It was six months before Steve would see him. Tony understood why, he truly did, but that didn't stop his heart from breaking a little more with every day that went by without any word from the man he loved.
But he understood. Oh God, he understood.
He had been there that day when the Avengers and SHIELD agents alike converged on that church and arrested Richmond Valentine. He had been there when Steve stumbled out into the sunlight, dazed and covered in blood not his own, the blue of his eyes almost lost amid all the crimson spattering his face. He had heard Steve speaking to Valentine, his voice slow and deep, like a man still drugged, What did you do to me? I killed them. I wanted to kill them. And he had seen what had happened inside the church, the pure horror of it.
It was a sight he would never forget.
By the time he had staggered back outside, wiping his mouth from when he had helplessly thrown up everything he had eaten that day, Steve was nearly catatonic with shock. He hadn't protested at all as Fury arrested him, hadn't said a word. Tony and the Avengers had been the ones to protest, loudly and – on Tony's part – with a lot of angry threats.
Steve had finally roused himself then, looking at Tony through eyes as lifeless as the bodies piled up inside the church. "Tony. Don't."
"This wasn't your fault," Tony had said, little realizing then that those four words would be a constant refrain in his head for the next six months. Words he would give anything to say out loud to Steve. "It was Valentine. You weren't in control, you didn't—"
"Don't," Steve had said again, his voice as dull as his eyes.
In agony, Tony had stopped talking.
"I need you to go," Steve had said. "Lead them now. And don't try to see me." His words had been clipped, his sentences uneven. "I don't want you to see me."
Tony would have stood there all day arguing under the hot sun, but Fury decided that he had had enough. They had bundled Steve away in a waiting black vehicle, and that was the last time Tony had seen him.
In person, at least. For weeks after that fateful day, Steve had been all over the news, his face plastered on TV, usually above headlines screaming with words like "slaughter" and "massacre." The stories were all the same, talking about the hate group that had met in the church, many of them carrying guns and knives to the sermon they had come to hear. Into their midst had gone Captain America, trying to discover what their tie was to the Internet mogul Richmond Valentine. The Avengers had known Valentine had been plotting something, but they hadn't known what it was. So Steve had made the decision as their leader and gone in alone – with tragic, fatal results.
The case hadn't gone to trial, of course. Everyone knew that Steve Rogers was just another innocent victim of an insane experiment, driven into a homicidal rage by the neurological waves Valentine had released via his sim cards. In the end, though, that public exoneration hadn't mattered. The final result had been the same as if he had been convicted. Steve had turned his shield over to Sam Wilson and severed all ties with the Avengers. For the last six months no one had seen him except for his therapists.
And now he wanted to see Tony again.
The call had come in last night, and Tony hadn't slept for imagining all the ways their reunion could go. He was anxious, worried, afraid, and so desperate to see Steve again that he kept looking at the clock, certain that the appointed hour would never arrive.
But at last it was ten o'clock, and Tony left the Tower. The sleek black car slid through traffic, taking him through New York until he found himself in a section of Brooklyn he had never been to. The apartment buildings were close together, crowding out the sky overhead. Tony clenched his hand around the piece of paper in his pocket with Steve's address written on it; he knew it by heart, but just holding the paper grounded him and made him feel a tiny bit better.
Outside the door, he took a deep breath, then another. He forced his hand to uncurl from the crumpled piece of paper, then he knocked.
An eternity went by while he was certain that Steve would not answer, Steve would have decided not to go through with it, Steve never wanted to see him again. Then the door opened, and Steve was standing there.
Tony stared at him, unable to move for how hard his heart was beating. Steve looked thinner than he remembered, not quite as firmly muscled as before. His fair skin was paler than before, too, as though he had truly not set foot outside the apartment unless he absolutely had to. But he looked better than Tony had feared; there were no dark circles beneath his eyes, and the smudge on the heel of his hand was charcoal, which meant that he was drawing again. That alone gave Tony hope that the worst of the crisis had passed. If Steve was drawing, that could only be a good thing.
"Tony." Steve stepped aside to let him in. "I'm glad you're here."
The formality of his words startled Tony back to reality. He had imagined that they might hug, that they would kiss each other senseless right here in the hallway where all the neighbors could see. Immediately he realized his mistake.
He had been thinking that they could just pick up where they had left off.
His gait as stiff as his back, Tony walked inside the apartment. He had never been here; as long as they had been together, Steve had lived in the Tower with the other Avengers. He looked around now, seeing all the signs that Steve had settled in and made this his home: the drawing canvases scattered around, the books, the hoodie thrown carelessly over the back of the couch. There was a bicycle too, although there was enough dust on the seat and the handlebars that Tony knew it hadn't been used in a very long time.
