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Strays

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When Tony was sixteen and flying home after graduating from his boarding school in Switzerland two years early, he got off his plane at a layover in Amsterdam and deliberately missed his connecting flight. He took a train to Delft and enrolled at the university there in both electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Both were 4 year degrees where they assumed you’d done all the general education you ever wanted to do back in high school, so they got right down to business, which suited him just fine. His purpose had been two-fold. He had no desire to go to MIT, which was full of his dad’s cronies who would be more than happy to ‘keep an eye on Anthony’. That and he really wanted to piss off Howard.

He was so successful at the last that Howard cut off all his funding to try and force him to come home. It didn’t work. By the time the credit card stopped working, Tony had already paid the ridiculously low tuition and one of the PhD students that ran a lab Tony was in had taken a shine to the new kid and got him a job with his uncle who ran Cafe De Wijnhaven. Tony worked his ass off all day, bussed tables and changed kegs in the 17th century beer cellar under the bar at night, and got a share of the tips on top of his minimum wage. And he bought a bicycle off a junkie to get around town with.

The first year he stayed in one of the soulless student housing blocks way on the outskirts of town. The second year he managed to score a much coveted entry level room in one of the student community apartments on a canal in the center. He happened to be on hand at an ‘instemming’ where a group of applicants for the room were vetted by the current residents, when the coffee machine broke. Tony had it fixed in two minutes flat and that, according to Clint and Thor, was good enough for them. Natasha objected for a bit, because she wanted to hold out for another girl, but since this was Delft and everyone attended the Technical University, boys outnumbered girls 20 to 1 anywhere you went. In Tony’s freshman year in Electrical Engineering there had actually been 2 girls to 400 guys and this freshman year there were none, but the faculties for Architecture and Industrial Design helped to unskew the numbers a bit. Clint argued that she hadn’t ever liked any of the girls that showed up for these things and Bruce had gently agreed and that had been that and Tony was in.

Tony’s new room was small and a bit dark, because his window faced north, but it looked out over a canal and it had ancient wooden floors and a gigantic custom made loft bed that he had to pay Bruce for. Bruce had purchased it from Clint and Clint from Natasha, and so forth, when they had moved up from the little room to a swankier room. Eventually, as people moved out, Tony would get that opportunity as well, as his resident seniority rose. In theory, anyway, because as it turned out everybody liked their living arrangements well enough that nobody had the urge to move for the next two years.

His roommates were all crazy in their own way. Thor had been there the longest, tended to wake up at 4 pm and start smoking weed in his underwear in their common room, sometimes dashing to the store in his dressing gown for more cookies before it closed at 6 pm and Tony had no clue what, if anything, he studied. Or even what nationality he was. Clint was in Air- and Space Technology and was forever flying contraptions in the crooked hallways. Usually right at the level of Tony's head. Or practicing darts. He was on a national team, apparently. Tony hadn’t even known those existed. Natasha was in Applied Physics and had developed the tough as nails outer shell that was essential for a beautiful girl in a supersaturatedly male environment. She could reduce a pimply teenage boy to tears with just a look and only started treating Tony civilly after he’d made it through a month of not hitting on her, not even when he was drunk or high. After that, she started treating him more like a little brother, which was both good and bad. Bruce was in Delft on an extended research project for his Life Sciences study in Leiden. He was gentle and soft spoken, but he had a legendary temper that Tony quickly learned not to provoke. All in all, he was pretty content with his current circumstances.

When Tony was eighteen and close to finishing both degrees, his parents died in a car accident. Obie sent him a plane ticket to attend the funeral. It was one way, first class. Tony took it to a travel agent and exchanged it for a return ticket in coach. He pocketed the difference. He made it through the ceremony numb and dry eyed. When Obie slung his arm around his shoulder and started talking about his responsibilities at Stark Industries, Tony excused himself to go to the bathroom, took a cab to the airport, and flew back to Amsterdam. He started breathing better as soon as he walked out of the train station in Delft.
“Hey, Tony!” Clint called out when Tony’d clambered up the ladder-like steps to their floor. “Where you been, man? The fridge is fried. Can you fix it before my beer gets warm?”
“Sure. Lemme get my tools. Have Thor pull it out from the wall.”
And with that Tony was home.

Obie retaliated by denying him access to his trust fund. It didn’t matter much, because Tony had already lined up a position as PhD student when he graduated a couple of months later. He pretty much had free reign and he and Professor Yinsen had grand ideas about the direction of the research. It was going to be awesome. Best of all, PhD student was a paid position with only minimal course requirements and minimal teaching responsibilities. The pay wasn’t that much, but it was enough that Tony only needed to work at De Wijnhaven on the weekends.

It was early on a Saturday evening at De Wijnhaven when Tony was 20 years old that Pim, the owner, called down to the beer cellar, where Tony had just changed a keg.

“Tony! There’s a litter of kittens in the back alley. Get rid of them before they sneak into the cellar and make themselves at home.”

“What am I supposed to do with them?”

“I dunno. Take them to the pound.”

“On Saturday night?”

“Whatever, smartass. Take them on Monday or drown them, for all I care. Just get them out of there.” And with that Pim pulled his head back and left Tony to figure things out. He scampered up the ramp they used to get the kegs in and out of the cellar and came out in the alley. He stopped to close the shutters behind him, in case one of the cats snuck behind his back and then he took his bearings. It was twilight and the cobblestones and air were wet with the rain that had fallen earlier. Thank god it wasn’t raining now, although the sky looked like it might not be done yet. That was likely, because once it started raining in this country it often wouldn’t stop for days. Or weeks. He looked around for a trace of cats. He didn’t see them at first but then a tiny squeal made him look under the steps that led to the backdoor of the neighboring house and there they were. Five pairs of little blue eyes stared at him. A black and white one puffed up and tried to hiss menacingly, but only managed to look utterly adorable. Two others were black and there was a tiny white one with orange ears and and orange nose and an orange tail, and the biggest one was all orange. This should be easy.

It wasn’t easy. Fifteen minutes later, Tony was scratched all to hell and had let three kittens get away. He was cornering the two black ones and muttering curses, while trying to figure out how to grab them without them getting past him when he heard a voice behind him.

“What are you doing?” The voice was unmistakably American. Dutch people spoke excellent English, in general, but they never managed to sound like this. Tony couldn’t look around, lest he lose sight of his marks, so he couldn’t tell if this was the touristy type who was here for the Delft Blue pottery or the backpacking type who was here for the weed. Both types were easily recognizable, generally.

“I’m catching kittens. What does it look like I’m doing?”

“Well, it looks like you’re trying to fight a wall, but- oh, hey, kittens. There really are kittens.”

“You see a lot of guys fighting imaginary things in a wall?”

“I’ve seen a lot of guys fighting imaginary everything.”

And then the stranger was squatting next to Tony, holding out his hand to the kittens. Tony was looking down on his head. Broad guy, honey blond hair in need of a wash, a beat up leather jacket, desert camo pants also in need of a wash and he’d dropped a grubby duffel bag next to him onto the wet pavement. Weed seeker, then, except they usually had better packs.

For reasons unknown, the kittens seemed curious about the stranger in ways they had definitely not been curious about Tony and it was not a little bit irritating to see them gingerly venturing towards his outstretched hand. Once they had started sniffing his fingers, he gently scooped them up and rose to standing. Tony got a better look at him now. He was taller than Tony and probably a couple years older. He would have been classically handsome if there hadn’t been a gaunt look to his face, as if he had missed a few too many meals. His eyes seemed a little haunted in the way they would focus on Tony and then slide away, only to come back a second later. He could be a junkie, but if he was, he hadn’t been one long as far as Tony could tell. The man offered him the kittens. It was a strangely appealing sight. Big man, big callused hands, tiny balls of fluff looking deceptively innocent. Tony smiled but didn’t reach for them.

“Hi. I’m Tony.”

“Steve.” He held out the kittens again. “I thought you wanted these.”

“I do. Hang on a moment, okay?”

Tony opened the cellar door again and slid down the ramp. Running up the stairs behind the bar on the other end of the cellar, he called out to Pim.

“I got a couple of your cats, I’m going to go take care of them now.”

“Don’t take too long, the keg of Palm is getting low.”

"Yeah, yeah. You could drag your sorry carcass down and change the keg yourself, you know. You can do it. You taught me how.”

“Not paying you to have a smart mouth, kid.”

“No, you’re paying me to hunt cats, apparently.”

“Fine. Shoo. Go do that.”

Tony ran back to Steve and closed the cellar door again.

“Come on, Steve. Let’s go, I live really close.”

“What? I… No. Just take them.”

“No, hold on to them, please. They like you. Don’t want to lose them again. Come on, it’ll only take a minute.”
Steve still looked like he wanted to run, so Tony picked up his duffel bag. That needed a wash too. Tony strongly suspected Steve would have grabbed the bag from him if he hadn’t had his hands full of kittens. He slowly started walking towards his front door and Steve seemed to have figured out that he had little choice but to follow.

“Where are you from in the States, Steve?”

“Uh… Brooklyn.”

“Manhattan. You studying here too?”

“I… no. I just arrived actually.”

“Eurail Pass?” Tony asked, mentioning the unlimited train pass that was the eternal favorite of backpackers everywhere.

“Hitchhiking.”

“Really? From where?”

“East.”

“Okay. Not much further west you can go.” They had reached the front door and Tony started digging for his key. “Couple dozen miles and you’ll hit the North Sea. You could head south a bit to Hoek van Holland and catch the ferry to Britain. That what you’re planning to do?”

“I… don’t know.”

Tony looked at him as he pushed the heavy wooden door open and searched by feel for the hall light switch. Not a junkie. But lost in some way.

He flicked the light and started up the stairs, motioning for Steve to follow him.

Bruce was eating a bowl of yoghurt and muesli in the common room when they entered. He raised a hand in greeting.

“Brucie. Look what I got!”

“A big one. Don’t make the fucking bed creak all night again, Tony. Remember I am on the other side of that wall. I gotta check in on my experiments early in the morning.”

“On Sunday morning?”

“Science waits for no man.”

“Funny, and by the way, I wasn’t talking about Steve. I was talking about the kittens.”

Steve mutely held out the two little black furballs and Tony thought he might be blushing a bit. Bruce stood up and dipped a finger in his yoghurt. He brought it closer and the kittens started licking his finger with little pink tongues.

“About five weeks old,” announced Bruce. “You can’t keep them, though, Clint’s really allergic.

“Not keeping them. I’m going to bring them to the shelter on Monday, so I’ll just keep them in my room till then. After I catch their brothers and sisters too. Pim wants them out of the alley.”

“There were more?” Steve sounded surprised.

“Yeah, three more. They got away before you got there with your freaky cat herding skills.”

“Not freaky. You just gotta project calm and friendliness.”

“Well, that disqualifies Tony then,” confirmed Bruce.

“Thanks, Banner. I love you too.” Tony shot back. "So what do I do with these until Monday?”

“Well, they should be able to eat soft foods, like canned tuna. A bowl of water. Don’t give them cow’s milk, their bowels can’t handle it. And they’ll need a litter box.”

“Right. I think Nat has tuna. I’ll borrow that.”

“She’s going to kill you.”

Tony dove in the shared pantry and found a can of tuna with Natasha’s name on it in permanent marker. He grabbed a can opener and a saucer too.

“What else is new? It’ll be a nice change to have a reason for it this time.” He jerked his head towards his room.

“Over there, Steve, come on.”

Steve followed him mutely and stood taking in Tony’s room with the loft bed and the desk and the tiny two seater couch, which was really more like a wide chair, while Tony dropped the duffel bag in a corner and busied himself with opening the can of tuna. The big index finger stroked each furry head in turn to keep them from squirming. It was soothing even to watch. Once he had placed the saucer of tuna on the floor, Steve put the kittens down and in silent agreement they both sat down next to them and watched them make their way on slightly wobbly legs towards the saucer and then onto the saucer as they tried to practically immerse themselves in their food.
Tony winced a little. They’d be tracking tuna all over his floor after this.

“I thought cats were neater than that,” he said, glancing up at Steve. Steve glanced back at him, but Tony hadn’t missed the moment where he’d looked as if he wanted to crawl into the saucer of tuna himself.

“They’re probably too young still?”

“I guess,” Tony wondered where their mother was. If they still had one. “I guess I better get something to clean them up with, and something we can use as a litter box.” He left Steve with the kittens and went back to the the kitchen. Bruce had left and it was empty. He got some paper towels and then decided on confiscating the plastic tub they had in the sink for washing the dishes. It was pretty beat up anyway and he’d be able to get a new one for a couple of guilders at Blokker on Monday. Then he checked his pantry shelf. He had the half loaf he’d purchased this morning to get him through the weekend. It wouldn’t last if he shared, but he still had some bread that was a couple of days old. He could always toast that.

“Tony?” Steve called from his room. “I think they’re done.”

Tony rushed back with the paper towels and the tub and handed the former to Steve, who started to painstakingly wipe off little muzzles and tiny paws. The kittens squealed and squirmed in protest, but they were held firmly, yet gently, in the big hands. The whole picture did a funny thing to Tony’s innards. He tore his eyes away and looked for something with which to fill the makeshift litter box. He settled on some of the less relevant articles he had photocopied for his research and started tearing them into little pieces. Steve set the kittens down and they started curiously exploring their new digs.

“Right,” said Steve, as he was making to get up. “I should probably-”

“Hang on. Can you tear these up for me? I gotta go get… a thing.”

“I… sure.” Steve took the papers and lifted his eyebrows. “Aren’t these important? They look like they are.”

“Trust me, Steve. Just because they were published in a peer reviewed journal doesn’t mean the authors knew what they were talking about. Those particular ones are only fit for the litter box. Or to light fires with. That would be acceptable too.”

He hurried back to the kitchen and put together a couple of sandwiches with the fresh bread and thick slabs of cheese and packed them in the old bread bag. When he went back to his room, Steve had finished tearing and was standing a little awkwardly in the middle of the room with his duffelbag slung over his shoulder.

“You gotta be somewhere?” Tony asked.

“No. Yeah, I mean. I gotta…” Not be here. Tony got it. He could almost see the man twitch with the need to leave. It was a small miracle he’d stayed as long as he had, but Tony felt bad about letting him go back out into the wet evening. He didn’t know where Steve was going to sleep, but he knew it wasn’t going to be in a bed. Probably not even indoors.

They walked out together, carefully closing the bedroom door behind them to keep the kittens in. On the stoop, Tony handed the bag with sandwiches to Steve. The man tried to protest, but Tony shushed him and he didn’t give them back.

“We’re not even going to talk about that, so just don’t. I gotta get back to my shift at De Wijnhaven. Thank you for your help, Steve. ” Steve nodded and started walking, already reaching into the bag. Tony watched him go, knowing he had no choice but to let him.

Steve hadn’t gone five steps though, before he called after him:

“I have three more cats to catch. If you want to help, meet me here tomorrow at noon?”

Steve turned, his mouth full of sandwich, and waved curtly. Tony didn’t know what that meant, and he didn’t think Steve did either.

Chapter Text

Tony had an eventful Sunday morning with his new roommates. Kittens, apparently, didn’t believe in sleeping in and they had started walking over his face at ungodly o’clock in the morning, batting at his nose and attacking his hair. So Tony had crawled out of his loft bed and fed them the rest of the tuna, wiped their faces and paws with decidedly less grace than Steve had the night before. Since he was up now anyway, he decided to get some work done. He turned on his second hand 386 and went to the bathroom while it booted. His return to his room was greeted by one kitten jumping on his head from the loft bed and the other one attacking his ankles. On the spot he named the first one Clint and the second one Tasha. He had a niggling feeling that he probably shouldn’t be naming cats he planned to take to a shelter, but the names just fit too well to pass up the opportunity.

He tried setting up some calculations in Lotus 1-2-3 and once again swore that, as soon as he had some actual time and resources, he was going to revolutionize mathematical software. But these were only rough preliminary calculations anyway, the real work was going to be done soon on the mainframe he had reserved time on. Between Lotus being cumbersome and having to pluck Clint off the keyboard and his shoulders, and dislodging Tasha from his pajama clad leg that she tried to climb like a tree, the first hour was a wash. But then the calculations had been entered and were plugging along nicely while he marked up some of the literature he was going to reference in his thesis. Clint and Tasha had fallen asleep in his lap, their limbs entangled and Tasha still gnawing dreamily on the drawstring of his pants. It was strangely peaceful and he got a lot done.

At 11.30 am he gingerly moved them to the loveseat and went to get washed and changed. He purposely did not look out his window to check if Steve was there before he went outside. It felt like even the tiniest lack of faith would upset the delicate balance they had forged last night. Also, if he was going to be disappointed, he wanted to postpone it as long as possible.

He wasn’t disappointed. Steve was leaning against the railing along the canal across the street when Tony stepped outside. In the bright light of the spring sunshine he looked worse than he had the night before. More gaunt, more pallid and today he didn’t look so much like the weed tourist who had been on the road too long, but more like the homeless nomad Tony suspected he was. For a moment he was tempted to just give Steve the 25 guilder note he had in his wallet and send him on his way. What was he even doing, seeking this guy’s company? Fellow American or not, Steve obviously had problems that were way over Tony’s head. It’d really be much wiser not to get involved.

