After another day of mother-henning, Tony kicked Rhodey out to go back to his job. Technically, Rhodey was still recovering from the head wound, but they both knew that wasn't serious and people needed the Iron Patriot more. (And no, Tony didn't snicker as he said that name.)
Pepper came by soon after Rhodey left. Tony had the feeling Rhodey called her, but they hadn't spent a day together since they'd broken up and Tony was willing to jealously guard whatever attention she would still give him.
"You should talk to Steve," Pepper said, saving Tony's pancake from burning when he got distracted.
"I don't know what to say to him," Tony said truthfully.
Pepper just smiled and hugged him. "That's why you should get it over with soon. And if you don't flip that pancake, you're eating the burnt ones."
Tony burnt his finger on the grill, but at least the pancake was saved.
"We can turn up the heat, you know," she said thoughtfully. "Though I don't know how you're not hot already, standing in front of the grill."
Tony froze, the irrational urge to pull the scarf around his neck tighter, even though it wasn't enough, it wasn't near enough to make up for the lack of Astron's tail. Rhodey had just raised an eyebrow when he put it on, not commenting.
"Tony?" Pepper asked, coming to stand by him and putting a hand on his back.
"You're right, it's hot," he said, unwrapping the scarf and sliding it across the counter. He didn't need to show more signs that he wasn't over this. He could survive without having something around his neck.
Pepper didn't say anything, just slipping her arms around his chest and hugging him from behind. Tony let out the breath he'd been holding, forcing himself to relax against her as he flipped the pancake onto the plate.
Pepper he didn't have to kick out (he couldn't even if he tried), because she was much more responsible than he'd ever been running the company. She went back to work the next day, telling him to call if he needed anything, and then Tony was alone.
He looked into a mirror, staring at the stranger who had a young face. He'd been avoiding mirrors since he'd gotten back, but now that he was looking, it was almost like looking at a photograph of himself when he was younger. He would have been fooled, if not for the eyes. Brown eyes that were far older than such a face should have, more wounded than he'd ever seen them be before.
He forced himself to look in the mirror and to keep looking. He could handle being alone. He really could. He just needed to not think about stars, or space, or aliens, or drago-
"JARVIS, put on playlist 4," Tony said, going down to the workshop as fast as he could manage. He could work on the repulsor he'd been fixing when this whole mess started. Thor's stone was gone, but he had to get it reattached to his normal armor anyway. "And JARVIS, can you... can you keep talking?"
"Of course, Sir. Would you like the current news or the results of your latest code for the Starkphone?"
To his credit, Tony lasted about three hours.
It wasn't that JARVIS and the bots weren't company, but it wasn't the company he needed. He couldn't feel the tail around his neck or the bright colors of unconditional love. He just needed... He needed someone he couldn't have.
He wasn't even consciously aware that he was leaving the workshop, though he told JARVIS to stop as he left. He had a vague notion of hunger, and his feet started moving despite himself. But instead of going to the kitchen, Tony found himself in the gym.
It wasn't like Tony never went to the gym on his own, because he did have training with both Steve and Natasha, along with his own personal trainer at various times throughout the month. Before Afghanistan, working out had been a vanity practice. Now it was a precaution because the fitter he was meant he was less likely to hurt himself. He wasn't exactly a spring chicken anymore and...
Well, he was now. He doubted that would be a good enough excuse to get out of Natasha's lessons though.
He never really went to the gym without a reason though. He knew Clint and Steve made good use of it, and Thor occasionally dragged whoever was nearest for sparring, but Tony wasn't really the 'working out for fun' sort. So it was odd for him to come here, instead of the kitchen. His subconscious usually made some amount of sense.
Then he heard the sound of fists hitting a punching bag, and he realized that maybe his subconscious hadn't been that off the mark after all.
Tony slowed to a halt, not quite in or outside of the training room and feeling like he was intruding. He didn't leave, however, watching Steve pound at the bag mercilessly. Tony had never really looked before, at least not with the intent of actually enjoying the view. But now that he was... well it was a very nice view. How had he never noticed this before? Seriously, there had to have been something wrong with his eyes. He'd been vaguely aware that Steve was an attractive man, but it was different now that..
Tony pushed the thoughts of kings and dragons aside, focusing on the movement of Steve's muscles on his back. Occasionally, he let his eyes drift to the movement of Steve's shapely backside as well. Shame was for people who weren't Tony Stark.
