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The Longing and Yearning

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Steve had just settled down into his armchair when someone knocked on the door. The living room was small, but the ten feet to the door looked like a mile. Maybe he should have just let Reed give him quarters on the helicarrier, he thought, not for the first time. He wouldn't have had to walk as far. They could have just called him on the intercom. Hell, Reed slept up there. But Reed was the director of SHIELD now, and Steve was -- barely -- a consultant. He was finally retired. Twenty-three years of service. He'd given his life to the Army, in more ways than one. He was out. He was done.

And if that meant that Reed's clever SHIELD boys had to fly all the way down to New York to ask him something at -- he glanced at the clock -- nine p.m., well, then, maybe they'd learn to stop relying on him for every last insignificant question. Or they'd learn to use a damn telephone.

He was the old guard. They all were, the veterans. The war heroes. And the kids had to learn to walk on their own eventually.

And speaking of walking--

Whoever it was out there knocked on the door again.

Steve sighed and pushed himself unsteadily to his feet. He bit back a groan and tried to settle his weight on his aching legs, making sure his knees weren't going to give out on him, and took a halting step forward. Then another.

He was still in rough shape from the Hulk fight. They'd pulled him out of what had been, at the time, unofficial retirement, and he probably never should have been in action in the first place, but there hadn't been anyone else who could wear the suit. It was his duty, and there was nothing Steve knew better than duty. It had been the toughest fight of his life; the Hulk had hit harder than anything he'd ever gone up against before, and he'd survived direct hits from mortar fire. He'd thought Parker was about to kill him, that this was how he'd finally go out, but somehow he'd made it. They'd pulled him out of the shattered remains of the armor, broken and bleeding. Not that he'd been conscious for it. He'd stopped breathing, they'd told him.

You can't do this anymore, Reed had said, when he'd come to visit Steve at his bedside.

And damn him, he'd been right.

Steve was retired for good. Permanently out of the field. He'd never see combat again. He'd already been in traction for weeks, and he could tell that he was never going to be the same again.

It was time to let someone else be the Iron Man.

Reflexively, he glanced down, making sure his shirt was buttoned over the chestplate, hiding the huge red circular glow as well as he could. It wasn't as if Reed's SHIELD agents had never seen him, but he was painfully conscious -- in a way he wasn't ever allowed to stop being -- that the chestplate tended to put people off. A grotesque mingling of man and machine, a mass of metal and electrodes permanently implanted into his heart, a combination control panel and kill switch for the armor that he was never going to wear again. He supposed it was heavy. After twenty years, he supposed he'd stopped noticing.

A few more torturous steps and Steve had finally made it to the front door. He reached out and braced himself on the doorframe, hand splayed on the painted wood, leaning all his weight on it. He took a breath, the largest breath the chestplate would allow. And then he straightened up, like the soldier he was, and he opened the door.

Steve stared at the stranger on his doorstep.

He'd been expecting one of Reed's boys -- a SHIELD agent in a skin-tight catsuit, high boots, and probably a weapons harness with one of those laser guns he wasn't supposed to know about. Or, failing that, it should have been someone military, an Army officer in olive drab.

The handsome young man standing before him was a civilian, in a three-piece suit. He couldn't have been more than twenty-five, was probably closer to twenty, and Steve wasn't quite sure if the mustache was just supposed to make him look older. It hadn't really worked. But his suit looked expensive, at any rate, and his dark hair was immaculately groomed, curling a little where it stuck out under the edges of his hat. Dark blue eyes met Steve's, and his gaze was intense, sharp, intelligent, confident. He looked like a man who was used to getting what he wanted. He also looked, in some indefinable way, familiar.

Had Steve met him before? He'd met an awful lot of people over the years. He would have remembered meeting a fella who looked as good as this, said the little voice in the back of his mind that he usually did his best to ignore. An actor, maybe? He was handsome enough to be on the silver screen.

"Colonel Rogers?" the man asked. The question of whether Steve knew him had been answered; clearly not, if he was going to ask after Steve like they'd never met. Steve hoped he was going to introduce himself.

"That's me," he said, even as he was wondering who the hell this guy was and how he'd gotten Steve's address. "What can I do for you?"

Smiling, the man held out a hand. "I'm Tony Stark, of Stark Industries."

At least that explained why he looked familiar.

Stark Industries was the company Reed wanted for the Project Iron Man contract. The poor kid had just inherited the whole shebang from his old man, maybe last year, and his face had been all over the papers then. Howard and Maria Stark's tragic accident. Their son, their only child, taking the reins of the company. Steve had seen the headlines. He'd never met Tony Stark. Reed had met him once, at some kind of MIT engineering conference. He's a genius, Reed had said, and Reed Richards of all people didn't use that word lightly. And he's the only man in the weapons business who still has his soul left.

Steve liked the sound of that, but then, he knew he'd always been an idealist. Project Iron Man had made him what he was, and if there were going to be more Iron Men, he wanted someone who saw more than the dollar signs in the contract to build them. The Iron Man meant more to Steve than that. And sure, all right, it was silly -- but he wanted the new Iron Men to mean something to the people who would make them. He wanted someone who cared. And maybe that was Tony Stark.

He reached out, and shook the offered hand. Firm grip. Callused. Even if this guy came from money, he worked with his hands. Steve liked that.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Stark," he said, and he meant it.

Tony Stark, Steve discovered, had a very warm and very friendly smile that was making him feel things he really shouldn't be feeling right now. "Please," he said, "call me Tony."

"Tony, then," Steve said, and he was only a little annoyed at himself for how quickly the name fit into his brain: first a stranger, then Mr. Stark, and then all at once Tony, as if he'd always been Tony, as if he'd always been there. "And if you're here to talk about what I think you're here to talk about, you should come inside."

He was here for Project Iron Man, wasn't he? He had to be.

Tony raised his eyebrows, silent agreement, and Steve stepped back and let him inside.

The door closed solidly behind him, and as Steve busied himself with taking Tony's hat and coat he could see Tony glancing around the place -- a quiet, unobtrusive surveillance that nonetheless spoke to a certain amount of interest. Steve wondered what he was looking for, and what he thought of what he'd found. There wasn't much to see; Steve's home could be said to be defined by what it wasn't rather than what it was. It wasn't large. It was a small place -- there was no point, he'd thought, in wasting his money on something grand, although he had splurged on the kitchen appliances, new and pale green, and the small television with its elegant wood paneling. His home bore all the hallmarks of a life lived alone. There were no frills, no flowers in vases, no indefinably feminine touches. There were a few paintings, but they were martial in theme, save for one of a galleon rocked on the waves. There were a few of his old drawings, likewise framed: soldiers he'd known, relaxing, reloading their guns, grinning at each other, or posed for life studies. A few pencil lines sketched out musculature and then discreetly faded away. There were no pictures of family -- no wife, no children. On the bookcase The Art of War and a six-volume set of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire stood next to a few battered science-fiction classics.

In short, his home made him look like exactly what he was: a retired military man. An old soldier. A confirmed bachelor.

There was a reason he never invited a lot of people over.

But Tony just smiled. "Nice place," he said, quietly, and if he'd drawn any other conclusions he didn't share them.

"Speaking of which," Steve said, as he finished settling Tony's coat on the coatrack and turned around, "how did you find me? My address isn't exactly public knowledge."

"Oh, you know how it goes," Tony said, airily. "I sweet-talked one of Dr. Richards' secretaries." His grin now was even more dazzling, and he batted his lashes. Steve went hot all over even as he realized this was supposed to be a demonstration of what Tony had done, and not anything more... personal.

Jesus Christ, Rogers, he told himself. Just because it's been a while is no reason to get distracted.

