Title: Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own (LJ | Comment)
Author: aliana_iskassa

Rating: NC-17
Pairings/Characters: Steve/Tony, past Tony/OMC; Steve, Tony, Carol, Hank, Thor
Universe: 616 (after Secret Invasion but ignoring IIM)
Beta: The wonderful ellyr_in_ink
Labels: D/s, BDSM themes, angst
Warnings: Past abuse, trust issues, Tony being a woobie.

Summary: After Steve returns from a year on a Skrull prison ship, he is disturbed to find that Tony is embroiled in yet another abusive relationship. He wants to rescue Tony from his demons, but will Tony even allow himself to be helped?

 

Art by dorcas_gustine (NWS 1) and Arinan (NWS 1)

- - -

 

You don't have to put up a fight
You don't have to always be right
Let me take some of the punches
For you tonight

Listen to me now
I need to let you know
You don't have to go it alone     

- ‘Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own’ by U2

 

- - -

 

It began with light, a faint, warm glow filtering through his closed eyelids, nothing like the dim red ambience of the hold of the Skrull prison ship that he had spent the last year in.

 

Beneath him was something soft, and he heard hushed voices nearby.

 

Steve remained utterly still, his breathing unchanged, not even a flicker of his facial muscles betraying him. In the violence and chaos of the ship, it wouldn’t do to give yourself away too easily.

 

“Osborne doesn’t know-“

 

“-keep this a secret-“

 

Voices he had heard in his dreams- Peter, Clint.

 

His right hand twitched against the cloth beneath him. Something organic, the curves of a mattress beneath it-

 

Human sheets.

 

Steve opened his eyes a fraction, glancing at the colorful blur of gesticulating people in the doorway.

 

He saw Bucky, Peter, Clint- no Tony.

 

His mouth tasted like ashes and recycled air, and he felt like complete and utter shit, but that didn’t matter, because he was home.

 

His dry cough made them all whip around, Peter springing to his side, his hair sticking every which way like the spines of an aggravated porcupine. Steve struggled upright in the bed, shaking off Clint’s hand on his shoulder. He wasn’t an invalid, damn it!

 

“Steve! Oh God, we thought you were dead-“ Peter rambled.

 

Steve blinked, looking around as everyone crowded around his bed, reaching out to touch him, as if to confirm that he was real.

 

Why was Bucky in his uniform? Why was Clint in Ronin’s suit? This wasn’t the Tower; the room was too small and close-curtained for that, and they were at ground level from what he saw outside the window.

 

And everyone looked… hollow, worn-down, drained of color.

 

And Tony wasn’t there.

 

Tony was always there when he was injured, and returning from a year of captivity was certainly an even bigger reason to be there. Tony was loyal to a fault; he wouldn’t miss this for anything.

 

“How’re you feeling?” Luke asked, his dark eyes sharp, not missing the way Steve’s gaze darted around the room, searching.

 

“Where’s-“ he had to stop and clear his throat, the feeling of the air strange after a year of recycled, dry air that made his nose bleed, “-Tony?”

 

There was a heavy silence. Peter looked away.

 

No one was meeting his eyes.

 

Something shriveled in Steve’s chest, and he swallowed against the ice-cold feeling coating him. “Where’s Tony-“

 

“Stark-“ why was Clint referring to him by his last name? “-would be here, if he knew you were back. But we didn’t tell him.”

 

“Why are you calling Tony ‘Stark’? And why wouldn’t you tell him-“

 

“Because he’s the enemy,” Luke cut him off, “and we can’t let the enemy know the location of our base.”

 

The enemy? Had Steve woken in some strange alternate dimension? Had the Skrull ship slipped through a wormhole?

 

He shook his head, smiling helplessly, unable to understand the bone-deep loathing he saw in their eyes. “Guys, I don’t understand. He’s part of the Avengers, he’s funded it for years; why is he the enemy?”

 

“A lot’s happened since you’ve been gone, Cap,” Bucky said tonelessly, and for the first time Steve noticed the gun hanging at his belt, and something in him rebelled.

 

He didn’t want to know what had happened, what had made his friends look this way, so bitter and weary. He didn’t want to know why they saw Tony as the enemy.

 

He didn’t want to know, but he had no choice.

 

Taking a deep breath, he braced his back against the headboard.

 

“Tell me.”

 

Two minutes in, he wished he hadn’t spoken, as the story of the past year just got worse and worse and worse.

 

“-and now Osborne is in charge of HAMMER. He’s been running around with a bunch of villains acting as the Avengers, and nobody cares to fight back. Except for us. We are the resistance,” Peter said with an ironic smile, gesturing at the people in the room. “And Stark. Sort of. He’s got the only complete copy of the registration database that has all of the registered superheroes’ identities locked in his head, and he’s refusing to let Osborne get his hands on it, so he’s under house arrest.” He looked tired, running his hands through his hair. “His keeping my identity secret from Osborne is basically the only reason my family and I are alive.”

 

“Not that that makes up for anything he’s done,” Bucky added. Agreement rippled throughout the room.

 

Steve didn’t notice, too occupied with staring down at his hands, numb. Jan was dead? Thor had returned?

 

Tony had become head of SHIELD and used villains to hunt down his friends to throw them into the Negative Zone?

 

None of this made any sense! He needed eyewitness information from someone who had been on Tony’s side- he couldn’t decide what he thought of the entire situation without getting some idea of what had been happening on the other side.

 

Although, he realized with a sinking feeling, he was starting to get the feeling that there had been very few clear-cut right answers in the Civil War.

 

He needed to talk to Tony, a yearning so deep that it felt almost physical, not only to try and puzzle out the occurrences of the past year, but also just to see him, to touch him, to be near him.

 

“Where can I find Tony now? I need to hear his side.”

 

There was another uncomfortable silence, his friends all casting more glances at each other.

 

Steve was starting to get extremely sick of awkward silences.

 

“Well?” he snapped. “If you know he’s under house arrest you must know where.”

 

“We only know that it’s somewhere in Manhattan, ‘cause it was mentioned in the paper,” Peter mumbled. “And none of us have been to see him for… a few months.”

 

“Would anybody know the exact address?”

 

“Besides Osborne and HAMMER, probably not,” Bucky said.

 

“Carol would,” Clint spoke up. “She was on his side for most of the war.”

 

“Is she around?”

 

“Yeah. And she registered, so she’s the only one of us that can actually move around,” Luke said. “I can give her a call, if you want.”

 

“Please,” Steve said with a grateful expression. Luke nodded and turned on his heel to leave the room, pausing in the doorway.

 

“It’s good to have you back, Cap.”

 

Steve swallowed and nodded, his throat tight.

 

He only wished that he could say the same.

 

- - -

 

Carol looked much the same, although the expression in her eyes was tinged with the same hollowness that seemed to pervade everyone he knew these days.

 

She rocked her tumbler of whisky back and forth against the cheap Formica tabletop of the diner, the amber liquid slopping against the side.

 

Apparently she’d never managed to give up alcohol.

 

“-and so then everyone started blaming him for your death, and the clone of Thor. A few people even argued that he wrote the SHRA, which I’m pretty sure he couldn’t have done, considering his name was nowhere near the bill.” Her smile was bitter.

 

“Wait, wait,” Steve held up his hands, “Tony’s not a geneticist. I’m pretty sure he’s not going to be cloning anything, ever.”

 

“The clone was Reed Richards’ pet project, and as far as I know, Tony didn’t have much involvement with that.” She shrugged. “But I don’t think we’re ever going to know how much Tony knew and when he knew it. And if we ask, he’ll probably just say he knew everything, because he’s like that, you know?”

 

Yeah, he knew, and he took a sip of his coffee to cover his wince.

 

“They started calling him a fascist.”

 

 No!” The word burst from his lips before he could even think it, the handle of his coffee cup creaking in his grip. Carol jerked away, and for a moment he wondered what his expression must look like. “I’ve fought fascists,” he said, “and Tony- no matter what else he may be- is not a fascist. Not even close.”

 

“I know,” Carol replied, nodding fast as if to placate him. “Believe me, I know.”

 

Steve sank back, nodding a thanks to the waitress as she topped off his cup. She blinked as she inspected his face, then shook her head and went on to the next table.

 

Steve knew what he looked like: thin from lack of food, pale from the dim light of the sun on the prison world, dark circles beneath his eyes. When he had caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror in Strange’s Sanctum, he had stopped and stared, trying to reconcile this gaunt figure with his memory of himself.

 

He didn’t look like the Steve Rogers he remembered, or the one that had died on the steps of a courthouse, and for a moment he was glad of it.

 

“It was Maria Hill that was the fascist,” Carol continued, her words dripping hatred. “She was going out and arresting people before the SHRA was even signed into law. Tony listened to her, and that really cast a pall over all his actions straight from the start.”

 

“What’s your opinion of his decisions?” he asked, needing to know, to hear an objective viewpoint.

 

Carol studied him, the ticking clock over the diner counter loud in the silence as Steve met her eyes, unwilling to back down. After a moment, she seemed to find what she was looking for, and sat back, the cheap plastic cover on the booth cushions crinkling.

 

“I think he was stubborn, well-meaning, overly-controlling, and easily manipulated by the Skrulls in order to force a split in the superhero community,” she said, taking another drink.

 

“He always means well,” Steve murmured, staring down at the melting cream turning his coffee pale brown. That was just how Tony was: he always tried to do the right thing, but usually ended up in over his head.

 

 “He had the best intentions. He knew the SHRA was going to pass, and he wanted to have control over the databases of secret identities so that they couldn’t be used for military purposes. Except he got in too deep, and then the Skrulls used their version of Hank Pym to influence the decisions of the Illuminati group, and their version of you to start and prolong the war.”

 

Carol rocked her tumbler again, back and forth, back and forth, Steve’s eyes drawn to the motion. “I mean,” she said, “Tony made stupid decisions- a lot of them, but wars, civil or not, don’t happen in isolation.” She bared her teeth, eyes flashing. “You need two sides to have a war, and the Skrulls played all of us like fucking virtuosos.”

 

Another angry swallow of whiskey, the motion reminding Steve eerily of Tony and the long years where he had seen Tony’s throat bobbing every night in those short, sharp gulps, never once stopping to think that maybe he was drinking a little too much, a little too fast.

 

Maybe Tony had gone back to drinking, and the very idea made something cold and thick and terrible well up inside him.

 

He swallowed. “Just… just how bad did he get? Did he… start drinking again?”

 

Carol looked down. “No. No, he never touched alcohol.”

 

That was something, at least.

 

“I think it might’ve been better for him if he had,” she said softly. “Jesus, he was so fucked up. It might’ve helped some, really.”

 

Steve bit his lip. “That bad?”

 

Carol met his gaze. “Yeah. After you died, I… I don’t really think even he knew what he was doing or where he was most of the time.” Her mouth twisted, knuckles white. “I’d come into his office and find him just sitting in his chair, staring out the window at- at nothing, and when I asked him how long he’d been sitting there he wouldn’t know. I’d find him huddled at the edge of his bunk on the Helicarrier, the Extremis making him hallucinate that you were there and blaming him. That fucking system just made him worse; he was constantly jacked into all the newsfeeds, hearing everything go to hell around him.”

 

Her laugh was thick with self-recrimination. “I should’ve sent him to somebody with training. Sane people don’t spend an hour in a locked room explaining themselves to their best friend’s body.”

 

Steve couldn’t breathe, the image of Tony trying to explain everything to his corpse so haunting that he knew he would be seeing it in his dreams that night, the same way he had known when they stormed Normandy that he would dream of bodies tangled in barbed wire.

 

“He… did that?”

 

So many pauses as they spoke.

 

So many moments humming with tension and grief, and stories of the world’s deterioration that Carol left untold.

 

She nodded. “Kicked all the guards out, shut off all the cameras, and spent an hour in there talking to what he thought was your corpse.”

 

Steve dropped his head into his hands, shoving his fingers into hair still greasy from the Skrull camp. How had things gone so wrong? How had no one noticed that they were being manipulated, that the Skrulls were everywhere, controlling everything? How had Tony not understood that not everything was his fault?

 

“It got so bad that he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t eat- for Christ’s sake, a few times they set up a goddamn IV line just to get some nutrients in him. He blamed himself for your death, for everything that happened, even though I kept trying to tell him that he could never have predicted a shooting as random as the one that killed you.”

 

But this was Tony, who hated himself so much that he would shoulder the blame for everything, who would gladly sacrifice his own happiness for the good of others, even when that sacrifice was unnecessary.

 

This was Tony, and for a moment Steve closed his eyes against the bitter sorrow burning behind his eyelids.

 

The situation was almost tailor-made for Tony to take enough rope to hang himself with.

 

“And really,” she said, “I think that losing you broke him more than anything else could ever do.”

 

Steve shook his head, trying to understand. “Why me?”

 

Carol stared at him, her expression registering her disbelief at his apparent obliviousness.

 

“Steve, the man’s been half in love with you since they pulled you from the ice!” Carol almost shouted, flinging her hands in the air. A few of the other diners cast alarmed glances in their direction.

 

Steve felt as if someone had just socked him in the gut, a great and terrible sense of loss settling on his shoulders.

 

Tony had liked him that way? Tony might have returned his feelings? Tony was-

 

“Tony’s gay?”

 

Carol’s brow flew up towards her hairline, her lip curling in a sardonic smile.

 

“You’ve know him for how long? Steve, he practically oscillates on the Kinsey scale.”

 

“Well, I-“ he trailed off, staring down into his lukewarm cup of coffee. Okay, so Tony was bisexual, or pansexual, or whatever they were calling it these days.

 

Although, really, he shouldn’t have been surprised; Tony had been given to slinging an arm around his waist or patting his back, but he had written it off as the affectionate touches of a comrade in arms-

 

Even though he had always wanted more.

 

And he had never known that maybe he could have had that, that all of the carefully-guarded secret dreams could have easily been reality.

 

The weight of all the missed opportunities was crushing.

 

“Where is he now?”

 

She slumped against the booth, resignation flickering in her eyes. Carol’s voice, when she spoke, was as icy as an Arctic sea. “Where he always is now: with Derek.”

 

“Derek?” Steve said dumbly, suddenly feeling as if the world had leaped ahead and left him fumbling in the dark.

 

“Tony’s… boyfriend,” Carol muttered, twisting her napkin in her fists as she lapsed into silence, glaring at the cheap Formica as if she could burn a hole in it by sheer force of will.

 

Tony had a boyfriend? The idea seemed ludicrous, completely out of sync with what he knew of Tony, of his relationships, but then again, he admitted ruefully, he was apparently the only man on the face of the planet who could go years without noticing that the man he loved returned the affection.

 

He had no room to talk about what he knew of Tony.

 

He cleared his throat. “So, what’s Derek like?”

 

If Steve couldn’t have him, hopefully Tony’s boyfriend was a decent person.

 

Carol’s fingers clenched on the napkin, a muscle jumping in her jaw. Steve had the sudden and very clear urge to push his chair back a few inches.

 

Her voice boiled with venom. “Imagine every abusive boyfriend stereotype all rolled up into one good-looking Southern lawyer and multiply it by ten. Apply a thin veneer of charm hiding deep inner sadism.” She glared down into her empty drink as if it contained Derek himself.

 

The air left Steve’s lungs. “He’s… abusive?”

 

Carol’s gaze flickered up to him, and she laughed, the sound thick and raw. “You have no idea.”

 

Oh, Tony,’ Steve thought, weary, ‘another one?’ He had never understood Tony’s penchant for getting himself embroiled with people that were obviously not what he needed, who only saw his money or his fame or his suit, who only wanted to use him to further themselves.

 

He hoped Derek wasn’t as bad as Bates had been.

 

“Just tell me he didn’t try shooting him.”

 

“No, no guns are involved.” She trailed off, avoiding his searching gaze, and Steve’s gut clenched.

 

He needed to talk to Tony, now.

 

“Do you know Tony’s phone number?”

 

She shook her head. “Calling him won’t help, and anyway he doesn’t talk to anybody now without Derek’s permission.”

 

His permission? Tony wasn’t some- some child!

 

“What?!”

 

Carol coughed and avoided his gaze, blushing. “Um. They’re in a… special kind of relationship.”

 

Steve snorted. “Yeah, abuse is pretty damn special, all right.”

 

Her head flew up, eyes sparking with fury. “You know what I meant! Or…” she chewed her bottom lip for a moment, “maybe you don’t.”

 

This tip-toeing around the issue was getting very old, very fast.

 

He frowned, folding his arms across his chest. “Whatever it is, I can deal with it.”

 

Carol searched his expression for a long moment, before collapsing back into the booth. “Okay, but I’m going to feel guilty forever for tainting you.

 

“You ever heard of BDSM?”

 

The acronym sounded familiar, and he distantly remembered Peter cracking some joke about it that made Jessica threaten to slap him. Oh, yeah. “Peter used to say that Foolkiller was into it.”

 

“He would,” Carol muttered. “I don’t know that much about it- the Air Force frowns on anything remotely kinky-“ oh, so it was some sort of sexual thing, “-and I have no interest in it at all.

 

But basically- do you really want to know?” She looked at him pleadingly, and Steve was reminded of his expression when his mother had sat him down and proceeded to inform him in excruciating detail about sex and how sinful it was to have it outside of marriage.

 

Well, tough- her discomfort was only momentary, and he needed to know to understand what was going on with Tony.

 

“Yes, I do.”

 

Carol sighed and shoved her empty tumbler to the side, the mug scraping over the table and teetering on the edge until Steve pushed it back. She took a deep breath, then blurted,

 

“Derek orders Tony around and ties him up.”

 

Steve blinked.

 

“I… what?”

 

Carol rolled her eyes. “Derek’s this thing called a dominant, see, which means he orders Tony around, ties him up, and pretty much takes control away from him. Tony’s a submissive, so he gives up his control to Derek.”

 

Steve was still having trouble comprehending the idea of Tony letting anybody tie him up, much less order him around. Tony didn’t seem the type to give up his control over anything with his history of people forcing him to do things against his will-

 

Except apparently this was consensual, so…

 

Steve sighed, rubbing at his forehead.

 

“Why would Tony let him do that?”

 

Carol shrugged. “You’d have to ask him for the real story, but I…” she bit the end of the sentence off, hunching forward over the table, the late afternoon sunlight glinting on her hair.

 

“If you have a theory, I’d like to hear it.”

 

She sucked her bottom lip into her mouth, contemplating the tabletop. “Well, I mean- you know how he is!” she finally burst out. “He wants, so desperately, to belong, and he doesn’t take care of himself, and he’s always trying to make people happy. He’s always worrying, about the suit and his friends and what his technology’s being used for, and this whole thing lets him not worry, because all he has to think about is what Derek wants.

 

And he’s always trying to control and fix things, even things that he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of fixing, which is one of the reasons we got into this whole mess in the first place. I think part of it is that he doesn’t have to control anything when he’s with Derek, and really he’s not supposed to.”

 

Which all sounded very well and good and possibly helpful for Tony, but this… Derek person didn’t seem to be treating the situation with anywhere near the respect it deserved.

 

Tony deserved a lot of respect, no matter what he had done, no matter how he had been manipulated. He deserved love, too, even though he thought himself unworthy of it and constantly picked the worst people possible.

 

Steve had always been there, a friend, but only that. He had always been willing to give him that love Tony had been searching for, but had never found the right time- no, never mustered the courage- to offer it.

 

“You seem to know a lot about this,” he said, for lack of anything better to say.

 

Carol twitched one shoulder in a shrug, seeming too weary to be embarrassed anymore. “I looked up some stuff on it after I found out what Tony was getting himself into. It’s not my thing, but I know a little bit.”

 

She leaned forward, her voice flat as the hapless napkin finally tore apart into pieces between her fingers. “And I know more than enough to know that what Derek does to Tony is wrong.”

 

Steve didn’t want to know, didn’t want to imagine the sordid relationship between them, but he had to understand it if he was to have any hope of helping Tony.

 

He started slowly, the words dragged out of him, “What exactly… does he do?”

 

Carol swallowed, said so softly that Steve had to strain to hear it, “I don’t know for sure, but I know that something very bad happened with a knife.”

 

Steve felt the blood drain from his face.

 

Oh, God.

 

You could do a lot of terrible things to a man with a knife.

 

He had to go now, had to find him, had to get him out of there.

 

“Where is Tony’s apartment?”

 

Carol studied him for a moment, raising an eyebrow.

 

“You want to go haring off to Tony’s without even checking in with HAMMER? Osborn’s not going to be happy with that.”

 

The idea of that bothering him, of anything being able to stop him when Tony was in pain and in trouble and obviously needing him, was utterly laughable.

 

Very slowly, he leaned over the table, meeting her wide eyes. “Nothing,” he whispered, “no organization or man ever made, is going to keep me from finding and rescuing my friend.”

 

The words rang with inalterable truth.

 

Carol dropped her gaze first, nodding sharply, as if she had come to a decision.

 

“Tony’s basically under house arrest now that Osborn’s in power,” she said, snagging another napkin from the metal box at the end of the table while fishing out a pen from her purse. “Osborn took the Tower from him-“

 

The Tower was gone. The penthouse that Tony had poured money into to make it a real home, after a string of sterile uptown apartments. The kitchen where Jarvis kept a can of Raid in plain sight in a silent warning to Peter that pilfering of leftover chocolate-chip cookies was not tolerated. The couch they used for movie night.

 

All gone, because some megalomaniac got off a lucky shot.

 

Carol went on, not noticing his sudden stillness as she scribbled an address on the napkin. “-so now he’s living in an apartment in uptown Manhattan.”

 

Carol capped the pen and pushed the napkin across the table to him. He folded it, stuck it in his pocket, and stood, Carol following.

 

“I’ll get the check,” she said, nodding at the cash register.

 

Normally Steve would have offered to split it, but he had no idea what the status of his accounts were.

 

After all, it wasn’t like people who were presumed dead suddenly reappearing was a common problem for banks.

 

“Thanks,” he said instead, offering a smile. Carol nodded in acknowledgement, already pulling out her wallet.

 

“Not a problem. And Steve?”

 

He turned, halfway through pulling on his jacket. She hesitated, then blurted,

 

“If you see Derek, punch him for me. Hard. And if you can-“ she blinked hard, her throat bobbing, “-help Tony. I know he can be difficult, and that he’s made some really bad decisions, but he doesn’t deserve this.”

 

The honesty in her words made something break in Steve’s chest, and he choked out a feeble “I will,” before turning and leaving the diner, breaking into a trot as he moved towards Manhattan.

 

Towards Tony.

 

- - -

There was gravel digging into his chest.

 

Steve shifted, disturbing the pigeons that had taken their spot on the edge of the rooftop. They fluttered away in a cloud of black, dark against the dim twilight sky.

 

He’d never been terribly good at stake-outs or covert operations- that had been Bucky’s province- but he’d picked up some things. France had forced everyone to learn something of the shadows.

 

He’d seen little sign of the HAMMER agents; two of them, dressed in garish green uniforms, had been dropped off by a black van and taken up positions outside the apartment building.

 

Blowing out a frustrated breath, he edged forward, resting his chin on the low wall surrounding the edge of the building across the street from Tony’s.

 

Tony’s home was a corner apartment, located on the fifth floor. What little of it he could see was done in a very modern style, all glass and black steel. There was no warmth there, no photographs of family or papers scattered over the coffee table.

 

There was a faded red stain on the white carpet in front of the couch- an unmistakable red- and Steve’s fists clenched at the idea that someone, that this Derek, had spilled Tony’s blood.

 

He had seen shadows moving in the hallway of the apartment, but nothing clear enough to see who they were, what they looked like, whether any of them was Tony.

 

Wait-

 

More movement, and he inched forward more, narrowing his eyes, wishing for binoculars.

 

A blond man, tall and well-built, entered the living room. He was shirtless, and- Steve grinned- dressed only in black, shiny leather pants that resembled something you’d find a two-bit supervillain wearing in a ridiculous attempt to be intimidating.

