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From You I Cannot Hide

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There's a lot of speculation about why Tony Stark doesn't sub for anyone anymore. Theories range from a secret lover to Tony secretly being a dom to post traumatic stress disorder (and make no mistake, there are a thousand more theories behind why he might have PTSD – unsurprisingly, Afghanistan features in none of them) to Tony thinking he's just too good for anyone. That last one is actually the most popular one, because when he was younger Tony subbed for a lot of people - it's biological, that need, and no one gets to ignore it forever - and now there's no one.

The one thing that the media actually gets right is that his refusal to sub does contribute to the end of his and Pepper's relationship. It's not the only reason, of course, because Pepper made it very clear she can't handle dating Iron Man, and that would be the same in any universe, but it's a big part of it. Pepper doesn't understand, and no amount of pleading on her part is enough to make Tony open up to her.

Because he knows from experience that no one ever looks at Tony the same way after he tells them the truth. And after the lessons he learned from Obie, who taught him how to be a perfect sub, Tony doesn't even want to bother trying. The fleeting moments of peace he gets when a dom is in control isn't worth the trade off: the heat across his ass, the welts on his back, the sting of his hips and belly and nipples. That was probably the first thing Obie ever taught him, and it's the lesson that sticks the longest.

But there's a problem.

Tony sits in his workshop as a new day dawns, staring blankly at the holographic imagery slowly revolving not two feet away from his face. He knows he has to work, that if he doesn’t work Pepper will be showing up on his doorstep, but it's like somewhere along the line his coding got scrambled and he can't think anymore. The information he's looking at makes about as much sense as a cookbook, or those Russian magazines Natasha likes to flick through. He can feel the slow, scattered breakdown.

Biology. It's always been his worst enemy.

"Sir," JARVIS says, and even though it's deliberately not phrased as a question, that one syllable manages to speak volumes. But Tony's not together enough to grasp the subtle nuances that would tell him a very pissed off sergeant is barreling down towards the workshop at full speed, ready for an ass kicking, until it's too late.

"What the fuck, Stark," Bucky says, not bothering with anything as polite as waiting for permission to enter the workshop. He storms across the room, ignoring Dummy's beep of welcome, and squeezes in close until he's looming over Tony.

"Barnes," Tony says dully.

"Steve finally got the balls to ask you out and you said no. What the fuck, Stark!"

It's important to tread carefully here. Bucky has good days and bad days. Bad days are usually spent with Natasha or Steve or, if it's a particularly Bad Day, both – though those are becoming rarer. So this is a good day, but that's not to say that Bucky isn't above lashing out in frustration or anger. It's happened before, though fortunately Tony has only ever been on the receiving side of that anger once or twice. He has no desire for a repeat, and eyes Bucky warily.

"I don't have to go out with him if I don't want to."

"Except you do want to, because in spite of my best efforts I still remember when you got drunk off your ass last week and I had to sit through a ten minute, explicitly detailed lecture on why my best friend's ass is the most perfect ass in existence." Bucky shudders a little.

"You were drunk too," Tony says defensively.

"Yeah, and when I wake up from nightmares that feature your voice droning on endlessly while Steve parades around naked, I blame that as the reason why I didn't shut you up right away. It’s also why I won't be drinking anytime soon."

"Just out of curiosity, does Natasha know you dream about Steve naked?"

It's meant to be a joke, but Bucky cocks his head and gives him a hard look. "No," he says slowly. "Mostly because she'd laugh about it for two hours straight and then go find you so that you two could gush over Steve together. I have enough fodder for nightmares, thanks. But if she did know, she wouldn't care."

"Because you're not gay," Tony mutters, more to himself than to Bucky, because it's hard to forget how relieved he felt after learning that Bucky Barnes was about as straight as they came. He’ll never do anything with Steve, but it’s still nice to know that there’s even a 0.0001% chance.

"No, because Natasha trusts me," Bucky says, eyebrows raised so high that they're practically skimming his hairline. "But, you know, thanks for implying that I would cheat on my dom."

Tony flinches. "No! I didn't - I know you wouldn't." He looks away then, fumbling around until the schematics for the quinjet upgrades go dark. There's a question burning at the tip of his tongue, but he's not sure how to ask. He wishes he weren't so fuzzy right now. He needs to book another session at the retreat, but there's just not enough hours in the day.

"Stark, what's going on?"

"I just don't get it," Tony blurts out, and then he bites his lip hard enough he tastes blood.

Bucky crouches down so that they're on the same level. It's not threatening the way it would be with a dom. The metal of his fingers is cool but gentle when he presses a thumb to Tony's chin and tugs his bottom lip free. "What don't you get?"

"How do you - you know - how do you make sure that what you want lines up?" Tony asks the floor. It's times like this that he hates his father for not letting him take those sub classes. There's no changing orientation, and by the time Tony presented, being a sub wasn't supposed to be something you were ashamed of. But that hadn't stopped Howard from trying to usher it under the rug. If it weren't for one doctor with a big mouth, the whole world would still think Tony Stark was a dom - or maybe a switch, which would at least be a step up in his father's eyes.

"That's what a contract is for," Bucky says, and he still sounds a little proud, because a year ago Bucky had no idea what a contract was and he definitely wasn't an active participant in one.

"I meant before that," Tony says with a scowl. He’s never asked anyone these questions before. Rhodey and Pepper are both doms. Before Clint and Bucky, he never regularly spent time in the company of fellow subs. "You know... when you first start dating. How did you know that Natasha wouldn't do anything you didn't like? How could you be sure that your kinks would... you know... line up?"

This time Bucky sits back on his heels. He doesn't say anything, and neither does Tony. He doesn’t dare look Bucky in the face. The tension in the room builds until Tony can feel himself starting to sweat. He's never been very good at keeping quiet. Words are an integral part of him. It took Obie years to train him to the point where he knew to be quiet during their sessions without the use of a gag, unless told otherwise.

Finally, when he can't take it anymore, he adds, "I mean, say you don't like - I dunno, nipple clamps. It brings you out of subspace every time someone uses them on you. But Natasha does. You can't know that just by looking at her, right? So you'd have to go through wearing nipple clamps because she likes them, and I just..." He shrugged, tired and aching. "I don't see how that works.”

“Have you had a contract before?”

It’s not at all the response Tony expects, which is probably why he answers so readily. “Just once. Sort of. He was… my father’s business partner.” It’s the simplest way to describe him, even though Obadiah Stane had been so much more than that.

“Right. Is he still alive?”

Tony does look up then, a little bewildered, and recoils when he sees the perfectly blank expression on Bucky’s face. Even his blue eyes are hard and cold. Countless men have died staring in those eyes. “No… He died a couple of years ago.”

“Too bad,” Bucky says. “I would’ve liked to have had a word with him.”

“Why?”

“Because one of the first things I had to learn about when Natasha and I started going together was compromise,” Bucky replies. “You don’t just do whatever your dom wants you to do, Tony. When you start dating, or you decide to scene together, you decide together what’s okay and what isn’t. If there’s something you don’t like, you don’t have to sit through it just because your dom likes it.” He sounds like he’s reciting the words from memory, something so often repeated to him that he knows them by heart.

It all sounds like things Tony has heard before. He used to believe them until Obie taught him otherwise. “But doesn’t she get angry?” he says, unable to resist pressing just a little. “Don’t you feel guilty?" And then, before he can stop it, "Every sub wants to feel pain.”

Bucky looks at him sharply. “There’s nothing wrong with not liking pain.”

“Yes there is,” Tony says with a short laugh. “It means you’re selfish. You just don’t want your dom to have any fun. You just want to take and not give. No dom just wants to pleasure their sub all day long. That’s boring. You shouldn’t just want the good stuff and none of the bad, because what kind of a sub is that? A broken sub. A bad sub.” The words spill out quickly, tangled together, but he’ll never forget them. Obie had sat him down one day and explained it all very clearly, and he still has the marks where the lesson was carved into his skin.

He closes his eyes on Bucky’s astonished expression, pressing the tips of his fingers to his forehead in the hopes of easing the building headache. His breathing sounds too fast in his ears. Restlessness is a slow itch under his skin, and he wants to get up and go hide away somewhere, yet if he were to try and stand up on his own he’d probably fall over. This is why he hides before it gets this bad, because he’d go down for any dom that looked at him right. He can’t help it.

“Tony,” Bucky is saying. Two hands grip his shoulders. One is warm and human, the other cool and metallic. The dichotomy is fascinating. Tony opens heavily lidded eyes, wanting to ask how he can be good. Except he can’t be good, that’s the problem, not when Obie could always tell when he wasn’t really enjoying it. Obie used to get so mad when pain dragged him out of subspace, and then it stopped being about Obie’s pleasure and started being about Tony’s punishment.

The worst part of all was when those two things combined.

“JARVIS, call Steve and Natasha. And Clint and Phil, if they’re in the building. Tell them Tony’s dropping hard.”

“Yes sir.”

“Steve.” The word tastes a little hollow on Tony’s lips. He has no right to ask for Steve. He doesn’t have anything to give Steve but disappointment. But he wants Steve so much.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says, and his human hand is trembling a little. “It’s okay. I can’t help you, but Steve is coming. Just focus on me right now. I’m here.” He keeps talking, the words turning into fluid Russian, each one like a warm pebble against Tony’s ears. He starts to shiver, craving the heat of it all, when Bucky’s mouth keeps moving but the cadence of it gets smeared into background static.

Chapter Text

Steve is thoroughly trouncing Sam at Mario Kart when JARVIS calls for them. Sam is swearing up a storm and Natasha’s pretending to ignore both of them, though by the third time Sam gets blue shelled and ends up being knocked off the track, there’s a definite amused smirk on her face. As the character of Luigi wails his way down into the abyss and Steve crosses the finish line, Sam throws his controller down and glares the kind of glare that says he would be firing a gun right now if he was holding one. Steve grins back at him, entirely unrepentant.

“Sorry, I forgot to say on your left,” he says, not without a hint of smugness, and Sam lets out an actual growl.

“That’s it. No way is anyone that lucky. Stark hacked this machine and made it like you more, didn’t he?”

“It’s a machine, Sam, it can’t like anyone,” Steve says patiently, though considering where they’re living, he is only 75% sure about that. “Besides, after the last time that Tony took the Wii apart and never put it back together, Natasha banned him from touching the video game consoles in the living room.”

“It’s a valuable way to let you idiots work through your aggression. Thor and the Hulk trashed three different rooms that week,” Natasha agrees placidly, flicking to another page in her magazine. Steve isn’t sure what the magazine is about – the cover features a young woman in a tutu, but she’s holding a gun – since it is in Russian, but it has Natasha captivated.

“I demand a rematch,” Sam says, snatching up his controller.

“You can have as many –” Steve starts.

“Captain Rogers, Agent Romanov, Sergeant Barnes is requesting your presence in the workshop immediately.”

All three of them look instinctively up at the ceiling. It’s habit, no matter how many times Tony mocks them for doing so. “What’s wrong?” Steve asks, frowning and already starting to stand. He spends more time in the workshop than the other Avengers – the exception being, of course, Tony – but Tony made it clear that morning that he had a lot of work to do and wouldn’t appreciate any interruptions.

Not that he would have gone down there anyway. It took him weeks to muster up the courage to ask Tony out on a date, and he’s not in a hurry to see Tony again so soon after being turned down. A long sparring session in the gym with Thor, Clint and Natasha and then a Mario Kart marathon can only go so far. But already he can feel the familiar combination of adrenaline and fear building over the idea that something might’ve gone wrong. The materials that Tony works with are dangerous on a good day, but when he’s overtired or drunk – though that was less of a concern lately – it’s a recipe for disaster.

“Sir’s vital signs are unstable and he asked for you, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS reports, and, if it’s possible for an AI to sound scared, he is. “Sergeant Barnes believes he is in significant distress.”

Steve breaks into a run at that. Natasha and Sam are right behind him. They nearly collide with Clint and Phil at the elevator. It’s easy to guess what the two of them were up to; Phil’s shirt is still half unbuttoned, a rarity for the man who is normally the epitome of put together, and Clint is still yanking a t-shirt on, covering the series of tell tale bruises on his chest and throat. But Steve doesn’t even think about teasing either one of them. He’s too worried about Tony.

The elevator gets them down to the workshop in less than a minute. Bucky looks up as they spill into the workshop, looking both frightened and relieved to see them. He’s kneeling in front of Tony, who has his head down. Even from across the floor Steve can see the way Tony is trembling. He crosses over to them quickly and Bucky stands up. As soon as he takes his hands off Tony’s shoulders, Tony pulls his legs up and curls in on himself.

“Buck, what’s going on?” Steve demands, and he doesn’t mean to let the edge of dom seep into his voice, but he can’t help it. At any rate, it seems to calm Bucky down just a little. He answers readily.

“We were talking and he started asking me about my contract with Natasha, and he asked me how I could be sure that my kinks would line with hers.” His Adam’s apple bobs visibly as he swallows hard. “I told him that was something you work out, and he wanted to know what I did when my dom had a kink that I didn’t like, and how I forced myself through it regardless.” His face is pale by the end, and Natasha moves to stand beside him so that she can take his hand. She puts her other hand on the back of his neck and speaks to him softly in Russian.

Bucky shudders, just once, and then glances back at Steve. “He had a contract once before with his father’s business partner, but I think… Tony doesn’t like pain. He said that made him a broken, bad sub. I think someone carved that lesson into him, Steve.”

“Shit,” Clint whispers. “It was Stane, wasn’t it?”

The sound of the name is enough to wake Tony from his stupor. He lifts his head a bit to blink up at them and Steve feels a jolt of shock slice cleanly through the rage. Tony looks terrible. His face is white except for the circles under his eyes from lack of sleep, and his pupils are dilated. His breathing is rapid and he keeps swallowing and blinking, like he’s trying to keep himself from crying. Worst of all, he looks at them like he can’t figure out why they’re even there.

“Tony?” Steve says, very gently, and takes a step towards him. “Are you okay?”

It takes Tony a moment to answer, as though needing to draw the words up from deep inside himself. He sounds very far away when he finally says, “I’m fine.”

“You don’t look fine,” Phil says, and there’s something gentle in his voice too.

Tony flinches a little. “Sorry. I – sorry. Not lying? No. I’m fine. Sorry.”

“Don’t apologize,” Steve says before he can stop himself, before he can think about how it’s coming out as a command, and instantly wants to kick himself. He’s usually so careful about not issuing orders to the subs on their team off the battlefield, even though all of them can – and do, on the occasions he and the other doms misstep – ignore them.

Unsurprisingly, Tony goes quiet. He’s not functioning well enough to protest, too strung out on lack of sleep and food to focus and already halfway into subspace, but Steve sees a tiny bit of the tension bleed out of him. That stops him and he gives Tony a long, hard look, remembering that JARVIS mentioned that Tony asked for him. Suddenly he’s wondering just how much of the rejection this morning was based on past experiences and the kind of deep set fear that Tony would never feel like he could share with anyone.

Phil must be thinking along the same lines, because he turns to Steve and says, “You should take him upstairs and take him down, Steve.”

“I don’t think I’m the right person for that. He can’t consent like this,” Steve points out. “And I doubt he’d want me if he could. Call Pepper, or Rhodey.”

“Rhodey is away on a mission, and it will take Pepper too long to get out of her meetings. While I’m sure she’d come if we told her what was going on, are you really going to leave Tony like this for hours just because you weren’t willing to step up?” Phil asks, sounding so damned sensible that Steve glares at him.

“It’s not about stepping up,” he says, stung. He’s seen what happens to subs who can’t, or won’t, consent. God knows he’s spent months helping Bucky come back from an extreme version of that. While he’d never hurt Tony, and they definitely won’t be scening while Tony is like this, he has no idea what Tony does or doesn’t like in terms of care.

“Steve, he wants you,” Bucky says quietly, and Clint nods in agreement. “You don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. You can just… sit on the bed and talk him down. Or give him some contact. Let him know that someone is actually here. Like you used to do for me.” He gives Steve a meaningful look.

Sam claps him on the shoulder. “Go ahead. I can finish kicking your ass at Mario Kart later,” he says, aiming for flippancy but not quite making it, because the worry coloring his tone is too vivid.

Strangely enough, that’s what makes Steve decide. He casts a glance at Natasha, who nods at him, then moves closer to Tony until he can squat down and look up into Tony’s face. “Tony, look at me.”

It takes a second for Tony’s eyes to focus, but when they do he zeroes in on Steve with startling intensity.

“We’re going upstairs,” Steve says slowly, enunciating each word. Small, simple commands that aren’t difficult to understand or follow out. He remembers that much from Bucky. He holds out a hand. "Take my hand."

Slowly, Tony obeys. His hand looks strangely small in Steve's, fingers calloused and scarred. Steve's always assumed the scars are from the workshop, but maybe they're not. He pushes that thought away and stands up, pulling Tony up with him. When Tony stumbles, he wraps an arm around Tony's waist and lifts him up like it's something they've done a hundred times over. But that in itself reaffirms Tony's not in his right mind: if he were, he'd be protesting something fierce at being carried like a bride.

"If you need us, just let us know," Natasha tells him.

"I will," Steve says, though he's not sure what they could do that he can't, and from the looks on their faces they already know that. He carries Tony into the elevator and lets JARVIS take them up to Tony's floor. It's an invasion of privacy that he'll apologize for later, but Tony needs the familiarity of his own rooms right now more than Steve needs to worry about that.

When they're safely behind a closed door, Steve goes into the bedroom and carefully sets Tony down on the bed. "Take off your t-shirt and jeans, and then lay down on the bed. I'm going to get you some pajamas."

With slow, jerky movements, Tony obeys. His clothing hits the floor silently, but when he goes to stretch out on the bed he hesitates. "Steve?"

"Yes, Tony?"

"Are you going to punish me?"

Steve just barely stops himself from choking. "What? No! Why would you think that?" Too late, he realizes his tone is just a little too harsh. Tony flinches again.

"I lied earlier," he says, staring at the floor. "And - and just now I asked you a question instead of laying down and letting my punishment happen. I'm a bad boy. I deserve to be punished. I'm sorry."

"You're not a bad boy, Tony. You've done everything I've asked for, and I'm proud of you," Steve says, voice miraculously devoid of the anger and pain flooding through him. Is this what Tony's been hiding from them all this time? This fragile, broken interior that craves praise? No wonder he's formed such tough shells.

"You're proud?" Tony echoes, sounding lost.

"That's right. Very proud. And I will never punish you for asking me a question. No one will." He considers adding that Tony doesn't have to lay down if he doesn't want to, but decides against it. At this point, having the option would only do more damage.

Tony looks vaguely confused but now moves to obey, stretching out on the bed. Steve closes his eyes briefly, wrestling his emotions under control, and sets the pajamas on the nightstand. Then he sits on the bed beside Tony and looks at the familiar expanse of Tony's back, the muscled and tanned skin peppered with more scars. After living in the same tower for years, he's gotten used to the sight of Tony without a shirt (and sometimes without pants). Usually it's arousing, but not right now. Not when he keeps wondering where each scar came from.

"I'm going to touch you," he says quietly. "If you want me to stop, say 'red'. I need to hear you say that, Tony."

Tony mumbles something.

"Tony? I need to hear it."

"... Red."

"Good boy," Steve says warmly, putting a cautious hand on Tony's arm. He keeps it very light, just skimming his fingers down Tony's bicep. He's lost track of how many times he did this for Bucky, offering gentle, grounding touches on his arms and back and chest, designed to keep him centered in the here and now instead of lost in nightmares. And after a tense couple of minutes, Tony reacts beautifully, melting into the touch.

Chapter Text

Without Tony, the workshop didn’t feel as welcoming as it normally did. Natasha picked up one of the soldering tools that was sitting on the edge of the desk and repressed a shudder as she fingered the end. They were all fortunate that Tony had been looking at blueprints and specs when he broke down. If he’d been in the middle of working on the suit or something else, he could’ve seriously hurt himself. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to understand that the tools he worked with were dangerous.

She set the tool back in the box with the rest of them and met Phil’s gaze, reading the same feelings of shame and certainty that she felt herself. Neither of them had really noticed how much Tony was suffering, and that was unforgivable. Subs could take care of themselves, of course, but that didn’t stop a Dom’s inner drive to care for family. That Tony had been left to struggle on his own until he snapped was an oversight that never should have happened. She and Steve had been too wrapped up in Bucky, and Phil in Clint, to pay attention.

Well, that would change starting now. She was perfectly capable of handling her sub on her own, which meant that Steve would be able to devote himself to Tony the way he’d always wanted to. And when Steve couldn’t be there, Natasha or Phil would be. Their presence wouldn’t be as effective as Steve – and Bruce, Sam and Thor would be less effective still, because Bruce and Sam were switches and, as an Asgardian, Thor wasn’t technically anything – but if push came to shove, that would be better than Tony being left alone.

But for right now, Steve had Tony well in hand and he would call if he needed help. Thor was away visiting Jane, and at breakfast that morning Bruce had wandered away mumbling something about a breakthrough. She cast a quick glance at Sam and read the understanding in his face, and a little of the tension within her relaxed. He didn’t look too rattled by what had happened, whereas Clint and Bucky were both kind of pale. Bucky in particular was dazed, his eyes much further away than Natasha liked. He needed to be here in the present.

“любимый,” she said, letting a hint of her Russian accent seep into her voice, and his eyes instantly snapped to hers. “Come with me.” She held out a hand, not touching him, letting him decide whether or not he wanted to come to her. It was always gratifying when he didn’t hesitate, his hand slipping into hers instantly, trusting.

Phil nodded to her, one arm wrapping protectively around Clint’s shoulders, and she nodded back as she led Bucky from the room without saying anything else. Later, she would check in with Clint and make sure that he was okay. Phil always did right by him, of course, but Clint was like her little brother and she considered it her right to be as protective as she liked.

Bucky was quiet as they walked into the elevator. He tensed slightly as the doors swished shut. Natasha cast him a sharp look, but he wasn’t having a flashback. Some days he was just better at handling small spaces than others, and Tony had kept that in mind when he redesigned their floor after Bucky moved in. Instead of hard angles that gave Natasha a place to hide for a surprise attack if someone broke in – the way she’d preferred it when she first moved in, and wasn’t sure of anything yet - the floor was now wide open and spacious. Hiding places were still present, but subtle and cleverly hidden.

The trip was mercifully quick, as it always was, but Bucky didn’t relax the way he normally did when they stepped out together. Just across the threshold, Natasha stopped and said, “Get undressed. Fold your clothes and leave them here. Then go to the couch and kneel.”

“Yes, Красавица,” he said, bowing his head, though not fast enough that he didn’t catch a hint of her indulgent smile. He began to strip, and she left him there to obey and walked on alone.

She went into their bedroom and took a moment to breathe, centering herself. If she was being honest, Bucky wasn’t the only one who needed this. Seeing Tony so undone had taken her straight back to when Bucky didn’t trust any of them, when the only thing that kept him from slitting their throats in the middle of the night was a few vague memories of growing up with Steve. They had come a long way from those days, but sometimes it didn’t feel like it.

“Tony, you’re an idiot,” she muttered fondly, going to the closet. The array of colorful clothing and shoes – the fact that she even had clothing – never failed to make her smile just a little. It was a reminder that she had a home now. Owning not only clothes, but actual things, still felt like a novelty sometimes.

From the bottom of the closet, she selected a small, polished box and stood up. She carried it back into the living room, pausing to survey her sub. A swell of pride left her warm when she saw that he had obeyed and was now kneeling in front of the couch. He was sitting upright, not relaxing, hands held loose at his sides. His head was tipped back, but his eyes were shut – though his head turned a fraction in her direction when she moved, letting her know that he had noticed and acknowledged her presence. Already the lines of tension in his shoulders were dissolving.

“I’ve decided that I want purple this time. I want to make Clint jealous,” Natasha said, showing Bucky the box when his eyes opened. His mouth quirked into a faint smile, though whether it was from the box or her comment or both, it was hard to tell. She set it down in front of him and took a seat, slipping her shoes off.

Her toes were already painted a pale pink. It was one of her favorite colors, but every once in a while she liked to branch out – and she did love the pinched look Clint got when he saw her toes were purple, the desire in his eyes that he would never actually admit to. So far he had kept Phil from seeing it, but one of these days she was going to pull Phil aside and tell him. Chances were Phil was already well aware, but that would give him the incentive needed to tie Clint down and paint his sub's nails.

Bucky opened the lid of the box and carefully began to lift out the high quality tools inside. Once he had everything lined up in front of him, he said softly, “May I begin, Красавица?”

“You may.” Natasha sat back as he took one of her feet into his lap. He squeezed a small amount of nail polish remover onto a ball of cotton and began. He was diligent, ensuring that every bit of the pale pink polish was gone from each toe before he moved on. Though he was concentrating, his face was smoothing out, eyes softening as he gave himself over to his task.

When he was finished, he collected the balls and looked up at her. Natasha let herself indulge, leaning forward and pressing a gentle kiss to his parted lips. “любимый,” she whispered, her tongue barely touching him as she spoke. “My James, you are so good for me.”

The last little bit of tension drained out of him, and he sighed. His eyes were heavily lidded when he said, “May I fetch the bowl, Красавица?”

“You may,” she repeated. He stood up, and Natasha unashamedly appreciated the view as he walked into the kitchen. It had taken some time to bring her and Bucky to the point where they were now. Bucky was not one of those subs who had to fuss over his dom to feel useful. But he did like to care for her, and Natasha wasn’t one to be cared for. She was too used to being self-sufficient.

She could still remember how they hit on this level of compromise. One morning she’d spent a little time at the salon with Maria, Pepper, Jane and Darcy instead of just going out for their usual round of drinks. That night, she and Bucky had been sitting on the couch when he’d absently started to rub her legs. His particular interest in the paint on her toes was impossible to ignore, and – never one to be shy – Bucky had outright asked if he could be the one to paint them next time.

Natasha had purchased the pedicure set and a variety of polish colors the next day. Needless to say, Bucky did a far superior job to any salon. Now, on the rare mornings when the other women had time to indulge in pedicures, she preferred a wrap or a facial. Mostly because, much to the jealousy of her friends, Bucky had proven he was just as skilled at manicures and massages. And he actually enjoyed it; he liked the steps, small and simple as they were, and the contact between them and the trust she put in him when she let him do it. This was exactly what he needed to calm down, and then he would be in the right frame of mind for some care.

Bucky returned with a bowl of water and knelt gracefully, not spilling a drop. Natasha set her feet in the bowl. It was just the right temperature, just a little hotter than what most people would’ve found comfortable. After a minute, she looked on as Bucky gently picked up one foot and used a small amount of sugar scrub on her feet and calf. When he was finished, he wrapped her foot in a clean towel and set it aside. Then he repeated the movements with her second foot, just as slow and careful.

He set the bowl just to his right and glanced at the tools before selecting their favorite lotion. It was an expensive brand with the delicate scent of peppermint. Bucky squeezed some onto his hands and then picked up her right foot. The touch of his metal hand was a little cool at first, but warmed quickly to the temperature of her skin. He was so careful, exerting just the right amount of pressure, eyebrows coming together in concentration. Natasha sighed, letting her eyes slip shut as a small smile crossed her face.

It felt heavenly. Both of Bucky’s hands were strong and skilled, thumbs rubbing deep circles into the tender muscles that ached the most, and she knew he could and would do this for hours without tiring if it would make her happy. In the beginning, she’d frequently had to remind herself that he needed to see her reactions, and she had to make an effort to smile or to relax – though never to praise him, that had always come easily. It took practice to be open in here, with him, even more than she already was around the rest of their team.

“любимый,” she murmured, just to hear the sound of it, because he flushed so beautifully when he was reminded of her love, and opened her eyes. He was looking up at her, the massage never stopping, and she could tell from the glazed, devoted look in his eyes that he had slipped deep. Right now, Natasha was the only thing that existed for him. Proud and greedy, because this was all for her, she reached for him, and he obeyed, cradling her foot as he accepted another kiss.

Chapter Text

Tony’s not flying. No. He was falling at first, fast and panicky, but then someone caught him. Someone familiar, with blond hair and blue eyes and a gentle voice that reaches through the dark, like strands of sunlight breaking through an overcast day. He stops falling, tethered now to a safe place, and now he just floats in the warm, serene feelings that he hasn’t experienced in so, so long, while strong hands pet his back and shoulders and arms and legs until he drifts off to sleep.

He’s still down deep when he wakes up, his fingers and toes tingling as his eyes slowly open, and he doesn’t know if he’ll be alone in the room or not. He vaguely remembers, in a way that feels so detached it’s more like he observed it happening to someone else, there being a time when he was frequently left alone when he was down. He remembers crying and clinging for comfort, and the sting of a crop against his fingers that brought him up so fast he was left nauseous and dizzy for days after.

But it’s not like that now. It takes several seconds for his eyes to focus on Steve’s warm smile, but it’s there when they do. Tony is lying on the bed and Steve’s right beside him. They’re so close that he can feel Steve’s heat radiating across the handful of inches, even though Steve is still wearing pants. His upper chest is bare, and Tony wants so badly to curl up against all that warm skin. He doesn’t know how to ask, doesn’t even know if he can ask, and just sort of ends up staring in a fuzzy way.

The smile on Steve’s face gets a little bigger, and maybe a little sadder. “Are you okay, Tony?”

It takes effort to remember how to get his mouth to form words. His tongue feels heavy and swollen and uncooperative, knocking against his teeth as he slurs out an uncertain, “Yessir.”

“Don’t call me Sir. I like it when you call me Steve.”

“Steve,” Tony repeats obediently, and that word is so much easier to say, easing off into a slow curl and soft and safe, and his eyes well up with tears. There’s no holding them back when the relief in his chest is such a hard thing, weighing on his lungs.

“Shh,” Steve says, and the arm Tony hasn’t noticed around his waist tightens and draws him in. Close, and then a little closer, until finally he’s sprawled boneless right on top of Steve. His head ends up cushioned on Steve’s chest, right over his heart, and Tony closes his eyes so as to better focus. It’s a deep sound, rhythmic, and he listens while his tears slip down and make a little pool in the hollow of Steve’s throat.

Steve doesn’t tell him not to cry, and maybe that’s why the tears continue until Tony is left feeling wrung out and empty. His throat is dry and scratchy. He wants to lick his lips, but it’s too much effort, and the heavy feeling in his chest still hasn’t gone away. He still wants to cry, but there’s no more tears left. He doesn’t feel warm anymore, but cold, and sharp panic races through him when Steve moves a little. His body reacts on instinct, grabbing at Steve’s shoulders with a frightened whimper.

“It’s okay. Calm down,” Steve says, just this edge of a command, and Tony goes limp. “I’m just going to get you something to eat and drink. It’s been a long time you had anything. You can stay here or come with me.”

Talking’s a bit easier now, though his head still feels muddled and the words come out choppy. “Come. Don’t wanna be ‘lone.”

“Okay. Good boy. I know that was a hard decision to make,” Steve murmurs, sliding his legs off the bed, helping Tony to stand up. He sways into Steve as soon as Steve is standing, trusting the arm around his waist to guide him in walking. Steve’s lips press briefly to his forehead, and then he says, “You’re really deep, aren’t you, baby?”

Tony nods, because he is, even if he’s not as deep as when he first woke up. Everything in him craves Steve’s smile and praise, drinking it in, hiding the words and feelings away for when he doesn’t have this anymore. He keeps looking at Steve’s face as Steve helps him to put a pair of pajamas on, following the simple directions Steve gives him. Stupid things like ‘arms up’ or ‘foot down’ or ‘stand straight’, but every time he does as he's told Steve gives him that beautiful smile even though it’s just the easiest thing in the world to obey.

He doesn’t really process that there will be other people in the kitchen until they’re walking into the room and all conversation goes quiet. Clint and Phil are sitting at the table with Sam and Bruce. Tony drops his eyes, ashamed, because he never wanted to be seen like this: halfway down and ready to fall all the way if Steve so much as says the right word, using one of his teammates as a crutch because he’s not strong enough to handle this on his own.

It makes him want to get down on his knees and grovel for their approval, but he also knows that would never be granted. He’s not good enough for that, never will be no matter what he does, and he ends up turning his head and pressing his face to Steve’s shoulder to hide. Even that’s a level of comfort he doesn’t deserve, and if this were before – before Steve, before the Avengers, before Afghanistan – he would be pressed to the floor and shown immediately what happens to bad subs who try to hide.

“You guys sit. I’ll get you breakfast,” Bruce says, and it sounds like he’s talking from really far away.

“Thanks Bruce.” Steve’s arm tightens, pressing him closer instead of pushing him away, and he gently guides Tony forward. When he sits down, he pulls Tony right into his lap. It feels kind of like he’s going to slip at first, only Steve’s grip is so firm there’s no way that could happen. Even when Tony tries to slide off, so he can kneel like he’s supposed to, Steve doesn’t let go.

He doesn’t really understand why until Bruce sets a knife on the table. It’s a dull knife, and he knows it will hurt in a different way than the sharper ones, and he starts to tremble. “Sorry,” he whispers before he can stop himself.

“Tony?”

“Sorry, I –” He swallows back the rest of his apologies, with it enough to remember how Steve wanted him to stop apologizing last night – was it last night? He’s never been good at keeping track of time even when he’s not down – and casts his eyes low. If Steve wants to punish him for not being good enough, he’ll be quiet and let it happen like a good sub. Like the only thing he’s good for.

Clint’s been watching them out of the corner of his eye, and now he reaches out and snags the knife. Silver flickers between his fingers when he pulls it away, making it disappear into the sleeve of the shirt he’s wearing. Steve follows the movement with a thin, confused line between his eyebrows, but it disappears fast when Clint raises an eyebrow in response and makes a weird face. Then Steve just looks pissed, that familiar Captain America Will Kick Your Ass look, though it smoothes away into something very kind and also maybe like he wants to cry when he turns to Tony.

“You’re not bad, Tony,” he says, tipping Tony’s chin up, so their eyes meet and the words sound intimate. “Do you remember how I told you last night that you could ask me any questions you wanted? I meant that. And I want you to ask me why if you ever feel like you’re being punished. Okay?”

“Okay,” Tony echoes, not really understanding why, meaning rolling right over his head. But he’ll obey, because it’s what Steve had asked of him, and he wants nothing more than to please Steve. Like a dull buzz under his skin, the drive to make Steve smile as much as he can before Steve figures out just how bad he really is.

Bruce brings over a plate of buttered toast, grapes and cheese. Steve picks up a small cube of cheese and brings it to Tony’s lips. He stares in confusion but opens his mouth. The taste of crisp cheddar when he chews makes him shiver, sharper than he’s expecting, like everything is magnified right now. He swallows and opens his mouth again for a grape, the tart juice sweeping across his tongue when he bites down. It eases the dryness in his mouth and throat.

Sitting on Steve’s lap and being fed makes him feel small and fragile, but protected: the immediate world beyond Steve fades, and Tony loses himself in the rhythm of opening his mouth, accepting food, chewing and swallowing, broken only by Steve putting a glass of water to his lips and tipping it so that he can drink. It’s not icy cold, but just cool enough, and he drinks until Steve removes the glass. Then there’s another piece of toast, and Tony accepts, chews, and swallows.

He doesn’t need to think or react like this, just do what Steve wants, and it soothes the cold feeling in the pit of his chest. The wrongness of his world feels just a little bit more right when he knows what’s expected of him, and he can obey the way Steve wants him to.

When their meal is finished, Steve helps him to drink another glass of water. Tony is floating again, deep down where words are a struggle, and he puts his head on Steve’s shoulder. Steve is talking, but not to him, so he doesn’t need to focus on what Steve is saying. He knows with a certainty that runs deeper than anything else that if Steve wants something, Steve will tell him: Steve doesn’t expect him to be a mind reader and he doesn’t want Tony to try and anticipate his needs.

“Tony,” Steve says, some indeterminable amount of time later. “Tony, baby. Are you with me?”

“Steve,” Tony mumbles, or tries to, it doesn’t come out right. His eyes are shut and he feels really light but for the points where he and Steve make contact. Those bright spots of warmth and safety keep him grounded. A light pressure sweeps over his temple, a kiss, and Steve speaks directly into his ear.

“We’re going back upstairs to your room. I’m going to carry you. Then it’s gonna be time for you to come back.”

Come back. Tony knows, sort of, what those words mean, but he doesn’t know until Steve is setting him back down on his bed and then sitting beside him. He strokes Tony’s hair for a while but doesn’t gives him any directions or instructions except for the same one, repeated every so often. The words whisper down Tony’s neck, sliding along the curves of his body, trickle down his throat until they’re a part of his soul and he’ll never get rid of them. Much as he longs to stay in the warmth, where he’s not falling but floating, he can’t help but obey.

“Come back, Tony. Come back to me.”

Chapter Text

No one ever told Clint, growing up, that one of the nicest parts about being in a relationship is how well you get to know your partner. And vice versa. He knows that it’s because of the years they’ve been together that Phil doesn’t try to touch him or even talk to him after Steve and Tony leave the workshop. Instead, Phil keeps his distance, does a little tidying up at JARVIS’s request, and then leads him and Sam back up to the living room. Clint doesn’t know what they do after that. He takes to one of his favorite spots, the perch on top of the bookshelf, and begins brooding.

He’s not really like Bucky or Tony; he’s never had a bad experience in a contract, or even with a dom. By the time he presented, he’d already left the circus. It turns out that people who are willing to hire assassins don’t really care if you’re a sub: as long as you can hit your target and not get caught, that’s all that mattered. Barney tried to bully him a handful of times once he found out, but it wasn’t too long after Clint presented that he and his brother ended up parting ways. Which meant, basically, that Barney got caught by the wrong people and received a knife in the back for his betrayal.

But in spite of that, there have been plenty of people in his life who’ve treated him like shit. It just hasn’t really happened because he’s a sub. Even coming into SHIELD wasn’t that great, because he went through several handlers before Fury got fed up and assigned him to Phil. Even now, even when Phil tells him not to think this way, Clint isn’t sure where he would’ve ended up without Phil. He sure as hell wouldn’t be here, living in Avenger Tower with the rest of his team, with a dom who adores him and a warm place to sleep and as much food as he wants.

Still. He thinks he kind of knows what Tony is going through. It’s hard to just believe that things are going to be magically different with the change of just one variable. Phil has never raised a hand to him that Clint doesn’t want, but when the circumstances are right – or incredibly wrong, as Phil puts it – Clint still flinches away from him. It’s an ingrained behavior he’s never figured out how to get rid of. Sitting there, slowly polishing each of his arrows as morning dawned, he realizes he has no idea how Tony is trusting enough to call for Steve in the first place.