But then Steve grinned at him and suddenly he looked ten times better than he did yesterday. And, aw, shit. Under the grime and the other signs of hard living Steve was obviously just a human being, like everyone else. One that needed a friend, like everyone else. As long as Tony didn’t have to try to fix him, he’d be alright.

He smiled and jerked his head towards the cafe on the corner.

“Ready to go hunt some cats, Stevie?”

“Lead the way.” Steve gestured magnanimously with one arm and slung his duffel over his shoulder with the other. They fell into step and walked the hundred yards in companionable silence.

There was no trace of the kittens in the alley, though, no matter how hard they looked. They expanded their search radius and at some point, without it being a conscious decision, they stopped looking and just started wandering through the town. Tony pointed out some of the historical buildings, decent bakeries and the student associations where you could get a hot meal for just a few bucks during the week. He explained the differences between the ones where all the members were 19 going on 55 and dressed in suits and they were all going to follow in daddy’s footsteps, and the ones where you’d get a political discussion about taking down the establishment served with your meal, and the ones in between. And then he bought them both a portion of French (Flemish) fries with mayonnaise to prove that it really wasn’t as disgusting as it sounded. That, in fact, apart from the mayonnaise, the fries were really better than anything you’d get in the states.

“But, God, I haven’t had a decent hamburger in years.”

“Yeah, what’s up with that?” agreed Steve around a mouthful of hot and salty fries. “Not even in Hamburg, if you can believe it. They deep fry the patty there, and the spices are all wrong.”

“Same here! You’d think it’d be simple. Just some ground beef and salt on a griddle, what could go wrong?”

“Have you ever been to Burger Heaven on Lexington? Oh man, I miss that place.”

And then they were off on a comparison of food they’d eaten and places they’d been and baseball games they’d seen and by the time his feet were sore and his stomach started rumbling, Tony was feeling the first pangs of homesickness he’d felt in years. He was going to finish the PhD in a few months and Professor Yinsen had already secured his Post Doc position afterwards, but maybe he could save up and take a few weeks in between for a visit. As long as he avoided Obie, it’d be nice to see the place again. Steve obviously loved his country, the way he was talking about it, and Tony wondered again what had happened to him. How he’d ended up here, without the will or the means to go home.

They sat on a bench for a bit, watching some fat mallards trying to impress the ladies.

“This is a nice town,” said Steve. “Kind of small, though. Are there any big towns close by?”

“Yeah. Rotterdam is just south of here. About 10 miles. Biggest port in the world. Not as pretty though. The Germans bombed it in World War II, so it’s much more modern.”

“Port city?” Steve perked up.

“Yes?”

“Good. There’s usually… work in port cities.”

“You’re leaving, then?” Tony stomped down on a sinking feeling of disappointment. It’d been nice, hanging out with Steve. Really nice.

Steve rested his elbows on his knees and scratched the back of his neck. He looked straight at the ducks when he replied.

“I gotta. I need the money.” He glanced over quickly and then away again. “I could come back in a few days, though?”

Tony tried not to smile too widely at that.

“That’d be great. We still have three cats to catch.”

“Right,” Steve sat up straight again, smiling too. “It’d be cruel not to help a fellow out, when he is as inept as you at catching a couple of little kittens.”

Tony elbowed him in the side and Steve laughed and it was a wonderful sound and a wonderful sight and Tony couldn’t believe he’d almost ran away from this guy a few hours before.

“Come on. I have a can of soup at home and I make a mean grilled cheese. And I have beer. You don’t have to go tonight, do you?”

Steve suddenly looked furtive and Tony wanted to kick himself. Ignoring Steve’s face he added:

“I’m sure Clint and Tasha would love to see you too.”

“Your roommates? I haven’t even met them.”

“No, the kittens. I named them Clint and Tasha.”

“You named them? I thought you were going to bring them to the pound?”

“Yeah, I am. When I have the others. But in the meantime, you know, one of them kept pouncing on my head and the other got really snippy with my ankles and it just seemed appropriate?”

Steve shook his head, laughing.

“Alright. I want to see that.”

So Tony took Steve home for the second time in two days.

Natasha was home when they arrived. Predictably, she reamed Tony out for stealing her tuna and taking the dishpan, but she was surprisingly nice to Steve. Not that it helped. Tony could feel the tension in Steve starting to build as Natasha bickered with Tony. She might have noticed too, because she went to her room after only a few minutes. But it was too late. When the food was done, Steve wolfed it down and immediately got up to grab his duffel.

“I’m sorry, I gotta…”

“Sure you don’t want to say hi to the cats?” he tried, but he knew it was a lost cause.

“I… yeah. Next time, okay?” Steve shoved his other hand in his pocket and hunched miserably.

“Yeah. Next time. See you in a few days, right?”

Steve shot a glance up at Tony’s face.”

“You still wanna... ?” A little bit of the tension seeped out of him and he looked a little less spooked. “Yeah, okay, in a few days.”

Tony walked him to the front door.

“I’m sorry about Natasha. She’s not so bad when you get to know her.”

“It’s okay. She was okay. It’s just… It’s hard to explain. I’m sorry, Tony.” Steve looked contrite.

“Don’t be. Just. Come back when you can, alright? Help me with the cats.”


“I… yeah. Thanks for the food.”

“No problem. Take care of yourself, okay?”

Steve looked at him with wonder. “I will,” he almost whispered.

Then Tony watched him walk away, again.

Chapter Text

Tony spent all day Monday in the faculty building, fine tuning his designs and calculations with the Lotus 1-2-3 results he’d brought from home on a floppy. The main body of his thesis work was already done, but everything needed to be checked and double checked before he could finish writing up the results. He argued with Yinsen for a bit and came away with another set of control parameters that he was eager to test. Fortunately, he happened to look at the clock around 5.30 pm and made it back to town just in time to buy a dishpan, tuna, and actual cat food. At the last minute -the cashier was already glaring at him in the otherwise empty store- he decided to add cat litter. If he was going to wait for Steve before he went cat hunting again, he was going to need something more odor absorbing than inferior scientific articles.

 

Natasha received his offering of tuna and a new dish pan without comment. As she wrote her name on the cans, she asked offhandedly:

 

"So what is the story with your stray friend?"

 

"Steve?" Tony hoisted himself on to their tiny kitchen counter and thoughtlessly drummed his heels against the cabinet. Natasha glared at him and he stopped.

 

"I don't know much. All he's said so far is that he's from Brooklyn and that he's been hitchhiking from somewhere east. He mentioned Hamburg and now he's heading to Rotterdam to earn some money. That's all I know."

 

"Hamburg is more north than east of here. And you can hitchhike that in a day, with a little luck. He must have come from way east, to end up looking like he does. What is a Brooklyn boy doing that far out?"

 

"I didn't ask." He'd been dying to ask, but it had seemed a surefire way of setting Steve running. And it had felt like that would encroach on trying-to-fix territory, where Tony had forbidden himself to go. Didn't make it less frustrating, though.

 

"You're not curious?"

 

Tony gave her an unimpressed look.

 

"Of course I am, but I think he'd run if I asked him that."

 

"Probably..."

 

She tapped her lips with the capped permanent marker thoughtfully, the cans of tuna forgotten on the table. Tony waited. She was observant and sharp as a tack and to be honest, it was a relief to talk to someone about Steve. He should probably respect the man's privacy and not even speculate, but that really wasn't Tony's strong suit. It was in his nature to always want to know everything and not prodding Steve for more than he was willing to tell had been really hard.

 

"I suppose he could have come as a tourist and overstayed his welcome after the Eurail pass ran out," she suggested. "You think he's an addict?"

 

"I wondered, but I don't think so. He's not as jittery as the guys behind the train station, and he's never asked me for money. I can tell he doesn't even like it when I give him food. I think it hurts his pride. He doesn't refuse it, though."

 

"Yeah..." She folded her arms on the table and looked at Tony. "HIV?"

 

"What?! Nat! Really?"

 

"He could be sick. He looks pale enough. And he could be gay, too, I could see it. Maybe his conservative family kicked him out?"

 

"And gave him a plane ticket to Europe? That doesn't make any sense." Tony was shaken, though. He hadn't even considered that Steve might be sick, let alone with the gay plague. Okay, it wasn't just the gay plague anymore, that had been debunked several years ago, but AIDS was very prevalent among the junkies and the prostitutes and the homeless.

 

"Maybe not," conceded Natasha. "Maybe he got kicked out somewhere else, though." She pursed her lips for a moment then looked at Tony again with a speculative look in her eyes. "You know, he could have bought his get up at a dump store near an army base in Germany. But what if he didn't?"

 

Tony had absolutely no answer to that.

 

"Then what?" 

 

Natasha stood up and pushed her chair in, then leaned on the backrest.

 

"Think he could have hitchhiked here from Kuwait?"

 

"You mean...?" Operation Desert Storm? It was impossible to even wrap his brain around that.

 

"I don't know, now, do I?" She put her tuna in the pantry. "He could be an expired tourist, still, or something else we haven't considered." Walking away, she punched him lightly in the shoulder as she passed. "Just make sure you use condoms, yeah?"

 

"We're not even-" Tony started, but lost his train of thought before he had finished his sentence. Jesus, Steve. Are you that lost?

 

Tony didn't expect Steve on Monday or Tuesday, but by Wednesday he started to get a little restless. He drowned himself in work and played with his cats, who were really quite cute when they were not a pain in the ass. And even then they were more funny than anything else. Thursday it was worse and he told himself not to be ridiculous. On Friday he thought he saw a flash of the white kitten with the orange ears before he started his shift at De Wijnhaven and he knew in heart that Steve would show up that evening.

 

He didn't.

 

He very pointedly did not expect Steve during his Saturday shift, so it was stupid that he still felt disappointed when Steve didn't come. Scouring the cellar sink at the end of his shift at 1 am he wondered if Bruce would be willing to help out catching the cats.

 

He almost missed the soft knock on the cellar doors when it came. Heart leaping into his throat, he forced himself to keep a straight face while he calmly pushed the door open. It was a lost cause though when he looked up into Steve's grinning mug. His features were outlined oddly by the cellar light hitting him from below as he was squatting by the cellar doors, elbows loosely resting on his knees and Tony couldn't help but grin back. He started scrambling up the ramp and Steve stuck out his hand and Tony grabbed it. He was hoisted up with a powerful pull, as Steve rose to his feet and they ended up standing close. Very close. Steve's hand was callused and warm, despite the night time chill. He didn't smell so good, but his hair was less greasy, so he must have washed at some point. That was more than Tony had expected. It abated his anxiety somewhat, but he was still very relieved at seeing him again.

 

"You came back." It was the only thing he could think of to say.

 

"I said I would." Steve smiled.

 

"You did. But I'd almost given up on you."

 

Steve lost the smile.

 

"Don't."

 

"Don't what?" Tony noticed he was still holding on to Steve's hand and he dropped it in embarrassment.

 

"Don't give up on me."

 

Tony's stomach swooped and his face flushed. Steve surely hadn't meant that as the plea Tony was hearing, but he couldn't help hearing it that way. Not while Steve was looking at him with that intensity. And maybe he did mean it that way? Tony was so out of his depth here. He now wished he hadn't dropped Steve's hand, so he could have squeezed it.

 

"I... okay." Eloquence wasn't his strong suit tonight.

 

But Steve smiled again as if that had been exactly what he wanted to hear. He had shoved his hands in his pockets and inclined his head towards the darkness of the alley.

 

"I think I saw your kittens down there."

 

"Great!" Tony made himself step back a step. "Show me."

 

The kittens were nosing around a dead sparrow, exactly where Steve had indicated they would be. The white and orange one spotted them first and took off like an arrow. That one was going to be a problem, as skittish as it was. The white and black one stood his ground for a bit. It hissed and puffed up its tiny tail, but when Steve squatted and stuck out his hand to try and grab it, it ran through Tony's legs and was lost in the shadows a moment later. Tony cursed his own slowness. He shouldn't count on Steve's skills, thinking they were infallible.

 

The orange kitten was still there though. It had its mouth full of feathers as it was trying to chew on the sparrow's wing and it obviously had no intention of giving up its price. It reminded Tony a bit of Thor with a joint and a box of cookies.

 

So Tony's third cat already had a name before Steve even picked it up and gently dislodged the dead bird. The kitten mewled in protest, then tried to gnaw on Steve's finger as he started to rub its head with it. Tony quickly popped into De Wijnhaven to announce he was going home and Pim waved him off without a word.

 

The kitchen was deserted when they came home and Tony was secretly glad. He grabbed a few beers from the fridge and a bag of chips, while Steve went to wash his hands. Then they settled on the loveseat to silently watch Thor devour his first meal of proper cat food. Clint and Tasha came to check it out too, but Thor wasn't in the mood to share. There was some batting back and forth. Clint and Tasha had already eaten earlier that evening, though, so there wasn't much menace behind it. The desk lamp was the only light Tony had turned on and the shadows the cats threw on the opposite wall moved like strangely awkward panthers.

 

Once Thor was done, the three kittens wrestled for a bit, but before too long all three of them let out little kitty yawns and a few moments later Steve and Tony had their laps full of cat. Tasha settled on Tony and Clint had chosen Steve, while Thor tried to snuggle in between them. It really was a tiny loveseat, though, so there wasn't any space between the two men. As Tony was more than a little aware.

 

Between the beer, though, and the floaty feeling that came with the darkness and the lateness of the hour, he couldn’t bring himself to worry too much about it. He just kind of sank into it, and judging by the lack of tension in Steve’s body, he was doing the same. It was the first time Tony didn’t feel like Steve was on the verge of being spooked. Still, he wasn’t going to break the comfortable silence.

 

It was Steve who finally did. He was softly stroking Clint’s belly, for which Clint had rolled onto his back, paws sticking up into the air and with an utterly satisfied little cat smirk on his face. Tony was almost jealous.

 

“I guess I am not going anywhere anytime soon.” Steve said it lightly, but Tony could hear the question behind it. It’d be impossible not to, considering Steve’s situation. He carefully kept his tone light as he answered.

 

“Afraid not. That’d be cruel. You can’t be cruel to a kitten .”

 

“God forbid. That’d make me a heartless monster.”

 

“Not gonna stand for that, Steve.”

 

There was a pause before Steve said:

 

“Thanks.”

 

“For what? For not letting you break Clint’s little heart?”  

 

“No… You know.”

 

“I don’t, really.” Tony took another swig and leaned his head back. “But I don’t really need to know, if you’d rather not say. Whatever you’re referring to, it hasn't been a hardship.”

 

Silence fell again.

 

“You have no idea how rare that attitude is, do you?” Steve said softly. “I can’t remember the last time someone treated me like a person and not like a nuisance. Or an opportunity. It’s a little scary, actually. I’m not sure I remember how to be a person.”

 

Tony couldn’t see Steve’s face. The side that was turned towards him was shrouded in shadow and a glint of his eye was all he could make out. He wanted to reach out and slide his hand along Steve’s jaw, draw him into an embrace, maybe. But that wouldn’t be a good idea. He settled for placing his hand on top of Steve’s, thinking that might be accepted by the other man. The skin was dry and rough under his fingers and when Steve’s hand twitched under his own, he gave it a quick squeeze and let go.

 

“You’re doing fine,” he assured him. “You’ll get used to it in no time, I’m sure.”

 

Steve gripped his hand and squeezed it hard. He didn’t let go and Tony winced. Now what the fuck had he said wrong? He closed his eyes and wished they could return to the mellow silence of a few moments ago.

 

“That is the scary part, Tony. If I get used to that again, then I don’t know how to reconcile that with the other parts of my life. I gotta be… numb, to live my life. If I’m not just focusing on surviving, then I have to deal with the things I’m doing to survive. And with the why of it. And I can’t. I don’t think I can.”

 

Tony could hear the thickness in Steve’s throat and felt his own tighten as well. He knew Steve knew he’d meant well, but, Jesus fuck, he’d had no idea that Steve was struggling with the normalcy of their interaction, of all things. As he was searching for something, anything, to say, Thor had apparently decided that they were moving around too much and wiggled out of his sleeping spot on their thighs. He started butting his head against their clasped hands, demanding to be petted. Abruptly, the tension seeped out of Steve’s hand and as he let go, both of them started to scritch the tiny body. Thor let out a happy little sigh and flopped back down, this time mostly on Steve’s thigh.

 

“That’s difficult,” Tony said finally. “It’s not now or never, though, is it? Can you take your time to figure out if you can do it or not? I mean, I’d like to be your friend, but it’s not a right here, right now, or else kind of thing. You gotta do what you gotta do. I understand that. I do.”

 

“You do?”

 

Tony embarked on a lengthy spiel about his own delightful family dynamics and how he’d ended up in Delft and Steve listened quietly. He got less tense by the minute though, so Tony made sure to dredge up plenty of details to stretch his tale. When he finally wound down, they were both kind of melted into the couch and Tony suppressed a yawn. Steve yawned too.

 

“Wow,” Steve said, when he could. “That’s fucked up.”

 

“That’s life for you. An infinite variety of ways to fuck things up.” Tony yawned again. “I think I need to go to bed before I fall asleep here and fuck up my neck and back.” Steve made to sit up with alacrity, but Tony put his hand on his arm and stopped him.

 

“I am going to sleep in Bruce’s bed. He went to Leiden for the weekend. You take my bed.” He’d just wash both sets of sheets tomorrow.