Finally, Steve hit the bag so hard that it went flying across the room. Steve used to apologize for that, but then Tony built him a bag fabrication unit that used the recycled remains of the old bag, and Steve had just looked at him in relief. Right now though, Steve hung his head, breathing slowly.
"I know you're there," Steve said.
Tony still couldn't bring himself to move into the room. He stood in the doorway, wondering what he was doing here. "Pepper says we should talk," he said.
Steve didn't turn to look at him as he started to unwrap his hands, though Tony sensed some anger in the room that hadn't been there before. Tony was a little glad Steve wasn't facing him, because seeing Steve's face right now would bring back all the memories of Steven. "Probably," Steve replied sharply, his shoulders tensing. Then, more bitter, "If Pepper said to, then we obviously should."
Tony didn't get more to go on, which meant he was left to flounder. He'd said the wrong thing, somehow, and he didn't know how to fix it. "So then why don't we talk?"
"Are you going to tell the truth?" Steve snapped.
Tony flinched, almost taking a step back before the anger took over. Of course Steve would want to pick up the fight right where they'd left off before this whole mess started. "We're doing this now?"
"You were the one who wanted to talk," Steve replied.
Tony grit his teeth as he seethed quietly. "I thought we had more pressing things to talk about. Like, I don't know, dragons."
"So pressing you sought me out immediately."
Tony clenched his hands into fists, staring at a spot on the ground rather than at Steve. "Sorry," he said in his most conversational 'fuck off' voice. "I was a little messed up after I had to clean up what you couldn't do right the first time."
That got a reaction out of Steve. Tony didn't have to look up to know that Steve had spun around to face him and that he'd struck a nerve. It wasn't the link anymore, but he'd been in Astron's - in Steve's - mind, and he instinctively knew that would hurt.
"At least I didn't resort to murder," Steve said coldly.
Tony laughed, a cold, brittle sound that rang through the gym. "I prefer to think of it as assisted suicide," Tony said. "Not to mention the fact I was saving your life. You know, Pep was right. It was a great idea to come down here. Thanks for the talk, Cap. Maybe next time the patriotic stick won't be shoved so far up your ass."
"Leave, Stark," Steve growled. "Walk away from this conversation."
The unmistakeable threat of 'while you still can' was loud and clear. Tony wasn't cowed by threats, not when the armor was only a few seconds call away, but he was done with talking, and he didn't want to look up and see Steven's face. That might make him lose the will to fight. "With pleasure," he replied, before pivoting and making his way out.
As soon as he was out in the hall, he felt his shoulders slump. Arguing with Steve had always been bad, but now... It was both a slap and rejection. He closed his eyes, dragging in a labored breath.
"Real smooth, Tony," he heard Natasha say.
Tony didn't look up. "Just what I needed. Honest Russian disapproval of my life choices."
He flinched as he felt her hand in his hair, but she just smoothed it down and kissed him on the cheek. He opened his eyes to see sympathy in hers. "Never said he wasn't being an idiot enough for the both of you too," she said. "Go and see Bruce, kotyonok. He wants to run some tests and you need company. I'll take care of Steve."
By the time he got down to Bruce's lab, he didn't need Russian disapproval. He had his own guilt to deal with. He really should have checked in with Steve sooner. He'd asked JARVIS for updates, but that wasn't enough, not when Steve was probably still hurting from the broken link too. And the things Tony had said...
Bruce didn't touch many people. He didn't allow himself to be touched either, not after years of being hunted. Tony, on the other hand, was like an attention-starved cat, constantly touching and prodding. Bruce adjusted instead of complaining, eventually relaxing and even letting Tony curl up against his shoulder during movie night every so often. But he never initiated the touch. It always had to come from Tony first.
So when Tony walked into the lab and Bruce saw him, he figured he wasn't hiding the guilt terribly well. Because Bruce took one look at him and gave him an awkward hug. "Is this okay?" Bruce asked hesitantly.
Tony closed his eyes. "Yeah," he said, burying his face against Bruce's neck. Bruce pat his back stiffly, and what did Tony even do to deserve this? He hadn't deserved Astron either, and now... "Why do I always fuck things up?" Tony asked.
Bruce gave a short laugh, relaxing a little. "Everyone messes up, Tony. You just do it with more flair than most people."
