Something was wrong with Tony.
Anyone who didn't know the man as well as Steve did would have missed it. The signs were subtle. So subtle he had to look twice, just to make sure he wasn’t overreacting. But there they were. Something was wrong. He just couldn't put his finger on what, and it was driving him up the wall.
It wasn't in his posture. Tony's shoulders were relaxed, arms held loosely as his sides. His words came lilting and easy from where he stood a few feet away, talking to some politician whose name Steve couldn't remember. Tony laughed at something the bureaucrat said, and there was nothing strained in it at all. No tensing of the jaw. No stiffness in his tone.
Still, there was a general aura of...wrongness. One that Steve had come to recognize after spending so much time with the man. He was so conscious of his lover, the way he moved and acted, that any minuscule change was subconsciously obvious. Even if it did take Steve a moment to figure out what it was that had clued him in.
Nothing plainly visible, of course. Tony was a master showman. Any tells that obvious had been bred out of him long ago, particularly in public settings like these. Steve stayed where he was at the bar, narrowing his eyes as he watched his lover schmooze his way through the gala he and the other Avengers were attending tonight.
For the billionaire, charming crowds was almost as natural as breathing, though Steve knew it drained him far more than he let on. Still, watching reporters and government officials alike eat out of his hand was, for lack of a better word, awe-inspiring. Particularly when some of the same people they were rubbing shoulders with openly and actively disliked Tony.
Evidently, Tony's history early in life, manufacturing weapons and sleeping around, made him an easy target. A ready-made scapegoat for the media to place their blame. And Iron Man – tough as the name implied – accepted it with a grace and strength of will Steve couldn't help but admire, even if he was frustrated enough to pull his hair out over it. Even Captain America couldn't control the media vultures that circled around them like wolves, though he wished he could. He wasn't sure where they got off, passing judgment on people for things they did a lifetime ago, but he'd really like to show them where they could shove it.
Tony was talking to a crowd of reporters. Smiling for their cameras. Keeping them engaged. And Steve was convinced he could see it. The wrongness. Alarm bells were blaring in his head. Because Tony smiled, and it was easy. Dazzling. The most masterful armor he'd ever created. More impenetrable than any gold-titanium alloy suit he possessed.
It was also the phoniest thing Steve had ever seen.
He hated it. Most of all, he hated that he only knew this smile was fake because the world so seldom saw the real one. For the world at large, it was real, and it made Steve sick.
Those big brown eyes were shining. Open. Warm.
...hollow. Though that last one was also something only Steve could see, he was sure. Tony had told him once that his eyes were his tell. Too expressive for their own good, and when Tony couldn't fix them, couldn't purge emotion completely, he used them. Projected what he wanted people to see, shoving the bad so far down, no one would ever find it again unless he willed it.
Steve knew those eyes. Read them like a book. And right now, they were wrong, but he didn't know why. He didn't know what it was Tony was shoving down, to make room for that blinding, sickening, hollowed-out warmth, but he was damn well going to find out.
Steve thanked the bartender as they handed him his drink – he couldn't get drunk, but it made him look less out of place, and he liked the taste. He mingled for a time, slowly making his way toward the crowd Tony had managed to enthrall. Once he was finally close enough to see them, he tuned into the conversation. His hearing was sharper than most, courtesy of Erskine's serum, and he could usually pick up the voices he wanted and tune out the rest.
“…how you did it. My readers are dying to know, and frankly, so am I.”
Tony flashed that dazzling smile again. The one that screamed wrong. Steve's stomach churned. “Just lucky, I guess. Have you met me?”
The woman laughed obligingly. “I could use some of that luck myself. I don't think there's enough on the planet for me to talk Captain America into my bed.”
They hadn't been public with their relationship for very long, and Steve understood that it had been a regular P.R. nightmare, if Ms. Pott's increasingly haggard appearances at the tower were any indication. Still, he steered clear of most social media, and he'd rather punch Hitler actors in the face fifty more times than read one of those phony gossip mags from the newsstands. Still, Captain America was openly bisexual, and in a relationship with Tony Stark. He wasn't blind to the implications of that. Hell, seventy years ago, it might have gotten him institutionalized.
There was nothing strained about Tony's answering laughter, though he did put his hands in his pockets. It was casual, subtle, but Steve knew what it meant, even if they didn't. It meant he couldn't trust them not to give him away. Before Tony could properly reply, however, one of the other reporters chimed in: a young man, this time.
“Really though, Tony. Give us the inside on this one! You're not exactly the ‘take home to mom’ type. What would make wholesome Captain America interested in a guy like you?”
'A guy like you?' Steve bristled. What was that supposed to mean?
Tony was a catch. He was a supernova – brilliant and beautiful, in ways few people could possibly imagine. He was a safe place. A warm bed. A soft word, always exactly when Steve needed it. And these people had no right. They had no right to make him feel bad. To imply he was anything less than deserving of Steve's attention. Of his love.
Another reporter scoffed good naturedly. “Tactless as my colleague's wording is, how did you do it? Forgive me, but I find it a little hard to believe this happened completely without outside influence. I'm guessing you made the first move?”
Tony's expression was open, though his eyes were dark, yawning chasms, empty and bottomless. Steve felt sick. Good God, how long had people been pelting Tony with these ridiculous questions? All night? Suddenly, Steve had a reason for the wrongness. For that nagging, unsettled feeling, lingering deep within his gut.