 

He gently dislodged Tasha and deposited her on the warm spot his ass left on the couch when he stood up. She didn’t even budge. Then he freed Steve from Clint and Thor and piled all the cats in a furry heap. They seemed fine with that arrangement. Steve watched him intently while Tony dug some clean pajama pants out of his dresser drawer. 

 

“Tony… I…”

 

Tony tossed him the pants. They’d be short on him, but the waist should fit well enough.

 

“Take it or leave it, Steve, but I’m not the one kicking you out at 3 am. You know where the bathroom is. I’ll be next door.”

 

He turned by his door. Steve hadn’t moved yet, gingerly holding the pajama pants.

 

“Sleep well.”

 

“Sleep well, Tony.”

 

Tony laid awake a while listening for the sound of the front door opening and closing. If it happened, he didn’t hear it, though.



Steve was gone the next morning when Tony got up; the pajama pants neatly folded on the couch. Thor had made himself a cozy little bed on them. Gathering up his own sheets and Bruce’s for the laundry, he wondered what Steve would decide. And if he’d ever see him again.

Chapter Text

It was Thursday.

It had been raining for days. Not the soft, happy April-showers-bring-May-flowers type of rain, but a cold, nasty, near horizontal rain that stung his face when Tony biked to the faculty building and that managed to drench him despite the raincoat and rainpants he wore. He had taken to keeping a dry pair of shoes and socks at work, in order not to be miserable all day. The damp smell of wet clothes permeated the building and the hot drink vending machines ran out of “soup” on Tuesday. Thank god Tony had his own coffee maker in the lab and his own supply of cup-a-soup.

He couldn’t help but wonder occasionally how Steve was dealing with the weather. Nothing he could do, he knew that, and Steve’s choices weren’t his choices to make. But he still worried.

It was Thursday evening and everybody was home. Nobody wanted go out in this weather, of course, but also, Bruce was making vegetable lasagna for dinner and nobody in their right mind would miss that . Bruce claimed it was too much of a hassle to make frequently, so on the occasions that he did, they were all there. Tony had left the kittens trying to catch the raindrops sliding down the other side of his window and had joined the others in the kitchen while they waited for the lasagna to be done in another 30 minutes. He was playing black jack for toothpicks with Natasha (he’d learned his lesson about playing with real money after he’d been forced to live on grocery store bread and peanut butter for a week until his next paycheck came in), Clint and Thor were playing darts and Bruce was chopping tomatoes for the salad. Clint was (futilely) explaining the difference between force and finesse in darts to Thor, when the doorbell rang. Everyone looked at Tony. He’d lived here for three fucking years, but he was still the last one in, so he still had door duty whenever the kitchen bell rang (rather than one of their room bells).

“Aw, come on. It’s probably Jane. Only those in the throes of new love would go out in this. Or did you tell her about the lasagna? Go open the door for your moocher girlfriend, Thor!”

“Nay,” grinned Thor. “Rules are rules. Go.”

“You’re the worst boyfriend, dude. I don’t know what she sees in you. She is way too smart for you.”

Thor flexed his muscles and waggled his eyebrows and Tony rolled his eyes. He got up, though. He shoved the playing cards in his pocket, while Natasha glared at him.

“I know you cheat,” he hissed in fake menace. “Not going to make it easier for you.”

She threw a toothpick at him. Tony triumphantly put it on his own pathetically small pile. On second thought, he put the toothpicks in his pocket as well.

As he stumbled down the stairs to the front door, he wondered for the hundredth time why he hadn’t put in an automatic door opener yet, not relishing the blast of cold, wet air he would have to face when opening it. He’d only just started to feel warm again after biking home from the faculty.

The snide comment he had ready for Jane died on his lips as he took in the sodden figure in front of him, when he opened the door. Steve’s hair was plastered to his head, the rain running in rivulets down his face. His pants were soggily clinging to his legs and even the leather jacket looked like it had just given up and become porous.

“Jesus, Steve!”

“Tony. I just wanted to-” Steve was reaching into his jacket, but Tony yanked on his arm and dragged him inside.

“Come in, you dimwit. We’re not talking out there, are you crazy?”

“I’m already wet, it doesn’t matter. I-”

Tony didn’t miss the little tremor that went through Steve as he was talking, though, and he started pushing him up the stairs. Doesn’t matter, his ass. Steve’s boots squelched on the steps and he was leaving a trail of water behind. Jesus fucking Christ. This was so not okay. He pushed Steve into the kitchen, even though the man tried to back out when he found four people there, who were staring at them with various degrees of shock on their face. Tony glared at them in warning behind Steve’s back and, of course, Natasha was the first to recover. She grabbed a clean dish towel from the drawer and tossed it to Steve. He awkwardly started wiping at his face with it. It gave Tony a chance to talk.

“Steve, you’ve met Bruce and Natasha. The big one is Thor and the mean one is Clint. Guys, this is Steve. He is staying for dinner.”

“He is? I thought lasagna nights were strictly no guests nights,” said Clint, because he couldn’t not be an asshole.

“Of course he is staying,” said Bruce. “There is plenty. There’s time for him to take a shower, too.” He turned to Steve. “You should get out of those wet clothes. You’ll catch pneumonia.”

Steve looked a little wild around the eyes. “It’s okay. I just wanted to bring Tony-”

Instead of finishing his sentence, he pulled something out of his coat that looked a lot like a plug of hair pulled out of the shower drain. Except that theirs were usually more reddish blond than black and grey, because Natasha and Thor shed the most, volume wise. It took Tony a moment to realize he was looking at a very wet, very still kitten. It was breathing, judging by the way the tiny little chest expanded occasionally, but it obviously wasn’t well.  

“Oh Jesus,” Tony whispered. “What happened to Bruce?”

“What?” said Steve.

“What?” echoed Bruce from the kitchen.

“Oh. That’s his name. This is the angry one that keeps hissing at me. Also bit me. Twice.”

“Oh, come on!” exclaimed Clint. “You didn’t bring a cat in here! Now my eyes will be itching for days!”

Tony ignored him and so did everyone else.

“I found him lying in the alley we first saw them in,” Steve said with a worried look on his face.

“And the white one?” Tony gingerly touched Bruce’s head. It was wet and cold. His jaw moved but he made no sound.

“Ran away as soon as it saw me.”  Steve looked at Tony. “You think Bruce will be alright?”

“Let me see,” said Bruce-the-human, while Tony shrugged helplessly. Bruce took the kitten from Steve and examined it closely. Steve shoved his hand in his pocket and stood a little forlorn while a small puddle formed around his feet on the old industrial grade black linoleum.

“He may be okay if we feed him and keep him warm,” said Bruce. “Natasha, can you warm up some milk? Room temperature or a little higher. Not hot, but take the chill off. I have some pipettes in my room that I can use. And we’ll need an old towel. Does anyone have a hot water bottle?”

“I do. I’ll get that ready too.” Natasha ran off to her room.

“I thought milk wasn’t good for them?” Tony was puzzled.

“It’s not great for their stool, but right now the calories are more important.” Bruce started towards his room, then said over his shoulder: “Tony, you get Steve warm and dry in the meantime. Clint, you finish the salad.”

“What?!” said Clint. “It’s not my turn to cook! I can’t make salad.”

“For fuck’s sake, Clint, stop being a douche. I’m taking the cat to my room out of respect for your allergies and you’re chopping the fucking vegetables like a decent human being or I swear to God you’ll regret it!”

“Told you he had a temper,” Tony grinned at Steve, while Clint went grumbling to the kitchen counter. He pushed Steve towards his room and when there, he tossed him the bathrobe he always used and a clean towel. “Get out of those clothes and put this on. Meet me in the hallway when you’re done.”

“Tony, I can just go. I don’t need-”

“Yes, you do. You’re wet and shivering. Besides, Bruce will get angry if you don’t.”

Tony gently pushed Tasha aside, after she had come running to attack his shoelaces. Clint was staring at him from his perch on the loft bed and Thor was asleep on the radiator, of course. He went back out the door. Steve followed him in the robe in two minutes flat and Tony led him through the kitchen where Clint was chopping petulantly and Natasha was pouring milk in a small pot, and down the hall to the shared bathroom. They had a shower stall and two sinks and an old washing machine in the room. Thor was unloading his load of laundry when they came in. He showed Steve the shower and told him to use anything that was marked with TS in sharpie (and under no circumstances to touch any bottles that were labeled NR, on the pain of death) and then waited until the robe and towel were flung over the door and the water turned on. He was about to leave when Thor spoke.

“We should wash his clothes while he is in there.”

“You think?” Tony was torn between ‘yes, of course’ and ‘is that overstepping his boundaries?’.

“They need it,” nodded Thor. “And it’ll be a good excuse not to let him go back out tonight, if his clothes are hanging on the line.” They didn’t have a dryer, so one of the hallways was strung with laundry lines. In weeks like this, when they had to keep the windows closed it was a slow, slightly musty smelling process, but everything got dry eventually. But it took at least half a day. It used to take longer, though, before Tony had turbo charged the spin cycle of their washer.

“What is he going to wear in the meantime, though? My stuff doesn’t fit him.”

“I’ll get some of mine. You go get his clothes.”

Tony went back to his room. He picked Steve’s clothes off the little pile he had made next to his duffle bag and put them in his laundry basket. Everything was wet and filthy and the socks had holes in them. He briefly considered going through Steve’s bag to see if he had more clothes, but decided that would definitely be crossing the line. Finding some old newspapers, he tore them in big pieces and wadded balls of them in Steve’s boots to soak up the water inside them and then he put them by the radiator. They were army issue, too, by the looks of them. He hung Steve’s jacket by the radiator as well.  

Thor had left pajama pants, socks, a T-shirt and a sweatshirt on one of the sinks and Tony silently thanked the gentle giant, as she shoved Steve’s clothes in the washer and turned it on. The shower was still going, steam rising above the door and Tony willed himself not to imagine Steve’s naked body in there. Taking Thor’s clothes back to his room, he stopped by Bruce’s. Little Bruce was wrapped in a pink washcloth atop the hot water bottle and was eagerly sucking milk out of the giant pipette that big Bruce was handling deftly, while Natasha watched with an uncommonly soft expression on her face.

Bruce looked up and smiled at Tony. “I think he’ll make it. I’ll bring him to you when I am done.” And he went back to feeding. Natasha followed Tony out of the room.

“Bring Steve to the kitchen when he’s done,” she said, “I am going to cut his hair.”

Tony wanted to protest, but he knew that look on her face and he knew that resistance was futile. Steve must have sensed it too, because when he came out of the bathroom in Tony’s robe, his cheeks rosy and his skin glowing, he sat down in the chair Natasha pointed at without protest.

“I’m going to leave the top a little longer, but the back and the sides are going to need to be short, because you have some nasty tangles there.”

“I know. I tried to get them out in the shower, but it didn’t work.”

“You should have used my detangler.”

“Tony said you’d kill me if I did.”

Natasha frowned at Tony.

“What?” Tony gestured helplessly. “You threatened to castrate me if I touched your soap! How was I to know Steve would get special dispensation?”

“Yeah,” Clint contributed from the kitchen. “Last time I used your shit, you put hairdye in my shampoo.”

She rolled her eyes and turned back to Steve. It was almost a dance, the way she moved from one side to the other, cutting quickly and efficiently. Then she took the trimmer and pushed Steve’s head forward to buzz his neck.

“Tell me,” she said in between short upward strokes, “why do you let your hair get this bad, but you are always clean shaven?”

Steve didn’t say anything. Tony couldn’t see his face, but under the sheet that was thrown around his neck, Steve’s clenched his hands into fists. The question seemed innocuous to Tony, but obviously it wasn’t for Steve.

Natasha opened her mouth to speak again, when Steve didn’t answer. Tony shook his head at her silently, mouthing ‘no’. She shut it and started working the trimmer over his ears.

“This is going to look really good,” she said at last. “You have great hair.”

“Thank you,” Steve mumbled, and his hands relaxed. Tony let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding.

The haircut did look great and Steve was obviously pleased with it. If Applied Physics wasn’t going to work out for Natasha, she’d have at least one other marketable skill. Then the oven beeped and they all sprung into action. Natasha started sweeping up hair, Thor started setting the table and Bruce came out of his room to check on his creation. He declared it done, but needing to ‘sit’ for 10 minutes. Tony took Steve with him to get clothes on. He wasn’t sure if they had killed him with kindness or whether he was just really glad to get out of the rain or what, but Steve barely reacted to the news that his clothes were in the washer and wouldn’t be dry till the morning. He accepted Thor’s clothes with a small smile.   

 

It was odd to sit next to him during dinner. In the clean clothes and with his hair short and smelling like Tony’s shampoo, there was nothing about him that screamed ‘homeless’ anymore. His hair was soft and golden and looked very touchable. He was still a little thin in the face, but it was hard to recognize the miserable man who had come in an hour earlier. Steve must have felt it too. He wasn’t what Tony would call exuberant, but he’d lost a good bit of the catastrophic brittleness that had colored his previous interactions with Tony’s roommates. He was smiling and even laughing on occasion. Clint had shared his personal stash of quality beer, most likely as an unvoiced apology for being an ass earlier. Whatever, it was good beer. The lasagna, as always, was great, even if the salad had rather large chunks of tomatoes in it.  

Tony was normally a very active participant in table conversations whenever they had meals together, but this evening he kind of let the whole thing flow over him. Bruce and Thor were talking science and normally Tony would at least be trying to follow that conversation, but Clint and Natasha were making plans to go to Budapest in summer. Apparently Clint had made it to the semi-finals of some dart tournament that would be held there and Natasha wanted to see it, now that the Iron Curtain had come down. Steve had a couple of suggestions of stuff to see on the way and Tony was just happy to watch them talk. To be honest, he was mostly watching Steve’s profile as the warm light played over his features and maybe it was the beer (which had a fairly spectacular amount of alcohol in it), or maybe it was the fact that he was dry and warm and in good company while the rain lashed against the dark windows behind him, but he couldn’t really recall ever feeling this comfortable before. He was almost giddy with it. Was this what happiness felt like, he wondered.

And then Steve turned his head and smiled at him. Their eyes locked and Tony’s stomach did a backflip.

Oh.

Steve flushed a little and quickly looked away.Tony tried to rein in his reeling head and refocus on the conversation, but Steve’s hand wrapped around his under the table and just like that Tony lost all semblance of coherent thought. Steve’s hand was warm and a little rough and it possessed the ability to make several thousand of Tony’s nerve endings sing at once. When Steve’s thumb rubbed a little circle on the back of his hand he thought he might spontaneously combust. His mind was spinning in circles. What did this mean? Was it the same as when they held hands the other night? It didn’t seem the same. Tony didn’t want it to be the same. But what if it was? What if he was reading it wrong and Tony was the only one who was about to lose it from a little thumb rub?

He squeezed Steve’s hand a little and Steve responded by weaving their fingers together, causing another dangerous spike in Tony’s heart rate. Holy shit, what torture was this?

 

Finally, finally, the meal came to an end. Steve volunteered to wash up and Tony wanted to howl in protest. He needed to drag Steve to his room and ask him what the hell he was doing, but because he couldn’t, he volunteered to dry the fucking dishes while Steve washed. Thor pounded him jovially on the back (because it had actually been his turn tonight) and said he’d hang up Steve’s clothes in return. Bruce went to check on little Bruce and Clint and Natasha opened another beer after they had wiped down the table, and they talked some more about youth hostels in Budapest.

Tony had almost ached at the loss of Steve’s hand when they had gotten up to do the dishes, but he quickly found out that washing up with Steve was just as bad. Or worse. The whole procedure was foreplay. They stood too close. Their shoulders kept bumping. Their fingers kept brushing when Steve handed him wet dishes. And one time, when Tony couldn’t reach the top shelf to put the salad bowl away, Steve took it from him and leaned over him so closely while putting it up, Tony could have sucked a hickey under his jaw without leaning in more than half an inch. If he hadn’t been so aware of Clint and Natasha yakking less than five feet away, he probably would have. All he dared to do now was to inadvertently trail his fingers down Steve’s abs, while the man was up on tiptoes. Steve landed heavily back on his heels and his eyes burned into Tony’s. For a moment it seemed as if he was going to kiss Tony, audience be damned, but then Bruce came back into the kitchen to show off a tired, but very much alive little kitten. Natasha jumped up and came over too. Steve stepped back a little and they all admired Bruce’s handiwork. The look he exchanged with Steve next was less heated, but there was a happiness in it that melted Tony’s insides none the less.

“I’ll put him in your room now, okay?” said Bruce. “That’s where all the amenities are.”

“Sure. We’ll finish the dishes in here and then we’ll check on him.”

“It’d go a lot faster if you stopped eye fucking each other,” suggested Clint helpfully.

So much for being inconspicuous. Tony flushed and darted a glance at Steve. The man was staring down hard at the soapy water, but there was a little smile playing along his lips, so all seemed not lost. Still… Tony picked up a wet scrubbing sponge and launched it at Clint’s head. Because he wasn’t Clint and his aim sucked, he missed, but he did manage to hit the table right in front of him, causing a small shower of dirty dishwater. Clint let out a stream of curses but stopped abruptly when Natasha cuffed him upside the head. She expertly flipped the sponge over Steve’s head into the sink and that was that.

