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Falling For You (Hook, Line, and Sinker)

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Steve stared at the plain, white ceiling above his bed and waited for his alarm to go off. He didn't need to get up for anything - there really was no need to have an alarm at all - but it felt wasteful and indulgent to stay in bed all day. He'd tried that for a while; it hadn't made him feel any different.

When the beeping filled the room, Steve stared at the ceiling a moment longer then rolled over and switched it off. He took his watch off the bedside table and fastened it around his wrist as he padded down the hall to the bathroom. He brushed his teeth under the hum of the bathroom light. Toothpaste burned now, the mint too intense on his serum-enhanced tastebuds. When he'd been small and sickly he could barely taste mint, barely taste anything, but now it was almost overwhelming, billowing up the back of his nose and stinging his eyes. They made other flavours now, apparently. He'd seen cinnamon of all things at the grocery store, back when he'd bothered going. He knew he could ask Ellen to order it next time, instead of the mint, but that would probably set loose a flurry of SHIELD tests of his senses and preferences.

Steve spat then rinsed his mouth with warm water, hating the way cold would set the mint frosting the inside of his mouth again.

He selected a breakfast burrito from the stack in the freezer and put it in the microwave, watching it spin and hum. His daily flicker of guilt for not cooking teased up then settled down again, used to being ignored. He'd tried that too, but SHIELD had sent pre-packaged food in his first couple of grocery deliveries and it was so easy, so simple. His texts to Ellen had started out asking for fresh ingredients then slowly backslid into requests for more and more of the simple stuff. After all, what was the point of the future if he couldn't make his meals instantly?

While the burrito turned, its end popping open and dribbling sauce out onto the plate, Steve unplugged his phone from the cable next to the toaster and flicked through his notifications. There wasn't much. Ellen seemed to be on her phone 24/7, but Steve didn't really see the appeal. He had a few apps she'd installed for him, and a game that Nadia down the hall had recommended, but mostly it was a way for him to stay in touch with SHIELD. He didn't particularly want it to do any more than that.

Ellen hadn't texted him at one in the morning, as she was sometimes wont to do, and he had no emails from SHIELD changing his training schedule so he tossed his phone aside again. The microwave beeped. He ate the burrito standing in front of his living room window, watching the slim grey light of dawn peek down the street.

He could smell it, even through the window. The city didn't smell the same. It was heavy, now, cloying and thick, and coated the back of his throat. It was metallic and sharp, bitter.

When his food was done, Steve washed his plate, dried it, and put it away. Then he took out his drawing supplies. It was therapeutic, they'd said, to make art. "Take some time every day," Dr. Tully had told him, "to work on your drawings, express yourself." She'd smiled as she said it, as if that was supposed to be encouraging, but it just ratcheted Steve even tighter. Still, he wasn't going to be at fault for any lack of progress she saw in him, and it wasn't like he had anything better to do, so he dutifully pulled his sketch pad out every morning before "work."

He turned to a fresh sheet of paper and continued with the exercises he'd started at the beginning of the pad. He'd learned them as warmups at Auburndale, shapes and lines, and his perfect memory meant he didn't need exercise books to recall the details. After an hour of careful and precise crosshatching, Steve packed away his pencils, closed his sketchbook and put them away.

It was late enough that he could justify going in to SHIELD, so Steve went back to his bedroom and picked through the mountain of mixed clean and dirty laundry spread across his bedroom floor until he had a passable outfit. SHIELD paid for a soft-spoken, middle-aged woman to clean Steve's apartment, but he'd asked her not to go into the bedroom, so that was where the mess accumulated. It would probably be nice not to sleep in a sea of chaos, sheets mussed and piles of socks pushed to the other side of the bed, but whenever he stripped down at the end of the night, he barely had the energy to pull on sweatpants, let alone clean.

Besides, Miss Miranda cleaned the stuff that really mattered, so who cared? Captain America was a secret slob. That was something the history books didn't get right.

With a duffle bag slung over his shoulder and his phone in his pocket, Steve locked up and headed down the hallway. As he passed 3B, the door opened and Nadia stepped out, done up in her leotard with an overlarge sweater and leggings over top, multi-coloured leg warmers pulled up over her calves. She perched on her tiptoes while she locked up. She walked everywhere on her tiptoes, and Steve wasn't sure if she was aware.

"Morning, Steve," Nadia said with a warm smile, tossing her long, red hair out of her face.

"Good morning. Can I walk you down?"

"That'd be lovely. Thank you." She finished jiggling her key out of the lock and fell in step beside him. They started the trot down the six half-flights of stairs, round and round. "Headed to the gym?" she asked.

Steve nodded. "Gotta get my workout in before it gets too busy. You have rehearsal?"

"Mhm. And it's going to be drama and a half. Analise is back."

"Oh no." Steve tried to remember which one Analise was. Nadia talked about all the drama amongst the dancers in her troupe, or in the casts of various shows, but Steve was never able to keep them all straight.

"It's alright. The drama llama in me loves it." A cab was waiting out front and Nadia jogged up to the door. "Have fun at the gym!"

Steve waved her off. "Bye." He turned down an alley, cut across the street and started the walk to work. It was about forty-five minutes on foot, and Steve much preferred it to driving. SHIELD had offered him a car and driver, at first, but that was one of the few luxuries they'd offered that he'd refused after only a few days. The pre-packaged food was nice; the driver was deeply uncomfortable.

So Steve had told them he used the walk to think, and while it was a lie, it was true in spirit. He used the time to not think. He watched the living, breathing people, the cars and lights and businesses, the smiles and honks and click click of too-high heels on the pavement, and he reminded himself in a real concrete way that this wasn't a dream - he was in the future.

It needed to be a daily ritual because much longer than twenty-four hours and it was all too easy to float away, disconnect, forget that this wasn't temporary or just a dream.

A slight sweat had broken out on the back of his neck by the time Steve made it to the SHIELD offices, and he went straight to the gym. Some of the other agents were already working out, but Steve put his headphones in - he learned quickly that it was the best way to keep people from talking to him, even if it took him three more months to figure out how to make them actually play music - and hopped on one of the reinforced treadmills.

The steady thud thud of his feet on the belt jolted his thoughts away every time they tried to creep in. The gym was the one place where he felt like he was fulfilling his purpose, like he was digging into who he was. He couldn't let Captain America out anywhere else, but everyone here knew who he really was and he didn't have to think, didn't have to decide or hold back, he could just move.

After a warmup, Steve went to the bags and swapped a regular one out for a heavily layered one. He'd still bust it open, but it would last a little longer. He wrapped his hands, feeling the heavy eyes of some of the junior agents on the back of his neck, but he was used to ignoring them by now. Let them enjoy the show; this was what he was good at.

As soon as his fist tapped the bag - finding the distance, activating the muscles - the rest of the room slipped away. It was just him and the bag and the full-body ache he sought. Steve found his stance and strunk once, hard enough to jolt the bag.

His body clicked on.

He was nothing but breath and the slow ramping up of movement. Heat flared to life in his chest and he dug down into it, railing on the bag now, harder and harder. He ducked his head, images he couldn't describe in words flashing through his mind. It was just hit, hit, hit. Hit and you'll feel better. Don't stop.

The bag bounced and swung back, and Steve breathed and shuffled his feet back into position. Two more strikes, vibration from the hits radiating up his arms, and Steve found steadiness again. Every muscle in his body tingled and sung, blood pumping hot and fast, heart pounding almost painfully.  There was life in the pain. Time flew by.

**

"So what have you been doing with your spare time? Dr. Tully asked gently.

Steve shrugged. "I draw every morning."

"....That's good?" She said it like a question.

Steve blinked back at her. She was the damn therapist who had told him to do it. "Yes?"

Steve got the impression she was sighing, even though she didn't move or make a noise. "Anything else?"

"What else is there?"

Her pen wobbled between her fingers like she wanted to tap it on her notebook. "We talked about options for getting more social interaction. Reaching out to some of your co-workers."

"Right… Yeah, I don't know if I can do that."

"Why not?"

Steve shrugged again. "We don't really have anything in common. I - I talk, sometimes, to people in the elevator or at the gym -" almost true "- and it never, you know, clicks."

"Is that something you've had in your life - the click?"

"Yeah… yeah I had that. I had that with Bucky and the Howlies. I had that with Peggy. Even when it was hard or embarrassing or confusing, or, damn, terrifying, it just felt right. It felt worth it."

"But it doesn't feel worth it with your co-workers here."

"Not really. Sorry."

"You don't have to apologize, Steve. I'm here to help you, not the other way around."

Steve rolled his neck out. It sure felt the other way around most of the time.

"What about the bike?"

"Bessie?" Steve blinked at her again. He wasn't expecting her to bring that up again.

"Fury got it for you."

"It's not the right bike."

She smiled softly. "Is that why you're not working on it?"

"I don't know."

"Do you have enough in your life right now?"

An errant thread in the seam of Steve's pants caught his attention. "Maybe not…"

"Steve -" She leaned forward and rested her elbow on her knee. Steve could hear the rough catch of her stockings on her cashmere sweater. "You're grieving, and that's fair. You need to be able to go through that process. But it helps if you have something you're working towards, if you set some goals. It's too easy to fall into habits that take you nowhere. And this is a new place, a new time, it's all new. The habits you set up now are going to be hard to break, even if you start feeling more like yourself in time. Healing is hard, but it's worth the effort."

"I don't disagree with you," Steve said, feeling a little chastised. "I just don't feel - I don't know, ready? Interested? I'll try if you really want me to…"

"Like with the drawing."

"Sure."

"Okay, I'd appreciate that. Do that for me. This week, I challenge you to at least go look at the bike, look at the manual. See if sparks anything for you."

Steve smirked. "Well, you know I can't resist a challenge."

Dr. Tully laughed lightly. "I may have that somewhere in my notes."

"I'll do it."

"Thank you. That's about time for us. Thanks for coming in." She said that every time.

"They won't let me not," Steve said brightly. He said that every time. She always laughed.

Steve left the medical wing where Dr. Tully's office was and made his way to his own office, up in the admin section, down the hall from Coulson and Hill. Ellen was typing on her phone with one hand, moving the mouse of her computer with the other, one earbud in and half a salad at her elbow. "Steve!" She grinned at him.

It had taken six months to get her to stop calling him Captain. "Good afternoon, Ellen. Anything for me?"

She nodded and stopped moving her mouse but kept typing, now with both hands. "Coulson wants you to sit in on strategic planning testing round three on Friday, and Fury wants your quarterly development report by next Thursday since he'll be out of town for two weeks. Oh, and medical is ready for another round of blood tests. Do you need a dry cleaning pickup this week?"

"Okay. No, I don't have any dry cleaning. Just the regular laundry."

"Alright! It's all in your calendar."

"Thank you."

"Any grocery changes?"

"No, ma'am." He shot her a USO smile.

Ellen giggled. "Alright. Want me to order you lunch?"

"Sure why not. I'm going to -" Steve gestured vaguely towards his office, and Ellen nodded, turning back to her endless screens.

He didn't know if she knew that he did very little in there. He hadn't wanted a computer and they hadn't offered him one. The desk had a paper calendar, that Ellen kindly kept up to date - though his phone would tell him loudly about everything on his schedule anyway - nice pens, stationary, stamps and envelopes - as if there was anyone left he could write a letter to - a bookshelf, and a hook for the shield that he only ever used in training these days.

Ellen brought lunch in - some sort of wrap with spicy meat - and Steve picked through it, drawing it out to give him something to do. The buzz of his workout had long faded into flat nothingness.

Dr. Tully's challenge nibbled at the back of Steve's mind, and after an hour of doing next to nothing, he figured he might as well get his homework over with and not have to worry about it all week. Maybe he could kill two therapy birds with one stone and draw Bessie. Ellen wasn't at her desk when he left - not unusual for her - and he was grateful not to feel obligated to explain where he was going.

SHIELD had a vast garage in the lower levels, all managed by a large man that Steve had never seen without his faded baseball hat. His name was Luke, and as far as Steve could tell, Luke had wandered in one day and never left. He had none of the background in intelligence or espionage that most of the department heads did, and Steve had no idea if he'd ever served. If he had, he didn't talk about it or display it in any way. But Luke, rather anachronistically for the way he spurned technology, loved modern engines, and he'd had his hand in every quinjet and helicarrier and jetpack that SHIELD used.

Steve only knew him a little, but he liked the garage and he'd come down more than once just to hang out. Fury had taken him down when he'd first settled in and showed him the bike - occupying a corner of the garage much to Luke's gruff disapproval - and Steve had thanked him and replaced the tarp and not touched it since.

He half-expected the bike to be gone - half-hoped, maybe - but she was still there, covered in the heavy canvas, the thick binder that contained her vintage manual sitting on her back seat. Steve nodded to Luke then made his way over to her. He pulled the tarp off.

He'd thought of her as Bessie from day one, even when he knew he was never going to spend any time working on her. Her license plate read BS1E and his brain had filled in the rest.

Luke appeared at his elbow. "Need tools?"

Steve chewed his tongue. "It's the wrong bike." Luke blinked at him like he was an idiot, and Steve shrugged. "Sure. Show me where to put them back when I'm done with them?"

Luke nodded and led Steve over to a large supply cupboard. He showed him the code on the lock then pulled out a bin and filled it with things. "You can put it back here." He pointed to the place the bin had been.

"Thank you."

Luke left Steve and Bessie alone, and Steve dumped the bin by her side then sat down with his back against the cold concrete wall of the garage. He poked her with his foot. Bessie was a 1941 Harley WL. Not the bike Steve had had during the war, but some agent had picked it up at an estate sale, and Fury had, apparently, thought that old motorbike = one Steve Rogers.

Dr. Tully probably wouldn't think that just sitting with her - thinking about all the ways that she was wrong, just like the rest of the future - was progress. Steve tugged the manual in his lap and flipped it open. It was the original, written in stiff, faded typeset, slightly crooked on the yellowing pages. The dust smelled right somehow. Real.

Steve stood and pulled the rest of the tarp off. He coughed violently. She was disgusting. No one even bothered cleaning her off. Well, if he was going to ask Fury to sell her, he might as well get her cleaned up first.

Steve flipped through the manual for a while, skimming, getting a sense of what he was working with, then he pulled a stiff brush out of the bin of tools and started cleaning.

The next few hours went by surprisingly quickly, but when Steve sat back on his heels and looked at the cleaned up bike, he wasn't sure what he felt. It didn't exactly feel good, not the way the gym felt, but it wasn't bad. Maybe Dr. Tully was on to something. Then again, maybe he'd finish the restoration and end up no closer to feeling like he belonged in the 21st century than he had before. Maybe there wasn't anything that could get him there.

Steve put his tools away, threw the tarp back over Bessie, and waved goodbye to Luke. The walk home gave his mind time to wander, but it didn't end up anywhere interesting, drifting through random thoughts and memories, and ending up in the calming static it seemed to sink into most of the time.

A microwave dinner waited in the fridge, and Steve read three chapters of his book then sat and watched New York trundle by beneath his feet before it was late enough to reasonably go to bed. He lay in the dark for a long time, patiently waiting for sleep to come. It usually did, eventually, and the serum meant he could go a long time without, if it didn't.

It blessed him tonight, though and he slept for a few hours. He woke long before the dawn light spilled into his room. He lay on his back, hands resting on his stomach, and stared at the plain, white ceiling. His hands went up and down with his breath.

He waited for his alarm to go off.

Chapter Text

Three weeks later, Steve still hadn't given up on the bike. Mostly, for lack of anything else to do with his time.

Training ended early enough that he decided to go down to the garage for a while after his shower. He shoved his bag in his locker and made his way down the hall to the elevators, shaking water out of his damp hair when he found himself alone. His muscles tingled with the pleasing buzz of a workout well done.

The garage was quiet, save for Luke and a few other mechanics dotted around the vast space. "Hi, Luke," Steve called politely, shoving past boxes of piping to get to his corner.

Luke grunted and waved one hand without looking up. He had a massive collection of tiny metal pieces sprawled out on the desk in front of him. One side of the garage was a long, rubber-topped bench that Luke used for work. Behind it, he sat, overseeing his build team and protecting the vast wall of multi-coloured bins that housed tools, screws, nuts, bits, and bobs. Steve wouldn't have been able to name half of them, should he be tested.

But Luke mostly left him alone, the least SHIELD-y of all the agents Steve had encountered here. He was gruff and dismissive, but at his core, a good guy, and despite Steve's first impressions, he never complained about Steve occupying a corner of his garage for Bessie.

So now, he and Bessie had a date a few days a week, when his schedule wasn't too pressing - which it rarely was - and he worked on fixing her up, much to Dr. Tully's delight. The manual itself was in worse shape than Steve had originally thought, and he had spent the first few days steaming the stuck pages apart and trying to collect the rest of the tools he needed to get at her innards.

He'd finally gotten through the big stuff, making careful notes in the manual as he identified each piece. Today he was going to dig into the electricals. It wasn't an area he had any experience with. He'd done little maintenance for his own bike in the army - they hadn't let him - and what he'd done was mostly fluids and the occasional flat tire. He tried jumping the battery and pressing the starter, but the engine didn't even try to start. She clicked twice, the headlight flashed and the horn honked, long, low and depressing, trailing off with a sad tweet.

Luke shot him a look and Steve grimaced. That wasn't good. He tried it again. HOOOOOOooonkkkkk-tweet , she coughed out. The engine remained silent.

In addition to the starter, there was almost certainly something wrong with the wiring. Steve unscrewed the front cover of the dashboard and popped it off. A cloud of white fluff came out and tumbled onto the floor, taking a stash of seeds and tiny, black droppings with it. The wires inside were almost impossible to see amongst the chewed up fluff, rust, and dust. Steve despaired.

He wanted to show Luke, but he didn't want to drag him over here when he was busy, so he took out his phone and took a few pictures like Ellen had taught him a few weeks ago, then went over to the side of the garage where Luke was still tinkering. "Hey, Luke? I'm having a problem with the wiring, not really my area of expertise, and there's not much in the manual. It seems to sort of assume a basic competency I don't have. Any advice?"

Luke took his glasses off and peered at the mess of dust, rust and stripped wires. "Shit."

Steve winced.  "Is it savable?"

"I have no idea, man." Luke took Steve's phone and zoomed in on a few places then looked at the manual Steve had laid out on the desk. "I don't even know what some of these symbols mean. This is a relic. Sorry, I don't really do vintage…"

The tight knot in Steve's chest twisted a notch tighter. Vintage. Just like him. A relic. Ancient. Unfixable…

"You should try BikeForum," Luke offered, putting his glasses on and turning back to the mysterious project he was working on.

"Can I get that at the library here?"

Luke shot him a look. "It's not a book, man. It's a forum. Online. Buncha bike obsessed weirdos. If anyone can help you, it'll be them."

"I - uh. Okay." Steve shifted his weight from foot to foot. He picked the phone and manual back up. He'd have to go try the library. Surely there was a book that would explain it? It wasn't like he didn't have the time. He could start with the basics of wiring and go from there.

Luke sighed. "Really? Alright, come here." He crossed the space behind the bench to the other end where a computer sat. Steve had never seen Luke use it, but he spent as much time with his pocket phone as everyone else did. Luke turned the screen out to face Steve and typed www.bikeforum.net in the bar at the top. To Steve's surprise, a website he'd never seen before loaded quickly. He was pretty sure that wouldn't work on his phone, and he'd assumed all of SHIELD had a closed system for accessing the internet. Ellen had taught him about it, vaguely, but the few things he'd searched for hadn't turned up any results so he assumed he either didn't understand or there wasn't as much on the internet as she suggested.

Still, BikeForum worked here, and with a few clicks, Luke was setting up an account. "This way you can log in and check your replies." He shot Steve a concerned look. "Like how you log in to your email."

"Right. Okay." Steve had email down. SHIELD emailed him a lot. He watched as Luke clicked around, feeling old mental muscles flex and stretch, sore from disuse as he built a map in his head of the website, following the way Luke navigated and filing it carefully in his mind.

"So you make a new post." Luke clicked. A large white box opened. "You just type in what the issue is, attach a picture. Give a lot of detail but try and be succinct so people actually read it. Someone can probably help you. And honestly, if they can't? You should probably just get a new bike…"

"Okay. Thank you, Luke." Steve stepped forward and took the mouse himself when Luke gestured. "I know you're busy. I appreciate you taking the time."

"No bother." Luke shrugged. "You can use this computer if you want. I don't really need it. If you find it easier than typing on your phone…"

There was something pointed in his voice that made the hairs on the back of Steve's neck prickle with warning. So he just said, "Thank you," and turned back to the computer.

Luke went back to his work, leaving Steve with the blank post box on BikeForum. It took him almost an hour to compose his message, trying to manage "a lot of detail" and "succinct" at the same time, and then another half hour to figure out how to get the photo into the post. When he was done, Steve hit post and a flush of panic washed through him. What if someone traced it back to him? He was supposed to be laying low. The public didn't know Captain America had been found alive. Fury would be, well, furious, if Steve outed himself like this. But still… Luke had said it was okay, and surely plenty of people needed help fixing old bikes? Anyone could have bought Bessie at the estate sale.

Steve watched the page for a while, wondering if it was going to do something.

"It can take a while," Luke offered from the other end of the bench. "Give people time to answer."

"Right. Thanks." Steve hovered over the mouse, wondering what else this computer could show him that his phone wouldn't, but in the end he turned the screen away and returned to Bessie's side. He moved away from the wiring and back to the engine block, taking each piece out and matching it to the description in the manual.

At the end of the day, his post still sat there on the screen, a big zero next to it. He refreshed the page - that he knew to do - but it didn't change. Luke started packing up, so Steve tidied his area and walked out with him, glancing back wistfully at the disassembled bike. If he couldn't fix her, he wasn't sure what he was going to with his time. For all he'd resisted it at first, he was hooked now. And Bessie was the one concession SHIELD had made for what Steve wanted, as much as he was still able to want things, and he wasn't ready to abandon her.

That night was no different than the others, except that Steve only held out until eight before he couldn't wait to check his BikeForum account. His perfect memory let him type the url out exactly as Luke had, into the browser on his phone.

No results found.

He frowned at the tiny screen. He opened Ellen's text window then thought better of it. Something niggled at the back of his mind that she wasn't the person to ask. Instead, he grabbed the thawing cheesecake he'd taken out for dessert and padded down the hall in his bare feet to 3B. Nadia answered right away, her hair hanging damp around her shoulders, dressed in black jeans and a dark grey tank top.

"Hi, Steve." She hooked a towel around her shoulders and rubbed at her hair. "Come in?"

"Actually, I was going to see if you wanted to come over for dessert?" He held up the box uncertainly. "I'll make coffee."

She smiled. "I'd love that. Give me five minutes?"

"Sure. Take your time. I'll put the coffee on."

She smiled again before shutting the door, and Steve's stomach wriggled and writhed. He was never really sure where he stood with Nadia. She was his friend - his only friend maybe - but she was single and spent a lot of time with him and -

Well, back in his day, people would have had expectations for where that was heading.

Steve wasn't so uninitiated that he didn't know that it wasn't like that anymore, that people dated a lot more and for a lot longer than they used to before a ring came out, but he couldn't help wondering if Nadia was waiting for him to ask her on a date. He wasn't sure how he felt about that. He liked her, of course he did, but she was also the only woman he'd spent significant time with in this century, besides Ellen, who was so much younger than him that sometimes he wanted to wrap her in bubble wrap like the little sister he never had.

And Nadia was… sensual. That was the only word for her. Her profession showed in her every movement, graceful and serene. It made it hard to tell if she was flirting or just… moving. Steve sighed down at his coffeemaker, counting out the scoops. She probably felt sorry for him. What were the odds a beautiful, accomplished woman would want to flirt with him? Besides, he wasn't even sure he wanted her to. The thought of taking things further with her felt more like losing his only friend than gaining a girlfriend. He didn't even know what having her as a girlfriend would feel like, look like.

The door creaked open, and he pushed himself out of his melancholy musing.

"How was work?" she asked, slipping her feet into Steve's too-large slippers and shuffling into the apartment. She always complained that his apartment was too warm, but even when her bare shoulders were sweating, her feet were cold.

Steve smiled and shook his head. "Pretty good. Went to the garage after and ran into some trouble with my bike project, though." He poured two mugs and carried them into the living room.

Nadia took hers with a quirk of her eyebrow. "Yeah? What happened?"

"Not sure. The starter was making the headlight flicker and sometimes even set the horn off so I opened the wiring box and it looks like a family of mice was living in there." Steve filled two plates with thin slices of different flavoured cheesecake and grabbed two forks. He settled on the couch next to her.

"That sucks." Nadia sipped her coffee and swept a forkful of chocolate sauce off her cake. "Did you fix it?"

Steve frowned down at his cake. "I couldn't figure out how. But then Luke showed me this website, BikeForum? He set me up an account and I posted a question," Steve explained, hoping he wasn't exposing himself by using the wrong terms. Nadia never seemed bothered, though, apparently chalking it up to his hush-hush military background. "No one's answered yet."

"Hmm. Well I hope you figure it out."

"Actually…" Steve pulled out his phone. "I was hoping to check the site at home, but it's not working. Do you think maybe -?" He smiled at her sheepishly, and she shook her head with a kind smile and held out her hand.

"Let me see what I can do." Nadia poked the phone in silence for a moment, her frown deepening. She took out her own phone for a moment and typed, then returned Steve's with a shake of her head. "Sorry. It's being blocked by your ISP. It happens. You might have to just use the computer at the garage. If Luke doesn't mind?"

"Oh." Steve took his phone back. He didn't know what an ISP was and he'd been an old idiot enough for one night so he set his phone aside and changed the subject, asking Nadia about rehearsal, enjoying how easy it was to sink into the backstage gossip.

"So Alana said he had fat thighs and, well, it devolved from there." Nadia sipped the last of her coffee.

"Dancers are crazy."

Nadia smiled. "And you thought being special ops was hard." She winked, and Steve laughed.

"I'd better get to bed. Up early tomorrow."

"Of course. Thanks for having dessert with me," Steve said honestly. "I really needed some human contact tonight."

Nadia paused where she was kicking off his slippers. She rested a hand on his forearm. "Anytime, Steve. Really."

Steve nodded, dropping his eyes to the floorboards. It wasn't that he didn't appreciate Nadia's concern, of course he did, but sometimes kindness veered so close to pity that he could read its small-print bumper sticker, usually splashed with phrases like, "You poor broken man," and "I only spend time with you because you need me." It wasn't a very nice feeling, and since it was one that followed him around perpetually at SHIELD, he didn't need it at home too. "Goodnight, Nadia."

"Night." She breezed out the door, and Steve let himself be occupied with cleaning up the dishes and rinsing out their coffee mugs. He settled on the couch with a book about ancient Rome and somehow time drifted away towards bedtime.

He woke up an hour before his alarm the next morning, and instead of waiting for it to go off, he got dressed and left for SHIELD early. He didn't have any training scheduled, so he went straight to the garage. He could work on Bessie for a few hours, hit the gym, then come back down until Luke closed up.

The garage was already busy, Luke talking animatedly to his team, so Steve slipped past them with a wave, a paper coffee cup trapped between his teeth, and pulled the tarps off the bike. The rusty wirebox glared back at him from the floor and he remembered BikeForum with a jolt. Surely someone would have answered him by now. Luke was busy so Steve slipped over to the computer and turned the screen on, knocking back the rest of his coffee while it loaded. The browser was still up, his tab at the front - Luke really never used this machine - and Steve hit refresh with more than a little excitement.

Steve clicked the envelope. Three responses! He scrolled down eagerly.

GEARZZ: Hoooly shit what was living in there??

R22845: Wow I haven't seen a '41 WL in a while. Where'd you get it?

Vroomy: <<Hoooly shit what was living in there??>>
Definitely mice! I had the exact same thing in my BMW two years ago and it was mice XD

Steve frowned at the page, scrolling down but only finding the footer at the bottom. That was it? No one had answered his question. He clicked back through to the main forum page and his post was now the third one down. The two newer posts had nothing to do with his problem and they each already had four responses. Steve checked them out of curiosity, and while there was some chatter, people had still resolved both issues.

He went back to his post. At the bottom was a "Reply" button, and he clicked it then carefully typed out:

Hello,
Thank you for your responses. I do believe it was mice living in it. I got the bike at an estate sale. She hadn't been touched in many years. Do you know anything about the wiring or if this wiring set up can be saved?
Thank you,
Steve R.

He clicked "Post," and it appeared below the others. He thought he ought to reply to each one, but there didn't seem to be a way. The other poster had quoted the first one, and he didn't know how to do that so he hoped that was sufficient.

Steve refreshed a few times but no new messages appeared so he went back to Bessie and dove in to what he could still fix, mostly cleaning up the chassis. After a few hours, and with disappointingly little progress, Steve checked the computer again before hitting the gym and to his cautious delight, there were two more replies.

R22845: That's cool. It's a nice ride. Don't know about the wiring, though, sorry.

That was too bad.

TheMechanic: Which of those is the coil harness? Are any of the leads still good? My guess is you're going to have to completely re-wire it. Is this a period restoration or do you just want her running again?

Steve sat up straighter in his seat and shot a look over to where Luke was welding something with his team. This guy actually seemed to know what he was talking about. Surely, TheMechanic wasn't his real name, but whoever he was, he at least cared, which was new.

Steve composed a reply.

Hello TheMechanic,
Thank you for your response. The one on the bottom left is the coil harness, I'm pretty sure. I don't know how to test if any of them are still good. The bike won't start, but sometimes the lights flicker and the horn honks when I press the starter. I'm nervous about rewiring it as I have little experience with electronics.
I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean by a period restoration? I'd like to ride her, if I can.
Thanks again,
Steve R.

Only a few minutes later, a reply appeared on the post. Steve read it eagerly.

TheMechanic: Hmm, yeah. If you've got a multimeter you can see if you're getting any shorts. Clean the whole thing out as best you can without jostling too much - maybe a shop vac on low - then test each one and see if any of them are still good. I asked about period, because some people care if they're using period-appropriate wires and wire looms but NOS is hard to get these days. If you don't care, I can help you find a modern replacement that'll work.

Steve found himself nearly bouncing on his seat as he read TheMechanic's reply. It was more than just getting a solid answer on how to fix his bike, it was also the thrill of interacting with someone who wasn't a SHIELD agent or his neighbour. He knew how sad it was that so little was bringing him so much excitement, but sometimes he wondered if talking to people who didn't feel obligated to listen to him was still a skill he possessed.

He rummaged through the toolkit Luke had given him and found a multimeter. He used it to test each line and got almost nothing.

Hi TheMechanic,
Thank you so much for your advice. I really appreciate it. I tested with the multimeter and sadly, it seems most of the lines aren't working. I'm concerned about taking the whole thing apart and not being able to get it back together. I don't care about using period-specific wires. As long as they work, I'll use anything I can get my hands on.
T
hanks,
Steve R.

TheMechanic: Don't worry. We'll get her back together. No problem! I'm going to find a few places where you can order replacement wires. You're in the US, right?

Hi TheMechanic,
I am in the US, yes. New York. Is there a store I can go buy them from? I'm not great at ordering things online.
Thanks,
Steve R.

TheMechanic: Haha, sure gramps. I'll find a store. You get cleaning that thing out. ;)

Hi TheMechanic,
Thank you for your help. I'm really grateful. I'll let you know when it's cleaned out!
Best,
Steve R.

Steve left the computer to get back to work on Bessie. It was still scary taking the wire housing apart, but TheMechanic seemed confident, and it wasn't like she was running anyway. He had no choice. He spent the next few hours carefully unscrewing every wire harness and following it to its end. Some of the casings had been badly chewed and he could see the frayed wires would be useless. Going to a store to buy things for the bike was a bit nerve wracking, but not as bad as asking Ellen to order the things for him. He was sure SHIELD kept close tabs on what he was ordering, and she might ask him how he knew what he needed. He didn't want to tell anyone, not even Ellen, about BikeForum. It wasn't that he thought they'd stop him from using it. It just felt… private. Somehow. Something he could do himself. And he hadn't had that desire in a long time.

Bessie was his project, and he wanted to finish it feeling like he'd done it himself, TheMechanic's advice notwithstanding.

He checked his messages again at the end of the day, and TheMechanic had posted three addresses for shops in NYC that sold what he needed, complete with a shopping list. Steve borrowed a pad of paper from Luke's desk and carefully wrote down all three addresses and the list. He wrote back a thank you then shut off the computer, following Luke out of the garage as the lights clicked off one by one. It wasn't until he was halfway home that Steve realized he'd never made it to the gym.

Chapter Text

Tony tossed his wrench aside and wiped his forehead with the back of his arm. "What's a guy gotta do to get a smoothie around here?" he called out and the whir of eager bot wheels filled the workshop.

A moment later, U rolled up and handed him a glass of green sludge. He sucked at it, able to suppress the wince now. It didn't help his frustration with the thigh joint of the armour, though, so he pushed to his feet and waved the blueprints away roughly. JARVIS shut down the screens and woke up his desktop instead. Tony flopped into his chair and sucked at his straw. 

"How's the internet doing, J?" 

JARVIS popped open several windows showing Tony's most visited sites. He flicked away a few news sites, scrolled through reddit for a while, then scowled at Twitter, resisting the urge to start several fights. When vicarious anger didn't soothe him, he dove deeper, scooching up closer to the screens and reading a few forums with closer attention. 

It had started in MIT, back when it was usenet and Listervs. When Tony's own work became too frustrating to continue, he'd find corners of the internet where he was an expert and get his satisfaction from solving other people's problems. He'd used a variety of usernames over the years, and he got some joy in how, in certain online spaces, some of them were still talked about in hushed, reverent tones. It was a nice mix of satisfying his own ego and helping people anonymously at the same time.

Lately, he'd been spending a lot of time on BikeForum helping some old guy fix his H-D WL. It was a nice bike, actually, and Tony found himself disappointed a few times that he couldn't be there to help in person. Their conversation had been pretty steady over the last few days, though. The guy, "Steve R." - and who used their real name on a message board anyway? - had gone to a shop in Brooklyn and bought what he needed to rewire the bike. He sent Tony a picture of his haul, and Tony grinned. This was going to be fun. Much more fun than working on the armour.

"Give me a wireframe of Bessie, J." A hologram sprung to life next to him and he spun it gently, eyeing the way the lines fit into the frame. "We can start with the headlight wiring."

He twisted back to the screen that showed Steve R.'s latest post and something in his chest twinged and caught. He smacked a hand over it and groaned as the pain radiated out from the central housing. He didn't have to look to know that the circuit board pattern under his skin was growing larger, creeping away from the reactor and up his chest towards his neck. Now, every day was a game of "Is this your heavy metal toxicity getting worse or just being old and running yourself ragged?"

The exhaustion was from being Iron Man; the poor circulation was from the palladium. JARVIS had a list.

Gently rubbing round the edge of the reactor housing, Tony swiveled his chair around to face Steve R.'s post and started to type a reply. 

We're going to start with the headlights. Let me know when you're online, and I'll walk you through it.

When Steve R. didn't answer right away, Tony flipped back to his other accounts. Someone had tagged him in a reddit post titled "SAVE MY FSIH PLEEASE!" He opened it. 

Pleas someone help me. My fish (Benny and Joon) are not doing well and when I checked my pump it seems to be stuttering and stopping every now and then. You can only tell if you put your ear right up to it but I can hear it going and I htink it's not moving enough water/air. They look so unhpapy but I don't know how to fix the pump and I spent all my money on it so I can't buy a new one. PLEASE!

Tony clicked open the linked image of two well-plumed, multi-coloured fish then flicked back to the post. He added a reply: What's the make and model of the pump? 

