It’s not that they didn’t want to grow old together. It’s just that they never thought they’d get the chance.
Living under the constant threat of getting shot at, blown up, or fending off alien invasions didn’t really facilitate long-term planning, and Steve and Tony pieced a life together from each other and the precious scraps of normalcy they could scavenge. Talk about the future was rarely more involved than occasionally making dinner plans.
Then two things happened, years apart and with no connection between them, that brought Steve’s future into sharp focus.
First, Clint lost his arm .
Serious injury was a more or less monthly occurrence for most of the Avengers, but this wasn’t a Bed Rest and Boredom til the Doctor Clears You for Missions kind of injury. This was the kind of injury that Changed Things.
“I can make you a new one,” Tony offered. “You’d be good as new. Better than new. You’d be rocking the whole bionic hero thing. I could give you a built-in crossbow, auto-targeting, the works.”
Steve kicked him in the shin.
Natasha was pale and tense, hands clenched like she was ready to crush the first thing or person that came in reach. Bruce’s eyes were red and raw; they were dry now, but Steve had seen him crying quietly in the car. Thor made no attempt to hide his tears and sniffed loudly when he wiped them away.
Clint kept his good arm crossed over his chest, carefully covering the place where the other one ended so suddenly, and wouldn’t look at any of them.
“What? I’m trying to be helpful,” Tony insisted. “This is not the end of the world. We’ve seen the end of the world, and it looks nothing like a one-armed archer. This is just a... a bad joke, is what this is.”
Tony really did mean well, and Steve loved him for that. It was out of love, then, that he smacked Tony on the back of the head.
Without warning, the door slammed open, and Coulson came in like the world’s best dressed hurricane.
“Out. All of you, get out. Now.”
Everyone else moved immediately for the exit, but Tony stared him down with a look of disdain. “You in a hurry to get the paperwork done, Coulson? You can’t give us a minute with our teammate?”
Coulson got nose-to-nose with him and said in a flat, cold voice, “You don’t know a goddamn thing, Stark. Now get out of this room before I ask Captain Rogers to carry you.”
Steve put a hand on Tony’s shoulder and guided him firmly away. As the door closed behind them, Steve glanced back in time to see Coulson lean in and give Clint a long, fierce kiss. Tony saw it, too.
He looked from Steve to the closed door to the other three standing awkwardly in the hallway, back to the door, and back to Steve, who waited patiently for the wheels in that amazing brain to finish clicking into place.
Finally, Tony said, “I’m a jackass.”
Steve smiled gently and put his arms around him. “It’s okay. They’ll forgive you.”
The next morning, Steve heard, Fury received two identical letters of notice, one with Coulson’s signature and one with Clint’s. Steve also heard that Clint would have prefered to give his notice by writing “kiss my ass” in giant flaming letters on the deck of the helicarrier, and Coulson almost let him.
There was no farewell party, no ceremony. Just some forms to sign, a few quiet goodbyes, and they were gone. “To Hawai’i,” Coulson said. “Supervillains never attack Hawai’i.” Fury made some noise about vetting new Avengers candidates, but nobody paid much attention.
“How did I not know this?” Tony wondered, later.
Steve was reclined against his chest, Tony’s arm draped around him. He could feel the edges of the arc reactor digging into his back, a reminder that Tony was solid and alive and fragile.
“You didn’t ask,” Steve replied evenly.
“Well how did you know?”
“Because I’m more perceptive than you are.”
“That’s true,” Tony admitted. “How did everyone else know?”
Steve sighed. “I don’t know, Tony. I guess everyone’s more perceptive than you are.”
That got him a swat on the head.
“We could have had the best double dates,” Tony lamented. “I could have called Coulson to commiserate about man troubles.”
“Now we’ll just have to go to Hawai’i for couples time. Which is a pain in the ass. They could have just stayed here and played house. I mean, sure S.H.I.E.L.D. has ‘regulations’ about ‘fraternizing’.” Tony framed the words with air quotes. “But I don’t see that getting enforced.”
“I doubt they would’ve let regulations get in the way, in any case,” Steve agreed. “Still....” He thought about one strong hand covering white bandages. “It’s not like Clint really had a choice.”
“Sure he did.”
