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you great unfinished symphony (you sent for me)

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It happened far less often now than it used to, the team finding Steve like this: lying in a dusty bedroom, wearing clothing far too small and modern to be his own. But the dust was still far more of an anomaly in St—Avengers tower than this particular scene; the place had a top-notch maintenance staff who kept the rest of the building looking immaculate, which was no small task given that most of the team was far from conscientious about picking up after themselves. But the cleaners knew better than to even attempt entry to this room, especially after Steve’s blow up when Alma had made the mistake of washing the coffee mug Tony had left on the penthouse kitchen counter the morning before—

“Steve.” The speaker’s tone suggested this was not the first or even the second time they had tried to get his attention. Distantly Steve felt ashamed of the idea that Bucky Barnes, of all people, should ever struggle to get and maintain his focus. Bucky had once been practically his whole world. “JARVIS told me you were in here. I thought we agreed no more than once a week.” More echoes of a feeling that would be shame if Steve’s body and heart knew how to really feel anything anymore. Because how ridiculous was it that his team had to keep tabs on him this way, restricting his access to Tony’s old bedroom and clothes. (He’d only agreed to the schedule in the first place because he wanted to try to make the faint scents of Tony—motor oil and coffee and sugared blueberries—linger as long as possible. Already they were fading. Already Steve wondered sometimes if all he was really smelling when he buried his nose in Tony’s pillows was some kind of olfactory-based manifestation of his own desperation to hold on just a little longer, a little harder.)

He stood, managing not to waver on his feet as he carefully stripped out of the too-tight band t-shirt and folded it into a neat square that he deposited at the foot of the bed. Tony never would have left it that way, but Steve couldn’t bear to throw it casually to the floor as his lover would have done. Bucky waited, undisguised concern written across his features. Steve was too used to that now to bother looking away or attempting to hide himself from that scrutiny. He knows what they see when they look at him.

“Just got mixed up on the days. Been a long week.” He never used to lie, either, especially not to Bucky. But there’s no way to explain that the combination of an eidetic memory and years worth of treasured moments means Steve’s constantly in a feedback loop, always recalling something like it had just happened the day before. Their first kiss, the first time they’d held hands in public, the first time Tony had used Steve’s name instead of a nickname…he remembers them all. Today it had been four years since Steve had first been granted entry to Tony’s workshop.

Steve wasn’t supposed to be there at all. He’d been eager to depart New York and all of its ghosts, to hop on his bike and explore present-day America in the hope that he’d find somewhere that he fit in. He’d been in a cheap diner in Ohio when he’d first started seeing the news reports. Most of the initial coverage amounted to lukewarm celebrations of the Avengers, littered with the occasional criticism of their methods or the fact that they hadn’t acted sooner, saved more lives. That was easy enough to ignore, because even at the height of Captain America’s popularity Steve had never had a 100% approval rating. (That had come later. Hindsight and nostalgia were a dangerous cocktail.) But then the focus started to shift, circling continuously around Damage Control, Tony’s attempts to collect and safely store the alien technology that littered the streets like empty coffee cups after the Battle of Manhattan was over. Iron Man made occasional appearances too, assisting clean up crews with pieces of wreckage too heavy or volatile to be safely transported by regular folks.

It hadn’t really hit Steve until then, the fact that the entire team (sans Banner, whom he had been pretty sure ended up at the Tower even though he didn’t make any appearances in the footage) had left Tony behind to clean up their reportedly 160 billion dollar mess. But when it had, when he’d imagined Sarah Rogers’ disappointment at her son’s negligence and selfishness, well he’d broken basically every speeding law in existence in his haste to return to New York. And he’d only felt a little guilty for sticking SHIELD with the tickets he accrued.

He’d realized too late that he knew very little about the tower and the complex technological forces that regulated nearly every aspect of its existence. But to his surprise, when he’d signed in at the front desk and then gotten in the elevator with a request for JARVIS to take him to Tony, the AI had done so without even the pause that Steve would later come to learn meant he was verifying something with Tony himself first. That probably should have been the first indication of how desperate and lonely and terrified Tony was, the way he accepted a man he believed hated his guts into the shop, the very heart of his home, like it was nothing.

“Dummy, for goodness sake. I’m not singing the maintenance song to you again. It’s humiliating, and I’m actually doing you a favour here believe it or not. So can you just let me finish changing out those bolts before I decide to let them rust?” There was a series of beeps that Tony either knew how to interpret or could convincingly feign understanding of, because he’d hardly missed a beat before replying. “Oh, yeah? Well call me want you want, but that won’t stop me from giving Butterfingers custody of Rhodey when you’re gone. Yeah that’s what I thought.” Steve had watched, oddly transfixed by the interaction; Tony’s gentleness wasn’t masked at all by his continual stream of insults at his bot, whose beeps seemed to grow cheerier the more worked up his creator grew.

It had ended up taking over ten minutes for Tony to even acknowledge Steve was there, and the ensuing conversation (awkward attempts at apologies on Steve’s end; blustering avoidance on Tony’s) had been neither long nor productive.

But it had been a start.

Bucky didn’t call Steve on his bullshit, too focused on guiding him from the room as quickly as possible. The door clicked shut with a terrible finality, and before Steve could bother asking, JARVIS offered his usual assurance that he wouldn’t permit entry to anyone without proper access codes.

“You’re already late for Clint. He’s waiting on your floor.” Though the gears of his mind were turning far too slowly, Steve still attempted to search out an acceptable reason to cancel. He’d used injuries from battle last time, and given that he’d barely gotten a scratch in their scuffle with Doom today, that would have been even less convincing now. (He resented the serum more than he was grateful for it these days.) All other threats were currently below even Ultron’s super-sensitive notice. He could have tried insisting he needed to train, but Steve regularly logged more time in the tower’s gym than anyone, and that was on top of his morning runs.

He hesitated too long. Bucky let out an explosive sigh.

“Not again, man. We’re not fuckin’ goin’ through this again when I have Natasha waiting for me downstairs. You need to take someone down. You’re no used to us half-alive from prolonged dom-dep. Denying yourself headspace ain’t gonna bring him back, not to mention it’s about the last damn thing Tony would have wanted.”

Eventually, Steve agreed and made his way to his own floor. Not because he wanted it, but because he had put the team through enough in the immediate aftermath of Tony’s loss. They didn’t need to know how broken he still was, or how he wondered if (maybe even hoped, on the worst days) his body might someday physically give out from the grief. The story they had been telling one another lately, that Bucky had even rehearsed tonight, was that Steve had been doing better lately. And if they were able to convince themselves of that, he certainly wasn’t going to be the one to correct them; they deserved all the comforting fictions he could offer.
***

He used to love being with Clint. The archer was a category 6 switch primarily inclined toward domination, but on the rare occasions that he did go down into submissive headspace he went deep, and he was absolutely gorgeous—pliant, eager-to-please, and happy to take anything his Dom wanted to give him, from elaborate scenes full of props and pain to a simple hard fuck with a few orders thrown in.

Like all forms of submission, it was a gift that he was offering Steve, one made even more precious for its relative rarity. Certainly any other member of the team would be thrilled to have Clint like this; they definitely wouldn’t be fighting the urge to slip away into their own heads even while working a thick dildo into Clint’s ass the way Steve was.

“Fuck fuck fuck Steve, sir, please. ‘m ready. I want—” Steve silenced him with a kiss, all his remaining energy going into forcing himself not to wonder if he was quieting Clint because he truly wasn’t in the mood to hear begging, or because he was wishing it was someone else’s voice altogether.

“Goddamn you, Rogers, just fucking do it.” Especially at the beginning, newly outed and furious, Tony had been all fear and rage and desperation. He’d hated nothing quite as much as the way he needed the dominance, the way it seemed like his body would yield to Steve’s very thought…

He was still careful with Clint, of course; Steve was a lot of things he could barely recognize these days, but negligent had never been one of them. He prepped Clint with care, cautious of the impact his size and strength even as Clint gave every signal that he was ready, working his hips to rock back into the dildo and clawing at the sheets. When he finally pushed his way into Clint, he murmured all of the things he knew Clint needed to hear, a gentle medley of guidance and encouragement and praise. (Tony would have hated it. At least until he was far down enough to be receptive; then, like the flick of a switch, he’d be so desperate for approval that it broke Steve’s fucking heart. Every time.) When the time came for aftercare, he bathed the lax, content body of his teammate, hand fed him, and carefully tended to minor abrasions, most of which were leftover from battle, not their scene. Then he tucked Clint into Steve’s own bed. Clint fell asleep warm, secure and likely completely unaware that Steve’s arms still ached to hold someone else entirely.

Chapter Text

Steve woke early the next morning, like always. Lazing in bed, drifting in and out of consciousness just long enough to press lazy kisses or extra blankets onto the body next to him, that was another indulgence belonging only to Before Steve, that other version of him who had taken as much pleasure in these quiet moments of domestic intimacy as he did the most intense of scenes. Clint, however, was snoring away contentedly, and Steve still had a duty to right by the archer. So he prepared a simple but filling breakfast of toast, bacon and hash browns, the ones cooked in bacon grease that Clint coveted above all other breakfast foods.

While morning found Clint much closer to his usual headspace, he elected not to put his hearing aids in immediately, a cue that his senses were still nearing overstimulation as they often did following his forays into submission. So Steve kept the lights dim, the television off, and hand fed the other man in quiet broken only by the sounds of Clint chewing or moaning lightly when Steve stopped feeding him long enough to nuzzle him or stroke his dirty blonde hair lightly. The silence was as much a gift to Steve himself as it was to Clint; he was sickeningly grateful not to have to keep up with sexy post-scene banter or even have a more mundane conversation about their respective plans for the day just now. It gave him the strength to give Clint his warmest smile and tightest hug when the man finished eating, got dressed, and put in his bright purple HawkEars.

“Again, I don’t see the problem with StarkAids.”

“You’re not calling them Stark-anything if you want me to actually use them! Bad enough that you stick your name on basically everything else—”

“That’s a branding thing you moron! Remember SI? That thing that keeps us all in clothes and living space and such?”

“That’s all well and good, man, but I’m telling you if you insist on branding my hearing aids I’m gonna go back to using the old ones. You know, the ones that cause so much feedback over the comms that you were sure they were capable of damaging even Steve’s hearing?” Tony made dramatic gagging noises before flopping onto the long white chaise lounge that Steve was certain his lover had ordered entirely for the purpose of feigning fainting spells. “C’mon, babe,” Clint entreated, straddling Tony and nipping lightly at his neck while the other man continue to pretend at unconsciousness. “We can still market them under the Avengers brand. Call them HawkEars! Let the kids know it’s cool to be hearing impaired!”

“We are NEVER calling them that! Mark my words, Barton!”

“Uh, so, thanks for everything man.”

“Pretty positive I’m the one who should be thanking you, Clint.” The archer ducked his head, just close enough to the remnants of his submissive headspace to allow shyness to overcome his natural displays of bravado. And Steve could appreciate how beautiful a picture that made, even if his appreciation felt more akin to the distant admiration a viewer might have toward an art object than the visceral attraction he should feel toward a man he’d just spent a very pleasurable evening with. “You were beautiful and perfect for me. Are you sure you had enough to eat? Is there anything else you need?” Clint grinned and knocked their shoulders together.

“You always cook enough to feed an army. ‘m fine. And I’ll see you later for movie night, yeah?”

Mind already turning away from Clint and toward his work for the day, Steve barely restrained a groan. Of course. Tonight was team movie night, a tradition he’d instigated and insisted on. If he even attempted to skip it Bucky would be out for his blood, and the others would not be far behind.

“Of course.”
****

“Cap—err, is it Major?” Steve had had slightly higher hopes for Jordan, he really had. No one had anything but absolutely glowing praise for the man, a six foot three category eight dominant from Kansas who was looking to enlist with SHIELD straight out of college. But this was why he agreed whole-heartedly with the HR people that it was important he be here for at least a part of the intake interviews: it wasn’t always easy to predict who would suddenly turn overtly fannish when confronted with Steve.

“I turned down that promotion, actually. Director is fine.”

Thankfully, Jordan got his feet back under him fairly quickly after that, speaking confidently and passionately about his experience in the SHIELD scholarship program and his goals for future projects; he showed a particular interest in the communications side of things, and happily shared several compelling thoughts about future public outreach programs. To Steve’s mind, what was equally impressive was Jordan’s complete absence of shame about the fact that he wanted to use his mind to SHIELD’s benefit rather than weaponizing his fit, muscular frame toward the spying end of things. For all that the old bravado had long since fallen to the wayside, there was still something about Captain America that brought it out in some Doms. (Yet another reason it was important that he meet all their potential incoming agents.)

After two more intake meetings he was abruptly called in to an unscheduled disciplinary session; as soon as he saw the name on the agenda, he groaned. Out loud. In the middle of a crowded hallway. He quickly covered it as a cough and no one was any the wiser (he hoped.) But he still dragged his feet as he made his way down to Maria’s office, where Hill, Coulson and the guest of honour were already assembled and waiting.

Talia Avelino was undoubtedly been the most troublesome agent in SHIELD history. She was brilliant, there was no disputing that: off-the-charts IQ, frightening competence with every weapon SHIELD had, and the instincts for deception and manipulation of a young Natasha Romanov. (It was Steve’s sincerest hope that the two of them would never, ever meet.) She was also a category two submissive with a huge chip on her shoulder, and a near-complete disregard for orders, authority, or in today’s case, military property.

“So you crashed the fighter jet, not because there was any imminent harm to public safety, but because, and I’m quoting here, ‘the would-be pilot was a twatwaffle.’” Leaning against the wall with her back pressed against the door, Talia’s only reply was a smirk at hearing Maria utter the word ‘twatwaffle.’ Undoubtedly that had been her entire aim in placing such a ridiculous turn of phrase in her statement to begin with. “This would be the part where you elaborate, where you try to convince Director Rogers, Agent Coulson and myself that there’s some crucial information missing from the report, that you didn’t just willfully destroy the property of the American military because some jacked-up private with an attitude pissed you off.”

“I mean, to be fair, the Director got his job by crashing a helicarrier into the Potomac. I don’t know that he’d be in the best position to—”

“As you’re well aware, Agent Avelino, Director Rogers undertook that action to prevent a catastrophic loss of human life. He also then participated in the cleanup, both of SHIELD and of the river, which he took time out of an extremely busy schedule to help dredge for wreckage. Can you claim to have ever, in the entire course of your time here with SHIELD, helped to fix something you single-handedly broke?”

Coulson was using his most vicious tone, the one that promised severe retribution under a veneer of bored, bureaucratic disinterest. On its own that voice was usually enough to get Agents confessing their darkest secrets and offering their most sincere repentances. Talia didn’t bat so much an eyelash.

“If you wanted a janitor you should have hired one.”

They went around in circles like that for close to an hour before Steve stood and, much to the protest of both of his most trusted colleagues, summarily ejected them from the room. Talia still did not sit with the room emptied, but when Steve leaned on the edge of the desk rather than circling back around to the chair, she met his eyes for the first time.

“Talia. What happened?” She released an explosive sigh and brushed a stand of dark, curly hair impatiently away from her face.

“The shrink. She’s threatening to bench me from active service if I don’t start seeing some kind of—professional. To handle the sub-dep.” She spat the last word like it was something horrible and dirty and shameful, and for a long moment Steve wondered if he would make it out of this conversation with his own dignity in tact. Because Talia was just….so very, very much like Tony. Clever, brave, and deeply, uncontrollably angry at what felt like a betrayal from her own body. It had taken Tony years to come to terms with his need for submission; even now Steve couldn’t say for sure if he’d ever truly embraced it. From the best anyone could piece together, Talia had been resisting her orientation for nearly a decade; she’d spent most of her adult life in some degree of sub-dep, struggling to keep a steady job because of mandatory wellness programs much like SHIELD’s. She didn’t identify as trans-oriented, she just (like Tony, though for different reasons) had a deep and profound hatred for the things her body and mind required to stay healthy.

His heart broke for her.

“I can try to buy you a bit more time, Talia, but—” She shook her head.

“I’ll see a Dom over the weekend and have the paperwork on your desk by next Monday. May I be excused, Director?” He wanted to make her stay, he really did. But the things he wanted to say, the assurances and support he wanted to offer, he didn’t trust himself to be speaking to her just as her supervisor—it was possible he wouldn’t really be speaking to her at all, or at least not exclusively. And the last thing the beautiful, brave woman in front of him needed was to feel was that any further boundaries between her professional and personal lives were being violated. That was the very least he could do.

“You’re excused, Agent Avelino.”
****

“So? What’s your vote, Steve? Not that there’s really multiple credible options here, there’s so clearly enough space—” A piece of popcorn flew across Steve’s field of vision, a much-needed reminder that he had a part to play in all of this. (For someone who hated being on stage with such passion in his early days as Captain America, he considered it a sick kind of irony how much it felt like he was playing the part of Steve Rogers, and poorly, most days.) What would Before Steve have said about this?

“Uh, well yeah I think there probably was room on the door—” Clint whooped, while Nat groaned and chucked a pillow at his head. Thor’s booming voice declared something about the almighty weight of the ‘excellent Leonardo’ being relevant, “—but of course none of that would have mattered if they’d actually brought enough lifeboats and regarded the poor folks in Third Class as humans.”

“Alright, who had ‘Steve gets distracted from the issue to rant about the amorality of class-discrimination?’ Everybody else pay up!” Money was exchanged with a hefty dose of good-natured grumbling, as it often was on movie nights. Tonight the pot went to Coulson, who always bet on the most idealized version of Steve. Bucky, loose-limbed and content after going down for Natasha the previous evening, was in the middle of calling Steve a communist when it happened.

The portal itself was soundless; the almighty crash was the result of what followed, which was a body tumbling out of said portal and almost directly into Phil’s lap.

Everyone else reacted with the overtrained instincts typical of them; Clint, Natasha, Thor and Bucky all drew weapons (a chopstick, a gun, mjolnir, and another gun respectively); Bruce stood and backed up several feet, trying to keep the Hulk at bay while the others ascertained the nature and threat-level of the sudden intruder. While temporarily pinned down by the body on top of his own, Phil made a valiant effort to grab for the gun holstered to his ankle. Steve was the only one who didn’t, couldn’t, move. Because he knew that face, the lines of that body, would know them anywhere.

Tony?”

Just as quickly as everyone had sprung into action, they all came to a sudden, grinding halt. Steve’s enhanced hearing didn’t even pick up the sound of anyone breathing—well, no one except for his (their) dead submissive, who had stumbled to his feet and was staring at Coulson without blinking. For a matter of seconds there was something almost relieved in Tony’s expression, and a quiet hunger in the way he kept raking his eyes over Phil.

“…huh. So you’re—alright then. I mean, if my brain was going to generate some kind of between-state guide I guess you’d be a decent one, though if you threaten to taze me again I might rethink that. The rest of you though…” He turned and surveyed the room, holding his hands up in a slightly mocking surrender when Natasha and Bucky both raised their weapons again. He stopped dead when his eyes (finally finally) fell on Steve. And oh Christ, it was really him. There were parts of the man that were just slightly off, like Steve’s Tony had been taken apart and put together not quite correctly (the arc reactor looked…odd, and there was something about the man’s left hand…). But there was no one else in the world who could make Steve feel like he was being stripped utterly just by the intensity of their attention.

“…your face is naked. That’s a little weirder. Like if I was going to generate some kind of after-life version of you, which would be weird enough to begin with, honestly, I think I might have kept the beard. Oh fucking fuck. Am I honestly trying to decide whether we screwed up the fate of the world for a second time based on Cap’s facial hair? I am way more like my father than—”

“Tony, shut up.” He had snapped out the words without thinking, before even realizing that there might be enough of his Dominance pressed into them to make Tony’s submissive side react. And wouldn’t that be a horrible way to re-encounter his sub after years apart, to start issuing orders that Tony would feel compelled to follow? He was halfway to an apology when Tony answered, apparently unbothered.

“Ah. See, that seems more natural, anyway. Okay someone, quickly, year please?”

“It is 2018, Sir. Excuse me, Avengers, but per security protocol 731-B, I performed a full body analysis when the new arrival entered the Tower. There are some crucial variations in Sir and the previous Mr. Stark’s anatomy, which I can review with you on a holoscreen. However, I can say with great certainty that this is some version of Anthony Edward Stark.”

If Tony had seemed surprised and almost greedy to take in Coulson’s presence, his reaction to Jarvis trumped that by several magnitudes. He wavered on his feet (leading Steve to really realize for the first time that the other man was bleeding from at least one gash on his face, and perhaps elsewhere judging from the awkwardness of his stance) and made this…sound. If asked before today Steve would have confidently claimed to be familiar with every sound Tony Stark was capable of making: the almost beatific joy his tone took on when he monologued to himself (or Bruce) about science, his moans and cries and pleas during sex, the very specific belly-laughter that only his and Clint’s silly inside jokes could seem to coax out of him. He’d heard Tony rage and beg and fight and fuck, and he’d never heard anything like the noise that his own AI’s voice wrenched from the man in front of him.

Chapter Text

After Tony damn near had a breakdown at the sound of JARVIS’s voice things got a little…weird. Well, okay, the weirdness had started before that, like when a dead man fell out of a hole that opened up in Avenger’s Tower’s penthouse. The point is that once the AI had confirmed the presence of a Tony Stark (not their Tony, but they’re so damn much alike that looking directly at the man was the most torturous delight Steve had ever experienced) and Tony had responded by going nearly catatonic, no one really knew what to do next.

This would normally have been the point where Coulson would have taken charge; Phil took his position as the team’s handler very seriously, and he was always the one to step up if the others were struggling. But something about his interaction with Tony seemed to have spooked the agent; he remained quiet and nearly motionless, still seated in the same chair he’d been in when Tony had fallen into his lap. Natasha had attempted to pull Clint aside, but Steve knew the look on her face. The thin lips, the hooded eyes, the fact that she alone had yet to holster her weapon…they were the traces of the Red Room, and of the decade that had followed filled only with suspicion and blood. Natasha wanted something practical, likely bordering on cruel (or she wouldn’t have avoided saying it to the room at large.) Steve held her in place with a single dark stare.

It was Bruce that finally acted. Of course it was; Bruce had taken the time to be Tony’s friend while the rest of them were still busy believing the largely fictitious public version of Tony that he had clung to for dear life. Seconds after JARVIS’s voice had drawn that horrible, animalistic noise from Tony (seconds that truly felt like hours), Bruce was crossing the room in a few long strides. His skin was still dusted with patches of green from the nearness of his transformation. (But that made sense too. Tony was the only one Bruce ever truly trusted with the Hulk part of himself.)

“So you’re bleeding from your cheek here. Anywhere else I need to know about?” Tony rolled his eyes with a hint of a playful grin, forgetting for just for a moment to be guarded and scared and whatever else he was feeling; witnessing this scene, one that had played out a hundred times exactly like this, was almost worse than the moment when Tony remembered where he was and brought all his walls back up.

Steve didn’t trust himself to be in the room any longer, not without either embracing this man or screaming at him for being so fucking close to what Steve had wished for all these years but not quite right. He stormed from the room without a word to anyone. En route to the elevator, he heard Tony demand to see Rhodes and then fall silent.
****

Steve battered heavy bags in the gym until his knuckles bled. With how heavily Tony had reinforced them, this took much more doing than it used to, and he wondered with a clinical kind of disinterest if he’d managed to break one or more of the bones. JARVIS announced Rhodes’ and the team’s arrival just as he was wrapping them up, though his lingering discomfort was probably evident based on the exasperated glare Coulson shot his way. (Bruce, Steve noted, was absent, and he was probably lucky for that.) He didn’t wait for Rhodey to speak, wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries even with a man whose company he genuinely enjoyed.

“What’d he say?”

“Well he called me Platypus and Honey Bear, for one,” Rhodes said, leaning against one of the treadmills with a smile both fond and pained. Their Tony had always called him Popcorn. “Other than that…he’s pretty scattered. It came in bits and pieces, and I didn’t want to press too hard on anything; he came close to what looked like a panic attack on two separate occasions.” Steve’s gut clenched, dominant instincts screaming at him at the very notion of his (a, goddammit, a) submissive being in such acute distress without support. “Things in his world…went really fuckin’ differently. I don’t know exactly when they diverged; from what I could gather the Battle of Manhattan was almost identical. But somehow, some way, in their world Thanos got a hand on these—stone, things.”

“The Infinity Stones?” Thor stood up straight, expression more grave than Steve had seen it in recent memory. “How did the Titan—”

“I don’t know,” Rhodey cuts in. “Tones got really fuckin’ rambling and anxious whenever we stayed on that topic for too long. But he gave me the broad strokes; guy got the stones, snapped his fingers and half of everything living was just…gone." The silence that filled the room at that news spoke volumes; whatever else the Avengers were, they were rarely a quiet bunch. But what was there to say to the idea of death on such a horrendous scale? It dwarfed even the worst of Steve's experiences, both in the War and the future. "Whatever he—well, they, I guess, the team was with him—whatever they did that he ended up here, it was part of a bigger plan. He seemed positive it was the only way to change it back, make things right again.” For the first time, Steve felt an odd rush of sympathy for the other version of themselves. No world with Tony absent from it could ever be considered right.

“So he’s like, staying?” Clint asked, bouncing on the balls of his feet. Rhodes shrugged.

“I don’t really know. In this universe? Yeah, probably; he wants to know what happened to his people, so he’ll probably at least try to make contact at some point. But as far as staying here in the Tower…” Rhodes paused long enough to rub a tired hand across his face. “Something happened, I’m pretty sure, with the other versions of you guys.”

“But not you,” Coulson said shrewdly.

“No, not me. And maybe not you either, Phil. He was pretty quiet when it came to you. But he said something about Sokovia, and some airport in Germany—he was gettin’ really hard to follow by this point. But between that history and the fact that he knows you all are still grieving the other him…well, he’s making a lot of noise about not sticking around the Tower for long.” Steve had already thought of at least seven objections to that plan that had nothing to do with his personal life, and from the mutinous expressions on the rest of his team’s faces, he supposed they were right there with him. Rhodes halted all of them with a raised hand and a glare. “I know, alright? I know. But he’s not thinking clearly right now, about anything; I tried to ask when he’d last gone down and he looked at me like he was just…completely lost. He finally agreed to let Banner get a look at him. If Tones will permit it, Bruce’s gonna give him a sleeping pill when he’s done, knock him right out and let him get a decent night’s sleep. After that, I don’t know. But I’m not leaving until he’s a little steadier on his feet. I’ve now lost this man twice already and I’m sure as hell not planning on goin’ for three.”
****

The offer of sleep medication had been tempting, damn tempting. Before this it had been months of deliberate deprivation, the team resting in shifts just long enough to prevent their bodies from entirely shutting down. Even Steve, who had the lowest sleep requirements of all of them, had been ragged and drawn as they pushed the serum beyond its limits. Now here Tony was, not just alive and safe enough to sleep, but somehow in the Tower in his own bed (well not quite—it was a touch firmer than his old mattress had been, but it was damn close) for the first time in years.

He hadn’t asked Rhodey or Bruce much about this universe, this version of his team. In the end, his Avengers had barely been a team anyway, just a chemical reaction like Bruce had said, held together only occasionally by desperation and necessity. Tony didn’t need an inside track on how they were going to fall apart in this universe. Or hey, maybe with Tony apparently dead they wouldn’t fall out at all. Maybe all these people had ever really needed from him was a Tower and funding and gear, and then for Tony to disappear entirely.

Whatever the case, there was no way he could permit himself to get comfortable, and definitely no benefit in his getting attached. Not even to Coulson, steady and snarky and hyper-competent Coulson who might have fixed their goddamn mess if he’d lived. Nor even to JARVIS. That one would probably be the hardest; even after all the ghosts Tony had buried and re-buried lately, hearing J’s voice after so many years had been exquisitely painful. (And damn it Tony had done all he was supposed to, hadn’t he? Was it so unforgivably awful to just reach out, just for tonight…)

“Jay?” The reply came as it always had, smoothly and immediately.

“I am here, Sir. The time in New York is 1:42 am, and the temperature is 68 degrees Fahrenheit.”

“Could you, uh—could you do me a favour? Could you just…keep talking? Not, I don’t mean, I’m not asking for intel or anything sensitive. Just, I just want—”

“Of course Sir. The Yankees defeated the White Sox this evening, though popular opinion has it that an officiating error was what truly cost Chicago the game. The Dow Jones has plunged another 1100 points, but analysts suggest…”

That night, Tony drifted off with the voice of one of his oldest and dearest friends in his ear. (Tomorrow. He’d leave tomorrow.)
****

Tony fell asleep to JARVIS’s voice in his ear, and woke to a sharp piece of metal jabbing roughly at his left forearm.

“What the f—Dummy? What are you doing out of the shop? Did—you brought a fire extinguisher. Fucking hell you beautiful, ridiculous hunk of circuits.” The bot spun in rapid circles, emitting a series of beeps that could only be described as robotic squeals. Then he dropped the fire extinguisher with a loud clang and used his claw to yank the blankets unceremoniously from Tony’s body, leaving him in nothing but a pair of green silk boxers that weren’t his own.

Last night with Bruce, even to some extent with Rhodey, he’d struggled not to hide from this kind of scrutiny. Tony didn’t want to think very hard about the stories etched on his skin. The large and barely-healed scar from Thanos stabbing him with a piece of his own damn suit was still a vivid, angry red in some places; he’d ripped his stitches and flirted with infection frequently after the Snap. The marks from the impact of Steve’s shield in Siberia were higher, and more faded, but still clearly visible. Higher still was the neat incision from the surgery to extract the shrapnel and the original arc reactor; underneath, the cluster of jagged, colourless blemishes, evidence of Yinsen’s frantic efforts to save Tony’s life. And that was just his chest.

But this was Dummy, who in every conceivable universe would always be the bot who’d save Tony’s life, who even now found out some version of Tony wasn’t dead and showed up with a fire extinguisher because it was a good bet that he might need one at any given moment. So he stayed right where he was and let Dummy look his fill. Eventually, the bot’s focus seemed to settle on Tony’s chest, and he reached his arm out, much more slowly and cautiously this time, to rest lightly atop the arc reactor. “Is it different from his? I guess that would make sense. I don’t really need mine anymore, it’s mainly just a housing unit for nanoparticles.” Dummy’s arm didn’t move. When Tony shifted experimentally in the bed, the arm remained planted, unmoving. (Oh. Oh. Dummy didn’t care about the tech. To Dummy, familiar only with the older models, the glow of the arc was proof of life.) “Aww buddy. Yeah, I’m alright, I promise. But it’s been a long, I don’t know, decade, and I could really use some coffee. Can we continue this in the kitchen?”

It took some convincing, and more pleading than Tony would ever admit to, but eventually he was permitted to dress and depart the bedroom, Dummy hot on his tail. Having company turned out to be a plus because navigating the kitchen was…challenging. Tony certainly had a new appreciation for the deviousness of that genre of pranks where each item in a room was moved just slightly, because everything in this version of the penthouse was exactly the same…except for minor distinctions that left him constantly looking in the wrong cupboard or bashing into the island (two inches off of where it had been in the other Tower.)

“No, Dummy, not that mug, it’s not nearly big enough—what is it for a doll’s tea party or something? Where’s the other one, the black MIT one that I stole from Rhodey?”

“Good to hear you admit it!” came a voice from the living room. Seeing Rhodey walk toward him with no bracers, no visible signs of pain except for what looked to be a stiff neck from sleeping on Tony’s couch all night…yeah, this universe had some perks. (Still leaving the Tower today, Stark. Don’t get any ideas.) “How’d you sleep? Bruce said you refused the sleep aid and the pain meds. Wanna tell me why he offered pain meds in the first place, Tones?”

“Nope. Brucey-Bear is just a tattle-tale, s’like a universal constant. And I slept fine, Rhodeykins.” A spot of black dangled at the edge of Tony’s peripheral vision, and he didn’t need to bother turning his head to realize that Rhodey had his damn mug and was using it as bait. Asshole. “I slept at least three hours longer than I’ve slept in recent memory. Let’s let that be enough, alright?” Rhodey made a disgruntled noise but surrendered custody of the mug at last. It turned out to be full of coffee made (mostly) just the way Tony preferred it. The other guy—ha!—used a different sweetener, agave syrup maybe. Tasted less immediately sweet, but it was also less assaulting than white sugar, and it didn’t linger on his tongue in the same slightly unpleasant way.

(How long had it been since anyone had catered to a simple creature comfort of Tony’s like that, even if it was technically made to other-Tony’s preferences?)

He was halfway through his second cup when the rest of the team began to trickle in. First was Coulson and Barton.

“Natasha’s at SHIELD covering for Steve and Phil,” the archer offered immediately, as if Tony would have otherwise expected her presence. Agent produced a box of donuts seemingly from thin air.

“Thought you might be hungry. We haven’t kept the fridge and pantry up here very well stocked lately.” And oh fuck, they were from Peter Pan and the light layer of condensation leaking through the bottom of the cardboard box meant they were still slightly warm. If there was a damn cruller in there Tony might weep.

He could have excused this frightening display of care and forethought as just a Coulson thing, except that they all came up to the penthouse with something. Bruce brought a box of Hulk-themed bandages, glancing at Tony’s abdomen long long enough to convey a reminder to clean and re-bandage it today as he’d been instructed. But he didn’t bring up the injury in front of any of the others, which was a second gift in its own way.

Thor arrived in the penthouse with his usual (well, pre-destruction-of-Asgard-and-loss-of-his-eye-and-slaughter-of-half-his-people-including-his-brother-and-best-friend usual) puppyish grin. And a bulk-sized case of Jolly Ranchers, which he confided fearing that Tony had not experienced in the other universe.

It felt sort of like he was a grouchy god they were trying to appease with tributes. But they were also sort of delicious tributes, and before he totally knew what was happening, he’d been herded towards the living room by a pleasantly chattering version of all these people who seemed to know Tony, even this unfamiliar version of him, far better than he knew them. There was a long awkward moment where several of them stared at an oversized purple pillow on the floor in front of the couch. (Maybe the other Tony had been neater than he was? He hadn’t even been the one to put it there, but whatever…) He was in the middle of picking it up and settling it onto a space-gray armchair when JARVIS announced Barnes and Rogers’ arrival.

Rogers was carrying something, too, and against all logic and common sense, Tony’s stomach gave a lurch. (Had he and this version of Rogers really been better with one another, worked through all their shit and—) He didn’t even have time to finish the thought. Rogers took one look at Tony and growled.

“Take. That. Off.” He took two long strides toward Tony, who instantly had to remind himself to breathe. (This wasn’t Siberia. He had defenses here, defenses Steve didn’t even know about because he wasn’t this universe’s Tony.) Dummy, who had settled himself between the chair and a chaise lounge, whirred and wheeled forward, placing himself squarely in the middle between Rogers and Tony. There was movement from the others in the room too, but Tony never took his eyes off of Rogers and Barnes. The latter placed a restraining hand on Cap’s bicep, murmuring something Tony’s unenhanced ears couldn’t quite pick up. Rogers growled a reply, something that definitely included a muttered curse (what Tony wouldn’t have given to make a ‘language’ crack…) and shoved the plastic bag he’d been holding into Barnes’ hands. Then he turned around and, without a word to anyone else, marched back towards the elevator he’d just exited.

Tony expected Barnes to follow as he always did. Instead, he glared at the departing figure of his friend and then approached Dummy, reaching a hand out to stroke one of the bot’s struts. Instead of ignoring him or running over one of his toes or something, Dummy replied with one of his happiest beeps, a trilling sound Tony had never once heard him direct at anyone other than himself.

“Sorry ‘bout him. You know he loves you, right? Even if you were supposed to wait on our floor this morning and not break into the penthouse.” Without even giving Tony a second to digest the startling news that Tony’s bot apparently hangs out on his and Rogers’ floor, Barnes turned to Tony next. His face and his eyes still bore hints of the traumas he’d endured as the Winter Soldier. But this universe had been decidedly kinder to this Barnes than to his counterpart in Tony’s universe; he definitely had way more laugh and smile lines, not to mention a metal arm that did not look Wakandan. It looked like Tony’s own work, actually, which was more than a touch disconcerting. (Had other-Tony known what the Winter Soldier had done to his parents with the old one when he’d replaced it?) “That damned idiot was chomping at the bit to give this to you all morning and then—’m not making excuses or apologies on his behalf, but he’s been a real mess since…y’know. And that was our Tony’s favourite shirt. But the damn punk never shoulda used that tone. Are you alright?” Tony blinked. (Barnes had shown less concern when he’d watched Tony nearly beaten to death.)

“Cap has done far worse than yell at me, Frosty, don’t worry about it.” Barnes still seemed skeptical, even downright worried. But after an evaluative look that lingered too long on Tony’s shaking left hand, he placed the bag Steve had shoved at him carefully in Dummy’s claw.

“I’m gonna go deal with him. But it’s real good to see your face, sugar.”

When Barnes left and Tony’s heart rate had finally stabilized again, he chanced a look in the bag. It contained a large flat of market-fresh blueberries.

Chapter Text

The goddamn blueberries were delicious. Tony was pretty sure they were from the Prospect Park market. He hadn’t managed to make it there in years, but in his Merchant of Death days he’d frequented a stall run by a middle aged, no-nonsense couple who always had absolutely killer produce. It was so good that they tended to run out of the best stuff early in the day, and when Tony had tried to bribe them into setting some things aside for him or a minion to pick up at a more civilized hour, the wife (Helen, maybe?) had tartly informed him that they didn’t give two figs who he was; if he wanted blueberries he could be there first thing in the morning just like everyone else. He’d gone every Saturday he could manage, and even at his most hungover, he’d never regretted making the trip.

Fuck this Steve for somehow knowing or guessing that anyway. Tony had been content to ignore the damn berries and all their taunting (still can’t get it right with Cap in this universe or any other ha ha don’t we look juicy and delicious), but, well, Rhodey was Rhodey. He’d taken one long look at Tony once he’d collapsed back onto the couch following Barnes’ departure, pulled him half into his lap, and started stuffing berries into his protesting mouth. And sure, Rhodey’s willingness to feed Tony’s ever present skin-hunger without at least a token show of resistance was a little odd. But also almost worth having to cede defeat to the stupid symbolic fruit.

Eventually, even being held and fed by Rhodey wasn’t enough to distract Tony from the silence of the room. Especially since everyone kept staring at him like they were waiting for something. And hell, they probably were. It wasn’t as if there wasn’t a million damn things they should probably have been talking about, like how Tony had gotten here and what had happened to other-Tony and when he’d be leaving the Tower and—yeah. Not going there yet. Not until he could even think it without wanting to hyperventilate.

“Put on something mindless, JARVIS. That hilarious rom-com with the guy who looks like Bruce, maybe?” Watching 13 Going on 30 was usually enough to get Bruce riled and ranting about how he looked nothing like Mark Ruffalo. But this morning his Science Bro beamed his toothiest, goofiest smile at him.

“That’s a great choice, Tony.”

Which, okay. They probably missed other-Tony (he’d have to come up with a snappier way to refer to the guy—Phony would be funny, but they’d probably be pretty pissed if he ever accidentally said it out loud). But then, when he had realized this Clint was using hearing aids (more Stark tech!) and asked if the guy wanted the closed captioning on, it had happened again.

“That’s really considerate, thank you. I mean—no, I don’t actually want the captions on, you’ve inflicted this movie on us enough that I can practically talk along—but you’re kind to think of that and offer, Tony.” This time Rhodey hummed in agreement and petted Tony’s hair. Curiouser and curiouser.

Along with the weird compliments came what seemed to be a team-wide concern for his every comfort. He shivered exactly once, mainly because this version of his Black Sabbath t-shirt had even more holes in it than Tony’s other one; Coulson was on him in seconds with a thick, heavy blanket. When Tony complained idly about Rhodey’s shoulder being too hard, mostly to try to give the guy an out if he wanted to stop cuddling Tony, Thor fetched a large, squashy pillow, helped Tony lift his head, and slid it atop Rhodey’s chest for him to rest on. That was the last straw.

“You guys don’t—I’m not a delicate sugarcookie for fuck’s sake!” Thor instantly withdrew his hand, taking the pillow with it. Tony’s head jerked awkwardly and landed smushed, face-first, into Rhodey’s arm pit. And just like that, silence draped the room again like a heavy canopy. (Well, it couldn’t have lasted anyway, this whole display of team unity.) Not wanting to allow things to disintegrate further, Tony made a valiant attempt to slither out of Rhodey’s arms. They tightened in response, almost as if by reflex, and then fell away just as suddenly as Thor’s pillow. Tony was up and halfway toward the elevator before he realized JARVIS might not let him into the workshop.
****

His AI did, thank all the science gods, let Tony into the shop, where the first thing he was confronted with was a bastardized version of the War Machine armour.

“What in the ever loving—who has been servicing my baby? So help me, I don’t care if this is my universe or not, if the army has been touching War Machine for anything but the most basic maintenance I will pretend to be a ghost and haunt their asses. Jesus Christ is this—what is this tech? It’s not Hammer, I’d know his shit anywhere, but it’s way too close for my liking. JARVIS, get me specs, and a background on whoever made this garbage.” Tony was…well, he was fondling War Machine, there was no way around that. (So sue him. The last few years had been focused entirely on getting War Machine compatible with Rhodey’s new bracers and other changed physical requirements. There’d been zero time for the fun kind of upgrades. And the poor thing had been practically in tatters when Tony had made his rather abrupt departure.) But this shit was honestly beyond the pale. He could tell just from looking at several of the guns affixed to the suit that they were shoddy; one of them looked to have a damn bullet lodged in the barrel. “Squib load? Seriously? This could have taken your damn hand off, Rhodey, Jesus.” Midway through Tony’s muttered complaint/work list, a soft mechanical swish signalled the opening of the shop doors. Somehow he was not all that surprised to find Coulson making his way inside, trailed by Dummy. The latter immediately made himself busy, circling the shop in long loops like a king surveying his territory. Coulson, meanwhile, flicked his gaze back and forth from the suit to Tony several times, then nodded, that decisive, tight motion that had always meant business.

“JARVIS, unlock storage vault 19B and have it brought up from the sub-basement to the workshop level ASAP. Key its access to P. Coulson, override code 9204112. And have it delivered by one of the service bots, we can’t have anyone knowing he’s here. In fact, Blackout conditions for all but the team, please.” Coulson moved through this workshop with maybe even more ease than Tony himself, ordering JARVIS around and digging tools out of the wrong damn places, and was Phony some kind of neat-freak or had the team organized in here after he died? He wasn’t sure which option was more horrifying. But it was also he and Coulson (notdeadnotneadnotdead) in the shop together. With a project. After the whole palladium-poisoning issue he’d always meant to get his version of the guy down in the workshop; Coulson’s wickedly dry sense of humour had seemed a promising indication of a creative and complex mind. But they’d never gotten the chance. “And yes, we’re aware of the problem. The army just got a new contractor, and they’re trying to work around the very specific conditions you—err, the other Tony—left in his will. He’s not allowed to touch any of the proprietary Stark Tech in the suit, but since the original guns were made by Justin Hammer, he’s arguing all the accessories are fair game. Our best intelligence suggests that he’s actually trying to make the weapons faulty enough to cause minor damage the suit.”

“So he can argue the repairs fall under his company’s jurisdiction too. Fuck, I hate this guy already. Gimme the ramrod. Gotta clean this mess up and make sure it doesn’t explode on us before I rip this shit off my beautiful suit with my bare hands. See, Agent Agent? Safety first!”

“Yes that has traditionally been your motto, Mr. Stark.”

After a long, confusing morning, Tony has decided that even if their methods were a bit…odd, he knew what the team was doing. They wanted him to stay, maybe for good reasons, maybe for shitty ones. It was simply too early to tell. But right now they were trying to get him to forge connections to this universe, to care about this version of the team, about Rhodey and his desecrated suit and JARVIS and Dummy with his fire extinguisher and his apparent free-reign to visit the Tower’s residents and his claw hovering over Tony’s arc reactor. That’s why they’d let him come down here, to the place he’s always felt safest and happiest. It was definitely why they weren’t asking many questions about their inter-universe counterparts, but still using the knowledge they had to their best advantage. He hadn’t said much about Coulson to Rhodey last night, but Tony’s silence (and the way he’d been unable to stop staring at the guy when he’d first come through the portal) had probably been telling enough. They knew there was something different about Coulson, and they weren’t above using that to get what they wanted.

The worst part was that Tony could see all of these machinations as plain as day and they were somehow still painfully effective.

“So tell me everything we have on this new contractor, then. How are w—you guys going to take him down?”
****

“Well of all the spectacularly stupid things I’ve ever seen you do that one probably cracks the top ten. And that’s really sayin’ somethin,’ Stevie.” Bucky didn’t even sound angry. That, Steve had learned over the decades that he’d known and loved this man, was when Bucky was at his most dangerous. Anger hindered him, make him prone to rushing and making mistakes (much like Steve himself.) But when he came at you like this? This was Bucky-the-sniper. Patient, calm, entirely capable of waiting it out, for hours if necessary, just to unerringly locate and exploit a target’s most vulnerable point. Steve had never once come close to beating this version of Bucky; to the best of his knowledge, no one ever had. So he elected to say nothing, making a valiant attempt at reviewing a memo from Natasha about a peacekeeping mission the UN was requesting SHIELD support on. (They could send in Thomas, maybe, he had a strong relationship with the head of the peace-keeping task force. Maybe he could even take Talia in with him. Some experience in diplomatic work with a branch that tended to attract highly-qualified submissives might be good for her…)

The though was cut short by a metal hand shooting into Steve’s field of vision. It crumpled the virtual document into a ball, just like a sheet of paper, and then made a throwing motion. The wadded-up hologram landed in a digital basketball hoop that immediately lit up and dinged obnoxiously. (Bucky had picked the gesture up from their Tony. Once he’d realized all the truly useless but entertaining things Tony had programmed his holograms to do, the two of them had spent weeks playing a series of silly and escalating games all over the tower, many of which Bucky hadn’t realized until long after the fact had also been designed to help him train and build up the dexterity of his then-new metal hand.)

“Gonna try to ignore me, punk? I can do this all day, ya know. I mean, would I rather find our sub and—”

“He is NOT our sub.”

“That why you hate him?” Bucky volleyed this accusation back at him with the airy tone anyone else might use to ask if Steve had used the last of the sugar or changed the television channel without asking. That only made it hit harder, knocking Steve in the gut and nearly doubling him over.

“I don’t hate him.” Bucky raised his eyebrows and crossed his arms across his broad chest. His posture had lost all of the loose easiness that subbing for Natasha had brought to it, and that sight on top of everything else made Steve ache all the more.

“You sure ‘bout that? You didn’t seem to want much of anything to do with him last night, and then decided the best way to go this morning was to scream at him for wearing a shirt that he chose, not to hurt anyone, but probably because it brought him comfort after the hell it sounds like he’s been through. And to top it all off, you screamed at him in a tone that could have, probably should have, brought him to his knees and made him feel not only like his friend and teammate was pissed at him, but like he’d been a bad submissive.” Steve had known all of this already, of course had. But there was always something about hearing his mistakes methodically laid out in front of him like that that made them real, let him feel their weight and effects in a way that his self-righteous tendencies often shielded him from. Again his only reply to Bucky was silence, but the other man seemed to realize it was a very different kind of quiet this time. “If you can’t be around him we would all understand. But Stevie, you don’t get to make that choice for the rest of us. You don’t get to drive him off when we want to know him, and when he might need to know us. So get your shit together, Rogers.”
****

With JARVIS’s rather reluctant help (the AI was definitely another resident of the Tower who was pissed at him, and the team had long since learned that that never boded well given his near-complete control of every aspect of the Tower), Steve tracked Tony down a couple hours later. He was in his…the shop, of course, completing what looked like some heavy-duty upgrades to the War Machine armour.

For the span of several harsh breaths, Steve just watched. This Tony was just as much in his element here as their Tony had been. His movements were graceful and precise, somehow made moreso by the juxtaposition of that smoothness with the ear-splitting music that served as background to the scene. A line of sweat running down the back of Tony’s neck revealed the effort this heavy labour was costing him, but as always Tony wholeheartedly welcomed the effort, never stopping even when certain motions caused him to wince or inhale sharply (what exactly had Bruce found when he’d checked him over, anyway?) And Dummy, who had refused outright to be in the shop after…Dummy was right alongside him, chirping gleefully and fetching anything Tony so much as glanced at.

It hurt. It ached at what felt like a cellular level to watch them together, to see how seamlessly this Tony could slide back into his old patterns and routines. It felt like being unmade all over again; so much of Steve’s sense of self had been destroyed and then re-shaped around the absence of Tony that to be presented with this irrefutable evidence that the man in front of him was some version of the man he’d loved was…well, it was not so much like seeing a ghost as realizing that he’d been one all this time, himself.

“Oh good, I thought you’d be gone longer, Agent. Listen, I think we need to remove the right shoulder-plate entirely, it’ll be a lot less aggravation to just bin it and since Rhodey’s not here to bitch I can add in some—oh.” Without being asked, JARVIS softened the music to a dull roar as Tony and Steve stared at each other. “Look, Cap, if you’re here to yell again do you think you could—”

Steve had thought long and hard about this. He couldn’t trust himself with words. They so often got away from him in moments like this, especially around Tony. The man could run circles around Steve several times over even in regular conversations, and when he did it intentionally during arguments and left Steve feeling stupid and insecure, he lashed out all the harder. The risk was even higher with this other version of Tony, who looked at him not with trust or fondness but with traces of fear and rage and so very much hurt…

No, he needed a gesture, something that Tony would instantly understand, that could convey the depth and severity of Steve’s regret. He took several long strides, coming to rest a foot in front of Tony. And then he sank, in a single, fluid motion, to his knees. It was an old-fashioned move, just like Steve himself. Dominants nowadays tended to avoid even the most glancing reminder of power dynamics during or immediately following arguments. And most of the time it made sense; it avoided exactly what had happened that morning, with Steve unintentionally abusing his power over a submissive because of his own anger.

But that was precisely why this felt right, now. Steve’s offense had been one against Tony as a person, yes, and he could and would apologize for that as well. But his greater crime had been as a Dominant against a submissive, and so, he’d decided, he would start there with the profoundest signal of contrition a Dom could give a sub.

“…uh, Cap? What the hell are you doing?”

Chapter Text

“Sir, lockdown of the workshop has been temporarily overridden. Shall I—” Tony had been sprawled across the floor of the workshop for what must have been close to three hours, or so the pain in his muscles as he scrambled abruptly to his feet suggested. His sense of time had gone a little bit sideways since the…episode with Rogers.

“J, what the fuck? I thought you said I had credentials to keep the team out of here until the medical protocols kick in at hour thirty. We’re nowhere near—”

Click. Click. Click. In any place, any time, any universe, Tony would always recognize the sound that Pepper Potts’ high heels made when she walked. He almost always heard her before he saw her, even when it shouldn’t have been possible like when the music in the shop was blaring or the SI board members were all screeching about their latest outrage. And for years that noise, that perfect combination of authority and feminine softness, had heralded safety and stability and comfort and love.

Hearing it now when it had already been so long was almost his undoing. They’d kept their distance from one another, he and the other Pep, after their breakup. And when he’d seen her after the Snap Pepper had taken to wearing sneakers almost exclusively, always prepared to run or hide or rush to assist a member of the team or a civilian. (She’d worn her Suit, too, and she was just as amazing and incandescent as Rescue as he’d long thought she would be. But Tony would have traded that, would have traded just about anything, to see her in a crisp suit and a towering pair of heels again.)

It was childish, but he closed his eyes before Pepper entered into his field of vision. It didn’t help. She still invaded all of his senses—he heard the warm affection in her voice as she greeted the bots, felt the air around him shift as it was displaced by her movements, smelled the faint scent of her perfume, something lingering and fruity today—but he kept his eyes screwed shut anyway. There was a rustle of fabric (taking off her suit jacket, probably), and then another swish of air, closer this time, that meant she was probably sitting on the floor right in front of him.

“Tony.”

“No.” There was a watery laugh (oh god, was Pep crying? hadn’t Tony made her cry enough in one universe?), and then a soft, small hand on his own. At first she just rested her own hand atop Tony’s, but as the seconds passed her attention became more focused as Pepper traced a knowing, deliberate trail over the tiny but innumerable scars and callouses dotting his skin. A jagged mark on the webbing between his right thumb and index, a sovenier from an ill-fated trip to Mexico where he’d drunkenly attempted to prove he could perform a perfect dive into a resort pool without spilling the tequila flight he’d been holding, drew another watery noise that sounded like a laugh from her. (Clearly this pre-Iron Man Tony had been just as much as an idiot as he had been, then.) A different one, a burn just below the knuckle of his left ring finger, she paused over. “Bruce and I were exhausted and the welder got away from one of us. I think it was Bruce, but I can’t be a hundred percent sure anymore.” A couple seconds later, there was a soft pair of lips pressing a kiss lightly onto the scar. (Always trying to make it better, Pep. Even when you know you can’t.) He opened his eyes for that, he couldn’t not, and met Pepper’s blue eyes.

“Tony,” she said again. She’s always been able to make his name a complete sentence, the meaning ranging from everything from a virulent curse to something resembling a prayer. Just now it sounded like she was trying to speak him into existence, like Tony was hovering on the edge of being real or a phantom and Pepper’s voice was going to be the deciding factor. (You’d be better off with ghosts, Pep.)

“No,” he repeated, drawing his hands back and away. Unable to witness the hurt that he knew would be drawing her face into tight lines now, he stood and began to pace. “I’m not…I can’t be who you want, alright? I’m leaving today. All I need from you is for you tell me if your Stark had any kind of provisions in his will for this kind of situation.”

The thing about being declared legally dead twice in the span of only a few years was that Tony had quickly realized what a pain in the ass resurrection was, legally speaking. So many forms and phone calls and paperwork, on actual paper because apparently it was worth continuing the wholesale destruction of the planet to make formerly-dead people fill out ‘Not-Dead’ forms in triplicate. Not to mention that all his damn credit cards always stopped working, and having to ask Happy to pay for the hamburger after Afghanistan had been mortifying. After the destruction of the Malibu house, Tony had vowed never to be forced into dealing with it again. So he’d met with almost the entirety of SI’s truly massive legal team, and after a host of meetings that were hilarious and irritating in equal measure, he’d eventually emerged with a complex series of agreements that essentially froze the majority of Tony’s major assets and protected his identity until five years following his confirmed death.

“He did, yes. But those provisions still require the consent of the executor.” She didn’t need to say more; the implication was abundantly clear. Tony would need her permission to access anything, and right now Pepper didn’t intend to give it to him. The cruelty of it shouldn’t have cut very deeply, not after everything else that had happened in the last few years, but somehow it did anyway. Even when he’d had nothing, he’d almost always had Pepper.

“If you want to punish me for not being him I guess that’s your prerogative. If you could just…give me a two hour head start or so? Before you tell the others I’ve left? Can you do that for me, at least, Ms. Potts?” He was unsurprised when the clicking of her heels started up again, and prepared for a slap or at least the shrill pitch of Pepper’s voice that only came out when she really, truly screamed. Instead, she planted herself directly in the middle of the path he’d been tracing around the shop and cocked an eyebrow.

“I’m not even going to dignify that with a response. Think, Tony. You were just as famous here as you were in your own world, maybe more. People mourned you. There’s a twelve foot high memorial, they tossed around the idea of a national holiday until Rhodey reminded them that you would’ve insisted on some kind of law that everyone observing it get hammered and make insulting phone calls to their elected officials. You cannot just go strolling out the front door of Avengers Tower, not without setting off a chain reaction that could, among other things, cripple SI and ground the Avengers Initiative. Not to mention that from the sounds of it there are some major differences between your world and ours that we need to discuss how to manage.” He’s never been good at apologies, and apparently her Tony never had been either, because Pepper took his silence as precisely that. Her expression softened and she sighed that exasperated ‘Tony’s-giving-me-a-migraine’ sigh that usually ended in him sending someone out to buy her something sparkly. “Come upstairs. The others are just about losing their minds, and we need…we have to talk this out.”

“Cap?” he asks immediately. Because he is not going up there if he has to face Rogers. Something like sympathy flickers across Pepper’s expression, sympathy he suspects isn't directed at him, which is almost enough to get Tony riled up all over again. Whatever else he and Pepper had come to disagree on, she had been firmly on his side after the whole civil-war debacle. Her list of insults for Rogers was actually stunningly creative and often downright vicious.

“No. He’s not…he needed some time. Come upstairs, Tony, please?”
****

It had only been seconds that Cap had spent on his knees, definitely under a minute in total. But it had felt like a whole other lifetime passed while Tony had stared down at the man, utterly lost.

“…uh, Cap? What the hell are you doing?” Steve had remained kneeling, eyes cast down, and since when had Steve ever refused to meet his eyes? Even when he was slamming the shield into Tony’s chest, he’d at least had the courtesy of staring Tony in the face.

“You know what I’m doing. Tony, please—”

“No, I don’t know what you’re doing! As usual, I haven’t a fucking clue what the hell bizarre course of action you’ve chosen, so could you either get up here and explain yourself or just get out?”

“Tony, I’m apologizing, you damn well know that.”

“Well sure, but since when do you apologize on your knees?”

A whole host of emotions had passed through Steve’s expression. Something that was definitely sorrow tinged with disappointment (no surprise there, Tony was an expert at triggering that particular look in Steve Rogers). That gave way to anger, which would have also been unremarkable. What was unexpected, though was the way the anger faded almost instantly, too, leaving behind wide eyes and an open mouth that, on anyone else, Tony would have said looked like shock, maybe even fear.

“Tony, are you…what was your categorization, in your universe? Were you…are you not a submissive?”

From anyone else, Tony probably could have lived in denial a little longer, blown it off as just a poorly-timed and awkward attempt to solicit sex. Whatever else Steve Rogers was, though, he just didn’t strike Tony as the type.Which could only mean there was something fundamentally different about this universe Tony had landed himself in, yet another distance he’d have no way to bridge between himself and this version of the team.

“Get out.”

“Tony, please, I shouldn’t have assumed, if you’re a Dom or a switch I still—”

“Get the fuck out of here, Rogers. Right now. Before I summon one of the suits.”
****

Hearing about the twelve foot high memorial had been enough to make Tony already feel like he was watching the aftermath of his own funeral. This was a sensation only enhanced by stepping off the elevator and into the penthouse to find the Avengers huddled together in the living room. There were none of that morning’s gentle smiles or soft encouragement, not even a hint of cheer about them; even Thor looked like he belonged far more in the universe Tony had came from than their present one as he leaned against the window, staring blankly at the New York skyline.

Natasha, who had been absent from the Tower that morning, was the only one who met Tony’s eyes. But where the others appeared defeated, Natasha was in intel-gathering mode. It was the same as Tony had always known it to be, a hint of seduction (plump lips, slightly hooded eyes, open posture) masking the sharp way she studied every inch of her target. The only difference was the hint of a frown playing at her lips; unlike his Natasha, she didn’t seem to want to be looking at Tony this way.

Pepper seemed to recognize the signs just as well as Tony, and made to step in front of him. But Natasha spoke first.

“I don’t care what Steve says. You’re not a Dom. Or a switch.” Objections were immediate, and from nearly every side.

“Natasha!”

“Mine lady, the son of Coul gave us strict instructions—”

“Natalia, hvatit.”

“No, she’s right.” He heard Pepper inhale sharply from where she stood at his left. It was one of the only noises in the room. “I’m not a Dom, or a switch. Or a sub, for that matter. I mean, I’ve fooled around a bit with—listen, the point is, I’m not any of those things in the way I think you mean them.”

And oh but how he wanted to run then. Even though he didn’t fully understand it, Tony knew (or at least suspected) enough to realize that he’d just dropped a bomb on them, shaken something they considered immovable and permanent. Once he had striven for these kinds of reactions in people, had delighted in witnessing the exact moment where they realized how incomplete and narrow their perspectives were. But now…now, Tony was tired. So fucking tired. And the last thing he wanted was to watch the way both Natasha and Clint immediately turned to Coulson, seeking guidance that, from the way Phil seemed to have frozen in place in his spot near the fireplace, Coulson couldn’t offer. Or the way Thor took several cautious steps toward Bruce, preparing to have to contain the Hulk if it became necessary. (For very different reasons, Tony didn’t hazard glances towards Rhodey or Barnes at all.)

He thought, very seriously, about begging Pepper to let him leave. It wasn’t as if he’d never done the incognito thing, he could go to one of his most remote properties and start over, maybe open up a little mechanic shop and live out his days fixing broken things. And there was little doubt in his mind that was how this would end, if he was lucky. But for now, he had made Pepper a promise. So he took a long, deep breath and strolled over to the bar. The ritual of making a cocktail was oddly comforting, given his relative disinterest in the booze itself. The sound of the ice tinkling against the glass, the colour of the bourbon, syrup and bitters swirling together in the mixing glass, it was exactly the same as it had always been. Well, almost exactly; there wasn’t any orange in the mini-fridge to garnish it, which made sense when he thought about it. If they hadn’t been using the penthouse much since Phony had died, of course they had kept perishables out of the fridge.

“So, Pepper-pie, got a plan?” Pepper took one more long moment to visibly gather herself. Then he watched as her spine straightened, her head lifted, and she stared him in the face just as fearless and capable as ever.

“Of course I do. Honestly in a lot of ways this is easier. When I thought you were a Dom, that meant violating your most basic and primal instincts. It would have been hell on your system.” There’s several assumptions built into that statement that Pepper doesn’t explicitly address, but Tony isn’t a genius for nothing. She had expected him to play at being the other Tony. It’s just not immediately clear, well, why, or if this changed things.

“And now?”

“I wish we could just be honest about this with the public, Tony, I really do. But orientation here, it’s physical, it’s biochemical, it’s social, it shapes absolutely everything. And submissives, especially like yo—like him, they’re regarded incredibly highly. The love people had for him…it wasn’t just because he was a sub, of course it wasn’t, but that mattered. It mattered enough that I don’t know that we could get them to accept that not only are you from an alternate universe, but that this fundamental thing they knew about you isn’t true anymore.” Pepper tempered the blow of learning that he’d be spending the rest of his days pretending to be someone else by voluntarily refilling his glass. Tony drank most of it down in a single pull, even while reminding himself that, as booze had hardly been an option after the Snap, he’d have to slow it down and quickly unless he wanted to be far too drunk for this conversation entirely too quickly.

“So, what then? There’ll be homework, I’m assuming? Someone will compile everything I need to know about how things work here, what’ll be expected of me?” Pepper nodded, already pulling out a StarkPhone and tapping rapidly.

“Absolutely. And it’s not like you’ll have to do many public appearances after things die down. JARVIS and I will handle all the data gathering, and you can meet with a couple members of the PR team, people we really—”

“No.” Coulson didn’t sound angry, but there was no mistaking the conviction in his tone. It was enough to get Pepper to look from her phone to where he still stood next to the fireplace. “I apologize for interrupting, Ms. Potts, but I’m afraid that isn’t going to work for us. We would want to be involved in any kind of resource development and support Tony needs. The bond between he and the team was just as much a part of…the other Tony’s identity as his submission, and that can’t be forced for the cameras. I’m not, this isn’t.” Coulson huffed, running a hand over his face. It was the first time Tony had ever seen even the remotest crack in the calm competence that Coulson wore as effectively as Tony wore the suit, or Cap his shield. Clint signed something to him and he nodded, took another long breath, and then turned to Tony. “This is not an attempt to…to groom you or something. I recognize that even if you did share our Tony’s orientation you still might not have had any interest in joining us in a romantic or sexual capacity. That you are not in fact a submissive, nor any other recognized orientation of this universe, might make that more likely and it might not. Our Tony’s relationship to his orientation was…complicated. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be your friends and your teammates. We can help you with this. Bruce could teach you anything you want to know about the science behind how orientation works here. Natasha, Clint and I could teach you about the way it impacts things like body language and diction and clothing choices. While Asgard operates under some similar conditions, our orientation classification system is by no means identical to ours, so Thor would have a lot of insight to offer about how to adjust. As would Bucky and Steve, in their own—”

The reminder of Barnes and Cap is a useful and well-timed one. It had all been starting to sound kind of tempting. The science behind the orientations alone must be fascinating, and the thought of learning it all with Bruce at his side, like the Science Bro olden days before Bruce had left and come back inexplicably BFF with Thor? Amazing. And while Tony had never been particularly interested in the spying end of things, it was still such a novelty to have Clint look at him with anything but anger, and Natasha with something other than regret, that even those lessons had had a certain kind of appeal. But when Steve found out Tony was even farther from what he’d wanted? He’d probably throw him out of the Tower personally, with Barnes’ help.

“I appreciate it, Agent. But I’m sure J can—”

“How did you and I meet? In your world?” Being interrupted was getting kind of old, but it was Rhodey, and he had followed up the question by strolling over to steal the remainder of Tony’s drink for himself, and fuck but he’d missed this. Missed the easy camaraderie and the way this Rhodey wasn’t quite so jaded and broken on so many levels.

“I—we, well, I was drunk off my ass.”

“Naturally.”

“Shuddit, Platypus. Anyway, I went to a house party of this guy doing his PhD in robotics, and I was drunk but still entirely bored with the conversation. So I…borrowed some of the components of his project—”

“Dude, you stole his doctoral project?”

“Borrowed, Rhodeykins, borrowed! And I actually fixed the damn thing, it was a disaster. The arrangement of the sensors was asinine, it had less spatial reasoning than a Roomba, but when the guy found me and got pissed I was. Well. I was allegedly slightly less than clear about what I’d done and why I’d done it. But some nosy guy had been watching me work for a while; he stopped me from getting my ass kicked by explaining to PhDofus what modifications I’d made and why they made it better. And then mystery guy took me back to his dorm, let me throw up in his best pair of sneakers, which I later replaced, and the rest was history.”

Rhodey grinned and reached over to ruffle his hair. He, at least, was apparently still willing to touch Tony even though those touches didn’t mean what the team had thought they did that morning. Tony let himself lean into it, just for a moment.

“I met my Tony when he rolled up to MIT half out of his mind from prolonged submissive deprivation, or sub-dep.” The room was completely silent, the others watching Rhodey attentively as if they either had never heard the story before, themselves, or considered it important to listen to the re-telling. “We undergo testing, here, at 14. In our day it was mainly bloodwork, because hormones related to orientation spike at that age, really dramatically. Right after that testing, kids usually spend at least a month immersed in their headspaces at a state-run training facility—learning what it’s like to be there, what they need, that kind of thing. It isn’t sexual at that point, orientation is about way more than that, but the need and the drive to be in headspace…it’s incredibly strong. The day after my Tony’s results came in, Howard shipped him off to university instead. Claimed he was 15 on the enrolment forms, filled the pockets of the right people, and no one said a damn thing.” The hand still in Tony’s hair tightened for a second, then released. “I don’t—Banner can take you through the science of it later, but for a submissive to be denied headspace, especially one classified as he was and at such a critical point in his development…it could have driven him insane. Killed him, even. And still it took him three damn days to admit who and what he was to me so I could help him.”

“Holy shit, Rhodes. You never…he never…” Clint trailed off, looking vaguely nauseous. The expression was shared by most members of the room, who seemed far more impacted by the story than Tony himself. (I mean, was it disappointing to learn Howard had found new ways to fuck him up in this universe? Sure. Was it surprising? Hell no.)