They continued washing with a little less touching. Bruce came back out of Tony’s room with a smile on his face.

“The orange one came over immediately and crawled into the box with him and started cleaning him up!”

“Aw!” said Tony, “Thor is licking Bruce? Atta boy!”

Bruce shook his head. “That’s messed up, man.”

“Wait!” called Clint. “What are the other two named?”

Tony gave him an unimpressed look. “You get one guess, Barton.”

“Fuck! Really?”

“Really.”

“You hear that?” said Clint to Natasha, with a smug look of satisfaction on his face. “I have a cat named after me.”

“So do I, dumbass. What’s your point?”

 

The bickering was a nice distraction, but eventually the point was reached where the dishes were done, the stove was cleaned and the counters were wiped and they were heading back to Tony’s room. Tony’s heart was beating in his throat as they crossed the kitchen and bade everyone good night. Clint leered suggestively, but Tony ignored him. What was he going to say anyway? He hid his anxiety by going to check on little Bruce first. He was on the bottom of a kitty pile with Thor and Tasha and seemed blissfully happy with that. Tony scratched him between the ears.

Behind him he heard his bedroom door click shut. Not knowing what to do or say, he steadfastly continued what he was doing. A moment later Steve’s hands landed on his shoulders and a voice spoke softly by his ear:

“How is he doing?”

Tony suppressed a shiver.

“He’s… He seems fine.” His voice sounded weird even to his own ears. He looked aside at Steve to see if he’d noticed, but that was a mistake. Steve was looking at him and he was very, very close. It was as if the air had been sucked out of the room. He didn’t know if he was moving or if Steve was moving him, but the next thing he knew they were standing face to face.

“Good,” breathed Steve, while he slowly slid a hand up Tony’s neck to his jaw, his eyes never leaving Tony’s face. It took Tony a few seconds to realize that Steve was still talking about the cat. And then he forgot altogether as Steve started pulling him closer, inch by interminably slow inch. The anticipation was unbearable by the time their faces were close enough that he could feel Steve’s breath ghosting on his lips. Steve might have stopped pulling at that point, but Tony kept moving anyway, he couldn’t stand it for another second. When their lips touched it was like the world fell away. All that was left was the fact that Steve was kissing him and he had never wanted a kiss more in his life. It started a little tentative, only barely there. Steve’s lips were a bit chapped and the combination of rough and soft was mesmerizing. As it became clear that this was something they both wanted, the pressure increased. Steve’s thumb was caressing Tony’s cheekbone and it was the sweetest thing anyone had ever done to him. He tilted his head more to chase the pressure of Steve’s thumb and then their mouths slotted together even more perfectly and he finally felt the slide of of Steve’s tongue against his own. He couldn’t help the small noise that escaped him. Steve’s hand slid from his face into his hair and, fuck, that felt so good. HIs own hands were grabbing fistfulls of the back of Steve’s sweater, as they tried to pull each other closer. Steve groaned and deepened the kiss when Tony pushed himself flush against Steve’s body.

God, it was fantastic. Tony would have happily spent the rest of the night doing just this, but the longer they kissed, the more his dick started clamoring for attention. If they kept this up, he’d be coming in his jeans in no time and that was really not how he wanted this to end. He started tugging up on Steve’s shirt and slid his hands under. That was the moment Steve pulled his mouth from Tony’s and leaned his forehead against his.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” he whispered between shaky breaths.

Tony had a hard time parsing that sentence, distracted as he was by the sensation of Steve’s skin under his fingers.

“I…” Was he sure? It vaguely seemed that sometime, somewhere far away this might not be the best of ideas, too fast and stuff, but, really, right here, right now, it was virtually impossible to even allocate any brain power to contemplating that scenario. Because right here, right now, he had his hands on a massively attractive man who was willing to interact with Tony’s dick and that was really all that was important.

“Fuck, yes,” he answered and slid one hand into the back of Steve’s pajama bottoms. Thor hadn’t provided underwear, a fact that Tony immediately exploited. Steve sucked in a sharp breath and latched onto Tony’s neck, just under his ear and, wow, was that spot sensitive. His knees wanted to buckle. He cursed out loud and felt Steve smile against his skin and that was even worse. Working one hand out from under Steve’s arm, he grabbed Steve by the hair to force his head up, so he could kiss the smile from his lips. Steve complied with fervor.

The next thing Tony noticed was that he was being divested from his shirt. He obediently lifted his arms and was rewarded by Steve’s hands roaming up and down his torso, goosebumps trailing in their wake. He tugged at Steve’s shirt again, feeling impatient, but having lost the coordination to effectively do anything about it. Thankfully, Steve took pity on him and reached behind his back with one hand and pulled the shirt off in one fluid motion. Wow. That would never not be sexy. Same for Steve’s torso. His lack of body fat sharply delineated every single muscle, and Tony felt a little inadequate in comparison. Not that Steve agreed, by the way he touched Tony almost reverently.

Dragging his eyes up from Steve’s torso, he watched Steve watch him. He swallowed hard and forced himself to pull back his breath. When Steve’s eyes came to rest on his face again, he stepped in and slowly brought his hand to Steve’s freshly shaved neck. This time it was Tony who pulled Steve in, kissing him just as tenderly and softly as that first kiss, like a promise. It felt like he was pouring everything he knew about himself into it and it was a little scary, but it was an offering that needed to be made. Steve caught him, though, returning something just as honest and vulnerable.

Tony didn’t know how long they kissed like that, but eventually lust built and built again and two pairs of hands were scrabbling at Tony’s jeans. When they’d finally wrangled them off and Tony had kicked off his shoes, Steve pushed him towards the loft bed ladder. Never breaking the kiss, Tony stumbled backwards until the ladder hit him in the calves. He started scrambling up them backwards and Steve’s mouth trailed to his neck, his shoulders, his chest, his belly, as he got higher. He was kind of hoping that hot mouth would eventually reach his dick, but Steve followed him up the ladder and didn’t get any lower than his stomach. He finally flipped backwards onto the bed and scooted backwards with alacrity to make space for this unexpected lover, who crawled up after him, just as eager. They wrapped themselves around each other and just held on for a long moment. It felt reassuring. Before too long, though, they were kissing and groping again. The last bits of clothing were soon removed and Tony was breathless with want when Steve rolled him onto his back and positioned himself between his legs. His forearms planted next to Tony’s head, he lowered his head to kiss Tony deeply, then asked:

“Have you done this with a guy before?”

Tony tried to collect his roiling thoughts and parse a coherent response.

“Hand jobs, blow jobs, frottage. Not anal.”     

Steve trailed his lips down Tony’s throat and chest and gently bit his nipple. Fuck. He hadn’t even known those were sensitive. He’d thought that was a girl thing. But when Steve sucked it into a peak, he wanted to sob and beg. Steve popped off and looked at him with a crooked smile.

“Best you top then. Condoms? Lube?”                   

Tony stared at him, wide eyed, then grinned and pointed at his stash. Steve grinned back and helped himself. Then he rolled onto his side and propped up one leg and Tony rolled with him, watching in fascination as Steve coated two fingers with lube and started circling his hole. He ran his hand up and down Steve’s hip as he watched, not being able to keep from touching. As the two fingers finally disappeared into Steve, first one, then the other, he moved to softly bite the inside of Steve’s thigh. Steve moaned in response and, encouraged, Tony moved up to lick a stripe up Steve’s leaking cock. Before he could reach the top and close his lips over the head, Steve pushed him back down, though. Following his guidance, he nuzzled Steve’s balls, and apparently that was more welcome, because Steve let out a long breath and relaxed back down. After a while, Tony pulled back again to watch and trailed a curious finger around Steve’s rim.

“Can I…?”

“Please,” panted Steve, “Better angle if you do it.”  

Tony quickly lubed up his fingers and then slid one in next to Steve’s and wondered at how smooth and warm it felt. When Steve pulled his own fingers out, he eagerly pushed two more in. Steve let out a shuddering breath. The sound of it went straight to Tony’s crotch and a rush of power went through him. He started kneading Steve’s inner thigh with his left hand while he watched the fingers of his right hand move in and out. Steve had rolled onto his back and splayed his legs as wide as he could spread them, his fingers scrabbling ineffectively at the sheets.

“God. Tony… please…,” he croaked.

Tony did prime numbers in his head to stop himself from grabbing his own cock and just spurting over Steve arching body.

“Fuck…” he whispered and moved up to kiss Steve, still relentlessly working this fingers in and out. Steve was reduced to panting into his mouth, though and couldn’t make it work.

“Fuck’s sake, Tony,” he urged breathlessly, “Get a condom on!”

Right. Of course. Tony scrambled back and found out quickly that trying  opening the wrapper with lube coated fingers was impossible. Impatiently, he tore it with his teeth and then failed miserably at getting his trembling hands to roll it on. Fortunately, Steve’s hands joined his and he was unrolling it and stroking it in place in no time. He tore his eyes away from the strong, callused hands on his dick and looked at Steve. Steve smiled.

“Just start slow,” he said, and laid back down.

Tony felt his eyes on him as he lined himself up and slowly pushed in. He squeezed his eyes shut and grit his teeth to keep from coming right there and then. God, the pressure, the heat. It was beyond compare.

“Jesus. Steve…”

“Move, Tony! Just move!”

“Shut up. I need bigger prime numbers. Or this will be over in ten seconds.”

Steve cracked up and after a short moment of mortification Tony did too. He collapsed on top of Steve burying his head in his shoulder. God, he was such a failure. But Steve was still shaking with laughter under him, and that made it impossible to to start freaking out. A little while later, Steve pulled up his head and kissed him, the smiles still pulling at their lips. Before long though, they were both panting as Tony finally figured out how to move and not fall apart at the seams immediately, and they gave up on the kissing. Steve threw his head back against the pillow with a loud moan and Tony pushed back up onto his hands to get better leverage. On the other side of the wall, Bruce cranked up ‘Here comes your man’ . Right. Creaking bed and Steve was not a little loud. Tony almost cracked up again, but everything felt just too good and Steve was covered with a slight sheen of sweat that he wanted to lick off, but couldn’t, because he was on this runaway train and there was no stopping until Tony felt his balls pull tight and then the tingling at the bottom of his spine exploded and his vision went a little gray at the edges. He was pretty he sure he shouted... something.

He landed on top of Steve, but it wasn’t long before Steve reached between them, gripping his own cock and starting to strip it at a truly brutal pace. Struggling to come down from his high, Tony wanted to protest. To help. He pushed back on his arms.

“Shit, Steve. I should have-”

“Doesn’t matter,” panted Steve. “Just, maybe you could-” He didn’t finish the sentence though. Quickly pulling out, Tony got rid of the condom and shoved his fingers back into Steve’s ass, curling them cruelly against the upper wall and then he leaned forward and bit Steve’s inner thigh again. Steve almost went airborne as he keened his release. Spurts of come streaked his chest. He nearly kneed Tony in the head, but Tony didn’t care. That was awesome.

“Holy fuck,” panted Steve to the ceiling when he came back down. Tony reached for the roll of toilet paper he had up here for just this reason and started wiping the come off Steve’s chest. Steve looked at him. Then he laughed.

“You look like the cat that got the canary.”

“More like I should pound my chest and go ‘Me Tarzan, you Steve.’” He let out a proper jungle yell and on the other side of the wall, The Pixies got louder. “Bruce is going to kill me.” he said as he collapsed next to Steve, who was still shaking with mirth.

“You’re something else, Tony.” he said finally.

“I should hope so,” Tony faux pouted. He felt light and airy as if he could outsmile the moon and that didn’t even make sense, but he was too happy to care. It was probably the endorphin release, or something prosaic, but it felt anything but prosaic. When Steve pressed a soft kiss into his hair, he barely suppressed a giggle.

“Can we sleep?” Steve sounded tired. Tony forced himself back to earth.

“Sure.” It wasn’t that late, barely midnight, but post coital drowsiness pulled at him too. He maneuvered them under the blankets and it wasn’t long before Steve’s breath evened out, his head on Tony’s shoulder. Tony tried staying awake to revel in his closeness, but he passed out soon after, right before Kim Deal pronounced "This is a song about a superhero named Tony. It's called Tony's Theme!" on the other side of the wall.

 

He woke up several times that night, relieved to find Steve just as close every time before he dropped back to sleep.  

 

***

 

When he woke in the morning, though, Steve wasn’t in the bed, but he had acquired several cats who were curled up in the nooks and crannies of his body under the blanket. He looked out the window. The storm had finally blown itself out and a bright sun was just starting to peek over the roofs. Early still. Steve must be in the bathroom. He had almost fallen back asleep when the door to his room opened and closed. He expected Steve to come back up the ladder, but it didn’t happen. Suddenly wide awake he scooted to the edge of the bed, under protest of the cats, and peered down.

Steve was fully dressed. In his own clothes.

Tony’s stomach plummeted. He cursed himself for not expecting this, for being taken unaware. But fuck, last night had been- You know, not something he would run away from. And he couldn’t help being a little hurt and more than a little pissed at Steve that he would.

“You’re leaving?”

Steve looked up at Tony, his face more closed off than Tony had seen it before.

“Yes.” he said curtly, and made to turn around. Changing his mind halfway through, he turned back. “Last night was a mistake. I should go before I make it worse.”

“A mistake ? What the fuck, Steve? What? I’m not good enough for you? You don’t ‘feel that way about me’ ?” He laced that sentence heavily with sarcasm. “It was just a fuck, asshole. I’m not a swooning maiden.”

Steve scowled. “You have no fucking idea what you’re talking about, Tony. This isn’t even about you. It may or may not be just a fuck for you, and thanks for making that sound cheap and ugly, I kind of felt it was more than that. Whatever. But when I walk out that door you just roll your egocentric little ass over in your warm little bed until you’ve decided what you’re going to wear and what you’re going to have for breakfast. And what am I going to do?”

Tony’s heart had jumped at ‘more than that’ and he was trying to figure out a way to back up and admit he hadn’t meant it like that. So he wasn’t really thinking ahead when he said:

“Have breakfast with me?” Seemed simple enough.

“And then what? Hang out on the street and wait for you to have time for me next? Move in with you? Share your little room? Be your kept man? Or would you expect me to pay rent?”

Tony didn’t know what to say to that. He honestly hadn’t thought that far ahead. Hadn’t even considered it. His silence pissed Steve off more. He came halfway up the ladder so he and Tony were face to face.

“You know why I am always clean shaven, Tony?” he hissed.

Tony couldn’t help but flick his eyes to Steve’s jaw. The man had already shaved this morning. It looked very kissable, but he wasn’t stupid enough to act on that.

“Because the guys I suck off for money in dirty back alleys think a beard makes me look too old, that’s why.”  

Tony cringed. He couldn’t help it.

Steve sneered.

“Jesus fuck, Steve. Are you even- “ In a mild panic, Tony replayed the night on fast forward. What if Steve wasn’t clean? What had they done? They’d used a condom for the fucking and Tony hadn’t-  He hadn’t, because Steve had stopped him before he could suck his dick.

Steve jumped down from the ladder and went for his shoes. He sat himself  down heavily on the loveseat under Tony’s bed, so Tony couldn’t see him. Tony flopped onto his back and studied the ceiling. Fuck, fuck, fuck .

“Yes, I’m clean. Fas as I know. It’s not like I’ve been tested recently, but that’s the one educational video the army has updated. How to not get AIDS in a fucking whore house. Everything else is still stuck in the fifties. How to brush your teeth. How to wipe your ass. So I make sure the first thing I buy after a job is a new condom to use with the next guy.”

Jesus fucking God. Natasha had been right!  Tony jack knifed up to sitting. “Wait a minute. The army? Where the hell were you in the army?”

By the sound of it, Steve was pulling wads of wet newspaper out if his boots.

“Kuwait.” Curtly.

Tony was silent. He hugged his knees and looked out the window, wondering how the hell they had gone from last night to ending up here.

“What happened?”

There was more silence from under the bed and then the sound of a boot dropping to the floor.

“We were on patrol.” Tony had to strain to hear him. “Me and Bucky and the rest of our unit. And we got blown up. I got hit in the head with something and I was out of it for a while. When I came to, everyone was dead.. Bucky’s left arm was torn straight off. He was lying next to me, half over me, as if he was trying to protect me, still. We were friends since we were orphans together in Brooklyn. He was always looking out for me. Always backed me up when I got into stupid fights. Even followed me into the army when I insisted on enlisting... “ His voice was thick and it took a minute before he continued.

“I started walking. I don’t know what I was thinking. I wasn’t thinking. I just walked away. And kept on walking. Someone gave me a ride. And then someone else. And I kept going. I didn’t know what else to do. And as long as I was just trying to survive, I didn’t have to think about what else to do.”

There weren’t any words that fit here. Tony wanted was to go down there and hug Steve and tell him that somehow he would make it right, but he didn’t have a fucking clue how to make it right. Not even one.

“God, I’m sorry, Steve.” The words tasted trite on his tongue.

Steve pulled in a deep breath and let it out. Then he shoved a foot in a boot and started aggressively lacing it up.

“Yeah. Well. It wasn’t so bad till I met you. You reminded me of home. Of the life before. God, I fucking miss home. Meeting you was like waking up out of a fog and suddenly I don’t know what the fuck I am doing. I can’t go back. They’ll court martial me and put me in prison for desertion. Or give me the chair, because we’re at war. So I gotta keep going. And that’s why this was a mistake.” He put on the other boot and started lacing that one.