“Clint.”

The sound of Phil’s voice pulls him out of his stupor. He looks down at the familiar sight of his dom. Since he’s supposed to be going in to SHIELD later, Phil is dressed in his suit already, though his tie hangs loosely around his neck. Clint tries on a smile and sets his freshly cleaned bow and arrows aside, nimbly climbing down from his perch. He steps into Phil’s open arms, shivering as he is pulled into a warm hug. JARVIS keeps the tower at a steady temperature, but for some reason he’s cold.

“Let’s have some breakfast, okay?” Phil says, briskly rubbing his hands up and down Clint’s arms. “And then you can make something for supper, if you want.”

Clint perks up a little. “I thought I was supposed to go in with you today.”

“I cleared it with Fury. You’ve got the day off. It won’t even come out of your vacation,” Phil replies. Before Clint can argue – and Clint is going to argue, because that means Phil told Fury he’s either sick or worse – Phil adds, “Don’t even bother. You’re in no condition to go in to work today, Clint, and you know it. The first time someone touched you from behind, you’d put an arrow through them.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Clint mutters sulkily, though he can tell from the familiar set of Phil’s mouth that he’s fighting a losing battle. He doesn’t really want to go into SHIELD today anyway. Actually, what he really wants to do is spend the day cooking and then curl up in Phil’s arms. But unfortunately, saying that SHIELD would fall apart without Phil Coulson is actually not an understatement.

“It is. You hate filling out the paperwork when you shoot someone,” Phil says fondly, nudging at his cheek until Clint lifts his head. Phil kisses him then, slow and chaste, letting their lips move together in a familiar rhythm. Clint sags against him, his hold growing just a little more desperate. He suddenly feels like Phil could slip away from him again, even though Phil is standing right in front of him.

“Don’t go,” he says quietly. He digs his fingers into the back of Phil’s suit, even though it drives Phil crazy when his clothing ends up wrinkled. Sometimes he does it on purpose, just to get Phil to punish him, but not right now. He needs Phil to hold him together.

The arms around him tighten. “Clint?”

“Do you need it?” he asks, because he knows that Phil does. Rarely is there ever a day at SHIELD that is the same as the one before. Some people would never be able to handle it, but Phil thrives on that. He likes to be needed, and he’s a little bit of an adrenaline junkie, except what gets him going is the unique ability to remain completely calm in the midst of chaos. Well, that and shooting down the wildest of Tony’s plans before they ever come to fruition.

SHIELD is Phil’s way of holding himself together, and sometimes he needs that order (even if it is chaotic) to keep himself together. Clint’s a little ashamed now that instead of talking to his dom and finding out if Phil was okay, he chose to spend the night hiding on top of the bookshelf. Of course, Phil could have ordered him down at any time – he’s done it before, when Clint was hurt and trying to hide it – but he wouldn’t. Not unless it was for a good reason, and Clint knows from experience that Phil doesn’t consider himself a good reason.

Phil kisses him again. “I’d rather stay with you today, to be honest.”

“Then stay,” Clint whispers around the lump in his throat. It took him a long time to work out that if he asked for something, Phil would give it to him. Not because he thought that wasn’t how these relationships worked, but because he didn’t understand that was the relationship he and Phil already had. Some days, he thinks it’s a miracle Phil didn’t give up on him ages ago.

"I'll call Fury," Phil tells him, taking out his phone. "Go into the kitchen. I want you to make us breakfast. Toast, coffee, fruit, and something sweet from dessert. You've got ten minutes."

"Easy," Clint says, though it's a lot harder to make himself let go of Phil. He backs into the kitchen, pleased when Phil follows him in and sits down at the table. He doesn't try to listen to the conversation, instead focusing on putting together a simple meal. The dessert part is a little bit harder because no one has baked anything for a while, but finally he unearths a package of cookies from inside the cupboard that has miraculously not been devoured.

Breakfast is actually somewhat pleasant, at least until Steve and Tony join them. It breaks Clint's heart to watch Tony be handfed breakfast. Not because he thinks it's demeaning or anything like that, but because he can tell that this is everything Tony's ever wanted and exactly what Tony thought he'd never get, and none of them had any fucking idea. If someone had asked him yesterday if Tony would ever want this, Clint would have said no. And he would've been wrong.

It's too close to how he used to be, and sometimes still is, and - in spite of the guilt - he's remarkably glad when Steve finally carries Tony out of the room.

"You should go check on them later," Phil says to Bruce, taking a sip from his coffee.

Bruce nods. "I know. Sam already talked to me about this last night. I figured that giving them the night together would be best. Steve seems like he knows what he's doing, but I wouldn't mind giving Tony a basic examination today. I doubt he's been eating, drinking or sleeping that well recently, and I want to make sure he hasn't gone too far."

"He eats and drinks around us, but that's it," says Phil. "Which isn't very much. We're lucky that Bucky was there."

"I know." Bruce sighs. He looks tired and guilty, which is probably a perfect match for how all of them are feeling right now. He fiddles with the rest of the food on his plate. "Has anyone contacted Pepper or Rhodey? I know Pepper was Tony's dom for a while..."

"Not anymore," Clint says to his plate, because at least this much he knows for sure. "Tony never really said why the two of them broke up. When I asked him, he just told me that they wanted different things. She was so upset about Tony rebuilding the suits, I didn't stop to question it." He has to stop to clear his throat. "I don't think that she'll be able to do anything to help. Tony trusts her, but..."

"This sort of thing requires a different kind of trust," Bruce finishes, rubbing his forehead like he's got a headache. "I understand. Well, I guess I'll have to talk to Steve. And Tony, once Steve brings him out of it. It might be best if he went to a retreat for a while -"

"No!" Clint bursts out.

"Clint?" Phil asks, sharp and startled.

"Tony needs people he can trust right now. Sending him to strangers isn't going to help."

Bruce stares at him for a moment before he smiles. "You're probably right, Clint. Tony is a lot more likely to open up with Steve than he would with a stranger. It's a lot of pressure to put on Steve, though."

"I think Steve will be fine," Phil says, watching Clint closely. Too closely. The second Bruce walks out of the room, Phil leans over the table and puts his hand on Clint's. "Are you okay?"

Clint nods instead of answering, which he's not sure he'd be able to do. He doesn't really feel okay, and he can tell that Phil knows that. He feels a little like he's gonna spiral out of control, and he recognizes the feelings for what they are. Shame for not being able to focus on Tony, guilt for not noticing what was going on sooner, all bundled up with a healthy dose of fear. Fear that Tony is too broken, fear that it's too much for Steve to handle, fear that everything he's built here will fall apart.

"I'm scared," he admits, mortified when his voice cracks.

Phil stands up and pulls Clint up too, hugging him tightly. His arms are wonderfully solid. "I know you are," he murmurs in Clint's ear. "I am too."

"What if Bruce is right? What if Steve can't -"

"We're all gonna be here to help, Clint. Steve's not alone, and neither is Tony. We're all here." Phil cups his face, looking deeply into his eyes. "I'm here."

"You're here," Clint repeats in a whisper, letting himself believe it.

Chapter Text

Steve has hated a lot of people over the years. But as he watches over Tony, who is slowly but surely coming out of subspace, he’s pretty sure his hatred for Obadiah Stane ranks right up there with the Red Skull. And he doesn’t even know the full details of what Stane did to Tony. He’ll probably never know. Not because Tony is a proud man, though he is, but because somehow Stane has managed to twist the situation to make Tony think he deserved it, and that what happened is normal and common.

If Stane were still alive right now – and Steve kind of wishes that he were, except then Stane would’ve had the time to do so much more damage - he would be dead. No security in the world would enough to stop one of the Avengers from killing him. Steve likes to think that he’d be the one to end Stane’s life, but he knows better. It would be a toss-up between Phil, Natasha, Clint and Bucky as to who would get there first, and that’s if Bruce didn’t give in to his rage and just Hulk-smash the bastard to death first.

It’s nice to dream about.

“Steve?” There’s a quiet knock on the door, and then Bruce pokes his head in.

“Hey Bruce,” Steve says, not moving an inch. He’s sitting on the bed beside Tony, drawing meaningless symbols – hearts, circles, triangles, a tree - across Tony’s back with the tip of his index finger. It’s the kind of contact that he thinks Tony needs right now, has probably needed for a very long time now, but it’s not meaningless: maybe Tony can focus on the pictures and use them as a guide to come back.

“How’s he doing?”

It’s a good question. “I’m not sure,” Steve says honestly. “Better than he was before, at least. He ate some food and drank some water. Slept through most of last night. He seems pretty steady, to be honest with you.” More steady than he would have expected, considering the circumstances. He has no idea how long it’s been since Tony went down, but he suspects the answer is too long.

“That’s good.” Bruce pushes the door open just a little, not quite stepping in the room. Steve feels himself tense anyway, even though there’s still plenty of space between Bruce and the bed. It still feels like Bruce is way too close when Tony is so vulnerable. He has to bite back the urge to make Bruce leave, because he’s not Tony’s dom and he doesn’t have the right to make those kinds of demands right now. Bruce has just as much of a right to be as Steve does.

Despite the fact that he keeps his mouth shut, Bruce shoots a purely knowing look. “It’s okay, Steve. I’m not going to come any closer. I just wanted to make sure that Tony was doing alright, and to ask you to let him know that I’d like to take a look at him when he’s feeling up to it. It’s not good for subs to push themselves that hard for that long.”

“M’fine, Brucie bear, but thanks for th’worry.”

At the sound of the muttered words, Steve’s head whips around. Elation and relief rush through him when he sees that Tony’s turned his head towards the door, and that his eyes are open. He still looks a little hazy, a bit unfocused, but it’s definitely Tony. He belatedly stops the movement of his finger, but he can’t quite bring himself to lose contact with Tony completely. He settles for resting the palm of his hand against Tony’s lower back, hoping the move seems casual. From the suddenly sharp look Tony gives him, it’s not.

“Yes, you certainly look fine,” Bruce says wryly, as though nothing has happened, removing his glasses and cleaning them idly. “And I’m sure if I asked Bucky, or Steve, or anyone else, they would have the same opinion.”

“Biased,” Tony answers immediately, with that crooked smile that never fails to make Steve’s heart do a funny flip. “You’re all against me.”

Before this happened, that might’ve been acceptable as a joke. Now there’s a good chance Tony actually believes that, and Steve wants to throw up. How have they failed this amazing man so badly? Tony is just so good at putting on an air of confidence. The mask he wears every day is among the best Steve’s ever so seen, and no wonder, he’s has so goddamn much practice. Does Tony ever get to just be himself? Be the good, sweet, affectionate sub that Steve can see now under all those shields?

Bruce must be thinking something similar, because he says, “No, Tony, we’re not. Actually you really scared us. That’s why I want to give you a quick look.” He raises an eyebrow. “If you prefer, though, I’m sure you could go to SHEILD medical and –”

“No!” Tony blurts, the edge of true panic sparking in his eyes, and, before Steve can stop himself, his hand rubs in a large, gentle circle over Tony’s lower back in an effort to comfort him.

“It’s okay. I’m pretty sure that SHIELD medical isn’t ready for any Avengers to visit anytime soon, anyway,” Steve says, forcing himself to sound more lighthearted than he really feels. “Last Phil told me, they’re still working on putting things back together after the last time that Clint took it upon himself to escape captivity.”

Tony relaxes a little, and Bruce says, “Oh yes. I remember that. I haven’t seen Coulson that angry for a while. I guess you’ll have to come see me, but not until you’re ready.”

“Thanks Bruce,” Steve tells him, letting just a touch of authority ring through his voice, and, catching the hint, Bruce nods. He backs out of the room, shutting the door behind him and leaving Tony and Steve alone.

Maybe it should be awkward, but it doesn’t feel like it. Steve knows where he stands now, or at least he thinks he does, and he even thinks there might be potential here for him and Tony to be something. And he wants that more than he’s wanted anything, since he was on a plane heading into the ocean and realized he’d never make it to his dance with Peggy, and if Tony wants that too then Steve resolves to find a way to make it happen. A way for them both, but especially Tony, to be happy.

“Are you okay?” he asks Tony, and it’s a struggle not to let it come out too gentle or caring, but to sound as normal as he would after a fight or when Tony surfaces from the workshop after three days.

“Fine, Spangles,” Tony says. “You can get out now.” And he sounds – not proud, or angry, the way Steve might have expected, but tired. Just incredibly, unbearably tired. It hurts.

“Tony, I’m not – I don’t want to leave you.”

“What, you want to have a heart-to-heart? Want all the filthy little details about what happened between me and my previous dom?” Tony snaps. Still, there’s no anger. Disgust, maybe. He shakes his head and pushes himself up slowly, shifting out from under Steve’s hand. “It’s none of your business, Steve. You’re not my dom. Consider this a moment of weakness and just… let it go.”

Except that Tony won’t. He’ll beat himself up about this for the next god knows how long when there’s no reason for him to. “Being a sub isn’t a weakness, Tony. Doms go through the same thing if they don’t have control. I’ve been there. It’s not a good feeling to have.”

“Yeah, because that’s completely the same as needing someone to care for you,” Tony shoots back. He pauses, looking Steve up and down, and then adds in a funny voice, “What will it take to keep this between us? What do you like, whips?”

“No!” Steve physically recoils, revolted at the thought. “I – no. I’m not crazy about pain.”

“Now I know you’re full of it. I’ve never met a dom that didn’t want to hurt me in some way.”

Steve catches his hand when Tony goes to stand up. He’s shocked to find that Tony’s hand is trembling, just a little, like maybe he really thinks Steve is going to hurt him. “Yes, you have. I don’t want to hurt you. Pepper and Rhodey would never want to hurt you. I know for a fact that Phil and Natasha don’t want to hurt you, either. And as much as you go out of your way to annoy Fury and Maria, I’m pretty sure they’d annihilate anyone who tried to hurt you.”

“That’s different.”

“Because they don’t want a contract with you?” Steve asks, and lets Tony pull his hand free and stand up. It puts them on more equal footing, Tony standing while Steve sits, and might help. “Tony, not every dom likes to inflict pain. You should know that. A lot of them do, in different ways and on different levels. I don’t. Neither does Natasha.”

“Bullshit,” Tony says. “Natasha is way too in love with knives.”

“Knives which she uses for work almost every day. Even if she weren’t with Bucky, she doesn’t want to bring that into the bedroom. I don’t either. I get enough of that fighting with the team. I…” He blushes a little, because even though he’s not inexperienced by any stretch of the imagination, it’s still a little weird how open everyone is about sex. For the first time, it strikes him that maybe this is why.

Tony’s watching him with narrowed eyes. “You what?”

“I like to take care of my subs. Feed them, help them drink, bathe them. I like them to serve me. Help me get dressed, polish my shield, repair my uniform.” It doesn’t escape Steve’s notice that Tony’s the one to blush now, probably because Tony already repairs the uniform on a regular basis. “Kneel beside me when we’re watching television, maybe while we’re eating. Let me make the decisions for a day. Go to bed when I decide. It’s not always about sex.

“And no,” he adds firmly when Tony immediately opens his mouth, holding up a hand, “that does not mean I am a virgin. I’ve had plenty of sex before with both men and women. But even between the sheets, I’ve never been one for pain. The occasional spanking is about as far as I go. If my sub really wanted it, maybe… but honestly, there are so many different ways to send a sub into subspace. I’ve never felt the need for it.”

“So what are you saying? You want me to just go ahead and sign a contract with you?” Tony says flatly.

“No. I wouldn’t sign a contract with you even if you had JARVIS write one up right now.”

It’s impossible to miss the hurt that flashes across Tony’s face; he’s still so raw he can’t hide it. “Then why are you here?”

“Because I want to date you," Steve replies. "I just want to see what happens. There’s no need to skip straight to a contract. We’re just two humans finding out if we can be compatible. Sex can be off the table for now.” He hesitates just a little. "I won't try to put you down unless you want me to. And I mean it. I only want this if we're equals. It's not about you bowing to my every whim. If you don't want to go out with me, that's okay. It won't affect us being teammates. We'll still be friends."

Tony stares at him for a long time. Steve meets his gaze, trying to stay calm, hoping that Tony can see how much he wants this but won't feel too pressured to say yes. He desperately wants to show Tony that a relationship, especially between doms and subs, is all about compromise.

Finally, after the longest silence of Steve's life, Tony answers, "No."

Chapter Text

Tony’s not sure what he’s expecting when he says no. He remembers, not long after his parents died and Stane dommed him for the first time, trying to tell Stane no a couple of times. Stane didn’t react kindly to the word. Those instances always ended in Tony being punished, and then whatever he had said no to would happen anyway. Usually in a far worse way than Tony could have imagined. It hadn’t taken him long to figure out that it was just easier to say yes the first time.

He half flinches when Steve gets up, expecting Steve to come across the bed at him. Stane was creative, often coming up with new punishments, but there were always a few favorites. Like sharing Tony with a couple of interested business partners in the middle of a meeting – especially if it was a conference call. Or locking Tony in the closet and leaving him there, which happened even before Afghanistan. Or, afterwards, forcing him into a bathtub full of water and making him stay there until he couldn’t cry anymore.

But all Steve does is walk over to the dresser and grab a pair of jeans and a t-shirt. He comes back to Tony, who can’t help tensing in preparation for a slap across the face. Steve’s strong; they’ve all seen him do a lot of damage with just his bare hands, and Tony is only human. It wouldn’t take much force to shatter his jaw. He should be running right now, because he doesn’t think that Steve will chase him, but he’s not. He just stands there – but he’s not frozen in fear, either.

When the truth dawns on him, he’s so shocked he drops the clothing that Steve handed him. There’s a little voice in the back of his head that keeps saying Steve won’t hit him, that Steve won’t hurt him or lock him away or laugh when he cries, and Tony doesn’t know where it came from. Doesn’t know when it popped up, or when a part of him started believing it. And sure, there’s always the chance that Steve could prove him wrong, but then Steve would be proving him wrong.

“Tony?” Steve asks, and it’s the first time he’s spoken since Tony said no, and he's still so kind. “Are you okay?” He frowns as he bends down and picks up the clothing, holding it out again. “Tony, I hope you know I’m not angry with you. I wasn’t lying when I said that it was your decision. We’re still friends.” He hesitates briefly, eyes darting down to the floor before back up to Tony’s face. “Do you… I can leave if you need me to. I don’t want you to feel like I’m crowding you.”

That same part of him wants Steve to stay, and that’s why Tony says, “Please. I need –” He cuts himself off, but Steve nods like he finished his sentence.

“Okay. I have to finish kicking Sam’s ass at Mario Kart. But… if you feel yourself dropping, Tony, I need to know that you’ll tell someone. It doesn’t have to be me. I’m not your dom.” His mouth twists, something like sadness settling into the lines of his face. “But I don’t want you up here suffering all by yourself. And I don’t just mean tell JARVIS and then order him not to tell anyone else.”

Damn. Steve knows him a bit too well. “Fine,” Tony says. He doesn’t think he’s going to drop. It’s a little terrifying to realize that this is the best he’s felt in years: settled and calm, at complete odds with how he feels when he stays at the retreat. There, it’s so clinical and detached that it’s impossible to forget no one cares and that it’s just a job. He’s never gone done in the tower before, surrounded by his team, with someone who – well. Someone.

“Good. Here.” Steve presses the clothing into his hands again. Their fingers brush together, and the little jolt of contact warms Tony all over. He keeps feeling warm even when Steve turns and walks out of the room, because he thinks (knows) that a single word, hell even a sound, would be enough to make Steve run right back to him.

“What the hell am I doing?” he asks himself out loud.

“I believe, sir, you are still experiencing a natural high from your extended period of subspace at the hands of Captain Rogers.”

Tony made it a personal rule to never blush a long time ago, but he still feels his cheeks growing hot. “That’s not what I meant, J,” he says wearily, unfolding the clothes. He’s never seen the t-shirt before. It’s new but soft and very light, the kind of material the so-called experts say subs should wear after an intense session, because it doesn’t provoke too much sensation. As he pulls it on, he wonders if Steve bought it for him.

Which would be bad, if Steve had. That’s the kind of a thing a dom does. Right? Is that crossing the line of friend territory? Tony doesn’t know how to tell. He’s never really had friends before beyond Rhodey and Pepper, and Pepper was also his girlfriend at one point so he doesn’t think that’s a very good basis. And Rhodey absolutely loathes shopping, especially for clothing, because he says that he gets so little free time that spending it in the mall is the last thing he wants to do.

But it is very soft. He pulls on his jeans and even those feel a little different, smoother under his fingertips instead of heavy and stiff. Tony runs his fingers down his right thigh and bites his lip. Despite the persistent feeling of calm, he’s also anxious. He didn’t expect Steve to come to him yesterday. He didn’t think Steve would hold him and stay with him and soothe him. Steve was better than all of the fantasies Tony’s ever had of him, and they didn’t even have sex.

What would it be like if they had sex? Now that the thought’s in his mind again, he can’t help prodding at it. Steve says he doesn’t like hurting his subs. That definitely sounds fake. Normal people, doms and subs, like pain, and in this alone Tony is position that Steve isn’t out of the ordinary. Steve is probably just telling him what he thinks Tony wants to hear. The problem is, Tony kind of thinks it might be true. Might even be worth it for the little period of bliss before Steve breaks out whatever he likes to use best.

“J,” Tony says.

“Yes sir.”

He fiddles with the hem of his shirt. He wants to go back down to the workshop, but he knows that Bruce will seek him out the second he leaves his room. “What are, um. What does Steve look at? Like. To get off.”

There’s a moment of silence and Tony winces. That’s definitely a disapproving silence. He’s learned, over the years, to tell – and the thing is, JARVIS is right. Tony promised when the team moved in with him that whatever they did in the privacy of their own rooms was none of his business. The same went for phones and tablets and PVRs. And until now, he hasn’t broken that promise. But he needs to know. He needs to know what kind of porn Steve looks at, just to get an idea, to know whether or not he should be falling apart.

“You know what, never mind,” he says quickly, too quickly, the words tripping all over each other. “I don’t really care. What Steve was saying earlier is probably a crock of shit, and even if by some stretch of the imagination it was true, I doubt he would really want me anyway. He was just being kind. He wouldn’t – I’m not - it doesn’t matter. Don’t bother.” He walks quickly over to the door.

Before he gets there, the wall directly across from him flickers with light. Tony means to cover his eyes as JARVIS projects the last hundred search results that originated from Steve’s equipment and which have anything to do with porn. This is such a huge violation of privacy that he feels sick with guilt for even having asked. He knows, he knows, that friends don’t do this to each other, and especially not friends that – maybe - want to go that extra step.

But he can’t make himself look away. Not at first. He runs disbelieving eyes over the first handful of results, which are surprisingly tame. It’s a combination of search results, pages that were visited and actual videos that have been watched. Seems Steve has been focusing in on female brunettes who like to be held down, though there’s no mention of ropes or bondage. The third result down is a video with a lurid title about driving a sub insane with pleasure. Tony flushes hot and covers his face.

“Take it away, J. I didn’t – I shouldn’t have asked to see that. It’s private.” He’s already thinking of ways to apologize to Steve and to make sure this doesn’t happen again. Some sort of new code that he can install in JARVIS that won’t respond to the normal override codes, just on the off chance he gets drunk or overwhelmed someday and decides to ask again.

“Captain Rogers has given his permission for you to see it, sir.”

Tony’s head pops up. It’s a bad habit he’s picked up from the rest of the team, looking up at the ceiling when he knows that JARVIS is all around him. “What?”

“I asked,” JARVIS says, and suddenly that moment of silence from before takes on a whole new light. “Captain Rogers seemed surprised by the request, but readily gave his permission for you to look at whatever material you want to see. He even offered up the use of his phone and tablet, though I assured him that was not necessary.”

“He… He said I could look?” Tony says, hardly able to believe it, still not daring to look at the information being displayed to him in more detail. He’s the first to admit that he hasn’t exactly been private with his sex life – google his name with the safe search off, and there’s proof enough for anyone - but he wouldn’t let anyone see the black and white of it all like this. Especially now. This feels weirdly intimate. Like a little preview into the life of Steve Rogers, because he can go back months if he wants to. Get a feel for the acclimatization of Steve Rogers to the modern century, via porn.

He kind of wants to start laughing, but he doesn’t know if he’ll be able to stop.

“Yes sir.”

Slowly, he looks back at the wall. His face still feels hot as he looks over the information. “JARVIS, can you send this to my –”

“Already done.”

Instead of heading down to the workshop, Tony sinks down onto the couch. It’s a very comfortable couch, even though he hardly uses it, and it turns out that swinging his legs up beside him the way he’s seen Pepper sit makes an excellent spot for his tablet. He’s not ready to think about what it means that Steve has offered him this so willingly: it would be one thing if Tony only got to see the last couple of hours, because those results could be searched on purpose, but this goes back months. He’ll be able to see exactly what Steve’s been getting off to.

This isn’t something Obie would’ve ever let him see. He tries not to think about that, either, but it’s hard when he skims the last couple of months and doesn’t find any hint of pain. Steve’s looked up things about orgasm denial, praise kink, a little bit about bondage (though only, Tony notices, with scarves or bare hands), spanking, riding, a variety of different sexual positions including up against the wall (that features pretty prominently): the list goes on, but there’s also a lot about non-sexual submission.

Subs who kneel. Subs who are blindfolded, trusting their doms to lead them around. Subs who are fed. Subs who are bathed. Subs who are coddled, stroked and favored. Subs who are treated exactly the way Tony was this morning.

The way he wants to be treated again.

Chapter Text

Things are kind of awkward over the next week. Not that Steve is protesting. After what happened, he thinks that awkward is probably the best he could hope for. It is, frankly, a miracle that Tony doesn’t hide himself away from the rest of the team permanently. Well – to be fair, Tony does make a very good attempt at that, dodging even Bruce’s attempts to extract him from the workshop, but then JARVIS gets mad and calls in the big league: namely, Pepper and Rhodey.

Neither of them look twice at the rest of the Avengers, making a beeline for the elevator. At first, Steve can’t feel anything but a wave of relief as he watches them go. This situation, knowing that Tony has locked himself up downstairs and that Steve can’t do anything about it, has been driving him crazy. It’s like an itch under his skin that he can’t scratch, but which he can’t forget about either. He needs to know that Tony is okay, and while he knows that this isn’t about him, that doesn’t mean he can forget about it either.

These are Tony’s closest friends, though – from the sound of it – Tony hasn’t yet shared anything of what happened with Stane with them. It will be good for Tony to tell them the truth, or maybe even a slightly edited version of it. Maybe they’ll even be able to coax Tony to finally get checked out by Bruce. He reminds himself that this is a very good thing, and something that would have happened days ago if it weren’t for Pepper’s and Rhodey’s exceptionally busy schedules, and pushes away the tiny flare of jealousy that’s popped up.

When he turns back around from where he’s been looking at the door, Bucky is watching him with a knowing smirk. Steve shoots him a look, because this is not a conversation that he wants to be having at all, much less in front of Natasha, Bruce and Thor. But Bucky’s smirk just gets that much wider and he says, with obvious relish, “That’s gotta kill you.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Steve replies, calm and dignified, and gleefully makes Link jump all over Kirby. Bucky sputters a protest and makes Kirby swallow Link, and what follows shortly after is a battle far more violent than the creators of Super Smash Bros ever imagined.

When the battle is over, and Link has thoroughly trounced Kirby, Bucky leans back and kicks his feet up on the coffee table. “Seriously, it has to bother you knowing that your sub is turning to another dom over you.”

This is the thing about Bucky. He never knows when to let something go. Steve swallows an aggravated sigh. “It’s not that, Buck. Really, it’s not. For one thing, Pepper and Rhodey have known Tony for years. They’re his best friends; he dated Pepper for god’s sake. If it weren’t for Tony’s history, things probably would’ve worked out fine between them. And for another, I’m not Tony’s dom. He turned me down, remember?”

“Yeah, I know. I also know an awful lot about denying yourself the thing you want the most,” Bucky replied. “Trust me, Steve. I saw the look on his face when we were down in the workshop. He might’ve dated Pepper for a little while, but he’s got his heart set on you.”

“Normally I would stay out of this, but I think Bucky is right, for what it’s worth,” Bruce offers. “Tony talks about you a lot, Steve. I don’t know if you’ve ever really listened to him, but even when he’s mad at you there’s a lot of affection in his voice. The two of you might drive each other crazy, but I think Tony needs that. You’re good at keeping him on his toes.” He looks Steve straight in the eyes when he adds, “You’re the only person who can talk him into sleeping or eating when he’s in the workshop, you know. He loves the fact that you’ve never tried to order him to do it. You talk to him.”

“He’s not mine to order,” Steve says, even though he gets what Bruce means. It still horrifies him sometimes, just a little, to look at what the world has become. Subs have rights, of course, but it’s all too easy for things to happen anyway. He only has to look at what happened to Tony, who is probably one of the, if not the, most influential subs in the world, to know that. He’s never been the kind of dom to demand submission; it means nothing if it’s not freely given.

Part of the thrill of being a dom, at least to Steve, is how he feels when a sub is on their knees in front of him, putting not just their pleasure, but their happiness in his hands. It’s the ultimate gift of trust to see someone let themselves go. For the first time, he really thinks about the past several months and comes to a startling conclusion: he hasn’t been domming Tony exactly, but sometimes their conversations – Steve cajoling and sweet talking, Tony’s grumbles even as he gives in, Steve’s pats on the shoulder or bringing him food or taking him to bed – definitely toe the line, might even cross right over sometimes.

“Now he gets it,” Natasha says, sounding satisfied.

“Oh my god,” Steve says. In a way, he’s basically been courting Tony for months without even realizing it. “I didn’t – does Tony know?”

Bruce smiles a little. “This is Tony we’re talking about, Steve. He’s still convinced that you would never think that way about him, and that’s without all of the damage Stane did.” His smile fades as his eyes flicker green briefly. “That was all subconscious, I’m sure. But that in itself is huge. Tony already trusts you not to hurt him or treat him like that. He just doesn’t know it yet.”

Bucky punches him in the shoulder. “So you have to step up your game. Show Stark what he’s missing out on.”

“I thought you were pissed at him,” Steve says, raising an eyebrow. “As I recall, when I told you he said no to going out with me, you wanted to rip his dick off and shove it down his throat.” It was all just talk, but he’d forbidden Bucky from going down to see Tony anyway. Thank god Bucky had completely ignored him and gone to the workshop. It’s chilling to think how long Tony could’ve been down there alone before JARVIS overcame his coding and broke protocol to call for help.

“I am. But, knowing where he’s coming from…” Bucky trails off and shrugs. “You were good for me, Steve. I bet you could be good for him, too. Based on what I saw down there, he could use it.”

“So you’re all ganging up on me,” Steve says.

“Don’t think of it as ganging up. Think of it as jump-starting a process that might otherwise take months because you're both stubborn idiots,” says Natasha. “You’ve come this far on your own, but now it’s time to approach it with a little more strategy in mind.”

“You make it sound like I’m going into war.”

“Not war, but like Bruce said, this is Tony we’re talking about. Not to mention, sometimes you two are exactly alike.” Natasha slits a knowing look at him, and Steve drops his gaze. Yeah, okay, maybe once or twice he’s thought about how Tony is too out of his reach. Tony has so much at his fingertips that Steve didn’t think he had anything to offer. It never occurred to him that’s because he’s already giving Tony what he needs the most.

“I told him that we’d still be friends if he said no, and I want to show him that I mean it,” he says to the floor. “When he comes down for supper, I’ll see if he wants to grab an ice cream tomorrow.” It’s something special the two of them do together: they get ice cream cones from a different place every time, picking only the wildest and weirdest flavors, and then just wander the streets of New York. It started as a way to reacquaint Steve with the city, but now it’s something he really looks forward to – and he thinks Tony feels the same way.

Natasha is giving him a proud smile when he looks up again. “I think you’ll do fine, Steve. You have the advantage of knowing Tony already. Just make sure you put everything you know to good use. And don’t do anything stupid, because Coulson and I will kick your ass.”

“And that’s if there’s anything left of it after the Big Guy gets through with you,” Bruce mutters.

“I think even the Hulk would have to wait in line,” says Bucky, jabbing Steve in the ribs this time when the elevator doors open. Rhodey is standing there, and he does not look pleased.

“Rogers, could I speak with you?” he says, short and clipped.

“Of course.” Steve disentangles himself from Bucky – he didn’t even notice Bucky’s feet creeping into his lap; their relationship hadn’t always been this tactile, but Bucky seems to crave touch on certain days – and gets up, following Rhodey into the kitchen. He shuts the door behind him, but is under no illusion that they’ve got any privacy. JARVIS is definitely monitoring, and Natasha, Bucky and Bruce are probably plastered against the other side of the door.

Rhodey crosses his arms and keeps Steve that hard look, which is totally at odds with what comes out of his mouth. “Thank you.”

“Uh. What?”

“I said thank you. For taking care of Tony when he needed you. From what Pepper told me, it was pretty bad.”

“It was,” Steve says honestly. “I’ve never seen Tony like that before. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any sub like that before.” He remembers the way Tony clung to him, like he was desperate for Steve’s touch but terrified that Steve was going to hurt him, and feels sick all over again.

The expression on Rhodey’s face softens marginally. “I always knew there was more to the story than he told me. Sometimes things between him and Stane… it just didn’t seem right. But there are only so many questions you can ask, and Tony’s a terrific liar when it matters.” He sighs. “I wish he’d told me. Or Pepper. Just one of us, so that we could’ve done something about it when it counted.”

“It still counts now,” Steve says, because that’s one thing about this whole situation he does know. “Tony doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with what happened. He thinks that’s the way it’s supposed to be. He needs people he trusts to tell him differently until he believes it.”

“And you’re one of those people.”

It’s not a question, but Steve answers as though it is. “I like to think so. Tony’s a pretty special guy. I’d like it if he were mine.” He meets Rhodey’s eyes, not shying away. Tony’s too important.

Rhodey’s quiet for a moment. “Tony mentioned it,” he says finally. “But he doesn’t seem to think – you know what he’s like.” The words sound mean, but the tone is more curious.

“I’ve been friends with him for a while now. I know exactly what he’s like. That’s why I fell in love with him. I’m not doing this to hurt Tony. I already made it clear to him that we will continue to be friends and teammates even if he decides he doesn’t want to be with me. I just… I’d like to have a chance, if Tony is okay with it.”

“And if he’s not?”

“Then I’ll keep being his friend.”

“You’ve got your work cut out for you,” Rhodey says.

“I know.” But Steve doesn’t mind. He knows without a doubt that this is will be the most important thing he’s ever done. And if he does this right, if Tony wants him, the end result will be a man who knows everything about Steve and loves him anyway, and is willing to accept Steve’s love in return. Steve can’t think of anything better.

“Don’t fuck this up, Rogers.”

Steve doesn’t need the threat in Rhodey’s voice to be taking this seriously, but he nods anyway. “I won’t.”

Chapter Text

When Pepper comes into the workshop, the first thing she does is hug him. It’s something she’s been doing a lot, ever since that first morning when she and Rhodey came to visit. They were both really mad, but surprisingly not at Tony. Oh, Pepper had been a little mad – she’d never come right out and say it, but Tony knows her well enough to know when she’s mad. But it’s more like she was mad at herself, and Tony was just sort of on the fringe of that, so when she and Rhodey hugged him he didn’t say anything about it.

Now, though, no matter what reason she’s visiting for, she hugs him. Tony savors those hugs, even though he finds them a little bit confusing. He’s pretty sure Pepper doesn’t want to get back together. Iron Man is still a huge factor in why they will never work as a couple, because Pepper can’t cope with having to sit idly by and wait to see if he makes it back from the field, and Tony can’t bring himself to give up the suit. But it’s like some barrier between them disappeared when he wasn’t looking, and they’re back to the way they used to be, but… more.

She lets go slowly, running her hands through his hair and smiling when he looks up at her. “How are you doing?” she asks, and her voice still holds a hint of that unsteadiness. “Are you feeling any better?”

“I’m okay, Pep. Really.”

Predictably, Pepper does not look convinced. “I just want you to be okay, Tony.”

“I know. And I am. What happened with Obie was a long time ago. It’s not a big deal.” Except it is, because even now those encounters color the way Tony looks at the world, but he doesn’t want her to know that. He wants Pepper to think there’s nothing wrong with him that isn’t by his own design, and he hates the fact that she has concrete proof that’s not true. Someone else broke him, and Tony is still picking up the pieces.

“It is a big deal. It’s a really big deal. I know you don’t want to acknowledge that, but you can’t keep pushing it away.”

“Yes I can.”

“No you – ” Pepper stops abruptly and then rolls her eyes when he grins sheepishly. “I’m not getting into another squabble with you. I’m just saying, I’m worried that the same thing is going to happen. You don’t have to go out and find a dom. I understand that you’re not ready for that, and that’s okay. But Rhodey or I would be more than happy to help. Or even one of your teammates.”

“You mean like Steve?” Tony says, raising an eyebrow. He knows where this is going, and now that he’s had three or four days – he can’t remember exactly what day it is – to think about it, he’s not exactly opposed to the idea. It’s Steve for crying out loud. Captain America himself. Even when he was a little kid, way before he presented as a sub, he used to dream about being in a relationship with Captain America. He just doesn’t see what Steve would get from it.

Even though she’s been caught out, Pepper doesn’t get flustered. She meets his gaze calmly. “If that’s who you feel the most comfortable with, then yes.”

Remarkably, she doesn’t sound hurt that Tony isn’t choosing her, even after all they’ve shared. Realistically, he should. Because he could tell Pepper pretty much anything and she would still care about him. Hell, he could turn into a super villain tomorrow and raze cities to the ground and Pepper would be Pepper. That’s why he can’t do it. What happened with Obie hung between them while they dated, and even now that it’s out in the open Tony doesn’t want to let her take him down. He’s too selfish and worried about ruining what’s between them for that.

So he says, “Steve asked me out on a date. Twice. And I said no both times.”

Her mouth twitches, but to her credit she doesn’t laugh. “I know. Natasha told me. But I think, considering the circumstances, the third time will be the charm. If you’re interested. Are you?”

“I don’t know, Pep.” Tony sighs, wiping half-heartedly at the grease on his arms. “He was… nice. While I was down, I mean. I’ve never had anyone treat me like that before. He was so careful. I liked it. I like Steve. Everyone does; it’s practically a requirement of being an American citizen. But I don’t know how to tell whether…” He trails off.