 

Although really, considering Steve had spent most of his adult life running around in leather pants with wings on his head, he didn’t have much room to talk.


Derek turned and snapped something, and a thin, tall shadow appeared in the doorway, the shadow resolving itself into Tony.

 

Steve slammed his eyelids shut and shook his head, trying to force the image of that tired face- his Tony- from his mind.

 

But as he opened his eyes, it was still there in glaring reality, and his throat swelled shut with choking sadness.

Tony’s cheekbones- already prominent when he was healthy and handsome- now jutted alarmingly. His skin was pale, his posture hunched, and he trailed after Derek with the air of someone going to his own execution. He was favoring his left side, Steve noted with the distant tactician’s corner of his brain- the only corner not swamped by anger and disbelief.

 

He looked washed-out, drained of life, a watercolor painting that had been left in a sink.

 

If he looked this bad from this far away-

 

How emaciated he must appear up close.

 

Steve became distantly aware of the fact that he was grinding his teeth. That this man should touch Tony, should treat him the way Carol said he did-

 

It was repugnant.

 

Tony paused in the doorframe, staring at Derek. Derek snapped something again, pointed to a spot in front of him, as if Tony was a- a dog.

 

And Tony just padded over there and sank to his knees, sitting back on his heels, his hands resting on his thighs, palm-up, as he bowed his head, his hair hiding his worn visage from view. There was an air of ritual to what they were doing, of routines perfected through long hours of practice.

 

There hadn’t been anything untoward yet-  no abuse that he could see. But he wasn’t optimistic: Tony only looked that thin, that exhausted, when something was crumbling around him, inside him.

 

Something glinted inside the apartment.

 

Steve sucked in a breath, slow-boiling fury rising up his spine.

 

Derek grinned, a cold expression, and revealed the whip he had held coiled behind his back, presenting it in front of Tony’s face, his friend’s eyes riveted to the leather. He could see Tony’s muscles twitch, an involuntary reaction- a reaction that meant that Tony was absolutely terrified- and Steve’s hands clenched on the side of the building in sympathy, his stomach already beginning to protest the sight.

 

It was a bullwhip. A weapon more than capable of stripping the skin off a man’s back.

 

This was what Derek did? This was how he treated Tony- bullwhips and harsh orders?

 

The smoldering embers of fury inside Steve woke and exploded to flaming life. He tasted blood in his mouth, belatedly realized that he had bitten his tongue when Derek held up the disgusting implement.

 

He had to get inside. Had to stop this.

 

Derek’s hand slid into Tony’s hair and yanked his head back, exposing his throat, and Steve scrambled to his feet and whirled, spraying gravel over the edge of the building, and plunged for the back fire escape.

 

It took several minutes to lower the fire escape, minutes that he didn’t have, that Tony didn’t have, but finally it hit the ground below in a screech of steel.

 

He clattered down the ladder, rusted metal groaning beneath his weight, and sprinted across the street, dodging out of the way of a bike messenger. The doors slid open automatically as he skidded across the marble floor of the lobby, spotting the stairwell in the corner.

 

His feet pounded on the stairs as he took them two at a time. The fifth floor was quiet, cream carpeting stretching down the hallway of mahogany doors to either side of him. The air of ostentatious wealth was annoying.

 

He found the corner apartment, tried the doorknob. It didn’t turn under his hand, and he bared his teeth.

 

There was a sound from within- a sudden, sharp bark like the sound of a bullet whizzing by, followed by a ragged groan, the sound so familiar that it made Steve’s stomach twist inside him.

 

This door couldn’t keep him from getting in. This flimsy lock could do nothing against him- he pulled the sleeves of his gray hoodie over his hands, curled them around each other, and slammed his fists down on the knob, the metal sphere smashing into the ground between his feet.

 

The door slammed satisfyingly against the wall as he kicked it in, storming inside.

 

The man- Derek- stood in the door of the hallway, his mouth half-open, his eyes round as saucers as he pointed an accusing finger and screeched,

 

“What- who the fuck are you and what are you doing in my house?!”

 

Steve didn’t recognize his own voice as he asked, “Where is Tony?”

 

“I-“ Derek shook his head. “Who are you, man? Get the fuck out of my home!”

 

The man obviously had more bravado than sense, the bullwhip in his hand shaking.

 

Steve’s eyes flicked to the drops of red winding down over the leather.

 

Tony’s blood.

 

This man had beaten Tony until he bled, and something inside Steve howled.

 

He nudged the door back into place with his foot, taking care not to slam it, distantly amused by his own conscientiousness, and took three steps forward, lowering his voice. “Show me Tony. Now.

 

Derek lifted his chin, suddenly seeming amused by Steve’s worn jeans and ratty gray sweatshirt. “Get out of here before I call the cops, you fucking psycho.”

 

“I just need to see Tony,” Steve said, raising his hands. “I have no intention of hurting you.”

 

“You can’t see Tony,” Derek said, incredulous. “Tony’s mine. He doesn’t see anybody that I don’t let him see, and you aren’t one of them.”

 

Obviously Derek was a lost cause.

 

Steve jabbed him twice in the stomach, the phlegm flying from Derek’s mouth splattering his sweatshirt, and kneed him in the chin as he bent over, arms flying up to protect himself. With a groan, Derek slumped forward, unconscious, Steve catching him by the armpits and dragging him into the kitchen. It was the work of moments to tie his hands, and he wiped his hands off on his jeans as he turned away.

 

He felt dirty just for touching him.

 

He entered the hallway, stepping over the bullwhip, and headed straight for the bar of light seeping underneath the door at the end.

 

The doorknob turned beneath his hand.

 

The sight inside the room slammed into him with the force of a hurricane, and bile welled in his throat as he swallowed.

 

There was plastic sheeting on the floor to catch the blood, and it crinkled beneath his feet as he took a halting step inside, sweat rolling cold down his spine. The light from the sole lamp was harsh and white, and it left Tony pale as new paper.

 

Tony stood in the center of the room, his hands chained together with black leather cuffs, another chain hauling his arms above his head so that his toes barely brushed the floor- his shoulders could be damaged by that, he could have nerve damage or- Steve cut off that line of thought immediately, taking another step into the room. Tony’s head was bowed limply, chin resting on his chest.

 

Tears of fury and pity burned in Steve’s eyes as he finally saw the ruin of Tony’s back. Raised, fiery-red welts crisscrossed it, most of them open lacerations welling with blood, and as he watched a blood droplet fell from Tony’s spine and splattered on the floor.

 

Tony was bleeding because of what that man had done to him.

 

The sight galvanized him, and he sprang into action, stepping in front of Tony and reaching up to unbuckle the cuffs. He slid one arm around Tony’s shoulders, careful to avoid the welts- and Tony was freezing, leeching the heat from his body even through the sweatshirt.

 

The cuffs came loose, and Tony sagged against him, his head lolling on Steve’s shoulder, silent, limp, completely unlike the man he remembered. Blood was smeared across his chin from where his teeth had dug into his lip.

 

“Tony?”

 

This was nothing like what he had expected- had dreamed of Tony, warm and affectionate, hugging him, laughing as he rushed through an explanation of all that Steve had missed.

 

He had never thought that Tony could be reduced to-

 

To this.

 

“Tony?” He pressed his cheek against Tony’s, Tony’s hair tickling his own unshaved chin, rubbing his arms in a vain attempt to force the chill out of him.

 

Sure, he was angry, and confused, and deeply hurt, but those emotions were swept away by the sight of his best friend so completely broken.

 

He needed a first aid kit now, and he needed to kick Derek out.

 

Tony’s breathing was fast and shallow against his skin, and rattled with an undercurrent of illness, his eyes closed.

 

“It’s okay,” he said, trying to sound normal as he half-pulled, half-carried Tony into the bathroom, settling him down on the toilet. Tony’s eyes were hazy, not tracking his movements as he rummaged through the drawers and the medicine cabinet.

 

There wasn’t much in any of them- nothing that really showed that anyone lived there.

 

He found a simple Wal-Mart first aid kit, most of the contents already used up- probably on Tony, Steve realized as his gut clenched- but there were a few Betadine swabs and bandages left. Orange-brown antiseptic smeared across Steve’s fingers as he tore open one of the packets and pulled out the swab.

 

“Don’t move,” he said as he began to clean the open wounds, feeling faintly ridiculous for even saying anything. It wasn’t as if Tony was going anywhere. But he continued muttering reassurances, if only because it made him feel better, as he pressed cotton pads to the wounds and wrapped them with Ace bandages.

 

Tony submitted passively, blinking a few times, shivering beneath Steve’s hands, and Steve’s heart broke a little more with every faint scar he found on Tony’s back, on his arms. He reached up, cupped Tony’s chin, and turned his face to him.

 

Tony stared at him dully, uncomprehending, and Steve pressed his lips together, attempting to stave off the tears. When he let go of Tony’s chin, Tony just slumped, not even noticing the pressure on his back.

 

Symptoms of shock- he needed rest.

 

Steve turned away to try the door on the other side of the bathroom, which led into a bedroom, the bed not slept in. Steve stared at the pristine white sheets, the hairs on the back of his arm prickling.

 

There were so few signs of life in this entire apartment; it reminded him more of a mausoleum than a home. Certainly nothing like the Tower had been, bustling and filled with life.

 

He turned down the sheets and went back into the bathroom. Tony was still resting against the back of the toilet, staring at the floor, his hands wracked with tremors, looking pale and gaunt against the monochromatic whiteness of the bathroom.

 

Steve closed his eyes for a second, then leaned forward and slipped one arm around Tony’s shoulders, high enough to not scrape the wounds, the other going beneath his knees. Tony submitted to being lifted without a blink, but-

 

Slowly, he leaned into Steve’s chest, pressing his stubbled face to his neck, as if he was so starved for warmth or contact that even in shock he sought out what Derek had probably denied him. One arm looped around Steve’s shoulders, cold and trembling.

 

“It’s going to be okay,” Steve murmured, holding him close as he carried him into the bedroom, Tony’s stubble tickling his neck. He didn’t remember Tony being this light, or this pale, or this exhausted-looking, and wondered how no one else had ever done anything.

 

He unloaded him gingerly onto the bed, Tony falling, all loose-limbed and gaunt, onto the sheets. Tony’s gaze turned in his direction, and his fogged eyes drifted over Steve’s face as Steve knelt and yanked open his dresser drawers, searching for the most worn pair of boxers and T-shirt he could find.

 

He surfaced with an old MIT shirt, the one that Tony used to wear when he’d been up in the lab for days and was ready to crash, and computer-chip-print boxers. When he turned back around, Tony still lay on his belly, hands limp at his sides, palm-up, the slow rise and fall of his back barely perceptible.

 

Blood was leaking pink through the pristine bandages.

 

Steve was going to do something terrible to Derek.

 

“These are terrible boxers,” he informed Tony as he sat down on the bed beside him and pulled them up his legs, settling them in place. “For someone who prides himself on looking good, you have absolutely awful taste in pajamas.”

 

Silence as he wormed an arm beneath Tony’s chest, lifting him enough to wrestle the T-shirt onto him, his friend submitting without complaint, without any protest at being manhandled, as if the spark had been beaten out of him.

 

As if this latest iteration of all the people who hurt him had finally been the last straw.

 

“God,” Steve whispered, “why does this always happen to you?”

 

Seized with a sudden impulse, he bent and brushed a kiss over the back of Tony’s neck, callused hand sliding into his hair. “I’m here now,” he went on fiercely, “and nothing is going to hurt you again.”

 

Tony was silent as Steve drew away, his gaze fixed on the wall. Steve felt his lips twitch into a watery smile as he brushed his thumb over Tony’s hand.

 

Tony was- physically, at least- safe and warm, leaving him free to deal with… Derek.

 

He hoped Derek was awake by now: it would be so much less satisfying to simply toss him out on his ass while he was unconscious. The floorboards creaked beneath his heavy tread as he stalked down the hallway to the kitchen, knots of tension and fury already forming in his shoulders.

 

Luckily, Derek was awake, and very unhappy about that fact, wriggling on the tile like a landed fish, his wrists rubbed raw by the zip-tie.

 

Tough. Steve wasn’t inclined to offer sympathy.

 

Muttered curses filled the air as Derek twisted onto his stomach and froze, catching sight of Steve.

 

“Dude-“ he shut up as Steve took one step towards him and glared down.

 

“Derek. I have something very important to tell you, regarding Tony.”

 

He crouched in front of Derek and leaned forward, staring into Derek’s eyes. His voice, when he spoke, was icy.

 

“If you ever come near him again, I will end you.”

 

“What the fuck!?” Derek squirmed on the kitchen tile, his face beet-red, his shouts ringing off the walls. “Why should you care?”

 

Steve watched him flail and didn’t offer a hand, a part of him distantly amused at the futility of Derek’s actions. “I care because he’s my friend, and because you whipped him until he bled.”

 

“This is all consensual,” Derek babbled, “I’d stop if he wanted me to-“

 

“Then why didn’t you stop when he bit through his lip?” Steve hissed.

 

Derek froze. “I-“ he whispered.

 

The silence stretched between them, and then Derek roared again and lunged at him, screeching “Who the fuck are you?!”

 

Steve leaned back and let him fall flat onto the tile, gasping. “I’m Steve Rogers,” he said flatly.

 

Derek’s face went as white as curdled milk, tiny whimpers issuing from his gaping mouth as he pressed himself flat against the floor.

 

“You’re dead-

 

“And even if the superhuman community is divided right now,” Steve continued, “I do have some pull on both sides. There are some very powerful people that owe me favors- favors that I’ll be happy to call in when it comes to you ever telling anyone about you and Tony, and what you did together. Are we clear?” Threats weren’t his style- he hated using them- but he had to do something to keep this man away from Tony, to keep him from going to the press.

 

“Crystal, Cap,” Derek whispered. “Can I go now?”

 

Good- Steve wanted him out, wanted him gone.

 

He reached out and snipped through the zip tie binding Derek’s wrists with the scissors from the first aid kit, watching as Derek sat up and rubbed the abrasions left behind. “Can- can I get my stuff?”

 

“Yes,” Steve said, and followed him into the living room, where he watched Derek fumble into a jacket and haul on slacks over his leather pants. “Is that everything?” he asked. Derek glanced around and nodded, hunching his shoulders like a chastised child.

 

“Good. Give me your key to the apartment.”

 

Derek half-opened his mouth, then seemed to think better of it, shrinking underneath Steve’s forbidding glare. In silence, he pulled the apartment key off his keyring and handed it to Steve, who slipped it into his jeans pocket.

 

“Now get out.”

 

Derek set a land speed record on his exit from the apartment. Steve locked the front door after him, then leaned back against it with a sigh, his head thumping into the door as the adrenaline of the confrontation drained.

 

“Damn it,” he muttered, staring at the bullwhip on the floor.

 

How long had this been going on? How long had Derek- it was difficult to even think the name- been abusing Tony like this, taking advantage of his condition?

 

How long had it been since anyone cared enough to say anything?

 

He reached down and picked up the bullwhip with thumb and forefinger, stomach twisting inside him as blood smeared them, and went back into the kitchen, slamming his foot onto the trashcan lever and hurling the- thing- inside.

 

It landed with a satisfying clang, and Steve whirled and stalked from the kitchen, pausing to glare balefully at the door.

 

He itched with the need to watch it, to make sure that no one could get in, could attack the man he loved while he was weak.

 

Ached with the urge to stay with Tony, some primitive instinct honed in the brutality of the Skrull prison ship demanding he keep watch over him, to care for him.

 

Swearing under his breath, he padded down the hallway to the bedroom, nudging the door open with his foot.

 

Tony lay in the same position as when he left, dark against the white sheets, his eyes closed, and for a moment the sight made Steve’s breath catch in his throat with longing, until he saw the bleeding back once more.

 

A compromise, then.

 

He stooped, gathering Tony into his arms- he was still cold, his bare arms goosebumped, his pulse slow and thready in his throat- and carried him to the living room, where he put him on the couch and sat beside him, staring at the door.

 

Tony rolled over, an arm flopping over Steve’s thighs, and hitched himself closer to let his head fall into Steve’s lap, his dark hair spreading out over Steve’s jeans.

 

The motion was… unexpectedly sweet, and Steve’s eyes burned as he rested a hand on Tony’s shoulder, tracing arcane patterns on his skin with his thumb, listening to the silence, watching dust motes dance in the fading yellow light of the sun.

 

Bones pressed into his palm as Tony slept, his head heavy in Steve’s lap, breath hot and wet against his belly.

 

Affection rose in him, warm and liquid, and he brushed his thumb over the short, soft hairs at the base of Tony’s skull without thinking about it, ridiculously pleased as Tony turned into the touch, muttering something before lapsing back into unconsciousness.

 

God, he was tired.

 

He slumped back against the couch and shut his eyes, dozing.

 

A tentative knock at the door woke him up, and he blinked the sleep from his eyes, hand darting towards a shield that wasn’t there.

 

It could be the HAMMER agents, coming to check on their charge, although he doubted that.

 

Or possibly the word of his return had gotten out among the rest of the superhero community, although he wondered how they’d managed to track him down so fast.

 

He eased Tony’s head off his lap and padded to the door, peering through the eyehole.

 

His vision was completely obscured by a very large, armored chest, and the smell of ozone in the air confirmed his visitor to be Thor.

 

Carol had mentioned what happened between Thor and Tony- Steve cast a glance over his shoulder, searching for the bruises he already knew to be gone, before he turned back to the door and undid the locks, stepping outside and turning around.

 

Hank- thin and sunken-faced- stared at him with shining eyes, and Thor simply caught him up in a hug that made his bones creak.

 

“Steven, you’ve returned! I knew you could not have passed to Valhalla yet!”

 

“Hi,” Steve managed to squeak out with the last of his air, patting Thor on the back feebly as the god snuffled into his hair.

 

“I think you might want to put him down before he goes to Valhalla from suffocation,” Hank remarked, Thor placing Steve gingerly back on the ground.

 

“It’s-“ Hank’s smile was painful, as fragile as spun sugar, “-good to have you back.”

 

His grief for Jan marked him in the shadows beneath his eyes and the lines around his mouth, and Steve reached out and pulled him into a hug.

 

“It’s good to be back,” he said, feeling Hank’s ribs press against his chest, alarming in their prominence, before letting go. “I’m- I’m sorry about Jan. I just heard a few hours ago.”

 

“Thanks,” Hank said, his voice cracking as he tried to smile.

 

“She was a valiant comrade, and a good friend,” Thor said.

 

“Speaking of ‘valiant comrades,’ what are you doing at Stark’s apartment?”

 

The harshness of the last name hung between them. And although they had had plenty of arguments when they were a team, they had never referred to each other by last names- had never been so formal, or had such a scornful tone when talking.

 

“I heard Tony was in a bad situation, and I wanted to make sure he was okay,” Steve replied.

 

“His entire life is a bad situation,” Hank muttered while Thor said,

 

“He does not deserve your consideration, Steven.”

 

Steve’s jaw clenched.

 

“So,” he said calmly, icily, “I should have left him there to be beaten and have the skin stripped off his back?”

 

“What-“

 

Tony is lying on the couch in there bleeding through several layers of bandages right now because no one thought he deserved their consideration,” he hissed, fists clenching.

 

Thor looked away, his fingers tight on Mjolnir’s handle as he avoided Steve’s eyes.

 

“You weren’t here, Steve!” Hank stepped forward, as if he could make him understand by proximity alone, vibrating with tension. “You don’t know what he did-“

 

“Neither of you were here either!” Steve exploded, “And yet you both seem perfectly comfortable in judging the entire situation without getting both sides of the story!”

 

A door slammed down the hallway, and Steve realized that people were probably listening in on them. Which was not helping the image of superhero unity right now.

 

“Come in,” he said, opening the door for them both. Thor ducked beneath the doorframe, following Hank, who stopped dead, staring at Tony.

 

“Is that-“

 

“Blood?” Steve finished, taking a sour sort of joy in the expression on Hank’s face. “Yes, it is.”

 

“Would you two stay here?” Without waiting for their answers, he went and picked Tony up as carefully as possible, wincing as he put pressure on the lacerations. Tony slumped against him, warm and pliant as Steve carried him down the hallway and placed him on the bed, pulling the sheet up.

 

Tony’s fingers were curled in his shirt, a mute plea for him to stay, and God he wanted to just lie down with him and sleep.

 

Swallowing a lump in his throat, he disentangled himself and backed out of the room, closing the door behind him.

 

Hank and Thor were still standing in the middle of the living room, as far away from the red spot on the floor as they could get.

 

“Why is there-“ Hank started, before nodding at the stain.

 

“I don’t know,” Steve said, “and he’s not awake to ask.”

 

Thor perched on the edge of the armchair, the furniture groaning beneath his weight.

 

“What happened to him?”

 

Steve flopped onto the couch and raked his fingers through his hair, sighing. “He was in a very bad relationship.”

 

Derek did this?” Hank asked, white-faced.

 

Steve blinked. “You know him?”

 

“Yeah; I mean, I never met the guy, but I knew of him. Carol was the only one that knew him personally. She didn’t like him much, said he was an asshole who looked down on everybody around him.” Hank paced back and forth, hands shoved in his pockets. “But I mean- why would he do that to him, and how? Even though Stark deserves punishment for what he did, he doesn’t deserve that.” He stopped, swallowing as he gazed at the bloodstain on the carpet.

 

Punishment?

 

That was going just a bit too far.

 

“What, exactly,” he said, fingers digging into his knees, “do you think he deserves punishment for?”

 

Thor, who had been sitting in silence gazing at them both, spoke up. “Without Stark’s arrogance, the Skrull race’s invasion would not have been so deadly. Because we were divided, it was easy for them to almost conquer us.” He leaned forward, voice brimming with earnestness.

 

“Stark has changed, Steve. You don’t know what you’re dealing with-“

 

No,” Steve said, jabbing a finger at Thor’s chest, the God of Thunder shrinking back into the chair, eyes wide. “I know exactly what I’m dealing with, and that’s a man who’s been abandoned by everyone he ever cared about and who’s been blamed for every bad thing that’s happened for the past year and a half.”

 

Thor opened his mouth, only to snap it shut as Steve steamrolled right over him, all the anger at the injustice of it all pouring out of him in a tide of words.

 

“Tell me something, Thor.

 

Why is the superhuman community blaming him for the Skrull invasion? Is he supposed to somehow be able to control the actions of an entire alien species, because if he can, then that’s a mutation the X-men probably need to know about?”

 

“He divided-“

 

Steve turned to Hank, snapping,

 

“You think he divided the superhuman community so that it was easier for the Skrulls to take advantage- fine, believe that, but divisions don’t happen in isolation. You need two groups in order to divide anything, and the Skrulls used their version of me to make that division happen. Yeah, I’m stubborn, but no way in hell am I that unable to compromise. Did Tony make stupid decisions? Absolutely, but you can’t act like he’s somehow the originator of an entire war.”

 

Hank raised a finger in silent protest, lowering it in silence as Steve rushed on, his head throbbing with frustration.

 

“Thor, did you ever once stop to think that perhaps the fact that he had a plan to make Asgard independent ready to go was suspicious? That maybe he was hoping you would harm him, and had the plan just to prevent you from killing him?” Thor’s eyes narrowed for a moment in contemplation, before he seemed to understand what Steve was saying and looked down, shamefaced. “And I know you’re angry about the clone- I would be, too. But the clone was Reed Richards’ pet project, and I don’t see anyone attempting to beat him up.”

 

“Richards is too hard to get to,” Hank muttered.

 

“Steven,” Thor said, “you cannot just come back and judge us for what we did or didn’t do, or how we feel. The civil war was not good versus evil: it was a moral dilemma of freedom versus security that only Odin could solve. But even with that,” his jaw firmed, lightning sparking in the air around him, “I know that what Stark did was wrong.”

 

“It was,” Steve acknowledged. “But I don’t like seeing that everyone has abandoned him because he made mistakes.”

