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My heart in your hands

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As a general rule, Steve did not switch his work-phone off. It was emergency-only, so it was rarely used anyway, and when it was, SHIELD tended to call during normal working hours; you know, 9 to 5, that sort of thing. Sometimes he got one or two a bit later in the night, although that was because of immediate assistance being needed to deal with situations. Never one past midnight though; not in the year or so that Steve had been working for the organisation.  

So when the damn thing started to go off at 3am, Steve definitely knew something was wrong. Or it’d better be, otherwise someone at SHIELD was going to fucking die.

He blinked into his pillow, frowning at the incessant beeping noise coming from his right. It took a fraction of a second for the tone to register, and then he was upright in a flash, grabbing the phone while his finger simultaneously slid over the answer button. He was used to going from asleep to battle-ready by this point. Came with the job. “Captain Rogers,” he said, voice clipped and a little croaky—he had only woken up two seconds ago, after all, “what’s the situation?”

There was a short pause, and then none other than Director Fury himself was speaking down the line. Usually he got one of the lackeys, sometimes Hill or Coulson. Fury was a new one. “We need you in,” was his opener, voice just as sharp as Steve’s, “I can’t disclose any information over the phone. But it’s top priority. We’ve got some new intel that’s just come in, and we want you briefed and leading the mission.”

Steve’s eyes went wide, and he stumbled out of bed hastily, phone tucked between shoulder and face as he searched for some pants. He’d led a handful of missions before, sure, but from Fury’s voice, this sounded important. Very important. “You sending a car or shall I take my b—”

“Car’s outside,” Fury cut in, and wow, okay, not wasting any time then, “I’ll meet you in my office. Don’t dawdle.” With that, he cut the call, not so much as a goodbye, and Steve pulled the phone away from his ear, a frown starting to crease his face. He zipped his pants up hurriedly and glanced at himself in the mirror, making sure there was no drool on his face, then grabbed his black shirt and SHIELD jacket from the chair where it was all piled up. He wondered what the hell it was that was so important, and briefly checked his phone to see if there was any breaking news that had occurred over the last few hours he’d been asleep.

But there was nothing. All quiet on that front, which meant this was a SHIELD-operated mission, and not just general damage control. Alright then.

Steve hurried down the stairs in his apartment, sparing the briefest of looks at the piles of things he’d stacked on each step as an incentive for him to put them all in storage, which he never actually did. Peggy had always said he turned into a walking bag of trash when he was left alone for too long, which — yeah, okay, maybe she had a point. It might have been about five months since he’d last cleaned his room, by his count. Shameful, he knew, but hey… it wasn’t like anyone was visiting.

He shut his front door hastily and then turned, looking out onto the street where a sleek black car was waiting right outside. A driver with sunglasses on at 3am nodded to him, and he nodded back curtly, slipping into the backseat. He was now wide awake, the concept of an oncoming challenge overtaking him, and so all thoughts of sleep were long behind him. It was easy to fall into this mindset, and the adrenaline was a familiar buzz in his system. This—this was one thing he could do, and do well.

Yeah, whether you can do pretty much everything else in your life well is up for debate though, isn’t it, an annoying voice in his head chimed in helpfully, sounding rather like Peggy Carter. He scowled, and in his mind's eye, he could see the way Peggy would have been smiling at that particular nonverbal response, one eyebrow raised fondly as she said 'no need to get grumpy- merely stating the obvious, pet.' 

The thought made him huff in the ghost of amusement, which in turn caused the driver to glance warily at him through the mirror. He supposed that was warranted. If he told anyone at SHIELD he had occasional conversations with the disembodied voice of his dead friend, he’d get a psych eval and then subsequently a firing, for sure. But that was just between him and said disembodied voice, wasn’t it? He wasn’t crazy, anyway. He just… knew what Peggy would think if she heard him, and sometimes put a voice to those thoughts.

He could admit, he may have been alone for a little too long. But it was fine. He was handling it.

Shaking his head softly, he focused back on the matter at hand, thinking through possibilities as they drove over to SHIELD headquarters. Would it be an extraction? A raid? Steve specialised in hand-to-hand, so it was probably not going to be anything covert, but you never knew. Spending time with SHIELD agents like Natasha Romanov had rubbed some things off on him, so maybe they thought he was capable enough now.

 

As it turned out though, it was not anything he could have expected. Not in a million years.

 

Steve stared down at the file beneath him, mouth open and eyes blank. As soon as he’d gotten into the building, someone had been waiting to escort him over to the top floor where Fury’s office was, and no one had said a word to him, not even once the door had locked behind him and he’d come face to face with the Director himself. There had been no greeting, no words traded as Steve had walked over to the desk—it had just been a short nod, a clench of the jaw, and then a file slapped down on the desk. The file which Steve was now looking at in bewilderment.

Fury was stood waiting, his hands resting on the desk between them. He wasn’t moving, not one muscle, and Steve figured the Director was probably waiting for him to react first and then go from there. But Steve himself wasn’t quite sure what to say. In fact, a rather large portion of his cognizant brain-processes were choosing instead to focus on the rhythmic ticking of the grandfather clock that Fury kept in the corner of his room. It was a funny thing to have in a top-security office. A little out of place. Maybe it was an heirloom or something. Steve didn’t know. He really needed to stop thinking about the clock right about now.

“This…” he began, blinking once and then looking back up, “this is Tony Stark.”

“Yes.”

Steve blinked again, fingers tracing across the picture clipped to the corner of the file. His head felt a little dull, like someone had just pressed pause on all trains of thought, but the familiar wrench of his heart at the sight of the other man was still present under his sternum, stealing the breath from him. In the corner of the room the clock gave a particularly loud tick, its hollow knocking bouncing around in Steve’s brain. “Why are you giving me a file of Tony Stark?” He asked, voice low and wary as he turned his eyes back to Fury. He didn’t pick up the file.

Fury said nothing for a moment, his jaw twitching the way it always did when he was uncomfortable. Something began to sink in Steve’s stomach; an ominous forewarning that he was not going to like what he was about to hear. A sudden terrible thought popped into his head not even a second later, and suddenly the breath froze in his throat, veins turning to ice. “Is—is he dead?” He leaned back imperceptibly, like he could physically avoid the answer he didn’t want to hear.

But Fury shook his head. “No,” he responded with a clipped voice, “but after this conversation, you might wish he was.”

He’d been about to sigh in relief, but at the additional words, Steve held off on that action in order to stare at the other man, his brows drawing together. “I’m not that much of an asshole,” he responded shortly, “just because he’s my ex-fiancé doesn’t mean I wish ill of him. He’s a good—”

“I couldn’t give less of a shit how far Stark managed to get his dick up your ass, Rogers, that’s not what this is about,” Fury snapped at him, and Steve’s shoulders tensed automatically, because he wasn’t going to let anyone talk to him like that, Director or not. However, the other man’s next sentence managed to floor him completely and turn all his thoughts away from cussing Fury out in his own office. “New intel’s just come in, Rogers. We think Tony Stark might be the person behind Iron Man.”

Steve froze. Looked at Fury, who looked back at him with a steely glare. They faced off for a few moments whilst Steve tried to process what the man had just said, but it didn’t quite go in. Eventually, he came to a simple conclusion:

“That’s bullshit,” he declared, snorting loudly and shaking his head. The clock in the corner of the room ticked on, quiet and yet deafeningly loud, and Steve wanted to put his fist through it to shut it up. He pulled an incredulous face and turned back to Fury. “You can’t be serious. Iron Man is… he’s a terrorist.”

Fury’s face didn’t change even when Steve waited a few more seconds, and his silence sat heavily in the office. Iron Man had been a thorn in SHIELD’s side for damn near a year now, blowing up government facilities, stealing classified information and weapons to use for god knows what, stirring up trouble by inciting rumours about SHIELD & the US army and then leaking them to the public. There had been no official deaths yet, not as far as the general public knew anyway—but pretty much everyone in the government was aware that Iron Man had been the one behind the tragedy in Gulmira which has kickstarted that sick bastard’s little career, and once he got bored of blowing up empty buildings on US soil, it was only a matter of time before Iron Man started getting people killed over here too. Hell, he’d already cost near billions in property damage and put multiple men and women out of jobs. He was a nightmare and a menace, seemingly determined to bring the government down to its knees, and Steve knew damn well that if he ever got what he was after, it wouldn’t be long before they had a new totalitarian rule on their hands.

And Fury was looking Steve in the eye and telling him that Tony— the man Steve had spent 4 years of his life deeply in love with, who he had been going to marry before everything had turned to shit—was behind all that.

He took a second to get himself in check and look over the facts. It was currently 3:32 in the morning, which meant this was now top priority. They were no longer working in theoreticals, and had solid evidence to believe that… that this was the case. That it was Tony. And, hell, Steve knew that if anyone had the mind and engineering ability to create a suit like that, it was probably him. Tony was a bona fide genius. More than a genius. His brain worked at speeds Formula One cars couldn’t hope to reach, and that had been what had caught Steve’s eye, right from the very beginning. He’d always loved the smartasses. That was what Peggy had always said anyway, starting all the way back when they’d been kids in highschool and Steve had been crushing on Eric Challis, the boy sat in front of him in math who’d always gotten straight A’s in his tests. ‘You know what they say about a big brain’ is what Peggy would always tease him with, eyebrows wiggling as she gestured rudely to her crotch.

Crass jokes aside, Peggy had always known him. And so when he’d set his eyes on Tony, the woman had just rolled her eyes and told him ‘typical’.

 But that was a whole different thread of hurt that Steve wasn’t feeling ready to tug on just then, not to mention irrelevant to the fucking matter at hand. Steve blinked away the memories and straightened his back in order to look down at the file. His personal life wasn’t important. Not when he was seeing a report which told him that the very same man Steve had fallen for all those years ago —the one Steve would have done anything for—was Iron Man. Supervillain. Terrorist. Traitor.

It hardly made any sense. But Fury was pulling up evidence; grainy photos, statements from agents that they’d had tailing Tony. Nothing official, but enough. It was enough.

Steve’s heart sank at a steady pace as he listened to Fury reel off the facts: how Tony had become reclusive at the same time Iron Man had shown up, how there was intel which told them that he’d made purchases on the black market for parts that would only be needed for weapons designs that matched up with Iron Man’s armoury. Tony had stopped production of weapons nearly a year ago now, so there would be very little reason for those purchases. With every example Fury reeled off, another black mark was struck against Tony’s name. Steve could hardly believe it, but… but it was right there.

“There’s nothing solid yet,” Fury told him tersely, “he’s too smart to leave a trail. But the whispers alone are enough to warrant a search, at the very least. Even without Iron Man as his excuse—buying weapons-grade plutonium? Hiring out mercenaries with known kill-counts?” The Director’s face managed to look sympathetic for a second as he watched Steve. “There’s something dirty going on, Rogers. Whatever you knew of Tony before… he’s changed. Something’s gone wrong.”

“And I suppose that’s why I’m here.” The resignation sat deep in his gut. This was just another thing sent to hurt him. Another betrayal, another terrible let-down. One thing was for sure though: this guy- the one that was responsible for domestic terrorism charges and violent assaults and the wiping-out of entire fucking villages in the Middle East- wasn’t the man that Steve loved. And if Tony really was Iron Man, then he clearly hadn’t been that man in a long time. Maybe even before Steve had left him. “You want me to try and use my connection with him to get some intel.”

Fury nodded, clearly impressed at how fast Steve had worked it out. “Exactly,” he swept away from the desk, beginning to pace the room, “it’s common knowledge that Stark doesn’t let anyone close these days. We haven’t seen a single guest in his house, he rarely attends public functions any more, and he lives alone in a far-out corner of the West Coast. If we tried to send in an agent, Stark would clock it was us and turn them out at the door without hesitating.”

“But if you sent in someone that he had an emotional investment with…” Steve started dully, hands tightening against the chair.

“-then we stand a chance of getting an opening, yes,” Fury finished with another enthusiastic nod. He walked to Steve’s side and leaned against the desk, looking sideways at him. “He wouldn’t expect you. Last time you spoke, you were still under contract with the Army, and since we recruited you your records have been wiped clean. He doesn’t know you’re with us. He’d trust you. Your relationship ended on amicable terms, correct?”

Steve bristled, resisting the urge to tell him that it wasn’t any of his fucking business. He thought back to the end of everything; Tony’s tired face, the defeated slump of his shoulders when Steve had told him he couldn’t do this anymore, that he was sorry, that it was all too much. They’d been fighting for weeks by that point, Tony working more hours to keep away, Steve going out for days at a time, staying in bars for hours on end and trying to drink until he forgot everything that was plaguing him. Steve privately thought that if they’d kept going any longer, it may well have killed one of them. It really said something about how terrible Steve must have fucking been though, for Tony to not even try fighting it, or argue with him about his decision. Usually, Tony never, ever gave up. Not on anything or anyone. Even if it hurt him.

Except this once, apparently. This once, he’d just looked at Steve, heartbroken and empty and totally, utterly defeated as he’d nodded his head once and agreed.

“It wasn’t… amicable, exactly,” Steve gritted out, and God, he’d compartmentalised all this shit for so long now, bringing it back up to the surface felt wrong, “we were both in bad places. I haven’t talked to him since.”

That didn’t seem to unduly worry Fury. “That’s still the best in we’ve got.”

Right. Because Tony was Iron Man. Tony was now apparently filling his extra time with terrorist acts, Jesus Christ. “What do you want me doing, Sir?” He asked defeatedly, tilting his chin up. Just another mission, he told himself. Another task, to fill the time until the next one came along, and then the next, and then the next.

Sounds like a fun life, Steve.

Fury paused for a moment, his eyes narrowing as he took a breath. “Before you take the mission, Rogers, I need to know that your loyalty isn’t going to waver. Stark can talk his way out of a paper bag, and his silver tongue has gotten more than one of our agents compromised before. If you went in there and did what we were asking for, are you sure that you wouldn’t lose yourself?” Fury winced slightly. “Because we would be expecting you to get… up close and personal with him, if you know what I mean.”

Steve did. “You want me to act as a honeypot,” he said, voice blank, and when Fury nodded, Steve just felt himself sink further.

He didn’t want to do this, he realised. The whole thing was making him feel uneasy, wrong. Tony was the man Steve had been devoted to for years, and who had returned those affections in equal measure. This betrayal, even in theory, made Steve feel awful.

But if Tony really was Iron Man… then Steve didn’t have a choice. This was a terrorist that needed taking down- not his ex, not his friend. A Supervillain, collecting an army’s worth of deadly weapons and information for God only knows what. Hell, the fact that Steve hadn’t seen this progression beginning when he’d still been with Tony made him partly responsible, because there was no way in hell any of this would have been done on a whim. Tony must have been plotting this for a long time. And Steve must have been blind to it for even longer. He should have seen what was happening before it had even had the chance to start; should have spotted Tony falling into the typical patterns that many radicalised individuals went through. But he hadn’t then, and it seemed that the only way anyone was going to be taking Iron Man down was if Steve did this now.

He had to. For the safety of the world.

“I’m in.”

 

 

*

 

 

He and Steve had met totally by chance.

Steve had been out celebrating his promotion with Bucky and Peggy, the two of them egging him on to drink more than he probably should, and Tony had just been forced into going somewhere that wasn’t his workshop by an exasperated and mildly worried Pepper. Tony would later say that it was him who started the ball rolling; catching Steve’s eye across the crowded bar, romcom style, and smiling at him, but Steve disagreed. He was almost certain he’d been the first one to smile. Not that it really mattered. But it had been fun to bicker about in the mornings.

On the night they’d first met, they’d both been pretty drunk, and although Steve had been feeling all the usual butterfly-feelings at the way Tony talked, the way he acted and spooked and just was- when Tony said later that it would be better to keep it casual, Steve found himself agreeing on autopilot. He knew it wouldn’t end well, seeing as he had already found himself half in love with the man by the time he’d taken his clothes off, but in his defence, he probably would have said anything if it meant that he would be able to sleep with the guy. The way he’d felt for Tony on that night had been something he just hadn’t felt before. A connection on a deep level, an understanding and an appreciation. Tony, to him, had been perfect.

Of course, the whole ‘casual’ thing hadn’t actually lasted long. Surprisingly, it was Tony who stumbled through the conversation about wanting to be exclusive, cheeks red and lips chapped from where he’d bitten them in nervousness. “I know what we agreed on the first night,” he’d begun hurriedly, “but I’ve been thinking and I… well, I mean, you know I’m—I’m me, right, so I’m emotionally stunted on a good fucking day and I thought that I wasn’t ready for a serious relationship or anything, but then I… then I thought of you being.” He waved a hand briskly through the air, jaw tightening. “You know. Being with someone else. And it made me physically sick, Steve. I—I don’t want that. I don’t want you to be with anyone else. And I don’t want to be with anyone else. You’re… it’s just you, Steve.”

Later that night, when Steve broke the news that he was actually Officially dating Tony to his two friends, they’d gone and had another celebratory night in the bar, but this time, they’d taken Tony with them. The newest member of their group.

Steve had loved him fiercely, and like nothing ever before. It was different to the way he’d felt about Bucky and Peggy; that slow, unending flame of affection that you often found in your friends. With Tony, though, it had been raging. Burning Steve’s heart like a wildfire, surging through his system like a drug. They’d raced through all the stages of a newborn in a heartbeat, jumping straight into the deep end. Tony was brilliant and beautiful and kind, and he always laughed at the shitty jokes on the back of the cereal boxes. He loved Steve’s friends until they became his own, and worked tirelessly to achieve what he needed. His very presence, his aura… it made Steve better. He wanted to be better for Tony. He would have done anything for that man, and he knew without a shadow of a doubt that Tony would have done the same for him.

They dated for four years, and they were without question the happiest years of Steve’s life. Of course, it didn’t come without challenges—they had their arguments, and they could certainly be explosive at times. Bucky had often ranted about how he’d never once known another couple who could scream themselves hoarse in an argument one minute and then cuddle up on the couch the next, but that was just how Steve and Tony worked. They were intense, opposite sides of the same coin. Of course it could get messy when something snagged in the mechanism. But they loved each other too much to let it get the better of them, and even in some of the worse arguments, Steve didn’t doubt that they would work it out. Because it was them. Because they always did.

Steve proposed to him on the 17th of October, and Tony cried, and said yes about a hundred consecutive times. It had been perfect. They had been perfect.

 

Then Peggy died.

 

Caught in the explosion of an IED while in active duty. Steve had been by her side when he’d seen the bomb go off. The look in her eyes - the terror, the realisation, the acceptance – was forever burned into his brain, and not even in seventy years would he ever forget it. He got lucky that day. A foot closer, and he would have been hit by the rubble. On his darker nights, he wished that he had. As it was, however, he’d been unharmed, only there to watch and witness as his lifelong best friend was killed in front of him.

"There was nothing you could have done," Tony tried to tell him when Steve was sent home on leave, hastily brushing the tears off his own face in order to try and lessen Steve's own sorrow. "She made her own decisions, and you aren’t God. This wasn’t your fault."

But that didn’t matter. It didn’t matter that it hadn’t been his fault, that he survived when she died. She was still gone. She was still not coming back.

Steve broke.

