“You shouldn’t have kept it from me.”
“You would have worried.” Tony’s arms were folded defensively, his face turned away, and Steve was tired of it, of Tony keeping his own counsel and running risks, of getting into trouble economically, politically, in the public opinion sphere, and pretty much everywhere and not telling Steve.
“You’re damn right I would have worried,” Steve growled. “But what does that change about every second of the goddamned day?!”
Tony didn’t say anything, leaning against the workbench, and Steve bit down on panic and terror, tried to force his mind to work forward, push beyond the news Bruce had given him that morning.
“I,” he said slowly, quietly, authoritatively, “worry about you, Tony Stark. You and I are in a relationship, and that means no matter what I worry about you. When you come home late, I worry; when you go overseas, I worry; when you go into battle, I worry. Keeping things from me does not stop me from worrying.”
Those brown eyes dropped from Steve’s blue ones and he tried not to growl with impatience or anger. It wouldn’t help anything now. Tony wasn’t going to give in, obviously, and just as obviously Steve wasn’t going to budge on this position. Either they were partners, or they weren’t – Steve deserved to know something like this.
“Anything about your health, I need to know. Anything. If you have to get tetanus shots, if you burn yourself in the lab—”
“How about when I get a fucking paper cut?” Tony sneered.
Arms folded, Tony met Steve’s eyes mutinously. “I don’t have to tell you a damn thing about my health, Steve Rogers.”
“You do if we’re going to be in a relationship,” Steve said, even though his voice felt distant, detached from his actual body.
Tony went white as a sheet, and physically seemed to flinch. “You—”
“If you can’t,” Steve continued, even as the back of his mind scrabbled in panic at the words, “If you can’t give me the fucking courtesy to tell me about your health and state of mind, then I don’t see how we’re even in a relationship. I’m just someone you fuck with and use for heat in the night and nothing more. Certainly I’m not an actual boyfriend, who gets to be a part of your life.”
Tony swallowed hard. “You’re – you’re giving me an ultimatum?”
His voice was so small, and Steve’s heart ached even as he slowly shook his head negatively. “No, Tony,” he said, voice low and defeated. “I’m telling you a fact. If you can’t include me in your life, we’re obviously not in a relationship.”
Tony didn’t reply, and after a few minutes, Steve nodded slowly. Feeling like an old man, he turned and strode out of the workshop.
Tony didn’t call him back.
“What’s up between you and Tony?”
“Drop it, Natasha.”
She walked backwards in front of him, arms folded behind her head, an eyebrow arched. “I mean, it’s never entirely comfortable in the house when you two are flirting back and forth with one another, or when you two are moping after the other. This? The house feels like a goddamn war zone. What happened?”
“You know, you came with me because you said you’d help carry the grocery bags,” Steve said, feeling a phantom headache wisp around the corners of his mind. “If you’re just gonna jaw at me, I think I’d rather be alone.”
“Okay, I get it, big tough guy can’t spill his problems.” Turning around, she shrugged her shoulders. “I just thought maybe you’d want to have someone hear your side before we hear Tony’s.”
“There are no sides. This is a personal problem between Iron Man and myself—”
“Ooh, you called him Iron Man. This is serious.”
Steve stopped, rubbing the bridge of his nose and trying, desperately, to not blow up at Natasha, because she didn’t deserve that. “Please, Natasha,” he said softly.
She turned around to face him, face blank and calm. “You were happy together. And now the both of you are unhappy. That seems like a good enough reason to get you two to reconsider your current positions.”
“So why aren’t you telling Tony this?” Steve said, voice sharp and pointed.
“We are.” A slow smile, one that had nothing friendly or happy behind it, spread across Natasha’s face. “I was chosen to speak to you. Thor is speaking with Tony.”
Steve winced. “It’s affecting the team that badly, is it?”
“No,” Natasha said, and her voice got even colder and sharper. “In fact, it’s painfully obvious that you two are making sure it does not affect team unity, which is painful for us to watch. What the hell happened, Steve?”
The change from cold calculation to a genuine plea made Steve’s shoulders sag. “Can we – not do this in the middle of the street on the way to the store?”
Natasha promptly took Steve’s hands and took him over to the nearest café – which, in New York, was pretty much just literally across the street. With a sigh, he sat down and stared at the table, ignoring Natasha as she ordered herself a caramel frappuccino with extra caramel and whip. Then she sat down across from him and fixed him with a gimlet stare.
Steve rubbed the back of his neck. “What – where do you want to start?”