“He made me swear not to. I think he might have told Steve at least part of it eventually, but he probably made him make the same promise.” Then Rhodey redirected his attention squarely to Tony, shifting his hand from Tony’s hair to his chin to tilt his face upwards. “We lost someone we loved. We wish like hell that he weren’t gone. But we are not trying to use you to fill that void. You can’t, just like I can’t be the Rhodey you remember, not exactly. But that doesn’t mean we have to be nothin’ to one another, or that accepting our help with this charade you’ll have to put on means wiping out who you are. Do you think…could you give this a shot, a real shot, for two weeks? If you don’t want to stay here after that I swear Pepper and I will figure something else out, but your team and I, we’d like the chance to be here. If that’s alright with you.”

Chapter Text

Tony had never been one for lingering in bed in the mornings. Even in the most hedonistic days of his youth, when his nights had been filled with models and expensive liquor instead of panic attacks and alien invasions, he’d always preferred to be sucking down coffee and halfway to the labs before the last fuzzy edges of sleep departed his consciousness.

But this morning…well, he’d definitely lingered longer than he had to, even with Dummy the wake-up bot chirping happily and clumsily digging through Tony’s clothes in a misguided attempt to dress him. (Tony was all for encouraging his bot in secret, he’d missed Dummy way more than he wanted to admit these last couple of years, but he drew the line at being offered a pair of dark washed jeans that he could tell from a glance would look like they were painted on. Bad enough that they might not fit at all, but even if he could manage to tug them over his saggiest parts, the pants suggested Phony must have had a pretty spectacular ass. Enough of Tony’s life was going to involve constantly being measured against that bastard and found wanting, dammit, his ass was not going to be included on that list.)

He should have been desperate to get downstairs. The labs? With Bruce, and a whole new realm of science to conquer? And did he mention the Bruce of it all? But then that was rather the problem. Until now, Tony had been able to tell himself that his departure from the Tower was imminent. He could never go back to his home dimension, sure, not without risking undoing all the team had done to put things right. But neither had he intended to stay here, surrounded by a team that wasn’t his, and who wanted so badly to have a Tony Stark back in their lives, just not this version of him. But somehow he’d consented to stay for two damn weeks, by which point he expected all of them to have worked past the immediate relief of the superficial resemblance enough to realize they could only ever make him act the part of the man they’d loved. (And hopefully by then the pitiful bursts of hope Tony got when the smallest damn things happened, like Clint smiling at him or Phil giving Tony every bit of his attention every time Tony spoke, maybe by then those would be gone too.)

Bruce’s lab, he discovered once he finally did manage to force his body out of bed and into the bowels of the Tower, exhibits even more signs of change than Tony’s own workshop had. The most obvious is the entire wing that’s devoted to medical treatment, including what looked like a souped up hospital bed, a portable X-ray, and a wall of meticulously organized paraphernalia for treating everything from chemical burns to major lacerations. Tony picked up a bottle of unnaturally green goo labelled ‘Xenmu Saliva’ in Bruce’s neat scrawl and arched an eyebrow.

“Believe it or not, it creates short-term telepathy. It’s come in handy a few times when we haven’t had access to the comms, or when I’m treating someone who’s unable to speak but can open their mouth.”

“How exactly would you test that—” Bruce laughed, a full-on belly laugh that highlighted how many more laugh lines this version of Banner had than his counterpart, and Tony was momentarily distracted enough by the combination of that sight and sound that he didn’t even register being guided onto the hospital bed. He was definitely right to guess it was souped up; the mattress was at least a Queen, and the thread count of the sheets was probably triple that of anything ever used in SHIELD medical.

“Steve was wailing on the thing and it managed to either spit or drool enough that he ingested some of it. He kept hearing all of our voices in his head and assumed he was going insane, so he didn't say anything right away. But finally on the flight home he just yells out, apropos of nothing as far as the rest of us know, ‘what the hell is a Pokemon and why do we have to catch them all? Are they some kind of threat?’ Turned out Clint had been on a major Pokemon Go kick at the time and had been thinking about it all the way home.” Tony laughed too, couldn’t not. It was exactly the kind of ridiculous bonding moment that his own version of the team had just started to have before everything had gone to hell. He was quickly brought back to the present, however, when Bruce took advantage of his distraction to lift his shirt up and poke at the still-healing wound on his abdomen. A couple days of solid rest had done the thing wonders, but a couple of the more jagged edges were still slightly inflamed. “You know, if you tell me what did this I might be able to treat it more efficiently.”

“I thought you weren't that kind of doctor.” Bruce arched a brow and made a sweeping gesture at the room around them.

“I decided it might be time to change that once it became infinitely clear that none of you fools were going to let anyone else treat anything but the most superficial scrapes and bruises. Did yours, did he never…”

“Never hung around that long, no.” The words came out in a harsh rasp, and Tony spared a moment to wonder if his voice always sounded like that these days and he just hadn’t noticed, or if talking about Bruce’s absence really cut that deep after all this time. “I thought we were talking science anyway here, Brucie-Bear. Teaching me everything I need to know to be able to pull this act off convincingly.” Bruce sighed, and then he sat down on the bed next to Tony. They weren’t touching, but he was near enough that Tony could catch a whiff of the other man’s hair product (it was the only scented thing Bruce ever wore, his fear of contaminating his work defeated only by his efforts to tame his unruly curls).

“I was hoping all of this could be more like a trade. The way it was with you and Rhodey last night.” Unconsciously at first, Tony started matching his breaths in time with Bruce’s deep, even inhalations and exhalations. It was as close as he’d ever come, in his own world, to agreeing to practice meditation with the guy, and almost against his will he felt his shoulders shift down slightly from near his ears. (Sneaky bastard.) And this Bruce knew what he was doing just as well as his counterpart had; he and Tony exchanged grins, and then Bruce made a show of taking another long, deep breath. “I know there’s information you have to have, whether you want it or not, about our Tony. But we don’t…it’s like Phil said. No one’s trying to groom you. No one wants to make you him, especially at the cost of losing everything that makes you, you. I had the privilege of knowing one version of Tony Stark, and I would very much like to get to know you too, in whatever ways you feel like you can let me right now.”

“Is the whole…being good at talking about fuzzy emotions and stuff, is that—does the orientation thing make that happen somehow?”

“It’s mostly a ‘in a polyamorous relationship with seve—six of the most complicated and emotionally constipated people in the world’ thing, actually. We learned early that we were going to rise and fall on being able to use our damn words. But I guess it’s maybe a bit of an orientation thing too; risk-aware, consensual kink, the only kind any of us want to practice, it’s ninety percent negotiation and ten percent execution.” There’s a fraught silence, and then Bruce’s knee nudges Tony’s. “Is the whole deflection thing you-specific, or some kind of symptom of your universe?”

“Bit of both, I guess. I mean I tried, sometimes, but it never—we never—I mean even you fell asleep listening to me complain about my bullshit once.” Out of nowhere, the skin near Bruce’s eyes flashed green. It was sudden, over in an instant, and accompanied by none of the other dozen or so signals that Tony needed to be getting the hell out of dodge. But it was unmistakable. “I wasn’t—it’s not like I blame you man, you’re definitely not that kind of doctor even if you do seem to have upped your skill level in this universe. Look, let’s just…can we skip the check-up and get right to the science lollipop please?”

Bruce muttered something, something that sounds suspiciously like ‘It isn’t you I’m angry at.’ But Tony made certain he was far enough away to pretend not to have heard a word.
****

Steve hadn’t meant to make a spectacle of himself at SHIELD that morning. He’d come in early for precisely that reason, to make use of their equipment long before even the most eager of recruits would begin arriving. And for a couple of glorious hours it had worked. He’d battered the reinforced heavy bags until his knuckles bled and dislocated again; then he run the devilishly tricky obstacle course (Tony’s design, of course) through four times, until his lungs burned and ached and heaved against his ribcage. It felt good, so incredibly good, to allow his body to be pressed to its limits. For just a while it let him…well, not forget about everything else that was spinning entirely out of control, but those things temporarily became smaller and more manageable when his body was busy screaming out for air or water or rest. It was glorious.

Naturally, it couldn’t last. People began to trickle in, slowly at first and then in greater numbers as word apparently got out that Captain America was tearing apart the gym. Pictures and video were, thankfully, forbidden in most areas of SHIELD HQ, a rule everyone had quickly learned to respect when Natasha and Clint had started hunting violators from the vents, stealing their phones and downloading images of their most vicious ops as warnings. So it was mostly a lot of staring and whispering at first. Then Alex, a 32 year old Dominance-oriented switch with documented ego problems and a hint of a death wish had challenged Steve to a match in the full-sized wrestling ring that dominated the centre of the room.

Steve was always careful of his strength, he had to be. He could send a regular man through a window with the equivalent force most people could use to playfully shove someone—losing control just wasn’t an option. But Alex…he played dirty. He pulled on the ropes to gain leverage during illegal holds; he pulled hair and gouged eyes; he ‘mis-aimed’ spears in ways fully intended to take advantage of the fact that Steve wasn't wearing a cup. None of it was enough to make a dent in Steve’s strength or stamina, but the kid just. Wouldn’t. Stop. Didn’t know when to give up, when to stop running his mouth, when to realize even his best efforts were more of an irritation to Steve than an actual threat.

Finally, Steve snapped. Got the kid into a modified crab hold and let the true extent of his strength turn it into something brutal enough to make the other man release a piercing scream that painted the walls of the gym. The room, filled just moments before with taunts and shouted wagers and encouragement for both sides, was suddenly silent. He released Alex as quickly as he could, and was attempting to reach out and help the other man to his feet, when a flash of red hair near one of the corners revealed Natasha, reclined across the ropes as if lying on a hammock. (Steve had long since learned to stop bothering to ask when she’d suddenly appeared somewhere without his noticing. She never answered anyway, and it gave the woman way too much satisfaction.) She made no attempt to aid Alex, and needed only one venomous stare to essentially forbid Steve from doing so either.

“What’s really a shame, Morton, is that if you had actually used your brain this might have been the one time you stood a chance against Steve Rogers. He was tired. He was distracted. He was sloppy.” Natasha leapt down onto the mat in a single, sinuous motion and strode over to stand above Alex, who was still writhing on the mat and glaring up at her through the tears in his eyes. “Next time focus less on trying to come up with a good one-liner and more on your ground attack. Tall hunks of muscle like Steve are top-heavy, and if you can make that weight work for you instead of against you…well, you might not have a shot but at least you won’t embarrass yourself. Now get your ass to medical before I decide to pick up where Cap left off.”

In what felt like seconds, the room was empty again save for Steve and Natasha. She didn’t bother with any preamble, nor did she address his takedown (assault) of Alex.

“He’s not a Dom. Or a switch. He’s not actually classified at all. His world, it didn’t…work like that.” Steve had seen Natasha work enough by now to recognize the strategy, the way she dropped the most explosive information upfront to simultaneously gain trust and knock her target off-balance. This knowledge did not make him feel any less like his world had just imploded and then been put back together wrong for the second time in three days. “I’m your second, here at SHIELD and at the team. And after he died, I never made demands of you in that capacity. Forcing you to Dom before you went into dep, making you eat and drink and spend time outside his room, all of that I did solely as your partner without ever pulling rank.” Natasha Romanov Interrogation/Negotiation Strategy #2: follow up the information-drop with a seemingly unrelated claim. How was this still so effective when it felt like he was reading it out of a playbook he already knew cover to cover? “I’m pulling it now.” #3: Make the demand. Clear, short sentences; no room for misinterpretation. “I’m swapping you in to Talia’s upcoming op. You’ll go, clear your head, get some space from the Tower. And when you get back you’ll start working with a therapist. Not that hack you hired last time because you knew he’d never push you. Someone of my choosing.”

“Natasha—”

“No. I was cautious of Stark at first, it’s my job to be. But I lost him once, and have been losing you every day since. There is nothing, nothing, I won’t do to get both of you back.” She kissed him then, hard and with enough Dominance threaded through it that his own instincts rose in challenge. But by then she was halfway out of the ring, turning to peer at him over her shoulder just long enough to add, “your flight leaves in four hours.”
****

“Let’s start with the absolute basics.” Bruce is standing at the front of a space organized as a miniaturized classroom; there are long tables serving as desks, and an honest-to-goodness whiteboard at the front, though Tony suspects his counterpart had enhanced it. He wonders what would necessitate a space like this, considers that maybe this Bruce typically works with a full laboratory staff. The thought of someone else down here, sharing Bruce’s space, hearing the way he loses all of his carefully cultivated composure when he’s really deep into something, it makes Tony oddly jealous. “You remember Rhodey telling you last night that there’s testing at 14, right? The result of that is the classification of every individual according to a single scale: the Orientation Classification System, or OCS.” Bruce waves a wrist and a chart is projected on the whiteboard. He gives Tony a moment to peruse it himself rather than holding his hand through it, which is nice.

“So it’s ranked in order of intensity? 1 being most submissive, 10 being most dominant. Switches are between 4 and 7, with their number reflecting whether they are more inclined towards dominance or submission. But how’s that measured?” Bruce makes a pinching and twisting motion with his hand, and the OCS chart is minimized.

“For a long time classification was determined entirely based on bloodwork. Certain hormones and neurochemicals spike at 14. Cortisol is by far the most important.” The stress hormone? But that’s that unique to this universe at all, Tony mused, unwilling to interrupt Bruce but feeling entirely skeptical of the ‘science’ of all of this. Bruce appeared to read some of this on his face, though, and smiled. “No, you don’t understand. Part of the reason that it’s mandatory for kids to be intensively immersed in their headspace at that point is that most of them are legally not of sound mind for months. Until they start to get a handle on what works for them, cortisol levels average around 50 micrograms per decilitre.”

Fifty? That’s—that’s—”

“Roughly triple the normal range, yes. From your reaction I’m guessing cortisol still exists in your universe, but I want to spell this out because it should help you understand why were we appalled to learn what Howard had done to our Tony. His heart could have given out from that kind of prolonged stress-response. Cortisol raises blood sugar, so he could have gone into the equivalent of a diabetic coma. His blood pressure, his ability to achieve REM sleep…best case scenario he could have…hell, he should have gone insane. Even people whose levels have stabilized, when they’re denied access to the things they need to access their headspace, they lose the will to live. Most of them stop eating and drinking within a couple of months.” Starvation and dehydration were way too recently familiar to Tony (fucking space, nothing good ever happens there), and he couldn’t quite keep back a shudder. “It's not all stress, of course, and the rise in cortisol is consistent across all orientations, so that wouldn’t actually help determine what someone's orientation was, it would just tell us that they have one. The main thing they’re looking for in those tests is levels of what are called subtonin and dominin. The relative presence of each is an accurate predictor of orientation in about eighty-five percent of cases.”

“But those hormones, I mean, what do they actually do?”

“There are dozens of potential effects, and they can vary widely from person to person. And both are referred to as ‘Domino Hormones’ because a large part of their effect is to stimulate the production or circulation of other hormones that the body wouldn’t otherwise naturally produce, at least not in high quantities, during the conditions of a scene. These include testosterone, serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, estrogen, and of course endorphins. But they also have some functions unique to them. Generally, subtonin works primarily on the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the part of the brain that—”

“Stimulates sexual desire,” Tony interrupted impatiently, yelping when Bruce picked up an eraser from one of the desks and chucked it at him.

“No interrupting, Stark. Yes, it stimulates desire and that can be sexual, but for subs it’s more than that. It activates a deep and profound desire to please others which, when achieved, brings about satisfaction that most subs describe as deeper and more meaningful than orgasm. There’s also a secondary stimulation of the amygdala, which is why submissives in or near subspace tend to be emotionally raw.”

“Ah, so subs are made out to be overemotional and needy and doms—what, lemme guess. Dominin makes them sexually aggressive and unable to control themselves, right?” Bruce, who has heard some of the most outrageous of Tony’s behaviour and never so much as batted an eyelash, looks at him like he’s out of his entire damn mind. “Uh…it’s possible I was mapping some bullshit stereotypes from my universe onto yours.”

“I’ll say,” Bruce agreed wryly. “And it’s especially ironic given that if anything you have things backwards. Things are essentially reversed for Dominants; Dominin works by hyper-stimulating the amygdala. Dominants are incredibly sensitive to the emotional and physical status of their partners; in headspace, they are almost single-mindedly obsessed with providing their subs with whatever they need.” Tony blinked, casting around for the little terminology he knew from his time experimenting in the scene.

“So all the Doms here are…what, service Doms?” Again, Bruce laughed, the motion sending a bit of hair flying forward. For just a second, Tony ached to brush it away, which was weird. Had it really only taken one day of this version of the team being touchy-feely with him (before they’d found out who he was and how he was different from them, he reminded himself) to make him start to crave their brand of seemingly casual affection?

“Not at all. Kinks and interests here vary as much as I would imagine they do in your world. If a Dom is with a sub who needs or desires heavy pain play or orgasm denial then providing that is just as comforting to their instincts as praise or body worship—with some exceptions, of course. Everyone has their own limits, and if something is too far outside of a Dom’s personal interests then they mostly aren’t going to be fulfilled by providing it. But dominin does mean that non-consensual violence by dominants towards submissives, especially when both are in headspace, is virtually non-existent. A Dom has to fight back all of their most basic instincts to do it, so most of them couldn’t manage it, even if they wanted to for some bizarre reason. Scenes can still go wrong, of course, things happen, but it’s exceedingly rare for a Dominant to cause intentional, non-consensual damage to a submissive.”

He and Bruce talked for a couple more hours after that. Bruce discussed switches (who made up most of the population, and who, Bruce stressed, were not essentially baseline; they needed elements of both Dominance and submission intensely); he detailed the ways in which Orientation testing had shifted in recent years to allow for social factors to also play a role; and he noted some of the biological and anatomical impacts of orientation (submissives, for instance, had knee-joints with enhanced flexibility that made it possible for them to kneel for long periods with no negative effects). The latter made Tony’s mind flash back to a purple pillow on the floor of the penthouse living room, and he grinned.

“So wait, that purple thing yesterday, that was for me, wasn’t it? I was supposed to kneel at your feet?” Bruce didn’t smile. He didn’t laugh at their cultural incongruences the way he had been all day. For just a few seconds, he was visibly and totally wrecked, his grief for Phony (ugh, that was starting to sound callous even to him—Stark Mark 2, maybe?) an almost palpable thing. Tony stood, frozen, trying to determine whether leaving Bruce alone with his sorrow or trying, somehow, to comfort him was the best way forward. Ultimately, he edged closer to the other man and took a long, deliberate inhalation, definitely loud enough to be audible to Bruce’s enhanced senses. Then, as they locked eyes, he released it. Bruce smiled, bittersweet and pained, but still a smile as he joined Tony on the next set, and they stood there and breathed together until Bruce could manage to speak again.

“You have to understand. Our Tony, he wasn’t just a submissive, he was…well, it’s called a True orientation. It means a sub at level 1 or a Dom at level 10. There’s a lot of…well, mythos, for lack of a better term, around Trues. It’s partly because they’re rare, but it’s also because they’re special. Their bodies and their brains need their headspaces, moreso than anyone else, and ideally they need partners classified at the same level. Most Trues partner off together and spent all or most of their time in their headspaces.

Tony, our Tony…he was a 1. And the last thing he would have ever wanted was to be in subspace all the time. But in order for him to be stable, to get what he needed, we had to find ways to integrate his submission into his daily life. Part of that was ensuring that he had frequent opportunities to spend time kneeling when he was in the common areas with other members of the team. It was…it was a special time, for all of us.” Bruce cleared his throat as if he were choking back tears.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t, I—” How could Tony begin to apologize for mocking something that was clearly so special to Bruce and to all of them? Let alone begin making up for the fact that he will only ever be able to play at being that man for them?

“You have nothing to apologize for. We’re the ones who assumed instead of asking you what you needed. However, I don’t think any of us plan on making that mistake with you again, Tony. So take in all the information you can during these sessions, learn to play the game the way you’ll unfortunately need to. But you’ll need to start thinking, too, about what it is you do need, what will make you as happy and fulfilled as you can be here. I can’t think of anyone here who wouldn’t give you just about anything.” And there was very little Tony could possibly say to that, but thankfully Bruce didn’t seem to expect a reply. He reached out and touched Tony for the first time since his brief exam, just a clasp of the shoulder, long fingers lingering over the slightly jutting bones there, a small frown pulling at his lips. (Always the Doctor, Bruce.) “I think we both have a lot to think about. I’ll see you later Tony, alright?”

On one hand, Bruce leaving felt like a decidedly undesirable option. They had barely scratched the surface of the science-ing to be done here, for one. Tony still didn’t know why everyone had been so pissed at Cap for the tone of voice he’d used to speak to Tony—this Dominance stuff couldn’t really be transmitted that way, could it? And they hadn’t even really gotten into much comparative discussion, like did orientation the way it was meant in Tony’s world mean nothing here? Was gender a factor anyone cared about at all when selecting a partner?

But in the end, Tony nodded and watched Bruce exit the lab. Because, as usual, the man was right—Tony did already have a lot to think about.

Chapter Text

Tony wasn’t entirely sure what he had expected out of a meeting with two world-renowned spies. For the most part, his own versions of Natasha and Clint had kept to themselves; Natasha had more than once requested highly specific alterations to her tac suit and weaponry while refusing to give Tony any insight into their intended purpose. And Clint, hell, Clint had had an entire life that no one but Nat had ever been given access to until there had been no other option. The only times he had really known what either of them was doing was when he had been fighting right alongside them. (Yet another thing he would have changed if he’d been able to use time travel for anything but the most immediately relevant purposes. He would have fought for greater integration between Clint and Nat’s work with SHIELD and on the Avengers Initiative, so that their loyalties and attention hadn’t been so piecemeal.)

His umpteenth post-mortem of the team drew to a sudden and unexpected close when he limped into the kitchen to find Clint throwing bright orange popcorn in the air for Natasha to catch in her mouth. That scene alone was odd enough, but when he took advantage of their distraction to peer around the room, it got weirder. Because there was nothing weird. No kinky sex equipment he did or didn’t recognize, no implements designed for punishment, not even the kneeling pillow they’d had out for him the other morning. And in by far the oddest development of all? Clint breaking into a huge grin when he laid eyes on Tony. It wasn’t the first time, but it never ceased to get less strange.

“Hey, you’re up! There’s coffee in the press, that shit that tastes like dirt that Bruce says you still love—”

“Earthiness is next to coffee godliness, Barton,” he snapped back. Even though he suspected he was filling in some well-worn lines of Mark II’s, it was damn true; nothing lingered on the tongue and paired perfectly with almost every breakfast food as the Sumatran roast he knew Clint was talking about.

“I’ll get your coffee, and I’ll even text Phil to bring up the gluten-free bagels I’m positive he snuck out of the Tower for this morning, if you tell me us why you’re limping and what it is you’re looking for.” So Natasha was still annoyingly observant—the consistency was oddly comforting in the face of so many upsets of his expectations. Though his version never would have offered Tony a trade; she would have continued watching and learning in silence until she had the intel she need, then clobbered him with it. (Fuck, it was so much harder being around these two than it had been to be with Bruce the day before. The latter’s only real crime had been his absence. These two…how was he supposed to stop seeing their uncanny counterparts with the same faces, the same mannerisms, who had lived with him and fought with him and still never really cared for Tony at all, not until the end when it had been too damn late…)

“I’ll get my own coffee.”

To their credit, the Spy Twins took the rejection well; by the time he got back they had turned on the television, presumably to cut down on the awkward silence, and they had made ample room for Tony at the end of the couch rather than forcing him to choose between filling the space between them or sitting across the room. And Phil still came up with bagels less than five minutes later. Agent was dressed down today, in jeans and deep green thermal. (Had he ever seen his Phil out of a suit?)

“Steve’s going to be out of town dealing with that business with the UN for a few days. But eventually he is going notice that you still haven’t submitted paperwork from that mess in Pakistan, Clint.” Clint groaned and then made a show of turning his hearing aids down and shouting,

“WHAT?” at increasingly loud volumes. Natasha didn’t even pause before breaking into a series of hand gestures that even Tony’s relatively untrained eye could recognize as fluent sign language, and their bickering formed a relatively amusing spoken and gestural accompaniment to the meal.

“How was your day yesterday, Tony?”

“It was fine, Agent Agent. Brucie remains endlessly fascinating, and it was reassuring to get confirmation that there is actually some scientific basis for everything that’s…er, going on here. So what’s the plan for today? Do we get to wear matching super-spy outfits? Will I finally find out what happened in Budapest?” For a second Coulson’s eyes sparked with something like mischief, but it was gone long before Tony could decide if it had been there at all.

“We’re already on step one of the plan for the day, Tony; we’re watching television. Admittedly, it would be a lot more useful as an exercise if these fools had explained, and if they would kindly desist with the chatter before I’m forced to write them both up.” Clint grinned and mimed zipping his mouth closed, but Natasha cocked her head and stared at Coulson, who cleared his throat and stood, beginning to clear their dishes.

“You want to kneel for a bit while we do that, Phil? You seem like you’re wound pretty tight.” Agent actually blushed, darting a glance over to Tony and then back at Natasha.

“That’s not—Tony didn’t consent to—and we’re—I’m fine.”

“Tony’s job today is to observe. We’re mainly going to use TV for that, because we can’t go outside so it’s the closest we can get to an on-the-ground view of everyday life. Try to pay particular attention to social norms or everyday things in the programming or even in ads that aren’t the same as your universe, Tony; it’ll give us a clearer idea of where we’ll need to devote the most time when you’re closer to needing to perform this role for real.” Watching TV felt weirdly anticlimactic given what Tony had come into the room expecting, but the logic behind the decision was sound; it was the same way recent migrants often learned the language of their new countries, after all, and orientation was essentially a new embodied language for him. And it was definitely preferable to Nat pulling out a whip or something. He nodded in acknowledgement, but couldn’t keep his eyes off of Phil, who was frozen in place, staring between Natasha and the plates in his hand. “However, in addition to needing a sense of how orientation in general functions, you’ll also have to get acclimated to the specific dynamics of the Tower. No one’s going to be explicitly sexual in front of you, Tony, and if there’s anything you’re ever uncomfortable witnessing you can always say so. But orientation…it really does effect most every aspect of our lives. There are things we need to stay well and safe and fulfilled, and it’s not realistic or sustainable in the long term to confine them only to private bedrooms.”

Maybe it was weird. And maybe (probably) Tony would come to regret this decision someday. But right now the very last thing he wanted was for yet another version of his team (especially these particular people) to hide themselves away from him and call it kindness.

“Agreed.” Natasha nodded and then stood, sliding the plates from Phil’s hands and shoving them at Clint.

“Phil is a cat-4 switch, which means he’s heavily inclined toward submission. I think he needs to spend some time in at least a shallow form of headspace this morning, so I’m going to put him there and care for him. While he’s down I’m going to ask that you not direct any questions to him, but you’re welcome to observe what we’re doing and ask myself or Clint anything you’d like.”

“Safeword,” Phil murmured. The usual crispness of his constants was noticeably smoother, Tony noted in surprise. It was the first real-world evidence he’d seen to support any of what Bruce had said yesterday, and of all of them he’d certainly never expected to see it from Coulson, who had never struck him as anything less than in control a hundred percent of the time.

“Yes, pet, I’ll make sure to get Tony set up with a safeword before we proceed any further. But that’s not your job to worry about right now, is it?”

“No ma’am,” Coulson replied at once, without a hint of irony or even playfulness.

“Go get me your kneeling pillow, collar, and the box.”

Once Coulson had murmured his assent and departed for his own floor, the questions fell from Tony’s lips before he could even consider whether he was truly welcome to be asking them.

“Bruce says cortisol really impacts orientation here. How could you tell the difference between him needing to submit and him just having a shitty day at the office? They’d all manifest as stress symptoms, wouldn’t they?” Natasha smiled, leaning over to refill Tony’s coffee from the press he’d brought with him while she considered the question.

“There are signs. You can learn someone’s orientational tells the same way you can any other form of body language and behaviour. Coulson’s general response to stress, particularly at work, is to become calmer and hyper-competent. He manages, he manipulates, he handles until the situation is back to where he wishes it to be. His movements are precise, his every word chosen carefully. This morning he was short-tempered. He snapped at Clint and I over the same crap we pull every day. He ordered me an egg-white and turkey bacon breakfast wrap when I asked for sausage. And he didn’t notice that you had barely eaten any of your bagel when he reached for your plate.”

Tony didn’t offer an explanation for his erratic appetite, which these days was a constant battleground between his body’s visceral, frantic desire to never experience real starvation again and his much longer history with struggling to eat during periods of stress. Natasha didn’t say more on the topic either.

“But the truth it’s not always easy to tell the difference. Sometimes we make mistakes. And the water is muddied further by the fact that regardless of the source of a person’s stress, going into a healthy and safe headspace is usually the first suggested method for managing it.”

“I guess I just never would have expected Coulson to need, well. This.”

“Yeah, Bruce mentioned you had a few misguided ideas about how sexism and orientational discrimination might intersect,” Natasha said. Her voice was oddly gentle, not a hint of anger even though what Tony was implying was probably considered deeply offensive. “It’s not all hearts and flowers over here, but you have to realize that about 70 percent of the population requires some degree of submission in their lives to function properly. It’s not considered a weakness. Arrangements like ours, where a Dom or dominant-inclined Switch works directly under their sub or sub-inclined Switch during the day might be more rare, but still no one would ever question Phil’s ability to do his job simply because he needs to be at our feet sometimes.”

Since arriving here Tony had rarely had cause to feel jealous, at least not of the D/s stuff. Mostly it sounded like an incredible amount of work, not to mention the unfathomable level of trust something like that would require to function properly. But there was nothing but complete admiration and love in Natasha’s voice as she spoke about Phil. No judgement, no superiority, no condescension. Not even that air of secrecy that he had always figured was just a permanent aspect of her voice. For just a moment he couldn’t stop the surge of jealousy that accompanied the realization that maybe they’d truly felt that way about the other version of him, too.
****

“I went to the Dom as promised. The shrink has the paperwork to prove it. So if this is some kind of babysitting exercise it’s really not necessary, Director.”

Between Talia’s hostility and the fact that Steve always forgot how much a part of him would always hate flying until he was in the air, he was really starting to agree with her that he should have stayed home. He gripped the leather armrest of his seat harder, grateful at least that it was a private plane. SHIELD had a policy (Steve himself had instated) of not sending out proprietary tech like quinjets on inter-agency missions—it just tended to cause too many headaches—but Tony had purchased more than one private jet and ‘donated’ it to SHIELD, claiming that Steve had faced enough of the horrors of the new century and did not need to be subjected to coach.

“If anyone here is being babysit it’s me, Talia. Though I’m glad to hear you visited a Dom.” And it was true. The woman was definitely still pissed, eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed, but the painfully tight, strained look her features always started to take on after too long without subspace was gone. She knew it, too, because she didn’t even bother arguing with Steve beyond a soft snort, and the woman was the type to claim the sky was purple and not blue just for the sake of it.

“What could you possibly need babysitting for?” she wondered aloud. “Does this have something to do with what happened with Morton? Because that twit has had it coming since his first day on base, there’s really no reason to lose sleep over it, Sir.” Steve restrained a smile, though just barely, at the easy way Talia offered the honorific. It was another solid indicator that her time in subspace had affected her for the better.

“I’m just…having some issues managing stress. Sometimes fieldwork is the best way for me to work through that energy so that I don’t take it out on junior agents who, while they may need a bit of an attitude adjustment, do not deserve to have their legs almost torn off.” Talia just smirked and lounged extravagantly in her seat.

Though Steve continued to reject all of the junior agent’s attempts to pry into his personal life, the flight was still faster and more pleasant than he would have anticipated. It was a relief to be around someone who had no affiliation with the Avengers, someone who neither knew nor cared what was going on in the Tower. Usually he appreciated the way that the team was so utterly encompassing. At the beginning when he’d had nothing else he had welcomed the way their strong personalities and wide mix of needs, preferences, and interests formed a such an enveloping web around themselves. Team, family, friends—they sustained one another in every possible way; Steve could, and often had, gone days without leaving the Tower or speaking to anyone else except for his morning runs. (It had been another reason he and Tony had struggled with one another at first; of all of them, Tony had had the richest and most involved life outside of the Avengers, and Steve had come to realize that he had initially feared and resented that, frightened to need to Tony in ways that he didn’t seem able or willing to reciprocate.) But when the team was under stress from within, that same pleasantly overwhelming quality could morph into something else entirely, a suffocating and paralyzing thing that only heightened Steve’s tendencies to dwell and obsess.

By the time they landed in Uganda, he was in better spirits, grateful for his work and for his team, who knew better than even Steve did sometimes when he needed to be held close and when he needed to be pushed away.

While the peacekeeping efforts were officially being led by the UN, it became clear very quickly that the small force from Wakanda was effectively in command. This not only made sense, given that they were tracking a band of rebel troops who had stolen loaned Wakandan technology and were attempting to sell it on the black market, it also meant that Steve mostly got to stand back and listen rather than stepping into a leadership role himself. Again, not his usual preference, but right now taking orders instead of giving them felt like a godsend.

And if one was going to take orders from anyone, General Masdee Zabu was an excellent choice. Steve had worked with her only once before, during an Avengers mission that had spanned several continents and nearly six months, requiring external support from a number of agencies. She’d led the Wakandan team into battle with such deadly precision that Steve had initially assumed her to be a new member of the dora milaje. While this had turned out not to be the case, she was still someone Steve counted as among SHIELD and the UN’s most trusted and valuable allies. He sat down at the front of the tent they had all gathered in with a wave, which Masdee returned with a stiff nod before gesturing toward digital projections of two young men. They looked to be no older than thirty, features nearly identical down to an elaborate series of piercings and markings that wrapped up the left sides of their necks.

“The men we believe to be in charge of the rebel force are Kaikara and Ochen Ssenjovu, brothers. Those who are with them seek only financial gain, but investigation has revealed that these men may have more personal reasons for betraying their country’s agreement with Wakanda. We suspect they were initially not twins but triplets. The man we believe to be their brother died just prior to Wakanda revealing itself to the world, and of a condition that our country likely would have been able to treat. Our intelligence suggests that since learning of Wakanda’s true status, Ochen in particular has been seeking an opportunity for revenge.”

“I know she’s very well protected, but has someone warned the Princess and the dora?” Talia asked. Masdee turned to face Steve’s agent with her usual mix of grace and intensity. Her silence was the only indication she gave that Talia should continue speaking, which she did after a few seconds’ pause. “I just…if they blame Wakanda for not offering up their medical technology, Princess Shuri is the face of those advancements. Maybe the sale of the weapons is a ruse, a distraction from something bigger.” Masdee exchanged several tense words with one of her captains (C’Chemi, if he recalled correctly—she’d saved Clint’s life once, when he’d performed another of his heart-stopping dives off of a massive piece of scaffoling.) Then she turned back to Talia.

“We thank you for your insights, and your concern for the Princess. She is, as you have said, quite well protected, but The King will nonetheless appreciate being warned of this new potential threat. You have done well.”

It was only his years of training that stopped Steve from visibly wincing. Dynamic interactions in Wakanda functioned differently, especially in the military. While in North America it was strictly illegal for orientation-based communication to become intentionally involved in professional interactions (an attempt to eliminate any potential for workplace abuses), in Wakanda it was perfectly natural for military leadership to use Dominance in their interactions with their subordinates. They found that it encouraged loyalty, troop cohesion, and performance. And this did not mean leadership positions were limited to those classified as Dominants, or lower-level positions to those classified as submissives. Over the years Wakanda had developed methods for cross-training; the biological classification of their troops was never erased, but their practices influenced and enhanced the social aspects of orientation enough that Wakandan soldiers could serve in whatever capacity was required of their position without risking their health. (Trans-oriented activists were thrilled by the program, and eagerly awaited the day when Wakanda would release more information about its specifics.)

Masdee, however, was not cross-trained. She was a born cat-9 Dominant who was unused to needing to prevent her extremely powerful Dominance from being woven into her praise. And even if Talia knew from briefing packets that this might be the case, it was an entirely different thing to encounter it in person. Steve was sure the only reason she wasn’t already screaming at the General was the control and stability that her recent weekend session had given her.

So to say that Steve was surprised when his eyes fell upon his agent and found a delicate blush painting the tips of her cheekbones…that would be rather an understatement.
****

The TV-watching exercise, Tony had to admit, was pretty informative. It conveyed so much about the casual, everyday ways that orientation influenced life in this universe, things he would never have even thought to ask. Like how bed frames tended to be made differently to accommodate a partner that was frequently kneeling or held in some degree of bondage. Or the way that collars held far more importance as symbolic jewelry than engagement or marriage bands, though both did exist. (But it was still rare and considered pretty gauche for the everyday versions of collars to be elaborate or visibly expensive.) And there was definitely a lot to what Bruce had said yesterday about Trues being put up on an almost creepy pedestal. They were the subjects of endless fascination on any kind of dramatic programming like soap operas, and the idea of a True bond was used to sell everything from kitchenware to luxury vacations. (“No matter what some chart says, she’ll always be your True love.” Blegh.)

Mostly, though, Tony watched Phil and Natasha. He tried not to be overly obvious about it. The last thing he wanted was to make either of them feel like he was staring in a bad kind of way. Because honestly, there was something kind of beautiful about them.

Phil had returned to the penthouse with all of the items Natasha had requested. In seconds he’d been kneeling on the pillow, a warm brown collar wrapped around his throat. Then Natasha had opened the ornately carved wooden box she’d asked for and retrieved a handful of what looked to be metal spheres. They were just slightly smaller in circumference than a standard watch face, but Natasha’s hand dipped under their weight in such a way that suggested they were quite heavy. (That ruled out silver and steel, then, unless the latter was heavily reinforced with something. Maybe adamantium?) She had looked at Coulson in askance.

“Three, ma’am.” She’d kept the request number of spheres, slid the others back into the box, and then placed the remaining ones into Coulson’s cupped palms with a reverant, ritualistic air. Clint watched avidly, and occasionally reached out to toy with the collar around Coulson’s neck, but otherwise remained silent.

“Ask me.”

“May I place my burdens in your hands for safe-keeping, ma’am? So that I may be committed and focused on nothing but my submission to you?” Coulson’s voice, his endlessly steady, bordering-on-robotic voice, was trembling with meaning as he asked the questions he’d so obviously asked numerous times before. It had felt like the right thing, then, to turn away, but Tony just couldn’t force himself to tear his eyes from the scene. For as gentle and soft and vulnerable as Phil appeared in this moment, Natasha was doubly so, her usually inscrutable expression an easily-readable palette of affection and warmth and comfort.

“You may.” Then, one by one, Phil had offered up each of the spheres into Natasha’s hands, each with a word or phrase that signalled which topic they represented.

“Steve’s mission. There’s something we’re not seeing yet.” Each time, Natasha’s reply was the same.

“This is mine to hold for now.”

“The Avengers. Things have been too quiet lately.”

“This is mine to hold for now.”

Before he’d delivered the last of his worries into Natasha’s hands for safe-keeping, Phil had hesitated. Not for long, but enough of a break from the almost musical rhythm of the exchange to be noticeable; quickly, Tony had attempted to feign interest in the medical drama playing out on the screen in front of him.

“Tony.” He didn’t add more than that, didn’t even clarify which Tony he was speaking of. But Tony could hardly even pretend to keep his gaze averted after that, which meant that he met Natasha’s weighty stare head-on as she answered in a near-whisper.

“This is mine to hold for now.”

 

Chapter Text

When the rest of the team began streaming into the penthouse for dinner by what seemed to be an unspoken agreement, Tony almost resented them for it at first. Far from what he’d expected, his afternoon with Natasha, Clint and Phil had been the calmest and most relaxed he could remember being in…well, years, probably. Thanos had weighed on his mind since the first attack in New York, staining even his best days with the sickly hues of hopeless anxiety that came from knowing with complete certainty that disaster was coming while being unable to convince anyone else to take the threat seriously. (Out of everything, that might have been the hardest thing to forgive his Steve for. Not even Siberia had been as great a betrayal as Steve’s almost glib insistence that the team would handle the threat of Thanos ‘together’ only for them all to refuse to help Tony prepare in any material way before the threat was already on their doorstep.)

With the abrupt release from that particular burden truly beginning to sink in, combined with the experience of witnessing Phil and Natasha interact in subspace…it had been as close as Tony would probably ever get (sorry, Bruce) to anything resembling meditation. The four of them—well, mostly three, Phil had mostly been pretty quiet—had talked and joked through several soap operas, the local news, a kid’s movie (which had been a great chance to witness how the non-sexual aspects of orientation were represented in this universe), plus a beer commercial that had triggered a detour through several other memorable ads on YouTube. Tony hadn’t been brave enough to ask any more questions about the team’s dynamic directly, but he’d learned a lot from the low-pressure task of just watching. Far from the usual hell it was to try to draw information out of either of them, Natasha and Clint had been free with their explanations and encouragement. Even when Tony had managed to completely misread things—like when he’d been sure the switch on a soap opera would end up being a villain simply for displaying both Dom and subbish traits—they’d been gentle in their corrections, and genuinely interested in where some of his assumptions came from.

The problem was that it was a lot easier to take in information about this universe than offer any about his own, even the seemingly innocuous stuff. Nat and Clint had been generally willing to accept that without a lot of pushing; Tony could barely remember what all he'd babbled to Rhodey his first night here, but the team did seem to have a general idea that his version of the Avengers had not been able to pull off the happy-family shtick they did here.

So it made sense, in a way, that Bruce was the one to start nudging gently at the thick, heavy walls Tony had put around himself, keeping almost every one of the other team members at a safe distance. And it started harmlessly enough. Natasha had been offering Phil, who had come up a bit since the afternoon but was still not quite at baseline (at least from what Tony could tell) bites of pasta off her own plate, while Rhodey scooped a heaping serving onto Pepper’s plate, ignoring her half-hearted protestations.

“So the food thing…is that a reliable indicator of someone’s orientation or headspace, especially if they're a switch?” he’d asked. They’d all appeared somewhat stunned by the question, so he’d launched into a babbled explanation of his half-formed thought. “It’s just…everyone who’s serving right now is a Dom, aren’t they, or a switch in a Dommish kind of headspace? And everyone who’s being served is submissive-leaning. Coincidence, or one of those times where I’m getting it horribly wrong again? Natasha this is the part where you smoothly jump in if I’m bungling it, you made an oath over cheesy popcorn and there is nothing more sacred.” Someone should have been rolling their eyes by now, or telling Tony to shut up. Instead the smile Nat bestowed on him appeared almost fond.

“Well since a snack food oath was made I should probably tell you that you’re not wrong, Tony, just picking up on something that was probably happening unconsciously.” She peered thoughtfully around the table at the configurations of people and food. “Food can be reflective of headspace, yes, but it’s not a sure enough thing to rely on as a major tell. For instance, Rhodes is feeding Pepper right now, which could be because she’s a sub and he’s a Dom. It might also be because Pepper loves Italian food but always worries about making sure the enhanced people in the Tower get as much as they need, so she never takes as much as she actually wants on the first round.” Pepper flushed, which always highlighted the cluster of freckles just under her left cheekbone. No matter the universe, it was one of Tony’s favourite looks on her, so he had grinned and stuck a piece of his garlic bread on her plate with an exaggerated wink.

“It’s also a regional thing, to a certain extent,” Rhodey added, filling up his own plate and plopping down next to Tony. “Food is a huge aspect of most Southern dynamics. It matters everywhere, of course, but in the South it’s one of the most fundamental ways Doms or switches in dominant headspace demonstrate care and affection. My Mama is a Dom and Pop is a submission-inclined switch. If he tried to prepare or cook his own food I think she might cane him on the spot.”

Whether from embarrassment about having her love-affair with Italian food exposed, or for some other reason, Pepper had quickly shifted the conversation at that point, and Tony had considered the matter dropped until he’d been in the kitchen loading the dishwasher.

“Question for a question, Tony? Is our data trading system still active outside the labs?” Bruce, Tony would later reflect, might be the most dangerous one here. One expected subterfuge and sneak-attacks from the likes of Nat or Clint or Phil. But this version of Bruce, who had all the piercing brilliance of the Banner in Tony’s own universe combined with what seemed like either heightened emotional intelligence or just the confidence to use it…he could lead you right into a trap and have you smiling the whole way there.

“Course, Bruciekins.”

“Are you under-eating because you feel like we’re trying to express Dominance over you by providing it? Or is something else going on?” Bruce had waited to ask the question until Tony’s plate, which was still just over half-full, was in his hands. Denying it would have been beyond pointless, and Tony didn’t bother.

“Food’s just…complicated.”

“It often is. It’s just that this,” he gestured at the plate in Tony’s hands, “doesn’t seem consistent with the pattern of self-neglect I was familiar with when it came to our Tony. He often forgot to eat when he was down in the shop, but if there was food shoved in front of him he’d eat like he was starving.” (Food and water ran out…four days ago.) Tony shuddered with enough violence that some of the penne slid off the dish and onto the floor with a wet thwap. The worst part about all of it was that Tony couldn’t decide between being pissed at Bruce for prying or pleased, maybe even relieved, that he’d bothered to notice. (Pathetic, Stark, really.) “Not ready to talk about it?”

“Nope.” He had popped the ‘p,’ just to be obnoxious, and Bruce gave him what was undoubtedly a pity-smile.

“That’s alright. Can I have your permission to try some things over the next few days, to get a handle on what you might need with food? Not as a Dominant—okay, to be a hundred percent transparent I’m sure it would soothe those instincts too—but mostly just as a friend and a doctor who isn’t wild about how ragged you’re looking?”

Tony had agreed (because what else could he do, really, standing there with his sad floor-pasta and trying desperately not to remember what it had been to truly starve.) Then he’d gotten the hell out of Dodge, avoiding being alone with Bruce the rest of the evening and heading to bed as early as seemed plausible.

“Jay, security footage from the penthouse living room please.” It had occurred to him afterward that JARVIS probably could have refused his request to spy on the team, especially given that from what he had surmised they were now the legal owners of the Tower itself. But his AI had brought up a holo-screen without hesitation, or even his usual commentary.

“What the hell did you do?” This was Clint as Tony remembered him from his own universe: thrumming with impatient, angry energy that so perfectly mirrored the tension in a drawn bowstring. Except this version of Clint was somehow not directing that rage at Tony, but rather on his behalf. “Things went so well today! And then you spend two minutes alone with him and—”

“I needed information about his food intake, Clint.”

“Now? Really, Doc? You couldn’t wait one damn day—”

“No,” Bruce said, calm but decisive. “I couldn’t. I’m willing to wait until Tony is ready to share most things with us, but there’s been days where I would bet his caloric intake has been under half of what he needs. And yet other times he’s seemed almost desperate to eat what’s in front of him. I can’t figure out the pattern on my own, Clint, not without more information, and I have to. I have to figure it out because he’s so fucking thin and I can’t, I can’t lose him again.” By the end, Bruce’s calm had evaporated, the grief they all tried to keep hidden from Tony suddenly so raw and exposed that even watching the footage felt like a profound violation.

“Shut the feed down, Jay.”
****

In the hours that followed Steve and Talia’s arrival, things moved quickly but in largely opposing directions. The UN troops were unwilling to risk the security of the region entirely on Talia’s suspicion that the arms deal was likely a ruse. No one could argue the validity of that concern; not only was Talia a junior operative who was largely unfamiliar with the region, but the release of Wakandan technology onto the black market could easily destabilize a nation that had just recently achieved peace after a brutal civil war. They were determined to follow up on the original intel, which placed the Ssenjovu brothers and their small forces just outside of the capital city of Kampala. The area was hilly and at a high elevation, both of which would make stealth movement a challenge, and the troop leader was eager to depart as soon as possible.

The Wakandans, meanwhile, were now far less interested in the loss of their weaponry than they were in the potential threat the brothers posed to the Princess Shuri. Masdee had made contact with T’Challa, shortly after their initial meeting. The latter had been quietly incensed in a way that Steve had never before witnessed; it reminded him of Bucky’s protectiveness over his own sisters when they were children, nearly leading him to smile at what would have been a highly inappropriate moment. Despite his sister’s vocal and—judging from the reaction of her brother and mother—highly un-Princess like response, T’Challa ordered the Wakandan contingent to return to their country to coordinate Shuri’s protection and the hopeful capture of the Ssenjovu brothers with the dora milaje.

The natural decision would have been for Steve (and therefore Talia, who was here primarily to shadow and learn from him) to join the UN forces. While they enjoyed a friendly relationship, SHIELD had no real jurisdiction in Wakanda. It made the most sense for them to proceed as if the arms deal might still happen, and then return to the US if (when, Steve privately felt) nothing came of the matter. And it was certainly not as if Wakanda really required their assistance; when it came to something as important to the nation as protecting the Princess, Steve was sure any outsiders would be superfluous at best. It was just, well…

“With all due respect, Princess Shuri, and that’s not a bullshit thing that’s a for real I think you’re pretty incredible and would kind of like an autograph when this is all over thing.”

“I like her,” declared Shuri’s voice over the video-chat, just as youthful and irreverent as Steve remembered. “Brother, may I keep her?” T”Challa said something off-screen that made Shuri roll her eyes and mutter something about broken white boys. “Keep talking, snarky white girl.” Talia grinned.

“Whatever your brother’s motivations are, ours don’t come from overprotection. They come from strategy. And there’s just no strategic value to using you as bait this early in the op. If these guys turn out to be nothing but low-level terrorists getting by on a half-baked plan and some luck, then it’s beneath you to be involved.” Shuri appeared to take this analysis seriously; the nearly half a minute she took to consider it was the longest Steve had seen her quiet during the course of the conversation.

“And if the matter isn’t resolved before the exhibition? Then we do it my way?” Talia wanted to agree, Steve could almost feel how badly. Shuri, a genius and a submissive-leaning switch, was somewhat of a personal hero of hers, and the chance to both please her and get the chance to attend the upcoming exhibit of medical and communications technology being hosted by Wakanda? It bordered on cruelty to put Talia in such a position in the first place. His agent squared her shoulders, took a long, deep breath. Then she looked over to Masdee, who answered the show of deference with a rare, teeth-baring smile.

“Any further actions will be negotiated as they are required, Princess. I suggest that we not get ahead of ourselves.”

For what felt like a long time after the video-call ended, Steve simply watched. To most observers it wouldn’t appear that there was much to bother noting. Masdee was consulting with C’Chemi about the likelihood of T’Challa ever green-lighting Shuri’s proposal to use the exhibition, and herself, to draw the brothers in; Talia remained tucked into the same corner of the tent she’d been in most of the morning, reviewing the thin files containing all the confirmed intel they had on Kaikara and Ochen Ssenjovu. She and Masdee didn’t exchange longing stares or find transparent reasons to interact with one another. There simply hadn’t been enough time for that kind of bond to develop, and if Steve and Talia left within the next few hours with the UN team, nothing was ever likely to come of any of the hints of chemistry that seemed to exist between them.

His agent was, however, visibly flourishing in Masdee’s company. Steve had seen hints of this side of Talia—dilligent, eager to please, respectful—but usually only for minutes or even seconds at a time, buried as those traits tended to be under displays of defensive posturing. Masdee, though, drew these things from Talia seemingly without effort or thought. Even in the face of legitimate temptation to do otherwise, Talia had respected Masdee’s authority over how matters would proceed in Wakanda. She’d been visibly pleased, twice now, to receive verbal or non-verbal praise. And unlike at SHIELD, where such behaviours often accompanied by a visible internal struggle on Talia’s part, she appeared utterly at ease with herself. She may, Steve realized, have even been smiling slightly as she thumbed through what he knew to be a thoroughly depressing account of Kaikara and Ochen’s childhoods.

Steve had hoped, maybe even been sure enough of it to assume, that with enough time and mentorship Talia would reach this level of confidence and comfort in her own skin within SHIELD. And perhaps that was still true. Would it be worth the struggle and distress it would almost assuredly cause Talia when there was an option that seemed so much more organic and simple for her, though?

“General Zabu, may I interrupt?” Much like Coulson, Masdee always gave her full attention to anything or anyone she regarded as worth it, to the point where it was almost unnerving. It took effort, and reliance on his military training, for Steve not to squirm under the weight of her assessment. “Princess Shuri, as well as her brother and the nation of Wakanda, have always been fierce and valuable allies to SHIELD and the Avengers. With your permission, I would like for myself and my agent to accompany your forces back to Wakanda to see this thing through. We would, of course, be under your command and abide by your orders.”

The latter wasn’t an assurance Masdee needed; discipline and chain of command had never been an issue during any of Steve’s interactions with Wakandan forces. (Well, the UN had had…issues with accepting the truth of Wakanda’s power and influence once they’d revealed themselves to the world, but SHIELD had always stood firmly against them on that matter, and they’d folded quickly once they’d realized how much Wakanda was truly willing to offer to the global community.) The statement was a warning aimed primarily at Talia, who could easily damage her career and reputation forever if the shine of her flirtation with Masdee wore off and she returned to her usual combination of insubordination and defiance.

“That would be acceptable to us, Captain Rogers.”

The smile that curved Talia’s lips was no longer an ambiguous one. It was the first time she’d appeared truly hopeful in all the time Steve had known her.
****

Actually falling asleep had required hours worth of reading on JARVIS’s part (they’d moved on from JARVIS sharing innocuous world news to his reading Tony a novel the evening prior, and it was working pretty well), but Tony had, eventually, managed it. This meant he was particularly pissed off to be woken what felt like only minutes later by having the covers ripped away, exposing him to the cool night air.

“Noooo Dummy not now, ’s the middle of the night.” A soft, musical laugh informed him that this was decidedly not his bot playing wake-up attendant again. “Pep?” And damn if this wasn’t the most bizarre thing that had happened to him in ages, portal included; when was the last time he’d woken to Pepper Potts in his bed? Before Thanos and the War, definitely; maybe even before Ultron—Pep had been gone a lot back then, even before they’d officially called it quits. Yet here she was, sitting cross-legged on the bed in patched, fraying jeans and a Stark Industries hoodie, her hair tied back in a messy ponytail. For the briefest of moments Tony entertained the notion that this was some kind of misguided ‘thank-god-you’re-sorta-not-dead’ bootycall. (He’d say no, of course, even if the thought of being touched positively by anyone right now felt like a lifeline he was tempted to cling to with everything he had left.)

“Rhodey’s waiting downstairs. Get dressed.”

“Huh?” Her smile had that sly little curve to it that only came out on the rare occasions that Pepper was about to break the rules.

“We’re going on a field trip. Get dressed and meet us on the 27th floor.” In his own world, Tony remembered with a pang, R&D had taken up all the of the floors in the 20s; he’d been considering a hostile takeover of some of the corporate offices on the 30th through 35th floors right before Ultron had rendered the combination of ‘Tony Stark’ and ‘research’ too dirty for even his team to touch.

There was no way he’d be allowed in R&D now, but Pepper and Rhodey were probably the only two people left that Tony would follow anywhere without question. So Tony did as he’d been instructed, sliding clumsily into a pear of nondescript grey sweats and a zip-up hoodie that matched Pepper’s. (He didn’t even bother to put a shirt on under the latter, though, a crime against fashion so severe that his own Pepper likely would have refused to be seen with him if she received advanced warning.)

The 27th floor was in fact R&D. When Tony stepped off the elevator and was immediately confronted by a wall of windows overlooking a (mostly) familiar series of labs, he panicked and considered how likely it was that he could beat a path back toward the elevators before anyone realized the pseudo-ghost of Tony Stark was overlooking them. Then he caught sight of Rhodey and Pepper. They were sprawled across an orange loveseat that sat auspiciously in the hallway directly outside the largest of the labs, sharing a pint of bright green ice cream. When Pepper caught sight of him, she held up her spoon with that same mischievous grin from before.

“Starkly Sub-lime Cheesecake?” she offered. Tony had a moment to ponder whether or not it was worth being annoyed that even the Ben & Jerry’s flavour named after him on this side had to reference Mark II’s orientation, but that internal debate was largely settled when he tasted the bright, bold flavour of the dessert. (Truth be told, Stark Raving Hazlenuts was chalky, even if he would never permit Strange the satisfaction of admitting it.)

“There’s a cloaking shield on the glass. They can’t hear or see us,” Rhodey explained, gesturing to the heavily populated lab in front of them where people did indeed appear to be working entirely undisturbed by their dead boss’s presence. “Our Tony found that as soon as the younger techs saw him wandering around, they either got shy and quiet, or they tried to prove themselves and ended up blowing shit up. Sometimes he’d do it intentionally to test them, but when they were doing really delicate work he liked to be able to observe without the risk of disturbing anyone.”

Tony nodded, stealing another spoonful of ice cream as he surveyed the scene. Most of the techs were gathered around a screen that depicted someone (or something, he concluded quickly based on the environment) moving through some very sludgy water. Every few moments, a series of readings would appear in one corner; the bot (and it was a bot, there was no way a human would be safe to interact directly with this kind of environment) was moving through a positively toxic mixture of salts, acids, benzene, residual bitumen and hydrocarbons.

“Yeah, okay, so you got it to move through a tailing pond and take some measurements,” one of the techs declared impatiently. His back was to the window, but his voice was far higher and pitchier than Tony had expected, but then it wasn’t that unusual for SI to poach the really talented kids right out of college. “Big whoop. SI already has the market cornered on clean energy, what do they need to go digging around the oil sands for?”

“Because the Alberta oil sands are still a massive environmental threat, dipshit! As long as garbage like this still exists it doesn’t matter how innovative and affordable SI makes its stuff. People know oil, they trust oil. The more clear, detailed reasons we can give the public and our lawmakers to do otherwise, the more people will actually still be alive to try to your arc-reactor-wannabe powered lawn-mower bot.”

She, too, sounded young…Tony stopped admiring the tech long enough to look, really look, at the people in the room. Not one of them could have been older than fifteen. He continued to watch, grinning as they bantered with one another. But there was support and gentleness, too; when the counterbalance on one of the kid’s attempts at a search and rescue assistance bots went awry, the others were quick to offer reassurance and suggestions for the next trial. The room sparked with the kind of energy that no one, not even Tony, could reproduce, a heady cocktail of youth and innovation and community.

“Did you fire all the R&D department and replace them with local junior high schoolers?” Tony knew even before the question finished falling from his lips what he was really being shown, but why was another matter, and not something he was sure he wanted to know.

“Tonight at dinner…Tony, I want you to get to know us, and I also know that learning the orientation stuff is not really something you have a choice about. But as I sat there listening to all of us go on and on about the intricacies of dominance and submission, all I could think was that you weren’t being given a chance to get to know us beyond our differences, and vice versa. We know so little about where you came from and what it was like for you there, but I’m betting there are things and people from your universe that you miss. That you’re mourning.” Oh God. Now that she was arriving at the point, Tony was positive he didn’t want to hear it. “Our Tony…he set up a substantial endowment for at-risk kids who have demonstrated an aptitude for STEM. The kids work in the labs as part of their community service hours, and they retain the rights to whatever they make. This particular bunch enjoy it so much that they regularly ‘break in’ to SI at night to keep working; everyone knows they're here, of course, but it's cute to watch all the strategies they keep coming up with for bypassing security and JARVIS. Rhodey and I figured you had probably set up something similar on your side,” (he had), “and we thought it might be nice for you to know, to see, that everything you’ve given your world didn’t vanish when they lost you.”

As if being given permission to acknowledge the name, the face, that he’d been forcing from his mind all evening, Tony’s entire being surrendered to the encompassing ache that was the loss of Peter. It wasn’t identical to the pain of watching the boy fade away into dust in his arms. That loss had all but torn Tony’s mind and heart in two; as the boy had lay dying, pleading for his life (I don’t want to go…Mr. Stark) in Tony's arms, it had been as if the entirety of Peter’s unlived life had flashed in front of Tony. His high school and college graduations, his marriage, kids, scientific breakthroughs, friendly neighbourhood Spiderman-ing, Tony had seen it all in brilliant hypercolour. And while he hadn’t allowed himself to even think Peter’s name after he’d left Titan, it had been those images that had driven Tony to continue far past the point where he should have given up.

So no, this wasn’t that. Peter would have that life now, would get to do all of those things and so much more; it was just that Tony wouldn’t be there to witness any of it. He’d be just another on the long list of parental and psuedo-parental figures that had come into Peter’s life and then made an abrupt, painful exit. He liked to think he’d still impacted the kid for the better—certainly the money and the shares in SI that Tony had left him would be enough to ensure that even Peter’s great-grandkids would never feel the threat of financial insecurity ever again. But for once in his life, when it had come to Peter, Tony hadn’t just wanted a legacy. He’d wanted a life. Tony had wanted to get churros with the kid and teach him to drive and help him study for his first set of finals at MIT. He’d wanted to hug Peter for real, and teach him how to up his dating game (because damn did the kid really need some help there), and trade off good cop/bad cop with May when Peter inevitably made everyday young adult mistakes like getting wasted and running through the MIT quad naked. Instead, Tony had followed in his own father’s footsteps yet again, leaving his—the kid to (metaphorically) bury him before Peter even turned 18.

Tony didn't know when he'd started crying. He didn’t even realize that he had until the tears hit the lingering remnants of ice cream on the spoon, turning it into a wet, salty mess. But it didn't feel like he would ever be able to stop.

Chapter Text

Tony’s brain was too used to needing to process trauma while remaining at least semi-functional to permit him to totally disassociate after watching the kids in the lab. He remembered half-walking, half-stumbling, blinded by tears and grief, back to the penthouse. Rhodey hadn’t needed to fully support his weight, because thank fucking Christ Tony wasn’t doing something as humiliating as fainting, but he’d kept a solid grip on Tony’s elbow, guiding him through the Tower as if he might get lost otherwise. (He’d wondered in a sort of absent way if it did feel that way—if Rhodey, like Bruce, feared this version of Tony just fading away.) Pepper had been uncharacteristically quiet for the trip, though when they’d actually made it back into the penthouse bedroom she took over. She had maneuvered Tony to sit on the edge of the bed, then kicked off her heels and knelt down in front of him. The position made him feel oddly child-like, and when she reached out to cup his damp cheek in her palm he’d almost broken down all over again.

“I’m going to get you changed back into something more comfortable. Is that okay, sweetheart?” (Fuck. His Pep had never gone in for nicknames, not even when they were together. Even though he knew there was no romantic future for himself and this version of her, he wanted to fold himself inside that naked affection in her tone and never, ever come out again.) He swallowed around the lump in his throat and nodded, sitting passively as she raised his arms and unzipped the SI hoodie, replacing it with an oversized sweater his other self must have lifted from Rhodey (though it felt differently shaped than his Rhodey-handoffs.) The pants followed; Pepper encouraged him to lie back on the bed, slid off his sweats and replaced them with a pair of soft gingham pyjama pants. Then she’d crawled into the bed, positioning herself behind him so that when he slid up toward the headboard he could rest his head against her chest and let her wrap all her limbs around him like an octopus. It was an encompassing, nearly-suffocating hold, and the only force in the world that felt capable of grounding him right at that moment.

The night that followed was a hazy mess of sleep, nightmares, and at least one moderate panic attack. (This Rhodey and Pepper were obviously far less familiar with the latter than Tony’s own versions, and there had been a harried conversation between the two of them about doctors or medication before JARVIS, wonderful JARVIS, had given them a few suggestions to try before resorting to more extreme methods.) But the first time Tony would have said he was truly awake and fully conscious came the next morning, when he heard the sound of raised voices from outside the bedroom door.

“You have no right to keep us from him!” That was Clint, he was almost sure, except that as intimately familiar as Tony had become with Clint’s anger in his own world, he’d never heard the man sound quite so nearly out of control before. Rhodey, however, was not backing down.

“I have every right, Barton. Back off.”

“You back the fuck off! He’s ours. Now the two of you just come in here, fucking break him and then won’t even let us in to try to help him—”

“But that’s the thing, man. He isn’t yours. Tony Stark is my best and closest friend, in this universe but more importantly in his. Same with Pep. He’s working hard to learn how to be here, to play the part, but he deserves to have his own history and experiences respected, especially in a moment of crisis. He doesn’t want you right now. He won’t let himself grieve and feel openly if you are. So if you care for him at all as a person apart from his resemblance to the man you used to love, for now you gotta let him be.” There was a thud that Tony initially feared meant Clint and Rhodey had come to blows, but there were no follow up noises beyond Rhodey calling Clint a ‘fucking idiot,’ so the archer punching the wall seemed the more likely source.

“What can we do?” The anger was still there in Clint’s voice, but whether from the physical pain of whatever he’d done to himself or something else, it sounded less threatening and more…defeated, the kind of anger that lingers when it’s all there is left. (To varying degrees, they’d all sounded that way after the Snap.)

“We really need to get some food and water into him. And Pepper wants to speak to Nat at some point, whenever we trade shifts.”

Tony should really have gotten up at that point. They were on a tight deadline, after all, what with him needing to learn an entirely new universe well enough to be able to convincingly impersonate one of its most beloved members. And it wasn’t as if lying here would bring him any closer to Peter, or any of the others he’d lost. This had never been Tony, to just allow himself to stop and succumb to his own demons this way. After Afghanistan, after the Mandarin and Ultron and the Civil War, even after the Snap, he’d found solace in never staying put long enough to truly feel the full weight of anything. So why wasn’t he moving?

“Mr. Stark, I don’t feel so good…”

“I wanted to be like you.”
“And I wanted you to be better.”

“And if you die…I feel like that’s on me.” (Onmeonmeonmeonme…sorry Pete, I’m so fucking sorry.)

He drifted again, waking to Rhodey rubbing increasingly hard circles against his back.

“Hey man. You really gotta eat something, alright? Pretty sure your team cooked every breakfast-related product in the place. Any preferences?” Rhodey wasn’t wrong about the sheer volume of food; the bench at the foot of the bed was piled high with plates containing eggs, sausage and bacon, pancakes, bagels, doughnuts, food that would fill at least ten un-enhanced humans. The sight made Tony vaguely nauseous.

“Please, Rhodey. I can’t…” The other man sighed.

“You gotta eat something, Tones. They’re already freaking out about your weight, and I don’t entirely blame ‘em. Can you pick just one thing for me, one thing that feels the least un-appealing?”

He pointed to a green shake after a moment of consideration. After he ate they were undoubtedly going to want him to say something about his goddamn breakdown, so there was at least one appeal to trying to force something down.
****
Steve dreamed of Tony. Not the man currently wearing his face and his body, but his Tony. The first memory was a favourite, one his brain replayed at least twice a week.

Tony was curled up in bed, wearing nothing but the custom leather cuffs and collar the team had spent months designing, and the marks Steve had left on him the evening prior. He was still down in subspace enough to permit Steve to feed him bites of breakfast and tip his coffee cup into his mouth for him to sip at; as he swallowed, the submissive made sure to stretch his neck so Steve could watch the movements of his throat. He shivered.

“So predictable, babe,” Tony teased. Steve abandoned their food to roll atop his submissive and press bites and kisses into his neck.

“You were singing a different tune last night, Mister,” he grinned.

The scene shifted, in that jarring way that only made sense in dreams. Tony was in the workshop, wobbling perilously on his feet as he gripped a mostly-empty bottle of Scotch with the very tips of his fingers. When Steve entered, he raised his arms in mock celebration.