“He won’t hurt you, Tony. You know what healthy sub and dom relationships are like. You read the stuff I gave you, right?”

“Yeah.” There was a lot of it, too. Lengthy, detailed articles about contracts and starting relationships, compromise and safe words, how to tell the difference between things you wanted to try, things you might be open to and things you definitely didn’t want to do, and communication. Some of it was clearly geared towards teenagers or young adults, but it was hard to feel patronized when Tony had never read any of it before. He didn’t even know those kinds of resources existed.

“And you’ve watched Natasha and Bucky and Phil and Clint interact, I’m sure. Do you think Natasha and Phil would ever hurt their subs?”

“No,” Tony says immediately. He can’t imagine Phil forcing Clint to put his head in the water, or Natasha whipping Bucky until he bled, unless they wanted it. They would never say the kinds of words that were imprinted on his soul.

“Do you think Steve would hurt his sub?”

“No.”

Pepper’s smiling, but like it hurts. “They wouldn’t hurt you either.”

Tony looks down at the floor and shrugs. Obie told him repeatedly that it was his fault for being bad. And there must be some truth to that; Obie’s not the only person who has remarked on how frustrating Tony can be. He drives people past their breaking points even when he’s not trying. He says, “I don’t know. Maybe Steve wouldn’t even be interested. Like I said, I turned him twice.”

“Well, you won’t know until you ask.”

He tenses at that, can’t help it. But it’s not a bad idea. If he asks, then he gets to plan the date. He’ll feel more in control. “What if he says no?”

“Then you can call me or Rhodey, or Natasha or Phil, or Fury or Maria or any other dom that you trust to come help you down when you need them,” Pepper says. “Make no mistake, Tony. I’ll be really happy for you and Steve if you decide to ask him out. But until you’ve got a dom you can rely on, you need to get someone to put you down at least once a week. What you’re doing isn’t healthy.”

“I’m never healthy,” he says lightly, giving her a wink. She’s right, of course. It’s only been a week and he can already feel the slight fuzziness at the back of his head. He went so long before, too long, and it’s happening faster this time.

“That’s not a good thing!” she says, but her smile is more real now, and her expression is fond exasperation. She gives him a swat on the arm and, apparently considering her piece said, adds, “You’ve got a meeting with the board tomorrow. I’d appreciate it if you would make it a point to show up. There’s been some fluctuation in stock ever since Apple released their newest operating system. It would be helpful if you could explain some of the designs you’ve been working on.”

“Apple’s shoddy workmanship can’t hold a candle to me,” he scoffs, insulted by the notion. This happens every damn time: the board gets their panties in a twist because of the temporary change in stock, and then in a month or so it all starts to level out again when people realize the shittiest SI product is a hundred times better than the best Apple product. He’s getting a little tired of having to explain that over and over again, but he’s willing to do it if it will ease the stress lines on Pepper’s face.

“So you’ll be there?”

“I promise.”

“Thank you, Tony.” She gives him another hug, and her arms are strong and warm, and for just a second he wishes that things could be different. That he wasn’t as screwed up as he is, so that he and Pepper could be together. While it lasted, it was amazing.

“Walk me up?” she asks when they part, and he nods. She keeps an arm around him as they walk to the elevator. JARVIS sends them up to the main floor, and as the doors open they’re greeted by the sound of hollering. Clint is swearing at the television as a very attractive woman runs out of the room in tears. Tony raises an eyebrow at the screen.

“Are you watching Project Runway?”

“It’s a good show,” Clint says defensively, settling back down beside Natasha. He snags a handful of popcorn out of the bowl Sam’s holding and stuffs it in his mouth, chewing with mouth open until Natasha slams an elbow into his ribs.

“Are you staying for supper?” Natasha asks. “Bruce is cooking.”

“No, I can’t. I have some work to do tonight. But you'll have to save me some." She squeezes Tony's shoulder just once, but hard enough that he glances at her. He reads the look in her eyes as easily as though she's speaking out loud: she wants him to go talk to Steve.

Easy for her to say.

Pepper takes her leave, and Tony stuffs his hands in his pockets and stands there watching the television for a couple of minutes before he gets bored. Clint and Natasha are enraptured by the show, and Sam's pretending to read something on his phone while sneaking peeks at the TV. He eventually wanders into the kitchen, where Bruce has commandeered the stove and Steve is sitting at the table chopping up vegetables. A wonderfully spicy smell has filled the room, and he pauses to breath in appreciatively.

"Smells fantastic, Bruce."

"Thanks." Bruce smiles at him and scoops up a bit of the curry with a spoon, holding it out. Tony steps closer and accepts the offering, closing his eyes as the tastes roll over his tongue. It's definitely spicy, but not as hot as he was expecting.

"Tastes good, too. I'm starving."

"Not much longer. It'll be quicker if you help Steve."

It's not the first time Tony's been roped into helping and it won't be the last. He obligingly washes his hands, scrubbing the grease out from under his nails as best he can, and then takes a seat beside Steve, who is just chopping up the last of the potatoes. Tony starts in on the onions, blinking rapidly to keep his eyes from tearing up. He's slower than Steve, who has chopping down to an art, but Bruce doesn't seem to mind.

The kitchen is peaceful, unlike the living room, and Tony takes a deep breath and holds it. He exhales slowly and mumbles, "Steve?"

"Yes?" Steve says, not looking up from his careful work in cracking open a coconut. Bruce insists that the canned variety just isn't the same.

"Will you go out on a date with me?" Tony says quickly. He can feel his face starting to burn when Bruce tenses at the stove and Steve's head snaps up, and he tries to will himself not to blush. He's pretty sure it doesn't work. He drops his gaze to his onion.

"Tony... are you sure?"

"I asked, didn't I?" Tony says to his onion.

Steve's fingers enter his vision very slowly, giving him ample time to duck away. When he doesn't, Steve gently tips his chin up until they're looking at each other. Tony is promptly subjected to the Captain America Scan of Honesty, aka the look Steve gives people when he wants to know if they're being honest. Nine times out of ten, it can crack even the best of liars. In this case, Tony just returns his stare until Steve finally smiles. Hesitantly, his stomach fluttering, Tony smiles back.

And that's when Steve says, "I'd love to."

Chapter Text

Steve isn’t surprised, exactly, that Tony asked him out, but he can’t say he saw it coming. He’s thrilled, though, and a little bit stunned that he’s actually going to get a chance with this beautiful, intelligent, brave, amazing guy. No one can blame him for the silly smile that stays on his face the whole way through dinner, which only gets bigger every time Tony glances at him and then blushes a little. It’s not widely known that Tony Stark can blush, and probably even lesser known that he looks adorable when he does it.

Somehow, he gets through the night and most of the next day. Tony has a board meeting in the early afternoon, so they’re going to meet afterwards. Steve is in his room picking out an outfit when he hears a knock on the door. Without looking up, assuming it’s Bucky or maybe Natasha, he calls out, “Come in.”

He ends up being right. Well, half right. Bucky comes in with Clint close behind him. Steve straightens up and raises a curious eyebrow at the pair of them, stepping into his jeans and pulling them up. Phil has often lamented the fact that Bucky, Clint and Tony have struck up such a close friendship, and it’s not hard for Steve to see what he means. Independently, each of them can cause a ton of trouble. The three of them together is enough to destroy New York City in a single afternoon.

“What’s up?” he says, picking up a red shirt.

“Tony likes the blue one better,” says Clint. “It matches your eyes.”

The other eyebrow lifts to join the first, but Steve obediently grabs the blue shirt instead and pulls it on. “Are you just here to give me fashion advice, or…?”

“Well, you do suck at picking out your own outfits,” Bucky says with a smirk. “But no. Really, we came to make sure you were doing okay. And to issue you a warning of sorts. Tony’s probably going to be out-of-sorts tonight. I wouldn’t be surprised if you have to step in and take over once or twice.”

“Tony’s the one planning this date, not me. I told him I would leave it entirely up to him,” Steve says. It’s the truth, and the look of shy relief on Tony’s face makes it impossible to regret.

“That’s not what he meant. Tony needs to go down again,” Clint says. He’s got one hand shoved in a pocket. It’s entirely possible he has a knife hidden in there. “I spent some time with him this morning in the workshop. I can tell by the way he’s working. He’s at the point where he’s twitchy, which means it’s not that bad yet. But it’s gonna get worse. I think he went too long without it last time.”

“I know.”

Both of them stare at him. “You know?” Bucky echoes.

“Give me some credit, Buck. I don’t stick my head in the sand all the time. I’ve spent the eight months pining over him in secret. I know him, okay?” Steve ducks his head, mildly irritated, and shoves his feet into his shoes. He can’t blame them – nerves made him miss the signs until it was too late last time – but he’s paying extra close attention to Tony now. “But I’m not going to bring it up unless Tony does. I want him to know that we can still spend time together and not have it turn into a discussion about… you know. We’re still friends, and yeah I know this is a date, but I don’t want to come down so heavy-handed that it scares him away, either.”

Though they do need to have a conversation, he knows. Unfortunately he and Tony aren’t very good at communicating. Tony can talk and talk; he’s the best with words that Steve has ever met, but a lot of the time he doesn’t actually say anything. And Steve gets emotional too easily. The second his buttons are pushed, he gets mad and that usually just encourages Tony to push them even more. Even knowing about the tactic and recognizing it for what it is – a defense mechanism, and no wonder – doesn’t make it any easier to face.

He straightens up again and sighs, because they’re still staring at him, so he elaborates, “I love Tony. You both know that. If he needs help tonight, and he’s comfortable with me providing it, then of course I will. Until that point, I just want to focus on having fun. And maybe that’s dumb, because I should be explaining myself and listening to what he wants, but I can’t help it.”

Clint punches him in the arm. “No. You know what, I think you’re doing exactly what Tony needs,” he says, wearing that small, secret smile that means he knows something Steve doesn’t. “Let’s go, Buck. Natasha said she and Phil were starting the movie at seven whether we were in the living room or not, and I don’t want to miss the beginning.”

“Good luck,” Bucky says, and he sounds like he means it – high praise, considering that Bucky and Tony didn’t get along well at first.

Steve nods back and follows them out, heading downstairs to where Tony’s driver is waiting. Happy is responsible for Pepper now, and the new guy is a lot quieter. He sees Steve into the back of the car without a word and then gets in the driver’s seat. Steve spends the brief drive wondering what Tony has planned. It’s going to be a lovely evening, warm but with a nice breeze, and he wouldn’t mind spending it outside. Then again as long as Tony is there, he doesn’t care what they do.

As they pull up to S.I., he spots Tony and Pepper standing outside on the sidewalk, Happy circling them from a comfortable distance. Tony’s mouth and hands are moving at a rapid pace, and he looks flushed and happy but also tired. It hurts to see him look like this and know how much weight Tony has been carrying in silence for the past weeks, months, years. It’s a wonder that he’s still able to stand, never mind develop relationships with other people, much less a dom.

Tony doesn’t notice them at first, too preoccupied with ranting to Pepper, and Steve gets out and walks up behind them just in time to hear the last few words. “It’s ridiculous,” Tony’s saying, full of fire. “They’re acting like this is the first time the competition has ever released something new into the market. Of course the stock is going to pick back up! Who do they think I am?”

“You’re Tony Stark,” Steve says, mouth curling in a lazy grin. “Billionaire, genius, playboy, philanthropist.” It’s automatic to put his hand to the small of Tony’s back. Before, he would’ve seen it as nothing more than a steadying gesture, something he’d do for any of his friends. Now, he sees it for what it is: much more possessive than he’d realized. He hesitates, because what if he’s crossed a line, and starts to remove his hand, but then Tony subtly leans into both the touch and him. Just a little, but enough for Steve to notice, and he looks up in surprise to meet Pepper’s very amused gaze.

“Not so much a playboy anymore,” Pepper says, winking at Steve, but before either of them can respond she adds, “I know, Tony, and I’ve told the board that several times. You know how easily they get spooked. Just be your brilliant self and try to get me something new to show them soon, okay?”

“You know it, Pep.” Tony shoots her a tired smile. “Ready to go, Cap?”

“Yes, unless you’ve planned for our date to take place right here. In which case I have to question your level of taste.”

Pepper’s smile broadens. “On that note, I’m off. I have a flight to catch to Spain. Tony, remember our conversation.” She steps closer, sweeping Tony into a hug, and even pauses long enough to hug Steve. “Take care of him,” she whispers in Steve’s ear, too soft for Tony to overhear, and then the hug is over, too quick for Steve to even get an arm up around her in turn. She waves at them both and strides away, Happy falling naturally into step beside her.

Steve watches her go, filled with admiration. “That is one incredible woman.”

“I know.”

“I wish –” Steve starts, and then stops.

Tony cocks his head and takes his arm, tugging him over to their car. “You wish what?”

“Just… I wish Pepper could’ve met Peggy, that’s all. It would’ve been disastrous for the rest of us, because I’m pretty sure the two of them plus Natasha could take over the world in about a week, but they would definitely make things interesting…” Steve trails off, momentarily lost in memories. Peggy was a switch, but she never let that stop her for even a moment. Anyone who failed to take her seriously was quickly shown the error of their ways. He had the opportunity to see her a handful of times after the Battle of New York, but she had passed away not long after.

“They did meet,” Tony says unexpectedly as the car pulls away from the curb.

“They did?”

“She came by to see my dad sometimes when I was growing up. Well, more to see Jarvis, I think, than Howard, but either way. Aunt Angie died shortly before Pepper became my assistant, but I was able to introduce her to Aunt Peggy.” His smile is wry. “It’s just a shame that, by that point, Aunt Peggy wasn’t really in a position to conquer the world. Of course, if she was then we’d be out of a job.”

“I didn’t know you knew Peggy,” Steve says, surprised. Howard and Peggy were never close; Peggy treated him with the same abruptness – almost disdain – that she did any man who thought too highly of himself. It’s more evidence for just how far gone Peggy’s mind was by the time Steve saw her again, because he’s positive she would’ve mentioned her relationship with Tony otherwise.

Tony curls in on himself a little. “I didn’t think you’d want to know.”

“What? Why?”

“She was yours. One of the few things that you had from before you woke up. Wasn’t sure you would want to share.” The with me is implied, but so strongly it seems to fill the car.

Steve is quiet for a few seconds. Peggy was important to Tony, from the sound of it, and yet he said nothing for fear of making Steve upset or angry. Maybe he’d even cut down on his visits, or stopped them altogether, to stop Steve from finding out. Just how often does Tony, who many would say is the flashiest person in the world, put aside his own wants and needs for others? And to do it behind the scenes, no less, so that he receives no gratitude or accolades, just more of the same poisonous drivel that the media loves to spout. It makes his heart ache to think about it.

“Peggy was never mine,” he says carefully. “She made that clear from the moment we met. I wish you had told me, because we could’ve visited her together.”

“I’m sorry.”

And no, that’s not right either. Tony shouldn’t be apologizing. Steve grits his teeth, supressing his anger, because right now Tony looks like he’s expecting to be yelled at or hit. He keeps his voice level when he says, “Don’t apologize. I should be the one saying that, really. I never even thought to try and find out if she was having other visitors. I was selfish.” And then, acting on a suspicion, he adds, “I’d like it, someday, if you would accompany me to her grave.”

Tony’s head snaps up. “Really?”

“I think she would like that.” Steve slides closer, cautiously wrapping an arm around Tony’s shoulders. Tony fits beside him so perfectly. “I’m sorry, Tony. I’m sorry you’ve been ignored for so long, that no one ever bothers to really look at you the way you deserve. It doesn’t make up for the way I acted in the past, but I’m looking at you now.”

Tony shivers. “Do you like what you see?” he says, and it’s obvious he’s trying to ask with a cocky flare, make it a seductive comment, but it really comes out sounding desperate.

Looking into those big brown eyes, Steve smiles, filled with so much affection that it’s a wonder he doesn’t burst. It amazes him that he used to be wary of dating; there’s nothing frightening about this. “I love it. Every time I see a little more of you, it just makes me fall that much more in love with you.”

Chapter Text

Despite the somewhat unusual start to their date - holy shit, Steve said he loves him. He loves Tony. Those words do not compute well in Tony's mind, and he resorts to playing them over and over in his head during the rest of the drive - supper isn't awkward at all. It's actually just as comfortable as ever. They end up an old diner, which is one of Steve's favorites because it's one of the few places that existed before he went into the ice, and even though it looks like a dump it actually serves amazing food. Tony orders a burger, Steve gets a club sandwich, and they talk about everything except for the elephant in the room.

It should feel weird, Tony thinks, but it's not. He hears all about the modifications that Steve is planning for his motorcycle, and the details about what really happened on the last SHIELD mission that Clint, Natasha, Bucky and Steve went on (Tony is so teasing Clint about it when he gets home, too) and in turn, he tells Steve about his latest projects and, specifically, why he got so pissed off at the meeting earlier. Their conversation is as easy and natural as ever, flowing from one topic to another, whether it's something serious like the updates for Bucky's arm or something silly like talking about the latest episode of Hannibal.

When they're done eating, they follow through on what has become tradition, ever since the first time they came in and Steve couldn't decide on what dessert he wanted. He finally picked a piece of apple pie, and the expression of pure bliss on his face when he tasted the pie had Tony scrambling to order everything else. Even back then, he wanted to do whatever it took to make Steve happy, and if that meant cleaning the diner out of every dessert they had, so be it. All of that food was way too much, of course, and probably would've put them in a sugar coma if they had tried to eat it all, but the rest of the team never said no to getting the leftovers.

So they order every dessert on the menu. Every single one. And somehow Tony always manages to forget just how many options this place has. Their waitress, Anna, laughs kindly at the look on his face as she drops the last plate of pie on the table; she's used to this now because they ask for her every time, though the first time she took their order she was a little shocked. It's a good thing that he and Steve picked out a table that seats four people the first time they came in, because there's no way a smaller table would be able to accommodate eight different kinds of pie, four types of cake, three sundaes, a dozen varieties of cookies, four kinds of pudding, and half a dozen squares - all of them huge portions.

It's food overload, but Steve is in heaven. The guy has a real sweet tooth. Tony looks on fondly, cradling his coffee cup, as Steve starts into the pie. The earlier tension and nerves have eased up a little. He didn't really think Steve would start prying for more details, but the thought had occurred to him once or twice. Nor has there been anything flirtatious been said (or at least, none more so than normal - Tony can't help it, he flirts as easily as he breathes, and fortunately Steve has been taking it in stride just as well as always). He knows this is a date, but it leaves him feeling warm all over because he and Steve can sit here and do dumb shit like ordering way more dessert than even Captain America can eat, and it's just... nice.

"Aren't you hungry?" Steve asks after he's polished off the coconut cream pie. "You haven't even touched your chocolate cake."

Tony blinks, suddenly realizing he's been sitting there staring at Steve with a no doubt very stupid expression on his face. Shit. He blushes a little, hastily setting down his cup and picking up his fork instead. "Sorry. I was just thinking."

"About what?"

It's an easy question, and it could get an easy answer. Or a harder one. Tony doesn't know if he's ready for that, even though he asked Steve out on a date. His hands still shake whenever he so much as thinks about what might happen behind closed doors. But he can't help remembering the tender look on Steve's face in the car. No one's ever looked at him like that, not even Pepper, with so much raw affection. It makes his heart flutter in a way that's completely unrelated to the arc reactor. Obie definitely never said anything about love. If anything, he'd gone out of his way to point out that no one would ever love Tony. He was a bad sub and didn't deserve love.

"Hey."

The gentle touch to his hand makes Tony realize that he's been holding his fork so tightly his fingers are turning white. He lets go too quickly and it falls against the plate with a loud sound that makes him wince and fumble an apology, "Sorry, I didn't -"

"You don't have to apologize, Tony. It's not a big deal. You were lost in thought. It happens," Steve says, but his smile is a little sadder now, and the previous ease between them seems to have dissipated. Tony hates himself for that, just a little, because everything was going so well. He goes to pick up his coffee cup, because at least that he can hide behind, and stops when he sees that his hands are shaking again.

"Tony, if this is too much for you, it doesn't have to be a date. I told you I wanted us to still be friends and I meant it."

"No," Tony says, maybe a little too loud judging from the way a couple of heads turn in his direction. He hunches his shoulders and stares them down until the busybodies look away again, then turns back to Steve. He can't articulate how scared he is, but he can definitely point out why Steve should just move on. "I... I want to. But I just - Steve, I'm not a very good sub. Like if there was an award for the worst sub ever, I would get it. I'm bitchy and sarcastic and I don't go down easily, and I don't like doing anything in public and there's a lot of things besides that I don't like. It's a waste of your time."

Steve sighs and takes Tony's hands into his own. It feels weirdly intimate, because no one has ever done this before with Tony, and he blushes even harder as Steve says, "Tony, there are two things you should know. None of what you just said makes you a bad sub. And also, I already know all of that stuff about you. Or did you forget that first time we met, we got into a fight? Not to mention that we fought for ages afterwards, and we still bicker with each other even now? None of that changes the fact that I love you. Any time spent with you is certainly not a waste. I value that time, and you, very much, especially because I know how busy you are with everything else. I know you're scared, and I understand that. I'm willing to go as slow as you want, so long as you understand that trying to chase me away - or worse, trying to convince me to leave - isn't going to work."

What do you even do with a confession like that? Tony has no idea. Words, which have always come to him so easily in the past, are failing him big time right now. He swallows hard. "Steve, I..."

"It's okay. You don't have to say anything if you don't want to. I just want you to know that, Tony. And it's like I said before. If you're not comfortable with us dating, whether it's because you're scared or because you just want to be my friend, that's fine." Steve squeezes his hands. "But I hope you know that I would never expect you to do anything before you're ready for it."

"So you don't want to have sex with me?" The question falls out before Tony can stop it, and it's almost worth the resulting embarrassment to see Steve's shocked expression.

"What? No! You are... you're a very attractive man." Now it's Steve's turn to blush. "I - when the times comes, I'd be very open to -" He stops his sputtering when he catches sight of Tony's smirk and sighs. "Yes, Tony, I want to have sex with you. Just not right now, because I don't think either one of us is ready for it, and definitely not before we have a long discussion about it."

The hard knot of tension in Tony's chest eases a little bit when he hears Steve say that he's not ready for sex either. He's used to one night stands that were purely sex. And even with Pepper, they started having sex not long after they began dating: by that point, the two of them had been dancing around each other for so long that falling into bed seemed natural. The same thing could be said for him and Steve, but strangely enough Tony believes him.

He exhales, maybe a little shakily. In spite of what they just agreed to, he really wants to slide out of the booth and join Steve on the other side. If he were feeling daring enough, maybe even put his head down on Steve's lap. "Okay. That's - okay."

Steve studies him for a moment, then tightens his grip on Tony's hands. "I want to hug you. Is that okay?"

"Yeah," Tony breathes, and Steve slides out, stands right up and sits down beside Tony. He's so warm that Tony shivers a little when they hug, and he doesn't want to let go.

Fortunately, Steve doesn't seem to want to let him go either. He keeps an arm around Tony's shoulders and tips his head down. "Are you still with me, baby?"

"Uh huh."

"Really?"

"I am, but not if you keep talking like that," Tony says. It's the truth. Between Steve's proximity and the sound of that nickname, spoken with just a hint of Brooklyn accent, he can feel the desire to drift sweeping over him.

"I can stop if you want me to. It's your decision. We can just finish eating our dessert, or get it all packed up to go and take it home... watch TV with the rest of the family. Or eat it by ourselves."

"I don't think the sundaes will last that long." He sneaks a glance around the diner, making sure that no one is paying them any attention. Then, in complete contrariness to what he said not five minutes ago, he puts his head on Steve's shoulder. Being in public was never a good thing before. It was too dangerous and had too much opportunity for humiliation. But he thinks he trusts Steve not to take him too deep.

Besides, dessert is never as good when they take it home.

"Are you sure, Tony?"

"Yeah," he says again. "I just... don't want to go too deep. Not like last time."

"Of course. If you feel uncomfortable, do you remember what to say?"

"Red."

"That's right. Good boy," Steve whispers, quiet and intimate, and Tony flushes with the praise. Steve shifts against him, pulling something out from under his shirt and then over his head, and slips whatever it is into Tony's hands. His dog tags, Tony realizes an instant later, rubbing his thumb over the body-warm metal.

"I want you to keep your hands in your lap and hold onto those," Steve says, in that same tone, his lips practically brushing Tony's cheek with every word. "While I feed us dessert. Which do you want to start with?"

"The key lime pie?"

"Excellent choice, baby." Steve snags the pie and a new fork. It's delicious, the tart taste of the limes smoothed over by the creamy meringue, and Tony makes a soft, happy sound. Steve smiles down at him and takes a bite of the pie for himself. And Tony can feel it already, the warm haze where he doesn't need to think about anything or make any decisions. He's not sinking into it the way he would during an intense scene; this time, it just sort of rises up and drifts around him, and he hasn't felt this softer, sweeter hush of subspace for years.

Tony keeps rubbing his thumb over the dog tags, over the imprint of Steve's name, and opens his mouth for another bite of dessert.

Chapter Text

It doesn’t surprise Tony that, after three dates with Steve, he’s midway through tinkering with an upgrade for Bucky’s arm when JARVIS abruptly stops the music. It doesn’t surprise him, but it does kind of piss him off. But only a little bit, because as annoying as Clint and Bucky are, it’s hard to be truly angry when he knows they’re just looking out for him. Being a sub, especially a sub who is also an Avenger, is not what anyone would consider an easy job by far. They have to stick together.

So he lifts his head to greet them, instead of doing what he really wants and ordering JARVIS to lock them out, and bolts upright when he catches sight of the beautiful set of mugs in Clint’s hands. “You brought me coffee! You do love me!” He makes a lunge for Clint.

“I don’t know about love,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes and catching Tony with one hand. “You have to eat something before you get coffee. Cap’s orders.”

Tony stops struggling, watching with wide, mournful eyes as Clint carries the mugs away and sets them down on another desk. “But I don’t want food. I want coffee. And loud music. And to not have to sleep anymore. And for Pepper to stop yelling at me when I miss meetings.”

“Can’t help you there. I’ve seen that woman when she’s on a rampage. Armies are less frightening,” Clint says, clearing a small space. He’s careful not to mix the different piles of scraps together, knowing by now that Tony has them in different piles for a reason. Then he does that ninja-thing where he whips a plate out of nowhere and sets it down with a flourish.

“Do I want to know where you had that hidden?” Tony asks, slipping out of Bucky’s loose hold and following his nose to the magical smell of ham and cheese omelets – with toast and fruit, no less.

“Probably not,” says Clint, throwing himself down on the couch. Dummy whirls over and Clints sits up again, a grin on his face. “Hey, little bot. How’s it hanging?” He gives Dummy a gentle high five. “We came down to ask our mommy when he’s gonna make our daddy an honest man.”

Choking on omelet is not a fun experience. Bucky gives him a solid wallop between the shoulders and Tony gasps for breath. “That is not funny, you fucker,” he says between wheezes. “I am not the mom!”

“You’re totally the mom,” Bucky says, still patting his back – albeit a little more lightly. “And Steve is definitely the dad. I knew that roughly two minutes after I first came into the tower, Tony. I didn’t think anyone could be worse than Steve, but you proved me wrong. So tell me. How is it going?”

Tony glares at the both of them, staying stubbornly silent, until Bucky caves and slips him a cup of coffee. He takes several deep swallows of coffee done just right (a little bit of cream and a couple spoonfuls of sugar) before speaking. “It’s going fine.”

“Fine? You have to tell us more than that,” Clint says.

“No, I don’t.”

“Tony.” Bucky is giving him a look. It’s a very similar look to Steve’s, except with less puppy eyes and more threat. Tony sighs.

“God you two are pests,” he says, not sounding half as aggravated as he wants to. “It’s… I don’t know. Good.” It’s not like he’s opposed to saying more. He’s really not. He just doesn’t know how to put it into words.

Their first date ended on an amazing note: they walked back to the tower together, one of Steve’s arms wrapped around Tony’s shoulders and the other laden with the remains of their dessert. Tony held onto the dog tags the whole way back and focused on the sound of Steve’s voice in his ear, letting Steve lead the way; giving them back, after Steve insisted on walking him to his door, was one of the easiest ways to come back up he’d ever experienced. He went straight inside his room and had a great night’s sleep.

Their second and third dates involved no subspace. They went to the movies on their second date, and the movie sucked but it was still awesome because they held hands the whole time. On their third date, they went out for dinner again, this time to a little place that serves the best Chinese food Tony’s ever had outside of China, and then concluded the night with a walk in Central Park.

Steve’s already asked him out again. For tonight. He wants to cook dinner for Tony. And yeah, okay, maybe he’s been trying not to think about that too closely. This will be the first date where they haven’t been in public. The first date behind closed doors. As much as he trusts Steve – and he does – and as much reading as he’s been doing on the basics (Pepper keeps sneaking books and articles onto his list), there’s a part of him that remembers what happened behind closed doors before.

With Obie, there was rarely any reaction in public. The reputation of Stark Industries, and Tony’s reputation as a playboy jackass who needed to be kept under control, was too important for that. But by the time Obie got Tony alone, he always had a long list of infractions, most of them things Tony didn’t even know he’d done, and he punished Tony for every single one. For a while there, when Tony had decided that maybe being quiet and subdued was the best way to avoid punishment, there was always something.

And on the occasions there wasn’t a punishment, well… it was almost worse. There’s a reason Tony used to act out so much in public; punishments were easier to take than being told he was bad. His skin prickles with the memory of Obie standing over him, an ugly look on his face and crop held high, furious because the first welt had been enough for Tony to go soft. A second was enough to snap him out of subspace entirely. Obie really laid into him then, peppering his buttocks, lower back and thighs with blows hard enough to leave him wincing for a week when he sat down. But it still didn’t sting more than knowing that a session which had started out well, with Obie actually praising him, had ended in punishment because Tony was a bad sub.

“Tony? Hey. Tony, look at me.”

Tony starts when Clint touches him on the shoulder, jerking away defensively, then freezes. He knows better than to pull away like that.

“Hey, no, it’s okay. I shouldn’t have touched you. Tony? It’s me.” Clint sounds worried, and that’s enough to make Tony actually look at him. Clint smiles uncertainly at him. “You went to a bad place there for a minute, didn’t you?” But it’s not a question, not really, and he adds, “Are you okay?”

“I’m okay,” Tony says to his omelet, setting his fork down. The food doesn’t seem so appetizing anymore. His hands are shaking again, and it shows when he picks up his cup of coffee. If it were full, he’d be splashing it all over the place.

“You don’t look okay,” Bucky says bluntly.

“Well I am.” It comes out a bit too snappish, even he can tell that much, and he winces. “Sorry. I – sorry.” And again with the apologies. He hates how that’s still second nature. Obie liked to hear him grovel. Most of the time he can push that aside, but not always.

Clint and Bucky exchange looks. Then Clint gets up, nimbly stepping around Dummy, and walks over to them. Without asking, he plunks himself down in Tony’s lap, wrapping an arm around Tony’s shoulders for balance. Tony sputters, nearly dropping his cup. Bucky catches it neatly when he steps up behind them, leaning so close that his belly and thighs are pressed against the back of Tony’s head. Between the two of them, Tony’s completely surrounded.

Against his will, he feels the tension run out of him. Both of them are so warm, and the contact feels so good. The building panic slowly starts to ease, and somehow his mouth opens up and he says, “I got punished when no one was around.”

See, the thing that’s nice about Clint and Bucky is that they’re both subs. So they don’t jump to stupidly reassure him the way a dom would, with lies about how Steve would never do that. Because they all know that, if he and Steve do sign a contract together at some point in the future, Steve will punish them. It’s inevitable. Tony doesn’t know a single sub who hasn’t been punished once or twice. Even the most well-behaved subs get it wrong sometimes, and Tony knows he’s the opposite of well-behaved.

Instead, after a moment of thoughtful silence, Clint squeezes him in a half-hug. “Have you done anything to be punished for?” he asks reasonably.

That takes Tony off guard. He frowns. “I – no. Not that I know of. But I didn’t always know last time, either.”

“Steve isn’t like that,” Bucky points out, his breath ruffling Tony’s hair. “Even if he were the kind of dom who made up rules without discussing them first – and he’s not – he would tell you about them. And if you broke a rule you didn’t know about, he wouldn’t hold that against you. I know people who were like that. I remember what that’s like. Take it from me, Stark. I know that.”

And coming from Bucky, who was terrified and reeling and didn’t trust anyone for good reason when he first got to the mansion, that definitely has a thread of truth. Besides, it does make sense. If there was time for it, Steve is totally the kind of guy who would show up before a mission with all of their plans written down and sketched out. But still. He’s already discovered just how impossible it is to reason logic against years of lessons.

“Besides, you’re forgetting the most important part,” says Clint. “You’re not alone. What about JARVIS?”

"JARVIS?"

"Yeah. You and Steve won't be going into the bedroom, right? That means JARVIS will be watching your every move. If something goes wrong, he can let the rest of us know. Right, JARVIS? If Steve does anything that Tony doesn't like, even if Tony doesn't protest it, you let one of us know. I'll make sure someone stays in the tower tonight." Clint tips his head back to look at the ceiling, even though Tony's told the team several times that's not necessary.

"Yes, Agent Barton," JARVIS answers eagerly - too early. Tony can't help feeling a flicker of guilt. He'd forbidden JARVIS from saying or doing anything about or to Obie on the grounds that Obie was just being a good dom. He's pretty sure it frustrated JARVIS to no end.

"There," Bucky says. "But you know, you don't have to go through with it if you don't want. It's okay to tell Steve that you want to go out." And again, he sounds like he's reciting something he learned from one of those books.

Tony shakes his head. "No, it's fine," he says. He did forget about JARVIS, but he also didn't stop to think about the whole 'no sex' thing yet. Steve won't punish him for being a bad sub if they're not having sex. He's usually pretty good about obeying outside the bedroom, so long as Steve isn't into slapping or hitting - and he doesn't think that Steve is.

"You don't sound like it's fine," Clint says.

"Maybe you need to get your ears checked." Tony gives him a gentle shove. Clint gets up reluctantly, but only because he'd end up on his ass on the floor if he didn't.

"I'm serious, man," he says, meeting Tony's gaze. "Just because it's Steve, you don't have to stay if you don't want to. You can leave at any point. No one will be mad at you or punish you if you do, and leaving doesn't make you bad."

Tony looks between the two of them, at their earnest faces. He's not sure how he got friends like this in the first place. He's pretty sure he doesn't deserve them. He tries for a smile. "Thanks guys."

Chapter Text

Cooking is one of those things that Steve never got the chance to do before he went into the ice, but now enjoys. There’s something soothing about finding a recipe, putting all the ingredients together and watching them transform into something completely different. He’s not always as good at it as he’d like to be (Bucky will never let him forget the whole baked bread fiasco, even though baking and cooking are not the same at all) but he’s good enough that he’s confident about putting together a pan of lasagna for him and Tony.

He’s taking the pan out of the oven when there’s a knock on the door. He sets it on top of the stove, pausing to admire the bubbling cheese before he shuts the oven off and steps out of the kitchen. “Come in.”

Tony opens the door, poking his head in. His smile is uncertain for a split second, just long enough for Steve to wonder if he’s imagining things, before smoothing over into confidence. “Hey. Smells great in here. I guess that means I’m right on time.”

“You are,” Steve says, smiling at him. Tony always looks good, regardless of what he’s wearing, but this is one of Steve’s favorite outfits. Casual but well-fitting dark jeans, a dark red shirt, and a nice pair of sneakers. This is Tony on a date but comfortable, not hiding behind a professionally made suit worth thousands of dollars the way he does at banquets and parties.

For a moment, there’s a beat of awkwardness. Tony’s eyes are darting around the room, even though he’s been inside Steve’s living room a thousand times before. Steve can’t help wondering what he expects to see. A collar? Chains? Whips? Torture devices? All of the above? Does the sight of the table, with candles and fresh flowers and two wine bottles, surprise him? JARVIS helped him set it up, making sure that Steve knew Tony doesn’t care for roses. Instead, the vase holds a mixture of peonies, daffodils and lilacs.

“Tony,” Steve says, waiting until Tony looks back at him. With the exception of the diner, their other two dates have been strictly above the board. And it’s making Steve itch. He hasn’t sent anyone down in weeks, not since Natasha was out on an op and Bucky needed the help. What he did for Tony that night doesn’t count, because the situation was too tense for either of them to be able to enjoy it – it’s like the difference between being unconscious and being asleep. One’s restful and the other isn’t. And the diner was just a taste, when he wants so much more.

Subs aren’t the only ones who suffer from lack of subspace. Doms can too, just in a different way. In Steve’s case, if he hasn’t dommed anyone for a while, it makes him irritable while at the same time he wants to “mother the hell out of anyone who comes closes enough” – or so Sam said to him just that morning. Not exactly how Steve likes to think of it, but close enough. He’s a dom. He’s meant to care for and about his subs, and not having that release is hard.

But he’s not sure how to convey that to Tony. It sounds selfish. It is selfish to want Tony to go down just for Steve’s sake, he knows that.

“Steve?” Tony says when the silence drags on. “Is something wrong?”

“No, I just – I thought –” Steve fumbles to an awkward stop. He can’t ask this of Tony, not until Tony is ready and wants it. He starts to turn away, but a hand on his arm stops him. He turns back. Tony is looking down at the point of contact between them, his eyes a little wide. Slowly, his head lifts and their eyes meet.

It feels like the most natural thing in the world to lean in and kiss Tony at that moment. Tony makes a pleased sound and tips his head up for a better angle, letting their lips move together more naturally. He keeps the kiss brief, giving Steve’s bottom lip a playful nip, but stays close. He’s smiling, and it’s more relaxed than it was before, like seeing Steve stumble over his words is exactly what he needed to calm down. Maybe it was. If this is the result, Steve’s not complaining.

“Tell me,” Tony says quietly. “This is a two-way street, right? You said I can ask questions…” The little hint of uncertainty makes Steve’s stomach twist.

“Of course you can, Tony. I’m sorry. I just… I didn’t know if you’d be interested in going down tonight. I wasn’t sure how to bring it up. I didn’t want to make it seem like I’m expecting it, or that I plan to take advantage of you, because we’re here alone for the first time and I know that’s a huge step. If you want tonight to be just like the last two dates we’ve had, that’s fine and I understand, I –”

Tony puts a finger to his lips, shutting Steve up instantly. “What were your plans?”

“Dinner,” Steve says against Tony’s finger. “Maybe watching television, or a movie. Either way, I mean.”