“How about explaining why a week ago you guys were fine, and now you can’t be in the same room with one another unless it’s a debriefing?” she said, cocking an eyebrow at him.
It took Steve a minute to order his thoughts, put his words together. “He – he doesn’t trust me, Natasha. No, let me finish – we’ve been together two years now, and he doesn’t trust me to care for him, to take his side in a fight, to be there for him when he’s sick. We cuddle after sex, but that’s pretty much it. He doesn’t want more from me and has told me that he’s uncomfortable with displays of affection in front of others. I get that he doesn’t want to tell the world about our relationship, but no one? No one at all? Pepper finds out about it by accident? You guys only know because we stopped fighting and you had to ask us directly in any case? He doesn’t make time for me, for including me. I never wanted a perfect wife – which he’s accused me of plenty – I just want someone who’s as invested in me as I am in them. And… he’s not.”
Natasha didn’t say anything at all, and he looked up to see her staring at him, expressionless over her whipped cream. After a few moments, she let out a sigh. “So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back?”
Steve glanced away. “Bruce asked me that morning how Tony’s ribs and concussion coming along.”
“Ah.” Natasha chewed at her straw a couple of moments. “You didn’t know he had cracked ribs and a concussion?”
“No,” Steve ground out between his teeth.
“Well, then.” Natasha glanced away from Steve, staring out at the street for a long moment. Steve stared morosely down at the table until her voice came, soft and gentle. “You’re miserable without him. And he’s miserable without you.”
With a bitter laugh, Steve muttered, “Sometimes two people just don’t work, Natasha. You know that.”
“I do,” Natasha sighed, fingers tapping against the table. “And sometimes two people would work if both of them would get their heads out of their respective asses.”
“He doesn’t trust me, Natasha!”
“He doesn’t trust any of us!” she snapped back, sharp enough that Steve fell silent. Before he could think of a response, she let out a heavy sigh. “He doesn’t trust any of us. Not outside the battlefield. He doesn’t ask for help because he’s not used to asking for it, alright? He’s never had the recourse to ask for help.”
Steve frowned at the implications of that, because of course Tony had to ask for help at some point in his life, but even as he opened his mouth to point out that fact, she repeated severely, “Never. He was sent to a boarding school at eight – and entered fifth grade to boot. He’s never had reliable back-up except James Rhodes, and he’s known Rhodes for over twenty years, has known Pepper for about the same length of time. He still doesn’t trust them with everything. His default setting is ‘I’ll deal with it on my own’ and you damn well know it, because you’re the same way.”
“But I include him – I make sure to, now!” Steve protested. “I try to get his input on everything, but he never gives it—”
“Then you need to ask him why. Because you know that you never asked for him to try. You expected him to just know.”
“You’re taking his side,” Steve said tightly, “and I shouldn’t have to teach him how to act in a fucking relationship.”
Natasha smiled pityingly at him. “Steve,” she said, slow as if he was being deliberately obtuse, “just last week we had to teach him what a Kaper chart was. And that little children don’t handle sarcasm well. We all know there are spots in his socialization where he is sadly lacking. I would think that the fact that his last relationship before Pepper that lasted more than a night was when he was twenty years old. And that person tried to kill him. If you legitimately don’t want to fix it, would prefer not to be together, that’s your problem. We’ll deal. He’ll deal. But if you’re away because of a stupid fucking issue like ‘he didn’t read my mind and know what I wanted from the relationship’ then I hate to tell you, but while you have a legitimate reason to be angry, you do not have a legitimate reason to take it out on him and yourself in this manner.”
“He doesn’t have to read my mind!” Steve growled. “For fuck’s sake, he went through this before with Pepper! He just needs to act like he’s invested in this thing! I don’t think it’s too much to expect that if he’s hurt, he can tell me! That he comes back to our bed more than once a week! That he’s something other than selfish, and does something other than take!”
Natasha stared at him a long moment, and then gave a short nod. “As long as you’re making yourself miserable for a good reason,” she drawled, but her voice was cool and distant.
Coming back from the shopping, Steve was in the gym with a punching bag when a heavy hand clasped his shoulder. Steve looked up to see Thor standing beside him, face solemn. “Natasha has told me you have no desire to reconcile with Anthony, and that you see him as selfish within your relationship.”
“I didn’t—” Steve stopped and forced his teeth to unclench. “What, you’re here to lecture me about my love life as well?”
Thor held his gaze a moment, and Steve felt uncomfortable in that heavy, weighing stare. “Nay, brother,” Thor said quietly. “I come not to lecture, but to offer advice as friends. But I do not think you are in a position to hear it at the moment. I shall come back another time.”