 

“And you wouldn’t have?!” Hank yelled, fist slamming into the wall. “He got Jan killed! What would you have done if you’d been here?!”

 

There was blood smeared on the pristine white paint from where his knuckles had been scraped raw, and Hank turned away from Steve’s wide-eyed stare, his shoulders shuddering as he swallowed.

 

The air was heavy with grief.

 

The uncomfortable silence lasted a long moment as Steve stared down at his hands, searching for an answer.

 

He hadn’t been there, so he couldn’t say. But he knew one thing clearly.

 

“I don’t know what I would’ve done if I was here, because like Thor said, nothing about it was black and white.” He didn’t meet their eyes, his words soft, exhausted, ringing hollow. “But I do know what I wouldn’t have done, and that’s pitch what basically amounts to a gigantic temper tantrum because the government passed a law I don’t agree with. If I had a problem, I would’ve dealt with it through the proper channels, like asking to speak to Congress. Not by stomping my foot and screaming ‘no’ until I got what I wanted.”

 

“Actually, Congress is going to be holding a series of meetings soon on the constitutionality of the SHRA,” Hank said. “If you spoke at them, it could swing things in our favor, especially since none of us can go without being arrested by HAMMER.”

 

Steve straightened, grinning. “I’d be happy to. Can you call me with the details when you get them?”

 

Hank nodded, before turning to Thor as the god sat forward.

 

“Can they call you for help with Avengers business?” Thor said.

 

Steve glanced at him, considering. He didn’t have his shield, or his uniform at the moment, but Bucky had insinuated that he would be receiving a very valuable package soon. And he couldn’t stand by while people suffered-

 

The blood-red spot on the floor loomed large in his peripheral vision, reminding him that Tony had suffered- was still suffering. Sure of his decision, he answered,

 

“If it’s something important, yeah. But tell them- tell everyone- that I’m not participating in anything having to do with the Avengers day-to-day running until Tony’s okay.”

 

Thor studied him for a long moment, while Hank crossed his arms in silent disapproval.

 

“Right now, Tony is my top priority. Everything else- HAMMER, all that- can be dealt with later.”

 

“You are sure of this?” Thor asked.

 

“Yeah.”

 

Hank shuffled his feet, chewing on the inside of his cheek, but finally nodded, sighing as he rubbed at his scabbing knuckles. “Okay, I’ll tell the others. Will you at least call soon?”

 

“Sure. I’ve got Carol’s number.”

 

Asgard does not have telephones,” Thor admitted, looking perturbed, “but I will come by sometime soon to see you once more.”

 

“I heard about Asgard,” Steve said, “it sounds amazing.”

 

Don’t get him started,” Hank interrupted, Thor pausing in mid-sentence and glaring. “He’ll ramble for hours about it and all the Oklahomans that live around it if you give him an inch.”

 

“They are very interesting people,” Thor sniffed.

 

“I’m sure they are,” Steve said. “I’ll have to come by some time.”

 

“And on that note,” Hank announced, wrenching himself up off the couch, “I’ve got to go check on Jocasta. I left her running some diagnostic checks that I need to see the results of.”

 

He went to the door, then turned and smiled. “It’s… really good to see you again.”

 

Steve hugged them both, then bade them goodbye, dutifully ignoring Thor’s sniffles.

 

It had been an enlightening conversation, although it had been awful to see the way Hank’s hands shook, and the dimmed light in Thor’s eyes.

 

So much had changed, and so much had been lost.

 

But now he had a chance to gain the love he had denied himself, and he wouldn’t let Tony slip through his fingers again.

 

Yawning, he wandered down the hallway, trying to come up with how he was going to talk to Tony when the other man finally woke up. It wasn’t like ‘Hello, I’m actually not dead and have been marooned on a Skrull prison ship, and by the way, I know about your abusive relationship and would like to offer myself as an alternative’ was the best thing to say.

 

Although it was the simplest-

 

And he halted in the doorway, staring at the empty bed and rumpled sheets.

 

Tony was gone, his footprints in the deep pile of the carpeting leading to a wall.

 

- - -

 

Tony’s back ached, and wherever the sheets touched it was like a brand.

 

Derek must have had a stick up his ass about something, then, to… do something this severe.

 

Although really, Derek never needed a reason, and was probably even more angry since Tony had passed out.

 

Maybe. He couldn’t quite remember what happened after the first blow, and the fact that Derek had actually put bandages on him must mean something.

 

Opening his eyes, he groaned, slamming them closed again as light poured into them like lances of pain.

 

Even breathing hurt.

 

Someone was talking out in the living room; not Derek, the voice was too deep.

 

It had an authoritative timbre, and-

 

His heart slammed against the inside of his chest as he swallowed, clutching the sheets as the world fell away around him.

 

No.

 

No- it couldn’t be, this couldn’t have happened, because nothing good ever happened to him anymore.

 

Extremis- had to be an Extremis hallucination; they’d stopped after the invasion, but were apparently returning-

 

He had to get away. He couldn’t deal with this right now.

 

Rolling over, he scrambled off the bed, breathing shallowly, one hand clamped over his stomach, nails digging into the skin in a vain attempt to distract himself from the white-hot lines of fire on his back as he staggered to his bureau, scrabbling for the button on the back.

 

With a soft hiss of stale air escaping, a section of the wall slid back, exposing darkness. He wavered on the edge of his bedroom, twisting to stare at the closed bedroom door, aching for his hallucination to be real.

 

Aching for Steve- the one he had loved since he was ten years old- to be there, and not lying for eternity in Arctic waters.

 

But he couldn’t make himself go see, because he knew that having another hope dashed might finally be the thing to tip him over the edge when Derek or the war or the Skrulls hadn’t.

 

Because hope was no longer something he had the right to have.

 

Blinking, he walked over the threshold, toes curling as the chill of the metal floor radiated up into his bones, the door closing behind him, fluorescent lights humming to life above as he limped down the hallway that had never seemed this long before.

 

The spotlights on the suit flickered into brightness, the cold black eyes of the helmet beckoning him into safety, comfort.

 

“Sorry, we can’t fly today,” he rasped, the words scraping out of his throat. “Osborn’s just waiting for a reason to take me in, and breaking house arrest definitely counts.”

 

And no matter how much he wanted to fly, to escape this apartment piled high with memories of pain and filled to the brim with ghosts, he couldn’t, because that would give Osborn access to the data in his head, the data he had damned himself for.

 

With a choked sob, he leaned against the wall and slid down it to kneel before the suit, covering his face with his hand as he struggled for control, to staunch the acidic burn behind his eyelids. Emotional vulnerability was no longer an option- it was only used to maim.

 

He shivered as he heard soft footsteps coming down the hallway from the bedroom, clicking against the metal floor. Extremis was cunning in its creations, plucking the sound of Steve’s bare feet right out of his brain, the sound of his voice as he called for him.

 

He would not look, even as he felt the hairs on his arms rise beneath the apparition’s silent scrutiny. He felt blood soaking through the bandages on his back.

 

“Tony?”

 

The floor shook as the dream moved closer, and he felt it kneel behind him, warm hands that felt too real to be believed settling on his hips. “Talk to me. What’s going on?” False worry hummed in that false voice.

 

“You’re not real,” he finally managed to choke out, his free hand grabbing the cloth of his shorts, twisting until he heard threads rip. “You’re just a hallucination.”

 

A sharp intake of breath behind him that sounded suspiciously wet.

 

“Tony, look at me-“ the voice cracked, “-please.”

 

He bit into the flesh of his palm to center himself, the pain focusing him, giving him the resolve to not give in.

 

“I can’t-“ and the words sounded small and weak and pathetic even to him. “I can’t. I’m sorry.”

 

Apologizing to a ghost.

 

He really had gone completely around the bend.

 

“Why-“ a choking sigh, the sensation of a warm breath of air across the side of his neck making him shiver, “can’t you?”

 

“Because…” his voice gave out as he tried to put the words together, feeling like a blind man assembling a puzzle.

 

The hands squeezed, and he wanted to give into them so badly, wanted to lean back and let someone else carry the weight, but Steve would never do it again, because Steve was dead, and all he was speaking to now was some demented hallucination dredged from the depths of his tired brain.

 

“Because I’m tired of hope.”

 

The whispered “What did they do to you?” made his hair flutter, and this was probably the most realistic Extremis hallucination he had ever had.

 

Apparently when Extremis returned, it did so with a vengeance.

 

“Tony, I-“

 

“Not real,” he bit out, letting his hand fall to the metal floor with a thump and staring straight ahead at his blurred reflection in the red metal of the suit. He would not give in. He would not look, or believe, or hope, because it never turned out the way he needed it to. “Go away.”

 

As if ordering Extremis to stop tormenting him ever worked.

 

“I’m real. I promise.” The voice- the beloved voice, so long in hearing- shook with something like grief. “I don’t- what can I do to prove it if you won’t look at me?”

 

Tony bit his lower lip until the scab came free and blood trailed down over his chin once more as he tried to think of something.

 

Finally, he said, his voice raw, “Tell me something I don’t know about you. Something you never told me.”

 

The answer was quick in coming.

 

“I love you.”

 

Tony closed his eyes. The darkness pressed in on him from all sides, and only the hands on his waist kept him upright as all the strength suddenly left him.

 

Extremis couldn’t lie. Born of logical computer code, it only told the truth. And the truth that Tony knew was that Steve didn’t love him- had never said anything.

 

Something icy and dark and painful withered and died in his chest.

 

Steve?” he whispered in a voice heavy with untold months of grief.

 

He strained to see out of his peripheral vision, turned his head just enough to catch a glimpse of blond hair and tired blue eyes.

 

And turned further, ignoring the pain as forming scabs on his back tore open again, to see him fully, the two of them kneeling in front of each other on a steel floor beneath fluorescent lights, staring.

 

Steve looked thin and tired, his hair too long, his skin pale. His lips quirked in a trembling smile, eyes glossy as one hand came up to rest on Tony’s neck, thumb caressing his jaw.

 

“Hi,” he whispered.

 

Tony didn’t have the breath to respond. He didn’t even blink, for fear that when he opened his eyes Steve would be gone like ashes in the wind.

 

Tears were rolling down over Steve’s cheeks as he stared at Tony’s face.

 

Steve was here.

 

Tony hadn’t betrayed and killed the man he loved.

 

And with a great, gasping sob, he lurched forward into Steve’s chest- it was warm and real and alive- resting his forehead on Steve’s shoulder, feeling something break and shatter apart inside him, helpless before Steve’s quiet kindness.

 

Tony’s fingers curled in Steve’s jacket, clutching at him like a drowning man, and he poured out a year’s worth of agony in dry, wracking sobs, all the more painful for the lack of tears, completely inarticulate with grief as Steve held him, whispering,

 

“It’s okay. I’m here now, it’s okay.”

 

And for the first time in a very long time, Tony allowed himself to believe.

 

- - -

 

Steve turned from the stove at the sound of Tony’s feet on the floor, raising his spatula in invitation, only to pause.

 

Tony lingered in the doorway, staring at Steve as if he still couldn’t believe that he was here, alive, with him. His fingers trembled, his eyes wide, and he looked absolutely awful.

 

“What-“ his voice was scratchy from tears, and frowning, he cleared his throat and tried again, “-what happened last night?”

 

Steve busied himself sliding the omelets out of the pan and onto the plates, turning off the stove. At least Tony’s voice was better- no longer the soft, haunted voice of a man who had stopped believing in hope. That voice made him want to cry, to scream, to hunt down anyone that had ever hurt this man and introduce them to the edge of his shield.

 

“I guess the shock caught up to you or something, because you completely sacked out on me and I had to drag you back to bed. I went to sleep on the couch, by the way, and used your toothpaste; hope you don’t mind.”

 

“I’m not brave enough to tell the magically resurrected man that he can’t use my toothpaste,” Tony replied with a flicker of his old humor. “Who knows what new powers you might be packing? And you don’t have to sleep on the couch: there’s another bedroom down the other hallway.”

 

Steve had seen it, but rejected it as too far away from Tony. He needed to be near him, to be available if he was needed. Not that Tony was incapable of taking care of himself by any means, and he knew that he’d shortly find himself blasted into oblivion if he even suggested that.

 

Tony blinked suddenly, looking around. “Where’s Derek?” He suddenly seemed smaller, more nervous, as he hunched into himself as if expecting a blow at the very mention of that- person’s name. Steve swallowed a lump, reminding himself to act normal.

 

“Kicked him out,” Steve answered as he forced himself to seem cheerful, juggling plates and forks and coffee mugs as he marched past Tony and put the plates on the coffee table, pulling the armchair up close and taking a seat.

 

“You did what?

 

“Threw him out of the apartment and chucked the-“ he  tried to cover his discomfort by gulping coffee, “-whip in the trash.”

 

“Uh.” Tony trailed after him, looking utterly out of his depth as he sank onto the couch, sitting ramrod straight, fidgeting with his fork. “Why?”

 

“What was I supposed to do?” Steve jabbed at his omelet, rending the poor thing into shreds with his fork. It was all so awkward, so wrong- they weren’t supposed to be awkward around each other. “I mean, I walk in and I see him holding a whip with your- your blood on it, and I find you in the back and you’re just hanging there bleeding- how am I supposed to react to that except by beating him into a bloody pulp, which, by the way, I didn’t do?“

 

“I don’t know. But, uh, thanks for getting me down and all that,” Tony said, gazing down into his coffee. “I don’t know why I’m surprised that you knew what to do: it’s really pretty basic stuff, giving them sugary food and a warm place to sleep.”

 

Steve grinned briefly, before giving up entirely on the omelet and pushing it aside, too queasy with nerves to eat. “If it’s so basic, how come he didn’t do it?”

 

“You did interrupt him by charging into the apartment in some sort of vain attempt to defend my honor,” Tony muttered, glancing at him. Steve raised an eyebrow. “Okay, and he wouldn’t have done it anyway.”

 

“Not the most reliable person, I guess.”

 

“You don’t get to be the best corporate lawyer in Manhattan without being reliable, Steve,” Tony said, the side of his mouth curling in a sad smile, before he fell silent and swirled his coffee around for a moment, chewing on his bottom lip. He was probably going to break open the scab again.

 

“Is that why you met?”

 

“Yeah. I hired him to help broker a deal with an upstart concern in the Rust Belt. He really knew his stuff- Yale undergrad, Harvard Law, did several internships on Wall Street.”

 

There wasn’t really anything Steve could say to that, and so they both were quiet, glancing at the floor or the ceiling but not at each other.

 

“This is pathetic,” Tony said abruptly. “Us- sitting here, making small talk.”

 

“I kind of wanted to let you take the lead,” Steve confessed, setting his coffee down. “I didn’t want to start interrogating you about everything that’s happened; I figured you probably had enough people questioning your actions already, from what Hank and Thor said.”

 

They’re certainly unbiased sources.” The bitterness in Tony’s voice was scalding, but as he caught sight of Steve’s carefully neutral expression, he blew out a sigh and raked his fingers through his hair. “Sorry.”

 

“Okay, first question,” Tony said. “I’m guessing the you that got killed was a Skrull agent, but how come it didn’t regress when it was shot?”

 

Trust him to skip over the question Steve could see burning inside him, the most important question, the one he was dying to say ‘yes’ to.

 

“After they took me, they took a sample of my DNA and injected it into an empty embryo they had taken from a female prisoner, then speed-grew it to maturity in a vat.”

 

“They cloned you.”

 

“Yeah. Then they used this machine-“ Steve bit the inside of his cheek, the pain pushing back the memory of crushing darkness and silence and the feeling of something cold and precise riffling through his memories, taking them, “-to basically download my… personality, memories, all of that, into the clone’s brain.”

 

Tony blinked, then slammed his coffee mug down, making the plates rattle. “I should’ve known it wasn’t you! I’ve known you for years, and if I couldn’t even figure that out-“

 

No doubt he was already building another guilt complex, second-guessing himself and their friendship.

 

“How could you have known?” Steve said, leaning forward, trying to force him to calm down, almost disturbed by the intensity of the guilt he could see on his shoulders. “It was me, just with… a few programs installed.”

 

Tony sprang up off the couch and began to pace, staring out the window at the Manhattan skyline. Steve watched him go before turning to the uneaten omelets, mourning the waste of good eggs.

 

“Okay. Programs. I’m guessing they provided objectives, as in splitting the community.”

 

“Probably. I wasn’t there, you know- I was stuck on a prison ship with about five hundred others. But I guess the programs probably guided the clone to find the most efficient way of engineering a division, and then pushed it down that path so that it would leave us all weakened. The registration issue was probably just a convenient pretense. Not that I agree with the SHRA, either,” he hurried to add.

 

“I know,” Tony said, rubbing at his wrists. The abraded skin looked good as new, stretched thin over bone. Steve regretted not making him eat the omelet.

 

There was an even longer silence as Tony stared out the window. Steve fiddled with his fork.

 

Looked like he was going to have to make the first move. He felt even queasier than before.

 

“I meant what I said, you know,” he said softly, watching Tony’s back stiffen, his hands curl into fists, dark head dropping.

 

“I wasn’t going to ask,” Tony admitted with a sick, sad little laugh, “because I knew it couldn’t have been true.”

 

“It was- is- and I do.”

 

Tony’s shoulders slumped and he leaned forward against the glass, breath fogging out in a sweep of opacity. A muscle in his shoulder spasmed beneath the shirt. “So why tell me now? You saw me vulnerable and now you want to pick me up and try and ‘fix’ me?” he sneered.

 

Steve steeled himself and stood, going to him. “No. I’ve always loved you, and what I saw- what you’ve done- doesn’t make me love you any less. And when I was in the ship, you kept me alive. I knew I couldn’t give up, because my country and people needed me, yes, but mostly because I knew that if I died, I would never see you again, much less have the chance to tell you how I felt.

 

“I know I should have told you.” He swallowed his pride, admitted, “I was afraid to.”

 

“Yeah, well, that makes two of us. I loved- love- you too, you know. I have since I met you, really. Just never worked up the courage to do anything about it.” Tony turned to glance at him out of one red-rimmed blue eye, trying to smile. “But now you know, I guess.”

 

“You sound so excited,” Steve said, watching to see how he reacted to the gentle ribbing.

 

Tony’s grin was slight, but there. “Don’t really have it in me to be excited about much at the moment. Once my back heals up, I’ll probably be bouncing off the walls until you force me down.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

Steve stared out the window, thumbs hooked in his belt loops, the two of them subsiding into a comfortable silence.

 

Their feelings were out in the open, but Steve didn’t feel any need to act on them at the moment, preferring to simply luxuriate in the feeling of Tony beside him, as it had always been.

 

As it always should be.

 

“I suppose I should probably start damage control,” Tony said finally. “Derek’s probably already gone to the press.”

 

“He hasn’t, and he won’t,” Steve said, knowing his lips had curled in a grim, fierce smile.

 

Wh- Steve. You didn’t threaten him, did you?”

 

“If I say ‘yes,’ will you be angry?”

 

Tony rolled his eyes, thumping his forehead against the glass. “The prison ship must’ve changed you. And I suppose I should be angry, but considering the pain I’m in at the moment, he’ll have to forgive my lack of anger.”

 

Steve glanced at him, cataloguing the changes. He was pale, his cheeks and chin dusted with stubble, dark circles shadowing his eyes, pain etched in wrinkles around his mouth, his laser-blue eyes, and the shadows of his ribs could be seen through the shirt.

 

“Do you need anything?” he asked.

 

Tony shook his head, rolling his shoulders until he heard them crack. “No.” His tone was beaten, as if he had no expectation that anyone would help him if he needed it.

 

Steve doubted that, but, deciding to trust him, turned away and began gathering plates, Tony snagging the coffee mugs and shuffling after him.

 

Steve grabbed a sponge, and turned to ask Tony to bring the mugs.

 

Tony stood in the doorway of the kitchen, face pallid, mouth pressed into a thin white line as he stretched over the threshold to slide the mugs onto the counter.

 

“Actually, can you bring them over here?”

 

Tony jerked and glanced at him, his attempt at a normal expression ghastly. “I-“ his gaze flickered to the knife block and the shining silver handles, “-I need to go take a nap.”

 

And he disappeared down the hallway, the bedroom door slamming behind him.

 

Steve stood, frozen, sponge dripping water on his feet, as he stared at where Tony had stood moments before.

 

Tony was so frightened of knives because of what Derek had done he couldn’t even go in his own goddamned kitchen?!

 

Derek had destroyed so much-

 

And stuffing down the roar of rage that threatened to spill free, Steve punched the counter until his knuckles bled.

 

- - -

 

Steve rolled over in his bed and fluffed the pillow for the hundredth time, flopping back against them with a sigh.

 

The clock blinked ‘1:34 A.M’ in the darkness.

 

His hand ached, knuckles scraped raw from his fit of temper. Although really, the main cause of his discomfort was Tony.

 

Tony, whom he hadn’t seen after the debacle in the kitchen. Tony, who had apparently lost all sense of security. Tony, who he didn’t have the slightest clue how to help, and that bitter fact scalded him.

 

Thor had been right: Tony had changed, becoming quieter, paler, more mistrustful. There was something… profoundly wounded and utterly isolated about him, like some deep inner injury of the spirit.

 

Steve blew out a frustrated breath and turned onto his belly, glaring straight ahead at the headboard.

 

And he was certainly not stupid enough to think that just because they had confessed their feelings to each other that somehow everything would be fixed. A new relationship, much less sex, wasn’t going to heal the scars or magically return Tony to his old self- snarky, brilliant, and awkward, but willing to go to insane lengths to protect those he loved.

 

But he wanted that relationship, wanted Tony, and this sudden revelation about Tony’s kinks didn’t change that whatsoever. In fact, in some strange way, it only enhanced it- he wanted to be the person Tony trusted that much, with his safety and his fears and worries, and his nature as a caretaker and leader responded to the idea.

 

He’d have to do some research, but he’d gotten an- admittedly basic- idea of what was involved in this BDSM thing from Carol, and he was more than willing to learn what he didn’t know.

 

But really, was it right to even try to engage in a relationship with Tony after he’d been so wounded?

 

The only thing he could do was talk to him, and perhaps try to carefully insert the fact that he didn’t mind what Tony needed in bed.

 

Armed with a concrete plan, he closed his eyes and dropped into sleep like a stone, only to start awake barely an hour later as he heard someone in the hallway outside his room, the old floorboards creaking as someone came closer, a shadow passing through the strip of light seeping beneath the door. Blinking the sleep from his eyes, he struggled upright, throwing the heavy comforter off.

 

The knob turned, the door swinging inward as Tony leaned inside uncertainly, glancing around the darkened room. His expression was pinched, his mouth curled in a frown visible in the blue moonlight. He caught sight of Steve and winced, dropping his head, shoulders hunching. Steve had to strain to hear his whispered words.

 

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to wake you up.”

 

“’s okay. I was awake already,” he lied, pushing himself up against the headboard, the wood freezing against his bare back. Tony’s expression showed his dubiousness about that assertion.

 

“Is everything okay?”

 

“Yeah, I was just… checking.” Tony started to withdraw into himself and began to close the door, no doubt to go back to his bed.

 

Alone, so he could obsess over whatever nightmare had woken him up and add that new fear to shoulders already breaking under the strain.

 

Steve was not about to let him do that.

 

“Tony.” He was almost surprised to hear the tone of his own voice, how it became deeper without his even trying.

 

But it worked- Tony paused in the doorway, meeting Steve’s eyes, surprise flashing in his expression.

 

“Come here.” He pushed the covers off and swung his legs over the side of the bed, his toes curling against the carpet, ratty gray sweats prickling with static.

 

Tony slunk into the room slowly, as if he wasn’t sure that he was allowed to be there, the moonlight shining blue on his naked torso, Extremis having healed the wounds already, and for a moment he was so beautiful that Steve’s throat ached.

 

He reached out, grabbed his hand, calluses harsh and hot against his skin, and drew him close, not altogether surprised when Tony slid to his knees before him, glancing up at him, as if for permission.