Fish guy appeared mere seconds later with the information, and Tony had JARVIS find the blueprints and a manual. Tony spent the next two hours talking fish guy through taking the pump apart, cleaning it, checking all the hoses, and putting it back together.

The door to the workshop opened and closed just as Tony was reading fish guy's celebratory post that it was working now. Heels clicked across the workshop floor.

"Hey, Pep!" Tony pointed at the screen where new pictures of the fish were gratefully flooding his inbox. "These are my new godfish. Aren't they cute? I saved them from certain death."

"Incredible, Tony. You should write a memoir. In the meantime, I need you to save your company from certain death by signing some things."

"Anything for you Ms. Potts." Tony picked up a pen and twirled it around his fingers, turning to join her on the couch, when an email notification cause his eye. "One sec." Steve R. had replied to their thread. 

Thank you, TheMechanic. I'm ready to start, whenever you are.
Steve R.

Tony checked the manual then laid out the first few steps for rewire the headlights, making sure Steve knew how to double check the connections. 

"Tony?" Pepper was waiting with a stack of papers.

"Right, sorry." He left Steve to get working and sat with Pepper, pen at the ready.

She lifted a page then paused. "Is everything okay?"

"Oh yeah, it's nothing. This old guy is fixing his bike and I've been helping him with it. It's pretty cool, actually. I'm heartily invested."

Pepper smiled affectionately and shook her head, then started handing over the stacks of documents, walking Tony through each one. After a while, Tony stopped listening to the details, watching Pepper instead. There would come a point when he had no choice but to hand over the business, and for a long time, he'd been thinking there was no one better than Pepper to hand it to. She was practically running things already, but the title bumps and pay increases he was constantly throwing her way did little to offset the rapid increase in job responsibilities. The board wasn't going to take it well, which was why he'd put it off as long as he had, but with death by heavy metal poisoning rapidly approaching, it was time he cashed in all the chips he had left and make it happen. 

"Hey, Pep, you like SI, right. As a company?"

Pepper blinked at him. "Of course."

"I mean, you're not just in it because of me, right?"

She smiled cheekily. "More like in spite of you, I'd say."

"Ouch… But seriously - ?"

"Yeah. Yes, of course, Tony. I feel like I've had a hand in building it into what it is. And I'm so proud of you for the changes you've made over the last few years. Yes, I love the company."

"Okay good…" Tony stared off towards DUM-E's docking station. He'd leave her the art too, of course, and maybe one of the houses. She'd liked Hawaii, hadn't she? He had some land in Hawaii he could leave her.

He shouldn't tell her about CEO until he had it settled with the board, though. And it was going to take some fiddling, but he had some power behind him. They were counting on him not wanting to destroy his position entirely, but it hardly mattered if he had less than a year to live. There were some cards in his back pocket he could still play.

"Mr. Stark?" Pepper prompted.

Tony snapped back to it and started to sign again. When the stack was clear, he tossed his pen aside. 

"Are you sure you're alright?" Pepper asked softly. "You've been… different lately. Maybe flying Iron Man and running an international megacorporation is too much for one person to handle."

"I'm okay, Pep." He gave her wrist a gentle squeeze. "You're right, though. I know, you're right." He flashed her a smile he hoped was convincing. "I'll learn to delegate one of these days."

Pepper failed to look convinced, but she gathered up her papers and stood. "Guess I'd better let you get back to helping random passersby on the internet."

"Well, I'm so busy, you know? It was that or clean DUM-E with a toothbrush."

"I'll be sending you at least four emails when I get back to the office and you'd better read and reply to all of them."

"You've got it Ms. Potts."

"Good afternoon, Mr. Stark."

Tony sat on the couch for a while after Pepper left, eyes fixed on the looming, empty armour that stood on guard across the room. Pepper could take over the company, but who would take over Iron Man? Should he die with Tony, or live on? There was a way to make his power self-contained, take the arc reactor in Tony's chest and make it power the suit only - Obie, may he rot in hell forever - had proven that possible, but that also meant giving someone else the power that the suit represented.

Ah hell, who was he kidding? It wasn't like Tony had been all that worthy to wear it in the first place. It was all for the best that he hand off the mantle, and then no one would have any reason to miss him at all.

He was due for another smoothie but his stomach was still churning from the first one. He couldn't resist the urge to lift his shirt and stare at the black lines radiating out from the central casing. Palladium. What saved his life was now ending it, and he couldn't even bring himself to tell the people he cared about most. What kind of end was that anyway? Pepper crying every time she saw him and Rhodey doing his "extra caring" face. He'd rather go out with a bang, if he had to go out at all. 

He pushed off the couch and sat back at his computer. And, in the meantime, if he couldn't help himself, he'd help strangers' fish. Running his fingers idly over the aching spot in the centre of his chest, he started typing out another reply to Steve R.

Chapter Text

Steve trotted into the garage, humming something tuneless as he dodged Luke's various projects. "Good morning!"

Luke shot him a look, a wave, and a grunt, then went back to his work. 

Steve didn't even bother with Bessie, going right to the computer on the end of the bench. 

TheMechanic: It looks cracked. Can you take any better pictures? 

Steve moved to write a reply to their ongoing discussion about the headlight housing, then realized there was another message below, from someone called SocketWrench, whose name was bright red with [MOD] after it. 

SocketWrench: It's awesome that you're both so into this problem, but no else is and every time you write a reply you bump this and drown everything else out. I'm going to ask you to take this to PM and lock the thread. You can message me if you want to talk about it. Thanks.

And sure enough, the reply button was gone. The mod had closed their conversation, and Steve couldn't open it again. He frowned at the page, overwhelmed all over again by the buttons and flashing ads and pictures. He'd been so proud of himself, having it all figured out, but he didn't know what PM was, or how to message SocketWrench to ask about it, so he was resigned to being cut off again. 

But TheMechanic had been so helpful. Steve deflated against Luke's counter. Suddenly, fixing Bessie seemed like more trouble than she was worth. Maybe he should just buy a modern bike and take it to Luke to be fixed when it broke. He scuffed his toe against the floor, trying to decide what to do. Bessie was nothing more than a pile of frustrating parts on the floor and the computer was no longer helpful, so Steve stood up again and shuffled out of the garage. Luke shot him another look, but Steve didn't stop to explain. By the time he hit the gym, he was vibrating with frustration.

The treadmill barely made a dent in Steve's foul mood, despite him pushing it faster and faster until it was rattling angrily on the floor. He felt like one of those sharks in that nature documentary Ellen had insisted he watch, going so far as the rent him the disc to watch it on. In a crowd of fish, the shark was left with a huge bubble of empty space around it, all of them too afraid to come closer. Every other agent in the gym left at least two pieces of equipment between them and Steve. He knew he was bringing it on himself, but it didn't make it any easier, knowing he was being avoided so obviously. 

When two reinforced punching bags didn't help either, Steve gave up, took a shower and wandered down up his office. Ellen was typing on her computer.

"Good morning, Captain!"

"Good morning, Ellen." He tossed himself in the chair by her desk. "Anything going on today?"

"No, sir. Today is clear, and tomorrow is sims and your appointment with Dr. Tully."

"Okay…" Steve rocked his chair back and forth, and Ellen watched him carefully.

"Do you need anything?"

"Hmm? Nah. Just… sort of stuck on Bessie and feeling a bit out of sorts."

Ellen turned in her chair and leaned towards him. "Do you need another movie recommendation? Because there's this amazing documentary I just watched -"

Steve held up a hand, smiling to soften the blow. "That's okay. I'm not really in the mood for a movie, right now."

"Alright… I can order Thai for lunch?"

He was pretty sure that was one of the ones with noodles. "Sure. I'll just -" He gestured towards his office and Ellen brightened. She was a fixer. It was sweet, Steve reminded himself. She wasn't trying to be annoying, she was being kind. 

Steve settled in his office with a book and tried not to think about Bessie, or TheMechanic. Ellen came bounding in with enough sweet rice noodles and spring rolls for forty people and presented them to him like the cure for all things. Steve thanked her as kindly as he could manage and picked at the food, putting what he couldn't finish in his office fridge. By four o'clock, Steve decided there was no reason for him to be morose in his office when he could go be morose at home in his sweatpants.

He planned to skip the garage entirely, maybe tell Ellen on his way out that he was giving up and she should have the bike removed, but halfway to the door he realized he'd left his jacket over the back of the chair by the computer. He didn't really need it, but the cold still made him uncomfortable and walking around in the city in a t-shirt in March caught some strange looks. He was supposed to be laying low.

Luke was in his private office, on the phone by the looks of things, so Steve shifted past the piles of machinery and grabbed his jacket, bumping the mouse and waking up the computer in the process. The forum page was still open, only now there was a little red (1) on top of the envelope, just like when someone had replied to his thread. But his thread was closed.

Steve settled in the chair and clicked the button. A new page opened. INBOX it said at the top, and below was "TheMechanic" followed by a message.

So the mod thinks we need to get a room ;) Did you snag any pics of the cracked bolt?

This must have been what SocketWrench meant about PM! It seemed he and TheMechanic could talk on their own without anyone else seeing it. 

Hi, TheMechanic, is this a PM? Steve sent back.

Only a few minutes later, TheMechanic replied. Haha, yeah? Private message. You never used a forum before?

Steve: Not really. I thought I'd lost you.

TheMechanic: Don't worry, gramps, I'm not that easy to shake. How's Bessie today?

Steve: I haven't really had time to work on her. The bolt is definitely cracked. I'll get you some pictures.

TheMechanic: Thanks! Shouldn't be too hard to get you a replacement. 

The next couple hours went by in a rush of scrambling between Bessie and the computer, uploading photos, dissecting them with TheMechanic, then returning to Bessie. When the last wire was in place, Steve collapsed into the computer chair with a quiet cheer and typed out a message.

Steve: THE LIGHT GOES ON! And no more honking. Going to start work on the starter next.
Steve: Thank you so much, TheMechanic, really. You've been such a help. I'm really excited about getting her street worthy.

TheMechanic: No problem. It's satisfying to be able to help. 
TheMechanic: So… just out of curiosity, did you used to have a bike like Bessie or something? Just wondering what made you pick a WL.

Steve stared at the screen for a moment, then scrambled to do the math. Why was TheMechanic asking him that? Did he suspect something?

Steve: Oh no. My grandfather was in the war and he had a similar one - not the same. So when I saw it at the estate sale, I had to give it a go. That was… close enough to the truth.

TheMechanic: Like… WW2?

Steve: Yes?

TheMechanic: Oh shit, I'm so sorry. Here I was thinking you were like 90. My bad. How old are you? (if you don't mind me asking).

If anything, telling TheMechanic his age would throw him off the scent, if he'd picked one up. Which of course, he hadn't - everyone knew Captain America was dead - but Steve couldn't help the little rush of anxiety that spiked his blood.

Steve: 24. 

TheMechanic: You're 24?? Now I really am sorry. You just don't use yeet as much as most of the millenials I know so I'd sort of categorized you in my head and now I feel bad. 

Steve: Don't feel bad. I think a lot of people feel that way about me. I'm sort of… old-fashioned? I guess. I spent very little time on the internet.

TheMechanic: Not a bad thing :)

Steve: How old are you? 

TheMechanic: 39. 

Huh. For some reason, Steve had been picturing TheMechanic as closer to his own age. Not that 15 years was an insurmountable gap, but it was bigger than he thought. TheMechanic seemed young and competent and understood the forum in a way that Steve didn't. There was something comforting about TheMechanic being a bit older though, like he fell somewhere sort of manageable between Steve's two ages. Not that it mattered. 

He hastily looked up "yeet" in the dictionary Ellen had installed on his phone but it gave no results. 

TheMechanic: Here I am being the old one after all, haha.

Steve: Yeah, well at least you know what yeet means. I sort of missed a lot.

TheMechanic: Missed?

Steve starting forming a plausible backstory in his head, finding it both thrilling and panic inducing at the same time. It took him a long time to type it out.

Steve: I joined the army really young. I was special ops and I didn't have much internet access. No family to come home to, so I stayed for a few tours. I got injured so I'm back in NYC, but I have healing to do so I don't get out much. Working on Bessie is a project that my therapist thought would be a good idea. 

TheMechanic: Oh, shit. Well that explains a lot. Thank you for your service. 

Steve: It was my honor. Wish I could be back there, to be honest. Not much use for me here.

Steve hit send before he processed how much that wasn't something he wanted to say to a complete stranger.

TheMechanic: I get that. But you're owed a life too, you know? You need to heal. You've done your part. Maybe once you're better you could work in training or something? Do you mind if I ask what your injury is? You don't have to tell me how you got it.

Steve glanced over the top of the screen, nervously, but he was still alone. He couldn't tell TheMechanic about the ice, of course. He wanted to share, but it seemed like dangerous ground to tread.

Steve: It's… complicated.

TheMechanic: That's cool. I shouldn't have asked.

Steve: No, it's okay. I'm just not sure how to talk about it yet.

TheMechanic: You don't have to. We can talk about something else.

They could? Steve had expected that TheMechanic would disappear as soon as the bike was fixed, but it sort of seemed like he wanted to chat. Chatting wasn't something Steve had done - more than how's-the-weather small talk at the bodega around the corner, anyway - in a long, long time, and the thought of having a conversation like this, with a complete stranger whose face he couldn't even see, made his stomach churn. 

And yet, he wanted to. There was something illicit and thrilling about TheMechanic. Like a secret friend SHIELD had no knowledge of. Unless, of course, they were tracking everything that happened on this computer. But Ellen hadn't called him, and neither had Fury, so that seemed like a good sign. Either they didn't know or they were letting him do it, for now.

Steve: Okay. What do you do for a living?

TheMechanic: Haha. I'm an… engineer. :)

Steve: Oh wow. That explains how you know so much about Bessie.

And Steve was making it about the bike again when what he really wanted to do was explore a real conversation with someone who didn't know he was Captain America, didn't look at him with that odd mix of pity and awe that all of SHIELD seemed to. Well, TheMechanic didn't look at him at all.

TheMechanic: So, Steve R, huh? Your dad one of those Steve Rogerses? You Steve Jr.? :P

Steve's heart stopped.

Steve: What?

TheMechanic: Dad said people used to change their last names. I think the number of Steves born in 1946 was off the charts.
TheMechanic: You know, Captain America? My dad was kind of obsessed with him so your name made me think of that. You have heard of Captain America, right?

Steve: Oh! Really? People named their babies after him?

TheMechanic: Oh shit yeah. It was an epidemic. By the time I was in school it was all Steve Jr.s cause naming your kid after yourself was really popular. I escaped being another Steve by a hair's breadth, probably, even though my dad was wild for Cap.

Steve: Huh. Yeah, actually. Sort of. Didn't know it was the popular a thing to do. But my last name is Rogers - fluke - and my grandad met him once, when Cap was in the USO? So I guess the name was in my parents' minds when I was born. I heard about him when I was a kid. The stories.

The lie ached a bit, but Steve was getting more and more used to it. The only friend he had outside of SHIELD was Nadia, and navigating that relationship took more than a little lying. He just had to… set aside the Captain America part. Be all Steve. Whatever that meant. To the world, Captain America had died in the ice, 65 years ago.

TheMechanic: Oh yeah, me too. I always thought he'd probably be a bit of a prick, though, you know? I mean, sure he was a war hero, but… eh. Sorry if you're a big fan, just not my thing.

Steve: Oh. Sure. No, I don't really… think about it much. My dad was the fan. And my grandad.

TheMechanic: Sorry. That was probably an asshole thing to say when you're named after the dude, haha. My name's Tony, btw. My real name. Seems weird to know yours and have you not know mine.

Steve started to type a reply, but Luke's voice snapped his gaze up from the computer. "You all done? You been at that damn computer all afternoon."

Steve looked at the time - 8:30pm. "Shit, sorry. I got caught up on the forum."

"No worries. I've got one more thing to do then I'm out so you might want to finish up."

Steve nodded.

Steve: Sorry. I have to go. Garage is closing up for the night.

TheMechanic: Oh yeah. Timezones. You said you're in NYC. It's getting late. You could message me when you get home, though. If you want to. I can show you some of the sites I found that sell replacement parts for Bessie. 

Steve: Sorry, but I can't. I can only get to the forum from the computer at the garage.

TheMechanic:
TheMechanic: What about on your phone? Or your home computer

Steve: It doesn't work. And I don't have a computer at home.

TheMechanic: Your phone doesn't work? Do you need a new one?

Steve squirmed uncomfortably. This was where his lies were going to tie him in a knot.

Steve: No. The hospital/VA provides everything and the phone they gave me won't go to more than a few websites.

TheMechanic: Huh. That's weird. Some strange parental controls? Seems awfully limiting.

Steve: Maybe. It might have been an oversight when they set it up, I don't know. Most people probably know how to use their technology better than I do.

TheMechanic: Is it SOP for them to limit your internet access? Are you living at the hospital?

Steve: The VA supports me. There's a… program. I can't really talk about the details. I don't really know all the details - I should know them, I know. It's a new program and I think they're figuring it out as they go.

TheMechanic: Hrm. Well, I can't say I like a policy that doesn't let vets reintegrate fully. You should be reaching out into the world and building a life again, shouldn't you? Not that I'm a therapist or anything. Just my two cents. 

Steve: No… I have to find I agree with you. I probably should be. Hard, though.

TheMechanic: Well, I don't want to get you in trouble or anything, but I have a PhD in computer science, so if you want help rooting your phone, I can do that. Let you access anything you want. I can even set it up so anyone trying to monitor your use won't be able to see what you're looking at.
TheMechanic: I don't know - maybe that's not something I should get involved in? Like if they think it's safer if you don't… Just seems wrong.

Steve: I don't think it's standard. I could ask, but…

TheMechanic: I'll just - the offer is there. If you're interested. All you'd have to do is plug your phone into the computer, click a link, then leave it alone for about twenty minutes. 

Steve: Okay. I'll think about it. Thanks, Tony. I really have to go now.

Luke was eyeing him from the far wall.

TheMechanic: Alright. Goodnight Steve. Even if you decide not to root your phone - write me back, yeah? It's nice talking to you.

Steve: I will. It's nice talking to you, too. Plus I have to send you pictures of Bessie when she's all done!

Steve flicked off the computer and grabbed his jacket and bag, hustling out the door to an increasingly grouchy-looking Luke.

Later that night, Steve watched a square of frozen lasagna spin round and round in his microwave and thought about his phone. He knew - of course he knew - that it had been limited by SHIELD. There was no way everyone around him was that invested in Bejewelled and email. But he hadn't really wanted to think about it, because that meant asking Fury why. But Tony could break his phone open all on his own, apparently…

It was a tantalizing thought. 

And he was also right - Steve wouldn't ever reintegrate if SHIELD was cutting off corners of the future like this. The bike forum had been good, helping and encouraging, and it felt nice to talk to someone who wasn't his neighbour, wasn't obligated to keep things positive between them. Tony could have disappeared once they'd solved the problem, but instead he'd asked Steve to write him back. Because he liked talking to him. Something warm and soft flickered to life in Steve's chest. He liked Tony too. A friend. A real friend who he found all on his own, who shared something in common with him other than the same floor of an apartment building. Not that he didn't like Nadia, of course he did, but this was different. It was nice.

The next day was a therapy day, and Steve and his notebook found themselves in the squishy armchair with Dr. Tully at noon. 

"So how were things the last few days, Steve?"

"Uh, pretty good." Steve tapped his pen against his notebook. "I got some help with Bessie and she's coming along nicely now." He skittered around the edges of talking about Tony. If SHIELD didn't know about him, he wasn't going to bring it up. And he had no illusions that his therapy sessions were as private as he'd been told they would be. 

"Lovely. How do you feel that project is going?"

"It's good. I'm glad to have something to do. I'm grateful for her."

"Last week, you were telling me that Bessie wasn't the 'right bike,'" the doctor prompted.

Steve shrugged. "Yeah. But it's something to do. And I guess figuring out something new is good too, right? I mean, that's what I have to do if I'm going to live here."

"If?"

"I mean, because I have to live here."

She nodded. "Do you feel forced to live here, Steve?"

He blinked at her. "Of course I do - I am. Where else would I go? I can't go back home. My home has been gone for years. Don't get me wrong, I'm grateful for everything SHIELD has done for me, but it's kind of an unprecedented situation." He gestured towards Dr. Tully. "I don't know how you keep a straight face through all of this."

She smiled softly. "While the time travel, I will admit, is a new one for me, many aspects of your situation are not so unusual. Culture shock, PSTD - many refugees landing in new countries experience a lot of what you describe. Not the same, but, perhaps, not as different as you think, as well."

Steve nodded begrudgingly. He didn't like thinking of himself as a refugee. A refugee from what? War? Death? He was American, but America wasn't his home anymore - how did that work?

"We talked a bit about human contact before. How is that going?"

Steve shrugged again. "I talk to Nadia."

"Yes. She's an important part of your life."

"Sure. She's nice. We get along. I know she wants me to be happier. So, I guess it's nice to have someone around with that goal."

Dr. Tully smiled kindly again. "We'd all like to see you happier, Steve."

The soft words scraped down with an unexpected edge to them. We. Because Dr. Tully was SHIELD, and Steve belonged to them. He was no use to them broken, no value in an empty husk of a supersoldier. This was an investment in their property, not in Steve's happiness. "Thank you," he said brusquely, too formal. Dr. Tully leaned back in her chair, her kind, open expression not wavering, but one foot twitched against her calf in its perfectly fitted leather shoe. She changed the subject.

Later that night, Steve lay draped across his couch, watching a fly bounce along the ceiling in a lazy buzz and thought about human contact. 

He didn't want to just talk to people - say hello to the cashier at the bodega or discuss the weather with his neighbour on the stairs. He wanted meaningful human contact. Nadia was great, but she was a distant person by nature, always turning the conversation back around onto him. And he had too many secrets to open up to her properly. 

But on the internet, with the safety of distance, maybe he did have a chance at some meaningful human contact. 

The next day, Steve went from the gym straight to the garage and immediately started up Luke's computer. When the forum page opened, Steve sent a single sentence message to TheMechanic.

Let's do it.

Chapter Text

It took Tony two days to get the code ready, and Steve spent the whole time buzzing with illicit anticipation. If Fury was monitoring his internet usage closely, he'd know about Tony by now. Since he hadn't said anything to Steve, he either didn't care or was waiting on retribution. What was most likely, however, was that Fury had no idea Steve had been using Luke's computer. Luke wasn't the type to share that information with anyone, and he also wasn't the type to sign an employment contract that meant his computer use would be tracked. 

On Thursday morning, Steve checked his BikeForum messages to find one from TheMechanic. 

It's ready.

What do I do? he sent back.

TheMechanic: Just plug your phone in, and make sure no one unplugs it until I'm done.

Tony had explained about USB and after some careful examinations while Luke was on the phone, they'd determined that, lucky for them, there was a USB plug on the keyboard, which meant Steve wouldn't have to get around the desk to the main computer tower without Luke noticing him. He'd bought the cable at the bodega on the corner by his apartment. He had a charger at home and another one at work, but neither could be separated from their outlet plug.

Steve waited until Luke was absorbed in something then worked the cable into the correct slot. He put the other end in his phone, then hid the cable under the keyboard, tucking his phone in his lap, between his legs. He tried to look focused on finding the SKUs for new headlight bulbs for Bessie. His heart was pounding. 

Steve: Done.

Tony wrote back right away. Okay, just leave it there. It'll probably take about twenty minutes.

Steve: Okay.

Tony fell silent and Steve did everything in his power to look busy - typing and moving the mouse and flipping through his manual, but it was almost impossible to keep from bouncing in his chair or checking his phone screen. He didn't even know what Tony was doing just that it would open up new possibilities. He'd be able to go on BikeForum from home, hopefully, and message Tony from somewhere other than Luke's computer.

A long hour stretched on, and Steve started to get nervous. He sent Tony several messages but received no reply. What if Tony had been called away and couldn't finish? How long could Steve sit here waiting before it got suspicious? He checked the clock over Luke's desk. He had therapy in an hour.

His lap vibrated. Steve startled up with a yelp and Luke looked over at him sharply. Steve tapped the manual, smiling sheepishly. "Found the answer."

"Good for you," Luke drawled, one eyebrow creeping up. He went back to his work. 

Steve tugged his phone out from between his legs. There was a new picture on the screen, one he'd never seen before. It looked like a little speech bubble with a "1" in the corner. He pressed his finger to it and a new window opened, much like the one he used to talk to Ellen. But the colours were different.

At the top of the screen was the name "Tony," and underneath was a message. That was much harder than I expected, but I got it! You can unplug your phone now.

Steve practically ripped the cord out of the keyboard and hid it in his pocket. Thank you! One minute. He put his phone in his pocket too, turned off Luke's computer, tossed the manual back on Bessie's seat and blasted out of the garage with barely a wave goodbye. 

Ellen wasn't at her desk so Steve slid into his office without needing to talk to anyone. He closed the door and locked it. Wow! he typed. You really did it?

>>> Yup. This phone is now running SOS which is going to be miles better than what you had before. There were tons of locks and restrictions on that thing, but I cleared it all out. I also set up a dummy program to keep sending similar data so the people monitoring you don't notice the change. You can access your old message programs through the apps button and then "Old." I didn't read any of your texts or emails, promise.

And that was a horror that Steve hadn't even considered. That Tony could read his texts to Ellen when he was in there and figure out who he was. But the flush of anxiety came too late - he had to trust that Tony was telling the truth. 

<<< Thank you so much. This is incredible. 

To test it, Steve typed "BikeForum.net" into the browser bar and sure enough, the forum came up, just like it did on Luke's computer. Steve went to his PM with Tony, out of habit, but he didn't need to use it anymore. Now, apparently, they could text directly, like he did with Ellen.

>>> Check this out: www.adorbanimals.net

Steve clicked the link and his screen filled with little pictures of cats, dogs, turtles, and rabbits. Some of them were even moving, one baby ferret wrestling ferociously with a pillow and an iguana of some kind cuddling a plastic toy. "Wow."

The next several hours were lost to the internet and to Tony, who didn't stop chatting once throughout the entire afternoon and evening. It wasn't until Steve leaned back in his chair, eyes prickling, that he realized it was dark outside his window and he should have left for home hours ago. He packed up in a hurry and half-jogged home, pulling his phone out to check every time Tony sent him another message. They'd been looking at websites for drawing, ones that would give Steve new exercises for his morning routine. Some of them were really interesting, so different from what he'd seen at Auburndale, and he couldn't wait to try them out. He got the sense Tony was easing him into things, but unlike SHIELDs attempts at a soft landing, Tony was letting Steve push on when he wanted to.

>>> These tutorials are amazing - look I drew a duck :) Attached to Tony's message was a scribble that looked almost vaguely like a duck.

<<< Haha. It's beautiful, Tony, Thank you. 

"Hey, Steve."

Steve startled up and saw Nadia standing by the top of the stairs in pale pink sweatpants and a white tank top. "Oh. Hi. Sorry, I didn't you see there."

She smirked at the phone in his hands, one eyebrow quirking up. "Absorbed in your phone? That's an unusual look for you."

Steve hoped to god he wasn't blushing. "Yeah… realized I had some grocery changes to make last minute so I was texting my assistant." He shoved the phone in his back pocket and finished the last few steps. Usually, if they ran into each other like this, Steve would invite her over for coffee, or they'd watch a nature documentary at Nadia's, but all he wanted to do now was text Tony more, explore the internet more. He smiled and stepped past her. "Sorry, I'm kind of busy tonight. I have, um -" He toyed with the idea of saying he had a date, but decided that would invite more curiosity which would lead to more lies he'd have trouble keeping up with. Plus he'd have to invent an imaginary woman to be having a date with, when Nadia knew his circle of friends was very small, verging on non-existent. "I have some therapy assignments to do, a few letters to write. It's been a long day - can we do coffee another time?"

"Of course. Whenever you're free. I didn't mean to make you feel pressured. I just wanted to say hi."

"Right. Uh -" Steve's eyes flicked to his door. He could feel his phone vibrating in his pocket and he wanted to check it so badly, it was making him twitchy.

Nadia narrowed her eyes but smiled. "Goodnight, Steve." She laughed to herself as she slipped back into her apartment and closed the door.

Steve all but ran into his front hall, slamming the door behind him and digging his phone out again. He pulled his sketchbooks out and set to work drawing a duck of his own. For Tony.

**

Steve was startled awake again by his phone vibrating. He'd drifted off halfway through a conversation. Tony being three timezones away was wreaking havoc on his already disastrous sleep schedule. Though, at least he felt like sleeping. Now, it seemed, he spent every night fighting sleep desperately to spend a little more time chatting with Tony before he passed out until his alarm shocked him back awake again. On weekends, he'd started turning the damn thing off entirely.

But Tony had been quiet long enough that Steve had drifted off and he had to sit up and blink for a while before his eyes cleared long enough to read Tony's text. It was so late it was early.

>>> There's something I have to tell you.

That didn't sound good. Okay, he sent back. And either Tony was up really, really early or he hadn't slept yet because he answered right away.

<<< I've debated for a while if I should tell you or not. Not many people know, but I feel like I need to tell *someone* and you're so easy to talk to. Also… I dunno, I just feel like you should know if we're going to keep chatting.

<<< Okay, Tony. You can tell me anything, you know that right? Like, I'm not going to judge you.

>>> It's not like that.
>>> I'm sick…
>>> I have a heart condition. It's pretty serious. I've been seeing a lot of doctors and stuff, trying to find a cure, but it doesn't look good.
>>> God, this feels so damn dramatic, but that's just how it is. I've probably got like, four maybe five months left.

Steve's blood ran cold. Tony was dying? Dying? Five months? But he was so full of life… so…

<<< Shit, Tony, I don't even know what to say. Are they sure? There's nothing they can do?

>>> You're not… like, skeptical? Haha, it just sounds absurd even with me typing it out and I know it's true. 

I know you wouldn't lie to me, Steve wrote back, painful tingles flushing through his fingers as they tapped on his phone. Not like Steve lied, Tony wouldn't. Only, Steve had to lie. The important stuff, the real things he told Tony, those were all true.

>>> You shouldn't trust strangers so implicitly.

<<< You're not a stranger.
<<< It's horrible you're sick though. I'm -
<<< I'm really at a loss… is there anything I can do?
<<< Are you in the hospital?

>>> You're doing it already. You're here, talking to me. That's all I need. I'm not in the hospital, in fact the symptoms are pretty mild. It's just, someday… it'll be too much for my heart to take. Could be worse - I'm not in much pain. 
>>>I have a lot of secrecy in my life. I can't tell you how good it feels to have someone I can be honest with, who trusts me.

<<< Me too. I know how that feels.
<<< I was a really sickly kid. I also know how that feels, if that helps. 

>>> It does. Thank you, Steve. It doesn't bother me much. I can still do the things I like to do, live normally. It just… is going to become a problem at some point.

Steve clutched his phone close to his chest, eyes heating. They'd find a way, they'd save him, they had to. This was the damn future, and what was the point of all this technology if they couldn't deal with a simple heart condition? They'll find a way to save you, I know they will. You're going to be okay. You can fight this.

<<< I appreciate your faith in me.

**

"So," Dr. Tully started, "How have you been? Anything new in your life? New hobby, new activity?"

Steve paused in reaching for his water glass. What had given him away? "Not really. Unless you count Bessie. She's actually coming along really nicely, now." It was sort of true and sort of not true. Steve now had the knowledge and resources to finish the bike, but far too many days went by hidden in his office or a corner of the garage that no cameras oversaw, furiously texting Tony. Part of him felt like he should tell Dr. Tully about Tony, not because he owed it to her, but because having a new best friend, and one that was dangerously unwell at that, seemed like something he should talk about, maybe work through. But he couldn't bring himself to mention it. Not just because he didn't want SHIELD butting in on his new found freedom, but because he wanted to keep Tony all to himself. Especially if their time together might be limited. He didn't want to share.

"That's lovely. How do you feel about that?"

"Good. It's… satisfying, I guess."

Steve barely kept his eyes off the clock through the rest of his session. He sat stock still, to resist the urge to squirm, and made sure his hand never twitched towards his pocket, even when his phone started vibrating against his thigh.

The second Dr. Tully started to say, "Thank you-" Steve leapt to his feet.

"Thanks. See you next time." Steve bolted. The second he was safe in his office, Steve pulled out his phone.

I just had the most amazing risotto. Tony had sent.

What's risotto? Steve typed back.

>>> You've never had risotto? It's so good. It's this creamy rice dish. Takes ages to make, but totally worth it.

<<< Oh yeah? You've made it before?

>>> Once or twice. One of those things that's best to have someone else make for you, though. I excel more in the pasta-y side of things.

<<< Do you cook much?

>>> Once in a while. There are some things I stay away from, but my babysitter growing up taught me a bit. Still can't make eggs for shit though. You?

Oh no, I can't cook at all, Steve wrote. I wouldn't know where to start. I think it might be fun, though? Or kind of… satisfying?

>>> It is! If you want to do it, you should do it. Snag a recipe online and just go for it.

What should I make? Steve grinned down at the phone. It was such a silly thing to get excited about, but it felt like planning a caper more than planning a meal. He was sitting here in his office, texting his secret friend. It was kind of thrilling.

>>> Hmm do you like soup? It's easy enough.

<<< I like soup.

>>> Hold on.

Steve checked his watch and decided that it was late enough that no one would be surprised if he went home. He put his phone back in his pocket, grabbed his jacket, and slipped outside. The air was crisp and the other citydwellers pushed past with their heads down against the wind, but Steve took his time walking home.

A block in, his phone vibrated again and he pulled it out. Tony had sent him an internet link to a recipe for roasted squash soup and he couldn't help but feel another little thrill when he tapped it and it opened on his phone. He didn't have any of the ingredients, and he wasn't particularly hungry, but he was struck with a need to make it right away. He wanted to send a picture to Tony of something he'd made himself and not just a drawing of a duck or the re-wiring in Bessie's chassis. Something real.

His first instinct was to text Ellen and add the ingredients to his shopping list, but there were two reasons why he didn't want to do that. One, he was sure it would get back to Dr. Tully and then there would be all sorts of questions about new hobbies and branching out. Two, it felt like cheating.

So Steve turned left at the last corner instead of right and made his way to a grocery store two blocks out of his way. He'd done a little shopping when he'd first been planted here in his new life, but when food had turned out to be difficult and uninteresting, and delivery was easy and simple, he'd stopped. But he knew how to shop, knew how to use his credit card to pay and most of the little intricacies of grocery store etiquette. 

The recipe was fairly simple, and Steve now had the internet at hand to research what the various squashes they recommended looked like, so he could pick them out of the overwhelming vegetable display at the front of the store. He ended up with a butternut, a large beige, funny-shaped winter squash that the recipe-writer had used themselves. 

>>> Are you going to give Bessie a paint job when you're done? Going with the classic green? They were green, weren't they?

<<< I'm at the grocery store. Hold on.

Steve thrilled again, cheeks heating when he realized he was getting chuffed about texting his friend that he was at the grocery store. That was normal life for most people, but he still revelled in his private joy, and when he had a full basket he made his way to the checkout with a smile.

There were brightly ccoloured magazines, stuffed in amongst the candy and gum by the cash register and Steve glanced at them as he unloaded his basket. They were covered with large headlines that all ended with exclamation points, most of them mentioning divorce or babies or death. Juliet in shocking love triangle affair! proclaimed one. Was Princess Kate already pregnant during the wedding? said another. Trouble in France? - Iron Man spotted at cafe in Paris. 

Steve took a picture of the magazine rack and sent it to Tony with the message, This is all sensationalism, right? Not real news. 