"Well, now that you're here, I suppose you might as well make yourself at home." He motioned at the armchair he'd so recently vacated. "Sit down. Can I get you anything? A drink?"

SHIELD wanted the SI contract. It only made sense to treat him well. Yeah, you just keep telling yourself that.

He watched Tony's gaze settle on the liquor cabinet, a little more analytically than before; he could practically see him weighing in his mind whether to take him up on it. Business or pleasure, Steve wondered. Maybe both.

"Sure," Tony said, finally. "If it's no trouble, I'll take a glass of scotch. Neat, please."

"No problem."

He rummaged around and pulled out the twelve-year-old single-malt that Reed had given him when he'd made full colonel. He'd been saving it for a special occasion -- but, hell, impressing the guy who you wanted to take your multi-million-dollar contract was a special occasion, wasn't it? He poured two fingers of scotch for Tony and then, after a moment of thought, he set out another glass for himself. Steve was the lightest of lightweights -- literally -- and had, for the most part, gotten out of the habit a long time ago. Being the Iron Man had been hard enough on the rest of his body without him needing to ruin his liver too, Reed had said. The reasoning had made sense to him. But this seemed like the kind of meeting that called for a rare indulgence. And besides, he wasn't ever going to be able to wear the armor again, was he?

He handed Tony his glass, waited for Tony to take a seat, and then pulled the other armchair up at an angle, so they could both put their drinks on the little table diagonally between them. By the time Steve sat down, Tony had already taken a sip; Steve found himself helplessly watching his throat work as he swallowed, watching his tongue moisten his lips, watching his long fingers curve around the glass, watching the way he cupped it so possessively.

Stop it. He's half your age and he's not on offer.

"Mmm. The good stuff," Tony said, his voice gone husky. "Thank you."

Steve allowed himself a small smile. "So." He set his drink down, untouched, and let the sound of glass against wood punctuate the sentence for him. "Project Iron Man."

Tony tilted his head in agreement. "Project Iron Man." There was a bright eagerness in his gaze, something awed and almost worshipful. "You must know how much of an honor it is, Colonel, that you would even consider SI for the contract. The Iron Man has meant so much to me over the years--" Steve idly wondered if Tony had even been born, back when he'd first put on the armor-- "and just the thought that I might get to have some hand in the next generation of the Iron Man..." He paused and seemed to forget his prepared speech. He blinked a few times; when he spoke again, his voice was rougher. More real. "There honestly aren't words for how much I want to be part of this."

"Well," Steve said, and he let himself smile again, his feelings carefully rationed out. "Dr. Richards had some very complimentary things to say about you and your work."

Tony lit up then, with the brightest smile Steve had ever seen, reveling in the praise, and Steve wished he didn't enjoy Tony's delighted grin as much as he did.

Tony took another sip of scotch. "I'm sure we're not the lowest bid for the project," he said. "In fact, I know we're not." He met Steve's gaze then, and his eyes were wide and earnest. "But we're the best bid," he said, voice brimming with quiet confidence. "I don't know what your funding's like, but I assure you that we're worth it. You'll pay for quality, and you'll get it. I'll make Project Iron Man my number-one priority. It would be a privilege. I've already cleared my schedule." He smiled. "I'll handle it personally, of course. I don't know what Dr. Richards has told you about me, but I'm a very, very good engineer."

His voice was low, coaxing, and it really wasn't what Steve's body kept trying to tell him it was. The guy just wanted a job. That was why he'd come here tonight. He didn't want anything else from Steve. He couldn't.

Steve cleared his throat. "He told me you were a genius."

There was another brilliant smile from Tony. "I try." He looked away, with a shyness that Steve wouldn't have expected, staring down at his glass, swirling the amber liquid. He took a breath and looked up again, a little awkwardly. "In the interests of full disclosure, as an engineer, I'm dying to get my hands on the armor," he added, and then the wry smile went soft. "But I know it deserves respect, too. I certainly respect your service, Colonel."

Steve pushed back the longing for everything he couldn't have. He couldn't have his armor ever again. God, it was killing him, had nearly killed him, would probably kill him if he ever wore it again -- and he still missed it every day, with an ache as deep as his soul. The Iron Man had done good. The Iron Man had won the war, had saved people, had brought victory and peace. Out of the suit, who was he? No one. A broken old man.

He was beginning to think, though, that Tony wanted the contract as much as they wanted him to have it. He'd be the right one. Even if it couldn't possibly mean to him what it meant to Steve, it did mean something. It should be him. Reed had been right. Should he tell him?

Yeah. He should tell him.

He coughed again. "This is extremely unofficial, but I think I should let you know that SI is our top choice." He held up a hand as Tony started to grin. "I can't promise anything, and I don't know how the numbers will work out; the accounting isn't my department. But I -- I mean, we -- wanted you from the beginning."

Tony's eyes sparkled, and his grin was wider. "Thank you so much. That's good to hear. And I'm sure we can work something out. If you want SI, sir, I can absolutely make that happen." The confidence came back to him, then, in the set of his head, the way he carried himself, and he raised his glass. "To our future. May we have a long and joyous partnership."

Steve clinked his glass with Tony's. "To the future."

The scotch was, as Tony had said, the good stuff, and it went down smoother than anything Steve had had in years. He didn't think he'd had anything this expensive since the days when he'd had his pick of liquor during the war, usually liberated from some high-ranking Nazi officer. Adolf's private stash, they used to say, laughing, although there was always the humorless fella who pointed out that Hitler didn't drink.

Tony set his glass down, finally, and, still smiling, kept looking at him. He shifted ever so minutely in his seat, and Steve had the sense that there was something else he wanted to talk about.

"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Steve asked. "Dr. Richards is the lead scientist on the project, so you'll have to direct your technical questions to him, but--"

Tony interrupted him. "It's not a technical question." He hesitated; he licked his lips again and tapped two fingers on the arm of the chair. "I was wondering about candidate selection. For the test subjects."

At least Steve knew something about that; he was on that committee. It certainly wasn't as big a deal as Tony was making it sound. They'd find a qualified man. There was no need for him to worry. He was probably just intimidated because here he was, talking to the only other Project Iron Man test subject.

"We haven't made the final decision yet," Steve told him. "We have a shortlist. Most of the men are internal candidates, from the Army or from SHIELD itself. I believe there are one or two civilians. Of course, if you have your own personnel to suggest, we can certainly take that into consideration."

Tony's face was paler than it should have been, eyes gone wide. "I want you to reconsider a candidate who's already in your files." His fingers dug into the leather of the chair; why was he so nervous?

"All right." Steve glanced around the room, trying to remember where he'd left that pad of paper. "If you give me his name, I can--"

"Me," Tony blurted out. "It's me."

Steve stopped and stared. He hadn't expected that, but, as he looked at Tony, as he thought about the eagerness in Tony's gaze -- maybe he should have seen it. It hadn't been hero worship. Or, maybe it had been, but there had been something else there too. Determination. Ambition.

"You," he said, still stunned. "You want to be the Iron Man."

Tony gave a jerky nod and knotted his hands together. "Yeah. Yeah, I do." His face twisted. "I'd contacted Dr. Richards privately last month to put my name in, but I'm betting I was knocked out of consideration early." His hand went to his chest, rubbing at his sternum, a gesture Steve was exceedingly familiar with, and he laughed, a small, dry chuckle. "I've got a heart condition."

Tony's smile was bleak.

He remembered the file now, from when they'd been going over the applications. Candidate AES, Reed had said. He's young, strong, brave, astoundingly intelligent-- and Reed saying so ought to have been a clue right there that this guy was someone, Steve realized now-- but he has a medical disqualification. Recommend we drop him.