 

The uncertainty in his eyes broke his heart.

 

He nodded, even though he wasn’t sure what he was giving permission for.

 

Tony leaned forward, so slow that Steve hardly dared to breathe, his hands spread on the comforter, pale against the dark cloth, before he inched them closer to Steve, finally curling his fingers around Steve’s thighs.

 

Tony blinked hard, his throat bobbing, and Steve’s chest clenched at the sight of the liquid shine in his eyes. Tony turned his head sideways, fine tremors shuddering through his fingers into Steve, and finally- finally- rested his head on Steve’s lap, the bumps of his spine a mountain range in the dimness.

 

Grief swelled in him. He reached out to slide his fingers through his hair, thumb stroking the warm skin of Tony’s neck, his other hand resting on Tony’s shoulder, feeling the hard knots press against his palm. His back shuddered in an abortive sob, the curves of his ribs shifting.

 

Tony shifted, pressed closer as if he wanted to crawl into his skin, Steve’s knees bumping against his naked chest. A sigh curled warm and wet over his sweats, Tony’s eyes drifting shut as Steve’s thumb stroked the line of his tendon. Tony’s fingers flexed on his thighs, his shoulders slackening beneath Steve’s hand.

 

Steve gazed down on him, curled against him like a beaten child, and had to blink away tears.

 

“What happened?”

 

“Just a dream,” Tony mumbled without opening his eyes, the dark sweeps of his eyelashes against his skin fluttering with his words.

 

Steve waited for a moment, content to simply knead the tension out of him, before prompting, “What about?”

 

He was going to get the story from him, one way or another, make Tony realize that he no longer had to bear the weight alone-

 

That he wasn’t going to let him carry that weight alone.

 

Tony tensed beneath his hand once more, hitching himself closer, his breath hot on the inside of Steve’s leg, but he didn’t speak. Steve would’ve felt hurt, but the idea of doing so seemed ludicrous when he had Tony curled against him needing comfort.

 

Steve bent close, whispered against his ear, “Do you trust me?”

 

Tony nodded jerkily.

 

“Then why can’t you tell me?”

 

Tony swallowed, and Steve could feel his pulse, fast and thready, hammering against his hand.

 

He closed his eyes, silently damning Derek for everything- trust, hope, self-esteem- he had torn from Tony when he was at his most vulnerable.

 

Tony jerked away from him, his hand sliding off his skin as he opened his eyes, hands leaving Steve’s thighs, and Steve mourned the loss even as he watched Tony lurch to his feet, a thick laugh scraping out of his throat, shivers skittering up and down his limbs. His pupils were dilated, mouth trembling, the flight or fight response overwhelming him. There was nothing to fight, and Steve could see him gearing up to run.

 

The fear and shame that poured off him slithered cold and dark down Steve’s throat.

 

“I’ve got to go-" Tony said, twisting to lunge for the door, but Steve was up and behind him in seconds, one arm snaking around  his waist to pull him back against him, other hand grabbing flailing wrists- he shouldn’t have been able to span both of Tony’s wrists with one  hand, and the realization was like ice water down his spine- as he twisted, pushing him down onto the rumpled bed and following him.

 

It was the work of seconds to pin him, wrists pressed into the mattress above his head with one hand. Steve straddled narrow hips, careful not to let too much of his weight rest on him- just enough to let him know that he wasn’t getting away.

 

Tony bucked beneath him, twisted like an enraged snake, but Steve held on- and it was easy, too easy, and somehow he hadn’t noticed just how much of his strength Derek had sapped- searching his face, waiting for him to calm, giving him something to fight against, a replacement for the dream that couldn’t be fought.

 

The bed thudded against the wall, Tony’s sides heaving against the inside of his thighs as Steve rode out his rage.

 

Tony’s eyes glittered blue and wild, his knee coming up to smash Steve in the kidneys. Pain rocketed up his spine and exited in a harsh groan, and Tony fell flat against the mattress, his eyes squeezed shut, almost cringing, as if waiting for a blow.

 

Steve swallowed down the pained grunt, curling into himself in a reflexive action. He could only breathe shallowly, opening his eyes and leaning forward to bump his forehead against Tony’s, stubble rasping against his chin. He could feel stuttery, abortive breaths puff against his cheek as Tony tried to twist away, but he used his free hand, caught him by the chin, something howling inside him at the idea that Tony would ever expect to be hit, to be hurt, by someone he loved.

 

“Tony, it’s okay.” He tried to smile, failed, his lips trembling with emotion.

 

Tony stared up at him, wide-eyed and silent, chest shuddering beneath him, every muscle wound as tight as a clockspring, as if he was going to shatter the minute Steve let him go. Steve’s gaze flicked up to where his hand pressed Tony’s wrists into the pillows, and he swallowed as Tony pushed against his grip, stomach roiling as he said as authoritatively as possible, testing,

 

“Keep them there.” Tony blinked, his wrists falling back, and Steve watched with quiet wonder as the terrible tension eased, Tony relaxing into the mattress in some instinctive gesture of surrender that called forth a powerful sense of protectiveness. He really did need the orders, and suddenly Steve felt surer than ever that he was doing the right thing.

 

“If you can’t tell me what you dreamed about, then tell me why.”

 

Tony tilted his head back, exhaling in a long sigh as he remained completely limp beneath him. His eyes darted over Steve’s face, searching for something, and Steve kept his expression as neutral as he could make it, bending closer, arms braced on either side of Tony’s head, caging him in and resting his cheek against Tony’s.

 

“Derek used to ask me to tell him things,” Tony whispered against his jaw, the sound dry and fragile as old paper. “One time I told him about this nightmare I had about-“ he swallowed, “-about killing you, and he said that I was so fucking needy that he was starting to wonder why he even put up with me at all.” He trailed off, and Steve felt the sudden, terrifying urge to destroy Derek swell inside him like an atom bomb.

 

He turned his head, stubble scraping against stubble, feeling Tony turn into the touch, and whispered,

 

 “Nothing you could tell me could make me love you any less.”

 

Tony bit out in short, clipped bursts, “I dreamed I pulled the trigger.”

 

Steve sat up and said nothing for a long moment, gazing down at Tony’s face, twisted in agony beneath him, the shadows beneath his eyelashes, the rough stubble gracing a face that he had never known to be so thin, the new lines around his mouth.

 

He didn’t know what to say, how to respond, and so let his thumb rub slow circles on the muscle jerking in Tony’s clenched jaw. He hoped the touch would ground him, call him back.

 

A terrible sound ripped out of Tony, extinguished itself against him.

 

“I’m not leaving you,” he said, catching Tony’s chin in his hand, staring into those blue, blue eyes, willing him to understand, to believe. “I’m never leaving you.” His fingers curled in the soft hair at the nape of Tony’s neck, the grip anchoring him, as he took a deep breath, whispered, hardly daring to speak, “You’re mine.”

 

Tony swallowed, remaining very still, and Steve could almost see the thoughts racing inside his head. He loosened his grip, preparing to back off, to apologize-

 

 But Tony lunged upwards and smashed into him like a hurricane, their teeth clicking against each other gracelessly- their noses were in the way- as he kissed Steve hard, devouring him like Steve was air and he was drowning. Fire curled inside Steve’s chest, licking outward, every cell in his body glorying in real contact after a long year in the void.

 

Steve groaned into the kiss, limbs going completely weak, and he dropped down onto Tony, still kissing him, the violence of it seeping out to be replaced with gentleness, Steve’s other hand sliding off of Tony’s chin to span his hollow cheek.

 

He was kissing Tony Stark, and it was everything he had ever wanted.

 

And it finally ended, and he opened his eyes to find Tony staring back at him, his mouth twisted in a sardonic smile that was so familiar that his heart ached.

 

“That, I was not expecting,” Tony said.

 

Steve swallowed and licked his lips, ready to apologize.

 

“Don’t apologize; you have no idea how long I’ve been waiting for that.”

 

“Okay,” Steve finally said, rolling off of him and sprawling out on his side of the bed. The silence was tinged with awkwardness, and he didn’t know what to do, how to fix it-

 

But then Tony solved the problem by following him, carefully wedging himself against Steve’s side, as if he wasn’t sure that even that small modicum of contact was allowed.

 

“We can talk about this in the morning,” Tony said, waiting for Steve’s nod before he closed his eyes and was immediately asleep. He must have been ridiculously sleep-deprived to have fallen asleep so fast.

 

Steve shook his head and fell back against the pillows, closing his eyes.

 

- - -

 

Morning dawned cloudy, and Steve rolled over to find Tony already gone and his side of the bed cold as ice.

 

Sleep, apparently, was not a priority with him.

 

Scratching at his chest and yawning, he wandered into the living room to see Tony standing before the window, forehead resting on his arm as he gazed out the glass, the reflection of his eyes in the glass darting in his direction as Tony realized he was there.

 

Time for the talk, he supposed, shivering as a nervous chill passed over his skin.

 

“Hey,” he said, joining him by the window and watching the sun begin to burn off the mist, skyscrapers poking through the haze.

 

“Hey.” Tony turned to face him, his eyes aged, weary, expecting nothing. “Want to talk?”

 

Steve swallowed and nodded, not trusting himself to speak.

 

“Okay,” Tony said, and his voice was small and very tired.

 

“So you know what BDSM is, I guess.”

 

“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t involve what Derek did to you,” Steve said.

 

Tony rested his head back on his arm, closing his eyes. “Done right, it shouldn’t. I was stupid, but…” his shoulders rose and fell minutely, “It wasn’t so bad in the beginning, and- and that was what I needed after you died.”

 

He looked exhausted, still, like one night of good sleep hadn’t been enough to ease the demons dogging his footsteps.

 

“So this BDSM thing was a need? It wasn’t just something you did for fun?”

 

“It should be fun,” Tony said, “but yeah.” He shifted his weight away from Steve, as if searching for an escape. “It was- is- something I need.”

 

Steve understood that a little more after last night, after the way the tension had rushed out of Tony with one soft command.

 

“I just- I don’t understand why you couldn’t have told me about it- it’s obviously a part of your life, and I- I wouldn’t have judged you. It’s not like you don’t trust me-“ the very idea burned him, made his throat tighten and his eyes prickle.

 

Tony whirled to face him, eyes wide. “I do- I trust you with my life. You’re the only person that I’ve given access codes to my armor- not even Pepper or Happy had them.”


Steve turned, slow heat rising up his spine, and reached out, encircling Tony's wrist with fingers and thumb, careful not to press too hard- the bones were so fragile there, and closer to the skin then he remembered, but then again, Tony had lost weight. He swallowed, unsure if this was an invasion of space, if Tony would want this at all, but he had to try- couldn’t let Tony throw whatever chance they might have away without even considering it. Tony stiffened, stopped breathing, avoiding his eyes.

But he didn't try to pull away, and that was the important thing.

"If you trust me so much, and need this so much," Steve said quietly, stroking the inside of Tony's wrist with his thumb, feeling his pulse throb against the skin, "then why didn't you ask me... before?" And referencing 'before' would never stop being awkward. "Why go to some- man-" not that Derek was worthy to be called a man- "-that you don't know, that doesn't know you, that you can't trust?"


Tony's laugh was thick with self-recrimination. "Because you're Captain America, Steve. Warm milk and apple pie and all that- and you blushed every time MJ flirted with Peter around you! You're not the type to tie somebody up or order them around, and I would've rather had your friendship then have you find out and look at me like some sort of... freak."

 

Steve's other hand clenched. Tony had thought that he could see him like that? Had he really thought that badly of him? "So there's that, and then, you know-" he took a deep breath, steeling himself to say the words, "-you died." He shrugged, hopeless. "And then I met Derek."

Steve turned to face him fully, let go of his wrist, his hands itching to pull Tony closer. But he couldn't do that- couldn't pressure him, not with what he had seen occurring between Tony and Derek.

Tony was still avoiding his eyes. Tension roiled in his stomach as he took a deep breath, and tried again. "Tony," he said, threading a little steel through his voice. "Look at me."

 

It was a different feeling entirely from giving orders on the battlefield, one that somehow bore even more weight and responsibility, because this was Tony.

Tony's eyes- slate-gray in the dimness- flickered in his direction, then away, as if he was too ashamed to look at Steve for longer than a moment. The shame burned him, made him feel like no matter what he did, Tony would still hate himself.

"Do you still need it?"

Tony sighed, turned away. His voice was so quiet Steve had to strain to hear it. "I-" His fingers curled into fists, white-knuckled, shoulders rigid with some sort of grief trying to claw its way out.

He ached to touch him, to pull him back into his arms.

"I don't know," Tony finally said. "I mean, I always needed it, but it's like-" he gestured helplessly, "I can't get there, into subspace, anymore- like somehow I was only going down before because I knew that it would hurt more if I didn't."

He turned back to stare at the city, what little Steve could see of his face terribly weary. "But in the beginning, it was so good. All I had to do was think about him- not about SHIELD or the war or all the other shit that was going on. Just about making him happy." His shoulders sagged as he whispered, "That was the only good thing in my life, and then it went away too."

Just like Steve had.

Suddenly, savagely, he raked his fingers through his hair, frustration leaking out of every pore. "And I need to go back there, to go down again, but I'm so fucked up that I can't get there anymore because he finally broke my trust in the entire fucking thing!"

"I could help," Steve said quietly.

Tony snorted, turning to face him, but his half-smile held no mockery. "That's sweet of you, but I'm not going to ask you to do something that you can't do just because I'm a fuck-up."

Steve took a deep breath and exhaled, straightening. Tony watched him, something flickering in his dull eyes.

"You think I can't give you that? You think I'm not willing to give you whatever you need? I love you!"

Tony flinched.

"If giving up control is what you need, then I'm more than willing to take it. And I think- I hope- I'm more trustworthy than Derek ever was."

"You are," Tony said, turning to cross over to the couch and flop down. "But I don't want you to think you have to do this just for me. It's no good if I'm the only one getting something out of it."

Steve followed him, crouching on the floor before him and resting his hands on Tony's knees, feeling his body heat seep through the threadbare jeans as Tony twitched under his fingers.

"If you think I only do the missionary position," he said (thankfully without a stutter, because it was still awkward to be so frank about sex) "you're very, very wrong."

Tony blinked.

 

“I don’t know how well I’ll do at this,” Steve went on, “but I’d like to try.” He swallowed. “And I can’t deny there’s something about the idea of having you trust me that much that I like.”

Tony’s breathing was very shallow, and he sat utterly rigid, staring down into Steve’s eyes. Steve gazed back, absently wondering at how he had managed to miss the brilliance of those blue eyes.

 

“I- you can’t-“ Tony began, and subsided into an anguished silence, shifting from side to side, as if he hadn’t expected Steve to pursue the question- which he hadn’t, Steve realized with a tinge of sorrow. He didn’t expect anyone to care enough to.

 

Steve bit back a sigh, squeezing Tony’s knees gently. “Why not? It seemed to work last night-“

 

“Because I can’t, all right?” Tony’s limbs shook beneath Steve’s hands, his gaze darting all around the room and never once looking straight at Steve. “I- I’ve tried it with Imries, and Rumiko, and they left me- and Derek didn’t leave me but I almost wish he had because of what he’s done. He…“ Tony shook his head, bit on his lower lip.

 

“He hurt me, Steve. It took so long for me to- to trust anyone like that after all the shit that had happened, and he took it and he turned it around and used it to fuck with me. And now I-“

 

His voice was older than the stars as he whispered, “I don’t have it in me to try again.”

 

Steve leaned up and kissed him, pouring all of his affection and worry and desire into the press of lips against lips, Tony’s eyes drifting shut as he responded, and God it was good, and all he wanted was to let Tony see that Steve wouldn’t- couldn’t- treat him like that, hurt him like that.

 

“If you really believe that,” Steve said softly as they parted, “then I’m not going to press the issue. I just want you to know that…” he didn’t know what to say, how to express all that he was feeling, and finally finished lamely, “I’m here, and I’d like to be someone you can trust like that.”

 

Tony’s twisted half-smile made his heart ache. “I know, and thanks. It’s just- I spent so long hoping you’d come back, and now you’re here. And having you actually offer to be my Dom, it’s- it’s all too good to be true, and if it all came crashing down again, I don’t know what would happen.”

 

Steve’s chest hurt at the confirmation of what he had suspected: that Tony had been beaten down so many times by the world that he couldn’t trust anyone enough to hope for anything better.

 

“Can you at least promise you’ll think about it?”

 

Tony raked his fingers through his hair, obviously fighting the urge to deny him totally. But he couldn’t fight against Steve’s request, and finally succumbed with a sigh of “Yeah.”

 

That was as much for Steve could hope for.

 

- - -

 

Steve tried to do research while Tony puttered around his lab. He would never have been so daring about surfing the Internet with Tony around, but apparently H.A.M.M.E.R. had implanted a tracking chip that had the ‘bonus’ of disabling all active use of the Extremis.

 

“It helps make sure that I don’t run,” Tony had explained with a crooked smile. “The suit I have now barely manages to be functional with Extremis running passively, but I can’t pull off maneuvers or go above two-thousand feet.”

 

Steve had no idea how Tony hadn’t gone absolutely stir-crazy, cooped up in his apartment with no visitors but Derek, unable even to really fly on the rare occasions that Osborne let him out.

 

So, feeling a little guilty about his relief that Extremis was out of the picture, he went to a search-engine and, pecking out the letters with his index fingers, typed, ‘BDSM’ before hitting the image search button.

 

He was immediately assaulted by a cornucopia of leather and terror.

 

There was… a lot of leather. And even more rope. Was that a horse bit?

 

And every single person in the photographs looked about as serious as a heart-attack. There was no sense of fun or joy in any of them, as if the moment they got involved in BDSM they’d all had their senses of humor surgically removed.

 

Which might explain some of Derek’s issues.

 

He couldn’t imagine Tony being that deadly serious; from what little he knew of his sexual relationships, he didn’t seem the type for gloom and doom and- he squinted- basing his lifestyle on an obscure set of science fiction novels like some of the people onscreen apparently did. Not that Tony had been very cheerful the past two weeks, or very aggressive; their contact was limited to sleeping in the same bed and a few hungry kisses that left Steve aching.

 

But Tony had to decide on his own what he wanted; Steve had made his offer. It was up to Tony now.

 

Frustrated, he went to go work out in the small exercise studio at the end of the hall, mind blank, absorbed in the old routine of lifting weights. Tony had kept everything in the room the same as it had been in the Mansion and later, the Tower, and Steve felt more comfortable there than he had since he had returned.

 

The sound of feet scuffing against the carpet outside alerted him to Tony’s presence.

 

He turned and saw Tony standing in the doorway, barefoot and in wrinkled holey jeans, a rumpled white shirt with the sleeves rolled up slipping halfway off his shoulders.

 

It was all he could do to not drop the barbells on his feet, his mouth going completely dry, a paradoxical cold sweat trickling down his back. Carefully avoiding glancing at the tempting sight of a thin trail of dark hair running into the waistband of Tony’s low-slung jeans, he set the barbells down.

 

“What’s going on?” he asked, not daring to hope that Tony had decided.

 

Tony licked his lower lip, eyes black with lust, his gaze riveted to Steve’s chest, and that small motion sent a jolt straight down Steve’s spine. Tony stepped into the room and stood there, silent, the two of them staring at each other while dust motes spun and danced in the butter-yellow light between them.

 

Steve moved first, hands curling on Tony’s shoulders and pulling him close, Tony’s hands settling on his waist, callused, warm, the two of them chest-to-chest, their kiss frantic, desperate, teeth clicking against each other, Steve’s thumbs digging into the steel cords of tension he found as Tony breathed, hot and wanting, against his face.

 

Warmth and touch and love, and he wanted- needed more.

 

Tony’s head fell forward onto his shoulder with a groan as Steve slid his thigh between Tony’s, hips bucking involuntarily, and the pressure against his own hardness made Steve’s knees go weak. Tony’s hands twitched, restless, by his side, as if he didn’t know what to do with them.

 

A little daring, Steve encircled both his wrists in one hand, holding them behind Tony’s back, the careful pressure of his fingers mimicking cuffs, and as he squeezed Tony let out a choked gasp that made everything in Steve take notice, his eyes dilated so far they were only a thin rim of bright blue, shuddering, pressing forward into him even further.

 

Steve slid his other hand down behind the waistband of the jeans, cupped Tony’s cock, straining inside the confines of the boxers, squeezed lightly, learning its shape. Tony swallowed, a low sound breaking apart behind his bitten lips as Steve’s hand flexed.

 

“Don’t do that,” Steve whispered, turning to press his lips against Tony’s cheekbone, brushing them over his lips, persuading the lower one free. “I want to hear you.”

 

Another of Derek’s ghosts he wanted to exorcise, to burn the taint away. Reacting in any way must have been inadvisable; Derek would probably only have used those cues to figure out how much more Tony could take.

 

He pressed his palm against hot skin, Tony’s cock twitching beneath his hand, precum spreading, dampening Steve’s hand, and for a moment he closed his eyes, overcome with the need to have him. Curled his fingers around him, cloth hot and wet, and gave Tony a long, slow stroke.

 

Tony sagged against him with a moan, trusting him to hold him up, eyes half-lidded, and the sudden surrender made Steve’s heart pound against the inside of his chest.

 

“I want you,” he went on, kissing Tony’s cheekbone, the hollow beneath his jaw, as Tony shuddered, hips jerking forward into Steve’s grip, the most amazing sounds Steve had ever heard- muffled gasps, harsh moans- making him ache with need as Tony came apart in his hands with a low sound that vibrated in his bones, and only luck kept him from following Tony over the edge at the feel of Tony coming in his arms because of something he had done.

 

Tony turned his head, and Steve shuddered as he felt Tony’s lips brush over his neck, stubble scraping against skin.

 

He stilled his hand, just let it rest there, trying his best not to hope for too much too soon.

 

The words were very quiet, muffled against his jaw, tinged with fear, yet stubbornly brave.

 

“I think… I’ll try.”

 

Steve’s legs almost went out from under him with sheer relief and the shock that Tony was willing to try trusting one more time.

 

He forced back the tears prickling in his eyes at the trust shown in him by someone who had no reason to trust anyone anymore, no reason to believe that his trust would not be used to maim him with a bullwhip or use him for company secrets.

 

That faith was probably the most meaningful thing he had ever been given- not even a hundred vibranium shields could compare, and overwhelmed, he tightened his grip.

 

Steve would never let Tony’s trust be misplaced.

 

- - -

 

“I really don’t get the checklists,” Tony said as he followed Steve into the living room, papers clutched in his hand as he flopped down and sprawled across the couch. He’d heard of them, but they didn’t really serve any purpose; Kathy and Imries had never offered, and he hadn’t even known they existed until after they left. Derek had…

 

Derek had used it, just like everything else.

 

He glared at the checklist, hoping he would miraculously develop optical blasts.

 

Steve noticed his mood. “What’s wrong?”

 

He looked up from his loathing regard of the paper to find Steve standing close to him, looming, but not in a bad way, not in an attempt to use his strength and height to intimidate him.

 

And he was so easily intimidated these days, and he hated his weakness with a passion he hadn’t known he possessed.

 

Steve smelled good, and he was trapped in him, in his scent and his presence and the implacable kindness in his eyes, and he had already damned them by admitting that he wanted it, that he was willing to try, and in for a penny, in for a pound.

 

“Derek,” he said, hoping it would be enough, impressed by how one word could encompass so much.

 

Steve’s brow furrowed at the mere mention, his stance shifting unconsciously to block the door, and something inside Tony liked the protectiveness.

 

“What did he do?”

 

It wasn’t enough, and knowing Steve, he wasn’t going to be satisfied with anything less than the truth. Tony swallowed.

 

“Are we going full disclosure here, or…?”

 

Steve’s smile was tinged with sorrow as he knelt again, in some bizarre reversal of the usual heart-to-heart position between sub and dom that Tony found weirdly comforting, resting his elbows on Tony’s knees and capturing his hands.