Steve gave him a questioning look, and Tony rolled his eyes. “I wasn’t kidding about the bionic arm. He could have been back in the field in a few months. And if he didn’t want that, he could have had an office job or a command position or something. He had options, but he chose to walk away, and Coulson chose to go with him. Maybe they chose together. I don’t know. What I’m saying is, I get it. Because this job, it chips away at you, bit by bit. It takes things. And when it’s just you, that’s one thing, but when you have to watch it happen to someone else, someone you care about.... I don’t know. It seems like you’d get to a point where you just don’t want to lose any more pieces of each other.”
Steve blinked. “I guess I never thought about it that way.”
“Yeah, well,” Tony said, “I do.”
The next day, Steve packed up his quarters at S.H.I.E.L.D. and moved into the Stark Tower, officially.
They went to visit, sometimes, and cards and letters were exchanged for birthdays and holidays. After a lot of well-intentioned shouting, Tony did make Clint a new arm. It was light, sleek, and efficient, more for practical daily use than combat. It might also have had a small bolt-throwing mechanism hidden in the wrist, but Tony wasn’t telling and Clint never said.
Natasha was promoted to acting S.H.I.E.L.D. liaison for the Avengers Initiative, and the team picked up a kid named Parker. Life went on.
Seven years, two months, and four days later, Steve was reminded that it didn’t always.
That was when Tony had his first heart attack.
It was bound to happen, the doctors said. Really, there were pieces of metal permanently embedded in his arteries, held in place by an electromagnet powered by a concentrated energy source, he operated in what might mildly be classified as a high-stress work environment, and, at this point, he was pushing fifty. The only surprising thing, the doctors said, was that it hadn’t happened sooner.
Tony swore at them and waved them off and called them a bunch of hacks. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s chief surgeon retaliated by putting him on bed rest for a week, a recommendation that Natasha said would be enforced through measures up to and including physical restraint. Tony swore at her, too, but he acquiesced.
“I don’t know what you’re so freaked out about,” he said, later. He had obviously understood “bed rest” to mean doing all the things he normally did that could be accomplished from a seated position and was lounging in bed surrounded by schematics and pieces of whatever it was he was building.
Steve rolled his eyes. “Gosh, maybe it was the part where you had an actual heart attack.”
“So? Last week, I got thrown across the East River by a giant robot.” Tony kept his eyes on the gadget in his hand. “And, last month, a building fell on me, after you got electrocuted. Something makes a concentrated effort to kill us on a regular basis.”
“This is.... This is different,” Steve said. He knew how to defend against monsters and evil men. He could throw up his shield and protect them both from a hail of bullets, and Tony’s suit kept him safe from most anything he might face. This was different.
“Why? How? It’s just one more thing trying to kill me.”
Steve sighed and rubbed at his eyes, exhausted. It had been three days since one of the S.H.I.E.L.D. techs had called him saying that Tony had collapsed in the lab and was in the medical wing, three days since he’d slept, three days since the doctors had stood in front of him and said gently, plainly, ”This is going to happen again.”
“I just.... I think you should take better care of yourself,” he said. Tony, who had been hooked up to an I.V. not 24 hours before, snorted and went right on tinkering.
One of the many fascinating and frustrating side effects of being a genetically enhanced super soldier, was that Steve aged at a glacial rate. The S.H.I.E.L.D. scientists guessed that, barring the interference of supervillains and other disasters, he might live a century or two in perfect health.
Three days ago, Steve had remembered, very suddenly, that Tony wouldn’t.
Tony wasn’t a genetically enhanced super soldier. Tony was nothing more or less than an extraordinary man, and his heart would fail again. And again. And again. And one day, in another week or another decade, his heart would fail for the last time, and then Steve’s heart would break. Again.
Tony tossed a metal washer at his head. “Hey, sourpuss. If I promise to eat nothing but cardboard and egg whites, like the doctor said, will you quit pouting?”
This was different, but it wasn’t. This was different, but it didn’t change anything. There was nothing he could do to alter the final, inevitable outcome, and there was nothing in this moment to make sitting here, watching Tony work, any less exactly where he wanted to be.
Steve shook his head and made himself smile. “No, you’re right. Eat what you want,” he said. “This is just one more thing.”
They might not grow old together, but they could at least make dinner plans, once in awhile. Steve would deal with the future when it came.