Tony let himself be led over to a stool as Bruce continued talking. "We should - Let's start the tests. Then you can tell me about your armor upgrades. I promise not to fall asleep this time. Does that work?"
What Bruce didn't say was that Tony could talk about other things as well, which Tony was grateful for. He didn't want to talk. He wanted to go back to the status quo, even if he was just pretending. He nodded, letting Bruce talk.
He missed Astron.
* * *
Tony managed to spend more and more time by himself. It wasn't as hard as he thought it would be to fall back into old routines. It was sleeping he couldn't figure out how to do. He'd fall asleep in Bruce's lab, or in the common rooms, but his own bed was too empty. Which was ironic, since a little dragon wouldn't have filled it much more, but it would have been enough.
Really though, waking up with his head in Natasha's lap or curled against one of Thor's biceps (Jane didn't mind, as long as she could have the other side, and she was totally willing to cuddle down in the lab when Bruce had an experiment going) was not exactly a bad thing. He could get used to this. Even Clint only kicked him off the couch to lead him back to the archer's own room with a futon.
Steve had moved out entirely, and according to Natasha he was bunking with Sam Wilson. Tony tried not to think of how much that hurt. Sam was at least sending Natasha updates, which she would share with Tony.
That was why he was surprised to see Steve in the kitchen two weeks later, staring into his cup of coffee morosely. "I thought you moved out," Tony said, before he could check himself.
Steve looked up, and Tony was shocked to see a rueful smile aimed at him. It reminded him of Steven. "Left all my stuff here, so I wouldn't call it moving out. I needed a place to get my head screwed on straight."
Oh. Well, that wasn't as bad. Now Tony felt a little foolish for assuming. Natasha had only said that Steve was staying with Sam, and Tony had done the rest himself.
And Steve was still smiling. Not like, bright and happy or anything, but the smile was still there. It set Tony off balance. "What are we doing here?" he asked, not sure of his footing.
"I'm here to apologize," Steve replied.
Tony blinked. "You are?"
"Yeah," Steve said, standing up to walk over to Tony. He paused a few inches away. "You haven't been sleeping," Steve said instead of an apology.
"Neither have you." Not that Steve showed it, but Tony knew Steve hadn't been sleeping any better than Tony had.
Steve's hand came up to touch Tony's cheek, and Tony jerked back, the memory of a triangular head where those fingers were now still too fresh in his memory. "What are you-?"
"Sorry," Steve said, pulling his hand back like he'd burned it. A lost look was quickly replaced by a chagrined expression. "Got so used to - Guess I'm still not used to being human again, not around you."
Tony had let Astron in his personal space almost constantly. But this was different. This was Steve, and Tony didn't know where they stood. They stood there looking at each other awkwardly as Tony tried to figure out what to say and Steve looked at his hand blankly.
"I'm sorry," Steve said quietly after what felt like an eternity. "What I said in the gym, that was..." Steve closed his eyes and took a deep breath. "I was angry and lashing out, and you didn't deserve any of that, especially not after what you've been through. I was just... When you said Pepper told you to come and talk to me, all I could think of was that you'd never want to come talk to me on your own. It was like I was just coming out of the ice again, when everything I did just made me feel alone."
"Steve," Tony said, once again floundering. "It wasn't like that. And you didn't do anything-"
"I know. It just took a few times of Sam telling me that to sink in. And I did a lot. I assumed the worst of you because I was wound up," Steve said, guilt in his voice. "You did what you had to, I think. I don't know exactly what happened after..."
"Isern went mad again," Tony lied, because it was easier to believe than the alternative.
"You don't really believe that," Steve said.
Tony took a sharp breath. No, he didn't. Isern's chest had been too unguarded, too open. When he'd been angry before, Tony hadn't even been able to get close. The anger, the red eyes, that had been deliberate this time. Isern was giving Tony the push he needed to kill him.
"He wanted to be himself when he died. He'd killed you and Astron. I... killed him, to stop him from hurting more people. There was no other way."
"I wish there had been," Steve said, his voice choked.
Tony's own throat was pinched painfully, and he refused to think about why. "I'm sorry," he said, both for what had happened in the other world and in the gym. "I should have come to talk to you before, but-"
"You were hurting just as much as I was," Steve said. "I should have kept my head instead of lashing out. I'm sorry."