Tony didn't write back until Steve was at his door, fumbling his keys with his arms full of grocery bags. Which one?

I mean in general, Steve wrote, once he had the bags dumped on the counter and had kicked the door closed again. He was grateful not to have run into Nadia, though he made a mental note to make time for her soon. He'd been somewhat avoiding her since he met Tony and it wasn't fair.

>>> Oh. Yes, of course. The tabs just write whatever they want. It's mostly nonsense. I was in Paris myself, last week, and I didn't see Iron Man at all.

<<< Hahaha.
<<< Were you really in Paris?

>>> Yeah. I travel a lot. For my work. Sometimes it's very last minute. 

Oh wow. That sounds interesting. It was hard to believe that an engineer needed to travel to Paris last minute, but Steve wasn't entirely sure what an engineer did these days. He kept thinking about trains, but he knew that wasn't right. Tony worked on designs for buildings or machines or something like that… Something big. And expensive. So it made sense that it paid well and who knew, maybe he worked on contract with large companies that needed him to come to them instead of the other way around.

He could ask, he knew, but he felt like he'd asked about Tony's job a lot and he still didn't understand it so he couldn't bring himself to press the matter. It was almost certainly his own ignorance that was the issue, and Tony was already being surprisingly understanding about all the things Steve didn't know about the modern world.

>>> Eh. It gets old after a while. Not all my travel has been positive. Must be getting old, cause I'm a homebody now. Just want to stay in with J and the bots and fall asleep in front of the TV at 7pm.

Steve laughed, holding his phone in one hand and flicking open a blueberry container with the other. He didn't need them for his recipe but they looked nice so he'd bought them. He popped on into his mouth and it burst, tart and sweet at the same time. It was almost overwhelming, but it was nice. You're not old at all. What's J and the bots? Is that a band?

>>> Oh.
>>> Right I didn't tell you about them.
>>> They're my pets.

<<< You have pets? I really like animals but I don't get to see them much.

>>> Yeah. They have stupid names though. Don't mock.

<<< I won't.

>>> J is my dog and Dummy and Yu are cats. They get along okay but sometimes they fight. J is in charge of everything, including me.

<<< Haha. They sound nice. I'd love to see pictures of them some time. What kind of dog?

>>> Oh shit, one sec, Pepper's calling me.

Steve set his phone aside and finished unloading the bags. Pepper was, apparently, Tony's girlfriend. Or maybe his wife, it wasn't clear. Tony talked about her a lot, but to Steve she seemed awfully controlling and even a little bit uncaring. The way Tony talked about her was affectionate but a little… distant? Steve couldn't quite put his finger on what he didn't like about her, and he was trying very hard to give her the benefit of the doubt since he didn't know Tony very well yet and he was sure that in person she was a lovely woman. But sometimes it was a little tricky to be forgiving, not the least of which was when Pepper occupied a lot of Tony's time.

So Steve focused on the recipe while he waited for Tony to return. It was awkward reading it on the screen, so the first thing he did was turn to a blank page in his notebook and carefully copy it out. When that was done, he turned the oven to 400 degrees and started to prepare the squash. After a few minutes, he opened the oven door, just to make sure it was really preheating, and was pleased to find it quite hot already. 

When SHIELD had outfitted him with an apartment, they'd made sure he had everything he needed and a bunch of things he didn't, including very high quality knives and kitchen tools. Ellen had proudly told him everything was "chef grade" and he'd nodded, smiled, and spent the next few months using one plate, one spoon, and the microwave.

It felt good to spin the knife in his hand then chop his way down through the middle of the squash. His super-soldier strength made it fairly trivial to push the sharp blade through the firm flesh but it was still a miniature victory when it split evenly. Following the guidelines he'd copied out, he scooped the seeds out then oiled a baking sheet and put the squash facedown on it.  

>>> How's the soup going? Tony had texted while Steve was focused on his task.

<<< Good! Just waiting for the oven to preheat. 

Tony kept Steve occupied while he waited, and then again while the squash roasted. Every time Steve had to put his phone down to cook for more than two vibrations, he started feeling antsy, needing to wipe his hands on the front of his jeans to snatch it up and see what Tony had said.

When the soup was done, Steve took five minutes and almost thirty shots to get a picture he liked to send to Tony.

>>> Hey! That looks amazing. Well done.

<<< Thanks! I know it's silly but I'm really proud of it. I wish I could send you some to taste.

>>> Me too. And it's not silly; you should be proud.

<<< I've just been feeling kind of useless lately, so this is the most interesting thing I've done in a while. I'm not, you know, doing things.  

>>> Hey, you're not useless. You don't even have to do things to be worthwhile, Steve. You're worthwhile just existing. But it's also totally cool to be proud. I'm a creator, I get it. I'm always proud. You should be too.

<<< Thanks. It's nice to hear.
<<< I used to have a really clear idea of what I was supposed to do, supposed to be. It wasn't always easy to do, but I knew what to do. Now, I'm not sure if I can ever go back to that, and I don't know what that means for me.

>>> I think that's common for a lot of vets, yeah? But it just takes time. And experimenting.

Experimenting. Steve liked the idea. He could experiment with himself, with who he was, peek under the Captain cowl, behind the shield, and see what was left over. 

<<< I can't tell you how much you've helped. The place where I am is trying, they really are, but my situation is kind of unique and they're not sure what's best for me. And I've kind of been going along with not trying very hard to change or try new things, but this felt really good. I know you're just being nice to me - and this goes way beyond helping to fix a broken motorbike - but a lot of things feel possible now that didn't before. So it means a lot to me.

>>> Just being nice?? Whoa bud, slow that roll. I was just being nice when I gave you a list of places to buy new wire looms. Everything after that has been me really liking you and wanting to keep talking. Trust me, I get a lot of shit in my life. If I didn't want to talk to you, I wouldn't. I'm really enjoying this. Honestly, if you want to stop talking, you're going to have to tell me, because I'm uh

There was a long pause. You're what? Steve prompted.

>>> Oh. Clingy af, I guess. You're going to have to be the one kicking me to the curb, that's all. Couldn't come up with a better way to say it. Sorry.

<<< I definitely don't want to kick you to the curb. I really, really like having you as a friend.

>>> Awesome.

<<< Also I don't know what "af" means.

>>> Lol. "As fuck." It means "to the extreme," I guess.

<<< Well then I like you af, so don't worry about being clingy, okay? I don't have many friends so if anyone's going to be annoying, it'll be me.

>>> Hahahaha. Okay, great. I like you af too. ;)

<<< Good.

Chapter Text

<<< You don't know The Simpsons?? How do you not know The Simpsons? You're younger than me, but it's been on TV for a million years.

>>> We didn't have a TV when I was a kid. I missed a lot.

<<< Yeah, but surely the other kids talked about it at least. It's a foundation of pop culture!

There was a long pause, and Tony worried that he'd pushed another one of Steve's mysterious buttons, one of those topics that would make him clam right up and say, "I'd better go" even if they'd been chatting on and off all day. He frowned at his phone, frustrated. Some of the things were easy to predict and Tony should have expected this one. Steve didn't like being called out for his lack of knowledge of pop culture. But sometimes, Tony couldn't help himself. It was so odd. He wondered, sometimes, if Steve was actually much older than he said, but he didn't know why he'd lie. Tony was so much older than him, anyway - why would Steve play at being in his twenties? Especially when he couldn't keep it up?

But then Tony's phone chimed. 

>>> We were really, REALLY poor. None of the other kids wanted to talk to me much. My best friend also didn't have a TV. I was scrawny and sickly and broke. If the other kids were talking about their favourite shows, I missed it.

I'm sorry, Tony wrote back immediately, I didn't mean to push. I get it. He didn't really get it, and that was part of the problem. Tony had always been rich and popular. They'd had a TV in every room, even back when TVs were a huge investment. Tony had been the first kid in his school to have a TV in his room, and everyone had wanted to come over to visit. He'd had a computer. Whether he'd been likable or not, he'd never know, but he was certainly desired. He didn't know what it was like to be poor or lonely. 

Sick, though. Sick, he could relate to.

He slumped down in his office chair and rubbed his fist over his chest. It was getting harder and harder to want to be at SI, to engage with plans for a future he wasn't going to be a part of. And it was getting easier and easier to slip into texting Steve all day instead. There were so many reasons why he shouldn't.

He barely knew Steve, hadn't known him long enough to feel this strongly about him, and what were his options there? Either Steve liked him back and Tony was about to die and further traumatize the recovering vet, or Steve didn't really care and the last thing Tony was going to do before the palladium took him out was get his heart broken. Not to mention that Tony was a horrible choice for Steve - platonically or romantically, and the latter seemed horrifically unlikely, anyway since Steve had never showen even the most passing interest in men. No, Tony was old and damaged and slutty and he'd made his money on the backs of the deaths of Steve's friends and coworkers. Even if he could justify falling into something with a painful expiry date, he couldn't very well convince himself that he was worthy of having Steve's heart. 

And he was a liar. Only Pepper, Rhodey, and Happy knew who was inside the Iron Man suit and it was getting harder and harder to cover for it. Tony wanted to tell him, he trusted Steve like he trusted the rest of his friends, but it just wasn't safe. It wasn't safe for anyone to know, and he'd already taken a risk telling Steve about his heart, which no one knew about. 

But as always, Tony had no control over his own feelings. He was careening headfirst off a cliff he'd tumbled over before, and it had never ended well for him. He was clingy, controlling, obsessive, and painfully unsupportive when people needed him. He had nothing to offer Steve but unhappiness. 

Yet here he was.

>>> It's fine. I don't mind talking about it. It's just not very interesting. I wasn't an interesting kid.

<<< I feel like the fact that you were allergic to tons of stuff and grew out of it all is interesting all on its own. Anyway, I didn't know you as a kid, but I think you're a super interesting person now, for what that's worth.

>>> :)
>>> Not sure it's true, but I appreciate you saying it.

<<< Well, I'm interested.

Tony hit send then choked on his own tongue. God, that was so flirty. It was flirty? Right? He shouldn't flirt.

But, :D was all Steve sent back.

A knock on his office door snapped Tony's attention up to Pepper who was poking her head in. She looked exhausted, exasperated, and disappointed all at once. "Tony, are you really in here texting your damn friend again? You're twenty minutes late for a conference call with Hong Kong! I emailed you about it and called you."

"Shit. I'm sorry, Pep." Tony shoved his phone in his pocket and grabbed his tablet, following her out the door and down the hall to a meeting room. "I lost track of time."

She rolled her eyes. "Lost track of time, or didn't care cause 'Steve?'"

"Um."

Pepper narrowed his eyes and looked at him with relentless scrutiny. "Don't fall for that boy, Tony," she softly. They reached the room, but she paused with her hand on the doorknob. "You don't even know if he is who is says he is."

"It's okay, Pep. It's fine. I'm fine." He reached out and gave her shoulder a squeeze. "He's just fun right now. It's not serious and it's not long term. I can have a little fun in my life, right?"

"Of course you deserve to have fun. But you also deserve to be close with people you can trust, who really care about you. I'm not saying he doesn't, I'm just saying… be careful."

"Always." It hardly mattered anyway. If Steve was lying or using him, Tony wouldn't be around long enough to find out or care. Pepper led the way into the room where a few department heads were already gathered, talking with another team in a conference room on the massive screen on one wall. Tony waved and tucked himself into a seat in the back. He made it ten minutes before he pulled out his phone again.

Pepper's words dug in, even though he'd tried to dismiss him. It was true that he didn't know for sure that Steve had no ulterior motive, but he also didn't know that his Tony was Tony Stark. Probably. He hadn't exactly kept it a secret, but he hadn't overtly said it either. Iron Man had to stay a secret, but maybe it was time to get overt about his last name and see if Steve stuck around. Or if he started asking to borrow money.

With a few taps on his phone, Tony darkened his glasses enough that no one on the screen would be able to tell that he was looking down under the table, instead of at them. The best way to give up his identity, without making it sound like he was bragging, was to send a pic, right? But he couldn't snap a selfie in the office, and the world didn't know about the reactor, so he had to be careful what he revealed. He went to his old instagram account and started scrolling through. Nothing was quite right. Hey, J, he typed. Got any flattering pics? Or anything you can edit the arc out of? Not too slutty. But maybe a little slutty. But not really. (But maybe).

One moment, sir, popped up on his screen, and Tony flicked his attention back to the meeting.

JARVIS, as always, came through as an absolute lifesaver. A photo popped up on Tony's screen not five minutes later. It was him, in the workshop, cut from one of J's video feeds and spruced up and filtered to look like someone human took it with a camera phone. Tony was in a tank top, a little shiny with effort but not full out sweat-damp, holding a hammer drill and grinning towards the camera like he was fond of the person taking the pic. J had masterfully photoshopped his chest to hide the glow of the arc reactor that would peek through the thin fabric.

Perfect. 

Now all he needed was a reason to send it to Steve. 

You've never told me what you look like, he sent. Just curious. Smooth, Tony. Real smooth.

Steve's little typing icon appeared for a long time. Uhh, well, I'm 6'2" and 220 pounds. I work out every day. Army habit. I'm blonde and I keep my hair kinda shortish, I guess. I have blue eyes… I dunno… How do I describe myself?

You could send a picture, Tony sent, before he could chicken out.

>>> Oh.

There was another long pause and Tony was sure he had pushed things too far but then Steve sent back I'll try, and anticipation shot hot and tingling through Tony's stomach. He was finally going to get to see what Steve looked like. 

It was a solid fifteen minutes before Tony's phone buzzed again, where he was forced to listen to his financial department lead drone on about fiscal periods in a completely monotone voice and Tony almost dropped off, the ever present pain his chest the only thing keeping him upright. Then his phone finally vibrated in his hand.

Holy shit.

It was a horrible picture, blurry and off-centre and capturing more of his chest than his face, but Steve was grinning, eyes looking down at the screen instead of the camera, and he was gorgeous. He hadn't lied about the working out all the time - wow. And his sweet smile and bright eyes, out of focus as they were, burned instantly into Tony's memory. It was a horrible picture, but it instantly became one of the best ones Tony had. 

Thank you! Tony sent back. God you're something else. It's really nice to know what you look like. Tony took a breath then sent back the doctored one of himself, before Steve had to ask. If there'd been any doubt in Steve's mind which Tony he was, this would cinch it. The picture was pure Tony Stark.

But all Steve sent back was :D :D Thank you! You look like you're enjoying yourself. That's nice.

So that was it. Steve knew. He must have already figured it out, or he'd probably have brought it up with the pic. He knew and he stayed and he didn't want Tony's money. Tony let out a long slow breath, careful not to disrupt his neighbour at the table. Steve knew, and he didn't seem to mind. Tony dropped his eyes to his phone again.

<<< The picture's from this morning. I'm smiling cause I just got a text that you'd woken up. Time zones are a bitch.

>>> They really are.

Tony was so fucked.

**

Tony's phone buzzed again and he grumbled and tried to push his coffee cup into his left arm as well, until the armful of tools he was carrying wobbled uncertainly. He tugged his phone out. 

>>> How do you tell if an avocado is ripe?
>>> Nevermind, I figured it out.
>>> The hard way.
>>> Or rather, the soft squishy goopy on my thumb way.
>>> I don't think I like avocados. I'm taking that off the list.

Sry 1 hand, Tony texted back awkwardly, working. 

>>> Oh. That's okay. I'll leave you to work. Text me later?

Tony moved his thumb to start typing out sure, but something else occurred to him. 

<<< Or you could call me?
<<< Only if you want to.

There was a long pause, during which, Tony didn't move, eyes frozen to his phone screen.

>>> Is that really okay?

<<< Yeah! You can keep me company while I work. I only need my hands, not my brain, and I don't want to stop talking to you.

>>> Okay. Give me a second.

<<< Sure. I'm going to get back into it. You can just call me at this number whenever you're ready and you'll get patched through to my speakerphone.

Tony shoved his phone back in his pocket and tried to focus on the armour. He was upgrading some of the plating on the hip joints. A few moments later, JARVIS let him know he had a call inbound. Tony never minded talking on the phone - his working life had erased any anxieties like that a long time ago - but his heart still skipped a few beats while he waited for it to connect. He was going to hear Steve's voice for the first time.

"Hello?" Tony said, once he'd heard the click.

"Tony?" Steve's voice was low and soft and warm.

"Hey, Steve." Tony knew his smile would be evident in his voice.

"Wow. It's really you."

Tony chuckled. "It is. Same guy you've been talking to for weeks now."

"Well, yeah, but it's a bit different on the phone, isn't it?"

"Maybe." It definitely was, because Tony had never felt this jittery just talking to Steve before. 

"So… uh… what are you up to?"

Tony had to laugh. It was so bizarre that after everything they'd shared through text, Steve would be shy to talk to him now. He almost wanted to ask if his fame, if who he was, was a problem for Steve, made him nervous. He also knew that Pepper would be furious if she knew he'd given his private home number out to a stranger on the internet who could easily post it on Twitter and ruin his entire week. But Steve hadn't brought up Tony's identity, hadn't even been surprised when Tony had sent his picture, and Tony didn't want to be the one to ruin that. If Steve liked him for just Tony, instead of for Stark, Tony was going to do everything he could to keep from messing it up. "Just working on one of my cars," he replied. "She's running a little rough."

Steve sighed. "You're so handy. I wish I could do stuff like that that easily."

"Hey! You fixed Bessie. That's incredible."

"Well, she's not done yet."

"You'll get her there." Tony set his wrench down and leaned back against the tire, letting his eyes fall closed. He'd told Steve to call him so he could multitask, but now he wanted to do anything but. He just wanted to listen to Steve's voice, soft and low and private. "Tell me about your day."

He could hear Steve smile through the phone.

Chapter Text

Steve had his treadmill maxed out in the quiet midnight of the SHIELD gym, powering through the ache in his muscles with single-minded determination, when his phone started to ring. There was only one person who called him, and over the last few weeks, he had almost every night. The only nights Tony didn't call, were the nights he called Tony. They usually didn't talk until well into Steve's evening though, Tony's timezone not releasing him from work until after Steve's dinner, and it was still afternoon.

Steve looked around to make sure he really was alone then grabbed his phone and switched off the treadmill. He jogged into the shower room. There were no SHIELD cameras in there; he'd checked.

The phone had already rung a few times, so without waiting to catch his breath, Steve hit answer and brought the phone to his ear. "T-ny?" he gasped, chest heaving. 

"Was there a word in there somewhere, pancake?"

Steve shook his head with a smile and took a few steadying breaths, the serum calming his lungs rapidly. "No, sorry. You caught me in the middle of working out." The silly nickname flushed heat through Steve's chest. Once they'd started talking on the phone, it was like everything had just spilled out, floodgates opened. He still had to be careful, but beyond the things he had to keep a secret, there wasn't anything he felt he couldn't tell Tony. Except, maybe, how attached he was getting to these conversations, how much Tony's silly nicknames made him buzz with feeling.

Tony chucked and hummed. "That all? Thought I might have to apologize for interrupting something. Wouldn't want to get on your date's bad side."

It took Steve a moment to get what Tony meant, but when it finally sunk in, he snorted loudly. "I'm afraid it's just been me and my hand for quite some time now," he said, the banter rolling off his tongue easily, like it hadn't since the Howlies. Then he winced. That was probably way too much information. Tony didn't want to think about him doing that. 

But Tony laughed. "Lucky hand. Wouldn't want to get on its bad side, either, though."

"Don't worry, My hand's not the jealous type. Pretty sure I'm already on your girlfriend's bad side. I'm sure she doesn't like how much time you spend talking to me."

Tony was quiet for a moment. "I don't have a girlfriend."

"Oh? I thought Pepper…" She was his wife then?

He laughed. "Oh no. She is in charge of me and everything I do, but she's not my girlfriend. My PA."

Something fizzled low in Steve's stomach. He shouldn't like that - shouldn't care - but he did. The guilt of keeping Tony away from his family evaporated. Maybe Tony was as lonely as he was and it was good for both of them. He cleared his throat and changed the subject. "So you okay? Bit of an odd time for you to call."

"Oh yeah, sorry. What time is it? Work was weird today. Funny timezone meetings, and I was - uh - travelling yesterday. I'm all off kilter. Is it a bad time?"

"Of course not. I'm always happy to talk to you." Steve looked around the empty shower room. "Uh, though actually I'm still at the gym. Could I call you back in like twenty minutes?"

"It's fine if you're busy, Steve," Tony said softly. "We don't have to talk every night."

"I'd so much rather talk to you than workout more. I swear, I was just on the treadmill to give me something to do. Give me twenty minutes to get a cab home and I'll call you back, okay?"

"Alright. I'll be here."

Steve rushed through packing up his things and flew out of SHIELD. He hailed a cab and pulled his hat low to hide his silly grin. He was dialing as he wiggled his key in the lock of his apartment door, sparing a glance for the lack of light spilling out from under Nadia's door. Good; she wouldn't be interrupting him with a bottle of wine tonight.

Tony picked up right away. "So what are you up to this weekend?" he asked, after Steve had recounted the details of his workout. There was a quiet thud through the phone, and Steve wondered what he was doing now.

"Not much. Maybe go for a walk or something." He tried to think of something innocuous that normal people would do. "Get coffee with my neighbour."

"Oooh, Nadia. The hot neighbour. I ship it."

Steve rolled his eyes. "I don't know what that means. What are you up to this weekend?"

Tony sighed and thudded again. "Eh, dunno. I don't have a hot neighbour I'm trying to woo so probably just jerking off. What's the point of having a premium subscription if you don't use it, right?"

"Uhh…" Steve fiddled with the pencil in his hand, at a loss for words.

"Uh, sorry. I didn't mean to make you uncomfortable. Low on sleep, mouth running on its own."

"No. No, it's not that. I just don't know what that means."

"What part?"

It was a joke, that much was clear, and Steve was sure he should leave it alone, but his curiosity overcame his common sense. "Do you mean you have a subscription to pornography? Like magazines?"

Tony snorted. "Sometimes you blow my mind. You sure you're in your twenties? I mean to PornHub, or, you know, whatever. Websites. That was the joke."

"Oh. Right. People look at stuff online now, I guess."

Tony laughed, not unkindly. "Yeah, gramps. You really live without porn? You and your lovely hand with nothing to help out? I mean, maybe you're not into it, but I can help you find some places that won't give you five thousand viruses if you like."

Steve curled his lip. Even internet sex could give you VD now? "Isn't that, uh, weird?"

"Not for me. It's fine if it is for you. We can change the subject."

It was a little bit weird. A bit uncomfortable, mostly because Steve didn't know how guys talked about this kind of thing now, and most of his past experience of talking about sex was first with Bucky and then in the army, which he understood wasn't exactly representative of civilian life. But his dick made a desperate plea for overlooking that awkwardness in favour of accepting Tony's help, and Tony was always gently accepting of Steve's odd gaps in understanding. "Okay. I mean, I'd appreciate it. If you don't mind. I don't know how to do that, but it sounds..." he coughed. "Nice."

"Course I don't mind. I'll send you some links. What are you into? Girls? Guys? Both? Cartoon monkeys?"

Steve opened and closed his mouth then forcibly removed the last option from his mind as an obvious joke. "I'm - I'm a guy," he offered hesitantly. Surely, Tony knew that. What was he trying to suggest?

"Uh, yeah I gathered that." Tony chuckled. "I mean, what do you like? What turns you on?" Steve was quiet long enough that Tony added a, "Hello?"

"Sorry, I'm here. I just don't really know how to answer that question." A long stomped-down image of Johnathan Perry flashed across his mind. He'd caught a glimpse of him in the shower during basic, and, back then, Steve had basically been at dick height. Sometimes, when he was touching himself, and getting close, that image flickered in obtrusively. It didn't mean anything though. He just hadn't seen many naked women to provide him with other visuals. But it sounded like Tony could fix that with online blue movies. 

"Women?" Steve said, perplexed, and he couldn't help adding, "I - I get to have a choice?" Was Tony trying to get him to admit to something? Why, though? He didn't know who Steve was, and besides, it was surely too late to give Captain America a blue ticket. SHIELD could make his life hell in other ways, though, if they suspected anything about him. And the other field agents - though, not really other since Steve wasn't one - wouldn't want to do training modules with a deviant. Not that there was anything to suspect. And Tony wasn't in touch with anyone else in his life anyway. Still, he didn't want to upset Tony.

But Tony spluttered in reply. "Of - of course you do. Jesus, Steve. Where were you stationed? 1865?"

Steve turned a startled laugh into a series of coughs. "I just didn't really - I don't know about this. Please be nice, Tony. I don't even know what to say, what's okay to say? I grew up… unusually. Can we just say I missed the part where people learn all this stuff. Can you just -?" He cut off, throat closing. It was so humiliating. It was one thing to be constantly clueless, only following half the conversation around the other SHIELD agents, but Tony was his friend, and normal, and Steve desperately didn't want Tony to think he was stupid. But this conversation was so fraught. Tony wouldn't stop pressing, even though Steve obviously liked women, should like women, and what if - what if in this future…?

"You want me to give you sexuality 101?" It wasn't said unkindly, but Steve still felt the shame churn deep in his gut. Tony patronizing him was almost worse than Tony judging him.

He pushed up to his feet and started pacing around his apartment. "You don't have to do that."

But Tony's voice softened, low and personal. "It's okay. I don't mind. Or if you'd rather, I can send you some website links. But the cliff notes are that people have lots of different sexual preferences and that's okay. If you're attracted to only women, or only men, or men and women…or none of the above. It's all good, Steve. I'm bi. I date men and women both."

"Oh." Heat flushed through Steve's body at the admission. Tony just - Tony just said that. Like it was nothing. Maybe it really was okay, now.

"Is that alright with you?"

Steve cleared his throat. Tony dated men. He'd - he'd had sex with men too, probably. God. "Of course it's alright. I'm just - I'm adjusting. Trying to figure out - maybe - what I…"

"No rush. Take your time figuring it out. You don't have to put a label on it if you don't want to. I just want to make sure you know it's all okay. And I won't judge you, alright?" Tony waited for Steve's affirmative grunt. "Do you still want porn links or just reading materials on sexuality?"

"Um. Both?"

"Okay. So anything in particular for the porn? Or should I just send you the most vanilla stuff I can think of?" Tony laughed lightly to himself again.

"I mean, that seems like a good place to start. But also -" Visions of Perry wandered through Steve's mind again and his pants tightened. If he couldn't tell Tony - Tony who admitted to dating both women and men - he couldn't tell anyone. "Maybe… um. Menintheshower? If that's a thing. Uh -"

"That's hot," Tony said easily. "No problem. Got some excellent options in my personal collection, actually. I'll email you."

"Wait - can you text them? I'm not sure if the hospital looks at my emails, and I really don't want them to see that."

"Yeah, no problem." Tony paused significantly. "Steve… you know it's not normal that you're that limited, right? Like, if you think they're not treating you right, you can get help."

"No, no. It's not like that, trust me. I know it sounds weird, but they're trying to help. I really appreciate you not making a big deal out of it, Tony," Steve said pointedly, and Tony fell quiet for a moment.

"Okay. Just - as long as you're okay."

"I'm okay. Just horny." Steve's joke got the appropriate laugh and he tossed himself backwards on his bed and smiled up at the ceiling. Making Tony laugh always felt like a victory.

"Alright, alright. I get the hint. JA- I'm compiling a list right now. Keeping it simple to start you off and if you like watching it like that, I'll show you how to search for things yourself so you don't have to admit all your deepest desires to me."

"I like telling you things, Tony." I wish I could tell you my biggest secret. "I trust you."

"Now, now, sweetheart, save the cuddling for after," Tony quipped.

Steve laughed but now he was thinking about cuddling. It'd be so nice to have another warm body pressed up against his, someone's head on his chest, arm around his waist. The future was nice enough, but it was lonely. And Tony was a wonderful friend, but damn, sometimes Steve just wished he could see his face, maybe even get a hug. Nadia was a nice friend but she didn't touch much. Maybe Steve should try harder, reach out more, find a girl he liked that way and wanted to take out. Maybe he could retire after all… get married. Would the serum be passed down to his kids? He needed to remember to ask SHIELD medical if they knew. God, he hadn't thought about having a wife and kids in ages. Not since he woke up in this cold future.

Steve's phone buzzed in his hand and startled him out of his daydreaming. 

"There you go, champ. Don't say I never did anything for you." There was a clunk through the phone and then an alarm started going off. "Whoops, gotta go. Another timezone meeting. Have fun. Be careful not to chafe. Stay hydrated."

"Ha ha. Thanks, Tony, really. I'll talk to you later."

"Bye."

"Goodnight." Steve hung up and immediately opened his text messages. He could feel his cheeks heating before he'd even clicked one of the little blue links. But no one was watching him, and Tony wouldn't send him something unsafe. Still…

Steve undid his pants and dropped them on the floor then lifted his covers and snuggled underneath. He rested his phone on his chest and scrolled through the links. There were four links for sexual education websites, and Steve flicked through the first one, but it made him feel a bit dizzy, even less moored than he usually felt here. He'd have to read them another time, but Tony's proclamation that you could like anyone - or everyone - these days and be accepted burned low in his gut. The last educational link was for the history of gay marriage in the U.S.. and wow. A man could legally marry a man in New York. Not just - it wasn't just about proper, about visible or safe. It was legal. Steve lived in New York. A shocked laugh punched out of him as he realized that some of them men he worked with at SHIELD could be homosexuals, maybe even married to another man, and he'd never know.

He scrolled on to Tony's next message, head spinning. This one had seven videos linked with short summaries after each one, and his attention quickly snapped to the matter at, well, hand, his shock exchanged for heady anticipation.

[Woman masturbating]

[Man and woman - missionary]

[Man and woman - doggy style]

[Man and woman - blowjob]

[Man masturbating in the shower]

[Two men having sex in the shower]

[Two men - Blowjob in the shower]

Steve's throat felt tight but his cock was deeply interested, throbbing hard in the hand he had curled loosely around the base. He started stroking idly while he considered the links. His eyes kept cutting down to the link labelled "two men having sex in the shower." He had a vague idea of what two men could do together - apparently legally, now - but it was all gathered from cruel taunts and nasty jeers from when he was a kid and then later in the army, when everything was a euphemism and blind eyes were turned. He'd wanted to ask, but he also valued his nose unbroken so he hadn't. He knew there were men in the army who "helped each other out". But not him.

In the end, he chickened out. He clicked the first link, figuring he could go through them all, in order, watch a few minutes, and see if he even liked watching sex on TV like this. Maybe it wouldn't do anything for him.

Steve clicked the first one [woman masturbating] and after a brief loading period, the video started, filling the screen. A petite brunette was sitting on a couch, completely naked. She blinked languidly into the camera then dipped her hand down between her legs. Electric tingles of arousal shot south and Steve picked up his pace as he watched the woman touch herself. It was so illicit. The screen was small but brilliantly detailed, like she was here in the room, and it took Steve a moment to adjust to the idea that it really was safe to watch. It was recorded, not live. And Tony wouldn't have sent it to him if it were dangerous or illegal.

But it wasn't long before the woman's moans felt repetitive and he skipped to the next video. He spent even less time there and in the next two after, not liking the almost aggressive tones of the men's advances. Their expressions reminded him too much of the bullies that knocked him down in back alleys until their knuckles were bloodied. Sex shouldn't be like that. It took some gearing up to get himself to click the next link - [Man masturbating in the shower] - but as soon as it loaded, his cock throbbed heavy in his hand. 

A thin, dark-haired man stood in a glass shower enclosure, rubbing soapy hands over his sculpted chest. Steve let his eyes drift down to the man's rapidly hardening cock, and he swallowed heavily. He felt the same thrill of illicitness that had haunted his fantasies about Perry, but this time he was allowed to look, and by the way the man was spreading his legs and stroking his skin, encouraged to look. It was heady and somewhat disorienting, but Steve couldn't look away as the man dropped his wet hand to his cock and started to work it through his loose fist.

The camera zoomed in, the man's eyes flicking to the camera then fluttering shut in pleasure. He stroked himself, firm and steady, and Steve found himself matching his pace, feeling his own pleasure build too fast. He didn't hold back, stroking rough and eager until his balls tightened and his hand clenched, almost knocking the phone off his chest. When it all broke and he came, it was with a startled gasp, curling up on himself and twitching through the waves of shock. He stopped the video and collapsed back onto his bed, breathing heavily. Holy shit.

<<< Thank you.

>>> Lol. Enjoy yourself?

<<< Don't make me say it, Tony.
<<< But yes :P

>>> Congrats.
>>> Sorry if talking about the other stuff was overwhelming. I don't want to throw you in the deep end if you're not ready, but I'm a thread puller.

<<< No, it's fine. I appreciate learning about this stuff. I was really isolated in the army - this is all new.

>>> You want more links?

<<< If you don't mind.

>>> Course not. I'll send you a few for places where you can search for stuff safely. Do you want all the links… ? The women and men videos are from different places.

Steve's fingers paused in their typing. It's not a trick, he told himself. It's not a trap. 

Okay. I didn't actually like the first few videos all that much? Steve's throat was closing up again. He was really admitting this to Tony, a man he barely knew. Tony had said he dated men, but Steve's heart pounded, expecting backlash anyway. Maybe more like the last ones?

>>> That's cool. I can give you more places like that to look. 

<<< Thank you. 

Steve felt like he'd run a marathon. His body was wiped out, singing with happy endorphins, and his mind was a mess of churning thoughts and feelings. He'd barely managed to type out a goodnight to Tony before he was drifting off, his phone still in his hand.

**

Tony sent a few more links the next day, but they didn't talk about them, drifting back into conversations about Bessie - who'd hit a bit of a speed bump and needed some parts ordered from far away, something Tony had thankfully managed - and which brand of frozen waffles was the fluffiest. But at night, after they'd hung up, Steve would visit the sites, typing whatever words he could bring himself to try, and finding new levels of pleasure he'd never experienced before. 

Another two weeks went by before the topic came up again. 

"So why were you late?" Steve asked stirring a pot of spaghetti on the stove. He'd tried meatballs today and they were bubbling in another pot of sauce while he talked. 

Tony was quiet for a moment, clearly distracted. "Hmm?"

"The story you were telling before we got side tracked? About college. The thing with the exam and -"

"Oh yeah! Shit, that was like twenty minutes ago, how off topic did we get?" Tony laughed. "I was late because I'd been on a date the night before that had gone altogether too well and we decided to make good use of the morning." He sighed. "Man, I'd forgotten about that guy."

Guy? Steve tensed. "What - uh - what was his name?" he asked lamely, trying to sound casual while desperately wanting to follow this topic. He'd been thinking about Tony and guys since sex had come up the first time, painfully curious about what it was like for him to date anyone he wanted. He pulled a noodle out of the pot with his spoon and tasted it. A little firm still, but better that than mush. He dumped the entire pot in the strainer in the sink.

"Huh. Don't remember. Something with an… H? Harold? That's not right. Hal? I think it was two syllables. Oh well. We weren't really in it for deep, intellectual discussions, Steve." Tony laughed again.

"Oh yeah? More of a… um - casual thing?" Was that how it was with homosexual relationships now? Public, but casual? And yet, marriages between men were legal. But maybe no one took advantage of them?

"Yeah, I guess. I mean, it was college, what can you do? We had a lot of fun, but it didn't last long."

"What's it -?" Steve cut himself off, suddenly too embarrassed to go on, but scramble as he might, he couldn't find a suitable change of subject. Instead he busied himself with his dinner. Filling a bowl with pasta and scooping on the sauce and meatballs.

"What's what?"

"Nevermind."

Tony was quiet for a moment while Steve ate - it was pretty good - then he said softly, "Come on, Steve. You can ask me anything."