“You know that Little Match Girl story? That’s me, Tony. That’s me getting to be a part of normal life with you and your roommates for one evening, and then freezing to death when the illusion burns out.” He stood and shrugged his jacket on. Then he picked up his duffel bag and faced Tony, who was still hugging his knees, high up on the bed. Tasha was butting her head against his ankles and meowing for food. Tony ignored her.

“Thanks for telling me.” It was the only thing he could think of to say. Steve nodded his head unhappily.

Then Tony thought of something. “Wait. Are you MIA or AWOL?”

Steve shrugged. “It’s a technicality. MIA, I guess.  But as soon as I show my face at a base and it turns out I haven’t been a POW for the last 6 months, I’ll be charged with desertion.”

Tony blew out a breath. It did nothing to alleviate the misery caught in his throat.  

“I wish…” He trailed off, not even knowing what all he wished for, except for everything to be different.

“Yeah,” sighed Steve. “Me too. I like you, Tony. I really do. You’re a good guy.” Then he smiled, and it was so incongruous that Tony almost missed what he said next.

“And a good lay.”

“Shut up.” He dredged up a wobbly smile for Steve.

Steve turned to go, but paused by the door.

“Goodbye, Tony. Thanks for everything.” He opened it. “You’ll have to catch that last cat by yourself though. I can’t come back this time.”

Tony nodded to show he understood and accepted that. “If you need me, you know where I am.”

Steve gave him a small wave and left the room.


Tony fell back onto his back and stared at the ceiling. This time he could hear the front door loud and clear.

Chapter Text

Things were off in the weeks after Steve left. Part of it was that Tony felt ashamed about how he’d lashed out after misunderstanding what Steve had been trying to say. It wasn’t like Steve hadn’t told him how it felt for him, that evening they had sat on the couch. And still Tony hadn’t even considered that angle and had gotten really bitchy. Somehow, he’d convinced himself that everything was normal now after they had had sex, because he cared about Steve and that must have made everything magically alright. Or something. He blamed Meg Ryan movies for that one. But mostly himself.

Part of it was that he couldn’t stop wondering where Steve was now. Rotterdam? Brussels? London? Had he gone south or north? He felt so fucking helpless in the knowledge that he had no way of finding him, no way of contacting him, no way at all. He didn’t even know Steve’s last name. The idea that he might never, ever find out what would become of Steve ate at him like a cancer. So did the inevitable turn those thoughts would take as to what Steve was doing to stay alive. Multiple times a day he’d have to shut his eyes and grit his teeth and find something else to do really quick as he tried to banish the image of Steve on his knees on some dirty sidewalk in front of some unsavory stranger.

He threw himself into his work and his research was progressing in leaps and bounds in those days.

And part of it, to be honest, was just that he plain felt sorry for himself. Poor Tony, all alone so far from home, finally finding someone he thinks he can love and then fate sweeps him away. It wasn’t exactly Dying Young, but it still sucked. At the same time, he was wondering why the hell he was so hung up on a guy he’d seen four times. He went back and forth between feeling sorry for himself and feeling stupid for feeling sorry for himself, until he finally figured that he’d never know if he was just projecting or that there really was something between him and Steve. But what he did know was that some people you fucked and you knew deep down it’d never amount to anything and some people you slept with and it was full of hope and potential, even if you didn’t really know the person yet. So after that he could go back to just feeling sorry for himself.

He never took the four kittens to the pound. First he kept telling himself that he was waiting until he’d caught the white one, who was obviously to be called Steve, but when Steve kept eluding him (of course he was, he should have called the cat Rain, or something) he kind of stopped trying to catch him. By then, though, there was no chance in hell he was giving up Brucie and Thor and the other two. They were funny and cuddly and excellent company when he felt particularly lonely. So he took them to the vet instead and had them fixed and vaccinated and dewormed and bought a couple more cat boxes. They were kind enough at the vet’s to give him a payment plan.

 

A couple months later everything changed.

 

The first thing that happened was that Tony turned twenty-one. It wasn’t as big a deal in this country where the drinking age was sixteen and the driving age eighteen, but he had a good time going out bar hopping with his roommates and a few friends. It was a May evening that felt like summer already, and he’d barely thought about Steve at all.

A week after that, though, he got a letter from his late father’s lawyer. It stated that, because he was of age now, Obadiah Stane was no longer in charge of Tony’s trust fund and he had full access to his inheritance. Which was a mind boggling amount of money and stocks and real estate, and what have you. It took him by surprise. Of course, he had grown up rich, but he’d gotten so used to being poor the last four years, that this felt unreal. And he hadn’t expected this to happen until he was at least 25, or maybe even thirty. It seemed very unlike his father to actually consider him an adult at 21.  

It changed things. Of course it did. For one thing, the post doc position he had secured for after his PhD defense, was now more of an option than a necessity. Theoretically he could buy a villa in southern France and do whatever the hell he wanted for the rest of his life. Except he couldn’t really. With the money and everything else came a sense of obligation to Stark Industries that he hadn’t even felt a smidgen of a week ago. Actually, that wasn’t true, he’d started feeling a little of that after the afternoon he’d spent with Steve, months ago, when they’d talked about hamburgers and all things American.

It was too much to think about right now, though. His calculations were as good as finished, and so was the prototype arc reactor and he was in the middle of writing it all up. So he just replaced his 386 with the newest Pentium computer and bought a higher quality deli ham for his sandwiches and went back to work for the time being.

 

***

 

It hit him again a few weeks later. It was the day Bruce was to defend his PhD thesis and the man himself burst into Tony’s room at what seemed like the crack of dawn, but was in fact closer to 9 am. Tony blinked down at him sleepily from his bed.

“Tony! Can you be paranymph today? Mike just called, he’s got a stomach bug.”

Bruce was referring to his coworker in Leiden, one of the two people he was allowed to drag up on the stage with him during the defense.

“Um. I guess? I mean, I read your thesis, but I am not sure how much use I’d be if you don’t know an answer.”

Bruce’s face went from tense to smiling.

“You read my thesis?”

“Of course. You gave it to me. It’s not my area of expertise, of course, but it seemed to make sense.”

“Tony, nobody reads a thesis, unless they’re in the committee or a poor, defenseless grad student that needs to suck up to you.”

"Oh.”

Well, it hadn’t been a total waste of time, gamma rays were really interesting.

“The paranymphs are more for moral support these days. I’m bringing Natasha to glare them all into submission. And you can look like you think all their questions are dumb, if you want. I can’t believe you read it. You’re officially more qualified than Mike now.”

“Okay, then. Sure. It’s at 2 right?”

“Yeah. You need a suit though. White tie.”

“Aw, man. Seriously? Where do I get that?”

“I got mine in Leiden, but Rotterdam is closer. I’ll pay for the rental, but you gotta go get one now, or you won’t be back in time.”

 

Natasha decided to tag along to make sure he got the right thing, or some such bullshit. As if Tony hadn’t grown up with all possible permutations of men’s dress attire and hadn’t been an expert on fit and style by the time he was fourteen. Not that Natasha knew that of course. And it was kind of nice to have the company. It -mostly- kept him from wondering if Steve was still in Rotterdam (chances were really, really small) and if he’d run into him (considering where Steve would hang out looking for money and the location of the tux rental place, chances were infinitesimally small).   

The last minute rental selection in the store was abysmal, there was no other word for it. Unless he gained 40 pounds by 2 pm, grew another foot or would consent to going in baby blue, there was nothing available.

“If it was Clint, I’d say go for the blue, he deserves it. But we don’t want to piss Bruce off today, when he really needs to keep it together. Maybe we have time to go to The Hague?” Natasha was dubious. Tony sighed. He didn’t want to rush there and back. At all.

“You got anything in my size for sale?” he asked the apologetic young sales clerk.

“That shouldn’t be a problem,sir. This way, please.”  

Natasha raised an eyebrow as she followed him.

 

Later that night, after a successful defense and a properly lubricated dinner with all the scientific hotshots and well into a rousing party, Tony sought a small reprieve outside to catch his breath. The stone wall of the centuries old building they were in was pleasantly cool against his back and the sweat was cooling on his brow. He’d lost his bow tie ages ago, his shirt was half unbuttoned and the night air felt marvelous on his throat. He listened to the soft sounds of the canal water lapping against its brick sides a few yards away. A couple of laughing students on jangling bicycles took the corner with a blatant disregard for traffic rules. When they had gone, a soft voice said right beside his ear:

“You hiding, Stark?”

“Jesus fuck, Natasha! Way to give a man a heart attack!” He forced himself to breathe normally. “No, I’m not hiding. Just getting some air.”

She settled in beside him, gazing at the canal. She looked fresh as a daisy and her dress didn’t have a wrinkle on it. It wouldn’t dare.

“Never heard from him again, huh?”

Tony considered answering ‘who?’ but decided he couldn’t be bothered to pretend he didn’t know who she was talking about.

“Nope. Long gone. God knows where.”

“Pity.”

“Yeah....” It goddamn was.

The silence stretched for a bit, but it wasn’t uncomfortable.

“So you bought a new computer and this morning you bought that suit you’re wearing. What’s up?”

He wasn’t surprised she’d noticed, but he was surprised she brought it up. He didn’t know if it was the alcohol or the long day or the intimacy of sharing the night air in a mostly silent town, but it seemed wrong to lie.

“I inherited quite a bit of money when I turned twenty-one.”

“Ah.”

Another bicycle went by. This one had a loose chain by the sound of it. Tony was sure it would fall off within two blocks.

“So why are you still living with us? Is it not enough to afford a bigger place?”

Tony turned his head toward her in surprise. She wasn’t meeting his eyes, so he turned it back to the canal.

“It’s… yeah, it’s enough.  But I like living with you guys.”

“That’s going to change, Tony, now that Bruce is going to move out. It always does when we get someone new. We’ve had a surprisingly long run with just the 5 of us, but the dynamic always changes. It’s already kind of different now that Jane has practically moved in with Thor.”

Tony considered that. She had a point. He kind of missed his late afternoon chats with Thor, while the man rolled his stack of joints for the day. He didn’t see the point of moving, though, if he was happy where he was. Natasha patted his shoulder to indicate that she was going back in. As she pulled the door open a wave of music, shouting and laughter spilled out into the street.

“Nothing stays the same, Tony. That’s basic physics. And it’s really a good thing in the end.” She smiled reassuringly and then she was gone, swallowed up by the heat and noise.

Tony wasn’t so sure he agreed beyond the scientific aspects of it.

 

***

 

A couple of weeks later, he was pretty damn sure he didn’t agree. He was sitting sideways on his loveseat, legs thrown over the armrest while he was covered in cats. Thor was snoozing on his lap, Brucie had tucked himself under his chin and Clint and Tasha were climbing up his curtains. They were teenage cats now, all too long limbs and awkwardness and it wasn’t good for his curtains, but they were too funny batting at each other while trying to get to the top first, so he had decided not to care. Staring morosely at the stack of boxes in the middle of his floor, he tried to work up the energy to start collecting some of his shit to move into Bruce’s room. They had all helped Bruce move in with his girlfriend Betty in Leiden last week. He would stay there until his postdoc in Amsterdam started. Tony thought he’d most likely end up commuting, though. The housing market in Amsterdam was notoriously tight and he got the impression that Bruce was kind of done living an hour away from Betty.

Clint and Natasha had left for Budapest a couple of days after that and Tony hadn’t managed to cross paths with Thor and Jane since. For all he knew they had not left the bedroom at all. He didn’t share a wall with Thor, who had the best room with the south facing windows on the other side of the house, or he would have blasted James Brown’s Sex Machine for a couple of hours, just because it was completely unfair for one man to be getting that much sex, while Tony didn’t.

Unable to get up (unless he wanted to dislodge cats, which always ended with him on the wrong end of small sharp claws) he mentally pictured Bruce’s room and tried to figure out where to put his desk and loveseat. He’d have to get a bed, because Bruce had taken his own. Or maybe he should have another loft bed built. Then he could get a slightly bigger couch and create a corner for the cat boxes and maybe even one of those cat trees, so they’d stay out of the curtains. That was only going to work though if he got a corner desk and put his Pentium tower on some shelves, else he’d be blocking the radiator…

He was interrupted by his doorbell. The days were long past when that would cause a little thrill of ‘Steve!’. Now he just figured it’d was one of Clint’s annoying friends who hadn’t realized he was gone and was just ringing all the bells to get in. Tony’s friends had all gone on vacation, but he himself was too busy writing up his thesis to take a break and risk losing the flow (or risk Yinsen coming up with additional calculations they -meaning Tony- should try). He sighed and carefully dislodged Thor and Brucie and left his room. He hit the automatic door opener he had finally installed last month.

It was one of Clint’s friends, alright, but not one of the obnoxious ones. This was the guy that was going to move into Tony’s room, once he’d moved into Bruce’s. Tony wondered again why on earth they had voted for a dude who wore suits as everyday attire, but then he recalled that the soft spoken man could quell Clint with just a look and a lift of his eyebrow and that had seemed an important contribution to the household dynamics at the time.

Tony leaned against the wall with one shoulder at the top of the stairs.

“Hey Phil. What’s up?”

Phil Coulson didn’t answer until he had gotten to the top and Tony had stepped aside to let him pass without forcing him to crowd into his personal space. Phil shook his hand earnestly.

“Hello Tony. I just came by to ask you if I could help you move your stuff or something. It’s almost the end of the month and I gave notice at my place for the first, so I am going to need to move in soon.”

Okay. Yeah. Fair enough. He supposed it was time to stop dragging his feet.

Before he could open his mouth to answer though, Phil looked over Tony’s shoulder with a mildly quizzical look.

“Isn’t Clint really allergic to cats?”

Shit. Tony whirled around. He’d left his bedroom door open and all four young adult cats were excitedly exploring the kitchen. Thor was batting at the water that came out of the dripping faucet. Brucie was standing under said faucet and ducked his head every time a drop hit him between the ears, but he didn’t move away. Sometimes Tony thought his rainy ordeal might have caused just a smidgen of brain damage, because he seemed to make even poorer life choices that the other ones. Clint, of course, was stalking something on top of the kitchen cupboards and Tasha… Holy fuck, Tasha had already managed to catch a mouse! She was beaming with pride as she deposited it at Tony’s feet and Tony couldn’t help but smile proudly too. God he hated to have to lock them back up in his tiny room.  

All of a sudden it hit him. What the hell was he doing? How ridiculous was it to try and keep four cats on twelve square meters? Fifteen, once he moved into Bruce’s room.

He turned to Phil.

“Why don’t you move your stuff into Bruce’s room instead?”

“Okay. Fine with me.” Phil turned to go, then paused.

“I’ve already paid you for the loft bed though.”

“I’ll give you a refund,” Tony laughed.

 

***

 

Three weeks later, Tony had moved into a spacious and sunny apartment on the southern edge of town. It even had a tiny walled garden, so he installed a cat flap and didn’t have to worry about cat boxes any more. Except that it took about a week for Brucie to figure out how it worked, while Tony shoved him back and forth through the thing several times a day. After that, though, things were fine.

Things were more than fine, actually. The cats were happy and Tony had large couch that caught the sun from the south facing windows and a ton of floor space to spread out the articles he was currently referencing in his thesis. And if he felt the need to work night and day when the writing was going well, there was no one banging on his door because the music was too loud, or forcing him to take food breaks, or because ‘it was his turn to clean the fucking toilets and they were fucking disgusting, Tony, do your fucking chores’!

A month passed in a blur of writing and editing. Then Clint called. Tony considered not picking up because he had the perfect underhanded insult, masquerading as a reference on the tip of his pen, but Clint started yelling on the answering machine, making all kinds of dire threats if he wouldn’t pick up, so he did.

“What do you want, asshole?” He clamped the phone between his ear and shoulder while leafing through his thesaurus for the snidest synonym for ‘doesn’t know what he is talking about’.

“Good morning to you too, wanker. Are you lonely yet, little rich boy?”

“Not for your company. Tell me that isn’t the reason you called. I’m in the middle of a thesis.”

“No. Never will be that lonely. Talking about being lonely, though. Steve was here last week. I thought you’d want to know.”

Tony dropped the thesaurus on his foot and barely managed to grab the phone before it could follow the thesaurus.

“What?”

“I said, Steve-”

“No. I heard you. You’re not fucking with me, are you?”

“Aw, come on, Tony. I wouldn’t joke about something like that.”

Debatable, but that was neither here nor there.  

“Last week? When? Why didn’t you call me then? Did you tell him where I am?”

“Slow down, princess. I didn’t know until just now. Apparently he came by when only Darcy was home. She didn’t know him, of course, and she doesn’t know where you live now, so she just told him you had moved and to fuck off.”

Ah, Jesus Fuck. Darcy was Jane’s friend, who had taken over Tony’s room when he’d left.

“Isn’t my new address still on the corkboard?”

“Sure. I think it was her deciding that he wasn’t worthy of your, or anyone’s attention, more than anything else. That’s how we found out. She was telling Jane all about this smelly homeless person who came to the door last week and rang her doorbell. Don’t worry, Natasha already reamed her out for being a judgmental little bitch. It was brutal. But you gotta admit he can look pretty rough, man. Anyway, he was here Tuesday last week. Thought you’d oughta know.”