Tony’s dark eyes are watching him intently. “And JARVIS?”

“JARVIS?” Steve repeats, confused. “What about him?”

“Yes sir, have you need of me?” JARVIS asks at the same time, and they both jump.

“No, J, I’m fine,” Tony says, still watching Steve. “Thanks.”

“Tony, we don’t have to. It was just an idea. The last thing I want to do is make you uncomfortable.” Steve’s feeling worse by the second. He shouldn’t have brought this up; now Tony will feel obligated to do it whether he wants to or not. He should’ve left well enough alone and just let their date happen.

“What if I want to?”

Simple question though it is, the words stop Steve cold. He blinks at Tony, shocked. “I…”

“I haven’t gone down proper in a long time,” Tony admits, folding his arms across his stomach. It’s instinctive, defensive. “Before you, Pepper and Rhodey would try, but… I couldn’t let go with Pep, and Rhodey’s not really one for touchy feely crap." His cheeks flush. "Even the clinic I used to go to when it got really bad… I never could bring myself to forget that those doms were doctors first. Always analyzing me, trying to figure out what makes Tony Stark tick. I used to hack into their servers and erase my records after I left.”

Steve’s mouth twitches. “Of course you did,” he says, letting a curl of approval into his voice, and Tony visibly straightens up.

“I could… I mean, as long we don’t –”

“Just the living room and the kitchen,” Steve promises, already knowing where Tony’s thoughts are headed. “And you have your safeword if you need it.”

“Red,” Tony says automatically.

“That’s right. You know I want you to use it if you need it.”

Tony nods, though he doesn’t look as convinced as he should be. “I’ll – bathroom?”

“I’ll get us our food.” Steve watches him go before he walks into the kitchen. His heart is racing with anticipation. He leans against the counter for a moment, letting himself indulge in the anticipation for a few seconds, then tips his head up. “JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“If Tony –” Steve hesitates, because it’s not really his right to say this, but at the same time he thinks it needs to be said. “You’ll be watching, right? If something happens that Tony’s not okay with and he doesn’t safeword, will you let me know? I’m going to try to be careful, but... And you can tell Tony that I asked you that, too.” Not that Steve doesn’t think he wouldn’t anyway. JARVIS’s loyalty lies with one person, and there’s no questions about that person is.

“Certainly,” JARVIS says, and maybe it’s Steve’s imagination but JARVIS sounds warmer than usual.

“Thanks.” He exhales, shaking his head, and grabs two plates. He’d like to feed Tony dinner, but lasagna is pretty messy – and that might be moving a little too quickly. Better to start slow. He dishes up two portions and carries them and a basket of garlic bread out to the table. He flips the overhead light off, lights the candles, then cracks the cork on the purple wine bottle and pours each glass about half full.

Tony joins him a couple minutes later, sliding into his seat. “Wow, this looks awesome. You really went all out,” he says, grabbing his wine glass. He takes a sip and then stops, nose crinkling, before reaching for the wine bottle. As he scans the label, his eyebrows shoot up. “Non-alcoholic? Really? I’m not a lightweight, and you don’t even get drunk.”

“I’m not willing to scene with you unless I know you’re sober,” Steve says firmly. It’s not up for negotiation. Maybe somewhere down the line, if he and Tony have signed a contract and are comfortable with each other, that might change. But not right now. Tony goes deep enough without the added effect of alcohol.

“A glass of wine is hardly enough to get me drunk,” Tony says, but he doesn’t sound angry. More bemused.

“Better safe than sorry,” Steve returns. “Now eat before your food gets cold.”

Their conversation over dinner remains light, but Steve thoroughly enjoys it. The lasagna is excellent and the company is even better; in the candlelight, Tony’s eyes are deep and warm, and he’s relaxed and laughing. It’s a sight that Steve wants to get used to. He finds himself smiling like an idiot, like he’s drunk, except that’s just the effect Tony has on him.

When they’re finished, Steve pushes his chair back. “I made dessert. You sit on the couch and find something to watch while I get it.”

He keeps the command gentle, just in case Tony’s changed his mind, but Tony rises instantly to obey. Steve goes into the kitchen to fetch their dessert and a couple bottles of water, carrying it out on a covered tray. He sets it on the coffee table and then pulls his tags out from under his shirt. Tony’s eyes snap to them instantly, like a kitten zeroing in on a ball of thread. He slips the tags over his head and holds them out by the chain, letting them sway.

“I want you to hold these in your hands tonight, okay, baby?” he says. He’d noticed in the diner how much Tony liked holding onto the tags. They seemed to comfort him. And Steve gets a heady, possessive thrill out of seeing his sub hold onto his tags. He knows Tony doesn’t like collars (and probably for good reason), but maybe someday, if or when they get to that point…

“Okay.” Tony sounds a little breathless as Steve lowers the tags into his cupped hands, and he cradles them like they’re something fragile.

Steve sits down next to him and wraps an arm around Tony’s shoulders, tugging him in until Tony is snuggled against his side. “You’re a good boy, Tony,” he murmurs, pressing a kiss to Tony’s forehead. “I’m going to turn the television on. We’re going to watch a movie, and I’m going to touch you.”

He switches the television on to an old Game of Thrones episode and starts by just gently trailing his fingers up and down Tony’s arm. Slowly, he widens the area. He brushes Tony’s collarbone a couple of times, eliciting shivers, and rubs his fingertips against Tony’s side. Tony sinks into him even more, going boneless under the gentle touches, and tips his head up in an unconscious gesture for more. Steve obliges, sweeping his fingers under the hem of Tony’s shirt.

When he feels that Tony’s gone under, he hooks the covering off the tray to reveal their dessert: fresh fruit dipped in chocolate. “Look at me, baby, I have a treat for you.”

Tony does, so sweet and trusting that Steve feels all his built-up tension drain away. He touches their foreheads together as he holds up a chocolate covered strawberry for Tony to eat. The way Tony bites into it, so careful, is adorable. Steve watches him as he chews and swallows, the licks his lips to taste the remaining juices. He’s so beautiful like this, relaxed and untroubled, trusting. This is how Tony deserves to be.

Chapter Text

Apprehension is like a thin, skittering sensation underneath Tony’s skin when he first walks into Steve’s apartment. It’s not as bad as it was before Clint and Bucky cornered him, but it’s not good either. He’s always been a pro at psyching himself out and this situation is turning out to be no different. And it sucks, really, because he knows that all of this anxiety isn’t fair: Steve hasn’t done anything to warrant this kind of reaction, it’s just Tony and all the dumb baggage he’s hauling along with him.

Steve, though. Steve is the same sweet, honest person as always and it’s troubling how fast Tony feels at ease around him. Sometimes when he was with Obie, he would get swept up in whatever was happening. Obie was just that kind of person. Not just charismatic, though that was definitely part of it, but excitable. He made you want to do things, even if you knew those things were actually terrible or painful things to do. He was like a drug, and there were lots of times when Tony would wake up the next morning and not even know why or how he agreed to something.

Those were usually the mornings when he was in pain, and left to drop hard on his own.

It isn’t like that with Steve. By the time they make it to the couch, Tony’s feeling comfortable. A little bit of nerves still linger in the back of his head, but it’s mostly tapered by the realization of just how much Steve wants this. Not that Steve would ever come right out and say that – he’s too polite. But the fumbled, half-spoken conversation between them was more than enough even if Tony couldn’t see the strain in Steve’s face. It’s easy to forget that doms can experience drops too, from a bad scene, or the adrenaline crash after the fact, or from going too long without domming.

And it’s been too long for Steve. Some doms are okay with just a one night stand sort of deal. Some aren’t. Steve’s not. What he had with Bucky probably kept him going, but now Bucky and Natasha are together and Steve’s definitely the kind of guy to back way off, even if it means he has to suffer alone. Self-sacrificing idiot, Tony thinks fondly, curling into him. With his head tucked up against Steve’s chest, he can hear the faint sound of Steve’s heartbeat. It’s steady and soothing.

He’s pleased when Steve gives him the tags to hold, cupping them between his palms. They’re warm from the heat of Steve’s body, because Steve is better than an electric heater, and a little part of him wishes that he didn’t have to give them back. He glances up at Steve from under lowered lashes, taking note of the way that Steve is watching his hands. He rubs his thumb over Steve’s name and watches Steve’s smile; clearly, Tony isn’t the only one who enjoys incorporating the tags into their scene.

Steve slips the cover off the tray of dessert and comes up with chocolate covered fruit. Tony opens his mouth each time a piece is held up, and the taste of the juicy fruit and chocolate is indescribable. He lets Steve feed him and watches the tension run out of Steve’s frame with every bite, until Steve is more relaxed than Tony’s seen him in months. He doesn’t get hazy, and he’s probably not floating the way Tony does when he goes deep – Tony doesn’t know for sure, he’s never dommed anyone before – but there’s a marked difference. It makes Tony feel proud to know he can provide this for his dom.

Well, not his dom. That thought is like a shock of cold water, cutting through subspace, bringing him much closer to the surface than he wants to be. But it’s the truth, isn’t it? Steve’s not really his and he’s not really Steve’s; they haven’t actually talked about what they are or where this is going. And Tony can’t put the blame on that on Steve, because it’s not like he’s jumping at the bit to have the relationship talk. Not after the last one he had ended up with Pepper walking out the door.

“Tony?” Steve’s voice is soft, but commands attention. “Where did you go?”

He drags his eyes up, focusing on Steve’s familiar face. “I’m here.”

“You went somewhere else for a minute there, babe. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

“Are you sure?” Steve presses, setting aside the last of the fruit.

Tony hesitates. This isn’t something he wants to talk about. Especially not now, when he’s on the edge of reaching that fuzzy state where everything is perfect and he only has to focus on Steve, because Steve is the whole world in those moments. He tips his head down and nuzzles Steve’s chest in lieu of answering, letting his eyes slip to half-mast. Steve’s arm tightens around his shoulder, the random symbols he’s drawing on Tony’s arm and shoulder never stopping.

“You know you can ask me questions, and you know your safeword if you need it,” Steve says into his hair.

“I know,” Tony says, and decides he doesn’t want to talk anymore. At any other time, words are his barrier against the rest of the world: he’s practiced at deflecting attention, because he does it about ten times a day if not more with the media, Fury, Pepper, the board – the list goes on. It's something he's been doing his whole life.

But when he's like this, it's so much easier to not speak. And not just because Obie had demanded silence so often, citing that the sound of Tony's voice ruined the experience, though that's definitely part of it. Words mean that Tony has to think, has to engage his brain so that he can constantly stay five steps ahead of everyone else, and he's trying to shut his brain down right now. He doesn't want to think about the future, or about what might happen between him and Steve. He just wants to be.

Right now, at this moment, Steve is his dom. He tells himself that's all that matters. To Steve, he adds quietly, "Please, can we just - not, right now?"

Steve's quiet for a few seconds, and just when Tony thinks that Steve might press the issue, Steve relaxes. "Of course. We can talk tomorrow." He moves his hand up, tangling his fingers into Tony's hair and giving a few playful tugs. The tension melts out of Tony's shoulders like a switch has been flipped. He loves having his hair played with.

"You like that, huh?" Steve says, not unkindly, and grabs a pillow from the couch. He spreads his legs and drops the pillows on the ground. "Kneel."

Tony obeys, sliding off the couch and between Steve's thighs. Usually he isn't one for kneeling - it's hard for him to stay still for long periods of time, and he's not exactly young anymore - but this isn't too bad. The pillow makes it more comfortable for his knees, and he likes knowing that Steve is at his back. No one can sneak up on him like this. He finds himself relaxing even more, shoulders slumping slightly.

"That's good, Tony," Steve praises warmly, setting a hand on the back of his neck. "Just like that. You can lean against my legs if you need to, okay? Other than that, I want you to sit just like that." His thumb and fingers dig deeply into Tony's neck, seeking out the knots that form when Tony's bent over projects. It stings at first, but when the knots give away under the steady pressure it's pure bliss.

It turns out that Steve completely missed his calling as a masseuse. Within minutes Tony is so relaxed he has to lean against Steve's thigh or he's going to fall forwards onto his face. Drifting is easy like this, and he's falling before he even knows it. The rest of the room dissolves into grey landscape, and all he can focus on is the feel of Steve's big, warm hands on his shoulders. That, and the dog tags in his hands. Those two points of contact are the bright stars that keep him tethered to the Earth.

He doesn't know how long he kneels in front of Steve like that. At some point, Steve stops rubbing his shoulders and goes back to stroking his hair and playing with the strands. Tony soaks it all in like a kitten, flying high above the rest of the world. He never wants to come back down. The feeling of safety sinks into his bones, sneaking underneath all of his fears and anxieties and lifting them up until he's flayed open. He wants to feel this way forever.

But it has to end, because Steve is too good to keep him down for long on their first real scene. He drags his fingers through Tony's hair one last time and sighs, a sweet sound, before leaning forward. His hand tips Tony's chin up and they exchange slow, lazy kisses that make Tony's stomach fizzle pleasantly. He'd do anything Steve wants right now, anything at all, so long as Steve would give him that beautiful smile and tell him that he was good.

"How you doing?" Steve murmurs against his mouth. "Are you with me?"

Tony hums in response, because words are too hard right now, and bumps his mouth against Steve in a parody of a kiss. It's the most he can manage, and he's not even embarrassed because everything is awesome right now. Steve just chuckles softly, his blue eyes bright, and nuzzles their cheeks together. The sensation of Steve's late night stubble against Tony's beard is kind of weird, but not unpleasant. Tony likes it. He blinks slowly and smiles at Steve, wanting to curl into Steve's arms.

"My good boy," Steve says, sounding pleased, like he can read Tony's thoughts. "Come here, darling." He carefully helps Tony to stand, gripping Tony's hips when Tony's legs threaten to give out on him. Tony folds gratefully into his strong arms, setting his knees on either side of Steve's hips and straddling him. It's odd to be taller than Steve, to look down at him.

"Hi there." Steve grins up at him and leans up, bumping their noses together. He kisses Tony's cheek. "You're pretty deep right now, aren't you? Do you think you can come back to me now?"

He can, but Tony doesn't want to. For a second he contemplates ignoring the request, but all he wants right now is to make Steve happy. He's coming up almost before he realizes it, though it takes a while. Steve pets his arms and shoulders and back the whole time, whispering praise in his ear. Telling Tony that he's good, so good, and that he's done everything Steve wants him to do. That he's been perfect, and he's beautiful, and that Steve only wishes Tony could see just how well he's doing. Every word lights Tony up from the inside out, and tugs him higher even as he thinks it should drop him back down.

He comes back to himself fully to find he's collapsed in on Steve. Steve doesn't seem to mind, since he's still touching every inch of Tony that he can reach. Tony sighs, feeling relaxed and warm - kind of the way he does after a really intense bout of sex, fighting or inventing, except his mind isn't going a hundred miles a minute. It's like taking a bath in really thick, sticky syrup that's still clinging to him and forcing him to slow down. He nuzzles his nose against Steve's ear and purrs under his breath.

Steve shakes with laughter. "I didn't know you could purr," he says.

"Don't usually," Tony mumbles, fingers tightening around the tags. They're in his right hand and the weight feels good: not as heavy as they do when he's under, but solid. Reassuring. Kind of like Steve himself.

"I like it. I like you."

The words are embarrassing in their simplicity, and Tony's cheeks get a little hot. "I like you too," he says, too low for anyone but a super soldier with excellent hearing to hear.

"Then will you be my boyfriend?" Steve asks, straightforward and serious, and Tony musters the strength to pull back and look at him. He studies Steve's face, half-expecting to feel the familiar jolt of fear and worry and trepidation. And that's all still there, but the deeper glow of trust has uprooted them and they don't feel as strong as before. It's such a sweet way to ask the question, too, and if he looks close he can see the hint of uncertainty, like Steve thinks he'll say no again.

Only Tony doesn't want to. Say no, that is. Steve's kept his word. He hasn't treated Tony any differently, either on the field or off. The scenes they've shared have been slow and sweet, but never once has there been any indication that Steve is just biding his time for something more. And the word 'contract' has never once passed Steve's lips within Tony's hearing. This doesn't have to be forever, Tony reminds himself, and he thinks it says something about him, about them, that he's really not sure whether that's a good thing or not.

"Okay," he says, and then with more confidence, "Yeah, Steve, I'll be your boyfriend."

Chapter Text

It's another four days before Steve has the chance to mention the huge, glaring elephant in the room. He knows that Tony doesn't want to talk about Obadiah Stane and what happened between them. He gets that. Really, he does. Steve's lived through things that weren't half as traumatizing as what Tony went through, and he never wants to speak about or even consciously remember any of those things for as long as he lives. And right now, Tony doesn't need to talk about it if he really doesn't want to.

But they do need to talk about triggers. About likes and dislikes, what's okay and what isn't. Because to be honest, every time they scene Steve is flying blind, and that's not a fun place to be in. Not only does it limit him in terms of creativity because he's never sure of what Tony might associate with a bad memory, but he doesn't want to make Tony drop or worse send him into a panic attack in the middle of a scene. For one thing, that could destroy all the progress he's made with Tony so far. And for another, Coulson and Natasha would probably kill him.

So the day after a call to assemble, during which they end up fighting a bunch of over-sized purple deer that have mysteriously the ability to fly, Steve takes a long shower and walks out into his living room with a goal in mind. He can't help the fond smile that crosses his face when he catches sight of Tony. Instead of going up to his own floor last night, Tony followed Steve back here - and Steve wasn't about to make him leave. They'd just hung out and watched TV until Tony fell asleep, after which Steve shut the television off, covered Tony up with a blanket, and went to bed alone. He then spent the next half hour dreaming about the day when he would be able to carry Tony to bed with him.

Breakfast sounds like an excellent precursor to what will no doubt be an awkward talk. He heads into the kitchen and starts the coffee, because Tony Stark would live off of coffee and pizza if they let him, and then gets a batch of french toast cooking. He even finds a package of bacon in the freezer. In due time, delicious smells start to fill the air, and about ten minutes later Tony wanders in looking more like a zombie than a human being, complete with messy hair, eyes still mostly shut, and a shuffling walk that somehow takes him straight to the coffee maker.

"You are so cute in the morning," Steve says, plucking a mug from the cupboard.

"Buh?" Tony says, blinking blearily.

"Yes, I know. Coffee." He pours Tony a cup, rather than risk Tony doing it himself when he's more asleep than awake.

"Mmph," Tony mumbles, and Steve gives him a kiss on the cheek.

"You're welcome. Go sit down at the table. Breakfast will be ready in a couple of minutes."

Tony obeys, half-falling into one of the chairs at the table, and drapes himself over his mug in the way that requires the least amount of effort to actually get coffee into his mouth. Steve just shakes his head and flips the last two pieces of french toast off the pan and onto Tony's plate. With the addition of some bacon and syrup, their breakfast is served. He sets down a good-sized portion in front of Tony, who never eats enough, and a considerably larger portion in front of his own place. Then, after topping off Tony's mug and pouring himself some milk, he takes a seat.

"Food?" Tony says after several seconds, sounding surprised.

Since it's an actual word, Steve rewards him with a grin. "Food," he agrees, nudging the plate closer. "Eat, unless you'd like me to feed you."

He's fascinated by the faint blush that promptly spreads across Tony's cheeks, but Tony sits up and grabs a fork and knife. Steve digs into his own breakfast to quiet his growling stomach. They eat in silence for a while, but it's not uncomfortable, and once Tony has consumed his second mug of coffee, Steve deems him awake enough to start.

"I like teasing my subs," he says without preamble, and Tony chokes on a bite of bacon. Steve waits patiently for him to stop coughing, then continues. "I like to bring them to the edge over and over, until they can't handle it anymore and they come. I like compliments. My subs are beautiful. I want them to know it. I like to hold my subs down with my hands. I usually don't need ropes or belts for what my hands can do just as well, but sometimes I do use scarves or softer ropes. I like it when my subs ride me, so I can see the pleasure on their faces. I like it when I can hold my subs in the air, or fuck them up against a wall, and know that their pleasure is completely in my control.

"I don't mind a bit of spanking, but I never want to see my subs cry. I can provide that for them if that's what they want, but it's not really what I enjoy. Submission is a gift. I like it when my subs offer it to me freely. But I like playing with toys. Fucking my sub with a vibrator while he fucks me is something I've experimented with before. I like talking dirty. I like watching my subs touch themselves in front of me. I even like to tickle my subs. And I like to leave marks - not from canes or anything like that, but my fingers. My mouth. I'd want you to wear my dog tags when we scene."

Tony's really blushing now, and he says almost defiantly, "Is that something you do with all your subs?"

"No," Steve says honestly. "I was waiting for the right sub for that. I like feathers, ice cubes. Sensory play, though I've never done that before either. And I'm sure you've noticed, I like feeding my subs. Caring for them. Touching them. Bathing them. Little ways sometimes matter the most, you know. Nothing has to change outside of a bedroom, or even outside of a scene."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because I think you need to know. Tony, every time we've scened up till now, I've been just guessing what would work for you. I know you have a safe word, and it's there for you to use if you need it, but if we're doing this right you won't have to." Steve leans forward, stretching his hand across the table, and is infinitely relieved when Tony actually takes it. "I'm okay with learning as we go. And if you never want to go any further, that's okay too. I meant it when I said sex was off the table for now. I just... I thought you should know more about me and what I like. Just in case. For science."

Tony actually smiles at that, mouth twitching up at the corners. "For science, really?"

"You and Bruce use it as an excuse all the time. It seems to work."

"I don't think it works for you."

Steve pretends to pout. "Not fair."

Again, Tony smiles, but this time it quickly falls away. "I don't like pain," he says, keeping his eyes on Steve's. "Of any kind. I never have. No whips, no canes, no flogs, no knives, no fire play... nothing. Not even something like spanking. It just - it brings me out of sub space right away. I can't stay down."

"Okay," Steve says, because Tony seems to be waiting for him to say something. "What else?"

"I don't mind begging, but I don't like groveling. I'm not into humiliation at all. I also don't like water. Before Afghanistan, I didn't mind. But now... at worst it'll send me into a panic attack, and at best I'll lose any and all interest in sex immediately. I'm also not crazy about confined spaces."

"So something like bathing..."

"I don't know. It's never..." Tony swallows. "I don't know. Maybe."

"It's okay," Steve says again, squeezing his hand.

Tony's lower lip trembles just once, but his voice is steady when he keeps talking. "I think I've told you this before, but I don't usually like doing things in public. There's always too many eyes on me. It was okay at the diner, because it was just the two of us and no one was paying attention. Things like that are fine depending on the day. But I'll never be the kind of sub who is okay with getting fucked on the sidewalk. Even taking pictures or video..." He shakes his head. "A lot of the footage that's out there right now, I wasn't asked if it was okay for it to be released."

"I'm sorry," Steve says quietly. If there's one thing he's learned about the future, it's that the internet is forever. It was one of the first lessons that SHIELD forced him to learn because they were afraid he would post something that couldn't be taken back. He thinks back to a couple of the videos he's seen of Tony and feels sick. Tony was so young in some of those videos, but even the ones where he was older - it's disgusting. No one should be taken advantage of like that.

"It was a long time ago, Steve. I'm just saying, I'm not into exhibitionism. Except for JARVIS. I need JARVIS to be monitoring me all the time." Tony looks up at him. "I don't like being kept in the dark. Literally and figuratively. If you're mad at me, then just say so. I can handle being punished, but I - I need to know why. And if you're going to punish me, that's okay. I don't mind. Just please don't let it build up until..." He trails off.

Part of Steve wants him to finish that sentence, and the other part of him wants Tony to stop talking altogether. "Babe?" he says, making his voice as gentle as possible, because Tony's hands are shaking.

"What?"

"You've told me a lot about the things you don't like it, and I appreciate it. But what about the things you do like?"

Tony looks confused. "What?" he says again.

"What do you like?" Steve repeats. It's a struggle to remain calm, like he's not pissed off that Tony doesn't seem to understand why it would matter what he likes. "Tony, do you... do you even know what you like?"

"I like orgasms?"

It could be a joke, but the furrow of Tony's eyebrows makes it clear that it's not. Steve could cry. "That's a good start," he says, forcing a smile and bringing Tony's hand up to his lips for a kiss. "What else? When you and Pepper had fun together... or when you imagine yourself with your ideal dom... what do you think about?"

Tony actually has to stop and think about it for a moment. "I like it when you feed me," he says finally.

"You do?"

"It makes me feel warm. And when you touch me. I like your hands." Tony drops his gaze, but there's a tiny smile on his lips this time. "I didn't like it when Pepper touched the arc reactor. But you... I think maybe it would be okay."

It's a huge sign of trust. Steve knows that. He has to swallow hard to keep his composure. "I can touch you as much as you want," he says steadily. "Whenever you want, baby."

"Now?"

Steve nods, but Tony's already standing up and coming around the table, and Steve tugs him down into his lap easily. He wraps his arms around Tony and holds on, pressing kisses against Tony's temple. "If I ever do something you don't like, you tell me," he mutters. "If I do something you do like, tell me. And if you want to try something, tell me. Just... talk to me, Tony, please."

"Usually people are telling me to shut up," Tony says, smile a little wobbly, right before he tips his head up for a kiss. "I promise, Steve."

Chapter Text

Going back to his own bed after spending several nights on Steve’s couch is harder than Tony thinks it should be. He spends several minutes kissing Steve goodbye, just slow, lazy making out in the hallway, and by the time he finally stumbles into the elevator his mouth is red and swollen. He’s never even seen the inside of Steve’s bedroom – well, obviously he has, since he’s the one who designed it and supervised the building of it, but not since Steve actually moved in – but he thinks he’d like to.

He leans against the side of the elevator, not needing the mirror on the ceiling to know he has a foolish smile on his face. The past three days have been… amazing. Even when they weren’t in a scene, spending time with Steve was just plain fun. And going down to the workshop knowing that he would be going back to Steve’s… He licks his lips, still tasting the strawberries Steve fed to him not two hours ago, and then sighs. He didn’t have to leave. Steve would have let him stay; the bruises pressed into Tony’s hips while they kissed said that much.

But Tony feels like he has to. It’s not right for him to take up all of Steve’s spare time; Steve has other stuff to do and other people to spend time with. And he doesn’t want Steve to get tired of having him around, either. He’s never had a dom like Steve before. He didn’t know how clingy he’d get. It’s embarrassing, really, to think back on their past four scenes and remember how he’d nuzzled into Steve’s hands, acting like a simple massage or Steve stroking his hair was the best thing in the world.

He know that it’s not right to want Steve’s constant attention, Steve’s hands on him all the time, and more people than just Obie have told him how annoying he gets after a while. So he leaves the elevator and walks back into his own bedroom, looking at the big, empty bed. He doesn’t really want to sleep, but Steve made him promise that he would try. Tony’s not one for breaking promises if can avoid it, especially not this early in (Steve will get fed up eventually, but Tony wants this to last while it can), so he lays down on the bed.

“Lights to 10%, J,” he says, staring at the wall as the lights in the room dim until the shine of his arc reactor is brighter, even through the fabric of his shirt. It would be a hell of a lot more comfortable if Steve were lying in the bed with him. He’s pretty sure Steve would want to be the big spoon, for one thing, and Tony’s always slept better when someone’s watching over his back. He used to love that Pepper preferred to sleep curled up against his back instead of with Tony draped over her.

They’re not having sex yet, though. Steve’s made it clear that’s off the table, and – as eager as Tony is to get his hands on Steve’s naked body – it’s probably for the best. Because when you get naked, that’s when the real damage can happen. Tony’s a sensual person, he gets that. It’s why he enjoys it so much when Steve touches him. It also means that being naked can send him down hard. He’ll be so deep he won’t know what’s going on, like he was that first night.

Sleeping together is what happens after sex, or so he’s told. He rarely slept with Obie, and never in the same bed: Obie came from the school of thought that subs belong on the floor. Tony doesn’t think Steve thinks that way – Steve always covers him up with a blanket when he sleeps on the couch, for god’s sake - but still. That’s how it worked with Pepper; she didn’t start sleeping in his bed until after they had sex. So even if he wants it, he can’t sleep in Steve’s bed until they have sex.

It really is best that he left.

He closes his eyes, pushing away thoughts of falling asleep next to Steve’s warm body, and tries to relax enough to fall asleep. It takes a really long time, and when he does finally pass out it’s not a good sleep. He usually knows better than to go to sleep while thinking about Obie, but sometimes it happens anyway.

Tony dreams that Obie is in the room with him, that Obie survived the fall, and he’s come back to teach Tony a lesson. Torn from the bed and his peaceful sleep, Tony kneels on the ground, hands bound in way that’s cruelly tight against his lower back, completely bare. Obie stands behind him. He’s laughing. A whip kisses the flesh of Tony’s shoulders once, twice, three times. He bites his lip until blood wells up around his teeth to keep from crying out, but there’s no stopping the tears that sting his eyes.

“Thought you were good enough to be treated like a real sub?” The pain stops just long enough for Obie to reach down and grab his hair, wrenching Tony's head back at an angle that makes it difficult to breathe. Obie touches the whip to his face, trailing it slowly across his cheek and the bridge of his nose while Tony’s heart skips in fear. He’s been hit there before, and the pain from a broken nose and cheekbone is agonizing.

“P-Please,” he stutters. “Sir –”

“I didn’t tell you to speak! This is what happens in my absence? You get lazy and complacent. Tony, Tony, Tony.” Obie shakes his head and plants his foot in Tony’s ass, giving him a hard shove. Tony goes sprawling. “I’ve told you before that all of my training wasn’t enough to make you even half-decent. No one wants a bad sub, and you’re the worst sub I’ve ever come across. All subs like you are made for is to be punished.”

The words sink down deep into Tony’s chest and he shuts his eyes, unable to control the trembling. He wants to speak up in his own defense, but long experience has taught him that only makes things worse. It’s so hard to stay quiet, especially when the whip snaps against his ass. He flinches at the pain, a whimper slipping out, as Obie methodically whips every inch of his ass. Only when Tony is sobbing does he stop, stomping closer and flipping Tony over on his back. His eyes are cold and angry.

“Listen to me, you little slut,” he says, emphasizing each word carefully. “You belong to me, understand? No one knows you like I do. Why do you think I spent all these years training you when I hate you so much? When I could have found a better sub at any point? Because no one else wants you around. You’re worthless. A drain on my time, never mind anyone else’s. And now that I’m gone, what do you think is going to happen? There’s no one keeping you under control, Tony. How long do you think it will be before they get sick of you?”

“Steve loves me,” Tony says, but he can hear how uncertain it sounds, and Obie just laughs at him.

“Keep telling yourself that. He only loves you because he doesn’t know what you’re really like. Just wait until you really sub for him. He’ll know exactly what kind of pathetic, annoying, useless bastard you are.” Obie draws his arm back, the whip snapping out.

Tony wakes himself up screaming, his throat aching. He shoots up in bed, frantically feeling his back and ass for damage. But there’s nothing, and except for the ache in his muscles from tensing up so hard, he’s not in any pain. He’s not naked; he’s wearing the t-shirt and boxers he went to bed in, and there are no rope marks on his wrists. He curls his arms across his stomach, shaking all over, and tries to breathe past the tight feeing his throat. It doesn’t work, and for the longest time he’s convinced that he’s going to die.

Gradually, the sound of JARVIS’s voice filters through. “It is 12:03am. You are in New York, in the Avengers Tower. You are safe. Captain Rogers is sleeping in his room. Doctor Banner is in his lab. Agent Barton and Agent Coulson have initiated their privacy protocol. Agent Romanoff and Sergeant Barnes are sleeping. Thor is in the living room watching television. It is –”

“Good,” Tony rasps, still shaking.

“Sir, shall I call Captain Rogers?”

He flinches before he can stop it, the panic spiking. “No. No, don’t call anyone. I’m fine. I’m okay.” He runs trembling fingers through his sweat-drenched hair and looks around his bedroom. Everything looks normal. But part of him still expects to see Obie step out of the bathroom, maybe to finish the job by forcing him into the bathtub. Tony shudders.

“Are you certain?”

“Yes,” Tony whispers, trying not to think about what Obie had said in the dream. But he heard the words so often they’re imprinted on his heart. Maybe not the words about Steve, but the rest of it – Tony goes to bite his lip to muffle a sob and flinches at the sharp pain. When he touches his mouth, his fingers come away bloody and he realizes that he’s bitten clean through his bottom lip. Evidently he was as determined not to scream in real life as he was in the dream.

He can’t stay in this room for another minute. He throws back the damp sheets and stands, swaying. JARVIS turns the lights up to 40% without being asked, giving Tony a clear path to the door with no shadows. He stumbles his way to freedom, feeling drunk, and only breathes a sigh of relief when he’s in the elevator. He doesn’t like confined spaces – they’re a special kind of hell – but at least with the doors shut, he can be sure no one will sneak up on him.

When the doors reopen on the communal floor, Tony pokes a cautious head out to make sure no one is lying in wait before he steps out. He heads for the kitchen on automatic, though he’s not sure what to do when he gets there. He stands there for a long time, feet bare on the cold floor, still shivering, staring blankly at the empty counters. Coulson always sweeps them down after they’re done eating, so they’re devoid of even any crumbs.

The kitchen lights goes on suddenly and Tony jumps. He turns wide eyes on Thor, who stops in the doorway with an astonished expression.

“Tony,” Thor says, surprise quickly giving away to concern. “You’re hurt.”

“What?” Tony says, only remembering his lip when speaking makes the wound hurt all over again. He never even wiped his chin off. He looks down, realizing there’s blood all over his shirt.

“Are you well?” Thor steps towards him. Tony flinches away, panic jittering up his spine, and Thor stops, holding his hands up to show that he doesn’t have a weapon.

“I’m fine. It’s just – I bit myself, that’s all.”

“You do not look fine,” Thor says, studying him closely. “Was it a nightmare?”

Tony shakes his head, willing himself not to cry. Thor just seems to take that as confirmation, though. His expressions softens further and he takes a slower step this time, giving Tony plenty of time to back away. When he doesn’t - Thor's neutral, not a threat - Thor comes close enough to set a very gentle hand on his shoulder. His hand is hot against Tony’s cool skin, and Tony doesn’t have the strength to fight against being pulled into a loose embrace. He sinks into Thor’s heat gratefully, and even now he’s still shaking.

“I know not what this nightmare was about, but you are safe,” Thor murmurs in his ear.

“Just – b-bad m-memories,” Tony says, hating himself for stuttering on the words. He should be stronger than this. He’s proving Obie right with every second he clings to Thor.

But Thor’s grip just tightens a little more, and he says softly, “Sometimes the worst nightmares are the ones we remember better upon waking. I have had many such nightmares myself. You are safe here in this abode, with friend JARVIS watching over us.”

Chapter Text

The feeling of someone’s hands on his feet wakes Tony up from a dead sleep. He blinks hazily, recognizing the common room immediately, though it takes several seconds of concentrated effort to make out the television screen. The redhead in the green dress who’s singing about plates and windows is vaguely familiar, but it still takes him almost a full minute to put the dots together and realize that Bucky and Thor are actually watching Frozen.

“Do I wanna know how this happened?” Tony mutters into Thor’s thigh. His lip throbs and he winces. He doesn’t remember falling asleep on Thor last night, but it must have happened. He tries to sit up halfway, confused, but Thor easily pushes him back down.

“You’re fine,” says Bucky, digging a thumb into the arch of his foot in emphasis. “Steve, Clint, Nat, and Coulson got called out on a SHIELD mission. Sam went with them. Bruce is downstairs in his lab. He said he was working on something important, but that if you needed him when you woke up to just let him know.”

“Why would I…” Tony trails off as the memory of his nightmare hits. He can’t help a shiver, though in the daylight, with Bucky and Thor on either side of him, it’s impossible not to feel safe. He just wishes that the Obadiah Stane in his head could suffer the same fate as the one in real life, because he hasn’t had a nightmare that bad in a long time. Dating Steve is bringing some unpleasant things to the surface, most of which would be better left forgotten as far as Tony is concerned.

Part of him wants to get up and retreat down to the workshop. It’s easier to push aside the lingering fear and discomfort in familiar surroundings. But Thor’s hand is still a warm weight on his shoulder, and he knows better than to think he’ll win a fight against Thor. If he asked, they would probably let him up – but instead he gives up, melting into the couch and the blanket over him and closing his eyes. As if in approval, Bucky starts to rub his feet again.

They spend a quiet couple of hours watching Frozen, because Bucky has a thing for Disney and has been making his way through every Disney movie created in the last seventy years, and when it finishes JARVIS automatically changes the station to the news. Tony watches through half-lidded eyes, but of course there’s nothing about SHIELD or whatever mission the others are on. There might be later, though. Fury doesn’t usually pull any of the team into a mission unless it’s vital, and those kinds of missions have a habit of ending up newsworthy.

Finally, though, the hand on Tony’s shoulder flexes, and Thor says, “Regrettably, I must leave. My dear Jane and Darcy should be arriving at the airport in just under an hour. I need to be there to pick them up.”

“They coming for a visit?” Tony asks, sitting up. It’s a little awkward because Bucky keeps hold of his feet, and as soon as Thor stands up, Tony flops back down onto the couch. He can better stretch out without Thor, and he takes full advantage of it.

Thor is grinning, though whether from Tony’s antics or Jane’s visit, it’s hard to say. “Yes. Jane has repeatedly contacted me with frustration to her work. Darcy has been suggesting, and I agree, that a break is exactly what she needs.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet,” Bucky says, exchanging an amused look with Tony. “I guess several hours of vigorous activity will help clear her mind.”

“Indeed,” Thor says brightly, either not noticing or not caring that he’s being teased. “Darcy dislikes flying with me. May I borrow one of your cars?”

“Knock yourself out. JARVIS will have someone ready to drive you,” says Tony. There’s no way Thor is actually driving one of his cars. Thor is extremely intelligent, so it’s not like he couldn’t grasp the rules of the road if he wanted to – but Tony also knows that Thor is both impatient and, at times, arrogant. The potential cost of damages if Thor decided that waiting in New York traffic was not to his taste is more than enough fodder for a different kind of nightmare.

“Thank you. Are you feeling better?”

Tony pauses at the question, automatically lifting a hand to touch his mouth. His bottom lip is scabbed and swollen and hurts when he touches it or speaks, but he says, “I’ve had worse.”

“That’s not exactly what I meant,” Thor says, but indulgently. “You may keep my cape for the time being, until you have the opportunity to dress.”

Oh. He’s not wearing a shirt anymore. Tony stares down at himself, realizing that he must be even more out of it than he thought if he didn’t notice that until now.