Steve swirled his fork through the noodles. "What's it like to date a guy?" he blurted out.

Tony hummed. "Well. Pretty much the same as dating a girl, except some people are pissed off about it, I guess. I don't know. Plus more dick. What do you want to know?"

Steve swallowed. "I don't even know what it's like to date a girl, to be honest. Haven't had much time for dating."

"Oh. Have you dated anyone?"

"I, uh. I kissed a girl once. Thought it was going to be… more. But - things changed."

"I'm sorry," Tony said softly. "I wish I could tell you, but it's different for everyone, I guess. And to be entirely honest, I don't have the best dating history. Been kind of a one-and-done sort of guy for most of my life, but since the, uh, since work got crazy, I haven't really dated at all. I don't look so great with my clothes off anymore. Getting old..."

"I bet you do," Steve blurted out before he realized how that sounded.

But Tony chuckled. "Yeah? You think so?"

"Yeah. From what I've seen anyway." Steve's leg started jiggling in place. Was he really doing this? Flirting with Tony?

"Hmm. Maybe I should test that theory."

Steve opened and closed his mouth, not sure what to say, not sure what Tony was saying. But then Tony cursed loudly. "Sorry, shit. I'm late for a thing. Call you later?"

"Okay."

Tony hung up suddenly, and Steve was left with his phone in his hand, a wild giddiness in his chest, and a half hard erection straining his boxers. He tried to keep himself busy, finishing his meal then washing the plate and the pots from cooking, but he found his eyes flicking over to the clock all day long, waiting for ten pm, when Tony's California time meant he was heading home for the night.

But instead of a phone call, at 10:24, Steve got a text. It was a picture.

"Jesus Christ." He stared. The other pictures Tony had sent had been flattering, but careful. This one was anything but.

Tony was in a towel, standing in front of a mirror, his face partially obscured by the steam-fog on the glass, but his chest was clearly visible and wow. The combination of Tony being mostly naked, the teasingly low slip of his bright, white towel, fluffy and indulgent looking, and the video Steve had been watching on repeat the last few days of a trim, olive-skinned man masturbating in the shower had Steve's head spinning.

Wow, he texted back before he could think about how stupid that sounded.

>>> Yeah? Hahaha

<<< Sorry

>>> For what?

<<< I shouldn't. I mean, you're my friend. Sorry. I shouldn't... objectify you? Or whatever.

Steve's phone immediately started ringing, and he picked it up, fumbling it as he tried to swipe to answer.  "Sorry, Tony."

"You can objectify me all you want, Steve," Tony purred. "Wouldn't mind a chance to objectify you back, but only if you want."

"You want a picture of me?" Steve hadn't sent one since the first. He worried constantly that it was too revealing, that combined with his name and his looks and the bike, Tony's brilliant mind would figure it out when no one else had. Thankfully, he was so bad at taking photos with his phone that he probably wouldn't be risking much to send more. And, it seemed, they didn't have to be of his face...

"It's okay if you don't want to," Tony's voice dropped soft and warm. "I'm just teasing."

But Steve wanted to share, now. Seeing Tony's picture had him giddy and tingling. He switched his phone to camera and angled it up over the couch. It took almost twenty shots to find an angle that looked halfway decent and didn't give him heart palpitations over revealing his identity. It was really mostly just his chest. Still - play up your assets, right? He sent it.

There was a loud coughing through the phone, and Tony made a pained noise. "Fuck, Steve. A little warning?"

"What? It's just my chest. Sorry."

"I was drinking and now my whole desk is covered in Coke. I'm - lord. How much do you have to work out to keep that up?"

Steve winced. He probably shouldn't have shown off a physique that it wasn't quite technically possible for an unenhanced person to cultivate. "Uh, a lot. Every day."

"Wow. Dedication. Pays off though. Bet you could eat off those things."

Steve snorted out a laugh. "Isn't that idiom supposed to be for clean things?" 

"I - fuck if I know. I'm not making sense. I've been rendered speechless by your abs."

Heat flushed up into Steve's cheeks. "Come on, Tony. It's just - it's just a body." A male body.

"Mhm. Sure. You're right. I'll just… save that… to… a place. And we can move on to more intellectual pursuits."

But Steve's cock was sitting up and taking notice now. "Are you really -? I mean would you really look at that while you -?"

"No… maybe? Not if it makes you uncomfortable, though. There's sort of an added thrill if you know the person, you know?"

Steve cleared his throat. He didn't know, but his body liked the idea. "So would you uh… is there more you'd want to see?" He felt like his chest was filled with buzzing insects.

"Something on offer?" Tony purred.

"Sure," Steve squeaked before he could stop himself. "Is it safe to send stuff like that by text?"

"The way I have the data encrypted? Yes. Don't use someone else's phone, though. And don't save that kind of thing on a computer I haven't had my hands on, okay?"

"Okay. Hold on." Steve hooked a thumb in his sweatpants and tugged them down until he was showing a tantalizing amount of his hip and the barely hidden curve of his cock, hard now at the thought of someone - Tony - looking at him while he touched himself. He sent the picture and waited, tense.

"Fuck. Look at you. You're big, aren't you?"

And now they were drifting into new territory. This was Steve's chance to push their friendship forever into something new or wheel it back and remind Tony about the inevitable, inescapable distance between them. "Yeah," he breathed, giving into it. "Hard now too, thinking about…" he trailed off, unable to put it into words. He waited for Tony to make fun of him or press him to finish, but instead, Tony groaned and the phone rustled.

 "That's so hot, Steve. I'm going to jack off the second we hang up."

"Oh - wow."

"You okay?"

"Yeah... I mean, me too."

"Well, we don't have to wait until we hang up." Tony's voice had taken on a sultry edge that made Steve's heart stop dead. He's never heard anyone talk like that in real life, teasing and secret and intimate. 

Flushed with an overwhelming wave of anxiety, Steve hung up.

Chapter Text

Steve stared down at his phone in horror. He was rock hard in his pants, squirming around without meaning to, just to get some friction, and his stomach had dropped out completely, taking his lungs with it. He'd hung up on Tony.

Shit.

Fuck, sorry. The text came in from Tony almost immediately. 

Steve scrambled to reply. 

<<< No!
<<< Not you. Me. Got overwhelmed. This is all really new for me.

Somehow it was easy to type messages to Tony, when saying things out loud had suddenly become impossible.

>>> I know. So I shouldn't have pushed it.

<<< I want you to push it. It's good, I just

>>> Got overwhelmed?

<<< Yeah.

>>> Okay. Well, I've got to… go… for a bit. I'll be back though.

Steve laughed. He finally let his hand snake down and cup himself through his sweatpants. He typed one handed, I know what you're going to do, Tony :)

>>> Would it bother you if I looked at those pictures?

He pondered the idea of Tony looking at his body while touching himself. There was an edge of discomfort and a hot flash of guilt, but both were overwhelmed by the blood that pumped into his cock and the tingle of arousal that spread under his skin.

<<< No
<<< That's pretty nice actually. 

>>> Want something in return or is that too much?

<<< No, I'd like that.
<<< If you don't mind.
<<< You don't have to.

>>> Lol. You're adorable. One minute.

But it was only a few seconds before Steve's phone chimed. He marveled at the speed with which Tony was able to take a flattering picture of himself, considering it had taken Steve almost ten minutes to get his right. 

He clicked the attachment and gaped down at the picture it opened. Tony's chest, pointed down his body like Steve's shot had been. He had smooth, shapely abs, not as sculpted as Steve's but with a roughness that said they were earned from hard work, not a gym membership. A dark line of hair drew Steve's eyes south. Tony had his pants open, and thin, fitted, red underwear bulged up through the vee of the zipper. Tony was hard, a dark spot spreading where he'd leaked right through the fabric.

Steve mouth immediately started watering, and he shifted on the couch cushions as his cock throbbed painfully hard between his legs, begging for a touch. He reached down and squeezed, breathing sharply through his nose. No one had ever made him feel like this before, and it wasn't some actor in a video, it was Tony. He'd taken the picture right now and sent it just for Steve. Steve's entire body struggled with the thought on all levels.

Wow, he texted back. Thanks. 

>>> Enjoy. I really do have to go, I'll talk to you later.
>>> You sure we're good?

<<< Yes. Definitely. Always.

Steve wanted to add, I'll get there, but he couldn't make his fingers type it out. It felt like a promise he wasn't sure he could keep, and yet, as soon as he closed the text window, he clicked back to Tony's picture.

Two separate thrills trickled down his spine - one straight to his cock, and one straight to his stomach. Steve opened one of the old porn videos Tony had sent and began to stroke himself, but it wasn't long before he was flipping back to Tony's pic. He wanted Tony to peel those pants open wider, wriggle out of those jeans and slip those skin-tight briefs down. The bulge of the fabric suggested there was something substantial in there, and Steve wanted to watch it slide through the ring of Tony's fingers, just like his own cock was now. Steve let his mind wander wherever it wanted to, following the Tony in his fantasy that undressed and jacked himself off slowly, bringing Steve's pleasure along with him. It wasn't long at all before he was tensing, grip tightening and pace going wild as he shuddered and came across his stomach. 

He set the phone down to clean up, and reality rushed back in. Was Tony doing the same thing with his picture, right now? Or maybe he was upset about being hung up on...

Steve fiddled with his phone again. Tony wouldn't have sent the picture if he didn't want Steve to do what he'd just done. So that meant Tony was at least a little interested in the turn their friendship was taking. Right? At least, Steve thought their friendship was turning. His impression from the SHIELD agents at training was that most men didn't talk to each other like this, but what did Steve know? Nothing, really. All he could do was be himself, be honest, or at least as honest as he could be, and hope that didn't scare Tony off. Because whatever this was turning into, he found himself wanting it more and more.

<<< I know you're busy right now, but I just wanted to apologize again for hanging up on you. I don't want you to think that I don't want to talk to you or that I don't want to talk about that stuff. I really do. There's just a lot changing in my life right now and I got a bit panicky. I hope I didn't upset you.
<<< Also that picture is really, really amazing. 
<<< I'm really grateful that I have you in my life, Tony.

Steve set his phone aside and grabbed a book, curling sideways on the couch to try to read. About an hour later, his phone chimed and he snatched it up, a hard shot of anxiety twisting his stomach in knots. What if Tony was bothered by the hang up? Or what if Steve had come on too strong with the grateful stuff? Tony was just a guy who helped him fix his bike - was he taking this too seriously?

>>> It's totally fine, stop apologizing. I got so fucking drunk after the first time I kissed a guy. It was just a lot to process and I panicked a bit. So I totally get it. Steering wheel's all yours, bud.
>>> Just tell me if I go too far. 
>>> I'm grateful for you too, Steve. Bessie is a damn good matchmaker :P
>>> Oh, also I came so hard to those pictures and thinking about you with my picture that I passed out after and Pep had to call and wake me up for a meeting. Oops. 

Steve swallowed hard and reread Tony texts fourteen times. "Matchmaker"? Did that mean -? Were they -?

Steve thought about what it would be like for Tony to be his boyfriend. Not much would change. They already talked every night, texted throughout the day. They talked about sex, sent suggestive pictures, shared porn. They told each other how much they cared. That was all a relationship was, right? So maybe… maybe Steve was in a relationship.

With a guy.

For the first time, he was grateful for the distance between them. As much as he liked Tony, this was a lot to come to grips with. The idea of being there in person, getting to touch Tony, while tantalizing, was scary too. He'd probably end up panicking more and hurt Tony's feelings, pushing him away when he tried to kiss him.

But kissing Tony… now that was a thought. Tony had a beard, Steve had caught a glimpse of it in the first picture he'd sent - what would that feel like? Whiskers rubbing against Steve's chin while they kissed...

A shudder rumbled through Steve's body and he jerked upright on the couch. 

Holy shit, he had a boyfriend.

**

Steve flopped down on his couch with his plate and hit speed dial 1. 

"Hey there, hot stuff," Tony answered after two rings. "What's up?"

"Not much. The parts came in for Bessie, but by the time I finished physio, it was too late to install them so I just came home. I was starving." He started eating. "Sorry, I'm being gross," he added, around a mouthful of grilled cheese.

Tony laughed, a sound that settled like a blanket right out of the dryer around Steve's shoulders. "Be gross all you want. I can eat my sandwich, too, and pretend we're eating together."

Steve picked at the crust, a fizz of anxiety making him squirm. "I wish we could… maybe we could? You travel to the city a lot, right? I could go to Manhattan to meet you." The thought of meeting Tony was terrifying, but too appealing to pass up. Tony had a few pictures of Steve, now, and hadn't figured out who he was, so maybe he was safe. Captain America had been dead for too long, he was forgotten. And, sure, maybe it wouldn't be the same in person, not as affectionate, not as easy, but it was Tony. How awkward could it possibly be? Steve hadn't been able to bring himself to use the word boyfriend out loud yet, but maybe if they met, went on a date, he'd find the strength?

Tony made an odd noise, quiet and restrained but not exactly happy. "Uh yeah. I'm in LA right now, but sure… next time I'm in New York, maybe. It can be hard to get away."

Steve frowned down at his plate, his appetite and good mood evaporating. "That's okay. If you don't want to meet… if you think it would ruin it, that's alright."

"No, no, Steve. That's not what I meant at all. I'm sorry. I'd love to meet you, I really would. I'm just - work is kind of a lot right now, and I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed. I feel like if I saw you, I wouldn't be able to give you my whole, undivided attention and that wouldn't be fair. But hey, maybe next time I manage to get some time off I can come snag you and we can go somewhere. Get away a bit. I have a vacation home. Or three. If the hospital would let you? Could be fun."

"That sounds lovely." That was even better than catching dinner some night in the city. If Tony was willing to go on vacation with Steve, that meant he thought it would go well enough that they'd still want to be around each other a few days in. He didn't know what SHIELD would think of that, if they'd try to fight him on it, if they'd insist on knowing where he was going and with who, but that was a bridge to cross when they came to it. Maybe by then, he and Tony could be out about their relationship. A dark whisper in his ear wondered if Tony didn't want to be out, if he needed this to be hidden, but Steve pushed it away. "It's okay. I know you're busy. Phone is good."

"I'm glad you called me that first time."

"Me too."

"So what are you up to tonight?" Tony asked.

Steve set aside his empty plate. "Now? Just talking to you. No other plans."

"Well, fancy that," Tony drawled, heat curling around his words. "I've also got no other plans."

Steve laughed. "Why do I find that hard to believe? Tell me you don't have five hundred work things to do."

"Okay, maybe that was true, but then I found out a certain someone has booked the night off to spend with me and that's way better than whatever else I had on the docket."

"Tony…"

"You watch that video I sent yesterday?"

The warmth in Tony's voice was enough to send blood throbbing sound. Steve cupped himself through his pants and let his eyes drift shut. "Yes." It had been two men together by a pool, one half submerged and sucking the other who lay with his legs dipping into the water. The cool blue water and bright sun had made Steve think about LA. 

"Good, huh?"

"Very good." Tony had been gentle since Steve had his little panic, but the thrilling tension between them had only gotten stronger. Steve wanted to push again, bring things back to where they'd been that night, but he didn't know how. "I - I was going to watch the other one tonight," he tried.

"Oh yeah?"

"Yeah. But -"

"But?"

Steve squirmed, not knowing how to get the words out. 

"Maybe you were thinking about watching it right now?" Tony offered.

"Yeah."

"But then you'd have to hang up."

"I don't want to hang up…"

"I could watch it too… with you?" Tony said carefully, casually.

"Okay," Steve breathed. He was fairly confident that all the blood in his body was currently on a direct flight to his cock, and it was causing a bit of a traffic jam.

"Okay." 

Steve's phone chimed, and he pulled it away from his ear to see an invitation for something called StarkShare flashing on the screen. He pressed Accept and put Tony on speakerphone. "I assume that was you?"

"Yup. Watch this." The screen flashed and then a video appeared, paused, of a built, dark-haired man on his knees in front of blond who leaned back with his hands gripped on the edge of a table. Steve swallowed heavily, his throat tight. "You okay?" Tony asked.

"Yeah. I'm - uh…"

"Horny?" There was heated tease in Tony's voice, and it flushed another rush of blood south.

"Yes. Very."

"Have you ever had a blowjob?" Tony asked gently. The video started, and Steve was briefly distracted by the man on his knees tugging on the other man's belt.

"Uh. No. I haven't." 

"Oh, Steve…" Tony murmured, sounding like he was right there beside him. "It's incredible. All that wet heat - and so tight." 

The man on the screen got the other man's pants open and the camera zoomed in until it was just the brunet and the blond man's crotch. His pants were pushed aside and his cock was pulled out of his underwear. "Oh," Steve breathed. It was a beautiful cock - and just being able to think that and not immediately want to apologize to himself was incredible. And terrifying.

"You like that?"

"Yes. What about you?"

"I love it," Tony purred. "Makes my mouth water. Wish I had a cock on my tongue right now."

"What's it like?"

"To give a blowjob?" Tony hummed. "Amazing. It's this combination of knowing you're bringing someone pleasure but also having them at your mercy. Nothing like looking up and seeing his eyes roll back then drift closed, fingers creaking on the edge of anything he can hang on to."

"Oh god, Tony…." 

On the screen, the man got his mouth around the tip of the cock and his tongue peeked out as he wetted his lips. He slipped down an inch, and Steve could see his throat bob as he swallowed. 

"You have to get it nice and wet," Tony explained, too low and rumbly to be clinical. "You want to just slide down without your lips getting caught. Sometimes, if he leaks a lot, he's already wet for you. Do you leak a lot, Steve?"

Steve had been resisting touching himself so far, not wanting to go off too early, but his attention was brought to his cock now and he shoved his boxers down. Precome welled at the tip. "Yeah," he told Tony, "I'm wet now."

"Lick your thumb and roll it around just under the head."

Steve obeyed, a gasping sigh leaking out at the silky touch. 

"Oh, yeah," Tony moaned, "That's what I'd be doing with my tongue right now if I could."

"Oh god - would you - would you -?"

"Would I blow you? Fuck yeah, Steve. I'd love to." There was a rustle of fabric, and Steve wondered if Tony was in bed or taking off his clothes. "I love giving a blowjob, honestly, one of my favourite things. And your cock would stretch my mouth out, I know it."

The man in the video sunk lower, starting to rock back and forth so the cock worked in and out of his mouth. His lips did stretch and bend at the pressure, and Steve imagined Tony's perfect lips wrapped around his own cock like that, sucking hard. He moved his hand in tandem with the mouth in the video.

You're having phone sex, he said to himself, slightly hysterically, and a new wave of arousal throbbed through him at the sheer novelty of it. Then, with a man, burned through him as well. Holy shit.

In the video, the man's eyes flicked up, wet at the corners, eyes bright, and Steve wished they were Tony's. 

"Mmm, you know the best part of phone sex blowjobs?"

"What?" Steve nearly choked. 

"That I can suck you off and talk to you at the same time," Tony purred. 

"Oh god." Steve's hand stroked faster now, unable to slow down. 

"You'll tell me when you're getting close, right?"

"Yeah - yes - yes." 

Tony's voice softened. "And you'll tell me if it's too much, right?"

"Yes - it's okay - I'm -" Steve's voice caught as he stroked again, eyes glued to the screen where the man on his knees was bobbing faster now, sucking with an obscene noise every time he rocked back. He couldn't even access the anxiety now; it was completely overwhelmed by arousal. "I'm fine. It's good."

"Okay, good." There was a sultry smile in Tony's voice.

"Are you - uh - touching?" Steve asked.

"Oh yeah. I've got my hand around my cock. Feels so good, but not as good as a mouth feels. Not as good as it'd feel to be on my knees in front of you with your cock on my tongue. I bet your skin tastes amazing. And you're so strong. You could probably grab me by the hair and fuck my face if you wanted to, but I feel like you wouldn't. You'd hold back. You'd want to be nice to me, wouldn't you?"

"Yes, Tony. I'd just want to touch you. Anywhere. However you like." God, he wanted to feel Tony's hair between his fingers. "Your voice - oh my god. I'm getting close. I'm so close already." Steve's hand moved faster. He knew he should be watching the video, but his eyes slipped closed until it was just the decadent sounds of the blowjob and Tony's smooth voice in his ear, bringing him up to the edge. "Please," he begged, not knowing what he was begging for.

"Come on, baby. Come on sweetheart," Tony whispered, low, right into his ear. "Come for me. I gotta hear you come - it'll push me over. I wish I had my lips around your cock right now, wish I could taste your come, feel your cock throbbing on my tongue and your body jerking when it just couldn't take it anymo-"

"Oh god, Tony, I'm coming -" Steve gasped out and a second later, his body tensed and released, come spilling over his fist and down onto his thighs. He could do no more than pant and whimper into the phone, but only a minute later, he heard Tony tip over too with a snapped off sigh and then his name, groaned out long and low.

"Oh, shit, Steve," Tony gasped again, grunting like he was flopping down on his back. 

Steve cleaned off his hand then lay back on his pillow, letting his eyes fall shut. His fingers twitched, wishing they could be resting on Tony's bare skin. "That was amazing. Thank you."

"God, anytime."

They basked in the afterglow for a while, not talking, the light static of the phone connection, comforting, reminding Steve that Tony was still there. A tiny worry burrowed into the back of Steve's mind until he couldn't help asking, "Was that good - I mean, did you enjoy it?"

Tony was silent for a heartbeat, and then he said, "Yeah. Of course. It was hot as fuck." Another pause. "You okay?"

"Oh, yeah, I mean - It's just I know you have, uh, a lot more experience with this kind of thing and I feel like I didn't really do anything, but I wanted to, uh, please you…" When there were three thousand miles between them, all they had were their voices, and Steve still stuttered over all the filthy talk.

"Of course, you please me, baby," Tony muttered, and the pet name heated the back of Steve's neck. "That was so good. Getting to hear your voice while I touch myself? Unparalleled. Do wish it was you touching me, though. Love to feel those beautiful hands."

No one had ever called any part of Steve beautiful before. "The way you talk - it drives me crazy. I want to learn to talk to you like that."

"I'd think it'd be the other way," Tony chuckled awkwardly. "Most people find my experience a turn off rather than a turn on."

"Really?"

"Yeah… who wants to sleep with a slut? I've been around the block one too many times. This gum isn't just chewed up, it's spent a fair few years stuck to the bottom of a shoe, and been wiped off onto the curb more than once."

"That's crazy, Tony, really. I think it's hot that you know what you're doing. It's embarrassing enough trying to figure out what to say. If you weren't there to guide me, this would just be a mess all around." Steve let out a slow breath. "Honestly, I'm surprised you get anything out of talking to me. I have no idea what I'm doing. I've never even touched another man in this way."

"You were perfect, Steve. There's no one else I'd rather have - what do I have to say to convince you?"

"It's - I don't know. It's okay. You don't have to convince me. I trust you."

"There's no one else," Tony said firmly.

"Pardon?"

"There's no one else," Tony repeated, stronger. "It's just you, Steve. I don't talk to anyone else like this, I don't go on dates, I don't sleep with anyone. Just you."

Steve sat up, his head was spinning. "Oh? Oh, good. Okay. I mean, same, obviously. It's just you. You're all I want - everything I want." 

Tony hummed happily then broke into light laughter. "Perfect… God, I feel so stupid. I'm all giddy from that orgasm." He kept laughing, and Steve couldn't resist joining in. 

"Tony…" Steve was grinning now.

"Play a game with me? I'll send you a link. It's like Scrabble. You know Scrabble, grandpa?"

Steve laughed. "Of course." 

They were up until three in the morning.

Chapter Text

<<< This meeting is endless.

>>> Leave.

<<< :O Mr. Rogers - are you, the goodiest of goody-two-shoes, encouraging me to skive off of work?

>>> If it means coming home to hang out with me :)

<<< You have a naughty streak

>>> Well, you'd know.

<<< Steven.

Tony looked around the conference table and realized he had no idea what they were talking about. His mind was nothing but a buzz of Steve. They'd spent every night of the last week glued to their phones together, talking, joking, and having an obscene amount of phone sex. Now that Steve's libido had been released, it was an impressive one, and Tony found that for the first time, his forty-something body was challenged to keep up with a bed partner.

But the thrill of this whatever-it-was seemed to be enough to drive him on in ways he never had been before. Tony had always been… energetic, in that department, that hadn't changed, but since the arc reactor had flattened his playboy lifestyle, so had his desire for a constant bedfellow waned. But not anymore. One word from Steve and he was rock hard, let alone seriously contemplating burning his entire empire to the ground and moving to New York. 

Steve also made it harder to remember that the palladium poisoning was still advancing, and Tony's attempts to find a cure were getting nowhere fast. He couldn't take the reactor out without destroying his heart, but the cores the reactor needed to work were poisoning his body. He and JARVIS had been working their way through the periodic table, but so far they'd come up empty handed, and Tony had to face the very real possibility that he had only a few months left. 

Not only that, but Iron Man was in use more and more, and that meant lying to Steve more and more. Ironic, that Tony was out there shutting down illicit uses of his technology, when doing so was quickening his demise at the hands of said technology. 

>>> Not that I don't like the idea of you being distracted in a meeting… that's appealing too.

<<< Oh yeah? Are you going to test out some of the dirty talk you wanted to learn while I'm surrounded by eight, balding, overweight board members with unfortunate facial hair?

>>> What an idea…

Tony resisted the urge to snort, turning it into a cough at the last minute. He'd been terrified after he told Steve there was no one else. It was as close to a confession of feelings as he could get, and it still felt too close to the sun not to get burned. The last person Tony had said "I love you" to had laughed in his face, and he wouldn't have put it past Steve to do the same thing. Well… not in his face, at least. A benefit of long distance, maybe.

The other benefit was Steve not seeing what an unparalleled hot mess Tony was in person. Between crashing Iron Man into war-torn countries to undo the damage his uncle had done, trying to pretend he still cared about running SI, and dying of heavy metal poisoning, he didn't have much going for him in person, let alone the history he carried with him. Not to mention his torn-apart-and-put-back-together-again body. But in the bubble of their text chat, their phone conversations, everything was safe, everything was easy, and he could be whoever he wanted to be. Despite all his clinginess, all the stupid affection that poured out of his mouth in the high after every orgasm, Steve still seemed to want to spend time with him. Tony sure as shit wasn't going to be the first one to say "boyfriend" out loud, but he'd been saying it in his head for a while now.

<<< I'll be home in three hours, if you want to talk.
<<< And yes by talk, I mean """talk"""
<<< But also talk for real cause I miss your voice.

>>> :) I'll be here. Waiting.

Tony tried to focus on the meeting, but everything was a blur that didn't sharpen back into focus until he was out of the office and had his phone pressed to his ear, ringing.

"Hey, Tony," Steve said softly when he picked up. "How was the meeting?"

"Interminable. But I'm all good now. What are you up to?"

Steve hummed over the phone. "Worked on Bessie a bit. Went to therapy. Worked out. The usual. Though I also found a recipe for something called chicken parmesan, and I'm going to stop at the store on the way home and pick up what I need."

"That's awesome. I love chicken parm." Tony trotted down the front steps of SI HQ and waved to Happy who opened the back door to his sleek, black town car. There were reporters lining the opposite street, kept away from the entrance by security, and Tony heard one of them yell out, "Who is Iron Man's pilot? Mr. Stark?" but he ignored them all, cupping his hand around the phone so the shouting wouldn't travel through. Steve didn't like talking about Tony's Starkness. He liked the things that made Tony, Tony, but whenever talk veered towards Tony's fame, Iron Man, or the work SI did, Steve got quiet or changed the subject. And it wasn't like Tony wanted to talk about it. Sometimes it felt like Steve was the only person he got to be himself with, these days.

"Does it matter what kind of parmesan I get?"

"Yeah, if it's not too expensive, it's best to get the kind that's a big lump wrapped in plastic, probably in the deli section. The pre-shaved stuff isn't the same." The car pulled away from the curb, and Tony listened to Steve's idle chit-chat about groceries and the difference between parmesan and romano while Happy drove to the mansion. At home, Tony immediately kicked off his shoes, dumped his suit and tie on the bedroom floor and changed into soft jeans and a t-shirt. He grabbed two slices of leftover pizza and ate them cold, jogging down the curving staircase to his workshop.

"Hey, kids," he said, when DUM-E and U rolled up to him, shaking their claws and beeping.

"Who's there?" Steve asked.

"DUM-E and U say hi," Tony told him. He waved his hand in the air until JARVIS conjured a hologram ball and threw it across the workshop, the two bots zooming after it. "I threw a ball for them and DUM-E immediately crashed into a table," Tony said with an affectionate sigh.

"A ball? Do cats play fetch? I thought that was only dogs. I'll be honest, I don't know much about cats, but I'd think Jay would be the one chasing a ball."

Tony froze. Shit. He had said the bots were cats, hadn't he? And JARVIS was a dog. It seemed easier that way at the time because J was always insisting he do things and that felt like dog behaviour, but maybe the bots were more like dogs. But it was too late now. Steve had remembered, because Steve remembered everything, and Tony had to keep it up. He thought about telling him the truth, but there were two reasons he didn't want to. One, was that almost no one knew about the bots, and if they found out, it wouldn't just put Tony in danger, it'd put them in danger too. Everyone would want a piece of his AI, and everyone else would want Tony Stark's first attempt at robotics to be in a museum. 

DUM-E had been publicized, of course, when Tony had first built him, but he'd told the press a long time ago that he'd dismantled the little bot and no one had followed up. Somehow it was easy for Tony to put his own privacy at risk and admit to the palladium poisoning - in the guise of heart failure - but he couldn't bear to put his electronic pets at the same risk. Though, he supposed, when he died, they'd be found. Maybe he should have left them to Rhodey in his will…

"Uhh," Tony hummed when he realized he hadn't spoken for a minute. "They're weird cats. Some cats can play fetch. They're pretty good at it."

"I'd love to see it. Maybe you can take a video some time."

Tony couldn't remember if he'd sent any pictures of cats to Steve. He'd have to ask JARVIS. With Steve's eerily perfect memory, it wouldn't do to have his pets suddenly change colour. "Sure. I'll try. They're sneaky though. As soon as the camera comes out, they're under furniture."

"Oh yeah. I think you said that." There was something a little off in Steve's tone, but Tony couldn't put his finger on it, so he skated right over it.

"What are you up to this weekend?"

"Nadia and I are getting lunch. Other than that, I'm free. I was thinking - uh - I was thinking we could -" Steve coughed lightly "- talk."

Tony laughed. "Baby, we can always 'talk.'"

Steve's voice turned soft and teasing. "Even right now?"

"Especially right now." Tony's dick was already having a Pavlovian response to Steve's sultry voice, and Tony shoved his pants down his thighs then settled at his computer. "You're home from shopping already?"

"Yup. And before you ask, no I'm not hungry. I'll cook my food after." There was laughter twisted through his words, and Tony couldn't help grinning.

"You want to watch a video?"

"Sure. Or you can just tell me what you're up to."

The thought that his voice alone could make Steve come had Tony stiffening in his hand. "Shit, Steve, that's hot. You could just lie there and listen to my voice?"

"Yeah, Tony. You always know what to say. Your voice…"

"Are you touching yourself? Is the -?"

Something flashing caught Tony's eye, and he looked away from the porn videos he was scrolling through and over to his other screen when JARVIS was flashing a bright red PRIORITY ALERT. Shit. A black market SI weapons dealer they'd been tracking for three weeks had been sighted and Tony had a shot to catch him at it. "Fuck. I'm so sorry, Steve. I - I completely forgot it's the -" Tony leapt to his feet, tucking himself back into his pants with a hiss, "- the… Police Benefit! Tonight. And I forgot. I'm a donor. I have to be there. And I'm late."

"Police…" Steve's voice trailed off, uncertain. "Didn't you tell me that was next Saturday? I remember cause there was that Shakespeare thing running that night on TV and I didn't know they did plays on TV like that, but you said you could get a feed and we'd watch it except you'd have to record it and we'd do it on Sunday because of the Police Benefit." Steve sounded ts hesitant, like the last thing he wanted to do was call Tony out, but he couldn't pretend the contradiction wasn't there.

Tony blinked across the workshop, at a complete loss. "Right. Well. It's the - uh they do this dinner thing the week before. With some of the big donors. As a schmoozefest, you know how it is." He could feel himself falling into his slick-patter reporter voice and he hated using it with Steve, but the lies just tripped off his tongue. "It's a small affair so it'll be really noticeable if I'm late. I'm so sorry. I recorded some video the other night." He dropped his voice low and sultry while waving desperately at JARVIS to get together some footage of Tony's hand up to no good. A screen popped up with a video player and Tony watched the thirty seconds of his hand moving up and down, the image cut close to make it look like he'd been holding a phone with his left hand. JARVIS had needed to blur it a bit and add some camera shake to cover a few oddities, but it was convincing enough. Tony nodded. "Will that soothe you until I return?"

Steve chuckled warmly. "Sure, Tony. You know I don't need soothing. I can wait for you. You're busy, it's okay. But I will miss you."

"I'll miss you too, hot stuff. I'll text you later, if I can."

"Okay. Goodnight."

"Goodnight."

The phone disconnected with an audible click, and Tony stood there in his workshop feeling like a disgusting liar. What if he died in the armour tonight? Would Steve ever now what happened? Would he see on the news that Tony Stark had passed away and assume it was his heart? Or maybe the whole world would find out about Iron Man - if Pep and Agent Agent couldn't get to it fast enough. 

Telling Steve felt just as bad though. Tony finally had something in his life that wasn't touched by all the shit of Stark or the shit of Iron Man and he desperately, selfishly, wanted to keep it that way. Steve would be the one to suffer for it, surely, or maybe some day the lying would be too much and he'd leave, but having him be a safe haven from everything challenging in Tony's life was too good to pass up, at least for now. Someday… someday he'd have to tell him. Because eventually the palladium would kill him and it was better if Steve heard it from him than from CNN, but the toxicity meter assured him that the chlorophyll was holding things off for at least another month, and all Tony wanted was to come home from his mission tonight and text Steve and have it just be simple. 

He didn't want Steve to have to wonder about bullet holes or glue himself to the news every night to make sure his - Tony stuttered around the word - his boyfriend was coming home in one piece.

So keeping it to himself was as much for Steve as it was for him. Safety, that was what their relationship needed: protection.

Tony brushed his hair back from his face and stepped up onto the arming platform. "Hit it, J."

Chapter Text

Steve startled up from where he'd sunk to the kitchen floor, phone pressed against his ear, when the stove hissed and spat with the unmistakable sound of a pot boiling over. "Shit!"

"What?!" Tony cut himself off halfway through a story about his friend in college.

"Sorry. Pot's over-boiling."

"Oh god, you gave me a heart attack. And I really can't afford another one of those."

Steve stilled, hand clenching around the spoon he'd used to stir down the pot. He swallowed heavily and turned the temperature down, watching the bubbles fade back down away from the edges. 

"Sorry," Tony said after a painful moment of dead air. "Not funny."

"I forget, you know. Cause you don't seem sick. That's all."

"I know." There was another pause. "I'm sorry, Steve."

"No, I mean, it's not your fault, obviously. Really, I should - I mean, do you want to talk about it? I never ask. I should probably -"

Tony laughed lightly, laced with sadness. "Oh god, no. Honestly. I spend far too much time talking about it with -" He coughed and made an odd noise. "The doctors. You're safe. I want to keep it that way. And don't worry. You'll know - I mean, it won't be sudden. I'll… uh. Warn you."

"Christ, Tony." Steve took the pot off the stove and poured it out into a colander. He shook the water off the pasta.

"Let's just not talk about it."

"Okay." Steve scooped some of the pasta into a bowl and poured sauce over it, but it no longer looked very appealing.  