In hindsight, he could see that. It was painfully obvious. But at the time, he refused to admit it. He pushed Tony away as far as the man would go, unwilling to let him get caught up in Steve’s quickly-spiralling world, snapped and screamed at him when he pushed too far. He drank so much that he should have fucking died, honestly. There were days, weeks, even, when he didn’t even come home at all. Whatever dark place he’d ended up in, Tony couldn’t reach him there. And slowly, Tony started to pull back further than Steve had even pushed him. Didn’t try and talk to Steve. Didn’t search him out. They lived in a house together and in their worst point, probably only saw one another about twice in a month. Tony threw himself into his work instead, spending night after night hunched over books and accounts with a deep frown etched into his face, eyes tired and pale. Steve would have used to tell him to rest. But he’d come back different, and there was nothing left in him that felt as if it could care. When they weren’t ignoring one another they were fighting; both of them drinking too much to be able to resolve it properly, both too emotional to be objective. They stopped making up and just started letting it fester.

It was Steve who gave it up in the end. Sitting down robotically in the chair opposite Tony as he worked on his table and looking at him with dead eyes as he’d said that this wasn’t working any more. That Steve needed to leave. That it needed to end. Again, in hindsight, he knew he wasn’t fucking thinking straight. His head was off somewhere that not even Steve himself could describe, but at the time, it seemed like the only course of action left. And Tony… Tony didn’t argue. Tony had just put his pen down slowly, exhausted and defeated and broken, and had nodded his head once.

“Okay,” he’d said, cracked down the middle, “if that’s what you want.”

And that had been that.

Steve had moved his stuff out into his shitty Brooklyn apartment by the end of the week, and it had all been over. He’d allowed one of the best things left in his life to slip right through his fingers, and he’d never even attempted to fight for it.

Of course, he healed. Time, and therapy as demanded by Bucky, both helped a lot. He started being able to sleep without medication or alcohol, and say her name in casual conversation. Peggy Carter. Best friend. Died a hero. Her impact never left him though, and he woke up every day to the peeling paint of his Brooklyn apartment missing a warmth that he knew was no longer here on Earth. Missing that lipsticked mouth of crimson or purple. And it wasn’t just her he missed, either. He started to come back to the world, and as he did so, he truly realised the gravity of what he’d done. But he knew it was too late to go back on the damage caused by the way he’d acted. Tony had gone. And Steve had no choice but to live on. See the next day through. Go through the motions as best he could. SHIELD had snapped him up only a few months after he’d split with Tony, and they’d wiped him from the records after that, so Tony couldn’t have gotten in touch with him if he’d tried. He filled out mission reports as he watched the 6 o'clock TV and ate a microwave meal, let his apartment get steadily messier and messier, and tried not to think about everything it was that he’d thrown away in his shitty fucking life. Kasey, his therapist, liked to tell him that he has to live each day in the present, not the past. He had to move on. And it wasn’t particularly a life he enjoyed, it wasn’t a world he was happy to be in, but it was better than where he had been when Peggy had first died.

He kept telling himself he was getting there. Slowly. He’d always thought one day he’d try to get in touch with Tony again. Explain. Apologise. Even if Tony had found someone else by that point, Steve had just wanted… he’d always wanted to just get closure.

 

This whole situation now, however, was quite possibly the furthest thing from closure Steve could possibly be. It almost would have been amusing, if Steve wasn’t quite so repulsed by the entire situation. Because in all that time spent wishing, hoping, praying for another chance to meet the man again, when he finally found himself at the gates of Tony’s Malibu mansion the very next day, it felt more like a nightmare than anything close to reality. Like he was back in that dark part of his mind again, trapped in a hell he couldn’t escape, where Tony was evil and the world was wrong and Steve was never going to get his chance at happiness again.

He shut his eyes softly, steadying himself on the sidewalk. Now was not the time.

His cover story was fairly simple. SHIELD had worked out some sort of pattern to Tony’s behaviour, and knew that there was a military base down in Nevada that he was intending to hit next. This was what Steve was also going to use as their link. SHIELD had fabricated a new work profile for him, placing him as a Private Investigator currently under contract with an independent pacifist organisation that wanted him snooping around the facility in order to dig up dirty secrets they were convinced that the US were hiding.

So he was now stood outside the gates with what he was pretty certain was a bruised rib, a cut cheek and a few other surface wounds courtesy of Natasha down at the gym earlier that day. He hadn’t been certain Tony would let him unless there were extenuating circumstances. Saying someone had just tried to kill him after working out he’d been digging around in Military files might do the trick though, hence the bruises. SHIELD had offered to fabricate them with makeup, but he’d declined in favour of the real thing. More realistic.

And now he was here. At Tony’s house. About to see him again a year after breaking up, and intending to lie blatantly throughout the whole night, while also seducing him into giving Steve the information he wanted.

He felt a hundred miles away from the person he’d used to be, and for a moment, the thought was enough to make him want to turn away. Drop this, before he reached a point of no return.

But Tony was Iron Man. Steve needed to do this, for the safety of—well, the world. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t pleasant, but whatever feelings Steve had on the matter weren’t important. Tony had become someone Steve no longer knew. He couldn’t stand by and let him get away with this.

He took a deep breath, pushed everything he was feeling back down into the little pit of despair it had come from, and pressed frantically at the intercom a dozen times in order to convey his apparent distress. It took a few seconds for anything to happen, and in the meantime, Steve looked warily around him, noting the security camera at the corner of the gate. Then-

“Is that…Steve?”

The voice was incredulous, tinny and coming from the speaker at the side of the gate. Steve heaved in another shaky breath. God, it had been so long since he’d heard Tony speak. The timbre, inflections and tones were all the same. Exactly the same. It felt like a physical punch in his gut, but he had to keep his cool. “It’s me,” Steve responded, leaning into the microphone. “Tony, this is an emergency—fuck, can you please… I don’t have anywhere else and I don’t—I can’t trust anyone else. I know this is asking a lot. I know. I’m sorry. But I don’t know what else to—”

“Steve, Steve, slow down.” Tony sounded concerned now, even through the speaker, “what’s the emergency?”

Steve was silent for a moment, shutting his eyes and leaning his forehead against the metal of the gate, hands curling around the bars. “Someone’s trying to kill me,” he whispered.

There was a second of silence, and Steve thought that maybe Tony was going to catch him out right away, not even let him get past the first stage of this stupid plan. It was very surprising, then, when Steve heard a buzzing, and the gates started to slide apart. “Christ, Steve.” Tony’s voice crackled through the speakers, “who’s—what even… fuck, nevermind, questions later, just get in, come on. Do you know whether you were followed?”

“No,” Steve responded, “no, I don’t think I was. Lost them a few hours back. Can I—I can come in?”

“Of course you can come in, Steve. Straight up the drive, okay, I’ll meet you outside.”

The intercom switched off, and Steve stared ahead at the mansion in front of him, all obstacles cleared from his way with a single conversation. Tony hadn’t even hesitated.

Just like that.

His heart was pounding as he walked up the drive, and he made sure to limp a little as he went. Natasha’s kicks were brutal, and he was sure there would be a bruise the size of his hand waiting for him when he took a look at it. He supposed it helped keep the story plausible, though.

God, he was actually doing this, wasn’t he? Last time he’d seen Tony, he’d been moving all of his stuff out of the man’s fucking home, trying his very hardest not to look him in the eye. This hardly even felt real. But then, of course, Steve watched the front door of the mansion open and Tony hurriedly step out of it, flooding the drive with light, and nothing had ever felt more startlingly, painfully real in all of Steve’s life.

Tony was there. Fifteen feet away.

Steve’s breath caught in his throat, everything that he’d been practising suddenly leaving his head in one fell swoop. Tony was in his engineering gear; a tank top and sweats, hair mussed, and there were a pair of welding goggles around his neck, like Steve had caught him mid-project. He looked just as beautiful as the day Steve had left him.

He also could well have been working on Iron Man upgrades when he’d come out to meet Steve. That was an important thing to remember. Tony Stark was a terrorist. Steve was here to extract information.

How could you have done this, he wanted to ask as he watched Tony approach him with a furrowed brow and an extended hand, how could you be the world’s most wanted criminal? You were good. You were kind. You were mine, and I loved you, and—

“Steve?” and suddenly Tony was right there, his hand wrapping around Steve’s bicep worriedly, “fuck, Steve, you look like you’ve been through the wringer. What the hell is going on? Wait, hold on, don’t answer that now. Come in. I’ve got you.” Without hesitation, Tony tugged him backward, guiding Steve into his house. He was biting his lip- a clear sign of anxiety, along with tapping his feet and flexing his hands. Not that that was relevant right now. This was a mission.

Steve had the niggling feeling that he might have gotten involved in something he wasn’t quite ready to handle just yet. But it was too late to back out now anyway. He was in.

Tony’s mansion was… definitely something. As Steve stumbled in, he noticed a lot of things immediately. The security, for one thing, seemed to be pretty high-quality. Sleek black panels- probably interfaces of some sort- were fitted at the side of every door, undoubtedly able to lock and unlock them at will. The interior was modern and new, and although Steve couldn’t see them, he didn’t doubt he was being watched by a camera somewhere. The last thing Tony would want was to be caught out by someone snooping in his drawers.

He turned his head and looked at Tony, feeling a short-lived wave of anger burn inside him. Tony had ruined lives, and done so guiltlessly. He bragged of his achievements sometimes, while he hacked his way into SHIELD and sent them messages. God, he was building up a weapons collection that was going to be able to level whole cities, never mind buildings, and Steve knew Tony—he always worked at least seven steps ahead of everyone else. There was a larger game afoot here, and Steve didn’t even want to know what it entailed.

Tony was— he was gone. Only Iron Man remained of him now, and Steve had to stop him before it was too late. Whatever it took.

They were silent as Tony led them through into the kitchen, his hand on Steve’s arm an almost burning heat. It was all so absurd. Everything Steve had spent so long tucking away into a tightly-packed corner of his mind was now threatening to spill right out again; every repressed emotion and aching need flashing across his periphery. But he kept his face empty of any of that, focusing on keeping the worry and fear there instead. He had just had an attempt on his life, after all. He needed to act like it.

“Sit,” Tony said, pushing Steve onto a barstool. He glanced upward. “JARVIS, lockdown protocol.”

Steve’s eyes were drawn to the large windows as they suddenly turned black and hid the landscape from view. Steve thought he heard the front door clicking, some sort of lock activating. “No one’s gonna get in here now,” Tony told him shortly, turning to Steve and then folding his arms, his brow furrowed deeply. “First thing—do you need any immediate medical intervention? Any serious injuries?”

Steve shook his head, watching as Tony acknowledged it and then turned to a nearby cupboard, leaning up in order to pull what looked like a first-aid kit from within. “Good. You still look like shit though. We’ll need to clean you up.”

The comment was said so casually, Steve couldn’t help but give a soft laugh. “Wow, thanks. Nice to see you too, Tony.”

Tony jerked to a stop, eyes sliding away from Steve’s. He clearly had been trying to think about anything other than that. “Yeah,” was all he said, voice a little too rough to be casual. He stood at Steve’s side, med-kit in hand, and looked down at him, face creased in concern. “So, you fancy telling me what the fuck is going on?”

Right. Show-time.

Steve sniffed, shutting his eyes and shaking his head. “I… God, you wouldn’t believe me even if I told you.”

“Try me.” Tony’s eyebrow lifted, the ghost of amusement shadowing his face. “I’ve undoubtedly heard weirder stories at this point.”

“Well then, I guess finding out I’m now a Private Investigator that just got caught up in a government conspiracy big enough to rock the foundations of the USA forever is gonna be easy for you to digest then?”

Tony blinked once, then shrugged. “Honestly, the most surprising part of that is the fact you’re a PI now. I always wondered where you went; kinda fell off the grid after we…” he flicked a hand awkwardly and looked away. “Well. You know.”

Steve powered through the urge to just get up and run. This was already in territory Steve wasn’t comfortable with. “The army—after everything… couldn’t do it any more,” he muttered, not thinking of Peggy, or bombs, or ‘I’m sorry Captain Rogers, we couldn’t save her’. “Wanted to try helping in a different way, I guess- oh.” He felt his throat close up in surprise when Tony touched him, fingers on his face, gently tilting his head sideways. For a moment, Steve had absolutely no idea how to respond, or what was happening at all. Then he realised that obviously, Tony was starting to work on one of the cuts on his cheek, inspecting it before he began to apply anything.

Fuck. Fuck.

“So you’re a PI,” Tony muttered encouragingly, his eyes burning holes into the side of Steve’s face as he pulled out an antiseptic wipe. “How did that—sorry, this’ll sting— how did that end up with you turning up at my house then?”

Steve was silent for a moment, wincing as Tony cleaned up the blood over his cheek. “Heard of APA?” He asked, and when Tony didn’t answer and instead just cocked his head, Steve continued. “They’re a pacifist organisation, known for attempting to break & enter or vandalise Army bases.”

Tony hummed, giving Steve room to elaborate on his explanation. This bit was the important part. He’d run through this story a dozen times now, and he just had to hope that Tony would take the bait. Steve cleared his throat and nodded. “Well they hired me to do some digging around a military base in Nevada. Fort Oswald.”

Tony’s fingers stilled. “Oswald?” He asked after a beat of silence, something strange in his voice. “I’ve heard of that one.”

Bingo.

“Yeah. Well, my employer said they had reason to believe that there was shady business going on in there, and wanted me to see if I could find anything. I was only supposed to tail one of the higher-ups for a little, see if he was up to something. But… but the deeper I got, the more I had to know. By the end of the month I was tailing a dozen different guys, tapping phone calls—then I broke in.”

“You broke in?” Tony leaned back, incredulous. “Steve, how the hell did you manage to do that?”

“Stole a general’s badge and then waltzed in like I owned the place,” Steve told him with a small smile, “worked for a little while, ‘til I could get to the janitor’s room and find a uniform.” By that point, Tony really did look incredulous, and Steve quelled the quickening of his heart as he continued. “I never found any solid evidence though, and so I left. But they must have found out there’d been a breach and traced it back to me. Then, obviously, figuring that I now knew too much…”

“They ordered a hit.” Tony’s eyes were wide as he looked down at Steve. “What was it that you were investigating?” He asked.

Steve shook his head. “Tony, this is—fuck, this is so classified, just me being here is probably putting you in danger—I just, you were the closest person to Nevada that I could trust, and I—”

“Steve.” Tony clamped down on his shoulder, his face serious. “Believe me, the US military wouldn’t dare touch me. What was it that you were investigating?” He was staring at Steve like the fate of the world rested on his next words; like this meant more to Tony than just getting an answer. Probably because it was relevant to Tony’s interests, what with his own plan to raid the same base.

Steve eyed him, remembering what it was SHIELD had told him to say. “There’s a huge weapons stash that they’ve been collecting into one place, and I think they’re planning on selling them off to the same countries we’re supposedly at war with. Some sort of scheme to keep the conflict going, I dunno what exactly their reasons were—guess the longer the US remain in wherever it is they’re trading with, the easier it is to extract what they want from the country without consequence. But there’s enough weaponry in there to level a city. God knows who it’s going to.”

There was a long, heavy silence, wherein Tony simply stared at him, jaw clenched tight. He didn’t say anything for a long while, and for a moment Steve wondered whether Tony even believed him. But then he just breathed out, turning away and running a hand through his hair. “Well,” Tony muttered, “guess that clears a few things up.”

What things, Steve wanted to ask, but he knew that that would be pushing too fast too soon. He wasn’t an idiot. He needed to do this slowly. The important thing here was that Tony believed Steve was on his side—was morally aligned in the same way. And that Steve was still willing to trust him, too, was going to be important. So, defying all the voices of reason in his head that told him not to, he reached out and grabbed Tony’s hand, holding tight. “I need to stop them,” he breathed, looking up at Tony desperately. “I can’t let this happen. I have to… God, someone has to do something.” He stood jerkily, looking away and turning to the door. “We could—I could go to the police, tell them, or maybe I could go back myself, see what I can—”

“Steve.” Tony grabbed his shoulders and pulled him back so they were facing each other. “The police won’t listen to you. You have no evidence. And you’re in no state to go back out there and get it. You leave now, and they’ll hunt you down.”

“I can’t just sit here!”

Tony said nothing, and his eyes never wavered from Steve’s own. His hands were still on Steve’s arms. “God, this is so fucking surreal,” the man muttered under his breath, “haven’t seen you in a year, and then suddenly you’re in my damn house being all—all you, fuck, okay—just sit back down, Steve—”

“No. No, I need to go—”

“I promise you, they’re never going to get those weapons on the market,” Tony told Steve with utter conviction in his voice, pushing him back onto the stool. “Do you trust me? Because I need—I need you to trust me here. They won’t leave American soil.”

Right. So wherever Iron Man—Tony—was keeping his weapons cache, it was somewhere in the US then. Steve stored the information away, all the while compressing his anger at the whole situation. Tony was manipulating Steve into trusting him, saying that those weapons wouldn’t harm innocent people, when in reality he was simply planning to grab them for himself and use them for his own gain. And okay, it wasn’t like Steve was the angel in this scenario- after all, he was also manipulating Tony into giving away information under the guise of mutual trust, but still. Steve could claim the moral high-ground here, considering he wasn’t a fucking terrorist.

Steve looked at him. Under his jacket was a switch-blade that he kept for emergencies. He could whip that out and end this right now. Sure, JARVIS would probably never let him leave the room and starve him to death in this Fort Knox of a house, but at least it would stop Iron Man in his tracks.

But Steve didn’t even really consider that for longer than a fraction of a second. He never could, even if he wanted to. Which he didn’t. Despite everything he’d found out over the past 24 hours about the man he’d used to love, Steve would still never be able to do that to him.

(And if Steve was being honest—painfully, tragically honest with himself—he wasn’t even sure whether he’d ever quite stopped loving Tony in the first place. He’d crushed it down, pushed it away, but looking at him now, everything just came right back. Every feeling, every butterfly. He couldn’t stop it. No matter how much he looked at Tony and hated who had become, he still… he still-)

“Steve?” He blinked and shoved everything back, in favour of focusing on the matter at hand. Tony was looking at him. He expected an answer. Wanted Steve to say he trusted Tony. Which he didn’t. Because Tony was Iron Man.

“Yeah,” Steve answered anyway, the lie easy, worryingly familiar, “of course I trust you, Tony.”

Tony licked his bottom lip absently and nodded. “Thank you. Now I—”

“I missed you,” Steve blurted, unsure where he was going with it exactly, but knowing that he needed to get Tony to believe Steve was still invested in him. Which he wasn’t. Obviously. But it'd make a good show for him to act like he was. “I… I know that’s a bit of a weird thing to say, right now of all times. I just. Well.” Steve laughed quietly, wincing as it strained his sore lip. “Some things get put into perspective when there’s a man with a knife an inch from your throat. You think about everything that led you to that moment, I guess. Everything that you should have done different.”

Tony didn’t say anything to that. Steve thought maybe that had been too much. Hell, for all he knew Tony had long since moved on. It had been a year, and Tony didn’t exactly have a shortage of people falling at his feet. He should have played the ‘One for the road’ angle rather than the ‘I never got over you’ angle, dammit—

“I missed you too,” Tony’s voice punctured his thoughts and Steve looked up at him, watching how Tony shifted back and forth nervously, “it’s not… God, it’s been a really long year, Steve. I wish I’d had—well, fuck, I wish a lot of things.” He sighed, and then smiled at Steve somewhat tiredly. Steve noticed there was a new scar on his face; a little zigzag one running up from neck to jaw. He wondered how it had happened.

Mission. Focus on the mission.

They were still locked onto each other, their gazes fixed until Tony blinked and then cleared his throat, moving away. “You want something to eat?” He asked, stumbling over to the fridge. “Drink? I’d imagine you’ve had a pretty busy day.”