The memories of Isern's final words rang through his head. "I shouldn't have lied-"
"No," Steve said, cutting him off. For one brief second, Tony felt relief that Steve was letting it go. Then Steve kept talking. "You shouldn't have. You put people in danger because you weren't one hundred percent, and you lied to me about it."
"I don't know if you noticed, but I actually have a full time job on top of Avenging. There's going to be other times I'm pulling double shifts and not sleeping. It's not like I can't work without sleep either," Tony said bitterly.
"I know." Steve rubbed at his forehead, sighing softly. "I shouldn't have blown up at you for that. But you should have told me."
"You needed me," Tony said, raising his chin as he crossed his arms over his chest. "If I had told you, you would have benched me. And more people would have died."
"You're right, we needed you," Steve said. "But we didn't need you in that position. I could have switched out you and Thor, had you clearing out the civilians that were trapped in the building. It's still important, and you can do that with less danger. There was no tech that needed you there, where I would have had to send you in anyway. If there had been anyone in that building you brought down because you weren't awake enough to be on top of things, someone would have died. What happened could have been avoided, Tony."
"You don't know that," Tony snapped, not looking down. "There could have-"
Tony cut himself off as Steve gripped Tony's shoulders, surprised by the touch. "Of course I don't know," Steve said, shaking him slightly. "You won't tell me. We just saw how well that worked out in the other dimension, Tony!"
"I don't know if you noticed, but Isern wasn't the only problem," Tony said, bringing up his hands to push Steve off.
At this, Steve took a step back and a deep breath. "I know," he said simply.
Tony didn't know what to do with that, or with the fact Steve kept moving so easily into his personal space. He stood, not sure of what was going on. He hated not knowing. He needed to apologize, because Steve was right, he shouldn't have lied, but it was so much harder than apologizing to Astron. "I..." he said, not quite able to force the words out.
Steve seemed to understand, and it was thankfully enough for now. He moved closer to Tony again, this time he keeping his touch on Tony's arms light and Tony didn't brush him off. "There's things we both need to work on for this to work."
"And what is 'this'?" Tony asked, shifting uncomfortably, knowing he would have to properly apologize later. "How much of 'this' is dragon induced? You might not even really feel this way." Despite the kiss and everything else, Steven had never answered Isern's confession in the end. How much of that was pity?
The grip on his arms tightened fractionally for a second before Steve relaxed. Tony didn't want to hear the answer - he wasn't even sure what answer he wanted - but he needed to hear it all the same.
"This is whatever you want it be," Steve said finally. "I know what I want it to be, but if you don't agree then being friends is okay too." Steve quirked a lopsided smile that was a little painful to see. "Might take me some time to get over you, though. Hope you won't hold it against me."
"I wouldn't-" Tony started. He stopped when one of Steve's hands lifted from his arm. Steve pressed his index finger across Tony's lips lightly, before bringing up his thumb to massage them gently. Tony swallowed, and Steve pulled his hand away, remembering himself. "Sorry. As a dragon I got really used to touching you. And you still haven't said yes, so it's pretty unfair of me to keep doing this. But let me finish?" Steve said, clearing his throat awkwardly.
Tony nodded, half afraid that if he spoke, he would ruin the spell. He missed the warmth against his lips, wondering what would have happened if he'd kissed Steve's fingers.
"As to the feelings being 'dragon-induced', I've felt this way for a while," Steve said.
Steve gave him another of his rueful half-smiles. "Never could tell if I fell a little bit in love with you the first time when you woke up after falling from the portal, or when you smiled as you shook my hand."
Tony stared back in shock. "That's-"
"A while, I know," Steve said. "You were with Pepper, so I didn't say anything. But when you broke up, I wanted... I wanted us to be friends before going deeper."
The pieces started falling into place. Steve bringing him dinner when he missed meals while he was caught up in the workshop. Steve dragging him out for sparring or to get himself caught up on the twenty-first century. Steve coming down to the workshop to draw, or asking Tony what books he'd recommend to read next. Tony knew they'd been getting closer, but he'd never seen why.
"Natasha didn't guess either," Steve said, a hint of a true smile on his lips. "She watched me like a hawk when I told her I already knew someone I wanted to pursue, and she didn't put it together for at least two months."
"But why?" Tony was baffled. Honestly baffled. "We're not... We're completely different. Even getting to this point was hard. We fought every other week, and you always seemed to disapprove of everything I did."
