"Steve is on his way to SHIELD HQ," he said. "They found James Barnes. Alive."
So, yeah, Tony had known he'd never get to marry Steve Rogers. He'd just never dreamed it would be because Bucky fucking Barnes was back.
He yanked on his clothes then let Bruce hustle him downstairs to the garage. Tony hadn't gotten around to replacing Happy Hogan as his driver, so he let Bruce pick a random car, let him drive because Tony needed all his focus not to break down. For some reason his eyes fell on the dashboard clock. 10 a.m. Six hours until … Nothing. Numbing himself against the onslaught of emotions trying to destroy him, he pulled out his cell and called up a familiar number.
"Tony?" Pepper Potts answered on the second ring.
"Hey, Pep," he said and marveled at how steady his voice sounded. "Need you to do something for me."
She sighed. "What's happened?"
He wondered if she expected him to say something about the caterers mixing up the sauce for the fish entrée or if she had also known all along they were never going to gather in that cathedral? "Need you to issue a press release. Wedding's cancelled."
"Something short and vague. Apologies to the guests. Thanks, Pep, you're a peach."
"Tony Stark, don't you dare-"
He hit the 'end' button and silenced whatever rant she was going to launch into. "Knew it was never gonna happen," he muttered to himself, closing his eyes to block out everything else until they arrived at SHIELD when he'd have to find the strength to face his former fiancé.
Mentally cursing himself for being a selfish bastard when Steve was in such obvious pain, he knew he needed a distraction and said, "JARVIS, pull up Barnes' file."
He wasn't usually so open about the fact his AI lurked in SHIELD's software, but he wasn't in the mood to play any games today. Besides Fury wasn't in the room to pitch a fit about it although Tony had few doubts they were being observed – there was a reason he never used the rest room here.
A screen to the right of the mirror lit up and data began to flash by. Tony took it all in. Winter Soldier. Programmed assassin for the Soviets. Kept in suspended animation most of the time hence the lack of aging – nice for Cap since it meant they could be young/old geezers together. Somehow Barnes had managed to break his conditioning and had turned himself in before collapsing. Oh, and there was the good part – SHIELD had confiscated a horribly damaged metal arm.
"Stark," Natasha Romanoff hissed, pulling his attention away from the pathetic amount of data available on the artificial limb, "get in there!"
Tony gave her a blank look. Why would she say that? She was supposed to be the hotshot evaluator – 'Iron Man, Yes; Tony Stark, No.' – surely she knew the last person Steve would want to see now would be the man he'd cheated on Barnes with. Of course, Steve had thought his precious Bucky was dead, but Tony didn't think for a moment that Cap saw it as an excuse. No doubt he was sitting in there beating himself over somehow not knowing his soulmate was alive all along.
The wattage of her glare had gone up and Thor, Bruce and Clint Barton had gotten into the 'look at Tony like he's scum' game. What was wrong with these people? This was Bucky fucking Barnes. Steve's first kiss, his first … well, everything until the 40s and strict-Catholic upbringings had forced them apart. Didn't take a genius to know Steve had regretted that for a long time, but, hey, brave new world now. Even the Pope had started easing up on the anti-gay shit and it hadn't taken Steve long to embrace that aspect of the future enough to fall into Tony's bed. But hey, the leading man of this melodrama had arrived so it was time for the stand-in to exit stage left.
Except he guessed the others didn't know all that. Hadn't lay there in a bed with ruined sheets while Steve had confessed just who he had been with to learn how to do all the things he'd done with Tony. Crucial missing piece of information and Tony opened his mouth to tell them, but no, that was Steve's secret to share, not his.
Instead he nodded slightly and did what they wanted him to do – he went into Bucky's room. Tony knew Steve. Knew no matter how upset he was that he'd never ever miss someone coming into a room behind him while someone he loved was helpless, but Steve didn't do or say anything to acknowledge his arrival.