"I ruined the mood," Tony said. "My bad. We can, like - I'll hang up and call you later and we'll pretend this never happened."

That pushed a laugh out of Steve. "Don't be stupid. I want to talk to you now." He took the bowl to his couch and lay down, resting it on his stomach, one arm behind his head, and closed his eyes. "What'd you do today?"

"Not much. Cleaned up one of my… cars. I took it out for a spin the other night and it got pretty dirty. Then I uh - I was kind of sore. So I took a long bath. Boring."

"You in the bath is never boring, Tony." Steve smirked at the soft laugh that slipped out of Tony.

"What about you?"

Steve had spent most of the day in training sims, but he hadn't told Tony the extent of his work for SHIELD. He was supposed to be in a hospital recovering, and that didn't usually involve four straight hours throwing a soft-edged shield at shiny-faced recruits until they collapsed into puddles of sweat. "Not much. I worked on Bessie a bit. The starter is a mess. I think I need some more parts."

"Send me a list," Tony said idly. "I'll order them for you."

"Thanks, Tony." Steve smiled up at the ceiling and scooped up a spoonful of pasta. He suddenly itched to do something tonight. "Can I draw you?"

Tony laughed. "What?"

"Send me a picture. I want to draw you." Steve let his voice drop low and sultry, the way Tony did when he wanted something. "I'll even do it on my tablet so I can send it to you," he teased. He hadn't even known his tablet had a drawing program when he got it, but after working through the art guides that Tony had found for him online, he'd done a little more searching and discovered digital art. He was pretty bad at it, but most of the principles translated from paper, and he had to admit that doing his simple exercises every morning for Dr. Tully had actually kept his skills somewhat sharp. This was much more exciting than a whole page of crosshatching, though.

Tony was quiet for a moment then Steve's phone buzzed and he set it to speakerphone to look down at what Tony had sent. It was a side shot - Steve wasn't sure how he'd held his phone to make it happen, but maybe it was an older picture taken by someone else - and Tony was clearly looking at something with great attention, leaning his chin on his hand, fingers curled up over his lips. His brow was slightly furrowed in concentration, but not frustration, and the computer screen he must have been looking at cast a blue glow over him.

"Beautiful…" Steve whispered, flushing when he realized Tony would have heard him say that.

But Tony just hummed softly and made an affectionate noise. Steve moved his bowl to the table and set up his tablet next to it. He opened a new drawing, then left Tony's picture on his phone, propped up against a vase of flowers Miss Miranda had dropped off at her last cleaning. They were starting to wilt a little, and Steve made a mental note to change the water. 

He started sketching out the curve of Tony's jaw.  

"So where's my picture?" Tony asked, and Steve laughed.

"You gonna draw me?"

"Nope. Just gonna jack off to you, hot stuff."

"Tony!" Steve chastised gently, but he was already taking off his shirt and flipping his phone back to the camera application. Eager, he unzipped his fly and took his cock out, sliding it through the ring of his fingers a few times before snapping a picture of his stomach and lap and sending it off. It wasn't the dirtiest picture he'd sent over the last few weeks of rapidly escalating flirtations, but it was up there.

Tony made a delightfully destroyed noise when it came through. "For fucks sake, you gorgeous thing. How do you get anything done when you have that stunning cock to distract you?"

"I don't get anything done. But it's not my body that distracts me, it's you." Steve went back to his sketch, but he left his pants undone. "Tell me what you're doing."

Tony snorted. "What do you think I'm doing?"

"Come on, Tony," Steve coaxed. "Tell me."

"I," Tony began, pointedly, "am touching myself, while looking at pictures of you."

"Wow."

Tony talked while Steve drew, Tony's soft, gasping breaths regularly breaking Steve's concentration, until he couldn't take it anymore and he tossed his stylus aside to take himself in hand. When Tony groaned and choked out, "I'm coming," Steve wasn't far behind him, a few rough strokes tipping him over the edge.

They panted together over the phone for a while until the aftershocks faded and Steve was able to go back to his drawing. Tony was quiet for a long time, doing whatever he was doing - and it was nice to spend soft, silent time together on the phone, without feeling the pressure to fill every moment with words. It felt more like they were really hanging out together, instead of just on another insufficient phone call. Steve's hands flowed easily over the digital page, shaping Tony's eyes and mastering the fluff of his hair.

"Hey, Steve?"

"Yeah?"

"I'm - nah, you know what, nevermind."

Steve frowned down at the shading curling around Tony's shoulder. "Come on, tell me? You can ask me anything.'

"I know. It's just - I don't wanna, like - okay, so, the guy thing. How are you, you know, doing… with that? Is what I'm trying to ask."

"The guy -? Oh. You mean with you being a guy. The... uh… the 'gay' thing."

Tony cleared his throat audibly. "Yeah. That thing. You don't have to talk about it."

"I'm -" Steve cut himself off. He focused on tiny lines creasing the armpit of Tony's shirt. How did he feel about it? He hadn't really given it a whole lot of thought, and maybe that was for a reason. He liked Tony, obviously, was deeply attracted to him, physically and emotionally, and he got off the pornography they watched, which was usually of men. "I don't know. It doesn't bother me."

Tony hummed thoughtfully. "Doesn't bother is good… better than bother. But, you know, maybe not the ideal? I mean, you should feel comfortable -"

"I don't feel uncomfortable with you, Tony, not ever. And not with the stuff we watch. I guess... I'm still not sure about the rest of the world."

"Okay." Tony sounded happier with that. "That's good, that's fine. Can't predict what the rest of the world is going to do, so that's fair. To be nervous."

Steve wanted to ask what it was like for him, if his friends knew, if his family knew - maybe not about Steve, but about dating men - but he wasn't quite sure how to put any of it into words. And he was still scared of saying the wrong thing and giving away even more that he was lost in this century. Besides, people in Tony's life had to know, right? How could he date men without his loved ones knowing about it?

But as much as Steve wanted to know more about living like that, he couldn't bring himself to ask. Instead, he changed the subject. "Here's something funny."

"Yeah?" Tony asked.

"Uh, yeah. You know, while we're sharing things. I… uh." Steve laughed nervously. "I was really jealous of Pepper when we first started talking."

Tony laughed too. "Really? Cause you thought she was my girlfriend?"

"Well, I didn't realize that at first. I mean, yes, I thought that, but I didn't get that that was why I didn't feel great about her." He set his stylus down, eyes glued to the finished sketch. "First, I thought I felt bad that I was taking so much of your time, away from her. Then I think it got kind of muddled. Cause… you know." Cause I fell for you, Steve couldn't say. 

Steve could hear the smile in Tony's voice when he said, "Yeah, I know…" He paused. "You've got nothing to be jealous of, you know? Not with anyone."

"I know. Same for you." Steve carefully navigated the menus on his drawing app until he figured out how to save his drawing. He was getting good at images, saving them, taking pictures, and sending things to Tony. He attached the saved drawing to a text and sent it. While he waited for Tony to see it, he put his empty bowl in the kitchen and lay out on the couch. 

"Oh shit, wow…" Tony's voice cracked. "You - that's amazing. Thank you, Steve."

It felt like maybe he'd managed to say what he couldn't say, after all.

**

Steve's phone rang in his pocket, on vibrate, and he tugged it out under the table to text. Sorry, can't talk. Meeting. 

That's my line, Tony wrote back almost immediately.

Steve bit back his smile. I might do some consulting. It was a stretch to call it that. Consultants didn't usually become full-tactic team leads, but that's what this meeting, among other things, was discussing. On top of that, was the question of whether it should be made public that Captain America had been discovered and was alive. But he couldn't tell Tony any of that, so he just sent back a :) when Tony replied with, !!!

The idea of coming out about Captain America was terrifying, mostly because there was a chance Tony could then figure out who he was. But it wasn't like Steve hadn't daydreamed about revealing it all, and maybe he actually could. He could tell Tony everything and he wouldn't have to keep a piece hidden from him anymore. 

But that would still be months off, if they decided to do it at all, and even this meeting was very preliminary. It was the start of something though, change, progress, and that was what he needed, right? It was what Dr. Tully was always trying to tease out of him.

So Steve tucked his phone back in his pocket, and focused on the meeting with his entire attention, offering opinions and engaging whenever he had something to say. If there was a chance, even just a very slight one, that Fury would put him back in the field, he was going to seize it with both hands. He was done being idle. And he was done hiding.

It was getting late by the time the meeting let out, so Steve packed up and went straight home, texting idly to Tony on his walk. When he arrived at his apartment, there was a slip stuck to his door for a package being held at the post office down the road. He tossed his duffel bag inside the apartment then immediately went out to pick it up. 

SHIELD had given him something they called a "rerouting address" for giving out to services like online stores that he never used anyway. He could have things sent there, and they'd end up here, without anyone being able to figure out where he lived. But he didn't remember ordering anything recently, besides some bike parts that Tony had sent and had already arrived last week. He very rarely ordered things like that anyway. Usually, he just asked Ellen to order things like books and art pencils, since he wasn't sure how to do it himself, and they'd be waiting on his desk at the office. The most he'd managed was a single pizza delivery app, and he'd had to give them his real address since rerouting pizza didn't seem possible, even in the future. 

But since Tony, Steve had tried new things and he honestly couldn't remember if maybe late one night, Tony had talked him through having books or clothing or something sent straight to his home without going through his assistant, and Steve had ordered something and forgotten about it.

The post office was only a block away, so Steve jogged across the street, dodging people until he reached the UPS store. He handed the slip to a disinterested teen behind the counter and it was exchanged for a small box with his address printed on the front. From California.

It wasn't - was it?

Steve dialed Tony's number on the way back to his building.

"Hey, Steve! I was just thinking about you."

"Hey, Tony - I was just wondering… did I order something online with your help recently? You know how I'm hopeless with the internet? Well a box just came to my apartment and I don't remember ordering it, and I thought we were all caught up with Bessie. I never get boxes, otherwise. It's - uh - it's from California…"

"It came!" Tony laughed, then his voice dropped low and sultry. "I couldn't help it, sweetpea. After what you said the other day… I decided you needed one of these. If you don't want it, though, just shove it in the back of your closet and I'll pretend I never sent it. But… if you want to… I'm all alone tonight…"

Steve's throat tightened and he started speed-walking up the stairs. What had he said the other day? That he didn't own any… uh… marital aids. Tony had thought that was very funny, and Steve had played it off like a joke. "Tony… is it?"

"Something fun? You better believe it, babe."

"Oh god." Blood rushed into the back of Steve's neck and down to his cock. He couldn't help scanning the outside of the box for any clues to its contents. God, what if the post office people knew?

"Don't panic. No one knows. I know how to send things discreetly.  I think you're going to like it."

Steve pushed through his apartment door, grateful that Nadia didn't appear at the sound of his footsteps. He locked it behind himself, powered into his bedroom, shut that door too, then tossed the box on his bed. He stared at it.

"Steve? You okay?" Tony asked, real concern colouring his voice. 

"Yes. I'm -" He was a little breathless was what he was. He'd never owned a sex toy before, didn't know what they were even like, save for what Tony had described to him. He grabbed a pen from the bedside table, scraped it down the seam of the tape then pulled the flap up until it popped open. There were little packing things inside, white and squishy, and then at the bottom was a box, sleek and matte black. He levered it open. "Oh, wow."

It was - well, it was penis, there was no way around it. But it was dark blue, smooth and not as long or as wide as the real thing. It was curved in an intriguing way that Steve wasn't quite sure he completely understood. But there was no mistaking what it was for, and that made Steve flush hot from head to foot.

"Tony."

"If you hate the idea, it's fine. Forget it, Throw it out. I'll buy you a car instead, or something."

Steve snorted with laughter. "No… no, I'm - Uh. Intrigued." He swallowed heavily. "But I'm not… sure how to do it? How to… use it. All I'm going off is those videos we watch, and you keep telling me how unrealistic they are." He laughed again, and Tony joined him.

"I can talk you through it?"

Steve swallowed again, mouth dry. "Yes, please."

"Now?"

Steve's voice broke when he said, "Yes, please," again, and Tony laughed.

"Alright. You're going to want to take your clothes off and get settled somewhere comfortable with the toy, the lube, and some kleenex."

Lube? Steve set the toy box down and rummaged through the packaging until he found a large bottle full of something thick and clear. Lube. Sometimes they used it in the videos he watched with Tony. Back in his day, most people used vaseline, and since he was only ever having sex with himself, he hadn't bothered at all. Spit was just as well to slick a dry hand if need be. 

He made the mistake of opening the bottle and squeezing a little on his fingers. It was incredibly slippery and instantly got all over everything. "Oh no," he said quietly, and Tony laughed again.

"What's wrong, sweetheart?"

"I made a mess already."

"So soon?" Tony purred, and Steve sighed.

"Not like that! With the lube." His indignation broke into laughter. "Come on, Tony."

"I'm just teasing."

"Okay, hold on while I take my clothes off. Are you - uh - are you going to join me?"

"In taking my clothes off?" Tony said. "Yes. Definitely. In toys? I think I'd rather focus on you."

"Alright. Hold on." Steve set the phone down and stripped quickly. This was something he'd never done, besides maybe the gentle touch of a wandering finger, though watching it in the videos Tony shared with him had certainly flared his curiosity. Still, there was the possibility he was going to hate it. And then what? Did he tell Tony he didn't like it, or just pretend? It wasn't like Tony could see him and Steve could make many excuses for why he couldn't take a picture of such a thing, but there was no appeal in stacking unnecessary lies on top of so many necessary ones.

He flopped backwards on the bed with the toy and the lube at his hip and picked up the phone again. "What if I hate it?" he asked, unable to keep from voicing his concerns.

And, of course, Tony assuaged them as he always did. "Then you throw it out and we never talk about it again. Or, you know, you toss it in the back of your closet and maybe get curious one day and give it another go. You're allowed to not like things, Steve, but you won't know til you try, and I'm all about getting you to try."

"I want to try. I just don't want to disappoint you."

"Not possible," Tony said gently. "And we certainly don't have to try this now."

"I want to." Steve shifted on the bed, shoving the pillows up behind his shoulders and putting his phone on speaker on his chest. "I'm ready."

"Okay.  Get some lube on the fingers of your right hand and try and keep your left hand clean so you have something to grip the toy with later. Or, you know, the other way around. Whatever feels more comfortable."

Steve squeezed a dollop of the clear gel out of the bottle onto his right pointer finger and rubbed it over the rest with his thumb. His cock was starting to get interested, for no other reason than Tony's low, soft voice in his ear, and Steve draped his left hand over it, a little warmth and pressure but not enough to get him fully hard. 

"This part you're going to have to mostly figure out for yourself. Start slow and see what feels good, you can kind of tease your rim a little before you push in. Give your body a chance to adjust cause it's going to feel really different at first."

"Okay." Steve let his eyes close and focused on the way his fingers felt. He teased them back behind his balls and found the edge of his hole, his body shying away from the touch at first. But he rolled the pad of his finger around and around until he relaxed, the steady touch alighting little fireworks of anticipatory pleasure.

He let the tip of his finger slip in, finding an angle that didn't feel forced or uncomfortable, and to his surprise, after the initial push, it slid in easily, setting the nerves around his hole tingling. "Oh," he breathed, and Tony groaned.

"You got a finger in there, Steve? Fuck what I wouldn't give to see that."

"Yeah - it's - ah - it's weird. But good. And - oh -" He cut himself off as he twisted the angle a little and suddenly it wasn't weird at all, just good. So good. The lube slicked his skin until there was no rough friction, just a smooth slide. "Oh. Shit."

"Don't rush yourself," Tony coached. "Let your body adjust. But when it feels good, you can add another one."

After only a few thrusts with one, Steve wanted more. He rubbed the lube evenly across two fingers then pressed in again. It took a second for his body to relax and open to the pressure, but this time when he slid in, he could feel the stretch of it. "That feels really good."

Tony hummed with pleasure. "An auspicious start."

"What do I do now?"

"Follow your heart. You can add another finger, or just enjoy this for a while. Move on to the toy whenever you want to. Use a lot of lube and go slowly."

Steve wasn't sure if it was normal or just because he had a super-serumed body, but he wanted the toy now. Just in case, he kept working his fingers for a while, enjoying the gentle stretch and the soft huff of Tony's breath over the phone. He wasn't building up to anything, wanting to save himself for the main event, as it were, but it felt nice, in a calm, easy sort of way, and he let himself sink into that. 

"How does it feel?" Tony asked, after a few more minutes, and Steve reached for the toy with his free hand.

"Great. Really good. I want more. I'm going to, uh, try this now."

"Remember, you don't have to like it."

"I'm actually a bit afraid of liking it too much," Steve said with a strained laugh.

"No such thing as too much."

But there was. Because it was already hard enough that he couldn't feel Tony's body, touch his skin, while they had sex, but he'd already been curious about what this… sort of thing. Anal. Felt like. And a teasing taste like this might only make it more difficult that he couldn't feel Tony for real. He wanted it to be him here, not a piece of silicone, and if the toy wasn't enough or wasn't human enough, he didn't know how he'd say that.

But Tony kept up a steady stream of praise in his ear as Steve eased the end of the toy into his body, and it was almost like he really was there.

"Oh, Tony…."

"That's it baby, you've got this. Fuck, I bet that looks amazing, slipping inside you."

It was bigger than his fingers, by a lot, and the stretch was verging on too much, but it took very little adjustment before the burn faded and pure pleasure took its place. Steve pushed until the toy bottomed out, filling him up with a deep solidity he hadn't expected. He tugged, easing it back out of his body, then pushed it deep again, and god, that felt amazing. He didn't realize he was moaning, pressing the toy in further, until Tony groaned too.

"The sounds you make, Christ."

"I've never felt anything like this," Steve panted. "So deep. Oh god. It's - if I angle it right - nuuh - "

"Shit, I'm going to come. There's never been anything hotter than you discovering your prostate on the phone with me. Steve - oh god -"

Steve had wanted this to last longer, but the overwhelming sensation of the toy rubbing against his prostate, plus the other hand that had found its way to his cock and was stroking it roughly, combined with the truly sinful noises Tony was making, was all too much. He rocked up into the firm grip of his fingers, pushed back to sink the toy deep inside him, and stumbled over the edge, just a few gasps after Tony cried out his own release. The throbbing of his orgasm was low and deep and went on forever, his cock shooting stripe after stripe of come across his stomach. He sucked in a deep breath as he flattened onto his back again and heard Tony do the same.

Steve pulled the toy out with a wince and dropped it on the sheets next to his hip. He was sweaty, both hands covered in lube, the fingers of his left cramping where he'd had the end of the toy in a death grip. He was exhausted, felt like he'd run thirty marathons back to back, but there was also a boneless mellow that washed over him in waves, leaving him puddled and uncaring. Sleep crept in.

"You okay, sweetheart?" Tony whispered through the phone.

"I'm incredible. I'm - I'm so tired," Steve said with a giggle he hadn't realized was trying to slip out.

"Oh, listen to you. Sheer perfection." Tony was quiet for a moment. "Fall asleep with me," he finally asked, voice barely audible.

"Yes, please…" Steve wiped his hands then his stomach on his boxers and tossed them in the general direction of the dirty clothes hamper, then curled up on the bed with the phone tucked between his head and the pillow. He'd clean up tomorrow, maybe really examine what this meant, if it meant anything, but for now, all he could manage was falling asleep, with the soft, sweet sound of Tony's steady breathing in his ear.

Chapter Text

Steve snapped his hand to his knee when he realized his shaking leg was vibrating the entire table. He shot a look to his left and right, but either no one had noticed or they were politely ignoring him. Meetings like this had been interesting for a while - or at least they offered some break up from the monotony of life - but they were torture now, running the day longer than usual and keeping him at work instead of home with his phone - and Tony.

Fury had been pulling him into more and more lately, mostly briefings on potential national threats, but he still had yet to put him in the field. That had been all Steve wanted six months ago, a chance to do something, but now there was a mug of tea and a voice on the other end of the line waiting for him at home, and the thought of retirement sounded appealing in a way it never had before. He was completely torn, genuinely interested in fieldwork, but hating the process of getting there, while spending a lot of his time daydreaming about what it would be like to be a free man. Each meeting, he told himself he'd pay attention at the next, but instead, his mind would inevitably wander to Tony.

If he weren't Captain America, if he hung up his shield, he could - maybe - even move out of New York… to the west coast maybe…

He'd have to find a way to explain things to Tony. There was still so much unsaid between them, so many topics they skirted carefully around - for both of them - but there was a hazy, potential happy future in the distance. Maybe.

"Well, I think that sums it up nicely, Agent. Any other notes?"

Steve perked up. He glanced around the room but everyone stayed silent. 

"Captain? Anything to add?"

"Uh. No, sir, not at this time."

Fury's eyes narrowed a little but he nodded, and Steve all but levitated out of his chair, making for the door. Between therapy, sim training, a way too long conversation with Ellen about fresh vegetables, and this meeting, he hadn't had a chance to talk to Tony all day. 

As soon as he was out of the building, he dialed. 

"Hey there, hot stuff," Tony said lightly, after only one ring. "Been missing you."

"God, it was such a long day, Tony. I missed you too. What are you up to?"

"In the bath actually. Did my back in lifting - uh - a thing, and now I'm trying to steam the pain out."

Steve swallowed heavily. A naked, wet Tony sounded like the best Tony imaginable. "Bath, huh?"

"Don't believe me?" Tony purred. "Let me prove it to you."

"I'm in public!" Steve laughed. He lowered his voice and pressed the phone closer to his ear. "At least let me get home first."

"But I'll be all pruney by then. Hold on."

"Tony if you're taking pictures -" Steve's phone vibrated against his head with a new text. And another one. And another one. "God dammit. I still have ten minutes of walking." Steve tried not to think about what was in those pictures, but a throbbing between his legs informed him that it wasn't working. "I had a really boring meeting today!" he said hastily, flicking his eyes along the people that passed by to keep his mind out of the gutter. 

"All meetings are boring, sweetheart. What was it about?"

"Uh." Steve scrambled for an explanation. "I've started doing some of that contract work I told you about. Just strategy support, that kind of thing. All desk work."

Tony was silent for a long time. "Really? You're ready for that?"

"I - maybe. I don't know." Steve sighed, his arousal retreating rapidly. "My special ops training means I'm pretty valuable. They don't want to lose me, even if it's just as a desk agent."

"What they want doesn't matter nearly as much as what you want, Steve."

"I know… I want to help. I do. I just - sometimes I wonder."

"Yeah?"

"What, you know, a normal life would be like. If I could, uh, move away and start over. Get a job, I dunno, at a bank or something." They both laughed. "I could be a security guard, I guess. I'd be good at that. You got banks in California?" It was a joke, but even Steve could hear the desperate question lining each word.

Tony was quiet for a long time. "You don't want to come here, sweetheart."

"I dunno. Maybe I'd like it. The weather sounds nice…"

"Not because of that - I - Steve. You know about my heart. Look, this way, it's always fun, right? It's always good and we can ignore the horrible, scary things and just enjoy each other's company? Yeah?"

"I'd enjoy your company more in person. It's not like it would have to be the same. I get it if you don't want to, you know, touch me or whatever, but -"

"Steve. There's nothing I want more than to be able to touch you. But I'm dying," Tony said, too bluntly. Steve's chest ached. "I can't put you through that. I can't make you watch me fade away. No chance." His voice broke. "I don't want you coming all the way out here just to find yourself a caretaker to an old, broken, sick idiot. You are my safe island right now, where everything's okay and I'm not constantly a disappointment. Please, can we keep it that way?"

"Yeah, yeah of course. I'm sorry." But it hurt. It hurt that Tony was sick, it hurt that Steve couldn't hug him and kiss him and be there for him, and it hurt like a rejection, even though he knew Tony didn't mean it that way, because ultimately Tony didn't want to meet him badly enough to override the reasons why they shouldn't. "Okay."

"No, I'm sorry."

"I get it." It was all a stupid dream anyway. SHIELD would never allow Steve to reveal who he was, and it'd be impossible to actually live near Tony, date him, and keep it a secret. He managed with Nadia because they barely spoke, never got into the deep stuff, but it was hard enough keeping his past under wraps just talking to Tony on the phone. In person? No chance. It was stupid to be so disappointed that something that already could never happen, definitely could never happen, but a silly part of him just wanted Tony to want it too. So they could share in the wanting, even if they couldn't indulge in other things.

"We could - uhhh - We could video chat sometime?" Tony offered, gently.

"What's that?"

"It's like this but with a live video on the screen. So you can hold the phone in front of your face and it's like talking in person. Or, you know, you can point it somewhere else." Tony laughed, then splashed softly, and Steve remembered all at once that he was in the bath.

"Oh." Thank god, Steve was reaching his front door right at that moment. He jiggled the lock in as quietly as possible, not wanting Nadia to hear him, then slipped inside. "That sounds nice." It was scary too, because it might be easier to get a good look at what Steve looked like in a video, but he'd sent a number of risky pictures and Tony had never said anything, never seemed to suspect anything. So maybe a video would be okay. There was also a wild part of Steve that wanted to take those risks because he wanted Tony to figure it out. If Tony knew… he could stop lying about so much.

"Okay, good. I can't tonight, but maybe this weekend."

"I'd like that." Steve kicked his shoes off, flicked the kettle on, and collapsed down on the couch. "Do you have time to talk now, though?"

"Oh yeah. All yours, baby."

"I'm home."

Tony chuckled. "And alone?"

"All alone. You still in the bath?"

"Mmmm." There was another splash. 

"Oh, shit!" Steve scrambled to put his phone on speaker.

"What?"

"I forgot you sent me pictures." While Tony was laughing, Steve scrolled to their texting window and opened the pictures. The first one was fairly innocuous, just Tony's toes poking out of the bubbly bathwater. The next was his chest, half underwater and slightly distorted, the juts of his hip bones barely peeking out. The last was his cock, Tony's fingers wrapped around it, paused in what was clearly a stroking motion. Steve swallowed and shifted on the couch, rocking his hips up to loosen his clothes around his rapidly growing erection. "Are you still touching yourself?"

"I stopped, but I want to start again. Only if you're going with me, though."

Steve glanced at the clock. It was late enough that if he did this with Tony, he'd pass out on the couch after. "Give me five minutes." He turned the kettle back off, shoved a piece of bread in his mouth, then stripped out of his clothes. He brushed his teeth, locked the door, and turned out all the lights then crawled into bed with his phone, the bottle of lube Tony had sent him, and a box of tissues. "I'm back."

"Naked?"

"Yeah." 

"Got your toy?"

"Not this time." Steve wrapped his fingers around his cock, stroking slowly, the phone cradled against his ear instead of on speakerphone. He liked the way it felt like Tony was whispering right to him and no one else. "Are you still in the bath?"

"I got out. I was starting to steam-cook like a dumpling. As if I'm not wrinkled enough."

Steve chuckled. "You're not wrinkled, Tony. I think you're gorgeous."

There was a long, tense pause, then Tony bit out, "Thanks," coughed, then said, "Are you touching yourself?"

"I am. You?"

"Oh, yeah."

"God, Tony - I -"

"Yeah," Tony breathed.

"I wish it was your hand."

"Me too, babe, me too. I'd make you feel so good. Take it slow, touch you everywhere, kiss you. I just want to take you apart, bit by bit."

"Your voice… how do you make everything sound so sexy? I swear you could read me a cake recipe and I'd - I'd come." Steve's hand sped up a little.

Tony laughed, like warm honey dripping down Steve's spine. He pressed his face closer to the phone, as if he'd be able to pull more of the sound inside him. "Oh, sweetheart," Tony purred, "you want me to talk about beating the eggs and spreading the frosting?"

Even as Steve laughed, his body was winding up tighter and tighter. It was like Tony was in bed beside him, all smiles and sweet jokes, and soft petnames. It felt so real. And Tony was always so giving, so vocal, and Steve wanted to give back. "I wish you were here…." he started with. "I'd touch you. Maybe - maybe jerk us off together - hold us both together? I have big hands…"

"Oh shit, yeah Steve. I'd love that. That would leave my hands free to do other things. Touch you everywhere."

Everywhere. Steve thought about the toy sitting at the bottom of his sock drawer. "I'd want you to touch me - uh… to touch my ass. Again. Like with the toy?"

"Yeah, baby, I can do that. You want me to finger you? Work you open, find the spots that make you weep? I have long fingers and they're used to delicate work."

"Shit, yeah, Tony." Pleasure built hot and fast, tingling under Steve's skin. "Oh -! I'm not going to last long, wow."

"I bet you feel amazing when you come, clenching around my fingers, hot and wet and gasping, all those muscles tensing up - shit Steve -" Tony's voice cut high and tight and that was enough to push Steve over the edge.

"I'm gonna come Tony - I'm coming, oh - Fuck -" Steve grabbed a tissue just in time and pressed it to the head of his cock, hot fluid leaking down over his fist as he throbbed his release again and again. Only a moment later, he heard Tony gasp through the phone then cry out his own orgasm through gritted teeth. It was an incredible sensation, the hottest thing Steve had ever experienced, but god, he wished so badly he could see it in person.

Steve's orgasm was followed by a wave of full-body relaxation and he flopped down on the bed, his breathing quickly returning to normal. His head spun and the room around him softened. "I'm about to fall asleep," he mumbled into his pillow.

Tony laughed warmly. "It's barely dinner time, here. You should sleep though, babe."

"'S too early…" Steve mumbled, but he'd made his preparations expecting this.

"You deserve a good sleep. Just take it. I have to go get some work done, anyway, as much as I'd rather talk to you, and I think you've given me just the energy boost I need for it. Goodnight, sweetheart. I'll talk to you tomorrow."

"Okay." Love you, Steve thought furiously, not ready to say it out loud, but feeling it thrum deep in his chest. "Goodnight." He heard Tony disconnect a moment later, and he tried to find the energy to put his phone on its charging pad before he passed out, but sleep pulled heavily at his eyelids. He startled awake again, when his phone buzzed in his hand. It was a text from Tony. Steve smiled at it, finding the strength to push his phone up onto the bedside table. 

I don't know what I'd do without you.

**

Steve jolted out of bed to the blaring of his alarm clock and fumbled for the off button. He lifted his phone and grinned at the I don't know what I'd do without you still up on his screen. He knew he needed to head to SHIELD, that Tony was already at work, surely, and wouldn't be able to talk much for a few hours, but all Steve wanted to do was roll back over with his phone and start texting.

Knowing he wouldn't be able to resist the temptation if he started, he set his phone aside and made for the shower, thoughts of TonyTonyTony dancing through his head. Clean and dressed, he set off for SHIELD, his happy fantasies of kissing Tony goodbye as he left interrupted by Ellen's manic texting about a change in his training schedule. 

The day drifted by fairly quickly, and Steve was grateful for his serum enhancements, letting half his attention stay focused on his boyfriend, and only leaving the other half for working through their training simulations with the STRIKE team. 

The team gathered in the locker room after, joking and shoving each other around as they stripped down and changed. Steve sat down on a bench by his locker, unable to resist checking his messages after being tied up with work for three hours. Tony had only sent him one text, a shot of himself, at his desk, selfie style, smirking at the camera with a hint of an eyeroll showing through. Steve grinned down at the picture, eager to scurry off and take one of his own.

"Why are you grinning at a picture of Tony Stark?" Brock breathed over his shoulder, mocking laughter wound through his voice.

"You know him?" tumbled out before Steve could process that engaging Brock on this was probably a bad idea.

"Do I know him? He's Tony fucking Stark, everyone knows him, Cap."

"Wait." Steve looked back at the picture. "Like Stark Industries? Howard Stark's son? Isn't he that guy SHIELD was trying to recruit - Metal Man?"

"Iron Man. Yeah, that's the guy, though we're not supposed to know it's him so don't go blabbing. Officially, the suit of armour is his bodyguard." Brock snorted. "He's a billionaire. Party guy. Bit of a slut. Who's sending you pictures of Tony Stark?"

"Um." Steve looked down at his phone. "That's - I mean, I've been talking to this guy, Tony, but I didn't realize it was Tony Stark. I thought he was just a lead engineer for some big company."

"Wait, 'talking'?" Jack joined them by the bench. "What do you mean 'talking'?"

Steve could feel his cheeks heat and all he wanted to do was bolt out of there, but he knew they'd never let it go if he showed that they got to him. "Just talking. He's a friend. We met online."

Brock burst out laughing and Jack followed. "Aww, bless. Cap thinks he's 'friends' with Tony Stark. Good lord."

"What?" Steve scrolled to the folder of pictures he had saved - the safe ones - and opened it. Now that he looked, he could see the familiar cut of the facial hair… he had seen those eyes once or twice on TV, and Iron Man had come up in conversation a few times in his recent briefings. But there was no way - was there?

He watched the news so rarely, avoiding entertainment news staunchly, he hadn't put two and two together before. So his maybe-boyfriend was Tony Stark. That was wild. Tony was nearly an Avenger, if Steve recalled a long-ago briefing correctly. They'd been debating whether they could manage his secret identity on the team. And his behaviour…

Steve flushed with a new thrill. Tony Stark was being considered for high-level clearance. That meant he'd know about Steve. Or at least, an argument could be made for telling him. Steve could stop hiding.

But then Brock crouched down in front of him. "Cap, bud -" he poked the screen where Tony was reclined on his couch with a beer, winking at the camera "- you're being catfished."

"What?" Steve repeated.

"Catfished. That's not Tony Stark you've been talking to. It's some fat, pimply twenty-three year old, living in his mama's basement, who's pretending to be famous and attractive and rich to get your attention. He's lying."

"I - no. What? Why would he do that?"

"You've seriously never heard of catfishing? Why the fuck did they even let you on the internet? Look -" Brock sighed like a frustrated schoolteacher with a difficult pupil. He reached out and snatched Steve's phone out of his hand. "This picture? This is from his Insta." Brock took out his own phone, opened an app and searched for "Tony Stark". He clicked a link and flipped through a series of photos until he found one that was exactly the same as the one saved on Steve's phone. "See? Look at the date. Stark posted this over a year ago. The catfish sent it to you pretending it was new, but he just saved it from Stark's public Instagram. Besides, Stark isn't into dudes. He's straight. That's public record." He tossed Steve's phone back in his lap. "Aww, don't look so sad, Cap. You want dick so bad, just go to a gay bar. You keep hanging out on Grinder, you're going to get screwed, and not in the fun way. Here's a little piece of advice - on the internet, if it sounds too good to be true, it is."

Brock and Jack walked off, laughing, and Steve heard Jack say, "I can't believe he fell for that shit," as they turned the corner.

Ice settled in Steve's chest, burning and stealing all the air from his lungs. Fakes? Lies? It couldn't be, could it? Everything from the past few months flipped, angles catching the light in a different way and casting horrifying shadows Steve had never seen before. Lies? Tony had been lying to him? His name probably wasn't even Tony - if Brock and Jack were right. But they were assholes, always mouthing off in sims. Maybe - maybe it wasn't true…

Steve stared at Tony's last text for a while, then carefully retraced Brock's online steps, finding the Instagram account for Tony Stark after only a few wrong turns. He flipped through the photos with growing dread. So many of them were familiar. Too many. And the face - that was his Tony alright. 

Some pictures he had weren't on the Instagram account, though, nor on any other social media as far as Steve could tell. Anything that showed more skin than a popped top button or a rolled up sleeve didn't seem to be there. Did that mean those were real? But the others weren't?

Steve shot off a quick text to Ellen. Is there a way to tell if a photo is real or fake?

It wasn't long before she replied. Like if it's photoshopped? Sure. SI has free software that highlights uncertain areas in photos. You can upload the image <here> and anything red was probably altered.

Thanks.