Steve winced at that, sucking in a breath. "Yeah, that's one of the things I need to work on," Steve admitted. "Being clearer. I'm not... I've never been very good at this sort of thing, talking. Especially when it's about things that matter. But you... I think this is worth trying for, even though it's hard. And I want to give it a try."
That didn't answer why. Steve must have realized Tony wasn't getting it. The hand still on Tony's arm trailed down, and he brought Tony's hand up, capturing it between his own hands as he rubbed gently at Tony's palm. "I've always loved your hands," Steve said, caressing Tony's fingers. "Howard never bothered, but you take care of your hands. It's a beautiful contrast, your kept nails and soft fingers, with the nicks, burns, and callouses from your work. Though I'll admit, I've gained a new appreciation of your neck while I was a dragon."
Tony flushed. That was not... Astron hadn't been thinking the decidedly impure thoughts that were clearly going through Steve's mind right now. He wasn't entirely opposed to the impure thoughts, but it would take some adjusting to.
"The king, he kept saying how quick our bond was formed," Steve continued. "I think that was because I was already half head over heels for you."
"You were angry with me," Tony said, very much aware that Steve was still holding his hand captive.
"I didn't remember that. I didn't really have any memories beyond being a dragon. But I knew you. And I knew that I had to protect you from the ghost that was with you."
"You knew Steven was a ghost?" Tony felt his heart jump, before twisting into a dull ache.
"I didn't know you thought he was real when I was a dragon," Steve replied, shaking his head. "I thought you could see it too. Mjölner told me he wasn't a threat, but you were so... You were so bright, and he was getting close to you. I didn't trust him."
The last words came out a little petulantly, and Tony started piecing Astron's behavior and Steven's comments together, feeling like a bit of an idiot for not seeing it before. "You were jealous. Like, actually jealous. I thought Steven was just teasing."
It was Steve's turn to blush, rubbing at the back of his neck as his ears turned red. "A little," Steve admitted.
"You were going to drop eggs on his head," Tony said.
At this, Steve grinned. "And it'd have been hell to get out of his hair too."
That was more than just a 'little' jealous. Tony started laughing in spite of himself, and Steve kept rubbing Tony's palm between his hands, his smile growing. "I've always loved your smile," Steve said.
Tony didn't really mind Steve's smile either. But one thought sobered him up. "So when Steven kissed me, you..."
Steve's smile slid off his face. "You kept thinking of me as some kid. Someone you had to take care of. I thought I could change that. But when he kissed you, I... I realized your happiness was more important."
Steve brought Tony's hand up to his lips, pressing a soft kiss to his knuckles. "It's still true. I'll stop if you want me to. I only want this if you do. If you don't, then I'll get on with my life. Not saying it won't be hard, but I will." Steve looked so earnest when he said that, squeezing Tony's hand gently. There was hope in his eyes, but also caution. When Tony couldn't respond, Steve went with a different question. "What happened after I died?"
"Astron died," Tony said, not quite meeting Steve's eyes. He was still having trouble putting them together. Steve didn't correct him, waiting for him to continue. "I... I killed Isern. But he... If I drank his blood, all this would be permanent, but I could save you. I really fucking hate magic, so I still don't know how, but I..."
"You drank it," Steve said, his eyes widening. "So this is permanent for you. You won't-"
"I won't change back," Tony cut him off, not wanting to talk about age. He pulled his hand away.
"You won't age," Steve said anyway, and damn him for having to say it out loud.
Tony closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. "I will. But slower. A lot slower. I don't know how much, but Steven and Isern... they were both really old." He hadn't thought about it at the time, but if Steven had been dead for centuries... and Steven had been much older than that too, even before he'd died. He had a maturity that his Steve didn't. That most humans didn't, because they could never live that long.
"I'm sorry," Steve said. "You could have..."
"I really couldn't," Tony snapped, not wanting to think of the alternative where Steve hadn't been saved.
"You'll have Thor," Steve said, wisely not bringing that up again, though his eyes looked suspiciously wet.
"And... How much have they told you about the serum?" Tony asked, not sure if Steve knew.
"They weren't sure how much I'd age, if that's what you're asking," Steve said, nodding. "So I'll be here too, if that's true. I'm..."
"Don't," Tony said, not wanting to hear another apology. He decided it was time to keep going with the original topic. They could discuss (or preferably not discuss) this later. "Steven came as Isern was dying. He... He forgave Isern. He dulled the edge of the broken link, so that I could think again."