He stared at Steve's broad back and wanted, no, ached to at least put a hand on one of those hunched shoulders, but he'd lost the right to touch. And, for one of the few times in his life, words failed him. So he did the only thing he could do – he sat down in a chair near the door and stayed silent.
Nurses came in and out, checking monitors while being as careful as Tony not to disturb Steve, who never acknowledged them either. Instead Steve kept talking to Bucky, telling 'remember when' story after story obviously trying to coax the man into waking up. Tony blushed more than once – something he did rarely, let alone multiple times – not because of the content of the tales, but because he felt embarrassed about eavesdropping on something so private. Damn, the others anyway. Couldn't they see he had no place here?
Growing impatient after a particularly sweet tale about Bucky and his grandmother, Tony yanked out his phone and started when he saw the time. Four. A lump formed in his throat, and he stood up, then slipped out of the room. Activating his earpiece he said, "JARVIS, find me an empty room."
A moment, then, "Two corridors over, third door on the right."
"Block any surveillance," he said when he reached it.
He switched off his communication device, put his back to the door, then slid down it. Four. Somewhere in a universe where he'd been a better person, a person worthy of Steve Rogers, he was strutting down the aisle like the attention-whore he was while Steve smiled his fond, amused smile from the front of the cathedral. Slowly, he let every detail play out in his mind, let himself experience his wedding the only way he ever would – imagining it like some lovesick teenager. Steve was the epitome of an old-fashioned guy, so they'd gone for a traditional ceremony instead of writing their own vows which had been a beyond great idea as far as Tony had been concerned. Nothing like center-stage to make him say something stupid and fuck things up. Probably would have gotten so nervous some old limerick would have popped out and he'd have ended up abandoned at the altar not to mention responsible for one of the few priests willing to perform gay weddings refusing to do so any longer.
But hey, this was his imagination so he got to let things go right. Got to let every detail be perfect right down to Steve looking at him with all the love Tony felt for him. The first tear spilled from his eye when they shared their first kiss as husbands, but others quickly followed. He never sobbed, but the tears kept flowing as he tortured himself with thoughts of their reception, as sitting there the newly minted Tony Stark-Rogers and accepting the congratulations of their guests.
Dinner would have been sublime – he'd used the caterers before and knew they were the best. Pep had no doubt had them donate all the food to a homeless shelter, but no, he wasn't ready for thoughts of reality yet. Instead he focused on making up toasts to the happy couple. Bruce's would no doubt be touching, Clint's scandalous, Thor's boisterous and Natasha's … He shied away from what she might say – Iron Man, Yes; Tony Stark, No – and skipped to cutting the cake. A mocha with coffee icing masterpiece topped with little Iron Man and Captain America figurines, he'd moaned with delight when they'd taste-tested it and Steve had laughed, giving up any idea of a more traditional vanilla cake because he'd thought he'd loved Tony.
No, no, no! His mind skittered away from licking frosting off his husband's hand to their first dance. Steve had become quite an accomplished dancer between lessons from Tony and all the charity galas they'd had to attend, so he'd look poised as well as devastatingly handsome as he guided Tony around the floor.
Steve's arms around him, their rings glinting in the spotlight, surrounded by everyone they cared about, the waltz his beloved old man had chosen filling the room, it was so fucking perfect, so desperately what he'd always wanted, even his imagination couldn't let him cling to it for more than a moment. Instead a hand fell on his shoulder and a voice he'd never heard outside of a war reel said, "Cutting in here."
Steve's whole face brightened as it never had or ever would for Tony, and Tony jerked his swollen eyes open. He bit his lip and clenched his fists, both teeth and nails cutting into flesh while he tried to stop shaking.
Finally he managed to get hold of himself enough to stand up and stumble to the bathroom. He splashed cold water on his face, wiping away salty tears. He knew he'd be mourning this day for a very long time – probably the rest of his life – but he would never allow himself to cry again.