Steve asked for a Whiskey and then Tony directed him over to the couch in the living room, where he hobbled dutifully. He had to admit that maybe the ‘I never got over you’ angle would actually be easier to play, considering… well. Maybe it wasn’t so far from the truth as Steve would have liked. And by the looks of it, Tony seemed to be in the same boat. Steve wasn’t going to feel guilty for using that against him. He wasn’t. This was what needed to be done.

A minute later Tony came back and sat next to him, a safe distance away. He handed Steve his whiskey and then instantly threw back his own glass in one. When Steve raised an eyebrow at him, Tony just waved him off. “Oh, come on. My ex fiancé just showed up at my door saying the US government is trying to kill him. I deserve this.”

Steve snorted, and then copied the action, feeling the whiskey slide smoothly down his throat. Tony always got the best stuff. “Fair enough,” he said, and then grinned as the taste sparked a memory. “Hey, remember when Bucky drank your whole bottle of Jack Daniels and then decided he was going to try out naked acrobatics on the streets of New York?”

“Oh Jesus.” Tony’s face creased in amusement as he leaned his head back, finger tracing the rim of the glass. Steve watched it intently. “I had to get that car deep-cleaned, you know. He got his naked ass all over my favourite fucking Audi.”

“And vomited in your shoes.”

“No no, that was Peg—” Tony stopped himself suddenly, the smile sticking on his face. Steve, too, felt the immediate heaviness settle down in his chest at the start of her name. Not nearly so sharp, so agonising as it had been in the beginning—although he guessed Tony didn’t know that. Last time they’d seen each other, Steve wouldn’t even say her name at all.

Like Tony had said. It’d been a long year.

“Peggy apologised though, at least,” Steve said softly, taking a small breath. “More than can be said for Bucky. Asshole.”

Tony looked at him for another moment, surprised, before he too smiled. “I hate to defend him, but he was near-comatose.”

They both laughed quietly, and Steve leaned back on the couch, looking sideways at Tony. For a fraction of a second, it almost felt normal. Any other night they’d spent together on the couch at Tony’s place, whiling away the hours in one another’s company and talking shit about their friends.

Except it wasn’t that. It wasn’t even close.

“Steve?” Tony’s face fell a little, and Steve realised the emotion must have started to leak onto his face. “You okay?”

No. No, none of this was okay. But Steve had to push through it. Hell, seeing as he was here, supposedly spilling his guts to Tony, he might as well—you know—actually spill his guts. What exactly did he have to lose? “I was such an asshole to you,” Steve mumbled quietly, shutting his eyes as he took himself back to last year, back when everything had been so dark and the pain had been never-ending. “Toward the end, when Peggy…when she died. You tried to help and I just pushed and pushed—”

“Hey, no Steve, c’mon—”

“—and I was hurting, but that wasn’t enough for me, and so in the process of grieving I put you through hell too and I didn’t even fucking think about it, and it wasn’t fair, and I’m just…” he shook his head softly and leaned onto his knees, eyes on the floor. “I’m just sorry, Tony. You never deserved that.”

He could feel Tony looking at him again, and glanced nervously sideways. Then he felt a hand settle slowly on his shoulder, movement on the couch as Tony shuffled closer. “Steve,” his voice sounded upset, but firm as he carried on, “Jesus Christ, Steve, you have nothing to be sorry for. It was my fault. I didn’t know how to cope with it, how to make you better, so I did the only thing I was good at and ran away. You pushed me, but I let myself get pushed. I wasn’t there for you. Then when I found out about Obadiah and Stark Industries, and I just… I focused more on work than I did on you, while you were grieving the loss of your best friend.” He tightened his fingers around Steve’s shoulder and laughed self-deprecatingly. “I was a shitty husband before I even got a chance to be a husband. And I’m so sorry for that. If I could go back, do things differently… I would.”

Steve heard all the words, but his mind focused in on Tony’s eyes—the genuine sadness and longing there. He really meant that. Steve was fast losing track of what was real and what was fabricated by that point, and he felt almost dizzy with it. This had been something he’d dreamed of, in those weak moments when he’d let himself think about it rather than just pushing it down and away. He’d wished for this. A reconciliation. A chance to just talk to Tony, now that he was a little steadier, a little more able to process his emotions. He’d pictured the way he’d do it—get down on his knees and beg if he’d had to, and Tony would shake his head and get down to his level with him, hold his face in his hands, tell him everything was going to be okay, sweetheart, don’t worry. I’m here. I’ve got you.

This was just a sham though. This was Steve offloading all the emotions he’d carried with him, using it as a way to bring Tony’s guard down. It wasn’t real, and it couldn’t ever be. Because in that year that Steve had imagined those scenarios, Tony had destroyed villages and stolen Weapons of Mass Destruction and got himself on SHIELD’s Most Wanted list. Steve didn’t know how, or why, but what he knew was that the man in front of him was a bad guy.

And maybe what was worse than all that was the fact that Steve…

Well.  Steve was coming to the terrifying conclusion that he may still love him despite all of that

“What happened with Obadiah?” He asked in order to try and steer away from the dangerous emotions that were coming up to the surface, “I never—I never asked.” He remembered, vaguely, that Tony had been dealing with issues at work back then, but he’d been away so much that he’d never really talked about it. And by the way Tony’s face fell, it clearly wasn’t good.

“He’d been double dealing my weapons,” Tony said, his voice burning with anger, “planning on killing me so he could take over the business. I found out the week before the hit had been planned.”

“He’d been—what?”  Steve could hardly believe that. “He’d tried to have you killed?”

“Not… that was after you’d left,” Tony said unevenly, “but I’d been on the brink of working it all out at that point. I’m still—I’m still trying to get them all back, even now. Everything he sold to all the scummiest people in the world. And you wouldn’t believe some of the places they ended up and the things I’ve found, Steve. It’s gone deeper than just weapons now.” He palmed a hand over his head, and for a moment he looked achingly tired. Worn down. But that only lasted a second or two, before he straightened his spine and stared ahead, jaw clenched determinedly. “But like I said- I’m getting them back and I’m gonna fix what I can. That’s how I know Fort Oswald is never going to go through with that arms deal. I guarantee there is a stash of my weapons there, and soon they’re gonna be back in my control, where I can destroy them before anyone else uses them.”

Steve blinked in confusion, the words catching like a jarring cog in his mind. “You’re gonna destroy them?” He asked. That didn’t make sense. Iron Man was supposed to be stealing all his weapons to amass an army. “Why?”

Tony just pulled a face at him. “Because I don’t want them to kill any more innocent fucking people, Steve, why do you think?”

He took a moment to process that. Tony must be lying to him. For one thing, the story about Fort Oswald wasn’t even true—it was all part of the lie he was feeding Tony. There was no weapons deal there, but Tony still seemed to be planning on a hit. This conversation alone was incriminating enough; if Steve wanted to, he could leave right now and the information he had would have Tony under arrest in a heartbeat.

But… but he was confused. Things weren’t quite fitting into place here.

He needed to do more digging. Stay longer. Talk some more. For the mission.

Sighing heavily, he leaned forward and grabbed the bottle of whiskey Tony had set out on the coffee table, pouring another round for the two of them. They were quiet for a moment, both watching the amber liquid slosh in their glasses.

“How are you gonna do it?” Steve asked quietly, although he knew. He just… he needed to be sure. “You can’t just walk into a Military base and demand your weapons back.”

At that, Tony smiled and took a sip of his drink. “Trust me, there won’t be any discussion involved.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

Tony eyed him for a second. Steve felt the moment weighing heavy. This was it.

But then Tony just shrugged, taking another large sip. “It doesn’t matter. But you don’t need to worry, Steve. I’ll find whoever it is that’s out for you, and I’ll stop them.”

It wasn’t that Steve didn’t already know Tony was Iron Man—but he felt like if Tony said it, some of his earlier convictions might be solidified. He might not feel so… confused, about the whole situation. Tony had sounded so sincere when he’d said that he was going to be destroying the weapons.

He remembered Fury’s earlier words. He’ll try to get in your head. He’ll work you over like he does to everyone, Rogers, you know that.

Fuck.

Okay. So Steve just had to get in his head first, right? Beat him at his own game. Didn’t matter how wrong that felt- this was his job. This was what he was here for.

He smiled at Tony, and then tentatively extended a hand, settling it nervously over Tony’s own. Beside him, the other man stilled. “Thank you,” he whispered, “for everything, For even letting me in at all. God knows I didn’t deserve it after everything I put you through.”

“Steve—”

“I’ve been going to therapy,” he blurted, nodding once, “and I… I can talk about her, now. But it’s still so lonely, you know? And my apartment’s gone to shit because you know me, I never fucking clean, I eat alone every lunch and I miss you so much it fucking hurts me, and I know this sounds crazy, but I’m almost glad someone tried to kill me because it gave me the excuse to drive down to your house and see you again, and I just, it’s pathetic, but I just—”

“Hey, hey, shhh,” Tony’s arms snaked around his shoulders, pulling Steve’s shaking body up against his own. As much as Steve wished the tremors were faked, they were not. This… this was all true. “It’s okay, Steve. I know. I get it. It’s been—it’s been hell for me too. Every day, I’ve missed you. I didn’t deserve to, and I knew that you’d be better off without me, considering—well—everything that I was doing, but still, I wanted to find you. Apologise. Just see you again.” He curled a hand through Steve’s hair, the motion so familiar and soothing that Steve sunk deeper into Tony’s embrace without even meaning to. Bucky was still on tour with Sam, Peggy was dead and the anniversary would be coming up in a few months, and no one had touched Steve like this ever since he had left Tony the first time round. He wanted to cry and scream and rage and mourn.

He should never have taken on this mission. He’d known, deep down, that this would happen. Tony was his kryptonite, and there had never been a hope in hell that Steve could do this and come out whole.

But there was no way back now, and nothing to lose. So he might as well just dive right in and take what he wanted.

He tilted his head up, fingers curling around Tony’s jaw, and then after a beat of stillness, he leaned in and slotted their mouths together. It was messy, awkward for a second until Tony slanted his head and then—then it was just like nothing was wrong any more. Like everything else had melted away, and there was just Tony. Kissing him, holding him like he had before it had all fallen apart. The butterflies exploded through his chest, beat at his ribcage. He felt his hands move of their own volition, desperate to try and relearn every inch of the man's body, and up against him, Tony shuddered into his touch.

“I still love you,” Tony whispered, his hands moving over Steve’s shoulders, sliding around his waist and then clinging desperately, “I never—God, Steve, I never stopped, and I was so stupid and selfish and absorbed in my own shit—”

“I should have let you try and help me when you offered, I was the one who let our relationship fall to pieces—”

“No, Steve, no, this was on me, God, you were grieving and I—”

“Shut up.” Steve kissed him hard enough he couldn’t speak any more, pushing them both down onto the couch so that he was leaning over Tony. He brushed his thumbs over Tony's chest, every inch of skin like a blessing. He never wanted to let go. “Let’s just… we both fucked up. We’re both sorry. Let’s just…please, just kiss me.” He pushed their mouths together again, fireworks dancing in his eyes, and once this mission was over Tony was going to go to jail for the rest of his life, and Steve was going to be the one who’d put him there and he would have to live with that—but for now, there was just this. Steve had missed it more than air. The feeling of Tony’s hands, his body, the way he made Steve feel like he was whole.

There was only them.

Tony looked up at him, breathless, stroking across the bruises on his face with delicate fingers. “I won’t let them hurt you,” he breathed, shaking his head, “I promise, I’ll keep you safe.”

For a second, the agony of it all felt like it might kill him. This was so, so wrong.

But Steve couldn’t think about it right now. He couldn’t.

So he just leaned down and kissed him, again and again and again.

 

 

*

 

 

Later that night, Steve lay flat out on Tony’s king-sized bed, staring up at the ceiling while Tony trailed absent patterns across his chest. A light sheen of sweat coated his skin, and everything felt so light and airy, relaxed in a way he hadn’t been in so long. He ached a little, but it was okay. It was a good ache.

He’d missed this so much.

It was easy to drift in and out of sleep- the night was late and Steve was tired, and by the looks of it, Tony was too. He lay out on top of Steve, snoring gently with his cheek pushed into Steve’s chest. He remembered what Fury had told him—never any guests, and a house like Fort Knox. Tony kept everyone at a distance, these days. Constant vigilance.

Except for Steve. For Steve, he’d let all of that fall away. All for a man he hadn’t even seen in a year.

Sentiment really was a killer. Now was the time, really, when Steve should act. Tony was sleeping, vulnerable. And Tony had told JARVIS to turn himself off in the room while they’d been having sex, because Steve had always asked for that while they’d been together, and it was just a habit now. Steve could get up, search his room while Tony slept on, and go completely undetected. He could incapacitate Tony and then call up SHIELD, tell them that he’s got Iron Man.

He could, he could, he could.

He wouldn’t.

Cursing quietly, Steve shut his eyes and tried to get some rest. Tomorrow, he’d tell Tony that he wanted to try this again—rekindle their relationship and pick up where they’d left off. Then he would call up SHIELD from a secure location and tell them everything Tony had let him in on, ask them whether they wanted him to hold his position or go straight in with the arresting process. It would be messy, and painful, and Steve was going to get himself together and just fucking do it, because that was his job. That was what this had all been for.

Still. Some things weren’t making sense.

The whole deal with the weapons, and what Tony had said he would do with them. Destroy them—because they were his, and ever since he’d caught Obadiah Stane double dealing, he’d made it his mission to get them all back. Apparently.

Of course, this was probably a lie. Tony hadn’t managed to remain undetected for this long without keeping his guard up, and he probably had a hundred different stories up his sleeve for this sort of occasion. But… but when Steve thought about it, it really did make sense. He could remember, last year, seeing Tony poring over files and files’ worth of data and transactions, all of them scattered out across their kitchen table. Steve had never asked why—but he’d heard clips of conversations Tony had had with JARVIS. They’d been searching for irregularities in the books. Unsanctioned deals and anything that looked out of place or fabricated. It had consumed Tony for… well, weeks, probably. Steve could admit, he hadn’t really kept track of anything during that time. The whole period was somewhat blurry; greyed out by pain and grief and booze. But he could remember that much.

There was always the chance that Tony had just been planning ahead. But honestly, Steve doubted it. He’d have no reason to go into that much depth- Steve had ended things before Tony had truly gotten started with his Iron Man gig, and even if he hadn’t, he figured Tony probably would have had to tell him about it once he did. It’d be hard to hide that sort of thing from a partner, after all.

So clearly, there was some truth to Tony’s words. Stark Industries really had been double dealing without Tony’s knowledge. But that didn’t… that didn’t change the rest of it. The village—Gulmira— that had been totally wiped off the map by Iron Man. The attacks on SHIELD facilities; targeted hits to information banks that held classified and crucial data. Tony had still done that, which didn’t match to his weapons-collecting agenda he’d been talking of.

There were so many threads Steve needed to unravel.

He looked down toward his chest as he felt Tony stir, and gently ran his fingers through the dark head of hair beneath him. So soft- longer, now, than it had been before. He tilted his chin and pressed a kiss into the curls, and with a soft hum, Tony settled back into him. Complete trust.

Steve swallowed, and turned his eyes back to the ceiling. He would not be sleeping much tonight

 

 

*

 

 

When an alarm began to blare through the mansion, the lights falling into a deep-red emergency colour as he and Tony sat up in bed, Steve’s mind instantly settled on: ‘we are under attack’.

He smelt the metallic tang that came with a grenade explosion, saw light cascade in front of his eyes, heard the screaming of people falling to gunfire. For a second, he thought that maybe he could save Peggy this time—maybe now he knew what might happen, he’d be able to reach her, push her out of the way before the IED went off—

Then Tony swore and leaped out of bed, and Steve landed back in reality with a blink of his eyes. He breathed in. They were in Tony’s room. Obviously. Although that still didn’t really account for the shrill whine of the alarm that signalled something or another, most likely something bad.

He turned his head to Tony, who was already up and scrambling to find his pants. “JARVIS?” He yelled tersely.

“Some sort of robotic weapon has been seen emerging from the coastline of Santa Barbara. Armed and dangerous, casualties have already been recorded, and military aid has only just been called, but I’m calculating a fifteen minute delay for their arrival. I am sending coordinates now.”

“Fuck, I knew those bastards were up to something.” Tony shoved his pants on and then stumbled out of the door without looking back, and with a noise of surprise, Steve shoved the blankets off and followed him. He thought he must have misheard that—a giant robot rising out of the sea? What? For a moment, he wondered why SHIELD hadn’t alerted him, but then he remembered that even if they knew about it at this point, his work-phone was currently on the other side of America. He knew there was a West-Coast division of SHIELD, but he had no idea how long their response time would be, and JARVIS had said there were already casualties. This was not good.

But Tony seemed to be… well. He was doing something in response to this. So Steve was going to follow him and see where that led.

Turned out, he didn’t have to wait long. After sprinting down the corridor and snapping out various commands to JARVIS as he went, Tony stopped in the middle of the open-plan living room, checking his watch and then glancing back to Steve. A dozen different things flashed across his face for a moment, before it simply settled into a tense sort of trepidation. He straightened his back and relaxed his shoulders. “I know what you’re going to think,” Tony told him, throat bobbing nervously as he kept Steve’s gaze, “but I don’t have time to explain. I— I have to stop that thing. Just hold tight and stay put. I’ll tell you everything when I get back, I promise.”

Steve frowned, mouth forming the beginning of a question that never ended up being answered. There was a high-pitched humming noise from behind him, and then suddenly the room was filled with metal parts, all of them flying toward Tony and attaching themselves to his body. Red and Golds whirled like pinwheels in the air, driven forward by some unknown force, and Steve ducked instinctively, but all of them missed him and focused instead on wrapping around the man in front of him, forming a metal skin upon Tony. Cogs fitted into place automatically, locks secured, and mechanisms flickered into action, turning the separate pieces of tech into one single flowing machine. An armour.

It was Iron Man. In the flesh.

Steve watched, transfixed as the blue light activated in the eye-slits. It was all over in less than a few seconds, but almost a lifetime seemed to pass between Steve looking at Tony Stark and Steve seeing Iron Man. This was it, really. The ultimate proof. Of course, Steve had known from pretty much the first moment; the evidence had been damning enough. But now, it was impossible for Steve to consider Tony as anyone else. He was barely seven feet away, watching Steve with those glowing eyes.

They regarded each other for one more moment, Steve doing nothing but stare—and then suddenly Tony kicked his thrusters into gear, propelling himself across the room and straight out of the reinforced window without a word. The glass exploded like it was nothing more than tissue paper, and in the time it took for the shards to clatter to the floor, Tony was a hundred feet into the air, propelling himself over to what Steve could only guess was Santa Barbara. He disappeared into the early morning sunrise with a whirr of engines and a flash of blue light.

It had all happened in less than two minutes.

Steve’s legs were locked in place as he stared at the spot Tony had been only moments ago. His head felt stuffed full of cotton, and all of his thoughts just didn’t seem to be melding right. The picture of Tony in his head was distorted—Iron Man, supervillain and terrorist, mixed with Tony, the man Steve still loved and the one who was seemingly adamant about getting his weapons off the market.

“Captain Rogers?” JARVIS said softly, and Steve blinked, the name jarring him out of his own head.

“Not a captain anymore,” he responded on autopilot, not taking his eyes off the shattered remains of the window, “I’m a- uh- a PI.”