“Yeah. Thanks.”

Clint hung up and Tony slid down the wall until he could drop his head onto his knees.

Shit shit shit .

 

He knew it was going to be pointless, but there was no way he would get any work done now, so went outside anyway. He wandered all over town, hoping, wishing for a glimpse of Steve that he knew wouldn’t happen. The weather was hot and humid in a way that promised a summer thunderstorm before the day was through. People were gathered on the cafe terraces that dotted the town, enjoying the heat, the company of their friends and cold beer. Sweat pricked his neck and his T-shirt clung to his back as he walked aimlessly. He knew, rationally, that he shouldn’t blame himself, that Steve had said he wouldn’t be back and Tony had left his address and there was absolutely nothing he could have been expected to have done differently. Yet still he cursed himself for moving. For not being there when Steve needed him. He didn’t know that last bit for sure, of course. But he’d said: You know where to find me if you need me’, so that’s what he assumed. That Steve needed him. It was probably a little unhealthy, really, how much he wanted to save Steve. And he knew, kind of, that Steve needed to save himself, or things would be fucked up forever. But being needed was an insidiously attractive state of being. And missing that opportunity sucked donkey balls. Although he really couldn’t blame himself for not being there…

His thoughts went around the same circle several hundred times, until he got so fed up with himself that they finally settled in a grey funk that persisted until the storm broke loose. He made his way home amid the groups squealing students that were caught out in the rain with him. Lightning cracked across the sky as he opened his front door. He toweled his hair dry and peeled off his clothes. Leaving them in a sodden heap on his bedroom floor he sat down at his computer and started to write a scathing dissection of the current state of research in his field.

 

***

 

He wrote and edited non-stop for a month. Then he and Yinsen picked a date for his defense in October and sent out the thesis manuscripts to the committee. And then he was done. There was nothing left to do but wait until the manuscript came back from the committee members, and then he’d have to send it to a printer. It was like swimming underwater the whole length of the pool and coming up to find everyone had left, him hanging off the edge of the pool, breathing hard, while staring out over the empty expanse of concrete. He didn’t know what to do with himself now that the project was finished. He considered traveling, or even gardening. He thought he’d probably ought to start a new project, but he was almost sure he wouldn’t take the postdoc position.

He felt drained and uninterested in research at the moment. And also like he should go back to the US, and either take an interest in Stark Industries or untangle himself altogether. Not that he wanted to, particularly, but it was like an anchor weighing him down, until he’d either hoist it up or cut the chain. His life in Delft, that had rooted him so firmly not even half a year ago, felt like it was shedding clumps of dirt as it was slowly being pulled from the soil.

 

In the end, after a couple of days of doing nothing but spending time with his cats, he called his old house. The phone was picked up after only a couple of rings.

“Wijnhaven 12, Natasha speaking.”   

“Hey Nat.” He wondered if he sounded as flat as he felt.

“Tony! Have you emerged from the depths of your thesis? How is it going?”

“Finished it. It’s off to the committee. Defense is in October.”

“Congratulations, baby genius. So what are you doing now?”

“Honestly? Sitting here with my thumbs up my ass. Bored out of my skull.”

“Feeling a little lost, huh?”

“Yeah. It’s a real anti climax actually.”

“I bet. Remember Bruce said the same thing. When he wasn’t throwing plates because everything annoyed him.”

Tony laughed for the first time in weeks. He did remember that. They had all given Bruce a wide berth for ages. It was good to know this let down was a normal reaction.

“Speaking of. Bruce is visiting on Saturday Wanna come out for drinks?”

“Absolutely.”

“Alright. Eight o’clock at De Wijnhaven.”

“I’ll be there.”

“Hey Tony! If you’re bored, come over and fix the kitchen stereo!” That was Clint shouting in the background.

“What’s wrong with the kitchen stereo?” he asked Natasha.

“It ate Clint’s Bon Jovi cassette.”

“Sounds like it finally developed good taste.”

Natasha snorted.

“Maybe. But it also refuses to play my Throwing Muses CDs. We’re reduced to Thor’s vinyl collection.”

Which, as Tony was well aware, was about evenly split between symphonic rock and heavy metal.

“Ouch. I’ll be there in twenty. Tell Clint he can pay me in beer.”

 

He left his old house near midnight, approximately 5 hours after the stereo had been fixed. He whistled as he weaved a little unsteadily along the canal. The night was still warm and a little moist, with the almost full moon shining through the thin shroud of clouds, creating a silver halo. It was pretty and peaceful. He cast a cursory glance down the alley next to Cafe De Wijnhaven as he passed it. Then he stopped whistling and looked again. There had been a flash of white near the cellar doors. He didn’t see it now, but he could have sworn it was a cat. He was almost positive it had to have been Steve-the-cat, the elusive sibling of the gang at home. He hadn’t tried to catch Steve in months, he realized a little guiltily. Maybe he should get a trap and some food and try it that way, tomorrow.

He shoved his hands in his pockets as he started walking again. Then stopped when he encountered a handful of cat treats in his right pocket. He dug them out and looked back at the alley. What the hell, he might as well try now, right? If it didn’t work, and it probably wouldn’t, given how skittish Steve had proven to be, he could go the trap route another day. He rubbed both his hands on the cat treats as he slowly made his way down the alley. At the cellar doors he squatted down and peered under the stairs where he’d seen the kittens for the very first time. Two wide blue eyes stared back at him.

“Hey, Steve.” he whispered. “Wanna come home with me? There’s food, and radiators, and company.”

Steve arched his back, ready to make a dash for it.

“There is furniture to shred, and sun beams and did I mention all the high quality food?”

He held out his hand with the cat treats. The moment the smell of them hit Steve’s nose, his posture changed. It went from imminent flight to curiosity. His tail end came down and Tony waited patiently as Steve wrestled with his instincts. Tony's left leg started to go numb in the squat but he didn’t dare move. Finally, after an eternity, Steve inched forward, his nose twitching. Tony let one of the treats roll off his fingers onto the cobblestones. It was gobbled up in a nanosecond and he could see why. Steve was skin and bones, his white fur was patchy and he had a rip in one orange ear that looked infected. Tony’s heart clenched and he stretched out his hand a little further.

“Come on, Stevie. I’ll take good care of you. Just come home with me.” Swallowing down an uncomfortable pang of regret, he tried very hard to pretend he wasn’t also talking to another Steve. Maybe he wasn’t as sober as he thought, he usually had that shit under better control.

The cat slunk a little closer and carefully sniffed Tony’s fingers. Then it finally started eating the little bits of kibble. Tentatively, Tony stretched out the fingers of his other hand and scratched him softly between the ears. Steve produced a stuttering purr, but didn’t stop eating, so Tony slid the hand under his belly and slowly stood up. The treats were gone now, but Steve was still nosing his hand looking for more and he didn’t struggle. By now, Tony had plenty of knowledge of how cats liked to be held and he fitted him comfortably in his arm, while keeping up a soothing stream of whispered promises, while Steve licked his hand with his raspy tongue.

Tony turned and took a step towards the alley exit and then stopped cold.

Steve.

Chapter Text

He couldn’t make out the features of the figure outlined in the exit, it was too dark and the streetlight was behind him and he was too far away, but he could tell by the way the man was standing, bag slung over his shoulder and hand shoved into a pocket. He looked down at the Steve in his arms, who had decided to go to sleep, now that he had some food in his belly and was being held by someone who smelled like other -probably familiar- cats and more food. Then he looked back up at the other Steve, his mouth suddenly dry. What were the fucking odds? He half expected Steve to dissolve into moonlight as he started walking closer, but he didn’t move, watching Tony approach in silence. Tony halted a yard or so away and looked him over. He was a little more gaunt, a little more ragged, but the biggest difference was the short beard Steve had grown. Tony tried not to think about what Steve had said about being clean shaven and what it meant. Steve’s eyes went to the cat and he smiled, while something twisted in Tony’s gut.

“You finally caught him,” Steve said. Then he added, “He looks he’s had a rough time of it.”

“Yes,” Tony said after a long pause that felt heavy with… something. “His name is Steve.”

The words hung in the air between them.

“I’ve been looking for you,” Steve said finally. “I wanted to say thank you.”

“I didn’t do-”

“And goodbye.”

Tony shut his mouth, his throat closing up in misery.

“I’ve decided to turn myself in.” Steve sounded resigned, but determined. “I’m done running. I tried. But it wasn’t working anymore.”

“But turning yourself in-”

“Is the only way of getting out on the other side.”

If they didn’t give him the death sentence. That was a possibility when you went AWOL during war time. Still…

“I’m going back to the US,” Tony said.

“You are?” Steve was genuinely surprised.

“Yeah. I need to figure out what I’m doing with my dad’s company. Shit or get off the pot. It’s like I’ve suddenly realized I’m in limbo until I figure out what to do with it and it doesn’t feel good. And I can’t figure it out here.”

“I guess they’ll ship me back for my court martial, too. Not that I’ll see much of the place… But it’ll be good to be home.”

The cat let out another stuttering purr as Tony dug his fingers into its fur. He made them unclench a bit.

“I can’t go until after I defend my thesis in a couple of months though.” He looked back up at Steve. “Do you…? You’re not going tonight, are you?”

“No. I guess it doesn’t come down to an extra few hours.” The apprehension was written all over his face. “Or days…”

“Come on, then.” Tony jerked his chin in the direction of home and started walking. Steve fell into step next to him.

After half a block, Tony looked at him sideways. Steve was looking back at him. Everything was wrong, yet felt right. They both smiled.


At home, he opened a can of food for Steve-the-cat and promised him a trip to the vet in the morning. Tasha came over and tried to help herself too, but Stevie obviously wasn’t ready to share yet and she was forced to beat a retreat. Tony pushed Steve-the-man into the bathroom, with a towel and some of his own night clothes and then he changed as well and fell back on the bed, staring at the ceiling while he listened to the hiss of the shower on the other side of the door.

His feelings were a mess, he didn’t even know how to start making sense of them. Especially not as tired as he was. When the shower shut off, he hadn’t made any progress and when Steve came out of the bathroom in too short pajama pants and a too tight T-shirt, he didn’t move, only turning his head to look at him.. Steve’s hair was still damp and he’d trimmed the beard, but hadn’t shaved it. He hovered by the edge of Tony’s bed for a moment, while Tony watched him, waiting for an offer to sleep on the couch.

It didn’t come. Instead, Steve stepped forward and leaned his knee on the bed. When Tony didn’t say anything, he crawled onto the bed altogether, the mattress dipping under his weight, Tony’s gaze following him. Steve halted just above him, hands on either side of his head and staring down into Tony’s face. After a few long moments in which nothing made sense inside his mind, Tony lifted an arm and cupped a hand behind Steve’s neck. He pulled and Steve came, bending his elbows until Tony reached up the last couple of inches to kiss him. They hung, suspended in air, for a moment, their lips barely touching and then Tony’s abs gave out and he fell back. Steve followed him, landing heavily to his side and the next moment Tony had turned and wrapped his arm around his neck and they were kissing for real. Steve’s arm came around his waist, pulling him close. Tony opened his mouth for Steve’s tongue and revelled in how right it felt to have him so close, to kiss him with every bit of yearning he thought he had excised months ago.

They kissed for a long time. Once in awhile, either of them would pull back a little, barely able to break the contact of their lips and they would look at each other until their breathing calmed down and then one of them would smile. The other would echo the smile and then they would lean in once more, kissing softly as if they’d just met, gradually falling deeper into it, as they learned each other again. Finally they trailed off and slept, Tony tucked under Steve’s chin, never even having gotten under the blankets.   

 

They had sex in the morning. Between his morning wood and Steve’s adorable I-went-to-sleep-with-wet-hair look, Tony couldn’t help but pounce. Steve laughed and playfully tried to fend him off, but the wrestling match soon turned into groping and before too long Tony was pushing into Steve while Steve clutched at the sheets, pushing his hips back against Tony and breathing his name. He raked his nails down Steve’s back and then down his front, before he closed his hands on his hips and pulled him closer. He groaned with how good it felt, the deep slide in and out of Steve’s heat, feeling it clench and ripple around his dick. Desperately, he reached for Steve’s cock, he wasn’t going to last long at all, and he didn’t want to leave him hanging again. Steve moaned when he closed his hand around it and for a moment Tony was filled with an absurd sense of pride that he’d done that, that Steve was moaning for him. And when Steve shouted and spilled hot over his hand, his muscles squeezing tight around Tony’s cock, he couldn’t help but follow him over the edge while he buried his face between Steve’s shoulder blades, trying to keep from biting him.

 

Twenty minutes later they traded lazy kisses and hand jobs in the shower. Then they fed cats and had breakfast in on the couch in the morning sun. Soon, they were surrounded by cats, who came drifting back in after their own repast in the kitchen. They seemed to remember Steve, to his delight, and they vied for a spot on his lap. All except Steve-the-cat, who had a marked preference for Tony. When they had finished their coffee though, Steve rid himself of cats and pushed Tony back into the couch. Tony went willingly, wrapping his arms around him and sucked his tongue into his mouth. It was a while before they made it out of the house to take Stevie to the vet.    

 

***

 

The next day was Saturday, and when they left to meet Bruce and the others at De Wijnhaven, it felt like they were different people. Tony locked the door behind him and when he turned towards Steve, who was waiting for him a few paces away, hands in the pockets of the new jeans they had bought the day before and the rosy early evening light picking up the blonder strands in his new haircut, things were normal in a way they had never been before. Maybe, maybe they could do this, he thought.

The group had snagged some prime tables on the terrace and pushed them together. Steve hung back a little when they arrived, but he was hailed by all Tony’s former housemates and Natasha even got up and made a point of hugging Steve. Chairs were stolen from other tables and they all sat down. Steve was introduced to Betty, Jane and Phil and there was a bit of an awkward moment when Steve insisted he and Darcy had met and Darcy didn’t connect the dots right away. When she did, she had the good grace to apologize, however. Tony went to get a round of beer and after that conversation flowed easily. It was nice to see Bruce again, and Clint and Natasha’s wildly differing accounts of their trip to Budapest kept everyone entertained. Tony’s thoughts kept drifting, though. To Steve and the last few days and how much he wanted to keep him, even if he agreed that Steve had to do what he needed to do. He was spinning a coaster on the table when Bruce suddenly asked:

“Hey, Tony. How is life with the cats?”

The coaster spun off the table and Tony ducked down to retrieve it while he blurted:

“Steve is pregnant!”

It had been quite a shock when the vet had told them the day before. Not only that he had misgendered Stevie, but really, five cats were plenty and now he was going to have even more. The coaster had rolled all the way under Clint’s chair and he had to use his foot to drag it closer before he could pick it up. When he finally resurfaced with it everyone was staring at Steve and Steve was giving Tony looks of a very not amused quality. Tony replayed in his head what he had said.

Oh.

“Well, you’re not showing yet,” said Phil to Steve, totally deadpan. “Can’t be too far along.”

Clint rose out of his seat and snagged Steve’s beer. “You shouldn’t be drinking, Steve, that’s bad for the baby.”  And Thor pounded Steve on the back. “Congratulations, friend Steve! Is Tony the father?” Steve looked even more dour and Tony couldn’t help it, he cracked up. So did everyone else, including -eventually- Steve. When Tony could catch his breath again, he stood up and stole the beer back from Clint to hand to Steve.

“I’m so glad you’re all supportive,” he announced. “And I want you to know it’s not for lack of trying…” There was a new round of laughter and a little ‘oh’ from Darcy and Steve lobbed a coaster at his head. “...but I was actually talking about my cat called Steve, who managed to get knocked up before I managed to catch him… her, a couple of days ago. He... she is going to be a teen mom and while I blame society and not her, God forbid,  anyone who wants a kitten in a couple of months, let me know.” Then he said back down and raised his glass to everyone, which was met with ‘Cheers!’ all around.

 

Walking back home long after midnight, Tony’s heart felt full to bursting. The afterglow of spending the evening with friends, the warm summer night and the moonlit streets were enough to cause that, but when Steve’s fingers wove themselves in between his own, he couldn’t remember ever being this happy.

It couldn’t last. He knew it couldn’t last, but he’d had this.

They made their way home enjoying the silence.

Tony unlocked the door, but didn’t go in. He looked at Steve, who was leaning with one shoulder against the brick, watching Tony fumble with the keys.

“When are you… How long do we have?”

Steve reached out for Tony’s hand and drew him closer. His other hand cupped Tony’s jaw and Tony couldn’t help but press into it. Steve kissed him softly, a barely there pressure of lips that made Tony’s heart seize nonetheless.

“I’m torn,” Steve confessed. “One part of me thinks I should just go now, this Monday, and get it over with. Another part thinks I should wait until you go too, after your thesis defense, after Steve’s had her kittens, so that we can leap together into the unknown.”

“The latter,” said Tony, placing his hands on Steve’s hips, “definitely the latter.” He reached up and kissed him again. Steve pulled back reluctantly after several seconds.

“It may be easier to part now,” he warned. “In two months time… it may be so much harder to say goodbye then, Tony.” He kissed him again, tongue flicking against Tony’s lips and Tony opened for him eagerly.

“Maybe, “ he said inbetween kisses. “But maybe you’ll be sick of me in two months time.” Another kiss. “It happens all the time.”