 

“I’ve been thinking,” Steve said, his voice dropping into the tone that made the hairs on Tony’s arms stand up, his stomach twist, “about how this is going to work, and I’ve decided on having just one rule to start with.”

 

Okay. Rules were good- rules were very good, gave him some framework to work within, boundaries to cling to, and he felt himself relaxing into them, tension ebbing from his shoulders.

 

“The first rule is simple: the moment you feel you need to, use your safeword. Don’t try and impress me or push yourself beyond what you’re comfortable with; I’m not going to be angry at all if you want to stop. I will be angry if you don’t use it and end up doing yourself harm. Sound good?”

 

Tony must have made some expression betraying his confusion, because Steve straightened, squeezing his hands. “You can ask if you have a question, you know.”

 

“I get a safeword?” Tony blurted, then immediately regretted doing so as Steve’s face darkened.

 

“I’m starting to wish I didn’t let Derek walk out of here,” Steve muttered.

 

“I don’t think Captain America murdering the best corporate lawyer in Manhattan would be very good PR.”

 

“I suppose,” Steve said, looking nowhere near mollified, before he shook himself and moved back briskly to the actual subject. “So, safewords.” Tony was still too confused by the idea of having a safeword to notice that suddenly he got more than one. “What do you want your ‘stop everything now’ one to be?”

 

Tony slumped back into the chair, tossing out a random word. “Plutonium.”

 

Steve’s eyebrows rose, making Tony hurry to justify his choice.

 

“If I’m talking about plutonium during sex, something’s either going very, very wrong or very, very right.”

 

Steve grinned, rocking back onto his heels. “Fair enough. The one for slowing down?”

 

He got two?

 

“Uh, argon.”

 

“Are you going to work your way through the periodic table eventually?” Steve asked, his smile making something inside Tony relax, like an old wound finally scabbing over.

 

“If things go right, then yeah.”

 

It was bizarre, sitting here talking over everything that was going to happen, planning it all out. Derek had never done that, but then Derek didn’t do a lot of things he should have. It was his own fault, really, for getting involved with someone like that; he should have seen the signs, should have-

 

“So,” Steve said, breaking him out of his gloomy contemplation, “did you fill yours out?”

 

“Yeah.” Steve let go of his hands and he found himself missing the contact as Steve grabbed the checklists and flipped through them, nodding in approval. Apparently they matched up.

 

“There’s some stuff on here I couldn’t find a definition for while I was researching,” Steve said-

 

Hold the phone. Tony jerked upright, because this was just too insane to be missed.

 

“You’ve been researching this stuff? Where?”

 

Steve flushed, even his ears turning red. “Internet,” he muttered.

 

“And you’re sane? I admire your dedication.” Really, he did- anyone willing to brave the horrors of Google Image Search for him was someone to keep.

 

Steve glanced up, the look in his eyes so… loving, that it made Tony’s chest ache.

 

He didn’t deserve this.

 

“What do I call you?” he asked.

 

Steve laughed. “I’ve had enough ‘sir’ to last me a lifetime, and ‘master’-“ he shook his head, “-I’ve got moral objections to the use of that word.”

 

After what Steve had seen in Poland and Germany, Tony could guess why.

 

“Steve’s fine, then?”

 

“Steve’s fine.”

 

Having Steve be so laid-back about all this was simultaneously a dream come true and so bizarre that Tony had to refrain from pinching himself.

 

“So how does Derek figure into the checklist?” Steve asked, setting it aside on the coffee table.

 

Tony swallowed, shifting. He hated talking about his relationships after they went sour, always had, and this one was even worse because he should have been strong enough, smart enough, to get out once he saw it circling the drain.

 

Steve waited, calm, gentle, patient as the earth, and slowly the words dragged themselves out of Tony’s mouth.

 

“We had a checklist like this one, that we each filled out before we started doing scenes together. Derek started breaking the soft limits, then moved onto pushing the hard ones. The only time I got angry at him for doing so…” he glanced down at his hand, flexing it in remembrance of when Derek had snapped a tawse across the back of his hand so hard the metacarpals broke. “Well, I didn’t do it again. He ended up breaking most of them.” His mouth twisted in a cracked smile. “I think he was using the hard limits as pointers for what to do.”

 

Steve reached up, hand cupping the back of his head, and pulled him down, and he went willingly, resting his forehead on Steve’s shoulder as Steve carded his fingers through his hair, reveling in the touch as he closed his eyes.

 

“If I ever do anything that Derek did, you won’t need to beat me up,” Steve said. “I’ll be doing more than enough of that on my own.”

 

“You won’t do anything he did,” Tony said with more confidence than he actually felt, and guilt welled up in him as hard and cold as ice for even daring to think that Steve could or would hurt him.

 

“Mistakes happen.” The hand in his hair slipped down to curl over the back of his neck, thumb stroking his skin.

 

Tony turned his head, kissed Steve’s neck to distract himself from the sense-memory of steel tracing over his jugular. “I know.”

 

The hand left, and Tony sat back up, his spine protesting. Steve stared up at him, his smile crooked. “So.”

 

“So.”     

 

His stomach squirmed as Steve leaned up and kissed him again, a soft one that slowly turned harder, until Steve was on his feet above him, devouring him, pressing him back into the couch, Tony’s hands fisted in Steve’s shirt, and God it was good, all that strength focused on him.

 

He would never get tired of kissing Steve.

 

Steve finally wrenched himself away with a groan, his lips red, slick.

 

“We should probably move this to the bed,” he said, before darting back in again to bite Tony’s earlobe, the sudden rush of warmth making Tony’s hands curl even tighter, thrusting involuntarily against Steve’s thigh between his-

 

Friction- yes, that was good, exactly what he wanted, but then Steve moved back, smiling.

 

“Not yet.”

 

Tony pulled back, swallowing his nervousness and nodding. “Okay.”

 

Steve must have noticed, because then he was there, cupping his face in his hands and leaning his forehead against Tony’s.

 

“Is this okay?” he asked, his eyes dark and serious.

 

Tony floundered for a moment, unsure how to answer, but then remembered the rules and latched on. As long as he followed the rules, he couldn’t do anything wrong.

 

“Yeah. It’s okay.”

 

Steve smiled, then kissed him again for no reason other than that he seemed to want to; affection dispensed freely, not used as a reward for doing what he wanted.

 

“Come on,” Steve said, and led him towards the bedroom.

 

- - -

 

As calm as Steve looked on the outside, inside, he was a bundle of nerves, and he wiped his hands off on his jeans surreptitiously as Tony followed him into the bedroom. He hadn't changed anything, or dressed up; mostly because he had had enough of leather pants already, and was trying to stay as far away from memories of Derek as he could.

 

He had the scene planned out, but plans almost never went the way you expected them to, and God he didn’t want to screw up when it came to something as important as this, when Tony was trusting him not to mess up.

 

Tony was hovering by the door, radiating tension, looking as if he had no idea what to do with himself.

 

Steve would have to give him something to do, then. He took a deep breath, then said as calmly as he could,

 

“Close the door-“ Tony twitched like a startled rabbit, staring at him, wide-eyed, and Steve winced mentally at that awful strain he could see coiling inside him, “-and then strip.”

 

Tony nodded, pulled the door shut, and then turned back to face Steve, hands going to his shirt. He looked cold, his fingers shaking as he undid the buttons, but his eyes were fixed on Steve’s face, as if he was searching for approbation. Steve watched in silence, giving nothing away.

 

It was almost as if he was seeing Tony with new eyes; where before he had only had furtive, guilty glimpses of what Tony was hiding beneath business suits and metal armor, now he could look his fill, because Tony was his.

 

Tony folded the shirt and put it aside on a chair, and Steve frowned. Tony had never folded his clothes at home or kept anything clean: not because he wanted to create more work for Jarvis, but because he was always too absorbed in his next great project to think about mundane things such as laundry.

 

He swallowed as Tony shucked his trousers, eyes tracing the flat plane of his abdomen, aching to follow it with tongue and fingers. And, he realized, he could; they had all the time in the world now.

 

The trousers came off, were folded, and put aside, and Tony stood, toes curling in the carpet, naked, shifting from side to side, looking everywhere but Steve. That bothered him: the Tony he had known had never been shy, never passed up an opportunity to flaunt his good looks.

 

He was still far too thin; he had never been the most muscular of men, but he hadn’t been this pale shadow of himself, with skin stretched tight as a drum over ribs and hips and shoulders. Even so, he was beautiful.

 

Steve padded across the room and circled him, watching the way his back spasmed with tension, before stepping up behind him and pulling Tony flush against him, resting his chin on his shoulder.

 

“You know you don’t have to do this, right?”

 

“If I didn’t want to do this, I could’ve blasted you six ways to Sunday by now,” Tony said, turning his head enough so that Steve could see him roll his eyes, but he brought his hands up and curled them around Steve’s forearms, as if anchoring himself.

 

Warmed through, Steve laughed, kissing his shoulder. “I know. I just… don’t want to do anything wrong.”

 

Tony’s hands squeezed his arms in answer. “You won’t. I trust you.”

 

“Thank you,” Steve said, Tony’s words meaning more than he would ever know. “Now, go lie down on the bed.”

 

Tony tensed, glancing at him out of his peripherals, and Steve mentally ran back through the insane list of rules that Derek had given Tony, searching for something to explain the sudden change.

 

Oh.

 

“You can speak,” he said. “If I wanted you silent, I’d ask.”

 

“Face-down or face-up?” Tony asked.

 

Steve almost laughed at the insane awfulness of it: that Derek had made Tony too afraid to ask a simple question.

 

“Face-up, please.”

 

He knew Derek hadn’t even had the courtesy to add a ‘please’ onto his commands.

 

Tony shrugged and walked to the bed, Steve’s gaze tracing the line of his spine, and lay down in a stiff straight line with his eyes closed, his deliberate motions so different from the way he normally flopped and sprawled, taking up as much space as humanly possible. Only the slow rise and fall of his chest confirmed that he was alive.

 

He didn’t look like he was expecting much, and Steve’s jaw firmed. He would not let this be a bad experience, for either of them, and even though he was wracked with anxiety about finally getting to make love to him, that anxiety wouldn’t prevent him from making this be a positive, loving thing, even if Tony only expected the worst.

 

Steve stooped and picked up the cuffs he had found in the closet, testing them. Chocolate-brown leather straps, lined with sheepskin, ornamented by steel buckles and D-rings, they were heavy in his hands.

 

He climbed onto the bed, Tony’s eyes flickering open, and knelt above his hips, feeling Tony press against him, hot and hard even through his jeans.

 

It was easy to bend over and kiss him again, Tony’s eyes closing once more as he remained utterly still beneath him but for his mouth, as Steve tried to pour reassurance and confidence and love into it, still amazed by how pliant Tony was being.

 

“Hands, please,” he managed as he pulled away, bringing the cuffs forward. Tony’s eyes flicked down to the cuffs, his face still and pale, but his breathing remained even- too even, as if he were counting the seconds between breaths to keep calm.

 

Steve sat back, careful not to place more of his weight on Tony, and asked, “Do you need some time?”

 

Tony blinked, brow furrowing, as if broken out of some terrible reverie. “What?”

 

“Do you want to take a break?” Steve repeated.

 

Tony shook his head, eyes fixed on the cuffs. “No.” He lifted his hands and held them up in front of Steve. His hands were shaking, and Steve wondered for a moment what, exactly, he’d gotten himself into.

 

Still, he had to press on. He circled Tony’s wrist between thumb and forefinger, brushed his lips across where he could feel the pulse beating beneath the skin, Tony’s breath hitching, and slid the cuff closed around Tony’s wrist, buckling it shut, holding Tony’s gaze as he did so.

 

“If you feel any tingling, numbness, cold, whatever, tell me. It’d be a pretty bad start for me to ruin your hands,” he said, grinning in an attempt at humor. Tony’s smile was a pale ghost of itself as he glanced at the cuff.

 

It looked beautiful, in its own way, the dark leather matching Tony’s hair,

 

Steve kissed the inside of Tony’s other wrist before buckling the cuff on, sitting back. “Hands above your head,” he ordered, feeling Tony twist beneath him as he obeyed. Steve reached forward, threaded a leather strap through the slats in the headboard, and tied two quick-release knots on the D-rings.

 

“Pull,” he said, watching as Tony tested the restraints. They held, and he felt Tony’s chest jerk once beneath him, fingers curling around the leather of the cuffs. Still, he couldn’t call attention to every little twitch, or they’d never get anywhere. Steve rolled off of the bed and pulled his T-shirt over his head, grinning inside as he saw Tony swallow.

 

It took a moment for him to wrestle the button on his fly out through the hole, his fingers still a bit unsteady from nervousness, but finally he had it open and shoved both jeans and underwear off in one motion, sighing in relief as his cock slipped free.

 

He turned back around just in time to see Tony avert his eyes and stare up at the ceiling in the position he had left him in, and shook his head mentally.

 

He didn’t understand Derek: what was the appeal of this? Of reducing a vibrant, sensual, loving person to some… doll?

 

Well, he didn’t want a doll- he wanted Tony, and by God that’s what he would have.

 

Steve returned to the bed and crouched over him to kiss him, nipping his lower lip, grinning at the twitch it provoked.

 

He always enjoyed this bit in relationships: learning another person’s body, what made them laugh, or moan, or gasp- like Tony did when he licked a spot just above his left collarbone, hips jerking upwards, their cocks sliding across each other, pulling another gasp from them both.

 

That was an interesting reaction, and he lingered there for a moment, pressing Tony back into the bed with a hand on his shoulder as Tony’s limbs tensed and relaxed, fighting back the urge to squirm- and that, that evidence of Tony trying his best to trust him, to do what he wanted, made possessiveness flare dark and hot in Steve’s belly- Tony stifling moans, his hair already beginning to darken with sweat as Steve sank his teeth in shallowly and-

 

Sucked. The headboard creaked, and he glanced up to check that the strap still held. Tony shuddered, his fingers curling against the cuffs, as he tried to hide his face in the inside of his arm.

 

Steve lifted his head from the forming bruise- his mark on Tony’s skin- and stretched up to grasp his chin in one hand and turn it to face him.

 

God, he looked good, and if Steve weren’t too embarrassed by even the thought of it, he would draw him like this.

 

“Okay?”

 

Tony nodded, seeming to not trust himself to speak, and Steve smiled- it felt kind of nervous, not at all the confident image he was hoping to portray, but it would have to do.

 

He started working his way down Tony’s body, marking the small cues- the hitch of a breath, the subtle twist of his torso- that told him what Tony wanted, what he liked, memorizing the information with the same single mindedness that made him a tactical genius.

 

His nipples weren’t terribly sensitive, garnering only a quiet hitch in breathing, but he was ticklish, and Steve filed that information away with a mental grin. He bent over, kissed his bellybutton, gratified as Tony bucked into him, muttering a quick and vile curse against the cuffs before settling down, trying to do as he had asked.

 

But that genius and single mindedness might not help him to win this battle, the hardest thing that had ever been thrown at him-

 

Because you couldn’t batter nightmares and abuse into submission with a shield, or create trust with a barked order.

 

He paused, sucked another mark on Tony’s hipbone, biting back the flare of satisfaction at the choked gasp that garnered him, at his creation there, prominent, claiming him.

 

He hadn’t used to be this possessive, but Skrull prison ships changed people. In the darkness of the ship’s hold, you clung to what you had with ferocity, or it would be taken from you.

 

Tony looked beautiful, his mouth slack, red, hair standing up in wild spikes, stiff with sweat, his cock bumping hot and damp and slick against Steve’s belly, legs curling around Steve’s waist. Finally, some direct involvement, a silent request for more.

 

And Steve had no intention of denying him.

 

He knelt, and reached for Tony’s hips.

 

The juts of his hipbones fit his hands perfectly- because everything about Tony was perfect- and he stretched up to press a kiss in the sweaty hollow of his throat-

 

Tony tensed, his eyes swallowed up in black, and as Steve’s lips brushed his throat he felt a word strangling there, caught between fear and distrust, and ice welled in his stomach as the word finally hissed free into the air-

 

“Get off, get off, get off,” Tony gasped with what seemed the last of his will, before he went as stiff as a corpse, eyelids sliding shut as he pressed back into the pillows-

 

Trying to get away from Steve.

 

Steve froze. Cold sweat sprung to life on his brow, and he pulled away, carefully lowering Tony’s legs to the bed, his mind racing as he searched for something he’d done wrong or hadn’t done, some reason for this sudden breakdown-

 

He undid the cuffs and flung them aside, the steel D-rings leaving dents in the wall, before crouching beside Tony. Tony lay flat on his back, staring at the ceiling, the muscles in his arms jumping as if someone was shocking him with a cattle prod.

 

“Tony?"

 

Tony blinked, his voice, when he spoke, quiet, rasping. “St- Steve?”

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m here.”

 

Tony blinked again, his eyes blurred, unfocused, one hand sliding up his body to curl around the front of his throat, a futile gesture of protection. "I’m-" Steve already knew what he would say,

 

“-sorry.”

 

A sick, tired sort of anger burned low in his gut- anger at the world, at Derek, at Tony, at himself for not seeing the signs, at how Tony had gotten quieter and quieter, more and more still as Steve had leaned towards his throat.

 

At whatever terrible thing was lurking inside Tony’s mind.

 

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” he said softly, feeling him shake beneath him- and not the shaking of someone in subspace, riding endorphins. This was the trembling of fear and shame.

 

He twisted, pulled the afghan off the end of the bed, and bundled Tony into it before settling back against the headboard and pulling him back into his arms, resting his chin on the top of Tony’s head, arms wrapped around Tony’s shoulders, listening to the tired rasp of breath against his chest.

 

What had happened? Everything had been going fairly well- yes, Tony had been quieter than usual, but he had chalked it up to shyness, to old orders from Derek, not to-

 

Well, not to this.

 

He bit the inside of his cheek until it drew blood. If Tony hadn’t wanted this, had objections, he could’ve used his safewords, could’ve done something, anything, other than just lie there and take it.

 

Other than push himself beyond what he was comfortable with for fear of pain at Steve’s hands.

 

Other than not trust him.

 

But Steve wasn’t uncharitable enough to blame him, and while sure, he might be angry temporarily, this only made him more determined to help him fight off whatever nightmare was prowling in Tony’s mind.

 

He shook off the clinging anger and reached for the soda on the bedside table, helping Tony curl shaking fingers around it and sip the sugary beverage. A long while passed, Steve’s hand already finding what he thought of as its customary place cupping Tony’s skull, fingers combing through his hair as he slowly rocked forward and back, as much to calm himself as Tony.

 

Tony, thin, tired, fragile Tony, who couldn’t even trust him enough to say ‘no.’

 

The empty can dropped from nerveless fingers as Tony slumped against him, lapsing into sleep.

 

And Steve pressed a kiss into his hair, and held him close, utterly heartsick at his failure.

- - -

 

Tony came awake with a start.

 

His eyes were open, but he saw nothing- something soft was over them. A blindfold.

 

He tugged on the cuffs on his limbs, feeling them give a little, but not enough. The air- cool and dry- slid over his skin, made it prickle into goosebumps, the sheets beneath him doing little to keep him warm.

 

Tied up on a bed, blindfolded, with someone’s hand- Steve’s, he could tell by the calluses- resting on his hip, thumb tracing absent circles over a hickey still flushed with blood, a pleasant, warm throbbing making him almost push his hip up into the hand.

 

And then Tony remembered.

 

Damn it.

 

He hadn’t meant to go ballistic- had thought he could control the fear, but feeling someone looming over him, a mouth against his throat, against the thin skin that so recently had been sliced- seeing Steve, and remembering the feel of a shield’s edge at his throat as he lay broken and battered in the streets of New York with Steve over him- it had all mixed, reacted badly, until it was Steve with the knife-

 

It had been too much, and if he was honest with himself, he was impressed that he had managed to even tell him to get off.

 

Steve was going to be furious.

 

Which he had every right to be, not that Tony would’ve protested if he thought his anger was unjustified. After the year he’d had, and the things he’d done, it was easier just to not fight back.

 

But he didn’t want to deal with it at the moment. Right now it was so simple just to lie here, with nowhere to go and nothing to do for as long as Steve wanted it like that. So simple to not make any choices, to concentrate on nothing but Steve’s hand on his skin, on breathing as evenly as he could to keep up the illusion that he was sleeping.

 

The sound of turning pages and Steve’s breathing faded as he relaxed, cramps that he hadn’t even known he’d had unwinding.

 

And it would be so easy to drift away into subspace, to turn himself over completely. He could feel every cell in him strain for that calmness, that unthinking, quiet trust-

 

No.

 

Everything in him rebelled at the thought, every instinct he had screaming at him to not let his guard down, because every time he did the people around him wormed their way through the cracks and made him love them, made him want to please them, and then they sliced him open and poured alcohol on the wounds.

 

He stiffened involuntarily, Steve’s thumb pausing in its motion, the sound of pages turning ceasing.

 

A quiet rustle, like a newspaper being set aside.

 

“Morning,” Steve said, resuming his caresses. “You hungry?”

 

Tony licked his lips to moisten them- and to give him a chance to delay- before finally muttering, “Not particularly.”

 

Steve made a noncommittal noise that left Tony straining to identify any sort of emotion, finding nothing but the usual morning serenity.

 

“Well, I want you to eat something. Oatmeal okay?”

 

Tony blinked beneath the blindfold, somehow both annoyed and comforted by Steve’s casual motherhenning. “Fine.”

 

“Good, because that’s what I made,” Steve announced, sliding an arm beneath Tony’s shoulders to help him sit up and lean back against the headboard. The contact was businesslike, brief, carrying no lingering traces of affection, but even that small contact made Tony’s skin goosebump, made him ache for more.

 

The mattress shook as Steve moved around, and Tony wiggled his fingers, getting any lingering stiffness out so he could grasp the spoon once Steve undid the cuffs.

 

Except Steve didn’t seem very interested in letting him feed himself, the mattress dipping in front of him, Steve’s knees bumping up against his own crossed ones.

 

“I’m not some child, you know,” Tony bit out as he heard the squish of a spoon going into oatmeal.

 

“I know,” Steve said, unruffled. “But I thought it’d be nice for you to just focus on the taste of food again. You used to love expensive food, remember? And now whenever I see you eat, it’s like watching a bird picking at garbage.”

 

“I’m flattered by the comparison.”

 

“I try.” Tony could hear the hint of a smile in Steve’s voice, and that was enough to quiet the restless fluttering in his stomach, enough to let him open his mouth for the spoon.

 

Oh, God, that tasted good, cinnamon bursting on his taste buds as he rolled the oatmeal around in his mouth contemplatively, reacquainting himself with the subtle spread of flavors across his tongue, and he licked the dribbles off his lips, sighing with bliss.

 

“I know it’s not as good as Jarvis’, but I did my best, and-“

 

“Steve,” Tony broke in, “less apologizing, more food.”

 

Oh, shit, he shouldn’t have said that, not after what happened last night, and he nearly cringed, only to be brought up short as Steve said,

 

Yessir,” and continued feeding him with one hand, telling him about what he’d read in the newspaper and wonder of wonders, asking him for input.

 

I must be dreaming.

 

Nothing this good ever happened to him.

 

Bemused, he carried on the conversation in between bites, until the spoon clattered against the inside of the bowl. Huh. This was probably the biggest meal he’d had in a week.

 

“Okay,” Steve said, and his arm wound its way around Tony’s shoulders again and lowered him down onto the bed. And Tony went, because really, what else was there to do?

 

It took him a moment to get situated, and he felt a hand ruffle through his hair before Steve’s weight left the bed, the soft susurration of feet against the carpet fading, dying out as the sound of water running in the bathroom drowned out the noise.

 

This was definitely one of his odder mornings after. It was weird to have Steve be like this: considerate, kind, yet radiating the expectation that his orders would be followed, an expectation that Tony couldn’t help but respond to. And his consideration was even stranger considering his meltdown the night before.