“Apologies. But if you could stay within the mansion until Sir arrives back, I’m sure he would greatly—”

“I have to go help,” Steve said, suddenly remembering the situation at hand. First and foremost, he was a SHIELD agent assigned with a duty to protect the people. And apparently, the people were in danger. “What is the fastest mode of transport from here to Santa Barbara?”

“I… Mr. Rogers, I doubt that would be—”

“Listen, I might not be in the army these days, but I used to be. I know how to do this.” Steve was quickly slipping back into soldier mode, and right now, he needed a way to get across the coastline. “Does Tony have any air transport?”

“I cannot allow you to—”

“What if he needs my help?” Steve raised his head up to the ceiling, an old habit. He and JARVIS had had many a conversation despairing over Tony’s welfare, and unless Tony had drastically changed the AI’s code since Steve had been gone, that protective streak would still be there. “JARVIS, I’m not a civilian, and right now, there are people out there in danger.”

There was a beat of silence. “Mr. Rogers, this is not anything you will have dealt with before. Sir has been preparing for an attack like this for a while. You have not.”

Steve just shrugged irritably. “I’m good at improvising- now can you please direct me to the fastest mode of transport I can take to get to Santa Barbara?” When the robot remained quiet, Steve growled irritably. “Come ON, JARVIS!”

He couldn’t just sit here and wait for—for whatever it was, to be over. People could start dying soon. He didn’t know how dangerous this thing was, but if it was enough for it to have caused casualties within minutes of emerging, then no doubt it would put up a fair fight.

“There is a jet on the roof of the mansion,” JARVIS said eventually, and Steve sighed with relief, “I shall direct you to it now, if you will follow me.”

Steve did so swiftly, keeping his mind on the task at hand. He knew roughly how to fly, and JARVIS explained that he could autopilot pretty much everything anyway, so once Steve was up in the jet, it was a pretty rapid takeoff. JARVIS estimated a ten-minute flight though, which meant Steve had a lot of time in which he was left with his own thoughts. He fiddled absently with the gun that he’d found under JARVIS’ guidance, cleaning it with a cloth while California sped along underneath him.

Tony was definitely Iron Man. That much was now undeniable. Steve had seen it himself. But Iron Man didn’t go out and fight evil robots—hell, he was the evil robot. So this excursion hardly made any sense. Why would Tony even care that there was something tearing up a city when he was known to do the exact same thing?

He rubbed viciously at a spot of dirt, unable to shake the feeling that Tony was playing him somehow. That this was all just part of his elaborate scheme. He had to remember what had happened in Gulmira. By far the worst of Tony’s crimes; that whole town had been fucking decimated by him. Iron Man had been seen heading in there before the attack, and then leaving a day or so afterward. He’d done that.

But he’d told Steve, with such fire and conviction in his voice, that he didn’t want his weapons to kill any more innocent fucking people. It had sounded so genuine—like a thing said in the heat of the moment, without any rehearsal. Then again, what did Steve know? Tony had been spinning people bullshit since before he could walk. He could well have done the same thing to Steve.

God. Steve felt like he was being an idiot, trying to absolve Tony of any blame just because of his personal investment. He was a damn SHIELD agent. He needed to act like one and listen to Fury’s advice.

Tony was trying to get into his head (but what if he wasn’t?). Tony was a terrorist (but what if he wasn’t?). Tony deserved to get put on trial for his crimes and serve justice for what he’d done (but what if this goes deeper than what everyone thinks?). It was as simple as that, and Steve needed to get his head out of his ass.

Tony didn’t care about him. Tony was just lying to him to further his own agenda.

Probably.

“Mr. Rogers, we’ve arrived at the scene,” JARVIS’ voice alerted him, and Steve looked up, craning his head to see the ground below from the window in the cockpit of Tony’s strange futuristic jet. He spotted Tony almost immediately; a red and gold haze whizzing through the air, trying to land a hit on a silver, humanoid robot about five times’ Iron Man’s size. The thing seemed to be protected by some sort of energy barrier, however, and Tony wasn’t getting through to it. Steve grabbed the controls and then did a quick circle of the scene, checking for remaining civilians. It seemed fairly empty, but a fair few of the buildings in the area had already been levelled. Who knew how many had gotten lost under the rubble?

“JARVIS, does this thing have weapons?” Steve asked briskly, searching the dash for anything that could cause some damage.

“The quinjet is equipped with seven heat-tracking missiles and an inbuilt double-barrelled machine gun,” JARVIS reeled off, and the weapon-areas of the cockpit lit up as he spoke. At that same moment, the speaker-system crackled to life above Steve’s head, and the familiar tones of Tony’s voice filled the vicinity.

“I thought I told you to stay put, Rogers, not steal my jet and follow me.”

“And I thought Tony Stark wasn’t Iron Man,” Steve gritted out, which was a little pathetic as far as comebacks went, but he could admit that his mind was focused on other things. “Guess we’re all in for some surprises today. Now tell me what you want me to do.”

“Steve, this is not—fuck!” Tony’s voice cut out and Steve felt his stomach drop as he watched the robot swing its leg out in a manoeuvre no human would have been capable of, clipping Iron Man’s thigh and sending him cartwheeling across the sky. He managed to regain his balance about ten feet off the surface of the sea, but from the way Tony was cussing down the comm, it had been a painful hit. Steve clenched his fingers around the two joysticks JARVIS had directed him to, looking at the robot thing down below him.

“Does this thing have autopilot?” He muttered, for once in his life wishing that he’d taken the air-force route in the military. JARVIS was doing a great job of keeping him up in the air though, and as soon as Steve vocalised the question, the heads-up display flickered to life and offered him a tracking view of the massive thing stomping around on the pavement.

Unfortunately, though, it seemed nothing was getting through the barrier. At this point, military aid had come through and tanks were rolling up the roads, firing off missiles that just bounced right of the thing. Then, of course, seeing as Iron Man was there too, they started firing shit at him. Never let it be said that the military didn’t utilise their chance to blow up as many targets as they could, regardless whether one of them was pretty much the only thing keeping the robot contained.

“God, can they not see I’m trying to fucking help?” Tony snapped irritably as he dived out of the way of another missile, looping around the giant robot so that it hit its barrier instead. Steve said nothing; too busy watching the SHIELD vans roll in from his vantage point up in the sky. He knew that they had specially developed weaponry to fight Iron Man. He knew they would probably not hesitate to use them, although they may be a little smarter and see that for the time being, Iron Man was fighting for their cause.

The Thing hadn’t actually managed to make it that far into the city; Iron Man was doing a good job of herding it away and keeping it close to the coast. But Steve got the feeling that it wasn’t actually the city it wanted to destroy. Most of its attention was focused on fighting with Tony, trying to land whatever hit it could, and as good as Iron Man was, the thing was getting in a few heavy blows. Steve couldn’t be much help; none of the missiles were landing anyway, and if Steve got too close then the robot was just going to swipe him straight out of the sky. JARVIS had already had to dodge a few potshots being sent his way.

“Tony, this isn’t working,” Steve told him as he watched Tony get blasted through a wall by an energy beam sent out of the robot’s chest, “it’s gonna kill you if you keep doing this.”

“I know. I think I’ve found a way in though, if that helps.” Tony spun around the robot until he hovered over the sea, and the robot turned to face him. “JARVIS finished his scan; he’s telling me the barrier around it is concentrated energy—it moves to follow where the attack is coming from. I’ve been flying around too much, that’s the problem. But if you and those army nuts over there concentrate a round of heavy fire at its front, then the energy field will be strongest on your end. Maybe I’ll be able to get through the back of it, where there’s less of a barrier.”

“And if you can’t?”

“Well, we can pretend this conversation never happened and that I didn’t embarrass myself by trying to look smart in front you.” He thought he heard Tony’s grin through the words, and couldn’t help but roll his eyes to it. “I will get on the line to the wonderful Sargent down there at ground level, and see if he’s up for some collaborative action.”

Steve watched the events unfold from the relative safety of Tony’s quinjet—saw the tanks turn their weapons on the Robot’s back and begin to fire, and then watched as the thing turned to face them, taking a threatening step forward and lock & loading the next round of explosives that were being fired from its wrist. Steve locked on the target and fired a concentrated blast right up on the Robot’s chest. At the same time, a dozen other machine guns followed suit, and missiles pummelled the Thing’s front. Steve watched as Iron Man swooped down from the sky, arms outstretched, and this time when he reached the barrier surrounding the robot, it seemed to be less of a brick wall and more of an elastic surface- and one that was close to tearing.

They all continued their fire at the Robot’s front while Iron Man forced his way through the weakened section of the energy barrier at the back, and after a few more seconds Tony finally broke through, careering toward the Robot’s neck with his repulsors outstretched. Steve watched with morbid curiosity as the Robot did its best impression of a howl, suddenly realising Tony had made it through the energy barrier around it. It flailed, reaching a hand behind its back, but Tony clung on despite its attempts to dislodge it, firing a concentrated burst of blue energy right from his chest and burning through the metal on the robot’s back. “DISTRACT IT!” Tony yelled as a giant black hand clamped around his torso, and Steve didn’t have to be told twice. He flew the jet downward, JARVIS making sure that he didn’t go careening off into the ocean, and then aimed right for its face. The thing twisted wildly, whipping out a hand to cover while the other left Tony and extended outward, grabbing for the jet. Its fingers wrapped around a wing, and oh, fuck.

“JARVIS!” Steve yelled as he watched the robot’s fist clench, crushing the metal of the wing like it was tissue paper, “JARVIS, do we have any—”

Too late. With a metallic groan, the robot snapped the wing clean off and then threw the rest of the jet sideways wildly, and Steve felt the nauseating lurch as he was tossed around like a leaf in the wind. He couldn’t see anything for a few moments, but then there was a tremendous crashing and his whole body snapped sideways, only kept from smashing against the walls by the safety belts he’d wrapped around himself beforehand. Steve cursed violently, pain erupting across his forehead as something sliced through it- rubble or debris from the ship, probably. He couldn’t see or hear a thing as the jet tumbled, dragged across the concrete of the street by the momentum, and just held on tight while everything fell apart around him. He thought he could hear Tony’s voice through the speakers, frantic, terrified, but he wasn’t sure whether that was just in his head or not. All of it was blurred into one.

And then, after an eternity, the world stopped shaking. Everything stilled, and Steve groaned loudly, more so that he could hear his own voice than anything.

Okay. Alive. That was good.

The jet was on its side, but Steve still hung onto the chair thanks to the seatbelts. He couldn’t hear or see anything going on outside, and he wasn’t sure whether that was a good thing or not. After a cursory check to see whether he had any broken bones, Steve set about getting himself out, yanking off the belt and then making his way over to the emergency exit at the side of the jet.

Sunlight hit him painfully once he had finally crashed his way out of the ruined interior, and he winced. There was probably some sort of head injury going on, but he didn’t exactly have time to worry about that. He could see the sleek metal robot, now lying face down on the ground, a large and sparking hole in its neck. There was no sign of Tony.

“Christ,” Steve whispered, terror igniting in his chest as he looked around for the red and gold of Iron Man. In that moment, he wasn’t thinking of any repercussions; wasn’t thinking of terrorism charges or Gulmira or a weapons hoard SHIELD thought were going to be used to try and take over the world with. There was only Tony, and the monster he’d just felled, and the fact that Steve couldn’t goddamn see him.

He pulled out his phone with shaking fingers, miraculously still intact and unbroken, and then dialled Tony’s number. He hoped that JARVIS was operating in the suit and would put him through, because he needed to know—Tony had to be safe. They could deal with everything else later, he just had to make sure-

“Good morning, Steven,” Tony’s breathless voice filtered weakly down the speaker, and Steve sighed out a huge breath, “may I just mention that that is not how I usually wake up and start the day off, so you do not need to worry about that. This was an outlier. Usually there would be more lounging than this.”

Steve ducked into an alleyway to avoid the army guys and SHIELD vans currently swarming into the area now that the robot was down. “Where are you?” He whispered worriedly, “are you okay? I didn’t see you take the thing down.”

Tony grunted, sounding like he was in pain. “I’ve seen better days,” he admitted, “not sure where I… oh, wait, JARVIS is gonna send you the coordinates now. I might need a bit of help getting outta here. Think my arm’s out of commission, among other things.” He made a small noise of discomfort again, and Steve pulled his phone away from his ear, watching as a screen popped up showing the winding streets of Santa Barbara and the red dot where Tony was. “Don’t let any government officials see you.”

Steve took a step forward automatically, and then the last addition brought him to a stop again as reality crashed back down around him. God, what was he… what was he doing? He was a government official, for crying out loud. His whole job was bringing Tony in. Granted, the whole ‘Robot Rising Out of The Sea’ thing hadn’t been part of the plan, and Tony going out to stop it seemed rather uncharacteristic of Iron Man’s previous actions, but that didn’t mean he was suddenly cleaned of all his past sins. He’d killed people. He had a big plan at hand, and it involved bringing SHIELD down to its knees. And what with the arsenal Tony had on his side and the genius he carried with him every day, that was something he could very well be capable of succeeding in.

He couldn’t just let Tony walk free.

Steve was stood there in the alley, looking down at the blinking red dot beneath him. Tony was still talking through the speaker; mundane, rambling things, the way he always did when he was exhausted or nervous. Telling Steve the next time they woke up together it’d be better. That Tony would cook him breakfast and do everything in his power not to burn any of it. That he’d explain everything properly when they got home.

Steve couldn’t let him go home. This was it now. He had to make a choice, and he couldn’t let his heart rule over his head. That would lead to disaster on a global scale.

This is wrong, the voice in his head said, this is wrong, don’t do this. There’s more to this than what you’re seeing.

But that was just his emotions talking. That was just the part of him that still loved his fiancé, still wanted to be the man that got to wake up every morning and know he was loved in return. That was the part of him that had never moved on, and probably never would. He couldn’t let that rule over him when so many people were at stake.

 

He shut his eyes and ended the call with a shaking finger, while Tony was mid-sentence talking about how he was grateful Steve had come to help, and that he’d trusted him.

Then he dialled Fury’s number.

 

 

*

 

 

“Do you have him, Rogers?”

“Yes Director Fury, I’ve got him. Sending you the coordinates right now.”

 

 

*

 

 

They flew back to New York in a heavily-armed SHIELD jet.

Tony was in a holding cell somewhere beneath Steve’s feet, sedated and detained according to some of the agents who’d taken him on board. SHIELD had wasted no time with swarming and incapacitating him as soon as Steve had handed off his coordinates. He’d been in no condition to fight them off, and his whole suit had been busted by the giant robot. When they’d found him, there was nothing he could do except watch and accept defeat as they’d surrounded the area.

That was what Steve had heard, anyway. From the agents who’d dragged his beaten body off the streets and into the holding cell. Steve hadn’t seen it for himself. Far too cowardly for that.

The wall of the jet was a dark grey and there were thirty-seven panels from top to bottom. Every now and then, one of the agents sat next to him would cough a little, like he had a chest infection. Steve thought his name might be Agent Leonards- his face, although mostly shrouded by Tac gear, was familiar. He wondered whether the man had a family—whether he was going to go home tonight and be surrounded by the people he loved; welcome them in with open arms. Or maybe he would be alone. Most agents on SHIELD’s payroll tended to be solitary people. It made things less difficult if there was no one around to hurt.

All of these things went around and around in Steve’s head as they flew back to the East coast, and continued to do so on an endless loop right until they touched down. It was easier that way. He couldn’t let his mind stay blank; it was a skill he’d never been able to master, much to Natasha’s despair. But he could distract himself. Think about wall panelling and chest infections and Agent Leonards’ home life so that he didn’t have to think about the man he’d just heartlessly betrayed sitting in a cell a few floors beneath him. It was like the stupid grandfather’s clock in Fury’s office all over again. Anything to take his mind off what was really going on in front of him.

It was easier that way.

People congratulated him when they stepped off the jet in New York. They patted him on the back and told him he was a hero and a pride to their country. He didn’t respond to any of them, unsure what he would even say. He certainly didn’t feel like a hero. Heroes were good people with morals; people who were honest and kind, and who cared for others. Steve was none of that.

He felt empty. Like he’d been used somehow, although the thought was unfounded. After all, he was the one who’d done the using.

His boots echoed on the hard floors of the compound that he walked through with the rest of the squad from the jet. They’d transferred Tony into the building’s holding cells a few minutes before everyone else on the jet dispatched, and now Steve was supposedly headed for Fury’s office to debrief. There, the Director would undoubtedly ask him a myriad of invasive and personal questions, to which Steve would answer dutifully and truly, and then later be dismissed, possibly with a promotion under his belt for his excellent work on the Iron Man case. Then he would go home to his messy apartment, alone, and fall asleep, alone, and then wake up, alone. Because that was what he did. That was always what he did.

When Steve was supposed to turn left in the corridor, however, he turned right instead. He wasn’t sure at what point during the walk he made that decision- maybe whilst he had been thinking of the way he’d have to look happy when Director Fury praised the excellent way in which he’d brought Tony Stark into their custody in under 48 hours- but whatever it was, it was a strong enough compulsion that it sent Steve in the totally opposite direction. He marched confidently over to the entrance of the stairwell on the other side of the corridor, nodding to his colleagues as he passed them, and then continued the same brisk pace as he started to make his way downward, going through floor 1, floor 0, before finally arriving at his destination on the level underneath the compound. Fury would probably chew him out later for missing the meeting, but Steve couldn’t really say that was the most pressing matter on his mind just then.

The doors Steve pushed his way through were heavy-set steel, programmed to lockdown at the flick of a switch if necessary. This was where the interrogation rooms and holding cells were. This was the place that SHIELD kept their criminals until they could be moved elsewhere—either a government run prison or somewhere like the Raft, if they were a high threat. Steve figured that was where Tony was headed. Until then, however, he was going to be somewhere around here, in a room on this floor. Brock Rumlow had been put in charge of transferring him from the Jet to the basement level, and so Steve figured he would also be in charge of any interrogations that’d be going down. It made something painful twist up under his ribcage. Rumlow was an asshole with a sadistic streak SHIELD barely managed to keep in check. Steve figured SHIELD might not even bother moderating him at all when it came to Iron Man, though. Anything to get the information they needed.

He swallowed, turning to the man sat behind the desk in the main corridor. The guy was typing away at his computer, but when he felt Steve watching, he looked upward. “Can I—”

“Where did Rumlow take Iron Man?” Steve cut to the chase sharply, “I’m Agent Rogers. I was tasked with bringing him in.”

The man eyed him, but then apparently decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to question him and just rolled his chair over to a different computer, where he pressed a few buttons. It only took a moment. “Says here that Agent Rumlow signed into interview room 7 earlier. Don’t think they’re planning on keeping him there long though.”

Steve nodded, already moving. “Thanks.” His SHIELD combat-boots squeaked along the floors as he hurried through, and for a second he wished he’d stayed in his civvies when he’d made it onto the jet. Tony probably knew who exactly Steve worked for by now, but still. Steve didn’t want him to see it in the flesh—somehow, that made it worse in his head. Like rubbing salt into the already-agonising wound.

Steve tightened his jaw and resisted the urge to turn and run, far far away from all of this. After all, he was a lot of things, but a coward had never been one of them.

When Room 7 loomed into view, Steve took a deep breath and then gingerly placed his hand around the doorknob leading to the observation deck. He turned his head just a little to the left and noted the next door along. Should he go through that one, he’d come face to face with Tony, inevitably sat shackled to the table in the interrogation room. As it was, Steve would be one the other side of the two-way mirror, blessed with invisibility.