"The link," Steve said, swallowing hard. "You were..."
Another sentence Tony didn't want to hear the ending of. "He told me what happened, after," Tony said quickly, desperately not wanting to remember the time he'd spent before the edges had been dulled. "Steven broke the link between him and Isern after Isern turned big and some choice that Isern made. Then Steven died, but Isern couldn't follow since the link was broken. And Steven couldn't leave, because Isern was still alive. He said... He said not to repeat their mistakes."
"I got a similar message," Steve said, looking away at a spot on the wall. "Before I met you again, Isern would come and talk to me sometimes. It was a lot longer there than it was here, I think, because I remember being a dragon for a while. He told me to never make a bond, and that humans would betray me. Then as we were leaving, the king, he... Well, he told me a few things to work on. And after what Isern told me, I can sort of see why I need to."
"We could just end up repeating it," Tony said, looking down at his hands. "We hurt people in that dimension. Are you sure we should..."
"I'll admit, it was easier when all I had to do was love you," Steve said, reaching out again before he pulled back, keeping his hands to himself. "But I like to think we can learn. And I don't want to start this out thinking we'll fail. And I know the fact that all I had to do was love you was draconian, but the fact I loved you was always just me. That hasn't changed at all. And even if you do say no, and I get over you, I won't ever stop loving you, Tony. That won't change."
All that love that Astron had given him - that had been Steve all along? Steve loved him that much? And he was waiting for an answer, Tony realized. That realization made him panic. "You said... You said I was bright? What does that even mean?"
"You don't see it, do you?" Steve said, not pressing for an answer. "The arc reactor, it always seemed like a beacon. Even after you took it out, you always showed me the way back. When Bucky..." Steve visibly packed the emotion away, shaking his head. "You told me I had a home after the Battle of New York, and a place to stay after SHIELD fell. Every time I was lost, you reached out and found me. You were-"
Tony found himself kissing Steve. He didn't know how, but the surprised sound Steve made told him that he had started it. He certainly wasn't going to stop it either. He licked into Steve's mouth, desperately trying to find the truth to Steve's words.
Steve's arms fell around him, holding him close. He kissed back with a passion that lacked art, but Tony didn't care. It was different from Steven's kiss, less experienced, but more real. He had Steve all around him, Steve's arms closing him in, Steve's tongue being coaxed into Tony's mouth, Steve's shoulders in Tony's hands as he gripped hard enough to bruise someone without the super-serum. For the first time since Tony had come back, he was at home and things were right. He could feel that he wasn't alone. He automatically reached along the bond, because he could fix it. Things would be good again. The fringed edges started to grow, stretching out to Steve and -
Tony jerked back, encountering momentary resistance before Steve let him go. Tony's hand went to his chest where he could feel his heart beating rapidly. He panted lightly, his lips just a little swollen from the kiss. Tony already regretted pulling away, wanting Steve to come back and finish the job.
Steve looked mussed, but the alarm on his face killed the mood. "Tony, are you alright?" he asked, half stepping forward again before freezing in place and finally moving back to give Tony space. "What happened?"
Tony still felt phantom lips pressed against his, but he couldn't tell if it was Steven's or Steve's he wanted. Though he knew what he wanted really.
He wanted Astron back.
"I..." Tony said, knowing he needed to say something, but he was too raw. He couldn't just babble his way out of this one. Something important would slip out.
Steve's eyes shuttered down, before settling on a neutral expression. "It's the king, isn't it?"
Tony could let it go. He could blame it on Steven or Astron, and Steve would buy the excuse because they were also true. But Isern's words rang through his head. They both had a lot to change, if they wanted to make things work.
His first instinct was to hide it. Instead, he swallowed. "It's the bond," Tony said.
"I miss... I miss Astron." Which hadn't been what he'd meant to say at all, and Tony backtracked immediately when he saw Steve's eyes soften. "I was following the link, and I... I can fix it. Make it whole again. I nearly did."
Steve's breath hitched, his mouth falling open. "The bond, it can be fixed?"
"I think so," Tony replied. Steve looked gutted, and Tony realized he'd just pulled back from offering it. "Do you want it? I could-"
"No," Steve said, and Tony reeled back as if Steve had punched him. "No, Tony, not like that," Steve said, stepping forward and catching Tony's shoulder. "Please listen? I didn't mean it like that."