Steve pushed his way to Tony's side, sliding an arm around his waist. Slowly, deliberately. “I did, actually. Hi, sweetheart.” He kissed his cheek. “These fine people aren't monopolizing too much of your time, are they?” Steve was careful to keep his tone even, though he knew Tony would hear the hidden message in the words.
Tony's smile never wavered, though it gained just a bit more authenticity with Steve there, by his side.
“Now, now, honey-bear. You do have to share me sometimes. Don't be greedy.”
“Maybe I don't want to share.” Steve kissed Tony again, on the lips this time. He typically wasn't much for public displays of affection, and he kept this one tame, though he made sure those damned reporters were watching. And he damn well ensured there was just enough bite in his tone. “Not everybody deserves your time.”
Conversation around them halted. His actions had clearly thrown everyone off balance, though they recovered quickly. Another young woman, one he hadn't heard speak yet, dared to ask another question. “Captain Rogers, if I may be so bold, you must be aware of Mr. Stark's history. Can you tell us what attracted you to him?”
“I could, but we'd be here all night,” Steve answered easily, tightening his arm around Tony's waist. “I've only been out of the ice for a couple of years now, and adjusting has been something of a challenge. Tony has been my rock. I'm not sure what I would have done without him. Honestly, I'd be hard pressed to think of anyone I'd rather spend my time with, past or present.”
The reporters ate it up, scribbling notes furiously. It might have been comical, if righteous fury weren't slamming through Steve's veins, like a freight train.
“As someone who was born before the invention of sliced bread, I can safely say that Tony Stark is the best thing to come of the world since. And the day he said yes when I asked him out was one of the happiest days of my life.”
“Steve. Darling. Light of my life. Remember that talk we had about oversharing?” Tony kept that unmovable grin in place, though his eyes weren't hollow anymore. Now they screamed 'shut the fuck up,' and Steve couldn't have been happier. He grinned back at him shamelessly.
“Well, doll-face, that was before the general public thought they could get away with bad-mouthing my best fella in front of me.”
The way Tony's cheeks colored was quite possibly the most beautiful sight he ever knew. It was there and gone again in an instant, but Steve saw it, and that made everything else worth it.
“Have to say, folks. I'm disappointed.” Steve met each of their gazes in turn. “Call me old-fashioned, but in my day, when someone took a sweetheart, you were happy for them. And while Tony doesn't need me to defend him, by God, I'm going to. I don't appreciate anyone implying I didn't know exactly what I was doing when I kissed him that first time. Or that Tony's past should in any way mean he couldn't possibly attract my attention without 'outside influence.' Print that for your stories.”
Tony was watching Steve with a baffled sort of wonder. As if he honestly couldn't understand why anyone would go out of their way to stick up for him. There was a reason he was so good with these crowds, after all. The wolves had been circling around him since birth, waiting for him to make a mistake so they could sink their claws into him. Tear off their pound of flesh. No one ever stepped into that ring to defend him, so he learned how. Kept the predators at bay, and he did it with a smile as sharp as their teeth.
Steve was in awe of him, even as his heart broke. Tony Stark, a world of carnivores at his back, fought them all off with nothing but his words, and his wits. And Steve would die before he let him face that world alone ever again.
He was satisfied to find that a few of the reporters looked properly chastised, almost ashamed of themselves. Good. They should be ashamed. They should be ashamed they ever made a man as exceptional as Tony think any less of himself. A man who'd saved his own life with a box of scraps in a cave, and come back stronger than ever.
Damn them and their judgments. They didn't have to listen to this.
“We're leaving. Come on.” Steve took Tony's hand, pulling him away from the group. He led them across the gala floor toward the back entrance, pushing through the double doors that led outside.
Tony all but melted the instant they left the building. He ran a hand through his hair, movements erratic. “You shouldn't have done that.” He whirled on Steve, almost vibrating with tension. “Why did you do that?”
“They were out of line.” Steve reached for Tony. “You didn't deserve-”
“Oh, fuck off, I already told you this would happen!” Tony pushed Steve's arm away. “This is your life now! You wanted me? Congratulations! That in there is what you signed up for! And that little stunt you just pulled? It's gonna be front page tomorrow.”
“Good. I want the whole world to know who my best guy is. It's you.” Steve pulled him closer, rested their foreheads together as he gazed into those eyes, like fire. The ones he'd move heaven and earth for. “It's always been you.”
Tony's face crumpled. His voice was thin, ragged around the edges. “Steve...”
Stark men were made of iron, but iron could still bend. It could rust, and break. Crumble under a weight too heavy to bear. And it was clear to Steve that Tony would keep ambling on until every shred of metal within him had been ground to dust.
Steve couldn't let that happen. Not on his life.
“Meeting you was the best thing that ever happened to me, Tony. If all I have to do to keep you is knock a few heads together, I got off easy.”
Tony buried his face in the side of Steve's neck, grasping his shoulders with hands like claws. “Sorry.” He choked, and he sounded so tired, so broken, Steve's vision blurred as his eyes welled up with tears. “I'm sorry...”
Steve hated them, then; the scavengers at their back. The wolves who'd picked at this wonderful, beautiful man, waiting for something within him to break. He hated the world that was so cruel, it made a marvel like Tony Stark think nothing of himself. Made him apologize to anyone who ever tried to love him.
And Steve wasn't a fool. He knew he couldn't change the past. Couldn't take the world by storm, or hunt the phantoms in his dreams.
But God help the man who looked at Tony Stark and gnashed their teeth ever again.