Steve had barely even glanced at the papers. He'd been very clear; he didn't want some kid going through this the way he'd gone through it. Even with all the technological improvements, being the Iron Man was still going to be a hell of a thing to do to anyone's body. First and foremost, Steve wanted someone in the armor who could handle it, who was physically as close to human perfection as they could get, who wasn't going to be dying by inches when he suited up. He knew the toll it had taken on him, and he'd be damned if he'd put that burden on anyone else.

Agreed, he'd said. Drop him.

Tony's eyes were locked with his, his gaze laden with a terrifying intensity. It was like staring down the barrel of a gun.

Steve remembered how he'd felt twenty-three years ago, when he'd tried and tried and tried to enlist. He remembered the pitying faces of the men who'd stamped 4-F on his papers, again and again, turning him away over and over. He was tall, skinny, bony, sickly. He was no good. And then the Army had offered him one last shot: Project Iron Man. They'd told him he'd be signing his life away. And he'd burned for it. It was his life to spend, and he'd known he'd wanted to spend it for freedom. And he knew, still, that he could never have been wrong. And he'd stood in front of the armor and he'd asked where do I sign up?

They'd made him a hero. They'd let him fight for what he believed in. They'd let him save the world. They'd given him a chance -- and he'd grabbed it with both hands, he'd held it close, and he'd run with it.

The way Tony was looking at him now was surely the way he'd looked then, all those years ago. Tony wanted this. Tony wanted the exact same thing he wanted, just as much as he wanted it.

He had no idea what to say to that, he had no idea what he was going to say, but he opened his mouth anyway--

Then he thought about the pain.

The brass had thought it was horrific that he'd had to be conscious for the initial surgery, when the chestplate had been implanted, when they'd sunk the wires into his heart. But that was nothing compared to the day-to-day reality of being the Iron Man. The scientists had tried to tell him, of course, what they thought it would be like, but they'd never had to feel it themselves. They hadn't known. No one had known. They couldn't.

It was a lifetime hitch, they'd said. The suit needed to be physically connected to his body -- both to ensure that it would function, and to ensure that it would stop functioning if the Axis pried him out of it and tried to put in one of their own men instead.

He'd understood. He'd made the bargain.

He remembered it like it was yesterday, the first time he'd climbed into the suit. Even considering that he was one of the few men slender enough to operate it safely, it had been a tight fit. The suit locked into the chestplate, the chestplate locked into his heart. And then they'd flipped the switch. The circuit closed and lit up, the suit glowing red, drawing power from his body, neural suit control and self-destruct failsafes active. It drained his own heart.

The Iron Man had groaned to life around him, a metal monster at his command. And inside the suit, Steve's heart stuttered and skipped three beats, pain burst through him like a lightning strike, and he thought oh God oh God I'm going to die oh God it's killing me--

He'd never told anyone, but there had been tears on his face, behind the mask.

He sure as hell hadn't felt like a hero then.

And that was just standing. Fighting was ten thousand times worse, unspeakable agony. The first time he'd gone into the field, he'd been the hero of Guadalcanal, all right, but what the newsreels had never showed was how he'd had to duck behind a jeep and vomit his guts out from the pain, how he'd been shaking from fatigue, gray and clammy, bleeding where the suit scraped him. They'd tried to get him to stop. But he'd had to go on. No one else was the Iron Man, after all. He had to win the war.

Every battle had been worse. And worse. He knew that most of the reason he was still alive at all was that Reed had put his entire life on hold to follow Steve around and stitch him back together after every fight. He'd barely survived.

He couldn't do that to Tony. Tony was so young. He was bright, and he was driven, and he had a life. He had so much to live for. He wasn't a soldier. He didn't need to give himself to a higher cause.

And Tony already had a weak heart. It would be as good as killing him himself.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I can't."

The smile faded from Tony's face.

"Can you at least tell me why?"

"You don't understand," he said, his voice hoarse. "You don't know what you're asking for. You don't know what it's like. No one does. Except me. And I didn't know when I signed up. I didn't know what it was going to be like. They tried to tell me, but they didn't know themselves. But I've been the Iron Man for twenty-three years, and I'm telling you: don't. This isn't your life. This shouldn't be your life. You don't want this. Not like you think you do."

There was steel in Tony's answering gaze.

"With all due respect, Colonel," Tony said, with an unwavering calm certainty that Steve wouldn't have expected of him, "I don't think you know anything about what I want."

"This isn't a decision to make lightly," Steve returned. "You have your whole future ahead of you. You don't know what it does to you--"

"I'm older than you were when you became the Iron Man." Tony lifted an eyebrow. "And I have a top-secret security clearance. I know more than what's in the newsreels, Colonel. I've read the reports. I've seen your medical records. I know what it's done to you. I know it's not easy. But I know it's right."

Steve gave Tony his best glare, the one that had cowed thousands of wet-behind-the-ears lieutenants, but Tony just sat there. Tony's chin was tilted up, and there was something in the way he looked, the way he dared defiance, that sent a spark of heat through Steve. Tony had it: that indefinable quality, that heroism, the very thing they were looking for. He'd be good. He'd be great.

But he could just as easily be dead.

Steve sighed. "I can't do that to you."

I want you to be safe.

"Forgive me for pointing out the obvious," Tony said, "but you're going to do it to someone. Project Iron Man is going forward. So why not me?"

"You could die--"

A fatalistic smile flickered across Tony's face. "We're all going to die someday. If you mean to say that my heart's going to kill me... did you even read my file? I'm controlled. On medication. Yes, it's a risk, but--" he shrugged-- "can you really say I'm in worse shape than you were? And I can engineer the suit. It's going to be easier. I can make it easier."

"Easier isn't the same as easy."

Tony stared at him, not backing down, not ceding so much as an inch. "I can do this."

Steve wanted to believe him. He had the personality they wanted. The drive. The determination. But he needed to understand the risks.

"You're going to have to give up drinking," Steve said. "Your body won't need any more stress."

Tony blinked at him and set the glass down. He said nothing.

"You can't breathe," Steve said. "You can't ever take a full breath again. You'll never be able to, for the rest of your life." He swallowed hard. "For the first month or two I woke screaming, six nights out of seven, because the chestplate was pressing down on me and I couldn't breathe."

Tony was still watching him silently.

"You glow," Steve told him. "You glow, and clothes don't ever fit quite right. Everyone can tell you're wearing it. You'll never forget it. When you take a hit your ribs will probably dent with it. You'll be bleeding in the armor, and your heart will be skipping beats, and you'll feel like you're going to die. Every second you're in the armor, you'll feel like you're dying, but you have to get up. You have to keep fighting."

Tony nodded. Like he understood. He didn't. He couldn't.

It was getting harder and harder to imagine anyone else in the armor, though. Steve wondered whether he was trying to convince Tony or himself.

"And, right now, you seem," Steve dared to say, "like a charismatic fella. Friendly. The kind of man who smiles big, who uses every trick in the book to get where you want to be. Half those tricks won't work for you. People are either awed by the suit or afraid of it. They don't know how to treat you quite like a person anymore. And if you're expecting to continue on with romance--"

He held out his hand and gestured to the rest of the room. His solitary life, all neatly on display.

"People tend not to want a fella who could keel over at any time. And they tend not to be too keen on the fact that the Iron Man has to come first. The Iron Man always has to come first. So long-term relationships are, to put it bluntly, out. Short-term relationships... well, people see the chestplate and run."

Steve's romantic options were further complicated by his particular... preferences, of course. If he'd liked women -- hell, or even if he'd been willing to pay for it from men -- it would have been easier. But he didn't, and he wasn't.