Sounds pretty cowardly to me, Rogers.

The three men stood on the other side of the door looked at him in mild surprise as he stepped into the observation room. One of them was sat at a laptop, undoubtedly recording every move Tony made in there, and the other two seemed merely to be part of Rumlow’s squad. Steve nodded to them once, and then turned to the mirror before they had a chance to say anything. After that, everything else in the room became irrelevant anyway. The strange looks of a couple of men were hardly a concern to Steve. Not when his eyes fell upon Tony’s form, hunched over and with a hand shackled to the table. He looked like shit. Bruised eye, split lip, dried blood streaked across his forehead. The arm not bound by the cuffs was hanging limply at his side. And they were just the injuries Steve could see. Clearly they hadn’t bothered to take Tony to medical before this had begun.

Steve swallowed down the bad taste in his mouth. Wrong wrong wrong wrong wrong, the voice in his head shouted, but he swallowed that down too, shoved it under his ribcage where it couldn’t escape. He was looking at a fanatic, a murderer. He was looking at a man who’d killed and stolen and burned buildings to the ground for his own agendas.

In the interrogation room Steve was staring into, Rumlow shifted, drawing Steve’s attention to him. The intimidating man was circling the room slowly, a smug smile on his face. Tony wasn’t watching him though. He was just staring impassively into the mirror, expression slack. However, Steve noted the minute tense of his shoulders as Rumlow passed directly behind him. He was nervous.

When he got bored with the prowling, Rumlow sat in the seat opposite Tony and leaned back, setting his feet casually on the desk. Tony’s eyes flicked to the shoes, and his lip curled ever so slightly in distaste. Rumlow didn’t seem to notice. “How’s things, Tony?” He asked cheerily, cocking his head as he looked toward the other man.

Tony’s piercing gaze fell upon him. “I’ll be honest with you Brock, I’ve got a bit of a headache coming on.”

“You shouldn’t know my name. It’s supposed to be classified. That is, unless you’ve been peeking into private SHIELD files. But why would a reclusive billionaire want to be doing that, huh?”

Tony’s face didn’t change a shade. “Why would an upstanding organisation such as SHIELD want to be illegally buying my weapons off the books, Brock?”

Inside the observation deck, Steve stilled. He felt like even the air in his lungs stopped moving for a moment. Tony couldn’t be telling the truth, could he? SHIELD would have no reason for that. They had on-site engineers and scientists developing weapons for them, and contracts—legitimate contracts— with the military, with other weapons companies. That didn’t make any sense.

But that night, when Tony had spilled his heart out to Steve… he’d sounded so sure. So adamant.

Rumlow sighed loudly and then slid his feet off the table in order to lean forward. “Oh, cut the bullshit, Stark. You know what’s about to happen now. Your case is doomed, you were caught red-handed, and your wonderful Steve told us everything—”

Suddenly and with surprising swiftness, Tony jolted forward, causing Rumlow to pause mid speech. Gone was the blank expression on his face; sliding right off and being replaced with dark fury. “What the fuck have you done with Steve,” he spat, his hand balling into a fist on the table, “I swear, you sack of shit, if you’ve hurt him to get information, if you’ve touched a hair on his head, I’m gonna fucking kill you and then burn this whole organisation to the ground. He’s got nothing to do with this, Rumlow.”

Steve listened to this as if detached from himself, from the character that Tony was talking of. Because Tony was talking as if he had no idea that Steve was involved in this. Tony was talking as if he still thought Steve was just an innocent bystander. And if he was talking like that, then it meant no one at SHIELD had let on that Steve had been the one to give him up yet. Which also meant that Rumlow was undoubtedly going to do that, right now. And Steve was going to bear witness to it.

Steve thought, briefly, that he might actually be sick when he heard Rumlow start to laugh. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from the half-furious, half-terrified face of Tony’s. Terrified for Steve, and his wellbeing. Furious that anyone might have hurt him. “Oh my god,” Rumlow chuntered, obviously delighted, “you don’t know, do you? You really have no idea. God, you’re more stupid than I thought.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

In answer, Rumlow waved his hands emphatically. “Who do you think sold you out, Stark? Who do you think gave us your coordinates when you were holed up in that little alley in Santa Barbara? Think we just found you by accident? Luck? Think we captured your precious Stevie and tortured him for answers?” Rumlow chuckled again, shaking his head. “Tony, Tony, Tony… Agent Rogers was working for us all along.”

Steve couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think. He just watched Tony’s face falling, his brow softening in disbelief. He glared at Rumlow. “You’re lying.”

“Want me to pull up his file, Stark?” Was the answer Brock gave him, his grin a mile wide and lined with teeth. “He was a plant. A trap. A honeypot. God, most of us thought it wouldn’t even have a cat’s in hell’s chance of working, because, I mean, surely the great Tony Stark isn’t that stupid, right? To fall for a trick so obvious? No way. Thought you’d turn him away at the door. Christ- your ex fiancé turned up at your home after a year of radio-silence, claiming someone was trying to kill him, and you just… accepted that?” Rumlow’s hands waved through the air again, like he was lost for words. “I… I just. Come on, man. We did everything in our power to get dirt on you, to find something incriminating enough to at least start a case against you, but in the end all we needed was a buff blond bimbo and you sang like a fucking bird.”

Tony said nothing. Steve watched him slip through a dozen different emotions all in the space of a moment: disbelief and apprehension. Realisation. Gief. “No,” he shook his head almost dazedly, voice numb, “No, he… he wouldn’t.”

“Oh, he would. And he did. And you fell for it.”

Tony flinched like he’d been hit as it sunk in, sagging in his seat and looking so, so lost for a moment. He just turned his head away from Rumlow slowly, staring at the wall, jaw tight enough that Steve wondered whether it might shatter. His eyes were glassy. Rumlow just laughed and laughed and laughed, beginning to stand in his seat, walk over to Tony’s side where he stuck out a hand and grabbed Tony’s chin, forcing him to look up at Rumlow as opposed to the wall. This time it was Steve who flinched.

“You think he still loved you?” Rumlow whispered, “you really fucking thought he’d just show up one night, suddenly wanting you back? How pathetic can someone be, huh? You were his mission. You were just another filthy criminal he could put under his belt, maybe give him a good ride before he handed you over on a platter to us. You meant nothing to him, and let’s be honest, you probably never did—"

“That’s enough, Rumlow.”

The new voice rang sharply in the interrogation room, and it took a second for Steve to realise that it was his finger pressing down against the microphone button, his angry words resonating in the room. He didn’t know what the hell he was doing. Seemed the other guys in the room didn’t either, by the way they were looking at him. But he didn’t care. He just had to stop this. He had to.

Steve ground his teeth together and watched Brock’s head turn to the mirror, staring daggers at where Steve was stood by the audio stand. Steve, however, was not perturbed “Rumlow, your presence is required elsewhere. Fury’s asking for a brief. I’ll talk to Mr. Stark.”

At the sound of Steve’s voice filling the room, he watched Tony’s eyes move slowly, dragging across to the mirror. He knew now, that Steve was behind there. But his face didn’t change. It simply remained pale, lifeless. Defeated. It reminded him of the day Steve had broken it off between them. He’d looked like that then, too.

Rumlow paused for another minute, debating whether or not to ignore the order. A second later though, and with an audible growl, he released Tony’s face from his grip and then marched over to the door, yanking it open violently. Steve also opened his door, stepping out into the corridor just as Rumlow marched out and saw him. His face was twisted angrily, and he didn’t waste time before getting right up in Steve’s face.

“What the hell is your problem? This is my investigation now, not yours—”

“Yeah, and you’re clearly not getting shit out of him, are you?” Steve responded coldly, resisting the urge to swing and hit the bastard right in his gnarly face. “So why don’t I try, and then we’ll see where that goes, huh?”

Rumlow bared his teeth. “You just undermined me and this whole operation, you fucking idiot. I’ll do what you said, and I’ll go see Fury right now, but I bet he’s not gonna be too happy with you when I tell him the stunt you just pulled.”

“Be my guest, Rumlow. But the only reason you’re working this case at all is because of me, so just bear that in mind when you march in there and tell him how you think I don’t deserve my job.” Steve smiled at him and then stepped out of his way, a hand reaching out to the door of the interrogation room itself. Rumlow watched him coldly, before giving an ugly snort of laughter.

“Well, you’ve done your part now, haven’t you agent Rogers?” He asked. “You got on your knees for him just like Fury asked, and the rest was easy. Now let the real SHIELD agents do the rest of the heavy lifting, while you sit and take the praise for it, okay?” He scoffed loudly and then turned on his heel without another word, marching down the corridor in that stupid swaggery way of his. Steve kept his mouth shut and took a few deep breaths, steadying himself. Rumlow was the least of his problems right now, after all.

The door pushed open with a small creaking sound, but Tony didn’t turn to look at him as he stepped in. The room was too quiet; the lack of sound like an oppressive shroud. Steve felt as if he couldn’t breathe through it. He stepped a few more paces further into the room, and still Tony didn’t look at him. He knew he had to say something, but he wasn’t sure what. What the hell could make any of this palatable? Steve had been talking out of his ass when he’d told Rumlow that Tony might be more open to conversing with Steve. Tony would hate him now. Viscerally. And Steve couldn’t even blame him.

He walked slowly over to the empty chair, and then sat down in one fluid motion, looking over at Tony. Tony’s head was turned to the opposite wall. Every muscle in his body was taut, still. Steve tried to think of what to start with. He knew he didn’t have long, after all.

But, surprisingly, it was Tony who broke the silence first. “You were convincing as hell, I’ll give you that,” he said slowly, voice devoid of anything at all, “really had me thinking it was real for a second there. Well done. I wouldn’t have called it. Not you, of all people. You always used to be terrible at lying.”

I still am, he wanted to say, I just wasn’t lying when I spoke to you.

“Why did you do it, Tony?” He said instead. He felt so, so tired. “Why… what made you do all this? The weapons, the destruction...God, Tony, a whole town, wiped off the map—”

“You know absolutely jack-shit about what I’ve done,” Tony lurched forward on the table, throwing his words angrily at Steve like they were weapons in themselves. But a second later after a truly cowering glare, Tony composed himself again. He sat back in his chair and turned his head away once more, the only indication of his distress being the heaving of his chest. Steve watched as a single tear slipped out of his eye, unable to be held back. Steve followed the path it made down his cheek, collecting in the hairs of his beard.

“I know you’ve got a death-count in the triple digits,” Steve said quietly, holding the desk tight, “I know you’ve been stealing weapons, raiding SHIELD bases. I know you’re the world’s most wanted terrorist—”

“Oh, you wanna talk about terrorism, Steve?” Tony’s lip curled in the mockery of a smile, “you’re sat in the belly of one of the biggest terrorist organisations in the world. God, you’re probably one of them.” He huffed and shook his head. “I’m a fucking idiot. Private Investigator? Christ, how did I fall for that? SHIELD must’ve snatched you up the moment you left me, huh?”

Steve kept his face blank. “SHIELD is what keeps this modern world safe—”

“SHIELD has a virus, and it’s spread throughout every limb of the organisation,” Tony sounded truly angry now, his face pulled together so tight that he’d reopened the cut on his forehead; fresh beads of blood forming along the gash. “I started out just trying to get back my weapons, but it’s so much more than that now. It’s about global safety; about stepping up and fighting a system that’s become infested with fucking evil, because no one else can. You heard of HYDRA, Steve?”

Steve blinked. “HYDRA was disbanded in the war.”

“HYDRA just moved their base of operations to within SHIELD itself,” Tony told him bluntly, “they’ve been incubating right in the heart of your precious little organisation; recruiting and indoctrinating, just waiting for the right moment. That right moment is coming soon, Steve. I know it is. And their factions are the ones that have been buying my weapons on the black market. That’s how I found them. Oh- and that stupid robot bastard that just trampled the coast of Santa Barbara earlier? That was them making yet another attempt to take me out. They’d been planning it for months. They knew I’d go out and try to stop whatever they did, and they hoped they’d be able to use it to kill me before I could get to the bottom of their web of fucking lies.”

Tony snorted derisively at Steve’s blank face, lips pursed in a thin line. He was shaking, Steve realised. “You think I’m gonna get a trial, Steve? Think Brock Rumlow is gonna throw me in a cosy jail cell after this? Hell no. As soon as there’s a quiet moment, he’ll take me somewhere secure, torture me for everything I have, and then put a bullet in my brain once he’s gotten what HYDRA wants from me. I know too much now. I could bring down their whole 90-year operation.” His face turned bitter as he leaned closer to Steve. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do this whole time, Steve. And I was so close. Then I had to go and—and fall for your bullshit without even questioning you, and now I’ve doomed the whole human race and let my god-damn ex fiancé sign my death warrant because I was ridiculous enough to think…” Tony trailed off, shaking his head as he looked down fiercely at the table. His eyes were wet again, his voice throaty and defeated as he muttered, “Rumlow was right. I really am an idiot.”

Steve felt his face crease up as he took in that information. That was… absurd. HYDRA couldn’t have grown within SHIELD—there was no way they would have been able to do that under the radar. Fury had an iron grip on the whole organisation, and Steve knew without a doubt that that man would never be one of HYDRA. Rumlow, possibly- but just because he was an asshole didn’t necessarily mean he was capable of following HYDRA ideology, come on.

Tony just watched him for another minute, gauging his reactions. When Steve said nothing, he leaned back in his chair as far as the cuffs would allow. He looked truly beaten; a look Steve had never seen on Tony’s face before, not since the day they’d met. “I trusted you,” he whispered, short, simple, damning. “You told me you loved me and I trusted you.”

Still, Steve said nothing. He couldn’t. There was too much that he wanted to say, all of it clogging up in his throat and settling there like a noose. Eventually, Tony looked away again. Back to the wall. “Just the fact that I’ve told you has put your life in danger. But someone on the inside needs to know, just… just on the off-chance that you believe me. This is bigger than us. Bigger than me and my stupid life. Ask for a copy of the recording of this conversation, take it to Nick Fury and tell him to do some digging into Arnim Zola, Operation Paperclip. Most of my intel has led me to believe there’s something big hidden in Camp Leigh, but you’re not gonna be able to get in on an official basis; you’d have to have it done under the radar. I have no idea how many of your colleagues and superiors are marching to HYDRA’s fife instead of SHIELD’s, but it could be anyone. Anyone, Steve. So if you’re not one of them, which I hope to God you’re not, then please, watch your back. They’re planning something. Something b—”

At that moment, the door slammed back open again; and both of them turned to see Rumlow and Director Fury himself glaring at them from the entrance. The hairs on the back of Steve’s neck stood on end as he saw the man they’d just been discussing. Rumlow’s lip curled. Steve thought that he was giving Steve a slightly different look now, different to the usual disdain. Now it seemed more like he’d become a pig destined for the slaughterhouse.

“Get out,” he told Steve harshly, jerking a thumb behind him, “you’re not authorised to be in here.”

Steve glanced back at Tony, whose mouth had snapped shut. He was watching Rumlow carefully; those intelligent eyes of his grazing up and down every inch of the man’s body. His back was straight. Determined. There was a tension in the space; as if everyone knew that there was a dark cloud in the room, but no one wanted to acknowledge it.

“Agent Rogers,” Fury said in the end, his voice hard, “with me. Now.”

His eyes flicked back to Rumlow, just for a moment. Against his own volition, he felt something dangerous begin to flicker somewhere under his sternum. It was doubt. “Sir, I think—”

“Now.”

Steve paused for another second, before he nodded once. “Yes Sir,” he conceded, voice clipped as he rose from his chair slowly. For a brief moment, his eyes met with Tony’s. One of them was hardly visible; swollen from an injury. Steve remembered where he’d received that from: saving Santa Barbara from getting crushed by a twenty-foot robot. He hadn’t needed to do that. But he chose to anyway.

Tony looked away, back to his usual spot on the wall.

“Goodbye, Tony,” he said softly, trying to push everything he wanted to say into the two words.

Tony didn’t respond, and Steve left the room with Rumlow’s smug stare pinned to his back, and Fury’s angry one waiting in front of him. His mind was racing, and more than ever, and those seeds of doubt Tony had sewn were rapidly growing in his mind. Tony had said it all with such conviction. And Goddamn it, Steve knew him. He knew, in his heart, that Tony could never be the man everyone at SHIELD said he was, no matter what he’d been accused of doing. Steve had watched him tip waitresses a thousand dollars, watched him go to orphanages and hold babies just for the sake of letting them feel loved. He was a good man when Steve had left him, and people didn’t change that quickly in a year. They couldn’t. Surely.

Fury took one look at him, and the expression on his face, and he sighed deeply. “I think you and I need to have a talk,” he said, and then gestured for Steve to follow him back down the hall, away from Tony, away from all of it.

With one last glance back at the door now swinging shut, Steve saw Tony, his eyes fixed on Rumlow as the man stood in front of him. His gaze was hard and his chin was stuck out, defiant. Like a pirate set for the gallows, his mind supplied helpfully. He couldn’t see Rumlow.

Then the door swung shut, and Tony was gone.

 

 

*

 

 

Later that night, Steve lay on his unmade bed, stared at his peeling ceiling, felt the moonlight as it slowly rose up into his window and blanketed itself over his face. His room was dark and silent. It was sometime in the early hours of the morning. Sleep was not even a thought that crossed his mind.

He was on leave, officially. Director Fury said he needed a break, time to readjust. ‘He’s gotten into your head’ he’d said, blunt and firm, ‘I knew he would. It’s why I held off on asking you for so long. You did your job, Agent. But I think it’s best for everyone if you took some time off now.’ That’s how he’d put it to Steve, after they’d left the underground levels and sat back in Fury’s office. Steve was probably lucky to even keep his job at all. Being emotionally compromised- especially toward someone as dangerous as Iron Man- was something that really should have cost him his position. It was probably only thanks to the fact Iron Man was in their custody because of him that he’d managed to get away with an extended period of leave and not a sacking.

But that wasn’t something he really cared about. No, there were far more important things that he was mulling over right now.

He wondered where Tony was. SHIELD protocol stated that all prisoners had to be kept within the compound until alternative confinement and transport to said confinement had been arranged, and there was no leeway around that. Anyone who broke those rules would be fired immediately. And there were cameras, monitoring everything. They wouldn’t be able to kill him. SHIELD didn’t work that way.

Not the SHIELD Steve knew, anyway.

But how well did he know the organisation he worked for? Enough to trust them with Tony’s life? Enough to take their word over the word of the man he’d lived with and loved for years?

…No.

 The answer was no. He didn’t. And every part of him was itching to go back there, right now, and check. Tony wasn’t safe. He just knew it. Something felt wrong; there was that gut instinct, those hairs on the back of your neck that told you of danger before your other senses even registered it. Steve’s body was thrumming with adrenaline he didn’t rationally need, already having made the decision that his brain didn’t want to land on just yet.

He cursed quietly and sat up, running his hands through his hair. His clock read at 1:12am. It had been hours since he’d last seen Tony. Anything could have happened to him, and it’d be Steve’s fault. And he could try and say that he was a terrorist, that he’d killed innocent people, but the crux of the matter was that he just didn’t believe that any more. Somewhere along the line, his mind had changed.

And if Tony was right—if what he said about HYDRA, Rumlow, everything—was true, then it meant that Steve had handed him right into the mouths of the hungry lions, and then walked away. Whatever happened now, he knew Tony would never forgive him. He didn’t deserve it. Not after everything he’d done. All the lies-that-weren’t-lies he’d told to get where he needed to be.