It wasn't quite what Steve had meant, but it was useful information nonetheless. Steve took his favourite picture, the one that showed Tony's chest, the bottom of his face - with that distinctive goatee - and his parted pants, red underwear and all. He uploaded it to the website, heart in his throat. And, of course, it was SI that made the software, so he had to stare at the name Stark up there in the logo while he waited for it to load. 

The website coughed the image back up and hot dread washed through Steve. The whole upper half of the image was highlighted red, the man's chest and face all fake, all messed with. It wasn't real. None of it was real.

Steve wanted to ask Tony about it, demand an explanation, but if it was true that Tony had been lying, faking it, the last thing Steve wanted was to reveal his idiocy to the very person who was jerking him around. Instead, he took an early lunch and went back to the apartment building, stopping at Amie's Deli for takeout on the way. He knocked on Nadia's door with three plastic bags and a fake smile.

"Hey, Steve. Long time no see." She opened the door wide and let him in, tugging one of the bags free and breathing it in deeply. "Yum."

"Yeah, sorry I haven't been around much. Work has been crazy. I thought I should seize the free hour on my schedule and make lunch happen."

Nadia smiled at him as she pulled plates out of the cupboard. "You and Amie are always welcome."

Steve squeezed out a chuckle that he hoped wasn't as awkward as it felt. He managed some small talk while they ate, then, when enough time had passed that he wouldn't seem too desperate, he waved his fork towards her as casually as he could manage. "Hey, here's a question for you. Some of the guys at work today were talking about a friend who got - uh - catfished? Is that really a thing? Like do people really pretend in order to trick people?"

Nadia smiled. "Do people really go on the internet and tell lies? Uh, yes, they do. A lot."

"Why?" Steve burst out.

"Lots of reasons." Nadia swallowed a mouthful of fried rice. "Money, identity theft, to be a dick... You know, they talk, get to know someone, earn their trust and sympathy. Then comes the sob story - my sister's in the hospital… or I'm dying of cancer… or my abusive ex stole all my money."

I have a heart condition. It's pretty serious. I've been seeing a lot of doctors and stuff, trying to find a cure, but it doesn't look good. God, this feels so damn dramatic, but that's just how it is. I've probably got like, four maybe five months left.

"So people send them things," Nadia went on. "Gifts and money and stuff. Or it's, 'Hey what's your mother's maiden name?' And now they know the security question for your bank account."

What was her name? Tony had asked

Sarah. Steve had replied, without a moment's hesitation. 

"Or maybe they get enough personal information they can go full identity theft, take out credit cards in your name, addresses, that kind of thing."

I can look it up if you tell me your service number. 

I'll send you those parts directly - what's your address?

"And some people are just assholes," Nadia added with a shrug. "I saw a news article about this one girl who pretended to be a famous basketball player just to fuck with people, get them all excited about knowing someone famous, even pretended to date them. She thought it was funny."

Aww ,bless. Cap thinks he's friends with Tony Stark. Good lord.

Steve's fork hadn't moved from the kale salad in front of him. His eyes burned and his throat ached. It wasn't real. None of it was real. Someone had been pretending to be Tony Stark, gaining Steve's trust, his affection, his personal information, for who knew what reasons. Not good ones, though. There was no good reason for that. 

Everything he'd felt for the man on the other end of the phone had been fake, a lie. He'd been twisted and manipulated to fall for someone - and of course he'd fallen, because the other person had been putting everything they had into being exactly what Steve wanted. It wasn't real, like Brock had said, anything that looked too good to be true, was.

Nadia's expression twisted as she leaned in close to him. "Are you okay? You haven't been talking to someone online, have you?"

"Hmm?" Steve snapped up. "Oh, no! No, it's not that. Sorry. I'm fine. I just - I just remembered that the reason I didn't plan for lunch today was because a meeting got moved up. I completely forgot about it. I have to rush back to the office." Steve frowned and shook his head, playing it up as well as he could, all while gathering up his jacket and keys and barreling towards the door.

"Alright," Nadia called after him. "Come by later if you want to help with these leftovers!"

He charged out the door. 

Safe in his own apartment, Steve paced up and down the living room, phone in hand. He started searching the internet. Tony Stark… Tony Stark gay… catfishing… lying on the internet… photoshop. 

It was all so damning. Everything about their relationship fit perfectly. Tony's illness, the altered pictures and the ones stolen from social media, the way he wormed personal information out of Steve, even how quickly things had turned romantic, sexual. He also kept making promises he didn't keep - that he'd come visit, that he'd speakerphone Steve in with his friends, even last night's video chat idea - Steve was confident that would never happen, it had just been a nice thought at the time. Now it was one more lie.

And there'd been a lot of lies. And a lot of mysteries. Even his damn cats - Steve had pictures of them, but Tony Stark had tweeted two years ago that he was allergic to cats and to responsibility, and that was why he'd never have pets.

And how this person, whoever they really were, made Steve feel, like he was cared for, loved even. Why would some random stranger from a bike forum fall for Steve? It didn't make sense. But it did make sense that he'd been faking it, ramping things up, drawing Steve in. Every time Steve had pushed their relationship further, Tony had just accepted it. There was no conflict or disagreement, no misunderstanding. Every time Steve was sure he'd fucked it up, Tony assured him everything was fine. It was too good to be true. Tony was too good to be true.

Steve finally getting to have one fucking positive thing in his future life was too good to be true.

With hot, blurry eyes, Steve scrolled through his contacts until he got to Tony's name. He deleted Tony's email address, blocked his number, then deleted it too, tears finally breaking through when he saw their four-month conversation history disappear, leaving nothing but a blank page.

Chapter Text

Tony pressed his finger to the blood tester then sucked the pain away while it calculated. 28%. He shoved the tester aside and slumped down in his chair, turning his phone between his hands. He wanted to move, do something. There was a drive inside him that he couldn't find the source of, an itch that he couldn't quite scratch.

Normally, when he felt antsy like this, he'd call Steve and they'd talk about nothing until they were both sleepy and giggling. Or they'd jack off together. But Steve hadn't called him or even texted back in four days. 

Tony stared at the last text marked as "read". I don't know what I'd do without you. He huffed a sigh and rubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Idiot . As usual, he'd fallen way too fast, moved way too fast, and scared the other guy off. None of his past relationships had worked out, for exactly the same reason, and yet here he was doing it all over again. And life without Steve hurt. It ached deep in his chest in a way he didn't know was possible, like Steve had lived there and been carved out, another hole next to the arc reactor, but this one was dark, and quiet, and painful, and killing him in an entirely different way.

Maybe it was the phone sex. Steve had been so overwhelmed the first time Tony had suggested it that he'd hung up. Since then, he'd seemed nothing but into it all, and they'd tried so many new things, pushed so many boundaries and he hadn't backed down once. But maybe it was too fast. Maybe he just needed a break. Tony poked the edge of his phone, making it spin on the glass desktop. But even the time Steve had panicked, he'd still texted Tony back, called him the next day, apologized at least twice. Steve knew if he didn't want to have sex with Tony, he didn't have to, but he'd been the one to want it, hadn't he? Tony hadn't pushed. He'd laid the option out there and Steve had snatched it up. And it had been good… he thought.

Maybe it wasn't good.

The muscles in Tony's chest cramped and he slumped forward with a groan, letting his forehead rest against the cool glass. Dying of heavy metal poisoning was such a lame way to go. He'd been looking forward to the day when he'd get to call Steve and tell him he'd solved it, that he was going to be alright. He'd planned to buy a plane ticket to New York the second he had a solution in hand, so they could finally meet, go on an extravagant date that would hopefully end back at Tony's penthouse in Stark Tower, curled up on the couch with mugs of warm coffee, sharing a blanket, sharing a first kiss. 

But now, it seemed, that was never going to happen, for two reasons: Steve wasn't talking to him, and Tony had no idea how to solve the palladium problem. So, instead, he was going to die alone. He couldn't even enjoy a damn mug of coffee because the palladium had destroyed his sense of taste. Great.

"Hey, JARVIS? Have I done anything really stupid lately?"

"Well, your insistence on testing new technologies without proper eyewe-"

"No, no. I mean like in the news. Is there a chance Steve saw something that turned him off?"

A moment passed. "A preliminary scan shows nothing in any of the major publications, sir. Mentions of you have been rather quiet of late, in fact."

"Hmm." 

Too clingy, Stark. You're always too clingy, too fast. There was no other logical explanation, other than that Tony's desperate message had scared Steve off. The sex wasn't too much for Steve, the feelings were. 

**

After a week and a half had gone by, and still no message from Steve, Tony was only more convinced. Either something horrible had happened to Steve or he no longer wanted to talk to Tony. The first was such a painful thought, that Tony almost didn't want to know, but what if Steve was back in the hospital without his phone? Or what if they'd found out about his texting habits and re-locked it? Tony checked his old BikeForum account, but there was nothing.

"Hey, JARVIS. You know that security software we installed on Steve's phone?"

"Yes, sir?" J sounded disapproving already.

"Don't tell me anything. I just need you to check for activity. If his phone was taken away or relocked or something, he might need my help. Or if he's hurt or sick. I don't need the details, just - just tell me if he's alive, okay?"

JARVIS was quiet for too long. "His phone is still in use, sir. Unlocked and working normally. I can confirm that there are no signs of injury, illness, or interference."

That dug hard into Tony's chest, stabbing and serrated, ripping at the flesh behind the arc reactor. "Oh, fuck." He tipped his head down onto his arms as heat threatened the back of his eyes. Steve just didn't want to talk to him. That was all. Tony had scared him off, or he'd found someone else, someone real - maybe something finally happened with the hot neighbour. Maybe Steve has been humouring him for a while now, and his continued insistence that they shouldn't meet was too much. Though, even then, he couldn't imagine that Steve - good, kind, overly polite Steve - wouldn't tell him so. Wouldn't say, "Sorry Tony, but I have to break up with you."

Unless, of course, Steve had never seen it that way. He was lonely and struggling with his sexuality, and Tony had been simple. Until he'd gotten too involved, as usual, and Steve had bailed. Throbbing pain around the rim of the reactor reminded Tony of the other reason Steve might have bailed. Who wanted to be with a dead man walking? And Tony had been stupid enough to remind him of that on their last night too.  

A chime on the computer pulled Tony out of his downward spiral and he looked hopefully at the results, but they were no good. Another failed experiment. He'd been through everything. Nothing would run the reactor without killing him and without the reactor, he would die. "Fuck!" Tony chucked his phone across the room and it whacked into the wall, frustratingly failing to explode and instead just skittering across the concrete floor until it came to a stop.

"Hey, JARVIS? What are the plans for the expo this year?"

U started buzzing around the blender, mixing up chlorophyll juice while JARVIS filled screens with plans and schedules.

"Nah, that's too boring. I want to drop out of a plane or something."

"Sir, with only two weeks until the expo, I hardly think -"

"Throw money at it, J. Not like I can take it with me."

"Yes, sir." 

Great, now even his own damn AI was pissed at him. U trundled over and handed him a cup of green sludge. He drank it as quickly as he could, wincing at the taste, rubbing his fingers around the edge of the reactor. He lifted his shirt and poked at the flaking skin. "Should I soak it again today, J?"

"I would recommend that, yes. Additionally, if you're planning on using the Iron Man suit for the expo, I would advise using it as little as possible in the interim."

"Well… as much as that's possible, I guess. Start another bath running."

The water ached as the heat seeped into Tony's sore chest, but he forced himself to stay still and not fidget. The additives J had ordered were helping keep the symptoms at bay. 

But last time he'd been in the bath, suffering through the heat and the itch of it, Steve had been on the phone with him, joking, flirting, laughing. This time, Tony let the tears fall. He'd fallen in love, there was no way around it, and Steve didn't want him back, apparently didn't miss him or care about him the way Tony did. He knew dying was going to suck, but he'd thought he'd at least have a chance to have a little fun on the way out. A little love.

"JARVIS," he croaked, when the sobs had stopped shaking him where he sat, sweating and achy, "make a list of all the things we need to start giving away. It needs to be spread out or people will get too suspicious too fast. Things like art and real estate, any trust or investments that have to be sorted out. I'll try to offload as many as I can as donations to worthwhile organizations - oh hey, make a list of those too - but some are going to have to be sold. I don't want poor Rhodey to have to wade through absolutely everything as executor. We can start making it easy for him. Set aside some money for Steve. If he doesn't want it, donate it to his hospital."

Tony tapped his fingers against the glass cover, thinking.

"Actually… Pep will be mad about the art. Is there some way we can give it to her without -" Tony was cut off by his phone ringing. "Who is it?"

"It's Miss Potts, sir."

"Oh shit, speak of the angel. Put her through."

"Good afternoon, Mr. Stark." Pepper sounded chipper, and it brightened Tony's mood significantly, only to have it come crashing down again, when she asked, "How are you?"

"Fine, Pep. Always fine."

"Is that water?"

"I'm in the bath."

There was a long pause, then she nearly whispered, "I thought you couldn't -?"

He couldn't, for a long time after the cave, but the pain of the palladium poisoning had forced him to get over it. That wasn't something he could admit to Pepper, though. It would destroy her to know. "Yeah - I guess, for a while. But I twisted when I should have bent the other day and now this is the only thing helping. As long as I keep my head out -"

"You're hurt? Tony, you should have said something. I'll call the doctor. God, I'm spending way too much time on SI stuff and not enough on -"

"No. No, Pep. No doctor. I'm fine. Just a back twinge."

"At your age, you should really see a physiotherapist, considering what you do in that damn metal suit of yours. I -"

Tony groaned. And dropped his face into his hands. "No need to remind me about the age, Miss Potts. I'm perfectly aware. I don't need physio, I don't need a doctor, and you're right to be focusing on the company. It needs you right now. This - this Iron Man stuff has me distracted. You're the only one holding things together."

"Mr. Star- Tony, please -" It was the ache in Pepper's voice, all too similar to the pressure in Tony's chest, that had him breaking. He couldn't do this. He couldn't put her through all the pain and suffering of him dying. There were only three people he cared that much about and Steve had made it clear he didn't care anymore, if he ever had, Rhodey was too far away to see the issues, and that left Pepper. At his side, every day, caring, arranging, fixing, Pepper. If she figured this out, she'd become a tornado of make-it-better, and when she couldn't, when Tony died anyway, she'd be devastated.

"Pep!" he said brightly. "Not your business, okay? If I asked you to get me a doctor, then it would be, but it's not."

She was quiet for a moment. "Of course, Mr. Stark."

Tony tried not to wince at her cold tone. She needed space from him. If he pushed her away gently now, it would hurt less at the end. "What did you need?"

"I got three calls about the expo. Something about an airplane and girls doing a dance routine?"

"Sounds about right." Tony adjusted himself in the bath, wincing as the water lapped up his sides. He looked down at the dark, angry lines that formed a pattern across his chest. "I saw what was planned and I thought it could use a little Stark flair, you know, make dear old Dad proud."

Pepper sighed. "Fine. I'll see what I can do."

"You're the best, Miss Potts. Gotta go. There's a bottle of something amber with my name on the bottom."

"Take care of yourself, Tony."

The line clicked off, and Tony leaned back against the edge of the tub, squeezing his eyes closed. "J? That art collection? Don't save it for Pep. Donate it. Somewhere that will piss her off."

"Sir, may I -"

"Mute." Tony tapped his fingers against the edge of the tub. His chest throbbed as the heat seeped through his skin.

Chapter Text

Steve's alarm blared through his bedroom, and he smacked his hand at it until it turned off. He rolled back over and tugged the blanket over his head. 

It was two hours into his allotted gym time when Ellen texted the first time. She texted every fifteen minutes after that. Finally, after the eighth text, Steve wrote her back.

>>> Sick. Not coming in today. 

Steve attributed the long pause that followed to Ellen trying to figure out how to remind Steve that he couldn't get sick. 

Okay, she finally wrote back. Take care of yourself. 

Steve wondered if she'd talked to Fury or just made an executive decision to take him at his clearly false word. 

He felt sick, though. His stomach churned and his breath was tight, lungs sore. Everything ached and the sheets were sandpaper against his skin. He thought it would get better, with time. He thought a few weeks' distance from Tony would soften the blow, but instead it only got worse with every morning that he woke up without his notification light blinking. 

Steve picked up his phone and wriggled further under the covers, unable to resist clicking to Tony Stark's twitter feed. He was posting about the expo, talking about how excited he was for innovation. Steve scrolled through it until he couldn't deny that he was looking for evidence that Tony had really been Tony. But there was nothing. No mentions of his illness, no mentions of a partner, no mentions of being into men. He didn't talk about having pets, didn't talk about Pepper - Tony Stark's PA wasn't even called Pepper, her name was Virginia - didn't post any vague tweets about having his heart broken. Many of the pictures were familiar to Steve, but they were all old; Tony Stark hadn't posted a selfie in a long, long time. 

When his stomach rumbled, Steve pushed himself out of bed and pulled on dirty sweatpants. The fridge was empty, but his unlocked phone could order food that didn't have to go through Ellen first. While he was scrolling through his options, Steve's mind wandered down the hall. He wasn't actually alone. He did still have one friend - and he'd been ignoring her terribly since he found Tony. It was time he went over and apologized. Maybe she'd be up for coffee; they hadn't done that in a while.

Steve pulled on a sweater that wasn't too ratty and left his door open while he padded down the hall to hers. He knocked, but there was no answer. He knocked again, and the door rattled in a way that gave him pause. It wasn't locked. Come to think of it, he hadn't seen Nadia around in a few days…

Steve's Cap instincts kicked in and he turned the doorknob, calling out her name, but he cut himself off as he opened the door and saw the apartment.

It was empty.

Not just no-one-was-home empty, but completely unoccupied. All of Nadia's furniture was gone, her clothes, her books, everything. She'd moved out, and never said goodbye.

Steve stood there for a long time, too long, just staring, then he turned on his heel, slammed the door shut, and crawled straight back into bed. He slept for fourteen hours straight.

**

When Steve woke next, it was dark out and his whole body hurt like he'd been running for hours. His first instinct was to reach for his phone, scroll through his new messages, but there wouldn't be any he wanted to see, so he left it where it was. Humiliation, shame, and pure hurt rolled through his body in hot and cold waves, leaving nausea and a dull ache with every tide. He pushed himself out of bed, determined not to let this flatten him completely, but the room spun like it used to when he was chronically anemic and he sat there on the edge of his mattress, feet nestled on a messy slump of dirty clothes and tried to figure out where he'd gone wrong.

Every step of the way was the answer, he decided. He should never have used Luke's computer, never have hidden it from SHIELD. He shouldn't have talked to Tony after the wiring on the bike was done, and he should never, never, have let a stranger have access to his phone. 

And on top of all of that, he shouldn't have given his heart away. Not just because he didn't know for sure who Tony was, but because it wasn't worth it. The pain and loss and heartbreak just wasn't worth it. Dr. Tully had told him he'd made good progress recovering from losing Peggy, losing Bucky. What would she say about this? What should he tell her? Probably nothing. Though, he'd compromised SHIELD security by letting a stranger have access to his phone. There was no telling what the fake Tony might have looked at, might have taken, and that didn't even come close to worrying about the less than delicate photographs Steve had sent of himself. Thank god, they'd never really included a clear shot of his face.

He also had to believe that Tony, whoever he was, didn't know that Steve was Captain America. Catfish trawled the seas of the internet looking for anyone gullible enough to fall for their tricks. There was no way he would have known who he caught. Unless, again, the phone had given Steve away.

He pushed thoughts of repercussions out of his head - he'd have to talk to someone about it, surely, Coulson or Fury, and confess - but, for now, he was on a sick day and he was determined to use it focusing on himself and not on SHIELD.

His stomach flipped again as he pushed up and shuffled to the bathroom to blink and sigh his way through his morning routine. He'd never gone this long without eating, which probably explained most of the nausea and the aches and pains he was suffering through, but food held no appeal. And yet… cooking was something he'd discovered with Tony, something he'd liked to do while on the phone with him. He'd sent him pictures of the recipes he tried and Tony would "ooh" and "ahh" and wish out loud that he could come try them. 

Steve really had come to love cooking, though, and if he stepped away from it now, determined to think of nothing that might lead to Tony, he'd likely never find his way back to it, tainted forever. He knew how easy it was to pop a square of frozen lasagna in the microwave and watch it spin and hum. That had been him for months, and as much as everything hurt right now, he didn't want to go back to that.

He'd already bought everything he needed to make macaroni and cheese - from scratch, not the boxed kind - and even though his stomach lurched a bit at the thought of eating it, he dragged himself to the kitchen and started pulling out milk and cheese and butter with nearly ferocious determination.

It was slow and it was tiring, but it gave his mind something to do other than twist around and around in circles about Tony, so in some ways, it was a much-needed break. When the timer went off for the last time, Steve pulled the casserole dish out and stared down at what he'd made. It was lovely, crispy and brown on the top, creamy underneath, with enough cheese that he could make up his lost calories pretty easily, if only he could eat some of it but… he just wasn't hungry. 

He scooped a small amount into a bowl and made a valiant effort to eat it in front of the TV, but it tasted like nothing and didn't sooth the acidic churn in his belly. In the end, it all went in the fridge, waiting in vain for when his appetite would return. 

Steve wrapped himself in a blanket and put one of his favourite nature documentaries on. He turned off his phone, and just let time pass.

**

Steve played sick for three days, his fridge accumulating tupperware mountains of uneaten, home-cooked food, before he decided SHIELD wasn't going to take his shit much longer. He packed his bag and made his way down to HQ. If Ellen was surprised to see him, she hid it well, but she did tell him that Coulson wanted Steve in his office as soon as he was back. 

Steve trudged down the hallway towards Coulson's office, but a familiar voice had him stop a few feet before the door. Was that -? And then the door opened and he froze.

"Nadia?"

It was Nadia, but it also wasn't. She was dressed in a SHIELD tac suit, weapon holsters dotted down her legs, long hair drawn up in a tight knot. She still carried herself like a dancer, but Steve could see the threat in it now. 

"Cap…" She met his eyes, tight and stiff. 

"You're a SHIELD agent." The sad wallowing of the last three days snapped into fierce rage. Wasn't there one damn person in this century that would tell him the truth? Steve's fist itched to connect with the wall next to him. "You were lying to me all this time?"

"Steve, please." Nadia stepped closer, reaching a hand out as if to touch him, but he jerked backwards, away from her. "SHIELD wanted to keep an eye on you. Keep you safe."

"I confided in you. And you were spying on me this whole time?" Steve hissed, aware that Coulson's sharp ears were just through the adjacent door. "What? Did you send in a report every time I left the damn apartment? Have me bugged? For fucks sake - I don't even know your name, do I?"

"It's Natasha," she said quietly. "Natasha Romanoff. And it wasn't a lie. I really was - am - your friend, Steve.  They sent me to keep an eye on you, to help keep you safe, not to spy on you."

"Oh, cause now I'm just supposed to believe you?" A knot swelled in Steve's throat. He snapped out, "You didn't even say goodbye. You just left."

"I'm sorry. I wanted to, but I needed to leave in a hurry. I was put on emergency assignment. Tony Stark was letting the palladium -"

The name dug deep into Steve's chest, and a growl leaked out before he could stop it. He shoved Natasha against the wall, making her choke back a pained gasp, and he sucked air through his teeth until he didn't feel like he was going to break her in half. "I don't ever want to see you again." He released her then stalked down the hall and into Coulson's office. 

Coulson was leaning back in his desk chair, fingers steepled in his lap, face impassive. He wasn't trying to hide that he heard what Steve had said out in the hall. "Captain Rogers," he said calmly.

"You sent her to spy on me," Steve gritted out. 

"Did you really think there was any chance we'd put you in a civilian apartment complex alone? That wouldn't be safe for you or the building's residents."

Steve's anger was cut off at the knees. He wanted to pick up Coulson's desk and throw it across the room, but it wasn't really his fault. Of course they'd have put an agent in. Steve was actually mad at himself for being so stupid. Stupid enough to believe that Nadia really liked him. Stupid enough to believe that Tony really liked him. He sat down hard in the chair across from Coulson. "You wanted to see me, sir?" 

"You took three days of sick leave."

Steve shrugged. "Everyone else gets sick leave. It hardly seems fair that I don't, just because I can't get sick. You can't tell me none of your other agents use their sick days just because they need a break."

"Of course not. You're entitled to whatever leave you want, Captain. But you told Ellen you were sick." He paused for a significant amount of time. "Is there anything you want to tell me? Are your sessions with Dr. Tully going well? If you need a break, a vacation, that's something we can provide. We could send you somewhere restorative… Hawaii? California?"

California… a month ago, Steve would have jumped at the chance to go to California. He would have texted Tony, told him he was being sent on a business trip and they could finally meet, illness be damned. Only now, he knew why Tony would have said no, why it never would have happened. "I don't need a vacation," Steve bit out. "I'm fine now. I just - I was tired. I needed a break. I've had it - I can go back to work."

"Alright…" Coulson looked uncomfortable for the first time since Steve had met him. "If there's something going on in your personal life -"

"There's nothing," Steve snapped. "I suppose you don't have many agents on hand who were frozen in a block of ice for seventy years, but it takes a bit of a toll. I can't always be your perfect Captain America."

"We understand that. No one's asking you to be."

"Alright then." They stared at each other in tense silence for a while. Steve had been so sure that he was mere days away from being asked to go into the field, maybe even just as strategy support at HQ, but it was something. There was no chance of that now. 

And sure enough, Coulson nodded slowly and said, "Okay, then. Back to your training modules, Captain. And next time you need a break, all you have to do is ask."

Steve pushed his chair back with a squeak then paused. "Sir? I… I've been learning a bit more about technology and security. Nadi - Natasha was helping me figure some stuff out, and it made me realize - my phone… if I - uh - lost it? I haven't, but if someone got it. I don't know - I don't know if it's safe, or -"

Coulson took pity on him. "There's nothing compromising on your phone, Captain, unless you've been saving classified documents to it? Your assistant has been trained to keep communications ambiguous, and the only thing you can access that might be telling is your online schedule, which is coded. We knew it might be... difficult for you to pick everything up at once, so we restricted your phone so you wouldn't have to worry about internet security. That being said -" he smiled "- if you lose it, we would still like to know."

"Right. Thank you, sir." Steve grit his teeth, turned on his heel and did everything he could not to stomp out of Coulson's office. Deep, fiery anger still burned inside him; anger at Nadia, anger at Tony, anger at SHIELD, and worst of all, anger at himself.

He had modules with recruits, and after he'd given two of them black eyes, sprained one's wrist, and made the other cry, he fled to his own gym and pounded his fists into heavy bags until his knuckles bled and he almost, almost couldn't feel the hole dug out of his chest where Tony used to be.

**

"And how's Bessie going?" Dr. Tully asked, a well-masked edge of sheer desperation in her voice.

"Fine." Steve didn't want to be here. He wanted to be at home in bed or at the gym, beating the shit out of a punching bag. She'd tried to talk about everything, from training to Natasha, to Coulson, to Steve's past, but he wasn't having any of it. It all seemed so futile. What was the point in trying to get better when the world was just going to keep screwing him over on every front? What was the point in doing what SHIELD wanted when they weren't ever going to put him back in the field?

Dr. Tully sighed softly. "Are you sure there isn't anything else you want to talk to me about? I'm here for you, Steve. Whatever you need."

Steve stood. "You're here for SHIELD. I'm fully aware that if it was in SHIELD's best interest to keep me messed up and crazy, that's what you'd be doing. So don't lie to me."

She considered him for a moment. "It's in SHIELD's best interest to have you happy and healthy, Steve. So luckily we don't have to worry about who I'm working for, I am here for you." She gestured to Steve's chair but he didn't sit. He'd been playing this game long enough.

"Well, thank you for doing your best, but apparently that isn't possible. Tell your boss that they can put me in the field or cut me off but I'm done with this shit." He grabbed his jacket and walked out, careful not to slam the door behind him.

SHIELD did neither. Steve's pass still worked, and Ellen still texted him the next day. His therapy appointments still showed up on his schedule, but he didn't go, and no one mentioned it to him. 

**

The next six months were as stagnant as being in the ice. Steve wished they were as cold too, but instead everything burned. SHIELD work held no interest for him, training was only an excuse to burn off energy, and Bessie - though nearly finished - gathered dust alone in the garage. Steve spent every hour that he could in the SHIELD gym, sneaking back after the work day was over to tire his body enough that he could manage to sleep for an hour or two. He never saw Dr. Tully in the halls; he saw Na tasha quite frequently, though her apartment stayed empty. He thought it would hurt more, losing his only friend, but her hurt just piled on top of Tony's hurt until it was all a mush of edgeless pain and loss that he couldn't swim up out of.

At first, Steve tried on denial, tried to forget Tony, push him out of his mind, tell himself that it wasn't that big of a deal, but it didn't last long. Now, he spent every day working out and every night scrolling endlessly through Tony Stark's social media, SI's twitter, Expo news, Iron Man reports, paparazzi spottings - anything. Why did his tormentor choose this man's face as his own? How did he know that that smile, those eyes would be what Steve needed to fall head over heels in love? How much of it had been a lie? Everything? Even the sex?

And then, on the bad nights, he wondered, what if he'd been wrong? What if Tony was real, just using Stark's pictures to cover for a face he was scared to share. He'd been dying… what if he'd died alone, never knowing why Steve had disappeared completely. Maybe thinking Steve had died too - perhaps that was all for the best.

But then Steve would remember another lie, read another article on catfishing and how the experts would lure in even the most skeptical of internet users with careful stories and beautiful pictures and open hearts, and it would cut through him again.

He watched Stark date - always women - watched him grin at the cameras and flirt with his assistant. He watched Stark get drunk and destroy his penthouse apartment on his birthday through shaky camera phones. He watched the company get handed over to Miss Potts as Stark threw himself more and more into frivolity. That wasn't his Tony. It couldn't be. His Tony cared and loved and whispered words that tore Steve down to his core being.

His Tony was a lie.

Steve slammed his phone down and pushed out of bed. He wouldn't be sleeping tonight. He pulled on sweatpants and a t-shirt, packed up his gym bag, and slipped out of his apartment. He walked the quiet city blocks to SHIELD HQ and scanned in, then went straight to the gym. He unlocked the closet where his reinforced punching bags were stored and set the first one up. 

Every thump of his fist against the stiff fabric reverberated up his arm and spun through every muscle. He had a body. He was alive. 

Thump-thump. Everything he loved was taken away from him: his ma, Bucky, his career, Peggy, his home, Tony, Nadia - everything. Love was claws that dug in and tore you open, revealed your soft, beating heart to the world so it could stomp on it over and over. Love was dangerous. Anger was easy. Anger was safe. Steve knew how to do anger. 

Thump-thump-THUMP. He moved faster and faster as he hit his rhythm, a hot sweat finally breaking out on his brow. 

"Trouble sleeping?"

Steve only paused his onslaught long enough to register that he'd heard Fury's words. He squared up again. "I slept for seventy years, sir. I think I've had my fill." Not to mention that he couldn't sleep, couldn't close his eyes and wake up again in a world where he was so alone it ached like a hole inside him.

"Then you should be home, relaxing. You've earned it."

Earned wormed down Steve's spine, gripping his stomach and twisting it. If what he got was what he deserved, he was a horrible person. He reached out and stilled the bag, chest heaving with rough breaths. He sat on the nearby bench and started unraveling tape from his bloody knuckles. "I went under, the world was at war, I wake up, they say we won. They didn't say what we lost."

"We've made some mistakes along the way." Fury paused significantly. "Some very recently."

Steve eyed the manila folder in his hand. "Do you finally have a mission for me, sir?

"I do."

It should have felt good, felt like an accomplishment to finally win what he'd been fighting for for months now, but it felt like a defeat instead. "What made you decide I was ready?"

"That decision was taken out of my hands." Fury tossed the folder on the bench beside Steve, and he picked it up and opened it. He didn't even have to read it. The photo pinned to the front page was enough. A glowing blue cube. 

"Hydra's secret weapon."

"Howard Stark fished that out of the ocean when he was looking for you. He thought what we think, the Tesseract could be the key to unlimited sustainable energy. That's something the world sorely needs."

Unlimited sustainable energy. Steve couldn't help but think about Tony Stark and his press releases. He'd just put Stark Tower on some sort of sustainable energy source. "Who took it from you?" Steve flipped through the pages, skimming.

"He's called Loki. He's not from around here. There's a lot we'll have to bring you up to speed on, if you're in. The world has gotten even stranger than you already know."

Steve paused. "Oh? I finally deserve to know what's going on in the world outside these walls?"

"It was never about deserve, Captain. We were only trying to protect you."

Steve snorted. "Good job. I feel very coddled right now, what with all the goose down pillows, peeled grapes, and girls with palm fronds. Never felt safer in my life."

"Well, if you think we're doing it wrong, if you want to get involved, now's your chance. You in?"

Steve flicked the folder shut. It was better to go down fighting to save the world than to wither away in your own bed of a broken heart. "I'm in." He picked up the remaining unbroken heavy bag and started dragging it back towards the closet.  

"Is there anything you can tell us about the Tesseract that we ought to know now?" Fury called after him.

Steve paused, half turning to look over his shoulder back at Fury. "You should have left it in the damn ocean."

You should have left me in the damn ocean too.

Chapter Text

Coulson gave Steve a bundle of files to read on the flight to the helicarrier. On paper. 

He eyed the tablets sitting on the console in the centre of the quinjet, but didn't say anything.

Natasha's file was on top, as if they'd stacked them that way so he'd have to rip the band-aid off before moving on to the rest of the SHIELD team assigned to Loki and the tesseract, as it was apparently called. Barton, a special ops archer, of all things, had been watching over the research team, but Loki had charmed him with some sort of magic - and that was something Steve didn't want to think about too hard - and taken him away. Steve studied Barton's face carefully. In a fight, he didn't want to risk hurting someone who wasn't there of his own free will. Though, if Barton was anything to go on, it seemed no one following Loki had free will. Natasha was listed as Barton's partner, and Steve couldn't help but wonder if she'd ever told Steve stories about Barton, maybe under the guise of a fellow dancer. He wasn't sure if that would make it better or worse.

Next up was Bruce Banner, a gamma radiation scientist. And… creature. Steve flipped through the reports on the Hulk's activities with a sour churn in his stomach. He couldn't help the passing thought - what if Captain America had his own agenda, his own needs, a rage like that? To be split… Steve already felt split in two, most of the time, it was deeply painful to think about being like that all the time. And from all accounts, Banner was a kind man, when he was himself.

Steve folded the files shut and tossed them aside. He wondered for the eight hundredth time if he was really ready for this. Maybe he never would be, but it hardly mattered. He'd been asked to step up; there was no other choice.

**

Steve hit the ground running, flinging his shield across the square where they found Loki, a crowd of people on their knees in front of him. But Loki wasn't easy to bring to his own knees, and after a few hits, Steve couldn't help wondering if he was going to be enough.

Loki smacked him to the ground again. Steve's breaths came in heavy pants as he pushed himself up only to hear music suddenly fill the square. It took a moment for him to realize that it was coming through his comm, like somehow their private frequency had picked up a local rock radio station. 

But it was shortly followed by the rush of flight as something came in hot behind Steve. He turned to look, and there it was: the Iron Man armour.

So this was Tony Stark, though most of the world didn't know that. This was the man who belonged to the face that Steve's tormentor had used as his own. Fury must have called him in too, whoever he could find to help.

Iron Man hit the ground with a crash, firing some sort of energy beam at Loki as he did so. Loki was flung backwards, landing in a sprawl on the ground, and Iron Man unfolded like origami, weapons appearing out of every crack and crevice. "Make your move Reindeer Games."