 

The bed dipped as Steve returned, a warm hand cupping his chin and turning his face. Steve’s lips met his, his lover’s stubble scratching against his skin as Steve kissed him the same way he did everything else: patient, thorough, as if there was nothing more important in the world than right here, right now.

 

Tony whined- and wasn’t that so fucking embarrassing?-, fingers curling around the cuffs, when Steve pulled away, and his lips were by Tony’s ear, his arm still pressing him into the mattress. His breath stirred Tony’s hair, his voice a quiet rumble, implacable as the sea. “You broke the rules.”

 

Tony opened his mouth to apologize-

 

“No.” Teeth closed around his earlobe, pressure and warmth and almost-pain for a moment, and a heated whisper made him shudder. “I don’t want your apologies.”

 

Tony almost shouted with frustration. Then what did he want? He didn’t want apologies, he didn’t seem to want sex, or bowing and scraping, and Tony wasn’t fool enough to expect that Steve would be satisfied with friendship after having gained his love.

 

Maybe the old Steve would have been, but not this new one, honed to a razor sharpness in the depths of a prison ship, his eyes glittering with a fever that had never quite broken.

 

“You’re awfully quiet.” A hot breath washing down over his cheekbone. “I don’t want you quiet.”

 

“Why not?” Tony said, regretting the snappishness of the remark immediately.

 

“You go quiet when you brood,” Steve said, the edge of annoyance in his voice not quite gone, “and I’ve had enough brooding to last me a lifetime.”

 

The Avengers did tend to be an exceptionally broody group.

 

“So what are you brooding about?” Steve went on, his mouth leaving Tony’s ear, a hand splaying across Tony’s chest, making him almost moan.

 

Tony went still. It was never a good idea to second-guess your top; most of them didn’t take too kindly to the idea that there was something they had failed to do.

 

But Steve didn’t get angry, or even annoyed, just continued sitting next to him, probably looking like some fucking All-American quarterback, marching back into Tony’s life and saving him- which galled, because he wasn’t supposed to need saving, or taking care of, or any of this.

 

The uncharitable thoughts just made him hate himself more.

 

“I can wait here all day if you want,” Steve informed him, not even sounding perturbed at the possibility.

 

“About how I don’t get you.”

 

Steve stilled next to him. “How do you mean?”

 

Tony rolled his eyes beneath the blindfold. “I don’t know what you want from me! I broke the rules, but you’re not punishing me, and you don’t want my apologies, and sex doesn’t seem to be an imperative with you, so I don’t know, I’m feeling a little lost here!”

 

The answer was immediate. Not a demand, not even a request, just a calm certainty that he would get what he wanted.

 

“I want your trust.”

 

Tony blinked, shaking his head. “Yeah, because I let so many people blindfold me and tie me up. You have my trust already,” and he shook his cuffed wrists for emphasis.

 

“That’s not what I meant at all, and you’re more than smart enough to know that,” Steve cracked out.

 

Okay, Steve was angry; this he knew, this he understood, and even as something in him quailed away at the thought of Steve angry with him, the rest of him relaxed. This was a familiar pattern, known territory, and he would deal with whatever happened the same way he always did.

 

“You trust me enough to tie you up, to kiss you- but you don’t trust me to not hurt you,” Steve’s voice was quiet, sad, “I mean, you expect me to punish you for having a flashback? You can’t even tell me when you’re uncomfortable with something because you’re afraid something bad will happen if you do? And this sex thing- it’s not about sex, at least not for me. I love you, and just being around you is enough, with or without sex.”

 

Tony went silent, already feeling guilt sliming its way up his throat, too tired to even apologize. Steve’s anger wasn’t even taking any sort of physical form, leaving him just as bereft of guidance as before, just as nervous.

 

He began drumming his fingers, only to stop as Steve said, “Be still.”

 

“Are you angry about last night?” he ventured.

 

“Yes,” Steve said, but didn’t take his hand off Tony’s chest.

 

Tony’s heart plummeted as Steve continued, “I’m angry that you didn’t safeword out of it before I went too far, or tell me that you didn’t want me touching your neck. I’m angry you weren’t honest with me. You didn’t mention any issues about your neck on the list-“

 

“Maybe I didn’t want you to know,” Tony snarled, rising half-way off the bed before Steve pushed him back down without even a grunt of effort.

 

“And that’s our issue,” Steve said in response to his outburst. “You trust me enough to tie you up so you can’t get out, but not enough to tell me that you don’t want me touching you there, because- Jesus, I don’t know, you thought I was going to hurt you or think you were weak or something.”

 

“I know you wouldn’t,” Tony hastened to reassure him. He couldn’t bear the idea of Steve regarding himself with the same hatred he turned towards Derek.

 

“You might know it intellectually-“ a dry brush of lips across his temple, ”but not here,” and Steve’s fingers traced over his heart, “-which is where it really matters.”

 

There wasn’t really much Tony could say to that, and so he said nothing, staying as motionless as he could.

 

“I suppose there’s no point in asking if you even got close to this subspace you talked about,” Steve said meditatively.

 

Tony snorted, letting his head sink further into the pillows. “No.”

 

“All the…” Tony could imagine how red Steve’s face was, “…stuff I read made it sound like abuse wasn’t a part of reaching it, but you mentioned that you were able to with Derek.” Steve spat the name like it was soiling his mouth to even speak it.

 

“You can force subspace as long as you create the endorphins through pain,” Tony said, “which is why I managed to get there against my will when Derek flogged me. But when you come out of it, you don’t feel any calmer or more relaxed or anything- just nauseous and used.”

 

“Can you reach it any other way?”

 

Tony grinned, the motion bitter even to him. “Yeah, through trusting the other person enough to… let them take over. And then it helps me stop thinking, which is a good thing, because while other people go through day-to-day life, I’m doing that and contemplating suit upgrades and working on solving unsolved theorems and thinking about my latest contracts.” He laughed. “But before the Civil War I could get distracted by flying, or going out and doing something. And now I’m,” he shrugged, helpless, “I’m stuck in here. So I guess I was willing to put up with the pain Derek caused, because at least when you’re in pain you’re not thinking.”

 

”But after what happened with Kathy, trusting someone enough to stop thinking and to be unable to react if I had to wasn’t… really an option.”

 

Fingers running through his hair, a thumb rasping over his stubble, making the sharp-edged ball of hurt inside him uncoil a little bit more.

 

“You trusted me with your life many times when the Avengers were still together,” Steve said.

 

Tony shifted, surprised when Steve didn’t comment. “I know. But I trusted you in battle- because you’re you, first of all- but also because my life’s…” he trailed off, biting the inside of his cheek.

 

“Your life’s never been terribly important to you,” Steve finished, and Tony blinked beneath the blindfold, both impressed and disconcerted at how easy it was for Steve to figure him out.

 

He wasn’t sure if he liked the idea of being known that well.

 

“Yeah. And the consequences of failing in battle seemed like they’d be easier to deal with than the consequences of letting go of control and having the other person fuck up.”

 

“Oh yeah, failing in battle is so much easier to deal with, except for the whole ‘being dead’ part,” Steve muttered.

 

Tony rolled his eyes. “Okay, I get it, it’s stupid.”

 

Steve’s fingers drummed a tattoo on his scalp as he made a noncommittal noise. “I’m guessing you don’t want to talk about the issues you have with your neck, right?”

 

Tony turned his head, trapping Steve’s callused fingers between his shoulder and cheek, nodding. Of course Steve, being Steve and therefore stubborn as a mule when he sank his teeth into some issue he wanted to solve, would probably insist upon-

 

“Okay.”

 

What?

 

“What?”

 

Steve shifted uncomfortably, but said, “Well, you don’t want to talk about it, and I’m not going to force you to if that’s what you really want. I mean, I’d like to know, but it’s not a requirement.”

 

He wasn’t going to push?

 

He was actually going to listen to what Tony had to say? Derek had listened, but never on big things, only on the small decisions like what take-out they were going to order in. Tony had gotten used to not having secrets; Derek demanded to know everything about him, and made sure he dragged every last secret kicking and screaming into the light, every small, secret wound hoarded close to the belly, so that he could slip glass blades of words into those wounds and twist.

 

Steve hadn’t done anything physical- no angry contact at all, even though Tony could hear the annoyance threading through his words. Instead of expressing his anger, he had brought him breakfast in bed, in an attempt to look after him. Steve had so much ammo to use against him, so many secrets from the old days, and so far he hadn’t used any of them against him. And Steve hadn’t accepted Hank and Thor’s version of things, even though he had every reason to.

 

As he contemplated, Steve’s hand stayed on his cheek, warm and callused and comforting, and Tony hadn’t realized how much he had missed this, this casual, unthinking contact that Steve provided as easily as breathing.

 

Because Steve was giving, and even though he knew all the terrible things Tony had done-

 

He had stayed.

 

Realization threaded through him, warm, hopeful, foreign.

 

Steve wouldn’t push, wouldn’t use the memories of Derek kneeling over him, of sudden warmth flooding down over his chest.

 

Tony shook himself, saying only,

 

“Okay.”

 

Steve wouldn’t use the memories against him- had proven this today.

 

Steve wouldn’t-

 

He wouldn’t hurt him deliberately.

 

And maybe-

 

Maybe he could trust him.

 

- - -

 

Tony leaned back against the arm of the couch, staring at Steve over the top of his laptop screen.

 

Steve felt his regard and looked up from his sketchpad.

 

Tony had gone very quiet these last few days, absorbed in whatever equations were playing themselves out inside his head, and Steve had noticed Tony staring at him more than once, his gaze thoughtful, searching.

 

He didn’t want to think of what went through Tony’s head when he had been trapped here alone, the monotony of thinking broken only by Derek’s visits and by pain. He knew something of what it had been like when he watched Tony stare into space with darting eyes, Extremis whirring in his gaze; watched him swirl his spoon around his coffee mug in a perfect spiral, murmuring Fibonacci numbers; watched him stare dully at his food as if he didn’t know what it was until Steve broke him out of his reverie with a hand on his shoulder; watched the way his hands twitched, his lips shuddering through equations.

 

So it was rare for Tony to initiate any conversation, and he wanted to give it as much attention as it deserved.

“Yeah?”

 

Tony frowned for a moment, gaze flickering to his laptop screen, before he seemed to come to a decision about something and closed the computer, swinging his feet up from the floor and insinuating them beneath the sketchpad and Steve’s legs.

 

Steve couldn’t hide his smile at the glimpse of the old Tony, who expected that everyone would be willing to put down whatever they were working on to involve themselves in whatever harebrained scheme he’d come up with.

 

Peter had jokingly suggested they test Tony for mind-control powers once.

 

“If you wanted a foot rub, you just had to ask.” He flipped the sketchpad shut and bent over Tony’s feet to drop it on the floor, Tony’s toes curling in the fabric of his T-shirt as he sat up.

 

“If I do that, I don’t get to see that look you get on your face when I make you stop sketching,” Tony said, wiggling his toes in an obvious demand that Steve get started.

 

“Glad I amuse you.” Steve got to work, digging his thumbs into the ball of Tony’s foot, grinning at Tony’s low moan. They sat in silence for a long while, enjoying the closeness, the silence of two people who had no need to fill the spaces between them.

 

Steve switched feet, glancing at Tony out of his peripherals. He was contemplating something, the wrinkle between his eyebrows that he always got when he was thinking already there. Steve itched to smooth it away. Tony stared off into space, face pinched and weary as his hand rested momentarily on his own neck.  Steve turned his attention back to Tony’s foot, ignoring the creeping feeling of unease at the sight.

 

Finally, from the end of the couch, a low, tired sigh.

 

“So you know how I avoid the kitchen?”

 

It felt as if someone had poured ice water down Steve’s spine, but he didn’t pause in his task, realizing now that his touch was the only thing keeping Tony relaxed enough to even broach the subject of what had happened between him and Derek.

 

“Yes.” Pressed his thumb against the innermost tendon, the knot of tension softening beneath his fingers.

 

He glanced at Tony from the corner of his eye. He had stopped leaning against the arm of the couch, instead electing to sprawl loose-limbed over the cushions, his gaze searching Steve’s expression for something- some approbation, some anger that would confirm his low opinion of himself.

 

Steve gave him nothing, and Tony relaxed by inches, the tight line of his mouth easing.

 

“It’s not the kitchen that bothers me,” he continued as Steve stopped massaging his foot, left his hand resting on Tony’s ankle. Hopefully the contact would ground him, reassure him that no matter what he said, Steve would be there.

 

“It’s the knives.”

 

“I noticed my second night back,” Steve said quietly, “but I didn’t want to make a huge fuss over it.” He still remembered the blood on his knuckles, and the blind, insensate rage he had felt then at what Derek had taken from Tony.

Tony grinned, a pale shadow of what he had once smiled like. “I knew there was a reason I loved you.”

 

“It’s not my amazing foot massage skills?”

 

“That’s also a factor. And the fact that you’re the only person I know who’ll actually make my coffee the way I like it.”

 

Jarvis had always refused to profane their coffee by making it the way Tony preferred: black enough to eat through steel.

 

The reminder of happier times ached like an old, badly-healed wound.

 

Another silence.

 

“Derek was into knifeplay,” Tony said abruptly, his head lolling on the couch cushions, his chest rising and falling in jerky motions, like film on an old projector. “He had me blindfolded and tied up, and was holding this chef’s knife, about this long-“ he demonstrated with his hands, and Steve’s stomach clenched at the span, almost as long as his lower arm- “-and threatening me with it. Cutting my chest, scraping it against my neck- you know, normal stuff. He liked the idea of the Extremis and wanted to test it out, see how much it could heal.”

 

Anything that involved knives going near the jugular veins could never be normal, as far as Steve was concerned.

 

Tony’s fingers curled against the couch cushions in a soft susurration of sound, his ankle trembling against Steve’s fingers.

 

“He messed up.”

 

Tony’s mouth twisted in a sardonic smile, sharp and bitter, that cut Steve’s heart to pieces.

 

“It happened so fast,” he said in quiet wonder. “The Extremis saved my life.”

 

Tony’s fingers drummed against the couch, his feet moving restlessly in Steve’s lap. “I didn’t know what had happened, at first; the knife was so sharp I didn’t feel the cuts when they were being done.” A sick, sad little laugh. “But I sure as hell noticed when Derek ripped off the blindfold and there was blood pouring down my chest and my throat was a gaping wound.”

 

Bile burned in Steve’s throat as he reached out to brush his fingertips over Tony’s throat, feeling that pulse that had come so close to ending forever beat beneath his fingers.

 

Tony’s hand came up and covered his, fingers curling around his palm.

 

“What did Derek do?” Steve said softly.

 

Tony snorted. “Oh, he was useless. He started flailing about screaming, while I’m lying on the couch choking on my own blood. He started babbling about calling 911, but-“ his shrug was the weary one of someone who had learned to expect nothing, “-then he realized he would get in trouble if he did, so he decided not to.”

 

Steve found himself growling, and slipped out from beneath Tony’s feet to kneel above him, arms braced on either side of his head, caging him in in some futile protective gesture. The idea that anyone could be so stupid, so selfish, when given so much trust- it appalled him, even more so now that he knew the value of that gift.

 

Tony propped himself up on his elbows to kiss him. “I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of your insane protectiveness,” he muttered, before continuing, “So I laid there and watched Derek dither around while my lungs filled up with blood. The knife was on the floor, which is where that stain comes from. I laid there and stared at my reflection in the knife while the blood pumped out of my carotids, and I was almost hopeful, you know? That this would be it, and I could go someplace better than this and leave Derek with a body on his hands.”

 

Steve’s hands slid up, fingers tangling in Tony’s hair, his lips against Tony’s brow.

 

“But then the Extremis finally kicked in and started sealing the wound over. That’s probably the only time I’ve ever wished I didn’t have the healing factor.”

 

“Derek was fascinated by it and kept touching my throat afterwards. I don’t think I’ve ever seen somebody so happy about Extremis, and considering how much I loved the damn thing when I first got it, that’s an awesome feat.”

 

“You would’ve married it if you could,” Steve tried to agree, but his voice cracked and died halfway through, and his lips twitched in an involuntary grimace, trying to hold back the rage  that still burned slow and hot in his belly like a banked fire.

 

Tony must have picked up on it, because he reached up and spanned Steve’s cheek with his hand. “Hey. It’s okay, I survived.”

 

Steve pressed closer against him, shaking, clutching his shirt as Tony’s other hand rubbed circles on his back, unable to speak, to say anything that could possibly measure up to the magnitude of Tony, his Tony, getting his throat slit by a madman.

 

If Tony was uncomfortable because of his weight, he didn’t show it, saying nothing as Steve fought back the wave of tears that threatened to swamp him.

 

“It’s okay,” Tony whispered in his ear, and Steve, who had grown used to providing comfort, now took it instead, muffling his hitching sobs against Tony’s shoulder, until his shirt grew damp with escaped tears, while Tony wrapped his arms around his back and anchored him to earth.

 

Comfort, like trust, ran both ways.

 

- - -

 

Tony emerged from the lab off the bedroom, pressing the heels of his hands into his eyes to try and stave off the approaching headache.

 

He had been working on fixing a kink in the suit’s life support system, but it was almost impossible to hunt down all the changes that had cascaded down from that one line of code without having the Extremis at full power.

 

It didn’t help that he’d invented an entirely new programming language just for all of his suits, a language that he only barely remembered how to deal with after having Extremis do the work for him for so long.

 

Not that there was much point to fiddling with the suit; the chances of him ever being able to use it at full capacity again were practically zero, or more precisely, two-hundred-thousand-to-one against.

 

Still, close enough.

 

He lowered his hands, blinking, only to pause as he caught sight of the cuffs half-hidden beneath the bed.

 

Steve must’ve hastily hidden them after the disaster in some misguided attempt to keep the memories at bay, and Tony found himself half-smiling at the good-hearted childishness of it, hand straying to the other wrist, thumb stroking against the spot Steve had kissed before buckling the cuff on.

 

The thought of Steve made his smile dim as he crossed the room and slid halfway under the bed, grabbing the cuffs- the leather was cold and smooth under his fingertips, the metal clinking softly- and dragging them out into the light.

 

He pushed himself back up against the wall, crossing his legs before him, turning the cuffs over in his hands.

 

He was being foolish. He might as well just accept that Derek had fucked him up, and he was never going to be able to trust anybody enough to put his wrists back in these without thinking of ways to get out again. He wasn’t ever going to trust anyone enough to allow himself to be known so deeply, to let anyone in, to give up everything.

 

The leather warmed beneath his hands, and there was a memory.

 

“Too tight?” Sunset looked up, grinning as he shook his head. “Great!” she chirped, and planted one small hand in the center of his chest and shoved him back onto the bed. He landed among the pillows, Sunset climbing aboard and straddling his hips, clipping his wrists together.

 

“Now, what shall I do with you?” she said, tapping her finger on her chin, eyes sparkling, Tony grinning up at her.

 

“I can think of a few things.”

 

“A few things, Mistress,” Sunset corrected him, rolling her hips back and making him gasp.

 

“Okay, Mistress,” he got out, before her lips twitched as she tried to hold back a laugh, thighs shaking on either side of his chest.

 

She failed, and her laughter rang off the walls.

 

“Should I be insulted?” he asked as she calmed down, bending forward and giving him a very good view of her assets.

 

“No no no,” she gasped, “I just- I don’t know, ‘mistress’ just sounds so silly.”

 

“We’re lying in bed about to have non-procreative sex with my wrists tied up, and last time we tried this we fell off the bed because I couldn’t brace us. What about this isn’t silly, exactly?”

 

“Okay, it’s all very silly,” Sunset declared, “but who cares if we’re silly?”

 

“I might,” Tony said, smiling as she bent forward and plopped a kiss on his nose. He loved her so much it hurt.

 

“You don’t get an opinion, remember?”

 

“Of course. How rude of me to forget,” he deadpanned as Sunset slid down his body, fingers hooking in the belt loops of his slacks and pulling them down with her.

 

“Apology accepted,” she said, before bending forward and whispering, “Now, stay very quiet-“

 

He wanted that back. He wanted that trust, that ability to love so completely that to have someone hold up a riding crop without warning- as Imries had- wasn’t cause to blink, although later he had grown to hate that crop: not for the pain it caused, although that wasn’t inconsiderable, but for all that it represented: humiliation, worthlessness.

 

He still couldn’t abide the taste of leather.

 

And he knew intellectually that Steve wouldn’t do any of that- wouldn’t force him to kneel and kiss the implement that would leave him bleeding, wouldn’t tie his arms behind his back so long that his arms shook for hours afterward, wouldn’t harm him.

 

Still, he couldn’t convince the rest of him of that, even though Steve had saved his life far more times than he had ever hurt him.

 

And he wanted to be Steve’s sub, and to sit at his feet and rest his head on his knee, and hold his wrists out to be cuffed, and to suck his cock and take whatever Steve gave him, and to laugh when the ropes were too tangled to undo. He wanted to trust Steve.

 

Tony laid his wrist in the cuff, sheepskin tickling his skin, and fed the tongue through the buckle, holding it in his hand, almost ready to slide it beneath the loop.

 

It felt… comfortable.

 

It felt right.

 

This was one of the first things he had wanted for himself in a long time- he lifted his gaze from contemplation and stared across the room at the open door, at the Frank Sinatra music drifting in as Steve painted in the living room-

 

He would not let them- Derek, Imries, Kathy, Sunset- deny him love again.

 

His wrist slid out of the cuff, jaw clenching.

 

He was stronger than them, and he would not let them take away his trust for Steve, for the one man who had believed in him every time he stopped believing in himself.

 

Tony stood, cuffs in his hands, and went to find Steve.

 

Steve was in bare feet in the living room, newspapers spread out around his easels, a paintbrush resting in his ear, dripping blue paint down his spine as Steve nodded in satisfaction, finishing a grand sweep of gray across the canvas and leaning back.

 

Tony leaned against the doorframe, watching as Steve scratched at his nose with the hand not holding a paintbrush and smeared gray paint across his chin.

 

He wanted this too- to walk into his living room and find Steve sitting cross-legged on the floor, spattered with paint, the afternoon light falling heavy and gold on his skin, to sink into a kneel at his feet and lean his head against his shoulder in silent affection.

 

So he approached as quietly as he could, and sat down beside him, glancing up at the canvas. It was an abstract piece, full of swirls of dark blue and gray, tempered with a few blots of green. He wasn’t really an art person, although Steve had dragged him to innumerable museums before, but he still felt the need to offer an opinion.

 

“I like it.”

 

Steve glanced at him, grinning. His hair was a mess. “Thanks. I spent a lot of time imagining what I would paint when I was on the Skrull ship-“ his eyes flickered at the mention, “-so I’ve got a huge backlog of paintings to make.”

 

Then he caught sight of the cuffs, and he stiffened.

 

“Guess I should’ve done a better job of hiding those,” he said with a crooked smile.

 

Tony swallowed, and held them out, and his voice was quiet, shaking as he said, “I want to try again.”

 

Steve, to his credit, only laid his paintbrushes aside and turned to face him, taking the cuffs from him. “You’re sure?”

 

“Yeah. I want this. I want to-“ he sighed and sat back, “I want to trust you again.”

 

Steve nodded, setting the cuffs in his lap and reaching out, hand settling on Tony’s shoulder. “I’d like that, too. But if you’re doing this for me in any way, tell me now, and we won’t do it.”

 

Tony almost bristled, but remembered what had happened only- God, only a week ago?- and nodded. “I’m not. I want this for myself. Because I’m not going to let Derek control me any longer.”

 

Steve’s smile was like all of his birthdays had come at once, and he stood, Tony remaining at his feet, giving into what he had wanted to do ever since he had first met Steve.

 

He pressed his cheek to Steve’s thigh, and Steve’s hand slid warm and comforting into his hair, Steve’s jeans tightening beneath his cheek as Tony’s tongue slipped out to lick along the cool metal of the zipper.