"How did you mean it?" Tony asked dully.
"I meant that you were right to pull away. Right now, I don't think the bond would be a good idea," Steve said, sounding reluctant. Then he smiled. "Besides, I don't mind it so much if you're missing Astron. You need some time to get used to the fact that we're the same. And you... you have a lot more than me that you're mourning for."
Tony leaned forward, resting his forehead against Steve's shoulder and breathing, letting Steve pull him closer. "But later?" There was a hesitance in Tony's voice that he hated, but he needed to hear the answer. This was why he shouldn't have said anything in the first place. If Steve said no...
"If we get to that point, we'll see. I'd... I'd like the bond back, someday. I..." Tony looked up to see the lost expression on Steve's face. "It feels empty without it. As a human, part of me is terrified by how invasive it was, but I could... I could feel you."
Steve raised a hand to Tony's cheek, tracing his goatee lightly. He stared at Tony like he could see right through him, and Tony couldn't help the shiver that went down his spine. "Your mind was beautiful," Steve said. "I wish there was some way to draw it, or to put it into words, but it was one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen."
"It's a dark place," Tony said, not quite meeting Steve's eyes.
"It was vivid and a constant motion of rich, deep colors," Steve replied. "I didn't always understand what you said, but your mind was so vibrant that I could drown in it, and gladly. I could feel... I felt how you loved me, even if it wasn't in the way I wanted. And that was one of my most treasured things."
"Steve..." Tony said breathlessly. He had half a mind to kiss Steve again, but he was a little afraid of offering the bond again after hearing all of that.
"So yes, I do want it," Steve said, a deep longing in his voice that Tony couldn't deny. "But I think we should take things slower. And that's an awfully deep connection. I think I should get dinner and flowers at least once, before you propose."
Well, Tony supposed that was one way of looking at the bond.
"Slow is... Slow is probably good," Tony said. It was going to take a while to get over the deaths of Steven and Isern. Tony had to do some adjusting for the dragon blood in his veins now too. And Astron...
"Astron and I are the same, ya know," Steve said, as if sensing Tony's thoughts. "I'm not dead, and neither is he."
"But it's different," Tony said. The love wasn't unconditional anymore, not given freely where Tony could feel it and the constant connection. There wasn't a little silver dragon to curl around at night, or a tail wrapped comfortingly around his neck.
"I know," Steve said, hugging Tony against him. "I'm sorry."
Tony closed his eyes, leaning into Steve's warmth. He was shaking lightly, but right now Tony didn't care. This wasn't the same, not by a long shot, but Tony could get used to this type of different. "This is a bad idea," Tony said, breathing in Steve's scent. He didn't wear cologne like Rhodey did, but it was a combination of old leather and the faint scent of Steve's soap that was just a little endearing.
Steve stiffened, but didn't pull away. "I think it's worth trying for. We don't have to repeat their mistakes now that we know."
Tony didn't know if he could do it, to keep his promise not to repeat their alternate selves mistakes. This time being honest hadn't hurt, but the next time he might not be as lucky.
But he wanted this. It was a pale shadow of what he'd had, but it had the chance to grow, and for Steve, he felt like he could be better. "Okay," he said.
"Yeah." Tony lifted his head from Steve's shoulder to look Steve in the eye. "We can go out with a bang."
"You do love your explosives," Steve said, and Tony could see a smile tugging at Steve's lips. "But it's not gonna end that way for us. We'll change it."
Tony kissed him again, savoring the moment. He didn't know how long this would last, but he was willing to follow Steve to the end.
Memory: Okay, so full disclosure for those that want it. King Steven has been dead for centuries and is actually a ghost. The big red dragon dies. Other world Thor is implied to have died, but that's all long before the fic starts (along with presumably all the other-world Avengers, if they existed). Everyone else is safe, regardless of who else the fic may tell you is dead half way through it. XD That person gets better.
Now with all those spoilers out of the way, I hope you enjoyed the fic! I'll admit, the last half of that fic was written to a repeated mantra of "I'm a terrible, horrible person who does terrible, horrible things." Considering barely any one forgives me for the Unicorn, I'm assuming that no one will forgive me for this one either. And I regret nothing. XD
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading the fic! Once again, please check out the amazing art done by Neera and Fiction before you go!