Steve bit his lip, tasted the tang of copper burst under his tongue. Times like these, he missed Bucky. He’d always been Steve’s voice of reason, but he was currently still touring in Afghanistan. It was just Steve.

…Or maybe not.

There was a second where he thought to himself, truly, of what he was about to do. The consequences of it. He wasn’t just risking his career here, but his life, his freedom. If this went wrong, it’d be prison for sure.

But Steve couldn’t just stand by. If he’d gotten this wrong, which he was becoming more and more convinced about as the seconds ticked by, then he needed to make it right before something terrible happened. And at his core, Steve was a man of morals. He knew he needed to make this right. Needed to know, in his heart, that he had done the correct thing.

He grabbed his phone from the nightstand and dialled the familiar number, knowing she would probably still be awake at this time. And of course, it only took three beeps until the call connected, Natasha’s breathless voice speaking down the line. “I’m in the middle of a workout, Rogers. This better be good.”

“Do you trust me?”

There was a small pause. “Yes,” she answered simply, “why do you ask?”

“Because I’m about to do something very stupid, and I need your help.”

 

 

*

 

 

They drove over to SHIELD in silence; Natasha simply staring straight ahead of her, face blank, mind clearly working over everything Steve had told her and processing every bit of information. Steve didn’t try and converse with her. There was nothing else to say. He’d told her, she’d agreed to come to SHIELD with him. The ball was in her park now.

She waited until they had parked up before she turned her head to him. Steve looked back.

“Are you sure that you know what you’re doing?” She asked softly, her voice strangely poignant in the silence of the early morning.

Steve didn’t bother lying. “No,” he said, “but I know that I have to do it.”

Her head tilted, mulling over the words. But she didn’t back out. Instead, she just undid her seatbelt and stretched, catlike, in her seat. “Good enough for me. Let’s go commit some crimes.”

Steve followed her out of the car, shutting the door quietly as he did so. “It’s not crime. We work here.”

“Oh, right, that makes conspiring with terrorists okay then.”

He glared at her, but she just shrugged and grinned. Steve got the feeling this felt like nothing more than a game to that woman. For someone as deadly as her though, he supposed it was. She’d certainly faced off with worse before.

He clenched his jaw and bumped her with his shoulder. “Let’s just get this over with,” he muttered, slipping in behind Natasha as she scanned in with her keycard. Since it was so early in the morning, most people would be at home, and only the night guards would be on duty. That made it a little easier, he supposed.

They walked through the corridors confidently and quietly, until Natasha veered off in the direction of the CCTV rooms. Steve had gone through his rushed plan with her already—she had a little pill that she would pop into a drink that she knew Joseph, the tecchie who worked the security room during nightshift, would like. In that pill was a concoction that would knock him out for an hour or two, and then wake him up later with no recollection of what had happened for the previous few hours he was awake. Steve didn’t want to ask why she happened to have a variety of sleeping pills and other drugs to hand in her apartment. It was easier to just let her keep her secrets. Either way, once she’d completed that part, she’d do her thing with the computers that would loop the feeds for long enough to get Steve where he needed to be without detection. He didn’t bother asking about that part either. Computer stuff had never been his forte.

He swallowed back the doubts and marched forward, finding the stairwell he’d headed down a few hours previously. According to SHIELD protocol, Tony should still be on this floor. And if he wasn’t chained up to one of the interrogation rooms, he’d be in a holding cell.

That was, unless someone else had gotten to him first.

No. They wouldn’t have moved so fast, surely. That would make it too obvious. And of course, he couldn’t even be sure there was any truth to Tony’s words in the first place. Steve had to remain as objective as he could here. The fate of the whole goddamn world might depend on it.

He waited around in one of the bathrooms on the 2nd floor, right up until Natasha gave him the all-clear five minutes later through a short text. Steve was already moving by the time he’d opened it, and he’d made his way back to the underground level in under a minute, not passing any other agents on his way. When he reached the desk, there was a new agent sat behind it, and he regarded Steve with a suspicious eyebrow-raise. “We don’t have any interviews scheduled tonight,” he declared as Steve walked by.

In answer, Steve threw down a letter Natasha had written up earlier at her apartment. “That’s a letter from Tony Stark’s lawyer,” he said sharply, for once in his life the lies falling easily off his tongue, “you know—one of the eleven that he has on his roster, with more successful cases between them than the rest of all US attorneys combined? We don’t know how Stark managed to get a message through to them, but he did, and now they’re demanding we allow them to represent him unless we want them suing us for breaching about a dozen different human rights laws. We’ve got mere hours to get a confession out of him before they can arrive and run rings round us. So I suggest you let me through, unless you want the downfall of SHIELD itself to be on your conscience.”

The receptionist paled as he looked down at the letter, barely even reading it. Any threat of a lawsuit—especially one from a man as rich and powerful as Tony Stark—was enough to make any bored nightshift agent cower. He nodded weakly and waved a hand. “Uh, okay. You should… you should probably go through then.”

Steve nodded once, snatching the letter back off the desk. “Where’s he being held?”

“I—Uh… I don’t think he’s been moved out of Interrogation room 7 yet,” the man stuttered, checking with his computer, and Steve nodded. It was a common tactic to keep them in those bland rooms for a good long time, have them try and sleep shackled up to that uncomfortable desk. Steve wondered whether Tony had been seen to by a medic yet. His stomach curdled in a mixture of anger and horrible guilt when he realised that they almost certainly hadn’t. They’d let Tony sit in there and stew in it all: the capture, the pain. SHIELD didn’t expend any niceties to people they branded as terrorists.

He slipped through the hall hurriedly and turned the corner to where he knew room 7 was. Before going into the room itself, he opened the door of the observation deck to make sure no one was inside. But it was empty. Everyone had gone home for the night. Steve shut the door again, and turned to the one beside it. He didn’t waste time debating. He’d been doing that since this morning. And, hell, he’d gotten this far.

He turned the handle and pushed open the door swiftly, stepping into the room with Tony once more.

Tony wasn’t asleep, far from it. He was still sat upright and staring vacantly at the mirror, obviously deep in thought, but when he heard the sound, his head snapped to Steve. Their eyes met, and when Tony registered him, his face turned into one of surprise. This clearly hadn’t been something he had expected. “Steve?”

“Tell me what happened in Gulmira,” Steve blurted, walking over to the desk and leaning his hands down against it. Had it been anyone else, it would have been a threatening pose, but Steve knew he just looked desperate. It was the one thing Tony had done that Steve couldn’t explain away, the one thing that seemed like truly senseless violence. “Tell me why Iron Man wiped that whole fucking town off the map and flew away a few hours later without a care in the fucking world.”

Tony was silent for a moment, just looking up at him, like he knew that his fate was now hanging in the balance of his next words. There was a new gash, this one right on the middle of his forehead. It matched with the bloodstain on the table. Steve figured Rumlow must have smashed his head against it.

“I didn’t kill them, Steve,” he said softly, his voice wavering a little as he spoke, “I tried to save them. That’s why I flew over there. They… it was my first flight out as Iron Man. I saw them on the news. The Ten Rings. They were… they had my weapons, people were dying because of my laziness.” He shut his eyes as the memories took hold. “I just wanted to help. So I flew in, went to stop it myself. They’d rounded up most of the civilians in the centre of the village, separating them out… I landed on the outskirts, hoping to work my way in and take out the reinforcements.

“But I was careless, too belligerent and not fucking thinking right. I made mistakes. Someone sounded the alarm, got a message over to the village centre while I was busy blowing stuff up. Probably thought I was sent by the American Government or something. Didn’t like that at all, but they knew if the Americans were coming in, they weren’t gonna escape with what they were after.” Tony swallowed and shook his head, finally looking at Steve again, his eyes filled with regret. “They decided to make a statement. Turned my Jericho Missile on themselves, and blew everyone to kingdom fucking come. And my weapons are good, Steve. There were no survivors. I looked for hours. But… they were all gone.”

Silence filled the room, Steve looking at Tony in horror, Tony staring right back, mouth pursed into a thin line. His hands were fisted on the table, knuckles white, straining. “Course, the media saw me flying in and out, saw the explosion, put two and two together,” he continued after a moment, sniffing briefly and shrugging a shoulder, “I became the world’s number one bad-guy, and my image was forever tainted. Worked better that way, though. Easier to excuse my seemingly random attacks on government facilities.” He raised an eyebrow to Steve, waving the hand shackled to the table. “Believe me?” He asked.

Steve just stared at him some more. That was the big question, wasn’t it? Did Steve believe what Tony was saying. Did he really believe that that was the explanation for the tragedy; the one SHIELD estimated to have caused deaths up to their thousands. And, obviously, Tony could just be playing him. He’d always been good at spinning bullshit on the spot; he was a businessman, after all. That came pretty high on his job description. And he knew that Steve was a weak link he could tug on until he got what he wanted. This could so easily be a ploy.

But Steve believed him. Truly, wholeheartedly. Maybe love did make you blind, but it also made you observant. Fine-tuned to the object of your affections; honed into them on a frequency no one else was on. Steve had known Tony for years. Had loved him for pretty much all that time. He knew, as soon as Tony gave the explanation, that that was the answer.

So, in that moment, he made a decision.

Pulling out his phone quickly, he dialled Natasha’s number, only having to wait half a second before she picked up with a crisp: “You coming back up?”

“Uh, yeah. Kind of.”

“What do you mean, ‘Kind of’?”

Steve glanced at Tony for a moment, then took a small breath. “I’m taking Tony with me.”

There was a very brief pause as Natasha processed that. “Steve, you’re a fucking idiot. We’re in a SHIELD fortress. You can’t expect to just walk away with the most wanted terrorist in the world—”

“— He’s not… okay, whatever, look, you’re right. I can’t just walk out. But Tony can summon his suit, and once he’s got that, nothing SHIELD can do will stop him, you know that.”

“You don’t have a suit, Steve.”

“No. But I have you.” He broke off, biting at his lip for a second before continuing. “You can cut the CCTV from where you are, right?”

Down the line, Natasha cursed. “Soon as I cut it, you know the protocol, Steve. The whole building gets put on lockdown and the holding cells are all checked.”

“And until they’re searched, that gives us a few minutes to get the hell out, right?” Steve gritted his teeth together and clenched the phone tighter in his fist, trying to ignore the way Tony’s eyes were burning into his side. He could feel the beads of sweat beginning to pool across his brow, and his heart was starting to speed up with anxiety. “I need you to do this, Natasha. I can’t go out there in front of the cameras, okay—that alone would be enough evidence to lock me up for the rest of my life. But if you just cut them, then I get some more time—”

“No amount of time is going to help you here, Steve, dammit, you don’t even have a plan!”

“I have a plan,” Steve said slightly petulantly, before he sighed and put on his most earnest voice. “Natasha, please. Just trust me. Wipe any of evidence of us coming here from the CCTV footage, wait for my signal, then cut the feed and get the hell out.”

There was another tense silence once he’d spoken, during which Steve prayed to whoever was listening that she would do this for him. Then, after what felt like an eternity packed into a second, she huffed. “Fine. Text me when you’re ready.” Without saying goodbye, the phone went dead. Steve figured that was her way of saying she was pissed, but willing to cooperate.

Now came the tricky part.

Slowly, he turned back to the other person in the room, who was busy watching him with a carefully neutral face. Tony’s walls were up, and they were up high. Biting back the urge to sigh, Steve moved around the desk, crouching down on his haunches as he looked at Tony’s oddly positioned arm. “Think it’s broken?” He asked quietly, gently tracing his finger around the shoulder socket in case of a dislocation he’d missed.

Tony looked sideways at him, and then nodded. His eyes were slightly narrowed, like he was trying to work Steve out. That was understandable. This was quite a severe change in tune. “Why are you doing this?” He asked bluntly.

Steve stilled. “Because I made a mistake.”

“It was hardly a mistake,” Tony said, his voice cold and damning, “Or if it was, then it was about a hundred successive mistakes. Starting from you knocking on my door by mistake. Then moving on to you telling me you were a PI by mistake. Then telling me you still loved me, again, by mistake—”

“Tony—”

“—Then sleeping with me, wow, big mistake there Steve—oh, and then all the other stuff, about how you missed me, how you wanted to start over, staying the night and then helping me out when that big fuckoff robot tried to crush Santa Barbara. In fact, the only non-mistake you made during our time together was handing me in at the end of it all. So well done. You’ve got a success rate of about 1 in 1000.”  Tony was just sneering at him now, that typical Tony Stark Bluntness that could cut a man down from a mile away- except his eyes told the real story. They always had. Every fight they’d ever fought, every time Tony had tried to bullshit Steve with feigned nonchalance, it had never worked. Not then and not now either.

Tony was hurt. Not just by the arm and the bruised face, but by Steve, and what he’d done. In fact, he figured that what he’d done had probably hurt more.

But they didn’t have time for this. He didn’t have time to try and make any of that better. Steve looked away, turned his concentration to the shackles that held Tony to the table as he quelled the bubbling self-hatred. He stood, pulling out the small laser-cutting device he’d taken from the armoury. It fit neatly in his palm, and he directed the beam at the chain wrapped around the loop in the desk. “Hold still,” he said shortly, and then switched the thing on, firing a concentrated ray down at the table. The chain was standard; no reinforced metal, and it snapped away after a few seconds. Steve gently pulled it from the desk, releasing Tony’s hand from it. Then he looked back down at the other man, his palm settling over Tony’s shoulder before he could move to stand.

“My mistake was trusting SHIELD,” Steve said softly, “not finding you again, not… not all those things I said and did. None of them were mistakes. I meant every word of what I told you. At the time, I wished I didn’t. But that doesn’t change the facts I gave you that night.” The fact that I love you, that I missed you every day, that I wish I hadn’t fucked everything up so much, then and now. All these things, I wish I could tell you out loud. But I can’t. And I’m sorry.

Despite what Steve said, Tony’s face was doubtful, no longer trusting of the words Steve gave him— and more than anything he just wanted to stay here and… and try, something, anything that would make Tony understand, even if it took all fucking night—but there just wasn’t time. Steve’s chances were gone; he’d screwed everything up, again, like always. Now he could only focus on getting Tony out and keeping him safe. That was all he had left, and by God, he wasn’t going to mess that one up. Not for anything.

 And so, biting his lip to keep himself from saying anything more to further upset the other man, Steve curled his hand around Tony’s good arm and then gently lifted him up, hearing him wince as he did so. “Yesterday, you called the Iron Man suit,” Steve started, walking Tony over to the door, “can you do that now?”

“I could,” Tony answered as he hobbled along with Steve, “but this whole building is lined with transmission blocking equipment. I looked at the blueprints to this place a few months ago; there’s an electromagnetic system running through the walls in this place, and all your tech runs on a closed system within the building. The transponders in my arm can’t pick up a signal because your stupid SHIELD equipment keeps scrambling it. You must fucking hate working here- no internet, seriously? Why do that to yourself?” Tony turned to Steve as he began to lead them through the corridors, face pulled tight. “But I’m digressing. Do you have a plan?”

Steve paused a fraction of a second before saying, “yes.”

“But you paused before you said that, Steve, so now I just don’t believe you.”

“I have a plan.”

“What did I tell you, you’re a terrible liar. You don’t have a plan at all do you? You’re just walking me out in this SHIELD corridor in broad daylight, hoping no one is going to question you, aren’t you?”

Steve gritted his teeth. “80% of any infiltration is all about walking like you know what you’re doing,” he said weakly. “I’m going to tell the receptionist that I’m taking you to meet your lawyer. You’re going to spit and curse at yell at me about how you’re going to ruin my life and sue me for everything I own, then sue SHIELD for everything that they own, and generally make a very large show of being someone that he doesn’t want to question, for fear of also being sued for everything he owns. Can you do that?”

“Spit and curse at you and make people fear financial ruin?” Tony pulled a face. “Easy as breathing.”

Steve grinned for a second, before they turned the corner and began walking toward the receptionist at the end of the hall. Tony began his tirade; squirming around in Steve’s grip as he stumbled along, threatening a dozen different legal actions Steve barely even understood, waving his first in the air and saying SHIELD wasn’t going to last a week under the scrutiny of his attorneys. He was very believable. Then again, Tony had always been a better liar than Steve.

The receptionist was looking at them in mild fear as they approached, but valiantly did his job when they arrived at the desk. “You aren’t—Agent, you’re not authorised to take him—”

“What’s your fucking name?” Tony jammed a finger at him violently before pointing upward, “I’ve got a lawyer upstairs, his name’s Ray Wallace- look him up, because he’s going to make sure you go down for assisting in an unlawful kidnapping, buddy—”

The man paled. “I…I was just doing my—”

“We need to get him to his lawyer before he calls in the press and blows this up,” Steve waved at the injury on Tony’s forehead, “the last thing SHIELD needs is the whole world condemning them for torture practise. I know this is against protocol, but we don’t have time to get permission from the top brass.”

“—Gonna bleed you fucking dry, buddy, you won’t have a dime to your name.” Tony was still rambling beside him angrily, pointing fingers left right and centre, and the sight of the angry billionaire seemed to inspire the receptionist to shut up, because he just nodded at Steve hurriedly and sat down. Above his paygrade, undoubtedly. Not worth any lawsuits.

Steve moved along, Tony beside him. “Stop struggling,” Steve said sharply, before adding in a softer voice that the agent at the desk couldn’t hear, “you’re already hurt, you don’t need to go overboard with the theatrics.”

“Don’t tell me what to fucking do, you don't have the fucking right any more,” Tony said loudly and violently, just struggling harder, to the point where Steve had to actually grab hard in order to not have him wriggle away. He figured not all of Tony’s anger was just for show.

They continued on like that until they reached the stairwell. Steve let Tony go, and immediately Tony stepped a hasty distance away. Steve pretended not to notice, just pulling out his phone and shooting off a text to Natasha. They waited in silence for a second, until Steve received confirmation. Natasha had shut down the CCTV.

Steve looked up at Tony. “We have a few minutes,” he said shortly, “all exits are sealed off now, so we’re going to need to take an alternative route.”

“SHIELD have any non-bulletproof windows we can smash through?” Tony responded, cradling his arm in his good hand, “in fact, maybe if we just got to the outskirts of the building it would be enough. I don’t know. Would you happen to have any idea where the blocker is coming from?”

“Uh. No.”

Tony pursed his lips. “Right. Window it is.”

“We’re gonna need to take a detour first though.” Steve nodded up the stairwell and started moving, Tony following along behind him. “You can’t walk around like that. You’re way too noticeable.”

“Well, by all means Steve, initiate your grand plan. I’m intrigued as to how you’re gonna get around all these problems here.”

Steve turned to glare at him for a second, before speeding up his pace on the stairs. Admittedly, he probably should have spent more time thinking this over. But he hadn’t known what Rumlow might have been doing to Tony, or whether waiting around might have ended in something unthinkable, so he’d had to cut some corners. And anyway—the original story Steve had fed Tony, about him breaking into the army base and wandering around in a janitor’s uniform, had a bit of merit to it, so was it really so bad that Steve was taking those ideas and just recreating them in real life?

 They’d be fine. It would work. They just wouldn’t be particularly…smooth. But as long as they came out of it alive, Steve could live with that.

Five minutes and one floor later, Tony was glaring at him with more anger in his face than there had been when he’d found out Steve had sold him out. “I’d rather die,” he declared, “Steve, you cannot be serious.”