With that, Thor inclined his head and exited the gym.
Steve destroyed two bags in vicious succession – vicious, because these bags were actually designed by Tony to be more resilient than the normal punching bags Steve had been using before. Then he sat down on the bench with his towel and put his head in his hands.
He didn’t want a normal life. He never expected Tony to be his wife, or to act in the manner a wife would. He knew that had been Tony’s worry before – that Steve was looking for a replacement for the life he’d have had had he been able to pursue Peggy. He thought he had made that clear to Tony, multiple times over the past two years they’d been together. They had their fair share of problems, but Tony always seemed to try and make up for any mistakes he made by buying Steve expensive art supplies, flying Steve to some place in the world so they could have some time alone. It felt, over and over again, that Tony was throwing money at Steve in hopes to make Steve happy, and all Steve wanted was an emotional investment. He wanted Tony to come to him when Tony was in pain or in trouble. He wanted Tony to share about what happened during his day – for all that he wouldn’t understand the finer points of the business world Tony lived in. He wanted to eat a meal with Tony more than once a week, wanted Tony to sleep with Steve more than once a week.
They were just… incompatible. If in two years they couldn’t learn to trust one another more, than how could they ever be anything but incompatible?
He didn’t want to be incompatible, that was the problem. He wanted to fit with Tony. He thought he had fit with Tony, until, time after time, he’d find out that Tony had faced problems over and over on his own, and hadn’t once considered including Steve.
The bench creaked to his left. “You know.”
Steve groaned into his hands and turned to glare at Clint.
“Natasha, of course, is one of Tony’s closest friends. She’s sure you’re wrong about him, and you can’t see it because you’re being wilfully blind, but she’s also used to people trying to dictate to her who she could and could not love, so she’s not going to kick your ass. Thor, for all that he’s wiser than all of us, is still hampered by his worry that he’s going to be carelessly dismissive of our desires the way he was without even realizing with Loki, so he doesn’t push. Me?”
“Go away, Clint,” Steve rumbled.
“Me, I ain’t got a lick of self-preservation,” Clint said, letting his accent creep in to flatten and spread out his words and vowels. “I’m just a dumb carnie who sees two of his friends beating themselves up silly because they are the absolute worst at communication. So bad, you have no idea.”
Stretching his legs out in front of him and folding his arms behind his head, Clint smirked. “See, one of these friends seems to think he gives and gives and doesn’t get back anything emotionally, and the other friend thinks he takes and takes without being a good partner and so expresses his emotion in the most interesting gifts he can give. The first friend is miserable alone but doesn’t want to be in a relationship where he’s the only one invested, and the second friend is miserable alone but loves my first friend so much that he doesn’t want to keep this first friend in a relationship that isn’t good for him.”
“So we let each other go,” Steve snarled. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know.”
“So they both decided that they knew what was best for the other person and ended matters,” Clint continued on blithely. “And because of this, the first friend pounds on gym equipment and sits in dark rooms staring out at the rain—”
“That was once—”
“—and the other friend hasn’t left his workshop for days now and is jittery and can’t seem to smile anymore,” Clint finished.
Steve looked away from Clint’s relaxed form. “So you’re going to tell me I’m an idiot.”
“Oh my god,” Clint growled, and he pushed himself up off the bench and shoved his way in front of Steve. “No, I’m not, I’m going to tell you that you have valid reasons but you didn’t tell them to Tony in a manner that he can understand them and Tony has valid problems that he doesn’t tell you in a manner that you can understand!”
“He never told me about any problems!” Steve snapped.
“EXACTLY!” Clint shouted in exasperation. “You can’t hear it because he’s not speaking on your wavelength, and you’re not speaking on his, and I get that you’re sick of everyone meddling with your relationship but honestly, he makes you smile as much if not more than Bucky does, certainly more than everyone else here, and he made you happy and from where we’re standing it looks like you’re giving up that happiness because you don’t want to try.”
Before Steve could say anything to that, Clint stormed out of the gym, leaving Steve in silence.
Steve came in from the gym, towel draped around his neck. His muscles were sore – he’d been at the punching bag(s) again – but he still couldn’t actually get his mind to quiet. He knew what everyone was saying and could appreciate in the corner of his rational mind that the team wasn’t trying to force him back together, but trying to fix what they saw a fixable problem.
He didn’t think there was any fixing it.
He opened the fridge and pulled out a water bottle. When he closed the fridge and turned around, he froze. Tony, who had apparently been trying to sneak out of the room unobtrusively, also froze.
