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better to have loved and lost

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“How long will it take?” Steve asks. Tony feels him leaning on his chair. Steve can never keep still in the quinjet; he's too full of energy just waiting to be spent.

“At least four hours,” Tony says. He's not especially happy T'Challa called them and he knows Steve must be even less so. He has accepted that the Illuminati were necessary, but it's very obvious he doesn't like it. “Give me a second,” he adds, and puts the plane on auto-pilot.

He gets up and stretches. The armour is in a suitcase at the back. Flying in it would be quicker, but he couldn't take Steve that way, and it's not like Tony doesn't like spending time with him.

Steve was right; they have to get bigger, but Tony isn't yet sure how to go about it. He's spent most of his days lately planning. T'Challa's timing was bad.

Tony notices Steve looking at him, and smiles. “What's up, Winghead?” he asks.

“Let me try something,” Steve says. It sounds like a question, and Tony nods. They have plenty of time for everything.

Except then—Tony isn't sure what's happening, because Steve is stepping into his space, a determined look on his face, and Tony's dreamt of it for years, but it can't be . . .

Steve kisses him.

For a few seconds, Tony's almost too shell-shocked to reciprocate. Then he puts his hands on Steve's shoulders and holds on as he kisses him back. Steve's warm, and he's not backing off. It's good, so much better than Tony had ever imagined, and he's feeling giddy.

“What brought this on?” Tony asks when they separate, smiling against Steve's lips.

Steve holds him close in his arms. “I've been thinking about that for some time, Shellhead,” he admits with a goofy smile. “I'm glad you—”

“Some time,” Tony huffs. “Me too, you could say.” Almost since he found Steve in the ice, but that's too true and too honest to admit just yet.

Steve kisses him again, and again, and again, and Tony thinks the flight should take forever.

He doesn't want to land.

***

He barely stops himself from holding Steve's hand as they leave the quinjet, and Steve's smiling, looking happier than Tony's remembered him seeing in ages.

It's good.

Whatever is this mysterious reason T'Challa called them for, it'd better be solved quickly.

***

When it's done, Tony thinks of how it felt to look Steve in the eyes without lying for the last time.

“What will he remember?” Tony asks, his voice empty.

“Nothing concerning what happened here,” Strange said. “Just the official story you gave to the Avengers years ago.”

Tony nods. “And what about . . . the trip here?”

“Gone,” Strange says. “Why?”

“Doesn't matter,” Tony says, and tries to forget how Steve's arms felt around him, how it felt to kiss him.

It was a few happy hours after a lifetime of longing and hopes. It's nothing to let go of it.

Nothing.

Steve was so happy, and now it's gone. He gathered his courage on that quinjet; he's not going to do it again soon—and it's a good thing, because Tony, Tony can never touch him again, not after . . .

He feels sick.

“Tony?” Reed asks. He sounds worried.

Tony shakes his head. He lifts Steve up. He seems so light when Tony has the armour on, almost fragile.

It took a flicker of Strange's fingers to change everything, and Steve must never know.

Tony is a good liar. He'll make it.

(But he's never seen Steve smile quite so brightly before, and he's taken it away from him. He won't forgive himself for that more than anything else.)

***

It's hard.

Steve looks tired all the time; a bright contrast to how carefree and open he'd been in the quinjet what feels like years ago.

Tony wakes him up and takes care of him the best way he knows how, carefully dancing just outside of his space, just out of reach; because if Steve tries to kiss him again, Tony will break.

I've been thinking about that for quite some time, Steve said, and Tony has no idea if it was as much of an understatement as his own answer.

Steve loves—no, Tony cannot think of that; and it's not true anyway, whatever feelings Steve might've had for him were cut short when Tony allowed the Illuminati to wipe his mind. But Steve loved him, and it hurts to think, hurts to consider to what degree Tony has betrayed him in that dark room in Necropolis.

His own feelings don't matter. He's loved Steve for years and he's always known it couldn't come true. The hours when he believed it would—he can ignore them.

(He kind of wants to forget too.)