He slipped his sunglasses out of his pocket then onto his face to hide the redness of his eyes, then tried to decide what to do next. If he went back to the others, they'd expect him to return to intruding on Steve's vigil, and no. Just no. But there was something he could do.
It took two days of non-stop work to repair it enough to tell how it worked. Tony was both amazed and appalled. It truly was a marvel – giving the wearer enhanced strength, electric shock capabilities and even an EMP field – yet it looked to be something out of a nightmare as well. The way it integrated with the nervous system had to cause a lot of pain while its metal structure made it a lot heavier than a real limb. It had to have been hell on Barnes' balance and the muscles of his back.
"I can do better," he said.
"Naturally," JARVIS answered and at another time Tony might have smiled at the almost-pride in the AI's voice.
"I need data," he said instead. "Size and weight of Barnes' remaining arm, which side of his body is bigger and how that would have affected the shape and weight of the lost arm."
Tony had to make this perfect. He had to. It would be his final gift to Steve as well as a way to ensure Barnes could watch Steve's back now that Iron Man would be out of the picture. His mind balked at that thought, tried to suggest he could still be an Avenger, but no. It would be awkward for Steve and Bucky if he stayed. Besides it would hurt too fucking much to endure.
He shook his head to clear it, then started doing calculation ratios for weight versus strength while another part of his mind started working on the nervous system connection problem. It took him another day to satisfy all of his conditions, then another day and a half to assemble it, but when he'd finished he had an arm with all the 'superpowers' of the original, but with the look, feel and weight of a real human arm.
In some ways it was a greater masterpiece than even the armor and he let himself bask in the accomplishment. Bucky would be armed in more ways than one and Steve would be safe. Tony really was a genius. That moment of hubris cost him as JARVIS said, "Sir, Sergeant Barnes is awake."
A monitor lit up with the scene. Steve had fallen asleep with his head on the bed, still holding Bucky's hand. More than once Tony had woken from an injury or illness to find him in just such a state and as Tony always did, he watched Barnes' squeeze Steve's hand. Steve bolted upright and God, that was too familiar, too intimate to watch and he demanded, "Switch it off!" before Steve could lean in and kiss Barnes.
The screen went dark, leaving Tony alone and shaking. No way he could go back there now, so when he calmed down enough to think, he called Happy. Although no longer Tony's driver or his body guard, he had accompanied Pepper from California for the Wedding That Never Happened and he agreed to take the arm to SHIELD for Tony.
While he waited for Happy to arrive, Tony packed up both the new and old arms, then loaded a flash drive with the neuro-data on it for Bruce. He spelled that out for Happy in words of two-syllables or less. Tony didn't care if SHIELD escorted Happy to Bruce or if he had to wait for Bruce to come to him, no one, absolutely no one, but Bruce was to be entrusted with this.
"Got it, Boss," Happy said and Tony rewarded him by handing over the keys for the Ferrari. A minute later Tony was alone again and becoming swiftly aware he'd lived on nothing but coffee, power bars and one cat nap for almost four days. Not good and oh, God, he was going to have to get used to taking care of himself again instead of enjoying Steve fussing over him.
He bit his lip, reopening the cut from before, the coppery taste making his empty stomach churn and he decided to eat before he crashed. He considered another power bar, but the box was empty and ordering in would take too long. Then he remembered the café across the street. It was Steve's place more than his, a place where he loved to go to sketch, but Tony found the food serviceable enough. Certainly do for a fast bite to eat.
Big mistake. One he wouldn't have made if he weren't so fucking tired, but between exhaustion, coming down off a creative high and his broken heart, he was far from firing on all pistons and left the confines of his Tower like a moron. The moment he stepped outside he was surrounded by reporters all demanding to know what had happened, to know why the wedding or the abomination of the century had been called off. Despite everything, Tony might have been able to salvage the situation, but a shrill voice caught his attention and he found himself looking into a face near giddy with joy. Suddenly he remembered there were people all over the world celebrating his pain, and something inside him snapped. "'What happened?'" he all but shouted at the jackals, "What the fuck do you think happened? He came to his senses and dumped my skanky ass just like everyone knew he would!"