Steve opened his mouth, but Tony mumbled, “Sorry – sorry. I’m going.”
“It’s your house,” Steve said, and he knew his words were biting, too cold, without having to see Tony flinch. Very carefully, he reined his temper in and said quickly, before Tony could slink the rest of the way out of the door, “We need to talk, anyway.”
“I thought – you talked. We’re done. You said.” Tony cleared his throat and Steve watched him visibly force his emotions down. Straightening his shoulders, Tony gave Steve a short nod. “You said we’re done. I think that’s all the talking we need, don’t you?”
“No,” Steve said, and he couldn’t keep his voice from being wry and pointed, “otherwise I wouldn’t have said we needed to talk.”
“Right,” Tony sighed, and he moved to the table and sat down, his hands clenched around a huge mug of coffee. Steve felt like chiding Tony for drinking that much caffeine this late at night – early in the morning – but he forfeited the right to talk to Tony about his healthy when he ended their relationship.
It took him a bit before he said, feeling his words out, “I take it you’ve had as many talks as I have?”
That startled a laugh from Tony, something genuine that made his face soften infinitesimally. “I think so,” he said.
Steve nodded, trying to decide whether he should sit down, and move closer to, and possibly intimidate, Tony, or whether he should continue standing and whether that would be seen as intimidation in its own right. Finally he gave up and sat at the other end of the table from Tony, closest to the fridge. “And all of them ask why the breakup happened?”
“More or less,” Tony said, and yep, shoulders were stiff and tight again.
“And what did they say when you told them why it happened?” Steve asked, curious and a bit morbid.
Tony stared at the table and then pushed his chair back. “I really ought to head to bed.”
“You and I both know you won’t actually go to bed right now,” Steve said chidingly, though he didn’t move. “If you don’t want to say, fine, I’m not going to make you. I just would rather understand where you’re coming from.”
Tony stood up and shoved hands into his pockets. “I was selfish,” he bit out.
Steve raised an eyebrow. If that’s what Tony had been saying, and that’s what Steve had been saying, why did everyone think there was some type of miscommunication happening? It didn’t—
“I was selfish,” Tony continued, and Steve remembered that no acknowledgement of Tony’s words normally meant he sought to clarify them, explain what he was saying, break his thoughts down into smaller components. “You deserve better than me, so much better, and I tried to be better but I have too many bad habits and I can’t break any of them. Pepper tried to fix me, god knows she did, and even Pepper couldn’t do it – and she’s known me for longer than you have. I shouldn’t have started the relationship in the first place, when I knew I couldn’t be fair to you. I take more out of this relationship than I could ever give.”
“Wait—” Steve interjected, frowned. “You don’t need – you don’t need fixing, you just need—”
“To stop being a selfish bastard and dragging you down,” Tony finished.
“No, that wasn’t what I was going to say,” Steve said slowly. “Tony, why do you think I broke up with you?”
“Because you realized I wasn’t going to ever be better.”
Steve stared at the table for a long moment before rubbing the back of his neck. “Not really, Tony. I mean – I – it wasn’t that you weren’t going to be better. It was that you – you obviously wanted something casual. You never – hell, Tony, you never included me. We never – we were never a couple. And we – we were together for two years. If you weren’t – if you wanted to let me in, then you would have – you would have done it. But you didn’t.”
“I let you in!” Tony snarled.
The sudden shout from Tony had Steve’s head jerking up to stare at Tony in shock, but before he could say anything, Tony began pacing in the kitchen, shoulders tight and arms gesticulating. “I don’t think – I mean, Pepper and Rhodey were talking all about how I needed to – I tried, I talked to you, I was more careful, I remembered our anniversary and I fucking tried, okay? I don’t know what more you want from me!”
“I want you to tell me when you get hurt!” Steve growled back, standing up and squaring his shoulders. “I want you to include me in your plans! I want you to come home and do something other than squirrel yourself away in your workshop! I want to take part in your day, and I want you to ask about mine! I want to – dammit, I want you Tony!”
“You had me!” Tony shouted, throwing his arms up in the air. “I was going to ask you to marry me!”
Steve’s mouth fell open in shock.
“I mean, what more can a guy do? What more can I do? I get that I’m not – I’m not the easiest to be with, and I’m not, I’m not what people want, but I thought we were doing okay! Yeah, sure, you always get exasperated when I take risks in the field, but I always take risks in the field and they’re calculated risks, okay? I tell you over and over again – but you worry anyway, and then you fuss, and mother hen, and make me go easy, and I have to come up with patents and go into the office and upgrade my gear and upgrade your gear and I do a lot of shit in the workshop, a damned sight more than I do up here, and I try to be around more but you don’t make it fucking easy, Steve! Nothing I do is ever enough for you!”