“Oh great! Come to make it a celebration, Mr. Cat-10? Want to gloat? Put me in my place maybe? I can practically feel it, you know—how badly you want to order me to put this bottle down, bring me to my knees. You could do it, you know. I’m drunk enough to let you, and it’s not like keeping the secret really matters anymore. Fucking Everhart…” For a moment, Steve had hoped the anger had burned its way out of Tony without Steve having to respond to the accusations at all, but then Tony had met his eyes, that blazing rage and betrayal stronger than ever. “Do it. Go ahead. I won’t stop you.”

The thing about Tony that always got under Steve’s skin was that even when they disagreed, the man was rarely entirely wrong. Steve had wanted to put Tony under, had wished more than anything that he could hide the submissive away from all the forces that hurt him (even himself) and not permit him to leave until he knew how loved and valued he was.

“I’m here because you’re my friend and I’d prefer you didn’t choke to death on your own vomit or die of alcohol poisoning,” Steve had told him instead, crossing his arms and maintaining a careful distance between them. “Nothing you say is going to goad me into Dominating you when you’re not capable of rational consent. I’ll give you anything else you want or need if you ask. Otherwise, I’ll be sitting on that couch writing my after-action report and making sure you don’t die.” He pointed to the worn brown monstrosity in the corner. Even in his drunken fury, Steve had been sure he saw the smallest hint of a smile on the other man’s lips.

He woke on board the Wakandan jet, and debated for less than a minute before placing the call. Natasha, per usual, seemed unsurprised to hear from him, though her voice betrayed more stress than she would normally allow to come through.

“What happened?” he demanded. She paused. And Natasha…she never hesitated. Not in the field, not in her personal life. The woman considered things carefully, she sought out more intel if she felt she needed it, but she didn’t ever just not answer. He sat up, all remnants of sleep vanished by the surge of adrenaline that coursed through him. “Natasha.”

“Everything is alright, okay? This was coming, we all knew it was. I think we had just hoped it would be…well, with us.”

“What. Happened.”

“Tony kind of…broke. None of us know exactly what happened, he was with Pepper and Rhodes and even they don’t seem to completely understand exactly what pushed him over the edge. But he had what sounds like a breakdown, both of which lead to panic and subsequent challenges with food.”

“I’m coming back,” he announced, rising to his feet and seeking out the shield. Talia would have to understand, and if not he could probably figure out a way to leave her with the Wakandans and check in. Whatever else this Tony was, he was still a version of the man Steve loved, the man it had become Steve’s goddamn purpose in life to protect and care for. He’d failed his version of Tony, would never get him back, but that didn’t make his instincts or his heart any less determined to ensure the wellness and safety of this Tony Stark.

“Steve. STEVE. Listen to me. There’s no point in coming back, you hear me? He’s not letting anyone but Rhodey and Pepper see him.” He grunted dismissively, grabbing the few items he’d unpacked and shoving them back into his bag; if Rhodes or Pepper tried to keep Steve from his Sub—from Tony, he would remove them. Simple as that. “Steve, he’s wearing your sweater. I caught sight of him on the way to the bathroom just a couple hours ago…I don’t think he knows who it belongs to, but I’m pretty sure he’s sleeping in it just like he used to whenever you were gone.” Steve froze, his hand suddenly incapable of recalling what it needed to do to zip his duffle bag the rest of the way up. “I tell you that because nothing has changed on your end, Steve. He’s still not our Tony; he won’t take comfort in your presence, not now. And if you force your way in here and then inevitably get pissed at him for not being who and what you want, you may very well harm any chance the two of you have at getting to a place that he might seek you or us out.”

“I hate you,” he muttered petulantly. He heard the smile in Natasha’s voice when she answered,

“I know.”

“I want hourly updates.”

“There’s nothing to report with that kind of frequency, Steve. He’s been in bed almost exclusively for the past two and a half days. The most any of them let us do is bring food and drink, and even then we leave it outside the door. The rest of the time we alternate between camping out in the hall outside his room and sublimating the ways this is fucking with our heads into sex.” And if that didn’t make Steve feel like an ass…he’d been so caught up in how his own instincts and emotions were responding to being away from Tony while he was in some kind of severe distress that he hadn’t really considered what it would be like to be mere feet away but denied access while Rhodes and Pepper tended to him.

“Is there anything I can do for you? Any of you?”

“I’ve got the team. And Tony, as much as he’ll let me. You stay focused on your mission, and preparing to start doing the really hard work when you get back. Because I am never doing this again, Steve. I don’t care what we have to do, I can’t be shut away from him like this. I am so close to being utterly out of control…”

“Find Bucky,” he ordered, his own system calming in response to Natasha’s discontent. “The two of you…I know I haven’t always handled it well, how violent you both sometimes need to be with each other, but I’ve seen first-hand how much it can help. Go find him, work some of this out, and don’t go back to the penthouse until you’ve had at least five hours of sleep.”

Natasha assented to the instructions, promised to text with any meaningful news, and then hung up. Not trusting himself to heed her warning about returning to New York if he spent much time alone, Steve quickly made his way to the front of the plane. They were about to cross the boundary of Wakanda and Talia was quite literally on the edge of her seat. Less than two minutes later, the quiet pastoral scene in front of them gave way to a glittering metropolis. Steve expected a whoop or a series of enthusiastic curses, but Talia greeted transformation with silence except for a single, awed,

Oh.” Masdee seemed to struggle with herself for a moment, but then she crossed the small space and wrapped a hand around the back of Talia’s neck. The agent stared up at her for several seconds and then flushed again, averting her gaze. “I’m sorry. I…well, I don’t know what people would have said if you’d asked them what they expected for my life when I was a kid, but no one would have ever said I’d get to see something like this, I guarantee you. I…thank you.” Masdee’s grip tightened, her dark skin a stunning contrast to Talia’s caramel tones.

“Turn us around and take us through again.”

“General?” It was hard for Steve to tell, sometimes, but he was relatively sure C’Chemi was teasing her commanding officer, because the plane was already reversing its progress to cross back over the shield. Masdee chose either to ignore it or was genuinely unaware. Certainly she wasn’t looking anywhere than at Talia, whose rapt gaze alternated between the window of the plane and the woman standing next to her.

The conversation that followed, where Masdee explained what she understood of the scientific and technological intricacies of the barrier, felt as intimate as watching two people kiss or make love. The rest of the Wakandan contingent surveyed the scene, occasionally looking to Steve uneasily as if expecting him to intervene, maybe to even accuse Masdee of being inappropriate. But how could he possibly do that when he could practically witness the world, bright with potential and excitement, unfolding in front of these women? He didn’t know how this would work, what negotiations or compromises would be required; he’d lost too much to believe that a promising present guaranteed anything about the future. But he did know that he had no interest in trying to stifle any of the possibilities.
****

When Tony exited the penthouse bedroom for the first time in days, he did not expect to nearly trip on the sleeping form of Natasha Romanov. Indeed, the image was so unexpected that he had a brief but intense internal debate over whether or not this might be a waking hallucination, but the indignant ‘oof’ sound she made was not something his imagination could have conjured. So this meant the most unbelievable option was also the true one: Natasha had been sleeping in the hallway outside his room.

“What the—have you been here the whole time?” With all the grace she hadn’t been able to muster just seconds before, Natasha stood in a single fluid motion, surveying him slowly. He could imagine everything her keen, overtrained gaze would pick up on (hasn’t showered, barely eaten, red-rimmed eyes, intermittent tremors in the left hand), and it made him want to retreat back to where he’d come from. “Stop it.” (He hoped it sounded like a demand; in truth, it was a plea.)

“…no, I haven’t been—we’ve been trading off. In case you—or Rhodes or Pepper—needed anything.” And what was Tony supposed to do with such an open demonstration of care? How was he possibly supposed to even comprehend that right now? Natasha turned away without further comment, leading them both to the kitchen. He made a beeline for the coffee pot, but JARVIS intervened.

“Colonel Rhodes has indicated that you are not to consume more coffee until you have eaten a full meal and drank a litre of water, Sir. He has used his override commands and if you attempt to turn on the pot I will be forced to shut down power to the outlet.” Rhodey, Tony decided, was an interfering snoop. When he went back to the bedroom, which he’d be doing as soon as was damn possible, he was gonna—

“Tea?” Natasha offered, dangling a bag between the tips of her middle and ring fingers. “The kettle isn’t off limits, and black tea has less caffeine than coffee. Not technically breaking the rules.”

“Ugh. Fine.”

His Natasha had often preferred tea, too, and watching her undergo the quiet ritual of boiling the water, steeping the tea, then adding milk and sugar was oddly comforting. She even let him mostly finish the cup in silence before she went for the usual Natasha sucker punch.

“Pepper asked me if I knew who someone named Peter was. You kept calling out for him in your sleep, she said.” When his hand began to shake with far more violence, she reached out to take the mostly empty mug from him, setting it down on the counter and taking his hand in hers instead. (It was the first time anyone from the team had touched him at all since the revelation of his lack of orientation. If he’d had any tears left this definitely would have drawn them.) “She wasn’t gossiping, Tony, she was…concerned that he had maybe been a lover, that the others wouldn’t help you look for him if that meant losing you.”

“And what do you think, Widow?” Natasha flinched at the use of her code-name, but she didn’t take her hand away. (It felt like Natalie Rushman all over again, like he was dying and she was the only one who could see.)

“I think the context doesn’t fit. You would have asked about the status of a lover before now, would have been concerned about how the little charade we’re going to have to put on would impact him. And I think…even despite whatever your version of the team did, I don’t think you would have let us cling to any hope about a future with you if there wasn’t any. She also told me where you guys had gone when all this happened, and I don’t see any way that what you saw would have triggered that response. We’re talking…we’re talking about someone young, I think. So I started trying to find any references I could to someone under 21 named Peter that you might have had any meaningful contact with. The only lead I could track down was a kid in Queens who may or may not be moonlighting in a pair of what I can only describe as souped-up pyjamas.” What Natasha chose not to say then was everything. She didn’t ask who Peter was to Tony, whether he was his biological kid or his—what had Strange said, his ward?—or something else. She didn’t ask if Peter had died, or how. She relayed the facts as she understood them and nothing more, and it was the kindest thing anyone on the Avengers had done for him, maybe in years. So instead of insulting her intelligence and her skills by lying, or just telling her to fuck off, he begged. He gave her unprecedented power over his very fucking soul, and pleaded with her to keep it safe.

“You can’t tell them. Or…or him. Nothing good ever came of him knowing me, Natasha. I need you to promise me that you’ll never even breathe his name to me or to anyone else ever again after tonight. Keep an eye on him, keep him as safe as you can from a distance, but never let him so much as get a whiff that you or any of the Avengers are involved. Will you do that for me?”

His grip on her hand had tightened to what must have been the point of pain during his rambling request, but she held on just as tightly, never once turning her eyes from his.

“I think you’re wrong. I think there’s no one who’s known you, really known you, and not benefited from it. But until you’re ready to face that, yes, Tony, I’ll keep your secret. And I’ll keep him as safe as I can manage until you’re ready to do it yourself.” She paused, her expression turning both guilty and desperate like she knew she should stop speaking but couldn’t quite force herself to do so. (It was a struggle Tony knew well.) “Just…this isn’t a condition. I’ll watch out for Peter no matter what, but can you just—stop hiding from us? Please? You don’t have to talk, or focus on the orientation stuff, or do anything you don’t want to do, but please just…no more hiding.”

Chapter Text

Tony was kneeling. Or rather, Tony was on his knees—the clarification mattered, at least to Steve, because kneeling was not just a posture. At its truest, most elemental, kneeling was a release. It wasn’t just about power; that was part of it, but plenty of subs knelt on their own, or in the company of other submissives. Kneeling was typically the first way that a sub or switch learned to let go. By surrendering their ability to easily see and move through a space, they allowed their bodies to begin re-aligning away from their out-of-headspace concerns. Bruce called it the body’s way of re-writing its hierarchy of needs, privileging orientational demands over other instincts.

On paper, Tony had put himself into a picture-perfect submissive pose. He was naked, spine a smooth, liquid line that was curved enough to suggest comfort and familiarity but rigid enough to avoid any appearance of sloppiness or disinterest. His neck was bared, eyes downcast (if Steve wasn’t mistaken, he’d even put a hint of mascara on his lashes to emphasize the way the brown orbs were almost entirely hooded.) Tony’s hands didn’t rest atop his knees, as was now common practice; in a gesture that had been considered nearly out of fashion even by Steve’s time, they were clasped behind his back, bringing the glowing centre of his chest into even more relief.

At some point, despite all of his resistance toward his orientation, Tony had learned (or been taught) to give every appearance of a relaxed, willing, and obedient submissive. And if Steve were someone else, someone who hadn’t seen this man truly at ease dozens of times, he might even have fallen for it himself, too overwhelmed by how goddamn beautiful a sight Tony made like this to make it past the surface. As it was, though, the signs of how wrong it all was were practically all Steve could see—the way Tony’s shoulders trembled with the strain of the position he’d chosen for his arms, how he still tracked Steve’s movement I through the room even though he tried very hard to disguise it, and the unmistakable way the pace of his breathing picked up whenever Steve got within more than a couple feet of him.

“Sweetheart—”

“Tony is fine,” the submissive barked. Even though the signs that his pose was far more fiction than fact were everywhere, it was still slightly jarring to hear that tone from someone in Tony’s current position. Steve sighed, sitting on the edge of the bed and swaying inelegantly for a moment before bracing himself to catch his balance. If most mattresses these days felt like marshmallows, Tony’s was like a cloud. It was utterly impractical for many kinds of scenes, which Steve supposed was probably part of the point. While he hadn’t had any inflated expectations of what tonight would hold given how things had started between he and Tony, feeling the ways even the furniture seemed designed to discourage Steve’s presence was pretty demoralizing. (But there was no time, now, to wonder if this was a mistake. Not with Tony’s sanity practically in his hands—how he’d gone so long out of headspace without already becoming dangerously unstable was always going to be a mystery.)

“Tony, open your eyes, put some clothes on, and come sit here with me please.” Steve got at least a third of the things he asked for; Tony did open his eyes, if only to glare venomously at him.

“For fuck’s sake, Rogers, just get on with it would you? We both know we’re not here out of any grand romantic sentiment; this is an exchange of services, nothing more.”

“Not to me.” Steve hadn’t meant to announce it quite so baldly; he’d intended to ease Tony into this discussion. He’d wanted to hand-feed the submissive a meal from his second-favourite Thai place (his top favourite was closed on Mondays), and maybe watch a movie with Tony at his feet, or in his arms if the other man wasn’t ready for that yet.

“What the fuck does that mean, then?” Tony demanded, scrambling to his feet. He’d folded his suit in a neat pile on the chair in the corner, but clearly desired to be clothed sooner than it would take to reach them, so he seized an old sweatshirt of Steve’s from his nightstand and threw it on. (It had probably the opposite effect he had intended. Seeing Tony in something that belong to Steve punched the air from Steve’s lungs.) “If you think I’m too fucking broken—”

“I think you’re traumatized, sure, but get in line as far as that goes in this Tower.” This startled a laugh out of Tony, who then looked doubly irritated with Steve and crossed his arms. (The sweater dwarfed him in ways that made the gesture far less authoritative than Tony probably hoped. Seconds later, Tony himself seemed to come to the same conclusion, throwing his arms out and huffing in disgust.) “If you need someone to just be a Dominant, Tony, there’s no shame in that. And I can think of at least two people in this building who would jump at the chance to be there for you that way. But it can’t be me. If it’s just an…an exchange of services you’re looking for, then this isn’t going to work between you and I.”

Steve could count on one hand the number of times he’d seen Tony Stark truly surprised. And none of those occasions had anything on how transparently astonished the other man was now; his mouth even hung open a little, which Steve didn’t think actually happened in real life.

“You’re a True.”

“…yeah? So are you.”

“You’d really…I mean, even without buying into all the other bullshit, the sex is supposed to be out of this world.” Steve shrugged.

“I’m sure it would be great, Tony. And I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wondered what it would be like, with someone like me. But I don’t want just a night with you, or even a series of nights. I don’t want you to let me Dom you, give you just enough to get by, so you can leave my bed hating me for being the one to do it. If we’re going to do this, I want…I need more than that. If that’s not something you’re interested in, I understand, and you can leave with no hard feelings and no fear of reprisal as far as the team goes. That I promise you.”

Steve hadn’t known what to expect. He hadn’t wanted to play his hand so soon, and whatever his reputation for speeches in battle contexts, he’d never considered himself particularly good with words in more intimate moments. But it still hurt like hell to watch Tony turn around and stride from the room without another word.

Steve woke with his hand out, reaching for Tony. For several glorious seconds he kept reaching, wanting to reassure himself with Tony’s sleep-warm skin that that night hadn’t been the end, but the beginning. And then he remembered, recoiling and feeling irrationally, viciously angry. He still dreamed of Tony all the time, but it had been months since he’d woken up and managed to forget, even for a couple of semi-conscious seconds that his lover was gone. (Natasha had been right. It was a damn good thing he wasn’t in the Tower right now, because right this second he hated the other version of Tony for bringing all this up again and threatening the very minimal progress Steve had actually managed to make.)

By the time he shook off the dream and made his way to the palace, he was nearly half an hour late for the meeting with Masdee’s team and the dora. He slipped in the back as quietly as he could.

“…have no reason to believe that their equipment is advanced enough to block or otherwise mislead our trackers. They are here, and close, they’re simply more advanced at stealth than we had anticipated.” That was C’Chemi, reporting back on what sounded like another fruitless scouting mission. Steve had never heard her sound quite so frustrated.

“We shall send another team out at nightfall, then. The King has made it our upmost priority to ensure the safety of the Princess is secured prior to the exhibition.” Okoye was just as fierce and focused as Steve had remembered, though he suspected she was smiling just slightly when she added, “He does not wish to have to refuse her plan outright. He muttered something about incriminating weapons testing footage.” None of the highly disciplined women in the room laughed, but their amusement at the King’s fear of his sister’s reprisal was still plain. The only one who wasn’t smiling, he realized when he finally found her near the front, was Talia.

She’d been on the mission last night, he recalled vaguely, though the tension in her frame seemed to speak to something beyond tiredness. As the gathering concluded (one of Steve’s favourite things about the Wakandan army was how little patience they had for bureaucracy for its own sake—they were efficient in the extreme) Steve wound his way through the crowd toward his Agent.

“I told you, I’m fine to go out again tonight. I took a nap yesterday afternoon and I’ve never needed much—” Masdee did not even look up from the digital map she was surveying with Ayo. (Steve barely restrained a wince; being ignored would push all of Talia’s buttons on the best of days.)

“You are not required this evening, Agent.”

“But the dora are already so busy, and it’s been almost two weeks of this! We’re so close, why won’t you just—” The second Talia managed to force Masdee to break her attention enough to look directly at her, Steve could tell how much she wished she hadn’t. There was nothing kind or tender in Masdee now, nothing but the cold fury of a woman whose duty to her King and country was being interrupted. Masdee murmured something to Ayo, who nodded gravely and made a quick departure, and then she snapped,

“Captain Rogers. Agent Avelino. Follow me.”
****

For the first time in weeks, Tony woke and entered the living area of the penthouse to find it empty. The signs that the team had been there recently were everywhere, including the kitchen counter where someone had left a full bowl of washed fruit and what looked like homemade mini-scones. (It had to have been Bruce, he’d taken to leaving snacks out all over the Tower lately.) But there was no one watching TV on the couch or drinking orange juice out of the carton or offering to fetch Tony his first cup of coffee.

The solitude, which he’d spent so much of his time here wishing for, was oddly disconcerting. He should have seen it coming, though, really; the team had lives to get back to, lives they were used to living without Tony. And it wasn’t like he’d been particularly useful to any of them after the whole…breakdown thing. They’d seemed patient and understanding about it, telling him not to worry that he’d fallen behind on his D/s ‘education.’ They’d appeared perfectly happy to watch television or play games with Tony, or even just sit quietly next to him while he read, but eventually the shine of his resemblance to Mark II was always going to wear off.

At first he tried to enjoy the quiet. Tony had never been the type of person to want company just for the sake of it, after all, and he’d gotten even better at being alone after the War had all but emptied out the Tower and the compound. He drank a whole pot of coffee without the weight of Bruce’s faintly disapproving stare (and then he cleared the plate of scones because the goddamn things were delicious.) He watched the morning news, a habit he’d taken up since arriving here because watching the anchors spend ten plus minutes on stupid shit like which celebrities had broken up and where traffic was particularly backed up was such a fucking miracle compared to the somber disbelief that had coloured all post-Snap media. He munched on the berries while Dummy chased him around the room with a blanket (which his wayward bot had somehow become convinced over the past several days solved all the world’s ills.)

Convinced it had been hours, Tony asked JARVIS for the current time; it had been a mere 47 minutes since he’d woken up. He was, he realized with an almost pleased surprise, bored. It was the first time since his carefully constructed and heavily fortified mental dams had shattered that he’d felt much of anything beyond the haze of grief and regret and pain. Boredom wasn’t exactly the feeling he would have chosen to take their place, but pretty much anything was preferable to how he’d spent the past couple of weeks.

“Jay, are you…I mean, don’t trigger any kind of alert if I’m not supposed to know or even ask—”

“As discussed, Ms. Potts has returned to Stark Industries’ New York Headquarters for the day. The Avengers are in the communal training facilities. They requested, multiple times, that I make you aware of their location and indicate to you that you are welcome to join them if you wish. However, Colonel Rhodes never formally lifted the communications blackout between the team and yourself, and I have never found it prudent to go against the Colonel’s orders in the past.”

“Me neither,” Tony agreed absently. “Hey, speaking of Rhodey—”

“He is training with the team. While he is still not an official members of the Avengers, Colonel Rhodes provides his assistance and trains with the team whenever practical, particularly after the…loss of your counterpart.” Even JARVIS paused when he mentioned Mark II, like acknowledging Mark II’s absence still hurt him. (A part of Tony was relieved that his FRIDAY had lost him so young. She would adapt far more easily. And she’d have Pe-people to help her grow and learn.)

He lasted only another twenty minutes before he requested directions to the training level. If he’d expected something like the shared gym the Avengers had had in both the Tower and the compound, stepping out of the elevator pretty much instantly put that theory to rest. There were no weight machines or treadmills or heavy bags in sight; the space (which he suspected from the barely visible ceiling started on this floor but extended several levels beyond it) was wide open, save for a complex array of digital and physical obstacles the team appeared to be locked in battle against.

Tony noticed Natasha first, mainly because the sight didn’t make sense. She was perched on a ledge in the northeast corner holding…was that a bow? (Was this universe somehow so backward that Nat, not Clint, was Hawkeye?)

“Stop hyperextending your elbow! Your freaky hyper-flexible dancer-limbs are not a benefit to you here, I keep telling you!”

“Stop backseat shooting and toss your damn frisbee!” Before Tony’s brain could really register everything that was utterly bizarre about this scenario, a version of Steve’s shield (lighter than the original—a vibranium alloy rather than the real thing) went flying past his head and collided with Thor. It actually managed to connect with the demigod, less, Tony suspected, because Clint had really mastered throwing the thing and more because Thor was busy attempting to make the Widow’s Bites on his wrist function.He had the gloves and gauntlets on correctly (though the gloves looked about a second from tearing at the seams), but Thor couldn’t seem to sort out how to charge the weapons.

“You’re gonna take your own eye out there, Big Guy.” Tony didn’t mean to talk, he really didn’t. He’d wanted to hang back, unnoticed, a little longer and try to sort out how any of this was possible. (If this version of the team was remotely like his own, their weapons were extensions of themselves. They’d grudgingly give them up to Tony for upgrades when absolutely necessary, but to exchange them this way? To laugh and joke while these core aspects of their identity were in someone else’s hands? It was unthinkable.) But Thor had been investigating the Bites by sticking his face right against the barrels; all it would take was one accidental brush of the charging button and the idiot was going to electrocute himself. And it had been weird enough for Tony to see his own Thor with two differently coloured eyes, dammit.

“Mine T—I, that is, Mine Friend Tony!” the blonde boomed, beaming and holding his arms up in celebratory greeting. (And if the aborted attempt at a more possessive greeting was slightly awkward, it was worth it for the fact that it got the damn Bites out of his face.)

“Great to see you, Tony, but get outta the way! I don’t trust myself to bank very smoothly here, and I’m supposed to be targeting Thor,” a modulated voice that Tony instantly recognized as decidedly not Rhodey’s sounded from above.

“Brucie Bear? That you in War Machine? For real?”

“MOVE, Tony!” As it turned out, Bruce missed both Thor and Tony by several feet in his halfway-successful attempt at a landing, but didn’t quite manage to avoid colliding with the (now understandably) padded wall. And when Bruce lifted the faceplate, he looked decidedly green…and not in a Hulk-out kind of way. “Ugh. The G forces are unbelievable. I need a break for some water and some time on solid ground.”

“What the hell is this?” Tony demanded, unable to keep the question back any more. “Honeybear? If you’re not in War Machine where—”

“Over here,” Rhodey called, crawling out from behind a bit of digital scaffolding that had done a masterful job of concealing his location. “Wanted to give these fools a chance before I started pickin’ em off one by one.”

“It’s so unfair that you ended up with Bucky’s sniper rifle. Of course that’s not a challenge for you,” Clint complained as he made a beeline for a table set up with a host of food and hydration options. The neurotic level of organization of said roughage practically screamed Coulson, and Tony was unsurprised to find the man himself seated behind the table like a parent at a bakesale—except for the fact that he was in a suit bespoke enough to be confused for one of Tony’s less expensive pieces, and taking notes on a tablet while shooting Clint that dry, bemused stare.

“Would you prefer to play hostage instead, Specialist?”

It was never not a delight to watch Coulson troll the team, so it took Tony longer than it should have to register what he’d heard. Barnes. Here, he was neither an international criminal nor a traumatized ex-soldier who hung out in Wakanda with a pack of goats. Here, James Barnes was a trusted, beloved member of the Avengers. Which meant he had to be here somewhere (and if he was somehow wielding Thor’s hammer, Tony was getting the fuck out of this universe right damn now.)

The hammer thing, at least, turned out to be true, though the alternative was in some ways just as terrifying: Bucky climbed down off a perch carrying what looked to be a Chitauri-hybrid weapon. He kept his distance from Tony, the way he seemed to know (or had maybe been told) he had to, but the sight was still disconcerting to say the least.

“Every time we do this exercise, someone takes a turn with a captured enemy weapon.” Tony didn't quite know when Coulson had left his table and crossed the room to stand next to Tony. If he knew how damn alarmed Tony was by what Barnes was holding, though, his casual, explanatory tone didn’t betray it in the least. “Beyond simple versatility, the point is for the team to be able to pick up a discarded weapon, friendly or not, and feel comfortable using it.”

“That’s—that’s smart.” And it was. While there was no guarantee that the team would face the same foes twice, it made sense for them to know everything they could about their enemies, including how to wield their tech. (It was the kind of strategic, long-term thinking Tony had expected his own Steve to display all along.)

“Want to come sit with me? The other Tony made the interface simple enough that I could make changes to the obstacle course on the fly, but I’m sure you’d be able to make it a lot more challenging for them. If you’re interested.” And hell, anything was better than just staring at Barnes and wondering about trigger words and forgiveness and ignorance.

Phil cupped his elbow. It was only for a matter of seconds, just as long as it took the pair of them to cross the length of the training room, but especially after having spent the morning wondering if the team was already finished with him, it was more comforting than Tony wanted to admit. (And if he slid his chair a little closer to Coulson’s than he might otherwise have done, well he had the excuse of sharing a tablet.)

In the twenty or so minutes it took for the team to break and then agree on teams and an objective for the exercise, Tony had mastered the obstacle course program and was already drooling over the possibilities.

“I was thinking about blowing Rhodes’ cover first,” Phil murmured, gesturing to the digital scaffolding on the screen.

“I have a better idea. Rhodey’s great with guns, Clint’s right, but if he’s anything like mine, he’s an action guy and not a sniper. Set up the target right here and throw all kinds of interference in front of it; it’ll test his patience and force him to actually stay still long enough to get the right shot. Odds are he gives up and goes in guns blazing—then we blow the scaffolding.” Phil’s expression was downright gleeful as he followed Tony’s suggestions to the letter.

He listened to Tony’s feedback about everything, actually, and took about ninety percent of his proposals including the dozens of obstacles and threats he insisted they throw at Barnes out of sheer pettiness. Maybe Phil didn’t protest that because the other man hardly seemed upset by any of it; with unnerving speed and flexibility, Barnes almost danced through the course, shouting taunts and laughing in surprise when Tony and Phil actually managed to hit him with something.

It wasn’t just Barnes, though. The lot of them were having fun in a way that Tony had rarely witnessed in his own universe, delighting in one another’s company and in the creative solutions the course forced them to come to. They cheered and mocked and supported one another without any of the hesitation or tense undercurrents that had been a constant accompaniment to the other team’s interactions. (Of all the remarkable things Tony had seen these people do since arriving here, he’d never been anywhere close to this jealous.)

An alert flashed at the top of the screen, and Coulson’s smile vanished into a more familiar, business-like expression as he clicked it and scanned the small text-box that emerged: Ultron reports clear skies. Threat level minimal. Egyptian foreign minister’s visit will proceed as scheduled with your permission.

“…Ultron? Did that-does that say Ultron?"

Chapter Text

“Captain Rogers.”

“Director Rogers.”

“…err, Mr Rogers? There was some kids TV guy named Mr. Rogers, wasn’t there? Come to think of it you two have a very similar energy. I mean he spent less time punching out bad guys and more time hanging out with his neighbours, but still. You both cultivate a kind of goodness that would be sickening if it weren’t so obviously sincere. Oh come on, the name Rogers is starting to not even sound like a word anymore…Cap? Captain America? Look, if you’re waiting for me to do a swooning thing—”

The AI that Shuri had running the palace (or rather assisting in its running—she and Tony had had many hours-long debates over the safest and most ethical uses of technology, most of which had ended in one of them flipping the other the finger and then both of them cackling) had announced Talia’s imminent arrival nearly two minutes ago. But he still let her stream-of-conscious babble continue for another thirty or so seconds before making an overdramatic show of jumping up as if startled. Talia glared and flipped every light in the room on; Steve could practically feel his pupils constricting in protest.

“You’ve been up this whole time. You know, none of the documentaries or the obnoxious videos they showed us in school ever mentioned what a goddamn troll you are.”

“Hey now, I was just waiting to see how many variations you would go through before stumbling upon the existence of my first name. After the last coupla days I sorta think we’re there, Talia, don’t you?” Talia flushes again; this time it stains not just the tips of her cheekbones, but also the tips of her ear and in splotches down the side of her neck. But by far the prettiest and most noticeable thing about her expression is the smile that she doesn’t bother trying to conceal. Steve’s chest aches with something that is almost equal parts jealousy and joy, which is the best ratio he thinks could be expected of him right now. (And if the most wounded and tender parts of him also want to warn them, want to beg both Talia and Masdee to jealously guard every second they have together…well, if nothing else it’s proof that Bucky is wrong. Steve doesn’t always say every damn thing he thinks.)

“Sure I’ll call you Steve. But I’d prefer you call me Sir, especially in front of Agent Hill.” His laugh was a beat too slow, and Talia’s eyes narrowed, an assessing stare far too similar to Natasha’s for Steve to believe she wouldn't see far too much if they lingered long.

“I assume you’re waking me in the middle of the night for a reason, Sir?”

“Oh. Right. Well I mean how that I now how delightful these two a.m. chats are—”

“Don’t make me take the Sir back, Talia.”

“There’s a call for you from Avenger’s Tower.” Steve blinked and his eyes reflexively sought out his cell phone, which he found sitting fully charged on his nightstand per usual. “Oh, yeah—the call came in to King T’Challa’s most secure line. He didn’t even know you all had the number, actually, which Princess Shuri is greatly amused about. But you’ll need to go up to his rooms to take it.”

Steve’s StarkPhone has every level encryption known to man. He conducts SHIELD business on that phone. He’s spoken to four sitting Presidents on that phone. Spies, assassins, operatives hidden so deep in the shadows that if it ever leaked that Steve had so much has acknowledged their existence they’d both be finished. From calls that have shaped the course of global politics to everyday conversations with his family about what kind of ice cream Clint wants and yes, Natasha, we really are out of laundry detergent again because that’s what happens when you insist on using three pods per load…he’s done it all there without a single second of concern for the information being compromised.

Which means whatever this is is more sensitive than any of that. His stomach tightened into knots so painful that for a moment he thought nausea might make it past the serum. (Tony.)
****
Two days, eight hours earlier

EXTREMIS: TONY STARK’S LOVE LETTER TO THE UNIVERSE
Daphne Abeles

Iron Man. Business tycoon. Clean energy giant. Genius. True Submissive. In the days since Tony Stark’s untimely demise, he has been hailed under many banners. All, or most at least, have been well-meaning, even if some of them likely would have had the man himself rolling his eyes or showcasing his customary talent for snark.

To try to encapsulate a life so full of meaningful, lasting contributions is no easy task. Many will undoubtedly write of The Avengers, a group which includes Captain America as well as Stark’s best friend James Rhodes, whose War Machine is the most likely candidate to fill in as aerial support in Iron Man’s absence. The group Stark fought and eventually died alongside remains a redoubtable force for global security with or without him.

Most, of course, will mention alongside any discussions of the Avengers the fact that Captain Rogers was also Tony Stark’s True Dominant. The loss is, of course, almost unfathomable, and given the public’s near obsession with the two, it is undoubtedly one which will have far-reaching implications.

Others will stress what Stark himself once called his phoenix-esque redemption. From troubled young adulthood patterned with sex, booze and what many decried as war profiteering, interrupted by a dramatic captivity that led to the reimagining of SI and the birth of Iron Man…it’s the stuff movies are made of, and the film version of Tony Stark’s life story will undoubtedly be in the works as soon as it is deemed in good enough taste.

But to my mind, none of the countless tributes that have poured in since Stark’s death have truly paid enough attention to his greatest and most impactful legacy: the Ultron system. The Avengers are, of course, a frightfully good last line of defense, one that has already saved the Earth dozens of times by conservative estimates. But if the tragedy of Tony Stark’s loss reminds us of anything, it should be that even the greatest of our superheroes are, with a couple of significant exceptions, still human. Their bodies are enhanced, able to withstand forces and attacks that would utterly destroy lesser beings, but they are not invulnerable. Their work extracts a price, one which their mind and bodies cannot pay indefinitely.

Even before his death, Tony Stark knew that better than most. While the exact circumstances of Ultron’s creation remain highly classified, Stark spoke publicly in his later years about his desire to eventually end his tenure as Iron Man. Ultron, he told me in an exclusive interview just eleven months ago, was bigger than that: he dreamed that the system might someday be advanced enough that not just Iron Man but any of those serving as Earth’s last line of defense might be able to hang up their tights, capes, and weaponry for good.

Stark did not live long enough to realize this dream. But thanks to Ultron, a global AI defense system so advanced and precise that an unnamed SHIELD operative confesses Earth would “already be lost” without it, perhaps someday his teammates will.

Tony felt their eyes on him as he finished scanning the last of the info-packet Coulson and JARVIS had hastily compiled after Tony’s…well, his freak out. He’d reviewed bits of the AI’s base code (so much more stable and more complex than what he and Bruce had been able to accomplish), data from Ultron himself (detailed and precise, a tone not unlike JARVIS’s), and several news stories reporting on the release and impact of the Ultron program.

“Get out.”

“Tony, listen, if you’re still worried that it isn’t safe, we can give you any information you need. You can speak to Ultron yourself, or to Bruce, or Shuri—she’s helped you guys tweak the programming several times—or—”

“Get. Out.” Before, during his breakdown over all that he’d left behind, Tony had at least felt guilty for shutting the team out. And he definitely should have felt something about ejecting them from their own gym given that he doesn’t technically own this version of the Tower. But any excess stores of emotional energy he might have devoted to those ventures were all being burned through, feeding the all-consuming rage that was nearly suffocating him. It was anger like he’d never quite known before, like choking on bile or acid, something that burned on its way up and bubbled and burned at the insides of his mouth and throat. Even Rhodey gave up his attempts to linger after the fourth time Tony barked at him. “J, what did your Tony do when he was pissed and unable or unwilling to leave the Tower?” Truth was, Tony didn’t expect much to come of the request. Wasn’t like Mark 2 had had much to be angry about anyway as far as Tony could see. The guy had had everything: a Thanos-free existence, a public that genuinely seemed to admire him, a team that—

The gym, Tony realized with a start strong enough to temporarily derail his train of resentment and bitterness, was moving. The entire room was resetting itself. The obstacle course had vanished, leaving the space ominously bare. The soft padding of the walls was replaced by a secondary reinforcement wall; it hit the ground with a thud so loud that Tony could tell without bothering to inspect the thing that it was adamantium, which—well, the only place Tony himself had ever bothered to reinforce to that degree was...

“JARVIS, is this a makeshift Hulk playroom?”

“In the early days of team training exercises there were enough Hulk-outs and corresponding property destruction that Doctor Banner requested that the gym feature some of the same safety measures, yes. But Sir occasionally found ways to put his own…rather unique spin on things when he was well and truly frustrated.” Without further explanation, a dazzling array of digital projections lit up the room. Several of them were enemies that Mark 2 had apparently longed to inflicted more punishment on; those were definitely digital Chituari flying around the northeast quadrant, and a digital-Vanko waiting in the corner, repulser-powered whips at the ready. But whatever program JARVIS was running didn’t stop at offering up the ghosts of villains-past. The room was also populated by a host of movie and television villains—Darth Vader was hanging out next to a digital Justin Hammer, and appeared on the verge of Force-choking the guy. (Might be best to let that one play out. For science.) The Wicked Witch of the West was flying through the air near the Chitauri, tossing what looked like—

“Ow, JARVIS, what the hell?” The bolt of green light the witch had tossed at Tony, which he’d assumed to be purely for show, had connected with his left bicep and left behind a tiny burn mark.

“My apologies, Sir. Would you prefer I alter the settings to Easy mode?” JARVIS was a troll in every universe, apparently, and Tony couldn’t possibly be more grateful for that than he was right now. He tapped at the housing unit on his chest, and the in seconds the armour was greeting him like an old friend. The suit was battered from its final encounter with Thanos, but its metal embrace was no less comforting for that. “Sir, the Avengers are requesting updates as to your status. Shall I place the room in Blackout mode until you’re finished?”

Strategically, it definitely would have been the best choice. Letting them witness how this version of the suit worked meant that Tony was losing a very significant tactical advantage he had over them should things ever turn ugly here the way they had in his own universe. And really, why would they want to watch Tony have what was ultimately going to be a very elaborate temper tantrum?

But goddammit, he wanted them to see. Wanted to remind them that he was Iron Man in this universe or any other. Their Tony might have had most of the things he himself had dreamed about, and several things Tony would never have even thought to ask for, but he had survived Thanos. Twice. He’d taken down Aldrich Killian and murderous AIs and a dozen other foes. (He’d had Captain America’s shield embedded in his fucking chest.) He didn’t need to be coddled or protected; being alone had made Tony ruthless and resourceful and unyielding, and it was about damn time this version of the team knew that.

“No. Let them see it. Hell, let ‘em project it on every screen in the Tower if they want. Just, no incoming communications, alright, J?”
****

By short, terse agreement, the little trio made its way into Steve’s chambers. The second they were inside with the door securely shut, Masdee wasted little time. She sat down one one of the functional orange chairs that surrounded the small table in the corner of the living space, waited for Steve and Talia to do the same, and then addressed herself to the latter.

“I had assumed…hoped, maybe, that we could wait to address this until our mission was complete.” Talia’s arms were crossed against her chest, a show of anger and resistance entirely too familiar to Steve. But her hands, he noted, were not stiff or clenched into fists. They were gripping at her sides in the merest hint of a self-hug. (This defiance wouldn’t last long. It was already costing Talia everything she had to maintain even a semblance of her usual bravado.)

“Well if it’s such a goddamn burden to you then we don’t have to—”

“Masdee—”

“Please do not speak until I address you, Captain Rogers. Agent Avelnio.” A pause. “Talia. Look at me. Good, thank you. Now, you are well aware that’s not what I meant. I had hoped that we could delay our conversation on this matter because I am aware it is not customary for you to join orientational dynamics with your work. I have attempted to…restrain myself as best as I could for precisely those reasons. But now, unless I am very much mistaken, you are fighting to be assigned a long and dangerous night shift, your second in as many nights, purely because I shall be there. You are also disrupting my conversations with my superior officers and disrespecting me in front of my troops. None of this may continue. So we must speak plainly with one another.” The even staccato of Masdee’s short sentences, skirting the very edges of Dominant commands without actually becoming that, appeared to hit Talia like a drug. Her arms slowly unwrapped, and she pressed her palms against her thighs in her own small show of submission. “Let us then have no misunderstandings. Am I correct in assuming that the attraction I feel towards you is mutual?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I require no honorific at this time, Talia; the boundaries of consent are muddled enough, particularly from your context. Now, you also realize, I’m sure, that if we proceed we shall encounter several major barriers, the most significant of which is that my style of Dominance, which involves orientation-based interactions in the workplace, is not legal in your country. You are only starting out in your career, and while your skillset would undoubtedly be valuable to Wakanda, I am not sure I could permit you abandoning your life at home to remain here.”

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Masdee, but I do have some information that will have bearing on that aspect of things. May I continue?” Masdee nodded at Steve, though her gaze never left Talia, who was staring at the other woman as if she was her only lifeline. “SHIELD operates within a sort of legal grey-zone. We are within United States jurisdiction for the most part, but we’re also ruled in some respects by global and international statutes like the Accords. We have to be, or nothing could ever get done. These past few weeks…the effect you have on Talia is not lost on me. Being able to be submissive in the workplace, even to consider it…she is calmer, more careful, and more deliberate. It makes her a better agent.”

“Would you agree with that assessment?” Talia seemed surprised but gratified to be asked, and she gave the question a good deal of consideration.

“Yes.”

“Talia may not be the only one of our agents who would benefit from this approach. If you’re interested, Masdee, I would like you to run a pilot program through SHIELD. You’d screen potential applicants, both Doms and subs, you’d train them in whatever ways you deem suitable. The program would be entirely under your direction. And I want to stress that while I don’t pretend to be disinterested in yours or Agent Avelino’s potential to gain personally from this arrangement, my aims are larger than that. The world has more to learn from Wakanda than advanced technology.”

“I believe the UN would be amendable, but you truly believe you could persuade your own government of the value of such a program? I am not unaware of how they speak about our orientational practices in your country, Captain.” She didn't bother repeating any of the hateful, bigoted language that often got circulated in those conversations under the supposed banner of concern, and nor did Steve seek to clarify. They were both entirely too aware of the ugliness of the world.

“I do. To be crass, SHIELD and myself personally have a tremendous amount of power and influence in the current climate, and we rarely ever spend that currency. I’d be happy to do so for this if it was something you both wanted.” Masdee nodded, tracing a finger across the smooth glass of the table in thought. It was an unusual gesture from her or from any members of the Wakandan army who tended toward rigid postures even in more informal moments, but then Masdee was not just a general here and now and everyone knew it.

“I could not leave Wakanda entirely.”

“You wouldn’t have to. If the King is willing to accommodate SHIELD trainees, with compensation of course, we could easily have you split your time between here and New York.”

“Fuck yes!” Talia’s outburst was clearly unplanned, and when her mind caught up to her mouth she groaned. Masdee laughed. The sound was rich and warm and throaty, like the bold coffees Tony had preferred mixed with smoke and the flavourful foods of the world that Bruce so often cooked for them. It made Steve homesick.

“We shall have to work on your impulse control in public, Talia. In private, however…I hope you never lose that enthusiasm.” She was still smiling when she turned to face Steve fully for the first time. “Captain, I believe you have your answer.” Steve beamed, too.

“In the meantime, as long as you both assure me you’ve had an in-depth conversation about your limits and boundaries and provide me with a copy of your contract to keep on file in case of emergencies, I’ll plan on turning a blind eye to whatever else happens.” Talia was barely listening now, he knew, so Steve mentally planned on repeating the last part of what he needed to say at a later date. But, even if only for Masdee’s benefit, he needed to make this clear as quickly as possible. “Agent Avelino, that means you’re under the General’s command rather than my own from this point forward. I will not be interfering with how she chooses to go about that any more than I would take over for another Dominant in private without clear permission. That will include if you earn any disciplinary measures. Are we clear?”

“Yessir.”
****
Present Day

Steve didn’t remember getting dressed. He had to have put on more than the boxers he’d been sleeping in, but the entire block of time between realizing who would be on the other end of the line and actually making it into T’Challa’s offices were just gone, as if he hadn’t even been conscious. (His hand trembled when he picked up the phone, and he was painfully grateful the rooms were empty.)

“Captain Rogers.”

“…JARVIS?”

“I wanted to provide you with some context before you speak to Sir, as I do not believe he is in the best shape to provide you with a clear account of what has happened.” Steve assented, trying not to permit too much of his impatience or anxiety to bleed through. “Sir recently learned of the existence of Ultron, and it has greatly disturbed him. He has not spoken in much depth, but from what I have been able to gather, the Ultron experiment was not a successful one in his own universe.”

Ultron. Of all the fucking things…with a cowardice like Steve had never before experienced, he wondered if he could hang up, blame poor service or inclement weather. He’d promised Bucky, and meant it, that he would do what he could to ensure that his conflicted feelings about this new version of their lover didn’t wreck things for everyone, but did it really have to be Ultron?

“When was this?”

“Roughly two and a half days ago. Since then I would describe Sir’s primary affect as anger. He has avoided the Avengers whenever possible, and has spent the majority of his time alternating between training with the Iron Man armour in the team gym and excessive alcohol consumption. I am aware it is a lot to ask, but I had hoped that, given your instrumental role in ensuring that his counterpart’s creation of Ultron succeeded…”

“Put him through.” A soft click was the only audible indication that the call had been transferred from JARVIS’s private line to that of the Tower; Tony didn’t say anything, though Steve could hear the faint sound of a glass being set down roughly on top of something and skidding. “Tony?”

“Rogers? The hell—JARVIS, what the hell? What the fuck is Cap gonna do, huh?” Steve hadn’t heard Tony that drunk in years, probably not since the immediate aftermath of him being outed as a sub. It triggered nearly ever Dominant instinct he had to protect and soothe and support; with no potential outlet for any of those compulsions, his skin immediately felt too tight around his bones and muscle.

“Well, Sir, as you would not permit the entrance of any of the other members of the team, I was forced to get more creative.” JARVIS didn’t sound remotely apologetic, and Steve decided to take the AI’s almost business-like tone as inspiration for how to proceed.

“JARVIS says you have questions. About Ultron.” Tony laughed, but nothing like the way he did when he found something actually funny. It was a harsh, raspy, ugly sound that Steve hated instantly.

“Questions. Do I have questions, Jay? I mean, I guess the really big one is what the fuck, Rogers?”

“Look,I know you’re concerned and based on what JARVIS has put together about what happened in your universe you have cause to be, but Ultron is perfectly safe.” The glass that had just barely escaped damage earlier in the call is not so lucky this time; from the sounds of it, Tony had launched it against the wall.

“Oh fuck you, I know it’s safe. I made it. Well not me, but, whatever. I think if I call him Mark 2 to you, the way I do in my head, you’ll probably be offended. Hold on…I said that out loud. Damn.” Steve tried not to roll his eyes. It wasn’t that he was against alcohol; when Tony drank safely, and for the right reasons, he was just as funny and charming as ever. But drinking like this made him clumsy and foolish and mean, all things that were the very antithesis of what Steve loved about him. “What did he have that I didn’t?”

“…what?” He heard Tony perfectly well, and if the other man weren’t drunk off his ass he’d undoubtedly skewer Steve for making him do something so inefficient as repeat himself. But how the hell was Steve supposed to begin to answer this question?

“I mean, I know he was all subby and soft and squishy and stuff, but was that really it? Was that all I had to do make you guys fucking hear me? Did he really have it that goddamn easy?” The only thing that stopped Steve from echoing the other man’s destructive impulses by shattering or tossing something was the fact that this was T’Challa’s room, not his own. Masdee would murder him on principal.

“He did not have it easy. Ultron was not easy for him. For any of us.” And wasn’t that the understatement of the century. The circumstances leading up to Ultron had been some of the worst of Steve’s life. He was furious at the implication that any of it had been easy just because it was different from this Tony's version of things.

“Yeah? Anyone grab him by the throat?” A cold prickle shot down Steve’s spine. In lieu of breaking anything, he began pacing the length of T’Challa’s sitting room.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just. How did he convince you? What did he say? I have to understand, I have to know.”

How much could he reasonably be expected to tell Tony? Where was he to start? The witch’s vision? The fact that in its wake Tony had elected to forego sleep and food and basic hygiene until Steve had bodily dragged him from the labs? He certainly couldn’t tell this man, this version of Tony who would never understand, that his Tony had begged Steve for his first punishment the next morning, that he’d sobbed as he was held over Steve’s lap and spanked until he’d confessed all of it: the vision, his fear of a looming threat, his and Bruce’s use of the scepter. (This man couldn’t possibly understand what a release that had been for them both, how close it had brought them, how Steve had never loved Tony more than the moment where he'd laid himself and all of his anxieties and anger and trauma bare.) But if he started with what happened after, the weeks Tony and Bruce had spent consulting with Thor, Stephen Strange, Odin, pretty much anyone who would listen as they took Ultron’s code apart and put it back together, then laid out a rigorous morality and ethics training program for the young AI, wouldn’t that be a lie? Would he really be answering the question Tony had asked him?

“He told me he was terrified. That a threat greater than we’d ever faced was imminent, that New York hadn’t been an accident or a one-off. He told me he’d watched me, all of us, die after I told him he could have done more.” Maybe Steve shouldn't have said what he did next; the answer was already evident in the heavy weight of Tony’s silence. But he asked anyway, because he had to know this wasn’t another in a series of horrible misunderstandings. “Did you tell your Steve those things, Tony? Did he ask?” Tony snorted; a ruffling noise followed by a warning from JARVIS seemed to indicate he had gotten, rather unsteadily, to his feet.

“Of course he didn’t. Not until it was too late and everything was falling apart. And even then he had no semblance of a plan, no conception of what it would really take to beat Thanos. Fucking ‘together.’ What a joke. I was right, I was fucking right. Ultron could’ve, and then no one would’ve, and I’d still—godammit!”

More crashing and shattering sounds filled the other end of the line, Tony’s rage and hurt apparently too much for words. Steve waited it out, unsure what to say that wouldn’t risk making it worse but entirely unwilling to abandon the other man now. (The way his version of Steve had apparently already done. How could he not have listened? Why would he have brushed Tony’s apparently entirely correct fears off like they meant nothing?)

Eventually, the sounds of destruction slowed, and then ceased altogether.

“I wish I’d been there.” Steve said it without thinking, and regretted it immediately. (He didn’t even know for sure which ‘there’ he meant—this new Tony’s past, or the present when he’d learned about Ultron.) The silence on the other end of the line lasted long enough that he wondered if Tony might have passed out.

“Why?”

“…I don’t know,” Steve confessed, shrugging before he remembered this wasn’t a video chat and Tony wouldn’t be able to see him.

“I—maybe I wish that too a little bit. Christ knows why, all you'n I have ever done is break each other into pieces. But when everything falls apart there's still some part of me that always looks for you. God I hope I don't remember saying any of this in the morning... g’night, Cap.”

Chapter Text

The fact that Steve had managed to fall asleep at all after the emotional upheaval of his conversation with Tony should have been his first clue that he was running out of time. Initially, though, Steve had been concerned with his more immediate problems, namely stopping himself from pursuing a number of equally implausible and likely disastrous responses to said phone call. These had included an immediate return to the Tower to dump all the liquor down the drains; getting the science team at SHIELD to master dimensional travel so he could kick the ass of the other version of himself; or trying to send this other version of Tony back to where he’d come from so Steve could go back to hopeless mourning instead of the bewildering combination of excitement, guilt, anger and confusion that always accompanied the mere thought of this new arrival.

Even upon first waking, most of Steve’s focus was devoted to trying to find a plausible reason to call the Tower. He could try to lie, claim that Tony had asked him to check in in the morning, but if the other man remembered enough of the previous evening to know Steve was lying that could go sideways in a hurry. If he contacted JARVIS he could at least reassure himself of Tony’s immediate physical well-being, but again, the potential for blowback on that front was high, and JARVIS had already taken a risk by contacting Steve the previous evening. They couldn’t risk undermining Tony’s relationship with the AI when his ties to the rest of the team were so tenuous. And if Steve were being really honest with himself, it wasn’t just Tony’s pulse or other baseline health indicators he was interested in. The man had sounded broken and angry and so very, very tired last night; in lieu of actually being allowed to fix any of it, Steve’s every instinct screamed out for the right to at least assure this version of the man he loved that he’d been heard. That however complicated and painful Steve’s feelings about all of this were, he cared.

It wasn’t until a tight, crisp set of knocks landed on the heavy wooden door to his rooms that he even glanced at the clock on the nearest wall. What he saw produced a sharp inhalation that didn’t manage to satisfy Steve’s suddenly burning lungs at all; it was nearly noon. (Not now, it couldn’t be starting already.) Steve bid the man carrying a heavily-laden lunch tray entrance in a voice that barely sounded like his own. From the thick leather gambeson he wore, ornately designed to illustrate numerous military victories, delivering Steve’s meal was rather below his pay grade. But the soldier appeared to have no problem with it, arranging Steve’s plate and cutlery with as much care and attention to detail as if the task were far more significant. Only when the food was laid out on Steve’s table to his satisfaction did the man turn to address Steve directly.

“General Zabu is resting after her patrol last night. But she has asked that you join her for dinner in her chambers this evening.” (She would know. Masdee was brilliant and perceptive and entirely unimpressed by the legacy surrounding Captain America, which meant she was never afraid to speak her mind with him. Most of the time all of this would be counted as positives, but now…)

“Unfortunately I’m going to join the scouting team tonight. Please pass my regards to the General…I’m sorry, I don’t think we’ve met before. May I request the honour of your name?” It was highly formalized query, but one Steve had grown used to making. Many Wakandans, especially those in the military or government branches, chose not to provide foreigners with their names upon first meeting. They used only titles or ranks until they felt the person had earned the intimacy of names often bound up in generational and national legacies that had, until recently, been jealously guarded secrets. Many in the international community read it as arrogance, or a desire to return to Wakanda’s isolationist days. To Steve, who was rarely called by anything but his titles except by the people he kept closest to him, it made nothing but sense.

“Captain Angzata Birikha.” Steve grinned.

“And I bet you came by that title way more legitimately than I did. It’s good to meet you, Captain Birikha.”

“And you, Captain Rogers. I confess that I requested to deliver your meal this afternoon. I hope it is not too much of a bother. But my Papa ran a small bookstore when I was a child, and while I loved and admired my own people and our stories very much, I had a particular attachment to your comics. He used to call my love for Captain America the family’s ‘great shame,’ but he always made sure I had the latest issues.” Before Steve could even respond beyond a chuckle at the ‘great shame’ bit, the man shook his head and stiffened into a parade rest. “My apologies, Captain, I—”

“No apologies necessary. Really. Captain America was used as a symbol for so many things when I was under the ice. Some of it I would have agreed with, a lot of it I wouldn’t have. It’s…it’s really nice to know those comics helped build connections between our parts of the world, even before anyone knew Wakanda existed. Thank you.” Angzata nodded stiffly, apparently too embarrassed by his candour to speak further on the topic, but after giving himself another visible shake, he addressed himself to Steve again.

“The General anticipated you might decline her invitation, and asked that I remind you of the time-sensitive documents you requested that the two of you review together.” Steve drew a blank for a long few seconds (another bad sign, cognitive processes starting to slow down), then nearly smacked his hand to his forehead in a gesture belonging far more to his 40s self than his current status. Masdee and Talia’s contract.

“…of course. Yes. Please inform the General that I will join her this evening, though I may not be able to stay long.”

“I’ve never found it advisable to plan on leaving General Zabu’s company one moment before she intends it,” Angzata offered, his voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. For the second time, Steve couldn’t help but bark out a laugh.

“That sounds like the most sensible advice I’ve been given in a long time, Captain Birikha. Thank you.”
*****

Tony woke with his worst hangover in recent memory. He’d forgotten exactly how dry his mouth could get, and the way his head didn’t just steadily ache but pulsed with pain, especially when scotch was involved. And to make matters worse, Dummy was zooming around the room and…those beeps were almost rhythmic. Was he doing the bot equivalent of humming?

“Ugggh Dummy if this is some kind of bizarre punishment on your part, believe me I have already learned my lesson and then some, alright? You can stop with the Mary Poppins routine.” Confirming that he was awake, it transpired, was the worst thing Tony could have done. Upon receiving signs of life from Tony, the bot’s noise and activity levels both tripled, and he wheeled gleefully over to Tony and ripped away his covers. “Okay, seriously what is it with you and taking my blankets? Do you have something against my comfort? Oh god Dummy that noise is so much louder right next to my head. JARVIIIIIIS.”

“My apologies Sir.” JARVIS did not sound remotely sorry; great, the AI was still pissed at Tony for last night, then. “But there is no calming Dummy down on Maintenance Day.” Tony imagined the words in capital letters, because even if he had no idea what that meant, it was clear that it was an event in this Tower. At its mere mention, Dummy’s squeals went damn near ultra-sonic, and he circled the bed and began pulling random clothes from Tony’s closet and dresser with his arm, delivering them in a heap into Tony’s lap.

“Well there are ten shirts and three pairs of underwear here. No socks. No pants, even. So if you intend to take this domestic thing of yours full time, I’m going to have some notes for you, buddy.” Taking very unkindly to what was apparently an unacceptable delay, Dummy yanked the blankets entirely off the bed, and then focused his lens pretty clearly on the sweater Tony had fallen asleep in the night before. The bot began rolling ominously forward, claw extended, and Tony leapt out of bed. “Okay, okay, I’m up! And I might vomit—oh, no, we’re good. Okay, I'm up. No need to start ripping my clothes off. While I put something on that does involve pants, can someone please fill me in on Maintenance Day?”

“Every four weeks, Dummy, You, and Butterfingers receive comprehensive maintenance.” There was a damn lot that JARVIS wasn’t saying, but J had always been a bit of a withholding diva when he was mad at Tony, and a part of Tony was still so thrilled by the fact that there was a JARVIS around in this universe to be pissed at him that he didn’t bother arguing. (And, given that it took him two tries to remember where on his body socks belonged, he didn’t feel it was a battle of wits he was likely to win anyway.)

Tony had barely managed to suck down a cup of coffee and take another for the road before Dummy had all but shoved him into the elevator, so it was maybe not all that outrageous that his brain took a good forty or so seconds upon entering the workshop to realize that he was not alone. James Barnes was there, listening to some godforsaken country western number and dancing with Butterfingers. Well, Butterfingers was mainly spinning herself in circles with her arm raised in the air, but Barnes had hold of her claw and was crooning to her.

Tony never should have gotten out of bed.

Before he could make a quiet retreat, Dummy squealed and raced over to join in the fun. Barnes greeted him with a wave, then blinked and peered around at Tony.

“Kill the music, JARVIS. I uh…I didn’t know if you did this, in your universe, or if you’d want to. I can go.” The bots all beeped in protest at this offer, and Barnes placed a comforting hand on You’s strut. The bot, who at least in Tony’s own universe tended to be the most withdrawn and task-focused of the three, wheeled closer to Barnes as if drawing comfort from the touch which…Tony was way, way too hungover for the realization that his own bots had apparently replaced him with James bloody Barnes.

“Well given that I have no idea what the hell’s going on right now, it probably makes more sense for me to leave. I’m hungover as shit anyway, maybe now Dummy will let me make a smoothie in peace.” Another series of beeps sounded from the bots, but the lower tone and slower intervals between the noises made them come across less indignant and more…defeated. Like they’d expected Tony to let them down. (Goddammit.)

“Or we could both stay.”

Barnes said it like he expected nothing of Tony either, like he wasn’t even bothering to get his hopes up. It should have been freeing, given that the weight of expectation he’d faced from the other version of the team had nearly crushed Tony, particularly after the Snap. But right now, combined with his bots’ despair, it just pissed him off. So Tony stomped over to the couch, lied down across it, and made a grand ‘get on with it’ gesture with his arms (all while trying very, very hard not to vomit.)

It was awkward at first; Barnes clearly wasn’t used to working with a hostile audience, and he glanced backward at Tony every ten seconds or so as if awaiting criticism. But the thing was…there was nothing to critique. Barnes was absolutely methodical. He cleaned cooling vents and filters, tightened bolts, checked cable connections, all while keeping up a gentle prattle that appeared to delight all three bots.

“I used to be on the other side of this. Maintenance Day,” he added, when Tony’s confusion apparently showed through. “The arm our Tony gave me…it’s really complex, and it took a while to work all the kinks out. But maintenance—well let’s say I didn’t have the best associations with that. So he turned it into this, this event. Worked on me and these guys,” Butterfingers whistled in protest, “and gal, sorry dear. He’d work on us for hours. Plus he’d use the time to teach me about all kinds of music he thought I should know about. For a long time it was one of the only things I had to look forward to. So when he was gone, I…well, I ain’t a genius like he was, but I couldn’t just leave ‘em down here alone. I pieced together what I could from watching him do it, and JARVIS taught me the rest.”

Even Tony couldn’t meet that explanation with malice or sarcasm. (His own bots were probably alone. He’d left instructions for their care, and he hoped Pet—someone would step up once things had settled down more, but they would definitely not be high on anyone’s list of priorities.) He couldn’t quite manage to say anything at all, at least until Dummy wheeled over to the couch and made a querying beep.

“And this bucket of bolts? How did he end up—he was living with you’n Cap before I got here, yeah?”

“He uh…he started refusing to charge. After. So I brought him upstairs to Stevie, told ‘em they had to take care of each other. Turned out their stubbornness was about equal to each other’s, which I didn’t think was possible on either side. Think they mighta saved each other’s lives, to be honest.” Barnes bowed his head, gripping the edge of the workbench for support. “Sorry. This isn’t. It was not an easy time.”

Tony was ashamed, even before he opened his mouth, of what he asked next. Whatever else Barnes was, this version of him was suffering. Mark II’s loss had cut him deeply, and he was still offering these deeply personal accounts of the time that had immediately followed without complaint.

But Tony couldn’t bear another surprise. Not one more, and especially not from Barnes or Rogers.

“Did he know? Your—did he know, what you did to his parents? Before he put that arm on you, did you tell him? Did Steve?” The air compressor Barnes had recently used to clean You’s rear vent nearly slipped from his hand. His head stayed bowed for a few seconds longer, but then he raised it to look Tony squarely in the face. (For the first time, he regretted how little he had known of Barnes in his own world. Reading his expression was virtually impossible.)

“Yes. Steve told him.”

“When?”

“Before he came to find me. After DC. ” Barnes didn’t bother asking the question, too skilled and efficient an operative to verbalize an inquiry he already knew the answer to. “Yours didn’t.” Tony stood, the need to move outweighing his hungover body’s desire to curl up in a sloth-like ball. Dummy hesitated, then began tracing a path after him as he circled the shop.

“No. Saw a video though. Watched that big metal arm crush my mother’s throat. And then when I went after Barnes for it, Rogers put his shield through my chest and the two of yo-them left me in Siberia to…well, die sounds dramatic, but with a disabled suit in the middle of a Hydra base I’m not sure what else they thought I was going to do.”

Silence blanketed the shop. Tony paced, while Barnes remained stock-still. After half a minute, the wood at the corner of the bench Barnes was still gripping split under the pressure. Butterfingers chirped in alarm, then began seeking out a broom, which Barnes seized from her when she made to clean up the block of splintered wood that had fallen to floor. (At least, the wood that wasn’t embedded in the flesh of Barnes’ palm from the look of things.)

“I got that doll. You don’t gotta clean up my mess.” Barnes was emptying the dustbin into the trash before he spoke again. “I ain’t gonna apologize for them. It might make me feel better, but it won’t really help you any; just because he was wearing my face don’t make me him. And I’ve done enough in my own universe I gotta atone for. I’m sorry that happened, though. You deserved better, from both of ‘em.”

Oddly enough, Barnes’ unwillingness to apologize for mistakes that hadn’t been his own was just as comforting as the apology he did offer. It meant they weren’t empty words designed to placate or push Tony’s grievances aside. (The contrast to Rogers’ ‘sorry-not-sorry’ letter were…certainly striking.) Dummy wheeled back and forth between the two of them, clearly trying to evaluate what he’d do if Tony and Barnes couldn’t reconcile, and that sealed it.

“You ever see them run an extended break operation test?”

“No?”

Mark II must just have not gotten around to showing this particular tradition off to Barnes, because the bots definitely knew what Tony was planning. All three let out a long string of celebratory beeps and whistles, and then hastened to clear all extraneous objects from the floor of the shop. As soon as the room was prepared, they made their way back to Tony and Barnes and lined up side-by-side right behind a piece of discoloured concrete that apparently marked the starting line in this universe.

“Alright, you know the rules lady and gentlemen. Speed of breaking is obviously paramount, but points will also be taken off for any interference with your fellow contestants, as well as for breaking any of my—the stuff down here. Also try not to run over Barnes. He’s new at this, and since he’ll be one of the judges you don’t want to piss him off.” Dummy whirred impatiently and wheeled backward and forwards a couple of inches. He always got cocky during this game. “And…go!”

The bots took off, charging down the centre of the workshop at full speed. Butterfingers, who never failed to treat it as a race regardless of the fact that stopping was the actual point of the exercise, used her arm to grab something off one of the tables and chuck it at Dummy, who responded by altering his course to nearly steer her into You. Ever the eldest sibling in attitude if not in creation date, You made a tired sounding protest that sounded like it was directed at Tony. When they neared the end of the shop, You and Dummy both took wide turns around the benches and began hurtling back the opposite direction. Butterfingers, meanwhile, didn’t bother to turn around and showed off the impressive speed of her reverse mode instead. Tony let them get closer to himself and Barnes than he would have normally, just to see what the other man would do, but he appeared entirely unconcerned by the sight of three heavy and manic machines bearing down on them both. He was too busy whooping and cheering the bots on. (Tony didn’t think he’d ever seen the guy really smile before. It was a good look on him.)

“Aaaaaand stop. JARVIS?”

“You’s braking process covered the least amount of total distance,” Butterfingers and Dummy both made a near-hissing noise Tony had never programmed into his own versions, “but taking into account their respective speeds when the halt was called, I would declare Butterfingers’ braking the most comprehensively efficient.”

“Alright, so JARVIS has registered his vote. Now, Dummy, I was impressed by your style, but I gotta take off some points for the fact that you tried to Fury Road it. And Butterfingers, you know that if you break your brother, You is just gonna make you do all the extra work, right?” You, the only one not to receive a reprimand, chirped hopefully. “See, but you went and tried to tattle, and that’s just not cool either, buddy. I think I gotta give this one to Dummy. Barnes, you’re the tiebreaker.” Barnes surveyed the bots with a furrowed brow, even had JARVIS replay the footage like it was fuckin’ Sports Centre, which…yeah, he was definitely getting into the spirit of the thing, Tony could give him that.

“Gotta give it to my gal Butterfingers. That reverse while her brothers wasted all that time rounding corners was real swell.” You accepted his defeat with relatively good grace; Dummy tried to argue the point, and when that didn’t work, he picked up one of Barnes’ shoes and threw it across the shop.