"You'd be giving up your entire life," he said. "For this. For the Iron Man. There's no room for anything left over. Not in your body, not in your mind, not in your heart."

Tony looked... unfazed. Dedicated. Committed. Steve had read all of the candidate files -- hell, he'd met most of the candidates -- and none of them had been like Tony. None of them had struck him with this amazing sense of rightness. Maybe he should listen to himself. Maybe he should trust his own instincts.

Maybe the Iron Man should be Tony Stark.

"I understand the sacrifice." Tony's voice was steady. "I know you think I don't, but I do. And I know you're hurting, and I know you're lonely, but that doesn't mean--"

This was dangerous ground. They weren't here to talk about Steve's feelings. They couldn't be. "Tony--" he said, and, too late, he realized he'd used the man's first name. He held his hand out, trying to stop him from going further, from saying anything else.

Then Tony reached out, across the table that separated them, and he put his hand in Steve's. His fingers brushed Steve's wrist, just under the cuff of his shirt, and Steve started to shake.

Tony was once again silent. Then he licked his lips. His eyes were a fraction wider. He knows, Steve thought, sick with terror, and Tony just stared unreadably back at him. He couldn't tell what Tony was thinking. Fear? Disgust? Delight at discovering an amazing new source of leverage?

Steve might have been retired, but there was nothing more that the public -- or, for that matter, the boys on Capitol Hill -- would love than an icon brought low. A deviant. A pervert. Un-American.

Now was not an especially good time to be un-American.

"Well," Tony said, very softly, "this is interesting. Isn't it?"

Gently, so gently, Tony stroked the inside of Steve's wrist. A caress.

Everything was deniable. There was no proof. No one had done anything. There was only the slightest of intimations. It would be his word against Tony's. But the scandal, of course, would destroy Steve. He knew perfectly well how it would look. Steve, a retired colonel, a man with power and influence, had a handsome young man over to his home late at night, an ambitious young man whom Steve might have tried to persuade to do anything Steve wanted in exchange for special consideration regarding Project Iron Man. Steve had plied him with alcohol. There had been unwanted advances. It was an old, old story. And if that was the story Tony chose to tell, it would become the truth.

In most situations, the inclination of belief would run toward the man with the most fame, with the most power, with the greatest number of friends in high places. The usual assumption would have been that Steve -- the world's beloved Iron Man -- was safe, and Tony at risk. But Tony was incontrovertibly a ladies' man; he was the darling of the society pages, attending this gala or that with a different starlet on his arm every week. He was safe. He had an alibi for his life. But as for Steve... no matter how much anyone asked around, they wouldn't be able to find a matching alibi. It's strange how Colonel Rogers has never married, someone might muse. There was no convenient woman. And then a few men might come out of the woodwork. It would only take one. He was far from anonymous, after all; he was the Iron Man. And there had been, to his shame, several occasions when Steve had not been especially discreet.

So that story, that ancient story of a trade proposed, a political favor for an obscene one--

If Tony told that story, someone would listen to him. And Steve would lose what little freedom or dignity remained in his life.

"I'm afraid that I don't know what you're talking about," he said, loudly enough that his voice wouldn't shake the way his hand was still shaking. He was sure Tony could feel the pulse in his wrist jump.

He couldn't make himself pull his hand away from Tony's.

There would be a list of demands now. For the blackmail, of course.

He already knew exactly what Tony wanted: the Iron Man.

Christ. He could do it, all right, but then he'd have to explain himself to Reed. And sure, Reed had covered for him a couple of times during the war -- there'd been some damn close calls before Steve had eventually learned not to give in to his lust, no matter how great the temptation -- but there was a world of difference between no, sir, I don't know where Rogers is, haven't seen him since 0800, maybe you should check with the medics and let's give the Iron Man to Tony Stark before he runs to HUAC to tell them Steve Rogers is a queer.

"I was talking about loneliness," Tony murmured, in the same low tone, as if this could be calming. And even worse, there was a flirtatious undercurrent in his voice. As if this could be real. As if he'd really go through with this. Steve's reaction had been damning enough. There was no need for a false seduction to hammer home the cruelty. "Believe it or not, Colonel, it's an emotion I am intimately familiar with." The corners of his mouth turned up, the smallest of smiles. "It's an awfully lonely world out there sometimes. Especially for men like us."

Raising Steve's hand to his lips, he kissed Steve's fingers. It was a ridiculous, courtly gesture, like a knight in a fairy tale. Tony's lips were soft; Tony's breath was warm on Steve's skin. It was the closest Steve had ever been to someone else in a long, long time, and he was still shaking, in desire and terror, because he couldn't want this, he couldn't have this, he couldn't trust this.

"Please," Steve whispered, and his voice cracked, and he waited for the rest of the sentence to come out of his mouth: Please, no. Please, don't. I can't. Don't do this to me.

He found he couldn't say the rest of it.

Tony brought his other hand up and laid it atop Steve's, cradling Steve's hand between both of his, stroking the backs of Steve's fingers in a gesture that Steve desperately wanted to call tender. Tony's hands were warm. Gentle.

Steve couldn't remember the last time anyone had touched him like this. Like he meant something.

"You're so cold," Tony said, a furrow of discontent beginning to form between his eyebrows. "You're shivering. Are you all right?"

"I'm fine." He hadn't meant to snap the words, but they were out of his mouth, and the echo seemed to hang between them.

And then Tony went about three shades lighter in half a second and he dropped Steve's hand. "You think this is a trap," he whispered. "That's what you think. Oh, God." He looked like he wanted to be sick. "I'm so sorry."

The only man with a soul, Reed had said.

Maybe it was real.

"It's not your fault," Steve said, and he curled his fingers into his palm so that he didn't reach out for Tony, who was cradling his glass again, but not drinking. "I just-- I've had--" He realized that perhaps Tony didn't need to know the precise details of the last time his secrets had been held over him. He shut his mouth.

"Bad experiences, huh?" Tony said, with a faint smile. "Yeah. I get that." He looked down and away, a little self-consciously. The smile was rueful, oddly shy. Steve wondered if this was what the real Tony Stark was like, when all the masks were off. He thought maybe he'd like to find out. "I meant it, though," Tony added, very softly. "For what it's worth."

That brought Steve, of course, to the obvious question. Blackmail, at least, was understandable. But this wasn't. Why, if it was real? Was it pity? The misplaced remnants of hero worship? Steve wasn't about to flatter himself into thinking it was actual attraction.

He sipped a little more of his scotch in a vain attempt to quiet the jangling of his nerves. "You did, did you?"

He hated the hope he could hear in his own voice; he didn't think Tony knew him well enough to be able to notice it. He was supposed to be better than this. Over this. His heart was pierced with wires, shot with electricity, like the arrows of Saint Sebastian. Steve's favorite martyr. He'd had a lifetime to get used to this, to accustom himself to the tiny space he'd carved out for his own feelings. Men like him didn't get to be happy, not for more than fleeting seconds in the dark -- an alley, a back room, a shadowed corner. Silent as the grave. Hands over mouths, muffling all sound, baring no more than necessary in the cold, doing whatever could be done to forget that reality was a war-torn patch of forest, winter in the Ardennes, doing everything possible to forget that not everyone was getting out alive. Always alone, in the end.

Men like us, Tony had said, bringing them together in that word. Us. They could be an us.