For one brief second everyone, including Tony, was shocked into silence. Fortunately he recovered first, spun on his heel, then dashed back into Stark Tower. He didn't stop running until he reached his workshop, summoning the suit as he continued on to the exit Iron Man always used. The armor formed around him and in less than five minutes he was flying over the Atlantic with no clear destination in mind. He needed somewhere to go, somewhere to hide while he got his balance back. But where? Then it came to him – the one place he could go where no one would expect him to be. Barcelona. His honeymoon trip.
It took thirty-three minutes for his soundbite to spread enough for the HUD to start lighting up with calls. First Pepper, then Rhodey, Bruce, Natasha, Clint, even Coulson. He refused them all, then came the inevitable one. Steve. No doubt Mr. Moral Standards was appalled Tony had announced their breakup before he'd gotten a chance to do the honorable thing and dump Tony's ass in person, so he wanted to apologize – then dump Tony over the phone. Well, fuck that noise. "Reject it!" he snapped at JARVIS. "Block all calls. And no messages!"
"Very well, Sir," the AI answered in something somewhere between sadness and exasperation. Steve had used that sort of tone on Tony more than once so it did nothing to improve his mood, but at least the damned phone stopped ringing.
It was beautiful, of course, and his villa there was one of his favorites even if he didn't get to visit often. But it was also one of the places in Europe the war had never taken Steve so it didn't have a lot of emotional baggage attached to it – a place to make new memories not wallow in the old. And he'd really wanted to share the view with Steve. Man could be funny about Tony spending his money on him, but he knew Steve would let him get away with indulging on their honeymoon. He'd stocked the place for a two-week stay, figuring they'd stay tucked up in their cozy hide-away for the time, then come out to do sight-seeing and shopping for another two. Not that he'd thought life, the universe or fucking anything would let them have a month off. But he was determined to have at least two weeks even if they had to jet off every other day for an emergency.
So, supplies for two for two weeks. That gave him roughly a month and as he landed on the terrace he thought he might spend the entire time sleeping. He disbursed the armor to the workshop – at least a small one standard in all Stark properties – then face-planted on the bed.
He slept for two days before hunger, thirst and the needs of his bladder forced him awake. Felt like shit, but he was used to that. A shower, a change of clothes – it was easier to travel when he had a few things at every destination – and a quick breakfast helped, but then he found himself standing on the terrace with his third cup of coffee and no handsome husband to ravish. It occurred to him that maybe this hadn't been the best place to come and he should relocate to another of his homes, but frankly he lacked the energy to decide which one.
Instead he settled in and waited for his … system to reboot. He was still waiting eight days later and was bored out of his fucking mind. A workshop might be standard furnishings for a Stark, but the ones in his vacation homes lacked real substance so he couldn't do much more than tinker, and he'd seemed to burn out a lot of his creativity with the damned arm. Or, he might possibly be depressed.
Getting drunk might help and he knew it would kill some time, but he couldn't bring himself to do it. He'd 'celebrated' every loss – both real and ones he was supposed to feel, but didn't – with too much booze, but losing Steve hurt more than all the rest combined. Somehow he couldn't commemorate it the same way. Vaguely he supposed he should go out and find himself some handsome pool boy or a super model willing to play rebound gymnastics, but he honestly doubted he could ever be with anyone else ever again. He was ruined, damnit! Ruined by a stupid kid from Brooklyn. So coffee and mindless tinkering it was.