“Sure.” Steve sounded a little out of breath. He pushed Tony into the little hallway and closed the door behind him with his foot. ‘Maybe,” he said, before steering him towards the bedroom, hand on Tony’s ass and lips latched onto his neck, while Tony scrambled to hold on.

 

***

 

The vet had said that Stevie would hide somewhere to have her kittens and to keep an eye on her because her labor would likely be difficult because she was so young and still underfed. But that wasn’t how it happened at all. In fact she had her kittens on Tony’s belly, after he had fallen asleep on the couch and woken up to a shuddering and panting little cat, who refused to be moved. Steve came to the rescue with some newspapers that he maneuvered under the cat to catch the worst of the mess. And a mess it was. Tony had had no idea that kittens were born in a little sac, which the mother tore off with her teeth and then she literally licked them to life. It was more than a little freaky, but Steve had shoved a pillow behind Tony’s head and held his hand while he knelt next to him, so they could watch over Stevie together. An hour later she had produced three blind striped little furry worms, who were crawling all over each other trying to find a nipple. She laid back and closed her eyes, seemingly sure she was done. Tony figured she’d know better than him, anyway.

Steve got up and came back with a box lined with an old towel for Eve, as he insisted on calling the cat. They had bickered about it for days, but neither of them had scored a decisive victory, so now the cat had two names. They put the box in a quiet corner of the living room, but Stevie had other ideas and after the third time in two days that she had dragged all her kittens, one by one, to Tony’s sock drawer, they just left her there. Tony could always buy new socks.

 

It wasn’t all kittens and rainbows, though. Steve had frequent nightmares and flailed when woken up from them, as the shiner Tony sported for a week could attest. And he frequently just… blew up. The first time it happened was when Tony had thoughtlessly nicked a piece of toast from Steve’s plate and crammed it in his mouth. Steve’s reaction was explosive and Tony had been scared shitless for a second and then he’d gotten pissed and there was lots of shouting for a long time, until they’d finally slid down the wall together, crying and clinging to each other. Steve had apologized for days.

Tony eventually learned not to react to the things Steve was saying when he blew up and also not to try and convince him of the insignificance of the transgression, but to soothe the anxiety that was buried under the anger. That helped diffuse the situations much better and the angry episodes became much more manageable after that. Steve eventually stopped trying to pack his stuff and leave after every outburst, when he’d finally accepted that Tony was having none of that.

The day Steve shaved off his beard was a big victory in Tony’s book. They still weren’t doing blow jobs, and Steve grew it back after a couple of days, after he’d yelled at Tony. This time  for Tony’s refusal to go and find a job, now that Steve couldn’t since he was in the country illegally. He cycled through various stages of facial hair in the space of a few weeks, but still, it was progress.

 

***

 

A week before his thesis defense, the bell rang and Tony opened the door for Colonel James Rhodes. Tony liked him immediately.

“You don’t look like my client,” said Rhodes, looking Tony up and down.

“I’m not. I’m Tony Stark, I’m the one who is paying you. Thank you for coming all the way out here.”

Rhodes smirked.

“An all expenses paid working vacation to Europe? How could I refuse? You are very persuasive, Mr. Stark.”      

Tony nodded. If the guy was as good as he was rumored to be, he would be worth every penny.

“Just out of curiosity,” Rhodes continued, “Are you that Stark from Stark Industries that is supposedly lost in Europe?”

He was supposedly what?

“What?”

“Are you-”

“I heard you, I just don’t know what you’re talking about. Yes, my dad started Stark Industries, and I inherited it, but I’m not lost. I’m right here.”

“You didn’t see the Times Magazine article?”

“What Times Magazine article?”

Rhodes leaned a shoulder against the doorjamb. Tony figured he should probably ask him inside, but he didn’t want to interrupt.

“Couple of months ago they interviewed Obadiah Stane about the future of the weapons industry and S.I. He mentioned you coming of age and reaching out several times, but apparently you are lost in ‘personal pursuits in Europe with the money you inherited’. So  S.I. was going to look into officially removing you from the company. You didn’t know this?”

“I haven’t talked to Stane in three years.”

“Really.” Rhodes looked pensive. “Well, you may want to lawyer up too if you still have an interest in the company. Not my specialty, but I can recommend a guy. And I can have my assistant fax over the article, if you like.”

“Tony?” Steve’s voice came from the doorway to the living room. “Who’s at the door?”

“Yeah, alright,” Tony said to Rhodes, inclining his head in Steve’s direction. “In the meantime, there’s your client.” He motioned for Rhodes to follow him down the hall.

“So what have you been doing in Europe, if not blowing your money on fast cars and fast women?” Rhodes wanted to know from behind him. Tony turned to face him by the doorway where Steve was waiting.

“I’m defending my PhD thesis next week.”

“At twenty-one? Good for you. Hard to imagine Stane objecting to that, though.”

“It’s not like he didn’t know. I’m going to have to see that article.”

“What’s going on?” Steve cut in, as he was walking backwards into the living room, so Tony and his visitor could enter. He had three tiny kittens hanging from his jeans, who were mewling pathetically at all the unwanted movement. Tony had refused to name Stevie’s brood, he knew what happened when you named cats and he wasn’t making that mistake again. But Steve had ignored him and dubbed them Huey, Dewey and Louie.  

“Steve, this is Colonel James Rhodes. Former JAG. Now he is a civilian lawyer specializing in court martial defense. He is going to represent you.” He turned to Rhodes. “This is Steve Rogers.” Rhodes stuck out his hand and Steve shook it. It was only a reflex, Tony could tell, because Steve’s mouth was moving, yet no sound was coming out. He might have refused otherwise.

“Captain Rogers, I’m glad to meet you.” Rhodes said, “And happy to see you’re alive.”

“I… what?” Steve looked from Rhodes to Tony, pleading. “Tony, what? You can’t-”

“I can hire all the lawyers I want,” said Tony. “What do you mean ‘alive’?” he asked Rhodes.

Steve dropped down into a chair and buried his face in his hands. Tony gestured at the other chair before he flopped onto the couch. Rhodes sat gingerly and set his briefcase down next to him before he spoke.

“Captain Roger’s disappearance caused quite a stir. It was one of the first ambushes in the conflict with Iraq, with some the first casualties and he was the first soldier to go MIA. It was heavily speculated that he’d been taken by enemy forces. Which they denied, of course.” He looked at Steve who still hadn’t looked up, even though Huey (or Louie) was head butting his hand. “I’d love to hear your story of what really happened,” Rhodes said to him.

Steve drug his hands away from his face, his eyes wild, but he ignored Rhodes.

“Tony,” he croaked instead, “I swear to God. You can’t just get me a lawyer!”

“Yes, I can.”

This was why he hadn’t discussed it with Steve, because he’d known he’d take it badly. Maybe he hadn’t expected it to be taken this badly, though. His heart clenched at the look on Steve’s face.

“It’s bad enough you’re buying me clothes. And food. And pay for the house and everything else! God, Tony, they’ll assign me a lawyer, you don’t have to pay for one on top of everything else! I’ll never be able to pay you back as it is.”

Tony closed his eyes against the look of pure wretchedness on Steve’s face. He had sworn to himself that he’d play it cool, that Rhodes didn’t need to know. Just in case the man turned out to be a prejudiced prick. He could hire someone else, of course, but Rhodes was rumored to be the best.

“You don’t owe me shit, Steve. And I didn’t hire him for your sake. I hired him for mine.”

“What?” Steve looked ragged and confused. A quick glance told Tony that Rhodes was leaning back in his chair, with his legs crossed and his fingers steepled thoughtfully against his lips.

Oh, fuck it all.

Tony slid onto his knees before Steve and took his hands. Looking up in Steve’s blue gaze, he said quietly:

“If I let you walk in there next week, without the best lawyer my money can buy, and you end up imprisoned for decades... Or worse…” Tony bit back the sound that wanted to escape at that thought. “Because… because your assigned lawyer did a shitty job? God, Steve, I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”

Steve leaned his forehead against Tony’s and took a shaky breath.

“For my sake, can you swallow your pride? Please, Steve? I love you, I don't want to lose you.” He squeezed his eyes shut and  gripped Steve’s hands as if that could hold him. He didn’t dare breathe.

When Steve kissed him, he managed not to cry. Barely.

Steve slipped his hands out of Tony’s and cupped his face while he deepened the kiss. Just for a second or two. Then he pulled back. Tony wanted to protest, but recalled they had an audience, so he just looked at Steve. Steve’s smile was small, but steady.

“Okay,” he said. And softly: “I love you, too.”

Tony hugged him fiercely for a moment, like a promise. Then he got off his knees and turned to Rhodes. The man was grinning widely.

“I can see I am going to have to bring my A-game. Now I am even more curious about your story, Captain Rogers.”

Tony made to sit down, but Rhodes held up his hand. He scribbled something on a piece of paper and beckoned Tony over.

“I’m afraid this is going to be confidential, Mr. Stark. But here is my assistant’s phone number. Call Ms. Potts and ask her for the Times article and have her call Nick Fury for you. He is the lawyer you want to hire.”

Tony looked at the piece of paper.

“What’s the second number?”

“That is the salary you are going to offer Ms Potts to become your personal assistant once you return to the States. Believe me, she will be worth every penny.”

Tony looked back at Steve. Steve smiled at him.

Okay then.


***

 

Ten days later, he dropped Steve and Rhodey at the Military Base in Schinnen. Steve was nervous, shifting from leg to leg as he eyed the guard house at the entry through the misting rain. Tony shook Rhodey’s hand and looked him in the eye.

“Take good care of him.”

Rhodey smiled.

“You have my word, Tony. We have a strong case for PTSD and shock. You’ll have him back as soon as we can manage.” He dropped Tony’s hand and gripped his shoulder.

“You take care of Pepper, okay?”

“I still don’t get it. Why did you want me to hire her if you like her so much? I mean, she’s fantastic, so I am not regretting anything, but...”

“Because I like her too much and she objects to sleeping with her boss. And because I don’t want to stop sleeping with her, she needs a different boss. Also, being my assistant was too easy a job for her. You’ll give her a challenge, I’m sure.”

Tony shoved his hands in his pockets and grinned at him.

“And you’re not afraid I’ll want to sleep with her, too.”

Rhodey looked at Steve and then back at Tony.

“Not at all.”     

Tony grabbed Steve’s hand, and Steve tore his eyes away from the guard house. They’d said goodbye that morning, there was nothing left to say. They were both apprehensive and scared, despite Rhodey’s assurances, but that had been talked to death too. So in the end they just hugged briefly, but fiercely.

“See you on the other side,” Tony whispered in his ear.

“Wait for me,” Steve whispered back.

Then they let go.

 

Tony watched him walk away, again.

For the last motherfucking time, he swore to himself.

Chapter Text

Tony was early for Steve’s sentencing, but he had wanted to make sure he’d have a seat. He knew the place was smaller and more utilitarian than you’d think. It felt much more high school auditorium than Law and Order courtroom. A military base in North Carolina should by all rights be classier, he thought, kind of like that ante-bellum North and South style, but they must have been on a serious budget here. He’d only seen the place once before when Rhodey had brought him in as a character witness several weeks ago. Apart from that, he hadn’t been able to see Steve or talk to him at all. Because Tony was on the witness list, and that meant he wasn’t allowed to be on the approved call or visit list. It sucked donkey balls, but Tony told himself he could go without if it meant Steve would be out sooner. Long term goals rather than short term gains, and all that jazz. Still: donkey balls.  

It had been excruciatingly painful to sit on the stand and see Steve only twenty feet away and not be able to touch him or talk to him. Instead he’d held his eyes as he talked about how lost Steve had been when they first met, how Steve had barely known what country he was in, how dirty he had been, how hungry. About all the times Steve had run before he’d finally realized he couldn’t keep running. He also told them about the nightmares Steve had and the almost random explosions of anger. The whole time he’d willed to Steve to hear that none of that mattered, that he still was the best thing that ever happened to Tony, but he wasn’t sure if it came through. Rhodey had made it abundantly clear there was to be no hint of their not-so-platonic relationship, lest it would prejudice the more conservative members of the brass against Steve, so it wasn’t like he could put that into words. He was even afraid the jury might read it off his face and Steve had doubtlessly had similar instructions, so they sat there with wooden faces and burning eyes and Tony had gotten very drunk afterwards.   

At Rhodey’s request he’d also flown in his former housemates as additional witnesses. They had all been helpful, but according to Rhodey, Darcy’s brief testimony has been the most effective. He’d mimicked it for Tony:

“Oh my god! He was... ew! Gross hair and a gross beard and wearing these filthy rags and he looked emaciated. No way was I going to let him in!”

Tony hadn’t expected to ever have to feel grateful for that episode, but there he was. The best thing was that his roommates had all decided to do Christmas and New Year’s in New York and for three weeks the mansion had been full of warmth and laughter and booze and bickering and it had pulled Tony through the holiday season without feeling like Scrooge pre-Christmas Carol.

But he hadn’t seen Steve in months. Rhodey kept him informed, of course, and he was optimistic. Still, the small part of his brain that was convinced Steve was about to be sentenced to death just wouldn’t shut up.  

He forced his thoughts away from Steve’s potentially morbid fate and as usual he ended up picking at everything that bugged him about S.I., instead. Thanks to Nick Fury and Pepper Potts, he was the boss in name, but it was obvious to Tony and everyone else that he wasn’t really. And he had a gut feeling that there were things going on that he was deliberately being kept out of. He hated that. If it hadn’t been for that, Tony would have happily settled into leading R&D and leave the rest of the company up to Stane and the board, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that that would be a bad idea. Pepper and Fury agreed, but none of them had figured out yet what to do about it.

The room was filling up now. Mostly press, from what he could see. Steve’s story had gotten a lot of coverage when he had first disappeared and had supposedly been kidnapped. Tony himself had been followed by reporters ever since he’d arrived back in the States, thanks to the fucking Times article. And then, somehow, someone had put two and two together and the press had exploded with headlines of the ‘The Lost Heir And The Lost Soldier’ and “America’s Prodigal Sons Return” and ‘Mysterious Savior Revealed!’ variety. It was a total pain in the ass. With her deadly efficiency, Pepper had been fending off reporters, the woman was truly worth her weight in gold, but it had barely calmed speculations at all.

Tony was doodling on his notepad when someone dropped heavily into the seat next to him. Suppressing a surge of annoyance at his personal space being invaded, he glanced to his right. Dark hair, some kind of mall cop uniform, and a prosthetic left hand that was laying lifelessly on a muscled thigh. It took a second for him to connect the dots. Could it…?

“Bucky?”

The man’s head snapped towards Tony and he ended up at the receiving end of an irritated look. Tony looked back at the man that Steve had left for dead after the ambush. Rhodey had told him how Steve had broken down when he’d learned that Bucky was still alive and Tony had been sharply torn between wanting to be there for him and being sickeningly afraid that Steve wouldn’t need him anymore if he had Bucky back. Rhodey had decided that it would be better for Steve’s mental health to do without Bucky’s testimony, so he could visit Steve and get calls from him. Tony agreed with this decision on an intellectual level, but beyond that his opinion about it deteriorated fairly rapidly.

Tony smiled thinly at Bucky and Bucky stared harder.

“Has Steve stopped apologizing yet?” Tony broke the standoff.

“For what?”

“For leaving you for dead.”

“No, he hasn’t.” Bucky turned his head towards the front of the room again, signaling the end of their tete-a-tete.

Tony poked at the artificial hand, causing Bucky to jerk from the shoulder. It must go all the way up then.

“That’s one worthless piece of dead plastic,” Tony said conversationally.

“Standard VA issue.”

“We can do better than that.”

Brown eyes turned back to him.

“You a prosthetics expert?”

“Not currently,” admitted Tony, “but I can be one by Friday at the latest. I’m thinking interlocking metal plates, lightweight of course, and hydraulics wired into your nervous system. If we get it right, we may even get your sense of touch back.”

Bucky stared at him.

“You’re the boyfriend,” he stated after a long pause.  

“Tony Stark.”

“James Barnes.”

“Are you in security, Barnes?”

“Yeah. Still a crack shot. Even with the one arm. Took a local job, so I could be around to see Steve.”

Tony fought down another wave of jealousy.

“Steve tells me you offered him a security job when he gets out.” Bucky continued.

Tony nodded. “Rhodey said it would increase his chance of a shorter sentence if he had a standing job offer. I don’t expect him to hold it long, which is a pity, because I could use someone I trust, but I’m sure he is morally opposed to fucking his boss or some such nonsense. I mean… not that I am presuming… I know it’s been three months and I wouldn’t blame him if he’d changed his mind...” Tony trailed off miserably, only to bristle indignantly when Barnes started laughing at him.

“What?”

“You. You’re a matching pair. Just the other day, he was like-” Barnes gave Tony exaggerated puppy eyes and continued in a whiny voice that sounded nothing like Steve at all: “I don’t know, Buck, it’s been three months, I can’t assume he is still interested in me. He’s handsome and smart and rich, why would he wait for me? I am such a basket case.”  

Tony was caught between feeling insulted on Steve’s behalf and a big fat wave of relief.

“I tried to tell him that you wouldn’t be flying witnesses out here and such for his sake if you had moved on, but he seems to think you’re just that kind a person.”

“I am,” deadpanned Tony. “I’m lovely. I rescue cats and everything.”