 

Tony rose onto his knees, pressed his chest to Steve’s thighs, rubbed his cheek over that zipper, smelling him- musk and sweat and the acrid tang of paint- arousal settling warm in his stomach, and this was good. This was okay, and he dragged his tongue across the denim, cloth tickling his beard, and even if it itched it was good, because this was for Steve.

 

He slid his hands around to the back of Steve’s knees and hitched himself closer, glancing up to see how the almost possessive gesture went over, only to find Steve smiling down at him, his eyes soft and warm as sunrise, hand cupping the back of his head.

 

“Open my jeans, please,” Steve said, forestalling Tony’s lift of a hand with a “Try your teeth.”

 

A challenge?

 

Tony grinned and set to work with a will, pressing his face to Steve’s fly, rooting around with his tongue to find the zipper pull as Steve’s hand tightened on the back of his head, Steve swearing under his breath as Tony found it, caught it between his teeth, pulled it down.

 

The button was easier, sliding free, and he glanced up at Steve, grinning with the corner of his fly caught between his teeth.

 

Steve laughed, and it was wonderful.

 

He knew that this was the easy part- that once the cuffs went on, it would be hard, that he might need to slow down, or stop, that he might end up shaking, and Steve wouldn’t mind it.

 

He shoved thoughts of later into the back of his mind and let go of the jeans, catching the waistband with his mouth and pulling, Steve obligingly shaking his hips to ease them down.

 

“You know, we could change the Sinatra to techno, if you’re going to be dancing,” Tony said as he let go.

 

Steve looked alarmed. “What? No! I do not dance, especially not like that.”

 

“Uh huh,” Tony said, before he turned his gaze to Steve’s tented boxers and the dark spot slowly spreading across the cloth.

 

Steve’s thumb stroked across the back of his head, a subtle pressure urging him forward, and he went gladly, resting his face against Steve’s belly, the golden hair there scratching his chin as he pushed the boxers down with his chin, Steve’s cock bobbing free, already red.

 

“Slowly,” Steve said, and Tony nodded, leaning forward, licking up the bead of fluid he could see gathered at the tip, Steve’s hips jerking as he traced the rim of his cock with his tongue, hands tightening on the backs of Steve’s knees.

 

Yes.

 

He wanted this, and slid his mouth down over Steve’s cock, grinning internally at the choked moan that provoked, Steve obviously fighting the urge to just hold his head still and take over.

 

Tony pressed his tongue against the vein on the underside, Steve’s hand tightening in his hair, the small tinge of pain only stoking the fire inside him higher-

 

Blowjobs were messy work, but they were something he enjoyed. He liked making them lose control, liked seeing how long he could tease them before they growled “Enough.”

 

Steve’s fingers twitched in a mute plea, and Tony took pity on him, pulling back, tasting salt and Steve as he tried to remember how to relax his throat.

 

Okay, that was it, and he closed his eyes and sank back down, hollowing his cheeks, and where the gag reflex would’ve forced him to stop, he kept going.

 

“Jesus,” Steve whispered raggedly, thunderstruck, and Tony would’ve grinned and preened if he wasn’t currently occupied. Steve’s other hand, the one that had been dangling at his side, came up and settled above his ear, Steve finally taking control.

 

Tony glanced up and almost came. Steve’s chin was dropped against his chest, sweat glinting in the fine golden hairs above his lip, his eyes half-closed, a flush spreading down into the open collar of his shirt, pulse beating in his neck, and Tony must’ve done something incredible in a past life to have been given the chance to see this.

 

“God, you’re wonderful,” Steve rambled incoherent praise, “your mouth-“

 

Tony stayed there, gazing up, as Steve’s hips flexed and his cock slid almost free, Tony daring to lick the slit on its way out. Steve’s laugh was breathless, but there was nothing breathless about his relentless slide back into Tony’s mouth. Tony kept his cheeks hollowed, breathed through his nose, and even if Steve covered his nose now like Derek had done, he wouldn’t worry, because he knew Steve would never let him suffocate.

 

Tony blinked.

 

The endless whine of the Fibonacci sequence; it had dimmed. The low-level buzz of the Euler-Mascheroni Constant, and the unending argument in his mind about its irrationality: the argument had paused. Even the constant tinkering with the Church-Turing thesis had almost stopped, and-

 

His head was almost silent, almost emptied of everything but love, and pleasure, and the urge to please Steve as best as he could by remaining as still as possible, and it had been so long since there had been peace in his own mind.

 

It was almost like floating, this knowing that he was not responsible. That he had to do nothing but be what Steve wished him to be, and he knew that Steve wouldn’t want him to not be himself.

 

He closed his eyes and hummed in calm happiness, and Steve’s legs shuddered beneath his hands, his fingers curling even tighter in his hair, and with a whispered, “God,” Steve came.

 

Tony swallowed, then slid his hands up Steve’s thighs to grab his hips as Steve swayed.

 

He felt ridiculously, unaccountably pleased with himself.

 

Steve’s thumb stroked the back of his head for a long moment as Tony listened to his breathing, waiting for the okay and not caring whether it came or not, content to be just as he was.

 

“Oh!” Steve said. “You can, uh, finish it up, I suppose.”

 

Tony let Steve slide free of his mouth and pulled his boxers back up, tucking him inside, before hauling the paint-spattered jeans up over his hips and zipping them up, Steve’s hand on his cheek warm and comforting, fingers consciously refraining from straying over his throat.

 

“Open your eyes,” Steve said, his voice roughened with arousal, the gravel tone only making Tony spread his legs a little wider in an attempt to get some relief. Tony did, and stared up.

 

Steve looked relaxed, at peace with himself and his world, a small, sincere smile on his lips. “You’re wonderful,” he said, and stooped to kiss his upturned mouth. Tony’s hands twitched at his side, itching to relieve himself.

 

But Steve hadn’t said anything about that, and if Steve wanted him to wait, he would.

 

Steve’s eyes strayed down to the bulge in Tony’s dark slacks, and the side of his mouth quirked up in that crooked smile Tony loved so much. “I think that can wait a little while, don’t you?”

 

Tony frowned, broken out of his reverie, and only nodded.

 

“I need a shower,” Steve muttered, rubbing his hand across his chin and coming up with flakes of dried gray paint. “You get on the couch and wait,” he said, and Tony did, stretching out on his side and closing his eyes. The persistent, warm ache in his cock remained, but he ignored it, because Steve wanted him to wait, and he would, because he trusted him.

 

He hadn’t realized how much he had missed this.

 

He dozed for a little while, listening to the sound of water running in the shower, then silverware in the kitchen, and finally Steve emerged with a plate piled with sandwiches, water-dark hair lying flat against his skull, damp T-shirt and shorts clinging to his skin.

 

Nothing in Tony was frightened, nothing shrank away from the idea of this man touching him.

 

So while Steve set the plate on the coffee table and sat down, Tony slipped off the couch and took a seat on the floor between his spread legs, resting his chin on Steve’s thigh. Steve laughed, resting one hand on top of Tony’s head.

 

“I’m guessing I must’ve doing something right, then,”

 

“No complaints here,” Tony muttered, and he sounded half-stoned even to his own ears.

 

“Good,” Steve said, and he could hear the smile. “Sandwich?” A hand holding a peanut butter and jelly sandwich appeared in his field of vision, and Tony took it from his fingers with his hands, holding it himself.

 

He wasn’t ready for the whole eating-food-from-his-hand-like-a-bird stage of the relationship.

 

Steve didn’t seem perturbed, instead just turning the television on to the latest news on the Mets. Tony was just thankful it wasn’t the C-SPAN feed of the preparations for the SHRA hearings soon.

 

It took two more sandwiches for Tony to come back to himself, and he almost wondered at what he was doing.

 

Steve’s fingers remained tangled in his hair, a comforting anchor as Tony tilted his head back and rested it on the edge of the couch, gazing up at Steve’s upside-down face.

 

“Hey,” Steve said.

 

“Hey.”

 

“I was thinking,” Steve said, “and I had an idea about the whole throat thing- it all comes back to trust, right? You don’t trust anybody to not hurt you.”

 

“I trust you,” Tony said, frowning. “I even almost made it down this time.”

 

“I know,” Steve said, “but there’s a difference between me just holding you still while leaving your hands completely free, and me actually putting cuffs on that you can’t get out of. Tell me, if I put the cuffs on right now, would you really like that, or would you be nervous?”

 

“The latter,” Tony admitted.

 

“Okay,” Steve said. “So what do you think about spending the entire day tomorrow cuffed, maybe blindfolded, with only me to feed you or help you get around?”

 

It sounded terribly boring.

 

“You’d have your safewords,” Steve hurried to add, “which factors into my plans for the end of the day.”

 

“Do I get to veto this if I don’t like it?” Tony asked, still somehow surprised as Steve nodded, looking unperturbed by the possibility.

 

“Sure, but here’s the idea. Once you’ve realized that you can trust me, I was thinking-“ Steve fidgeted, legs bouncing on either side of Tony’s body, “-that maybe I could-“ he trailed off, and finally held a small, silver butter knife in Tony’s field of vision.

 

Tony studied it, the arousal that had lingered pleasantly in his groin fading away utterly.

 

It was small and rounded, gleaming, and the serrated edge had been filed down into an unbroken dull curve.

 

“I thought that I might blindfold you and- I’d warn you beforehand, of course- just press this against your throat very carefully. I don’t like seeing you afraid of knives, and I thought it might help to sort of repeat the experience, but in a better way. I don’t know, maybe I’ll soak the knife in ice water beforehand, apparently that helps.”

 

“It helps it feel sharper,” Tony said dryly, reaching out and taking the knife from Steve’s fingers and testing the edge with his thumb. No matter how hard he pressed, it only left a dent in his skin. No cuts, no abrasions.

 

“Oh. What do you think?” Tony tilted his head back again, Steve hovering over him, looking eager and nervous all at once.

 

It was a strange look to see on his face, not one that he had ever seen on any of his tops before, but knowing that Steve was even more of a novice than him was weirdly comforting.

 

He would have his safewords, and if things got to be too much, he could get out, and Steve wouldn’t be angry at him for it; he had proven that already.

 

It would be hard- really hard- but if Steve was willing to try, then so was he.

 

“I’m okay with that, but two things.”

 

Steve leaned forward, too-long hair flopping over his forehead. “Name them.”

 

“No ice water. It’s going to be hard enough without having my body telling me that there’s a sharp knife at my throat. And I don’t want to wear a blindfold. I’ll close my eyes if you want, but no blindfolds.”

 

Steve nodded solemnly.“Fine. Same safewords?”

 

Tony’s smile was shaky. “Yeah. I think I’ll be too nervous to remember new ones.”

 

Steve’s smile was comforting and loving and anticipatory all at once as he kissed Tony’s hair, tangling his fingers with Tony’s.

 

“I love you,” he whispered, making Tony shiver. “And thank you for this.”

 

Tony squeezed his hand in reply, and turned his thoughts towards tomorrow.

 

- - -

 

Steve got up early, rubbing at his eyes with the back of his hand as he wandered into the bathroom to perform his morning ablutions.

 

Finished, he padded back out, pausing in the doorway, a smile tugging at his lips at the sight that greeted him. Tony was sprawled out on the bed, dark head resting on his folded arms, light picking out the bumps of his spine.

 

He needed the sleep; his insomnia was worse than Steve had ever seen it, and he wasn’t even sure how long Tony had gone without a good night’s sleep. Hopefully today would relax him enough to let him rest.

 

Picking up the cuffs from their perch on the bedside table, he shook Tony’s shoulder, watching as the other man stirred, rolling onto his back with a groan of “Nnn, too early,” that made Steve chuckle.

 

“It’s nine o’ clock in the morning, Tony!”

 

Tony was deaf to his protests, throwing an arm over his eyes and peering out at Steve from beneath.

 

“I suppose my chances of going back to sleep aren’t very high,” Tony said, voice roughened with sleep.

 

“About as high as the chances of Doom declaring his undying love for Reed,” Steve said, unbuckling the cuffs and undoing the clip that held them together.

 

“Doom always seemed a bit too obsessed with him,” Tony muttered. “And you, making me get up before ten. Slave driver,” he accused, his sleepy smile belaying his words.

 

“That’s me,” Steve said, rolling his eyes. So far it was going well; Tony didn’t seem disturbed by the cuffs’ presence, or annoyed at Steve taking control the moment he woke up. Hopefully Steve’s attempts at keeping this casual would work.

 

“Hands, please.”

 

Tony blinked, but sat up and offered them anyway, going silent and still, a sense of questioning bleeding off him as Steve took his wrists and buckled them into the cuffs, kissing the inside of his wrists as he did so. The almost ritualistic nature of it was somehow comforting.

 

“Yes?” he asked, looking up as Tony shifted, avoiding his gaze.

 

This was much different from the easy nature of yesterday’s scene, where Tony had just gone with it as Steve held him still, accepted Steve’s denial of his orgasm, rested his head on Steve’s knee. Yesterday, he had been almost talkative, almost like his old self, but the presence of the cuffs just seemed to shut him down, forcing him back to the silent, wounded man Derek had created.

 

“If you want to say something, please do,” Steve said, curling his fingers around Tony’s forearm, thumb stroking over the thin skin there.

 

“I just- I’m not wearing any clothes, and-“ Tony gestured at his cuffed wrists with his chin, “-I can’t exactly put them on. Sir,” he tacked on hastily.

 

“Don’t call me ‘sir’, and don’t worry about the clothes. You won’t need them.”

 

Tony swallowed, brow furrowing, but nodded, and Steve bent forward and kissed him, trying to pour all of his affection and love and possessiveness into it. Tony almost melted into it, eyelids closing, chasing after Steve’s lips when he pulled away.

 

“Blindfold now,” Steve said, picking up the strip of black velvet and settling it over Tony’s eyes, tying a safety knot at the back, Tony’s hair soft against the backs of his hands. “See anything?”

 

Tony shook his head mutely, as if he was afraid to speak. ‘Two steps forward, one step back,’ Steve thought, but only stood, taking Tony’s hand. “C’mon,” he said, and pulled Tony up, ready to lunge if Tony overbalanced and fell.

 

But he didn’t, and so Steve led him towards the door, down the hallway, and into the kitchen, Tony following behind him, mute, a tense presence at his back, scuffing his feet on the floors as if to attempt to guide himself in case of Steve leaving. The kitchen was lit with the pale glow of morning, refrigerator gleaming in the sun. Steve positioned Tony in the corner by the table, then glanced down at the tile floor.

 

Too hard for his plans.

 

“Stay there for a second,” Steve said, waiting for Tony’s nod before hurrying into the kitchen and dragging a cushion off the couch, reentering the kitchen and plopping it down beside his chair. Tony didn’t move, only the subtle angling of his body in Steve’s direction showing that he had heard him come back in.

 

“Two steps forward, then one to the left, and then kneel,” Steve said, testing, hoping, and his hopes were fulfilled for once as Tony lifted his head from his bowed contemplation, his steps ginger as he found the cushion and knelt, and Steve’s heart expanded in his chest at the simple trust inherent in the act.

 

The coffee machine beeped, and he twisted to grab the pot and pour them each a cup, fortifying his own with cream and sugar, leaving Tony’s untouched. It only took a few moments to cobble together some bagels, and finally, armed with breakfast, he sat down, Tony immediately leaning against his leg, the thick cords of tension Steve could see in his back easing as Steve’s hand found its customary place on his head.

 

“Bagel,” Steve said, holding one smeared with cream cheese before Tony, neither surprised nor hurt when Tony grabbed the bagel himself. Really, he kind of preferred it; the idea of Tony eating food out of his hand like some sort of… dog just went against the grain of all that he was.

 

He munched on his sesame-seed bagel, staring at everything and nothing in particular, left hand still resting on Tony’s head, playing with his hair, and sipped his coffee. Tony’s was probably cool enough to drink by now.

 

“Coffee?”

 

“Yes, please,” Tony said, his voice a little stronger, as if he was drawing solace from how normal Steve was being.

 

Steve passed him his coffee mug, and watched him drink it, fiddling with his thick, dark hair as he did. It was nice, the whole domesticity of it, just the two of them eating breakfast together, although he was pretty sure that having them both be male and one be blindfolded, kneeling, and cuffed was probably not in the domestic manuals his mother had read.

 

When Tony finished, he took it from him and set it aside, before standing and taking his hand again, leading him into the living room, Tony’s steps a bit more confident this time.

 

Steve helped Tony to kneel again by the couch, the coffee table heaped high with legal briefings and other documents all relating to the SHRA and the upcoming hearings on its constitutionality. Tony leaned against his leg, Steve’s hand finding its regular spot.

 

“Bored yet?” Steve asked after an hour as he crumpled up a useless editorial and pitched it into the trashcan.

 

“No.” Tony sounded surprised, adding, “’s kind of nice, actually. I got good at holding position with Derek, but then I was always holding some mental running commentary or building new circuits for the repulsor generators in my head. But I don’t know, the petting’s kind of relaxing- I’m not really thinking about anything much.”

 

“Good. How’re your knees?”

 

Tony rose off his knees, wincing momentarily. “Getting kind of stiff. Extremis will fix it before too long, though.”

 

Steve almost snarled at the mere mention of Extremis, of the thing that had made Tony so interesting to Derek. He controlled himself, said only, “I don’t want Extremis to have to fix anything regarding you, and it’s not going to be necessary on my watch. If you get stiff, you change positions, and don’t even bother asking permission, because it’s going to be ‘yes’ every time.”

 

Tony changed positions and more time passed, Tony silent but for the sound of his breathing.

 

“You’re pretty quiet,” Steve said as neutrally as he could, breaking the peaceful silence. Steve could get used to this, honestly: to reading the morning newspaper with Tony at his side, chin on his thigh. There was something oddly comforting about his presence there, like a physical reminder that no matter what had happened in his absence, Tony, at least, still loved and trusted him.

 

“There’s not a lot to talk about when you’re staring at the inside of your eyelids,” Tony snapped, Steve raising a brow at his tone, before Tony seemed to realize what he had said and nearly cringed. Steve didn’t comment, only reached out and grabbed a stack of opinion editorials.

 

“I hear paper,” Tony finally ventured in some paltry attempt at peacemaking, shifting on his knees.

 

“Yeah,” Steve said, already loaded down with more ethics issues than he had ever had before, “I’m trying to prepare a statement on the SHRA for the hearings.”

 

A strained silence. Tony shifted again, Steve saying, “You can sit back against the couch if you want.”

 

Tony did, but didn’t lean against Steve’s leg like he normally did, and Steve mourned the loss, already used to the warm companionship and devotion that it implied.

 

The specter of the SHRA stood between them like the mightiest of walls.

 

“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” he finally said, although he knew that one day they would have to discuss it.

 

“No. We should,” Tony said, shoulders slumping. “You’ve probably heard a lot about my actions online and from the others, anyway.”

 

“Yeah, but I’d like to know your side.”

 

Tony’s small laugh was so bitter that it stung, but all he said was, “Let me think.”

 

Which was exactly what he wasn’t supposed to be doing, but there wasn’t any point in curtailing the conversation now that Tony seemed willing to broach the subject.

 

“Okay,” Steve said, and returned to reading his briefings, the only sound in the room the turning of pages and Tony’s breathing. A long while passed, broken periodically by Steve reaching up to rub at his eyes when the words overwhelmed him, by Tony’s shifts and the tension he could see gathering in his back, in the muscles there.

 

Then, finally-

 

“I thought I had to do it,” Tony blurted.

 

Progress.

 

“Why?” Steve asked, setting down his briefing and settling a hand on Tony’s shoulder, gratified when he didn’t shrug it off. ‘Why?’ was kind of a ridiculous question to ask, but he had to know Tony’s reasoning, had to try to understand what had gone wrong in him to make speaking out unfeasible.

 

“I’m a futurist, Steve,” Tony said, and the venom dripped thick and cutting off his words. “And I knew that the situation we had before the War wasn’t sustainable: some hero, somewhere, would fuck up big time, and there would be a push to register superheroes. There’d been whisperings of a Registration Act since… Jesus, since the late 1980s.

 

And I knew that when that random hero fucked up, that would be more than enough to get the votes to ratify the SHRA. Because yeah, superheroes are great. They save peoples’ lives, they make the world a better place, they inspire the multitudes and uplift the downtrodden, blah blah blah. But they do all that at an incredible cost to the infrastructure of cities and countries.”

 

Steve wondered when Tony had started referring to heroes as ‘them’ and not ‘us.’

 

“I got a chance to look over the budget for the city of New York a couple years back, and something like ten percent of all taxes were going to pay for things that the heroes broke in petty feuds or attempts to apprehend villains. It didn’t help that in most engagements, civilians got hurt or in a few cases, killed. I mean, the Hulk’s rampages alone have killed a hundred people, give or take a few. But people were willing to overlook that as long as they felt that the benefits outweighed the costs.”

 

“And then came Stamford,” Steve said softly.

 

“Then came Stamford.” Tony’s fingers toyed with the cuffs on his wrists, and he sighed, turning from Steve. “And I thought that maybe the Registration zealots were right; maybe we did have too much power and not enough accountability. Wanda unmade almost the entire mutant population with a thought, I could see through satellites, Xavier could influence almost any mind on the planet, some two-bit villain could incinerate an elementary school.”

 

Accountability. Steve had never really given much thought to the accountability of superheroes before, and he regretted the oversight now.

 

“And I got how all those old geezers on Capitol Hill felt, because I had felt that way too. They felt that the law was a mockery, because the law doesn’t matter as long as superheroes are free to blow up entire neighborhoods and face nothing but a little public censure. They felt that they- the common man on the street- were no longer relevant in a world where men can fire lasers from their eyes.

 

"And I understood that feeling, because I’m not a superhero.” Tony’s smile was a twisted, wrecked thing as he continued, “While Clint hits targets from miles away and Thor summons lightning and Peter swings from webs, I’m just a man in a tin suit.”

 

Steve bowed his head in frustration, in agony that even now Tony still belittled himself and his contributions as being somehow ‘less,’ as if the Avengers would’ve ever gotten off the ground without him.

 

Tony continued, faster now, “And I knew the Act would pass, because the benefits of superhero anonymity and freedom to do whatever they wished no longer outweighed the broken buildings, injured and dead civilians, the mocking of the idea that all men were created and should be held equal.”

 

He shrugged. “So I supported it, hoping to somehow change the flow of sentiment to something less intrusive, something that could make heroes accountable while not requiring full disclosure of names. Something that would make it impossible for the U.S. government to turn vigilantes into its own private army, which I figured out was the government’s primary motive in creating the Registration Database.”

 

“I thought I could control Registration by joining SHIELD, and it turned out that no one could control Registration. I knew there’d be some sort of database, and that I needed to get my hands on it. And then it all went to hell, because you- the Skrull- just wouldn’t listen, and Maria started arresting people and throwing them into the Negative Zone, and Richards and Hank- or Skrull Hank- were telling me not to stop what I was doing every time I turned around-“

 

Tony was bordering mania, his words blurring together, his hands shaking, and so Steve reached over and dug his thumbs into his shoulders until he felt the tension ease, murmuring, “Breathe.”

 

Tony- for once- listened, the two of them sitting, breathing together in the morning light, until Tony finally said in a colorless voice,

 

“So I waited, and watched, and kept sending out memos delaying everyone’s access to the database. I couldn’t let the media know who the people that had been forced into registration were. I couldn’t let the FBI and CIA take away any hope of a semi-normal life from the people who had trusted their government to not misuse that information. And even if they hated me for what I had done, what I was still doing, I still thought that the superhero community deserved that from me.”

 

“I knew the database couldn’t be allowed to survive as it was, because while I believed- and still believe- that heroes should be accountable for their actions, I didn’t believe that they should be forced to fight in our government’s wars.

 

“So when the time was right, I deleted the entire database, except for one backup, heavily encrypted.”

 

“The one in your head.”