Playing his part, he stopped just inside the living room. "Nice place."
"It'll do," Steve said. He gestured toward the kitchen. There was a calendar stuck to the front of the fridge with magnets shaped like fruit. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, thanks," Tony said, and felt his heart break just a little bit more.
He guessed he knew now why Steve wanted to see him.
They sat down together, Tony on the couch, Steve in a beige armchair that looked too sprung to be very comfortable.
Steve did not make him wait. "I wanted to see you again," he said. "I know it's been a while. Thank you for waiting for me to be ready."
He still spoke so formally, and Tony could only nod. He felt strangely numb all over.
They had all wanted to visit Steve, of course. None of them had done it, though. They had respected his wishes – and Tony's not-so-veiled dark promises of the ugly fate that would befall anyone who went against those wishes. He thought Sam might occasionally be in touch with Steve via e-mail, but he wasn't sure about that; if he was, it was on a non-Stark device, one JARVIS couldn't monitor.
He wondered now if they would all get the same call, the same speech. His, of course, would be special, tailored to their unique relationship.
His would be the hardest. That was why Steve had called him first.
And he couldn't do it. He knew he couldn't. He saw Steve take a deep breath, getting ready to speak, to say the terrible words, and he just couldn't do it. If Steve broke up with him now, he would never get over it, never accept it.
He stood up. "Looks like you've been drawing. Can I see?"
Steve blinked at him, taken off guard. Somewhat surprised too – that wasn't what he had meant to say – Tony made himself smile. "You know how much I love your art."
"Most of it's not really finished," Steve murmured. He stood up, glancing around the apartment at the canvases leaning up against the furniture and set on easels. They were all turned around, Tony realized as a cold chill ran up his spine. Turned so their subject matter couldn't be seen. "And they're not really….they're not pretty."
Tony bit down so hard his teeth clicked together. Of course. He was a fucking idiot. Art therapy, what else. Probably Steve had drawn that scene in the church over and over, trying to exorcise it from his memory. Maybe he had destroyed some of those canvases, crying or screaming or tearing them to shreds with his bare hands. Maybe had taken them to therapy with him and talked about them with his shrink.
Maybe Tony needed to stop thinking so much.
"Okay," he said. "I get it."
"Tony," Steve started.
"Don't," Tony pleaded. He could see the inevitable waiting for him in the blue of Steve's eyes, and he couldn’t bear it. "Don't do this."
Steve stared at him and swallowed hard. "I think it's for the best, don't you," he said quietly.
"No," Tony said vehemently. "No, I sure as hell don't." He was angry, he suddenly realized. Hell, he was furious. And before he knew what he was doing, he found himself stalking toward Steve, crossing the minimal distance between them.
"I feel like I shouldn't have to say this," he said, "but I guess I do. So here I am, saying it." He looked Steve in the eye. "Yes, you killed every single person in that church."
Steve flinched, and Tony felt a hot dagger of self-loathing slide into his stomach, but he kept right on going. "But Steve, what happened that day wasn't your fault. You were just as much a victim as everyone else. You didn't mean to kill those people. Valentine and his sim cards made you do it. And if you hadn't, they all would have killed you. You weren't in control of yourself. No one in that church was."
"Stop," Steve said. He probably meant it to sound forceful, like a command from Captain America, but to Tony it sounded more like a plea.
"No," Tony said. He felt ugly then, ugly and cruel and ruthless – but he pushed on anyway. Because that was what he did. He kept on going, even when everything around him was bleak and hopeless and there was no way out.
"It happened, okay, and it was horrible, it was beyond horrible, but you survived. You made it through to the other side. And I know it's not as simple as putting it behind you, believe me, I understand. You think I don't look over my shoulder all the time and see that cave still there, just a few steps back?"
He stopped, because Steve looked like he was one breath away from crying, and Tony wanted to just hold him then, to kiss him and tell him that everything would be all right, that the nightmare was over, that everything was okay.
But he couldn't do it. He couldn't lie.
"So yeah, it sucks. I know. But you can't let it rule you, Steve. You can't keep hiding away in here. And you sure as hell can't just shut me out for six months and then call me up and ask me to come over just so you can break up with me."
The words hung in the air between them. Tony inhaled deeply and was dismayed to realize that he was trembling, the breath stuttering in his throat and lungs. His chest felt quivery all over, his stomach was in knots. He was probably going to burst into tears any second now.
But he meant every word. He still loved Steve. He would never stop loving Steve, no matter what awful things happened to them, no matter what tried to come between them.
"If it had been me," he said softly, "would you let me do this to us?"
Anguish twisted Steve's face. "That's not fair."
"No, it's not," Tony said, and another knife slid into his chest. "But that doesn't let you off the hook. Answer the question."