“And you rescue homeless people.”

Tony swallowed hard and shrugged.

“Just the one. And he more or less rescued himself, really.”

“That’s not how he tells it.”

“Yeah, but that’s just Steve.”

“Sure is. Still… thanks for bringing him back. I owe you.”

“Seriously, I didn’t do that much.”

They were silent for a couple of minutes and Tony went back to doodling. Then Bucky turned back to him.

“Why don’t you hire me too?”

Tony looked at him for a moment, hesitating. He didn’t know this guy, but then again. This was Steve’s oldest friend. How untrustworthy could he be? And then he realized that the likelihood of Steve sticking around would be much greater if Bucky was working for Tony too. And he kind of liked the guy.

“Alright, I’ll hire you. You gonna charge me an arm and a leg?”

“Still got the legs, thanks. But definitely an arm.”

Tony’s extremely witty retort was lost in the scuffle of chairs, when everyone stood up for the entry of some Military bigwigs, Steve and Rhodey. Steve was wearing a cheap suit, and not the military uniform that he’d worn when Tony had testified, and Tony didn’t know if that meant anything and that was frustrating as all get out. Steve’s eyes scanned the crowd and as they landed on Tony a little bit of the tension went out of his shoulders.Tony pulled himself together and smiled at him encouragingly.

But he couldn’t help his gut clenching and from the corner of his eyes he could see Bucky’s jaw tense.

 

There was a lot of pontificating that Tony didn’t listen to, but at the end of that speech Steve got off with time served and a dishonorable discharge. And that was bullshit, it should have been honorable, but honestly he wasn’t going to argue. He wanted to shout and to fist pump. He settled for punching Bucky in the plastic upper arm and that hurt his knuckles just a bit. Bucky turned and pounded him on the back with the arm shaped stick in return. And then they were free to move and they fought their way through the crowd towards Steve and Rhodey.

When he finally stood in front of Steve, his heart was beating in his throat and his palms were sweaty and he just stood there for a second, struck dumb by the blue of Steve’s eyes. What he wanted to do was kiss him and hug him and never let go. With the reporters crowding behind him, he had to settle for shaking Steve’s hand firmly and squeezing his shoulder, briefly, while they traded stilted pleasantries. It was woefully inadequate. When Bucky stepped up and wrapped Steve in a bear hug, Tony had to suppress a snarl at the unfairness of it all. Especially when Steve closed his eyes and just kind of collapsed against his friend, barely staying upright as he clutched fistfuls of the ugly mall cop uniform. Tony thought he heard a choked off sob. He knew he was standing too close, crowding Bucky’s back, but he couldn’t make himself back up as he clenched his fingers into impotent fists.

“It’s okay, Stevie,” he heard the other man whisper, “It’s over. It’s all over, now. We can start new.”     

He was about to pop a vein, when Rhodey put a hand on his shoulder and leaned over and hissed in ear.

“Go wait in the limo, Tones. Don’t fuck it up now. I’ll bring him to you when we’ve dealt with all the formalities here.”

Tony gritted his teeth and gave him a stiff nod. Then he stalked off towards the exit. Steve didn’t even look up. He made his way through the grey hallways feeling as if he was walking under water, his vision blurry and the echo of his footsteps muffled. He ignored the one reporter who was trying to follow him, asking questions that he couldn’t hear either and the man fell back before Tony had reached the door.

 

The interior of the limo was as quiet as a coffin. Happy had taken one look at him in the rearview mirror and then the divider slid up with a soft hum. Tony didn’t know what to do with himself, he felt so fucking conflicted he wanted to scream. But he didn’t even know why, and he wasn’t going to let whatever it was get the better of him. He had more fucking dignity than that. He did punch the seat. Once. Then he yanked his tie up and over his head and ditched his suit jacket and focused on breathing steadily.

 

It took for-fucking-ever.

 

He had his elbows on his knees and his fists clenched in his hair, when the limo door finally opened and Steve stumbled in, obviously being pushed by Rhodey, who stuck his head in after. Tony sat up with alacrity. He briefly tried to smooth out his ruined hair, then gave it up for a lost cause.

“You okay with giving Bucky a lift back to New York too?” Rhodey inquired matter-of-factly.

“Yes. Sure,” Tony answered reflexively. Then wanted to kick himself, because honestly, he wasn’t sure about that at all.

“Good. He needs to pack up his stuff. Pick him up in an hour or so at his apartment.”

“Okay.” Backing out would not reflect upon him well.

He resigned himself to being supremely uncomfortable for however many hours it would take to get back home.

“Are you getting in?” he asked Rhodey, when the man kept hovering by the door. “Don’t we need to evaluate or something?”

Rhodey looked at him, then looked at Steve, who was sitting across from Tony doing an uncanny impression of a kid caught with his hand in the cookie jar.

“I think that can wait. I’ll meet you at Bucky’s.” Then Rhodey pulled his head back and closed the door, leaving Tony alone with Steve.

The silence was deafening.

Tony looked at Steve.

Steve looked at Tony.

Tony searched desperately for something, anything to say and came up with nothing. His brain was like the blue screen of death. He’d imagined reuniting with Steve so many times, in so many different ways. It was what had carried him through those first few lonely months back at the mansion. He had been fairly busy during the day, strategizing with Pepper and Fury on how to get his company back, but the nights had been awful, bouncing around the deserted rooms. It was weird, he had spent more than two decades without Steve without feeling particularly lonely, but all of a sudden the only thing that would distract him enough from the emptiness had been imagining this moment. This moment, which was turning out nothing like he had imagined ever, with both of them paralyzed while the silence grew from awkward to uncomfortable to fucking mortifying.

“How are the cats?”

Steve had thought of something to say. And now Tony had to say something. About the cats. He sure as hell hadn’t been scrambling for things to say about the cats the last few minutes, so it required a bit of a mental u-turn. Cats… Right. The cats.

“The cats are good.” Off to splendid start, he was. What else? What else? “They didn’t like the flight. They really didn’t. I’m telling you, I am never flying with five cats again. Brucie yowled for seven hours straight, I think he may have extra narrow ear canals or something, I’ll have to ask the vet…” Tony babbled on, wondering if this really was what Steve wanted to talk about. Steve was nodding, so maybe it was? No, it wasn’t. It was like they were stuck in that courtroom again, talking about all that shit with impassive faces. Except for the eyes. Steve’s eyes were hungry. They were latched on to Tony, devouring the sight of him, probably not even listening to anything he was saying. And why the hell Was Tony still on the opposite side of the limo from him? He trailed off…

“Steve?”

“Tony.” It sounded like a plea.

“Oh god, Steve, I missed you so much.” Tony swallowed down a lump in his throat and blinked furiously.

Steve didn’t answer, just opened his arms silently and the next moment Tony launched himself across the limo and wrapped himself around the other man. He buried his face in Steve’s neck and Steve did the same to him, squeezing the breath out of his lungs. But that didn’t matter. Because Tony needed it, needed the physical reassurance that this was real, that this was Steve in his arms and he was allowed to touch him and allowed to talk to him and Steve still still wanted him. Still loved him. Steve’s shirt grew a little damp as the reality of that notion settled into Tony’s bones. Tony didn’t even care. Besides, his own shoulder was a bit moist too.

They toppled sideways onto the limo seat, as the tension started to seep out of their spines and staying upright got to be too much effort. Tony’s head ended up under Steve’s and he started to pull it back, but then couldn’t, because Steve’s lips started moving up Tony’s neck and they were warm and wet and firm and it was going straight to Tony’s groin. God, it had been so fucking long. Steve flicked his tongue just under Tony’s jaw and then moved up to softly bite his earlobe, making his breath hitch and his toes curl. Of course, he knew what this did to Tony, he knew all his weak spots, all the places where he was so sensitive that the merest caress would make him shudder and squirm. To prove his point, Steve pulled Tony’s shirt out of his pants, worming his hand under it and then he dragged his nails softly down Tony’s back, making goosebumps pop up all over his limbs.

“Steve!” Tony panted, digging his fingers into Steve’s way too short hair in an effort to dislodge him from his earlobe. He found no traction and Steve’s wasn’t budging.

“You fucker! Stop that and kiss me!”

That did the trick. Steve gave his earlobe one last flick and then finally his mouth covered Tony’s and it felt like coming home. He completely lost himself in the heat of Steve’s mouth, the slide of his tongue against his own, the taste of him and the press of their bodies as they tried to disappear into each other. He lost track of time for a while as he and Steve ever more frantically got reacquainted. Tony finally broke away as he realized they were dry humping each other and he’d end up with a giant cum stain inside his slacks if they didn’t stop right this minute.

Both breathing heavily, they stared at each other for a while. Tony swallowed hard. He was here. His Steve was here with him and he could take him home and he was free and they could do whatever the hell they wanted and Steve still loved him. It was almost too much to take in.

He had to move his leg, because it was starting to cramp. The limo bench really wasn’t big enough for them and the motion almost made him topple off the seat. Steve still had his arms around him though and stopped him from tipping over the edge. After a few seconds of trying to fit them both on the seat again, Steve huffed in annoyance. He pushed himself up on one elbow and manhandled Tony until he was flat on his back with his knees up and Steve between them, hovering over him, smiling a pleased little smile. I reminded Tony of the night Steve had come home with him and stayed. Then as now Steve lowered his head and Tony’s came up to meet him for another kiss. As Steve bit gently at his lower lip, Tony deftly unbuttoned Steve’s shirt and loosened his tie. Thankfully he wasn’t wearing an undershirt, which made no sense in February, but Tony was grateful nonetheless as he slid the backs of his hand up and down the man’s abs. Then he took the opportunity to pull Steve’s shirt out of his trousers altogether and slide his hands around under the waistband touching the globes of his ass with his fingertips. Steve groaned and pushed his hips down against Tony’s and, whoa, that wasn’t going to end without a mess. He managed to pull himself away far enough to pant:

“Stop that. Don’t make me come in my pants.”  

Steve grinned. His lips were swollen and his hair was sticking up and Tony had given him beard burn. Yet he was still the most beautiful man Tony had ever laid eyes on. He was so caught up in staring at him, that he he didn’t notice straight away that Steve was on one elbow now, using his other hand to flick the button on Tony’s pants. He noticed when the back of Steve’s hand brushed his dick, though.

“What-”

“I’m going to make you come outside of your pants.”

Tony wanted to protest. He felt like a protest was in order, but he really couldn’t think of anything wrong with that idea. Except that he wasn’t going to be the only one with his dick out in this car. He slid his hands to the front of Steve’s pants and fumbled for the button, sorely distracted by the fact that Steve had his hands down Tony’s boxers by now and was shoving them out of the way, one handed. The elastic waistband snapped painfully, yet still somehow tantalizingly, under Tony’s balls. He bit back a curse. By the time he managed to push Steve’s pants down his ass, Steve was already sliding his hand lightly up and down Tony’s cock. He was obviously trying to make it it last longer than 30 seconds and Tony sincerely hoped he wouldn’t disappoint him. He was afraid that at this point he might be able to come from just looking at Steve.  Especially now that he had Steve’s cock in his hand, the familiar feel of it causing a pang in his chest. Steve hissed a sharp breath when Tony started working him, and he faltered for a second, but then he took Tony a little firmer in hand.

Unlike Steve’s, who was leaking abundantly, Tony’s cock was a little dry. Which was okay at first, because it stopped him from setting the world record for fastest hand job, but it became a little uncomfortable after a couple of minutes. Tony’s arms were pretty much trapped and for a few moment that was a conundrum. Then Steve took his hand from Tony’s dick and brought it next to Tony’s head.

“Spit, babe.”

Tony obediently turned his head and spit into Steve’s palm. Steve smiled at him as if he had done something remarkable, and, man, they were a pair of besotted idiots. Then Steve lifted his hips up to make some space and brought his hand down to slick up Tony’s cock with spit. Oh god, that felt so good. He moaned into Steve’s mouth and Steve greedily thrust his tongue down Tony’s throat.

Spit was a terrible lube, though, it dried way too fast and before too long, the friction was getting uncomfortable again. The one arm that Steve was holding himself up with was starting to tremble and Tony wondered if he could come this way before the man collapsed. His own hand was wet with Steve’s precome, though, so if he could use just a little… He pulled Steve’s hand off his cock and with his other hand, he pulled their groins closer so he could take them both in hand, and, oh, that was much better.

With a huff of relief Steve planted his other arm onto the seat next to Tony’s head and then he shuddered as Tony started working them both in earnest. The feel of Steve’s dick sliding against his own was exquisite. He squeezed his eyes shut and threw his head back and felt Steve’s teeth latch on to his throat, the bite vibrating with Steve’s groans. Tony was so close….

Then Steve lifted his head and Tony wondered where the hell he went and why. Opening his eyes and looking up he saw that Steve was curling in on himself to look down between them. He was breathing raggedly. Tony followed his gaze and, oh fuck, the sight of their dicks sliding in and out of Tony’s fist between the curtains of Steve’s loose hanging dress shirt… Both of the heads popping through Tony’s slick fingers, together. It was hot as hell and Tony wanted to spread his legs wider, to spread more for Steve, but he couldn’t because of the seat back.

“Jesus, Tony…” Steve’s voice broke and Tony knew how he felt, because he felt the same. This was… them together. It was overwhelming. He curled up a bit more and bit Steve’s shoulder, a bit harder than he meant to. Steve cursed and lifted his arm again and closed his hand around Tony’s fist, kicking up the pressure and the tempo. Tony fell back on the seat with a gasp and the next moment Steve’s mouth was on his and Tony came so hard his vision blurred. Steve followed about three strokes later, just when things were starting to get painful for Tony’s oversensitive dick, and then he collapsed on top of Tony and Tony had to fight for breath. He shoved Steve over towards the seat back, which barely left any space for himself, but Steve had his arms securely wrapped around him, so he wasn’t going anywhere while he closed his eyes and slowly came back to earth.

The first thing he noticed, when he did, was that the car was moving. He hadn’t noticed it starting, so it was a little discombobulating. And then he thought through the implications; they must be heading to Bucky’s place already. Which meant… He started to struggle. Steve made a sleepy noise of protest; apparently he was settling in for a post-coital nap. Tony shook him.

“Steve. No sleeping. We’re heading for Bucky’s. We need to clean up.”

He looked down at his chest as he maneuvered himself upright.

“God fucking dammit!”

“What?” Now Steve was awake and looking alarmed as he pushed himself up to sitting. Tony pulled his pants up over his ass and then gestured disgustedly at his shirt.

“I came outside of my pants, but all over my dress shirt. And you came over my shirt too!” The two streaks of come were clearly distinguishable. By the looks of one of them, Tony was lucky his chin wasn’t covered in spunk. Grumbling, he started to unbutton the thing. Good thing he had common sense, unlike Steve and was wearing an undershirt in February. He cast a look aside and saw Steve smirk at him while pulling up his own pants. His shirt was still hanging open, with his mangled tie tossed over his shoulder and he had come on his chest from where he had fallen on top of Tony. It made him look like a wet dream, as far as Tony was concerned. He pulled his shirt off and balled it up to wipe Steve’s chest with it, muttering as he slapped Steve’s hands away from trying to do up his buttons before he was clean. Or cleanish, because they weren’t going to get anywhere close to what Tony considered clean. He frowned at the remnants of what was once a very expensive dress shirt.  

Steve made a put upon noise and yanked the shirt out of his hand. He shoved it under the seat. Then he finished doing up his shirt and leaned over to kiss Tony softly. Tony settled himself against Steve’s shoulder and sighed.  

The intercom crackled to life.

“We are near Mr. Barnes’ apartment, boss. Should I circle the block a few times?”

Tony pushed the button.

“We’re as good as we’re going to get, Happy.” That would have to do, since there was no chance in hell they could manage looking like they didn’t just have sex. “Ready when you are.”

“You got it, boss.”

Happy was a good guy. Tony was going to keep him.

He ran a hand through his hair, then gave it up as a lost cause.

 

Ten minutes later, Barnes and Rhodes climbed into the limo.

“Fuck, Rogers, it smells like sex in here!” Bucky exclaimed before he was even seated. “Aw man, look at you.” He gestured at Steve’s everything with his good arm. “Have you no shame?” Rhodes just looked disapproving.

Steve smiled widely.

“Consider this payback for all the times you played tonsil hockey with an endless parade of redheads right in front of me, Buck.”

“He likes redheads?” Tony asked Steve.

“Uhuh.”

“You know, she really liked New York last Christmas, she is planning on coming back in spring.”

“I don’t know if that is the best or the worst idea in the history of the planet, Tony.”

“What? Who?” Bucky wanted to know.

“You’ll see,” Steve smirked.

“Can’t wait,” Tony added, grinning. “Fireworks either way.”

“Alright, children,” interrupted Rhodey. “Can we talk now?”

“Don’t look so put out, honey bear,” Tony chided. “You’re the one that left us alone in a limo with blacked out windows. What did you expect?”

“A deep and meaningful conversation?”

“Well, it was deep and meaningful for sure. Just not much conversing.”

Rhodes rolled his eyes and Bucky guffawed.

“So what happens next?” asked Steve.

“Airport, flight, another limo, possible a stop to drop you guys’s stuff off at the mansion and then we go get burgers at Burger Heaven.”

“I love you,” said Steve.

Tony thought his smile might break his face.