Steve waved hurriedly to the janitor’s trolley. “Just get in, Tony, for fuck’s sake—”

“That is a trashcan,” the other man hissed, “I am not—”

“You either get in the trashcan or you spend the rest of your life in a cell,” Steve snapped, “and no, don’t say anything along the lines of ‘I chose the cell’, I don’t have time for that. Just get in the fucking trash, okay?”

You get in the trash!” Tony yanked the janitor’s cap off Steve’s head and then stuck it on his own. “I’ll be the janitor, you get in the wheelie-bin.”

“TONY!”

The man gave him a truly menacing glare, before cursing quietly and making his way over to the trolley. Steve’s plan was simple enough—they’d made it to the janitor’s break room without alerting suspicion, and now Steve was going to slip on a uniform while Tony went into the trashcan that was fitted into the trolley. After that, his plan was essentially to wheel them both to the nearest empty room with a window that wasn’t bulletproof, smash it with a chair, and then quite literally just stick Tony’s arm out of it until JARVIS picked up his signal. And viola. The suit would then be summoned, and Tony could fly away. Crude, maybe. But if it worked, it worked.

As for Steve… well, Steve was just going to have to play it by ear. See if he could stick around in the janitor’s office and then call Nat and ask her to buzz him out once the building had been released from lockdown, maybe.

He wasn’t stupid though. He knew that was a long shot. It would be unlikely he’d get out of this without being caught, but… at least Tony would go free. That was what was important in the long run, and Steve had to remember that. Tony was fighting the bigger fight here, and Steve needed to get him out so that he could do that freely.

“You know, we aren’t actually in a Hollywood movie,” Tony muttered as he lifted himself into the empty bin, “this sort of stuff doesn’t work in real life.” He shuffled down lower and then pulled a face as Steve shut the lid over his head, his muffled voice drifting through the covering. “It smells like shit in here.”

In answer, Steve lifted the lid again and then plucked the janitor’s cap off Tony’s head, before shutting it quickly once more. He checked his watch as he started to push the trolley back out of the door, biting his lip as he did so. A search would be going on right this minute, every holding cell being checked. Interrogation rooms might miss the first sweep, but once they established that Tony Stark was supposedly on that floor somewhere, they would check every inch of the place. And once they found the interrogation room empty…

Well. Hopefully by that point, Tony would be well on his way to escape, so it wouldn’t be a problem. Not for him, at the very least.

Steve pursed his lips and kept his head down as he rolled out of the break room with Tony hidden in the garbage disposal compartment of the janitor trolley. His cap covered his face, hands gripping tight to the handle, and he casually made his way over to the elevator which was stationed a few corridors away. Tony had informed him that only the first two floors’ worth of windows were bulletproofed to cut spending, which meant that they only had to travel two floors up without being detected. That was totally doable. Everyone was far too busy wondering why they’d just been put into lockdown to care about some nightshift janitor going about his business.

He didn’t speed up, look around or hold the trolley too tight as he wheeled it along. All of those would be things that could give him away, and contrary to what Tony might try and say, Steve could play the part when he needed to. And right now, he really, really needed to. So Steve was channelling his inner Exhausted Janitor, and he was doing a stand-up fucking job of it, thank you very much. Agents passed by him hurriedly, not even noticing as he wheeled between them, and Tony remained thankfully silent the whole time, so no suspicion was even aroused as Steve slowly worked his way up to the third floor. By this time, the agent manning the desk on the underground level would have undoubtedly informed the team sent to check on the holding cells that a blond man had escorted Tony Stark from the floor a few minutes previously, and a search was about to be very quickly organised in order to find the two fugitives.

But Steve just had to keep going, calmly and collectedly, until he reached the meeting room where he was headed. It was a small place, tucked away in the corner of the 1st corridor leasing out of the elevator. No one would be using it. Not at this time. And okay, maybe if they started smashing windows it might alert some suspicion, but it’d be fine. They could make it.

Or at least, Tony could.

Pushing his shoulder against the door of the conference room, Steve pulled the trolley inside and then wheeled it over to a corner. There was no lock on the door, he realised—but that would be okay. Rapping a knuckle against the lid of the trash compartment, Steve informed Tony he was free to leave the confines of the trash. “Are you sure this is going to work?” He asked, helping Tony’s fragile body out and balancing him as he swayed. “What if the signal extends out of the building as well as into it and your arms can’t link up to your suit?”

“Well, first of all, it’s not my arms that are magical Iron Man beacons,” Tony grouched, hurrying over to the large double-glazed windows at the other side of the room and peering over his shoulder to the door. “It’s the very small and very cool nodes that I’ve implanted under my skin that are the beacons. And look at where this place is stationed. You’re in the middle of New York, Steve, bracketed between a bank and a college. You think they’re gonna be happy if they can’t use their phones within ten feet of your building?” Tony shook his head and then raised his hand expectantly to Steve. “The signal will be on one side of walls, and it’ll face inward. Like aiming a hose at a certain flower bed. There might be the smallest amount of interference to maybe knock out a regular phone, considering the proximity, but these implants aren’t regular by any means. They’ll find a signal.”

Steve nodded, and then looked at Tony’s upturned palm. He hurriedly pulled out the laser-cutter from his pocket and handed it over. “Don’t be loud, people might hear us.”

“I’m sure I used to be the one telling you that,” Tony raised an eyebrow at him as he took the device, and for a second, he was almost smiling. But then he turned his back and focused on the window, observing it analytically, and Steve could do nothing except try to quell the heat on his cheeks. The man traced a finger over the pane, pressing his face close. Steve figured he was checking for something—what exactly, he wasn’t too sure. Maybe a trip system. “This might take a few minutes,” Tony murmured to himself as he looked down at the laser cutter, “glass isn’t bulletproof, but it is reinforced. I’ll have to go around the edges.”

Steve nodded and moved over to the door once again. He wondered if he’d be able to move the conference table against it, stop anyone else getting in. His heart was racing under his chest, mentally calculating how long it was going to take someone to find them. The alarm had been set off a few minutes ago, a two-tone whine that informed everyone there was a breach in security. That meant that all SHIELD agents that reported to this compound would be alerted, sleeping or no, and they would be rushing in to act as backup. Those agents still in the building would already be searching; starting at the bottom floor and working their way up. This was a conference floor mostly, so there would be no one around. But the one above was a training room, and below was for offices, so that meant they were pretty much surrounded on all sides.

Steve was fucked, essentially.

He licked his lips and wiped his brow, glancing behind him to check on Tony, who was working his way up the glass with the laser, those steady blacksmith’s hands never shaking an inch. At least he’d be alright, with his fancy suit and jet boots. Steve really wished he had some of them right about now.

He turned his head back to the door and took the beginnings of a step forward, hand reaching toward a chair he could jam under the handle, but of course, it was in that moment that the door chose to open in one fluid motion. Steve watched it, his brain confused for a fraction of a second— and that was what became his downfall. That fraction of surprise, the lack of reaction.

It allowed Rumlow to dart forward, extend his arm like a snake pouncing on its prey, with something dangerous glinting in his right hand.

Steve acted on instinct, flying away from the flash of silver blade as it stabbed for his midsection. He didn’t have time to avoid it completely, however, and there was a sting of agony as the skin across his waist ripped open, warmth spilling immediately onto his shirt. He cursed, but didn’t look down; instead keeping his eye on the knife that the other man was holding. Steve didn’t know why it was Brock fucking Rumlow of all people who had found him. From the brief once-over Steve had given him as he’d entered the room, it looked like he may have been in the training rooms working a punching bag or something. Maybe the man was smarter than Steve had given him credit for, and worked out that they’d need to be on a floor without bulletproofed glass if they wanted to escape. Maybe he’d been on the way down from the upper floors and had just happened to hear the two of them on the other side of the door. Maybe he’d just gotten lucky.

Not that any of that really mattered. Steve just had to focus on not getting stabbed now.

He stumbled out of the way of another rapid swipe, feeling his side wrench in agony as the wound was pulled. Rumlow grinned, showing his teeth. “This is a pleasant surprise,” he drawled, flipping his blade threateningly as he took a step forward. “I thought I was gonna have to think up a whole plan in order to kill you, but as it turns out, I’m just going to be able to do it right here and then claim self defence. Made it so easy for me, Rogers.”

Steve glared at him. “SHIELD don’t murder people, Rumlow- even if they’re criminals.”

“Well, as your ex mentioned earlier: I don’t fucking work for SHIELD.”

Steve felt something inside him go cold; that final little bit of doubt shrivelling into nothingness and revealing only the cold, hard truth: Tony really hadn’t been lying, and SHIELD really was corrupted. Rumlow was clearly part of it, too, just like Tony had said. Steve tightened his jaw and lifted his hands defensively, glancing briefly over to Tony. He was still working at the window, but he kept glancing in their direction every few seconds with an anxious look in his eyes. “This isn’t a fight you need to take up with Steve,” the man called out, diverting Rumlow’s attention for a fraction of a second, “I’m the one who knows enough to get you locked up. Steve couldn’t even touch you.”

Rumlow simply sneered. “Maybe. But I’d rather not risk it. Plus, I never really liked Rogers anyway. So if it’s all the same with you…” rather than finishing the sentence, Rumlow rushed forward and swiped his blade sideways, aiming for Steve’s midsection once more. Were he not disadvantaged by the rather excruciating pain in his side, Steve would probably have given him a fair fight. But Rumlow had a knife, and all Steve had was an inch-deep wound in his side that was currently restricting a lot of his movement. He knew that he wasn’t going to be able to compete. Not in the long run.

Until the moment Rumlow killed him, however, Steve was going to give as good as he damn well got. With a snarl, he ducked under the next swipe and then threw a hand upward, finding Rumlow’s wrist and gripping tightly. He had the advantage over Rumlow when it came to sheer strength, and after a second of resistance, Brock had no choice but to give way; sliding to the side as Steve drove the blade in the opposite direction. It buried itself in the nearby wall with a grinding thud, and Steve didn’t waste time trying to pull it back out again. He’d never been much good with a knife, and he had always preferred a simple fistfight over anything else. Not wasting any breath, he immediately hiked up a foot, swinging it around and hitting his opponent dead in the chest. Rumlow stumbled backward with a wheeze, and Steve followed vigilantly, his fist rising for a swing. But the other man recovered too fast, using his backward momentum to fall to the floor and roll, rising straight up again and tackling Steve in the midsection in the space of about two seconds.

Steve felt the deep wound in his side start to tear in unbearable pain, and for a moment, there was nothing except the agony taking over every part of his body. He fell to the floor with a thud, his arm catching upon a nearby chair. Something ripped under his skin, and Rumlow wasted no time. He smashed his fist against Steve’s face, pummelling him back into the floor as he tried to sit up and fight.

“Look at you,” Rumlow said as he punched Steve again, the other hand curling around his windpipe, “I always said you were more looks than talent. This took, what, half a minute? Maybe less? You’re fucking pathetic. Killing you will be a pleasure.”

Steve gritted his teeth, fighting against the pain as he bucked his hips and dislodged Rumlow. He felt a fresh wave of warm blood spill down his side, but ignored it. For now, all that mattered was winning this fight. Stopping Rumlow. Making sure Tony got out.

“He’s gonna beat you,” Steve hissed as he found Rumlow’s arm, twisting it as far as it could go, “Tony’s smarter and braver and stronger than you could ever be. He’s gonna take your whole organisation down in a h---”

The rest of his sentence failed to leave his throat, as Rumlow chose that moment to do an admittedly amazing flip, dislodging Steve’s grip on his arm and then somehow ending up reversing the manoeuvre that had been used on him, resulting with Steve being the one in the chokehold instead. Before he could even hope to counter, Rumlow snaked his fingers around Steve’s waist, digging right into the deep cut he’d created a minute earlier. Steve screamed.

“What were you saying?” Rumlow jeered, the dual action of intense pressure on Steve’s windpipe and truly unbelievable pain in his midsection being enough for Steve to nearly black out completely, “talk all you want, Rogers, but that’s all you are. Big words and a pretty face. I’m gonna snap your neck and no one will even fucking care. Your friends are dead or estranged, your life is meaningless. You should’ve joined us at HYDRA. We could have given you purpose. Now you’re just gonna die as nothing but a stupid whore—”

 

“—I think the only stupid one in the room is the guy who took his eyes off 50% of the threat in the room, personally- but that might just be me.”

 

Steve’s mind registered the voice at the same time Rumlow did, but although it may have been said in the nick of time for Steve, it was also in the worst possible moment for Rumlow. The man turned his head in surprise at the new robotic voice, and as he did so, Tony lurched forward, clad in the Iron Man suit he had managed to call from the gaping hole that was now in the window. Red and Gold hands clenched around Rumlow’s own, yanking him violently away from Steve. Rumlow didn’t have a hope in hell of fighting him. This was a fresh suit, undoubtedly sent from whichever hidey-hole Tony had on the East coast. It was pure metal, tech and power that clenched down upon his body and threw him sideways. With a yelp of pain, Rumlow hit the plaster wall, creating a dent against the grey paint as he collided with it. Tony did not wait for him to regain his balance. Striding forward, he grabbed Rumlow by the collar, lifting him into the air. The man’s feet kicked uselessly at the metal exoskeleton, fingers scrabbling for the face-plate.  But it was useless.

“HYDRA is over,” Tony growled, his voice filled with determination, “the lie is finally bubbling to the surface. I’m going to expose you and your filthy organisation to the world, and there isn’t a damned thing you can do about it. I won’t kill you. Not now. But I assure you, I’m going to make sure you spend the rest of your ugly little life in the corner of a prison cell. So remember what you said about Steve- remember how you said that his life amounted to nothing. Because when you die of old age in SHIELD custody, you’re going to think of Steve Rogers over there, and you’re gonna realise that you picked the wrong fucking side to root for.”

Steve could admit, there wasn’t really much coherence left in him to process what Tony said - a second later, he’d hauled Rumlow across the room like he was nothing more than a piece of garbage. His body hit the opposing wall with a sickening thud, head cracking into stone. He fell to the floor limply, and didn’t get back up.

Steve blinked groggily, eyes moving between Rumlow and Tony, who was now clad in all that beautiful red and gold. “Suit came fast,” he muttered, realising his words were a little slurred. A lot of blood was on the floor around him.

It seemed like no time had passed at all before Tony was suddenly there, right in his face, gently pulling him off the floor. He moaned softly, too tired to fully enunciate the pain. The world was spinning. “Gotta go,” Steve told him, “you gotta…. They’re gonna come for you. I’ll be okay. Jus’…. G’outta here. Quick.”

The faceplate lifted. Steve briefly wondered whether Tony would have had to stick his arm out of the window and wave it around for a little bit while he and Rumlow had been fighting in order to find a signal. That would have been funny to watch. “Alright. Okay, just hold on, Steve. I’ll get you out of here, I promise.”

Steve blinked slowly. “Huh?”

“I’ll get you out, Steve. It’s gonna be okay. I have a med-bay at my safehouse. You’ve lost some blood, but you’ll be fine.”

That… didn’t make sense. “You’re—You’re takin’ me with you?”

Tony paused, and then his face twisted up until he was looking at Steve as if he was insane. “What else would I do with you?” He asked, sounding genuinely confused.

Steve just squinted. “I… I mean, I thought. You know. You would be getting outta here… without me. Eye for an eye, and all that.”

Tony paused for a moment. He was still looking at Steve as if he had started talking some obscure foreign language. However, Steve’s body was quickly deciding that sitting up was overrated,  and so after a second he stopped being able to watch the way Tony’s face stared incredulously at him, and instead felt the world begin to drift, light and colour blurring across his vision and creating a slightly nauseating image. His head fell backward, too weary to remain upward, and he resigned himself to the distant thud of pain that was bound to come in a second or two.

Except it didn’t. Thud, that was. In fact, he never felt the floor at all. Instead, he found himself buffeted by something hard and yet soft. Unyielding yet gentle. humming in surprise, he valiantly attempted to pull his eyes back open and see what it was that was holding him.

“You’re such an idiot,” Tony muttered above him, and oh, okay, it was him. He was holding Steve. That was nice. “Come on, love. Let’s blow this joint, huh?”

Yeah, Steve wanted to say, except his mouth didn’t agree with him, and so nothing came out. The world was fading around him, and he wanted to fight it, preserve this memory of having Tony holding him, but the urge to just stop was too strong. He felt warm, but uncomfortable. Like he wasn’t part of his own body. Like he was floating.

Maybe he was dying.

Christ, if he was dying, he probably needed to say something monumental. Something that actually meant something; as opposed to everything else he’d been fucking doing for the past year. It would need to be something that he would never regret.

He looked at Tony through his blurry vision. The man’s face was pale and sickly, interspersed with blues and greens and browns from various bruises, and his lip was uneven, swollen from the split that cracked down across the right hand side of his mouth. He looked heaven-sent to Steve, though.

“I wish I’d been the person you wanted me to be,” he slurred unevenly, fingers grasping at the first thing he could reach. He hoped it was something of Tony’s, although he had the slightest suspicion it may have been his own trouser-leg. “Wish I’d been worthy of you.”

“Steve… Steve, you were always—”

 

But he never found what he always was. A second later and he was out, the blood-loss knocking him into peaceful oblivion. The last thing on his mind was Tony’s face; creased with concern and determination, and something that looked dangerously close to love.

Then he was gone.

 

 

*

 

 

Next time he became somewhat semi-aware, he noted in surprise that he was flying. At least, it felt like flying. Cool wind braced his cheeks, dark skies littered with shining pinpricks filled his vision. New York was a dot beneath him. He wondered if he was on a plane. Except it was cold, and he was exposed, and planes didn’t feel like

His head rested against something. It was warm, but solid. Steve tried to focus in on it. Golden, maybe. Angel? Was he dead?

No - if he was dead, it wouldn’t be an angel escorting him upward, that was for sure.

Dream, his mind supplied vacantly, and with a small hum of acceptance, he promptly passed out again.

 

 

*

 

It was light when the world blurred back into focus. Steve could feel it against his closed eyelids. He must have been out for quite a while. He was also pretty comfortable, which was strange, all things considered. He’d sort of thought he might be waking up in a jail cell, or not waking up at all, so the soft sheets were nice. And there was talking, too. A familiar pair of voices: one dry British, the other sarcastic American, both of them rattling off quips to one another like an old married couple. The familiarity of it brought back memories of an old life, where things had been easy and the world had been kinder. It made him want to smile.

Slowly, he opened his eyes.

The room he was in was a sterile white, full of metal trays and machinery. Steve was laying on a cot extending from the wall, and the rhythmic beeping sound coming from somewhere above his head told him that he was probably hooked up to a monitor or two. He attempted to shift a little, and found that the pain was still there, but far less prevalent than the last time Steve had been conscious. That was certainly a positive. Maybe the stab-wound hadn’t gone as deep as he’d previously imagined.

Then he made the mistake of trying to sit up on his right elbow, and suddenly the pain became a hell of a lot worse again.

“Steve? Oh, for fuck’s… Steve, you idiot, sit back down. Your bicep’s all torn up, okay, just lie down, lie… there we go.” He blinked in surprise as suddenly a face loomed above him, one warm hand pressing against his chest. Tony’s face was pinched in worry, the bruises around his face having changed a few shades since Steve last looked at him. He wondered how long he’d been out for.