“Your shirt was covered in blood,” Thor explains. “I removed it so that you would not stain the furniture.”

“It’s fine,” Tony says, meaning it. He’s not exactly comfortable with the idea that someone was around the arc reactor when he was asleep, but he’s also touched that Thor bothered. He draws the cape around his bare shoulders a little better. “Go pick up Jane and Darcy. I guarantee that your fun weekend won’t be fun at all if you leave them standing there for long.”

Thor nods at them both and leaves the room. Tony looks back at the television, suddenly feeling a little chilled now that Thor isn’t there to keep him warm. There’s no two ways about it; he’s got great friends. There was a time not too long ago when Tony, alone in the tower, would have ended up hiding in his workshop for the next three days until he recovered. Panic attacks don’t go away that easily for him; he’s always left shaken, cold and unsettled, and he’s never wanted anyone to see him that way.

He still doesn’t. Howard’s lessons about not letting anyone find out that he’s a sub, and therefore unworthy of respect, have stuck fast. There is a part of him that doesn’t want to risk being seen as weak by the rest of the team. But at the same time, the care feels so good. Last night, Thor’s hug was both warm and secure, which was something he desperately needed. And right now, Thor’s cape is comfortable around him while Bucky’s hands on his feet serve as a tangible reminder that he’s here and the past isn’t.

It doesn’t erase the fact that he’s nauseous and would be unsteady if he were to stand (never mind his shaking hands or inability to concentrate if he were in his workshop), but it helps. A little. Steve’s presence would help even more, but Tony’s trying to ignore that. He succeeds to some degree right up until Bucky abruptly speaks, shattering the silence.

“You should talk to Steve.”

“How about no?” Tony says without even looking at him.

“Tony –”

“Pep’s given me the whole ‘you need to talk to someone’ spiel multiple times over. I don’t need to hear it from you too.” His tone is a little harsher than it should be, but Tony has absolutely no intention of going to a therapist of any kind. Even if he could find someone that he trusted not to tell his secrets – and he’s been bitten in the ass by more than one person who promised to keep their mouths shut - that person would immediately become a point of interest for every enemy Tony has ever had. A SHIELD therapist might be safe (or at least safer), but there’s no way Fury would stay out of that.

He tried with Bruce once, but it didn’t work. Bruce had reluctantly become the go-to doctor for the team, but he was never shy about pointing out when something wasn’t technically his area. Having Bruce fall asleep in the middle of Tony’s (admittedly, slightly embellished) story meant that Tony wasn’t eager to try again. He knew that Bruce would be a much better listener this time, but having the Hulk make an appearance in the middle of their session wouldn’t help anyone.

“I said you should talk to Steve, not some random person,” Bucky replies calmly. “You said you’d never told anyone what happened, right?”

“Right…”

“I don’t blame you. I didn’t want to talk to anyone either,” says Bucky. “But you should. Steve loves you, Tony. He won’t judge you.”

“No, he’ll just give me that dumb puppy eyed look and pity me,” Tony says, shoulders hunching up around his shoulders at the thought of it. It’s one of the reasons he’s never told Pepper or Rhodey about it. Especially Pepper. Their relationship was never as solid as it could have been, but at least she never touched him or comforted him out of pity. It’s a meager consolation, all things considered, but he has to take what he can get.

“You’re an idiot.”

“Hey!” Tony protests, finally turning to look at him.

Bucky just rolls his eyes. “Look, Steve’s a soldier. And yeah, yeah, I know. You’re not a soldier.” He holds up a hand to forestall Tony’s normal protest. “I get it. But that doesn’t mean Steve won’t understand. He’s been through his fair share of trauma. He told me once he was depressed for a long time after he came out of the ice. Sometimes he still gets like that. Might not be exactly what you’re going through, but he’s one of the last people who would pity you, Tony.”

“I didn’t know that,” Tony says, hesitant.

“I don’t think it’s something he widely advertised. Got better, after a while, but that kinda thing doesn’t go away completely. Not so far as I know, anyway.” Bucky glances away, looking at something in the distance. “It sucks. I know that better than anyone. But I also know that I’m in a much better frame of mind since I started talking to Natasha and Steve and Sam a little. The nightmares aren’t as bad, and when they are at least Natasha already knows what’s going on when I wake up.”

“You and Natasha went through something very similar, though. Steve’s not even a sub.”

“Everyone can get taken advantage of,” Bucky points out. “Believe me, there were a few times back when we were kids that Steve got in over his head with the wrong person. It’s not nearly the same thing, I know that. I’m just saying… You need to talk to someone. Keeping that kind of crap in your head leads to things like thinking your friends are the enemies and trying to attack them.” He sounds somber, and Tony’s stomach does an uncomfortable flip. He can remember the days when Bucky would slip and try to attack them as well as anyone else.

“Besides, Thor told me what happened last night. Steve doesn’t know yet. They had to rush out of here in such a hurry. But he will tonight. And you should think about how you wanna handle it before he comes home,” Bucky adds.

Talk to someone. Talk to Steve. The idea is distinctly unpleasant for a variety of reasons. Tony’s had it beaten into him that he can’t really trust anyone, not even Captain America. The thought of trying to talk to Steve makes his throat hurt, and he really can’t imagine himself being able to say those words. To describe what Obie did, both before and after Afghanistan. It makes his hands shake even harder just thinking about it.

But at the same time, he and Steve are dating now. Steve’s his dom in all but a contract. At the very least, Steve deserves to know what kind of damaged goods he’s getting himself into. Tony smiles bitterly to himself. If he can manage to spit out even a fragment of the story, it might give him a better idea of whether Steve is really interested in staying.

“I’ll think about it,” he says, words barely audible. “Okay?”

Bucky nods, satisfied. “Okay. Now lay down. We’re going to watch Tangled again.”

Chapter Text

Long and tedious doesn’t even begin to cover this mission. It’s taking everything Steve has to not squirm around like a three-year-old. If it were Fury beside him, he’d give in to the urge just for the sake of annoyance – but it’s Phil, and Steve knows that Phil is no happier about the current state of affairs than Steve is. Clint and Natasha are in the process of infiltrating a Hydra building that’s located in the middle of Tokyo, Japan. To say that caution is imperative is an understatement; if a battle breaks out here, civilians are going to get caught in the crossfire.

But that’s exactly what Steve is here for, to provide back-up just in case that happens. Logically, he knows that’s a good thing. At any other time, he would want to be here. Long gone are the days where one dom ruled the household with an iron fist, and Steve has no desire for those days to return. But it doesn’t stop his dom instincts from magnifying the part of him that wants to make sure his team – his family – is safe. Even though they’re all adults and capable of taking care of themselves, he feels a responsibility for them.

That’s the only thing keeping him here. Steve doesn’t care about Fury’s orders; as far as he’s concerned, he’s not a SHIELD agent and neither are Clint, Natasha or Phil. Their first priority is the Avengers. No one’s ever come right out and said it, but he’s 100% positive that’s how they all feel. So if it weren’t for the fact that Steve would never forgive himself if this mission went balls up and Clint or Natasha were hurt when he could have been here to help, he would leave.

Because right now he just wants to be at home with Tony. It killed him to leave his sub behind without even the chance to say goodbye, especially because he knows he has no right to be thinking of Tony as ‘his’ sub. Not yet, anyway. He and Tony haven’t had that talk. It might be implied, sure, but Steve’s the kind of dom who likes to have everyone on the same page. That goes double when it comes to Tony. And leaving him, even though Steve knows it’ll be a matter of days before they see each other again, creates an itch under his skin he can’t dispel.

He shifts again and Phil sighs. “You can get out and take a walk around if you want. No one around here is going to recognize you as Captain America.” It’s annoyance masked by a friendly offer, and Steve winces in guilt. Phil doesn’t want to be here either, and Steve isn’t making it easier on him.

"I'm fine," he says. It will take Clint and Natasha a while to work out the lay of the building. There's no way of knowing whether this one mission will be enough; Steve suspects it won't. They'll have to emerge, regroup, and then decide if they can take the building quietly or if the area will have to be locked down for a full scale attack. Personally, Steve is kind of hoping for the latter. At least it would allow him to work off some energy.

Phil turns to look at him. "No, seriously. Go. Call Tony. It's just after 3pm in New York, so he should be wide awake and probably missing you like crazy. The guards have just finished changing shift, so it's going to be a couple of hours before they can move. Nothing's going to happen, and if it does I'll let you know. Go, Steve." And Steve might be the captain of the team, but Phil is still their handler and there is no arguing with that firm tone of voice. Steve goes.

The sights and sounds of Tokyo hit him as soon as he slides out of the van. It's such a different city from what he's become used to. He thinks he'd like to come back at some point, maybe with Tony, when he can really enjoy what the place has to offer. For the time being, though, he's too caught up in thinking that every person who walks past could be an enemy. Hydra has proven in the past that they'll recruit anyone, willing or not, so there is really no way to tell. He keeps an eye out as he strolls towards the end of the street, earpiece on mute so that he can still hear if something goes wrong, flipping his phone out and dialing a familiar number. Steve's calls to Tony's phone straight through, bypassing JARVIS. So he's surprised when it's not Tony who picks up.

"Hello?"

"Buck?" Steve says, eyebrows raising.

"Hey punk," Bucky mutters through what sounds like a yawn. "I wasn't expecting to hear from you right now. I thought Nat said they were on a mission and you were providing back up?" He sounds a little suspicious and Steve rolls his eyes.

"Phil is watching them both, don't worry. Right now we're at the pure reconnaissance stage, and we might be in Japan but I'm pretty sure Hydra would still recognize me. I've been mostly keeping Phil company for the past four hours." He closes his eyes and sighs, rubbing his forehead. He hadn't realized how confining that van was until he's outside again. "We could use Tony right now, actually. X-ray vision to get a look at the inside of that place, or some hacking to get us the computer files, would be massively helpful."

"And it has nothing to do at all with you missing him?"

Steve feels his cheeks go a little warm. "Shut up."

On the other end of the line, Bucky just laughs. "After how much you teased me about Nat, there's no way I'm lettin' you off that easy. I haven't seen you this sweet on a guy in years."

"That's because I never have been," Steve admits. Even what he felt for Peggy was nothing compared to Tony. It has nothing to do with the fact that Peggy was a dom, either. Given time, he thinks he probably could've grown to love Peggy just as much as Tony. That's the problem, though. In the midst of the war, with everything that he and Peggy had piled on their shoulders, there just wasn't time. And by the time he woke up again, Peggy was an old woman who had lived her life already. She admitted that she still loved Steve, but he could tell that their opportunity for more had long since passed.

"He's a good look on you," Bucky says, a little softer. "He misses you something awful."

There's some muffled noises in the background. Steve ignores it, figuring Bucky's watching television, and says, "I miss him, too. I don't regret coming, but..." He lets the sentence trail off, knowing that Bucky will understand regardless. Sometimes Steve thinks it was easier back in the war. He loved Peggy, and he loved his team, but all he really worried about was Bucky. It's a lot different now.

"I get it. He's okay, Steve."

"Okay?"

"Well, he's been having nightmares. But I'm not saying anymore. It's not my place."

Steve frowns at the brick wall two feet from his face. Nightmares. He can't say he's surprised. They all have their fair share of nightmares, and Tony's got a ridiculous amount of fodder for a civilian. "He there?"

"Yeah. Been bouncing at my hand trying to get the phone away from me. He's just too short to reach."

"I am not short!" Tony yells suddenly, barely audible in the background. "You're just freakishly tall, Barnes. Get your hand off my mouth!"

Suddenly, Steve gets it. He can picture it perfectly in his mind: Bucky grabbing the phone before Tony can answer, and then probably pinning Tony down or to the wall with a hand to his mouth while he talked to Steve. Steve closes his eyes and shakes his head in exasperation. "For fuck's sake, Bucky. Give him the damn phone, would you?"

Bucky laughs again. "Yeah, yeah."

"Why are you friends with him again?" Tony's indignant voice pours into the phone, and Steve feels a lot of his tension miraculously disappear. A silly smile crosses his face.

"I ask myself that same question every day," he replies, hearing Bucky's laughter in the background now. "Did he hurt you?"

"No. But I'm planning to hurt him the next time he needs repairs done to his arm."

Bucky laughs louder, and Steve shakes his head again in amusement. That's an empty threat if he's ever heard it. "You have my blessing to do whatever you feel is necessary. But in the meantime, if you care to work your hacking magic on this Hydra building so that I can make it home a little quicker, that would be deeply appreciated. And I'd thank you with a full body massage when I got there."

"How full body we talking?" Tony asks, but it's a lazy flirt, more from habit than anything else.

"I'll spend a full two hours on your back alone," Steve promises, because he loves to give Tony massages. There's something about the way that Tony melts under his fingers that's like the best gift ever. He even thinks, next time, he might suggest that Tony be the one in charge. He likes the idea of laying back and letting Tony's strong hands go to work.

"Hmm, sounds promising. Bring me back a souvenir and it's a deal."

"I don't think I'll have much time to shop, but I'll see what I can do." Steve pauses for a moment, warring with himself, then makes his decision. "Bucky said you were having nightmares."

The silence on the other speaks volumes.

"I'm not going to ask any questions. I just - can you go into my room?"

"Yes..." Tony says slowly, sounding confused. "Hang on."

Steve waits, listening to the sound of Tony's breathing on the other end of the line. It's comforting. His heart is pounding with nerves, but he keeps his voice calm. "Once you're in there, go into the kitchen. Open up the cupboard beside the refrigerator."

"Nothing's going to jump out at me, right?"

"You've been hanging around Bucky and Clint too much," Steve says, rolling his eyes.

"It's a valid question! I - oh."

In his mind, Steve can picture the scene perfectly: Tony opening the cupboard door and seeing Steve's dog tags in the little box that Sam gave him. Normally, he wears them around his neck. But he deliberately left them at home this time, and he's glad he did.

"Steve?" Tony's voice is shaky now.

"Put them on, babe," Steve says softly, "if you think you can keep from going into subspace, and if you're comfortable with wearing them outside of a scene. Otherwise, just keep them beside you when you go to bed. I thought it might help you sleep better." He clears his throat, embarrassed. "You don't have to if you don't want to -"

"No!" Tony says hastily, still shaky. "I want to. I like wearing your dog tags."

It feels like more than just an admission of something so simple, and Steve can't stop the grin that breaks out across his face. "Yeah?"

"Yeah. Here."

Steve doesn't get it until his phone chimes at him. He pulls it away from his ear and looks at the screen to see that he's got a new text message waiting. When he opens it, he finds himself looking at a picture of Tony's face and upper chest. He immediately notices two things: one is the very obvious split lip that Tony has, and the other is the silver dog tags hanging around Tony's throat. His heart swells at the latter and his mind bursts with questions at the former, but somehow he manages to contain himself.

"Lookin' good, darlin'," he says, letting his accent slip into his voice just a little. "Lookin' real good."

Tony chuckles. "You're such a dork," he says affectionately. "I should go so that JARVIS and I can get to work on hacking into Hydra's files."

"Thanks Tony," Steve murmurs. "I appreciate it. I miss being home."

There's another pause, then Tony says in a rush, "I miss you, too. Bye."

He hangs up before Steve can respond, but that's okay. Steve grins even wider and tucks his phone back in his pocket, whistling as he saunters back up the road to the van. By the time he gets there, Fury is on already on the phone screaming something about SHIELD's servers and Tony Stark. Phil glances over at Steve, a long-suffering expression on his face, and just shakes his head, but he's smiling at the same time so he can't be too upset. Steve gets in, offering him a commiserating pat on the shoulder, and settles in to keep watching.

Chapter Text

Having the tags around his neck doesn’t exactly stop the nightmares, as Tony discovers the next time he falls asleep on the couch in spite of his best efforts to stay awake. He jerks awake with a bitten back scream, images of Obie and the bathtub dancing behind his eyes, and flinches when someone touches him. Amidst empty pleading that Tony knows will only make the punishment worse, something small, cold and hard is shoved into his hands. He grabs on blindly.

His thumb rubs over the words and numbers etched into the metal, the familiarity of it all blunting the sharpness of the panic. His mind supplies the words ‘Steve’s dog tags’, but it takes a long time for the actual meaning to sink in, and even longer for him to remember that’s a good thing. But his body is way ahead of him, calming rapidly, his lungs taking in air automatically instead of gasping. He opens his eyes and looks down at the tags, at the too-quick way his thumb is stroking Steve’s name.

“Back with us?” Bucky asks, and Tony somehow manages not to flinch back, even though Bucky is giving him space. Still, even just having Bucky crouching a couple of feet away feels like too close. He needs more space. He needs a hug.

He wants Steve.

“Tony,” Bucky says, a hint of worry creeping into his voice.

“M’okay,” he croaks out. His throat feels raw, which means he was probably screaming. Darcy steps into the room, pale but determined, holding a glass of milk. She creeps closer and, after a questioning glance at Bucky, holds it out to Tony. He doesn’t want to let go of the dog tags with either hand, but her timid smile prompts him to grab the glass. It’s warmer than he’s expecting, and when he takes a cautious sip the heat travels down his throat and warms him from the inside out. He shivers.

Darcy looks at Bucky again, then cautiously sits down on the couch beside him. When Tony doesn’t lean away, she scoots a little closer. They’re roughly the same size, and her body heat is enticing enough that Tony lets her curl into him. She doesn’t feel like a threat, which makes sense since she’s a sub. He keeps hold of both the glass and the dog tags and she wraps an arm around his shoulders, not blocking his escape but also fulfilling the need for contact pounding through Tony’s body.

“What are you waiting for?” she says to Bucky. “Get a blanket and get up here. We’re going to watch the new Star Wars movie. And maybe revisit the originals. JARVIS, if you please.”

Bucky looks a little bemused but obeys, grabbing a thick blanket from the other couch and spreading it across Tony and Darcy. He sits down on the other side of Darcy and she pokes and prods at him until he’s as entwined with her as she is with Tony, and Tony can feel the coolness of Bucky’s metal hand on his back. It’s not as jarring as before, and he sinks down into the heat as JARVIS switches the television on and queues up the new Star Wars movie – which is not technically released yet, but that’s never stopped Tony before.

Darcy and Bucky get really into the movie, but Tony is content to watch in silence. He finishes his milk and stops rubbing the tags, half-afraid he might wear Steve’s name off even if he knows that won’t happen, and just holds them instead. It feels like having a little piece of Steve with him, and he doesn’t want to take them off. Even when Steve comes back, he wants to keep wearing them. Wants this, this tangible reminder that Steve cares about him, even if Steve isn’t his dom yet.

At some point, Darcy’s tummy starts to growl and she squirms around a little. “Anyone up for pizza?” she says to no one in particular.

“I’m not really hungry,” says Tony.

“Tough. You’re eating anyway,” she says.

“You’re bossy.”

Darcy gives him a smug grin. “Just for that, I’m getting pineapple on the pizza,” she says, a little too gleefully, and Tony scrunches his nose in response. Fruit is not meant for pizza as far as he’s concerned, and she damn well knows it. They went over this the last time Darcy and Jane visited the tower.

“We can get pineapple on half the pizza,” says Bucky, and Tony can’t see him but he knows Bucky is rolling his eyes, because Bucky will eat just about anything on a pizza and doesn’t see the point in bickering about toppings. According to Steve, he’s always been like that, and there’s an official, undisputed agreement amongst the rest of the team that that’s easily the weirdest thing about Bucky Barnes.

“JARVIS, three pizzas,” Tony says, because who is Bucky kidding – one pizza is not nearly enough for all three of them. Bucky is a supersolider and can put away at least one, and Darcy won’t be far behind him. For that matter, three might not even be enough.

They go back to watching the remainder of the movie. About twenty minutes later, the elevator doors open to reveal an extremely welcome sight: not just Rhodey or pizza, but Rhodey with pizza. His eyebrows go up when he sees the cuddle pile on the couch, but he’s still frowning as he totes the three boxes of pizza (and two boxes of garlic fingers and several cans of pop, JARVIS is awesome) across the room and sets them down on the coffee table.

“Tones, what have I told you about letting delivery people come up here just because you’re too lazy to go down and greet them?” he says, sounding exasperated.

“But I didn’t. You came up instead,” says Tony.

“That was pure luck. Honestly.” Rhodey shakes his head and comes over to give him a hug. Tony gets his arms free and reaches up for a one-armed hug, still not letting go of the tags. Rhodey’s eyes flick downwards briefly, frown deepening, but he says nothing and hugs Tony even tighter.

Darcy has leaned forward and is making quick work of opening pizza boxes. She hands off one to Bucky, keeps one for herself, and offers the third to Tony. “Going to stay for some food, Colonel Rhodes?” she asks, all sweet politeness, since that’s what Darcy does: she lures people into thinking she’s an angel and then waits for them to get comfortable before showing her bossiness. Tony side eyes her, and she dimples back.

“It’s Jim, and sure. Shove over.” Rhodey prods at Tony, who obligingly shuffles further into Darcy’s space until Rhodey can wedge himself into the tiny space left over. It’s a very tight fit with the four of them, and Darcy ends up pretty much on Bucky’s lap, but no one is complaining when there’s hot, cheesy pizza and garlic fingers to be shared.

Of course, with both Rhodey and Darcy there, Tony ends up eating two slices of pizza and several garlic fingers, as well as drinking a can of pop. It’s less than he usually eats, but he can’t stomach more than that and waves off the repeated offers of more. He cuddles back down into Rhodey and pulls out his phone to respond to some emails with his free hand.

By the time he looks up again, the pizza is gone and Darcy is sprawled all over Bucky, sound asleep. Bucky doesn’t seem to mind judging by the way he’s got an arm loosely wrapped around Darcy’s waist. And to be fair, Darcy is a very attractive woman. Tony’s hard-pressed to think of a guy who would mind having her draped all over them. But he can’t help wondering about Natasha and whether that would be okay, because if Obie had seen him cuddling up to someone without permission… Tony’s skin crawls at the thought.

He’s not subtle about staring, and of course Bucky notices, raising an eyebrow like he’s expecting Tony to actually ask. Tony won’t, though, and Bucky knows it, so he says, “If she were here, she’d either be right beside Darcy or ignoring us entirely.”

Because that’s how it's supposed to be. Doms are supposed to trust their subs. Tony swallows with a jerky nod, the difference between Obie and Steve highlighted in one crisp comment: Obie would have freaked out, because he was possessive and wanted Tony to know that Tony belonged to him unless Obie chose to share. Steve would just be happy that Tony was getting some kind of physical comfort no matter who it came from.

“I gotta go,” he blurts out, squirming out from under the blanket and Rhodey’s arms. He legs it into the bathroom and somehow doesn’t throw up, though he does liberally splash his face with the coldest water that’ll come from the tap. When he looks in the mirror, the bruises and puffiness under his eyes are not inspiring.

Someone knocks at the door. Tony closes his eyes, already knowing who it is, and silently opens it. Rhodey looks him over, expression full of concern, but all he says is, “Wanna show me the upgrades you’re gonna do for my suit?”

“What makes you think you’re getting any?” Tony shoots back automatically, and Rhodey just laughs at him.

“Because the left gauntlet has been acting up, and the alternative is for me to let the military take a look –”

“Don’t you dare. I will disown you,” Tony says, slipping past him. It’s later than he thought and the living room’s empty now; the blanket is neatly folded on the couch, the trash tossed out, and Bucky and Darcy are gone. He pauses, disoriented. Just how long was he in the bathroom?

“You can’t disown me, Tones. I’ll just keep coming back.” Rhodey wraps an arm around his shoulders, scruffing at his hair, and Tony yelps a lot and tries to tug away, but he’s laughing too hard to really make a go at getting free. Rhodey’s laughing too, and it’s like things between them are okay for a few precious seconds until Rhodey’s fingers brush up against Steve’s dog tags and he clearly remembers why Tony is wearing them. His face goes all sad and he stops tickling Tony, though he doesn’t let go.

“It’s fine,” Tony says, answering the unspoken question.

I know it’s fine. I’ll kick Steve’s ass if he breaks your heart, but you could do worse. The question is, do you know it’s okay?”

Tony looks awat. This is why it’s hard to be around Pepper and Rhodey sometimes. They know him too well. “Maybe?” he hedges. “I don’t – it’s not official or anything. I kind of freaked out when he asked me out the first time around. But you knew that.”

Rhodey nods. “And how have your dates been since then?”

“Good.” Tony thinks back to the time he’s spent with Steve and sighs. Good is so inadequate to describe Steve and how he makes Tony feel. It’s not like Steve has the power to take away the nightmares or his fear of the bathtub or the scars on his back, but being with Steve makes it all a little bit more bearable.

He looks back at Rhodey just in time to see Rhodey wipe the smile off his face. Tony squints at him suspiciously. Rhodey just blinks back in perfect innocence.

“Do you want those to mean more?” Rhodey asks, glancing at the dog tags. The chain is visible, but the tags themselves are hidden under Tony’s shirt. They hang just above the arc reactor, so he can feel them against his skin.

“It’s a bad idea. You know that. I’m a mess. I -”

“Hey, that’s not what I asked,” says Rhodey, giving him a gentle nudge in the side. “Do you?”

“I… I don’t know,” Tony says. It’s the only honest answer he can come up with. Obie made him wear a collar, and even though logically Tony knows that not all collars represent that kind of relationship, that’s what he associates them with. He loves wearing Steve’s dog tags, and he doesn’t want them to stop being a source of comfort. But at the same time, he wants to be able to call Steve his dom and know it wasn’t just a slip of the tongue.

“Fair enough,” says Rhodey, and gives his hair one last toss. “Now, how about those suit upgrades?”

Chapter Text

It’s not exactly the homecoming that Steve pictured. No, he thought he would return to the tower, make sure that Bucky was still doing okay and then steal Tony away from the next week. Instead, he’s here: sitting in a hospital waiting room still on the other side of the world, the stench of bleach strong in his nose, and his hand slowly going numb from how tightly Natasha’s holding onto it. Across from them, Sam leans back in the uncomfortable chairs and crosses his arms, staring absently out the window above Steve’s head.

A nurse shuffles by the room and all three of them look up, but she doesn’t turn their way. Sam sighs and turns a tired grimace on Steve. “Do you think it’s worth me trying to find out what’s going on?”

“You can try, but you’ll just get the same answer I did,” says Steve. It’s a good thing the serum means he doesn’t get headaches, because he’s long since passed the point of exhaustion. He rubs at his head regardless with his free hand, wishing he could put his head down and sleep.

There’s a clatter out in the hall, a flurry of hushed voices, and Steve’s already surged to his feet by the time that Tony bolts into the room. There’s someone else behind him, but Steve doesn’t care. He stumbles towards Tony like Tony is his center of gravity and Steve can’t help but be drawn in, sweeping him up in a desperate hug that’s probably too tight. Judging by how quickly Tony’s arms go around his shoulders, Tony doesn’t mind.

“Steve, oh my god,” Tony says in his ear, warm and real. “What the hell happened?”

“It was my fault,” Natasha says, pressing a finger to Bucky’s lips to keep him from protesting. She’s striving to sound unemotional, but anyone who knows her can hear the quiver in her voice.

“Don’t forget I had a hand in this too,” says Sam, standing up and shoving his hands in his pockets. “It wasn’t just your fault, Nat. I was the one who should’ve been paying more attention from the air. I could’ve kept those Hydra goons from getting to you as fast as they did.”

Natasha tipped her head, acknowledging the point, and continued. “We’d already been in the base a couple of times, but Fury needed more information. So we went back. Touched something we shouldn’t have touched. Clint got blasted across the room –” She cuts off, lips trembling.

“He’s in surgery,” Sam concludes. “We haven’t heard anything yet.”

“Jesus,” Tony mutters, hands coming up to cup Steve’s face. “Are you –”

“I wasn’t even there,” Steve says, a familiar swell of guilt and revulsion making him nauseous. He and Phil were still sitting in that damn van two blocks away. By the time they got to the building it was going up in fire, Natasha was fighting to protect Clint, and Clint was lying in a crumbled heap across the room. They dispersed with the Hydra agents, but Clint – there was a lot of blood. Steve shudders.

“Okay, no, come on. I’m borrowing Cap for a minute,” Tony says to the others, squirming until his feet touch the ground. “Bruce and Thor are waiting by the phone. We didn’t think it was a good idea to leave New York without protection. Call them if we find out more, okay?”

He leads Steve out of the room, hands gentle but too firm to say no to, and down the hall until they find a private, unused room. Steve sinks down onto the pristine bed, legs too weak to hold him. He’s lost men before. Hell, he’s nearly lost most of the team at one point or another. He should be immune to how it feels now. But he’s not. Every damn time, it takes him straight back to the moment when he woke up in the future, lost and alone, with everyone and everything he knew gone.

Usually he can hide it, but this time Tony crowds right in until he’s slotted between Steve’s thighs and Steve can wrap his arms around him and bury his face in Tony’s midsection. He tries to take a deep breath but it stutters on a sob, and Tony’s hands – god he loves Tony’s hands, tanned and strong and clever – land on the back of his neck, smoothing down the wispy hairs that Steve can never get rid of.

“I’m here,” Tony says quietly, barely audible over the sound of Steve’s sobs. “I’m here, Steve.” He doesn’t offer up useless platitudes about how Clint will be fine, because they both know that in their line of work there’s a good chance that might not be true. And Steve loves him for that. Loves him so much it hurts, deep inside his chest, when he thinks about the possibility of losing Tony instead.

His grip tightens to the point where it must be painful, but Tony never complains. At one point he bends down and presses a kiss to the top of Steve’s head, but otherwise he stands still and lets Steve hold onto him. Steve gets himself back under control pretty quickly, blinking blearily against the fabric of Tony’s sweatshirt, realizing that it’s been ages since he let go like that. Years, maybe. His whole body feels a little looser.

“Tony.” The word comes out on a ragged exhale, and Tony’s chest expands when he sighs in response, hard plate of the arc reactor digging into Steve’s forehead, fingers combing through Steve’s hair.

“I missed you,” Tony says, shy and unexpected.

Steve lifts his head. He’s sure his face looks like a mess, but Tony still smiles. “I missed you too,” he confesses. “I thought about you all the time in that stupid van, wishing you were there with us. Considering what happened, I’m glad you weren’t, but –”

“Maybe if I’d been there, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“I’ve been thinking the same thing,” Steve admits. It’s hard not to torment yourself like that. He reluctantly lets go of Tony in favor of grabbing a bunch of kleenex to mop up his face, and it’s only when he turns back to Tony that he realizes exactly what Tony is wearing – must have been wearing at the time that Sam called the tower.

Steve’s clothing. Tony is wearing his clothing; an old ‘I <3 NY’ sweatshirt that Natasha bought as a gag gift not long after the Battle of New York. It used to be black, but it’s since faded to grey, and the letters are peeling. It was big on Steve, and so it’s huge on Tony: the cuffs hang down over his hands and the neckline is threatening to slide off of one gorgeous shoulder, showing the chain of the dog tags around Tony’s throat.

“What?” Tony asks, frowning. “What – oh.” And then he blushes. He actually blushes while wearing Steve's shirt and dog tags. Steve might be having an aneurysm.

“Sorry. I didn’t – it was a bad night,” Tony mutters, fingers toying self-consciously with the hem of the sweatshirt.

“Don’t apologize,” Steve says immediately, reaching for him. This time he pulls Tony down into his lap. “God, Tony. Do you have any idea – you can wear my clothes anytime you want.”

Tony’s eyes go a little wide and dark. His face is still flushed. No doubt he can feel how very okay with this situation that Steve is; the evidence is hard to hide. “Steve…”

It’s Steve’s turn to apologize. “Sorry. I can’t help it. Am I making you uncomfortable?”

“No. I just didn’t expect you to be such a cave man,” Tony replies. He does that thing where he ducks his head a little and looks up at Steve through his eyelashes; it never fails to make Steve melt. “I should’ve guessed, since you left me your tags to wear too.”

“I can try to stop.”

“No, no it’s… fine.” Tony’s smile is small and coy, but definitely there. “No one’s ever actually wanted to see me in their things before.”

“Then they were very stupid people,” says Steve. Seeing Tony wearing his dog tags and clothing creates a dual reaction in Steve: part of him just wants to cuddle and take care of Tony forever, and the other part wants to throw Tony down and have his wicked way. He settles for brushing a finger across Tony’s cheekbone, then down across his split lip. He raises an eyebrow in query.

“I don’t want to talk about it here,” Tony says. “What happened with Clint? Where’s Agent?”

Fair enough. Steve resists the urge to press for more details and just shakes his head. “Phil is with Clint. You know that Clint doesn’t respond well to anesthetic, so they let Phil into the room with him to help keep him calm. That’s the last we heard. And Natasha was too upset to debrief. All I really know is exactly what she told you.”

Tony frowns again. “Damn Hydra,” he mutters, fingers tapping absently against the arc reactor. “Did everything go up in flames?”

“Pretty much. SHIELD was there when we left, but…” Steve shakes his head. “I’m not sure how much they’ll be able to find out. You know as well as I do that Hydra’s good at covering their tracks.”

“Maybe not as good as you think. Let’s go down there. Set JARVIS loose on them if there’s anything left.” There’s a gleam in Tony’s eyes; he handles sitting still about as well as Steve or any of the team does, which is to say not at all. The plane trip to Japan must’ve been torture.

“Sounds good to me,” says Steve, though he doesn’t move right away. This is the most physical contact he’s had with Tony in days. He can’t resist setting his head on Tony’s shoulder for a moment, just breathing in the scent of grease and coffee.

“Are you tired? Do you want to sleep first?” Tony asks, sounding genuinely concerned.

“No, I’m fine. Tired, but nothing I haven’t done before. Can I just…” Steve trails off, lifting his head to slide their mouths together. Tony makes a pleased sound and angles his face a little so that the movement is more natural, their lips slotting together, and it’s like coming home.

Tony breaks the kiss with clear reluctance, sliding off Steve’s lap and straightening his borrowed sweatshirt. “Come on. I’d hate to give SHIELD the opportunity to get revenge first.”

Steve snorts. “Like that’s gonna happen.” He’s pleased when Tony lets him take his hand, their fingers intertwining. They head out of the room hand in hand and are joined by Sam as they head for the elevator, though Natasha and Bucky are conspicuously absent.

“Nat didn’t want to leave in case Hydra decides to try something, and Bucky is staying with her,” Sam tells them. “I figured you guys would head back to the site.”

“We are. Is it a long way from here?” Tony asks.

Sam shrugs. “Ten minute walk.”

“Let me just –” Tony stops in front of a sleek black car, pressing the fob to unlock it. He lets go of Steve’s hand to reach into the truck, pulling out the suitcase armor. Steve takes it from him – it’s not heavy, considering what it holds, but it’s not light either – and the three of them set out towards the building.

Tony is something beautiful once they get there; he plunges into the wreckage immediately, keen eyes assessing what, to Steve, looks like nothing more than piles of rubble. A few SHIELD agents and policeman look in their direction, but no one interrupts even when Tony lets out a victorious whoop. He yanks a half-burned laptop out from under a fallen beam, hauling it into his lap.

“Okay, baby, let’s see what we got,” he says, more to himself than to Steve or Sam, and plugs a thumb drive into the port with a flourish. The cracked screen flickers with light a few seconds later, and Tony grins.

“J? You there?”

“Yes sir,” JARVIS says, voice distorted from the laptop’s speakers.

Sam elbows Steve, shooting him a deeply amused look. “You’re so gone it’s not even funny.”

“Shut up,” Steve says, but he doesn’t bother to deny it.

Chapter Text

When it comes to hiding evidence, fire never destroys as much as people think it will. Within twenty minutes Tony is deep into Hydra's servers; JARVIS leads the way, the so-called firewalls that Hydra set up crumbling in a matter of seconds, and Tony grinds his teeth as the information spills onto the cracked screen in a blurred flash of data. Hydra was into some serious shit here with illegal weapons, trading them freely right underneath the nose of the police. When JARVIS opens a few files, he can't help scowling at a very familiar sight.

"Tony?" someone says cautiously. "There a reason why you're looking at that laptop like you want to drop it from a hundred feet up?" Steve crouches down next to him, setting a hand on Tony's shoulder. His thumb rubs absently at the nape of Tony's neck.

"It's Starktech," Tony says, biting his lip as more images flash across the screen: guns, machinery and bombs all bearing the Stark name; he thought he'd dealt with them all before he joined the Avengers, but he's beginning to realize that it's just never ending. No sooner does he destroy one cache than another pops up, like the bad guys of the world are storing them away just to spite him.

He touches the arc creator as a sudden, terrifying thought strikes him. Natasha and Clint were in the building when it was on fire. Some of his old weapons probably were, too. He's positive that if they dug around a little more, they would find the remains hidden under the rubble. If even one bomb had exploded -

"I almost killed them," Tony mutters, nausea rolling over him quickly. "I could've - it would've been my fault -"

"No," Steve says instantly, firm tone allowing for no argument. "It would've been Hydra's fault, not yours. I know how hard you've been working to get rid of the stuff that Stane sold, Tony." He squeezes Tony's shoulder tighter, thumb digging in hard, pressing the chain from the dog tags into Tony's neck. The pressure, though it stings, is grounding. Tony settles against his will, still feeling sick at the thought of what could have been.

Yinsen had barely saved his life. It was only because of his previous experience with those struck by shrapnel that Tony was alive today. Natasha and Clint wouldn't have made it to the hospital, and even if they had there’s a very high probability that they would've died. His brain shows him the image of the two of them slowly bleeding to death, riddled with shrapnel and he shudders, but the panic clicks over into anger and a desire for revenge almost before he can catch his breath. If Hydra thinks that they can fuck around with the very thing that helped make Tony Iron Man, they're dead wrong.

Unconsciously, he finds the dog tags and wraps his fingers around them, rubbing his thumb over the letters; doesn’t even realize he’s doing it until the hand on his shoulder loosens a little bit. He looks up to find Steve staring down at him, and it’s the same look in Steve’s eyes as when they were in the hospital room and Steve realized Tony was wearing his clothing: a little hot and a lot affectionate. His heart skips a beat.

"J, you got a lock on where they were headed?" he says, and it's a miracle that his voice sounds as steady as it does.

"Yes sir."

"Excellent. C'mon, Cap, let's show those fuckers what we're made of."

Steve's smile is at once gorgeous and deadly. "Think I can hitch a ride?" He gets up, all grace, and effortlessly pulls Tony up behind him. Tony gives him a quick, assessing onceover; he hasn't forgotten that Steve looked like death warmed over when he first walked into the hotel room. A mission hasn't gone this badly for a long time, and as much as Steve might like to forget, he is still only human and the serum can only do so much.