"You said the armor meant you had to be alone. That's not right. That's only as true as you make it. You don't have to be alone. There are people who would understand that it came first, you know. Your friends do, don't they?" The words were spoken with the blithe assurance of someone who had friends, someone who hadn't lived through a war and outlived most of his friends. "Why not a lover? There's room in your heart for that. There's room to be happy." Tony's mouth quirked, like he'd read Steve's mind. Like he actually thought someone could, or would, stay with him. "You seem like someone whose life could use some happiness."

It was pity, then, and the most miserable thing was that Steve was starved enough to take it.

"Tony," Steve said, and then he stopped, not knowing what would come out of his mouth next.

Tony regarded Steve over the rim of the tumbler for several long seconds. And then Tony set the glass down, climbed out of the armchair, and knelt on the floor, at Steve's feet. He sank into the carpet. And then he looked up, and the radiant smile on his face was so bright, so joyful, and Steve let himself entertain the -- probably untrue, but immensely satisfying -- thought that no one had ever looked at him quite like this before--

"You're so goddamn beautiful," Tony said, staring up at him like nothing on Earth could make him drag his gaze away from Steve's face, "and you have absolutely no idea, do you?"

Steve blinked, because Tony was nowhere near as drunk as he should have needed to be to utter that sentence.

"I'm twice your age." Steve gestured at himself: stick-thin, scarred, part-machine. His hair was rapidly going silver -- early, how lucky for him -- but he was blond enough that it mostly didn't show, and that was the kindest thing Steve could bring himself to say about his entire physical appearance. "I'm an old soldier, and I look it. There's no need for--"

"--the truth?" Tony smiled. "I meant it that time too, you know."

Tony's hands were in midair, fingers flexing on empty air, as if he were barely restraining himself from gliding his palms along Steve's thighs, as if Steve could be someone he wanted to touch that badly. The thought should have been unimaginable, but it looked like Tony was having no difficulty imagining it.

Maybe it wasn't pity, either.

"If we do this," Steve said, knowing as he said it that they were already far beyond if, "this is about the two of us. Nothing else. This isn't about Project Iron Man. No considerations. No special treatment. This doesn't change anything. Understood?"

But it was a lie, of course; it was going to change them, whether he said so or not, whether it changed the project or not. They wouldn't be the same men tomorrow.

Tony nodded once, sharply. "Understood."

Tony let his hands come to rest on Steve's knees, and Steve imagined he could feel the heat of Tony's skin even through the fabric of his trousers. Gently, Tony nudged Steve's legs apart, and Steve felt the slow inexorable flame of desire begin to kindle within him as Tony slid one tentative hand to the inside of Steve's thigh and up higher, carefully, as if he wanted to memorize him by touch.

Steve breathed out shakily and put his hand over Tony's.

"No," he said, and Tony dropped his free hand in an instant; his other hand remained on Steve's thigh, where Steve had pinned it.

Tony looked up, a hesitant question in his eyes.

"Not like this," Steve said. They could definitely do better than a blowjob in his living room. Steve wasn't the kind of man to sit in his armchair and make Tony service him. He didn't want to just use him.

Tony smiled. "All right. Like what, then?"

"I have a bed," Steve told him. "I'd very much appreciate your presence in it."

Tony gave that same quick nod, an order acknowledged. "Yes, sir."

Because he could, Steve reached out and ran his fingertips over Tony's hair, over the curve of his ear, and then over his cheek as Tony turned his face into the caress and dropped a kiss on Steve's palm. "And Tony?" he said. "My name is Steve."

"Steve," Tony repeated, with that same dazzling smile. And then he rocked back, pushed himself to his feet, and offered Steve a hand up. "All right, Steve. Lead the way."

As Steve clambered to his feet like he was eighty-three instead of forty-three, he was grateful that Tony said nothing about his obvious physical straits. No questions about his ability. No comments. There was only Tony's quiet solicitous presence at his side, ready with another hand if he asked.

He led Tony toward his bedroom, and he was acutely aware as he opened the door and turned on the light that in the ten years since he'd bought the place he'd never brought a man home. Never brought anyone in here. Never showed anyone this. Hell, he could count on one hand the number of encounters in his life that had involved an actual bed. The idea that Tony was going to stay here, in his bed, that they had time together where he didn't have to count seconds and look over his shoulder -- it was both terrifyingly intimate and an unimaginable luxury.

Tony glanced around the small room, presumably taking note of the art on the walls, the blue-striped duvet, and the half-finished book on the nightstand the same way he'd noted everything else in Steve's home, as Steve went to close the drapes.

"And this is an even nicer place," Tony said, and the observation was low, almost throaty. "So, Steve, how do you want me?" He was already slipping off his shoes, putting them by the door next to Steve's, and then his fingers went to his tie, working at the knot.

Before Steve was quite aware of doing it, he found he was at Tony's side, brushing his hands away, replacing them with his own. "Let me," he told him. "I don't-- I don't get the chance to do this often. I'd like to--"

Tony's smile was soft. "By all means."

And Tony just stood there, smiling at him, as Steve loosened and removed his tie, then undid his jacket, his vest, and his shirt. Everything dropped to the floor, and then Tony, standing there in his undershirt, shrugged and pulled it over his head. He was gorgeous, muscular; there was no sign, looking at him, of whatever heart condition plagued him, and Steve couldn't believe that someone who looked like this had called him beautiful.

"Good?" Tony asked, and then he breathed in sharply, eyes gone dark, as Steve set trembling fingers to his chest. "Yeah, okay," he breathed. "Good."

"Very good," Steve assured him. He took a shuddering breath. The world around him seemed insubstantial, a dream; Tony was the only real thing, right here, everything he needed, and he couldn't believe this was happening, but it was.

"You know," Tony said, as he watched Steve slide a thumb over his nipple, "I have to admit that this is about eight different fantasies coming true at once, and -- mmm, oh, yeah, your hands -- in none of them did it ever occur to me that you might want to look at me."

Tony had thought about this? Tony had thought about him? He didn't quite know what to make of that. He knew the Iron Man had been a hero, but he was certain no one had been admiring him for his body.

"Was hoping to do more than look," Steve said, a little roughly, but Tony smiled anyway.

He let his fingers drift lower, over Tony's ribs, then lower, but Tony put his hand over his when he brushed against Tony's belt.

"Not yet," Tony breathed. "My turn first."

Steve swallowed hard. This was the part where the others usually left him, on the rare occasions that the other man had the time and inclination to get his clothes off, to do more than get his cock out. It wasn't just the chestplate, though that was horrific enough. It was the scars. It was his skinny, bony, ancient body. It was the whole package, really.

"It's not going to be pretty."

Tony's gaze was full of unshakeable confidence. "Yes," he said, softly, but firmly. "It is."

And then he leaned in, and he kissed Steve.

To say Steve hadn't been expecting it would have been an understatement: Steve jumped, surprised, and they collided. Their noses bumped and their mouths didn't quite meet at first, not until Tony splayed his hand over the back of Steve's head, ran his fingers through Steve's hair, and, with his other hand on Steve's jaw, tilted Steve's head until their lips touched. Tony's mouth was warm and soft, and when his lips parted and the kiss deepened, he tasted, unsurprisingly, of scotch. Steve's scotch. Steve had marked him already.

Mine, said a very small, startling voice in Steve's head, and Steve tried to banish the thought, because even if Steve could have Tony -- for a night, or just for the span of an hour or two -- he certainly couldn't keep him.

Tony had one hand on the back of Steve's neck, fingers still sliding through the short hair at the base of his skull. Tony's other hand had drifted, somehow, to Steve's upper arm, a light but comfortingly strong grip. He was, Steve observed, very carefully not touching the chestplate.

"Can I?" Tony murmured, against his lips. "Please? I want to."