Once he tried vegging in front of the television, but it didn't take more than five minutes to stumble on the first gossip show dissecting the ruin of his relationship with Steve. He turned it off. Next he'd tried a movie, but movies meant movie nights in the Tower with Steve to curl up and their friends around them. Friends. He snorted into his coffee cup. He and Steve hadn't even gotten to the 'I do's but Steve had still managed to get everything that mattered in the 'divorce' – the Avengers, the Tower, New York, SHIELD – all of it was ruined for him now.
On the ninth day he asked himself, so what now? The only answer he could come up with was to move back to California and hope his friendship with Pepper could withstand them both living in the same city. He sighed. At least the rebuild on the Malibu estate had been completed last month so he had a home to go to, but first he'd need to go back to New York one more time to pack up his bots. Shame he couldn't trust anyone else to do it, but he could use JARVIS to find a time when he could slip into the Tower and get the job done without bumping into Steve or Barnes.
Resigned he decided better to get it over with than go insane from boredom, so he summoned the suit, then took to the skies.
Disney World? Now that was low even for Doom, but sometimes the guy decided to spread the terror around. "Tell them I'm on it," he said altering his trajectory and kicking in the boosters. "There in 15."
"The Avengers are assembling."
"What? Tell them I can handle this. Odds are Doom is just trying to lure us away from the City."
"Yes, Sir, but SHIELD reports both the Fantastic Four and the X-Men are on alert."
Oh, joy. Richards to the rescue. They'd all be lucky if New England didn't fall through some damned portal. Well, Xavier would have to deal with the fallout this time.
His HUD lit up with 50 targets when he was five minutes out and Tony smiled for the first time in weeks. At last something he could blow up! His repulsors whined in anticipation and he came in firing. He was awesome, even if he did say so himself. Whipping around in tight turns, firing almost continuously, he took out dozens of the damned things within the first few minutes.
He was halfway through the next two dozen when the skies lit up and lightening fried a pack of them. Ladies and gentlemen, the god of thunder had arrived. Thor swooped in his hammer swinging. Twenty seconds later, the Hulk entered the battle with a deafening roar. Okay, so this fight was pretty much over.
As predicted, between the three of them, they wrapped it all up in five minutes. "Take that you mouse-hater," Tony taunted as he blew the last of the miserable tin cans apart. He took a moment to enjoy the victory, then it was outta here time before the Quinjet-confined members of the group arrived. "Been real, guys," he said, turning to fly off, "but I've got to –"
Something, no someone collided with him and a voice boomed, "Nay, friend Tony, you will not depart this field of battle so swiftly," Thor informed him as he hauled Tony's ass groundward.
"JARVIS, you rat bastard," Tony hissed, furious since his AI had to have deliberately blocked Thor's approach from the HUD.
"I do believe this is in your best interests, Sir," the AI answered, not sounding at all contrite.
Thor landed and Tony tried to squirm free – he had, after all, gone toe-to-toe with the Thunderer once before and fought him to a draw – but two big green hands settled on his shoulders. And oh, shit.
"Tinman, stay," Hulk rumbled looking at Tony with a level of irritation he'd never turned on him before.
Tony powered down.
"Most excellent," Thor said. "Now disperse your armor back to the Tower."
"Don't want to," he huffed, and could he sound more like a three-year-old?
"Now would be a good time," Thor said with a patient voice, but he tapped his hammer against his palm, and the fucking Hulk cracked his fucking knuckles, and oh, Tony and Bruce were having words over this, but –
"Fine!" He sent the armor flying back to New York, then flopped down to sit on the ground, his arms crossed over his chest. He had a few questions he'd like the answers to, most principally why did they want him to suffer through the politest 'it's not you, it's me' dumping history would probably ever witness? But to ask it or anything else would be to interrupt his sulking and he was on a good streak here.
Ten minutes slipped by until he could hear the unmistakable sound of the Quinjet's engines. Ten minutes in which the damned muscle brigade didn't budge an inch and, oh, goody, the press'd had time to gather. Just what he'd needed 'news at 11' to document his humiliation.