Fortunately, though, the thought of some revenge seems to have gone a long way towards making Steve feel better. His eyes are brighter and the color has come back into his face. Well, Tony likes to think those few moments they shared in the hospital room helped. It sure as hell helped to settle him down. Food and sleep will do the rest, but not until they bust a few Hydra assholes.

All of that clicks through his mind in less than a second, and Tony smiles back easily. "Always," he says, glancing around for Sam and the suitcase armor.

Sam is standing near the entrance, talking - or fighting, maybe - with an unsmiling man in a black suit. He stalks over at Steve's wave and thrusts the armor at Tony, muttering, "I swear, you'd think we were the ones doing something wrong instead of being the ones who could potentially stop it."

"Diplomacy. I've never been good at it," Tony says unapologetically. That was what he hired Pepper for. She was always amazing at smoothing the way. Speaking of... "J, destroy what you can from their servers and then get Pep on the phone. It wouldn't hurt to have her start pulling some strings. I don't mind footing the bill, but I don't want the Avengers on the hook for this."

He slings the suitcase to the ground and steps onto it; the armor assembles around him quickly and flawlessly, so that when JARVIS's crisp affirmation comes it's through the helmet, not from the laptop's dying speakers. Tony holds an arm out to Steve, who steps closer and wraps an arm around Tony's neck. As they take off with Sam right behind them, data trickles across HUD. JARVIS sorts it as fast as it shows up, slotting it into what's important and what isn't, and by the time they hit a decent height Tony knows exactly where they're headed.

"Small building on the outskirts of the city. Seems to be their main base of operations," he says through the comms, and sees both Sam and Steve nod. Through the private channel, he adds, "J, patch us through to Bucky."

Less than ten seconds later, Bucky says, "Tony?"

"And Steve and Sam," Tony confirms. "We got a lock on Hydra. Headed their way now. Any news?"

"Clint's outta surgery." There's relief in Bucky's voice; it melts at the cold pit in Tony's stomach, and Steve's muttered 'thank god' is audible over the wind. "He needed stitches to his liver and he broke a leg and he’s bruised to hell, but other than that he's fine. Doctor said he's a lucky son of a bitch."

"That's our archer. I know it's cats who are supposed to have nine lives, but I'm pretty sure it's birds."

"I know, right," Bucky says. "We're staying here just in case." It's a short sentence, but crammed into it Tony hears an awful lot: like how worried Natasha is, and how scared she still is, and how scared Coulson is, and how determined they both are to protect Clint right now, and how Bucky won't leave his dom no matter how much he wants to be out here kicking Hydra ass. Bucky Barnes is a damn good sub.

"I'll bring you back a souvenir," Tony promises.

"You better, because I'm sure as hell not bringing anything back for the avengers that are sitting on their butts," says Sam, doing a swoop around Tony; he's grinning, and Tony can practically hear Bucky rolling his eyes.

“I wouldn’t want anything from you anyway,” Bucky says. “I only accept gifts from people with taste.”

“You have a weird definition of taste,” Sam says.

“Hey!” Tony protests.

“Sam’s right,” says Steve. “I saw that giant pink bunny you bought for Pepper.”

“Traitor,” Tony mutters, pouting.

“I’m sure he’ll make it up to you later,” Sam says, so dry that Steve’s face flushes, and Tony can’t help grinning.

“Alright, enough chatter on the comms,” Steve says, and both Bucky and Sam bark out a laugh.

They’re getting closer to their target, so Tony foregoes responding in favor of focusing on scanning the building. “I’m seeing at least two dozen people inside, maybe more. Half a dozen on the roof, two or three on every floor, and the majority congregated in the basement.”

“Okay. Falcon, take out the ones on the roof and then circle the building. I want you picking off anyone who tries to make a run for it. Exercise caution; they might have snipers on the roof nearby.” Steve is all business now, eyeing the building with a strategic eye. “Iron Man and I will go in through a window and make our way down to the basement.”

“Heard it, Cap.” Sam shoots in front of them, spins to offer them a salute, and basically flat-out dive bombs the Hydra agents on the roof. Tony watches how skillfully he maneuvers around the gunfire with a wave of pride. Those wings are a work of art even if he says so himself, but it’s Sam who really brings them to life. There’ll never be a better pilot.

“Brace yourself,” he says to Steve, and transfers additional power to the foot thrusters so that he can get off a couple of blasts with his free hand. They drop in a little in altitude, but the hole that he blows up in the side of the building is worth it.

Tony enters the building with guns blazing; he drops Steve, and by the time Steve comes up out of his roll, Tony’s already sent a repulsor blast to the faces of the two Hydra goons waiting for them. He doesn’t stop to watch them make impact with the wall. Steve’s on the move, charging out the door and hitting a third goon in the face with his shield. Tony follows.

They make their way down through the building. More agents appear every time Tony blinks, and he strongly suspects there might be another exit in the basement. He grits his teeth at the thought that any of them might get away, especially with Starktech weaponry. He’s not going to let that happen if there’s anything that he can do about it.

“Cap, we gotta get down there now,” he calls.

Steve twists, flinging someone over his shoulder, and gestures to the floor. Tony takes the silent order and runs with it, blasting the ground and grabbing Steve. They fly down together, Tony blowing holes in the ground and passing scores of Hydra agents, until they hit the basement. It’s empty aside from the huge crates in the room that make Tony itch. They’re far enough away from the town that they won’t hurt any innocent civilians. He looks at Steve, even though Steve can’t see him.

At one time, he would’ve just started firing left and right and damn the consequences. Now, he says, “Steve.”

Steve looks at him. He looks at the crates. His mouth hardens into a thin line. “Let’s get clear.”

“Sam, we’re gonna blow this place,” Tony says as Steve throws an arm around him.

“Got it,” Sam says, sounding entirely too gleeful about the idea.

The resulting explosion is pretty spectacular. Tony doesn’t feel an ounce of regret for the Hydra goons caught inside; most of them were probably dead already (not many humans can take a repulsor blast or Captain America’s shield to the face and survive) and those that weren’t, well. They made their choice, they were using black market Starktech and they nearly killed Clint.

“I like the sound of that,” Bucky says, the first words he’s spoken since they entered the building. Tony forgot he was even listening.

“That’s your souvenir, so don't ever tell me I have bad taste again,” Tony says, and if his voice cracks a little in the middle, he hopes that they all ignore it.

Chapter Text

They're supposed to stay at the site long enough to debrief with whatever SHIELD team is closest, but Steve doesn't even bother to mention it. Not when they're all desperate to see Clint and make sure that he really is okay. They take a short-cut to the hospital; Iron Man gives Steve another lift, depositing him gently on the roof of the hospital before the armor touches down as well. By the time that Sam joins them, the armor has collapsed back into its suitcase form. Steve slides his shield onto his back, grabs the armor and follows Tony and Sam into the hospital.

Bucky meets them in the stairwell. "He's been moved out of post-op and into the I.C.U.," he says, holding up a hand to forestall their questions. "He's not really injured enough to warrant being there, but Phil insisted for Clint's safety. The nurses check on the patients every half hour. They'll know if something is wrong."

"Well, he's not going to be here for long anyway," says Tony. "We're going to fly him home."

"I know that, but the doctor felt Clint would be best served by staying here for at least one night. Maybe two. There's a concern about infection." Bucky says the word darkly, exchanging a look with Steve. Modern medicine has expanded by leaps and bounds, and it's true that people don't usually die of infection the way they did in Steve's and Bucky's time. But that doesn't mean it isn't something to take seriously. Steve remembers seeing more than his fair share of men and women succumbing to gangrene and worse.

"Can we see him?" Sam asks, always the sensible one, and Bucky nods.

"Phil managed to talk the nurses into letting us in. Come on."

They make their way down the steps in tense silence and follow Bucky out into the sterile hallways. Phil is slumped outside of Clint's room, head buried in his hands. Steve recognizes the signs of a drop; it's not surprising, considering that Phil hasn't eaten or slept in close to forty-eight hours and that his sub just came out of surgery. But despite the pallor of his skin and the shakiness of his hands, Phil still lifts his head and smiles at them.

"He's okay. We can only enter two at a time, but he's okay. I just stepped out to give him and Natasha some privacy."

Steve glances in the window of the room. Natasha is sitting beside Clint's bed. They're not touching, they're not even speaking: they're just looking at each other in that private way that always used to make Steve wonder if maybe they were dating. The two of them are like that; they can have a complete conversation with saying a word or even changing their facial expressions. Sometimes it's beneficial during missions, but at other times it's exasperating. He doesn't know anyone else who get into a fight without ever actually speaking.

Clint is pale, paler than Phil, and hooked up to a lot of different machines. His leg is in a thick cast and has been propped up by a pillow. The sheets are pulled up to his chest, obscuring any other bandages, but the rest of his visible body - arms, hands, and upper chest - are heavily bruised. Even as Steve watches, Clint tries to shift position and ends up grimacing from the pain. Natasha says something, her face turned too far for Steve to be able to read her lips, and gets up. She brushes her fingers over Clint's hand and comes to the door of the room.

"He'd like to see you," she says to Tony. "You and Bucky, if you're okay."

"I'm fine." Tony is looking a little haunted, and Steve knows exactly what he's thinking. It makes him sick to know that Tony is taking responsibility on his shoulders when this is not his fault. Stane was the one who sold off Stark Industries weapons, not Tony. And if something worse had happened to Clint or Natasha, it would've been his fault. But Tony will never see it that way.

Bucky steps in first, with Tony trailing behind - clearly ready to bolt at the first sign that Clint doesn't want to see him after all. But Clint's face lights up into such an obvious smile at the sight of them that even Tony can't hang back. He sinks down into the chair Natasha had just vacated, Bucky hovering behind him, and Steve turns away to give them privacy. Natasha is sitting in the chair beside Phil and Sam is crouched down beside her, whispering to him. Steve looks to Phil.

"Coffee?"

"I'm not really thirsty," Phil tries.

Steve gives him a look. "That's not really what I was asking. You're of no help to Clint if you collapse, you know that. It's only going to send him into a panic. And then the doctors will have to sedate him, because nothing's going to keep him from your side if you're in a hospital bed, and that doesn't sound like a medically wise decision for someone who just got out of surgery. Wouldn't you rather avoid that and just come get something to drink?"

Phil stares at him for a second and then sighs. "You've gotten way too good at that.”

"I've had plenty of practice," Steve says wryly. Sometimes nothing short of picking Tony up and physically carrying him out of his workshop is enough to pry Tony away from whatever fantastic project he's working on, but most of the time a little coaxing and the occasional threat is enough. Tony, like Phil, responds well to logic, even if it's not logic that they really want to hear.

"I bet." Phil slowly pushes himself up. He doesn't wobble, but he doesn't look steady either. He falls into step beside Steve, looking back over his shoulder as they head down the hall towards the elevator.

"We destroyed the Hydra base," says Steve, hoping to give him something else to focus on, and it works. Phil's head snaps around and he looks as Steve with laser intensity. If he were a less collected man, he'd be prying at Steve's arm and demanding details. Steve doesn't make him wait. He freely spills the details of their mission, including a description of the Starktech weapons found in the basement of the now non-existent warehouse. A very small smile breaks out across Phil's face when he hears about Tony blowing the building up; by that point, they're sitting at a cafeteria table with two trays of tasteless food, and he actually takes a bite of some rice.

"Good. I'm glad to hear that Tony got rid of them. Maybe that will make him feel better."

Steve thinks about Tony's actions today, combined with the sound of Tony's voice just after the building blew up, and shakes his head. "Doubtful."

Phil doesn't look surprised by that. "This will be hard on him, especially with what’s been going on lately. I'm going to spend the night here. Natasha volunteered to stay with me, but I think I'll send her back to the hotel with Bucky and ask Sam to stay inside. You should take Tony back to the hotel, too. He needs you right now."

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather us stay?"

"No, it'll be fine. I don't think Hydra was purposely targeting Clint. We surprised them and they got the jump on us. Now that we're wise to them, I doubt they'll attempt to retaliate. Besides, I've asked Fury to send some extra agents to stand outside Clint's door. Between them, me and Sam, we should be fine.”

“I’m going to run out and get you something that actually qualifies as food first,” Steve says. “Any requests?”

“No. Thanks, Steve.”

“It’s nothing.” Steve stands, dumps the untouched trays (it galls him a little to waste the food, but Phil needs something more hearty), and heads down while Phil takes the elevator back up. He’s pleased to see that Phil does look a little better after the coffee; at least he no longer looks like he’s going to fall over.

He runs out to the nearest restaurant and buys enough food for all of them, bowls of rice and whatever is most easily carried – he’s not picky, not after that dreadful hospital food. He drops off some of the take-out at the hospital and gets the chance to finally speak to Clint, who mostly just whines about Steve having brought food for Phil and Sam and none for him. His eyes are wide and glassy with painkillers, and he ends up dropping off mid-sentence.

Phil just smiles fondly, running his fingers through Clint’s hair. “I’ll call you if anything changes,” he says to Natasha. “Go. Get some sleep. Let Bucky look after you.”

Natasha frowns, casting an uncertain glance at Clint, but finally nods. “What hotel are we staying at?”

“The same one as before,” Steve says, surprised.

“Uh, no we’re not,” Tony says. “Are you kidding me? Tony Stark does not stay at hotels that cost less than $50 USD a night, Steve. I shudder to think about the quality of that place. You and Bucky might have the serum protecting you, but the rest of us humans are still susceptible to god knows what.” He shudders dramatically. “I made us reservations somewhere else.”

“That wasn’t necessary,” Steve says to him.

“Maybe not for you.” Tony gives him a meaningful look, and suddenly Steve gets it. Tony’s posturing is a sorely needed distraction for Natasha. Not to mention, none of them really want to spend the night in the same place where Clint was with them just yesterday. He smiles at Tony in return, full of pride, and Tony flushes in response.

Bucky practically has to pull Natasha out of the room, but finally all four of them get downstairs to the car. The driver takes them to a very nice hotel a couple of blocks away. The first thing Steve does is strip off his (frankly gross by this point) uniform and take a very long, very hot shower, washing dust and glass out of his hair. It doesn’t really occur to him that Tony only booked two rooms until he emerges from the shower, towel wrapped around his waist, and finds Tony sitting on the king-sized bed.

“I called down and had the concierge bring up some clothes for you guys,” says Tony. “Sorry, I didn’t think to grab any before Bucky and I left.”

“It’s fine. Thanks, Tony.” Steve grabs the jeans, polo shirt and boxers and retreats into the bathroom to get dressed. Now that he’s out of the uniform, he can feel exhaustion weighing heavily. Thanks to the serum he requires less sleep than most people, but that only works up to a certain point.

Food first, though. Tony’s divvied up the bags of food between them and Bucky and Natasha. Steve sits down next to him on the bed and tears into what’s left. He’s starving. Tony just watches him with an amused little smile, cradling his own bowl of ramen. He doesn’t finish it, and ends up handing the rest over to Steve with the excuse that he’s not very hungry.

“Are you hurt? Sick?” Steve asks, concerned.

“No. I’m okay. I just…” Tony trails off, wrapping his arms around his stomach. He looks as tired as Steve feels. “It’s been a long week.”

“You should sleep.” Steve finishes the ramen and gathers the trash from the bed. “I’ll take the couch.”

“No.”

“I’m not letting you take the couch –” Steve began, only to look up and see Tony shaking his head.

“No. I thought – the bed is plenty big.” Tony won’t meet his eyes, staring at the ground. “For both of us.”

“Tony…” Steve stares at him, genuinely surprised. Tony is undeniably affectionate, nuzzling into every touch like a starved kitten, but Steve knows exactly how vulnerable you are when you sleep. He’s shocked that Tony is even suggesting it.

Apparently, Tony takes his silence the wrong way. "You're right, it was a dumb idea. I'll -"

"I think it's a great idea," Steve says loudly, cutting him off. "I would love to sleep in the same bed as you, Tony. So long as you're okay with me holding you, because Bucky tells me I sleep like an octopus."

Tony cracks a small smile. "Remind me to ask him for some stories," he says, and if it would keep that genuine smile on Tony's face do, Steve'll do it.

Chapter Text

It’s been a long couple of days, but that doesn’t mean Tony has an easy time falling asleep no matter how exhausted he is. Steve is beside him in the bed, but you’d never know it from the distance between them: the bed is large and Steve’s taken full advantage of it, leaving several inches of space. Tony stares at the ceiling, visibly only because of the light from the arc reactor, and tries to convince himself that it’s not because Steve doesn’t want to.

It still takes considerably more courage than it should to sneak out a hand under the covers and find Steve’s. Steve sucks in a shocked breath and audibly relaxes, fingers curling so tightly around Tony’s that it removes all doubt about whether or not Steve wants this. That leaves the more likely conclusion that Steve is over there trying to be all chivalrous, deliberately keeping to himself in order to let Tony make the first move.

That sounds like Steve.

Tony sighs, closing his eyes. “You don’t have to lay all the way over there, you know. I’m not going to bite.”

“Tony,” Steve says in that tone of voice which means he’s trying to be chastising, but can’t help smiling. “That’s not what I was worried about. If you want to bite me, you can do it now while we’re both awake.”

“Really?” Tony squints at him, trying to assess how serious he is. In his experience, doms are the ones who do things to subs. Not the other way around. Especially not with something that has the potential to leave an actual mark, like biting would.

“Yes. Sex is supposed to be a two-way street. Something that we both enjoy. That doesn’t change just because I’m a dom and you’re a sub,” says Steve, following his train of thought perfectly. His head tips, looking down at his body ruefully. “Of course, thanks to the serum no mark you leave on me will last for long. But I’d certainly enjoy giving you the chance to try.”

“I don’t want to hurt you,” Tony says honestly. The thought of receiving or causing pain doesn’t excite him at all. He’s seen enough of that. He’d rather bring any partner of his pleasure, given the chance.

Obie – Stane – never gave him the chance.

Steve rolls over to face him. “Then you don’t have to. This is about both of us.” He brings their joined hands up and gives the back of Tony’s hand a quick kiss. It’s such a dorky move that Tony is flustered, though he tries not to show it.

He says, just a little shakily, “Would you want me to?” He’s heard of doms who like that, but the idea that Steve might be one hasn’t crossed his mind.

“No,” Steve says after a pause, having given the question serious consideration. “I wouldn’t mind a few hickeys, but anything beyond that… I told you before, pain doesn’t really excite me. But if it was something you liked, we could talk about it. A conversation doesn’t hurt as long as both people understand that there are boundaries, and that there is equal veto power. I wouldn’t expect you to do anything you don’t want or like, so I expect you to have the same courtesy for me.”

Steve makes it sound simple. Tony closes his eyes, letting out a shaky sigh. As much as he trusts Steve, it’s hard to wrap his mind around the fact that maybe Stane was in the wrong. That maybe Tony isn’t worthless, and he didn’t deserve every lesson that Stane branded into his skin, and that not liking pain doesn’t make him a bad sub.

“I think I’d like giving you pleasure,” he whispers finally. He had sexual partners before Stane. He can remember doms ordering Tony to make them come, and feeling his own excitement build when they’d shake underneath him and cry out his name, how good it felt when they praised him later. He’s had fantasies about Steve like that for as long as he can remember, long before he even met Steve; that they’ve only increased since he has met Steve would probably surprise no one.

“I’d like that,” Steve says, warm and quiet, and squeezes his hand. The gentle pressure gives Tony a surge of courage and, remembering Bucky’s words, he swallows hard.

“I-I offered to give Ob-Stane pleasure, once,” he says.

Steve blinks, but otherwise gives no indication to his surprise. “You did?”

Tony nods. His hands are shaking a little. He wonders if Steve can feel it. Probably. “Back in the beginning. It was after a long day. We were both tired. He was stressed. I could see it.” The words are easier to say than he expected, easier still when he shifts the blanket up, covering the reactor, and the room goes dark. “I thought it might help.

“He was sitting on the bed, so I… I knelt in front of him and offered to give him a blowjob. I’m pretty good at it.” His lips quirk into a smile briefly, remembering praise from others, before falling flat. “He got mad at me. Said that I shouldn't be acting as though my mouth was something I had the right to offer, because he was my dom and he owned it and could use it anytime he wanted.”

Now, it’s harder. His mouth is dry. “He… pushed me down on the bed. Held my head against the blankets until I couldn’t breathe.”

Steve’s hand jerks, spasmodically tightening, but he says nothing – perhaps sensing that Tony needs to get this out, and if he stops he won’t be able to continue.

“The whole time, he kept telling me that he was my dom. That he could do whatever he wanted and no one could stop him because I was just a stupid sub. That it was his decision whether I even had the right to breathe, because I belonged to him. He said he wouldn’t let me up until I stopped squirming and accepted that it was his right.” Tony hears his voice crack and hates himself for it, just a little. “I can still hear his voice in my ear. It was the first time he ever said that to me.

“I c-couldn’t stop. Squirming, I mean. I passed out. When I woke up…” Tony trails off. His throat aches. His hands are shaking so hard, Steve has to know. “He’d tied me up, gagged me and left me there. On the floor. I’d pissed myself.” He can still remember the creeping mortification and fear upon waking up. It makes tears sting his eyes. “He left me there until the next night, when he decided he wanted his blowjob.”

“Tony…” Steve breathes, sounding as though it physically pains him – but Tony’s not done yet.

“For the next week,” he says, as tonelessly as possible, “he came to me every hour and made me go down on my knees to suck him. No matter what I was doing or where, even in the middle of the night. A couple times, he put on a cock ring and then caned me for not making him come anyway. He’d say the same things to me the whole time.” He still has to stop for an embarrassingly long moment in an attempt to get himself back under control. It doesn’t work, and his next words come out badly stuttered.

“The third t-time I wanted him to s-stop, he slapped me across the f-face, twisted my arm up b-behind my back and said no sub was allowed to use th-those words. That I w-was d-disgusting for not g-going d-down. That I was just a c-commodity to be used, and th-that a g-good sub would enjoy what he was doing. He s-said th-that fighting…” Tony chokes on the hated words. “F-fighting m-made m-me a b-bad sub.”

He can’t continue. The tears come in a rush, and Tony brings his free hand up to cover his face as his breath hitches in a sob. He hasn’t thought about those first few months in years. It’s humiliating now to think about how stupid he was, believing that if he could just train enough, learn enough, be enough, Stane might change his mind and think he was a good sub.

“Tony.” Steve’s voice is shaking. “May I hug you?”

Tony manages a nod, wanting Steve’s arms around him more than anything. His wish is granted instantly; Steve reaches out a big arm and hauls him across the bed and into his arms, hugging him so tightly it aches. Tony curls into him, the sobs coming from somewhere deep inside that he can’t stop. For a little while he tries, but they shake right out of him anyway and eventually he gives up and just cries.

All the memories wash over him now. Times when Stane mocked and teased him. Times when, except for the tone of his voice, his words might have been kind. Times when Tony would sit in the corner of his room and just wonder why he couldn’t be a good sub, why it came to easily to everyone else, and why Stane bothered to put up with him anymore.

Times after Afghanistan, but before the discovery of the betrayal, when Tony kind of wished he’d died in the caves with Yinsen.

He tells Steve that, out of everything running through his mind, and feels the way Steve tenses in response.

“You don’t still feel that way, do you?” Steve asks, full of fear.

Tony shakes his head, the tide of tears starting to slow finally. He just feels empty now. Worn down, run out, broken. He squeezes his eyes shut tighter and presses into Steve. “I’m a bad sub and a worse person,” he rasps. “But I’m trying to be better. I couldn’t – I have a lot to make up for.”

“Tony. Sweetheart. You are the best person I know,” says Steve, honest even through a cracked voice, and Tony looks up. He’s amazed to find that there are tears in Steve’s eyes. Steve tries to smile, pressing a shaky kiss to his forehead.

“Everything he told you was a lie, Tony. He wanted to keep you under his thumb and that was the only way to do it. If you knew just how amazing you were, you wouldn’t have wasted a minute with that asshole. You’re not a bad sub. You go under so sweetly, so beautifully, that it takes my breath away. I feel blessed every time I’m with you.”

The certainty catches Tony’s attention more than the words themselves. He keeps his eyes on Steve, not sure how to respond. Stane was just as convinced, and it’s hard to know who to believe. He wants to believe Steve. Steve might be stubborn as hell and have a temper, but he’s also kind and moralistic and good. Stane wasn’t good.

Maybe, with Steve, Tony can be good.

“Maybe,” he mumbles, not convinced, but too exhausted to talk about it anymore. The previous antsiness keeping him awake has fled, leaving him fighting to keep his eyes open.

“I hate him, and I hate Howard for ever introducing you to him,” Steve whispers, setting a protective hand against the back of Tony’s head. “You are incredible, sweetheart. You’re not bad. Even I don’t really deserve you.”

Tony manages to make an indignant noise at that, and feels more than sees Steve’s smile.

“Someday I’m going to figure out how to make you believe that,” he vows. “I swear to you, Tony, you deserve so much better and I’m going to do whatever it takes to give it to you.”

“Just stay,” Tony mutters, tightening his own grip on Steve. He’s not sure when exactly he started hugging Steve back, but Steve is warm and strong. It feels nice.

“I will. I’m not going anywhere, I promise.”

That’s enough of a comfort that Tony finally drifts off to sleep.

Chapter Text

Steve wakes up to a quiet rapping on the door. Before he can do much more than lift his head and blink blearily, the light on the lock flashes green and the door cracks open. Natasha pokes her head, her eyes zeroing in on the bed immediately. The beginnings of a frown drag at the corners of her mouth, and Steve follows her glance down to the bed to see that Tony is still tightly wrapped up in his arms. Tony's ear is pressed against his chest, his tear-streaked cheeks and puffy eyes visible to them both.

"We're fine," Steve mouths at her. "Give us fifteen minutes."

Still frowning, she nods and takes a step backwards. The door glides smoothly shut, without even a click. Steve turns his attention back to Tony, freeing one hand to brush at the streaks on Tony's face. Tony murmurs unintelligibly at the touch, nuzzling into it like a kitten before subsiding back against Steve's chest. He wiggles around a little, adjusting his position, then thrusts his ear right up against Steve's heart and goes boneless. The smile that overcomes Steve's face at that moment is so huge his cheeks hurt, but at the same time his eyes go a little misty.

Lying there last night, listening to Tony choke out a story in that awful, broken voice, was one of the hardest thing he's ever done. He wanted so badly to do something more than just hug Tony and let him talk. And the memory of what Tony was actually saying - Steve shudders in rage, his fingers trembling with the urge to hit something. If he were at the tower, he’d go destroy a couple of the reinforced punching bags that Tony created specially for him.

He'll do it, though. He’ll listen for as long as and as often as Tony needs, but it'll never get easier. Stane is dead, but the memory of what he did lives on in the worst way. And no matter how much that Steve wishes the bastard wasn't dead so that Steve could be the one to kill him, all he can do is support Tony in the best way he knows how. It feels painfully inadequate, like he should be doing more, but Steve knows as well as anyone that you can't fight the nightmares in someone else's head.

Hell, some days he can barely fight the ones in his own head.

He tips his head down, brushing a kiss across Tony's cheek. "Hey, sweetheart," he whispers, trying his best not to startle Tony too badly. He's surprised they both slept the night through; if Tony had nightmares, he didn't move around enough to wake Steve. He hopes, perhaps a little naively, that Tony slept well and deep.

Tony stirs reluctantly, brown eyes fluttering open. There's no confusion in his gaze. He locks straight onto Steve and gives a sleepy, gorgeous smile. "Hey," he rasps back, wincing a little. "Time's it?"

"Just after nine," Steve says after a glance at the alarm clock. "Natasha just poked her head in. I think she's ready to go check on Clint. Are you ready to get up? Or did you want to sleep some more?"

After considering the question for all of two seconds, Tony shakes his head and runs a hand through his hair, leaving it sticking straight up. "Nah. If the doctors will let us take Katniss home, let's do it."

"You're so amazingly selfless sometimes," Steve says without thinking.

Tony's cheeks flush. "You're my dom, I think you're biased." As soon as the words are out, and he registers what he said, his eyes go wide and he stiffens all over.

That's - wow. Steve stares down at him, shocked and delighted in equal measures. He's wondered what this - what he – what they means to Tony, but he's never dared ask. He doesn't want to push Tony into something he's not ready for. At the same time, it's hard not to think of this beautiful sub as his. He lifts a hand, ignoring the way Tony flinches just a little, and cups Tony's cheek.

They look at each other for a moment.

"I would love to be your dom, Tony," Steve says, meaning it. He’s already asked Tony to be his boyfriend, but being dom and sub – that’s something different entirely and they both know it.

"Really?" Tony looks a little confused, a little doubtful, and a lot skeptical. "You heard what I said last night. I'm - I'm used goods, Steve, you shouldn't -"

"Don't," Steve says, half-begging, heart aching. He can’t believe those words just came out of Tony’s mouth. "Tony, that's not true. I meant everything I said last night. You are wonderful and amazing and beautiful and I love you." There, he's said it.

Tony's eyes go impossibly wide. "You... what?" he squeak.

"I love you," Steve repeats, a little more firmly. "You don't have to say it back. It's fine. I just wanted you to know that. We don't have to make a contract right now, and nothing has to change. I won't demand sex from you; I’m happy just spending time with you.” His thumb rubs at the grime on Tony’s cheek. “But if you want me to be your dom, honey, nothing would make me happier."

“Steve…” Tony’s expression twists to something conflicted; it’s a face Steve is familiar with, and he knows that it means Tony is wrestling with himself. So he waits, content to let Tony work things out.

Even if Tony decides to end this, he won’t regret telling Tony the truth. The words have been burning inside of him since the first day that JARVIS called them all down to the workshop because Tony was dropping. He’s just held them back out of respect for Tony, not wanting to rush things or pressure Tony. But at the same time, he thinks Tony needs to know it – needs to know that he can be, and is, loved, regardless of what happened in the past.

At least, Tony lets out a quivery breath. “I’m not good, Steve. For you or for anyone. I couldn’t even hold it together with Pepper.”

“It takes two to make or break a relationship,” Steve reminds him.

“Come on,” Tony says, rolling his eyes and propping himself up on his elbows. It brings them a little closer together. “You know that was mostly my fault. I’m the one who locks myself in the workshop for days on end, drinks too much, and can’t stay out of the suit to save my life. She told me when we got together that all she needed was for me to not be Iron Man, and I couldn’t even do that –”

“That wasn’t fair of her to ask and you know that. Iron Man is a part of you; you are Iron Man. That’s like asking you not to invent anymore.”

Tony drops his gaze, staring at Steve’s shoulder. “I would’ve changed for her, if I could’ve,” he whispered miserably. “It just… wasn’t enough.”

“You’re enough,” Steve says. It hurts to know just how beaten down Tony is. The world has trampled all over him, to the point where a lesser man would’ve broken entirely. Yet Tony keeps trying, keeps trusting, keeps loving. “You’ve always been enough. I’ll accept your choice if you don’t want to be with me, but I’m not Pepper. I’m not asking you to change. I want you the way you are.”

He presses another kiss to Tony’s cheek, savoring the soft flesh under his lips. “I want to be there for you, if you’ll let me. And I…” Christ, he’s not sure how Tony got those words out last night. “I want you to be there for me,” he confesses in a rush of shame. He can’t bring himself to admit that sometimes he needs to put Tony down even more than Tony needs it. He slides his forehead down until it’s resting in the curve of Tony’s neck.

“Steve…”

“I know I shouldn’t say that, because it puts pressure on you,” Steve mutters. “You have enough to deal with without worrying about me. But –”

“Hey.” Tony’s hands curl into his hair and tug just sharply enough that Steve lets his head be dragged up. Tony scowls at him. “You listened to me last night, which is more than I could ask of anyone else. You’re always there for me. I want to be there for you. This is a two-way street, you said it yourself.”

“Yeah.” Steve smiles a little, because he did say that. “So…”

“Yeah.” Tony bites his lip for a few seconds, then exhales and smiles. “Yeah, okay. You know, if you want –”

“No.” Steve cuts him off, not wanting to hear what Tony is about to offer. It’ll doubtlessly be something that will piss him off and ruin the mood. “I don’t need anything else from you but what you’re willing to give.” It’s the truth. Knowing that he can call Tony his sub now makes him feel light enough to fly.

Tony sighs and rolls his eyes again. “If you did –”

“I would tell you, but that goes both ways. If you ever need something I’m not providing, and I don’t just mean during a scene, you have to tell me,” says Steve.

“Fine.” Tony puts a hand to his chest, where the dog tags are laying in the hollow of his neck. They look good on him. So good.

“I know a collar usually comes after a contract,” Steve says. He’s not sure either one of them is ready for that. And how can they write and sign a contract when Tony doesn’t need know what he likes or doesn’t like? He’ll have to talk to Natasha and Phil and see what they suggest. In the meantime…

“And maybe someday, we’ll get there. But… you could… if you want, in the meantime. I like how they look on you.”

“Oh thank god,” Tony says, mouth tipping from smile into mischievous smirk. “I was afraid you were going to ask for them back. Because you should know you’re never getting them back. They’re mine now.”

“Are they?” Steve says wryly, unable to contain his amusement. “You can keep them, but it’ll cost you a kiss.”

“I think I can swing that.” Tony’s other hand slides from Steve’s hair down to cup the back of his head, and he tugs Steve down for a gentle kiss. Steve tries not to put too much weight directly on top of him, bearing in mind that he weighs a lot and Tony is smaller than him, but Tony seems to like it.

“My pretty sub,” Steve murmurs between kisses, and Tony shivers in response.

They barely hear the door click open behind them, but Bucky’s disgusted groan is hard to miss. “Jesus, I thought you said there was something wrong. This is the cruelest punishment you’ve ever come up with. Tell me what I did wrong so I can never do it again, Красавица.”

Natasha’s eye roll is practically audible. “You’re not being punished. You two, however, might be if you don’t stop that and get moving,” she directs towards the bed. “Visiting hours start in half an hour.”

“We’re coming,” Tony calls out from under Steve.

"I'll kill you if you do," Bucky threatens. When Steve glances over his shoulder, Bucky has a hand clapped over his eyes. Natasha, on the other hand, is watching them avidly. When she sees the smile on Tony's face, she relaxes a little and even gives Bucky's shoulder a playful nudge.

"You're always telling me that you saw everything in the war," she says.

"Somehow I managed to avoid that," Bucky growls back.

"Relax, Buck. He didn't mean it like that." Steve ducks down for one last kiss and then reluctantly clambers off of Tony. He's just in his boxers, but it's not like Natasha and Bucky haven't seen him this way before - or worse. Living in close quarters is one thing - as an Avenger, they've suffered through the decontamination showers more than once.

He holds a hand out to Tony, who takes it and allows Steve to pull him effortlessly off the bed and onto his feet. "Give us ten minutes," Tony says to Bucky and Natasha. "We'll be ready."

Chapter Text

Tony takes care of checking them out of the hotel while Steve and Natasha head to the hospital. Bucky hovers behind him like an unassuming bodyguard, thoroughly terrifying the poor clerk behind the desk. Tony shoots her apologetic smiles and makes sure to leave a sizeable tip, because there aren’t many people who can safely come out the other side of one of Bucky’s glares without needing some kind of therapy.

“You need to knock it off,” he says to Bucky in an undertone as they step away from the desk. They have next to nothing in luggage – Bucky has a single bag and the suitcase armor in hand - so he waves off the bellboy. “You’re doing that weird hovering thing and it’s scaring people.”

Bucky’s frown deepens. “Natasha said you were crying this morning.”

It takes effort to hold in a sigh. Tony’s really not even sure sometimes how it got to this point. When Bucky first came to the tower, but after the hold that Hydra had on him had lessened, he and Tony didn’t even like each other that much. Tony can look back at it now and recognize it as jealousy on both their parts; it’s difficult to learn to share Steve when they were both used to having Steve to themselves, even if Tony and Steve hadn't been anything more than friends at that point.

There was a part of Tony that was fully prepared to give up something that he believed he never really had. It was Bucky and Steve, Steve and Bucky, brothers in arms at the very least. Roughly half the movies created about them since that time were convinced that they were in love even if they were subtle about it; at least a quarter of said movies outright stated it. There was no way Tony could get in the middle of that.

He’s not sure to this day whether that’s what changed Bucky’s mind, or whether Bucky just spent enough time with him that he started to like Tony. Because that’s an actual thing, Tony is rude and abrasive and aggravating to just about everyone: according to Pepper, people need repeated exposure so that Tony can grow on them. Based on his relationship with the rest of the team, he’s come to the conclusion that she’s (unfortunately) not wrong.

The point is, Bucky hovers when he’s worried about his friends. He has mother hen instincts exactly like Steve – watching the two of them trying to mother each other after a battle can be truly hilarious – and now, he does it to Tony too. Some days it’s easier to take than others, because Tony is a sucker for affection, but then there are days like today when Tony just wants to curl up in Steve’s arms and forget about last night and the dreadful nightmares that followed.

“It’s nothing,” he says finally, but he’s been quiet too long and Bucky’s frown has gotten even deeper at the corners. “Really. I just – I took your advice.”

“You talked to Steve,” Bucky says, eyes widening a little.

“Just one story. That was –” Tony stops, swallowing. That was more than enough. He doesn’t let himself think about Stane too much, so he was unprepared for how it would feel to talk about it in detail. To describe what happened, lay it at someone’s feet, and wait for their judgment. He shivers in spite of the heat of the day.

Bucky drapes an arm over his shoulder, none too subtly reeling Tony in a little closer. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.”

“Are you just saying that because Clint is injured and you think the focus should be on him?” Bucky asks, raising an eyebrow.

Tony scowls. “No. Maybe. I’m fine, really. I just feel a little off-kilter, but you can’t fix that.” His stomach feels like someone reached inside of him and switched on a blender. How is it possible to simultaneously feel keyed up and exhausted?

“Nah, but Stevie can. C’mon.” Bucky ushers him out of the hotel and into the car. They agreed to meet Natasha, Steve, Sam, Coulson and Clint at the airport. The downtown Tokyo traffic takes so long that Bucky and Tony are actually the ones who are late; Clint is just being loaded onto Tony’s private jet. He’s strapped to a stretcher and complaining wildly about it.

“I see he’s fine,” Tony says dryly.

Natasha rolls her eyes. “He hasn’t shut up since Coulson told him he’d have to lay down the whole flight,” she says, but fondly. “They gave him something right before he left. It’ll probably knock him out soon.”