Once he was back lying down again, the worry slipped off Tony’s face a little, replaced with a smile. It was tired, but genuine. “Good evening,” he said softly, his fingers brushing over Steve’s sternum for a fraction of a second before they paused and then moved away. “how are we feeling, Agent Rogers?”

He looked up at Tony and debated the question. “Like I just lost a fight,” he admitted in the end, a frown forming, “been a while since that happened.”

“Well, in your defence, he caught you off guard. And he had a big pointy knife.” Tony put his tablet on the desk, and then a second later after a little internal debate, he picked it back up again and flicked a finger across the screen. “We’re dealing with a black eye, some swelling around the face, torn bicep tendon, and a hole in your side. Luckily I am amazing, and I know an even more amazing woman who can work magic on cell tissue. The knife-wound is pretty much all healed up. Might be a bit of tenderness for a while. Had to forego all the other more cosmetic damage though. She doesn’t like to stay around here very long, what with my whole ‘evil villain’ schtick, and the fact that if she gets caught near me she’ll go down for aiding and abetting. Bit of a downer, but that stuff’s gonna just have to heal on its own.”

He put the tablet down back on the desk and then shifted nervously on the stool where he was sat. Steve just watched, waiting for something. The oncoming anger. The yelling. Tony telling him that he’d done what needed to be done, and he’d fixed Steve up, and now Steve needed to get out of his life, for good this time. It wouldn’t be any less than what he deserved.

“Thank you,” Tony said, and— oh. That was… what?

Seeing the confusion on his face, the man sighed, resting his elbows on his knees and looking at the floor. “Just hear me out here, okay? You’ve been asleep for a while, so I’ve had some time to think about all this. About nine hours, actually.” He smiled for a second, but it didn’t last, replaced immediately after with that strained look. Steve wondered how long he’d been sitting there, just waiting for him to wake up.  

“I know that this is messy Steve,” Tony breathed out after another few seconds of silence. “You did what you did, yeah, and that… hurt, I can’t lie. It hurt a lot. And for the first few hours, I was pretty fucking angry about that. But then the fifth hour rolled in, and I realised a few things." Tony cracked another tiny smile, and there was something almost like fondness in his eyes. "You broke my heart, Steve. Yeah. You did. But then you went home, changed your mind about me with no concrete evidence other than the word of a man who'd been pretty solidly accused of destroying thousands of lives, and turned your back on SHIELD in order to risk everything you'd built for yourself here and break me out. You took a gamble on me when the rest of the world was ready to put me on death row. Figure that’s ultimately a lot harder than just going to your asshole exe’s house and sleeping with him for information. So yeah. Thank you. You saved my life back there. And I know it doesn’t mean shit coming from me, but you really have done the right thing. I’ll explain everything, from start to finish, I promise. But I just want to get this conversation out of the way first.”

Steve watched him as he spoke, trying to understand what angle Tony was coming from. His body language was nervous, closed-off. But it wasn’t threatening. There was no violence in him, which was not something Steve had expected.  They sat there for a few moments in awkward silence, as Steve tried to say something coherent and Tony waited for it, fingers tracing the edge of his tablet repetitively as he did so.

“You’re not angry,” Steve eventually declared, confusion laced through his voice, “why aren’t you… aren’t you gonna…you should be angry.”

“What is there to be angry for?”

Steve spluttered. “Uh. Everything? I was- Christ, Tony, think about what I did. I thought… you should have just left me there.”

Tony looked at him incredulously, before it faded into hurt. “Do really think that little of me?” He asked, voice quiet.

Of course Steve didn’t mean it like that. God, he’d only been awake thirty seconds and he was already fucking everything up. “I think the God-damn world of you,” he answered throatily, head shaking back and forth, “you risk your life out there, doing the right thing even when you have the whole world not believing in you. You didn’t even hesitate to let me back into your life when I needed your help, even after the way I treated you before we split—”

“Steve—”

“No, Tony, let me… God, I fucked you over so bad. I betrayed your trust and used your kindness against you. And in the end, it was all for nothing anyway. SHIELD was the one I should have been fighting. I always thought that you were too good to be… but it doesn’t matter what I thought, I guess. It’s what I did that counts. And what I did was fucking unforgiveable.” Steve could feel his eyes stinging and he looked away, over to the nearby wall. He didn’t want Tony to feel obligated to pity him. “I let you down. And I hurt you. And I know… I know it doesn’t mean anything, it won’t make any of this better, but I just need you to know, okay, the things I said that night. They were all true. I was fighting a battle with myself, because I was told you were—you were Iron Man, the bad guy that I had to bring you in to keep people safe—but I was still just as in love with you as I had been the day I asked you to marry me. And if I had had any fucking sense, I would have never gone through with it. And I’m not—it’s not an excuse. It doesn’t change what I did. But I’m just… so, so sorry, Tony. So sorry.”

He shut his mouth after that, unwilling to say more. Nothing else was left to be said, anyway. He knew what he’d done. Tony knew what he’d done. And no words could make that go away. It had been a breach of trust on the most intimate of levels. Steve had used him like he meant nothing; a means to an end. In truth, Tony was so, so far from that. But Tony had no reason to believe any of Steve’s truths anymore.

He could still see the look on Tony’s face when Rumlow broke the news. Still see the way his soul had broken, leaking out through his eyes. Because of him. Because of what Steve had put him through.

Seemed Steve just couldn't stop fucking letting him down, huh?

Tony’s fingers found his jaw, and they gently turned Steve’s face back to him. “Hey. Look at me,” he whispered, “please.”

His touch was warm and tender, and there was no anger in his voice. Their eyes met. “I know you,” Tony continued along, his voice quiet, but resolute and determined. “I know why you do the things you do. I know that this ate you up inside. But all you knew was what you’d been told, and you… you were the only hope in hell SHIELD ever had of getting to me. So you made a choice. You put aside what you felt, in order to do what you thought would keep people safe.” He looked down at that, very briefly, and slid his hands away, back into the safety of his lap. “You hurt me,” he admitted, “what you did hurt me, Steve. And I… it’s gonna take a while for me to work through that. But how you responded when you realised that you had made a mistake was above and beyond what any other human on the planet would ever have fucking done. You broke me out of a fortress. You risked your job, your life, your… everything. For me. In my eyes, I don’t really see what else you could do to redeem yourself.”

Silence fell once more, heavy and thick. Steve wanted to say a million things. Wanted to say that he didn’t deserve Tony’s admiration. That he would do it all over again in a heartbeat if he had to, even if this time Tony left without him. He wanted to tell him that leaving him in the first place had been the biggest, most stupid decision of his life, and he’d never wanted to hurt Tony to the extent that he had.

“I wish I could take it all back,” was all that managed to come out, knowing that wasn’t enough, but wanting to try all the same, “I wish I had… God, I wish I’d never fucking let you go. You were the best thing to ever happen to me. And I promise, I’ll tell you everything you need to know, okay. I can’t change what I did, but I can choose what I do now, at least. I wasn’t very high-up in SHIELD, but I’ll give you anything that can be useful. Then I’ll get out of your hair.”

Tony had been busying himself with picking at a thread on the bedsheet, but when Steve finished, he paused and looked up. Swallowed. “Steve,” he said gently, “you’re… I don’t think you’re gonna be able to just walk out of those doors, you know.”

“What do you mean?” Steve frowned at the look Tony gave him and sat up a fraction, using his good arm this time.

“You think SHIELD won’t know it was you? We’ve got two eyewitnesses that can testify you were with me, one of whom probably has your blood all over his knuckles. They know you broke me out, Steve. I’m sorry. But you’re a fugitive now.”

Oh. That was… “Huh,” he said, voice blank, “so I can’t go back to my apartment?”

“No, I shouldn’t think so.”

“Ah.” That was going to be… difficult. Steve didn’t really have a backup plan. He couldn’t afford to involve Natasha any more than he already had, and other than that, he didn’t have anyone else left to rely on. “Guess I’ll just… uh. I dunno. I’ll jump town for a bit, find a motel or something—”

“What? Steve, don’t be ridiculous.” Tony’s back straightened as if mentally preparing himself for something. “You’re staying with me.”

Okay. Now Tony was the one being ridiculous. “I can’t do that,” Steve said incredulously, “you can’t… you can’t want me in your home after everyth—”

“— Steve, for fuck’s sake, the only reason you’re in this mess in the first place is because of me—”

“—No, the reason I’m in this mess is because I chose to be a fucking immoral bastard, and you know what, I think this is a fair punishment for what I did.” Steve’s eyes moved to Tony’s forehead, the bruising there. “They hurt you,” he whispered, feeling his own words like a physical blow, “they hurt you, and that was because of me.”

“Well you know what, Steve, maybe if I had been a better partner to you while you were going through one of the darkest periods of your fucking life, we never would have split up and I could have explained Iron Man to you a year earlier so that none of this would have happened at all!” Tony waved his hands emphatically through the air and then sighed, slumping back into his chair. “You see what I’m trying to say here? If we go back far enough, there’s always someone else to blame. We can’t do that to ourselves. You made mistakes, I made mistakes. But you miss me. And I miss you. And—and I don’t know about you, but God, Steve, I meant it when I said I never stopped loving you. I’m not expecting that back or anything, but I won’t let you just wander the streets aimlessly until you get arrested. Okay? I won’t do it.”

For a moment, it seemed like time slowed, crawled entirely to a stop. Steve’s mind attempted to wrap itself around that statement, but it couldn’t quite find the right footholds and the meaning behind it kept slipping away. Tony couldn’t be serious. He was talking like there was still hope, and there wasn’t. There couldn’t be.

But there would be no other reason for Tony to say those things. To have that look in his eyes; a mixture of desperate, terrified and determined all at the same time. He was biting his lip again, making a red mark where his teeth buried themselves, but he didn’t look away from Steve.

He wondered whether he was still unconscious, maybe. This… this wouldn’t even have happened in his wildest dreams. God, he was convinced he’d ruined things irreparably between them even before he’d gone and slept with him for information. Tony had always been too good for a guy like Steve, so when they’d split, Steve had had to live with the gutting acceptance that Tony wouldn’t ever come back. He’d have no reason to.

Time and time again, Steve had done nothing but let Tony down. And yet here Tony was, patching him up, taking him in, not even thinking about it.

Steve had never hated himself more.

“…but if you don’t want… sorry, I shouldn’t have just—I jumped in with that,” Tony’s words stumbled over themselves in their haste, and Steve realised that his own gutted expression must have given Tony the wrong idea, “I know it’s… you don’t feel that way, which is fine, I can… I can pull some strings, get you a new passport. You don’t have to stay—”

“Tony,” Steve rasped, looking at him and feeling his eyes prickle with hotness, “believe me when I say that there is… there’s nothing I would want more than to come back home to you. But you can’t want this. Not after… why would you?” Would you take me back, after everything, after all of it. Why is that ever something you would ever consider, when you have so much else going on in your life as it is?

Those last words were kept to the confines of Steve’s own head, but when he dared to glance up at Tony, he thought he could see the words that were on the tip of his own tongue as well. Looked like it was something along the lines of ‘Steve, are you on crack?’

“Steve, are you… are you on crack?” Ah. See. He knew it. “Look at where you are right now. Look at what you did for me.” Tony lurched forward again, getting a second wind of bravery as he settled his fingers over Steve’s and wrapped around them, his smaller hands so warm and familiar and lovely against Steve’s own. He was close enough that Steve could smell the scent of his cologne. “You were just as brainwashed as the rest of your colleagues at SHIELD—the good ones, at least. They’ve been feeding you and the public lies for years now, not just about me, but about everything. And you breaking me out of there, risking your life to help me… it didn’t just save my ass, but it probably gave the modern world as we know it a fighting chance at keeping its freedom. So yes, Steve. I want this. Because you’re not just a good man, but you’re brave to the point of ridiculousness, and you’re kind, and wonderful, and—”

“I’m still in love with you.” The words were falling out of his mouth before Steve even knew what to do with them, and they cut Tony’s little speech off rather effectively as the man just stared at him. Steve figured he might as well go all out now that he’d started though, so he pushed through the fear. “I never stopped. And I will… I’ll spend the rest of my life making up for the things I did, okay, I swear—I know it’s gonna take time, we have… stuff, baggage that we need to talk about, but… but I want—”

“—me too—”

“—to try, even if it doesn’t work out, even if—”

“—me too, Steve, I feel the same—”

“—we end up not being able to move past everything that happened— but I promise, okay, I’m better now. I’m not the man I was when I left, and every moment since the day you walked out I just wished I could have taken it back, tried harder, done—”

“Steve.” His words were finally stopped as Tony put a hand down gently over his mouth. The man was smiling as if trying to hold it back, his corners ticking up and his eyes going soft as he shook his head. “I love you too. And I’m sorry too. For giving up so easily in the end, for not being there when you needed me. I thought space would help, but it made things worse, and by the time I realised that, you were too far away from me. But I’ve learned. I’m different now. I don’t run from my problems any more.”

Steve couldn’t help but huff. “Yeah, I figured. You just blow them up.”

“Only if they had it coming.” Tony winked and then breathed out, shaky and full of life in a way that Steve hadn’t seen since the night he’d kissed him again, after all that time. “Are you really sure about this?” He asked, his hand slipping back over Steve’s chest again.

“Yes,” Steve answered instantly, “I’m positive.”

“It’s not just about me and you. If you stay, you’re not going to be living the easy life, exactly. I’m Iron Man. I have to get to the bottom of whatever it is HYDRA is planning.”

“I can help.”

“I’ll be even more reclusive than I used to be, probably. The suits need constant upgrades.”

“And I’ll make sure you don’t starve to death down there, won’t I?”

“We… we won’t be able to go out much. I’m probably gonna be a pretty shitty partner, all things considered.” Tony looked away for a moment, shrugging as nonchalantly as he could manage. “We could just. Uh. Stay as friends. If you’d rather not—”

“Tony,” this time it was Steve’s turn to lean up and lay a hand over his mouth to quiet his train of thought, but this time, he didn’t pull his hand away once Tony was quiet. Instead, he slid it around, gentle and soft, to the back of Tony’s neck. His muscles ached in protest, but that was not even close to being on the radar of his concerns just then.

He smiled up at the other man—the one he’d loved and lost, then found again. This time, he wasn’t going to let him go for anything. Not the government, not SHIELD or HYDRA or whatever tried to come up against them. He knew the truth now. He knew Tony for the hero he was.

“Kiss me,” he whispered, simple and honest, “we’ll sort our stupid lives out in the morning.”

Their foreheads touched, and when Tony looked at him, Steve felt like he was seeing his own life falling back into place around him; all those jagged edges and raw pieces he’d become desensitized to finally finding their homes in the right places, smoothing out, making him whole again.

Tony kissed him, just as he was asked. Soft and tender and nervous and grateful, all at once. His nose fit just right against Steve’s, soft enough that it didn’t hurt the bruising. His hair brushed across Steve’s forehead in ticklish wisps.

Steve had lost his job, his apartment, his life as he knew it, and he didn’t even care.

He was where he belonged again.

 

 

 

 

EPILOGUE

 

 

 

 

Fury stepped into his office at 8 in the morning, as he did on any other day, and then sat in his chair, as he did on any other day. His coffee was tepid, but he drank it anyway. It’d been a long, frustrating night in SHIELD, and now he was mentally preparing for more of the same. The WSC were on his ass about creating a faster response team to deal with the things that the other branches of public protection couldn’t deal with, but then kept rejecting his proposals for said response teams at every turn. Not to mention the fact that they were still hounding him over the Rogers case, holding it over him like some sort of damned noose. He figured they wouldn’t stop that any time soon. A security breach of that proportion was disastrous, if he was being honest.

He sighed. That Agent had had so much potential.

Those thoughts only remained on his mind for the first few minutes of arriving. Being the Director of an organisation like SHIELD meant you tended not to be able to dwell on one particular thing at once- not when there would undoubtedly be at least five crises happening at any moment, somewhere in the damn world. He considered briefly about taking a vacation. The Maldives, maybe. Maria had been there once. She had said they were very serene.

His phone pinged, and he pulled it from his pocket without thinking, checking the number briefly. Then he stopped. Looked again. Looked some more.

The name ‘Agent Rogers’ blinked innocuously back at him. The contents of the message were hidden, and so he slowly unlocked the phone, spare hand going almost subconsciously to his gun. It was a comfort thing. Agent Rogers hadn’t been seen on the face of the Earth in the three months since he’d broken Iron Man from jail. He had no means of contact with Fury.

The message was right there, however. It was just one file; a video clip, about ten seconds long. Underneath it were five words:

He’d been telling the truth.  

Fury felt something inside him go stiff, a tension building in his shoulders. He had little reason to react like that, but there was something in the simplicity of the words that shook him. Rogers offered no other explanation. No excuse. Just the video attachment.

Fury opened it, watching the clear blue-tinted footage as it immediately popped into view. It was recorded from some sort of HUD by the looks of it, although a lot of the information on the sides had been blurred out. He could still see and hear what was happening in the footage, however, and he realised with a jolt that this was a video clip from the night Stark had escaped the facility. This was the fight that Agent Rumlow had been talking of in his statement—the one between him and Rogers.

“What were you saying?” Rumlow’s voice jeered at Rogers, as the camera—or, what Fury was assuming to be Iron Man’s faceplate— came closer. “Talk all you want, Rogers, but that’s all you are. Big words and a pretty face. I’m gonna snap your neck and no one will even fucking care. Your friends are dead or estranged, your life is meaningless. You should’ve joined us at HYDRA. We could have given you purpose. Now you’re just gonna die as nothing but a stupid whore—”

Then Iron Man spoke, and threw Rumlow through the wall, and the clip ended.

Fury was not a man to react to things rashly. He considered the facts, the biases, the motives behind every decision. This could be faked. Stark knew his way around a computer blindfolded.

But he knew, as soon as he heard those words from Rumlow’s mouth, that this was genuine. Footage that clear couldn’t be faked. Words that enunciated couldn’t be computer-generated.

He blinked. Swallowed. Watched the clip again, one last time.

 

‘He’d been telling the truth.’

 

“Son of a Goddamn bitch,” he breathed, leaning back on his desk chair heavily. It took about ten seconds for him to process the video, the words, the amassing trepidation and realisation of how fucked they all were, before he leaned forward again and quietly fired up his computer.

Stark had mentioned Operation Paperclip. Fury supposed that was as good a starting point as any.

Against his better judgement, he found himself typing a message back. He kept it short—again, there were now other, more pressing things on his mind. A simple ‘Good work Rogers’ was all he needed. After that, he shut the phone off and opened up a new folder on his private database. He’d deal with the two of them later—he had a billion questions he wanted answers to, but they were going to have to wait. Maybe later he could get in touch with Stark himself, ask him what the hell had led him to finding all this information out.

A minute later, his phone pinged again. This time, it was a photograph. He opened it, and saw Agent Rogers smiling bashfully beside Stark, whose arm was flung casually around Steve’s shoulders. He had clearly been the one to corral Rogers into taking the picture, what with the smug grin on Stark’s face contrasted by the faintly embarrassed expression on Rogers’. Fury didn’t fail to notice that there was a gold band around Stark’s ring finger again.

‘Thank you for the assignment’ the caption read.

Fury put the phone down softly and sat back, taking a small, calming breath inward. A lot of thoughts went through his head as he sat in that desk chair. Thoughts of the future. Thoughts of his organisation, and the sickening evidence of something nefarious working underneath it. Thoughts of what he was gonna do to that son of a bitch Rumlow when he got his hands on him. Mainly, though, he thought about the Maldives.

He was definitely going on vacation after this.