“Yo, Dummy, you wanna argue with the refs or you wanna line up for another round? That is,” Tony added, glancing at Barnes as casually as he could managed, “if you’re up for it.” Barnes beamed, a wide and toothy smile that Tony could never have even imagined on his own version. For a few seconds, the throbbing of his head felt very far away.

“Definitely.”
****

Steve had mostly learned to stop going into meals with any kind of expectation. There was just so much food available in the world now, not to mention free and accessible information about how to cook it in hundreds of thousands of different ways—he wasn’t complaining, mind, but he’d long since given up on ever feeling like he’d mastered food. That didn’t mean he wasn’t slightly surprised to enter Masdee’s rooms and find her table covered in Kentucky Fried Chicken. The steaming buckets of fried chicken, cardboard boxes of fries and beans, and styrofoam containers of too-green coleslaw just looked fundamentally wrong in this space, particularly when Masdee emerged from her bedchamber dressed in formal robes of a warm yellow. When she followed Steve’s gaze to the table, she threw her hands up in exasperation.

“When the Princess learned that I was dining with you, she insisted on planning the meal. She wished you to be comfortable, and claimed you would prefer something from your own nation. She would not be talked down.” Steve finally gave in to the urge to snicker, and after several beats of silence, Masdee joined him.

There were a few more laughs to be had as Masdee attempted to work out how to formally plate and consume the food, then gave up and grudgingly followed Steve’s advice to eat with her hands. They had never spent this much time together outside of battle and strategy sessions, so their conversation stayed mainly focused on business, though with a slightly more personal edge to the anecdotes they shared. Steve offered up the story of Peggy being the first to test the shield by shooting at him; Masdee, of course, agreed that Steve had known nothing about women, and then contributed her own anecdote involving a herd of wild goats who had nearly ruined her first stealth mission.

“In truth I still despise them,” Masdee confessed. “So of course, where does Talia ask to go during our walk today? To meet the royal goats.”

“Hey, I never promised you were picking the easy option,” Steve laughed. “I’d like to tell you that she’d avoid them if she knew you hated them so much, but I don’t think I could quite manage to keep a straight face.” It was the closest either of them had come to acknowledging the reason Steve had been asked to Masdee’s rooms that evening, but she still didn’t seem inclined to fully address the topic. Instead, she made a thoroughly disappointed face at the admittedly lacklustre cookies that had come with their meal. “Do you…did everything go alright, with the contract?”

“Hmm? Oh, yes, it was fine. I suspect Talia does not fully realize the reality of what she has agreed to yet; our methods are so different from your own that she knows but cannot possibly understand how different her daily life will be. So while I fully anticipate some revisions becoming necessary, for now we are on the same page. And you, Captain Rogers?”

Masdee was still making the appearance of being somewhat distracted by the food. After extracting a promise from Steve that he wouldn’t rat her out to Shuri, she even ordered a replacement dessert from the kitchens. But something about Masdee’s tone had been far too…knowing. Reflexively, Steve eyed the door.

“What about me?”

“Surely you are aware that I recognize the signs of Dominant deprivation. I suspected a few days ago; during the conversation the three of us had, you sometimes seemed anxious not just for Talia, but with her.” Had it started as early as that? Even Steve hadn’t realized. But increased empathy, bordering on fixation about ensuring the happiness and wellbeing of all familiar submissive was one of the earlier signs of Dom-dep. “I am unclear about the exact extent of your relationship with her, however, so I was not sure I was correct until today, when Captain Angzata told me he appeared to have woken you when he delivered your lunch trays.”

“I—I had a late night.” It was a desperate play, but the phone call from the Tower to T’Challa’s offices could at least be verified, and he had to try something. He had no desire to walk out on someone he considered both a colleague and maybe now a friend, but the longer their conversation entered around this topic, the more Steve felt like a panicked animal being chased by a much more powerful predator. (Even that was probably the damn dep talking, volatile emotional responses to relatively mundane situations.)

Masdee didn’t even dignify Steve’s excuse with a verbal response. She did, however, push out her chair enough that her hands, palms up and on her knees, were visible. Then she inclined her head just slightly, baring her neck. It was a rarely-used gesture designed to comfort Doms in distress; neither of their instincts could be tricked into believing Masdee was submissive, but by acknowledging Steve’s own Dominance, she sought to soothe and reassure those parts of him that felt threatened and edgy. (Was Steve really that far gone?) He took several long, deep breaths.

“I believe it is time we discuss when you intend to return home, Captain Rogers.”
****
The thing that Tony had learned about starvation was that after a while, your body didn’t feel like it was starving. No one knew why, exactly, it happened; some felt it was mainly an effect of adrenaline, which convinced the body that dealing with whatever was inhibiting its access to food was more important than actually eating, while others argued it was the fault of gluconeogenesis, the process by which the body deals with falling blood sugars by metabolizing fat (thereby temporarily elevating blood glucose levels while the body slowly consumes itself.) Whichever it was, there had come a point during his aimless drift through space with Nebula where Tony stopped fantasizing about cheeseburgers and fruit salads and shrimp cocktails the way he had when the food had first run out. The thought of food had felt repugnant, and even though he’d known intellectually that this was a bad sign, it had come as such a relief to just not feel hungry for a while that he hadn’t felt anything but a grim kind of gratitude.

Anger, at least the all-consuming brand that had dominated Tony since he’d learned of Ultron, also needed to be fed. It had chewed up everything Tony had offered over the past several days it with relish—the years worth of hurt and rage and frustration from his own world that there hadn’t been time to process with Thanos’s arrival always on the horizon; the incontrovertible proof that had they acted on his fears instead of dismissing them, there would never have been a Snap to undo; even what some part of him knew was an unfair obsession with how easy Mark II had seemed to have things was enough to keep it going. Everything Tony so much as looked at seemed to nourish the rage-monster that had taken up residence in his psyche. Even innocents like Rhodey hadn’t been safe from its desire to isolate and destroy.

Tony hadn’t consciously stopped providing the anger with sustenance, though looking back on what he could recall of his drunken ranting at Rogers he could recognize that he’d been poking at the guy, trying to get him to say the wrong thing and give Tony more cause to hate him than crimes committed by his alternate self. But Cap hadn’t given it; he’d been calm and even-tempered, bordering on sympathetic, and when Tony hung up after talking to him, he’d slept better than he had in weeks (which he suspected was not just an effect of the booze.) And then Barnes had demonstrated so much affection and care toward Tony’s bots, and he’d been so damn angry at his alternate-self on Tony’s behalf. He’d even recognized Tony’s growing cabin fever and offered to run out for street hot-dogs for their lunch, during which they traded anecdotes and Dummy-wrangling tricks and laughed more than Tony could remember doing in recent memory. About halfway through demolishing the meal, Tony had realized with that same sense of exhausted relief he’d felt in space that his anger had finally been starved out.

Emotional breakthroughs did not, unfortunately, heal hangovers, and once the food was eaten and the remains of the Maintenance Day festivities cleaned up, all Tony really wanted to do was sleep. But as he watched Barnes wave his goodbyes to Dummy and teasingly bid him to bring a pail upstairs for Tony, he had a niggling feeling that he’d left something undone.

“Barnes?”

“Mmm?”

“Next Maintenance Day…I could try taking a look at the arm, see if it needs any tuning up. I should have time between now and then to look at the schematics and your Tony’s notes.” Barnes didn’t look away from his efforts to pry a self-made trophy comprised of wire, paper-clips and batteries from Butterfingers’ claw, but the ear-to-ear grin that crossed his face would have been visible from a mile off.

Chapter Text

Some not insignificant part of Tony had truly believed that after he admitted to Barnes that he’d probably be sticking around in this universe, things with the team would start to change. It wouldn’t be anything overly dramatic or sudden. They’d start pointing out all the ways in which he was failing to live up to his dead doppleganger, maybe, or start hinting about how Tony could start making himself useful around here with weapons or tech upgrades. He wouldn’t honestly blame them, especially for the latter; hell, even if he was still kind of enjoying this unexpected vacation, it was only a matter of time before Tony was going to get bored and have to find some way to fill his days.

For now, though, he stood across the kitchen island from Phil Coulson, who was chopping up bell peppers for a salad and making conversation about the latest advances in medical technology. While Agent’s mind wasn’t quite genius-level like Tony or Bruce, Tony had discovered that in addition to his awesome dry wit, the guy had a delightfully eclectic set of interests that made for consistently interesting discussion.

“Of course, the problem we then ran into was the unpredictable interactions between the alien and human materials. Add to that the fact that Natasha threatened to burn SHIELD to the ground herself when she found out about the program and we decided to investigate other avenues.” Tony was strongly considering whether or not to offer information about Extremis when Coulson’s text alert sounded from beside him. (And was it Tony’s own ego making things up, or did Phil look almost regretful as he wiped the juice and seeds from his hands with a cloth, like he didn’t want to stop talking to Tony?)

“Clint wants me to check in with you about something. He, Bucky, and Natasha scened last night. Bucky and Nat are both down pretty hard, and Bucky is marked up enough that he can’t comfortably cover it with a shirt just now. They wanted to join us for lunch if we’re amenable, but not if it will make you uncomfortable.”

They were still always careful about the D/s stuff, too, constantly checking in with Tony and asking his permission for almost any kind of orientation-based interaction, everything from hand feeding to the use of soft tools like blindfolds. It was kind, and Tony certainly wasn’t ready to be present for any of the more sexual elements, but as the D/s stuff was turning out to feel like it was the least bewildering part of this whole universe, their caution was also overkill at this point. He didn’t quite know how to say that to Coulson just yet, though, so he gave his permission and soon the spy trio emerged from the elevator.

Barnes was, as Phil had warned, shirtless and covered in marks. These couldn’t have been farther from the occasional wounds that were the souvenirs of training and missions, or the faded scars from Barnes' time as the Soldier. These marks had clearly been laid down with care. They spanned Barnes’ back from between his shoulder blades to just above his kidneys in a grid-like pattern that was almost perfectly spaced. (Of course, Clint’s unerring accuracy would be a boon in other situations than battle in this universe, Tony mused.) The skin underneath the raised welts was pink, and the whole area was glistening with the remains of some kind oil or cream. Barnes himself was more relaxed than Tony had dreamed The Winter Soldier was even capable of, grinning almost dopily to himself as Clint gathered up a plate of food for them to share.

Natasha, meanwhile, sat beside Clint on one of the bar stools. She was devoid of make-up, hair loose and wavy around her shoulders the way it only got when she showered and let it air-dry. Tony had been in the same room as the other version of her when they’d both been changing on more than one occasion, and yet this was by far the most naked he’d ever seen Natasha. She didn’t make any attempt to help Clint as he collected food for all of them on three separate plates, she just leaned lazily against Coulson when he sidled up next to her to drop a kiss on the top of her head.

Tony alternated staring between the two of them without realizing he was doing it, at least until Barnes met his gaze (which had fallen again on that gorgeous array of marks) and tipped his chin in the direction of his own back.

“You can touch ‘em if you want.”

“Won’t it hurt?” The question was probably one of the more foolish ones Tony had ever asked aloud, but the artistry of the marks combined with the obviously positive effect they had on Barnes was captivating, and he was sorely tempted by the offer. Clint glanced toward them with a smile Tony would have called indulgent except for the slightly dangerous edge Tony had come to associate with Clint in Dom-mode. (It was, he mused, a disturbingly hot combination.)

“Even the air is enough to make ‘em sting right now, but Bucky knows his limits. Go ahead if you want to.” Tony made a few steps toward the super-soldier, but couldn’t quite convince his hand it was safe or appropriate to bridge the last of the distance between them until Clint slid in behind him, interlaced his fingers with Tony’s, and pressed them to Barnes’ back. The skin was warm to the touch, whether from the whipping or a side-effect of the serum (or both). Whatever oil Clint had used caused their fingers to slip easily over the welted spots, but from the way Barnes hissed and whimpered it still hurt like hell.

“They’re so precise,” Tony muttered appreciatively. Clint tightened his grip on Tony’s hand.

“We used a tool I’ve had for a while. And Bucky’s real good at being still when he needs to be; pain is almost more a meditation for him than anything else. The marks never last long because of the serum, but it’s worth it to get to see ‘em for a while.”

Eventually they stopped fondling Barnes’ welts and continued on with lunch, but the entire encounter left a heated feeling behind in Tony’s stomach. His mind kept fixating on the feel of Clint’s strong, calloused fingers in his own, and the way Barnes had pressed up into their hands despite (or maybe because of?) the obvious pain the touch caused. His own limited experiences with kink had been nothing more substantive than some name-calling and a bit of light spanking, and he’d never had any particular interest in going further with any of it. But now…well, it was hard not to at least consider the possibility given that the universe he’d found himself stranded in was basically built around it.

He was almost relieved when a blaring alarm brought all of his thoughts to a sudden halt.

“Shit,” Clint muttered, leaping up and then halting mid-motion to peer thoughtfully down at the two people on the floor near his feet. “Natasha? Bucky? Take a minute and check in with yourselves. Where you at?” Bucky’s easy lassitude was already almost entirely gone, and he followed Clint to his feet. Natasha hung her head and took several long, deep breaths before following. Tony was astonished to see unshed tears shining in her eyes when she looked at Clint, but when she spoke her voice was steady and even.

“I’m ready. I’ll go suit up.”

“Me too,” Bucky announced, but Clint reached out to grab him by the forearm.

“I’m putting some arnica on that back before you go trying to put leather and kevlar on.” Barnes muttered some kind of protest, but Clint wasn’t having any of it. “I know this sucks, and I know you’re probably still down far enough that you want the pain to linger more than you want to be comfortable. But I’m not allowing you to start out a fight at any kind of a disadvantage. Arnica or you don’t come with us for this one.”

What followed was the frantic pre-mission action Tony had once been all too familiar with. Everyone departed to their own floors to suit up, then trailed back to the penthouse muttering about lost arrows, Widow’s Bites still sized for Thor from the previous training exercise, and whether or not anyone remembered why Thor would have stored his mystical hammer under the couch. There was a weight to this preparation; this team knew what it was to come home from a mission minus one member, after all. But there were also jokes and aiding with zippers and exchanges of power bars while Coulson briefed them on the specifics. The threat itself was relatively benign—a gang of giant and genetically manipulated owls the science team of a major corporation had attempting to use to deliver mail ala Harry Potter had escaped and were spewing questionable foam everywhere—but the birds had dispersed enough that the authorities were requesting the presence of the entire team, including Rhodey who was going to ditch a meeting to join the team uptown. None of the Avengers seemed to fully realize what this meant until Phil caught sight of Tony out of the corner of his eye and stopped mid-sentence.

“You can’t go with them.” Before Tony even had a chance to agree, Coulson put his hands up in a pacifying gesture. “I know that we can’t really stop you. And please know that this has nothing to do with not trusting you, or with thinking less of you because you’re not…the other Tony. But if Iron Man just shows up in the skies again without any kind of warning, people are going to panic. Some of them might actually try to harm the team, thinking you’re some kind of imposter or—”

“I know, Coulson. It’s fine.”

As the team continued to prepare for their departure, they all kept sneaking sideways glances at Tony as if trying to catch him in a lie. The last time, he waved jauntily at Natasha, who had the decency to flush just a little and quickly look away. He couldn’t entirely blame them for their skepticism, though. Even as he watched them file into the Quinjet and fly off, Clint a familiar silhouette at the controls, Tony knew he should have at least felt guilty for not fighting to join them when they were already a man down. Turned out the only thing he felt weird about was not saying much of a goodbye. But they’d given Tony access to the comms so that, at least, was solvable.

“Nobody murder any owls that look like Hedwig, now; it’ll be terrible optics.” There was a strangled noise on the other end of the laugh that could have been a laugh or an aborted sob.

“Good to hear your voice on here again, Iron Man.”
****

With Coulson’s departure for SHIELD, Tony found himself entirely alone in the Tower for the first time since arriving in this universe. It was the best chance he was probably going to get to leave undetected, and he gave the possibility real consideration as he wandered down to the shop. If he stuck around much longer, he was going to start getting attached to this version of the team, who was so close to his own and yet nothing like them at all. As Tony didn’t really have anything to work on down here (he’d completed his repairs and upgrades to Rhodey’s armour several days prior), he ended up perched on one of the benches, patting absently at Butterfingers.

“Jay, pull up any footage we can access of the battle. And put the comms on over the speakers, input only.”

Even if Tony hadn’t witnessed the team training together, it would have been obvious within minutes that they were a far more cohesive unit that Tony’s version of the Avengers had ever been. They functioned seamlessly, not just combining their individual talents but truly working together. Some of the results were truly spectacular—like when Thor channeled his lightning to super-charge one of Clint’s arrows, or when Nat and Barnes pulled off a series of moves where one of them pretended to narrowly miss a shot as a distraction to that the other could come in from behind—but Tony’s favourites to watch were the small moments that made it clear just how well these people knew one another. Half the time they didn’t even have to announce their positions or actually request back-up; they’d clearly practiced formations enough that they could just act and trust that their teammates would be where they were supposed to be.

That didn’t mean there weren’t some close calls,. The genetically-enhanced owls had killer claws, and the foamy shit they were spraying everywhere turned out to be extremely caustic; a few of them teamed up and directed enough of it at the Hulk that they burned a small hole in his thick green skin, causing him to roar and nearly drop the civilians he had been carefully lifting to safety. Several of them screamed in terror.

“Jay, patch me through. Hulk? Big Guy?” In Tony’s own universe it had often been a 50:50 shot whether or not Hulk would make it through any particular battle with his comms still intact, but today they were in luck. Tony watched the massive green head jerk in surprise, then look to the sky as if seeking out Tony’s suit. “I’m not with you just now, buddy, it’s just my voice okay?” Hulk roared again, and Tony realized with a guilty start that without knowing how much this version of the Hulk remembered of his time as Bruce; perhaps it wasn’t the wisest move to just surprise him with his dead friend’s voice. But there was hardly any going back now. “Buddy, remember you have some humans in your hands, alright? Can you put ‘em down near that big street light about fifty feet ahead of you on your left? There’s a subway station right there that they can duck into until this is all over.”

Hulk grunted out a skeptical ‘pah,’ but thudded in the direction that Tony had instructed and deposited his handfuls of civilians. Tony intended to shut up after that, content in the knowledge that the most visceral parts of Bruce’s psyche still trusted him. But then Clint got that look in his eye that meant he was under a minute from jumping off something high, and neither Thor nor Rhodey were near enough to catch him.

Before he knew it, Tony was pacing the shop with the battle protected from five angles on five different holosceens. He was midway through attempting to convince Rhodey to bring one or more of the mutant owls back to the Tower with him when JARVIS interrupted, something that sounded like alarm in his voice. (And fuck everyone who didn’t think JARVIS was capable of emoting.)

“Sir, I have just received a call from a secure line in Wakanda on the team’s behalf. Captain Rogers is en route from Wakanda.”

“I’m sure Cap and I can avoid each other until everyone else gets back, Jay. Nothing to worry about. Rhodey, on the other hand, does he really think he’s going to make it between those two buildings? His shoulder artillery is way too broad. JARVIS patch me thr—”

“Sir, the person in question was making private contact in order to warn the team in advance that Captain Rogers is in moderately severe Dominant deprivation.” Well that…that changed things. Tony glanced at the screen, desperately seeking any evidence at all that the battle appeared to be wrapping up. But the remaining owls were now capable of reproducing and triggering some kind of rapid growth cycle; several of them were now large enough that they were capable of teaming up to lift Thor off his feet by his cape, causing him to bellow in outrage. “Sir? I can contact Ms. Potts. I’m sure under the circumstances she would agree that the slight risk of your exposure to the public is outweighed by the discomfort it may cause you to attend to Captain Rogers in such a state.”

Good ol’ JARVIS, always trying to find Tony an out. Oddly enough, the knowledge that he could escape this situation if he wanted to was enough to take Tony from overwhelming panic to just plain anxiety, which was a huge bonus. Tony could still think through anxiety; with as much practice as he had with the feeling, how could he not?

“Uh, no. She was pretty twitchy when she left the Tower in that way she only gets when she’s really falling behind on work. Leave her be, and pull up everything reliable you can give me about how I should be helping Rogers through this.” JARVIS said nothing, but the requested countdown (one hour, seventeen minutes, thirty four seconds) appeared in the requested spot, and seconds later the projections of the ongoing battle were joined by a host of scholarly and popular media articles about managing Dominant-deprivation.

Right away Tony ran into somewhat of a roadblock. Practically all of the articles were written with the assumption that the person aiming to support the Dominant in deprivation was at least partially submissive; there were things other Dominants could to basically stall until someone else got there, but from Tony could understand, none of it really did much.

Well, this was going to be his life here anyway, wasn’t it? Pretending to fit in and understand this orientation system that ruled so much of daily life? And the previous Tony Stark had been a submissive, so playing at being a Dominant wasn’t really going to help either himself or Cap in the long run.

“Alright, so what do we have as options…well half of this is just super kinky sex, and that is just…yeah, no. Jay, get rid of anything that relies primarily or exclusively on sexual forms of submission.” That narrowed the field considerably, which was both alarming and a relief, because there was no way Tony was willing to go there with any of them yet, but especially Cap. “Okay. Okay, the food stuff I already sort of knew based on what Rhodey said. Asking Cap to cook for me is gong to be way too much of a giveaway, but put food on the list, Jay. I’ll think of something. What else, what else…I can’t kneel for Cap, especially not after how we ended things last time. I don’t have a collar or anything else to ‘symbolize my commitment to my submission,’ fucking hell why is this so complicated?”

“If I might, Sir?”

Please.”

“You may be overcomplicating this. Dominance is ultimately about demonstrating care. So rather than try to mold yourself into the submissive you believe Captain Rogers or anyone most wants, perhaps you should try to find opportunities to allow them to care in ways that resonate for you.”
****

Steve prevented himself from stumbling his way into the Tower, but it was a very near thing. He made a halfhearted attempt to convince JARVIS to take him to his own floor, but the AI had strict protocols about managing dep that Steve had installed himself (along with Bruce, who was able to give the AI more specific instructions about particular biological thresholds to watch for.)

He expected to be taken to the penthouse; Natasha’s updates, while relatively sparse on specifics, had made it clear enough that the team had taken to treating the floor as a common space the same way they had when Tony—their Tony—had been alive. And while seeing the new version of Tony didn’t exactly fill Steve with warm, fuzzy feelings, the dep was bad enough by now that it felt worth a few minutes of discomfort to seek out his team and find someone able to help him through this.

He’d been absolutely foolish to let it get this bad. Masdee had warned him, had tried to send him home days ago, but then the Ssenjovu brothers had broken the perimeter of the palace. They’d gotten nowhere near Shuri, but T’Challa’s rage had been nearly beyond reason. It had taken Steve and several members of the dora to prevent him from ripping the men apart in their holding cells. And then there had been the details of the exchange program to finalize, and several meetings with other Wakandan officials that the government had asked Steve to take in exchange for promises to fast-track said program. Steve hadn’t fully realized just how severe the dep had gotten until Talia had stormed into his rooms and begun throwing his belongings haphazardly into his duffle bag.

“You’re leaving. Right now.”

“Sick of me already?” he’d teased, gulping as she’d spun around to glare fiercely at him, a filthy pair of Steve’s workout shorts dangling from her arm.

“You’ve risked so much for me. I’m sure the people I listed as references on my SHIELD application practically cackled when you called, and I can only imagine how many times and to how many people you’ve had to defend that hiring decision over the years.”

“Are you thanking me or yelling at me?”

“Both, you stubborn jackass! Because now it’s past time that you stop worrying about what’s good for me and SHIELD and the country and everyone else and take care of yourself for a damn change. The jet will be leaving in an hour. And if you make me go through my boss’s underwear drawer you should know in advance that I will sell at least half of it on Ebay.”

The penthouse was quiet and looked to be entirely empty when Steve peered tiredly out of the elevator.

“JARIVS, why would you bring me here if no one’s—”

“Hey, Cap, welcome home.” Tony, previously hidden by the shadows of the setting sun, waved lazily from the kitchen. The first thing that stuck Steve, even before his mind caught up enough to panic at the thought of being alone with this man, was the fact that Tony wasn’t wearing his boots with the lifts in them. Their Tony had barely ever worn the things, but this version had dug them out of the back of the closet on his first full day in the Tower and had practically lived in them ever since. But now here he stood, nearly a full foot shorter than Steve and padding around the kitchen in Steve’s sweater and a pair of soft, worn jeans. He looked truly at home here for the first time, and a vice tightened around Steve’s chest. “Can you fill that?”

“…uh, what, sorry?”

“The bowl.” Tony was gesturing to a clear bowl on the island that contained the faint orange staining that Steve had learned to associate with Cheesies. “Brucie-Bear has been stashing snacks all over the Tower lately, but he forgot to refill everything this morning and I don’t quite know where all the good stuff is hidden.” There was something not quite right about that logic, Steve recognized faintly. (Wouldn’t JARVIS tell Tony where things were?) But the dep was hitting his cognitive processing capabilities hard, and Tony was asking him for something. Even if Steve knew intellectually that the other man was not a submissive, his lizard-brain didn’t seem to care much at all.

“I…sure, yeah. Same thing?”

“Whatever,” Tony shrugged carelessly. Which, again, off. If Tony didn’t care what he ate, why would he be seeking out something specific? God it hurt to think; trying to keep up with anything felt like it had to try to run in basic training before he’d been given the serum. Steve pulled a bag of all-dressed chips out of the cupboard, dumped it artlessly in the bowl, and carried it over to the couch where Tony had just sprawled. Seeing no other option and not wanting to start out by being rude, again, Steve sat down on one of the armchairs.

“Where’s the team?”

“Finishing up a fight with some killer-owls. They should be back soon, but I can check in if it you want?” The thought of trying to watch a fight, let alone participate in one (which Steve would feel compelled to do if he actually witnessed the team fighting without him) was enough to make Steve feel queasy. If he could just get back to his own floor to sleep…the dep would be worse when he woke, sure, but at least then the team would be there. “Hey, can you grab me a blanket? Turns out winter in New York is just as freezing in this universe as it is in mine.”

Steve wanted, frankly, to tell Tony to fetch his own damn snacks and blankets and whatever other comforts he required. Even without being oriented, how could the man have so little awareness as to fail to recognize that Steve was in distress here? But he gritted his teeth and, after a moment of consideration, dug Tony’s—his Tony’s—heavy blanket out from inside a rarely used ottoman. He meant to hand it to the other man, but somehow found himself winding it around Tony’s shoulders instead. Tony started, but then sank into the couch with a quiet moan.

“What’s that—is it weighted? Damn that’s nice. I’ve heard they’re good for anxiety and a whole host of other shit but I never actually got around to picking one up.” Steve’s Dominant instincts, desperate for any sign that Steve was successfully providing for someone else’s needs, seized upon that gratitude and approval like oxygen; he barely covered up the way his knees almost gave out in relief by sitting hastily on the couch. It left him closer to Tony than he would have liked, but Tony was still babbling happily about the virtues of the weighted blanket and seemed entirely unconcerned by their sudden nearness. So Steve sat there, trying to recover his dignity and pretending that even the physical proximity to someone exhibiting just enough submissive behaviours to capture the notice of Steve’s instinct wasn’t soothing while some musical about newspaper delivery kids that Tony had put on played in the background.

As the time stretched on and the team still didn’t return, those small and almost certainly unintentional acts of Tony’s were no longer enough. Steve stood and began to pace the length of the penthouse, wondering whether he’d be able to lift the shield, and for how long, if he went after the Avengers now. Then Tony moved and made a slight hissing noise. It was quiet, something Steve probably would have missed entirely without his enhanced hearing, but it was there, and it was decidedly pained. Now every Dominant drive Steve had was all but screaming at him to helpprotecthelp. He gritted his teeth and tried to sound casual.

“Somethin’ wrong?” Tony didn’t answer right away. For a few moments the sound of the musical and Steve’s heavy, laboured breathing were the only noises in the room. Steve had all but given up on even an acknowledgement that he’d spoken when Tony sighed, paused the movie, and stood up at the same time as lifting Steve’s sweater off of himself. He gestured impatiently toward a long gash along his side, raising his arm so Steve could get a better look.

It was at least a few weeks old by the looks of things, but it had clearly been deep. And while most of it was on its way to scarring, there were a couple of places that carried the angry, red signs of recent infection that Steve had learned to recognize well during the War. He growled and stepped closer, dropping gracelessly to his knees to get a better angle. The skin didn’t feel any warmer than the rest of Tony’s body, which was as good sign, but up close Steve didn’t like how raw the skin still looked, like it was preparing to open up again at any moment.

“What happened?”

“Thanos. Stabbed me with a piece of my own armour, actually, which was just insulting. Then I was…well, not able to get it treated right away, so it got infected a few times. Bruce mostly has a handle on it. I’m on a shit ton of antibiotics and there’s painkillers if I want them, but I try not to. There’s, he has some kind of topical thing he puts on it at the end of really bad days, it kind of numbs the area a bit, but—” Steve knew exactly the stuff Tony was talking about, and he was on his feet and halfway to the med wing before he realized he hadn’t actually asked if Tony wanted it. But he was in pain, surely he’d excuse Steve being slightly overbearing if it meant getting some relief?

He used the trip back up from the medical wing to give himself a brief but thorough talking-to about exerting any degree of Dominance on anyone who hadn’t consented, particularly the near-exact copy of his dead lover who had no way of knowing what any of his small shows of submission were doing Steve. This lasted approximately two and a half minutes, long enough for Steve to exit the elevator, hand the ointment off, and watch Tony awkwardly attempt to angle his body and apply the cream to himself with more wincing and flinching. Steve knocked Tony’s hands out of the way, seized the jar, dropped back to his knees, and began applying a thick layer to the wound himself. Tony stiffened briefly, whether from surprise or pain, and then allowed his arms to fall to his sides and his eyes to close. (Steve had helped. Tony had been in pain, and Steve had found a way to make a difference. He was a good Dom. He hadn’t failed everyone. Hadn’t failed Tony, again.)

Chapter Text

Tony woke with that uncanny feeling where his body knew it was in the wrong place while his mind was still working to catch up. This was kind of unexpected in its own way; he wouldn’t have thought he’d been in this version of the Tower’s master bedroom for enough cumulative nights for his mind to have reset itself, but then again it was basically his old room with a couple of minor shifts..

The point is, Tony came to consciousness aware that he wasn’t quite where he should be. Cautious extensions of his legs and arms brought about aches and pops more severe than the usual symptoms of his aging and battle-weary body, and a spark of pain down his neck revealed that he wasn’t lying flat, or with his head on a pillow. It was propped against something, probably the arm of a piece of furniture.

That sensory memory was enough to bring it all back. He was on the couch, and unless things had changed since last night, he wasn’t alone. Carefully, not wanting to be caught out if Rogers was already awake, Tony crooked an eye open and peered down at the other end of the couch. (Yep, that was one passed out super-soldier.) The TV was still going, playing the loop of Cap’s comfort-media that Tony vaguely remembered requesting JARVIS play once he was sure enough that Rogers wouldn’t hear him. It was quiet, but enough interference that Tony didn’t hear Natasha until he saw her step into his field of vision.

Reflexively, he looked her up and down for any visual indicators of how the toll the battle had taken. JARVIS had quietly informed him around 10 that it was over, but that the team would have to undergo decontamination showers on top of the usual post-mission debriefing, so their return was likely several hours out. It was only then that Tony had allowed himself to join a softly snoring Cap in dreamland.

Some of the owl’s foam had apparently made it through Natasha’s thick bodysuit, because her left forearm was covered in a yellow paste that didn’t fully disguise the angry redness of the skin beneath it. Her lip had been split, too, and her hair was matted suspiciously against the right side of her head. Tony didn’t dare stand yet, but he squinted as surreptitiously as it was really possible to squint, trying to get a better look. Natasha had never been one to accept being fussed over, so he expected some resistance to what he knew were, to someone with her training, probably laughably bad efforts at subtlety. But Natasha was too busy staring back, eyes darting between Tony and Steve as if trying to fit the single remaining piece into a puzzle where it just wasn’t fitting.

“I’ll show you mine if you show me yours?” he offered. Natasha cocked a brow, catching the slightly flirtatious note in Tony’s voice for what it was (so sue him, he’d flirted with Natasha for almost the entirety of their relationship), but then she shrugged and sat down in the armchair across from him.

“Mild concussion; SHIELD and Bruce insisted on a CT and I’m clear of any other head trauma. Second degree burn on the arm.” She reached out her uninjured arm to scrape the remaining all dressed chips from the bowl on the coffee table, and then jerked her chin toward Rogers in wordless question.

“He came back from Wakanda last night. They phoned ahead to warn us he was in Dominant deprivation.” Natasha’s face lost what little colour it had, and then she unleashed a string of multi-lingual curses that sounded no less vicious for the fact that they were whispered. Tony half-expected the onslaught to wake his napping partner, but Cap didn’t even twitch. (The deprivation must really wreak havoc on even Cap’s system.)

“I should have realized. He never explicitly said, but he didn’t correct me or anyone else when we assumed that he was doing some long-distance Domming with other members of the team. It’s not perfect, that kind of thing, but it’s enough to get us all by on long-term missions. Pizdets I miss the days when he was incapable of even the most basic levels of deception!” Tony sat awkwardly, unsure what to do or whether he should stay or go.

“I…I couldn’t do much, obviously. But JARVIS gave me some suggestions, and I tried my best. He seemed a little more stable by the time he finally dropped off to sleep, but I can’t be sure.” The frustration drained slowly from Nat’s expression and posture, leaving her standing in the middle of the room looking suddenly tired and small. (Natasha almost never actually looked even half as tiny as she was. It was one of the things Tony had always admired about her.)

“I’m sure you handled it beautifully, Tony. I’m just sorry you had to. You can go get some rest in your own bed now. One of us will handle Steve from here.”

Tony should have been grateful to stretch out in his luxurious California King. Not only was it far kinder to his spine to be off the couch, but he was officially relieved of all Cap-watching related duties. Keeping watch over someone whose condition he barely understood had been fucking terrifying even without the added level of it being Rogers’ health and sanity in his hands.

So now that it was finally over, how come his mind couldn’t stop replaying the whole thing on a loop? At first it had felt almost silly, honestly, making up little tasks for Rogers to accomplish so that he could feel useful. They’d been superficial enough that there had been moments where Cap had almost seemed to catch on. But then the guy had dug out the weighted blanket, which Tony would bet money had been a treasured item of Mark II’s. It was just a blanket, except for the fact that it wasn’t, because it was yet another material sign that they’d taken Mark II’s trauma and anxieties seriously, here. They had tried to help. And it wasn’t like a damn blanket would have stopped Thanos, but it was a small part of how the dynamics here were entirely different. And that, apparently, had stopped Thanos.

Instead of reacting with just anger or jealousy, though, Tony’s mind had offered up the uncharacteristically hopeful thought of not just staying in this universe, but somehow coming to belong here, too. So when his side had twinged a while later, he hadn’t swallowed the involuntary sound of pain down. He’d even told Rogers what had happened, trusted him with the knowledge of another of Tony’s mistakes. And Cap’s response… (Rogers had gone to his knees in front of Tony. This time not as the result of some tragically bad inter-universe miscommunication, but simply because he wanted to help. Wanted it badly enough that easing Tony’s pain had seemed to soothe Cap on a visceral level, far more than anything else Tony had asked of him. For just a few minutes, with Rogers’ hands gentle on Tony’s side, it hadn’t even mattered that this wasn’t really the version of Tony that Cap wanted to save.)

Best Tony could figure, they were even now, he and Cap. Rogers had talked him through his drunken, self-pitying rampage, and Tony had hopefully stumbled through managing Dom-dep without causing any permanent damage. They were square. (So why the hell couldn’t he sleep?)
****

Steve came to with a start as a thick piece of leather was pressed—well, sort of more shoved, really—into his hand. That particular mystery was fairly easily solved; one glance revealed it to be Phil’s leash, the one he rarely used but which matched Steve’s favourite of his collars. The context of having said item given to him took a bit longer to piece together through the lingering fog of Dom-dep. But the dep wasn’t as bad as it should have been, wasn’t even as severe as it had been before he’d left Wakanda…(Tony. Oh god, he’d…)

“Tony is fine. He knew exactly what he was doing last night; he had JARVIS look up how to support Doms in dep, and he offered the help he could while remaining well within his own limits. He didn’t tell you because JARVIS told him the probability of you turning down the help if you knew what he was doing was as high as ninety three percent.” Steve barely had time to digest the news that he hadn’t forced the very low level of Dominance he’d exerted last night on an unwilling partner, which was both a relief and hugely disconcerting. (Because that meant Tony had knowingly, willingly offered Steve his submission, and what was Steve supposed to do with that news? How could he feel so grateful and angry and guilty at once?) Because then Phil added, his cool tone entirely at odds with his otherwise submissive bearing, “He certainly did a better job of practicing self-care than you have done for yourself these past few weeks.”

And of course Phil was pissed, possibly more pissed than any of the team. The man took his job as handler extremely seriously, and while Steve hadn’t actively lied to anyone, he also had been far from truthful. All of them had seemed to assumed that he was practicing some long-distance Domming with other members of the team, and Steve simply…hadn’t corrected any of them. Not a lie, but definitely not the full disclosure they had all come to expect from one another.

“I’m sorry,” he started, but Phil shook his head.

“I’m already barely able to let myself go down for you. If we keep talking about this I’m going to take myself right out of headspace. Let’s go get this Dep under control and then we can sort through the rest of it. Idiot.” Steve’s hand tightened on the leash, even the insult Phil had added not enough to distract his instincts which had suddenly become aware that he was in close proximity to a willing submissive. Phil stumbled forward slightly, but caught himself and took several more steps until he was situated between Steve’s open legs.

It all happened quickly after that. Steve had Phil undressed by the time the elevator ride to his floor was over, and he watched with unapologetic, undisguised lust as Phil crawled into the living room beside him. God but he’d missed Phil’s thighs, how thick and toned they were, the way the muscles bunched so deliciously under his skin when he moved.

“Straight to the spanking bench.”

However pissed he might be at Steve, Phil was never one to disobey a direct instruction from a Dom when he was in headspace. (Undoubtedly it was why the team had decided on him instead of someone like Bucky or Nat, who might have pushed back against the Dominance just for the sake of it.) He was compliant even when Steve got him settled on the bench, which included a built in cock sleeve that Phil despised almost as much as he loved. The man had a hard enough time not coming without permission when in headspace, and combining the promise of pain with the torment of the sleeve was more of a challenge than Steve would normally set him. But today, instincts turned all the way up to 11, he wanted as much as Phil could possibly give him.

“You’re beautiful like this, Phil. So open and good for me.” He traced a teasing finger down the line of Phil’s spine and to the tip of his glistening hole. Someone had already prepped him, and Steve slide a finger inside just because he could. He had left the arm, leg and waist straps loose enough that Coulson’s hips jerked in reply, and the sub whimpered anew as his cock slid forward and back in the sleeve. Steve’s body sang with control, the tension at his shoulders already beginning to release. “I find myself feeling a little old fashioned today. How would you feel about starting on my belt?”

“Green!” Phil gasped, ever a sucker for just a glancing reminder that the man topping him was also Captain America. It was something they had to be careful with; in headspace, Phil was incredibly sensitive to anything that could be construed as critique when it came from his childhood idol, so no shades of Cap could enter their play if punishment was involved. And Steve himself honestly had little interest in bringing that part of himself into orientation-based play very often. For him, it was mostly a joy to leave Cap behind during scenes. But ‘old-fashioned’ had come to be a kink of Phil’s, a nod to everything he loved and valued about Captain America, and he also adored simple implements that would have been available to Steve in the 40s.

“This isn’t a punishment,” Steve added anyway, just to be safe. “I’m going to warm you up with my hand and then use my belt on your gorgeous ass and thighs, not because you’ve done anything wrong, but because it makes me feel good. It makes me feel so good to see you covered in my marks and desperate to come, Phil.” The submissive wriggled impatiently against the bench, and Steve wasted no time in laying down a heavy smack with his right hand. “You’re going to count for me. You may come in the sleeve any time you’d like. Or, if you’re very good and wait for me, I’ll fuck you nice and hard after and you can come in my hand.”

“No sleeve,” Phil grunted immediately. No surprise there, though Steve suspected the choice would be taken out of Phil’s hands. Whoever had prepped him (Natasha, probably, she loved giving teased, desperate subs to other Doms to play with) had sent Phil to Steve already on a hair-trigger. And Steve wasn’t planning on going easy enough to let Coulson calm himself down any. “One, Sir.”

By the time Steve had warmed him up, Phil was already wailing. (It was one of his favourite parts about Phil as a sub, how uncontrolled and vocal he got so quickly. The contrast between that and his out-of-headspace self never failed to make Steve feel immensely powerful.)

“Twenty with the belt now, sweet boy.” He unbuckled the leather and teased Phil with it for a couple of of minutes, trailing it down his back and against his sides and across the heated skin of his ass. Phil’s legs flexed, toes curling against the footrests of the stand as he visibly fought between twin urges to press up towards Steve and remain still to avoid further stimulation from the cock sleeve.

On another day, Steve would have drawn this out. Would have talked to Phil and told him how good he looked, how excited Steve was to hurt him and fuck him and see him come. Today, he just let the belt rest on Coulson’s back long enough for Steve to get undressed, then picked it up again, doubled it and wrapped it around his fist, and then began to swing.

Phil came into the sleeve by the fourth strike, then sobbed his way through the rest of the set from a combination of overstimulation and frustration that the sleeve had won another victory over his own self-control. Steve’s orgasm was almost an afterthought to that moment, to the deeply Dominant satisfaction of watching his sub overcome by pleasure in a way that had not quite been forced, but had also not arrived entirely on Phil’s own terms.

Steve took his time with the aftercare, lavishing Phil with praise and touch and small acts of service. Usually, this would have been enough to keep Coulson in that sweet, quiet place for hours, but it had been less than forty minutes when the other man glanced at his watch, and then nudged Steve.

“This was nice, but you should get dressed, Sir. Nat will be down in ten minutes to walk you to therapy.”

“I…what?” Phil shrugged and leaned over to kiss Steve’s cheek.

“Hey, I’m not the only one who’s pissed. You got what you needed to stabilize, and now it’s time to get to work.”
*****

“Have a seat.” Seiko Domen was a SHIELD-approved therapist. She hadn’t personally treated any other members of the Avengers before (one of Natasha’s many requirements, she’d informed Steve on their walk here), and on first glance she appeared mostly unthreading. She was a middle-aged woman clad in a dark blue collared shirt patterned with white flowers and grey slacks. Her face was round and bracketed by shoulder-length black hair cut into a bob, and she sat cross-legged on Steve’s armchair. (They were meeting on his floor, another requirement of Natasha’s.)

Even if Steve didn’t know that this woman had level ten clearance, or that everyone in SHIELD who had worked with her spoke of Dr. Domen with nothing but reverence bordering on fear, he would have known she was not quite as unthreading as she appeared. Nat would never have chosen somehow who’d go easy on him, plus there was a quiet air of absolutely precision about this woman (the angle at which she’d rearranged the chairs, the way she sat still without seeing stiff) that was too encompassing to be an accident or an act. Typically, Steve liked people who were capable of upsetting expectations like that, but today…well, today he was not remotely in the mood.

“Not sure that’ll be necessary, Dr. Domen. No offense, but I really don’t think grief counselling is necessary at this point. I need to figure out how to deal with the new Tony, not…” Domen peered down at the tablet in her lap, scrolling through a text-document. Something about it rubbed Steve the wrong way. It felt too similar to the way the first round of SHIELD doctors that he’d seen right after he’d been pulled out of the ice had looked more at their computers than at Steve himself.

“And how do you expect to form any kind of relationship with any version of Tony Stark when you have yet to grieve the loss of the first?” Steve sputtered angrily. How dare this woman think—what, that Steve wasn’t aware of everything that had lost that day? She could never even comprehend the pain of it, the crushing ache that followed Steve around every second—“I do not mean that you have not mourned. There is a difference.”

“I’m not interested,” he growled. He knew he was being unfair, but Steve was beyond caring. He wished absently that he’d been allowed to shower before the ssesion; he felt like he could still smell traces of the salve he’d put on Tony’s side last night, and his brain seemed to be taking this as an invitation to keep replaying remembering what it had felt like to put hands on Tony after so long. He was tired and angry and defensive and confused, and not remotely in the right frame of mind for this.

“The first step in this kind of therapy,” Domen continued, “is for the patient to process the event story of the death. Understand, Steve, that I am familiar with the facts of Tony Stark’s death. I have seen every bit of footage that exists, read every report, reviewed each and every picture. I am not asking you this out of some sense of voyeurism, or because I have not prepared for our sessions. What matters to me is knowing your narrative, the story that you tell yourself about this loss you have faced.”

Steve appreciated on some level that she didn’t bother with introductions or softball questions designed to put him at ease. Domen was being frank about her goals, and about the fact that this was a standardized process. To her, Steve wasn’t special; his loss was not unique. After years of journalists and strangers and coworkers calling Tony’s death things like unimaginable and incomprehensible, it was oddly comforting to think that there was a set of rules for how to deal with this.

Didn’t mean Steve had any interest in following them, though.

“Like I said. Not interested.” Domen didn’t look disappointed, or angry. She didn’t even glance up from her screen. He peered down at his watch. (One hour, fifty-eight minutes to go.)
****

“I need a job.”

“Sir, I believe you meant to contact our HR department. The CEO of Stark Industries is not directly involved in—”

“Pep, it’s me. I need a job.”

After several failed attempts at sleep, Tony had given the whole thing up as a bad job and retreated to the workshop. He’d managed to fill close to an hour with rearranging various parts and tools to reflect his own preferences rather than Mark II’s. This at least made the place feel a little bit less uncanny, plus he would stop stabbing his fingers on the skillsaw when he was reaching for wrenches. However, it didn’t solve the larger issue, which was simply that Tony didn’t actually have anything to do down here.

He briefly considered pulling up data on the team’s uniforms and trying his hand at some upgrades. He’d gotten a couple of ideas while watching their fights yesterday; while in some ways their tech seemed a bit more advanced than Tony’s own team’s gear, Mark II definitely hadn’t had the chance to get far with nano-tech, and there was just a world of possibility there. A thin coating of it over Barton’s bowstring, for instance, would greatly enhance the tensile strength. And since nanoparticles barely added any weight, he could probably add a few protective layers of it to the most vulnerable spots on Nat’s suit without facing complains about stiffness or reduced mobility. But that all felt…intimate, like something he should probably ask before he did. And Tony didn’t want to ask any of them anything when he still felt so off after the night before.

It had taken what was probably an inappropriate length of time for Tony to remember that before fighting Thanos had taken over his entire life, he’d actually had other jobs. Several of them (like consulting for SHIELD) weren’t viable options now, but surely there was some way he could help SI out on the sly? Make up for years of putting Pepper off and refusing to sign the things he was supposed to?

“T—you’re not supposed to be calling me here, remember?”

“Pepper, Pep-in-my-step, Pepperony to my pizza—” She made that kind of laugh/sob sound that it seemed to be Tony’s lot in life to draw from her these days. (Would he ever be able to make any of them uncomplicatedly happy, or would Mark II’s absence always linger between them, an invisible but weighty shadow?)

“You can’t touch anything for SI. When the board finds out about all of this they’re going to search for any sign at all that I knew before they did and didn’t inform them; there’s still a few members of the old guard who will never forgive me for not going back to weapons production and are always looking for opportunities to oust me now that y—he’s gone. A sudden increase in projects from R&D that could only have been made by you…I can’t chance it, I’m sorry.”

Tony’s mood was darkening by the second, and being in the shop with nothing to do was only making it worse So he regretfully made his way back to the penthouse, a half-formed plan to take a sleeping pill and have a long afternoon nap in the back of his mind.

For once, the space was entirely empty, though evidence of the team’s recent presence was everywhere. Clint’s Calvin and Hobbes coffee mug was on the table, the blanket Natasha always favoured when she was injured lay bunched on top of one of the armchairs. As Tony traced the room, his eyes fell on the purple kneeling pillow. It had been shunted off to the corner once it had become clear that Tony wouldn’t have any need for it, but now he dragged it back to the centre and stood over it, peering down at the thing like it was an unexploded bomb.

It was longer than a standard pillow, rectangular and heavy. A press with his foot left an imprint that took close to a minute to fully smooth out again (probably memory foam in there then.) The fabric was well-worn in places, but had obviously been cared for well, no signs of staining or discolouration.

Tony tried to imagine what it had been like for Mark II to use it. Had it been something routinized? Had he always taken time to kneel at ten in the morning or something? Nah, that didn’t feel right, at least not to Tony. If it were him, he’d want something more spontaneous. He’d want to be able to get off the phone with a grumpy investor or emerge from the shop after a spectacularly failed attempt at a new project, grab the pillow and just…surrender. Hand it all over to someone else for a while, the way he’d watched Coulson quite literally offer up his worries to Natasha.

With one more guilty look around the room, Tony sank down to his knees. His nerves led him to drop a bit too quickly, and he winced as his joints protested vigorously. And even once the pain of that faded, it took some fidgeting and adjusting to make it comfortable; he had to figure out how much space to leave between his knees, and how to distribute his weight, and what to do with his hands. The whole thing was rather more complicated than the rest of the team made it look when they did this. Eventually, though, after some pretty undignified wiggling and grunting and shuffling, he settled into a comfortable position and allowed his eyes to drift shut.

Chapter Text

Steve was inspecting the visible portions of his chair like the thing was entirely alien to him. There wasn’t, honestly, all that much to see. Like most of the furniture Tony had selected for Steve’s personal floor, it was simple and classic: warm brown leather and sleek lines. The leather was scratched in a couple of places; the one Steve has just run his index finger over was by far the deepest of the marks, originating from a mishap between Dummy and a stray kitten Hulk had once smuggled into the Tower after a mission. There was a chip in the wood veneer on the front of the armrest too, the result of Steve losing his temper in the early days of his residency here and breaking a glass. He considered with bitter self-depreciation how easy it is for him to mentally recount the history behind every imperfection on this meaningless piece of furniture compared to what he was actually being asked to discuss. Which was of course, the same thing he’s been asked about for three sessions now: the day they’d lost Tony.

“Steve. We’ve been at this for a few sessions now. And while I’m happy to hear yet another treatise on why the Dodgers should have stayed in Brooklyn or instructions how to retrieve Hawkeye from any vent work—that one may actually come in useful at some point—I am frankly paid too much to serve as the acquaintance you make small talk with.”

“I am trying,” he insisted. “I mean, not at first because I was pissed and Natasha hadn’t given me any warning and—anyway. I wasn’t trying before but I have been for the past coupla times. I do want to try to get better, to make it so that I can least be around…him. I just don’t think I can.” Steve could count the number of times he had willingly given up on something on one hand, so the admission cost him. He really didn’t want to fail at this. He definitely didn’t want to have to go back down to the team and tell them, what, that they’re going to have to figure out some kind of time share where the new Tony gets the team part of the time and Steve gets them the rest? As if they’ve been through some kind horribly messy divorce and can no longer stand to be in the same room as one another?

But he just couldn’t see any other way forward. He’d seen enough over the past couple of days to realize that the others had already become attached to the new arrival. Just this morning he’d walked into the penthouse kitchen to find Bucky of all people refilling Tony’s coffee while chatting happily away about some book they’d both decided to read about algorithms and systemic oppression. Natasha had teasingly called their plan to get back together and discuss it after reading a book club, and Phil had jumped on the idea, arguing that having an external push to make time for non-SHIELD related reading would be welcome. By the time Steve had made a hurried exit back to his own floor, several of them had been planning on making a whole evening of it early next week. It wasn’t togetherness in the same way it had been with their own Tony, of course; even aside from the absence of orientational dynamics, there was still the occasional awkward pause or conversational misstep. But those were fewer and farther between compared to when Steve had left for Wakanda, and tempered by unmistakable signs of affection and understanding on both sides.

“That’s not surprising. I reviewed every public statement you’ve ever made about Tony Stark before we met, and do you know that you’ve never actually used the words dead or died in any of them?” He blinked, opened his mouth to refute the claim because that just couldn’t be right, could it? “It’s all been euphemisms—gone and lost, usually. You weren’t in denial enough to be totally disconnected from reality, but your mind definitely worked overtime to protect you from encountering the totality of what happened.”

I’ll never accept this. He’d told Bucky as much the day it had happened. How had Steve turned into this mess, a man who lived in his memories and couldn’t manage to give voice to the reality of his present? Was he really this far gone?

“Don’t go into it trying to tell me the whole story. Break it down into small pieces, as minuscule as you need. Start by telling me one thing about that day. It can be anything at all and ideally shouldn’t be anything particularly meaningful. What pajamas you were wearing when you woke up, what you ate for breakfast, anything.”
****

Tony’s knees twinged for the fourth time in the last hour, and he groaned in frustration, bending down to try to rub some of the soreness out and vowing that he would take some time off from experimenting with this whole submissive kneeling thing. The others made it look so easy, staying in the same position for hours at a time. But however else Tony might be considering adapting to the orientational dynamics here (maybe, possibly), the pain was an important reminder that the distinctions between he and the people in this universe still occasionally had a very material impact on what submission could look like.

He’d gotten kind of carried away, he supposed. Very little tended to stop Tony’s mind from its constant replay of his every mistake and anxiety, and while the kneeling wasn’t a magical cure in that regard, it did tend to take the flow of such thoughts from a sea of steady, crashing waves to more of an occasional trickle. The most recent time he’d actually managed to fall asleep kneeling, which was how he’d ended up staying in the position for far too long and limping his way through the next several days.

It had been stupid to forget, really, that he wasn’t and could never be like the subs from this universe. And to make matters worse, he was fairly certain Natasha suspected something. She hadn’t come right out and said it, of course, that wasn’t her style. She had definitely noticed his limp that first morning after, though, and he’d caught her watching him several times since. As if eager to confess their guilt, Tony’s own eyes always wanted to fall onto the kneeling pillow, hidden innocently back in the corner of the penthouse living room. Fighting to make them linger on the TV, or on whichever member of the team happened to be speaking, was far more of a challenge than it should have been. (But then Tony had never really gone in for the espionage stuff.)

Natasha, along with most of the rest of the team, was thankfully out of the Tower today. This had left Tony free to venture down to the shop and break into SI’s system. (The firewalls had clearly been changed since Mark II had passed, and while whomever had done the work was good, they just weren’t equal to any version of Tony.) In less than half an hour, he’d located the worst offenders in the attempted coup against Pepper, deactivated their credit cards, alerted two of their wives about extramarital affairs, and programmed the phone of the one who had attempted to find a loophole to deny Pepper’s holiday bonus to play an endless loop of Rihanna’s “Bitch Better Have My Money.” He’d also, with a slightly more guilty conscious, worked his way into Pepper’s private server in order to find some of the ongoing R&D projects and leave corrections and suggestions, along with an unsigned and triple encrypted note telling her she didn’t have to pass any of it on until after the news about his presence in this universe went public.

It was a gloriously productive morning, knee pain aside, and he worked until his music stopped and JARVIS’s smooth tones declared,

“It is one o’clock, sir. You asked me to remind you of your appointment with Doctor Banner.” Ah, right. More sub-training. Brucie-Bear had been curiously tight-lipped about what this particular session was going to entail, but the guy had also been endearingly excited about it all morning. He’d confirmed the time with Tony three separate times, and then had spent the better part of the morning whistling to himself as he’d puttered around the kitchen.

This made it all the more shocking to enter Bruce’s lab and come face to face with the Hulk. For a moment, Tony was struck utterly dumb. It had been so long since he’d seen the Hulk in person, and longer still since it had really been the Hulk instead of the amalgam that he and Bruce had formed to fight Thanos. It was also a sudden and harsh reminder that Tony had no idea at all where Bruce and Hulk stood in this universe. They functioned well enough in a fight, that much Tony had been able to tell watching them the other day. Outside those situations where they agreed to focus on an immediate threat, though, what was their relationship like? Did Bruce still despise and resent the Hulk, the way he had those first few years in Tony’s universe? Was he working on different ways to reign in the Hulk’s power and rage? Had this version of Bruce taken another approach entirely?

Stepping backward into the shadows slightly, Tony simply watched. While the shock of encountering a solid wall of green when he’d been expecting Bruce had pretty much dulled his other observational senses, it was clear now that Hulk was…well, not agitated in that pants-wetting way that meant anyone in the immediate vicinity needed to clear out, but not post-battle exhausted either. (These were basically the only two states Tony had ever seen the Hulk in—again, he didn’t count the Bruce/Hulk mash-up that Bruce had turned them into.) His head was in his massive green hands, fingers occasionally pulling at strands of his and Bruce’s curly hair; every half a minute or so, he made quiet sounds that sounded like a cross between an angry grunt and the little humming noises that Bruce made when he was thinking.

“Hulk know this one. Banner no interrupt. Dalton say atoms of same element are alike, have same mass.” Another pause, and did that mean—was Bruce talking to the Hulk, quizzing him on middle-school science? And was the Hulk responding? “Theory updated when atom—atom…broke?” Hulk knew the answer wasn’t quite right before he even bothered consulting Bruce this time; he sighed heavily and smacked himself in the head with enough force that it would have left anyone else with a low-grade concussion. And if there was one thing Tony Stark had never been able to just sit back and watch, it was Bruce or Hulk’s self-hatred manifesting. He reached up (way up, he definitely would have worn the boots with the lifts if he’d known who he was going to be dealing with today) and put a hand on that big green bicep.

“None of that, Jolly Green. You were really close. They split the atom. Broken would mean it was whole and then someone destroyed its structure; the atom was always made up of smaller elements than Dalton thought. He just lacked the technology to be able to visualize it at that level. So no one knew until they split it apart and could see what else was inside—kind of like smashing, actually.” Tony could have gleefully lectured about the development of atomic science all day, but even he had some level of self preservation instincts, and the Hulk had been still, entirely still, since Tony had made his presence known. He’d stepped too far into the room to be able to make it to the door, but if these labs featured the same security measures as those in Tony’s world, there should be a few Hulk-containment methods in here that could be voice activated...

All of his admirably strategic thoughts were put rather on hold when Hulk leaned down, stuck his nose in Tony’s hair and sniffed. Audibly. Then a large green hand was reaching out, hovering near Tony’s arc reactor without touching it directly, followed by sound somewhere between a moan and a growl. It was quiet in a way that the Hulk so rarely managed to be, but all the more devastating a sound of pain for that.

“It…really you. Banner try explain, dead-not-dead….Hulk not understand.” Hulk hung his head with this admission; he wasn’t nearly at the intelligence level of the Hulk-Bruce combo that Tony had teasingly called ‘Professor Hulk’ one or twice, but clearly he took pride in Bruce’s efforts to teach him about the world. He didn’t want to have to confess to failing.

“Honestly, buddy, I don’t understand it either. Only parts of it. But I do know it’s damn good to see you.”
****

“He didn’t finish his coffee.” It was such a stupid way to start telling the story of his lover’s death that Steve wanted to seize the words back from the silence they had erupted into. Dr. Domen, however, was sitting forward in her seat and, for the first time, had put down her tablet. “He…Tony hated call-outs that came before he finished his first cup of coffee. The cleaning staff all had standing orders not to touch his mug until he got back, and it didn’t matter if the damn thing was ice cold by the time we finished what we’d been doing. The first thing he’d always do when we got back to the Tower was finish that cup of coffee.”

He expected it to come pouring out of him like a sieve once he had broken through that first barrier. It didn’t. It felt like he was trying to drag the words out, as if they weighed too much for even his strength to bear and were determined to stay lodged forever in his gut.

“Tell me something else, Steve. It doesn’t have to be in any kind of order. Remember I’m not looking for something comprehensive or even sensible like a mission report. All I want is your narrative. Anything that you think of when your mind goes back to that day.”

It seemed morbidly indulgent to let his mind linger on that particular set of memories, honestly. On any given day a good portion of Steve’s mental and emotional energies were devoted to keeping those kinds of thoughts safely contained, unless it was one of the times he was allowed to retreat to Tony’s room. (He choked at the realization that he would never be able to do that again now that the new Tony had officially moved in. It would never smell like his Tony again.)

“I…I don’t remember much about the fight. She…she had us separated for most of it, spread across the city chasing our own tails. I was in Queens, I remember because she was all for symbolism, so she had me running through Flushing Meadows by all the old Wold’s Fair relics. But I don’t remember how many guys I fought or—I mean, the Fridge was empty. Actually empty. Everyone we’d ever put away, on solo missions or as a team…one of ‘em made it through the breastplate my uniform, I remember because Tony had just upgraded it and I was thinking about how angry he was gonna be. How I’d probably have to dig him out of the shop—he always took it so hard when our tech or our suits didn’t hold up in a fight. He wanted to protect everyone…he used to go to hospitals and cuddle the babies, you know.”

It was such a non-sequitur, even in a conversation made of them, that Domen couldn’t entirely mask her surprise.

“Yeah. He’d go to to NICUs and PICUs, hold kids whose parents weren’t there, or needed a break. He’d be there for hours sometimes. I think…I think she must have known, somehow, or at least sensed that while any of us would respond badly to her bringing a kid into the fight, Tony would stop at nothing…she drew him out into an industrial area. Alone. The rest of us had our own fights going, and he had called Rhodes for backup but he was still twenty minutes out. She had hacked the comms so we could hear the child screaming, crying, begging for help. Tony went in, he had eyes on the kid on the ground floor of this abandoned warehouse. He flew in, tried to pick her up. She faded to nothing in his hands.”

“What happened to her?” Steve heard himself laugh, a humourless, agonized sound that tore at his throat on its way out.

“There never was a child. Wanda was…no one, including us, really understood until that day how powerful she was. The kid was just a projection she had made with her magic, powerful and realistic enough that it could be heard and seen, but completely without substance. She needed…she said she needed to make sure that Tony knew he was about to—to die for nothing. That he didn’t get to be a hero. I tried to tell him we were coming, we’d be there soon, but she cut the comms. I don’t know if he heard, I don’t…” Steve would never know what the last thing Tony had ever heard was. Didn’t know, wasn’t sure he wanted to know, if it had been Steve’s own words of reassurance, or if Wanda had spoken any more to him before she’d taken his life. “I raced there as quickly as I could. I don’t know how many I took out on the way there, I had this horrible feeling…but before I was even to the warehouse, I looked up and there was Iron Man. Only it wasn’t…I’d seen him fight so many times by then. It was always like…well, I compared it once to watching the ballet with Natasha. The suit was huge and powerful, but he always moved so smoothly and gracefully in it. And every attack was precise, with exactly enough power to incapacitate but never seriously harm unless it was unavoidable. This…this wasn’t like that. I watched the suit kill five enemies with a single unibeam blast. No hesitation, no warning, nothing. I knew then that something was wrong, kept trying to talk Tony down, call him off…but I didn't realize until afterwards that that…that had been JARVIS grieving. He had just lost his creator and his best friend, and he wanted to kill every single person who had contributed to that loss. He didn’t stop until there was no one left. He waited until the rest of the team got back, so I wasn’t alone…that’s when he finally landed the armour and told us…that he’d lost Tony’s vitals forty-seven minutes and thirteen seconds before. He was dead. It had been quick and, from what JARVIS's sensors could tell painless, the kind of death only magic can give you. But Tony wasn’t coming back.” Silence filled the room. Domen probably thought he was done. Hell, Steve had thought he was done. “I didn’t talk to JARVIS for months afterward, you know. I was so unbelievably angry that he'd waited, that he’d followed Tony’s ridiculous Avalon protocol….I made him stop monitoring my floor, and the rest of the team helped me install manual controls for the things JARVIS used to handle like lighting and climate control. It was so petty, such a foolish thing to—”

“You needed someone to punish, just as I did, Captain Rogers. We are both of us vengeful in our grief; I would never judge that which I so fully understand.”

Now…now Steve was done. A distant part of him was aware that Domen probably had more to say. Hell, he knew enough of protocols to be aware she would at least want to debrief, make sure that Steve wasn’t going to be on his own tonight. He wanted none of it. Steve had done what was asked of him, had spoken those hateful fucking words (deaddeaddead Tony was dead he was never coming back). He had nothing left to give.
*****

After extracting no less than five promises from Tony that they would spend more time together soon, the Hulk consented with relatively good grace to giving Bruce back control of his body. Tony could easily have spent an additional few hours quizzing Bruce on all the details of how he was going about training the Hulk to share a consciousness without provoking a physical transformation, but Bruce impatiently herded him into the elevators, mumbling about Hulk having already put them behind.

When they actually got to the penthouse, though, Bruce stood frozen for a minute at the threshold where the hardwood floor of the main living area turned into the tile of the kitchen.

“Sup, Brucie Bear?”

“Okay. So before we go any further, you remember your safeword?”

“Infinity,” Tony supplied immediately, and with none of his customary snark. He had already learned that jokes about anything related to the safeword, or consent more broadly, were not appreciated in this universe, even by Clint who will usually laugh at anything.

“And you remember when to use it?”

“If anything we are doing or that is being said makes me feel coerced, manipulated or is in any other way negatively impacting me. I can also say yellow if I need a break or to slow down, but not stop whatever we’re doing entirely.”

“Good.” With hands that appeared to be very slightly shaking, Bruce opened the fridge and unearthed several plates of food. In addition to threatening post-its directed at Thor and Clint, each of them was covered in clear cling wrap, and contained all manner of small, bite-sized portions of food. One was a mix of fruit, cheese and meat; another contained a colourful variety of vegetables with several kinds of dip in the centre. The third was a selection of desserts including bite-sized brownies, mini-cakes and bright macarons.

“All this production over lunch, Brucie bear? I know I’ve got some issues with food stuff, but you don’t actually have to be afraid to give it to me, you know.” To prove his point, Tony ducked his hand over the wrap and made to steal an olive, but found it quickly pushed away. “Okay, see—”

“One of the only ways that Tony…our Tony was comfortable demonstrating submission in public was when we went out for food. He absolutely adored being hand fed, and whatever qualms he had with his submission were never enough to take that from him. I’m telling you this partially because when we’re finally ready to go public, there will undoubtedly be events involving food and you need to know that people will be expecting it. That isn’t some kind of ultimatum; if it’s not something you’re comfortable with then we’ll find another way. But lately, I’ve been trying to figure out how to make your problems with food easier.”

“I’ve noticed, Snack Ghost.” That, at least, dragged a grin out of Bruce.

“So I wondered if maybe we might consider combining those two aims—prepping you on expected submissive behaviours and helping your own issues with food—by trying out some hand feeding.”

Bruce offered this with the air of someone proposing an experiment they have little but academic curiosity invested in, but Bruce had also never been a particularly good liar. Even without the Hulk as a rather dramatic indicator of any strong feelings, Bruce had never learned to affect the polished, smooth shows of disinterest that had been some of Tony’s earliest lessons, nor was he trained in out-and-out deception the way Clint, Natasha and Phil all had been. He wanted this, and badly.

“Sure,” Tony shrugged.

“You don’t have to—”

“I know, Mean Green.”

“I really don’t want—”

“Seriously, Brucie, you’re either going to feed me or I’m going to make off with that plate of desserts and not be seen for several days. Make up your mind and do it quickly.”