“Good. At least the flight back will peaceful,” Sam says, in a way that definitely means the night was not. He’s rubbing his head like he has a headache.

“The seats recline all the way, like a bed,” Tony offers.

Sam looks at him like Tony’s just offered him a million dollars. “You are a beautiful person,” he says emphatically, booking it up the ramp and nearly crashing into Steve, who dodges just in time.

“What was that about?” Steve asks, looking confused.

“Clint,” Natasha says succinctly, apparently feeling like that’s suitable explanation. “Everything ready?”

“Yeah. Coulson’s getting him comfortable in the bed. I can’t believe you have a plane with a bed in it,” Steve adds to Tony.

Tony shrugs. “Sometimes Pep and I have long nights,” he says, which is a severe underestimation. Right after Stane died, Stark Industries was a fucking disaster. So was Tony, for that matter, but Pepper needed him to be the face of S.I. and he’d done what he could to support her. He and Pepper spent a lot of nights in that bed, trying to grab some sleep in between flying to Japan, Russia, China, Africa – he’s pretty sure they were all over the globe that quarter, trying to soothe investors.

Steve frowns at him, but Coulson chooses that moment to poke his head out the door. “He’s secured, let’s go.”

By the time the pilot finishes his final check of the plane, everyone is strapped in and ready. Sam’s already dead to the world, snoring softly. Bucky and Natasha take the two seats just in front of him, and Natasha – who has been on Tony’s plane before (mostly because she stole it, but that’s another story) – draws the curtain down the aisle. It affords both sides of the plane some degree of privacy.

The take-off is pretty steady. Tony sighs once they’re in the air, feeling a little bit of stress come off his shoulders, and startles when a big hand cups the back of his neck. Steve smiles at him, pressing his clever fingers into the largest of the knots in Tony’s shoulders. It hurts, but when the knots eventually give under the pressure it’s blissful and he relaxes more into the touch.

“Bucky said you’re not feeling right,” Steve murmurs.

“When did he have time to tell you that?” Tony demands.

“While you were showing Coulson where the non-refrigerated water is kept,” Steve answers calmly, still rubbing. “I’m sorry. I should have made sure you were okay with me going to the hospital. Bucky and Natasha could’ve gone instead.”

“I am. I was. Steve, you can’t be with me all the time. And I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself.” Even as Tony hears the words coming out, he knows his tone is too harsh. Steve is just trying to help.

Steve’s quiet for a moment, which is definitely a change from how he would have reacted when they first met. Instead of rising to the challenge, he sighs and leans closer. “I know I can’t be with you all the time, Tony. I also know you can take care of yourself. But I’m your dom, and you told me about something really traumatizing last night. I’m just saying that I should’ve taken two seconds to check with you before I agreed to go with Natasha to the hospital. That’s all.”

There’s something about the brush of Steve’s fingers against the hair at the nape of his neck that makes Tony feel weak inside. At that moment, he feels dangerously close to flying apart completely. Part of him wants to snap at Steve and make him angry enough to back off; the other part feels like he’ll shatter if Steve leaves. Tony’s hands shake in his lap, where he’s clasped them together so tightly his knuckles are white.

“Shh,” Steve soothes, and Tony realizes he’s making these awful panting sounds. His chest is tight to the point where he can’t really breathe, because his lungs can’t expand to get enough air.

Shit. A panic attack. Tony's way more familiar with them than he wants to. He tries to pull in deep breaths, but his heart is racing and nausea clamps his throat together. Normally he deals with them by sitting in a corner and covering his head until the world just stops long enough for him to pull it together, but that's hardly going to work when they're on a plane.

He startles badly when strong hands slid under his body and pluck him out of his chair. He ends up comfortably curled up in Steve's lap, head tucked under Steve's chin, with his ear and the palm of one hand pressed to Steve's chest. Steve starts taking deep, exaggerated breaths. Tony tries his best to copy them, but it's hard when it's like his body doesn't remember how.

He wants to get up and run, or at least move and get some space, but his body won't respond. Complete lockdown. Tony gasps, dizzy, and closes his eyes to get away from the flashing spots. Over the sound of his struggle for air, he vaguely makes out the sound of Steve's voice.

JARVIS does that too, talks to Tony when he's in the middle of a panic attack, and more than once the sound of his A.I.'s voice has calmed Tony down. Automatically he latches onto Steve's voice, and while it's not as familiar, it's equally soothing. He has to concentrate if he wants to hear exactly what Steve is saying, and it's hard - his brain is scattered, thoughts racing and infinitesimally slow at the same time - but he needs to know.

Turns out Steve isn't saying much at all. "... and then Bucky got so mad he punched him, and knocked him right into the fire," Steve says, hushed. "They sulked for days, until Dum Dum got fed up and told them both to stop being so stupid." He laughs, brief and strained. "Which is more than Peggy would've done if she'd heard, so really they were both lucky."

Tony has no idea what he's talking about. He also has no idea where the blanket that's wrapped around him came from, or when exactly he grabbed onto Steve's dog tags so tightly that his hand hurts. He lacks the strength to ask, because the feeling of being closed in is fading and now being wrapped up in Steve feels like the best thing ever. Especially when Steve goes on to tell him two more stories about the Howling Commandos.

In the middle of story number three, Steve reaches for a bottle of water, uncaps it and drinks half in a single gulp. Then he puts the bottle to Tony's lips and wordlessly encourages him to drink. Tony's not really thirsty, though he now has a raging headache, but begrudgingly parts his lips. At the first sip of water, he realizes that he actually is thirsty and that the water soothes his aching throat.

"Good boy," Steve murmurs, pausing the story to press a kiss to the side of his head. "Are you okay?"

Tony nods, because words seem beyond him at the moment.

"Do you want me to put you down?"

He considers it, then regretfully shakes his head. Truthfully he's halfway down already, usually is after a panic attack that leaves him disoriented and weak, and Steve probably knows that. Tony used to deal with it by letting JARVIS talk at him until he came out of it, and if that didn't work he would ride out the subspace with self-care. Rarely, he would let JARVIS call for Pepper or Rhodey, but only when Tony was too strung-out or too deep to respond.

"Okay," Steve says, simple as that, and Tony might love him a little. Steve shifts the blanket a little higher around Tony's shoulders, then continues. "So anyway, like I said we had stopped in the little town and the mayor's daughter was head over heels for Gabe..."

Chapter Text

With Clint out of commission, there’s a lack of aerial support for the team. Clint usually acts as their eyes, choosing perches where he can see most, if not all, of the battle and reporting all of it back to Steve. Steve feels the loss acutely during the next battle, when Iron Man and Thor are on separate sides of the battle, no one knows where the Hulk is, Sam’s been grounded and Natasha’s comm keeps cutting out.

It lasts for hours, and Steve knows he can’t be the only exhausted when he turns on his heel and flings the shield hard at the man responsible for the chaos. The would-be villain takes the shield to the front of his helmet and goes down like a sack of potatoes. SHIELD agents swarm him immediately, slapping cuffs on him and hauling his unconscious body towards a waiting van.

“I hope they throw him in a hole so deep he never sees the light of day,” Sam says grumpily, peering over his shoulder at his wings. Or wing, since one of the villain’s robots cornered Sam and tore a wing straight off. The robot promptly suffered a quick death by Natasha’s hands, but that did little to pacify Sam.

“I can fix it,” Tony says over the comms, sounding so weary that Steve winces. “You were just about due for an upgrade. Come see me when we get back; I’ll –”

“Be getting some sleep,” Steve interrupts firmly. “Just like the rest of us. We’ve been out here for almost fourteen hours straight, Tony. There’s no way you’re fit to be inventing right now. Sam’s wings will still be broken when we all wake up.” He grimaces an apology at Sam, who just shrugs. They’re all familiar with the difficulty of trying to get Tony Stark to sleep.

“I’ve invented beautiful, amazing things after being awake for way longer,” Tony grumbles.

“Shall I tell them about the summer of 2005, sir?” JARVIS says.

“Shut up, traitor.”

Steve grins, slinging his shield onto his back. It will take SHIELD a while to clean up, and he’s glad that isn’t something the team has to worry about. As it is, normally Steve doesn’t mind sitting through the debriefing, but this time he’s tired and almost every muscle in his body aches. He half-heartedly listens, paying more attention to Tony and Bruce, both of whom look like they’re about two seconds away from falling asleep even in the massively uncomfortable chairs.

Scientists.

The debriefing finally finishes, Fury and Hill walking out deep in conversation, and Steve stands up carefully. Thor is about the only one who doesn’t look affected by the long battle, bouncing to his feet and retrieving a semi-conscious Bruce before he strides out of the room. Steve bends, wraps an arm around Tony’s waist, and pulls him up as they follow Sam out into the hall.

“I’m awake,” Tony mumbles.

“Sure you are,” Steve sighs, more carrying than supporting Tony at this point. It’s a short trip back to the tower, thank god, and the team disperses pretty quickly. Steve takes Tony back to his floor – if left alone, there’s an excellent chance Tony will chug three cups of coffee and sneak away to the workshop – and settles his sub on the couch before entering the bedroom.

All he can think about is taking a long shower and then falling into bed for at least five hours. He gingerly peels the sweaty, bloody uniform off and stretches, wincing at the familiar bite of pain in his midsection. Broken ribs, probably from a lucky hit that one robot had gotten in when Steve’s back was turned. The serum will knit the bones together, but does little to dispel the pain in the meantime.

“Oh my god.”

Steve turns quickly, not thinking, and proceeds to flash Tony. Tony’s eyes get about five sizes bigger and Steve instinctively grabs for the uniform, holding it up in front of his naked midsection. Most people don’t know that he goes nude under the uniform, but there’s really not much room for underwear when something is that skin-tight.

“Shit, Tony, sorry,” he says.

“Sorry?” Tony echoes, eyebrows shooting up. “For showing me your butt? Do you even realize how much I fantasized about seeing that when I was a kid?” He leers, licking his lips slowly. “Not to mention the front, and might I add that my teenaged fantasies did not do little Steve justice.”

Steve rolls his eyes. He’s not embarrassed by his appearance, not anymore; he’s known since his days as a glorified dancing monkey that people are fascinated by his body now. He was more worried about the nudity triggering Tony in a bad way. Absolutely nothing sexual has happened between them beyond a few heavy make-out sessions, and Steve’s not interested in having it go any further right now. Neither is Tony.

Which is why he’s surprised that Tony just keeps standing there, staring at Steve hungrily.

“I thought you were sleeping,” Steve says finally.

“No, my back was bothering me. By the time I found a comfortable position, I was bored.”

“Sleeping isn’t boring.”

“Maybe not for you unenlightened souls.” Tony prowls closer, stretching a hand out cautiously, but he doesn’t touch Steve’s ribs or abdomen. Instead, he puts a hand on Steve’s upper arm, just below a ragged cut. Steve doesn’t even remember that one happening, but it burns like anything whenever he flexes his bicep.

“It’s fine. It’ll heal,” Steve says, following Tony’s gaze.

“But you still hurt in the meantime,” Tony says, a frown tugging at his mouth. “Bruce and I should start working on a modified version of painkillers, see if there’s anything that’ll actually work with your system. The serum burns through regular stuff way too fast, but maybe if we upped the dosage –”

He’s getting that look in his eyes, the one that means his brain is clicking into overdrive, and Steve shakes his head. “It’s fine, Tony. Nothing I haven’t handled before. A hot bath will go a long way towards making me feel human again.”

“Want help?”

The offer makes Steve freeze, because he remembers all too well how pale Tony had gotten when they talked about triggers. Water in general, particularly bathing, had been very high on the list. And while he definitely likes the thought of taking a bath with Tony –

“Not like that,” Tony says, correctly interpreting the look on Steve’s face, rolling his eyes. “I meant – I could help. Give you a massage. While you’re in the tub.” He sounds stilted, uncomfortable with the offer.

Steve looks at him, feels almost bad for asking, “Did Stane ever…?”

“No. God no.” Tony laughs in a low, ugly way. “He wasn’t ever one to take baths. He said that languishing around in a bath – that was always the word he used, languishing - was for people with too much time on their hands, who weren’t good for anything else but soaking in their own filth.”

Wondering how often Tony heard those words, especially after Afghanistan when Stane forced him into water, makes anger burn in Steve’s chest. He has to swallow it down to answer. “I disagree. I think that anyone who says that has never realized how good bath bombs can feel.”

Tony’s lips part, the shadows sliding from his face. “Are you serious?”

Steve beckons to him, discarding his uniform as he walks into the bathroom. If nudity doesn’t make Tony uncomfortable, he sees no point in covering up. Like all the rooms in the Tower, the bathroom is large and spacious, with a shower separate from the soaker tub and more cupboards than Steve knows how to fill. He opens one in particular, showing off the wide array of bath bombs, salts, bubble baths and bath gels.

“Oh my god,” Tony says again, pressing a hand to his mouth to hide his smile. “Does the public know you’re a secret indulger?”

“Only Natasha and Bruce,” Steve says. Natasha was the one who introduced him to bubble bath; Bruce actually went with him to the store the first time and pointed out some of the more calming scents. Every bath ends up feeling ridiculously indulgent now and Steve loves it. Sometimes, when he wakes up with the chill of ice in his veins and bones, a long bath is the only thing that helps. The Tower’s never-ending supply of hot water is, Steve’s discovered, a thing of beauty.

He starts the tub himself rather than asking JARVIS to do it and selects vanilla salts and a lemon-honey bath bomb that will turn the water green with specks of gold. Tony grins like a little kid when Steve drops it in and the bomb explodes, perching on the side of the tub to watch while Steve grabs towels and a pillow. He’s not a big fan of doing anything during a bath, preferring instead to let time slide by. More than once, JARVIS has woken him up after he’s fallen asleep.

Steve steps in and sits carefully, sighing as the hot water rises around him. JARVIS shuts the water off without being asked, and for a few moments the bathroom is quiet except for the sounds of Steve and Tony breathing. Then Tony’s hands nudge at Steve’s shoulders; he leans forward, letting Tony slip the pillow in behind him. When he relaxes back, Tony’s arms – bare now, he must have removed his shirt – slide around his chest.

It’s easy to turn his head, to find the right angle so that he can kiss Tony in between breaths of steam. Tony murmurs in wordless appreciation even as his hands slide up, pressing into the sides of Steve’s neck. Steve breaks the kiss to wince at the surprisingly sharp pain, and Tony smiles knowingly. He digs his thumbs in hard, going after the knots with precision.

“Rhodey and I took a massage class once,” he says, the words a touch too slow to be sure, not quite slurred yet, but close. “He was trying to impress a girl he had a crush on, but he was too embarrassed to go by himself.”

“I’ll have to thank him,” Steve says, letting his chin dip so that Tony has better access. It hurts, but he knows it’ll be worth it. “I always loved your hands. I love them even more now.”

Tony snorts but doesn’t respond, and the only sounds for a while after that are Steve huffing in pain or sighing when a particularly difficult knot finally loosens, sending waves of relief through his body. He’s never really done this before, let a sub tend to him. It’s common in some circles and always will be, but it seemed… wrong, somehow, to take the gift of their trust and use it for selfish gains. Like he was taking advantage. Besides, he likes caring for his subs so he never saw any reason to let it be the other way around.

But then he sees Tony, when Tony shifts around enough that Steve can see his face. His eyes are glazed in that way that means he’s hit subspace, cheeks flushed so pretty, lips parted to show a little flash of tongue when he swallows. There’s joy in his face too, a calmness that Steve usually has to work hard to achieve, and that’s all Tony because Steve didn’t do a damn thing to get him there.

“Fuck, you’re amazing,” Steve murmurs, and Tony flushes with pleasure. It’s so easy to see that he loves this, helping Steve, and it makes sense. That’s all Tony ever does, bend over backwards to help the people around him. He wants so badly to protect and serve and never asks for anything in return, not even a word of thanks, so it pans out that he would like the same when he’s down. Steve’s not sure why he didn’t put two and two together before.

Especially when he can give Tony all the praise and compliments he wants, and like this Tony won’t refute them.

Such a good boy,” he adds, letting the words roll out in a throaty hum. “My good boy. My pretty sub.” He lifts a dripping hand to cup Tony’s cheek, and Tony melts into the touch. His fingers flex against Steve’s right shoulder and Steve smiles.

“I feel so much better, but my feet are bothering me. Would you give me a foot massage, sweetheart?”

“Yes sir,” Tony says, definitely slurring now, eager and beautiful. He shuffles down and reaches into the water, and Steve closes his eyes in bliss.

He’s definitely the lucky one.

Chapter Text

“Should I be concerned about this?”

Tony looks up with wide, innocent eyes, something he’s perfected after years of getting chewed out by Rhodey and Pepper. Beside him, a similar expression appears on Clint’s face. Bucky just schools his face into something halfway serious, because for a man who was the Winter Soldier he’s like an open book. If it were possible, Tony is positive that halos would be shining above their collective heads while harps played.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony says, squirming around a little until his hip isn’t jammed against Clint’s cast.

“Right,” Coulson says, completely unconvinced. “Because the three of you cackling and muttering something about explosions is never cause to be alarmed.”

“I don’t cackle,” Clint says, offended.

At the same time, Tony says, “You clearly misheard. I didn’t hear anyone say anything about an explosion. Did you guys?”

Somberly, Clint and Bucky shake their heads.

“Maybe you should get your hearing checked. I’ve heard old age is bad for that,” Bucky says.

It takes every ounce of will power Tony has not to start laughing at the look on Coulson’s face. Technically Bucky is by far the oldest person in the room, but due to the modified version of the serum and continuous use of the cryo chamber while in Hydra’s hands, he doesn’t look a day over twenty-eight. Clint’s shoulders start to shake, but Bucky just keeps looking at Coulson with his open, earnest expression, like he’s genuinely worried, and it’s hilarious.

Coulson finally breaks, shaking his head and sighing. “The three of you are a menace,” he says to no one in particular, but there’s no mistaking the fond look in his eyes when he glances at the bed. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to kick you two out. The doctor is here to see if Clint’s ready to be up and walking around.”

“Yes! Freedom!” Clint whoops, punching the air and nearly nailing Bucky in the face. The medical wing is made up of king-sized beds (nothing but the best in Stark tower) but even that’s a little cramped with three grown men sharing it. Bucky easily ducks and playfully pushes Clint’s arm away.

“I can tell when I’m not wanted,” Tony says, rolling off the bed. The room tilts a little when he’s standing, and he’s abruptly reminded of just how long it’s been since he last ate. He finds himself the subject of three intense, scrutinizing stares and scowls back.

“Bucky, could you escort Tony to the kitchen and makes sure he eats something?” Coulson asks.

“Hey, I’m not a child.”

“Sure,” Bucky says, easily overriding Tony’s protest. “C’mon, tin man.” He loops an arm around Tony’s shoulders and pulls him out of the room. The doctor dodges them, smiles politely and proceeds into Clint’s room. The door is closed firmly behind her as a clear hint. Tony pouts at the door and considers eavesdropping just because he can, but Bucky keeps tugging him towards the elevators.

“I’ll eat on my own time,” Tony says as they step inside.

“Yeah? When’s that? When you’re half-collapsed ‘cause you’ve been subsisting on coffee for two days, and Stevie’s hand feeding you?”

“If he wants to hand feed me, I won’t stop him.”

Bucky rolls his eyes, but he’s grinning. “Sure you won’t. He’s always been a sucker for that kinda thing. Couple times during the war, I went down on my knees for him.”

“You did?”

“Yeah. We both needed it. I had to pretend like I didn’t.” Bucky shrugs one shoulder, like it doesn’t matter, but Tony thinks it does. “And Stevie needed it too, but subs in the army were hard to come by back then. So every once in a while, we’d go into his tent during a quiet night. All I remember is him feeding me, though army rations weren’t exactly edible.” He wrinkles his nose.

“Edible certainly isn’t the word I’d use,” Tony says, remembering with a shudder of disgust the rations he was given after he was found in Afghanistan, when he was air-lifted to an army hospital. There’s a reason that a good old-fashioned American cheeseburger was a priority when he returned home.

“Agreed, which is why we’re going to get food that is edible.” The elevator doors open and Bucky gives him a gentle shove. Tony stumbles out, Bucky hot on his heels, and heads for the kitchen. Halfway there, the truly wonderful smell of lasagna reaches them, and they both pick up the pace just in time to see Bruce pulling a bubbling, cheesy pan of lasagna out of the oven. Natasha, Steve, Thor, Jane and Darcy are already sitting at the table, like puppies waiting for food.

“Oh good, right on time,” Bruce says, setting the pan on the table. His lasagna is famous amongst the team, and there’s usually not much left after. He cuts a couple of portions for Clint and Coulson, then steps back and lets Steve dole out the rest.

Tony can’t help the happy sound that comes out when that first forkful hits his tongue. God that’s good. He does kind of wish that Steve could feed it to him, but lasagna’s pretty messy. It’s not exactly the kind of thing that you can eat with your fingers. His mind skips briefly over the thought of having a plate on the floor, but that’s not even remotely the same and is uncomfortably close to Stane and his stomach shrivels at the idea.

That lessens his enjoyment of the meal, but only a little. He eats a little slower, as opposed to Thor who is shoveling it down like the food might get up and walk away if he’s not quick enough, and finishes about half the plate. Bucky cocks his head in a silent question and Tony pushes the plate over; he catches Steve, Natasha and Bruce all frowning at him, but ignores it.

He gets away with that until Steve’s done eating and goes, “Thanks for dinner, Bruce, it was delicious. Do you mind if Tony and I eat dessert alone?”

“What?” Tony says, startled, lifting his head from his phone. “I have work to do.”

“You don’t want to eat dessert with me?” Steve pins him with an epic puppy dog look. Out of the corner of his eye, Tony sees Bucky smirk into his food.

“I – okay,” Tony says weakly, because if they could bottle that look and sell it, there would be no more evil in the world. Everyone would just bow to the force that is Steve’s big blue eyes and soft lips, all twisted up in a wounded expression that makes it feel like you single-handedly just snapped his heart in half.

Unsurprisingly, the look immediately vanishes, replaced by a smile. “Great. I’ll get dessert.” He jumps up and heads over to the counter, then opens both the fridge and the freezer.

“In case you didn’t know, you were played,” Natasha says to Tony, not even bothering to lower her voice.

“Trust me, I know,” Tony mutters, but he can’t find it in himself to be too upset about the fact that Steve actually wants to spend time with him. It’s still a novel concept, and sometimes he wakes up in the morning wondering if the past month has just been a dream. Those are the mornings when he’s more than happy to be suckered, no matter how much work is waiting for him down in the workshop.

He follows Steve to the elevator, leaning willingly into Steve’s warmth. The cookies Steve has smell good, but he’s more interested in the little bowl Steve’s holding. There’s a cloth over the top of it and no discernible smell, so he’s not sure what it is. Whatever it is, it’s lumpy and comes from either the fridge or the freezer. Steve notices his curiosity, but holds the bowl far enough away that Tony can’t get to it. And since Tony blatantly refuses to get into a game of keep away after years of losing because of his height, he just scowls.

The cloth comes off as soon as they get to Steve’s floor, of course, revealing… ice cubes?

“I thought you might like to try experimenting with sensory play,” Steve tells him. “Just on your legs and arms, maybe your throat and neck. You could wear boxers and a muscle shirt.” He doesn’t add, though it’s clearly implied, that there will be nothing sexual about it.

“I’m always up for an experiment,” Tony says, intrigued. He’s heard of this before, but never experienced it. He’d like to say that he’ll remove his shirt entirely, because it’ll be way more intense on the sensitive skin of his chest and nipples, but truthfully he’s not comfortable being in subspace with the arc reactor visible. Steve could do whatever he wants during those times, and a flimsy shirt wouldn’t be able to stop him, but Tony likes to pretend otherwise.

Steve grins again. “Good. Get undressed and I’ll grab a couple of towels.”

While Tony slips his jeans off, leaving him in just his boxers, Steve spreads three fluffy towels out on the floor. Tony bitches a little about laying on the floor, but honestly he’s not ready to move this to Steve’s bedroom and he thinks that Steve knows that. Soon. He thinks a lot about sharing a bed with Steve again, but maybe on his own terms, in his own room, first.

So he lays down on the floor on his belly, at Steve’s urging, and doesn’t mind pushing his muscle shirt up to reveal most of his back. His boxers hang low enough to reveal the dip of his spine and the top of his ass, and the swallowed sound Steve makes is gratifying.

"Ready?" Steve says, and his voice is a little lower. "You remember the system?"

"Yeah," Tony says. "Stoplight. I got it."

"Good." Steve sounds approving, the warm tone hitting Tony right in the belly. "That's my sub. Now close your eyes, sweetheart."

Tony obeys, closing his eyes. But it's hard not to tense up, especially when he feels the first ice cube brush against his right shoulder blade. The icy sensation trails inward, down towards his spine, and he shivers.

"Easy. Relax," Steve murmurs. He holds the cube against Tony's skin until a little puddle of water forms. Then, suddenly, it's gone, and Tony feels a hot tongue pressing against his back. He can't stop the stifled moan, goose bumps breaking out across his skin in a wave at the contrast in temperature.

"Green," he chokes out when Steve pauses, already knowing what Steve is going to ask. He imagines this in other places - the back of his neck, his lower back, the hollow of his collarbone, his belly button - and bites back another appreciative sound. This is good. This is very good.

"Right," Steve says. "Just checking." He sweeps a hand down Tony's spine, sliding the ice cube all the way down. Tony arches into it, only reluctantly subsiding when a big hand is pressed to the back of his neck as a gentle reminder to relax. The ice is cold and he shivers again, fingers clenching into fists at his sides. A little trickle of water runs down his side and he jumps at the ticklish sensation.

Still. Steve wants him to be still. Tony breathes out slowly and consciously focuses on relaxing, letting the tension run out of each part of his body, the way Bruce showed him. It's hard when the ice cube is melting from the heat of his body and he can feel cold water soaking into the top of his boxers, but he wants Steve's tongue back on him too much to protest.

Steve doesn't touch him, though. He frowns into the towels, wondering what the hold-up is. Or maybe this is part of the plan. Maybe Tony's supposed to be even more relaxed. He's not nearly into subspace yet, though he's pretty sure this could get him there eventually. If Steve switches it up enough - and Steve is definitely good at that; he seems to intuitively know how to mess up a pattern to keep Tony from anticipating what's next - it'll take Tony right out of his head. So what's he waiting for?

He's about to turn his head to the side and ask when Steve finally speaks.

"Red," he chokes out. "I - oh god, Tony, red."

Chapter Text

"Steve? Steve!" Tony scrambles to sit up. Cold water immediately soaks the back of his boxers. It's a distinctly uncomfortable feeling, but Tony doesn't have the time to care. Steve's shaking all over, his hands clutched against his chest like he's afraid or trying to ward off a blow. His eyes are kind of unfocused, looking at something over Tony's head, and Tony knows that if he were to follow Steve's gaze, he wouldn't see anything worth staring at with that level of intensity. Whatever Steve is seeing or feeling right now, it's not something that Tony or anyone else can experience.

"Steve, Cap, can you hear me? Can you tell me what's wrong?"

"Cold," Steve says, teeth visibly chattering. "It's so -" He cuts himself off, making a choked noise.

Tony swears under his breath. Cold. The ice. Son of a bitch. In retrospect, it seems glaringly obvious that ice would be one of Steve's triggers. When Steve first came to the Tower, he used to spend every night roaming around, partially because of the nightmares he had about the ice. It wasn't until Tony invested in several high quality electric blankets that Steve was able to start sleeping again, and sometimes not even those blankets were enough to make a difference. He was constantly cold, and, the first time that snow fell in New York City, turned so white that Clint almost called the hospital on him.

He's not sure why Steve didn't think about that, or why Tony didn't put two and two together. He knows the team; he's familiar with all of their triggers. Natasha, for example, can't handle being around baby blankets. No one's ever asked her why and she's never shared. Sam can't watch any movies that have someone falling from a great height. Clint can't stand being around a flashing blue light; he even had trouble with the arc reactor at first, though he's since come to be okay with it.

The point is, Tony knows their triggers and he's done his damndest to make accommodations for all of them in ways they don't even know of and he can't believe didn't see this coming.

"JARVIS, crank the heat," he barks out, cupping Steve's cheeks in his hands. It's probably not helping that much, considering that Tony's hands are kind of cold. Steve's definitely not warm, either. The temperature of the room, which previously seemed just right, now feels chilly.

What is he supposed to do now? Should he be trying to coax Steve into a warm bath? Trying to get Steve into bed? Calling for Natasha or Coulson or Bucky? It's overwhelming for a few seconds, but when Steve starts shaking harder, Tony snaps himself out of it. He doesn't have time to sit here and panic. Steve needs him and he has to do something about it.

"Start up the fireplace, too," Tony orders, jumping to his feet. "Steve, I'll be right back, okay? You stay right here." When he turns to leave his right foot hits the bowl of ice cubes, now mostly melted into ice water. He scoops it up and takes it with him, dumping it out in the kitchen sink. The last thing they need is for him or Steve to accidentally knock the bowl over. If this is how Steve is reacting over just having touched the ice with his hands, Tony hates to think of what would happen if the icy water splashed over Steve's legs or - god forbid - his face and chest.

He leaves the kitchen and heads down the hall to Steve's bedroom. Part of him feels a little guilty about invading Steve's privacy like that, but they need blankets more than anything else. And sure enough, several blankets are neatly folded at the end of Steve's bed. Tony gathers up a handful and hurries back to the living room. In his absence, JARVIS has turned up the heat and switched the electric fireplace on. It's warm in the room now, but Steve is still curled on the floor shaking like a leaf.

"I'm back, honey. I'm right here," Tony says, not even sure that Steve can hear him right now. Probably not. He plugs in a couple of the blankets and wraps them around Steve's shoulders. They're agonizingly slow to warm up, and Tony stares at them in frustration. He had no idea that Steve was working with such shoddy materials. The second Steve is okay, he's taking these blankets down to his workshop to make some serious improvements.

But that's not going to help Steve right now. He slowly rubs his hands up and down Steve's shoulders, trying to think. It's hard to tell if this is PTSD or dom drop or something insidious mix of the two. Tony's betting on the latter. He knows that Steve just ate not too long ago, but maybe something hot to drink would help? He gets up again, returning to the kitchen, and shuffles the contents of the cupboards around until he unearths some tea. Not Tony's drink of choice, but if it's in Steve's cupboard than it must be something Steve likes. He turns around and - stops.

"JARVIS, how do I brew tea?"

Having a very patient, if somewhat sassy, artificial intelligence is definitely to Tony's benefit today. JARVIS talks him through the process of boiling water with the kettle he finds under Steve's sink and adding the tea bag for precisely two minutes - apparently, the way that Steve likes it. He adds milk and sugar, even though JARVIS says Steve typically drinks it black, because the sweetness will be good for Steve right now. Then he carefully carries the mug back out to Steve.

"Here, Steve. I made you some tea. Drink a little bit of it, okay?" Tony holds the mug to Steve's lips, gratified to see that Steve opens his mouth automatically. He chokes a little on the tea, but swallows most of it. After the first couple of mouthfuls, he even lifts his hands to hold onto the mug himself. Relieved, Tony settles in beside him and wraps the last, non-electric blanket around the two of them.

Very shortly, he's sweltering inside of the blankets, but Steve's drunk all of the tea and he considers that to be a positive sign. He takes Steve's hand, intertwining their fingers, and puts his head on Steve's shoulder. He can wait. It's more than just payback for all of the things that Steve has done for him (although Steve has done a hell of a lot). He genuinely wants to make sure that Steve is okay, and Tony's not very good at taking care of people so this is the only thing he can do, no matter how much he wants to be able to just solve the problem.

"I still think about it sometimes. The ice."

Tony jumps, then tries to pretend that he didn't. "You do?"

Steve nods. He looks exhausted. "More than I should, considering that I was unconscious for most of it. I don't even really remember..."

"What do you remember?" Tony asks quietly.

"The impact, mostly. I mean, I remember hearing Peggy's voice on the line. She was calling my name, and she was crying. I remember thinking about our date night, and feeling bad that I wouldn't be there when it happened. And I remember pushing at the controls of the plane, pointing them down. I could see the water and the ice through the windshield. It was so dark." Steve shudders. "It was like... like black ink, but so much deeper."

"Oh, Steve." Tony's heart twists. He's never really thought about what those final moments for Steve must have been like. Everyone knows the story of Captain America, heroically crashing a plane and sacrificing himself for the good of the city. Tony grew up on those stories. But it's something differently entirely to sit next to Steve and hear how much his voice trembles when he talks about the water.

"The nose of the plane hit first. It was pretty jarring. I hadn't secured myself down, so I was knocked out of my seat. I'm actually not sure where I landed. I think I must've been half-unconscious when the water swallowed me up, but I remember it was so cold. Like little needles pushing their way under my skin, everywhere all at once, and there was nothing I could do about it. And I mean, I've had my fair share of needles. They used to prick me all over when I'd go to the hospital. Ma did too. But this was different. I was almost glad when it stopped, when I passed out, 'cause it meant I didn't have to feel it anymore."

Steve shudders again, harder this time, and slides an arm up around Tony's back. Tony lets himself be dragged into Steve's lap, all too willingly to give Steve whatever comfort he needs. So he lets Steve rearrange them, and ends up sitting with his back to Steve's chest, legs crossed, and Steve's face buried in the nape of his neck. Steve's arms are wrapped around Tony's waist and chest, one big hand planted over the arc reactor, fingers parted just enough to let the blue light seep through. Strangely enough, touching the arc reactor seems to give Steve comfort, though Tony's not really sure why. He puts his own hands over Steve's, squeezing gently.

"And when I woke up," Steve goes on, voice ragged, "I know that I was out of the ice for a while. The doctors at SHIELD told me I never woke up while they were unfreezing me. But I swear I did. It took me weeks to remember how to feel warm. Even when they said my temperature was perfect, or that I was running a few degrees hot, it didn't feel that way." He goes quiet, but his hands tremble tellingly under Tony's.

"You're not there anymore," Tony says, because even though he knows that Steve knows that, sometimes it helps to hear it out loud. "You're here in New York, in Avengers Tower, with me. I'm here with you, Steve."

"I know." Steve's grip tightens a little. Tony's left a little breathless with how hard Steve is squeezing him, but decides he doesn't really care.

"No more ice play," Tony says after a couple minutes. "I'm putting my foot down and making an executive decision. I liked the way it felt, but I could do without what happened afterwards."

"I'm sorry. I should've -"

"Don't. Don't apologize, Steve, that's not what I meant. It's fine. You've been really careful with me. Don't think I haven't noticed. You check with me all the time and you bend over backwards making sure that nothing triggers me. We can add this to the list of what you don't like, okay?"

"Okay," Steve mutters, still subdued, still a little shaky, though he's improved enough to push at the blankets until a little bit of cooler air seeps through.

"Okay," Tony says again, leaning back into him until they couldn't possibly get any closer. He knows they probably need to talk more about this, but he doesn't feel like pushing Steve anymore just yet. Steve's conscious and lucid enough to talk, so Tony's counting that as a win. He rubs the back of Steve's hands and looks at the fireplace.

In spite of himself, he can't help thinking that Stane never would've used a safe word. Not in a million years. No, if something had set Stane off, than Tony would've been the one to pay the price. He's not sure that it ever happened - Stane wouldn't have admitted it, even if it had - but if that had happened with him... Tony inwardly cringes at the thought.

By contrast, Steve actually used his safe word and only seems to want Tony's company to feel better. He's not really sure how to feel about that.

Safe words are something new to Tony. He knows that Steve and Stane aren't the same people. Things like "no" and "stop" meant nothing to Stane, so there's no way that Stane would've bothered with a mutually agreed upon safe word. And logically, Tony knew that Steve would stop if he said "no" - but in his heart, he wasn't sure if he believed that. But Steve was the first one to use the safe word. And he's not mad or angry at Tony, or trying to punish him, for having been in the same situation that caused it.

He squeezes Steve's hands again, feeling Steve squeeze in return, and shuts his eyes to rest.

Chapter Text

The room is dim when Steve opens his eyes; the artificial fireplace is crackling merrily a couple of feet away, but it's only dark because the curtains are drawn. Tony had the highest quality curtains, capable of blocking out even the brightest of the sun’s rays, installed in all their rooms, and most of the time that’s a good thing. There have definitely been times when the team finished a battle at 3pm, and there was no way any of them were going to be able to wait until darkness fell before they slept.

But right now, the dark just reminds him of the ice. Because Steve remembers that too, how the dark water had flooded the cockpit. One by one, the plane’s instruments had shorted out in a shower of sparks. He remembers staring at the last light and begging it not to go out, but of course it had. There hadn’t been any emergency lights, so he’d waited for the water to reach him in the dark – and scared and cold as he’d been, it was a mercy when he finally passed out so that he didn’t have to wait anymore.

He shudders at the memory and his hands slip a bit from their position on Tony’s chest; the light of the arc reactor pours into the small space between Tony’s chest and the blankets. Steve immediately peels the edges of the blankets away, realizing that it’s sweltering, and lets the familiar, comforting blue light illuminate the room. He just sits there for a moment, soaking it in, because that might even be better than the sun.

“God, thank you,” he whispers to himself, not wanting to wake Tony. He’s still sleeping in spite of how Steve’s been jostling him, head tipped down at an angle that will surely leave him with neck pain, relaxed and pliable in Steve’s arms. The back of his neck is shiny with sweat and he must’ve been so uncomfortable, so hot, and yet he sat here with Steve the whole night anyway.

The realization of how lucky he is hits Steve all over again, and his throat tightens. When he was younger, just a scrawny, thin stick of a kid, he used to dream about having a sub. He always knew he was a dom, but even back then people expected doms to be tall and powerfully built. Everything that he wasn’t. Bucky had subbed for him several times, but it wasn’t the same – though it satisfied the biological urge in both of them, he didn’t love Bucky that way. Bucky wasn’t his. He didn’t think he’d ever find a sub, even after his appearance changed.

But Tony. Tony is his, and that knowledge warms Steve down to his core, chasing away the lingering chill from last night. Because the thing about Tony is that Steve is almost positive that he would’ve wanted Steve no matter how he looked. Long before he and Tony were anything but friends, Steve had been helping Bucky to recover his memories with photographs and videos. Tony had made quite a few pointed comments about pre-serum Steve Rogers. At first Steve thought he was joking, but the expression on Tony’s face – a smile, yes, but with serious, even wistful eyes – had convinced him otherwise.

Even if it is still hard to believe, sometimes.