"I can't," Steve said, and Tony knew he wasn't referring to the demand to answer the question. He held up his hands, the one with the charcoal smudge along the side. "Tony, I killed people. Innocent people. I used my shield and I took their guns and their knives and I killed them. And when I couldn't get hold of a weapon, I used my bare hands." He glanced down at his hands and then back up at Tony.
"How could I ever touch you again?" he whispered. "How could you ever let me, knowing what I did?"
The answer was right there. After everything he had said already, these words were easy. Tony smiled. "How could I let you? Because I love you, Steve Rogers. It's that simple."
Steve shook his head, his lower lip caught in his teeth. "No," he said. "No. It's not that easy."
"Why not?" Tony insisted. "Why can't it be?"
"Because I'm dangerous!" Steve cried. His hands balled into fists, a motion he seemed unaware of. "You saw what I did in there. You know what I'm capable of."
"I knew you were capable of that kind of thing even before that day," Tony said. He wanted to say, But I also knew you would never do anything like that, but he knew that would be a very bad idea. Not when history had proven him wrong. "Or did you think I was so blinded by love that I hadn't noticed how strong you are?"
"I'm dangerous," Steve repeated stubbornly. "I love you too, Tony, and I always will, but you can't be around me. You shouldn't be around me."
The confession of love, coupled with his last words, made a dreadful, frantic terror clutch at Tony's heart. He had thought he could get through to Steve, but more and more he was starting to think that his efforts were doomed.
No matter what he said, he was going to walk out of here alone.
Like hell I am, he thought.
He took another step forward. "Steve," he said carefully, "I knew you were dangerous the day I met you. That never stopped me before. I know you would never hurt me. I'm not afraid of you."
"You should be," Steve said miserably.
"Too bad," Tony said. "Besides, when have you ever known me to do what anyone expects of me?"
His attempt at humor fell flat. "I can't risk losing you," Steve said, stubborn as ever, his mind made up, even when that decision was costing him everything.
"That's a risk I'm willing to take," Tony said.
"Well, I'm not!" Steve shot back. "I can't let you do it." He looked like every word hurt him, each one a punch to the stomach that had him standing slightly doubled over, like he was in genuine pain.
If he was ever going to convince Steve to change his mind – a feat Tony would previously thought about as likely as walking on Saturn – it was going to be now. "It's not your choice to make," he said. "It's mine. And if it takes you another six months to figure that out, that's fine. I'll wait." He looked long and hard at Steve, wanting to make his point very clear. "However long it takes. Because I'm not going anywhere. I'm right here, right where I belong. With you."
In tears now, Steve stared back at him. "Tony…"
"I love you," Tony said. He took another step, and now there was nothing separating them except a few inches of electrically charged air.
Steve shook his head, tears standing in his eyes.
"Look," Tony said. He reached out and laid his hands over Steve's clenched fists. Immediately Steve flinched back, pulling away as though Tony's touch had burned him.
Having fully expected this, Tony didn't let him. He simply held on tight. And when Steve went utterly still, his arms so rigid with tension that they were fairly shaking, Tony took Steve's right fist in both his hands.
Slowly, telegraphing his every move, he raised Steve's fist up to his face. He set Steve's knuckles on his cheek.
Almost involuntarily, Steve opened his hand. His palm settled on Tony's cheek, the heel of his hand cupping Tony's jaw, his fingertips brushing Tony's eyelid.
"There," Tony breathed. "You see?"
Steve stared at him through wide eyes, fingers trembling on Tony's skin. He blinked, and a lone tear tracked down his face.
Tony took his other hand and did the same thing. This time Steve opened his fist even before he made contact with Tony's cheek. He cradled Tony's face in between both of his hands and he made a low sound in the back of his throat, an expression of such terrible pain that Tony's heart broke all over again.
"You are still Steve Rogers," he said. His voice was thick with unshed tears, but he went on all the same. He had to say this. And Steve needed to hear it. "You are still the man I love. And these hands are still just as beautiful to me as they were before."
Steve's breath caught. His fingers trembled on the side of Tony's face, a touch so light it was barely there.
"I love you," Tony said. He had waited six months to say it, and now he meant to say it every chance he had. "All of you. And I'm not letting go of you. No matter what happens."
And finally, finally, he did what he had wanted to do from the first moment he had seen Steve, while he was still standing out there in the hallway. He moved in closer so Steve's hands slid off his face, he wrapped both his arms around Steve and then held him as tightly as he could.
Steve hugged him back, and after a little while the first sob broke from him, and Tony closed his eyes.
They were going to be okay, he thought. Not right away, of course, and maybe not even for a long time. But eventually, someday, they would be.
Starting right now.