His father. Afghanistan. Obie. Vanko. Carrying a nuke through a portal to another part of the universe. Mandarin. Ultron.
Tony had faced them all, and survived.
A little brittle around the edges, but still breathing.
In comparison to that, a song – a fucking song – should not have the power to reduce him to a quivering mess of regret, longing and loss.
Tony isn’t quite certain how it happens. In one moment he is walking alongside Peter, escorting him to the elevator, his right hand slung across the kid’s shoulder, and in the next he is stumbling back a step, his stomach lurching violently while his lungs struggle to draw breath as those cheesy lines about strangers meeting in the night fill his ears, somehow still clear even over the furious roar of his heartbeat.
“What- Mr. Stark?” Peter stammers, confusion and beginnings of panic written all across his face as he looks between Tony and the cell in his hand. “Are you okay?”
And the damned thing is still playing that fucking song; the words, the wistful melody twining around Tony’s heart like a barbed wire, tearing little chunks of it with each pounding beat.
Peter fumbles with the phone, ends the call, the expression on his face caught between concern and guilt. “It was a joke. The tune. I didn’t- Mr. Stark, wait!”
Tony doesn’t listen. He turns on his heel, and quite literally runs back to his office.
“Friday, lockdown, now,” he manages to push past his lips before his knees give out and he sinks to the floor in an ungraceful heap.
Meeting Steve Rogers for the first time is underwhelming.
The guy is self-righteous, uptight, narrow-minded prick. And Tony really, really wants to see just how far up the guy’s skin he can crawl before he finally snaps.
Unfortunately, Captain Asshole proves to be just as skilled at getting under Tony’s.
It’s hardly love at first sight. It’s barely tolerance.
But alien armies and portals to other dimensions, not to mention a nuclear warhead, prove to be rather successful mediators.
They part in… well, not friendship, but there is respect in that handshake they share. Respect and beginnings of a mutual understanding.
They enter each other’s orbits again at fairly low points in both their lives.
Rogers looks haunted. Like he is keeping himself together by miracle and that impossibly, irritatingly stubborn will alone.
(Tony knows about the long lost and not-as-dead-as-he-was-supposed-to-be James Buchanan Barnes and Rogers’ worldwide manhunt for him by virtue of Natasha Romanoff. Tony cannot decide what stings more: the fact that the entire SHIELD is HYDRA revelation has somehow escaped his notice despite his frequent hackings, or that it’s not Rogers who asks for his help in tracking his long lost buddy, but Natasha.)
Tony, on the other hand, is quite happy to test the limits of how far he can push himself before he finally crumbles in the wake of parting ways with Pepper after realizing that he’ll never be able to separate himself from Iron Man. Not even for her.
They are both miserable shadows of those two men who were spitting venom, insults and taunts at each other hours after meeting for the first time.
And they do say that misery loves company.
It’s not that Tony actively tries to befriend Rogers.
But, somehow, they manage to actually talk to each other once, twice, and then it becomes the norm, and before Tony has a chance to even think ‘disaster in the making’ Rogers turns to Steve in Tony’s head, and trying to smooth the jagged edges and fill the empty spaces in Steve’s soul becomes Tony’s favourite pastime.
He’s already too far gone to go back when he realizes it’s a two way street.
It starts as a joke.
Tony asks Steve for a dance fully expecting to see a blush spread across his cheeks, and that hard swallow he does every time he feels awkward. Perhaps an eye roll, maybe some stammering that would turn into a bout of friendly bickering.
A faint flush on Steve’s face is about as far as Tony’s predictions turn to reality. There is no hesitation in Steve’s movements as he stands up from the couch, extending his hand to Tony. Nothing even remotely shy or awkward in those unfairly blue eyes as they lock on Tony’s and stay there. Nothing fumbling in the hands settling low on Tony’s waits.
Tony is only faintly aware of Steve saying ‘you know what to play, JARVIS,’ and then soft, wistful tune filling the air. They move awkwardly at first, but it takes no more than a few steps for them to fall into a rhythm, swaying gently from side to side.
One song becomes two becomes three, and what started as a joke turns into something that could, Tony realizes with sudden terrifying awareness, shake the very foundation of Tony’s world.
Tony knows it but instead of stepping back and making a joke, he leans further into Steve’s body, and Steve, solid, dependable, trustworthy Steve welcomes him, tightens his grip on Tony’s waist just enough.
There is a sort of detached, dream-like quality to their slow movements, Tony’s focus entirely captivated by the warmth of the strong body he is leaning against, smelling clean and fresh. Soft murmur of Steve’s voice as he hums alongside with Sinatra draws a wide smile from Tony, his heart constricting in something that couldn’t be further from hurt even if it certainly feels like it.
Somewhere between Sinatra singing about two lonely people and lovers at first sight, Tony acknowledges that he is going to kiss Steve.
He never gets the chance, though.
And only because it is Steve who kisses him first.
The kiss remains an unacknowledged elephant in the room entire week after it happens.
And, perhaps for the first time ever, Tony decides not to press, not to pursue a goal – even if he wants, and boy how much he wants – consequences be damned.
He still remembers the startled look in Steve’s eyes as he broke the kiss. The way his body went taut as bowstring as if bracing for a fight. The rigid set of his jaw as he swallowed once, twice.
The thing is, Tony cares for Steve Rogers. If preserving the tentative friendship they have started to build means to put a lid on the feelings that sole kiss unearthed… well, Tony can do it. Will do it.