Bruce settled them across from one another on adjacent cushions on the living room couch. For a moment Tony considered offering to kneel for this little exercise (it honestly seemed like the more natural way to do this), but decided that would be giving rather too much away. A few seconds later, Bruce held out one of the garlic-stuffed green olives. Tony opened his mouth, and then bit down on the olive and Bruce’s fingers hard enough that the latter yelped and drew his hand back.

“Shit. I’m sorry. I’ve done this, I mean with like, dates and chocolate strawberries and stuff, but on most of those occasions I was pretty drunk, and I don’t—”

“Shh. You’re fine.” Where it had been stuttering and anxious just minutes before, Bruce’s voice had dropped into that lower, smoother cadence that Tony had come to learn meant he was feeling the press of Dominance. “You just need to slow down. This is about getting food into you, but in our world it’s about more than that. It’s a way for a Dominant to demonstrate commitment and attention, and it’s a way for the submissive to place an immediate, essential need in their Dominant’s care. You are under no pressure to eat more or less than you want, or at any particular pace. Your only job in the world right now is to enjoy, and to tell me if you want more or less of something in particular. Let’s try again.”

This time, Bruce offered a piece of cut up bell pepper accompanied by a buttermilk ranch dip. Tony at least succeeded at not gnawing on the guy like an animal this time, though when a bit of the dip came off the pepper he reflexively swiped it off Bruce’s finger with his tongue. As soon as he did he glanced at Bruce in apology, but the other man just smiled and repeated,

“You’re fine. It’s a ritual, Tony, just like some of the others you’ve seen us practice. You’re not being set up to fail here. You’re not going to make me angry, and you can’t do it wrong.”

And that…that was enough to make tears sting at Tony’s eyes for just a second. (There was always a way to do things wrong, and he almost always succeeded at finding it.) He closed them, pretending it was in response to the bit of brownie Bruce offered next, then let them stay closed when he found it somehow easier than figuring out what to do as he watched the food slowly moving towards his face. Eventually they developed a rhythm. True to his word, Bruce never tried to rush or hurry things along. He didn’t get upset when it turned out Tony didn’t like the hummus they had in the Tower, or when Tony asked for more of the cereal milk pastry. He didn’t mind when Tony’s lips or tongue lingered to retrieve the last remnants of favoured items from his fingers. He answered Tony if he asked a question, but otherwise allowed the silence of the room to be accompanied only by the gentle sounds of their shared meal.

It wasn’t until he was practically fellating Bruce’s index finger to ensure he’d gotten the last of the juices from a particularly plump raspberry that Tony realized his jeans had grown uncomfortably tight. He had no idea when during this whole process it had happened, but he was harder than he had been in recent memory, and had zero smooth ways to escape the situation unnoticed. (Fuck fuck fuck why had he had to ruin this? Why did Tony always have to make it weird?) Panicked, he opened his eyes and looked at Bruce, attempting to gauge the damage. Bruce stared back, his pupils blown so wide the brown of his irises were nearly invisible.

Chapter Text

The only way that Tony was made aware of time continuing to pass was the slow expansion and contraction of Bruce’s chest and abdomen. In any other scenario Tony would have skipped the foreplay and gone in for the kiss by now; he already had so many ready-made cheesy lines about wanting a taste of something other than finger-foods, it was basically a crime to not use them. But he couldn’t quite make himself close the small gap between them. It felt…disrespectful, somehow, of Bruce’s Dominance, and the effect it had managed to have on Tony despite his lack of a corresponding orientation. So he waited, clenched his fists to try to avoid the temptation of providing his aching cock with the relief of at least some friction. Bruce’s eyes, still all pupil, tracked Tony’s movements, unapologetically observing, and the thought of having all of that genius-level intellect brought to bear on him, having Bruce learn Tony’s body and mind with the same slow, methodical precision he did anything else… it was devastatingly hot. (It had come as a surprise, at first, to learn that Bruce was classified as the highest level Dominant in the Tower after Steve, but now Tony could almost feel the force of it, orientation or not.)

He shuddered, body unable to take the heat of anticipation without some kind of response, and the moment was broken. The sharp edge of arousal and Dominance left Bruce’s gaze as if it had never been there at all, replaced with wide-eyed panic, and the other man jerked backward with more violence than he had the day Tony had poked him with an electric probe. Seeing Bruce scard and backed into a corner was not exactly a new phenomenon, but Tony himself had never been the cause of it before. It hurt. It dumped ice into his veins and left his skin feeling prickly and pulled tight over his bones. Bruce seemed to realize it after a few seconds, and he reached out across the gulf between them with a halfhearted,

“Tony.” But Tony had exactly zero interest in waiting for Bruce to figure out how to let him down gently. It wasn’t as if the reasons weren’t painfully obvious anyway; even if Bruce hadn’t been confusing his friendship with Tony for the love and attraction he’d felt toward Mark II, the simple fact of the matter was that Tony was not and could never be a submissive. Not the way Bruce wanted and needed. It had been foolish to ever pretend otherwise.

Tony had worn his camera-ready smile for so long in the other universe that it came easily now. He even managed a playful little wink at Bruce as he stood and smoothed the lines of his clothes, ignoring the continued ache from his groin with as much dignity as he could manage.

“Don't worry about it, Big Guy. Intimate situation for you, literal apocalyptic-level dry spell for me, it happens. Doesn’t have to mean anything.”

At least this time Tony got to be the one to walk away from Bruce instead of the other way around.
****

Steve had been back at SHIELD HQ for less than two hours, and he was already wishing he had done as Natasha had suggested and taken an official leave. The first forty minutes or so, which he’d spent checking in with his deputies and watching an elaborate training exercise Phil, Clint and Natasha had designed for the new agents, were fine. It was a damn relief to be out of the Tower, to be thinking of something other than Tony and therapy and all the ways that the new version of the man was already changing everything.

The problems started when he got back to his office. Steve had long since accepted that he would always have an absurd amount of e-mail. Way back at the beginning he’d tried to respond to all of them; it seemed rude not to. After he had spent his first three days as SHIELD director doing little else, however, his Tony had intervened. He’d sat Steve down and talked about the myriad of reasons people sent emails, and how even some of the ones that requested replies or were marked urgent were comparatively low-priority. They’d spent the better part of a day practicing sorting messages using Tony’s inbox as a model (mainly, Steve suspected, because Tony got a thrill out of it whenever Steve deemed a message from the government or the Stark Industries board unimportant), and Tony had also designed a program that ranked e-mails automatically.

So when upwards of two hundred messages were sitting in his highest priority inbox, the one typically reserved for Avengers-level threats, Steve knew his morning was going to take a turn for the worse. He took a long gulp of coffee, sat back in his chair and opened the most recent one.

Director Rogers,

Further to my previous message (timestamped 23:50), I must stress the urgency of a meeting to discuss your proposal to pilot test Wakandan workplace orientational practices at SHIELD. As you know, United States federal law strongly oppose any intermingling of orientational and occupational dynamics, and several members of Congress have already reached out to me to express concern that SHIELD may be attempting to mount a challenge to these restrictions. While some small concessions toward orientation must occasionally be made, the workplace should continue striving to remain free of matters that might cloud and confuse professional duties.

The Wakandan model is also of particular concern because of their reported use of cross-training methods. As a True Dominant, I’m sure you can appreciate the concerns of the Coalition for Natural Orientational Wellness advocates who worry about the potential for such procedures to lead to wide-scale rejection or manipulation of assigned orientations…

Nearly all of them were like that. Steve could have stared a bingo card of the major themes that came up in each and every message: the workplace is for work, cross-training is evil, you’re a True, don’t you know? The boldest of them even brought up Tony directly, ‘reminding’ Steve that his own submissive hadn’t always embraced his orientation, but he’d been so happy once he did! Did Steve really want to deny that kind of healing journey to others?

He felt nauseous by the time he finally made it through them all. Of course he was glad that Tony and the team had been able to find a balance that allowed Tony the submission he needed without sacrificing any of the wonderful things that made him who he was. But did people seriously believe that if Tony had decided to pursue another option, rejecting his submission while remaining physically and mentally well, Steve would have tried to stop him? Sure he would have been heartbroken, but it wasn’t his decision to make for Tony or for anyone.

And if his convictions needed any strengthening, the only message that hadn’t made him want to throw the entire computer out the highest window at HQ had come from Talia. The agent was as insolent and irreverent as ever, calling Steve ‘old man’ and cracking jokes about all the ways she was going to be able to best him the next time they sparred, but the words had none of the bite and snap that used to be Talia’s baseline for all communication. He saved the picture she’d attached, a grinning Talia and a scowling Masdee surrounded by a herd of goats, and turned the monitor.

It was going to be a long day.
***

In what was becoming far too common a scene, Tony stood in the elevator of Stark Tower with no clear destination. He’d gone down to the shop at first, planning to continue his sneaky work for SI, only to find that Pepper had replied to his encrypted plots to save the R&D department from itself with one of her own.

Tony, these notes are incredible, we'll definitely use them. And I know why you went after the people you did and I adore you. But that little stunt had your fingerprints all over it, and now the board is worried that I either found the next you and are hiding him, or that I’ve somehow upped my hacking game—do not phone and yell at me for using the word hack Tony I mean it—and they’re both scared and pissed off. I know this is difficult, but for both our sakes I need you to stay away from anything related to SI until we release your presence here to the public. It shouldn’t be too much longer.

Given all the time that Tony had spent trying to avoid getting work done for SI, it was a sick and cruel irony that now that he needed the distraction, he was being shut out.

“J, I don’t care what the environmental system scans say, they’ve gotta be buggy or something. It’s freezing down here. Raise temperature another 5 percent.” His AI did as he’d been instructed without commentary, for once, and Tony wasn’t sure if the silence was comforting or if it made him feel even more lonely. Either way, he had to get the hell out of here.

Which was how he had ended up standing in an unmoving elevator, contemplating the absurdity that had become his life.

“JARVIS, who’s in the Tower right now?”

“Excluding Stark Industries staff, maintenance workers, and others not on a need to know basis regarding your presence here: Dr. Banner, or rather his green companion, is in the playroom in the sub-basement. Captain Rogers is due to return shortly, though he has a scheduled appointment that I would not suggest interrupting. And Agent Coulson is working from his office in the Tower today.”

Well, Bruce wasn’t an option for obvious reasons. And Cap, even if he hadn’t had whatever mystery plans, wasn’t much better. Their interactions since Rogers’ return had been cordial but distant, and Cap spent most of his time on his own level. He was usually joined by at least one member of the Avengers, so at least the guy wasn’t alone, but even Tony could tell it was starting to put a real strain on the team not having him around much. He would have been the one to leave and give them some space if he’d had anywhere to go, but whether because it was clearly a pattern from when Mark II was alive, or because they didn’t totally trust Tony alone in the space for long, at least two members of the team were almost always in the penthouse when he was there.

That left Coulson. Which…maybe not the worst idea. Coulson’s role as handler for the Avengers had been a mostly abstract thing in Tony’s own world, a taunting reminder of another way the team had gone wrong almost from the very start. Here, though, it hadn’t taken long to realize that Coulson had fulfilled all that promise and then some. Tony had witnessed first-hand how the man’s mere presence was sometimes enough to impact the team, drawing Clint out when he otherwise seemed inclined to retreat, and soothing the more brutal outbursts of Thor’s rage.

“J, make an appointment with Agent Coulson for,” he glanced down at his watch, “2:30.”

“Sir, I’m sure Agent Coulson doesn’t require you to make an appoint—”

“Book it, JARVIS.” Tony would start how he meant to go on, damn it, and he wasn’t going to Coulson as a friend, or a fake-submissive or any of that.

Phil seemed to have gathered as much based on how Tony had requested his time, because when he stood to greet Tony, it was with the bland, bureaucratic air that Tony’s own version of the man had spent most of his time projecting.

“How can I help you?”

“I need a job.” Phil’s eyebrows rose slightly, betraying his surprise. And to be fair, it was a slightly humiliating thing to admit, but Tony could see no other way forward. The Avengers (plus Pepper and Rhodey, neither of whom could risk having their work connected to Tony until he came out) were the only ones who knew Tony was here. If he was going to fill his days with something, they were the only ones who could help. Tony shivered again—was the heating in the whole damn Tower malfunctioning?—and laid it all out as plainly as he could.

“I’m bored. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for end of the world style intrigue, but I can’t just sit around all day except when you guys want me to play good little sub. Despite my reputation back in the day, I’ve never been good with that much leisure time.”

Coulson sat back in his chair and frowned, staring at a spot somewhere past Tony’s left ear in thought.

"Damn, of course you are. I’m sorry, Tony. I think after everything you had been through we were all focused on trying to make sure you got a break. But I should have realized…” He shook his head. “Did you have something in mind?”

“Well, I thought maybe I could consult.” The words didn’t even come out with any bitterness. Hell, maybe all of them would have been better off if they’d stuck to Natasha’s original recommendations and kept Tony at a distance from the Avengers Initiative. “I know we have to be careful about the overlap with SHIELD, but since Cap runs it and all, I thought maybe—your Tony did great work, but I don't think he ever got far with nanotech, and I’ve done some pretty great things with that. I could upgrade the team's suits, maybe take a look at their weapons…” Tony trailed off, somewhat appalled to realize he had somehow progressed from offering to begging.

For the first time, Coulson really looked at Tony, and his frown deepened. Tony considered making his second quick exit of the day, wondering with a distant kind of distress if there was a record for that kind of thing and how close he was to breaking it. But when Coulson spoke again, he was back to his usual brisk efficiency.

“That’d be great, Tony. The team and the folks at SHIELD do the best they can to maintain everything, but we haven’t honestly made any major improvements to the team’s gear since…well, it’s definitely been a while.” (The pause was unlike Coulson. Another trace of Mark II. Another gap inhabited by his ghost. He sounded like he’d been great and all, but Tony was really starting to hate the guy, which just took self-hatred to a whole new level.) “And even if you're not an active member of the team just now, we should still have you sit in on training more often. You were a huge help during the mission the other day. JARVIS, pull up the Avengers’ master calendar, please?”

Tony and Phil worked for close to two hours, hammering out a schedule that would see Tony spending roughly twenty hours per week on SHIELD and Avengers projects, and roughly another ten overseeing training and other team-specific activities. Add to that his ongoing lessons about submission (ugh), and all of a sudden his days had a shape to them, a sense of purpose and direction. He didn’t realize until midway through the process that he didn’t feel cold any longer, or that when Coulson has slid his chair around the desk so they could stop having to rotate the holographic timetable back and forth between them they had wound up with their legs pressed against one another. But with the memory of Bruce’s horrified expression this afternoon playing on a constant loop in his head, Tony couldn’t have made himself move for anything.
****

Steve hadn’t spoken in therapy. Again. It was getting absurd, he knew it was, but he had been awake for nearly all of the past three nights dreaming of Tony’s death with renewed vigour, and he was pissed right the hell off that Dr. Domen had dragged all this up again. It felt like it was doing more harm than good, and all Steve wanted at this point was to stuff all this back in the ugly, broken box in his mind that he kept it in most of the time.

And to top off the truly horrible day he’d had trying to put fires out at SHIELD all day over the Wakandan orientation program, his therapist had given him homework.

“Death may end a life, but not necessarily a relationship,” she’d said. “I’d like you to do some thinking about what kind of relationship you would like to have with Tony—your Tony—how you can hold onto your bond without denying the fact of his death. Spend some time, no less than say half an hour, journalling on this. Just put pen to paper and write whatever you’re thinking, don’t stop to edit or critique or second-guess. You don’t have to share all of what you say with me, but I will expect to discuss some of your thoughts during our next session.”

Natasha came up to meet him when the session was over as she often did. She was carrying a bag of take out that smelled absolutely heavenly (he was almost positive it was from the Italian place on Bleeker that was one of Steve’s favourites, and his stomach growled approvingly), but she jerked it out of his reach when he made a grab for it.

“Nope, sorry. These are movie night provisions.”

“You’re evil,” he informed her. They’d been trying to talk Steve into joining them for a team movie night since he’d gotten back from Wakanda, but that had been a tradition they’d held with their Tony, and the thought of allowing this new version to take his place as if he’d never been there didn’t sit right with Steve.

Still, it had now been weeks since he’d spent time with the team as a whole. He missed them. Sure he loved spending one-on-one time with them, and he appreciated the way they’d made sure that Steve wasn’t left on his own during the evenings that he couldn’t face spending with the new Tony, but it wasn’t the same as the riotous, chaotic experience of being with them as a whole. And movie nights were a special time, filled with chatter and obscene amounts of food and shared blankets and free touches. Steve found himself unwilling to give that up to the new Tony to have all to himself.

“Save me the eggplant parmesan or I swear I will eat every single piece of garlic bread,” he threatened, ignoring Natasha’s smug grin. (Hell, it had been a while now, and their minimal interactions had been fine. Seeing Tony in a more informal setting, buffered by their entire team…it might even be nice.)
****

Naturally, Tony didn’t show for the movie. At first the team tried to wait him out; it would hardly have been the first time that a version of Tony Stark was late for something due to a brainwave or lack of sleep or simply forgetting what day it was. After half an hour had passed, though, both Steve and Bucky were eyeing the food and each other with what Clint had long ago termed supersoldier hanger.

“JARVIS, ETA on Tony please?” There was a pause, far longer than JARVIS usually took to confer with other members of the team.

“Mr. Stark regrets he cannot join you this evening. He has ordered specialty popcorn and candy in apology, and he hopes you enjoy your evening.”

Skip the human interaction, supplement with money and apologies. Yeah, the guy sure sounded like Steve’s Tony, at least the way Tony had been at the beginning, before he’d trusted them to want him more than they wanted his stuff. Steve had helped get him there once, with persistence and gentle reassurances and, eventually, the comfort of submission. But this wasn’t his Tony, and therefore it was neither Steve’s right nor his responsibility to step in. So he tore into the takeout and curled up between Bucky and Natasha with every intention of enjoying the movie and the familiar presence of his family.

Except that none of it felt familiar, not entirely. The news of Tony’s absence had brought a different energy to the room. Everyone was a slightly subdued version of their usual selves, just a bit too quiet and polite and still for it to feel like a regular movie night. Steve did his best to bring the mood up, but it was like someone had taken away the vibrant colours that normally painted their group dynamics and replaced them with muted, dull shades that could never compare. Finally, mercifully, Phil paused the movie and turned to stare at Bruce, who was cradling a container of Tony’s stupid expensive popcorn like it was a child or a chest of treasure, with narrowed eyes.

“You know something.” Bruce didn’t deny it (and thank God, the man was a terrible liar at the best of times), but he didn’t speak either. He just put the popcorn on the floor and hid in his face in his hands in a childlike gesture that managed to ratchet Steve's concern up several degrees. With the entirety of the team’s attention on him, however, the poor guy didn’t really have a hope; it only took a few more probing questions from Coulson and Nat before Bruce sighed.

“I hand fed him lunch today.” Steve jolted in his seat like a shock had gone through him. That had been theirs, Tony had loved being fed and Bruce had just—Natasha silenced him with a look, but he still allowed himself a single discontented grumble.

“I can imagine that would have been a…fraught experience for both of you.” Phil’s tone was descriptive, devoid of judgement or emotion, and Steve almost hated the other man for how good he was at this, how contained and calm and neutral he could be in the face of the bombshell that had been dropped on all of them. Bruce nodded miserably.

"It was, but I…he had such a hard time with food here, at the beginning, but it’s been helping a lot for me to leave little snacks around the Tower rather than forcing big meals on him. So I thought this would be a useful extension of that, and a chance for him to get experience with a form of submission that will more than likely be expected of him once we go public.”

"And it went badly?” Phil guessed.

“…no. It…god, he responded beautifully to it, maybe even moreso than—than.” Than their Tony, Steve filled in with another quiet growl. Had Bruce forgotten just how lovely their Tony had been when he’d been fed? The way his sinful tongue would play with their fingers, how he’d go quiet and soft and peaceful, accepting his submission without a fight the way he so rarely managed? They were some of Steve’s favourite memories, and the comparison rankled. “He ate more than I’ve seen him manage since he got here, and he was relaxed and responsive. So fucking responsive. I couldn’t help it, I swear I would never have done it if I’d known how he would respond. Or how I would. I didn’t do anything, when I realized we were both…aroused I left, but then he looked so hurt and now he’s not here.” The air felt like it was sucked from the rom as Bruce stared around at all of them with thinly-veiled desperation. “Please. I wasn’t trying to manipulate him or force this kind of reaction. I know he’s not a sub.”

“I’m not entirely sure that’s true.” Natasha had positioned herself so that most of her face and body were masked by shadows created by the dim lighting and setting sun. She hasn’t used those kinds of tactics to hide from them in ages, but even for her this was not bound to be an uncontroversial statement and she undoubtedly knew it. “Even leaving aside his response to the hand feeding, I’m fairly certain he’s been practicing kneeling. The pillow keeps moving a few inches here and there every couple of days. He was limping with no known cause the other morning and avoided answering questions about the reason, and he blushes every time he looks anywhere near that corner of the room.” There was another noise that Steve wasn’t sure didn’t originate from him, at least not until he saw Clint put a hand on Phil’s shoulder and murmur something that Steve couldn’t quite hear.

“Oh my god he was dropping. He came to see me today, and his behaviour was…odd. He was seeking out both touch and approval, and he kept shivering like he just couldn’t warm up. I didn’t think a lot of it at the time, to be honest, because we don’t know him well enough to have a sense of how abnormal some of that is. And he calmed down after a bit. After we…”

“After you what?” Natasha prompted from the shadows.

“After we worked on a schedule for how he’ll spend his time here.”

And if there had been any doubt before, that was the end of it, at least for Steve. Submissives craved routine, structure, order. It was another aspect of their Tony’s nature that the man had so often despised, because he found it to be so at odds with the processes of discovery and invention. Like most aspects of Tony’s orientational needs, they’d managed through compromise, bookending Tony’s large blocks of unstructured time in the shop and the labs with morning and evening routines that weren’t optional except in cases of world-ending emergencies. If making a daily schedule, of all things, had been the thing to calm this Tony down and bring him up out of what sure as hell sounded like subdrop, then he might very well be some version of a submissive after all.

Chapter Text

“So, just to recap.” Clint was drawling in that way that most people read as amused or even callous, but which the team had long ago learned meant he was attempting to mask the strength of an emotional response (usually anger, but sometimes fear made Clint sound this way too.) “Tony was accidentally taken into some version headspace, maybe for the first time in his life, and then promptly abandoned. He immediately proceeded to drop, as did Bruce I can only assume.” Bruce nodded tightly, all the muscles at his jaw clenched. “Phil kind of accidentally brought Tony out of the drop a bit, but he’s still upset enough by the whole thing that he’s hiding from all of us. Oh and he may or may not have been experimenting with other forms of submission for days now, without anyone but Nat figuring it out.”

As reality set in, the energy in the room turned barbed and prickling. The signs of unease were everywhere; Bucky, too restless to remain still, was standing, weight shifting from foot to foot. Clint, who was almost never still except in moments of crisis, sat with a stiffness that was entirely at odds with his sprawling posture. A rumbling noise from outside was enough to confirm Thor’s mood without looking at him at all (and damn this meant Steve was going to have to make yet another apology to the meteorological society for his teammate’s unpredictable effects on weather pattens.) Bruce’s head was buried in his hands while he took the long, deep and measured breaths that meant he was trying to avoid an unplanned transformation.

Steve…Steve felt like he was reacting as two people at once. The first was a Cat-10 Dominant aware of a submissive in crisis. The instinctual response alone would have been enough to raise the tiny hairs on the back of Steve’s neck and curl his hands into fists, even if he knew nothing more than that. And he did, of course, know plenty more than that; he didn’t know much about this particular version of Tony, but it was still, well, Tony. He was alone and hurt and afraid, and if he really was some version of a submissive then Steve had the capability to make those things better. He was built to soothe those kind of hurts, to provide guidance and care and comfort of whatever form a submissive (TonyTonyTony) needed.

The other Steve, the one who had spent all week reliving the loss of his dead lover whose face this new version of Tony wore, he was….well, detached wasn’t quite the word for it. It reminded him of the first time he’d opened Natasha’s file to find the section usually devoted to fingerprints blank except for a brief note: operative lacks fingerprints due to combination of physical and chemical treatments during adolescence. See other identifying features under Sec. 4.2.

(The loss of her prints didn’t seem to bother Natasha, or cause her any pain. Hell, it was an undeniable boon in the business they were in, which was why the Red Room had done it to her in the first place. But Steve had often wondered whether that wasn’t worse in some ways, to lose a primal marker of identity in such a way designed to erase the trauma of the loss itself. No scars, no bruises. Just a blankness where a something should have been.)

The second Steve was just like that, so ruined deep beneath the surface that trying to even mark the space of the loss, let alone heal it, felt hopeless. He had barely started mourning the loss—the death, a brutal voice jabbed, no euphemisms allowed—of the first version of Tony Stark; starting right back at the beginning again with another felt not just hopeless but cruel to both Steve and Tony.

The others were stunned, neck-deep in grief and guilt and whatever else they’d all grown to feel about the new Tony. (The first Steve was right there with them.) Oddly enough, though, the second variation of Steve proved the most useful out of everyone involved in this particular situation. He was the only one capable of focusing on the strategic and the practical, on what needed to happen next instead of what had occurred hours before.

“Bruce.” Steve stayed far away from his Dominant tones, which could easily have pushed a dropping Dom into further discomfort, but he injected just enough Captain America that it cut through the haze that the other man appeared to be in. “Take a drop kit down to the workshop, or wherever Tony is right now. There are generic ones with the first aid kits in the main bathroom. JARVIS, the emergency override codes haven’t been changed, correct?”

“They remain the same, Captain Rogers.”

“Good. Bruce, don’t bother about information-gathering tonight, you hear me? There are things you’ll need to know from Tony eventually, but don’t let that get in the way of providing adequate care for him now.” Bruce was on his feet before Steve finished speaking, slamming his whole palm against the call button for the elevator even as JARVIS was already opening the doors. With Bruce, and therefore Tony, attended to, Steve focused his attention on the rest of the team. “And it looks like it’s about time the rest of you have a conversation about what it is you’re looking for from Tony, sub or not. If…if he is a sub, though, I’d suggest maybe building on what Bruce did today. Continue to teach him the things he needs to know, but also make that a space to let him experiment, figure out what he wants. And for the love of God do not tell him you know about the kneeling. Let him come to you with that.”

“You keep saying ‘you.’” Phil phrased the observation as a statement, not a question, which meant he already knew Steve’s reasoning and was forcing him to make it plain to the others. (Phil was a great handler, and also sometimes Steve sort of hated him.)

“I can’t…I’m so not even close to ready.”

“But you’ll be there eventually.” Another non-question. This time it came from Bucky, who Steve suspected phrased it that way because he didn’t want to risk asking something when he might not get the response he wanted. Steve hated that he couldn’t Bucky that there was no cause for fear. He’d known they would fall for Tony eventually if he let them, but he hadn’t expected it to be so fast. He certainly hadn’t imagined that he’d find himself on the periphery of life in the Tower, not when these people had been his whole world for what felt like forever.

“I don’t know. I’m…I’m trying. And I won’t, I promise I’d never make any of you choose or somethin’. But please don’t ask more than that of me for right now.”
****

Moving through a space and a life previously inhabited by another version of himself often felt to Tony like a curious mixture of violation and recognition. Nothing so far, though, had felt so intensely like both those things as opening up the other Tony’s schematics for his team’s suits and weaponry.

He had permission from Coulson to be doing this, now so it wasn’t the team’s privacy it felt like he was breaching, but rather Mark II’s. The signs of his love for them were achingly palpable in the documents. It spread through his notes (Move armband 1.2 inches down Clint’s left bicep; change composition of non-stick polymer for Nat’s catsuit, too stiff in legs during training session), and wound through the innumerable sketches and chemical formulas and testing data that dotted the screens. It was all practical stuff, because that was how probably every version of Tony Stark best knew how to demonstrate attachment to someone, but the detail, the sheer volume, the attention to comfort as well as efficiency and effectiveness…the guy might as well have doodled his initials and the team’s and surrounded them all with a big heart.

A lollipop (was that a chupa-chup? Tony hadn’t seen one of those since he was a kid) danced into his field of vision. He wasn’t honestly much of a sweets guy usually, but something about it seemed strangely appealing just then, so he made a grab for the stick and stuck the candy in his mouth as he kept an eye on the diagram of—wait, had Mark II seriously made Cap a photon-based shield? Had this version of Rogers actually accepted something like that, so contemporary and reminiscent of the technology of Tony himself rather than his father?

“I neglected to teach you about something pretty important during our lesson earlier. Could I maybe have a do-over?”

He wasn’t facing Bruce yet, so for just a couple of seconds Tony allowed himself to squeeze his eyes shut, pretending like a child that if he couldn’t see the problem, then he wouldn’t have to deal with it.

“I told you we’re good, Brucie. You don’t have to—well, whatever this is.” His ’s’ sounds came out muffled and clumsy from the lollipop, which just gave this whole thing a new level of absurdity.

“I want to. It was never that I didn’t want, well, pretty much anything you want to give me.” Tony couldn’t quite help but snort, which lead to Bruce reaching out to touch him for the first time in the conversation. It was a hand pressed to the small of Tony’s back, nothing in the grand scheme of things, but it felt like sucking in the first deep breath after nearly suffocating. “It’s true, Tony. I panicked because of my issues, which we can talk about later and at length if you want, but which are mostly about the fact that I’m still grieving too, and moving on is different in the abstract than it is in the material. I was scared and a little bit sad, and guilty because I never would have done something like that if I’d known the effect it would have on us both, not without talking about it first. But none of those reasons mean I don’t care for you, or want you, and none of them should have lead me to leave you alone after you’d just hit subspace for what I’m guessing was the first time. I am truly and deeply sorry.”

“Not…not a sub.”

“Maybe not in all the same ways as people in this universe,” Bruce agreed, moving another step closer so that Tony could feel the low rumble of the other man’s voice against his back. “We can talk more about that later, too. But that was some form of subspace, Tony. And then you were pushed out of it suddenly and somewhat traumatically, which led you to drop pretty hard. It’s why it feels so good to be touched right now, and why a candy I know you don't usually even like tastes like the best thing you’ve ever eaten. Sugar is good for drops. But the best thing for it is aftercare.”

“Sounds…floofy.” This was not, perhaps, Tony’s most precise or scientific assessment. He was somewhat distracted by twinned and wholly opposing desires to push Bruce away and fold himself into something small that Bruce could wholly encompass.

“Mmm. Aftercare can take all kinds of forms, some ‘floofier’ than others. Can we give a few a try, see if they work for us?”

He wanted to say no. It was terrifying to face the prospect of actually acknowledging what had happened between them when all Tony had tried to do all day was erase it from his mind. But then, it wasn’t like that had really worked, was it?

“I…can I keep looking at this while you do…whatever it is?” Bruce spared a brief glance toward the holoscreen and smiled.

“Ah, the energy shield. Yeah, of course you can. You can tell me if you have questions about it, too, though I wasn’t directly involved in that one. I’d like us to be sitting, though; JARVIS, can you transfer the data to a screen closer to the couch, please?” The hand at the base of Tony’s spine turned directive, exerting just enough pressure to lead him to the corner of the shop where the couch sat. “Before I go any further though, we’re going to need to have a brief conversation about boundaries. I’m familiar with the ones you’ve already established for the usual education sessions, but since this is a little more…experiential, let’s say, I need to know about any limits you have, specifically arout praise and pet names, and non-sexual physical affection.” Bemused, Tony shrugged.

“Dunno. Never really.” And then he stopped talking before he managed to make himself sound any more pathetic. Bruce sighed and dug into a small black duffle bag he’d brought with him, emerging with—“Should I also indicate any deep-seeded hang-ups I have regarding fuzzy socks?” Bruce smiled, the fond one that crinkled all the lines near his eyes and mouth, and then proceeded to pull Tony’s feet into his lap, undo the laces of his shoes and tug them off, along with his black silk socks.

“Carol helped out with the photon energy. For the shield,” he clarified, because Tony’s access to his faculties became almost non-existent when Bruce started massaging his feet. He knew how to press hard enough to avoid tickling, and he even got in between Tony’s toes and manipulated the arches. Tony tipped his head back and made an aborted sound that would have definitely been a moan. “No, you're good sweetheart. You can make any sounds you want or need to. Aftercare is all about helping both the Dom and the sub to stay steady after a scene is done. It keeps me steady to know you’re feeling nice.”

“The…the flexible containment matrix. It was…plasma, right?”

“Based on an earlier version SHIELD made, yeah. Means it can be turned into any shape, though Steve being Steve, well he likes the familiar. He rarely takes advantage of that function when he uses it.” He whined, just a little, when Bruce stopped massaging him, but the thick, fluffy socks he slid up Tony’s feet afterward did actually feel pretty nice. “JARVIS, dim lights by 30% and put on some Mozart. Uh, let’s go Symphony 40.”

Tony got enough rich boy jokes without indulging in his fondness for classical music very often, but he didn’t have it in him to protest. So much classical music was beautiful because it was math, after all, and the symmetry of this particular piece was imminently soothing even despite its somewhat aggressive tone. Bruce’s fingers tapped out an accompanying rhythm in 6/8 time against Tony’s side, and he sighed happily, letting his body sink into the couch.

“You did so well today. I didn’t have the chance to tell you, but feeding you was incredible. You were perfect and responsive, everything a Dominant could ever have wanted. I could have stayed there with you just like that for hours. Even if you never do anything like it again, I’m honoured that you gave that gift to me.” Bruce didn’t give Tony the chance to come up with a snarky reply designed to put some distance back between them. He always paired praise with some kind of remark about the shield schematics so that the discomfort of receiving such open approval was tempered with cool logic. It would have driven pretty much all Tony’s previous partners crazy to have him vacillating so rapidly between science and romance (or whatever romance-adjacent thing this was), but especially with Bruce the one really didn’t seem like a distraction from the other. Even in his own world, Tony and Bruce had always been intellectually compatible if nothing else, so it felt like a natural way to build on already-existing form of intimacy. Tony hummed in contentment and tipped his head back.

“S’nice.” He wanted to say more than that. He should thank Bruce, at least, or ask questions about aftercare to put this back on the level of the theoretical. (He couldn’t. There was nothing remotely abstract about the feeling of being pressed against Bruce, being told he was good, talking about science and music and math and physics with no sense of urgency, like Bruce could happily stay there forever.)
****

Two nights after the failed movie night, Bucky insisted that the team observe (or more like resurrect) Friday Date Night. They’d started Date Night many years prior, primarily as a way to account for the uneven levels of intimacy between different members of the team Eventually they’d outgrown the need for such a formalized set of outings, but they occasionally still made time for it as a way to reconnect or decompress after long absences or stressful missions.

Which meant Steve shouldn’t have been surprised by the request, nor by the fact that Bucky had insisted on their going out together. If nothing else, Steve had been optimistic about the meal; post-HYDRA, Bucky tended toward hedonism with food in particular. He always kept an eye out for new, up-and-coming spots to try, and he was rarely wrong.

His confidence had, admittedly, faltered when they had pulled up to a mall of all places, but as usual Bucky managed to be amused rather than hurt or angered by Steve’s skepticism.

“Trust me, punk.”

“Pickle juice ice cream, jerk.”

“Oh for—that was one time!” They bickered pleasantly all the way to the fifth floor of Hudson Yards, where Bucky steered them into a restaurant called Kawi. The interior was warm woods and soft lighting, nothing like the chaos Steve associated with mall dining, and he caught the scent of a warm, thick stew on one of the tables they passed. Bucky arched a brow as he held out Steve’s chair for him, and Steve rolled his eyes.

“Yeah yeah, you were right.”

They shared several plates of rice cakes to start, catching one another up on their jobs and books they were reading and other facets of their daily lives. While Steve been worried it might upset him, Bucky had particularly great insights about the cross-training program at SHIELD given his experiences with HYDRA; he also offered to speak to any of the bureaucrats who were giving Steve a hard time in all his Winter Soldier glory, which was a cathartic image even if Steve would never actually take him up on it. It had been so long since Steve had spent time with the team like this, just talking casually about something other than Tony. It was nice, he realized with a fond smile. (Bucky had always known how to take care of Steve. Even, and sometimes most especially, when Steve didn’t think he needed caring for.)

He must also have phoned ahead to warn the restaurant about super-soldier appetites, Steve realized, because the servings of stew that were presented to them were less bowls than they were tureens. Once Steve had made his way through more than half of it and was floating on a happy cloud of sweet potato and habanero, Bucky sat up in his chair and his expression turned serious.

“Look, I know you and I aren’t good at talkin’ about this kinda shit, but I need you to know I wasn’t trying to pressure or rush you the other night. Or maybe I was, but I shouldn’ta been. I just…got scared, I guess. Felt like you were like, doing the usual self-sacrificing bullshit and giving us permission to leave you for him or something.”

Steve stared regretfully down at his soup, wondering if he’d still want it when this conversation was over.

“Buck, I’d really rather not—”

“Because we are not leavin’ you, you stubborn bastard. I know you’n me, things haven’t been quite the same since I got back. I know I’m not who I was, and that’s hard for you sometimes.”

And that was…rather a kind understatement. The Bucky Steve had known in the 40s had been a submission-inclined Switch who craved soft forms of Dominance. This had been perfect for Steve, whose original physiology couldn’t withstand harder forms of play even when he’d been tempted to try them. They’d spent endless nights tangled together, indulging in light bondage and gentle impacts and stuttered, blushing dirty talk.

Bucky had emerged from HYDRA as someone who not only liked, but sometimes needed brutal forms of domination, particularly intense impact play. The first time Bucky had limped his way out of Natasha’s bedroom after moving into the tower, covered from head to toe in bruises and marks and bites, Steve had lost it at her; Bucky, in turn, had screamed at Steve, reminding him that people’s needs and desires changed, and that if Steve was gonna be an asshole about it then ‘he didn’t have to fuckin’ be there.’ Terrified of losing Bucky, and the fledgling bonds the team had just been starting to build by that point, Steve had sworn to keep his mouth shut. (It wasn’t like he was against whatever forms of submission worked for all parties, anyway; it had just been hard to see Bucky that hurt, to realize the ways in which HYDRA’s influence had permanently altered who he had been.)

This was the closest they’d ever come to acknowledging that day since it had happened. Steve’s mouth was suddenly dry.

“I miss you, Stevie. And I miss him, too.”

“Really? Hasn’t much felt like it lately. Feels like I’m the only one still..still.” He couldn’t choke the words out, could barely breathe. Bucky’s hand covered his, calloused and warm, and Steve gripped it back with all his strength, the way he never would dare hold anyone but another enhanced person.

“Oh Stevie is that what you been thinkin’? Course I miss him. I miss him all the fuckin’ time. Miss him whenever there’s coffee leftover in the pot at the end of the morning, and every time I look at my arm, or Dummy does something especially ridiculous. Mostly I miss him whenever I look at you, because it feels like I lost you both that day.” Bucky bowed his head, and this time he was the one gripping Steve as if trying to press his fingers into Steve’s very marrow. “We’ve been excited to have some version of Tony here because he’s sweet and funny and kind, so much like our Tony but different too. Careful in a way ours wasn’t, and so hurt by the world that sometimes I swear I could just blast my way into the other universe and…the point is, don’t think I don’t care for him on his own terms, I do. But I, at least, have also been excited about having him here because I felt like maybe his coming home might bring you back to us too.”
****

Trying to think about how to have a relationship with someone who’s gone lost dead still doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. Maybe because for so long there, when I woke up, those were the only relationships I had. Everyone I’d ever loved was gone, and without that it felt like there was nothing and no one left to hold me down, stop me from just drifting through my life.

It got better, in no small part because of Tony. Not to say I loved him more or better than the others, but he was what started it all for me. I turned around and came back to New York because Tony was taking responsibility, he was helping even when the fight was over, and I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be a person outside of the battle. Loving him made me the best possible version of myself, and now he’s gone and it feels like he took all that with him.

So I guess the relationship I would like to have with him is that I want to learn how to be grateful for that time we had, and for all the ways that he changed me, without being swallowed whole by his loss. I want to learn how to to be the person who loved Tony without having him here in front of me. I want to try to honour his memory but live outside of it.

I don’t know if any of this is possible, I really don’t. But I made a promise to someone I love tonight that I'd try, Dr. Dolan. So let's go. Put me to work.

Chapter Text

Steve learned very quickly that Dr. Domen had taken him at face value when he’d asked to be put to work. The first thing she had done was up the intensity of their schedule, so that they would be meeting three and sometimes four times a week rather than their usual one or two. He had attempted to protest that he still had a job that required his occasional attendance, but she had shut that down with brutal, calm efficiency.

“I would say that based on what I’ve heard from you and your significant others, this is the most important job you have right now, Steve.”

That point was pretty much impossible to argue, and Natasha had been only too happy to take on a bit more responsibility in his absence. (Even in the midst of everything, he’d taken a moment to feel painfully proud of how far Natasha had come. She hadn’t initially wanted the promotion at SHIELD; she’d avoided Steve for weeks to try to prevent him from having the opportunity to even ask. And now here she was practically pushing Steve out the door.) She had even leaned up on tip-toes to kiss Steve’s cheek, which wasn’t a remarkable gesture unless one knew anything about Nat; she never willingly did things that called attention to the size disparity between herself and (most of) the rest of the team unless she was deliberately soothing a Dominant. He’d wound his arms around her gratefully, pressing a kiss to the top of her head.

“I’m scared,” he’d confessed, because honesty was almost always easier when he was at least partially in Dominant headspace.

“I know. But we’re all really proud of you Steve, and you’re going to come out the other side of this thing.”

He’d gone in an as optimistic as one could really be when their destination was grief counselling. Dr. Domen had already been waiting when he’d arrived in his living room, though she apparently hadn’t anticipated his slightly early appearance, because she was sitting on Steve's couch eating a granola bar. It felt unexpectedly surprising to see her doing something so normal, so human. Steve’s mind had apparently built the woman up as a kind of impenetrable force above such things as food.

“Oh, hi Steve, you’re early.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt your lunch—”

“No, you’re fine. I just didn’t get much of a break this morning; the team that was in Italy just got back and pretty much all of them needed some immediate care.” The last Steve had heard the mission in Turin had been going along swimmingly; what had happened to change that drastically enough that everyone involved needed psychological support as part of their debrief? “Put your SHIELD hat away, Director Rogers. Agent Romanov is handling it. I shouldn’t have brought it up at all and I apologize.” She finished the last bite of her bar (the high-protein, high-energy ones that SHIELD bought by the case and kept available throughout the building), wiped her hands on her pants to dislodge crumbs, and then began to rifle through the dark green briefcase next to her. “I assume you did your homework?”

Domen had been so pleased by how the journalling had worked that she had Steve doing it regularly. Last session she’d told him to reflect a bit more on something he’d said in the first entry—the bit about how the version of Steve that had loved Tony had been his best self, and how he saw that person as distinct from who he was now. It had been a damn hard task, and he’d lost a good chunk of the notebook he was using by scribbling a few lines and then promptly tearing the page out, unable to even look at the thing. He’d wound up with something far less composed and fleshed-out than the previous entry, and he instinctively pressed the notebook tighter against himself. (It wasn’t as if she would insist on reading it, Domen had promised never to do that unless he volunteered the information, but he still felt ashamed that the signs of his struggling with the relatively minor job he'd been asked to do were everywhere.)

“I did. I tried. It uh…I’m not always great with words.”

“The journalling isn’t designed to get you to work through your problems all on your own, Steve; otherwise you’d have no need for me. It’s just a place to start, and an opportunity to push past some of the initial temptation to resist or sabotage the process that you seem to experience when asked something you aren’t expecting.”

Steve’s grip on his book relaxed just slightly and he nodded, sucking in a long breath.

“Sorry.”

“That’s fine. You’re responding to some very intimate and difficult questions. It isn’t a mark of weakness or failure to struggle. Can you talk to me about whatever you had? How was Tony’s Steve different from the Steve that’s sitting in front of me?”

“I…loving him, it was like seeing everything, the whole world, differently. It was…sort of like the same way the serum had effected me, but in my head.” He paused instinctively, then, waiting for Domen to laugh or express some kind of incredulity at the notion that he was comparing love to the supersoldier serum that had transformed his entire physiology, but she didn’t. She sat across from him, patient and focused and taking notes on her ever-present tablet, and he felt a surge of gratitude where he once might have been irritated or hurt by her emotional removal. "When I first woke up here all I wanted was to go back. All I could see was what I'd lost, and the ways that the future was disappointing. With Tony…I could see its potential. I could imagine its future, picture myself making it better. It…he made me…kinder, more patient, more generous.”

“It’s interesting that you mention wanting to go back to your past, and that you compared everything unfavourably to that period in time. I wonder if that might be a pattern worth exploring.”

“I’ve only woken up seventy years in the future once, Dr. Domen,” he volleyed back, genuinely confused by the observation. She paused midway through a sip of water she’d been taking, almost like she was choking back a laugh.

“Well I suppose that’s reassuring. What I was actually referring to, though, was your tendency to idealize the people and places of your past as a response to traumatic loss.”

Steve was aware enough after a few sessions to recognize the sounds of his temper flaring, and he made a grab for the super-soldier proof stress ball on the side table next to him. His fingers dug into the rubber and whatever the stuffing was made of (Tony had told him once, but he hadn’t listened well enough, had assumed like a fool that if he didn’t keep up with Tony when he got going about science the first time that he could just ask again later) offered the perfect level of resistance, giving just a little.

“That upsets you,” Domen observed.

“I don’t…idealize anything.”

“No?”

“What, just because I’ve known good people—”

“No one doubts that Tony Stark was a good man, Steve. Or any of the folks you knew in the 40s, either. But they were all people—fallible, imperfect people. You aren’t sullying their memories by recognizing that.”

And on some level, of course, Steve knew this better than anyone else. He’d witnessed the worst of Tony’s drunken, self-destructive rages, had pulled him out of life-threatening situations that Tony had sought out with all the determination of a heat-seeking missile. He’d seen Tony selfish and cutting and brutal, had watched him unleash the true force of his brilliant mind with cruel precision on the people who loved him best, just to prove to himself that they’d still be there when he was done. But all of this paled in comparison to Tony’s essential goodness, and the suggestion that he focus on those flaws instead left Steve incensed. He squeezed hard at the ball again.

“Why does it matter if I remember the good things? Doesn’t everyone? It’s not like there’s a point in picking a fight with someone who…who’s dead.” Domen made a quiet humming sound that Steve had learned meant she was really considering her answer; that felt reassuring, the fact that she was at least taking his concerns seriously and putting thought into her answers.

“Well, at a certain point the concern becomes that you’re trying to grieve someone that didn’t exist, that by exaggerating the best and minimizing the worst you’re turning them into an ideal that no one could reasonably be expected to move on from. But if that were the only issue, we could get past it. Where things really become thorny is when your idealization combines with your tendency to compare. And I want to be clear I don't just mean the other version of Tony; how can anyone currently in your life be expected to live up to these perfect human beings in your head?”
****

Tony had promised Natasha no more hiding, and despite his reputation to the contrary he took his promises seriously damn it. So when he woke up the morning after the floofy Bruce incident curled up in the other man’s arms, fuzzy socks still on his feet and mouth still tasting faintly of artificial fruit flavouring and sugar, he didn’t bolt. He’d even agreed to make an appearance at dinner later that week to talk with the team about potentially re-negotiating boundaries and ‘exploring submission in a more experiential way.’ (When he thought too much about that one, Tony always wound up functionally useless for at least an hour while his system struggled between an anxiety and arousal responses, so he had shoved that into a deep vault in his mind.)

What he hadn’t expected, though, was to feel nervous on his first ‘real’ day of work. It was just SHIELD and Coulson, after all, Tony had rebuffed and mocked both numerous times in his own universe. But then, he mused, things might have turned out very differently for his team and his world if SHIELD hadn’t fallen with such dramatic finality. This felt weirdly like a second chance.

He and Coulson met on one of the usually unused conference levels of the Tower, which made the whole thing feel more official and less like a kid working for a parent’s company during the summer or something. He had dressed up a little for the occasion, too, putting on one of the other Tony’s old suits instead of the jeans and band-tee combos he’d stuck to pretty exclusively since arriving here. Coulson had a stack of paper files as well as an array of holoscreens open when he stepped inside. The sight of Coulson operating with his usual brisk competence was reassuring; it made the part of Tony had been on guard, expecting Coulson to treat him differently now that Tony might, maybe, be interested in subbing for the team sometimes, lower its hackles.

“There’s kind of a few ways we can go about this, and since you and I don’t know one another very well in this capacity I don’t want to make any assumptions about which will be the best option for you. Your access history indicates you’ve already familiarized yourself with the team’s suits and weaponry, so you’re welcome to continue on with that and I’ll provide any feedback I can from the perspective of their handler. You could also spend some time catching up on past and active missions assigned to the Avengers Initiative; this would serve the dual purpose of also helping avoiding awkward questions about why you don’t know some of these things once your presence in this universe goes public.” Coulson gestured to a nested set of holoscreens, which Tony could see now were comprised mostly of after-action reports. He pointed at another stack of screens, the front image of which bore a symbol Tony didn’t recognize.

“What’s that?”

“That…that was something our Tony was working on shortly before he died. There’s obviously no pressure for you to share the same interests or investments, but I always felt that the idea showed a lot of promise. So if you’re interested we could spend today talking about what you’re imagining for you professional future here, and how S.W.O.R.D. might fit into that future.”

“Sword?” Tony tilted his head, squinting his eyes. “That doesn’t look like—oh no. Coulson, no.” This time, Phil outright laughed. (Tony realized with a start and a warm feeling of accomplishment that he’d never had the chance to see his Coulson laugh before. He liked the sound very much, and he liked even more the way it sometimes felt like he really belonged in this universe.)

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Stark. It’s an acronym, one your counterpart coined, even. It stands for Sentient World Observation and Response Department.”

“That makes BARF sound positively eloquent.”

“…dare I ask what BARF stands for?” Tony wagged his finger as if Coulson as a naughty child.

“Show me yours first, Agent.”

Coulson minimized the other screens, spreading those in the SWORD (ugh) pile apart so each was individually visible.

“The Ultron program was never intended to be the be-all end-all of global security. It was intended as a part of something bigger, a whole system designed to monitor, contain and engage extraterrestrial threats before they become local problems, which is when they would become SHIELD jurisdiction.”

The documents were, as Coulson had said, quite preliminary. There were half-finished profiles of potential members, a mission statement that was a disjointed mess, and incomplete designs for some kind of deep space facility called The Peak. (That last one made Tony shudder. If the Battle of New York had made him wary of space, his full on Lost in Space experience post-Titan had virtually guaranteed that Tony would have zero interest in ever returning. Still, maybe there was a way around that somehow? He didn’t have to physically be there for the program to work, did it?)

“You alright?” At some point, Coulson had made his way around the conference table to stand next to Tony; his hand rested heavy and firm against Tony’s shoulder.

“Yeah.” Recalling Bruce’s parting demand, that he tell the team if he needed or wanted anything in between the aftercare and their meeting, he grudgingly added, “Just. Maybe stay there while you tell me about this. For reasons. Who’s Jessica Drew?”
****

Before he knew it, two days had past, and Tony had barely had time to think about the Dinner at all. He’d been gloriously busy, flitting between suit upgrades (he’d had a breakthrough with Natasha’s that he could hardly wait to show her), after-action reports (Thor wrote the best ones, hilarious and poetic and overwhelmingly sweet)), and more background reading on the SWORD project. Phil was happy to be as involved as Tony wanted on any particular day; sometimes that meant they didn’t see each other until end-of-day check in, and others they spent virtually the whole time together, Coulson completing paperwork in the shop so he could provide feedback on weapon and suit upgrades, or talking Tony through some of the Avenger’s past missions that the reports themselves had trouble capturing.

Tony's new schedule meant that he also attended about half of the Avenger’s training sessions. They weren’t all as entertaining and involved as the first, and the entire team wasn’t always able to attend. The most recent session had been comprised solely of a wrestling match between Thor and Bucky. (Which wasn’t to say it hadn’t been a damn delight to watch; Thor obviously had the edge in the strength department, but Barnes was almost endlessly patient, and sneaky as hell.) After every one, Coulson asked for Tony’s impressions, and he always seemed to actually listen to the answers.

“We should have them work in pairs like that more often,” Tony had suggested that morning. “Thor is impatient. Working with guys like Bucky forces him to either slow down and think it through or just keep losing. Whereas Thor’s strength forces Barnes to think like an underdog, which doesn’t strike me as necessarily his strong suit.”

“Who would you put Rhodes with? Of all of them he’s the one I don’t have as much of a read on, so I would appreciate any insights you have.”

“Cap, definitely.” Tony had barely seen this universe’s Cap, so the surprised look Coulson couldn’t quite contain had probably made more sense than he’d thought at the moment. But he knew enough to be fairly sure he was still right. “They’re almost the same person, but with slight differences. They’re both strategic thinkers, and they’re both used to command positions so they’re good at directing troops and keeping people focused. But Cap is emotional in a way that the Air Force has trained Rhodey out of, whereas Rhodey is rigid when he sometimes needs to be flexible.”

“So maybe we turn it into some kind of competition where they each lead a small team,” Phil had proposed, looking like he was one step short of rubbing his hands together in delight at the prospect of playing with the Avenger’s pressure points to improve their performances. (This was a version of the guy who had once threatened to taze Tony for not saving his own life fast enough, so the little streak of sadism in his handling style was kind of unsurprising.) “You design it and talk them through it and I’ll evaluate? That way even I won’t know what’s coming, it’ll be kind of a test for myself as a handler too.”

And, well, the prospect of designing something capable of surprising the unflappable Agent Coulson was one of the more intriguing tasks Tony had been set in a long while, so after that the day had pretty much disappeared in a haze of sketches and programming and simulations. Tony didn’t realize it was closing in on time for dinner (or rather Dinner, because fuck that was today) until JARVIS announced Bruce’s arrival in the shop. He was wearing a flattering set of grey slacks paired with a deep purple button-down which fit Bruce far better than any of the clothes Tony had seen his own version in. While Tony ogled him, Bruce’s attention was on reading the open lines of code on the screen in front of him. Much as it had with Coulson, it felt reassuring to have confirmation that Tony hadn’t been reduced just to a potential romantic partner. Bruce was still his science bro, no matter what else did or didn’t happen between them.

Bruce used those powers of…well, not quite distraction, but redirection, that he’d showcased to such positive effect during their aftercare as they made their way from the shop to the penthouse, quizzing Tony about the work Coulson had him doing and trying to sneak ‘hints’ about how to win at the exercise he was designing. And hell, it was nearly impossible not to relax when this unexpectedly playful side of Bruce came out; before he knew it, Tony was chastising the guy as they exited the elevators into the penthouse.

“No cheating, Brucie Bear. I know you have some kind of bet going with Thor and I am so not getting pulled into the middle of that with this little exercise.”

“You are most honourable, Friend Tony!” Thor congratulated him, waving a hand containing a half-eaten toaster strudel in greeting. “But what is this trial you speak of?”

“Phil has Tony designing a top secret training module that even he doesn’t know the details of. And I wasn’t cheating, Thor, simply…gathering relevant data. It’s hardly my fault you’re all brawn.” Reflexively, Tony winced; Thor’s once ridiculous ego had taken such a massive hit following the series of catastrophic setbacks he’d faced that such a joke would have been in extremely poor taste in Tony’s world. Here, though, Thor just laughed and threw a colourful knitted potholder at Bruce’s head.

The others proved to be just as interested in Tony’s work with Coulson as Bruce had been, and that conversation lasted them through the preparation and serving of the meal. Natasha had prepared pirozhki, baked pastries full of cabbage and cheese, accompanied by a borsht soup that she appeared to be trying to teach Clint to make; trying turned out to be the operative word, given that she ended up seizing the wooden spoon he was using and slapping him not the ass with it halfway through, leaving behind a bright red stain on his jeans.

Cap, Tony realized once they were all seated, wasn’t coming. It shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise, given how little he saw of the guy in general, but Steve was usually the first one to want to have Talks like this; he must really be uninterested in having anything but a surface-level acquaintance type thing with Tony.

“Are you enjoying things here more now that you’re working with Phil, Tony?” Natasha inquired, something in her tone suggesting she was repeating herself. (Damn. He really needed to pay attention to the kind of remarkable fact that the rest of the team was here rather than dwelling on Cap’s absence.)

“Sorry. I, yeah it’s good to feel useful, I guess.”

“It’s awesome to have you involved. Those sketches you forwarded about the new quiver look fantastic.” Tony shifted uncomfortably in his seat as several of the others echoed Clint. Phil went on about how helpful Tony’s input had been for so long that Natasha eventually teased,

“Better watch it Phil or I really am going to try to steal him for SHIELD full time.”

If Rogers couldn’t even bear dinner with Tony he personally found this to be a pretty unlikely option, but he made a show out of wrinkling his nose all the same, just to make Natasha laugh (which it did.)

“And what about some of the other elements of your life here?” Phil asked, putting down his soup spoon and leaning back in his chair. “You know, of course, that Bruce updated us about the events of the other day. But please know that none of us are forming expectations or assumptions based on a single encounter. We’re not here to demand anything from you, just to have a frank conversation about whether any of our boundaries or limits might need to be adjusted. Is that something you’ve had time to give some thought to, Tony?”

Of course he had. Working with Coulson had been a good distraction, it had meant Tony hadn’t verged into having time to overthink this conversation, but he’d still had downtime during which he’d obsessed about little else. The way he’d felt with Bruce…nothing Tony had tried in the kinky realm had felt remotely like that. The feeding thing should have been boring and awkward at best, deeply humiliating at worst, and instead it had been like Bruce had stripped Tony down into his barest, most essential parts. By providing for him in such a basic way, Bruce had effortlessly torn away decades worth of defenses until Tony had been nothing but just…need.

It had been as exhilarating as it was terrifying, and Tony still had no idea what to think about the whole thing.

“I…it was.” He swallowed, and appealed to Coulson which what had to be a truly pathetic expression. “Yes, I’ve thought about it a lot. I just…it’s a lot. To take in.”

“For us too,” Clint provided, along with adding two more pastries to Tony’s plate. “Is it the submission stuff freaking you out? The general context? All of the above?”

“All of it I guess. I mean, your world, your Tony, that’s such a definite thing. There’s a whole identity, a whole life built around it. I don’t…it’s not like that for me. It could never be like that for me.”

“We don’t know that for sure,” Bruce commented. “We haven’t done any blood work since you got here, it is possible, if unlikely, that being here is provoking some level of biological or physiological change to your system,”

Tony didn’t intend what happened next. He panicked, pure and simple. He had no reason to think that his relationship with the Soul Stone would show up on a routine blood panel—it certainly hadn’t in his own world—but what if it was different here? What would they do if they found out he was not only not oriented the way that was natural for them, but that Tony shouldn’t even exist by the laws of nature? He had barely come to grips with it himself; there was no way that whatever was between them would survive it. Plus if they took his blood, got their hopes up that Tony might be like them, only to get let down for a second time…nope, nope, nope. He’d end up as a SHIELD lab experiment if he was lucky.

“No one’s fucking taking my blood. I mean it, Banner, I’ll leave first.”

Bruce was clearly bewildered and a little bit hurt by the outburst, and for a few minutes after that the whole conversation seemed kind of doomed. But Tony hadn’t counted on Thor, whose natural and simple sweet nature was pretty much made for these kind of scenarios.

“Might we return to our original topic? Unless I am much mistaken I do not believe you were about to refuse our advances altogether, my friend, and I confess that I would very much like to hear more about your concerns so we might make plans to alleviate them.”

“I’m not him.”

Ultimately, it was a simple and as complicated as that, wasn’t it? Tony was a version of the man they had loved, but they weren’t the same. And there was already a risk the subtle distinctions between them might start to wear, leaving behind that vague sense of dissatisfaction you got when you ate just enough to near being full but not quite enough to actually be satiated. Add submission into that mix, the way it had made him feel flayed open and raw and exposed, and Tony might not survive it when that happened.

“No, you’re not.” Natasha had her hair in the thick, tight curls that she’d worn as Natalie; they had been Tony’s favourite in his own world, and it was too much of a coincidence for that decision to not be deliberate here, too. (Natasha had dressed up for him, just as Bruce had.) She, too, had finished eating, and was staring intently at Tony from her seat across the table. “No one’s going to lie to you and say that some of the attraction won’t always be the resemblance between you two. I’m sure the reverse is true for you as well.”

“Yes and no. I…a lot of what works for me about you guys is the differences, not the similarities. You’re a lot more likely to be disappointed by the changes than I am. And honestly, I already have enough issues with…well, a lot of shit, but self-worth and being set up to fail are pretty high up there. This really just waves a giant red flag in front of that metaphorical bull, doesn’t it?”

“Certainly it’s something we would need to be particularly cautious of. Bucky actually had a great idea the other day about how to alleviate some of those concerns, though.” As one, the table’s attention turned to Barnes, who plainly hadn’t been expecting it and had just put a heaping spoonful of soup in his mouth. He swallowed, a loud gulp that to be at least partly for show.

“When we first became…this,” he gestured around the table, “we weren’t all on an even footing. Phil and Nat and Clint knew each other real well, I’d grown up with Stevie, Stevie and Tony had some history, but some of us barely knew each other past the surface stuff. So we dated. Once a week we went out in different combinations and just worked on getting to know each other.”

“It became less of a habit once the connections were established,” Phil added, “but I think it might really help in this case. So that we can keep getting to know you apart from whatever preconceived ideas we have about who you might be. And vice versa. We’d obviously be confined to the Tower for now, but that won’t always be the case.”

“Not…not the worst idea, though I admittedly lose a lot of my appeal as a date if I can’t really spend money during the wooing part.” No one laughed. They all did that thing where they looked kind of sad and mad, and then awkwardly tried to conceal both those responses from Tony. He’d learned that usually meant they were pissed at their counterparts in his universe, and he still hadn’t decided how he felt about that.

“We also thought, though this is something we definitely want your input on, that it might be best to keep submission out of the dates for now. Our wanting to get to know you better doesn’t depend on where you land in that arena, so keeping them as discrete entities while you’re still figuring things out might be a good way to reinforce that.” There was a definite logic there, but some part of Tony was distinctly disappointed at the idea of stepping back from the submission stuff when they’d just barely started it. “Your lessons, though…well, we thought if you were amenable, those could start having more opportunities to experiment with the things you might be interested in trying first-hand.”

“There will also be some paperwork,” Phil added in his driest tone, “to get a sense of what you already know and suspect of your limits and what you might be particularly interested in exploring.”

Sometimes you gotta run before you can walk. Tony had grown to regret much about his impulsiveness, his willingness to deal with the consequences as they came rather than spelling them out ahead of time. But there had still been a kernel of truth in what he’d said to JARVIS that day, and nothing, nothing that had come after would ever take away the sheer and uncomplicated joy Tony had felt when he’d flown for the first time.

“Yes.”

Chapter Text

“Access denied.”

Tony banged his head against the heavily reinforced glass window of the workshop. Or rather, he tried; just as his forehead was about to connect, his wheeling chair was suddenly yanked backwards. The suddenness and force of the motion sent him sprawling onto the floor, and he found himself looking up at a looming claw. Dummy beeped smugly.

“What, you think you’re the hero right now? You realize that by ‘saving’ me from the terrible fate of a light collision with a sheet of glass, you may in fact have broken my tailbone, right? My ass is definitely bruised, which, if I’m going to start dating is really not something I want to have to explain to anyone.”

“I believe you’ll find that DUM-E’s protocols allow him to intervene in cases where he witnesses any resident of the Tower engaging in behaviours classified as self-harm.” JARVIS had ‘helpfully’ pulled up the relevant lines of code on the nearest screen to Tony. He spared a second for wondering when and how those conditions had been added, before swiping the data away with an impatient flick of his wrist.

“Self…you have got to be kidding me. He’s going to stop me from harming myself by killing me? How does this make sense? And what the hell do you mean anyway, access denied? They’re my history—well, a version of me. It’s pretty damn unfair of the team to ask me do this shit and then put restrictions on my access to relevant information.”

“It was not the Avengers who requested the restriction, Sir. It was Colonel Rhodes.”

And that…well, that changed things. Giving up on reaching for the wheely chair, Tony settled into a cross-legged position on the floor and called his best friend. There were noises in the background that sounded like some pretty pissed off guys yelling, but Rhodey seemed his usual unflappable, if slightly impatient, self. (These kinds of conversations required the proper build-up, something Rhodey would never understand the art of.)

“You know, one of my favourite things about sex used to be that it was the one area of my life that didn’t involve excessive amounts of paperwork.”

“Sorry, what?”

“I’m living in a Tower full of superheroes. Gorgeous, supermodel-level people who have all recently expressed interest in—what hilariously anachronistic way did Barnes put it, ‘making time'—with me. And then they asked me to fill out a bunch of paperwork.”

There was an ominous series of noises which included gunfire, angry yelling in at least three separate languages, a repulsor blast, and then the unmistakable sounds of the War Machine armour taking off. (Rhodey wasn’t panting, and the screams hadn’t sounded pained, which meant it had probably been some kind of training thing, or maybe a really low stakes op. The gunfire and repulsors had been used to frighten or instruct, not wound. Phil had been muttering something about Italy recently—)

“Stop trying to figure out where I am or I’m gonna hang up, man.” Then Rhodey sighed, something deeper and more frustrated than his usual annoyance at Tony’s antics. “I had hoped it would take longer for them to do this. I wanted to be back in the Tower by then so I could be sure they weren’t, I don’t know, rushing you or something.”

Tony wondered suddenly whether or not the name Ty Stone would be familiar to the Rhodey of this world. Had he, like the other version of himself, seen Tony at his lowest romantically as well as in other contexts? Was this where the protective streak came from? Or was it the submission thing? Or both? Whatever it was, that particular tone in Rhodey’s voice, the one that promised to rain fire down on anyone who so much as looked at Tony the wrong way, made him inappropriately giddy for a couple of seconds.

“No one is rushing me, Platypus. Promise. It’s all very above-board. Some might say too above board, which, speaking of, can we get back to the sex paperwork please? It’s like a ten page long checklist and there’s space for notes and blank lines for other things you want to add to the list and Rhoooooodey save me.”

“Sounds like a standard exploratory contract. We teach kids how to fill ‘em out in their teens, Tones.”

“And you seriously use these any time you have sex?”

“I mean, yeah, pretty much. Stuff happens sometimes, of course, but most people have copies of similar documents saved and easily accessible at all times. Even to use a dating website here you have to have some version of a contract uploaded, because even if something doesn’t start out as a proper scene, orientation can sometimes have unpredictable effects. There’s just no use in risking the type of harm that can result from people not knowing at least the basics about each other’s limits.” To Tony the whole thing sounded both legalistic and non-spontaneous, and he said as much. Rhodey grunted thoughtfully. “I guess I can see how it would feel that way. For us it’s just…normal. It’s what we do, how we keep each other safe. And honestly, for a lot of people it kind of serves as foreplay too. Ideally this stuff is supposed to be fun, so it can be kinda enjoyable to talk about it, too. Wait, so does this mean…are you dating them or subbing for them?”

“Uh…both? Sorta?”

“Gonna need more information, Tones.”

