it landed.
“I didn’t do whatever you’re trying to imply,” Steve said, now confused.
“The potion worked, then,” Thor interrupted with a triumphant smile. “You both saw the reality you wanted most. As I predicted, that reality was shared. As for what actually occurred, you likely bathed and retreated to the bedchamber. Most do—just to sleep, mind you.”
Tony looked over at Steve. He barely remembered that night, but he did recall how quickly the glass of non-alcoholic wine had made him feel very much drunk. He also remembered finding his way to Steve, Steve finding his way to him, and tumbling into the back of the car that night. The rest of his memory was foggy, but he did know what had happened. At least, he was pretty sure.
Yet the more he thought about it, the more he couldn’t remember. His mind just kept skipping to waking up in Steve’s bed with less clothing than he’d started the night with.
“I’m sorry, I’m still having trouble with this. You’re saying you spiked drinks with an elvish potion, gave those drinks to Steve and I with no knowledge of their effects on humans, and then let us leave together.”
“Well, you didn’t die,” Thor said proudly.
Tony wasn’t so sure a potion really ad much to do with him leaving with Steve that night, but he’d let Thor have his win if he was so happy about it.
“Dada, we’ve gotta see more,” Morgan said, rubbing her eyes. “I gots more art.”
“You are absolutely right,” Tony said with a peck to Morgan’s forehead. He lowered her down and took her hand. He wasn’t even going to try to process what he’d just heard. Or anything about tonight, actually.
“I’ll take that,” Mrs. Freeman said, reaching out for the drawing. “We’ll get it framed and put in in your favor bag.”
He could feel Steve fight off a cringe. “Thank you,” Tony said, and he met her eye as he handed over the drawing. “For everything.”
She beamed at him before wiggling an eyebrow at Steve as she walked off. Everyone loved Steve. He was too perfect not to. But there was only one person Steve had chosen to be with, and that was him.
Children began to swarm Thor again, and he showed off little electric currents between his fingers and told stories about creatures that might not even exist. Even Morgan eventually joined his little posse as Tony looked over Morgan’s other drawings. Steve explained the different class units, and how Morgan had taken charge of each of her projects. All the while, Steve held his hand, and every so often pecked his lips in the middle of conversation just to be cute. If Morgan noticed, she didn’t say anything, and she didn’t look the least bit uncomfortable either.
“Did you think we’d ever get here?” Tony asked quietly as they admired one of Morgan’s drawings with a summer theme. She’d painted ice cream with drips of paint. “Walking through a gallery looking at my daughter’s art? Actually together with a kid?”
Steve shook his head. “Never would have dreamed. But I’m glad it happened.”
Tony turned slightly, arms hooking around Steve’s waist. “I’m glad too.”
He pressed a kiss to Steve’s lips, unable to stop himself from smiling.
“You sure?” Steve asked, cocking a brow. “You seemed awfully upset with me earlier.”
“Oh, I’m still a little upset,” Tony assured him with a sly grin. “But it’s nothing we can fix now, and I’m trying to…you know. Give us a real shot. A clean slate.”
“You gonna yell at me later when we get home?” Steve chuckled. “I probably deserve it.”
Tony shook his head. “You said you needed space. Didn’t really think you needed that much, but we’ll get past it. I love you, and I know now that you never wanna do anything bad by me.” He swallowed. “Even if sometimes you do that the wrong way, I think we’ve both learned our lessons.”
Steve kissed him instead of replying, and Tony found himself laughing halfway through, beyond happy. He hadn’t felt this way since before Steve left, when they’d kissed tangled in sheets before Tony took him to the tarmac.
When Steve pulled away, he had a curious look on his face. “Thor really gave us a potion?”
Tony laughed, stealing another quick kiss while he could. “I think so. But I kinda just like you, so I’m sure it would’ve happened anyway.”
They both knew that was probably a lie, but they weren’t about to attribute their rekindled love to Thor Odinson.
“You really do love me?” Steve asked, eyes on his lips.
Tony smiled fondly, resting their foreheads together. “More than you know.” He leaned back again. “And I promise to never leave you alone on the tarmac again.”
Steve chuckled. “I was hoping you’d promise to consult me before we adopt another kid.”
“Yes,” Tony grinned. “That too.”
Steve kissed him then, slow and sweet. His arms were as welcoming as ever, and Tony melted into him without a second thought. He loved Steve Rogers more than he should, and he knew now he could never do anything to risk losing him again. It would take time, and there would be plenty more hurt in their future, but Tony had seen firsthand how choosing to work on a relationship brought more love than he could have hoped for.
Over Steve’s shoulder he saw Morgan watching him, and her face brightened to a bubbly smile from where she rested on Thor’s hip. She waved with all her might and blew him a kiss the way he’d taught her to do for the camera (and he had about nine thousand photos to prove it). He blew her a kiss in return.
Tonight, everything would be okay. He would tuck a daughter who loved him into her bed with a kiss goodnight, and slip into his own sheets with the man he’d waited for all his life. He would wake up next to that man in the morning, and say he loved him too.
He’d earned his happy ending the one time it counted.
and look at that, a happy ending. thanks for reading! had a lot of fun on this one. new stony fic coming in the near future. :)