Tony’s resolve holds fast, even if comes with a cost of a constant aching pressure in the middle of his chest. Not at all unlike the feeling of having a piece of metal buried deep within his sternum, keeping him alive.
It holds until the day he wanders into the gym and finds Steve sitting on the mat, his back to the wall and his eyes closed as he hums softly a painfully familiar tune.
Tony freezes in the doorway, a strangled noise leaving his throat.
Steve’s eyes snap open, lock on Tony’s. For a moment they remain unguarded: completely and utterly exposed, nothing but deep longing filling their depths.
“Screw this,” Tony hears himself mutter, and then he is moving, almost running toward Steve.
Their first kiss was soft and tentative, almost chaste press of lips.
Their second, and third, and fourth, and twentieth is anything but.
It is heat and force and want tinged with desperation.
Steve dies in Tony’s vision and the words like reason and caution and trust and team cease to matter.
Stopping that nightmarish vision from turning to reality becomes the only thing that does.
It’s more than a little ironic that trying to keep Steve alive and whole and safe almost ends with Tony losing him.
The cost is still great, though.
It numbers in innocent lives lost and an entire town destroyed.
And yeah, broken trust.
The spider web cracks in Tony’s relationship with Steve grow larger and larger until the Accords.
The sound it makes when it shatters completely has the exact shape of Steve’s name, leaving Tony’s lips in a low and desperate plea.
Tony decides then and there that the sight of Steve Rogers’ – stiff and painfully straight – back as he walks away from Tony without a backward glance is something he never ever wants to see again.
Tony is fairly certain he’s hit a new low in life in Leipzig: listening to himself plead for Steve to back down, feeling the world shake and splinter around him as Steve looks at him with stone-cold eyes and refuses. Accuses him of instigating the very thing he is trying to prevent.
He is wrong.
So very, very wrong.
Most of decisions Tony makes regarding Steve come from the heart, involving little to no reason.
Decision to follow after Steve in the wake of finding the evidence backing Steve’s story is not an exception.
And there, in the Siberian cold, he stands and watches the man Steve would defend to the death and beyond if possible, murder his parents in cold blood.
But the final blow is not the image of a hand closing around his mother’s throat and choking the life out of her, but an admission. Said in a low voice, thick with emotion.
Steve knew. For years he knew the truth behind Tony’s parents’ murder. Every time they kissed, every time they… Steve knew.
And said nothing.
Tony flinches from Steve’s hand as something breaks inside his chest, bleeding poison and rage and bitterness of betrayal directly into his bloodstream.
Tony doesn’t make the decision to go through Steve on his way to Barnes rationally or calmly, but with the shattered wreckage of his heart.
But he makes it. And, like most decisions, this one, too, has consequences.
Like having to watch Steve – with Barnes’ weight secured safely against his body – walk away again.
Perhaps for good this time.
A few hours and an incredibly awkward phone call with a highly unnerved kid later, Tony finds himself sitting on a couch in his penthouse apartment in the Tower. He is nursing a glass of scotch, his eyes set on the antiquated cell phone on the table in front of him, a half empty bottle next to it.
Ever since Siberia and Steve’s shitty apology, anger has been Tony’s safety blanket. A way to soothe the constant, persistent ache of missing the damned bastard, of wanting to understand why Steve had fucked him up so thoroughly.
Understand. Then, forgive.
There is no anger to fall back on now. Just a slow bleeding wound and longing so deep and all-consuming it feels like Tony is drowning in it. As if hearing that song had ripped open the wound inside him that has only started to scar.
Tony doesn’t want to call. He really, really doesn’t.
He does it anyway.
Steve answers after the third ring.
“Tony?” Steve says, soft and low and hesitant.
Tony bites hard on his lower lip to stop something embarrassing from leaving his lips. But he cannot stop something inside his chest fluttering at the sound of that voice.
“Yeah, it’s me,” Tony says, rubs at his temples, sounding like weariness has become a part of his very being. He has no idea what to say now that he has Steve on the other side of the line. Anger would help, though. But it stays stubbornly out of reach.
“Are… are you okay?”
Tony wants to laugh at the absurdity of Steve’s question. He swallows it, as he does the truth. He opens his mouth, his default response to that question already on the tip of his tongue, but what actually comes out of his mouth takes a different shape. “You remember the name of the song that played when I kissed you for the first time?”
“I do,” Steve says, without missing a beat. There is something in his voice now; something between caution and hope, brittle and fragile like Tony’s heart. “And I was the one who kissed you.”
“Sometimes I wish you didn’t,” Tony says, his voice more a sigh than anything else. Tony says it without any intention to hurt, just stating a fact. But by the sudden silence on the other side, interrupted by the sound of heavy, gasping breaths, he knows Steve doesn’t see it that way.
“Tony. Tony… God, I am so sorry,” bursts out of Steve. He sounds wrecked, his voice thick with desperate urgency.
Tony believes him. It doesn’t change the fact he’s not yet ready to accept it.
“Don’t,” Tony grits out. His throat feels raw with every word he cannot say. But he cannot end the call just yet. He knows – in his very soul – it would be the end. He scrubs a hand across his face, squeezes his eyes shut. “Steve, I can’t… just… just hum it to me. The song.”
There’s a heavy silence on the other side of the line for one endless moment. It is broken by the sound of a shaky breath being expelled from lungs.
“Okay,” Steve breathes out, low and hoarse. Naked hope in his voice cuts through Tony’s already aching chest, twists in its middle. “Okay, Tony.”
When the humming starts, Tony leans his head against the backrest and allows himself to remember.