Tony outlined the whole harebrained scheme, the dating and the subbing lessons and how they intended to try to keep things separate. He didn’t mention the kneeling, or the…whatever had happened with Bruce the other day, but Rhodey had always been good at reading into the edges of Tony’s pauses; he got as much from silences as he did from Tony's most rambling sentences, and if anything the emphasis on communication in this universe only seemed to heighten that particular superpower. Before he got himself (or Bruce, because he had a feeling Rhodey would not be pleased about how that whole thing had initially gone down) in trouble, Tony switched gears.

“So anyway, I was trying to take a look at whatever paperwork the other version of me had drawn up. I mean, we gotta be similar, right? And he at least knew what the hell he was doing. Only…”

“Only JARVIS told you, or at least he damn well better have, that I locked all of that information down before I left.” JARVIS confirmed in his haughtiest tone that he had done just this, which made Rhodey lose at least some of the attitude and apologize to the AI. (Good. Tony hated it when they fought.)

“Why though? I mean I know you’re Mr. Morality, but it’s not like I’m skimming answers off some guy sitting next to me in a test, Rhodey. He was me.”

“And that’s exactly why I didn’t want you looking at his stuff. If the lot of you are going to have any hope at all, then they have to stop looking at you as the old Tony, and you really gotta stop trying to be him. I know some of that shit is necessary for the press, but that makes it even more important that it not creep into the rest of your life. You’re you. Yes, by quirk of fate or whatever the hell was at play here, you look and act a lot like the guy they used to love, but you’re still separate entities whose needs and desires and experiences may vary drastically.”

“But I don’t know anything, Rhodey.”

Contrary to popular belief, Tony usually had little problem confessing ignorance about topics that he hasn’t had the time or opportunity to learn. Sure, he usually threw in a couple of comments about how he’d probably master whatever the knowledge base was in a matter of hours, but generally that was also just kind of true. So whatever. The point was, he didn't mind saying when he didn't know something, but this was different. This was something that came as naturally to these people as breathing, something Rhodey himself had just finished saying they started practicing when they were kids. And Tony had no idea where to start.

For him, sex had been a site of occasional pleasure, sure, but it had also been a tool and a distraction and a source of occasional distress. For the most part, Tony had benefited from actively refusing to think too hard about his sex life. Even without the kink stuff thrown in as another added wrinkle, this was pretty much virgin (ugh, he was resorting to mental puns now) territory.

Rhodey’s heavy breathing was the only sound on the other end of the line for several seconds.

“One day—when you’re ready—I wanna know every damn thing that ever happened to you over there. But for now let’s stick to the facts. You don’t know this stuff, so do what you do better than almost anyone else: research the problem and figure it out. Take the contract to bed, with access to a search engine and maybe some porn and a heavy-duty vibrator or two,” here, Tony made a thoroughly undignified speaking noise. “Stop trying to think about what he would have wanted, or even what your team wants, and just…fantasize. Take the pressure off it and explore.”

Tony had been trying to balance the desires of so many people, even if only in his head, over the last few days that the thought of locking himself in the penthouse bedroom and just focusing on his own..err, stuff, sounded luxurious, almost decadent. More importantly, it sounded like something he might actually be capable of doing.

“You charge by the minute for these kinds of calls, Rhodey-Bear?”

“If I did, you couldn’t afford me, Stark.”
****

Steve was used to seeing Thor in flight. It was always the most otherworldly that Thor looked; it was easy to forget the man wasn’t human when he was stuffing multiple pop-tarts in his mouth at once or arguing with Clint about Mario Kart, but there was no way to witness the seemingly effortless ease with which Thor pierced through sky and cloud and not realize in your bones that he was not, and could never be, fully human.

Even though Steve had been the one to put Thor in the air today, witnessing him hoisted several feet above the bed didn’t feel all that dissimilar from all those other occasions where he'd watched Thor fly. The suspension rig that Steve had meticulously assembled using Asgardian rope was holding Thor beautifully; Steve was damn near obsessed with the point where it cinched at Thor’s waist and then met a larger grounding knot at his groin, spreading out to wrap around both thighs and under his ass. The chest restraint required for the simple seated suspension was fairly minimal, but on a whim Steve had added a lace-up armbinder, so that Thor would feel the press of the knots all the way from his shoulders to his hands.

Thor always loved to feel the full extent of pretty much any bondage he was placed in, regardless of how elaborate or simple. On Asgard, orientation was typically classified not by Dom/Switch/sub, but by the strongest association each person had with a particular kink. Thor’s was, and had always been, bondage; it meant as much, if not more, to him than the sex itself, both from the giving and receiving sides of things.

Suspension bondage, one of the more intensive and dangerous forms of Shibari, had therefore been on Thor’s dream list for ages. Steve had always meant to learn, but there was always some crisis or another, and then after Tony…well, he’d never gotten around to it. One of the goals Steve had set with Dr. Domen, however, was putting more active, focused effort into strengthening his relationships in the present, so he had spent several days practicing (with the gleeful help of Clint, whose comfort with heights and experiences in the circus made him an ideal test subject.)

Every bit of the effort had been worth it. Thor’s head was tipped back, cock jutting proudly at a near ninety-degree angle, cradled by another knot of rope. He didn’t ask for relief on that front, however. Thor wasn’t asking for much at all; he’d been practically non-verbal since Steve had actually gotten him in the air. His pleasure seemed beyond the usual expansive poetics that Thor carried from the battlefield into the bedroom, a quiet sort of ecstasy that felt almost improper for a human to witness.

Bemused to find himself trembling slightly, Steve slid a mitt onto his right hand. It was covered in soft grey fur on one side, while the other was covered in sensuous suede punctuated by rubber nubs. He started with the furry side, running it gently up and down the sculpted mass of muscle that was Thor’s shoulders, chest and abdomen. Thor moaned, eyes opening to a wideness that looked almost painful.

“Aren’t you gorgeous,” Steve murmured, stopping to tweak at Thor’s nipple. The motion was clumsier with the mitt on, but Thor didn’t appear to mind all that much. “All this power. All this strength, held here for me in these ropes. Rope you gave me, just to make sure I’d be able to hold you steady and do exactly as I please with you.”

“Anything.” Thor’s voice was a shattered whisper, a mere echo of his typical booming tones. But like everything Thor ever said and did, the vow rang with painful sincerity. Steve blinked back the tears that rose to his eyes in response; for once, he didn’t want to be anywhere other than right where he was, and with who he was with, and the gratitude that provoked was an ache beneath his ribs that threatened to pull him apart and put him back together all in the same instant.

“Anything,” Steve echoed back, a promise and a prayer and an apology. Then he moved to wrap his hand around Thor’s cock—not stroking or squeezing, just a possessive, solid hold. Thor's body jackknifed as much as it could within its bindings, and for just a second Steve swore he saw bursts of lightning at the other man’s fingertips. At this rate, it was basically a guarantee that Thor wouldn’t last long, but Steve didn’t move his hand away or try to slow things back down. (They had time.)
****

Morning found Thor still in rope, though the set-up was much simpler this time: just a chest harness and a cock ring. But Thor had already been lingering enough in subspace that the small push was really all he’d needed to go back under entirely. Steve hadn’t entirely planned on that one, he’d intended the harness as a kind of transitional system to move them towards aftercare. But for the first time in ages, he didn’t find himself in any particular rush to end the scene, so Steve surveyed his submissive with an almost lazy pleasure.

“I’m thinking about keeping you in that harness and taking you out for breakfast,” he said impulsively. “Any interest?”

Thor’s surprise at the invitation was evident, and even if it sort of broke Steve’s heart a bit he couldn’t really blame the guy. He was just starting to realize now how much his relationship with his teammates had been on autopilot while he’d mourned Tony. It would take time before they really believed that they had Steve back.

Steve himself was still getting used to it too. He’d been skirting the edges of Dom-dep for the better part of a year, going into shallow versions of headspace just enough to keep himself steady and get the team off his back. He’d forgotten what it was like to just linger in headspace this way, with no purpose or goal beyond shared pleasure and companionship. (And Dr. Domen assured him that the guilt he felt anytime he felt good would slowly start to ebb, too. This one was harder to believe, but the woman had earned at least a bit of his trust by this point.)

He and Thor shared breakfast at a greasy spoon that was too simple and old-fashioned for the trendier members of the team, but which the two of them adored for its massive portion sizes and classic menu. Of course, Thor’s focus was not really on the food today. The rope harness, while completely concealed beneath the other man’s loose fitting thermal, was plainly never far from his mind.

“How are the eggs?” Steve teased, gesturing to the mostly untouched plate in front of his teammate. Thor glared halfheartedly.

“They are…most pleasing to behold.”

“Well you’re gonna wanna do more than ‘behold’ them. We’re not going back to the Tower until you’ve finished at least most of that.” Thor’s hands, which had found their way onto his own body to brush against the rope, landed with a guilty thud on the table, rattling the dishes and sending a few drops of coffee onto the table. As Steve wiped up the mess, Thor shovelled half a pancake into his mouth. Once he swallowed and his system finally seemed to register that there was food in front of him, Thor cleared most the plate without further problems.

“I had quite forgotten how merciless you can be when in the correct mood, mine Steve. I am torn between joy at seeing you thus and fear for my own prospects.”

“Nothin’ to be afraid of. I’m just a kid from Brooklyn.” Thor’s hand found Steve’s under the table. He was one of the only people on the team capable of making Steve feel small, and even in his Dominant headspace some part of him reveled in that.

“You are, as you have always been, far more than that my friend.”
****

Okay, fantasize. Tony could do that. Hell, he’d reminded numerous previous lovers that invention and fantasy were extremely close relatives, so Tony practically did this for a living. He settled onto the centre of his bed, clad in just a pair of boxers. He hadn’t ended up bringing any toys with him; it felt just a bit too weird to use sex toys that had previously belonged to another version of himself. He had, however, found what looked to be an unopened bottle of lube in the bedside table, so there was that. (After a thoughtful glance at the latter, he pulled his boxers off entirely.)

“Jay, bring the contract up please. Skip the first few pages and go to the checklist please.”

The first portion of the contract focused on things that weren’t even sexual, and which required a level of honesty and vulnerability that Tony didn’t know if he’d ever be able to just offer up on a plate. It asked about things like recent injuries, chronic pain, triggers, and also about his preferences with non-sexual, daily kinds of things like whether or not Tony was okay with being touched without warning or using the washroom in view of another person. He hadn’t filled any of that out yet, and didn’t know if he ever would.

The kink checklist was at least simpler, requiring only a Yes or No about whether he’d experienced something, and then a ranking of his interest in the activity from 1-5. There was also space allotted for him to make any additional notes or clarifications.

Tony had answered ‘no’ to experience with about seventy-five percent of the list, but except for a couple of hard nos, most of the ‘willingness’ category was currently blank. He scanned the table again. The stuff around pain was kind of intriguing, but without any context beyond playful hand-spankings, imagining how he would respond in any kind of detail was next to impossible. How was he supposed to know if he’d prefer crops or whips or canes? How much would be too much? He thought fleetingly about trying to order some of this stuff and experimenting on himself, but he suspected pretty strongly that trying to hide that kind of experimentation would be way more difficult than hiding the kneeling had been.

Some of the toys and specific sex acts listed were compelling but kind of terrifying too. The list included everything from cock cages and electro-stimulation to double and triple penetration, which, was that even possible given the kind of absurd size of half the people living in this tower? Trying to imagine that quickly turned into more of an intellectual challenge about physics and geometry than a sexual daydream.

After several aborted attempts that left Tony confusingly half-hard and anxious as hell, he decided that it wasn’t a good idea to start with any of the more intimidating possibilities. After another glance at the list, he selected one thing he’d already experimented with, and one of the more vanilla options: kneeling and dildos. He moved those two items into a separate window, minimized the rest of the list to avoid distraction, then closed his eyes and tried to summon the scene.

He was on his knees on that purple pillow in the penthouse living room. His legs had initially been pressed close together, helping him preserve what modesty he could, but his Dominant didn’t like that. They used their foot to spread Tony’s legs apart into a ‘v’, smiling with an edge of condescension when he whined. (The identity of the Dom kept shifting between different members of the team, but that particular expression was all Clint.)

“I want to see you, sweetheart. And you like me looking, don’t you? There’s no real point in lying, not when your body is telling me everything I need to know.” Both real and imagined Tony’s cocks hardened in response to the reminder that he was being seen, observed in such an intimate way. “Did you prep yourself the way I told you?”

Tony squeezed a generous portion of lube onto his fingers. He pulled his knees up to his chest and released a breath as he slid his index gently inside; it had been a long time since he’d indulged in anal play (it hadn’t been a particular kink of Pepper’s, and he hadn’t trusted many of his previous partners to top.) But he imagined that he was doing exactly as he’d been instructed, playing with his hole not just for the sake of it but to prepare himself to be…to be used later that day. He moaned, and his other hand crept toward his cock, wrapping it in a loose fist.

“Yes.”

“And you were thorough?”

“Yes.”

“Good,” the Dom crooned.

The checklist had a whole section on what pet names were acceptable, so Tony mentally adjusted the compliment.

“Good boy.”

His hips jerked almost violently in response, finger nearly sliding out entirely out of his hole. (Maybe just a coincidence, though?)

“You’re such as good boy for me, Tony.”

His cock fucking dripped this time, and his hips shoved upward again. Not a coincidence, then. Tony pressed a second finger in alongside the first, shuddering and turning his head to muffle a moan into his pillow.

“Since you’ve been so good for me, you’re going to get a special treat.” The Dom handed Tony a bag, which he practically tore open to reveal a substantial-looking red dildo.

“I-I thought—”

“That I was going to fuck you?” the Dom teased. “Oh I’m sure I will before the night is through. But right now I want to watch you continue to get yourself ready for me.” The Dom took the dildo from the box, pressing the suction cup portion that would allow it to attach easily to a harness onto the floor in front of Tony. The silicone dick wagged in absurd invitation, and Tony flushed in humiliation and arousal.

As fantasy-Tony adjusted his position to hover over the dildo, real-Tony began fucking himself in earnest. This time he didn’t bother restraining his moan, too busy pressing back against his fingers and then up into his fist while he imagined being watched by a hungry set of eyes.
****

“Oh fuck, fuck that’s so good. I could fuck your throat for days, do you know that?” Thor moaned in enthusiastic agreement with this plan, and the heavy vibrations against Steve’s cock spelled the end. He came with a shuddering cry, fingers roughly settling into Thor’s long blonde hair.

Steve truly had needed to get work done, but neither he nor Thor had been in a hurry to wrap things up when they’d returned to the tower. So Steve had stripped Thor down to the rope once more and settled him at his feet while Steve drafted a proposal he hoped would answer a lot of the questions they were getting about the workplace orientation pilot program. It had been incredible to have a sub so casually nearby while Steve did something mundane. But…well, he dared anyone with a pulse to have a naked, desperate Thor kneeling in front of them and remain entirely focused on business. When Thor had pleaded to suck him for the third time in half an hour, Steve just hadn’t been able to deny his sub again.

Need for air finally overcoming his desire to remain attached to Steve’s cock, Thor lifted his head and drew a deep, gasping breath. Then he settled his head against Steve’s thigh, pressing a pattern-less mess of kisses and bites against oversensitive skin.

“Want me to return the favour?” Steve offered. As he’d anticipated, Thor shook his head; when he was nearing the end of a scene, Thor usually chose to avoid orgasm. He found that staying hard helped head off the worst of his drops, which could otherwise be quite severe once he was released from bondage. “Alright. You did beautifully, darling. I’ve just realized I left that case of juice you like upstairs after movie night, so I’m going to run up and get it, okay? I won’t untie you until I get back, and then I won’t leave again. We can stay together for the rest of the day. Sound good?”

“It sounds…most wonderful. If you are certain you can spare the time?”

“I am absolutely certain,” Steve said firmly. He draped a blanket around Thor’s shoulders, slid on a pair of pyjama pants, and jogged to the elevator.

Tony, the team had assured him, was barely in the penthouse these days. He wasn’t working with the kind of fevered devotion that meant he neglected basic needs like food and sleep, but between his projects with Coulson and his ongoing efforts to upgrade the team’s weapons and armour, Tony definitely had a lot less time to just sit around the penthouse than he had when he’d first arrived.

Steve was rattling around the kitchen in search of Thor’s juice and the pixie stix he tended to inhale after scenes when he heard it. That was…well, it definitely sounded like moaning. Was Tony’s side bothering him again? If it was bad enough to have him up in the penthouse in the middle of the day, making those kinds of sounds…

Steve kept closer to the source of the noise, which turned out to be Tony’s bedroom. His hand was on the door when the indistinct noises turned into a word.

“Ffffuck.”

And that…that wasn’t a pained kind of noise. Steve knew precisely what that tone in Tony’s voice meant and it was pretty much the opposite of pain. (Oh god.)

For several long seconds, he stood frozen in place as his system warred between grief and arousal and anger. Everything in him ached to open the door between them, to witness Tony in the midst of passion again. His back always made that perfect little arch right before he came, and his thighs trembled so hard that sometimes they ached afterward, especially if Steve had dragged more than one orgasm out of him, or kept him on the edge for long stretches.

With a feeling akin to a rush of ice cold water down his spine, Steve realized that maybe none of that would be true of the man in the other room. This wasn’t his Tony, and he had no right to stand here, hearing this. He wouldn’t have the right until he was sure it was the current and not the former occupant of that room he wanted to kiss and hold and make love to. (And, of course, until he was sure this version of Tony wanted him, too, which might never come to pass even if Steve’s grief eventually stopped feeling so acute.) He took a long, steadying breath, and allowed himself to press his palm against the closed door for just a couple of seconds, long enough to feel the wood begin to heat beneath his fingers.

Then Steve turned around and walked back to the kitchen.

Chapter Text

Steve woke the next morning with loose, easy limbs, a clear head, and voracious hunger that for once wasn’t tempered by self-loathing or grief. He ate most of the food in his own fridge in under half an hour, happily replaying his scene with Thor. The other man had departed late the previous evening, skin still marked with impressions from Steve’s ropes and a grateful, warm smile on his face. He’d thanked Steve constantly through most of the afternoon and into that evening, until Steve had forbidden any more and silenced him with a kiss that had gone on just long enough to constitute necking. (He, Steve Rogers, perpetual dark cloud, had necked with his lover like a teenager. He laughed aloud at the memory, and at his own giddiness.)

He was of half a mind to see if Thor wanted to join him for another meal. But even more than that, Steve wanted to capitalize on the Dominin high by spending the morning with his entire team, the way he hadn’t done in weeks. Tony would almost certainly be there, but even that didn’t feel like such a fraught dynamic to manage this morning. Steve could be polite, the same way they were in training or on the rare occasions they ran into each other in the Tower.

His resolve was put to the test mere seconds after he exited the elevator. The rest of the team was absent; now that he thought about it, Steve vaguely remembered something about an inter-galactic diplomacy training session at SHIELD that Nat was taking the lead on, and which Clint, Phil, and Thor were all attending. He wasn’t sure about Bruce or Bucky, though he knew the latter had lately expressed some interest in getting to know at least the basics of the team’s most commonly used medical procedures so that he could help out if Bruce was Hulked out and unavailable. Perhaps they were spending the day working on that together.

Whatever the case, Tony appeared to be entirely on his own, which was probably why he was seated not on a chair, but on the island that dominated the centre of the kitchen. His legs dangled loosely off the edge, and he looked, there was no other way to say it, thoroughly well-fucked. His hair was mussed in that way it only got when Tony had spent a lot of time writhing against a pillow, his bottom lip was swollen and raw from where he’d bitten it, and he wiggled in place every few seconds as if unable to comfortably remain still. Having a sight to accompany the passionate soundtrack he’d heard the day before was more temptation than Steve had anticipated when he’d chosen to venture into the penthouse, but he was still confident that he’d be able to make it through. (Even if Tony was wearing Steve’s sweater. Again. Still. Had he been wearing it when he’d touched himself the day before?)

Dummy, who had been circling the island, sped over to Steve and began beeping furiously. Steve was not nearly as skilled as Bucky had become with translating the robot’s noises, but they were too low in pitch and slow to sound like his usual happy greetings. There was some kind of distress woven in there, and a few seconds later they were accompanied by Tony muttering,

“I swear to Thor and all his relatives that if you are ratting me out about that damn muffin right now I will sell you for parts.”

Steve’s Dominant instincts were near enough to the surface that he thought nothing of glancing at the holoscreen Tony had in front of him, attempting to find the source of the man’s unease. It didn’t occur to him as a violation of privacy at all until he recognized the document for what it was: a standard contract, of which Tony had filled out very little. By the time Steve had hastily averted his eyes and made to dart toward the fridge, Tony had caught him looking. He slid off the island with a slight wince, landing in front of Steve and jabbing a finger in his direction.

“You. You’re exactly what I need, actually. Muffins in exchange for an assist, Cap?” Steve gulped, hand nearly tearing through the cardboard carton of orange juice he’d just picked up. (You’re exactly what I need…) He’d been prepared to exchange a greeting with Tony, maybe some polite and distant conversation about work or training. A discussion about kink and sex and limits with a Tony who was struggling to walk normally because of whatever he’d done to himself the day before had not been on the agenda.

He wanted to say no. He nearly did. But Tony’s frustration seemed to go beyond his usual annoyance at having to voice emotions or preferences, and when Steve turned to look back at the contract, his eyes found the long column tracking experience. Almost everything was marked ‘No.’ A few had question marks, or were annotated with definitions and descriptions Tony had clearly pulled off the web.

Even compared to everyone else in the present, Tony had always felt almost untouchably ahead of Steve. He’d always had a foot in the future, had struggled to slow down enough to truly be in the present even when he wanted to. Hell, the basis of half their scenes had involved Steve and the rest of the team trying to keep Tony grounded for even a few hours at a time. Steve had never expected to encounter a version of Tony who felt ignorant about anything the way this man was clearly ignorant about almost every way that pleasure and pain and intimacy were structured in this world. The gnawing feeling in his gut felt almost like pity.

“Not sure I want your cast-off breakfast,” he stalled for time. Tony grinned and pulled a cloth from the top of a basket of homemade mini blueberry bran muffins. Steve's stomach growled.

“No no the muffins are good I swear. Or at least Bruce assured me they were, and he made them, and since he’s on some kind of make-Tony-eat kick I really doubt he’d supply substandard baking.”

“Well, I suppose we could both eat ‘em then, and I’ll answer your questions as long as the muffins hold out. I’m not getting a pissed off Bruce and Dummy on my case about stealing all the food he pretty clearly made for you.” Tony muttered things about conspiracies and overfeeding and something about his jeans not fitting; the latter was particularly absurd given that he was narrower, especially at the waist, than their Tony had been. But Steve still made a mental note to get JARVIS or Pepper or someone to ask if Tony wanted to order some new clothes.

He was pulling apart the muffin, which smelled incredible and was still steaming for goodness sake, when Tony flopped gestured expansively to the contract.

“Tell me how I’m supposed to do this. Please. I get that it’s weird and I know it’s kind of selfish and crappy of me, and believe me I wouldn’t be coming to you if I could think of other options. But the team is all worried about exerting too much influence over my answers, and I’ve already talked to Rhodey about my sex life more in the last 24 hours than in the rest of my life total, and it’s still a little too weird to think about going to Pep with this—”

An unexpected jealousy flared at the mention of Rhodes and Pepper. It wasn’t that Steve had ever had a problem with either of them before, but once Tony had gotten together with the team, they’d ended up growing apart. With this Tony, they were something essential, relationships that far exceeded that of an old college buddy or a brief flirtation-turned-CEO. Nat had reported that Tony had permitted them, and only them, to be with him when he’d broken down during Steve’s absence, and now he was turning to them for advice about sex and submission…

“Of course I’ll help. I told you, I’m yours as long as the muffins hold out.” Tony’s answering smile was…God, it was almost shy. Steve downed his entire glass of orange juice in one pull, just to be doing something that wasn’t staring at the man across from him.

“I just…how does anyone do this when they haven’t done these things? It’s asking about specific implements and tools and really raunchy sex that even I haven’t had the chance to fool around with yet. And I…Rhodey suggested….I mean, I watched some porn, but I still don’t know. It’s totally possible to like watching something happen to someone else, or even imagine it happening to you, but then not want it for yourself, right?”

Steve resisted the urge, barely, to bang his head against the wall. Or the island. Or any hard surface, really. Now he didn’t just have the memory of the sound, or the image of Tony in the aftermath, he had the man himself explicitly talking about the porn he’d been watching to prepare to submit to the rest of Steve’s lovers. (Someone, somewhere, really hated Steve.)

Desperate for something, anything else, to focus on, he turned back to the contract, trying to imagine looking at it from the position of a complete outsider. Really, Tony had chosen his source well, since Steve’s position had once been not all that dissimilar to his own. He’d grown up in a universe with orientation, of course, but in the inter-War and Depression eras, the methods of communication and organization surrounding them had been far simpler. When he’d woken in the new century, he’d had his own learning curve to master.

“Okay. So if the contract is overwhelming you then we need to start by making it a bit more manageable. You’ve put a lot of question marks and notes around the stuff on pain. Not something you’ve done much before, right?” Tony shook his head. “One way to think about it is by type—the big ones are stinging, cutting, and thudding. JARVIS, sort all relevant tools and acts under those categories please?” The document was reorganized in seconds, and was already several pages shorter. “Any Dom worth your time will help you experiment with all of them anyway, so this isn’t supposed to be a definitive thing. Exploratory contracts are there to help your Dom get a clear sense of what your limits are and what you’re particularly interested in. They know things will evolve as you get more experience. That said, any initial thoughts on which of those styles might appeal more?”

“Uh…I guess I’d rank thudding a little higher than the other options.” (Steve’s mind helpfully supplied several mental images of both his own Tony and the one in front of him sprawled over Steve’s lap taking a paddle. He took another swig of juice, this time right out of the container.)
***

When Tony imagined being taken on a ‘date’ within the confines of Avengers Tower, he had pictured take-out and a movie, maybe some flowers if the person he was paired with happened to be on the cheesy side.

When the team had drawn straws (literally! drawn straws! like hanging out with Tony was some kind of prize they were going to fight over without some kind of system) and Clint had turned out to be the winner, Tony had downgraded even those expectations. Lose the flowers, add maybe some time on the shooting range, or a retreat into the air vents if things took a particularly disastrous turn.

None of which meant that Tony didn’t agonize about the whole thing. He changed outfits seven separate times before winding up in the same pair of jeans and dusty rose button down he’d started off in. (The latter was a little bolder than Tony would have usually chosen, but he was still working with Mark II’s closet, and the guy had apparently been a little more adventurous than Tony tended to be.) Clint met him at the elevators in a pair of black jeans and a clingy green sweater, so Tony had at least managed to guess the vibe. Rather than stepping into the penthouse, though, Clint crooked a finger to beckon Tony into the elevator with him. (Dummy, who had supervised the whole getting-ready process, rolled up behind Tony in an attempt to subtly nudge him forward.)

“Wait, is this one of those in-elevator dates? Because I gotta tell you, while I don’t have a history of claustrophobia, that might be a little bit too much togetherness for me.”

“Nah, I prefer that all elevator action be purely consensual, and preferably not happen until the third date unless I’m on some kind of mission-related clock. Now get in before Dummy decides I’m treating him to an evening of delights instead.” Tony’s traitorous bot beeped hopefully.

“Oh, now you’re trying to steal my dates? Nice loyalty, pal, really.”

For all his assurances that he wasn’t after some kind of elevator-shenanigans, Clint made a point of stepping right into Tony’s space the second the doors closed. Tony had a ridiculous vision of some medical drama Pepper had used to watch where the male lead had sniffed at his counterpart’s hair in elevators a lot, and laughed nervously.

“Sorry. I. Sorry. This is…it’s a little weird for me.” Clint shrugged.

“For me too a little bit. You look great, though.”

This was a hard compliment to accept at face-value. From everything Tony could tell the same amount of time had passed here as in his own world, but this version of the team so often seemed much younger than his own. This version of Clint in particular had a kind of boyish energy that his counterpart had either lost or never possessed. He laughed easily, and wore silly t-shirts with internet memes on them, and could almost always be found with some kind of bandaid on his body (usually Avengers printed.) All this combined with the killer arms and perpetually tanned, golden skin? Yeah, Tony was kind of out of his league here. But there was also no need to make a show out of his pitiful self-esteem first thing in the evening, so Tony flashed his best press-ready smile.

“You too, Hawkeye.”

Clint had frowned at that, but let it go in favour of leading Tony from the elevator and onto the thirty-first floor of Avengers Tower. In his own world, Tony was pretty 31 had been one of a number of floors that provided conference and meeting space, and nothing he could see about the floorplan here seemed radically different.

“If this is Pepper’s newest way of tricking me into signing things, I swear to Thor—”

Tony was never forced to come up with a suitable punishment for Pepper’s hypothetical slight. The elevator closed with an atypical clanging noise, followed by JARVIS’s voice, far more robotic and atonal than usual, sounding through the speakers.

“The 31st floor is now locked down. Proceed to conference room 3-B for further instructions.” None of this was remotely similar to any of the protocols Tony had established in his own world to handle internal or external threats to the Tower. It was possible that the team had changed some of those things in the wake of their Tony’s death, but it still didn’t make sense for JARVIS to be giving them so little to go on, or directing them to a specific room rather than…than…

Clint’s grin was wide and toothy, though when he realized Tony was looking at him he attempted to feign a neutral expression.

“Guess we should go find out what’s up?” Tony stuck a finger in the archer’s face, glaring.

“You did something.”

“Did I now?” Clint’s hand found its way to the small of Tony’s back, steering him as Tony continued to mutter accusations and threats.

“If you messed with my Tower or my AI—” He stopped mid-sentence, recalling with a start that neither of the two items he’d listed could accurately be referred to as his, and that doing so might piss his date off. Clint, however, just laughed and nudged him through the door.

On the wall of the conference room was what looked like a giant wooden maze, which was covered by a thick layer of glass. It appeared to be empty, except for a gold ring that sat in the bottom right-hand corner. On the opposite wall was a bunch of unrelated lab equipment that Tony could only assume had been misplaced at some point.

“Participants,” JARVIS said, in that same flat tone from before, “will need to extract the ring from the maze to continue.”

Tony looked from the maze, to Clint (who was still trying and failing to hide his glee), and back to the maze again. He’d seen this kind of setup before, some kind of trendy thing Pepper had made the SI people go to as a bonding exercise—

“Hold up, did you make an escape room?” Tony demanded when it finally came back to him. Clint gave a slow clap.

“If I were you I’d be climbing the walls wanting to get out of here by now. Since we can’t actually escape the Tower, I thought we could at least pretend for the night. To be totally fair, though, the rest of the team and JARVIS are the ones who actually put it together; they wanted me to be able to play without being spoiled.” Mistaking Tony’s silence for some sign of discontent, Clint started to babble. “But it was my idea, I swear. We also don’t have to do it if you don’t—”

“Are you kidding? An escape room designed by the Avengers? This is fucking brilliant. Although I hope it gets a little more challenging than sliding a magnet around a piece of glass.” The magnet was even on a table right next to the maze, for goodness sake, had the team no faith at all in he and Clint? Tony held the thing up above the ring, not even bothering to look. It fell to the ground. “What the…” he tried again, this time with a little less ogling of Clint’s biceps and a bit more focus. The magnet hit the floor again. Tony eyed the equipment in the corner with a little more intent. It was everything he would need to safely heat something to—

“JARVIS you devious little shit. You’re seriously going to make me reverse the polarity on this thing?”

“I have no idea what you mean, Sir. And you have now used one of your three allotted questions.”

From his perch atop the long conference table in the centre of the room, Clint declared,

“You’re going to have to tell me what it is you’ve figured out. Also stop snarking at JARVIS and wasting our questions man!”

“It’s a science thing,” Tony waved a dismissive hand as he began assembling the materials he would need.

“Explain it to me anyway.” This was enough to stop Tony briefly in his tracks. His own team had never really shown much interest in how Tony accomplished the things he did. They were interested in the results, not the process. More than once they’d actively shut Tony down when he’d tried to explain the logic or mechanics of his actions. And here Clint was, looking utterly bewildered and almost hurt at the notion that Tony hadn’t planned on offering that information.

He sat down on the edge of the table and offered the little black disk to Clint. The other man splayed his palm out, but when Tony tried to drop the magnet into it, Clint caught his hand and threaded their fingers together, just as he had that day in the kitchen with Barnes. (The part of Tony’s brain that had felt permanently aroused since his little experiments the other day was practically doing somersaults to remind him how strong and competent Barton’s fingers had felt that day, how much manual dexterity Clint would have to have to wield guns and especially bows the way he did.)

“Uh, so. This is a permanent, natural magnet. Which means to reverse the polarity, we have to hear it to Curie’s point and then let it cool.”

“And how do we know what that is?”

“Well, it varies depending on the material. Contextually I’m willing to bet that it’s not too high for the magnet they gave us. The little oven that’s here doesn’t get much higher than a standard kitchen stove, plus it would be kind of a bummer to spend the entire night waiting for the magnet to cool down before we could use it and I’m sure at least JARVIS would have taken that into account. I’ll have to do some calculations.” After a few more seconds, Clint let Tony slide his hand away, tucked a pen behind his own ear, and leapt soundlessly down onto the floor.

“How can I be of assistance, Mr. Stark?”
****

The next room (because the escape ‘room’ was less a room and more the entire floor, apparently) turned out to play to Clint’s strengths. They were provided with a series of coordinates which they needed to sketch out on a map and then connect in the right order to spell out a code for a locked safe in the room.

Tony was, it transpired, despite all his visual acuity, kind of useless with geography. When he put an entire country in the wrong place for the third time, Clint held a hand out for the pad of paper looking slightly pained. He took an eraser to the entire middle of section of Tony’s sketch, and began re-drawing the boundaries. His tongue stuck out of his mouth when he was thinking, which Tony didn’t actually think people did in real life, but it somehow made perfect sense on Clint.

“You’re sure it goes there?”

“Oh yeah. One of my first jobs with SHIELD was just outside of Oslo, I know the area well. It was also, incidentally, the first time Coulson ever swore over open comms.”

“Where’s your favourite place you’ve ever travelled to?” Tony nearly applauded himself. It was such a normal first-date question, something that two people who truly had little to no history might have asked. Clint grinned, probably at the banality of it too, but then cocked his head to give the inquiry sincere consideration.

“I really liked London. One of my only missions to go absolutely perfect from top to bottom was there. I ended up with about an extra week to just hang around with Nat. We did the whole cultured thing, went to a bunch of museums and shit. I hadn’t told her, yet, that I had hearing issues and problems with reading, but she’d already figured it out, and she made sure to take us to the museums on days when there were ASL guides taking groups through. It was the first time I'd ever gotten to do something like that and actually understand what was happening.” Clint stopped speaking abruptly, as if the memory made him a bit more emotional than he’d wanted to get. Tony made a point of turning away for a moment under the guise of finding a different coloured pencil for Clint to use to chart the coordinates.

He nearly let the conversation stop there. It had become habit by now to let this version of the team offer whatever information they wanted (which was so often candid and intensely personal stuff) while providing very little of himself. They let him get away with it with no signs but the occasional frown or quiet sigh proving that they were ever hoping for more. But if Tony was really going to try to be with these people, they’d tire of the inequality after awhile, and so would he.

“My first and only foray into spying didn’t turn out to be a major success either. I’m sure Coulson would have had a thing or two to say about it if he’d been there.”

“Oh yeah?” Clint’s eyes darted up briefly from his sketch, almost like he was afraid to spook Tony out of the disclosure by looking directly at him.

“To get the stones back, we ended up having to go back in time. Cap and I were in the middle of SHIELD in the 70s, and it took us about two minutes to get made. Which honestly is two minutes longer than it should have taken given that I named myself Howard Potts, and he called himself Captain Stevens and we were generally the worst spies ever. We ended up stuck there way longer than we should have been, and I still almost left the briefcase with the thing I was there for behind.”

This time Clint couldn’t mask his surprise, or his interest. Tony’s stomach dropped at the eager way the other man abandoned his pencil and leapt to his feet, because he really didn’t want to get into the whole thing with the stones, or inventing time travel, or what it had been like to see his Dad…god, why had he brought this up?

“You walked into a SHIELD base. With Steve. And called yourselves Captain Stevens and Howard Potts. Okay, like, tomorrow we are doing some espionage lessons, you understand me? Because there’s working with the familiar and then there’s—seriously, Tony, Captain Stevens? Tell me you’re kidding. Please. For my sanity, tell me you’re kidding. Aww, Tony, no.”
****

“The thing that’s in a couple of days. I want you to do it.”

Tony was sprawled victoriously across Clint’s couch, eating a kohlrabi like an apple and watching some kind of adult cartoon featuring a talking horse. They’d finally escaped the 31st floor, and had even made out a little in the elevator, but Clint had halted things before they’d gotten more than PG, citing the innocence of the robot llama they had constructed as a condition of their release from the last part of the escape room. They’d settled in to watch television and munch on the truly odd assortment of things in Clint’s fridge; they’d debated ordering something in, but Tony had been more amused by the thought of piecing what Clint had together in some bizarre semblance of a meal. Next to him, Clint was pouring a can of red bull into a single-serving container of Fruit Loops. (He was a beautiful disaster of a human and Tony was halfway to loving him already.)

“The espionage lessons? You’re damn right I’m doing it. If Nat ever found what the two of you pulled—”

“Not that. The thing. The D/s thing. I know it was supposed to be with someone else, but I’d like it if you did it.”

He expected Clint to be happy, maybe even to take on that amused intensity that seemed to characterize his Dom headspace, which Tony had gotten off to imagining more than once this week. Instead, Clint frowned and took a long sip of his water.

“I…isn’t one way we’re trying to keep the romantic stuff and the submission stuff separate supposed to be that you don’t date the same person you scene with in a week?”

“I mean yeah, that was the thought. But now that I’m in it, it feels kind of weird to think about having spent all night with you and then turning around and trying to be intimate and vulnerable with someone else. So I was hoping we could…re-negotiate, or whatever it is you healthy grown-up people say around here.” Clint’s frown deepened if anything, and Tony wondered whether using the suit to bore his way through the floor would count as breaking his promise not to be Iron Man in this dimension. “Look, it’s fine if you’re not interested—”

Clint’s hand darted out to encircle Tony’s wrist. (He wondered if Clint was even conscious of the way that his fingers automatically found Tony’s pulse point, or if after so many years at SHIELD it was more an involuntary reflex than anything.)

“It’s not that. I…Tony, I’m not a particularly easy Dominant.”

“Meaning?” Clint’s free hand ran through his hair, leaving the short blonde locks messier than before.

“This is your first real time subbing, or at least the first time you’re going into it knowing that’s what you’re aiming for. I can be…demanding, and difficult as a Dom. I like to press a lot of different buttons at once, keep a sub a little off-balance. I’m in it for some of the mental dynamics as much as the physical ones. And believe me I want to play that way with you, but I don’t want to overwhelm you right off the bat. You’re better off with someone like Bruce or Phil for your first time.”

“My Clint was married.” It took only those four words. Four words to turn the other man from lax and carefully avoidant of Tony’s gaze to dangerously intent. It was like watching him go from Clint, the goofball who watched kid’s television and mocked the rest of his teammates on social media, to Agent Barton in a matter of seconds. (Tony had rarely seen his own version as anything but that latter, but the distinction between them in this universe was sharp and definite.) “I didn’t know, no one but Natasha did until we had nowhere else to go but his secret little farm with his sweet wife and his three kids.” Clint mouthed the word ‘kids’ soundlessly, while signing something Tony assumed meant the same thing. He felt almost guilty pressing rather than giving Clint a moment to digest what he’d heard, but if Tony didn’t get this out now then he might never. “If this is going to work between you and I, I need to not start out knowing you’re hiding an important part of yourself from me.”

The room was silent for close to two minutes. Tony ate, and tried very hard not to stare, or to fill the silence the way that a childhood in high society had basically trained him to do. Eventually, Clint’s hand was on Tony again; this time, there was no mistaking his touches as anything but definite and purposeful, because Clint dragged two fingers lightly all the way up Tony’s forearm, pressing unerringly down on Tony’s medial nerve once he neared his wrist. His hand twitched like he’d been shocked, and Clint arched a brow.

“Bit of carpal tunnel? Or just jumpy?” How had it never occurred to Tony how intimately someone like Clint, or Natasha too, would have to know the human body in order to do what they did for a living? Why did thinking about how many ways Clint could bring about both harm and pleasure make Tony’s gut tighten?

“Uh…bit of both, probably.”

“Hmm.” When Clint spoke again, it was in the closest to what Tony had learned was his Dominant tone that Clint had ever directed at him. “If—if we’re going to do this, I want that paperwork filled out in as much detail as you can give me. It’s fine to not know something because of a lack of experience, but if I think you’re willfully omitting information that I need to keep you safe and well, then deal’s off and you start with a gentler Dom. Got it?” His smile when Tony replied with a quiet ‘yessir’ was almost wolfish.
****

Steve arrived at therapy feeling almost cocky. In the past 48 hours he had scened with one of his partners, an involved, incredible scene that Nat had texted to inform him Thor had been dopey with subtonin over all day; then yesterday he had made it through an entire conversation with Tony. More than that, he’d actively helped Tony with several portions of his contract that had been giving him trouble. Sure it had been difficult at times to be on the outside of that dynamic, but maybe that would be changing soon too.

Dr. Domen’s response to this news was entirely underwhelming. She congratulated Steve, yes, but then she slid her tablet out of her bag and seemed to intent to proceed as usual. No discussion about reducing the schedule, or ending their sessions altogether.

“I don’t get it,” he interrupted a question about his latest journalling exercise rudely. “I…sorry, Dr. Domen, but I just…I’m where we were trying to get me. I’m not sure I really need to continue therapy, especially at this kind of pace. Things with my partners are better, and things with Tony look like they’re moving in a great direction. I’m not sure what else there really is to say.”

“You’ve had a good few days. I really am very pleased with your progress.” He nodded in fervent agreement, but even as he did he recognized something. Domen’s was using the same conciliatory tone that SHIELD agents used when they were in the midst of a situation that might turn volatile at any point. (He knew that tone. Hell, he used that tone. Its purpose was to diffuse and deflect.) “A good few days does not mean you are healed, Steve.”

“Well I’m not, I didn’t mean healed, per se,” he sputtered, hurt and a little embarrassed. “But I mean, I’m good with the team, good with Tony. I might even--I mean, I’m thinking about asking to maybe be included in their relationship with him after all.”

“I don’t think that’s a great idea just yet.”

“But why?”

“Well, primarily because you are effectively just beginning to accept that your previous partner died. You are not ready to enter into a new relationship with a different version of the man you just started to grieve.”

Steve had been told he couldn’t do a great many things in his life, and he’d made an entire career out of proving those claims wrong. He should have stayed down and given up in so many back alleys, in recruitment centres all over New York, in the metal coffin they’d put him in after they’d pumped his veins full of an experimental serum that never should have worked. He’d fought way harder for much less than this, an entire future unfolding in front of him, bright and full of colour again after so many months of grey.

“I don’t agree.”

“Steve.” Domen brought two fingers up to pinch at her nose, and seemed to struggle with herself for several seconds. “You and I have talked a couple of times about some of the patterns you have exhibited during grieving thus far. We’re working on your tendencies to compare and idealize, and that’s going to get us a long way. But we also need to confront and name the outcome of those processes when they go unchecked. Not because I want to shame or embarrass you, but because my impression is that I don’t think you’ve ever been totally honest with yourself about this particular aspect of your psyche.”

“I…have no idea what you mean,” Steve confessed. She smiled, but there was no joy in the expression. It was full of a resigned sadness that reminded Steve oddly of his mother.

“I know you don’t. And to be quite frank with you, this is a conversation I would prefer we not have just yet.” But,” she held a hand up as Steve made to protest, “I recognize that if I try to delay, there’s a chance you’ll end our sessions altogether. So I’m willing to compromise on that with a few conditions. The first is that I want to ensure another member of your team is currently present in the Tower, and that they will be available to support you immediately following the session. You are under no obligation to share anything about our conversation with that person, but you are not to send them away, and you are to trust their discretion regarding any care you may require this evening.”

Steve didn’t particularly enjoy feeling handled, but he’d worked with Domen long enough by now to know that this was one of those things she wasn’t going to be willing to move an inch on. He nodded in the direction of the nearest camera, and JARVIS confirmed a handful of seconds later that Phil was around and had agreed to the terms.

“I’ll also need you to agree to take tomorrow off from SHIELD work entirely. At that point it will be your choice if you wish to have company or not, but regardless, I don’t want anyone’s life in your hands for at least 24 hours. You’ll spend the day engaged in some of the self-care practices we’ve discussed, and you will call my cell, not my office, if you require further support. These terms are non-negotiable, and if I find out you have violated any of them I am not remotely afraid of placing you under a temporary psychiatric hold. Your safety, and that of the people around you, is always my priority. Are we clear?”

What the hell could Domen want to talk about that would require these kinds of precautions? Curiosity and dread were competing for primacy in Steve’s mind, but regardless of which won out, there was no way he could turn back now. He nodded, and Domen sighed with something that sounded like regret. She really didn’t want to do this.

“After you thought James Barnes had died, both times, how did you cope? What were your responses?” A knot of unease formed in Steve’s belly.

“Bucky? I thought we were—”

“Just answer the question please, Steve. I assure you that it is relevant.”

“I…well, the first time I went in to rescue him.”

“With very little reason to believe that you were likely to succeed.” The knot grew tighter, and Steve’s jaw tightened almost to the point of pain. “And then there was the plane.”

“There were bombs onboard,” he snapped.

“There were. And you had enough evidence about how the serum worked to suggest that if you did something like eject yourself during the landing, you had a strong shot at survival. But you didn’t even give SHIELD your coordinates, did you? Because whether you attempted the ejection or not, the bottom line was you didn’t want to be found. You didn’t want to have a chance.”

“Stop.”

Every fictional representation of therapy Steve had ever seen would have had Dr. Domen ignoring his objections, continuing to drive her point home. She didn’t. The room was silent except for the blood rushing in Steve’s ears; for once, even the rhythmic tapping of Domen’s fingers on the glass screen of her tablet was absent.

“This isn’t a pattern.” He wasn’t making a statement, he was pleading. Steve could hear it in the desperate pitch of his voice, which sounded for all the world like he was inhabiting an asthmatic 90-pound frame again rather than his serum-enhanced body. If he agreed, if he acknowledged that this shameful thing he’d long suspected about himself might actually be true, then it changed everything. It affected every single thing he’d ever done that really mattered as Captain America. “I…one life compared to a thousand, a million….”

“It happened again after Tony, didn’t it?”

“No.”

“Steve…”

“It didn’t! I never did anything like that, never even came close to—to dying.”

“I would venture that some of what you have been doing—remaining on the verge of Dominant deprivation, rarely eating enough to satisfy your metabolism, isolating yourself—should be counted as self-harming behaviours. But I concur that you didn’t make any of the larger scale attempts at self-sacrifice that typified your other major losses. Why do you think that is, Steve?”

He thought back to those dark, horrid days after Tony had died. At first, managing to do things like breathing and eating were about all he could handle. He hadn’t needed to imagine or wish for death because he’d felt lifeless and broken already. As days turned into weeks and months, though, it had been tempting to find the most dangerous mission he could. But…

“The team. They were…someone was always watching in one way or another. Nat had to sign off on any SHIELD missions I took that were classified over a certain degree of risk. Someone usually stayed close by during Avengers call-outs. Bucky…he went down and got DUM-E, made me responsible for him.”

“And you were angry at them for that.” Steve bowed his head.

“Yes.”

Silence blanketed the room again. Eventually, fearing his knees would buckle on him, Steve made his way to the chair across from Domen. His legs shook on the way down with a kind of exhaustion he didn’t know he was capable of feeling any more.

“There are two things I think we need to at least be working towards before I’ll feel comfortable supporting you involving yourself further with Tony Stark in any capacity. The first is that you need to be in a place where you can forgive your other partners for implicitly asking you to live.”

“But how...it’s disgusting that I was angry at them in the first place. I hate that about myself.”

“A philosopher named Judith Butler introduced a concept called precarity that I think is relevant to our conversation. She says that the value of the term is that it reminds us that our existence is fundamentally social, that our lives are always to some extent in the hands of someone else. This creates bonds, sometimes of love and care, but also of obligation. You were angry because your lovers, by requiring you to care for yourself and for them to at least a minimal degree, obligated you to remain living when you wished to be otherwise. It is understandable that as tired and as devastated as you have been by the many losses you have faced in your life that this made you angry. But if you wish to move forward, then you need to decide whether or not this demand they have placed on you is something you are capable of accepting and forgiving them for.”

Steve knew what he wanted his answer to be. And he knew that it was a different one than he might have been able to provide even a weeks prior. He could not quite give voice to it yet, however, and Domen didn’t ask him to.

“We will also need to do some work thinking about the other side of this question of precarity and obligation: the demands you place on the people you love, especially Tony Stark. As you know, I haven’t spoken and will not be speaking to the version of him currently residing in this Tower. But for both of your sakes, I cannot in good conscience encourage any kind of relationship between you which will make Mr. Stark primarily responsible for your continued well-being and existence, which you have several times come close to implying the previous version of him was. You have to decide for yourself that you wish to live, Steve.”

Chapter Text

Later, Steve wouldn’t remember making the trip to Coulson’s floor. It passed in a blur, Steve somehow both intensely embodied and entirely outside of himself. Every part of him hurt, but he also felt dulled to all of it, sort of akin to the way that being in the immediate vicinity of an explosive muted your hearing for a while.

He wasn’t entirely sure what he expected to greet him when he stepped out. Phil naked and on his knees, perhaps, or ready to present Steve with any number of tools suitable for a highly intense scene. All of them involved an interaction between a submissive and a Dominant, because Steve was a True, and that was how everyone always thought to bring him comfort.

When Steve stepped out of the elevator, Coulson was waiting for him in a crisp black suit, identical to what he would have worn to SHIELD. There was not a submissive line in his body, from the high, tight set of his shoulders down to his perfectly-shined dress shoes, which sounded an even, steady rhythm against the floor as he stepped forward to greet Steve. Well, greet was the wrong word—what happened next was decidedly more of an assessment. Coulson’s eyes moved in a familiar pattern along Steve’s frame, the same one he always used to inspect the team after missions. It was a slightly different order depending on which member of the Avengers he was examining; Steve’s most frequently injured or strained sites were his head, hands, and back, so unless there were immediately visible issues elsewhere, Coulson started there. He always saved actually looking any of them in the face for last, and even though Steve knew better now than he used to the types of tells Coulson would be seeking out (pupillary response to light and stimulus, tension in the muscles around the eyes and mouth, dryness of lips indicating dehydration if the mission had been extended or in a difficult climate), this last step always left Steve feeling unbearably, inescapably exposed.

Even as he fought the very real temptation to hide from Coulson (who would be so disappointed if he knew what darkness his childhood hero carried inside him), some part of Steve was relieved by the presence of his handler rather than his submissive. Steve would never have left Coulson in need if he’d been down already, but the thought of having a submissive’s needs and desires in Steve’s control held, for once, very little appeal. How could Steve trust himself to care for and guide someone else when he was so utterly lost?

Phil didn’t voice his findings, he never did. He simply guided them over to the couch, reaching up to exert a light pressure on Steve’s shoulders when Steve didn’t automatically sit, but just stood in front of the furniture, numb.

“I’m so tired.” He didn’t know he was going to speak until he’d whispered the words into the chasm that felt like it separated him from Phil, from everyone who was normal and decent and didn’t get angry at their partners for asking them to live, for god’s sake. Coulson still didn’t speak, though in response to Steve’s quiet confession he stood and retrieved a familiar box from a drawer in the plum-coloured coffee table. It contained the metal spheres Phil usually used to start scenes as a submissive.

Before a bemused and terrified Steve could attempt to muster anything near his Dominant headspace, Phil was handing the balls over to him—not one by one by one but all together in a cool and surprisingly heavy heap. Steve stared down at them clanging together in his hands, unable to comprehend what was being asked of him.

“You don’t have to say it out loud. I’m not trying to get you to submit. I just want to hold onto whatever happened today for you, just for a little while.” Then Coulson held out his hands, palms up and held parallel between them. And Steve’s slow, numbed brain finally understood what was being offered: the chance to give over his problems, to hand them off to someone else. It was a perfect, horrible mirror of the way they would usually come together, and the grace and kindness of it stabbed Steve through the heart.

“I can’t—I don’t deserve—” Phil’s short, decisive sentences cut through the wave of self-loathing that threatened to swallow Steve whole.

“That’s not your call right now, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It can be mine. Give this to me, Steve, please.”

He never could have done it, Steve would reflect later, for anyone else. His instincts to protect and shield the people he loved were too engrained. But from almost the very beginning of his time in this century, Coulson had been his handler, and Steve had come to regard that title with profound respect that bordered on reverence. Phil regularly held all of their lives in his hands with a competence that was almost other-worldly—maybe, just for a few hours, he could bear the weight of Steve’s guilt and shame and rage and exhaustion, too.

His hands shook as he picked up one of the spheres, running it between his thumb and middle finger. I didn’t want to live. Steve half expected for something about his internal confession to give him away; he waited for the questions, for the look of disgust or betrayal to curl Phil’s lip and shutter his eyes. The ball landed in Coulson’s palm with a quiet smack of metal on flesh, and he briefly curled his fingers around it before flattening his palm again, awaiting the next burden. I was so angry at all of you for making me that some days it was all I could do to look at you. The second ball landed next to the second, and Coulson closed his fist again, a tender embrace of Steve’s most horrible secrets. I barely remember what it is to want to live just for myself.

As the third ball found a space next to its mates, Steve’s shoulders slumped. His body pitched forward, colliding with Phil’s with too much strength and too little control. Phil staggered under his weight, but quickly adjusted his bearing so that he could grip Steve around the shoulders in a fierce hug, the kind that would have left bruises were it not Captain America in his arms.
****

The days following Tony and Clint’s date were decidedly odd. Coulson dropped out of their work sessions, rarely leaving Rogers’ floor. Which was fine, it wasn’t as if Tony didn’t have plenty to do that didn’t require Phil’s presence, but it seemed entirely unlike Coulson to abandon anything mid-project. And it wasn’t just him; the rest of the tower was filled with a weird kind of tension. The team still made sure to spend plenty of time in the penthouse, but they were all clearly preoccupied with whatever was going on with Cap.

Dummy took it perhaps harder than everyone. He haunted the penthouse elevator for hours on end, and a quick look at his back-end communications between he and JARVIS revealed he was asking the AI for updates about Rogers every thirty minutes on the dot. Even a couple of weeks ago this would probably have pissed Tony off majorly (did the guy really have to steal Tony's bots, too?), but their chat in the kitchen had done a great deal to lessen what was left of Tony’s hostilities. Rogers could have used that moment to mock Tony’s complete lack of knowledge. At the very least he might have refused to touch the topic at all. Given that Tony had effectively been asking how best to get busy with the guy’s partners, he would have been well within his rights. Instead, Cap had been genuinely helpful—kind, informative and eminently practical.

Before learning that something had apparently gone down in Rogers’ therapy sessions (and holy shit was it still bizarre to think of a version of the man invested enough in his own mental health to actually be in therapy), Tony had found himself hoping their conversation would mean Cap’s stops in the penthouse might become more frequent. Now…well, that appeared to be on hold.

Dummy completed another lap of the penthouse, ending up at the elevator doors with a truly pathetic little whirring noise. From the couch, Barnes made an answering sound that sounded as if the air had been punched from his gut. This was the final straw.

“Alright. All of you, out.”

“Tony, it’s not—”

“We didn’t mean to—“

“Sorry, we can—”

“Nope. Seriously. I like seeing you all, and I appreciate the company while I’m basically confined to the Tower. But it’s not supposed to be an obligation. Rogers needs you, and you all clearly need to be with him. So do me a favour: take that tragedy of a bot and go down to him. I’ll be fine up here on my own for a while. I won’t even light anything on fire.”

No one bothered putting up too much of a fight, and soon the lot of them were marching to the elevator. Everyone except Clint, who took his time getting to his feet and then sidled up next to Tony. (Ever since their date, he’d been far more willing to press his way into Tony’s space. Nothing scandalous, just the odd jostling of shoulders or brushing of hands on knees.)

“We’re still on for tomorrow?”

“I—yeah, if you still want.” Tony’s attention was half on the small troupe of Avengers jostling for space in the elevator with his helper-bot-turned-domestic-diva, but when he realized Barton hadn’t answered for a few seconds, he turned to face him fully.

“Good.” It should have been annoying to be praised for doing something as simple as looking Clint in the eye. It definitely should not have made Tony’s mouth go suddenly dry, or the pace of his breath to quicken. “And yes, to answer your question, I absolutely want. Try to get to bed early tonight, please, and make sure to eat a decent lunch. I’ll be up at one.”
****

Clint arrived in the penthouse two minutes early the next day, clad in a pair of dark washed blue jeans and a plain grey t-shirt that lovingly hugged chest and abdominal muscles that Tony hadn’t known existed and which he was now apparently doomed to be fixated on forever. He greeted Drama, their robot llama, with all his usual enthusiasm, bending down to pat at the top of her head and throwing a quarter down on the floor for her to collect. (The bot had proved to be a complete klepto, always rooting around in and under furniture for shiny things to steal, a tendency that Clint was way too indulgent of in Tony’s experienced bot-parent opinion.) Then he waited, just as he had the evening prior, for Tony to meet his gaze. It took him close to a minute to manage it this time, he kept wanting to fidget or fixate on something else simply from nerves, but Clint’s patience was a force all its own.

“Good,” he said again, a hint of a smirk playing at the corners of his lips. “You’ve eaten?” Recalling the item on the checklist about honorifics, Tony faltered, unsure how to address the man in front of him. He settled for avoiding the matter altogether and replied only with a jerky nod. “Excellent. Then why don’t you go get yourself comfortable in the living room, alright? I’ll be in in just a second.”

This proved to be a more challenging instruction than Tony would have guessed. He was immediately confronted with the purple kneeling pillow, nestled invitingly in the corner, but he still felt oddly reluctant to give away how much kneeling had already come to mean to him when things were just starting out. But if not there, then where? A chair might make Clint think he was avoiding the option of being touched, but the couch might make it seem like Tony was pushing himself on Clint…He stood motionless in the centre of the room until an amused huff sounded from behind him, where Clint stood holding two bottles of water and a small black duffle bag that he must have come up with.

“Okay, I’m trying really hard not to jump in at the middle here, but you’re pretty damn keyed up. We’re not going to do anything intensive before we talk, but can I try a couple of things to try to get you settled?” Relieved, Tony nodded, wondering when the hell he’d become such anxious and awkward being. “Alright. Sit on the couch, middle cushion, palms down and on your knees. Good. Now take a deep, long breath in and hold it for five. Now out. Again.” Clint led them through several rounds of that, varying the breathing patterns or asking Tony to focus on different things each time. It was just intellectual enough to keep his frantically whirring mind occupied without going overboard and losing sight of what they were there for altogether. “You’re going to get a lot of choices today,” Clint said. “That won’t always be the case, but there’s a lot that we don’t know about each other yet, and I would rather give you options than push you too far too fast. So we’re going to talk some more, but the first decision you have to make is whether you’re alright with being naked for that conversation, or if you’d prefer to stay clothed for now.”

“Why would I want to be naked if we’re just talking?”

“It’s partly a power thing, of course. A way for you to start to get into the right headspace for a scene. I also like my subs naked whenever possible because I read people’s body language for a living. You’ll tell me just as much with what makes you tense up, or cringe, or shudder, or get hard as you will with the words you use. Sometimes more if you’re being recalcitrant.”

Tony wasn’t sure if that thought, the idea of being known and seen that way, was more disquieting or arousing. He was, however, willing to find out, so he stood and stripped off, though without making the kind of display of it he might normally have done. Clint still nodded his approval, raking his eyes over every inch of Tony with a leisurely kind of arrogance, like it was his right. Unsure if he was supposed to sit without invitation, Tony withstood the inspection as long as he could. Just when he was considering making a break for the couch without permission, Clint gestured to the spot next to him.

“You didn’t fill out much of the first page of the contract. I get it, I have a hard time with that one too, but there’s some things I need to know to be able to proceed. So I’m going to ask you some questions, alright? You always have the option not to answer, but without answers to some of them there’s not much more we can do today. Understand?” Tony nodded, but some part of him knew even as he did it that he wouldn’t get away with another non-verbal response. Clint shook his head. “Try again. That’ll be Yes, Clint or No, Clint.”

“Yes, Clint.”

“Good. Now, that wound on your side looks like it’s just about healed. Is that accurate?”

“Yes, Clint.”

“Anything I need to be careful of to avoid re-injury?”

“No, Clint.”

“And the arc reactor. I know you said it’s just a housing unit now, but whatever you did to get rid of the other one…do you still have some of the same side effects from the original surgery that the other Tony did? Reduced lung capacity? Heart and circulation complications?”

“They’re all under control.”

“Answer just the question I’m asking you, Tony.” There was a prickling edge to Clint’s tone that suggested he was just barely refraining from allowing his Dominant instincts to surface. It was…provocative, simultaneously tempting Tony both to press his luck and to acquiesce to whatever demands Clint made.

“Yes, Clint.” The other man rewarded this particular response by trailing a slow finger down Tony’s spine, hard enough not to feel like a tickle but gentle enough to have Tony pressing back into the touch, seeking more.

“The carpal tunnel I noticed the other day—how severe is it?”

“I…don’t know, Clint. I didn’t have time, the last few years, to—” Clint’s hand shifted, pressing down on a knotted muscle near Tony’s left shoulder blade. He yelped, though by the time the noise had escaped him, the touch had already turned into more of a massage, Clint working some of the tension out of the same muscle he’d just punished with clever, confident fingers.

“Just. The questions. I’m asking. If I need you to clarify or expand I’ll let you know. Stop trying to anticipate where we’re going and what I need from you. The beauty of this whole thing is that I will tell you.” And that kind of does sound beautiful, actually, the thought of someone’s expectations of Tony being clear and open and achievable. Nuance was great and important and all, but when the entire world existed in varying hues of grey as Tony’s so often did, that kind of simplicity was decidedly rare.

“Yes, Clint. Sorry.”

“Is there anything else I need to know to be able to safely care for your body, Tony? Any other pre-existing conditions, major traumas? I know this is hard, and you’re doing really damn well.” The same part of Tony that had practically come at the very thought of being called a good boy was in raptures at what he sensed was a rare piece of praise from Clint. He suddenly felt a whole lot more naked, and made to adjust his posture, mask at least some part of himself from Clint’s sharp and knowing stare. Just like in his fantasy, retreat wasn’t an option. In seconds, Clint’s hand was at his hip, pressing him just slightly into the couch in a silent warning.

“No, Clint.”

“Good. Then we can get started.”
****

Clint provided Tony with several more choices after that point—sexual or non-sexual scene, Clint’s room or his own—which eventually lead him to where he was now: sprawled spread-eagle across Clint’s bed. The other man currently had his back to Tony as he rustled through the black duffle bag he’d had with him upstairs. At the angle he was at Tony couldn’t see what it was Clint was fiddling with, so he took the opportunity to blatantly scope out the rest of the room. He’d expected a wall of bright purple, but the palette was slightly more refined, grey with pops of bright accent colours throughout. There were some pictures hanging on the wall in orange frames, mostly of the team, and a floating shelf that held a more weathered collection of odd knick-knacks that Tony could only assume were the sole remnants of Clint’s unstable childhood. Nightstands sat on either end of the bed; the one on the side that Tony was certain belonged to Clint was a kind of organized chaos, littered with charging cables and comics and what looked like a small stuffed penguin in no discernible order. The bed was firmer than he’d expected, and was currently covered only in a space grey top sheet. The whole space was youthful without edging into boyish.

When Clint finally made his way back to the bed (still fully dressed, the bastard), he was holding two short lengths of rope in one hand, and two leather cuffs in the other. He set them down on Tony’s bare chest, then sat down on a wooden chair next to the bed and arched a brow in silent question. As soon as Tony reached out to touch the cuffs, he knew he was lost. The rope seemed perfectly fine, but the leather was butter-soft and thick and it smelled the way that only the high quality stuff did. He was also fairly certain he’d seen Thor wearing them at some point. Clint confirmed this when he asked.

“Thor can tell you more about what he likes when it’s his turn, but suffice to say bondage is a pretty big part of this whole thing for him. He wears wrist cuffs during the day when he doesn’t have time to go down but needs something to anchor him.” Clint buckled them around Tony’s wrists with the competent ease of someone who knows his tools inside and out. But then, rather than securing them to anything else, he set Tony’s hands back against his thighs.

“I thought…” He trailed off, unable to bring himself to demand to be made helpless. Clint shook his head.

“I’m not anchoring you to anything until we can get some testing done to see about the extent of that carpal tunnel.” Tony fought the urge to roll his eyes, already wishing he’d never confirmed Clint’s suspicions.

“Really, it’s not a big deal. I’m sure it would take a lot more than being tied up to cause any lasting—”

“Let’s be very clear about something.” Clint never raised his voice. If anything, it grew softer but infinitely more dangerous, like spun cotton threaded with barbed wire. Tony didn’t need whatever instincts submissive in this universe had to realize instantly that this was Clint in a truly Dominant headspace. The flashes Tony had seen so far during carefully curated moments in the penthouse hadn’t even come close to showing him what that really meant. He remembered again how it had felt during their date to realize how deadly Clint was, how intimately he knew the human body and all its weaknesses. “You always have the power to alter or end a scene if you want or need to. And we’re new to one another, so in addition to your full-stop safeword remember you have the option of using yellow, too, if you need something to slow down but not halt entirely. That power is all yours; I’ll never do anything to you that you don’t want or can’t handle. Tell me you understand that.”

“I understand, Clint.”

“Good. Now also make sure you understand this: beyond those words, and whatever choices I give you, you don’t control a single thing. You’re not Tony fuckin’ Stark here. I’m not your employee, or some government lackey you can push around. As long as we’re here like this, as long as you are consenting to be mine and as long as I’m operating within the limits we’ve established together, you don’t get a say. You don’t decide how I’ll bind you, or what what I’ll do with you when you’re there.” Clint paused, and this lips curled into a smirk. “Unless you want to beg real pretty for something, of course, in which case I’ll consider it.”

Tony’s mind and body were both at war with themselves. By the time Clint’s little speech was finished his cock was half-hard, rising as if to seek out more of Clint’s razor-edged voice and his calloused hands and his keen regard that saw so much and gave away so little. This was every fantasy he’d had about Clint over the past few days come to life and turned up to eleven. But it was also terrifying. Tony wasn’t even bound down to anything yet; Clint had really not done any more than talk, and Tony felt more exposed than he’d ever been. His hands fell to his sides, gripping at the sheets in tight fists.

“It’s okay if you’re not ready for this. I can still go get Bruce or Nat or basically anyone else, really. No hard feelings.”

“Don’t you fucking dare,” Tony growled. He didn’t know much, could barely process or even recognize the wildly conflicting responses he was getting from himself. But he knew that the thought of Clint leaving was about the only one worse than somehow disappointing him or screwing this up. “I’m…I might not know the things you all do, and I’m probably broken in some new and fucked-up ways. But I told you all that first day, I’m not some delicate fucking sugar cookie either. So don’t go treating me like one now, Barton.”