 

“Yeah. I knew that as long as one copy existed, Osborne would try to get his hands on it, that it would be a constant thorn in his side, distracting him, weakening him in the eyes of the public. Because he has the power of the United States government behind him, and he still can’t get that information out of my head.”

 

Tony’s voice was filled with quiet determination.”And he won’t ever get it, because this is all that’s keeping Peter and his family alive. This is all that’s stopping the Young Avengers from being drafted into strike forces in Afghanistan.” His smile was rueful, and it made Steve’s heart ache. “This is it.”

 

“And in the end, even though I lost you and my friends and most of my company…” he trailed off, and swallowed, hard, “I guess it was worth it. I hope it was worth it.”

 

Steve swung his leg up on the couch and moved to sit behind Tony, kissing the back of his neck.

 

“I’d like to think that it was,” Steve said.

 

“I’m sensing a ‘but’ here,” Tony muttered, pushing back into Steve’s touch anyway.

 

Steve shook his head, but then realized that Tony couldn’t see him. “Not really. I understand your point of view, why you did what you did, and even if I don’t agree with all of the decisions you made...” he shrugged, “they’re your decisions, not mine, and it’s not my place to tell you whether they were right or wrong.”

 

Tony’s shoulders stiffened again, and his voice was studiedly calm as he said, “What would you have done?”

 

“I don’t know if I would’ve done the same as the Skrull and become the leader of the anti-Registration resistance: I hope not, because I’m not the kind of person for whom guerilla warfare is morally right. But I don’t agree with the idea of treating metahumans differently than regular humans by forcing them to register their identity in case of crisis.”

 

Tony muttered something about the draft and subsided, going with Steve’s cue to lean against his leg, resting his chin on Steve’s thigh, one of Steve’s hands sifting through his hair as the other hand flipped through the stacks of paper.

 

Tony started to fidget and mumble beneath his breath, as if the stress of talking about the SHRA had pitched him straight into a manic phase, his tugging against the cuffs and muttering so different from the calm person of yesterday.

 

He didn’t need to be stressing over the SHRA; he had more than enough to worry about already, in the form of a dulled butter knife sitting on the bedside table, and if he really started to obsess over this SHRA meeting, the entire plan for the scene with the butter knife was going to have to be scrapped, because Steve wasn’t going to put anything near the throat of a Tony who was sleep-deprived and not fully in the moment.

 

Distraction time.

 

The thought of tonight and the feeling of Tony’s breath on his inner thighs was doing something rather embarrassing to Steve, a pool of warmth gathering in his belly, stoked higher by the way Tony yielded easily to his soft command to turn around.

 

“Eyes closed, please,” he said, as he reached forward and pulled off the blindfold, Tony’s eyes remaining screwed shut for a few heartbeats after the blindfold was removed.

 

Steve quickly undid the fly of his jeans, hooked his thumbs in his boxers, and shimmied them down over his hips before saying, “Open your eyes.”

 

Tony did, caught sight of Steve’s jeans, or lack thereof, and smiled with no small tinge of relief and smugness, glancing up.

 

Steve nodded, and Tony closed his eyes and leaned forward, taking Steve into his mouth and making Steve’s eyes roll back in his head.


Steve threaded his fingers through Tony's hair, brushing his thumb over Tony's skin, a low, pleased sound thrumming around him as Tony pushed back into the touch, tongue pressing against the bottom of Steve's cock.

His eyes were closed, and they stayed closed as Steve cupped the back of his head protectively, rocking his hips up into his mouth, hot as a furnace, careful not to choke him, his other hand resting on top of Tony’s shoulder to support him. He hoped that the basic nature of it would distract Tony from his brooding over the SHRA, as it was doing for Steve.

 

Tony’s cheeks hollowed as Steve threw his head back against the couch, climax rolling through him like a wave, fingers clenching in Tony’s hair. Tony let him fall from his mouth reluctantly as he softened, turning to brush a stubbled cheek against the inside of Steve’s thigh, a sleepy cat demanding attention.

 

Steve stared at the ceiling for a long moment, just breathing, kneading circles against Tony’s shoulder, feeling knots of tension press against his fingers like rocks, before sitting up again.

Tony’s chin was resting on his leg, his eyes half-open, staring up at Steve.

 

“That was wonderful,” Steve said, carding his fingers through Tony’s hair once more, feeling it slide through his grip like silk. Tony’s eyes flickered, like a light in some distant room had been turned on for the first time in ages, a quiet smile tugging at his lips.

 

“Come up here.”

 

Tony joined him on the couch, rolling his shoulders, his joints popping.

 

Steve grasped Tony’s chin, turned his head enough to kiss him, tasting himself, before pulling Tony close, arranging it so that they were lying on their sides, facing the television.

 

He reached for the remote and tuned the television to ESPN at a low volume before lying back down, one hand splayed across Tony’s belly, feeling his cock, heavy and hot, brush against the back of his hand.

 

Tony made a hopeful noise, pressing back against Steve’s resurgent arousal.

 

“No,” Steve said, pulling Tony closer, spine pressing into his chest even through the T-shirt. “I’m going to watch baseball, and you are going to sleep. If you manage to get an hour nap, then maybe I’ll deal with that.”

 

He was, of course, going to deal with it, nap or no nap- as it was too much of an opportunity to be missed- but Tony didn’t know that.

 

“I did manage to get six hours last night, you know,” Tony muttered, before letting his head rest on Steve’s other arm.

 

“The fact that six hours of sleep has become something to be celebrated really says something about your sleep schedule.”

 

“I-“ Tony began, before whatever he was going to say was interrupted by a loud yawn.

 

Steve strained his wrist to reach for Tony’s hair, stroking him like a grumpy cat, the thumb of his other hand petting the skin of his stomach. Too skinny, still.

 

Tony was out like a light within two minutes, the tension he carried in his muscles easing, and he was warm and pliant against Steve, the fingers of his cuffed hands resting on Steve’s.

 

Steve drowsed, not particularly interested in whatever was going on in the game, too absorbed in the feeling of Tony against him, the slow rise and fall of his chest, the brush of stubble against his arm, the strange elation that Tony was willingly surrendering control to him, trusting him to lead him where he needed to go.

 

That was a feeling that he could get used to.

 

- - -

 

The game had ended by the time Steve came back into the room, having already slipped off the couch and laid out the dulled butter knife and glass of orange juice by the bed. It had taken a few minutes of sitting and staring at the butter knife to prepare himself, to shed his day-to-day worries and become totally focused on Tony, and what he had planned.

 

Smiling at the way Tony had contrived to take up the entire couch by sleeping contorted into a vaguely pretzel-like configuration, he crossed to the couch and knelt, nudging Tony awake and ignoring the SHRA files behind him.

 

Those could only distract him, and he couldn’t afford distractions now.

 

It was easy to feel the moment Tony woke; his shoulders immediately tensed as he tested the cuffs, before relaxing as Steve petted his arm, eyelids cracking open.

 

“Hey,” Steve whispered as Tony’s gaze sharpened with comprehension, and God he adored this man so much that it scalded him to think of never having had this.

 

“Hi,” Tony replied just as softly, one corner of his mouth quirking up in a smile.

 

“It’s time,” Steve said, firmly but as gentle as he could make it. “Do you need a moment, or shall we go ahead?”

 

Tony swallowed, face paling, but he nodded. “I’m about as far down as I can get, I think, so I’d rather just start it and get it over with.”

 

“Okay,” Steve said, sitting back as Tony swung his legs off the couch and stood, ready to spring in case he overbalanced without his arms to support him. But he didn’t, so Steve stood, curled his fingers around Tony’s shoulders, and pulled him in for a kiss, Tony yielding to him without protest, his cock hot and heavy against Steve’s hip, the contact making him gasp into Steve’s mouth.

 

“C’mon,” Steve said, leading Tony back to the bedroom with a hand at his back. Tony followed without comment, his expression, when Steve glanced back, unnervingly focused and intense, fear nibbling at the edges.

 

Still, he had his safewords, and for Steve to back out now after all the trust he had asked for already would be insulting.

 

The bedroom lights were dimmed, the bedside lamp casting a warm pool of light around the bed, a blanket already folded and waiting at the end.

 

Tony halted as he caught sight of the light glinting on the knife, throat bobbing as he swallowed hard, his eyes huge and very black in the dimness.

 

“Tony?” Steve didn’t know what to say, what the proper procedure was here; didn’t know if Tony even remembered his safewords. But he did know that he didn’t want Tony to back out, not when he had finally gotten down far enough to confront the object of his fears.

 

“I’m okay,” Tony said, his voice strangled, shaking, and Steve was really starting to wonder if he’d completely fucked the whole thing up-

 

Tony tore his gaze away from the knife and lifted the clip of the cuffs out of Steve’s fingers, making his way with halting steps to the bed, where he laid down, cuffed hands resting on his belly, fingers curled into loose fists, his eyes fixed on the ceiling.

 

Steve shook himself free of the clinging shock and joined him, reaching for the leather strap he had woven through the headboard. Tony offered his wrists, and Steve tied the cuffs to the strap, the work done in a silence that made sweat gather on the back of his neck.

 

“Try it,” he said, nodding at the cuffs, watching with a critical eye as Tony tugged at the strap. It held.

 

“So…” Tony drawled, his voice threaded with tension, “are you going to get naked any time soon? I mean, the visuals are going to be kind of boring otherwise.”

 

“Now I know you only want me for my body,” Steve muttered, reassured immeasurably by the fact that Tony had made a joke, no matter how small. He slid out of his T-shirt and flung it across the room onto a chair, the shirt shortly joined by jeans and boxers. Naked, he glanced down at himself, absently cataloguing the changes that the Skrull ship had wrought. He was lacking muscle, and what few muscles he did have were utterly missing definition.

 

Although, he amended, looking up to see Tony’s eyes fixed on him, his breathing fast, he couldn’t be in that bad of a condition.

 

Without speaking, he climbed onto the bed and knelt by Tony’s side, cupping his face in his hands and leaning down to lick his mouth open, insinuate his tongue inside, learn this new territory that was his.

 

Tony strained up into the kiss, tugging against the cuffs for a moment before relaxing back into the bed as Steve sat up, opening his mouth.

 

“If you ask me if I’m okay one more time,” Tony interrupted, catching sight of Steve preparing to speak, “I swear to God I will go find my repulsor gauntlets and blast you into next week.”

 

Steve snapped his mouth closed, then shrugged, smiling. “Well, since I don’t particularly want to be blasted, how about some more rules?”

 

“Rules are good,” Tony said, lifting his hips in a none-too-subtle attempt to urge Steve on. Steve raised an eyebrow and Tony fell still, waiting, expectation glittering in his eyes, a pink flush already tracing over his cheekbones.

 

“First rule: don’t move until I tell you to. Second rule: don’t, under any circumstances, hide your reactions from me.” Tony nodded. “Thirdly, no trying to hurry me up.”

 

“I’m getting the feeling you plan to spend a long time on this.”

 

“Yep,” Steve nodded, dragging his nails lightly down over Tony’s shoulders to span his fingers out over his chest, admiring the fading pink lines left in his wake, Tony’s eyes darkening further at the caress that skirted the edge of pain.

 

“’s good,” he murmured, letting his head rest back against the pillows, stiffening again as Steve dove in, hands sliding to feather out along his sides, fingers fitting into the grooves between ribs, teeth resting on the spot above his left collarbone, and he bit down carefully-

 

Tony’s cock jerked against his leg, the tension in him taut as a bowstring as Steve held him down, held him still, sucked until he felt the mark form beneath his mouth- knew that Tony would brush his thumb over it in the days to come, would smile to himself at the faint ache- Tony’s breathing already threatening to break apart.

 

His gasp as Steve licked a trail from his shoulder up to his ear was a wondrous thing that made fire burn inside Steve’s bones, made him want more, everything he had to give: the hoarse sigh when Steve worried his earlobe between his teeth; the restless tension of his flat stomach, itching to move; the blurred blue eyes fringed with eyelashes clumped with sweat.

 

And he could have it, because Tony was offering it, in the same simple, selfless way he offered everything.

 

He slid down Tony’s body, counting freckles, marking them with his tongue, sucking bruises onto a hip, a rib- here Tony twisted, laughing, and the sound made Steve’s heart seize with joy, and he forgot to reprimand him for moving. Mapped every inch of his new territory, detouring around Tony’s cock, Tony thrumming with tension beneath him, cock warm and slippery against his thigh, and he could see how hard it was for Tony to keep himself from moving.

 

But he was doing it, because Steve had asked him to. Because he trusted Steve to not lead him astray.

 

He continued his survey until Tony was a complete mess, hair black with sweat, every breath a rasp as he stared at Steve with pleading eyes blown utterly black, forming hickeys littering his body, and Steve was hit with a surge of utter possessiveness that he almost stumbled.

 

“Put your head down,” he said quietly instead, testing, wondering if Tony would be willing to give up that small bit of control that he gained from seeing what was going on.

 

Tony thumped his head back into the pillows, biting back a growl, and-

 

Steve felt it happen as Tony somehow melted against the bed like ice cream on a Brooklyn sidewalk, sighing, long and low. Half-concerned, he popped his head up from where he was contemplating Tony’s cock to see Tony, hands half-open, his eyes almost shut.

 

“Good?” he whispered, afraid to break the moment, Tony’s dreamy nod enough to reassure him.

 

This was it, apparently; the so-called ‘subspace.’ It had reached an almost mythic status in his mind, as far off and mystical and unattainable as something from The Lord of the Rings, so to see it be so simple was… kind of mindboggling, actually.

 

He didn’t know how long this moment would last, so reached over, fumbled with the nightstand drawer, and pulled out the small tube, trying to will his blush away. Tony’s grin at his discomfort was hazy, but there.

 

The lube was freezing on his fingers, making him warm it in his hands before he palmed himself, gasping, the warm fire of arousal still so novel, so precious after a long year in the cold and darkness of space.

 

More lube on his fingers- the one thing he had learned from his few gay encounters was that there could never be too much lube- before he slid one, then two, into Tony, encouraged beyond words as Tony pushed back hard against his hand, his body drawing Steve in, his moan making Steve bite his lip. He was like a furnace inside, and Steve wanted to throw himself into it and burn.

 

“Jesus,” he murmured to himself, forced to squeeze his cock to keep himself from coming too early at the feeling of Tony, hot and quivering around his fingers, heels digging into his back as if to push him forward into Tony, a silent plea for relief.

 

Still, this wasn’t something that could be rushed, and so he took his time working him open, etching every choked gasp, quiet moan in his memories to keep. Twisted his fingers inside him, curved them, and deliberately drew them over Tony’s prostate.

 

Tony melted again, beyond words, a low, urgent keening the only sound he could make- it was like auditory pornography, the sounds he could produce- as Steve pulled his fingers out, poured more lube on his cock, and settled his hands on Tony’s hips, straining his back to reach up and plant a kiss on his breastbone, above the artificial heart whose pulse rushed beneath his fingertips.

 

Taking a deep breath, he pushed, sweat dripping off his nose onto Tony’s belly as he fumbled-

 

Retreated, tried again, a gasp tinged with pain pushing through Tony’s teeth as Steve’s fingers left marks on his hipbones-

 

And Jesus, Tony just… opened up, and he slid into him smooth as anything, the breath leaving his lungs in a hoarse sigh of amazement.

 

He had to brace himself with a hand on the mattress to keep from falling on top of Tony, drunk on the incredible feel of him, on the low sound of contentment in the back of Tony’s throat, on the quiet acceptance in his half-open eyes as he arched his back.

 

A pause, to enjoy the moment, to watch for any hint of rancor in Tony’s expression, any sign that he was unhappy with Steve having all the control. That the trust was fading.

 

He found none.

 

A careful flex of his hips, Tony’s fingers curling white-knuckled against his palms, sweat beading at his hairline as Steve snapped his hips forward again, a short, sharp thrust that made heat spark up his spine, the bed slam against the wall, Tony swear “fuck” under his breath in that rough, half-stoned way of his that Steve was rapidly learning to love.

 

The knife glinted in the corner of his eye, and he stilled.

 

It was time.

 

Steve removed his other hand from Tony’s hip, rested it on his belly, thumb stroking the fine line of dark hair there.

 

“Tony.”

 

Tony blinked blurry eyes, seeming to struggle to focus, and finally managed it, blue gaze sharpening. Steve almost wished he hadn’t pulled Tony from his happy place.

 

“Yes?”

 

Steve reached for the blunted knife and held it up, feeling the tension build between them, a warm, pulsing thing that coiled deep in his stomach. “It’s time; do you want to safeword?”

 

Tony’s eyes were riveted to the dulled blade, throat jerking in a swallow. “Still one pass, right?” he said, referencing the number they had agreed on earlier.

 

“That’s what we agreed on, and that’s what I’ll do.”

 

No point in being offended at the need for confirmation, not now. No need for offense at anything, since Tony was lying here beneath them, completely open to him, while Steve held a knife in his hand.

 

The fact that it was dulled meant nothing when Steve- who had killed men with what amounted to a dull metal disk- was holding it.

 

Tony’s nod was a short, sharp thing, but there was no sharpness in the gaze he turned on Steve. Only wariness, and a desperate yearning to trust.

 

Steve stretched up to kiss him, Tony returning it with fervent hyper-intensity, as if the fear Steve could smell, bitter and metallic, was spurring him on.

 

One day, Steve vowed, they would do this and he wouldn’t smell fear.

 

“I love you,” he said, and Tony’s mouth twisted in something almost like a smile.

 

“I know.”

 

One day, Tony would accept that fact without making that terrible, involuntary mocking smile.

 

One day.

 

The silver filigree on the handle of the knife seared Steve’s skin as he shifted it in his hand, rested the dulled edge on the bottom edge of Tony’s sternum, Tony’s shudder reverberating up the silver into his hand, into his arm, into his heart.

 

Tony’s eyes were wide, white, almost glowing blue in the dimness, his fingers curled tight into his palms, and Steve wondered if there would be red half-moons cut into Tony’s palms when the scene was over.

 

“Okay,” he whispered, glancing downward, his hand almost a disembodied thing as it dragged the knife, blood-warm with his own heat, up Tony’s chest, the slightest hint of pressure leaving a thin white line behind.

 

He could hear Tony’s breathing, short, sharp breaths that jerked out of him in spasms- like the way the boys had breathed before Normandy, like he had breathed before the Skrulls strapped him into their machine- and rested his other hand on Tony’s side.

 

“Breathe with me.”

 

Tony glanced up at him, eyes wild, but nodded, Steve’s hand stilling. The only sound in the room was them, breathing as one. The red flush of hyperventilation faded on Tony’s skin, and Steve firmed his grip on the dull knife, swallowing.

 

The line continued, up over the sternum- Tony stared into Steve’s eyes, struggling to breathe with him, to trust him- as the knife slipped over the lip of his breastbone and down into the unprotected hollow of his throat.

 

Every muscle in Tony’s body locked up, his heart thundering in the pulse of his neck, his mouth half-open, as if he was going to flash back to lying on the couch outside, pouring blood from his neck- dying because he had dared to believe Derek’s promises.

 

Steve froze, ice crystallizing in his veins as he searched Tony’s eyes. Tony stared back, not even breathing, as Steve slid his hand up from his side to cradle the back of his skull, thumb stroking his skin as he waited, saying nothing, showing no expression, trying to give him the strength to let go.

 

And it was such a huge thing: for Tony, who had always made the wrong decision by giving up control, to Derek and Imries and the sentient armor, to let go, to trust that Steve wouldn’t harm him, even though Steve hovered over him now with a knife at his throat.

 

They hung there, suspended in silence, caught between fear and trust. A long minute passed by, the two of them staring into each others’ eyes, Steve trying desperately to project that it was okay, that he was strong enough to bear both their burdens, if Tony would only let him.

 

And there was nothing to say but “it’s okay,” and even as he hated himself for being so desperately trite, so utterly inarticulate, something… clicked in Tony’s eyes, and he relaxed, muscle by muscle, until he lay flat against the bed, only his curled fingers betraying his tension. Steve had to keep himself from blowing out a relieved sigh, but only bumped his forehead against Tony’s, whispering,

 

“Thank you.” All his tension rushed out him in a stream, certainty taking its place that this was right; that he was right; that everything would be okay.

 

Tears burned at the edges of his eyes, and Steve found himself forced to blink them away, but he could see Tony, could feel him, warm and alive and here, beneath him still.

 

Felt Tony swallow against the knife, the dulled curve indenting the thin skin above his Adam’s apple.

 

Tossed it aside- they didn’t need it anymore- and didn’t even hear it as it hit the wall and slid down.

 

Didn’t- couldn’t- comprehend anything but a sense of triumph and overpowering, all-consuming love as he placed one hand on Tony’s hip, snapping his hips back, and then lunged into him, wrapping his other hand around Tony’s cock, staring with naked hunger at Tony’s face, the mark darkening on his throat.

 

Because Tony was his, trusted him enough to bear the presence of a knife at his throat, and nothing would ever change that.

 

“Mine,“ he found himself snarling as his hand slid up and down, a twist of his wrist making Tony gasp and shudder around him-

 

Tony couldn’t even speak, but his chin jerked in a nod, trying desperately to focus, to understand.

 

And then his eyes slid shut, his spine arched off the bed, and he came apart with a low moan, everything in him winding whipcord-tight before unspooling- and Steve would have waited a thousand years in the prison ship for this.

 

Tony fell back against the bed, eyes dazed, hair black with sweat and messy, the air heavy and hot as Steve let go of Tony’s cock, grabbed his hip, and thrust back in, and Tony just laid there, open and silent, gazing up at Steve with something almost like worship.

 

And Steve fell into him without a sound, and it was like free-fall, like leaping headlong from a B-52 with a parachute on your back to spin in the sky, except here there was no hard earth to smash into- here there was only warmth, and trust, and the knowledge that someone loved him enough to follow him without knowing the end.

 

He blinked, and found himself hunched over Tony, his arms shuddering as he tried to keep himself from falling onto him. It took a moment to remember what he needed to do, what the procedure was, but then he slid out of Tony, untangled his legs from around his waist, and reached up to pull the safety knots.

 

Tony’s arms slipped down onto the pillows, and Steve undid the buckles and pulled them off, laying them aside and inspecting Tony’s wrists with a critical eye. No reddening or abrasions, good. Reassured, he slid off the bed and grabbed the ancient, folded blue blanket that had once been in the Avengers Tower living room off the end of the bed.

 

Turning back, he froze.

 

Tony sprawled across the bed in the inelegant sprawl that he remembered, nothing like the contained stiffness of late. His chest rose and fell, the slow, deep breaths of someone at peace, and his eyes, half-shut, were blurred, and he was-

 

Warmth expanded in Steve’s chest.

 

He was almost smiling.

 

“Come here, you,” he said, and picked up Tony to bundle him up in the blanket before he could start to shiver in earnest as the endorphin rush ended. Tony sagged against him, Steve maneuvering his head to lie heavy on his shoulder as he leaned back against the headboard, Tony warm and relaxed in his lap.

 

“Have some orange juice.” Steve held it to his lips, Tony sipping it obediently for a few moments before pushing himself closer to Steve and turning his face into Steve’s neck, his breath warm on his skin.

 

Apparently he didn’t want orange juice.

 

“Not drinking after a scene isn’t going to become a routine, is it?” Steve asked, his answer a blissful silence as Tony wriggled an arm free of the blanket and snatched up Steve’s hand to draw his arm around his waist.

 

“Mm, better,” Tony mumbled, words tickling on Steve’s jaw.

 

Steve blinked, setting the juice down and cradling the back of Tony’s head once more, rocking back and forth as Tony’s breathing stuttered once, twice, then evened out into sleep- the kind of sleep he hadn’t had in months.

 

Steve had helped him find it.

 

Steve found himself smiling, utterly involuntarily, as Tony shifted in his arms, mumbled something, and subsided again, trusting and safe and his.

 

“We’re going to be okay,” he said aloud to the silence, and knew that he spoke the truth.