Loki, smartly, surrendered.

In the quinjet, they got the Asgardian settled on a bench, and then Stark flicked open the faceplate on the Iron Man armour.

Steve wasn't prepared. He wasn't ready for the man looking back at him to have those same soft eyes, the same curve to his jaw. He stared, helpless.

Stark caught him looking, eyes narrowing. "Can I help you? They did tell you, didn't they? I thought all the SHIELD folks knew. My worst kept secret."

"Pardon?"

"That I'm Iron Man? He's not my bodyguard? You've read the files, right?"

Steve blinked and forced himself to look away. This wasn't his Tony. This man was hard, harsh. His words, even his voice, sounded similar, but the tone was anything but. Stark was ruder, rougher, sharper, and his cool smile didn't meet his eyes. More of a smirk. It dug deep into Steve's chest and twisted. How could he let go and move on when he had to stand beside his ex-lover's doppelganger?

"Sorry," he muttered. "Yeah, I've read it." A lie - he couldn't bring himself to, but he knew that Stark was Iron Man and that Nadia- tasha had left her assignment with him to help Stark with something. He didn't want to know more. He fumbled for an excuse for his blatant ogling. "Just - I didn't know Fury was calling you in."

Stark barked out a cruel laugh. "Yeah, get used to him not telling you things."

Thunder rumbled through the sky, and it was a while before Steve had a chance to think about Tony again.

**

With Loki in containment, and Stark and Banner working on… something - tracking radiation, or something - there wasn't much for Steve to do. He took a room in the helicarrier and cleaned up a bit, lay down on a cot and tried to take a nap, but it wasn't happening. His mind kept wandering back to Tony, then Stark and Iron Man, and back to Tony again. 

If the man he'd loved had been real, in any capacity, even if he'd been wearing another's face, he'd be dead by now. He'd made it clear he wouldn't survive his heart condition. So if that, at least, had been the truth, he was gone. What if, behind the mask, he was someone Steve could have loved? He knew what to say, how to react. All those nights together - was anyone that good an actor? He'd lied about so much, but maybe some of it had been real and Steve had just cut him off, too afraid, never given him a chance to peel off his disguise. Maybe it could have worked. Then again, maybe the real Tony had never felt anything at all for Steve. 

Steve pushed up off the cot and slipped out of the room. He couldn't just sit there and do nothing while Barton was missing, while HYDRA's weapon was missing, and Loki had been captured all too easily.

He wandered the halls, looking for something to occupy his churning mind, and he turned a corner to find the hallway wasn't empty. Natasha was sitting on the floor, legs splayed out in front of her, a hand on each of her thighs. His first urge was to turn and walk away, leave her to her private musings, but she'd lost her friend, her partner. He couldn't leave anyone like this. "Are you alright?"

Natasha's gaze snapped up to his then she nodded, looked away again. "I'm fine. We'll get him back." She put a hand to the floor and pushed up to her feet. "I'm sorry, you know? For what I did to you. I can't say I'd take it back if I could, because I still think it was the right thing to do, but I know I hurt you, and I'm sorry for that. SHIELD was terrified of you, on all fronts. If it means anything at all, I only reported back on stuff that was critical or dangerous. I didn't tell them all the details of your personal life."

Steve turned to lean back against the wall, crossing his arms as he rolled that around in his mind. "I didn't give you all the details of my personal life."

She laughed lightly. "All for the best, I guess. Anyway, for what it's worth, I really did consider you a friend. Nadia isn't all that different from me. I knew they'd bring you in the loop eventually, so…" She shrugged.

"Thank you," Steve said, his own honestly surprising him. He couldn't recover what he'd had with Tony, but there'd been another friendship in his life before that, one he'd given up on all too easily, perhaps. One that could still be saved. "I appreciate you telling me that. And I - I forgive you. Not like I didn't lie, too."

Natasha smiled, small and soft. "Neither of us would have had to lie if we'd both known about each other."

Steve held out his hand, and she looked at it for a moment then clasped it with hers. "Well, now we do, right? No more lying?"

She nodded. "No more lying. If I need to keep a secret, I'll tell you instead of making something up."

"Thank you." He released her hand. "It was bad timing, you know. I'd just been lied to very badly by the only other person I considered a friend. I might have been more forgiving if I'd found out another time."

She tilted her head in curiosity, but didn't ask. "I'm sorry."

Steve tipped forward, away from the wall. "I'm just glad you and I have the chance to move past it."

"Me too."

"Friends?" he offered.

"Absolutely."

"I might call you Nadia sometimes by mistake," Steve said, finding a cheeky grin.

She smiled and shook her head. "I don't mind. I can be Nadia for you." She reached out and patted his arm. Then she sighed, shoulder sagging. "I need to take a shower or something."

"Alright." She turned to go. "Hey, Nat?" he called after her.

"Yeah?"

"We're going to find him."

She smiled again, this time tinged with fear and gratitude. "Thank you."

Steve returned to wandering the halls. He tried to resist the urge to walk past the lab where he knew Stark and Banner were working, but as it approached, he couldn't make his feet go the other way. Things had gone so well with Natasha, maybe, just maybe, he could find it in himself to forgive Stark for not being who he wanted him to be.

He peeked through the door just in time to catch the man in question prodding Dr. Banner with something sharp.

"Ow!"

Stark peered at him. "Nothing?"

"Hey!" Steve stomped into the lab. The were supposed to be finding Barton and instead Stark was antagonizing the most dangerous weapon in the whole helicarrier. "Are you nuts?"

Stark ignored him. He focused on Banner. "You really have got a lid on it, haven't you? What's your secret? Mellow jazz? Bongo drums? Huge bag of weed?"

"Is everything a joke to you?" Steve snapped at him.

Stark finally turned towards him, eyes dark and head tilted in false supplication. "Funny things are."

Things didn't improve after that. 

Steve tried to keep his composure, tried to stay professional, to prove - if to no one else, to himself - that he was worth putting in the field. But every time Stark opened his mouth, snapped out another quip, rolled his eyes, Steve completely lost his cool.

Stark was snarky and rude, dismissive and cold towards Steve and full of nothing but disdain towards Captain America, and every time he was Tony Stark, but wasn't Tony, Steve's heart clenched with pain.

They pulled it together when the helicarrier got hit. They barely kept it together when they kept the entire thing from falling out of the sky.

No one held it together when they heard about Coulson.

"Is this the first time you've lost a soldier?"

"We are not soldiers!" Stark took a sharp breath. "I am not marching to Fury's fife."

"Neither am I!" Steve snapped back. "He's got the same blood on his hands as Loki does. Right now we've got to put that aside and get this done." He just wanted to go back to his apartment and never leave. "Now Loki needs a power source, if we can put together a list…"

Stark's eyes cut over to the blood-stained. "He made it personal."

"That's not the point."

"That is the point. That's Loki's point. He hit us all right where we live. Why?"

Steve kicked the railing with the point of his boot. "To tear us apart." It wasn't hard. They were barely a wet paper bag of a team.

"He had to conquer his greed, but he knows he has to take us out to win, right?" Stark seemed to be talking more to himself than to Steve. "That's what he wants. He wants to beat us and he wants to be seen doing it. He wants an audience."

"Right, I caught his act at Stuttgart."

"Yeah. That's just a preview, this is opening night. Loki's a full-tilt diva. He wants flowers, he wants parades, he wants a monument built in the skies with his name plastered…" Tony cut off, staring at the wall. "Son of a bitch!"

**

It was nothing like the war.

These weren't men they were fighting, they were creatures, or maybe machines, powerful and unpredictable and terrifying.

And there were civilians everywhere. Unprepared and unexpecting, fleeing and swarming and hiding in the worst places possible. Steve fought with everything he had, and the onslaught never lessened. If anything, it was the Chitauri who were gaining ground.

As long as the sky was torn open, they would keep pouring in.

Natasha's voice cut through the roar of battle. "I can close it! Can anybody hear me? I can shut the portal down!"

"Do it!" Steve yelled back.

"No, wait!" And Steve knew that was Iron Man's voice, but even through the suit it was painfully similar to Tony's.

"These things are still coming!"

"I got a nuke coming in, it's gonna blow in less than a minute. And I know just where to put it."

Steve turned to the sky in shock. A nuke? He took a blow to the side of the head and forced himself back into battle. One enemy at a time, knock em down, move on. Through the comm he could still hear the chatter of the rest of the team.

Iron Man went through the portal, and he came back falling. In that moment, Steve saw Tony. He wasn't. He wasn't the man he fell in love with, but he wore his face and when the portal closed on the other side of his limp body, relief coursed through Steve like a drug. Please be okay, he begged as Thor ripped off the faceplate. Steve set his hand over the blue glow in the centre of Iron Man's chest.

"RAAAAAGHHHHH," the Hulk screamed and everyone startled, even Stark.

Steve's heart skipped back to life.

Stark gasped in several wild breaths. "What the hell? What just happened?"

Steve rocked back on his heels, face turned up to a now-clear sky. "We won."

**

Getting shawarma with the team was nice until Steve was struck with the still raw urge to tell Tony about another food he'd tried for the first time. He slipped out of the conversation then, dropping his cheek to one fist to keep from falling face first into his basket of fries. It wasn't until Bruce said, "What about you, Steve?" that he checked back in.

"Pardon?"

"The tower," Stark said around a mouthful of pita. "You're all invited to live there. Unless the digs at SHIELD have the fancy soaps, in which case, by all means, stay there. I can't promise mints on your pillow but we're kind of at a crossroads here."

Natasha caught Steve's eye. "Half of us are SHIELD and half of us are free agents. This team only seems destined to work if we're all Avengers, instead of split."

"I'm still responsible for my people on Asgard," Thor reminded them. "But after I've returned Loki and discussed things with my father, I can be available to assist when need be. I find myself rather fond of your little, blue planet."

"Thanks, Baywatch." Stark pushed his food aside and wiped his hands with a napkin. "Well, I have about three hundred years worth of sleep to catch up on. Show up at the tower and my butler will let you in and show you your digs, otherwise… have a nice life, I guess. Go team." He turned and walked out, already bringing a phone up to his ear as he pushed the door open. Bruce shot them all an uncertain smile then trotted out after him. Steve watched through the window as Stark caught sight of him and threw an arm around his shoulders, leading him across the street while he seemed to manage talking on the phone and to Banner at the same time.

An odd pang of jealousy struck Steve, and he had to remind himself for the hundredth time that this man wearing Tony's face wasn't Tony. Stark didn't even date men, so there was nothing to be jealous of, even if it had been the real Tony Stark that he had feelings for.

"I should return to the SHIELD barracks to keep an eye on my brother," Thor said, following them out.

"You moving in?" Barton asked.

"I'm not sure yet…" Steve looked at Natasha and she nodded.

"We are, for now at least. We both need some distance to reassess some things. Going to keep a room at SHIELD, though. I'm sure you could keep your apartment, if you wanted."

"Yeah, sure. I'll think about it. Thanks. Good work, you two."

The spies stood and left as well, until Steve was the only one at the table. Stark had already paid and then some, so all Steve could do was clear the trash and offer to help clean up the store. But the owner wouldn't stop shaking his head, shoving handfuls of after-dinner mints into Steve's hands every time he offered and pushing him towards the door. In the end, overwhelmed by pockets filled with candy, Steve decided he was being more hindrance than help and left. 

He walked the several blocks back to his apartment. Fury would likely have preferred he go to the helicarrier, but SHIELD was busy and Steve was relatively useless if no one would let him push a broom. He took a long, hot shower then stood in his living room and stared at the little space.

He'd hated this apartment, at first, but now the thought of leaving it was making him feel somewhat nostalgic. And that alone meant he was considering leaving. Was he?

He thought about life at Stark's tower instead of here, with the rest of the team around him, talking and training and laughing. They'd know who he really was, at least some of it, and the rest he could tell them, eventually, maybe. He'd have a chance to truly rediscover a friend in Natasha, maybe even come to know Stark for who he really was.

In the end, the decision almost made itself. One minute, he was standing there, staring at the clothing all over the floor of his bedroom, and the next, he was throwing it in a duffel bag. There wasn't much to take. He packed his clothes, then piled everything that mattered to him on top of the bed. The toy Tony had sent him, he nearly threw away, but he ended up wrapping it in two pairs of sweatpants and hiding it at the bottom of the duffel. Everything else was SHIELD's - the kitchen supplies, the furniture - none of it mattered, and if he knew anything about Stark at all, the living arrangements at the tower would be fairly opulently furnished so there was no point in taking the shabby IKEA couch or his favorite spatula.

Actually - 

He added the spatula to the pile and surveyed it, hands on his hips. This would be good. If nothing else, it would be a change.

**

"What's this?" Fury gripped the white envelope between two fingers and waved it in Steve's direction.

"It's my resignation, sir."

"Your resignation? Captain America is resigning?"

"Not from being Captain America, sir. Just from SHIELD. I'm joining the Avengers, and while I understand that will mean still working very closely for and with SHIELD, I need everything else to be my own. I'm leaving the apartment, emptying my office here, setting up my own bank accounts. I'm not naive enough to think that it will all be simple, I was dead for seventy years after all, I'm sure being government property made some of the paperwork easier but…"

"You're ready for some freedom?" Fury quirked an eyebrow, expression otherwise unreadable.

"Yes, sir. And I'd appreciate your help with that."

Fury watched him for a moment then nodded, short and sharp. "Alright. I can't argue with that. You were never government property, Cap, you know that right? What you were was unprecedented."

"I understand. And I'm grateful for everything you did for me. I know it was well meant."

"But now you're kicking yourself out of the nest, hmm? Or at least flapping over to another one. Aren't you afraid you'll just end up relying on Stark?" Fury raised an eyebrow.

Steve shrugged. "Maybe. Won't know until I try it."

"And you are all about trying new things now, aren't you?" Fury stood and held out his hand. Steve shook it. "Good luck."

"Thank you, sir."

Steve couldn't help smiling to himself as he walked down the hall away from Fury's office. He'd thought there might have been a fight, or at least an argument, but Fury let him go almost as if he was expecting it. Maybe it was what he'd been waiting for all this time, for Steve to want freedom badly enough that he'd ask for it. Steve had always seen himself as trapped in a room surrounded by locked doors leading to a future he couldn't access, but he'd honestly never tried asking for the keys. 

Steve pushed the elevator call button and waited in the hall, watching the lights glow in turn as the elevator climbed towards him. He thought it would feel bittersweet, leaving, but it didn't. It just felt right.

The elevator chimed and the doors slid open to reveal Natasha. She smiled. "Hey, Steve."

"Hi, Nat." He stepped in beside her. "Good news."

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yup. We're going to be neighbours again."

Chapter Text

The tower buzzed with activity from top to bottom and it was making Tony's head throb. It didn't help that he was still feeling the after effects of the battle and his brief pass into oxygen deprivation, but it was also just straight up uncomfortable to run into an electrician or a plumber or an Avenger everywhere he went. It would calm down, eventually, but it also didn't help that it was going to be three more weeks before the penthouse was repaired enough that he could move back in, and while the guest suite was lovely - he had designed it, after all - it wasn't home.

He had considered just hiking it back to LA for a while, but it seemed rude to offer the Avengers a place to stay and then not be there, though if he was entirely honest, he'd mostly been hiding  from everyone, anyway. And he knew he'd have to face them all, and soon. They had a team to build, after all, but he needed a little more courage - possibly of the liquid variety - before he was able to spend day in and day out with a buff, blond-haired man who shared the same name as his ex.

If he could even count Steve as his ex; maybe their entire relationship had all been in his head. But here was Captain America, and Tony couldn't very well offer room and board to everyone else and not him, who Tony had always hated a bit as a kid and meeting him hadn't softened that at all. 

His Steve might have been named after him, but they weren't alike at all. His Steve had been kind and funny and soft and understanding. At least until Tony had done whatever he'd done wrong and lost him.

This Steve was an asshole.

But this Steve had also moved into the tower that morning and Tony was afraid to leave his workshop in case he ran into him. He'd have to face him eventually, they were going to be working together, after all - and how did that happen? But Tony was still sore, and not just from the battle, and it seemed like it would be good for them both to be ships passing in the night for a while.

Tony had set JARVIS on a search for his Steve after the Chitauri battle, just to make sure he was okay, being in New York, but his phone had been deactivated. JARVIS continued the search in the background, finding Steve Rogers after Steve Rogers and discounting them all. Tony wasn't sure if he wanted him found or not - what if his name was on a list at a hospital? At a morgue?

Tony's phone buzzed on the desk and he twitched towards it then hesitated. There was still a part of him that expected it to be Steve every time. It wasn't though; it was Pepper.

>>> Lunch at Mimi's in an hour? We can either look at lobby redesigns or not talk about the tower at all. Your treat either way.

It brought a smile to Tony's face, despite all the weight pulling his expression down these days. He texted back, You got it, then started shutting down his projects. He could drive to Mimi's himself. By the time he hauled Happy away from his soaps, he'd be running late anyway, and he could use the exercise. "Which car needs a run, J?"

"If I may, the R8 Spyder has seemed especially pent up lately, sir."

"Perfect. Make sure she's gassed up and ready to go. I'm going to get changed." Tony paused by the elevator doors. "Uhh…"

"Currently, the other tower occupants have all taken to their quarters and the penthouse is clear, at the moment, while the renovation team focuses on the roof."

"Thanks, J." Tony stepped inside the elevator and leaned back as it rocketed him all the way up to the penthouse. He changed into something dazzling, in case there were photographers trying to catch sight of a churned up and pulpy Tony Stark after his big reveal as Iron Man during the battle. He wasn't sure if it was a relief or a stressor, having everyone know now. A bit of both, likely. A little makeup covered the worst of the bruises and his sunglasses covered everything else revealing.

The elevator had waited for him, and he stepped inside, eyes on his phone as it took him down to the garage. It was going to feel good to drive for a bit, even in city traffic. The Audi was at the end of the row, and Tony kept flicking through his notifications as he walked, but something different in the corner of his eye caught his attention halfway down the stretch of the garage and he stopped. He turned.

"What's that?"

"That is Captain Rogers' bike, sir."

Everything stopped. Tony hung there, frozen, phone held halfway up as he stared at the bike. It couldn't be - right? "JARVIS… tell me that's not a '41 WL. Tell me it's not. Tell me that bike is some other bike and not -" His voice was rough and uneven, breaking and cracking along with his heart. 

"It is a nineteen forty-one Harley, WL, sir."

"Is it -?" But Tony was already circling the bike to find the license plate. 

BS1E

He didn't realize he'd sunken to the floor until the cold from the concrete started seeping through his pants. He cleared his throat and blinked dry eyes. He'd been staring at the bike for who knew how long, hand over his mouth. "That's Bessie, isn't it?" he finally managed to croak out.

"I cannot guarantee it is the same bike, sir, however, nothing in the information we have from your past correspondence contradicts it. In all likelihood, yes, this is the same bike you helped Steve Rogers fix."

"Which means that my Steve is the same Steve who's living four floors beneath me and pretending we've never met."

"That seems so, sir, yes." JARVIS was quiet for a moment. "I am very sorry."

And that was what broke Tony, JARVIS' sympathy. Because even a damn computer could see how pathetic it was. "Fuck -" he shoved up to his feet and threw himself out of the garage. "Cancel lunch with Pepper. Tell her I'm - I don't know. Tell her something." Tony pushed open the door to the stairs and ran up and up until his heart was pounding painfully and he could barely catch his breath. He found the door to the workshop and threw himself through it. 

"I'm - I can't - there's -" Tony hauled in a breath that felt oxygenless and crumpled into his chair. "JARVIS - the reactor -"

"I've done a full diagnostic, sir. The reactor is functioning at normal levels. Breathe in slowly, sir, one breath at a time."

It was absurd advice, but Tony took it, focusing on pulling in one breath before trying the next. Before long, the room stopped spinning and he no longer felt like throwing up. It was him. It was really him. The entire time. It made sense, looking back on it, so much sense it was ridiculous he hadn't figured it out earlier. Steve's struggles with technology, his "special hospital program," all the pop culture he didn't understand. His blurry pictures may very well have been a protective measure as much as it was incompetence with a camera phone.

Rogers had stood there, on that damn helicarrier, knowing who he was, and he hadn't said jack shit. Hadn't even fucking told Tony he didn't want to talk about it, wanted to forget. Tony had never been worth an explanation. 

How could he train, live, fight beside this man and never know why one day he had just dropped Tony out of his life like garbage? 

But maybe he hadn't disappeared because of something Tony did. What if Steve Rogers had figured out that he'd be working alongside Tony Stark and suddenly their little, gay romp wasn't fun anymore but a risk to his military life, his connections, his reputation?

After all, hadn't Tony done exactly the same thing? Afraid to show the world the men he dated, sure that it wouldn't just be him that was attacked, but his partners too?

Still, he couldn't reconcile any of that with the fact that Steve had just cut him off without a word. If he was worried Tony might say something, surely his best bet was to talk to Tony about it, ask him to keep his mouth shut. 

Because what they'd had was never that big a deal to Steve, it was the only explanation that made sense. He'd always been sure he liked Steve more than Steve liked him, and that Steve was able to drop him without a second thought only reinforced that idea. Maybe Steve had talked to so many people, had sex with so many guys that he didn't even remember Tony was one of them anymore. After all, Tony was a slut, why would Steve expect to be special?

Tony picked up his phone and scrolled down to Steve's text window. He'd tried to delete it so many times, but he couldn't bring himself to. He scrolled back through hundreds and hundreds of texts, punctuated by little breaks that must have been phone calls. 

It had felt so real…

Well, it hardly mattered now. Rogers had made his feelings on the matter clear as day. His message was loud and simple: we never happened. But if Tony was going to go along with that, he needed space. He had too many questions to ask, too many painful thoughts swirling around in his mind, and they were going to spill out eventually if he spent any time around Rogers. So that was that, he just needed… space. And that shouldn't be too hard to find. He'd invited the Avengers to live in the tower, not to be his bff, pajama party, sleepover roommates. He was already rude, standoffish, and eccentric. Time to dig in.

So when the team met for drinks and poker, Tony declined, and when Natasha asked him if he was okay, he said he was busy, and when SI needed someone to go to Hong Kong, Tony volunteered. Over the next few weeks, Tony succeeded in keeping his mouth shut while he watched Steve settle in from afar. 

And he certainly was settling. He was doing art, going to therapy, it seemed, making friends with his teammates, and putting the new gym through its paces. Steve was fine. He'd moved on, if he'd ever had something to move on from, and that was what Tony needed to do as well.

There was more than one thing he needed to move on from, but none of them were proving easy.

Tony woke up in the middle of the night, once again, sweating and shaking, and immediately rocketed himself out of bed and into the shower. He turned it cold enough to wake him up then cranked it back to skin-searingly hot until he felt almost human and the dead expanse of cold space wasn't crackling in his chest.

He got dressed and shuffled down to the workshop, trusting JARVIS to reroute anyone else who was awake so they wouldn't bump into each other. Once he was at his desk chair he hummed with the urge to do something, fix it, but bombs with his name on them and impending alien invasions weren't something he could fix, at least not right now. He turned to the Iron Man armour standing at attention on the far side of the workshop.

"Those bracelets, J. They were a bit slow. Also a bit inaccurate. What can we do about that?"

"There are several areas of the code where upgrades could -"

"No, no. I mean - let's go back to subdermal implants."

"Sir…"

"Trust me, J. It'll work. It'll work better, faster. This is the future. Fire up a blueprint."

"Yes, sir."

Tony worked until his brain hurt, then he stumbled to the cabinet in the corner of his workshop and drank until he couldn't feel his body anymore.

Chapter Text

Steve was worried that moving into Stark Tower - newly dubbed "Avengers Tower" - would be stressful, uncomfortable, or at least confusing, since he'd gone from the carefully cultivated space of his apartment and SHIELD to living with the most technically advanced man in America. Not to mention, the man whose doppelganger Steve had fallen in love with. 

But Steve never saw Stark except for team meetings and occasionally as a passing shadow. He clearly still held a grudge over their fight on the helicarrier and made a point of avoiding Steve whenever he could. It wasn't a negative, not at all, because even though Steve felt fairly guilty about it, it was easier not to see him than be constantly reminded of what he'd lost. 

It was JARVIS, the building's computer, that showed Steve to his apartment, and it was Natasha, followed by Barton, who came to see him there. The next day, he went to see Natasha's space in the tower, and was stunned to find she had already redecorated. With her encouragement, Steve ordered a few things he wanted - using his own money, not Stark's - for his own space, and the next couple weeks was spent getting things the way he wanted, re-learning to cook in a kitchen that felt like it was out of an episode of Star Trek, and hanging out with Natasha and sometimes Clint.

There was a gym in the tower, and a few nights, Steve spent too much time there, beating the shit out of heavy bags that Stark had apparently designed for SHIELD in the first place. After the third night, however, JARVIS gently reminded him how long he'd been there, and Steve was shamed into peeling off his wraps and taking a shower. He had better outlets now, anyway - he'd spent a truly shocking amount of money on art supplies and now that it was no longer a therapy assignment, Steve actually found himself enjoying sketching now and then and playing with his new set of vibrantly coloured markers.

**

"And then Dum-Dum put a hat on a goat and told Buck it was his wife."

Dr. Rai - Martha - barked out a laugh that was somewhere between a hyena and a dog's squeaky toy, nose wrinkling with honest mirth. Steve couldn't help smiling too; her laugh was deeply contagious and didn't take much to bring out. Martha had so much energy packed inside her, it was a wonder she didn't have to do her sessions while jogging on a treadmill, but for some reason her vibrant, almost manic, atmosphere made Steve feel calm. I freak some people out, she'd said with a smile, when Steve had come to his first session, but Tara thought you might fit well here. 

Dr. Tully had recommended her, and it had only taken about ten minutes before Steve was sure it was going to work out. Martha didn't work for SHIELD - she didn't work for anyone except her clients - and she was never phased by Captain America. Instead of being calm and encouraging, but ultimately hand-tied, like Dr. Tully, Martha was challenging, and that was what Steve needed right now. She spoke her mind and she pushed and she didn't let him hide behind anything, not even the immense basket of bizarre objects she kept on her table to fiddle with. 

He also needed someone he could trust.

"They sound like great friends," Martha said. 

"They were. The best." Steve settled back in his seat and tossed a stress ball shaped like a lemon into the air and caught it. "I have some friends now," he offered, hesitantly. 

"Friends are good. Friends make you laugh, give you someone to talk to. Do they know you? All of you?"

"Yeah, mostly. Like, they know the Cap stuff. They're my teammates too, so all of that is easy to talk about. There's… um. There's something they don't know, though. No one knows. Well -" Steve grit his teeth and breathed through it "- one person knows, but we don't talk anymore."

"I'm sorry to hear that. Unfortunately, not all friendships are forever. Is it something you want me to know?" Martha spun her pen around her fingers.

"I - yes. I'm just -" Steve rolled the various words around in his head. It felt too much like a proclamation to use some of them, to describe things with that kind of finality, but for all that the fake Tony had broken his heart, there was one thing he had given him that he couldn't take back. "I - uh - date… men. As well as women. Or rather, I've only really dated once. But it was a man. And - so. I don't tell people that, but maybe someday, I'll meet someone else who - yeah. Well, I just felt like I needed someone else to know that who wasn't my - my - what do you -? Ex-boyfriend," Steve choked out.

Martha lit up with a brilliant smile that was both sympathetic and deeply proud at the same time. "Thanks for telling me. It can be hard to say something like that and I'm proud of you. It shouldn't be hard, I wish it didn't have to be hard to be who you are, but it is. Though, I'm sorry to hear you and your boyfriend broke up. If you want to talk about what happened -?"

"No. Uh - sorry. No. Not yet. Maybe not ever. It was not a nice break up. He wasn't - he wasn't who I thought he was."

"When a relationship ends, one of any kind, we always keep some of it with us, they all shape us, for better or worse. Those bits and pieces can be re-shaped or we can keep them with us as we move on. It's a choice you can make, however hard it may be."

Steve nodded. "I think this one is going to take a little of both. For a while, I just tried to forget it, but being with him changed me so fundamentally in so many ways, I know I can't just pretend it never happened. Anyway. I don't know much about sexualities and terms and labels and stuff, but…it's good to say it out loud."

Martha laughed again, and Steve smiled and shook his head. "You're doing great, Steve. You know that."

Little by little, a weight he didn't know he'd been carrying was lifting off his shoulders, and for the first time since the serum, he really felt his full height. He tossed the lemon at her and it bounced off her clipboard making her howl with goofy laughter again. "Yeah, I know."

**

With his apartment mostly sorted out, and Natasha away on a recon mission, Steve found himself at loose ends for the first time since Fury had come to him in the gym with a picture of the tesseract. His old project, the bike, called to him from Stark's garage, and Steve decided it was time to finish her, once and for all. She had been his first light at the end of the tunnel of the future, not Tony, and it would be a good start for this new life he was trying to build, to get her street worthy and take her out.

Stark had told him to use whatever he wanted in the vast garage space, but it was still pretty overwhelming to walk past rows of gleaming Ducatis and Harleys and BMWs to find a corner carved out for his ramshackle rebuild. 

There was a box he'd brought along with her, with the parts Tony had helped him buy, and the big manual binder. He pulled it out and dusted it off, realizing after a moment that his cheeks were sore because he was smiling. He loved this bike. He wouldn't let Tony take this from him either. He'd left notes in the margins on the pages of the manual, each step of the way, and he flipped through, seeing so many things checked off, so many things completed. She really was almost there - a few hours might do it.

Steve peeled off his sweater and tossed it over the workbench, took some pristine tools from the case Stark had apparently left for him next to her back wheel, and set to work. 

He had no idea how much time had passed by the time he stood and cracked his back. He double checked his to-do list, and sure enough, it was all checked off. The bike gleamed, shiny and fresh and begging to be started. Steve had just swung his leg over and settled on the seat when the big double doors opened and Stark's sleek, electric yellow Ferrari pulled it. He slotted it neatly next to its twin sister in red and slipped out of the driver's seat. He was in a perfectly tailored suit, dark sunglasses covering his eyes, and Steve was flushed with an urge to extend an olive branch. They were going to be working together, after all, and maybe they could be friends. Eventually, Steve might even be able to think of him as Tony without his heart wanting to stop.

"Hey, Stark!" he called.

Stark turned, stared at him for a dead moment, then crossed the garage, eyes flicking over towards the elevators. He didn't take off his sunglasses, and he shoved his hands in his pocket, rolling out one ankle. "Need something? Running low on WD-40? You know, you can just ask JARVIS."

"Oh, no, it's okay. I just - I'm about to start her for the first time and it seemed like an occasion that deserved an audience." 

Stark remained silent, radiating cool disdain, and Steve hesitated. His olive branch, it seemed, was going to be rejected. 

"Unless, you're busy, of course. Sorry."

"Oh no, by all fucking means," Stark drawled, sarcasm dripping from every word. "Not like she's my godbike or whatever, but we're just going to pretend none of that happened, and I'm going to stand here and watch you start her and call you 'Cap,' yeah? That's how it goes?"

This was - this was more than just not understanding the way people talked these days. Steve was at a complete loss. "What?"

"Bessie," Stark growled. "You want to show me Bessie? Steve, what the fuck? Like, I get it if you want to pretend nothing happened, sweep it under the rug and move on. It'd be nice to have a fucking explanation, but whatever, it's fine. I can fill in the blanks on my own. But you really expect me to stand here and watch you start her? We can pretend in front of the others, but it's just you and me here, Steve - not even an acknowledgement? For fucks sake… I can't do this." 

Stark turned on his heel and made to stomp off but Steve reached out on pure instinct, desperately needing him to stay so he could figure out what he was talking about, and snatched at his sleeve. He dropped it like it burned when Stark spun back, whipping his sunglasses off to glare at Steve with pure poison. 

"Don't fucking touch me."

Steve held both hands up in submission. "I'm sorry. Look, I'm sorry for what I said to you. I thought we'd moved past that. We were mad at Loki, at Fury, not each other." You're not one to make the sacrifice play, would always be burned into Steve's mind. A horrible start to his relationship with a new teammate, and surely born out of some of the resentment he couldn't help but feel for the man whose face he'd accidentally fallen in love with, thinking it was someone else. "I'm sorry."

Stark's rage twisted into confusion. "You think this is about the helicarrier? How stupid can you get? I don't care about that. We were both pissed and Loki's scepter was fucking with everyone. No, I'm talking about us," he said, as if that was supposed to mean something to Steve. "What we had, this stupid bike, all those late nights. At first, I thought you were hoping I wouldn't figure it out, I didn't, actually, until you brought Bessie here and then - How could you think I wouldn't remember? So either you really think I'm that stupid, you're really that stupid, or you're an astonishingly good actor, in which case, I'm sorry, I've won a lot of awards in my time, but none of them has been an Oscar. So if you want this to be distant past, you're going to have to stay the hell away from me."

Steve's mouth and throat had become drier and drier as Stark talked, his tongue suddenly huge in his mouth. A cold flush spread from head to foot and raised sweat-covered goosebumps over his skin. "What… what are you talking about?"

Stark hesitated for the first time. "You haven't honestly forgotten, have you? I knew SHIELD was fucking with you, but not - not that far. Right? I helped you build this bike, Steve." He took one uncertain step closer, and Steve's heart started rattling and skipping.

No, no, no. It - it couldn't be that - no. "But that wasn't you," Steve gasped out.

"What do you mean?"

"Tony - the man - I -" Steve's throat was tight and he couldn't squeeze the words out anymore. "It wasn't you," he managed. "It was fake."

"What was fake?"

"My - my relationship!" Suddenly, the words poured out easily. "I fell in love with a man who didn't exist! It was a catfish - a - a trickster on the internet, fucking with me, hurting me. It wasn't you."

Stark's mouth fell open. "Of course it was me… I - you do remember. You thought I was a catfish?"

Steve sputtered for a moment, at a loss. It felt like all ninety stories above him had collapsed on his head. "It was - it had to be. You - you - you lied to me! It was all a lie!"

"It wasn't! That was me you were talking to every night. How did you not know it was me? For fucks sake, Steve. I know you don't know the future that well, but I sent you pictures!" 

"Fake pictures! They'd been doctored."

"Of course they'd been doctored!" Stark threw his hands in the air then brought one to his head to shove back through his hair. "I have an arc reactor in my chest. I can't just show that to anyone. But they were still my pictures."

"They were - They showed me your instagram and -" But that meant Stark had just sent over some pictures from his own social media. Old ones that didn't show the arc reactor, because to him, Steve had been a civilian and it wasn't safe to tell him. "You told me you were dying."

"I was dying. The reactor was poisoning me. Natasha and Fury gave me the tools to save my life. I would have told you, but you were gone by then." Stark tugged his shirt out of his waistband and pulled it up to show the device embedded in his chest, surrounded by scars and the dark stain of infection, still retreating. 

Steve swallowed and swallowed but he couldn't seem to soothe his burning throat. "Your pets… they're the bots. Jay was JARVIS. I - oh my god." Steve dropped his face into his hands, puzzle pieces snapping together, and the picture they revealed wasn't pretty.

"You ghosted on me," Tony said, and it wasn't angry this time, it was deeply, painfully hurt. "You just disappeared."

"You lied to me… I thought it wasn't real. I was so sure. Everyone told me -"

"Who the fuck is everyone?"