“That’s what… that’s what being in a relationship’s all about, though,” Steve said slowly, taking a step forward. “It’s about – worrying. About taking care each other.”
“Yeah, but you tell me, Steve, how I can fix anything in this – I’m not good with people, I know that, I’m better with machines, you can actually fix machines—”
“I miss you.”
Tony stopped moving and went still.
“I miss you. I – I love you, Tony. It feels like I’m the only one… only one invested in this relationship. I have to – I have to remind you to come out of the workshop, our bed’s empty more than not, you – Pepper found out by accident, you don’t tell people about us, you—”
“Everyone has to remind me to come out of the workshop, and half the time I come out when I’m not done what I’m doing, but I come out anyway! Our bed isn’t empty because I want it to be, it’s because I legitimately have things to do! You all seem to think that being the head of a company somehow – absolves me of responsibilities, and I know I purposefully project something like that, but I actually do try to be responsible, I take care of my company, I take of you, of this team—”
Tony cut off and stared at Steve, chest heaving.
Steve felt something uncurl in his chest, something that had been wrapped hard around his hurt from their breakup. “You do. You take care of us, I know that. I just – I wanted to know. I mean – I knew, but you never said, you always acted as if we – as if this wasn’t anything you wanted, wasn’t anything you asked for.”
“What? But – I want you, Steve. I’ve always wanted you. I’ve never not wanted you.” Tony looked shocked, and Steve took another step forward. “What could – why?”
Steve shrugged self-consciously. “Why would you pick me?” he replied. “Why would you want me?”
“Why wouldn’t anyone want you?” Tony said, and his mouth quirked up into a tiny, cautious smile. “You’re Captain America.”
Steve’s mouth turned down.
Hastily, Tony took a step forward himself, arms spread out, so close that Steve could reach out and touch him if he wanted to, now. “Look, I’m bad with words, we all know this, right? We all know this. I want you because you put up with me, because you’re the best thing that ever happened to me. You – your hands are amazing. You don’t know how many times I’ll come up and I’m just supposed to be grabbing something to drink, that’s it, I’m not supposed to be doing anything else, but you’ll be sitting there and the sun will come in and your hands will be smudged with charcoal and I’ll just…” Tony shrugged helplessly.
Steve stared at Tony in shock.
“I just – I try, okay? I’ll try more, if you want. I don’t – you need to tell me what you need, okay? I need you to spell it out.” Tony shrugged helplessly.
Slowly, Steve started talking, feeling his way around his words. “I – this wasn’t a last minute decision, as much as it seemed out of the blue,” he explained. “I thought – I felt – you never seemed to care, one way or the other. For two years it felt like I begged for you to be with me, be seen with me, to want this. And for two years I’d find out you were hurt from other people. I’d find out that something good or bad happened to you from news reports instead of you. I – this wasn’t me snapping. I mean, I get that you – that you love me. And I understand that you feel you need – you’ve been doing the best you can. But we’re going to have to work together better. I need to be included in your life.”
“I’ll try, but Steve, I thought I was including you.” Tony shrugged his shoulders helplessly. “I don’t know what else to do.”
“If you get hurt – if you get hurt, you have to tell me,” Steve said slowly. “And I’ll – I’ll try to understand when you can’t make it to our bed, or get out of the workshop. But I want – I want to get married. I want everyone to know we’re together.”
Tony nodded, head down. “I just – you hated the fact that Fury and that PR lady—”
“You really ought to know Ms. Grave’s name by now,” Steve murmured, but he couldn’t keep his words from being fond.
“—whatever, you hated doing press. And I’m – I’m pretty much in front of cameras. I thought you wouldn’t like having everyone speculating about – you wouldn’t like the papers picking up the story, running with it. You don’t like your private life splashed out like that, and that’s what’s going to happen if you publically hitch up with me.”
Steve nodded shortly. “I don’t care. Will you take me back, Anthony Stark? Will you agree to work this out with me? And will you be patient when I lose my temper?”
“Will you take me back, Steve Rogers?” Tony countered, and his voice was pointed and brisk – but his eyes were soft and his shoulders tense and wary. “Will you agree to tell me when you need me to talk? Will you remind me about including you so it – so this doesn’t happen again? Will you marry me?”
Steve caught Tony around the waist, pulled the slightly shorter male in and kissed at the tears in Tony’s eyes. “Yes,” he whispered. “Yes to all.”