From the moment they met, Tony alternately vexed and intrigued Steve. He remembers being shocked to learn that Tony was a sub; he was interested regardless, but knowing that they were compatible was even better. Still, in all his dreams he’d never imagined it could be like this. That he could have Tony, curled up in his lap all night, just because Steve needed him.

“I love you so much,” Steve mouths, knowing better than to say the words out loud just yet, even though there’s no doubt in his mind that they’re true. He’s not sure Tony is ready to hear them. But that’s okay. It doesn’t change the strength of what’s in Steve’s heart.

He sits there for several minutes more, resting his cheek against the warm skin of Tony’s shoulder, just watching the flames of the fireplace. Last night was stupid of him. He’s never done sensory play before, just read about it, and thought it might be interesting. What a mistake that was! They’d found something that Tony was enjoying too, damn it all.

But the feel of the ice between his fingers, in addition to the chill of Tony’s skin after being exposed to the ice and the way Tony shivered when the water trickled down his back, was just too much. Steve was back there instantly, in the cold and the dark, and it was all he could do to choke out the safe word. He doesn’t remember much after that; he thinks he might have talked to Tony, but the conversation is blurry at best.

He must squeeze Tony a little too hard, thinking about it, because Tony stirs, head bobbing as his eyes flutter open. He lifts his head and blinks a couple of times, then seems to register the fact that he’s sitting in Steve’s lap. He looks over his shoulder, hair mussed and eyes crusty and morning breath and all, and Steve thinks to himself that Tony has never looked more beautiful.

“Hey,” Tony says softly. Steve’s still holding onto both of his hands, and Tony has to free a hand to rub at his eyes. “Are you okay?”

“I’m better,” Steve says. “I’m sorry.”

“I told you last night, Steve, you don’t have to apologize.”

“I scared you, though.”

Tony snorts and twists around to face him a little better. “I’m not some fragile, delicate flower, okay? I’m not going to fall apart just because you needed me. I know I have my share of issues, but I’m still the same person I always was. I’m not weak.”

“No, of course you’re not,” Steve says quickly, realizing that he’s walking a very thin line here. “It’s just – I’m sorry. I guess I still think that doms should be in control all the time and never need support.”

“Well, that’s stupid,” Tony says, though his eyebrows furrow in a way that suggests he’s heard that before. Probably from Howard, and that knowledge still makes rage sizzle inside of Steve. He pushes it aside though, because now isn’t the time for that.

“I know it’s stupid, but sometimes knowing something and believing it are two different things,” Steve counters. “And I’m still sorry I scared you. Not because I think you’re weak, but because I care about you and I should’ve known better. I had nightmares about the ice for so many weeks. I can’t believe I didn’t put two and two together.” He can’t help sounding disgruntled.

“Hindsight is 20/20, I guess. Chalk it up to a learning experience on both our parts,” Tony says. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

Steve gives the question some consideration this time, rather than automatically saying yes the way he wants to. “I think so. I still feel a little shaky, but that could just be because I’m hungry.”

The corner of Tony’s mouth quirks up. “Makes sense. I can ask JARVIS to have some food delivered, if you want.”

“Please,” Steve says. Usually he likes cooking, but he doesn’t trust himself to be handling anything as sharp as a knife right now.

“J, could you place an order from the nearest restaurant? Don’t care what, just make sure that there’s lots of it and that it gets here fast,” Tony says.

After less than twenty seconds of silence, JARVIS answers, “Done, sir. And you should know that Sergeant Barnes has asked repeatedly after you and the Captain. He seems very concerned that neither one of you has been heard from since last night. I told him you were okay, but he wished to hear from you directly.”

“Oh, Bucky,” Steve mutters guiltily. He can count on one hand the number of mornings since Bucky came to the tower where he didn’t know where Steve was, even if the answer to that was just ‘on a mission’.

“Go ahead,” Tony says, patting his hand. “Call him. I have to pee and brush my teeth. Can I –”

“Yes. There should be a spare toothbrush in the drawer,” Steve adds. He shivers a little as Tony stands up, removing the additional source of heat from their cocoon, and is immensely grateful for the fact that Tony flips the light on as he walks out. But the sight of Tony’s back – covered in his muscle shirt, of course – reminds him.

Tony, for all of his reputation of being a playboy, is rarely naked around the team. Even during the odd decontamination shower, he usually manages to slip in and out before anyone else. Steve’s always attributed that to the arc reactor and Tony’s obvious reluctance to have any attention drawn to it, but now he finds himself wondering if there is another, more sinister reason. He wasn’t prepared for the amount of scarring on Tony’s back last night.

And it’s silly, really, to be surprised, considering the handful of stories that Tony has told him. But it was something different entirely to actually see the faint white marks running across Tony’s shoulders and down his back, disappearing underneath his boxers and re-emerging on the backs of his thighs and legs. Some were from canes, some from whips, and others from instruments Steve didn’t recognize. Judging from how they looked, Tony was better cared for than Steve would have guessed; apparently, Stane hadn’t wanted to risk having to take Tony to the hospital for infection.

But there were so many. It makes him ache for the boy that Tony was and the pain he must’ve suffered, all the while thinking that it was right and normal. And he wants to talk to Tony about it, but he’s not sure if this is the right moment for it.

“JARVID, patch me through to Bucky, please,” he says wearily.

“Certainly, Captain.”

“Steve?” Bucky’s voice filters into the room a moment later.

“Hey Buck. You good?”

“Yeah, punk. But you don’t sound so hot.”

“I’ve been better,” Steve says carefully, because Bucky’s no fool. “But Tony’s taking good care of me.”

Bucky’s quiet for a second and that silence speaks volumes, but all he says is, “Do you guys need anything?”

“I think Tony ordered food. If you could bring it up to my door, that would be great.”

“I’m pretty sure I can fit that into my tight schedule,” Bucky says. “Anything else?”

“No. We’re good. Thanks.”

“No problem.”

The line goes dead and Steve sighs, running a hand through his sweaty hair. Tony’s not the only one who needs to wash up. Reluctantly, he fumbles his way out of the blankets and gets up, walking down the hall towards the bathroom. Tony is at the sink scrubbing at his teeth when Steve enters the room; he smiles at Steve in the mirror as much as he can when his mouth is full of foam, then bends over to spit. His shirt rides up and Steve sees the scars again.

Before he can stop himself he moves closer and sets a hand on Tony’s hip, underneath the shirt. Tony raises an eyebrow in silent query, spitting one last time before he straightens up.

“I saw your back last night,” Steve says, hating himself even as some of the light runs out of Tony’s eyes. “Do you – will you tell me what happened?”

“I doubt you’ll want to hear it,” Tony says, voice quiet, grabbing a towel. He wipes his mouth and his hands, and it doesn’t escape Steve’s notice that Tony’s hands are trembling. Just a little, but still.

“If it’s about you, then I do. No matter how horrible it is, or how hard it is for me to hear it. But only if you want to tell me. I don’t want to make you do anything you don’t want to do, especially when it comes to something like this.”

Tony swallows, throat so dry that Steve can hear it click, and says, “Fine. Okay. But let’s – let’s eat first. You shower and I’ll just –” He cocks his head at the door and slips out of Steve’s reach, gone so fast that Steve doesn’t even have the chance to tell him that Bucky is going to bring the food up. Steve stares at the door, torn between calling Tony back and punching the wall out of pure frustration for never knowing the right thing to say or do.

Chapter Text

The shower switches on somewhere behind him. It’s a relief. Tony sinks down onto the couch, clenching his trembling hands together in his lap. He wasn’t expecting that, but maybe he should’ve. He usually makes it a point to keep the majority of his body hidden for just that reason: he doesn’t want the questions. The stares. The scrutiny. And over the years, he’s gotten pretty damn good at it, to the point where hiding has become second nature and most people don’t think that hard about it.

So why didn’t it cross his mind when Steve came up with the idea of sensory play?

“Stupid,” Tony mutters to himself, scruffing his hands through his hair in frustration. It’s inevitable, he knows, that he and Steve will end up naked together at some point. Not because he thinks that Steve is expecting it or anything, but because Tony likes sex and Steve likes sex and it just makes sense. So at some point or another, he would’ve had to come up with an explanation for the scars.

He just wishes he had more time to – well, he’s not even sure what he wants more time for, really. It’s not like he’s going to lie to Steve. He does want to tell the truth, no matter how much it shakes him up inside to even think about it. But he wasn’t prepared for Steve to ask about them no matter how obvious it should’ve been that he would have, and he has to put his head in his hands and breathe deeply for several minutes to keep the panic in his chest at bay.

“Sir,” JARVIS says finally. “Sergeant Barnes is at the door with your food.”

“What? Oh.” Tony gets up and walks towards the door; it unlocks automatically as he gets closer thanks to JARVIS, and on the other side Bucky opens it without waiting for Tony to do it. He starts to walk in but freezes when he gets a look at Tony’s face.

“Fuck, what the hell have you and Steve been up to?” he blurts out. “You look terrible.”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence,” Tony says, aiming for dry and coming out tired.

“Tony,” Bucky says, and it’s all serious, like maybe he’s two seconds away from calling in Natasha and Coulson and Clint, and Tony shakes his head.

“Nothing. It’s just – Steve saw some of my scars and wanted to know if I would tell him about them.”

Bucky’s expression does something complicated, like he’s wrestling between showing emotions and going blank. His eyes are cold when he says, “Did he order you to?”

“No. Really, no,” Tony says quickly. Bucky and Steve are best friends, but there’s no doubt in Tony’s mind that if he said ‘yes’ or even implied the answer might be ‘yes’, he’d have a super solider fight on his hands. There might be a small chance that Bucky can be a little overprotective when it comes to Tony and Clint.

“Are you sure? Because –”

“I know. A dom shouldn’t be ordering me to do something I don’t want to do,” Tony says, the words tasting odd because he's not sure he fully believes them. “He just asked, and I said I would, and now my brain is freaking out a little bit. That’s all.”

Bucky looks him up and down and then nods. “Okay. You don’t have to tell him just because you said you would.”

“Part of me wants to. Part of me doesn’t.”

The blank part of Bucky’s face softens into understanding. He’s intimately familiar with that inner struggle, Tony knows. Part of his therapy when he came to the tower involved talking to a therapist and Steve, and then later Natasha when they became involved. There were many nights when Tony stumbled across Bucky in the kitchen, unable to sleep because he couldn’t decide if he actually wanted to talk or not. Because as much as he wanted to let the words out, that would mean coloring the perceptions of the people who loved him and opening himself up to the pain.

Oh yeah. Bucky knows.

“Just make sure you eat something before your chat,” he says, pushing by Tony and heading into the kitchen. He dumps the brown bags on the table – Chinese, if Tony had to guess. “Don’t want Stevie having to call Bruce midway through because you passed out.”

“He’d feed me himself before that happened,” Tony says, and it’s a little thrilling to know that’s true.

They both hear the shower shut off at the same time. Bucky looks at Tony. “Do you need me to stay?”

“No, it’s okay.”

Bucky hesitates, but finally nods and claps Tony gently on the shoulder before he heads out. The door locks automatically behind him and Tony breathes out, breathes in. The scent of the food floods his nose and his stomach grumbles accordingly, and he belatedly thinks to himself that that’s probably what caused Steve to end his shower prematurely. If Tony’s hungry, then Steve has to be starving.

He unfolds the bags and sets the cartons out, slides into a seat at the table and sticks a spoon into a bowl of the soup. Steve comes into the room less than two minutes later, clad in red pajama bottoms and nothing else. His hair is still damp, tendrils of water rolling down his neck, but his eyes are zeroed in on the food and Tony, wisely, does not interfere with that level of focus. He's seen a hungry Steve before: no food emerges uneaten.

For a few moments it's peaceful, and the wonton soup is warm enough that it actually feels good as it slides down Tony's throat. Steve is inhaling a carton of beef and broccoli and it's comfortable, enough so that Tony hates to ruin it. He considers not bringing it up again, because Steve probably won't press if he thinks Tony doesn't want to discuss it, but in the end swallows a mouthful of soup and speaks.

"He usually tried not to leave marks. I had a playboy reputation, and he liked that. It was a way of keeping me under control."

Steve's hand freezes in the middle of reaching for an eggroll. "Tony, you don't have to -"

"I know. But I -" The words dry up in Tony's mouth. He brings another spoonful of soup to his lips, but his fingers are shaking and most of it spills off. He licks at the spoon anyway, getting a hint of the spices.

Steve changes course, reaching for his free hand instead. "I'm right here, sweetheart."

The words, the steady tone, help. "Everyone thought I was a wild child," Tony explains, keeping his gaze on his soup. "Rhodey helped to keep me on the straight and narrow until I graduated MIT, or as well as anyone could anyway. But after that, he went into the military full time and I was... shit, Steve, you would've hated me back then. I slept with anyone and everyone who wanted it. Girls, boys, both at the same time. The press labeled me a slut, and it's pretty hard to get them to use that word for a man."

"I know," Steve says, and that's all he says, stuffing rice in his mouth to keep himself quiet. In spite of their current topic, Tony has to smile. Just a little, but he can't help it. Steve loathes the media, and if you get him started on a rant he can go pretty much all night.

"He liked that. Stane, I mean. It meant that people were less inclined to take me seriously. They looked at me and all they saw was a little rich boy with too much time on his hands. But that also meant he had to be careful about what marks he left on me. He didn't want anyone asking too many questions, and you know what some people are like."

"I'm surprised that he allowed you to sleep with anyone else," Steve says, very carefully.

Tony shrugs. "He didn't let me sub for anyone else. For the longest time, I didn't think I could do it right," he adds, voice distant. There's a part of him that still thinks that. "And so I didn't really want to. I didn't want anyone else to know what a failure I was as a sub."

"Tony..."

"But sex," Tony goes on, not wanting to hear Steve say otherwise right now, "was a different story. He didn't really care about that. He wanted me to know that my body was just a tool designed to pleasure others, however they wanted to take that pleasure, and it didn't matter who wanted it." He shudders just once, remembering some of the worst board meetings that Tony was forced to attend. Remembers being down on his knees with all those faces looking down at them, full of lust and contempt and vengeance and with Stane's whispers in his ears, telling him what a bad little sub he was.

"Hey," Steve says, just firm enough that Tony actually looks up at him, blinking. Steve squeezes his hand tightly, and both the touch and the tone are a reminder that those horrible days are behind him.

"He loved the cane," Tony blurts out. "And the whip. Most of the time he didn't leave marks. Bruises, yes, but nothing bad enough to scar. Not unless he was really angry. Those marks you saw on my lower back? Some of them, the worst ones, are from when I was thirty-two. He wanted a merger with Smith Corp."

"I've never heard of them," Steve says, sounding remarkably put together; the only indicator of how difficult he finds it to listen is the tick in his jaw.

"You wouldn't. They dissolved years ago after some unsavory information about their CEO came to light." Tony allows himself a grimace. That wasn't his best moment. JARVIS had found the information after Tony got drunk one night and had some really terrible nightmares. Tony had dumped it into Pepper's hands and let her make the decision about what to do with it. Pepper, knowing just enough details to truly piss her off, had made sure that it became public immediately. Smith Corp, formerly a company that rivaled Stark Industries for weapons manufacturing, had gone bankrupt within less than a month.

"I'm guessing that's probably a good thing."

"Depends who you ask. The CEO, Jordan Smith, was an asshole. He pinned me down one day after a board meeting and tried to force me under." Tony sighs. Knowing what he knows now, he wishes he'd punched Jordan in the face or kneed him in the balls rather than curled up in a miserable heap on the floor. Of course, he'd also been more than three-quarters of the way drunk at the time, so that hadn't helped.

Steve takes a deep breath and holds it, letting it out very slowly. "And?"

"Nothing. He got caught. An intern walked in on us and recognized what was going on; she pulled the fire alarm and had the building evacuated, then snuck me out the back way. I tried to keep it under wraps, but Stane found out. He was furious. He considered it to be my fault. He was convinced I'd tried to seduce Smith into being my dom and then tried to pretend otherwise when we were discovered. He tied me up and the result is what you saw on my back last night."

Tony keeps his voice flat while he talks, devoid of emotion, because he can't go into more detail than that or he'll fall apart right here at the table and he doesn't want that, not tonight, not while Steve still shivers every once in a while. Maybe someday he'll be able to tell Steve and Steve alone the finer details, but not right now.

Because the truth is that Tony never thinks of that night, but it lingers in the worst of his nightmares. Sometimes he wakes up in a cold panic and his back burns as fiercely as it did that night. It was one of the only nights when he truly thought that Stane might kill him - and still, Stane managed to make him feel guilty about not enjoying the punishment the way Stane claimed a proper sub should or would.

Fury is radiating off of Steve, but to his credit he keeps it under control. "I'm sorry that happened to you," he whispers.

"I know," Tony whispers back, because he does know. And he does believe, stupid though it might sound, that if Steve had been there, he would've killed Stane for treating Tony that way.

Steve tries to smile at him. The only question he asks is, "Who was the intern? I hope that Stane didn't go after her too."

That's the one part of that week that Tony will never regret. He squeezes Steve's hand this time, not sure which of them he's trying to reassure at this point. "Not for lack of trying, but it never really worked. He never could get a handle on her. It drove him crazy and he took it out on me, but I didn't care."

Steve's eyebrows furrow. "What?"

"After that day, I hired her to be my P.A.," Tony says, and even manages to laugh a little at Steve's expression. "It was Pepper."

Chapter Text

Steve doesn't get the chance to see much of Tony over the next two or three days, though not for lacking of trying on his part. The team is called out twice, once because Loki is bored and his favorite past-time is tormenting Thor, and once because Dr. Doom decides to visit New York. Clint is the only one who has to stay behind (and he whines on the comms the whole time until finally Coulson sends an agent to take away Clint's communicator just so that they can have silence on the line for more than thirty seconds at a time); everyone else is in the field, but Iron Man is always up in the air and Steve much prefers to fight from the ground.

Then there's debriefing and a press conference for Thor to apologize for Loki's mischief, and Steve gets called into SHIELD along with Natasha to talk to some of the newbie agents, and in the meantime Tony has to put in another appearance at a party - which Steve is kind of okay with, but only because Tony is the only one of them who even remotely enjoys those kinds of parties. Steve loathes having to put on a tuxedo and act like he enjoys making small talk with a bunch of strangers who only see him as Captain America, so missing out on that party isn't the worst thing in the world in his book.

By the time that Steve actually feels like he has the chance to sit down and talk to Tony again, he's exhausted and he can see the same fatigue outlined in Tony's face. They're sitting at Steve's kitchen table together, and Steve feels like he should get up and make them both something to eat, but the thought of actually moving would take more energy than he can summon at the moment. He settles for taking Tony's hand and lacing their fingers together, savoring the smile that flashes across Tony's face.

"You know, you make it hard to work when you do that," Tony says, his other hand holding a tablet. His expression is more amused than angry, though, so Steve just grins at him.

"Good. You've been working too hard over the past couple of days. You need a chance to relax a little," Steve says.

"Relaxation is a foreign word when you're Tony Stark, Cap. This is my current project list." Tony turns the tablet so that Steve can see it. Steve raises an eyebrow, whistling softly. The list has at least fifty items on it, and another three appear while he's watching.

"That's a little ridiculous."

Tony shrugs. "Story of my life. Everyone wants a piece of me, and there's just not enough hours in the day. Yadda, yadda, yadda." He sets the tablet down and sweeps his fingers across it, causing the screen to go dark. For that split second, Tony looks so exhausted that Steve feels the pang of worry all the way down to his bones.

"Are you doing okay?" he asks. "You can tell me if you're not, Tony. We didn't exactly end our last session on a positive note, and then we got slammed. Neither one of us has really had the chance to process anything yet. Do you need me to put you down?"

"I'm fine," Tony says.

Steve sits back and gives him a frankly doubtful look.

"Really, I am, not just saying that."

Would you tell me if you weren't? Steve bites the question back at the last second, only because he's not wholly sure how Tony would react to it. Probably poorly, based on past evidence during times when Steve stupidly didn't keep his mouth. The last thing he wants to do right now is cause a fight, or provoke Tony into getting mad because Steve won't take his word for it. But he also knows what Tony is like: he'll push himself far past the point of collapse, just because he thinks that people are depending on him. As far as Steve is concerned all those items on Tony's extensive list can wait, but Tony usually disagrees.

Before he can think of how he wants to approach this - because he is 100% sure that something is wrong and that Tony is not sharing the full details with him - JARVIS interrupts them. "Captain Rogers, Agent Romanov wishes to speak with you. She says it's urgent."

Tony and Steve exchange looks, and Steve says, "Patch her through, JARVIS."

"Steve?" Natasha's voice fills the air a moment later, sounding as tired as Steve feels - but upset, too.

"What's wrong?" Steve says, already on his feet.

"I knew something was wrong after the battle with Doom. When we got back to the tower, he didn't want me to touch him. He wouldn't eat or anything. It was like he didn't know who I was." Natasha can normally sound calm and composed no matter what's going on, but right now her voice audibly quivers. "Right now he's sitting on the floor by the bed, muttering to himself in Russian. But what he's saying makes no sense."

"What's he saying?" Steve asks.

"Something about a map. I'm not sure. I can't get close enough to hear."

Steve closes his eyes briefly. For the most part, Bucky functions pretty well considering everything that's happened to him. But every once in a while something will happen that makes him have flashbacks, or triggers the other symptoms of his PTSD in a pretty bad way. Sometimes to the point where he'll attack Steve and Natasha, because he thinks he's back with Hydra and Captain America and the Black Widow are nothing but enemies. Other times he'll go catatonic and curl up on the floor, eyes staring vacantly at nothing, and Natasha's not strong enough to lift him so she needs Steve's help. From the sound of it, this is one time that could go either way.

"I'll be right there," he says, trying to sound like he's in control.

"Steve," Tony says, squeezing his hand to get his attention. "During the battle - I didn't think about it at the time, but one of Doom's robots electrocuted Bucky. It was only for like two seconds. I was already preparing a blast when it lit into him. But that could be what set him off. I'm sorry. I should've said something to Natasha, but I wasn't thinking."

That does make sense. They don't know everything about the chair that Hydra used on Bucky, but they do know that electricity was definitely part of it. "Thanks, sweetheart," Steve says, dropping a quick kiss on top of Tony's head. "If you need me, let JARVIS know."

"I will. Good luck."

Steve heads out of the room at a quick run. The elevator takes him straight to Natasha's and Bucky's floor, but it still seems to take forever, even though he knows it's been less than a minute since their conversation ended. Natasha meets him at the door and lets him inside without saying a word, directing him to the bedroom with a point of her finger. He walks inside to find that Bucky is curled up in a corner of the room, staring at the wall, muttering to himself. His hands are clenched in his lap, and it's a small comfort to know that at least he doesn't have a weapon.

"Hey Buck," Steve says, a little too loud for an otherwise silent room, but Bucky doesn't react anyway. He gets closer and takes a seat on the ground about a foot away. "Buck, can you hear me? It's me, Steve."

Bucky doesn't respond, doesn't even look at him, but he stops talking. Steve can't decide if that's a good thing or a bad thing, and a quick glance at Natasha reveals that she's not sure either.

"It's okay, Bucky," Steve murmurs. "We're right here. We're going to sit here with you until you feel like talking to us, okay?"

Natasha steps away from the door. Steve watches her go from the corner of his eye, a little surprised: normally, she's right in the room with him. He understands when she returns with a couple of candles, which she sets on the floor and carefully lights. Within moments, the sweet scent of ginger and cinnamon starts to fill the air. Scented candles aren't something that Steve particularly enjoys, but Bucky (not that he'll ever admit it) adores them and has developed quite the collection.

"Take as long as you need, любимый," she says quietly, taking a graceful seat on the floor beside Steve. "How did SHIELD take the report about Loki this time?"

As far as distractions go, it's not great. But Steve answers because he knows it's important for Bucky to hear their voices. "Fury was pissed. He says that something needs to be done about Loki, but you know what Thor is like. He really wants to believe that someday Loki is going to have a change of heart and decide that he wants to be an Avenger or something like that."

"No offence to Thor, but the day that happens Clint is going to try to murder Loki with his bare hands."

"He's not the only one," Steve says wryly. Loki has caused all of the Avengers trouble at one time or another; sometimes it feels like that first battle with him was just the tip of the iceberg. Though admittedly, the scope of the trouble Loki now causes is on a much smaller scale. "I don't know what he wants to do about it, anyway. Even if we could capture Loki, there's nothing SHIELD can do to keep him under control and Fury knows that. I think he just doesn't want to admit it."

Natasha's mouth quirks, and she ducks her head to hide the smile she can't quite eliminate. The two of them keep chatting as though nothing is wrong, even though both their eyes stray repeatedly to Bucky's quiet form. It's almost three hours to the moment when Steve walked into the room that Bucky blinks for the first time. His head tilts, just a little, something that most people would've missed, but which Steve and Natasha pick up on immediately. Steve goes quiet, barely even breathing, as Natasha speaks.

"любимый?" she says softly.

Bucky turns to look at her. "Красавица," he says, and it's uncertain but it's definitely Bucky, and the knot in Steve's chest slowly unwinds. Sometimes Bucky comes out of these catatonic states swinging, and Natasha is an extraordinarily skilled fighter but she's not really a match for a super solider. Bucky would never forgive himself if he hurt Natasha seriously, which is why Steve always tries to be there.

"I'm here," Natasha says. "May I touch you?"

After a few seconds, like it takes that long for her words to process, Bucky nods. Natasha shifts gracefully onto her knees and reaches out across the distance between them, setting her hand on Bucky's cheek. His eyes flutter shut and he exhales, all of the tension seeping out of his body. Steve relaxes right along with him, so relieved that there will be no fight this time that he could cry. In the beginning, it seemed like there was always a fight eventually. But now those times are getting further and further apart, and it's reassuring to know that Bucky is learning how to come back to himself and bypass the Winter Soldier completely.

"There you are," Natasha murmurs. "Good boy."

Bucky sighs, leaning into her touch. He whispers back to her in Russian, and it occurs to Steve that he's definitely intruding now. He gets up and Bucky's eyes open, watching him. Steve raises an eyebrow in silent query and Bucky nods, just a bit, in reply. That's good enough for Steve. He makes his way out of the room, gently shutting the door behind him, and breathes a sigh of relief in the hallway. Thank god.

"JARVIS, where's Tony?" he asks, walking back to the elevator. A meal with Tony and then some rest sounds perfect.

"Sir is in the workshop."

"What's he doing?"

JARVIS hesitates. "Sir is not doing anything at all, Captain."

"Nothing?" Steve repeats. "Is there something wrong with him?"

Again, the uncustomary hesitance, and then JARVIS says, "I would urge you to hurry."

That's enough for Steve. He steps into the elevator and it whisks him down to the workshop. Steve barrels inside. His eyes sweep the cluttered workshop and he finds Tony too easily: he's curled up against the back wall of the workshop, nearly hidden by a pile of scrap metal and Dummy. Tony's hands are wound around his legs and he's shuddering in that tell-tale way that means he's having difficulty breathing. It breaks Steve's heart to see him there, so alone, and he's across the room and in front of Tony before he can think about it.

"Tony," he says gently.

"Go away," Tony says without looking up at him, the words rattling out. "Bucky needs you more."

And doesn't that, Steve thinks, answer everything?

Chapter Text

Tony tries not to look at Steve. Because maybe if he doesn’t look, Steve will get the hint and just go away. He’s fine right now. He is. He’s curled up against the wall of the workshop, hands wrapped around the dog tags, and JARVIS has been murmuring mathematical equations to him for the past hour and a half. Dummy’s brought him every conceivable thing in the workshop in an effort to help, including a blanket that’s now folded across Tony’s knees. And the irritating part is, the unease skittering underneath his skin really only calms when Steve moves closer, and he finds himself aching for Steve’s touch.

“Can I hug you?” Steve asks quietly.

His mouth is too dry to answer, so Tony settles for a nod. A shiver crawls up his spine as Steve settles down beside him and then scoots over, pressing their shoulders and hips together. A warm arm wraps around his shoulders, tugging Tony in closer beside an expanse of heated skin that he can’t help turning towards, like a flower blooming into the sun. He ends up laying his head on Steve’s shoulders. The knot in his chest unclenches, and he feels like he can breathe for the first time in hours.

“I’m sorry.”

The words hang in the air for a moment before Tony scoffs. “For what?”

“For making you think that Bucky matters more to me.”

“Steve,” Tony says, scorn and exasperation making his voice sharp, “It’s Bucky. I know my ego is the size of my building, but I’m not stupid enough to think –”

“Stop.”

Tony’s mouth clicks shut. He’s not down, but there’s something about that tone that makes him want to obey anyway.

“Bucky is my friend. You’re my sub. I can’t promise that you will always come first, much as I would like to, because we’re both superheroes and you know exactly what that entails. But short of an attack or a world-threatening disaster, you’re the one I’m most concerned with.”

“Steve –”

“Bucky has Natasha,” Steve continues, rolling right over him. “She is his dom. Just like I would expect her to be there for Bucky, I want to be there for you. But I can’t do that if you’re not honest with me. I asked you if you needed me and you said no.”

Something that feels suspiciously like shame wells up inside, bubbling until Tony's eyes feel hot. He rubs his thumb against the warmed metal of the tags, tracing Steve’s name. “But it’s Bucky. You always go to him when he’s have a flashback. I’m not trying to get between you guys. He needs you. I get that.” And, if Tony’s being honest, he’s never once thought that Steve would actually choose him over Bucky. It’s not a contest that Tony ever believed he would win.

“But you need me too,” Steve says, very gently.

Tony can’t argue that. But he can say, “Then what would you have done? Knowing that you’re the only one who can control Bucky if he lashes out?”

Steve hesitates a little too long, and Tony nods again.

“That’s what I thought.”

“I would’ve figured something out. I could take you with me if you were open to that, or advise Natasha to move Bucky to the Hulk room and stay near the door. She can start carrying the sedative that you and Bruce developed; that’s more than enough to knock Bucky out, and Natasha would use it if she had to.” Steve sighs, tipping his head to rest on top of Tony’s. “Fact of the matter is, I’m not Bucky’s dom so I can’t be there all the time. They have to learn to get by without me.”

“Do you want to be his dom?” Tony asks, voice small. The question is out before he knows he’s going to ask, but once it’s out he realizes that he really needs to know the answer.

“No,” Steve answers immediately. “I love Buck, but he and I never worked that way. If he needed me and I didn’t have you and he didn't have Natasha, then of course. But he is much better with Natasha, and I have you. You’re everything I want, Tony. I just wish you would tell me when you need me.”

Steve’s disappointment hurts. Tony squeezes his eyes shut in an effort to hold back the tears. “Sorry.”

“I’m sorry too, baby,” Steve murmurs. “I should’ve laid this out a long time ago. I didn’t even think about how you would see the situation. And I’m sorry I went running when I could tell that you needed me.”

“I tried to be okay,” Tony mumbles.

“Of course you did. But what is it you told me back when I first woke up from the ice? Sometimes it’s okay to not be okay?”

Hearing his own words parroted back at him makes Tony smile, just a little. “I didn’t know you were listening.”

“I always heard you. Back then, it felt like you were the only thing I could hold onto.”

Tony lifts his head, looking up at him. “Then…”

“What?”

“If I have to tell you when I need you,” Tony says slowly, “then you have to do the same.”

Both of Steve’s eyebrows go up. “What?”

“The night you fed me fruit in your living room. When you wanted to put me down, but you wouldn’t ask me for it,” Tony says. He can tell Steve remembers just by the way that the tips of Steve’s ears go pink. “I could tell, Steve. Why didn’t you say anything?”

“It’s selfish –”

“Bullshit,” Tony says, cutting him off even though he intended to let Steve have his say. “Give me a break. This is a two-way street. I told you that before, but obviously it didn’t sink in.”

Steve makes a face. “It feels selfish,” he says after a few seconds. “To ask you to go down just because I need it.”

“If you need it, then it’s not selfish. And I would. I will,” Tony adds. “I mean, within reason. But that’s what I’m putting on the table.”

“That’s your final answer?” Steve says, and he’s officially been watching too many game shows with Clint. Tony rolls his eyes, because wow he is dating a huge dork, and nods.

“Yes.”

“Yes what?”

“Oh for – yes, Steve, that’s my final answer.”

Steve grins. “Then I accept,” he says, bringing his other hand up to cup Tony’s cheek. He kisses Tony once, twice, three times, and each kiss feels a little more like belonging. Tony presses into it, demanding more, needing more, until all he can taste is Steve and the fuzzy coldness that swamped him earlier feels like a distant memory.

“We’re going to talk about this more,” Steve says in between kisses.

“You definitely know how to ruin a mood,” Tony sighs, turning his head slightly so that Steve’s next kiss meets his cheek instead. Steve snorts and Tony holds back a giggle, because that definitely did not tickle.

“I don’t think there is much of a mood. You’re still shivering.”

“Only a little.”

“A little is too much. Come on, get up.” He swats Tony’s butt. “We’re going upstairs. You’re going to take a hot shower, and then we’re going to cuddle on the couch for a while with some blankets.”

“I have work to do,” Tony says automatically. It’s unfortunately true. He didn’t get far with his extensive list of things to do after Steve left, and he doubts that the list has gotten any shorter in the past two hours. If anything, it's probably grown by leaps and bounds. He cringes at the thought.

“Did you have anything on there that’s urgent?”

“No.”

“Then we’re going upstairs,” Steve repeats. “You will shower. We will cuddle. Not up for negotiation.”

Tony could protest, but the pleasure of the commands sinks into him, and he breathes out more easily with them. “How about –” He stops himself.

“Tony?”

“We could cuddle in bed,” Tony says, not looking into Steve’s eyes, watching Dummy try and fail to pick up a soldering iron. “In my bed.”

“Tony,” Steve breathes. “Are you sure?”

They’ve only slept together once in that hotel room in Japan. The bedroom has always felt like forbidden territory, and Tony is sick of that. He wants to sleep with Steve. He wants to wake up in Steve’s arms. He’s not sure he’s ready to go into Steve’s bedroom – his own room feels safer, more familiar – but he wants to know what it’s like to invite Steve into his own territory, to see if he can tolerate having someone there.

“Yes,” he says, voice shaking a little in spite of his best efforts. “If you want to.”

“Of course I do, sweetheart. I just don’t want you to feel like you have to.”

“I don’t,” Tony says firmly. It’s the truth. Steve has been absolutely amazing in that regard, far better than anyone Tony had ever imagined. He hasn’t pushed Tony for anything, checking with him every step of the way and making sure that Tony is okay with anything that they do. It’s a huge contrast from Stane, who pushed Tony into everything and rushed his decisions so that Tony would say yes to things he would’ve otherwise refused.

Not that he and Stane ever slept together. Tony’s kind of grateful for that in retrospect. Stane made it perfectly clear that the bed was where sex happened, and even that was only at first; as time went on, their ‘activities’ rarely occurred in the bedroom. It hurt at the time because it was just one more way that Stane made it clear that Tony was nothing but a fuck-toy, but now he’s incredibly glad that he gets to have this one unblemished memory with Steve.

Steve swallows. “Okay then. I still want you to shower, though. Can you do that for me?”

“Yeah,” Tony says.

“That’s my good boy,” Steve says warmly, and Tony soaks up the praise. Steve gets up first and pulls Tony up, steadying him with a light hand against his back. Tony curls into him, nuzzling into Steve’s space, loving the way that Steve welcomes and encourages each touch. For all that Tony can be accused of being clingy, there are definitely times when Steve is no better.

Steve whispers praise to him the whole way up the elevator. The words linger with Tony even as they part so that Tony can go shower – he wants to shower with Steve someday, but not yet. Sometimes it’s still hard to get under the running water when he’s alone; he can’t fathom having someone in the room, in that cramped space, who could shove him under the water and keep him there like Stane used to. Even though he knows Steve would never do that, he just can’t.

But maybe someday. If they start out slow. He could leave the bathroom door unlocked as a start, maybe, and then gradually progress to leaving the door open. Steve could start off by standing in the doorway and then inch his way inside. He could talk to Tony and let Tony hear his voice, and Tony knows that would go a long way towards helping. It would still be a long process, but Tony thinks that Steve would be willing do it.

Today, though, he locks the door securely behind him and showers as quick as he can, even though the hot water does feel good. He wraps a towel around his waist and edges the door open, peeking out. There’s no sign of Steve. Tony exits the bathroom and enters his bedroom, pulling on a pair of boxers and pajamas that have been washed so often they’re soft as anything. They feel good on his skin.

“Steve,” he calls out.

It takes less than a minute for Steve to reach the door of the bedroom. He pauses there, looking at Tony and waiting quietly, and doesn’t move until Tony gives a nod. Only then does he cross the threshold, and his first course of action is to walk straight over to Tony and pull him into a hug. Tony melts into the embrace, tension running out of him. He’s not sure how Steve always seems to know the right thing to do.

“You ready?” Steve asks. “You can still change your mind.”

“I know. I’m sure. Take me to bed, big boy.”

Steve pulls another face. “Just for that, I’m tempted to make you sleep on your own.”

“But you won’t,” Tony says confidently, and catches the soft smile on Steve’s face. It makes his heart flutter. When did he turn into such a big sap?

Tony slides in first on the side of the bed furthest from the door. Steve watches him get comfortable, only moving to join him when Tony demandingly pats the bed. He shucks his jeans and his over-shirt and gets in under the covers on the other side. They meet in the middle of the bed, Steve pulling Tony into his arms. Tony squirms around until his back is against Steve’s chest, and Steve is half-draped over him like a huge blanket.

“Mm, I should be working on answering emails right now,” Tony says.

“No work talk,” Steve says, pressing a kiss to the back of his neck. “Close your eyes.”

“Is that an order?”

“Yes.”

Tony smiles as he obeys. “J, lights?”

He can tell that the lights are off even with his eyes shut. Steve lets out a grunt of satisfaction and squirms closer, shoving his knees into the backs of Tony’s thighs. Tony swats at him without looking back and Steve snorts, skimming the tips of his fingers teasingly across Tony’s sensitive belly. Tony squeaks, though he’ll never admit it, and grabs Steve’s hands, capturing them against his sternum, against the arc reactor and the dog tags.

“You’re a dork,” he grumbles, knowing that there’s no heat whatsoever in his voice, just affection.

“Takes one to know one,” Steve whispers. “Goodnight, Tony. I love you.”

Tony licks his lips and swallows. Barely breathing, he whispers back, “I love you too.” And the way that Steve’s arms squeeze him tighter, trembling just a little with emotion, let him know that he’s been heard.