The request was rather light on specific verbs, but Steve savored the headiness of being wanted even as his mind occupied itself with imagining the look of horror that would soon cross Tony's face.

"Sure," Steve said, pushing back the hesitation. "If you want to, I suppose."

Tony's eager fingers quickly undid the buttons of Steve's shirt, which he then pushed off Steve's shoulders to join Tony's shirt on the floor. And then Tony tugged at the hem of his undershirt -- he had to be able to see the chestplate now -- and Steve stepped back, shut his eyes, and took his shirt off.

With his eyes closed, he waited.

The only sound in the room was Tony's slow, even breaths. Tony hadn't so much as moved.

"Hey," Tony said, in that same low, soothing voice, like it was all easy for him. "Hey, it's okay." When Steve opened his eyes, Tony was smiling, his face lit by the red glow of the chestplate in the dimness, smiling like it was Christmas Day. "Would you look at you, huh? Gorgeous."

He was reaching out a tentative hand toward the chestplate, but his gaze was locked on Steve's, and he didn't touch it until Steve nodded. His fingers deftly traced the rim of the red circle that took up most of Steve's chest, and then slid to one of the now-empty ports where the chestplate would have locked into the armor. And then his hand went high, to Steve's neck, tracing the gall that the top of the chestplate -- and the edge of an armor plate -- had long since worn into the skin over his collarbone.

Steve wondered what Tony thought. If he was afraid of it. If this was what he still wanted for himself, seeing it in the flesh.

Tony met his eyes again, and he bit his lip, and it looked like there were a million things he wanted to say but he couldn't figure out where to start. "Does it hurt?" he asked, finally, his thumb rubbing over the scar.

Steve shook his head. "Not now," he said. "Not when it's not locked into the armor. Right now it's just dead weight."

"They can't take it off? Now that you're retired?"

He shook his head again. Never. That had been the deal. "Some of the SHIELD docs were looking into it, when I was recovering from that last fight. The way the electrodes are implanted into my heart makes it dicey, they said. The surgery was too risky to approve."

Frowning, Tony made an abstracted humming noise. Steve had seen that face on Reed: genius at work. "But they could take the rest of the plate off, couldn't they? Just cut the wires, cap them, maybe a small cover?" He grinned. "It'd be a weight off your chest. Literally."

Steve was entirely unprepared for the mix of sadness and terror that the thought sent through him. Sure, he wasn't the Iron Man now; he'd been ordered away from the armor, even though the physical linkage would still work. But the idea that he couldn't be, ever again, that they could take even the possibility away from him, that then he'd have nothing--

"Shh," Tony said, and Tony had his hands on his shoulders, holding him up. "Hey, hey, no, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to upset you." He grimaced. "I fix things. That's what I do. I see something I think is wrong, or makes someone unhappy, and I try to fix it, and sometimes I open my mouth and it turns out the thing I wanted to fix wasn't a problem at all." He looked away. "Uh. Sorry. We could go back to the kissing?"

"I liked the kissing," Steve agreed, a little awkwardly.

Tony smiled. "Yeah? Good. Me too."

Tony wrapped his arms around him, one hand on his upper back, the other -- God, yes -- very promisingly slightly lower, resting just above his ass, and Tony drew him close like he absolutely didn't care that Steve was still half-covered in metal. Steve put his arms around Tony in return, feeling him warm under his hands. Tony's mouth opened against his, and Tony's tongue slid into his mouth. Tony kissed like he wanted to be fucking him, wanted all of him, everything, now. And Steve kissed him back, just as fiercely.

Steve dared to slide his hands lower, fingertips dipping just inside Tony's waistband, and Tony moaned something low and wordless and wanton into Steve's mouth and rocked up against him, grinding against Steve's thigh. He was already hard, of course, hard and huge, and he was rubbing up against Steve with little thrusts of his hips, faster and faster. Steve let his hands slide lower, curving over Tony's ass. Tony shuddered and thrust up again and again, and he whimpered into Steve's mouth. Steve wondered if he should actually stop him, or just let him come like this, if that was what he wanted.

"Oh, God," Tony panted, breaking the kiss, leaning back a little. "Jesus. Okay. You're so-- wow, I just-- okay." He breathed. "Okay. How do you want to do this? The sky's the limit."

It wasn't, actually. Steve could feel his face settle into a downcast mask of shame. "It's been... a while," he muttered. "And I'm not exactly as limber as I used to be."

"Hey." Tony tipped his chin up, kissed him again. "I can work with that. How about you sit down, lie back, let me take care of you? We can still have plenty of fun."

He let Tony push him backwards until the back of his calves bumped the bed, and then, to distract Tony from him, slid one hand between Tony's thighs and up, rubbing Tony's cock through the fabric of his pants. He was big, just like Steve liked. God, twenty years ago Steve would have rolled over in an instant, but the ache in his hips and knees informed him that the rest of his body had decided that was off the table for the evening.

Tony was breathing out in little whispery breaths, and he was wobbling back and forth, a little weak in the knees, bracing himself with a hand on Steve's shoulder.

"Oh, yeah," Tony whispered. "Just like that. So good."

"I've got years of experience," Steve said, undoing Tony's belt with his other hand and then unbuttoning his fly.

Tony's laugh turned into a breathless gasp as Steve finally got his cock out, huge and hard in his hand, and gave him a few strokes. He'd backed away from the edge a little, but he was still close. Steve wondered if Tony would be able to come again if he got him off now; he was seized with the urge to make him, to stroke him hard and fast and watch his cock slide through his own hands until Tony finally came, shaking apart, coming all over him, filthy and messy and beautiful. Would he cry out? Would he moan? Would he call Steve's name?

Tony leaned in and kissed him -- God, he was a good kisser -- nudged Steve until Steve sat down on the edge of the bed, and then shucked his pants, underwear, and somehow his shoes and socks, at record speed. Steve had only the barest glimpse of all of him, glorious and gorgeous, before Tony was pushing him back onto the bed, curling around him, and kissing him again.

Steve reflected on the idea that this was more than any one person had kissed him, perhaps ever.

"So what would you like?" Tony propped himself up on one elbow; his other hand was skimming over the chestplate, lower and lower. "My hands? My mouth? Both? Or I can ride you," he offered. "You wouldn't have to do a thing. Just enjoy yourself."

Tony was unbuckling Steve's belt. Might as well get it over with, Steve thought, and he batted Tony's hands away, undid his pants, and managed to get his hips in the air long enough to be able to kick everything off.

He looked down at himself, at the familiar scarring: bullets, shrapnel, the wear of the armor. His half-ruined hip. A broken leg, the newest and rawest of the scars. And, of course, the embarrassing indignity of it all: he was barely even hard, his erection having faded despite all the excitement. It came and went sometimes, especially now; the worse off his body was in general, the less likely he was to be able to perform. It had never mattered much before; he was usually his own audience these days. But he was obviously going to disappoint Tony.

"Uh," Steve said, and he wanted to look away, but there was nowhere to look that wasn't Tony. "I'm not sure that's going to be happening." He shut his eyes. "I'm so sorry."

And this would be another one of the reasons he'd given up on relationships.

He felt the gentle pressure of a hand against his face. "Hey, hey," Tony whispered. "Look at me. I'm still here." He opened his eyes; Tony was still smiling, easy and encouraging, his face a little flushed. "Not a big deal. I promise." Tony tapped his own sternum with his other hand. "I've been there before. Had some circulatory problems of my own." Tony's thumb was now stroking aimless patterns on his cheekbone. "Can I still touch you?"

Steve shrugged. He was still waiting for the inevitable moment when Tony was going to get up and walk out, because even hero worship couldn't carry him this far. "I can't promise it'll help anything."