The Avengers World idea comes to him, sharp and clear in his mind, and Steve's enthusiasm makes it simultaneously better and worse.

Tony works with him, ignores how he knows about what Steve feels for him, and tries not to drink.

“I've got you, Tony,” Steve says on Mars, and Tony's too weak to walk on his own, but he thinks, no, no you don't; don't you remember, I pushed you off the cliff because it was convenient.

Sometimes he wishes Steve would remember, that he would stop looking at Tony with soft eyes full of care and . . .

Steve can never remember, because they have to save the world.

Tony hates himself a little bit more every time Steve smiles at him.

Carol asks him what's going on and he lies to her too, and then he goes to space before he can run out of lies to tell.

***

Space doesn't offer any answers, but Steve isn't there, and it's probably for the best for both of them.

***

Steve hugs him when he's back, and Tony can't stop himself from hugging back. He missed Steve so much, like home.

(He doesn't have a home anymore, he remembers.)

He could kiss Steve now; make him happy for the few months before the world ends, but he can't.

He can't.

He ruined it.

***

For all the time he's wasted thinking about it, he hasn't actually foreseen this.

Thor smashes the door down. Steve—Steve has on his uniform, but he forgot to wipe the tears away.

Tony sighs and reaches for the controller.

“You knew,” Steve says in a very quiet voice. “All these months, you knew.”

“I did,” Tony admits.

Steve shakes his head like he doesn't want to believe. “You knew,” he repeats. “And you used me.”

“Yes,” Tony agrees.

He has to cut the ties once and for all.

He has to.

“But you—” Steve sounds lost. “You too . . .”

“I used you. I'd do it again,” Tony says, and, “You broke first, anyway,” and Steve finally punches him, over a year too late.

It doesn't make him feel better; maybe because he knows intimately how pulled that punch was, how Steve really didn't want to hurt him.

***

He can't blow up another planet, so it was all for nothing. Lying to Steve was for nothing. Breaking his heart was for nothing.

Tony doesn't drink, because Steve would hate it, because he's stronger than that, because he basically orchestrated the end of the world, why shouldn't he witness it too?

(A repulsor gauntlet will be quicker anyway.)

***

He doesn't care that Steve is hunting all of them down.

He has to talk to him one more time.

He has to.

There's an old Avengers frequency, unused since the Mansion was destroyed. Tony knows Steve will be listening, and so he leaves a message.

Maybe he'll come with the army of Avengers Tony designed for him. That would be best.

Tony sits in his villa in the Hamptons, and waits. It's clear the agents have been through it; most of the furniture is turned over. It doesn't matter. Nothing quite does, these days.

Steve comes on time. Of course.

“What did you want?” he asks.

Tony looks at his hands and doesn't stand up. “What do you remember?”

Everything.” There's something weird in his voice, something Tony doesn't want to name.

“Did you mean it,” Tony says, because he knows the answer, but . . .

“Tony,” Steve says; Tony, not Stark, in the same soft voice he'd used in the quinjet months ago, because of course he knows what Tony is referencing.

Tony turns to look at him. Steve's old, but he doesn't look weak. Defeated, maybe. His eyes are no longer bright and full of hope. They haven't been in months.

“I'm sorry,” Tony says. “I—I didn't lie either.”

“You did nothing else!” Steve yells.

“I love you,” Tony whispers. “This is—this is why I did it.”

He expects another punch, but Steve has his hand pressed over his eyes, and he's shaking.

Tony is a fucking idiot.

“You can't win,” he says. “Not alone.”

“As if I'm going to trust you, Stark,” Steve snaps, and his eyes are still red, it's terrible, why is Tony capable of bringing him to such a state, Tony doesn't deserve this kind of power, he doesn't . . .

“I'll leave you their coordinates,” Tony says. “Good luck.”

“And you?” Steve asks.

“Like you care,” Tony says.

Steve still looks like wants to argue that yes, he does.

Tony leaves him, alone in the dark room, leaning on his cane.

He pretends he doesn't hear the sob.