The back hatch popped open when the jet was still ten feet off the ground and Captain America leaped out. Sans shield and cowl, but moving with the same speed he used in battle, he ate up the distance between them before Tony could get fully back to his feet.
In the next instant he was hovering in the air over Steve's head as the man used all that super-soldier strength to hoist him up like a toddler. Before he could protest, Steve pulled him down and into a teeth-rattling kiss, and maybe, just maybe Tony might have misjudged something.
"You idiot," Steve said, when he drew back, but that was okay because he quickly drew Tony back into another kiss. And okay, did anyone alive really not expect Tony to climb him like a tree at that point? His arms around Steve's shoulders, his legs wrapped around the man's waist, it was a familiar and favored make-out position for them, and it made Tony hum happily. Of course, this being his fucking life, that was the moment Steve drew back to glare at him. "I didn't know where you were," Steve said in his best 'Captain America Is Disappointed in You' voice. Tony got that damned voice a lot, fuck it all. "You were in pain and I. Didn't. Know. Where. You. Were."
"Umm," his eyes skittered away from those oh, so blue ones and landed on where Barnes stood with is fucking arm around Natasha. Oh, Tony was in so much trouble. "I … may have misread-"
"You're damned right, you did!" Steve snapped, and ouch, Cap cursing wasn't a rare thing, but it always meant batten down the hatches he's in a mood. Steve glared, then sighed, his forehead coming to rest against Tony's. "That first day I couldn't think, but I knew you were there in the room, and I drew strength from it. Then you were gone and they said you were working on Buck's arm, so I let it go even though I wanted you with me. But then I saw that broadcast and you wouldn't even take my fucking call!"
"I know what you thought and you're an idiot! Bucky might have been a lot of firsts for me but we were basically two kids fooling around. You are the love of my life. And I know I've told you that. More than once!"
More like a dozen times, but, "Barnes wasn't alive."
Steve sighed, then kissed him again. "Tony, if he were the love of my life – dead or alive – I would never have called you that."
Oh. Stupid of him to forget Steve wasn't the type to throw those words around lightly. "I'm sorry?"
Another sigh. Another kiss. "No, I'm sorry, sweetheart. I don't know what it is that makes you doubt me when I say 'I love you' but –"
Now, it was Tony's turn to interrupt. "No, it's not you, it's me." He flinched at the word choice, but it was true. "You're so … you. And I'm just … me."
"You is a wonderful, if exasperating thing to be," Steve assured him, then the bastard slipped his hand out from underneath Tony and set him down.
He whined, but Steve shook his head, then nodded toward the reporters. "Now you need to go over there and tell them that not only did I not dump your shapely backside, as soon as we get back to the Tower I'm marrying it and all parts attached."
"You are?" he sort of squeaked.
"As in Coulson is in charge of getting the priest there so you know it's going to happen."
Oh. He smiled, then bobbed up on his toes to kiss Steve again. Not looking forward to the next bit, but eager now to get home, he turned to go toward the reporters, but found he couldn't get far because a super-soldier had clasped his hand and wasn't letting go.
Steve looked at their joined hands with consternation, then sighed, "Damn it."
Tony grinned. Steve couldn't let him go! Steve loved him! "Maybe," he said, all coy, yet contrite, "you could hold my hand while I told them? It'd be more convincing that way."
Steve sighed, "Let's go, but you're doing the talking."
And Tony did. He started with "I misread a situation" and finished with "Bye, now, I've got a wedding to get to." All while Steve held his hand. Best press conference ever.
He and Steve didn't make love that night. Steve was quietly furious with him, but he also loved Tony so they went to bed together and held each other tight through the night. The next morning they went to New Orleans for their honeymoon.
So no, that big wedding never happened, but every year on their anniversary – or as close to it as super-villainy would allow – Steve insisted on renewing his vows with his 'insecure puddle of mush' and pledged not only to love Tony 'until death they do part' but until the end of time. That worked for Tony, too.