"If it doesn't happen, it doesn't happen," Tony said, as he slid down Steve's body. His head was pillowed on the bottom edge of the chestplate, and it couldn't be comfortable but he didn't seem to care. "I just want to make you feel good."

He said it like he honestly meant it. It was the same way he'd said everything, tonight.

This wasn't how you talked to your one-night stand. Maybe, Steve let himself think, Tony would want this again, maybe they could try this again, maybe they could do everything.

Tony's touch was careful and light, almost curious, as his fingers stroked Steve's cock, and he had an unerring knack for finding Steve's most sensitive spots. He rolled Steve's balls with his other hand, and Steve moaned, the sound pulled out of him involuntarily, and he felt his cock hardening in Tony's grip. Not enough for him to do much of anything with, not yet, but it was a good sign.

"Mmm." Tony's breath on the tip of his cock was warm. "There you go. See, you're getting into it. You like that, huh?"

"I like that," Steve murmured, and it felt like something tight and twisted had come loose within him, like Tony was undoing him with the smallest of touches.

Tony rewarded him with a smile, looking up the length of his body like he didn't even care about the scars and the chestplate, and then Tony glanced back down, bent his head, and took Steve's cock into his mouth.

Tony's mouth was hot and wet and so good -- Jesus, Steve hadn't done this in years, how had he lived without this? -- and Steve threw his head back against the pillow and dug his hands into the sheets so he wouldn't actually pull Tony's head down and hold him there. Tony's clever fingers slid up the inside of his thigh and cupped his balls again, just the way he liked to do to himself, and very suddenly, Steve was achingly hard, past achingly hard, balls tightening, on the edge of orgasm already.

And then Tony pulled off, just a little, to grin at him. His mouth was red and slick, his eyes were alight. "You want me to keep going?" he rasped out, still smiling.

Tony's hand was still gliding over Steve's cock, and Steve thought distantly that he wasn't going to last long enough for anything else. If Tony rode him, if Tony let him sheathe himself inside his body -- the thought alone nearly made Steve come. His mind's eye painted a vivid picture, Tony sinking down on him, cock bouncing obscenely between them as he fucked himself on Steve's cock. Tony smiling at him, lost in ecstasy, coming all over him--

"Please," Steve gasped. "God, Tony. Your mouth, your hands--"

"My mouth and my hands, hmm?" Tony asked. His lips curved in a pleased smile. "I'll see what I can do." He licked two fingers, ostentatiously, and it was better than any pornography Steve had ever seen.

His mouth was on Steve again, down, down, all the way down, and then his fingers slid past Steve's balls, coming to rest just on his hole, pushing ever so slightly at his entrance. Steve gasped, everything whited out behind his eyes, and he was coming and coming, coming down Tony's throat in long spurts, and Tony swallowed it all.

Eventually Tony released him, crawled back up the bed, and kissed him thoroughly, as Steve was still drifting through lazy bliss.

It hadn't been like this before, he thought, dazed. It hadn't been like this with anyone. Tony was different. Tony was something special.

"Thank you," he said, knowing the words were inadequate. "Thank you, thank you." His eyes were hot. He wondered if he was going to cry. He wondered what Tony was doing to him, how Tony had found his way into his heart already.

"My pleasure," Tony said, with another kiss.

Tony's cock was pressing firmly into Steve's thigh, and Steve glanced down between them and his mouth went dry with renewed need as his body tried and failed to catch up to his own mind. Tony's cock was hard, damp, deep red, trapped between their bodies.

Steve put a hand on Tony's hip, and Tony shuddered and thrust up against him.

"Want me to help you out with that?"

Tony's eyes had gone a little glassy, and he was smiling. "I'm not going to last," he rasped.

I don't want you to, Steve wanted to tell him. I want to make you come, and I want to hold you while you come apart, and then I want to do it again. I want to stay in bed for a week and I want us to fuck every way either of us can think of until all I can see when I close my eyes is your face.

"Good," Steve told him.

Wishing for more would just have been that -- a wish. This was all he had, but he was going to make the most of it.

He encircled Tony's cock with his fingers, a tight grip meant to bring him off fast. No teasing here. The head of Tony's cock slid through his fingers as he moved. He watched Tony fuck his fist, meeting the movement of Steve's hand with little thrusts of his hips, the two of them instantly falling into a perfect rhythm. Steve wanted to memorize this moment.

"Kiss me, Steve," Tony gasped, and Steve wanted Tony to say his name like that forever. "Oh, that's so good. Please. I want to come with you kissing me."

There was no way Steve could resist that. He leaned up, pulled Tony down, and just barely managed to make their mouths meet. The kiss was messy, Tony's lips gone half-open against his, Tony moaning into his mouth. Steve kissed him hard, tasted him, slid his tongue into Tony's mouth, licking into him at the same pace as his hand worked Tony's cock.

Tony groaned, shuddered against him with one last ragged thrust, and Steve felt Tony spill over his fist as his body went rigid in Steve's arms. Steve slowly gentled his hand and Tony sighed and relaxed, all the tension gone from his body. The kiss broke apart and Tony was half-lying atop him, face pressed into Steve's neck, cuddling up to him like he wasn't wearing a massive chestplate.

Steve glanced down at himself; the metal was spattered with come. Tony had marked him, too.

Eyes shut, Tony was kissing Steve's neck, lazy, uncoordinated.

"That was wonderful," Tony said, his voice brimming with pleasure. "You were wonderful."

"So were you," Steve said, and Tony smiled that beautiful smile again.

He felt young again. Like the world was full of possibility, adventure, amazing things. So he just smiled, and he pulled Tony close, and when he interlaced his fingers with Tony's, Tony didn't move away.

"I know you said," Tony began, a little hesitantly, "that this wasn't going to change anything." In the dimness of the room, his eyes were even bluer. It seemed to Steve that, at this moment, he could look at Tony, see him and know him, know everything -- and he liked what he saw. "And I'm not trying to make... any kind of offer, but I wanted to point out that if SHIELD does end up awarding the Iron Man contract to SI, we might have... reasons... to see each other again. If that's something you want."

Reasons. Excuses. Plausibility. He'd be working closely with Tony, if Tony ended up designing the next Iron Man. And they were both dedicated to their work; they'd be just as dedicated to Project Iron Man. No one would see it as anything out of the ordinary if they needed to consult with each other frequently, even after business hours.

Tony could come back.

Tony wanted to come back.

Steve found that he was smiling. He pushed Tony's mussed hair back with two fingers, and Tony smiled back at him.

"Yeah," Steve said. "Yeah, I'd like that a lot."

Tony captured Steve's hand with his and kissed his fingers again. "So would I."

They lay together in Steve's bed, and Steve stroked Tony's hair and Tony's shoulders and Tony's back and thought about how he didn't want him to go. He thought about the determination in Tony's gaze when he'd asked to be the Iron Man, and the aura of goodness that blazed from him. He was brilliant, he was great -- he was perfect.

"Did you know," Steve asked, "that I almost wasn't the Iron Man?"

Tony frowned at him. "What do you mean? Because you were 4-F?"

Steve shook his head. "No, I mean they wanted me for another project." He hadn't thought about this in years. He wasn't quite sure why it was coming to mind now. "Project Rebirth, they called it. All of the test subjects, all of us were 4-F. It was going to be some kind of injection, like steroids. I don't know how it worked, but they were going to make us into super-soldiers, they said. We'd be stronger. Faster. Better."

"Huh." Tony's gaze was avid. "I've seen references to Rebirth, but I didn't know the details. What happened?"