Clint didn’t give any indication he’d even heard Tony’s outburst, not until a hand closed around Tony’s cock. Not squeezing, not moving enough to provide him with any real friction. Just holding it. His hips hitched, and instantly the warm grip was gone. Tony whined—fucking whined, like some desperate, over-eager teenager—and Clint was leaning over him.

“Aww, nothin’ to get upset about now darlin’. You be good for me while I tell you a little story and you can have my hand back. Sound good?” Oh god, that fucking condescension, the way it so often felt like Clint was almost making fun of Tony when he was in Dominant headspace, it should have triggered anger or hurt or at least some kind of snark. It shouldn’t have made Tony feel like there was a line of liquid heat shooting down all the way down his spine and into his groin. “Gotta use your words, Tony, remember?”

“Yes, Clint.” The hand dropped back to his cock at once, that same loose, possessive hold from before. In seconds, Tony was on his way to more than half hard.

“Good boy.” Just as he had in the privacy of his own room, Tony’s body responded to the praise like he’d been electrocuted. Except now Clint was here to see, and there was not a chance in the world that he’d missed how his words had affected Tony. (Hawkeye never fucking missed.) “Now isn’t that something. You talk a big game, Tony, all tough and shit, but deep down you just wanna be my good boy, hmm?” Tony shook his head in denial and reached down to grab at his own dick, to seize back some measure of control. Clint knocked his hand away almost lazily.

“Just because you’re not bound to something doesn’t mean the implication of the cuffs isn’t clear. Hands on your thighs and don’t move ‘em again unless I tell you to. If you want to be my good boy you’ve gotta earn it, don’t you?” Clint’s index finger flicked out to play with the head of Tony’s cock as he said ‘good boy,’ and he chuckled darkly as Tony all but thrashed against the bed in response. “Right. Now, storytime. It’s a bit of a choose your own adventure tale, if you will. I’m gonna talk to you, tell you some things I’ve been thinking about since I read through your contract. I won’t touch on any hard limits, or anything you ranked below a 3 in terms of interest. If you particularly like something I’m saying, you’ll ask me politely for more. If you don’t like something, you can stay silent, or say ‘something else, Clint.”

If Tony had been told a few hours or days ago that Clint’s entire idea for a scene revolved primarily around talking, he would have been both outraged and horribly disappointed. Now Tony wasn’t sure if he’d even survive. He dug his fingers into his thighs and tried to decide whether closing his eyes to picture the scene or watching Clint’s intense expressions as he spoke would be better. He settled for a kind of hooded stare.

“Now, in hindsight I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at just how hard you obviously get off on praise. Because really, your contract told a story about someone who is absolutely desperate to serve. To please someone else, to be exactly what they want at precisely the moment they want it. You’re open to at least considering a huge number of things, but that’s really what they all have in common, isn’t it? It’s so fucking sweet, Tony, and all I could think about reading it was how easily I could use that to break you into pieces for me.”

“God, Clint, please.” Tony’s first outburst was rewarded with a brush of the heel of Clint’s hand against the big vein on the underside of his cock. Silver spots dotted his vision and he sucked in a harsh, rasping breath. Clint wasn’t even on the goddamn bed, was barely touching him.

“Yeah, I know. I know you need that so badly, hmm? Want to be raw and open, nowhere left to hide from me. From any of us. I’ll still teach you espionage, I swear I’ll show you how to lie to everyone else, but not from us. Never from us. Next time we do this I’m starting you off right away with a spreader bar, keep you nice and wide and open for me.” One of Clint’s fingers trailed down, circling Tony’s hole and rubbing up against his perineum with the same unhurried air with which he’d touched Tony’s cock. It was maddening. His hips rose, an invitation and a plea and a demand all at once. Clint ignored it all, settling his hand back around Tony’s cock. His only concession was to bring his other hand into play, reaching beneath the first to roll Tony’s balls idly and flick and tug lightly at the sensitive skin there. Tony was alarmed and awed to realize he was near tears.

“Please. Please. Clint, I need…”

“Mmm, yeah you do need, don’t you? You’re all need and wide-eyed curiosity and I swear Tony it is the hottest fucking thing. Now you’ve distracted me, where was I…ah, the spreader bar, right. Well, I could put a nice thick plug in you—glass, so I could see hints of your pretty hole opening up. You’d be dripping for me then, I’m sure, just like you are now.” As if to prove his point, Clint collected the pre-come pooling on his fingers, offering it to Tony who sucked them into his mouth like he was starving. He threw every bit of frantic desperation he felt into it, swirling his tongue, alternating depth and pressure, working Clint’s with the same skill and attention he would absolutely use to work Clint’s cock if given half the chance. When Clint went to take them back, Tony whimpered again, increasing the suction as if he could force Clint to stay if he was just good enough, dedicated enough to his task. “Fucking Christ, Tony, look at you. So fucking desperate for even a phantom hint of it, it’s amazing you’ve gone so long without a Dominant when you clearly need it so badly. Fuck.” Clint slid his fingers out then, but before Tony could complain, the spit-slick digits were wrapped far more tightly around his cock than they’d been thus far. The relief of the friction was as sweet as his first deep breath of oxygen had been when Carol had returned him to Earth, burning and soothing right down to a cellular level. “I’d let you kneel for me with the plug in for a good while. Maybe even watch some TV. That’d drive you just a bit crazy I think, being ignored when you felt so needy.” Tony grunted an agreement, because even hearing it was enough to make him want to sob in frustration. “Yeah, sugar cookie, you’d want to be the star. But the part I’m still trying to work out is would you want my attention once you really had all of it? When I took the plug out and fucked you right there on the floor, so hard and fast and deep that you could feel it all the way through, and you were begging me to let you come, would you still be so desperate to have me focused on you?”

“Please. Please, Clint, fucking please. I need, you’re too, it’s, yesyesyes.” What started as a plea ended as more of a chant, because the second Tony took the cue from the story and started begging in earnest, Clint’s hand was finally wrapped all the way around him, jerking him off with brutal efficiency. It felt like Clint had about thirty fingers; he used the pads of each digit to create constantly varying degrees of pressure, a maddening dance that made it impossible for Tony’s brain to track individual sensations. He’d never felt so entirely outside his mind before, so purely made of base reaction.

It was over in under two minutes, Tony shooting ropes of come into the air that splattered his stomach and thighs and the sheet beneath him. Clint followed shortly thereafter, stripping off his shirt and pants and tugging his own cock out of his boxers without even bothering to take them off. That sight on its own, Clint too much in a hurry to bother fully undressing, was enough to draw another twinge out of Tony’s own oversensitive dick. Clint brought himself off with the same ruthless focus that he’d used on Tony, smiling in dark satisfaction as he painted Tony with his come.

Tony’s skin was still a hypersensitive wall when Clint abruptly shoved into the bed behind him. It was the first time he’d been able to feel more than the other man’s hand since the whole thing had started, and Tony pressed backward gratefully, making needy, whining sounds that were raw and wrecked even to his own ears.

“Shh, you’re okay. You’re okay. You were so good for me Tony, God. I had plans to make that last way longer, you know, but you were just so damn gorgeous and responsive. Bruce said you were, he told all of us, but that’s different from actually seeing it, ’s like the difference between seeing a fucking masterpiece and seeing it in the background of someone’s shitty selfie.” Tony’s gut surged with heat and humiliation at the thought of the rest of the team sitting around gossiping about him, passing notes and sharing strategies about how to wring Tony’s submission from him. He started to tremble, and Clint wrapped his leg around Tony’s so he was pressed into the bed by the thick weight of Clint’s muscled thigh. “Like that, huh sugar cookie? My little diva, want nothing more than to have all the Dominants in the Tower panting after you. You have it, I promise you that. We’re so wrapped around your damn finger it’s embarrassing.”
****

Some part of Tony must have assumed aftercare wouldn’t be as important a part of this to Clint as it had been to Bruce, because he was stunned by what unfolded over the next several hours. Clint washed them both down with a soft, wet cloth, and then insisted on giving Tony a full body rubdown. It was evident within minutes that Clint hadn’t been trained; he didn’t touch with the gentle skill of a professional, but with the targeted focus of a soldier, someone who knew major muscle groups primarily in the context of treating them after injury or strain. It still felt damn good, and he talked almost constantly to Tony as he did it, practically showering him with the praise and affection he’d been so sparing with during the scene. (And he didn’t seem offended or even particularly alarmed that Tony cried a couple of times, either.)

“Anything you want to talk about or ask me?” They were still in bed, though Clint had changed the sheets and added a comforter after the massage. Now that he knew what he was looking for, Tony could feel the edge of the drop, but it was a faint and distant thing compared to what it had been after his disastrous first scene with Bruce. Clint had him wrapped in several thick blankets, and held him close as he tipped a bottle of juice periodically into Tony’s mouth. He’d left the leather cuffs on, too, which Tony was finding he really, really liked. It was concrete proof that this had happened, and that Clint wasn’t trying to run or erase the evidence in the immediate aftermath.

“I uh…I guess I thought from what you said that the first scene would be more, I don’t know, involved?” Clint hummed thoughtfully in his ear.

“This was only partly a scene, really. There’s still so much of the contract you couldn’t or didn’t want to fill out yet. I nearly cancelled altogether. But I talked to Nat, and she helped me realize I could turn some of the negotiation and conversation into something fun and sexy, that it was possible to do that without manipulating you into thinking there were right and wrong answers. We can also talk later about some options for more 24/7 kinds of things that you and I can experiment with between scenes. More of the kind of daily stuff that you seemed pretty interested in based on your notes from the contract.” This sounded damn intriguing, and Tony had at least eight follow-up questions, but they also didn’t feel particularly urgent when he was still deeply in subspace. Nothing felt urgent, really, nothing but Clint’s hands and his praise and the fact that he was already alluding to wanting to be with Tony like this again.
****

They spent the rest of the day together. Tony drifted in and out of sleep a couple of times, and they watched some goofy television while Clint put a heated shoulder pad on Tony’s upper back and shoulders to ward off any potential strain. They were in the middle of a debate over what to order for dinner when JARVIS’s voice cut through the room like a blade.

“Sirs. I am deeply sorry to interrupt. Ms. Potts is requesting entry, and has used her emergency override code.” Clint growled, practically leaping from the bed and shoving pants on. Tony sat frozen on the couch, totally unsure how to proceed. It was one thing for Clint to see him this way when he’d been the one to put Tony down in subspace, but it was entirely another to think of Pepper witnessing him this…this slow and clingy. He had, at least, put on boxers and a pair of loose pyjama pants, so he wouldn’t have to do this naked.

She and Clint exchanged heated words near the elevator. The submissive part of Tony’s brain hated hearing the frustration in Clint’s voice, and longed to soothe and beg forgiveness and make it better for his…for the Dominant. The rest of him just plain hated the idea of one of his potential partners in open conflict with one of Tony’s oldest friends. Finally, Clint seemed to lose the struggle between them, because Pepper strode toward the couch and sank into one of the armchairs with a heavy sigh.

“You have no idea how sorry I am to disturb you both, Tony, truly.”

“’s fine, Pep.” He was appalled to hear the way his voice slurred, especially because it made Pepper look even more regretful.

“It’s not. Oh honey you’re so far down, aren’t you?”

“Just tell him and go, Pepper. I have this.” She sighed again, a long, defeated sound that reminded Tony far more of the post-Snap version of his own Pepper than the one that he’d slowly become familiar with on this side. He sat up, some of the edges of headspace falling away in the face of her obvious distress.

“The timeline for going public is going to have to move up. The spyware you put on our rogue board members found an open memo they’re planning to release early next week. It puts Stark Industries in open conflict with Steve over this program he’s starting at SHIELD, and it explicitly invokes your—well, our Tony’s name and memory to do so. If we don’t want to be bogged down with weeks of headlines about you two being in conflict, which will harm both SHIELD and SI immeasurably, I think we need to come out ahead of this thing.”

Chapter Text

“Take me through it again.” It pained Tony to make the request. He had never been someone who required information be repeated, a habit he’d come by the same way as most: from good ol’ Dad, who had often feigned temporary hearing impairment when Tony hadn’t understood him the first time he’d said something. Tony had learned to piece most things together with contextual clues, and to bluster through when he still felt like he was missing something but didn’t dare ask what it was.

Both those strategies were temporarily unavailable to him, however, due to the fact that his head felt like it had been stuffed full with cotton wool. The glacially slow movement from one thought to the next, which had felt like a welcome relief during his scene with Clint, was now a major hindrance. It annoyed him enough that he was unfairly pissed at Clint for making him this way; Tony rejected several of the other man’s subtle, reassuring touches, and refused outright Clint’s multiple attempts to bring the discussion temporarily around to dinner. Finally, Clint got frustrated enough that he rose from his place on the couch next to Tony and stalked out of the room. Pepper followed his angry path through the house with an uneasy expression.

“If you need a breather to go deal with that…”

“’s fine. Just…again, Pep, please.” She frowned, pursing her lips in an expression that felt distinct from the numerous versions of disapproval he’d seen in his own world. (But then, Pepper and Tony had never been romantically involved in this universe. Perhaps this was what Pepper looked like when Tony screwed up relationships that didn’t involve her—all the sadness, but none of the anger and disappointment that came up when it was her he was hurting.) Eventually, she sighed and began her explanation again from the beginning.

“Ever since our Tony died, the board has been making every possible play to move us back towards weapons manufacturing. It started with stuff fairly above-board, just sneaky—lobbying for contracts to make things that, while not technically weapons themselves, could easily be weaponized in very few steps. We’d have clauses in the paperwork forbidding that they be used that way, of course,” she rolled her eyes, “but they knew and I knew that if we took the contracts and the terms were violated it would be decades worth of legal battles to get those products off the market again. That would harm the company and give the Board a legitimate case to argue I was negatively impacting their bottom line”

“So you said fuck you very much.” He couldn’t remember if Pepper had answered this already, but Tony also didn’t need to hear her say it to know it would be true. No version of Pepper would ever have cowered before the worst members of the SI Board; she was smart, stubborn, and one of the bravest people Tony had ever known. Across from him, her smile was warm and pleased as she nodded, then paused to kick off her heels and curl her feet underneath her before she offered more of a reply.

“It was an open declaration of war, and I knew that caving on that would mean setting a precedent to either become nothing but a figurehead, or find myself out of a job in under a year. After that their methods got…more creative.” Tony was positive she hadn’t mentioned this part before, because it was impossible to miss the way her body closed in on itself, becoming smaller before his eyes. Even if Tony’s brain was all the way broken he would never miss anything that made Pepper look like that, because it made him instantly, powerfully murderous.

“What the hell does that mean?”

“No way, uh-uh, I know that look.”

“Pepper, I swear—”

“It wasn’t a big deal! Don’t pretend to be ignorant of the way it works when you’re operating at the level that SI does. Things are just as dirty and underhanded as they’ve always been. There were some threats, to myself and my parents, who someone must not have gotten the memo that I don’t actually speak to. My apartment was broken into—unclench, I wasn’t there and they knew that, they just wanted to frighten me.”

Whether Pepper was planning to admit it or not, it was obvious that they had succeeded. There was a tremor to her voice that hadn’t been there seconds before, one that reminded Tony painfully of his own Pepper in the early days of Iron Man, when his coming home covered in bullet holes or being attacked on a raceway in Monaco was still new rather than the latest in a long line of potentially fatal absurdities. For just a few seconds he longed with painful intensity to fold her into his arms, comfort her the way he used to back before Ultron, when she’d been able to suspend disbelief at the notion that Tony might ever one day truly separate himself from Iron Man. The temptation faded after a few seconds, leaving behind only a bittersweet ache beneath his ribs. (It was better this way. For both of them.)

“Glad to see they were unsuccessful, Ms. Potts. Now pull up the memo you were talking about and let’s get to work.”
****

“Steve. Steve.”

The first couple of times Steve heard his name, it was in the liminal space between waking and sleep where the whole thing could have been real or imagined. He was tangled in the soft sheets of Phil’s bed with Coulson himself behind Steve serving as the ‘big spoon.’ No one but Thor could usually manage to make Steve actually feel small in this position, but it was still reassuring to feel Phil’s chest and stomach pressed against his back and to remember that for once it was someone else’s job to anchor him. He longed to drift in that knowledge, in the feeling of Phil’s diaphragm expanding and contacting with every breath and his chest hair rubbing up against Steve’s sensitive skin. JARVIS’s voice, however, quickly rendered Steve’s internal debate over whether he was awake or dreaming irrelevant.

“Captain Rogers. I do apologize, but your presence is required in the penthouse.” He groaned, rolling over onto his stomach. Phil must have been up for some time, because the second Steve was in motion Coulson was on his feet, seeking out a fresh pair of dress pants and a collared shirt while Steve was still blinking away the last remnants of sleep.

“’s goin’ on, JARVIS?”

“Ms. Potts arrived in the Tower late yesterday afternoon. She and Sir both requested that I allow you to rest as long as was possible, but as they are now discussing information directly relevant to active SHIELD projects, my protocols dictate that you must be informed. And Sir, Ms. Potts and Agent Barton agree that your attendance is likely necessary for their conversation to move forward.”

“Active SHIELD—why would…nevermind, JARVIS, just tell them I’ll be there in five.”

Steve was pretty sure Coulson had JARVIS brief him while he stumbled his way to the washroom to brush his teeth, but he has always preferred to hear anything where timing isn’t absolutely of the essence directly from his teammates. He trusted the AI, but even JARVIS would (grudgingly) admit that he was not an entirely neutral source. On top of the protocols which shaped his very existence, JARVIS also had enough of a personality to have preferences and beliefs that shaped his interpretation and subsequent accounting of events. In the early days of Steve’s relationship with Tony, this had turned into a major site of dispute between the two of them, because JARVIS would often equivocate about information that he knew might make anyone upset with Tony. They’d eventually ironed that out and by the end of his life Tony had frequently complained that JARIVS had turned traitor on him, but it was too hard to predict how the AI would respond to a different version of his creator, and Steve wasn’t interested in chancing it.

The atmosphere in the penthouse when Phil and Steve entered was utterly bizarre. Pepper and Tony were sharing the couch, petting a bot Steve had never seen before and which appeared to be some kind of sheep or something. Every time Pepper pressed a finger to a sensor pad between its ears, the thing made a low sort of humming noise and tipped its head back like a cat. Next to her, Tony muttered his usual stream of affectionate insults to the bot as he wrapped a blanket tighter around his own shoulders and swiped between several open holoscreens floating in front of them.

It was odd enough to witness with his own eyes just how comfortable this Tony was with Pepper. What really made the otherwise domestic scene feel uneasy, though, was Clint. He hovered at the break where the tile of the open concept kitchen turned into the hardwood of the living room, fists clenched at his sides while he surveyed the pair on the couch. Feeling the weight of leadership settle back onto his shoulders, Steve beelined for the archer, pulling him into the kitchen under the guise of preparing snacks for their little gathering.

“I know it’s a little weird to see he and Pepper so close, but you have to try to reign it in,” Steve advised quietly, unearthing an unopened bag of bell peppers in the fridge and beginning to cut them up. Clint growled.

“It’s not just…we were in the middle of aftercare, and she just burst in here. I finally had the chance to take Tony through an entire scene from start to finish, without the awful come-down he had with Bruce, and then she just strolls in like she owns the damn place. Having work to focus on is helping him through the worst of the drop, but he’s still showing some minor symptoms, and I can’t, he won’t let me—I fucking hate this.”

“Technically she does technically still own 12% of the place,” Steve mused. The weak joke was as much for his own sake as it was Clint’s, because now that he had context for some of Tony’s behaviour (the blanket, the way he was seated closer to Pepper than they would usually have done), Steve could easily have kicked her out of the Tower himself. Clint flipped him off and dumped an entire bag of dill pickle chips (Steve’s least favourite snack of all time) into a bowl. Then he dug his hand in, grabbed a handful of chips and began eating. Loudly. With his mouth open. “Okay, okay, sorry. Look, it’s awful timing, it really is. And one day when things aren’t so new and tenuous with you all, you can maybe set up some boundaries around who and what is permitted to interrupt any portion of a scene including the aftercare. But if you didn’t do that ahead of time then you can’t fairly be pissed at either of them.”

“I know, I just…God, Steve, he was so fucking sweet when he went under for me. Just as responsive as Bruce said—the way he reacts to praise especially is just unreal. It’s enough to break your heart and make you want to…” Even Steve had limits, and hearing in detail about exactly what praising Tony made Clint want to do would have been dancing right on the edge of that boundary. He cleared his throat, loudly, and Clint flushed. “I wanted—needed to take care of him. That’s all.”

“You will. You are. By giving him space to handle an important problem, by showing him that you’re not just going to change everything on him because he submitted to you once, you’re doing that. Not the way you want, not the way you’d prefer, but his submission isn’t supposed to be about you anyway. You’re a good Dom, Clint.” Clint was far from relaxed by the end of Steve’s little speech, but he looked a little less like he was seconds away from taking the shortcut through the vents and into the range, so Steve was counting it as a win. “Bruce’s notes say that when hand feeding isn’t an option Tony seems to do better with food just being left out rather than directed specifically to him like during a meal. So help me get some more of these vegetables cut up so we can get something into your submissive, hmm?”

It killed Steve just a little to refer to Tony that way, to not include himself in the dynamic. (Perhaps it was some kind of karmic retribution for the way the media had so often erased the rest of the team’s involvement with the other Tony when they talked about he and Steve.) But Domen had more than proven her point that Steve had a lot of work to do before he would be able to reach out that way, and it wasn’t fair to the team or to Tony to ask them to wait. And the smile that tugged at the corners of Clint’s mouth was worth whatever it cost.

“My submissive,” the other man murmured to himself, possession and wonder and everything that was beautiful about the start of a relationship folded into his tone. Steve thumped him on the back, only a little harder than was necessary.

“Doesn’t sound too bad, huh?”
****

“I’m telling you, I’ve seen Fletcher’s name on something recently.”

Tony was fixated. He knew he was, and he was aware enough to realize it was starting to piss the others off. But there was nothing more irritating in the world than the sensation of knowing there was a link somewhere and not being able to find it. It was the mental equivalent of having something stuck between your teeth when you don’t have access to floss.

“I’m sure you have, but we really need to focus up here. Tony, JARVIS said you have questions about the SHIELD program that I could help answer? Also, what does the robot sheep want?”

“She’s a llama,” Tony corrected absently. “And she probably wants your wristwatch, the little thief. Drama, c’mere. If you can sit still for half an hour I’ll let you run wild with the silverware later.”

“Oh, and I’m the overly permissive parent?” Clint protested. He sounded substantially less pissed off than he had an hour or so ago, for which Tony found himself deeply grateful. Having a Dominant be pissed at you when you were still in any degree of subspace felt, it turned out, fucking horrible.

“And yes, questions. All the questions. The memo says a whole bunch of things about your program trying to force people to change their orientations and submit at work. I’m positive that’s not what it’s doing, but can you tell me what it is doing, and what the hell Wakanda has to do with anything?”

“I…sure, yeah, of course. Historically, North America has forbidden orientational interactions in the workplace, The argument is that this prevents abuse, like say if a Dominant supervisor leveraged a submissive’s headspace to force them to take on more work than they wanted to, for instance.”

“Not an unreasonable concern,” Tony commented.

“For sure. It made sense to a lot of people; hell, it made sense to me until fairly recently. One of my agents is a submissive; she really struggles with her orientation, and more than once she’s lost work because she avoided headspace for long enough to put her into sub-dep. Then the two of us went to Wakanda. Things are different there. Orientational dynamics shape a lot of workplaces, particularly governmental and national security sectors. Folks in the higher positions—royalty, and high ranking generals, for instance, use Dominance as part of their daily work. And my agent just…flourished. She was happier and more settled than I’ve ever seen her, not at war with herself for the first time in her life. So I started thinking about why everything had to be all or nothing; why can’t some people bring orientation into work while others can leave it at home if that’s what works for them?”

Cap offered up this account like it was nothing, as if it didn’t have the potential to change everything Tony knew about Steve Rogers. Their entire war over the Accords had practically revolved around Rogers’ refusal to see the issue as anything with more nuance than ‘government bad, individual liberties good.’ Tony had definitely made his own mistakes along the way too, but every time he’d tried to get Cap to see that there was anything resembling a middle ground, he had entirely shut down. Tony knew the Civil War hadn’t happened here, and that Rogers was somehow the head of SHIELD, but this was the first bit of real, concrete evidence of just how different this version of the man was. For just a few seconds, he let himself mourn the fact that this version of Cap had absolutely zero romantic interest in Tony. Apparently, said mourning may have lasted beyond a few seconds, because eventually Cap’s expression began to morph from patient neutrality to something more resembling concern. (Tony still kind of hated subspace right now. It was making him too slow and way too obvious.)

“So beyond making it voluntary, how would you prevent the kinds of abuse people were concerned about when they wrote these laws?”

“Contracts, not unlike the ones we have here for non-workplace power exchanges. T’Challa sent over some samples.”

“So wait, though, only people who are classified as Dominants or high ranking switches could ever take on leadership positions? Doesn’t that just open up the potential fo a whole new kind of discrimination, the kind everyone here told me doesn’t exist toward submissives?”

“That’s what the cross-training is for. Wakanda has a system for training subs and Doms to be able to move between multiple orientations depending on context. Princess Shuri is a submissive, and T’Challa is a submission-inclined Switch, but neither of them has any trouble using Dominance in their day jobs. The Wakandans won’t release details about how it works until the agreement is finalized, but it’s a combination of social and medical interventions; they’re completely harmless and entirely reversible, and they allow people some degree of choice over their headspace.”

“Some degree?” Pepper asked. The piece of cucumber dangling from between her fingers looked especially delicious, and Tony took advantage of her distraction to make a lunge for it. Across the room Clint made a harsh grunting noise that Tony couldn’t easily interpret. Cap seemed a little startled too, though he hid it slightly better than Barton by taking a handful of snap peas from the tray on the table.

“Most people who are cross-trained need to spend at least some time in their classified headspace outside of work.” Steve waited several seconds to see if there were going to be any folllow-up questions. When the only sounds in the room were the noises of several of them chewing, he nodded and sat forward in his chair. “I have some questions now, if that’s okay? Ms. Potts, what does this memo do to the timeline?”

“The Board is planning to leak this on Wednesday. That gives us until Monday or Tuesday at the absolute latest for you all to the let the public know that Tony is…well, here.”

Tony shivered, and this time he was pretty sure it had nothing to do with the drop that was still pressing at the edge of his consciousness. Sure, he was starting to get a little cabin-fever staying trapped in the Tower, but his isolation also meant a level of privacy and security that he hadn’t had in…well, for pretty much as long as he could remember. The press and the public had been a part of his life since he’d been born; as Howard Stark’s son, he’d smiled far more often for reporter’s cameras than the Polaroid that made very rare appearances in the Stark household. (Come to think of it, that might have belonged to Edwin and Anna Jarvis, not Howard and Maria.) He’d been not only encouraged but actively coached to behave as if the public’s eye was always on him, and those lessons had taken almost too well. Even in his most intimate moments, the people Tony had loved best in his own universe had sometimes struggled to work their way through his multiple layers of masks and shields.

What if, after so long just spending time in his own skin, Tony couldn’t convincingly manage to put those defences back up again? (What if he succeeded, and the team decided they liked the facsimile of Mark II better than the incomplete and flawed version of submission he could offer them?) The bit of cucumber he was still chewing turned bitter in his mouth, and Tony nearly choked trying to swallow it down.

After that rather depressing thought had occurred to him, Tony couldn’t un-think it. His mind obsessed about nothing else, making it rather difficult to concentrate on what he knew was a crucial conversation about his and the team’s future. Eventually, Pepper halted mid-sentence and stared at Tony. He braced himself for any number of difficult questions, none of which came. She turned in her seat and addressed herself to Clint instead.

“He needs you. I’m not sure if it’s drop or something about this conversation. Probably both. Steve and I can make it through the rest of this without him, so I think you two should go back to what you were doing when I got here.” Clint had leapt to his feet and was across the room and looming over Tony, tall and muscled and determined before Tony’s brain could even compute the fact that he was being handed off.

“Pep, I want to help. I just…spaced or something, I’m okay, I swear I’m okay.” She reached over to squeeze his hand. Her smile was familiarity and warmth and Tony wanted to curl up in it until the churning feeling in his stomach passed.

“You have already helped plenty. You’ve updated yourself about the SHIELD program, you’re going to look into the people behind the memo, and you’ve agreed to shift the timeline for going public.” Pepper listed his accomplishments with the same determined authority she used to use to remind him of the numerous items he’d neglected on his never-ending to-do list. Even though he knew intellectually how small those victories were in the grand scheme of things, hearing her praise him in that same tone made Tony warm all over. “Everything else is just details. Go now, and let your Dominant take care of you. I’ll probably sleep in one of the guest rooms at this point, so I’ll see you in the morning, okay?” He leaned over to brush a kiss against her cheek, then allowed Clint to haul him to his feet.

“‘m I in trouble?” he mumbled as Clint’s hand slid to his back to guide him to the bedroom. He tried very hard not to think about how much he sounded like a guilty kid while Clint huffed a reluctant laugh.

“Not this time, sugar cookie. Let’s just get you back in bed and we’ll talk more tomorrow, alright?”
****

The next day, Steve ran several miles above his average to work out some of his anxiety through sheer physical exhaustion. Then he showered, ordered the dishes JARVIS said had were Tony’s favourites from the Korean place on 51st, and made his way to the media room where the AI informed him Tony had been all afternoon. It seemed uncharacteristic of Tony to have spent the day watching movies when they had a time sensitive problem on their hands—and why not just stay in the penthouse instead of the theatre-style space they never used unless they had company that included small children?

Steve got his answer when the doors to the media room slid open and he heard Tony’s voice—except it wasn’t this Tony. It was his Tony; in the footage, he stood in his usual sunglasses and immaculate suit at the entrance to SI’s New York offices. There was a small, healing wound above his right eyebrow that Steve recognized as a souvenir from one of their numerous battles against Doom.

“Really, Billy? We just saved the world for like the eighth time—”

“Eleventh, Sir.”

“Eleventh? Thank you, Damian. Damn, I should really ask for a raise, huh?” The small crowd of reporters laughed. “As I was saying. We just save the world for the eleventh time, and all you people want to ask me about is where Steve is taking me out to celebrate?”

“It’s just such a beautiful love story! Come on, give us anything here, Tony! What’s it like to be in True love?”

The footage stopped abruptly, frozen on the image of Tony rolling his eyes beneath his sunglasses, before the screen went black altogether. The other version of him had clambered noisily to his feet and was staring at Steve, horror-struck.

“I…fuck, I’m sorry. I came up here to watch this because I didn’t want to upset anyone, but I’ve never actually seen this guy I’ll be impersonating in a couple of days, and I felt like I probably should.”

Weeks, even a few days ago, Steve probably would have been incensed. Today, he mostly still felt like he’d told Phil: tired. Grief was exhausting. Learning to accept Tony’s loss, and himself in the face of it, was by far the hardest thing Steve had ever done, and if he’d learned anything from his conversation with Domen the other day, it was that he still had a long way to go.

But, as Pepper had clearly elucidated for him once Tony and Clint had gone off to bed yesterday, the success of Tony’s coming out rose and fell primarily on the dynamic between he and Steve. In the eyes of the press, their bond had been untouchable, a flawless, impossible love story that others could only dream of emulating. The facts—that Tony was deeply uncomfortable with his submission, that he and Steve still argued, viciously at times, that the rest of their partners were essential to both of them—were wiped away in favour of a convenient, aspirational narrative.

“If you and he stand up there and behave like you’re practically strangers, they’ll never accept him,” Pepper had warned.

“No, it’s…it’s a good idea. I’m sorry no one thought to offer footage to you before.” Steve shuffled his feet like an anxious teenager, then squared his shoulders, took a long, deep inhalation, and continued. “I know we got off on the wrong foot, and that was mostly my fault.”

“I kind of think it was mostly fate’s fault, really. It’s not unreasonable to have adjusting to your dead partner’s alter-ego from a different universe showing up and then pitching a metaphorical tent in your house. I mean, I guess I could make it an actual tent if you want the penthouse back, though I warn you that since I’m more of a glamping guy the tent may end up taking up more overall square footage—”

Steve smiled, because he couldn’t help it. It felt so good to hear Tony babble again. Despite the gut-punch it had been to walk in here and see his former lover on the screen, it was even reassuring to know that Tony was committed to this too, that they were in it together no matter how impossible the task they had been set was. (He’d made the right decision coming up here.)

“No glamping necessary. I did bring reinforcements, though,” Steve held up the bags of take-out, “and if you’re okay with turning that off, I thought maybe we could watch a movie or something. Start getting to know each other—just as friends—before we have to try to convince people we’re a hell of a lot more than that."

The soft transparency of Tony half in subspace from the day before was long gone, which meant that without Tony’s typical verbalizing of his in-process thoughts, Steve was lost in his attempts to predict the other man’s response. After what felt like innumerable seconds, Tony walked up the length of the theatre and held his hand out. Awkwardly, Steve went to shake it, but Tony wrinkled his nose, jerked his hand backward and pointed to the Korean.

“If we’re going to be friends I need all the intel first. What exactly did you order?”

Chapter Text

“They’re just about ready for you.”

Tony batted away the blending sponge Pepper was using to rub yet more concealer under his eyes with a cry of victory. They’d elected to take home field advantage for the venue of the press conference, so the two of them (plus Coulson, who stood in the doorway in an impeccable suit, his careful air of unflappable calm already in place) were in one of the small meeting rooms on the first floor of Avengers Tower while Steve finished reading his prepared remarks. (Unlike Tony, he had stuck to the cards, not so much as a comma out of place.) Beyond identifying Wanda as Mark II’s killer, it turned out the team had never released much in the way of detail about how the guy had died, fearing attempts to emulate Wanda’s staggering degree of power. This made it almost scarily easy for the team to now claim, as Steve was in the midst of doing, that Tony had been in some kind of magical stasis this entire time, alive but unexpected to ever regain consciousness.

The relative ease of its delivery didn’t mean that this backstory had been an uncomplicated one for all of them to agree on. Several members of the team had favoured introducing Tony as an alternate universe version of himself, sticking closer to the truth and omitting only the fact that he didn’t share their orientations. Legally, though, this put Tony’s ability to gain control over SI, as well as Mark II’s finances and other resources, in a way murkier position than it already was. Plus this option involved confirming that there were alternate universes in the first place; even Cap, who still tended to avoid lying whenever possible even as head of SHIELD, admitted this had the potential to cause massive global security problems down the road. And while the notion of sticking to something resembling the truth of his presence here had initially been appealing to Tony, this story would have effectively meant having to invent and learn to convincingly perform a third version of himself, a prospect that just increased the risk that somewhere down the line, Tony would fuck up and they’d all be caught out. Eventually, they’d unhappily settled on having him step fully in to Mark II’s shoes, picking up his life roughly where he’d left off.

The soundproofing here, like in the rest of the building, was thorough. Tony hadn’t heard much as the media had gathered. But when Steve had made the initial announcement of Tony’s 'return', the noise had been comparable to that of a small explosion. The roar dwarfed even the reaction to his own ‘I am Iron Man,’ mic-drop which was somehow both awesome and annoying. (It also made it virtually impossible not to think about how his own world would have responded, but that wasn’t a though to dwell on. Not today when everything was riding on Tony trying to forget that this wasn’t his universe.)

“Pep, unless you want to be responsible for making me late, and you know how much I strive toward punctuality—” She brandished a tube of mascara with the same ferocity he had seen villains and heroes alike wield knives and longswords, and with no less of a sense of deadly intent.

“I’ll come around and sit in the front.”

“I know this. We’ve been over this a thousand—”

“Then it’ll be a thousand and one. I’ll be in the front, on the right. If there’s something you don’t know, or don’t want to answer, cough twice. If you need to end things earlier than is scheduled, yawn.” Tony nodded impatiently, making a ‘get on with it’ gesture which was abruptly stopped when Pepper seized his hand in her own. Her mouth opened and shut several times, and then she shook her head and bent down to press a kiss to the back of Tony’s hand in lieu of whatever she’d tried and failed to say.
****
Four Days Earlier

“Okay, you were right, Natasha. That pose looks like they’re trying too hard to be intimate. Uh, alright. Let’s try the one where you’re standing behind Tony, Steve, but not touching him.”

They had been at this for hours. First had been the incessant quizzing about the details of Mark II’s life most likely to come up even in passing, and which would be too much of a red flag if messed up: when he and Steve (and the rest of the team, though everyone had warned him that the press habitually left the rest of their partners out) had gotten together, the Avenger’s most famous missions, that kind of thing. Tony had been doing his homework over the weekend, and answered almost everything with perfect accuracy.

Clint had tried to turn that particular exercise into something fun by tossing berries and Runts (which, as fruit-shaped candy, he argued were completely interchangeable with the real thing) into Tony’s mouth every time he got a question right. But some of it just…well, it wasn’t particularly fun to chat about. Like when they’d had to talk about how Mark II had died.

Tony wanted it on the record that he tried to avoid that particular conversation. It wasn’t exactly hard to get at least the bare-bones facts of what had happened, and while learning about the so-called Scarlet War had been a bit of a shock, it also had ended up making sense surprisingly quickly. Tony had come to care for Wanda in his own universe, but even there she had never been entirely stable. In this universe, where Mark II had never created the flawed version of Ultron, Sokovia had never fallen, and Wanda had never learned to see past her grudge against Tony and joined the Avengers, it made sense that all of her darker impulses had grown stronger and more deadly. Though it was a little disconcerting to realize how directly their fates seemed to be intertwined; Mark II’s relationship with his team had flourished at Wanda’s indirect expense, and in return she had taken Mark II from all of them.

He’d done his research privately because, as he’d told Cap when he’d stumbled upon Tony’s initial viewing party, he wanted to spare the rest of them the need to relive this for his benefit. But several of them seemed upset that Tony had taken the initiative to find information on his own.

“Your intent was extremely kind, but none of us would have chosen for you to have to digest that kind of news alone,” Coulson had said, hesitating before placing a hand on Tony’s knee. “Do you have any questions that we can answer? Even the media is hardly going to be crass enough to quiz you on the more immediate details of what happened," Pepper made a noise of disagreement there that Coulson ignored temporarily, "but if you need context or…or if you want to talk through any of it, we’re all at your disposal.”

Honestly, Tony hadn’t wanted to stay on this topic any longer than he had to. But they had still all seemed so freaked out that he’d learned about the circumstances of his counterpart’s death alone. Even Clint was uncharacteristically solemn, and he’d stopped trying to convince Tony that the banana Runts were not, in fact, garbage food for garbage people as Tony had insisted they were. So maybe, Tony had decided, maybe he could use the situation to try to comfort them.

“It…from everything I saw, it sounds like it was fast. Maybe even painless. I’ve seen Wanda’s magic up close—”

“You always call the Witch by her first name,” Thor observed shrewdly.

“She was…things were different, in my universe. Wanda was an Avenger. She fought alongside us.” Tony hadn’t thought much of the admission, and neither had most of the team. But he’d forgotten his drunken, rambling confession to Cap. Rogers had been mostly quiet through the conversation so far, but at this he sat up straighter in his chair and pinned Tony with a stare.

“She didn’t attack you? It seemed…when we talked, I thought you implied…”

“Oh, the brain whammy? No, she definitely did that. Just like with your Tony, it was what spurred on the creation of Ultron.”

“I just…I mean, they just let her on the team, after that?” Cap confirmed. Natasha had, mercifully, changed the subject a few seconds later, but it had taken an entire hour for Rogers’ fists to unclench. And he wasn’t the only one who seemed pissed off, either.

These people would never, ever make sense.

Anyway, they’d made it through that horrible episode, and then it had been Clint, Phil and Natasha’s time to shine as they’d trained Tony to match his posture, body language, and expressions to those of Mark II, right down to the last raise of an eyebrow. (Mark II, apparently, had usually cocked his left while Tony tended to lift his right.)

And because it still wasn’t enough to have remade himself in his own image, then it had been Pepper’s turn. Which meant putting everything he’d learned all together, plus adding in Steve. They had been trying out different positions for everyone to stand in during the press conference for the last hour and thirty seven minutes (and yes, Tony was counting every second of this hell.) Both Cap…no, Steve, he needed to get used to calling the guy Steve again. Steve and Tony had steadfastly refused to kiss one another on camera, but pretty much every other variation had been tried and attempted: Steve’s arm around Tony’s shoulders, his waist, their hands joined, Tony and Steve bracketing the rest of the team, Steve and Tony facing each other like they were on the cover of a romance novel…it was fucking horrible. And Steve’s nearness meant Tony could feel him getting stiffer and more frustrated as the posing went on.

“Let’s maybe take a break with this and practice the interview stuff?” Tony suggested. Exchanging one kind of torture for another wasn’t exactly a relief, but at least he’d be the only one in the metaphorical hot-seat. Pepper blew a stray piece of hair out of her face and nodded, folding her legs underneath her to sit in one of the large armchairs. Next to Tony, Steve let out a grunt of relief and high-tailed it to the kitchen, muttering something about making tea for everyone.
****
Present

The room exploded for a second time the moment Tony stepped out and onto the podium. There was a horrible moment where he blanked on where he was supposed to stand, but then Steve shifted, making space between himself and Rhodey. Tony was fairly sure that wasn’t the arrangement they had landed on; there had been a lot of discussion about not emphasizing his friendships with Pepper and Rhodey over his romantic relationships with the team, to the point where Rhodey’s very presence on the stage had not even always been a given.

Steve was disregarding those instructions entirely, Tony realized with a start. He’d arranged the lot of them in the way he felt would make Tony most comfortable, regardless of the optics. That simple kindness made it almost easy to smile fondly at the other man for just a couple of seconds longer than one normally would look at a friend or co-worker. The flash of cameras in response to this mere suggestion of intimacy was dazzling even from behind a pair of sunglasses. Every hand in the room was raised, and though they had started with the usual ‘be calm, be orderly, don’t bang on the glass of the animals’ enclosure, please’ speech, almost every one of them was shouting out their questions as well. Tony addressed himself, as Pepper had suggested, to a young woman in a headscarf and a sharp blue suit in the front row. (He could already guess why. Her enthusiasm was obvious, but if she possessed the almost callous hunger of many of her peers she at least had the decency to hide it better.)

“Hey, Fareeda. You can kick things off if you go easy on me.” She grinned and stood, ignoring the jealous glares of her colleagues.

“How does it feel to be back after such an extended, uh, absence?”
****

“Well I’m not dead, so that’s pretty fucking awesome. Except for those of you who may be losing money in some kind of pool—”

“Tony! You are not saying that!”
****

“It’s…well, honestly it’s a bit unsettling. You know, of course, that the world is going to go on without you. And I have nothing but praise for how you all have bravely borne a world devoid of me—except the sports teams, someone told me I should yell at all the sports teams.” He paused for the obligatory laugh, then added, “I’m still adjusting and catching up. It’s a process.”

“What’s the last thing you remember?”
****

The gauntlet. Pain beyond any he had ever experienced. Pain that deconstructed him where he sat slumped the battlefield, the Infinity Stones glowing eerily at his fist. He’d worried that the power would be appealing, that he’d be intoxicated by it the same he felt after a few rounds of good scotch or a conversation about science and the universe with Bruce. It felt nothing at all like that. The world lay, quite literally, at his fingertips, a tremendous, horrible weight that Tony couldn’t possibly hope to carry, had never wanted to carry.

Only the Soul Stone called to him, welcomed him home. Not so fast, Tony told it, knowing, somehow, that it would understand, I want to bargain. It grew angry; the searing sensation on his left arm increased ten-fold, stealing the breath from his lungs and bowing his back into a near impossible arch. Not for me, for someone else. Someone you took. You can have me, a piece of yourself, back. But you’ll give her back to them.

“Tony?”
****

“Sorry to disappoint, but I really don’t remember much. We were in the middle of a battle against one of the most dangerous enemies we had ever faced, so I was thinking boring stuff like strategy and suit energy levels and listening to the check-ins from my team until pretty close to the end. By the time I realized I probably wouldn’t be making it out, that wasn’t something I really had time to dwell on…which is probably a good thing, really.”

“But what’s the last thing you remember thinking?” The guy in the fourth row, the one who just had to push it, was exactly who Pepper had insisted, contra Phil, that it would be: Jeremy something, an intern with Forbes who hosted a truly terrible podcast about the lives of rich businessmen.
****

“I hope this isn’t all for nothing.”

Tony’s reply was, apparently, a bit too candid. Nearly everyone in the room flinched, and the sound of glass shattering echoed from the kitchen into the living area.
****

“They’re never going to find where I parked my car.” It was a dickish answer, the kind of reply Tony only gave reporters nowadays when he either really hated them or really didn’t want to answer the question. (In the case, it was both.) When he glanced at Pepper he expected a head shake, or some other visible sign of disapproval. She flashed the peace sign and accompanied it with a little wink. Oddly enough, receiving tacit permission to keep avoiding this line of inquiry made it somehow more tolerable to offer something at least slightly more gracious. “Look, without getting into too much detail because a man’s dying thoughts should definitely get to be his own, I wished for what most people probably wish for: more time.”

“And what’s it like to get that time, especially being reunited with your True Love?”
****

“Look, I have seen footage, and I still can’t actually believe people say it like that.” This time several of them laughed, which was unexpected, but highly preferable to them looking they might cry or break things. (Cap’s hand was still bandaged from earlier, a decision he had loudly decried as an attempt to shame him. Given that the serum had already haled the actual wound, Steve was probably right about that one.)

“See, now you sound like him. Go with that,” Clint advised. Thor nodded in agreement, but Phil shook his head.

“He did like to critique the way the media talks about True orientations, but this press conference isn’t the time. We don’t want people asking why he’s so much more concerned with mocking the veneration of Trues than enjoying being back with Steve.” Phil didn’t challenge the idea that it was only Cap to whom Tony had been returned. None of them did.
****

“Well, I’d remind everyone gathered that I have several partners, all of whom I care for deeply and am grateful to find myself back with.” He held a hand up when the chores of ‘yes, buts’ rang out in near unison. “No, seriously. Listen, I have…I have admired Steve Rogers since before I ever really thought I would meet him in person. That hasn’t and will never change.” The fierceness of the declaration caught even Tony off guard; Steve found his gaze again, holding it until the camera flashes made it virtually impossible for them to see one another. Then Tony let his eyes fall over the rest of the team, lingering on both Coulson and Natasha for a few seconds apiece. “But no relationship that’s worth a damn needs to make everything around it smaller just to feel whole or important. So going forward I won’t be responding to any questions that take as a given the irrelevance of the other members of our relationship.”

A rare few seconds of silence greeted this pronouncement. He didn’t dare look at Pepper this time, but Tony did revel in the sound of a long exhale from behind him, like someone had let out a breath they hadn’t realized they were holding. It didn’t even matter which of them it had been.

“I’m surprised to see you’ve stepped out with your team for the first time without your collar.”
****

“No.”

“Tony, you don’t understand—”

“No. Pepper, have I said just a straight no to anything you’ve asked so far? Hear how serious I am.”

“She’s right, people are going to expect it.” The words sounded like they were being wrenched from Cap…from Steve. Like they cost him everything he had left, and Tony was not going to be the one to ever make any of them sound like that ever again.

“Then I’ll tell them whatever line is going to be most believable. I’ll commit to it with everything I’ve got, I’ll pull out all my best tricks, but I am telling you that I’m not wearing his collar anywhere, including on that stage.”
****

“That collar was destroyed in battle, and what was left of it was buried in a private memorial. After my team and I have had time to re-familiarize ourselves with one another I certainly hope to be gifted with another, but that isn’t something any of us want to rush.” Another silence, this time solemn and accompanied by many bowed heads, fell. This turned out to be convenient on a number of levels, because it allowed Pepper to smoothly step up to the podium to wrap things up, and it gave Tony a few seconds to recover from the realization of how sincerely he’d felt in the moment when he’d hoped aloud for their collar. (Clearly he'd gotten a little too into his role, here.)

In all, the press conference hadn’t been all that difficult. They’d provided nothing in the way of leaks in advance, which meant everyone there had been stunned and forced to think on their feet. And Pepper, as usual, had out-thought most everyone, preparing Tony well for every single question that had come his way.

The real issue came after it was over. He’d spent four long, intensive days learning to pretend to be someone else, and however closely that person resembled Tony himself, it had still been a performance. A lie. When he finally made it back to the penthouse, it was with uneasy realization that he would never get to be himself again. This half-fiction, half-truth was his life now.

The others were quiet too. Bruce refreshed the snacks and turned on a movie just for some noise, but no one was really watching it. Phil and Bucky were both settled on a kneeling pillow at Steve’s feet. It was bigger than Tony’s…than the purple one, and clearly intended for multiple people. Thor, wearing the wrist cuffs Tony recognized from days earlier, had an arm around Clint, who was idly toying with strands of Thor’s long blonde hair. Natasha was somewhere near the elevator, meeting someone Tony assumed was delivering take-out.

The boxes she dragged into the living room were far too big to be take out. The first was probably 30 inches tall and another 18 long and wide, and she deposited that one at Tony’s feet with a triumphant grin. He tore the tape off to find several large stacks of clothes. (Oh, right. Had it really been just a few days ago that he’d taken their suggestions to order some of his own stuff, so he could stop living out of Mark II’s wardrobe? He could also could have sworn he selected a delivery date after the press conference as an added precaution, but perhaps the timing was what Nat looked so smug about.)

“How about a fashion show?” she proposed. Tony snorted, ready to play it off as a joke, at least until Clint made a dramatic show of pausing the movie and grabbing the popcorn, which had previously been untouched.

“Hate to disappoint, but it’s not really anything interesting. A lot of jeans and tees, coupla cheap but decent suits, nothing really—”

“Show! Show! Show!” Clint chanted, joined quickly by Thor and Bucky. Even Cap—Steve cracked a smile. “You don’t have to show us the really boring stuff like socks,” Clint allowed graciously, waving a candy belt that he seemed to have stolen from Thor judging by the covetous looks the other man was giving the snack.

The whole thing felt silly, like middle-school level shenanigans that were supposed to end in a pillow fight or a long talk about crushes and Frenching. But he marched obediently to his room anyway, dumping the entire box unceremoniously onto the bed. It wasn’t until he was removing the almost perfectly-tailored suit and trading it in for a pair of soft jeans and a long-sleeved green v-neck that the relief of so literally stripping away the Mark II facade and replacing it with something he himself had chosen really hit. With her usual sense of unnervingly perfect timing, Natasha knocked on the door several seconds later, bearing an open box of watches much as she had the night of Tony's birthday party. The price tags were still on all of them, probably to reassure him that they were new. There were seven in the box, a number that didn’t seem like a coincidence. (One from each member of the team.)

“You can exchange any of them that you don’t like, but we wanted to do…well, something.”

“They’re gorgeous,” he said honestly, reaching out and running his fingers over cool glass and brushed metal. There was a wide range of styles and, likely, price points. It was nothing at all like his own carefully curated collection in his own world. But there was something oddly beautiful about the chaos of what he was certain was a $20,000 watch lying next to one that had all the numbers jumbled at the bottom of the face and text reading 'Whatever, I'm late anyway' printed across the top.

“Which one would you like to wear this evening, Mr. Stark?” she teased. He pointed to one near the middle, a Bvlgari in sandblasted ceramic. The band, face and hands were all black, which would make it versatile, easy to dress up or down. Only the back of the casing was clear, exposing some of the inner workings of the watch as well as numerous small jewels that had been set into it. (He loved that those weren’t visible to anyone but the wearer, like a secret they would only share with someone close.) Natasha smirked, which was all the confirmation he needed that she had chosen that particular piece, and slid it onto his wrist in a surprisingly gentle movement that avoided pinching at any hair or skin as she did up the clasp.

“Thank you,” he murmured, for far more than the watch. He’d been observed by his own Natasha before, of course, but had never felt particularly seen by her, certainly not to the degree she’d exhibited tonight. After a long day of parading around in someone else’s life it was like having a thick layer of clown make-up suddenly wiped away. “Can we…would you maybe want to date and then scene if that goes well sometime in the next few days?”

“Yes,” she said simply. “But we are still doing the fashion show first.”

Chapter Text

Steve was only a couple of steps out of the elevator when his own voice echoed through his living room. The sound was tinny and distant, emanating from a single device rather than the multiple, perfectly-balanced speakers of the floor itself, but there was no mistaking what the words were. Steve had practiced them so many times over the weekend that he could have recited them backwards while standing on his head.

“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, we stand before you today with news we never thought we would be fortunate enough to share.” Dr. Domen was seated in her usual chair. Her back, which faced Steve, was poker-straight, and though he couldn’t see her ever-present tablet from this angle, he was certain that was what she was using to view the footage from the press conference. (He’d known this was likely to be a bit of a rough session, but clearly he hadn’t anticipated exactly how high her level of frustration with him was going to be.) He made a quick stop in the kitchen to pick up a bag of lemon squares he’d bought on his way back from his morning run and set them on the coffee table between them. Domen’s only response was to increase her tablet’s volume.

“Anthony Edward Stark is alive and, as of several days ago, fully conscious.” She did, at least, pause the footage before the crowd’s reaction to that statement. Steve held his hands up in the ‘I surrender’ position.

“I know how this looks.”

“Oh?”

“I do, I swear, but the timing was not any of our first choices. Circumstances took that aspect of it out of our hands.”

“Is Mr. Stark pregnant?” This startled a laugh out of Steve.

“I mean, I wouldn’t put anything past him at this point, but no, not to my knowledge. I don’t feel I should divulge all of the reasons since they’re not just SHIELD’s secrets, but please believe me when I tell you that none of us wanted to do it now. I heard you during our previous sessions. I know…I know I’m not ready, no matter how badly I wish I was.”

However annoyed she might be, Dr. Domen did apparently trust Steve’s word. She asked no further questions about the circumstances that had ended up so dramatically altering their timeline. And though she did have some choice words for him about ‘using the cell phone number she’d given him, with strict instructions to call if and when she was needed, preferably before making major, life altering decisions directly relevant to his care,’ she also didn’t belabour the point once she’d made it. Instead, they moved on to discussing Steve’s progress, and how he intended to maintain focus on his recovery even while his time with Tony would greatly increase.

“I think your decision to attempt to build a foundation of friendship with Mr. Stark, regardless of whether or not anything else evolves from there, was a wise one. But we still need to ensure that you’re focusing on valuing yourself and your life beyond that particular dynamic. Were you able to complete the brainstorming exercise I suggested?” Steve’s heart sank. He’d completely forgotten about his ‘homework,’ too focused on the other and more immediate demands on his time and energy over the last several days. “That’s fine. We’ll just try to think this through aloud then. When do you feel best outside of your romantic and sexual relationships? What takes a particular day from just bearable to something better than that?”
****

It took Tony 37 minutes to make it through the first ten levels of SI’s New York headquarters. First, he’d needed to meet Pepper at the entrance, forgoing the private parkade and elevator in favour of a public photo-op cementing return to ‘his’ professional life. After that Pepper had insisted on making the rounds on every floor; Tony was in no way against acknowledging the hundreds of people who made Stark Industries everything it was (hell, he likes most of them way more than the few members of the company he’s usually forced to spend the majority of his time with.) But every floor came with a lengthy round of applause, followed by hugs and handshakes and sobbing from more than one person, and they’re all so goddamn glad to have ‘Tony’ back that before it was even half over the guilt was a piercing, gnawing thing that ate away larger and larger pieces of Tony. Fooling people en masse was comparably easy to the intimacy of lying to those whose livelihoods depended on him. And he couldn’t even reach out to ground himself by occasionally brushing against Pepper, not without risking all of their carefully-laid plans. His only real saving grace was his watch. Today he had selected one with a relatively plain but heavy blue face, and a thick brown leather strap with cream stitching; he wasn’t sure which member of the team this particular piece had come from, but Tony liked the way the width and weight of it made him constantly aware of its presence. It grounded him, the same way that tapping on the arc reactor had once done, reminding him that he was alive and (relatively, at least) safe and not alone.

The applause when they finally reached the meeting rooms on the top level went on the longest, but it was also the most painfully insincere; the palms of the men surrounding Tony barely touched, and their attempts at beaming smiles were so strained he wondered idly if they might end up pulling one of the muscles around their mouths. (Say what you like about Obie, and Tony had certainly thought and said his share over the years, but at least the guy’s act had been convincing until right at the very end.)

He let his handshake with Fletcher go on the longest. While visibly into his mid-sixties at least, the guy had the overly smooth, oiled skin typical of so many of his peers who, like the aristocrats of centuries before, liked to showcase the absence of manual labour from their lives. Tony had never trusted hands like these, whose owners took pride in their distance from the processes of building and breaking all the while benefitting from those labours. It was the one thing, looking back, that he still agreed wholeheartedly with Howard about: if you weren’t willing to get down in the mud and learn how everything worked, right down to the last circuit or bolt or screw, then you had no business sticking your name on the outside of the building. When Tony finally allowed himself to extricate his hand from Fletcher’s quite literally slimy grip, he had to fight the urge to wipe his palm on his pant leg, but the other man’s smug satisfaction at being singled out for attention was evident.

“Well, I’m back.” Everyone in the room laughed, or rather they made that empty, hollow noise that was supposed to be laughter in near unison. (And of course, he was positive none of them even got the reference.) “I won’t keep everyone for long today. I know it’s been a…trying week. Hell, I’m still remembering which way all the doors in this place open. But I do want to make one thing imminently clear: It’s a rare and odd feeling to bear witness to your own legacy. It’s not an opportunity many people get. And I am nothing but proud and grateful for how well you all have kept Stark Industries running in my absence. You’ve stayed true to our vision and our mission; you’ve continued to prioritize keeping the world clean, safe, and accessible over taking the easier and immediately profitable path. You’ve faced intense pressure, made decisions that must have been agonizing in the moment, and found yourselves more than equal to the challenges in front of you. I know not all of us have seen eye to eye in the past, but I want to truly and genuinely thank you for all that you’ve done over the past couple of years.”

It was difficult to keep a straight face, particularly when the Board visibly swelled with pride, as if they had actually accomplished the things Tony was describing instead of actively attempting to prevent Pepper from almost single-handedly accomplishing them. (Yeah, this whole ‘Tony-is-so-happy-to-be-alive-he-just-loves-everyone’ shtick was going to have a limited shelf life, for his own sanity as much as anything else.) Tony made a point of making eye contact with Fletcher again, inclining his head slightly and watching as the guy stopped just short of rubbing his hands together like an evil mastermind in a cartoon. (Pathetic. If you’re going to piss me off, at least be interesting about it.)

“I’m sure I speak for everyone here when I say we’re just so thrilled to have you back Mr. Stark—Tony, if I may,” Fletcher said. Tony nodded his head again. “Truthfully, we are so grateful for your return; your legacy is one we treat with gravity and care, but I must confess we didn’t always agree on the best methods of going about securing it.” He ‘confessed’ to threatening Tony’s hand-picked CEO in the in the simpering, honeyed tones of an adult playing at being a guilty child, and Tony’s teeth felt like they were about to start rotting in his gums. Idly, he wondered whether this long-game thing was really the way to go when there were so many excellent assassins in the Tower.

“Well, for the most part I’ll try to stay out of your way, same as I did when I was around the first time. But of course, if there are issues on which you want my input specifically I’ll be happy to make myself available. Just give me a little longer to get caught up; my Dominants aren’t particularly thrilled at the idea of me pulling all-nighters immediately after returning from the dead, you see. So unreasonable.”

If it felt gross to pretend at a potential alliance between himself and several of the more unctuous members of the Stark Industries Board, it was nothing short of nauseating to use his partners and his fledgling attempts at submission this way. However, the joke landed just as Pepper had assured him it would: at the mere allusion to Steve and the others, they were all practically tripping over themselves to assure Tony they would suspend all essential discussions until he’d had time to re-orient himself.

“I’d also be happy to talk you through any of it personally, Tony, just say the word. My wife and kid barely know who I am anyway,” Richards, another signatory on the almost-open letter assured him. (Try to turn him against Pepper and Cap more like…it really was annoying how predictable these people were turning out to be in every universe.)

“I’m sure I’ll be taking you up on that, Daryl.”
****

This time it wasn’t Pepper that met Tony at the doors to SI: it was Natasha. She wore a green dress that paired perfectly with her vivid hair and creamy skin. The style, a sleeveless midi, was relatively simple, which highlighted the cut-outs that stretched up Natasha’s right side, revealing glimpses of her muscular back and abdomen. She had paired it with 3/4 length black lace Bolero, which served as her only other protection against the cold of evening. When her eyes fell on Tony her lips quirked upwards just slightly, a perfect, deadly mix of strength and beauty that had him grinning back even through his exhaustion. He barely even registered the flashes of cameras, especially when Natasha strode forward, reaching out to grip Tony around the back of the neck with cool fingers. As a greeting, it somehow felt more intimate than a kiss; he didn’t even have to make himself tilt his own head downward, though after all his training and practicing over the weekend he knew it was expected.

“I thought I could take you to dinner, if that’s still alright?”

Truthfully, the last thing Tony really wanted was to be forced to eat a large meal in front of Natasha (and potentially the press), and he felt a vague twinge of disappointment. (He must have been wrong about them having picked up on that particular aspect of his food issues.)

Of course, it turned out he should have trusted Natasha. She took them to a small Vietnamese restaurant that was viciously protective of the team (the owner chased one intrepid photographer who attempted to press his camera against the window of the place with a broom.) They didn’t blink when Natasha told them Tony wouldn’t require a kneeler, either, though she did pull his chair out for him in an exaggerated show of gallantry. Each of the tables was taken up almost entirely by large, ornate spinning glass tray designed to facilitate the sharing of dishes, and Natasha ordered not a single meal but a host of small plates. It was the closest Tony would really come to being able to graze the way he preferred while in public, and his eyes felt just a bit watery as he smiled gratefully at her.

Still, it was more awkward than he’d expected to be alone with Natasha. The last time he’d seen her in his own universe she’d promised to return in a minute. Instead, Clint had made the journey back alone, utterly destroyed and beaten by her loss. It wasn’t odd the way seeing Phil still often felt; unlike Coulson, who had been gone now for much more cumulative time than Tony had known him alive, it was remembering how the world had been without Natasha that still felt alien. If what Tony had tried to do in his final moments had worked, hopefully the others wouldn’t have to get used to that gaping wound where Natasha’s smoky laugh and mischievous grin had once been. But Tony…well, to him, seeing her was sort of like thinking you were experiencing phantom limb pain, only to look down and realize the part you thought was missing was still there.

“There was a small fire in one of the labs today. Something about a bunch of at-risk kids sneaking but not really sneaking into the Tower, which no one but Pepper and Rhodes knew anything about until today when we all got an unexpected shower?” He snorted, imagining the lot of them running around the Tower trying to figure out why the building’s extremely comprehensive sprinkler system had been set off in the first place.

“You all blamed Thor, didn’t you?”

“No, I blamed Clint. He’s been muttering about fire-arrows in his sleep lately. Everyone else blamed Thor.” This set Tony off cackling again, and when he looked across the table and found Natasha’s fond gaze, her presence felt the slightest bit more solid, like he could safely look away for a few seconds and feel confident that she’d still be there when he dared to look back.
****

Steve stepped off the elevator and into the penthouse level and found himself alone with Natasha and Tony. They were both dressed to the nines and quite obviously just returned from a date; as they stood in the kitchen and debated the merits of dessert-wine versus tea, Natasha kept finding excuses to brush up against Tony, an arm here, a hip there. The little efforts at flirtation appeared mostly one-sided, at least until Tony leaned down to whisper something into Natasha’s ear, a slight growl to his voice that Steve recognized well.

“Oh, Ca—Steve, hey!” he called in a far different tone once he noted Steve’s awkward presence. “Wanna be the tiebreaker? Natasha has no appreciation for the finer things—”

“Not wanting to drink syrup doesn’t mean I lack appreciation for sweet things,” Natasha volleyed back, grinning. “But you are still welcome to be the tiebreaker here, Steve. Pull up a chair.”

It warmed something in Steve to see how willing both of them were to essentially interrupt their date for his sake and turn it into something at least semi-platonic. And God but it was tempting to agree; even the jealousy of watching Tony and Natasha’s flirtatious back-and-forth could end up being very much worth this opportunity to just spend time with them both, cocooned in the warmth and comfort of the Tower and the people he cared for.

“I uh…I can’t. I have an art class. Nothing big, just one of the free ones over at the college. I was just comin’ up to say goodbye.”

“That’s new,” Natasha commented. “You want some company? I think Phil’s around.”

“No thanks. It’s uh…I’m working on trying to be a little more independent sometimes.” He knew that Natasha, at least, would pick up on what he wasn’t saying outright (that this was part of his therapy, and that he was nervous as hell about it.) But her reaction, as usual, gave nothing away.

“That sounds nice. At least you’ll have a couple hours where you’re unlikely to get soaked to the bone because of baby scientists run amok.”

Tony was still shouting outraged protests about the value of the unexpected in the scientific process by the time Steve was stepping back into the elevator and pressing the button for the garage.
****
Poly-Paradise or a Neglected Captain?

Apparently the newly-returned Tony Stark meant business when he seemed to place his other partners on an equal footing as his long-time True Dominant, Steve Rogers. After his first day back in the Stark Industries office, the beloved hero met and shared dinner with his Switch teammate and partner, the venerable Natasha Romanov (Black Widow.) The two enjoyed a quiet dinner at one of the team’s favourite local haunts, then returned to Avengers Tower.

Captain Rogers, meanwhile, reportedly spent the evening alone at an introductory art class. We can all get behind a well-rounded Dominant, of course, but surely he would have been happier sketching his True love? We’ll keep an eye on this story as it develops.
****

Unlike with Clint, there had been very little talking prior to Tony’s scene with Natasha officially starting. She’d asked a couple of clarifying questions about his feelings on water, she had him repeat his hard limits and safewords, and had made room for Tony to ask any questions he had about her own contract.

There were things he wondered. Natasha’s contract had felt a lot more conditional than Clint’s; she’d ranked most things toward the middle of the scale rather than as things she strongly enjoyed or did not, for instance. And her rankings didn’t always fit neatly into some of the categories Steve had suggested Tony use to sort things for himself. If contracts told a story, like Clint had said, hers felt harder to read, or like it was maybe telling several different narratives all at the same time. But he didn’t really know how to convey any of those impressions into actual words, so he elected to say nothing.

He’d assumed the water question was for the aftercare portion of the proceedings (he’d done a bit of reading, and baths seemed pretty common), but that turned out to be their first stop. Natasha stripped them both with more gentleness than he’d known her capable of, then drew a bath into which she added a small disk she told him was some kind of oil. It smelled like ginger and some kind of citrus, and even if Tony himself was a bit bemused by starting out this way, his body was certainly happy to find itself surrounded by warm water and calming smells.

“Different subs have unique ways of marking the division between their regular and submissive selves, especially before an actual scene. You’ve seen how some of us do it: Phil hands us his worries. Thor usually starts by being bound. For those for whom baths are effective, it’s usually the fairly literal symbolism that’s appealing—washing away the worries of the day, presenting yourself clean and fresh to your Dominant.”

“Is that…is that what you like?” he asked, tipping his head back and allowing her to carefully wet his hair down.

