Tony corners him in the hallway before anyone else can interrupt them. The last few weeks have been, to say the least, hectic. The new Avengers facility, the cleanup in Sokovia and the flak that follows the fallout, dealing with reporters and politicians and nosy, ‘concerned’ members of the public – it’s taken a lot out of everyone. Tony can safely say this is the first time he’s been left alone for more than two hours in a really, really long time.
“What are you doing?” Steve asks him, letting Tony push him backwards into a secluded corridor, one that both of them know is infrequently travelled and frankly, quite quiet. Tony doesn’t say anything; he keeps his hand in the middle of the star on Steve’s uniform and pushes him until he’s got his back against the wall. He looks up the couple of inches it is to Steve’s eyes and presses his mouth into a firm line.
“Gotta talk,” he says, and he’s using the least amount of words he can, because he’s got a lot to say, “Listen, a lot happened with this whole death-bot-attempts-to-destroy-the-world thing – some things got out of hand, a lot of people died, we saw a lot of things that no one should ever have to see—”
Steve eyes him carefully and cuts him off, “If you’re trying to plead your case, you’re not doing a very good job, Tony.”
“You’re making this very difficult, will you be quiet?” Tony fires back, and there’s a hint of that playfulness behind his eyes again. Steve wonders what he using it to hide this time, “Steve, there’s a lot I could say about all of this, like Ultron was never supposed to be what he was, that Bruce and I were trying to help, that I was—I don’t know, that I was broken, after New York. Because you didn’t see what the Maximoff kid showed me—”
“You’re rambling,” Steve says softly, and Tony’s hand is still on his chest, so he grabs it and moves it away gently. They stand face to face, looking at each other, and Tony stares at him like the words he’s looking for are on Steve’s face, opening and closing his mouth until he lets out a breath that Steve is sure he’s been holding for far too long. Tony looks away.
“I screwed up,” he says to the wall, breathing a little ragged. When he tears his eyes away and looks back to Steve, there’s a sad smile playing at the corners of his lips, “Big time. I mean, who does that, right? Who does what I did? And we haven’t had a lot of time to talk about it, and I wanted to get it off my chest. That I’m sorry.”
Steve stares at him, at this man who is a good four inches shorter than him, all messy hair and eyes burning with some sort of sick self-hatred, until Tony is sure he’s gone and made this worse. And then a laugh escapes Steve’s chest, and then another, and Tony goes from apologetic to confused faster than Steve can watch the emotions play across his face.
“You’re laughing,” he says uncertainly, “You’re—laughing?”
“I was wrong about you,” Steve grins, toothy smile bright and genuine despite everything and it’s so contagious that Tony almost matches it before he realizes that this isn’t exactly supposed to be a happy moment, “You know that?”
“About what?” Tony’s bland about it, “That I’m the self-obsessed, mad scientist who can’t tell the difference between saving the world and destroying it? Because you hit the nail on the head with that one, Cap, let me tell you.”
Steve stares at him. He stares at him, and he wants to hurt anyone who ever took Tony Stark’s self-hatred as permission to treat him poorly. He wants to feel bones break and hear the blunt noises of fists against skin. He wants to hurt himself for thinking of this man as anything less than a hero.
“I never said that,” he reminds Tony, watching the way he flinches, “I never—”
Tony’s jaw bunches, and he looks away, looks back, and swallows thickly.
“No,” he agrees, and the smile that creeps across his face is bitter, “No, but you believed it.”
The words hammer into him the same way Ultron’s bots clawed at him, kicked him, bruised him on the ruins of Sokovia. He closes his eyes, and when he opens them, Tony looks more helpless than ever.
“I was wrong. You’re a good man,” Steve starts, and he wants to reach out and hold Tony’s shoulders in his grasp, shake him and try to etch the words onto the insides of his eyelids. He does nothing but stare at him, “You saved the world, Tony.”
Tony flinches again, “Right. But if I hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have needed saving.”
Neither of them know what to say to that, and they stare at each other, awkward and unwavering. Tony is the first to give up. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath, lets it out through his mouth.
“I just wanted to thank you,” he says, eventually, “For having my back, eventually. Means a lot. And I’m sorry.”
There are so many unresolved questions hanging on the end of his sentence, but neither of them say anything. Steve knows this isn’t the end – this isn’t something they can resolve in the secluded hallways of a facility Tony designed, that Tony paid for, that Tony gave them. This is something more than that.
Steve looks at him, and Tony looks back, and they’re far too close for this to be normal friend interaction. This has never been normal. They’ve never been just friends. Tony takes a step, and they’re closer, now, just within reach of each other. Tony’s mouth is right there, he could just—
“It’s been a long day,” Steve murmurs.
Tony closes the gap between them, and they aren’t kissing, but Steve knows enough that he can agree wholeheartedly that this is no longer about apologies.
“What are you doing?” He asks Tony. When he speaks, their lips touch. Sparks jolt down his spine.
“Nothing.” Tony answers him. Steve can feel Tony’s breath against his mouth in warm bursts, and his pulse speeds up, and Tony’s hands have travelled from resting idly at his sides to clutching at Steve’s waist.
“This doesn’t feel like nothing,” he says, and he wants to kiss Tony, he wants it enough that he would bleed for it, “What will we tell Thor when he comes bounding around the corner?”
Tony purses his lips and pretends to think about it, and Steve grins, because there it is.
“Just talking,” Tony says finally, and Steve watches his eyelids flutter shut, “It’s a custom, here on Midgard, such closeness between weary warriors."
“Not a habit he should pick up, then,” Steve answers, “I don’t think Clint would appreciate being this close to a sweaty, bloody Thor after a battle.”
Tony pulls away from him abruptly and bursts into laughter, and that’s a nice noise, Steve thinks. He resolves to make it happen as often as he can.
The moment is over, now, and Steve can’t hide the disappointment very well. That smile still carries bitterness behind it, and the same self-loathing that he always sees behind Tony’s eyes is still there. It’s not going away any time soon; not without some work.
They’ll fix it, Steve thinks. Together.