Steve shook his head. He pushed off the bike and paced back and forth across the concrete floor. "Everyone… people at SHIELD, they found out, and they told me I was an idiot for trusting that someone like Tony Stark would talk to me. And I didn't even really know who Tony Stark was at that point. I'd heard your name - but - to me, you were just Tony. And they mocked me, told me I was stupid, didn't understand the internet, that you were obviously fake, a catfish. The photos were from your social media, anyone could download them. Then I put the more private shots through a website and it said they were photoshopped. And Nadia - Natasha - I - fuck - " It was all so complicated. "She told me that it was common. That people would lie on the internet to take advantage of you. You were always asking questions about me, about my life, my - my service record. I -"

Stark's hands went back into his pockets and his lips twitched to the side, blinking too rapidly. His voice was terrifyingly steady. "I wanted to get your service number so I could get Rhodey to talk to some people about getting you better support, or at least checking up on your mysterious program. I thought you were just a veteran who needed a hand."

They were silent for a moment. Steve found his voice. "I looked it up and everything said that if it was too good to be true, it probably was. That a scam artist would be so easy to fall in love with because they knew exactly how to charm you. I - I couldn't - I couldn't face having screwed up the one thing I thought I'd done right in this century."

Stark started nodding, expression melting into a painfully fake smile. "Yeah, you know what, you're right. You're right. It was too good to be true. Because the me I showed you - that's not the real me. You wouldn't like the real me. I'm clingy and needy and then distant and useless. I forget birthdays and say insensitive things. So if you didn't see any of that while we were long distance, then it's all for the best that this -" he gestured desperately between them "- thing ended. Because it was a lie. All of it was a lie -" His voice broke.

Steve didn't know how to say I did. I saw all of those things and I loved you anyway. Because now Tony was standing in front of him, heart breaking, and Steve had lost him once and he couldn't, wouldn't lose him again. But his mouth wouldn't work and which words would make Tony stay, anyway?

"I don't even know why you bothered to spend time with me in the first place. I -" Tony shook his head sharply. "It's okay. I'm - I have to go. Bye, Steve." He turned and practically bolted, flinging himself across the garage, and this was his Tony, and he was leaving. Steve's tongue finally snapped into action. 

"Because you gave me something worth living for!"

Tony stopped but he didn't turn back, stock still.

Steve tamped down the rising panic and swallowed the knot in his throat as he walked slowly towards Tony's back, one step at a time. "I used to wake up in this future and wonder if I'd time travelled again. I'd lie in my bed and think that maybe that drab dreary room was a re-creation and it was another seventy years in the future. It terrified me, but there was also a part of me - a bigger part than I wanted to admit - that hoped it would happen. Because any change was better than the life I was living. 

"When I went down with the Valkyrie, I had everything to lose, and I woke up in a future where I had everything to gain, but I didn't. I was stagnant. I knew SHIELD was locking out the rest of the world, for better or for worse, and I let them, because I didn't care. They wouldn't send me into the field, and I thought it was because they didn't trust me, but sometimes I wonder if they knew that it was because there was a solid chance I'd let my first mission take me down for good."

Steve arrived a few feet from Tony's unwavering back and stopped, eyes dropping to the floor as his voice dropped low and rough. "And then I met you. And all those corners I had let them cut off my life, I wanted them back. You helped me find them. I started cooking and laughing and wanting things. I'd forgotten how to want. A-And we both lied." He took a shaky breath. He could get through this - he had to get through this. Whatever the outcome. "I'm sorry. And I forgive you. But I know I'll regret it for the rest of my life if I let you walk away without giving us a chance. I think you will, too. I know you, Tony. The real you. I saw all that stuff, the clinging and the forgetfulness and how often you put your foot in your damn mouth." A pained laugh slipped out of his aching throat. "It's so stupid, looking back, how I thought all that was a ruse to get me to love you more. I thought you were pretending to be exactly what I wanted, too easy, too perfect. But, you know what? It wasn't always easy, you just really were exactly what I wanted." Steve's fingers itched to reach for Tony's sleeve, to turn him around so he could see his face, but he held them back. "I love you because you gave me something worth living for, and I'm sorry that I didn't fight for it when I needed to."

Tony didn't move, and Steve's heart crawled up into his throat and lodged there. Then Tony's head dropped forward and his hands moved out in front of him. His voice was wet and rough when he finally spoke."You really mean that?"

"Yes. I do." Steve took another stumbly step towards Tony's back so he could whisper, "Every word."

Tony's shoulders rose then fell with a tense breath then he turned back, and now Steve could see the pain and fear etched across his face. He took a few steps closer and Steve tripped forward to meet him halfway. They were close enough to touch. Tony's eyes were bright and wide, fixed on Steve's. "You love me?" 

Steve nodded furiously. "Yes. So much. I wish I'd said it then, a thousand times."

"I thought you'd just decided I wasn't worth it. Or maybe met someone else."

"I know. I'm so sorry. I was so in love with the man I thought you were, that I couldn't face knowing for sure that it had been a lie. I couldn't have the last time we talked be you laughing at my naiveté and I didn't see how it could go any other way." 

Tony huffed out a shaky breath. "I'm sorry I lied. I know I could have trusted you with the whole truth, but I'd been lying about Iron Man and the arc reactor for so long, I didn't know what else to do. There's so much I kept from you, but none of it was the important stuff. Not the way I felt - feel. Not that."

"Feel?" Steve's entire world hung precariously on one word.

"Feel." Tony nodded then reached up and caught Steve's chin with gentle fingers. He leaned forward and drew Steve down to press their lips together in their first kiss. Tony. Tony was here pressed against him, the heat off his chest melting into Steve's. Tony's hand curled around to cup Steve's jaw, and he let himself be angled into the kiss. Tony's tongue brushed over his lips and fireworks went off in Steve's chest. It was unbelievable that, in just a few minutes, he could go from managing to live with having lost his online boyfriend, to having him back, and not just in his phone anymore, but here in his arms. 

"Tony," Steve breathed, and Tony curled even closer into him, the kisses turning almost frantic, both needing to catch up on so much time with distance of one kind or another between them. This was what he'd needed, all those nights, alone in his bed with his phone pressed to his ear. Just to be able to wrap an arm around Tony's waist and pull him closer, breathe in his scent and feel the soft brush of Tony's lips on his.

Tony suddenly broke the kiss, barking out a laugh that had him shaking against Steve's chest, one hand pressed over his mouth. Steve couldn't help grinning, just as giddy, but he peeled Tony's hand away from his mouth and bent to catch his eye.

"What's so funny?"

"This is all just so damn surreal. I can't believe you didn't know it was me. I was really building up a solid hate-on for you, you know. I can't believe it was really you."

Steve brushed his thumbs over Tony's cheeks. "It was me. It was me sending you all those pictures of food, celebrating making chili for the first time, and asking you what the difference was between the different colours of peppers. It was me falling asleep on the phone with you. It was me figuring out what I liked and what I wanted with your help. That was all me."

Tony kissed him again, soft and sweet and drawn out long and slow. When they parted, it was with only a hair's breadth between them. "What a wild ride."

Steve grinned. "You know what would be a real wild ride? Taking Bessie out. She is your godbike, you know. You deserve to start her for the first time. If it weren't for you, she would still be in pieces in Luke's garage, and I'd be…" Steve shook his head, dropping his eyes. "I don't know. Also in pieces."

"I want to watch you start her," Tony whispered against his lips. "Come on."

Steve pulled away reluctantly, dragging Tony along by one hand so when he climbed on the bike, he was still close enough to touch. He put his hand on the starter, and it was entirely different this time, from when he'd reached for it only a few minutes ago. Last time, he'd been signaling the start of something, of settling into the Tower, of trying to befriend the man who looked like one who had broken his heart.

Now, it was something else entirely. It was the proof that what they'd built was real, really happened, a re-start. And for Bessie too - since she'd run once upon a time. Not starting over, but brushing the dirt off and starting again, hand in hand this time.

Steve pressed the starter, heart in his throat and Bessie coughed twice then rumbled to life, her rough engine filling the whole garage with its throaty purr. Steve looked up at Tony to see him grinning and laughing. He clapped his hands together once then reached out and brushed Steve's hair back from his face. Steve turned the bike off again and reached out to pull Tony in against him. There was something almost unbearably wonderful about sitting aside Bessie, finished, with Tony - his Tony - leaning solid heat against his thigh. 

"God, I love you so much," Steve said, because he'd wasted enough time not saying it before, and now, with a second chance, he was going to make sure Tony knew it every minute of every day.

Tony smiled, slow and sweet, and took another kiss. "I love you, too. You going to take her out?"

Steve leaned in to press his face against Tony's shoulder. "Come with me."

Tony quirked an eyebrow. "That bike is not built for two, sweetheart."

The familiar petname tingled way down deep in Steve's chest, no doubt making his expression do horribly embarrassing things, but Tony just smiled. Then it was Steve's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Is it not? See - this is why I told Fury it was the wrong bike. Think I can make it work, though..." He hooked Tony around the waist and, in one smooth motion, pulled him into his lap, Tony's legs across his thighs, leaning sideways against Steve's chest. It wouldn't be possible, or at least wouldn't be comfortable, for someone who didn't have super strength, but Steve was able to hold Tony close, and lift and spread his legs enough to give him a safe seat. 

Tony laughed and clung on as Steve started Bessie up again and let her chug forward across the floor, his feet held out to catch them if they started to tip. He puttered to the other side of the aisle then stopped, braced on both sides, and gestured to Tony to turn her off.

"Okay, benefits of a supersoldier boyfriend," Tony said when the garage fell quiet once more.

Steve could feel his eyes going wider. "Boyfriend?" he couldn't help but ask.

Tony frowned. "Aren't you, though?"

"I mean, I was, definitely, even though we never talked about it. But I didn't know if we could jump right back to where we ended things last time. I need you to know I love you, can't waste my chance, but it's okay if you need time to get there again."

"I never stopped being there, Steve. That's why you were so hard to get over."

"I just want you to feel like you can trust me, trust us."

Tony kissed him softly. "We'll figure it out. One step at a time, as long as step one is that you're my boyfriend and I get to kiss you whenever I want."

A grin split Steve's face. "Well… not whenever. Not like… at a press conference, or during a battle..."

"Unfair."

"Definitely my boyfriend, though. Even with somewhat limited kissing rights."

Tony shifted in his lap, somehow both moving closer and pulling away a bit. "There's no one else? It's been six months, it's okay if there is."

"No, Tony. There's never been anyone else."

"What about Hot Neighbour?" 

"Uhh…" Steve laughed. "She turned out to be Natasha, Agent Romanov? Keeping an undercover eye on things. Which, honestly, thank god, because if you'd been right about her having a thing for me it would have gotten very awkward since I really didn't feel that way about her. I had too many feelings for someone else."

"Oh, shit. That's unexpected. She got me too, you know. Pretended to be my new PA then stabbed me in the neck."

"What?!"

"Oh no, like a good stabbing. She helped with the palladium poisoning. Helped save my life."

Steve's hand curled around Tony's knee. "You're really okay, now?"

"I'm really okay. Completely cured. The new element has no negative consequences, or at least none that I'll see in my lifetime." Tony reached up and traced one finger over the curves and edges of Steve's face. "Can't believe I get to do that now."

And that summed it all up: I can't believe. Steve couldn't believe that everything he wanted was suddenly in his lap - most of it literally. Tony was real, Tony was alive, and Tony was his. Steve shook his head with overwhelming emotion then took Tony's head between his hands and pulled him in for another kiss. He didn't know what he was doing, having so little experience kissing, but it didn't matter, because it was Tony he was kissing.  

They pulled apart with a shared gasp, and Tony grinned, despite the wetness now in his eyes. "You know, Captain Rogers," he drawled, his voice melting soft at the edges, "if you break my heart, I have a lot of very incriminating photos on my phone that would surely get you in a lot of trouble."

Steve barked out a laugh, ragged enough to be a grateful sob and he hooked his arm around Tony's waist, holding him close to his chest. He burrowed his face in Tony's neck and breathed him in, here and real and his. "You don't scare me. I'll just say they're photoshopped."

Chapter Text

Steve hesitated in the hallway outside the penthouse door, tugging his clothes into order and smoothing his hair, but JARVIS must have alerted Tony to his presence because the door flew open before he could reach up to knock. "Hi."

Tony smiled and stepped back, gesturing Steve in. "Hi. Welcome." 

Steve hadn't seen Tony alone since they'd parted after their kiss in the workshop. The team had been called in for some follow-up SHIELD briefings before they'd had a chance to take things any further, and Avengers work had been non-stop for almost 24 hours. Tony had gone back to the tower while Steve crashed at SHIELD, only to get up and get to work again the next morning. But on their way out of the last meeting, Tony had pinched Steve's sleeve and tugged him out of range of the other Avengers. "Come up to my place tonight?" he'd asked, and Steve's stomach had dropped thirty floors, down to the parking garage.

"Yes," he'd said back, without any hesitation. But now that he was there, facing Tony, he was all nerves. "Thanks for inviting me over."

Tony eyed him up for a moment with an amused smirk. "Well, I think it's about time we spent some time together in person, don't you?"

Steve nodded. 

Tony's smile faded. "You okay? Too much? Too fast? We could go out for a walk, if you want. Less -"

"No! It's not too much. I want - I want to be here with you. I'm just - I'm still adjusting to the fact that this Tony - you - are my Tony. I thought I'd never talk to you again. I mean, I thought you never really existed. It started to feel like you were a figment of my imagination, like whoever was on the other end of the phone had just held up a mirror and projected back everything I wanted in a partner, instead of… you know. Being real."

Tony shifted forward and reached out. His hand hovered for a moment, uncertain, before it found Steve's wrist. His palm was warm, fingers gentle as they slipped down to wind with Steve's. It was everything he'd wanted for so long; it felt impossible. But there was no denying this was real, this was happening. Steve gripped him tight. 

"Hey, remember that time you drew me?" Tony said with a laugh. "God, there was something so hot about that."

Steve broke into a grin and tugged Tony closer, flushed with sudden bravery. "Yeah. I hadn't wanted to draw anything in a long time, before that."

Tony pulled out his phone and flipped through screens until he showed Steve - the background on his last home screen was the drawing. "It was me, Steve. It was all real."

"Thank you." Steve stepped closer, until Tony's other hand came up to rest on his side, thumb drawing small circles over the jut of his hip. He burned with the heat of contact, nerves alight and already desperate for more. Had he really been touched so little for so long? But of course he had - who else would have touched him? "I'm so sorry," he murmured, eyes dropping to Tony's chest.

"Hey, now. I thought we were past that? We had our big screaming match - a few, actually, if I remember correctly, though, I think we only knew what we were screaming about once - and now we're good. Right?"

The hesitancy made Steve snap his gaze back up to match Tony's. He nodded enthusiastically. "Right. Yes. We are."

"Because, you know, I love you and all that, so…" Tony's fingers twitched against Steve's side.

And Steve wanted to say, "I love you," back. He wanted to say so many things, but all they'd done since they met was talk, and he finally had a chance to have the one thing he'd been denied for so long: touch. He pushed up against Tony with a thrill that bubbled through his chest, and pressed their lips together.

Tony held Steve tightly, drawing him back as they took little stumbling steps towards the living room. It was almost too much, getting to taste Tony's lips under his tongue, feel the heat and pressure of him, and Steve couldn't hold back the desperate little gasps that snuck out of his throat.

"Shh, shh." Tony's hand soothed its way up Steve's back before he guided him down onto the couch. He stood there, for a moment, looking down at Steve with a look Steve had never seen on anyone's face before. He glowed. Then he shifted forward to straddle Steve's lap, arms twined behind his head. "Hey."

"Hi." There was no way to mask how breathless it came out, as Steve's hands settled on Tony's thighs.

"You okay?"

"Yes, Tony, come on. I'm fantastic. I thought I'd lost you - not just lost you, but never had you. God, it hurt so much."

Tony's thumb traced Steve's jawline then stroked a line over his cheek. "I thought you'd given up on me." Tony petted both palms down Steve's chest and finger ignited under his touch.

It suddenly hit Steve that all their experience on the phone together wasn't going to do him many favours here, in person. He'd nearly learned how to be good for Tony with his voice, but he didn't know how to be good for him with his body. He must have tensed because Tony's expression twisted soft and concerned.

"We don't have to do anything at all you're not comfortable with," he said gently. "Like, definitely not right now but even ever. Just because we talked about something on the phone doesn't mean we have to do it. You know that, right?"

There were so many emotions swirling through Steve in a hurricane of confusion and want and fear and pleasure and happiness and terror that he didn't know which to address first. "What if I want to do it all, I just don't know how?"

Tony grinned, the corners of his eyes crinkling. And that was new, the camera had never shown how his face would shift when he was truly happy. "Then it would be my absolute pleasure to show you."

Tony slid backwards off Steve's lap so he knelt on the floor and peered up at him with a dangerous smirk. Steve swallowed heavily.

"I remember asking you if you'd ever had a blowjob," Tony mused. Steve parted his knees, and Tony shifted forward, running his hands up Steve's thighs then under the hem of his shirt. "Do you mind if I take this off?"

Steve would have been embarrassed by how quickly he wrestled the shirt off if it hadn't been for the look of pure hunger on Tony's face when his eyes settled on Steve's bare chest. Tony leaned forward and kissed Steve's side, just at the jut of his bottom rib, gentle and questioning. He wanted to ask why Tony was bringing up the blowjob. If it was because that was the first time they'd had phone sex or -

"I still haven't," Steve gasped out, fingers twitching on the couch as Tony pushed even closer and kissed again, over his breast bone. "I mean - there wasn't anyone else, then or after. That's - that's - Oh god, Tony."

Steve could feel Tony's smile against his skin as he licked over his nipple again. Deft fingers went to Steve's fly as Tony kept peppering kisses across his chest and licking his way up his neck. Steve wanted to do something in return but it felt like a roller coaster - all he could do was hold on and try to keep breathing.

Tony eased their mouths together as he popped the button on Steve's pants and rolled the zipper down. "It's alright," he said softly, as if he could read Steve's mind. "Just let me take the edge off. If there's anything you don't like or you want me to stop, just say so, okay? Otherwise, just relax and enjoy yourself."

"Okay. So far - so far all good."

Tony chuckled then slid back down to the floor. Steve raised his hips when Tony tugged and his pants ended up on the floor along with his boxers.  He was naked with another man and it wasn't in the locker room at the gym or in a dirty tent on a battlefield - it was because he wanted to be. Because he was loved. Tony's eyes flicked from Steve's cock up to his face and he smiled. "You're so gorgeous."

Steve took a deep breath. This was the click click of the roller coaster inching its way up a steep hill, a moment of anticipation, and he forced himself to pause and really take Tony in. What he noticed, most of all, was that Tony looked happy, and that wasn't something he'd seen from him since they'd met in person, for real. In a lot of the pictures he'd sent, before, Steve had thought he looked happy, but he was radiating it now, and Steve's nerves calmed. 

"I love you," Steve said, and Tony beamed.

"I love you, too." Tony leaned his head on the inside of Steve's thigh, the fingers from one hand stroking gentle lines up and down Steve's ankle. "I really did mean it when I said the upside to a blowjob over the phone was that I could suck you off and talk you off at the same time, but I have a feeling you're not going to mind very much that it doesn't work in person."

Steve reached out and did let himself touch now, brushing his fingers over Tony's cheek, and Tony rocked up onto his knees and folded over Steve's lap. He took Steve's cock in hand and stroked him twice then wrapped his lips around the head and swirled his tongue. He pressed down, sucking gently as he swallowed Steve down and - holy shit - that was the tip-off at the top of the hill suddenly racing down as Steve's whole body vibrated with new pleasure.

"Oh god, Tony - I - you're so good at that, oh my god."

Tony hummed with pleasure and that spiked a shot of tingles south. Steve's hips kicked forward a little, but as good as that felt, he forced himself to still, not wanting to choke Tony. Heat flushed up the back of Steve's neck until his cheeks were flaming as Tony rocked up and down on his cock, steady, sucking softly as he rolled down. 

The smooth, wet heat of Tony's mouth was rapidly pushing Steve to an edge he couldn't come back from. "Oh, Tony. That's - oh god. I'm not - I'm going to come -" 

Tony slid off and licked his lips. "You're not a one hit wonder, though, are you, gorgeous? I know you can go again. So come for me. Show me what you got." Tony sucked him back down without waiting for an answer, and Steve threw his head back with a moan. 

He let go, not worrying about holding off or waiting, and it only took a few more bobs of Tony's head to set him shaking and gasping, pleasure peaking. He finally gave in completely with a choked off cry and pulsed in Tony's mouth. Steve slumped back on the couch, unable to stop the full-body shivers that wracked his frame. 

Tony released him, swallowed obscenely then crawled up Steve's body, pushing up under his arms to drape over his chest. Steve gripped him tightly and burrowed into his hair, chest heaving with gasping breaths.

"You okay?" Tony asked, with laughter in his voice. 

"Holy shit," Steve choked out. "That was so good. How - How do you do that? That's amazing."

Tony laughed again, bright and joyful. "I'm glad you enjoyed it. You're stunning like that."

"I want to try that."

"Fuck, Steve." Tony pulled him into a kiss, and Steve could taste himself on his lips. 

Then Tony stepped back and moved to peel off his clothes and suddenly Steve was gripped with a new terror. He'd been watching porn with Tony, talking each other off over the phone, and even using toys, but Steve had never actually been with a man. What if he loved Tony, but his male body didn't work for him? What if Steve couldn't touch him? Couldn't give back the pleasure Tony gave to him? It had been a fantasy before, but this was real.

"You okay?" Tony asked again, concerned instead of amused, and Steve winced at how obvious his expression must have been to get Tony worrying.

"Fine - it's fine. I'm just -" he took a steadying breath. "What if… what if, you know, I'm not actually, when it's real like this, into - uh - men?"

Instead of frowning, though, Tony laughed. "That's okay. You love me right?"

"Completely."

He winked. "So if you're scared of my dick, we'll make it work. But I really don't think you will be, Steve. Hold on." But Steve was already comforted. This was Tony, who hadn't minded when Steve had hung up on him, gripped with gay panic. This was Tony, who had gently walked him through his first porn, his first guilt-free fantasy of men, his first experience with anal. Tony wouldn't care that he didn't know what he was doing, that this was all new and a little bit scary. Because Tony loved him. And if it turned out that Steve wasn't ready to touch a man in real life - though the way his fingers itched to reach out made that feel pretty unlikely - Tony would forgive him; Tony would wait. They were good at waiting, after all.

Tony rocked up to his feet then took a step back. He undid his pants and let them fall to the floor, then he gripped the hem of his shirt and hesitated. "It's not great, just a reminder."

"I want to see the real you," Steve assured him.

Tony peeled his shirt off and tossed it aside and Steve sat up, leaning forward. He reached out, with a glance at Tony first to make sure it was okay, and stroked his fingers lightly down Tony's chest. The circle in the middle, the light that Steve could see through Tony's thin t-shirt, was hard metal and glowed brilliantly now that it was free. All around it, Tony's skin showed how much his life was hard fought for. Scars where he'd been ripped open and put back together. The dark lines from the reactor poisoning. And Steve traced them all, enthralled. He knew why Tony had removed them from the pictures he'd sent, but it meant the world to get to see them, touch them, now.

"Beautiful," he murmured and Tony pressed forward half a step and dropped his underwear to the floor. Steve swallowed heavily, his eyes drawn down to Tony's crotch of their own volition. His cock was hard, jutting out towards his belly. His hair was trimmed close and clean, the vee of his stomach and the curve of his hip bones framing his cock. "Oh," Steve said, because what else was there to say? His mouth watered for something it had never experienced, and his hand was already wrapped around Tony's smooth length before he'd realized it was moving.

Tony moaned softly, then carded the fingers from both hands back through Steve's hair. "See, baby? Dick's not that complicated. God, your hands feel good." Tony let Steve pet him for a while longer, one hand exploring his arms and chest and sides, the other enthralled with the gentle stroking of his cock. Then he tugged at Steve's chin until he tipped up and met his gaze. "Want to take this to the bedroom?"

"Yes, please."

Steve wasn't entirely sure where virginity ended and sex began. The research Tony had sent him so long ago hadn't really made it clear. Some people defined it as experiencing penetration - on one side or the other - some felt that a shared orgasm was enough. He and Tony had shared many orgasms, but Steve still felt like a virgin, and he knew after this, he wouldn't, regardless of what they did.

But there was something he wanted to do.

Tony took his hand and led him into the bedroom, leaving their clothes on the living room floor without a backwards glance. Like everything else, Tony's bedroom was gorgeously opulent. There was an entire wall of windows that tinted black with a wave of his hand, an enormous bed, fresh flowers and a wet bar complete with nuts and snacks. It was incredible - but nothing to the sight of Tony sitting down on the edge of the bed, smiling up at Steve like he couldn't believe his good fortune to have him here in his room.

Steve wound their fingers together even as Tony eyed his cock, wanting to keep him focused. "Tony, there's something I'd like, if you'd like it."

"I'm up for almost anything, sweetheart."

"Um. So that toy you sent me -?"

Tony's smile curled from affectionate to predatory. "Oh yeah. I remember that. Do you still have it?"

Steve shrugged then nodded. "I wanted to throw it out when I thought you'd tricked me, but I didn't know where to get another one…"

Tony laughed and used their joined hands to pull Steve closer. "I'll get you a hundred. You want to go get it? Or I have other ones here…"

"Oh. No. I - uh - want you to… do that." Steve gestured in a way that he hoped wasn't as vague as it felt and he saw realization dawn on Tony's face. 

"Really?" Tony asked gently. Steve nodded, and Tony wrapped his arms around his waist, resting his chin on his chest to look up at him. "Just to be entirely clear - you want to bottom? You want me to be inside you like your toy?"

"Yes, please."

"Well." Tony blinked at him for a moment then smiled again. "Okay, then."

Steve folded down, pressing Tony back onto the mattress and kissed him, hard and needy, trying to pour in everything he wanted but couldn't say. Tony had drawn words out of him before, on the phone, but it was different here in person, and he felt like he had to start all over again with learning how to talk about sex. Still, it was Tony, and he trusted him, even after everything they'd been through.

Tony gently rolled him over then gestured him up the bed until he rested back on the pillows. Tony leaned over and rustled around in a drawer beside the bed and Steve let his fingers dance around the curve of Tony's ass. It would be novel, for a long, long time, getting to touch him like this, at all.

Tony sat back on his heels and watched as Steve stroked his palm up his thigh. "How's it going, hot stuff?"

"This is amazing. I can't believe how much has changed in the last week. I went from being entirely alone to -" Steve cut himself off.

Tony just pushed forward, folding over Steve and kissing him enthusiastically. While they kissed, Tony's hand skated up the inside of Steve's thigh until his legs parted and Tony settled between his knees. His fingers teased the crease of Steve's hip, petting over his balls and along the length of his cock. Steve shuddered and pulled Tony closer.

"I'm going to start with a finger, okay?"

Steve grinned against his mouth. "I remember you telling me that eight months ago."

Tony nipped his bottom lip and then a slick finger pressed against Steve's hole, circling his rim before pushing in. "It was so hot listening to you get off on that toy. So fucking hot."

"More." Steve arched his back and settled flatter on the bed. 

"All I wanted was to be that toy, babe. So badly."

"Tony, give me more," Steve begged, and Tony finally added another finger until Steve was slick and relaxed. "I'm ready. Tony, Tony, Tony." Steve pulled Tony into a heated kiss as his fingers kept exploring gently. "I want to feel you."

But Tony still didn't seem to be moving forward. 

"Tony?"

"Yeah?" Tony kissed lazily along Steve's jawline.

"I'm ready for you." Steve rolled his hips a bit, feeling Tony's hard length rub against his inner thigh. 

Tony's expression twisted. "You sure? We don't even have to do this at all, you know, or I can bottom, or maybe -"

"Tony." Steve took Tony's face between his hands. "If you don't want to, that's fine, but even though you know it's my first time with another person, you did send me that toy for practice…" Steve pressed a kiss to Tony's lips that was more smile than kiss. "And I am Captain America, after all."

"Wow, that was -" Tony tilted his head and looked down at him. "That was weirdly hot. Feel free to remind me of that fact quite literally whenever you want to because apparently I like that."

"I thought Captain America wasn't your thing?" Steve teased, breath catching when Tony pushed his knees up and folded over him.

"You would remember something like that." Tony kissed him, once, twice. "I think my feelings on that topic might have shifted a bit. Recently." Blunt pressure teased the rim of Steve's hole and then Tony was pushing in, hot and thick and hard and wow - insistent.

"God - I -" Steve swallowed heavily, throwing his head back.

"Tell me if it's too much," Tony whispered against Steve's ear. Then he kissed his way along his jaw.

"Not too much," Steve gasped out, but it almost was. Tony was much bigger than the toy and skin instead of silicone, hot and real, and Tony's weight pressed down against Steve's chest and it was almost too much. Too much of everything he'd wanted for so long.

Steve never would have guessed that it could be like this, that feeling Tony's heat against his hips and his breath against his throat and low hum of his groan in his chest would make such a difference, but it did. Hearing Tony's voice right there in the room, feeling it when he stroked his fingers over Tony's throat… it was everything. 

Tony finally bottomed out with a soft grunt and they hung there for a moment, nothing but their breaths and their heartbeats in the quiet room. Steve caught Tony's gaze and held it, finding tiny flecks of caramel in his brown eyes that no photo had ever done justice. Then Tony started to move.

The slow slide out almost hurt, burned a little as Steve's body struggled to adjust, but then - still ever so slowly - Tony started to press back in again, and every nerve lit up. Steve's cock twitched against his stomach and leaked new beads of precome. "Oh, Tony. Yes - please move, more, more - I can take it!"

"You may be Captain America -" Tony's hips rolled far too slowly again, pushing a low moan out of Steve's throat "- but you're also my Steve, and I'm going to take care of you. Not just because I want you to enjoy your first time so much that you're spoiled for all other men, but because I definitely want to do this again, probably as soon as my sadly aging body will allow, and if you hate it, you'll come up with all sorts of excuses and - and - headaches and start hiding from me when I enter the room and -"

"Tony!" Steve choked out between mixed laughter and desperate gasping. "I love you. Just shut up and fuck me."

Tony grinned down at him. "If you insist." He shifted, just so, and picked up the pace, still slow but steady now, deep and unrelenting, and Steve was instantly on the edge of absolute oblivion. Tony's mouth fell to Steve's neck, alternating kisses with little bites, and Steve's hands snapped to his shoulders, holding on for dear life. 

"I'm getting close again," he groaned. "God, you feel so good." Tony was so deep, filled him up so well, a hundred times better than the toy, and he was real and solid, his heat searing Steve's skin. There was no room for doubt or worry or regret, or really any higher thought at all. Steve just slipped into the pleasure of it, trying his hardest to hold on just a little longer.

Then Tony pulled back and stilled, and the whine that leaked out of Steve's throat was obscene. He snapped his eyes open, lip caught between his teeth. "- okay?" he managed, breathlessly.

"Amazing. I just thought you might want to try something else."

Steve nodded, even though what he really wanted was Tony pressing into him again. But instead, Tony eased back completely then rolled over to lie on his back next to Steve. He patted his thighs. "Come here."

Getting the idea, Steve slipped up and swung one leg over until he sat on Tony's lap. Tony took his own cock in hand and guided it to Steve's hole as he sunk down. They groaned in unison as Steve settled on Tony's lap. He was so much deeper this way, and Steve had control of the angle. 

Steve started moving his hips and it wasn't as easy as he expected to set a rhythm, but Tony was patient, thumbs drawing slow circles on his thighs, his breath light and gasping, and Steve had made it that way. It was thrilling.

Steve finally managed to put his super strength to good use and figured out how to rock his hips up and forward and then down and back. Tony's cock pressed deep inside him with every downstroke. Steve shifted back, and Tony's hand snapped to his. "Fuck, yeah, that's it -" Tony moaned and thrust up into him, feet braced on on mattress. "Yes - yes!"

Steve was close too, just from hearing Tony's gasps and cries and knowing he was the one to bring him there. Tony reached out and wrapped his fingers around Steve's cock, startling him into jerking his hips down. "Oh, Tony - your hands…"

"Come on, baby, we're so good at this already, come on, come with me. We got this - yeah - yeah, come on, Steve!" Tony grabbed Steve by the hip, his other hand still working Steve's cock, and it was just movement and pleasure and Tony - Tony - Tony -

Steve came again, spilling over Tony's fist and onto his stomach. He stared, helpless, as Tony thrust into him once, twice more, then came, shaking and twitching between Steve's legs. His cock throbbed against Steve's rim, and it was Steve's body that had pulled that out of him, that he was filling with come. The hot rush of pleasure at that thought almost felt like a third orgasm and Steve shuddered from head to foot, overwhelmed, eyes hot.

He slumped forward onto Tony's chest with a groan that turned into a giddy laugh as the rush flushed from overwhelming to pure joy. Tony hugged him tight and pressed kisses to Steve's face until he'd relaxed on top of him. "That was amazing," Tony whispered into Steve's neck.

"I love you." Steve rocked his hips forward and Tony's cock slipped free of his body. He could feel the come leaking out with it, sliding down his inner thigh, and that was a feeling the toy could never replicate. 

Sleep pulled at Steve's edges as he settled on the bed, but he fought it, wanting to spend as much time as possible here with Tony. He knew he'd still be here when he woke, that they had days and weeks and months and hopefully years and years and years together. 

Tony shifting on the bed made Steve snap back into full consciousness. "Where -?" he managed to mumble out.

"Just going to the bathroom," Tony whispered, rolling back in to kiss him. "I can't sleep if I don't rinse off. I'll be right back."

"M'kay… miss you."

"I'll miss you too." Tony fell into kissing him for a while longer, Steve's body singing with post-orgasm peace mixed with the soft pleasure of directionless making out. With a final peck to the end of Steve's nose, Tony sat up and his weight disappeared from the bed.

Steve tried to track his movements by sound, but he kept drifting in and out in the cozy cloud that was Tony's bed. It smelled like him everywhere - and that was something he'd never had before, either. He burrowed into the pillows and breathed him in, time going hazy again.

Then a soft bing pulled him out of his doze and he reached for his pants where they'd been discarded next to the bed. His phone chimed several more times as he searched before he found it in his back pocket and dug it out. He was expecting it to be Tony, even though he knew he was in the shower, because even after all this time apart, his instincts still told him it was always Tony. 

Except - it was.

>>> I miss you already.
>>> Also I love you af. Probably never going to get sick of saying that.
>>> Plus that ass is to die for.
>>> Except not by me cause I'm not dying anymore and I plan to keep it that way so we can be together.
>>> You want to be together, right?

Steve read his messages twice through, grinning, before he replied.

<<< Yes, Tony. I love you too. I want to be together. Forever.

>>> Thank god.

<<< I thought you were taking a shower?

>>> I am. What? You think the amazing Tony Stark can't text you in the shower? I used to text you in the shower all the time.

Steve laughed out loud, and he knew Tony could hear him through the cracked bathroom door. You never told me that. Or showed me that.

His phone chimed in rapid succession, all pictures of Tony - his chest, his cock, his legs, his face - sopping wet and welling with beads of hot water and streaks of soapy foam, skin flushed and hair slicked back. And this time it was all real, Steve knew. Because there was the arc reactor in his chest, surrounded by the web of faint dark lines left behind from the palladium poisoning, and the scars and marks from the Chitauri battle. There were the slight bruises Steve had pressed into his hips. 

All Tony. All his.

<<< You're beautiful.

>>> I thought you were sleeping?

<<< I find myself, somehow, really awake all of a sudden.

>>> Well then.
>>> What are you doing all the way out there?

Steve grinned down at the phone. If this was the future? Friends and family and cooking and bikes and adventures and midnight texts and Tony's body under his hands and so much love he thought he might explode - if this was the future, he thought he'd fit in pretty damn well here, after all.

<<< On my way!