“I prefer acting in whatever capacity my submissive most requires.” Her fingernails felt fucking heavenly against his scalp as she worked a bit of his shampoo in, and he groaned. “I enjoy many things, I am skilled in most areas; the Red Room encouraged us to diversify our talents and interests as much as possible. At one point in my life that was something I tried to undo. I wanted a…firmer, more defined sense of who I was as a Dominant. Press your neck back into my fingers, with as much pressure as you can.” Tony valiantly tried to keep the thread of conversation clear in his mind as Natasha pushed at the place where his skull joined his neck.

“You don’t anymore?”

“I can be almost anything my submissive requires of me. If they need pain, if they need me to make them bleed and cry and scream, I can. If they seek me out for gentleness, for light touches and soft words, I can provide that as well. There are very few needs I cannot satisfy, and for however long our time together lasts, I feel completely worthy. Guiltless.”

For how frequently his own Natasha had talked about wiping red from her ledger, the way she’d given her own life to right the series of wrongs that had led to the Snap, he supposed it was unsurprising that this version would take such deep pleasure in her adaptability rather than a set of specific kinks or tools. Part of that range seemed to also mean she could recognize when talking just wasn’t necessary; when Tony didn’t say more beyond a thoughtful grunt, they lapsed into a silence broken only by her quiet instructions about how to move his body, and the gentle ripples and splashes of the water enveloping them.

He’d never much gone in for baths before. And he still could anticipate wishing to be brought down harder and faster on another day, when he wanted something like the surge of excited fear that Clint’s approach had provoked, for instance. This week, though, had felt endlessly taxing, full of press and corporate dramas and so many aspects of life that had become suddenly, traumatically irrelevant in his own universe. He experienced Natasha’s soft cloth and gentle hands methodically scrubbing every inch of his skin with the same relief that he'd felt removing Mark II’s clothes, only more, because those had just been the items covering him. Now Natasha was stripping away everything, every bit of dust and every city smell and every touch that hadn’t been her own, so that all he could feel was her.

“You don’t have to be anything right now but mine,” she whispered, like she was reading Tony’s thoughts, like she was inside his very skin. Things went slightly fuzzy around the edges after that; before his brain really caught up, they were out of the tub and making their way into his room. On top of the bed, she had laid out several items; he recognized some of them from his research. The multi-tailed whip was a flogger, followed on its left by a leather paddle. Neither looked particularly harsh compared to some of what he’d seen online. He was a little less clear on what was lying beside it; it was made of bright purple silicone, and looked on first glance like a standard dildo. The cock was flattened and curved on the top in a specific way, though, which seemed to have something to do with the hole that sat atop the base, covered by a pair of…were those supposed to look like rabbit ears?

Following his gaze, Natasha smiled and picked the toy up.

“The ring goes around your cock, making it harder or impossible to reach orgasm depending on the person. It’ll lie on top of this,” she gestured to the fake penis, “which I can make vibrate if I wish, or use to fuck myself . And these,” she pointed to the ears, “are designed to vibrate and rub up against my clit.” Tony remembered with a thrill of fear and excitement that one of the only things Natasha had ranked at the high end of the spectrum were related to controlling, even denying, her partners the ability to orgasm. “One way or another, I’d like to make you desperate tonight. I want to try to bring you out of your head and keep you there for as long as I can. But I’d like you to tell me how you wish for me to take you there. This can include any one of these toys, or none of them if you suspect there will be a more effective method.”

The choice laid out in the selection in front of him was a fairly obvious one. Natasha wanted him mindless (or as close to it as Tony was going to be able to manage), and seemed equally happy to take him there through pain or through pleasure. Pain still felt intimidating and appealing in pretty equal measures (that paddle in particular made his gut clench every time he looked its way); getting there through pleasure, that one was in some ways even more novel. None of his previous partners had ever thought to try to deny him that before. It probably never would have occurred to them given that most of them had been attracted to him in the first place because of his reputation for taking, taking, taking.

“Do I have to choose just one?”

Chapter Text

The first time Tony was aware something might be going terribly wrong it was confusing as hell, since everything seemed to be going…well, more than alright. Natasha was on top of him, riding Tony’s cock and the toy she’d attached to him with flawless ease. The entirety of her small, powerful frame glistened with a fine layer of sweat as he watched her thighs, the same thighs he’d seen his own Natasha incapacitate many a bad-guy with, ripple as she raised herself up high enough that Tony nearly slipped out of her, and then slid smoothly back down, enveloping him in wet heat once more. Every movement was patient, precise and calculated, as if no force on Earth could have distracted Natasha, or made her move a single muscle before it was exactly what she intended.

Tony’s own body was the polar opposite of hers in practically every way. Every bit of Nat’s unending stamina and poise and control felt like they had been drawn from Tony himself, who was emptied of everything but desperation—desperation so powerful that he feared and revered it in equal measures. Every part of him had been undone and re-written by Natasha. His ass, likely still a dusty-pink from the ‘warm up’ she had given him with the flogger to start them off, stung every time he rubbed it against the sheets. His lips were swollen from Natasha’s kisses, which felt just as penetrating as the most intense fuckings he had ever received. And his cock…god, it felt like he’d been hard for hours at this point. Natasha had warned him that some people could still come wearing cock rings, but Tony did not appear to be one of them, because he definitely would have orgasmed at least once by now without its restrictive pressure around his cock and balls. His thighs had been trembling for so long now they ached with it, another horrible pleasurepainpleasure that swallowed Tony whole.

“I could keep you here like this forever,” Natasha informed him, leaning forward to run her nails up his chest. “In my bed, ready and willing and so sweetly eager to take whatever I wish to give you.” Tony’s dick pulsed in reply, but an edge of something sharper and far less pleasant nudged at the edge of his consciousness. (Would she really want to keep him like this, so needy he couldn’t see straight? Would she ever allow him to come? Or had he somehow made her so angry that she would want him to stay on the edge like this, desperate and broken?)

“Pleasepleaseplease.” They were the first coherent words he’d spoken for close to an hour, yet Tony’s voice sounded as raw as if he’d spent the entire time screaming. Natasha’s breasts bounced as her pace began to speed up ever so slightly.

“Please what, darling?” (Oh God she was going to make him say it, what if he asked for the wrong thing, what if she laughed and told Tony that he didn’t deserve it, didn’t deserve anything, he hadn’t even been able to save her the first time, and what if what he’d done to try to fix it hadn’t worked, what if she was still—)

He didn’t realize he was still talking, a nonsensical, sobbing stream of pleas falling from his lips, until he ran out of air and was forced to suck in a rasping breath. Above him, Natasha frowned. (Tony didn’t want her to frown, all he wanted was to make her happy, to bring her pleasure and joy and everything she deserved, he couldn’t fuck this up!)

“N-no, no, no,” he whimpered as she slid off of Tony enough to reach down and begin removing the cocking. “You can leave it, it’s okay. I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” The cockring was off now, and his cock twitched and dripped into Natasha’s hand.

“Hush now. That’s my decision to make, isn’t it? I decide when you’ve had enough. And you’ve been so good for me, Tony, so patient and obedient.”

“I can do more,” he pleaded. “I can eat you out, I’m really good at that, or you can put the ring back on, as long as you want. Or—or.” He couldn’t think of what else to offer Natasha, what would be good enough for her, make her see that Tony really was trying to be a good submissive even if he was awful at it.

His clumsy, aborted attempts to sit up and escape the wonderful pleasure that was Natasha’s grip on his cock were met with Natasha’s other hand planting itself on his chest. Once she had Tony on his back again, she was on top of him in seconds. This time Natasha took him into her with an almost painful gentleness, the loud slaps of their hips replaced with the quiet slide of bodies and sheets and the occasional gasp or murmur from one or both of them.

Tony came almost embarrassingly quickly. The orgasm helped, he could at least feel some of his higher brain functions starting to slowly come back online. But when he fell asleep shortly thereafter, it was with a lingering sense of vague unease.
****

He woke with a start several hours later, the image of his own Natasha’s last, smiling ‘see you in a minute’ as clear in front of him for several seconds as if it had been burned into his eyelids. Recalling one of his panic-attack exercises (identify objects in the room around you), he cast his eyes about Natasha’s bedroom. Towel on the floor from after their bath; a sweater hanging on a chair that looked too big to belong to Natasha herself; the paddle and flogger on the dresser. Once his eyes found those he couldn’t stop staring, remembering the way Bucky never seemed so peaceful as when he came up covered in marks from a beating, how Phil’s smile was almost incandescent even when his eyes were still red-rimmed with recent tears from a scene.

“Natasha.” She came awake suddenly and completely, the way that most soldiers Tony knew did. “Help me?” Her face was warm concern and complete, focused attention as she nodded, reaching out to brush a strand of hair away from his face.

“Of course I will. You fell asleep before I could give you much aftercare, so I thought the wake-up might be a little rough. Tell me what you need.” He drew in a long breath, praying vaguely to anyone who might be listening that this wasn’t about to blow up in his face. Then he pointed at the dresser.

“I need…will you, I need you to do more with that than warm me up. There are...there's things I haven’t told you, and I want to, but I don’t know if I can—please.” Which, okay. He heard it. He got that he sounded…well, not good. It would have made less sense if Natasha hadn’t frowned and narrowed her gaze, seeking out the source of what had apparently driven Tony out of his damn mind during the night.

“You can tell me anything you need to without that, Tony. You’re just confused, I think; maybe I pushed things farther than I should have last night, hmm? How about I go get us some food and water, maybe your heavy blanket, and—” He shook his head violently, wincing as his neck cracked in protest.

“No, you don’t understand. Please, I need this, I need to tell you and I can’t, the words won’t, I need you to…to punish me, to help me. Please, I’m begging you.”

They went several rounds like that, Natasha trying to calm him and redirect his attention and Tony focused on the only thing that felt like it might actually help. Seeming to realize her efforts were pointless, Natasha’s look of frustration morphed into the calculating, thoughtful expression Tony recognized from missions.

“There would be two rules that would be non-negotiable, beyond our usual safewords and limits. I want another Dominant here. Clearly there was already something I missed last night, and this will be the first major pain you’ve taken. I want a second set of eyes monitoring both of us to make sure things don’t go too far.” The thought of someone else seeing Tony so completely out of control was slightly humiliating, but he was ready to agree to pretty much anything at this point. He nodded. “I also need to be extremely clear that I am not willing to punish you for whatever it is you’re about to tell me, especially when I don’t even know what it is. If you need to think of it as punishment at all, instead of just the strategic use of pain to help you work past some intimacy barriers, the only way I’m comfortable framing it is as punishment for not coming to me with this sooner, before it became such a source of stress and upset. Are we agreed?”

“Yes, ma’am.”
****

Steve and Bruce had spent the morning together, reading A Brief History of Everyone Who Ever Lived over a pot of spicy chai that Bruce had brought back from his travels. Unlike most of the academics Steve had ever met, Bruce was excellent at translating his specialized knowledge, and he actually enjoyed reading and discussing popular scientific texts marketed to the broader public. They hadn’t done this in a while, because like so many traditions that had existed before their Tony’s death, Steve had only been able to see what had been missing in the aftermath: their Tony’s grumpy commentary, his attempts to avoid becoming involved in their conversations, which always ended in Bruce drawing him in with clever questions even Tony’s brilliant mind didn’t expect. Half the time those discussions had ended in arguments that went way over Steve’s head, but it had been more than worth it to watch his two geniuses, lit up and excited by one another’s unmatched intelligence.

Tony’s absence still gave the proceedings a bittersweet kind of air, but Steve was coming to realize that that was just life after a loss as big as the one they had experienced. It didn’t mean he wasn’t getting better, or that he couldn’t still take pleasure in things. And he had enjoyed the morning with Bruce, enough so that when JARVIS alerted the other man to an incoming call, Steve felt a little grumpy about the interruption.

“Bruce, I need you to come up here. Tony’s…we scened last night, and he woke up frantic this morning, absolutely insistent that I punish him because he needs help telling me something important, and he’s convinced that’s the only way he’ll be able to do it. I’ve never…even with our Tony, we played with pain, but when he needed actual punishment he always went to Steve, unless he was gone and then—”

“And then he came to me,” Bruce finished. “Usually rather reluctantly.”

Memories generally didn't assault Steve with no warning these days. He'd learned strategies to keep the onslaught of treasured moments at bay, letting them become something he occasionally sought out rather than a constant overlay that muted his present. But occasionally, like now, they came without warning.

“Why can’t I just wait until you get back?” Tony demanded. “What, punishing me such a chore that you have to outsource it to Bruce now?” Even if Steve were inclined to agree to Tony’s demands, the bratting pretty much sealed his submissive’s fate. Tony might tease and push, but he rarely ever outright bratted with Steve unless he was either desperate or afraid. In this case, it was likely both.

Steve was on his first extended mission since they had formalized the agreement between them all, and he had expected some degree of behavioural regression. Tony already tended to need frequent reminders that the boundaries and rules they’d established were still there, that he hadn’t been abandoned. So it made sense that when what was supposed to be a two day milk-run turned into a three week hunt for a dangerous and volatile target that this would push Tony past his limits.

Steve just hadn’t expected him to break nearly every damn rule they’d just finished making all at once, that was all. After locking himself in the shop for several days in a row, refusing to eat, sleep, or engage in any of the daily submissive practices that helped keep him steady, Tony had then involved himself in a fight with Doom without allowing JARVIS or Ultron to even alert the other Avengers as to what was happening. He’d been damn lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries, the most serious of which was a deep gash in his right calf.

“Sweetheart, we agreed—”

“Oh don’t fucking sweetheart me.”

“We. Agreed.” This time, Steve allowed just a hint of Dominance to surge into his tone. It was barely a tenth of what he wanted to let his instincts do, what he’d wanted for days now as he'd listened with growing dread to the team report back about Tony’s withdrawal, and then his foolish stunt today. But it wouldn’t be fair to Tony to actually take him down now, not when Steve wasn’t there to help. “I don’t mind waiting on punishments for minor infractions until I’m back, but you broke just about every rule we made. The guilt will eat you alive, not to mention make you do at least ten more horrible things while you wait. You know this, Tony. You know how much better you’ll feel to have this dealt with.” The huffing breath that came from the other end of the line was all the confirmation Steve needed that his submissive recognized the logic and truth of what he was saying.

“Want you to do it. I fucking miss you, Steve. I didn’t mean…please, just come back and do it yourself.” Steve’s heart felt like it was going to crack in two. It took so much to push Tony to this point, past the shame and anger and whatever else he felt about his submission enough that he could vocalize a need and desire to have a Dominant, especially another True, close. It was pain of the worst kind to have to refuse his submissive anything in this state. But even if Steve left now, the flight back to New York would be too long; there was no way he could leave Tony guilty and ashamed and anxious about his punishment for that long. It wouldn’t be fair.

“Oh honey I know. And I wish I could be there, I wish I could hold you through it and be the one to tell you that you’re forgiven when it’s over. But we need to get this dealt with today, okay? So I need you to go down to Bruce, and put yourself in hands. Trust him, just like you would me, to punish you appropriately for the rules you broke, rules that we made together to keep you safe and happy and well. Allow yourself to atone, and then take all the comfort and love and affection he gives you afterward, because you’ll have earned that too, you understand? Don’t shy away from him, or hide, or try to claim you don’t need care afterward, you got me?” A part of Steve wished he didn’t know Tony well enough to anticipate that he might try any of those moves, and Tony’s wet, frustrated chuckle suggested he felt much the same. “I love you, Tony. I’ll be home as soon as I can.”

Tony didn’t say it back. (Not yet, not then.)

By the time Steve’s shock had worn off, Natasha and Bruce were already off the phone, and Bruce was trying to wrestle a sweater over his head that was both inside-out and backwards. Steve strode over, seized the offending garment in one hand and put the other on top of Bruce’s chest, directly above his heart.

“You have this. You can do this. Whatever’s going on, whatever this is, he needs you to be calm and steady for him just like you always are. His controlled variable, didn’t he used to say?” Bruce smiled weakly, even as his heart thudded a rapid beat in his chest.

“I don’t…I mean, he’s him but he’s not, and I don’t want to screw this up.”

“You won’t,” Steve soothed. “There’s a reason Natasha trusts you to be her eyes in this. You know the signs of a submissive in distress. You’ll know if the pain is helping him reach penitence or if it’s just piling one hurt on top of another. You’ll call it if you need to; you’d never pick appeasing Tony over keeping him safe.”

“It should be you doing this.” When his own words seem to hit Bruce, he winced and buried his face against Steve’s shoulder. “I’m sorry. Fuck, I’m sorry.”

The thing is, it hurt because Steve was starting to agree with him. Not that Bruce couldn’t handle this; Steve had been entirely sincere in his confidence that he and Natasha would take Tony through the scene capably. But he wasn’t sure how much longer he could stand being on the outside, watching as the team lead Tony into submission and all that it had to offer. Steve wanted to be there, even for the parts like this that were hard, that hurt.

“You’re fine. Just…just take care of him, alright? Take care of them both.”
****

If Tony thought regular sceneing involved a lot of negotiation, that was nothing to how much discussion there was before Natasha finally had the paddle in her hand. He was sprawled out with his lower body firmly in her lap, the rest of him draped across the bed. Bruce had taken up a kneeling position by Tony’s head, and he reached out to stroke Tony’s hair as Tony’s body thrummed with a whole host of feelings he was unable to parse.

“You’re okay. We’re going to make this better. You’re going to be alright, okay? You remember what to do if it gets to be too much?” Bruce prompted.

“Say suit, or yellow.”

“And why are we doing this? Why are you being punished?” Natasha asked, her hand resting possessively on his ass. Contrary to her suggestion, the language of punishment and forgiveness felt essential to Tony for reasons he couldn’t yet explain even to himself. But Natasha was, apparently, deadly serious about how he was supposed to understand its purpose.

“Not. Not…please, Nat, just do it.”

“Answer me. I can’t start until we’re both clear on why we’re here.” Tony wiggled impatiently, glaring at Bruce when the other man offered a patient, kind smile that clearly conveyed that the other man had no intention of contradicting Natasha’s orders.

“Not talking to you about what was going on before.”

“Good. Now, usually I have my subs count during punishments, but you don’t need to worry about that today. We’ll be here until Bruce or I think you’re ready to be finished. When we do decide that, it’s done. It’s over. You talk to us, and then you let all this guilt and whatever is twisting you up inside go. That’s what punishment is for. Not to hurt you, not to get some kind of retribution. It’s to help you find some peace.”

The first strike landed at the same time as the word ‘peace,’ a jarring juxtaposition if he’d ever heard or felt one. It was only a few strokes with the paddle before Tony understood just how easy Natasha had been going on him with the flogger the night before. He twisted in her grasp, unsure where he was trying to go, or what he’d do when he got there; Natasha planted her spare hand on his lower back and landed another swat to his right ass cheek. Thudding, the word Steve had given him to describe the type of pain produced by tools like paddles, was entirely accurate, and yet it didn’t come anywhere close to capturing the way the pain felt like it sank down from Tony’s skin and into his very bones, then reverberated back outward in a devastating echo.

“Fuck. Oh fuck, that fucking hurts.”

Neither Natasha nor Bruce responded to this (admittedly kind of obvious) description, though Bruce did resume the stroking of Tony’s hair. Once he’d worked his way past the shock of the first few blows, Tony managed to spare some awareness for the way the hits were falling. Witnessing the aftermath of Clint’s handiwork several times suggested that the archer treated this almost like painting or some other visual art, creating intricate, exact patterns that were designed to be displayed. Natasha’s art form felt, fittingly, more like a dance, something just as delicate but entirely ephemeral, designed to live only in the moment it was experienced. There was a hypnotic kind of rhythm to the blows, and before long Tony was listening to the dense strike of the paddle colliding with skin just as much as he was feeling the effects.

There was something eerily beautiful about it, but it wasn’t enough. The struggle between Tony’s mind and body was at a fever pitch; his ass, hot and sore and tender, begged to be released from Natasha’s attentions, but he couldn’t fucking say it, couldn’t make the words come out because then everything would be different, she would know how profoundly Tony had failed her.

“Breathe, Tony, you need to breathe,” Bruce entreated. He sucked in a breath with blind obedience, willing to do anything to work past this first part, to get to that place where he knew from seeing the others that pain could take a person. He kept his eyes on Bruce, watched Bruce watching him, eyes keen and focused and intensely Dominant in a way Tony had never seen before. “Nat, speed up a little bit. You’re giving him too long to anticipate the next blow and he tenses up all over again every time.” Tony sobbed even as the thumps of the paddle was already increasing in frequency. When Natasha landed two particularly close together on the crease between ass and thigh, he wailed, the fight going out of his body all at once. There was no need for Natasha to hold him down now, he was lax against her legs, accepting the pain, pulling it in close, inviting it to linger in his deepest places. It could have been minutes or hours that he laid there, the paddle’s brutal dance echoing through the room. When Bruce spoke again, he sounded very far away. “If Natasha has to keep going she’s going to go at your thighs, Tony. It’s going to hurt like hell. Is that what you need?” He nodded, groaned something wordless and primal. His face was almost stuck to the bed from a combination of sweat and snot and tears, but he didn’t care, couldn’t care about anything except getting where he needed to be. Natasha’s hand settled on his back again, joined by one of Bruce’s larger ones, and the paddle connected with his right thigh. He opened his mouth in a silent scream, which became an actual scream when the paddle landed a second, then a third time so close together he barely had time to suck in a breath in between.

“Oh god please, please I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“For what?” When he paused too long, the paddle fell again, on his right thigh this time. Tony managed less than a half a dozen blows before the dam inside him shattered as completely as his physical resistance already had.

“For letting you die. For, please, Nat, I swear I didn’t mean to, I tried, I…so hard, I tried, no one would listen but I should have made them, I should have…” A small, cool hand replaced the paddle; Natasha’s hand felt like a balm against his heated skin, and he sobbed in relief and guilt and sorrow. Eventually there were other hands, moving Tony off of Natasha’s lap and twisting him up and onto one side, so they could hold him without Tony having to put pressure on any of his sorest places.

When he could manage to speak again, he offered what explanation he could. He spoke of Natasha’s efforts to keep the team together after the Snap. He managed a brief explanation of her orphanage, how much she’d loved those kids and had been loved in return. He gasped his way through Vormir, explaining the decision his Natasha had made to give up her own life to save the world, and Clint in particular so that he would be able to go home to his wife and children. Bruce and Natasha listened without interrupting, though they both maintained constant contact with some part of Tony, whether it came in the form of wiping tears from his face or pressing kisses to his shoulder. When Tony had finished offering another apology, Natasha lifted his chin so she could stare him squarely in the face.

“You don’t owe her, or me, an apology for her death. She made a choice she believed in, and from the sounds of it, it’s one she never would have had to make if any of those fools had listened to you in the first place. And she couldn’t save you either, Tony, none of them did. Why do you expect me to be angry with you when you aren’t with any of them, hmm? Your life is worth the same. It matters just as much.” He shook his head in painful denial; Natasha sighed, but didn’t push that point further, for which Tony was immensely grateful. “Remember what you were actually just punished for today. Not for her death. That does not and will never warrant punishment. You were punished because you needed to talk about this, and it was information I clearly should have had before we scened together, and you kept it from me. I understand a lot more about why, but we also can’t prove to you that we’re worth trusting if you don’t give us opportunities to try. Can you let us try, liybimaya?”

“Yeah. I…yes, ‘m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“No,” Natasha said simply. “We are done with that now. The slate is wiped clean, you have nothing to apologize for.”

“Now’s the really fun part,” Bruce added, a light and teasing note in his voice which had been so heavy and sad just moments before. (Did punishment work that way for Doms, too? Did they really feel that relieved that Tony had atoned and been forgiven? A feeling of satisfaction that Tony could only compare to his rare experiences of being perfectly, comfortably full after a meal washed over him. He couldn’t give them so many of the things that a sub in this world could, but maybe he could still give them some of what mattered.) “Now we get to tell you what a good boy you are. We get to cuddle you and feed you and cocoon you in a hundred blankets and put some cream on those pretty impressive welts you’ve got. Maybe if you’re lucky we’ll let you up to pee, but if you’ve got anything more involved than that planned in the next day or so you’ll want to give JARVIS the okay to cancel it.”

The whole aftercare thing didn’t really seem like Natasha, but she nodded in decisive agreement with everything Bruce said, and when Tony opened his mouth to offer at least a token protest, her hand drifted lightly over his sore ass in silent reminder. And truthfully, Tony had very little interest in fighting them on this. The aftercare was always embarrassing to think about in the light of day, but in the moment he was sore and exhausted and wanted nothing more than to be coddled and pet and told there was one thing, at least, that he'd gotten right.

“G’head, JARVIS. And Nat? Want dumplings. Can we have dumplings? Are there any of those frozen ones in the freezer, the ones in the little trays with the dip thing?” This startled a laugh out of both Natasha and Bruce, the latter of whom proceeded to seize Tony by the hair just a bit more roughly than normal and plant a lingering kiss on his lips.
****

Steve saw very little of Natasha, Bruce, or Tony for the next two days. Given how cursed Tony’s previous experiences with aftercare seemed to be Steve supposed that was a good thing, and he took Dr. Domen’s advice to try to focus his attention on other things as much as possible. He and Clint had a memorable scene with Phil; Steve attended another art class; he devoted countless hours to strategy sessions and memos and phone calls related to the workplace orientation program. The latter, while often aggravating, did at least give him an excuse to call Talia and check in.

They went through all the routine questions Steve was required to verify, information about her general wellness and her hormone levels and her workplace performance, and she answered all of them with decidedly more grace and candour than she would have once afforded anyone daring to make such inquiries. But he still found himself unsatisfied when they’d reached the end of the list.

“Just ask me, Boss.”

“Ask you what?” he tried, then sighed as Talia greeted the attempt with nothing but silence that somehow managed to sound irritated. (She was learning way too much from Masdee.) “You sound happy, Talia. Are you happy? Do you think—that is, if I hadn’t offered this program, do you think you still could have been this happy, somewhere down the line?”

Steve didn’t know why the answer mattered quite so much to him. He liked Talia, of course, and wanted the best possible life for her. It was more than that, though, something bigger than this one junior agent that had him gripping the edge of his kitchen island with white knuckles as he waited for her answer.

“I mean, I’ve learned never to speak in absolutes, so maybe, sure. Anything’s possible given the right context. But this, Masdee…it’s so easy this way. I didn’t know it could ever feel like this…it’s like—like I’ve been running races my whole life with a permanently sprained ankle, and it had always been that way so I didn’t know it wasn’t supposed to hurt that badly and be so much harder for me than all the other runners until the pain was just…gone. I submit to her all day at work, the same way all of her subordinates do, and that feels easy and right and natural. When we go home I can submit if I want to, or not, and sometimes I don’t feel like it for days at a time at home and that’s okay, I can have that without feeling dep starting to creep in. So yeah, maybe if I’d done things a different way I could have found out how to run the races with less pain, the equivalent of like a fancy brace or something, but my damn ankle still wouldn’t be healed like it is here, you know?…god I hate metaphors. They really love metaphors here, everyone’s always telling you something on like five different levels and clearly they’ve infected me.”

“If it helps,” Steve offered, “it was a terrible metaphor.”

“Hey!”

“But I’m really glad your…err, foot’s healed, Talia.”

“Whatever Captain Sasspants.”

Chapter Text

“Thanks for taking the time to meet with me today, Daryl. I know things are hectic enough as it is without you having to catch the boss up on his own job.”

Tony tried not to hold SI’s Board in contempt. He really did. For several of his most irresponsible years his versions of them (and Obie) had been the ones who had kept the company afloat behind the scenes, completing all the work Tony deemed too tedious to bother with.

But damn it was just so hard to exhibit even a hint of respect for men like Richards. He had all the arrogance of someone who had never known or expected anything but power, but yet no clear reason to feel so eminently proud of himself. From all Tony had gathered and confirmed with Pepper so far, the guy was never one for ideas, or vision, or risk of any kind that might harm the bottom line. He was all about short-term gain and never rocking the boat, even for the sake of longer term benefit. Yet here he sat, legs splayed so wide that he claimed an entire long side of the coffee table they were seated at to himself, and a grin so smug and self-satisfied that he might have been announcing how he had single-handedly kept SI afloat in Tony’s absence. (He wondered absently if it would be worth paying one of the staff to ‘accidentally’ pour coffee on the guy if Tony needed a quick out, but discarded the thought almost immediately. Richards would definitely be the type to try to sue a minimum-wage employee into personal bankruptcy.)

“Oh not at all, not at all! Have a seat, I’ll go grab another round; I certainly need the jolt today!”

Before long, Tony was sipping cold brew and trying to regain his will to live. Richards updated him on a number of projects that Tony knew for a fact the guy had vehemently opposed, and managed to work in no less than five passive-aggressive remarks about Pepper’s leadership, too. It was hard to let those ones pass him by, but he’d promised to use every advantage they had, including the fact that the Board was currently uncertain where exactly he and Pepper stood following his ‘return to the living.’ So far he hadn’t learned anything today beyond a highly selective, verging-on-inaccurate overview of SI (most of which Tony had known anyway), but he had a feeling Richards was saving what he considered to be his best point for last. Sure enough, as Tony started shifting in his seat and making offhand comments about having plans with his Doms later that day, it happened. Richards sat up and leaned in closer to Tony as if sharing particularly juicy gossip.

“And of course, I’m sure you’ve been filled in about events at SHIELD?” The guy had, at least, mastered the very few skills that he tended to use. The inquiry was careful and neutral; if Tony didn’t already have more information than Richards realized, and if he hadn’t saved this particular conversation for last, Tony might even have been fooled into thinking this was merely idle conversation.

“Steve plays things pretty close to the chest at the best of times, and we haven’t gotten around to a lot of work-talk yet, to be honest.” The other man chuckled and thumped Tony on the back like they were old drinking buddies.

“Course you haven’t! Nor should you have.” He chortled again, and Tony fought very hard not to cringe. He didn’t even have a romantic relationship with Steve for fuck’s sake, and he still wanted to curl up around this fake one like a cat and protect it from being tainted by Richards’ gross and not remotely subtle allusions. "Well I’ll leave it to him to fill you in on the details, but they may end up being a moot point anyway. It may turn out that, much like you, the Director has other things on his mind. His policies may well grow less…adventurous.”

“As long as it’s only his policies.” Richards practically fell out of his chair fake-laughing at that one; Tony took a long sip of his drink with what he hoped came across like a secretive smile (rather than a contemptuous one.) “Any…adventures in particular that I should be trying to steer him clear of, for our benefit?”

This was the biggest risk Tony would take today, and he hoped he was playing it right. He couldn’t, wouldn’t, imply he was willing to directly go up against Steve, and he also had to play it with a hint of reluctance, like he was fighting his instincts by risking his Dominant’s displeasure. (That part came easier than he expected. He remembered how goddamn frantic he’d felt during the scene with Natasha, when he convinced himself she wasn’t letting him come because he’d done something wrong. That feeling, that fear of disappointing her, had been way worse and more powerful than the denial itself.) Richards’ brows shot up towards his receding hairline, and he studied Tony for a couple of seconds with what could only be described as hunger. (Gotcha, old man.) Still, when he spoke, the other man at least attempted the light, jovial tone of a few minutes prior.

“Oh it’s nothing to worry about for now. Let’s just keep our eye on things, shall we?”
****

After the coffee meeting was finally, mercifully over, Tony found himself in a car with no clear direction to give the driver. He considered going back to the Tower, but he’d spent the last two days holed up there with Nat and Bruce, and that had been…intense.

The first time he’d woken up after the scene, it had been like feeling hungover. There was none of the panic he’d felt before the punishment, he actually felt curiously light and unburdened, but trying to get his brain to do anything more complex than seek out Natasha and Bruce’s reassuring touches was pretty much useless.

Frustrated, he’d started to recite what random bits of information he could remember: lines of JARVIS’s code, famous mathematical proofs, bits of the kinds of classic literature that it had been expected rich kids like Tony would have memorized. Or at least he had until Bruce’s finger had pressed against his lips.

“Stop that. You’re not broken or damaged in any way, your brain is just processing the scene and the come-down. It’ll be a harder drop this time because of the endorphins from the pain leaving your system, but it’ll be way worse if you push yourself up too fast, believe me. We have you and you’re safe.” Tony had clung to that assurance, and to Bruce himself, like a lifeline.

Later, Natasha had put him back over her lap to apply some kind of salve to his ass. In the light of day it felt way more embarrassing to be in this position than it had the day before, and Tony had squirmed, muttering protests. Especially since Nat seemed to be taking her sweet time about the whole thing.

“While I have you here,” she’d said, running a careful finger over one of the welts right at the crease of his ass, “I think we should talk. You weren’t up for much in the way of conversation last night, but it’s important that we take some time to reflect a bit on scenes as intense as the one last night.”

“Okay sure, but can you just finish—”

“No, I told you I like you where you are. I think you’ll be more honest with me this way. Tell me everything you can about what happened yesterday. Did you know something was wrong before you woke up?” Tony took a while contemplating his answer. Natasha didn’t take advantage of the position she had him in to spank Tony into compliance, which he’d assumed was her plan; she simply didn’t permit him to get any physical or emotional distance from their conversation.

“I…sort of?” She didn’t ask again, which he supposed was the difference between she and Clint. Natasha was patient in a way Clint just couldn’t or wouldn’t be, and was happy to wait Tony out. He squirmed, wishing she’d at least pull his underwear back up. “I…the night before I started to feel not great during the scene, like maybe you weren’t letting me come because, I don’t know, I’d fucked something up.” This earned him more of the balm, this time rubbed over one of his thighs. The stuff had some kind of topical pain-reliever in it, and he sighed happily.

“I can see how being denied something that’s usually taken as a given could make you assume that. Going forward, though, know that if I’m doing something to punish you, I will be extremely explicit about the fact that that’s happening. Just like yesterday, I’ll tell you and I’ll make you repeat it back to me, probably more than once. Ambiguity is of no value in situations like that, especially if it’s a punishment rooted in real-life issues rather than something limited to the boundaries of a scene.”

“Limited to…I don’t get it. Weren’t we sceneing then?” (Tony hated, truly despised, how completely brainless subspace and especially drops sometimes made him feel.)

“We were,” Natasha agreed. Her fingernail scraped ever so lightly over Tony’s hole, and he whimpered and squirmed out of something different than pure discomfort this time. “It’s the difference, I suppose, between casual play versus something closer to a 24/7 dynamic. For the former, punishments are confined to things that happen during the scene itself—like if you had come without my permission, for instance. What you asked me for was a punishment for something that exceeded the scene itself.”

“Was that bad? Should I not have—” Her finger pressed at his hole a little more deliberately and with more pressure, and he lost his train of thought.

“It absolutely was not bad. Truthfully I much prefer to use punishment that way, to help a submissive correct thoughts and behaviours that actually harm them rather than things that just break protocol. But you do need to know it was terrifying for me.”

Tony had seen Natasha angry. He’d seen her tired, and exhausted, and damn near her breaking point, especially after the Snap when there had been no point to hiding it anymore. But he’d never heard her admit to fear so openly before. He was so stunned he forgot to be embarrassed, turning and craning his neck at a truly awkward angle to stare at her.

“You…really?”

“Very much so. I was flying almost entirely blind, Tony. I had very little sense of your limits, no clue how you were going to respond to real pain, and not a damn idea of what had set you off on such a guilt spiral in the first place. I have never taken such a risk before.”

“Thank you.” The words tumbled out before it even occurred to Tony how bizarre it was to thank someone for hurting him the way Natasha had, but he even when his brain caught up, he didn’t want to take them back. Especially not when Natasha smiled at him, so wide and open that he wondered for a moment if it could really be her. “And the whole punishment deal, I’m sure it was a one time thing. I won’t need it again.”

Her expression had done something else, then, shown something more complicated than the relieved agreement he’d expected. She hadn’t explained, though, and Tony hadn’t quite had the courage to ask.

Which wasn’t to say their time together had been bad. Sure, Tony was a little embarrassed to remember how clingy and needy he’d been that first day, when Bruce and Nat had made good on their plans to coddle him with food and cuddles and soft things. The second day Tony had initially planned to get back to work, but Natasha had had…well, other ideas.

“Absolutely not.”

“Look, this was fun and all, it really was, but—”

“Drop can take a couple of days to leave the system, especially after something as intense as what happened between the three of us. I took a chance consenting to that kind of scene at all, I certainly do not intend to rush through the aftercare. You may push me on many things, Tony, but I don’t advise you try it with this.”

Tony pressed boundaries. It was what he did, how he’d always lived, so he’d searched her for any hint of a lie (not that he’d be likely to find it if Natasha was truly using all of her talents for deception, but she rarely seemed to shield herself that way from the team in this universe.) He found nothing but firm and unwavering conviction, and could recognize the corresponding relief it provoked in him, even if accompanied by a hefty dose of embarassment.

“Besides,” Bruce added from the kitchen, where he was cutting several sandwiches into small, bite-sized pieces, “I sort of promised Hulk that if he gave us yesterday to ourselves he could spend some time with you today. He wants to practice his reading, and he usually gets embarrassed about it, but he’s excited about reading aloud as a way to care for you.”

The imminent promise of another hand-feeding nearly distracted Tony from everything else. Tony had eaten every meal this way since the scene, and each time it was still enough to leave him somehow both aroused and content, pleasure without urgency in a way he’d never experienced before.

“I…yeah. Alright. One more day.”

Even this morning, the entire team felt like they were keeping an overly close eye on Tony during breakfast. It was sweet, of course, but also unnerving to go from feeling like he needed to scream for attention in his own universe to having people analyzing his every muscle twitch.

No, he needed some time away from the Tower.

He could, of course, just stay out on his own. Tony was still learning how to navigate the truly absurd amount of press attention his every move attracted, though, and much like the Tower, the New York of this world was exactly like his own except in the ways it wasn’t. He didn’t want to risk getting lost, or trying to get somewhere that didn’t exist and drawing attention to himself. No, he wasn’t quite brave enough to face this universe alone yet.
****

Steve’s therapy session was winding down for the day. They’d mostly discussed Steve’s art classes, and his other attempts to build a life for himself outside of the team. They’d set goals for their next session, and Domen was sliding her sleek tablet into her briefcase when JARVIS alerted Steve to an incoming call to his personal number.

“I…sorry,” he muttered to Dr. Domen who waved an assuring hand while Steve tried and failed to figure out where he’d actually put the device itself. “JARVIS, just patch it through to the house system please.”

“Uh…hey. Bad time?” Tony. Tony was calling Steve, the sounds of the city serving as the soundtrack behind his somewhat awkward and nervous greeting. Domen paused in her packing up, clearly curious and maybe even a little anxious on Steve’s behalf.

“Definitely not,” Steve rushed to assure him.

“Okay good. I…ugh, how is asking someone on a friend outing so much harder than a date? Dates should categorically be more stressful, shouldn’t they? There’s so many more variables at play, and—”

“Tony? Focus.” The words fell from Steve’s lips as they had maybe hundreds of times before, and as they so often did, the simple direction cut through the babbling web of words Tony was spinning around himself.

“Right. Do you want to…hang out or something? I want to enjoy my newfound freedom a little but I don’t really know where to go especially with all the press and everything, and I thought with all your explorations lately, you might have some ideas.”

Tony was not only calling Steve, he was seeking Steve out, asking for his help and his company. Steve was grinning like a jackal even as he shoved his arm in the wrong sleeve of his jacket. (Domen was pretty clearly trying not to laugh now, and that didn’t bring his spirits down either. Tony had called.)

“I know the perfect spot.”

Thirty minutes later, Steve arrived to find Tony already waiting at the gates of Clayton Park. He was wearing one of the old Tony’s suits, a black wool number with green accents, and Steve was surprised to find himself missing the clothes Tony had ordered for himself. Even though the two men had mostly similar tastes, this Tony was less prone to the sharp angles and bold colours of his predecessor. (The suit also sagged a little in the places where he definitely still weighed less than the other version of himself had, Steve noted with concern.) The only part of the entire get-up that really looked like him at all was the watch at his wrist, which Tony kept reaching out with his other hand to fiddle with.

When Steve reached him, the intensity of the camera flashes tripled, but the second Steve had put his arm around Tony and guided him inside the boundary to the park, they light and sound stopped just as suddenly. Tony’s expression briefly registered surprise, but he didn’t ask, and Steve didn’t explain until he had led them to a quiet table toward the outer edge of the heavy, thick gates that surrounded the space.

“It’s illegal to publish pictures, video, or even written accounts of anything that happens at Clayton Park,” Steve explained in a quiet voice, gesturing to a statue of a young woman situated in the very centre of the park. “Keera Clayton saved the life of a submissive in severe deprivation by Dominating him in a public space. It was illegal back then, for people of colour to Dom white folks, and someone took a picture that resulted in her arrest. When the sentence was vacated and she was freed nearly twenty years later, she declined all compensation. She asked that the money be put towards a sanctuary for all Dominants and submissives instead, so that everyone would have somewhere to go to practice their orientation in the light of day without risk of harm or exposure.”

Steve watched Tony take it all in. He tried to imagine it through the eyes of someone for whom orientation hadn’t been a fundamental shaping force, but that kind of…what had Domen called it, denaturalization? It was harder than it sounded, just as challenging as envisioning a world without water or touch or the bright warmth of the sun.

It was midday on a Wednesday, so the park wasn’t as hectic as it sometimes got, but there was still plenty for Tony to see and take in. A few tables away, a young submissive knelt at his Dominant’s feet. His head was in her lap and he appeared hazy and half-asleep, a sure sign of either drop or very intense subspace. Across the courtyard, a Dom led a sub on a collar and leash to join a couple at another table. The subs immediately curled up next to one another on a patch of grass, like cats lounging in a sunbeam, as their Doms laughed with indulgent fondness and discussed the previous night’s hockey game. In the area cordoned off for sexual play, a submissive took a switching from two Dominants while several others gathered around to watch. Tony’s eyes were everywhere, gathering as much information as he could without lingering too long on any particular group. Steve would have given quite a lot to know what he was thinking just then, but he let the other man settle in at his own pace.

“I’m starving,” he said instead, thinking of the jutting bones at Tony’s waist and Bruce’s countless notes in their shared folder about his sporadic food intake. “Want a hot dog?”

By the time Steve returned with several hot dogs, plus pretzels and drinks for them both, Tony had moved past overwhelmed surprise and into the hungry curiosity that was far more familiar to Steve. He bounced slightly in his seat as he peered around.

“So I assume decency laws and everything are suspended here?” Steve nodded.

“There’s a separate entrance and a screened-off area for underage folks or others who don’t want to witness sexual play over there, but otherwise yeah pretty much. This is one of the only affordable ways for low-income people with some kinks, like exhibitionism, to be able to practice safely without harming anyone who doesn’t want to be indirectly included.”

Once Tony started asking questions, he couldn’t seem to stop. Steve didn’t mind this, had never minded the other man’s boundless interest in the world, except for the fact that all of Tony’s food was sitting untouched on the table. When he pointed this out, Tony huffed and took a large bite from the half-eaten hotdog in Steve’s hand. It was just like he’d done with Pepper before the press conference—not quite hand feeding, but a casual, friendly sharing of food that demonstrated at least some degree of comfort and trust. Steve concentrated very, very hard on trying to appear equally as casual when all he wanted to do was shout in triumph.

“Bite for a question. Deal?” Tony offered, and Steve obligingly launched into an explanation of the different accommodations the park made for weather during the winter. As they talked and ate, Tony slide closer until their knees and shoulders were pressed against one another. Eventually, the conversation expanded away from just the park. When asked about his day, Steve offered with only a whisper of anxiety that he’d spent the morning in a therapy session. If anything, Tony seemed happily surprised by this news, and in turn shared a story about his own therapist (a woman he’d affectionately nicknamed ‘Suckerpunch’) threatening to fire Tony as a patient several times. As they talked Steve could see the traces of mustard and relish at the corner of his mouth, could feel the vibrations of Tony’s laughter against his side. (Tomorrow, he resolved, he would donate his entire paycheque to the park. It had recently become one of his favourite places in the world.)
****
Blind Item: Which recently reunited set of lovers was spotted entering New York’s famous Clayton Park? Sadly, we can't say, but we’re definitely telling the Truth when we share with you that they both seemed highly satisfied when they left!
****

Two days later, the Avengers were called out. Somehow, the blaring sound of the call to assemble managed to actually startle Tony. He’d lived the entire period between the Battle of New York and the final war against Thanos on edge, always waiting for the next strike. (Christ, he didn’t even know if Thanos was still alive here, how did he not know? Had he really taken the security of this universe so much for granted?)

His stomach was in his throat as he raced to the roof where the quinjet was already landing. Most of the team was still getting suited up, but Coulson had beaten him there. He stood, arms crossed and expression grave, and did not seem remotely surprised to see Tony.

“What the hell is Taskmaster, anyway?” Tony demanded.

“Not around in your universe, I take it? He’s a trained assassin with what he calls photographic reflexes; he can memorize and replicate the movements and traits of anyone he’s fighting. He’s…well, honestly he’s a big pain in the ass. But Tony, I have to ask you again not to go with them.”

Tony hadn’t been considering it, not really. He didn’t even know if the version of the suit stored in the housing unit he wore could even be repaired; if not, he’d be starting from scratch, which would take weeks given that the Tony on this side hadn’t done much with nanotech yet. But he waited for Coulson to explain with as neutral an expression as he could manage.

“You might fight differently enough from our Tony that Taskmaster will notice something’s off. That’s something we can try to analyze and account for in the future, but for right now—well, he’s annoying, but from what we know of the situation as it stands, he’s not a significant enough threat for it to be worth the risk. I’ll be the first to let you know if that changes.”

The logic made sense, and in some ways it was a relief to have another out. But it was harder, this time, watching the team suit up and prepare to leave without him. When Natasha hugged him goodbye he held on for several seconds longer than was strictly necessary, and could only manage a pretty wobbly smile when she pulled back to look at him. This version of her didn’t promise to return as her counterpart once had; perhaps the loss of her own Tony had wisened her against those kinds of assurances. But she did blow him a playful kiss at odds with her otherwise focused and neutral demeanour, just to see Tony laugh.

Thor stopped too, which came as a bit of a surprise. Tony hadn’t spent much time with him yet, though even he didn’t know why. Perhaps the memory of Thor so utterly defeated by the world was too recent, or maybe some part of Tony still wondered if this version of the man was as capable of turning off all his seeming affection for Tony and wrapping his hand around his throat as the other had been. Either way, he hadn’t expected much in the way of goodbyes from Thor, but that didn’tt stop him from halting in front of Tony and holding out a hand. In it was the gold watch from Tony’s own box, which he hadn’t yet had a chance to wear.

“It is Asgardian gold, a rare and treasured substance,” Thor explained. “It is capable of responding to the wearer’s needs, and may be able to offer comfort in our absence.” Which, okay, Tony had no idea what the hell that meant, but it was impossible not to return the puppyish grin the demigod shot Tony before he nodded and followed Natasha onto the jet.

(They would be alright. They had to be.)

Chapter Text

Most of the time, Steve thought of Taskmaster as somewhat akin to a really persistent fly. Annoying, sure, something you might try to halfheartedly swat at if it got too close, but ultimately harmless. And the guy’s so-called photographic memory had come in handy as a training tool, forcing the team out of their engrained fighting styles and habits. He’d been the direct cause of one of what Clint deemed Natasha and Steve’s ‘coolest combo move,’ which involved Widow leaping onto the back of an opponent (serving the dual purpose of distracting them and putting them within range of her deadly thighs) while Steve threw the shield into their sternum.

Taskmaster was a mercenary through and through, though, which meant the amount of effort he put into any particular battle was directly proportionate to the amount he stood to gain through from a victory. Judging from the full-scale assault he had mounted today, the potential paycheque had to be absolutely enormous. Even Steve was panting a little with the exertion of dodging blows that so closely mirrored his own in strength and accuracy.

“We could just skip to the part where we beat you and you tell us who you’re working for,” he proposed, throwing an ugly elbow that was far more back alley Brooklyn than Captain America. Taskmaster howled in outrage as it connected, causing a shower of blood to seep from the nose-holes of his mask. “You know we always take it easier on you when it goes down that way.”

“Not today, Captain Tightass. My employers are extremely generous, and they want to see the job done right. It’s so good to have corporate sponsorship, don’t you think? You ever thought about going branded?” He threw his replica of Steve’s own shield (which was never going to stop bothering Steve, no matter how many times the team pointed out its inferiority.) Steve dodged, and watched as the offending copy ricocheted off the wall and toward the Hulk. Which, God help it if it connected. (Maybe Steve would finally be rid of the thing after all.)

“Not really. I tend to find that the folks most invested in thinking about corporations as people are the same ones who really want to avoid thinking about people as people. I will admit the benefits are probably better than freelancing though—which is good seeing as it looks like you’ll need ‘em.”

“Funny you should mention that given—agh!” The other man’s taunts were short by the entrance of Natasha, who looked to have glided in by something she’d hung off a wire attached to one of Clint’s arrows. It was a damn cool move that would have usually forced a smile from Natasha even at her most focused, but she had a long and complicated backstory with Taskmaster. “Ah, the Widow. I thought the new troops would keep you busier longer—did you notice how familiar they were with the Red Room’s excellent instruction? Got my hands on some very detailed footage.”

In under three seconds, Natasha had her deadliest blade aimed at Taskmaster, hovering unerringly just above his jugular. Steve hesitated briefly, wondering whether or not he would need to step in before she actually did the other man serious harm, but there was a reason Natasha was his second in command. He’d long since learned that she was usually the most in control precisely when she appeared just on the edge of losing it.

“Masters. Did you just miss me, or were you after something in particular today? Besides yet another broken nose, that is?”

Someone—Thor, yeah that had to be Thor—screamed something that sounded like Clint’s codename. Seconds later, there was an almighty crash as an entire platform crashed to the ground. Steve saw a flash of purple in the dust and debris that confirmed what he’d heard.

“If he is in any way permanently damaged,” Natasha said, pressing her blade still closer to Taskmaster’s neck, “I assure you that you will personally beg me for death. Tell me what you wanted out of all of this. Your recruits aren’t going anywhere, and don’t seem to have any particular target they’re trying to achieve.”

“My employer is patient,” Masters told her. “Today was more of…well, an information gathering exercise.” Leaving her one hand on her dagger, Natasha drew the other back and punched Taskmaster in the nose again. Blood showered his open mouth, covering his teeth as he coughed and howled.

“Information about what.”

“Agh, Natalia. We could so use you here—alright, alright, don’t hit me again you beautiful little monstress. My employer wanted the most up-to-date intel about the Avenger’s methods and styles. So that when they send us in for the real target, my troops will be prepared. How is Stark, anyway? Did he miss me?”
****

Tony had never fully appreciated everything he had put Pepper through back when they’d been together until right at this moment. Waiting was absolute fucking agony. Taskmaster had some kind of device that cloned tech (stolen it from SHIELD back when it had been overrun by HYDRA), so the team hadn’t taken more than the bare-bones equipment in with them. This meant no comms, and no monitoring aside from a small group of SHIELD agents that formed a perimeter around the building they were in. They had reported back to Coulson about a loud crash about twenty minutes ago, and had otherwise been pretty much useless. Tony was all for oversight, and it was obvious that the resurgence of SHIELD in this universe compared to their collapse in Tony’s own had been good for the world, but right now he despised every single one of them.

As he was vaguely considering the merits of making a third pot of coffee, Tony felt something warm against his left wrist. He looked down to find Thor’s watch. It still looked perfectly innocuous, but it was…yeah, the thing was definitely giving off a low level of heat. Gold really shouldn’t be able to do that, so even with Thor’s assurances about the magic of Asgardian metal fresh in his mind, Tony nearly took the science-defying thing off.

Then the heat started to feel like it was seeping right through into his muscle and bone, which, honestly, was kind of awesome. His carpel tunnel, despite Clint’s obsession with getting it assessed, really wasn’t all that severe, but Tony did still work at screens and keyboards of various kinds for most of the day. Add to that the stress tremors that he’d developed in his left hand and arm in the weeks leading up to the Civil War, which had plagued him ever since, and he was rarely what he would call comfortable. Except now.

“It takes some getting used to,” Coulson said from across the conference table. Tony hadn’t even known the other man had witnessed his reaction to Thor’s gift, focused as he’d been on the whole ‘magic-is-real-and-right-now-it’s-like-some-weird-heating-pad’ thing, but then he should never really be surprised by the depth of Agent’s constant awareness. Coulson held up his right hand, on which he wore a thin gold band around his index finger.

Maybe it should have felt less special to see the prized substance on another member of the team, but sometimes this whole poly deal was a little easier than Tony anticipated. Instead of feeling jealous, or like his own gift had been somehow cheapened, it felt like the watch took on a new level, marking him not just as Thor’s, but as a member of something larger. He flushed at his own sappiness and hurriedly made to stare down at the blank notepad on the table.

“What else does it, uh, do?”

“Different things, depending on who’s wearing it,” was Coulson’s cryptic reply. “When I’m in the field mine gets tighter, so that it can’t be removed the way it should be by regulation. Drives the real spooks crazy—makes me too identifiable.” Coulson had never seemed like the type to take pleasure in defying protocol, but he was definitely grinning when he said that. “Natasha’s is a necklace that can change its levels of hardness. It never breaks or scratches, but in the right circumstances it can stretch, or become both malleable and sturdy enough to, for instance, restrain a target.”

That seemed, Tony mused, like the perfect metaphor for Natasha: malleable right down to the cellular level, refusing to choose between strength and adaptability.

“Taskmaster appears to be unconscious. His team has blown a hole in the side of the building and escaped with him on—ugh, I think they have cloned copies of our sky cycles, Coulson. Avengers emerging now…Black Widow is signalling for a med-evac. Green team, move in.”

“I want a detailed sit-rep in under two minutes,” Coulson said, all traces of good humour now vanished. Tony leaned in toward the speaker, his heart in his throat. Who was down? Had something managed to harm Hulk? Or Thor? It couldn’t be Natasha, she was just as stubborn as the rest of them and entirely unlikely to call a med-evac for herself…

“Hawkeye is down but stable—looks to be a broken ankle. Accounts of the exact events are conflicting, but Specialist Barton claims it was a necessary risk.” Phil gave no indication that this news upset him except for a slight motion of his jaw. “Oh my God.”

“Report, Agent,” Coulson barked, rising to his feet.

“I…it’s Director Rogers, Sir. He’s.” Tony felt glued to his own chair. He should have pushed for more information about Taskmaster. He could have been more prepared, maybe delivered remote assistance the same way he had on the team’s last mission. Now something had happened to Steve and here Tony was, fucking useless in a conference room.

“He’s what, Agent Dumas?”

“He’s completely covered in blood.”

Things went a little haywire after that. Steve was, apparently, at least aware enough to take over command of the SHIELD agents onsite. He immediately demanded a communications blackout between that team and the Tower. Phil bowed his head.

“Is-I mean, you’re the team’s handler, can’t you overrule him? Tell him to stop being such a stubborn prick?” Tony didn’t care if he was overreaching, didn’t even really give a damn about the org chart. Being entirely cut off from the team when the last thing he’d heard was that Steve was covered in blood was not a goddamn option.

“I could, but I won’t. In all my experience working with Steve, he only tends to cut off communication in two circumstances. The first is if he’s about to do something reckless that he knows the rest of us won’t approve of. Possible, but unlikely here given that the battle itself looks to be over. The second reason Steve does this is when he’s ashamed, and wants to avoid reporting back to me for as long as possible.”

Tony couldn’t imagine his own version of Steve feeling shame about anything. Regret, sure, but those were two different beasts entirely. This Steve, though, he’d knelt for Tony after only knowing him for a day in order to apologize. He went to therapy, and he listened to the others when they gave him advice, and he’d torn SHIELD apart but then taken the time to put it back together again.

“It isn’t his blood,” Tony concluded grimly.
****

No one spoke for the duration of the ride home. Well, to be more precise, no one spoke to Steve. Natasha spent most of the flight alternating between addressing Clint in that deadly whisper that was far more terrifying than most people’s yells and holding his hand while the medics used the mobile x-ray and then got to work setting his ankle.

Thor paced the jet like a caged animal. He always took it hardest when one of the team got hurt, doubly so when it was Clint and Thor was the only one around with flying capabilities who might have caught him. Steve wanted to give him comfort; he should, at least, have reminded Thor that Clint had known the platform to be unstable long before he’d stepped on it, that he’d known Thor was not in a position to be able to reach him in time. He said nothing. Bruce would talk him down when he was himself again, or Natasha could pull double-duty.

When they touched down on the roof of the Tower, Coulson and Tony were both waiting. Steve let the others disembark, and watched from the window as Coulson indulged in a rare show of semi-public affection long enough to lean down over the stretcher and press a kiss to Clint’s forehead, and then another to Natasha’s. He meant to get up and follow them, he really did. But every time he tried to make his legs bend to stand, his eyes found Tony.

The real target.

How is Stark, anyway?

The real target.

How is Stark, anyway?

How truly foolish had Steve been, to believe that death and ‘resurrection’ would change the fundamental truths about their lives? In every possible variation, Tony would always be Iron Man, and Steve would always be Captain America. They had charged themselves with the safety and security of the world, which meant that they would always be on the front lines. Always at risk.

Steve could not, would not, survive losing Tony a second time.

Phil’s steps were crisp and even as he entered the quinjet. (Still in Agent Coulson mode, then. That was probably for the best.) He inspected Steve the same way he always did, pushing Steve’s back up against the chair when he tried to curl in on himself and hide from the weight of Phil’s regard. God, the sight he must make. The white star on his chest was the discoloured orange of dried blood, which was also in Steve’s hair and face. His hands were a complete disaster; when Natasha and Thor had finally succeeded in pulling Steve off Taskmaster, he’d taken several shots at the wall instead, until one of them had creaked ominously and Natasha had hissed,

“Stop unless you want to kill us all.”

Coulson’s hands found Steve’s, cradling the battered knuckles and scraped palms without pressure or judgement. And he waited. Steve had been the one to call for radio silence, so only Steve would end it. (He loved Coulson and hated him in almost equal measures in moments like this.)

“Someone’s after Tony. They used today to gather intel, so that Taskmaster and his crew would have the most up-to-date information about how we’re fighting possible. He’s being funded by someone with deep pockets, made specific allusions to some kind of corporate entity.”

“AIM, maybe?” Phil theorized. “Their stock took a pretty significant bump after our Tony died. So did most other tech companies.” Steve shrugged. The strategist in him was interested and thinking along similar lines (though there was something that didn’t feel quite right about it, too, something he was missing), but right now that was mostly drowned out by the exhausted defeat that had replaced his earlier rage. It was hard to say how much of this Coulson could sense, but it was enough that he switched tactics, his hold on Steve’s hands becoming something more personal, intimate. “We should get these looked at.”

“They’ll heal faster than anyone can treat ‘em. You know that. Can you just…can you clear a path to the elevator? I can’t…I just can’t see him right now, please.”

Coulson didn’t ask who ‘he’ was, nor did he attempt to lecture or persuade. But his lips tightened and his breath became shaky and shallow, and when Steve finally dared to look, he found the man staring back at him with a disappointment Steve had never witnessed before. The dual blow of letting down his handler and his partner was almost too much. He didn’t risk looking up again until the landing pad had been entirely emptied of people.
****

The 24 hours that followed the Avenger’s return to the Tower were awful. Tony hadn’t thought there could be anything worse than the cold dark of radio silence, but at least there was still some degree of hope to be found in ignorance.

Clint was benched while his ankle healed. He was short and downright nasty on occasion with anyone unlucky enough to cross his path. That, at least, seemed like it might be under control soon; after Clint had barked at Bruce of all people over making too much noise at breakfast that morning, Natasha and Phil had exchanged significant looks and then taken off after him. None of them had been seen since. The bigger problem, though, was Steve. He refused to leave his floor. He permitted members of the team (except Tony, Tony had somehow become persona non grata as far as Steve was concerned) down to see him for short spells, but they always emerged frustrated, tired and alone. Overall, it felt like all of the joy that had started to seep back into the Tower over the past several weeks had vanished, replaced with a bitter hopelessness that felt like it belonged far more to Tony’s universe than to this one.

It pissed Tony right the hell off. After everything this version of the team had been through together, all they had managed to survive and defeat that had damn near destroyed Tony’s universe, and some loser who couldn’t even use the word photographic correctly had brought them to this?

A loud crinkling of plastic wrapping from across the living room reminded Tony abruptly that he wasn’t alone. Thor was sprawled across the armchair, eating leftover Halloween candy and playing video games. (Even this was far too close an echo to the version of Thor he’d left behind.)

“I uh…I meant to say thanks. For the watch.” Thor didn’t stop chewing Swedish Fish with his mouth open (which, ew), but he did turn his eyes from the television screen for the first time in several hours, so Tony was counting that as a win.

“How did the gold respond to you?”

“Mostly through temperature. It made me warm, and not just in the places where it had actual contact with my skin. Which is infuriating, by the way—it was borderline cruel to give me something like this and then leave where I couldn’t follow and ask you the hundred follow up questions I have about how it works. Oh, and I think it feels heavier, sometimes, too.”

That discovery had been a new one just this morning. Tony had attempted to gain entry to Steve’s floor for the fourth time, and had been denied yet again. Whatever else he and Steve had been to one another, the guy had never just straight up refused to see him. Tony had stood at the threshold to the elevators, pondering whether it was worth breaching Cap’s trust to use his override codes, when he’d felt a heaviness against his wrist. Not painful, not too heavy, just sort of insistent. Like it wanted Tony to know it was there. (Oh great. Now he was anthropomorphizing a watch. These people were truly going to ruin him.)

Thor abandoned his previous pursuits entirely in favour of striding across the room and coming to kneel in front of Tony.

“May I?” he asked, gesturing to Tony’s arm, still adorned by the watch. It was nerve-wracking in a way that was entirely out of proportion with what was actually happening. But then, Tony had rarely known his own Thor outside of battle; even outside of combat, so much of Thor’s way of being in the world had been shaped by war. (Which was why, Thor had confessed late one night when none of them could sleep after the Snap, he’d been so quick to wrap his hands around Tony’s throat. He’d rarely handled—ha!—conflict with anything but violence.)

In a horrible parody of that act, one of Thor’s large hands encircled Tony’s wrist. If he’d been so inclined, it would probably take Thor less than a second to break the bone, maybe Tony’s whole arm. His fingers traced the outline of the band with almost unfathomable gentleness, and Tony wondered how much work Thor had to put in to regulating his own power enough to achieve that kind of touch. When the demigod’s index finger made to slide under the watch’s face, Tony flinched. Instantly, the entire hand withdrew.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—I’m sorry.”

“I have no need for your apologies. You were given cause, I think, not to trust many of your own shield brothers. I cannot atone for their errors, but I can attempt to ensure that our bond develops differently. Perhaps it is best we forego any power exchanges for the present, but I would still enjoy the opportunity to spend time with you.”

With most of the team, the submission had felt like a way to solidify what they’d built during their dates. It was why Tony had ended up insisting on dating and scening with the same person despite the team’s initial suggestions. The thought still held some appeal when it came to Thor, but even more assuring was the consideration and care behind the suggestion that they wait. Thor wasn’t angry or disappointed that Tony maybe couldn’t submit to him quite yet.

“Tomorrow?” he proposed. “I’d say tonight, but there’s…I have to do something, first. Is that okay?” Thor smiled, the one that illuminated all his features. (Maybe it made sense that the watch so often made Tony feel warm, given that this particular expression had always done the same, heating Tony from the inside out.) Then, telegraphing his moves widely and giving Tony plenty of chances to refuse, Thor lifted his hand and pressed a gentle kiss to the back of it.

“I shall look most forward to it.”
****

Steve and Bucky had worked hard to rebuild their relationship over the past several weeks, and Steve had never been more grateful (or irritated) by that than he was right now. While the others had respected his desire to withdraw from company, Bucky had given him less than a day before he’d used his security codes, the ones that were supposed to be strictly for emergencies, and strolled onto Steve’s floor like he owned the place. He didn’t make Steve talk, but he did force food and water on him at regular intervals, and curl up at Steve’s feet with all the soft sweetness that had once characterized his submission, but which was far more rare a display now. It was impossible for Steve’s instincts not to be soothed by that, to want to reach out and stroke Bucky’s hair and lean down to brush soft kisses against the back of his neck.

Time and his forced acceptance of Bucky’s help made everything else slightly more bearable. Steve could see it so clearly now, how foolish he’d been to think things could work out between he and Tony. Tony would always be Iron Man, would always throw himself on every live wire he could find, and Steve simply wouldn’t be able to accept it. And seeing as he wouldn’t dream of trying to separate Tony from Iron Man, the solution was simple: they could never be more than what they were now. It would take time to accept, yes, because even Steve’s therapy had been based around an understanding that he was aiming to eventually be capable of offering Tony more. It might take a few more days to let the sting of disappointment wear off, but it wasn’t like Tony’s friendship was nothing. It was far more than Steve had dreamed he’d have just a few months ago, after all. He could learn to be grateful. To accept what he could have, and stop grasping hopelessly for what he couldn’t.

He was not, however, quite so ready to accept it that he was actually prepared to see Tony. Naturally, Bucky didn’t care a whit. When Tony requested entry to the floor for the fifth time that day, Bucky hurriedly agreed, reaching up to throw his hand over Steve’s mouth when he attempted to protest.

That was how Tony found them: Bucky kneeling, his hand pressed to Steve’s mouth while Steve replied with his most withering stare. Tony took this in with no small hint of amusement.

“I never tried that with my own version of Cap.”

“Ten out of ten would recommend,” Bucky drawled. “Somethin’ you need, doll?” The tips of Tony’s cheekbones turned a dusky pink when Bucky referred to him that way, but it was Steve he was looking at when he replied.

“I needed…that is, I just wanted to check in and see if you were alright.” Bucky’s narrowed gaze suggested very strongly that if Steve used this opportunity to avoid or otherwise reject Tony too thoroughly it would not end well for him. And he didn’t really want to push the other man away at all; how often had he been the one chasing after Tony following a mission gone wrong, trying to find an impossible balance between respecting his autonomy and wanting, needing, to ensure his safety and wellness? It was flattering to have Tony doing the same for him. But Dr. Dolan had also told Steve more than once that to be clear was to be kind. So he stood up and smiled even as he deliberately put some physical distance between them by heading for the kitchen.

“I’m doin’ fine, Tony. It’s nice of you to come by; you’re a good friend. Do you want anything to eat or drink?”

“Bring back some of that homemade caramel corn from last week, wouldja Stevie?” Bucky called. “We were just about to start a movie, Tony, you should stay if you have time.” They had made no such plans, and Steve barely resisted the urge to toss the requested snack at his manipulative friend’s head. To make matters worse, when Tony agreed, Bucky patted the spot on the floor next to him. “Wanna sit with me? This rug is insanely comfortable. Way better than the couch.”

Tony froze halfway through a sip of the smoothie Steve had made him; several bright orange drops dribbled from his lips and down onto his shirt. But before Steve could apologize on both of their behalves, or assure the other man that he was in no way expected to actually sit at Steve’s feet, Tony shrugged and plopped himself down right in the spot Bucky had indicated. He wasn’t kneeling, thank god, had instead folded himself into a cross-legged position, but the visual wasn’t much better. It was almost everything Steve had dreamed of since he’d lost the other Tony: his oldest friend and partner curled up at Steve’s feet next to Tony, a man Steve had just started to accept he would always love in every possible variation.

Steve was very, very screwed.