"Nothing," Steve said, with a laugh. "Nothing happened. The night before it was supposed to happen, the lead scientist was killed, and he was the only one who knew enough to run the experiment. So it was cancelled."

"And then they shifted you to Project Iron Man?" Tony asked. "What about the other candidates?"

Steve stared up at the ceiling. "I wanted to serve," he said. "I wanted so badly to serve. To do something. I got to the test site the night before Rebirth was supposed to happen, and I waited there all night, because I wanted to be first in line. I wanted to get the treatment. I wanted to be out there, fighting. But they said Rebirth was cancelled. And when everyone else left, I was still there, and I begged them. I begged them to let me fight. To let me serve. And that's when they showed me the Iron Man."

They couldn't change his body. They'd built him a new body instead.

He met Tony's eyes; Tony's face now was solemn. He understood what Steve meant. I'm like you. We're the same.

Tony was silent for a long time.

"I'd wait all night," Tony said, very softly. "I'd wait all night for you, if you let me."

Steve smiled. "I know. I know you would."

They looked at each other for one breath, two: a message, exchanged.

"I wish I could stay now," Tony murmured. "But I think perhaps I shouldn't be seen leaving your house tomorrow morning. People might talk."

Reluctantly, Steve let him go, and as Tony pushed himself up and moved away, the only thing Steve wanted to do was drag him back. "You should probably go," he agreed. "Can I call you a cab? How did you get here, anyway?"

"My chauffeur dropped me off," Tony said, in a tone that suggested that having a chauffeur was completely normal. "I'm guessing he's holed up in a diner somewhere with a pot of coffee. He's got a pager," he added, another one of those offhanded remarks of the ridiculously rich. "Can I borrow your phone?"

"Sure, of course," Steve said, and then he just lay there admiring Tony wandering completely naked across his house to the telephone, a work of art in motion, all golden skin and a rangy, muscular frame.

After a few minutes, Tony came back, grinned at him -- Steve still hadn't bothered to get out of bed -- and picked his shirt up off the floor. "Twenty minutes," he said. "Happy had just ordered a slice of pie when I called, apparently. And it's not like I'm in a hurry."

Steve glanced over at the clock and back at Tony.

"You look like you're strategizing," Tony said, lightly, like they could share jokes. Steve liked the idea of that. "Is that your strategizing face? Do you have a strategizing face?"

"I might," Steve said. "You want to come again in the next twenty minutes?"

Tony's grin went sharp -- and, gratifyingly, Tony's cock twitched. He laughed, a delighted sound. "Good lord, you spoil me. You have something in mind?"

"On the bed," Steve said, tapping the mattress next to him as he pushed himself up, getting his back against the headboard. "Kneel up. I want your cock in my mouth before you leave."

"Oh, I'm going to like you a lot, Steve," Tony informed him, as he leaped back into bed.

Twenty minutes later they were dressed and presentable, and they stood in Steve's living room, trading kisses, neither of them able to stop. Steve's mouth still tasted like Tony, a fact that he ought not to feel as sentimental about as he did.

Outside, a car honked.

"That's me," Tony said, kissing Steve once more. "I'll see you around. Thank you for a lovely evening. SHIELD will be in touch, I assume?"

"Probably," Steve said. "And I'll be in touch."

Tony smiled that smile that set Steve's heart racing. "I look forward to it."

Tony grabbed his hat, opened the door, smiled one last time, and then was gone.

The door closed behind him, and Steve was alone again.

He tried to tell himself that it was different now, that even if he was in his lonely, tiny home, Tony had been here. Something had changed. Hadn't it?

He walked to the table where the regular phone sat. On the pad of paper next to the phone, a hand that wasn't his had written Regent 7-8275. Call me anytime. The last word was underlined.

Steve couldn't stop smiling. Tony had been here after all.

He turned away and picked up the phone -- the other phone, the secure line in the closet -- and glanced at the clock. It was only midnight, and it wasn't like anyone at SHIELD ever really slept. Reed was probably still up. So he dialed the familiar number for the SHIELD internal switchboard.

"Supreme Headquarters, International Espionage, Law-enforcement Division," the operator said.

Steve cleared his throat. "This is Colonel Rogers. Put me through to Director Richards."

"Yes, sir."

The phone rang twice, and then Reed picked up. "Hello, Steve," he said, the same way he always answered the phone, clearly completely unfazed by the fact that it was midnight. "Can I help you?"

"I wanted to ask," Steve said, "about the status of the contract for Project Iron Man."

"Legal and Accounting are busy running the numbers and drawing up a preliminary contract for Stark Industries," Reed said, without a pause. "I was going to tell you when the team met on Thursday, but they wanted to have the basics worked out first." He paused now, when Steve hadn't spoken. "Is that acceptable? I thought we'd agreed on SI. I could have them prepare an offer for Hammer--"

"No, no," Steve put in, hurriedly. "Stark's good. Stark's very good." Is he ever. "I just-- I wanted to know--"


"Tony Stark," Steve said, finally, desperately, and he thought maybe that was all he could manage. He was stupid, he was tongue-tied, he was already gone.

"What about him?"

"He was one of the candidates for Project Iron Man, wasn't he? One of the rejected candidates."

"Yes?" Reed ventured. It was his get to the point voice.

Steve took a deep breath. "Reinstate him. On my authority. And bump him. Top of the candidate list."

There was silence on the other end of the line.

"Oh," Reed said, finally, the quietly awed noise of a scientist making a discovery. A eureka moment. "You met him."

The reply carried with it a hundred other meanings that Reed was clearly going to let him unpack: Reed knew what Tony was like. Reed knew what Steve would think of Tony. Reed knew Tony would impress anyone. Reed knew Tony would impress him.

"Reed," Steve said, and he heard his voice going soft and almost dreamy and he didn't care. "He's perfect."

There was another pause. "Other than the fact that he could die, yes."

"I could have died, and they still approved me."

Reed made a quiet noise of assent.

"He'll make it," Steve said. "He'll be good. Better than good. He'll be glorious." His fingers clenched the phone cord, and he breathed out, steeled himself. "Please, Reed. I'm asking."

There was the sound of a pen against paper. Making a note? Signing an order?

"All right, Colonel," Reed said. "You've got Tony Stark."

Steve exhaled hard. "Thank you. Thank you so much."

He had Tony. He really had Tony.

Steve lifted the phone from his ear, ready to hang up, but Reed was still talking--

"--and if Stark's still there," Reed said, "you can let him know he has the position." The words were offhanded. Like Reed had expected Tony to be there. At his house. In the middle of the night.

"Why would Stark be here?" Steve asked, and his poor heart was pounding in his chest. Reed knew about him, of course Reed knew about him, but that was an entirely different thing from him knowing about--

"Steve," Reed said, very patiently. "I'm not stupid. And I know both of you. It seemed to me as if the two of you might have... common interests. As if you might become... friends." He stressed the word.

"Reed," Steve said, in dismay, torn between there is no way we can talk about this over the phone even on a secure line and there is no way we can talk about this ever.

"You sounded happy," Reed said, quietly. "I'm glad. Good night, Steve."

The line went dead.

Steve stared at the phone a long time before he hung it up.

All he could picture was Tony's smile. He wondered if Tony would be home in half an hour, if he could call then.

He had gone from nothing to everything, in the span of an evening. Gone was the loneliness. Gone was the hopelessness. He had a future. He had Tony. And Tony was going to make the Iron Man, and Tony was going to be the Iron Man, and he couldn't think of a better person to entrust it all to. Tony already had his heart.

He'd fallen hard. He was still falling. But Tony had him, and everything was going to be wonderful.

Steve wasn't the Iron Man anymore. This was his new life, and he was going to live it.