Steve had lived through this before, somehow. Survived might be a better word for it. Last time around, things had been different. He’s not pretending this is anything like Bucky, because that’s not fair to anyone, but it isn’t so far removed.
Pain is pain, and this hurts. Differently, yes.
Maybe in some small, very important ways, it hurts more.
Bucky had fallen, slipped right through Steve’s fingers, and he’d mourned him. Part of him had died right along with Bucky, if he was being honest. Still, he’d lived through that hell, survived it somehow. Unfortunately, life likes to kick you in the teeth; at least, this is the conclusion Steve’s come to. Being a frozen time traveler, or fighting alien hordes apparently wasn’t enough to shake things up. Just when he thought maybe, maybe someday, he could go twenty-four hours without being cut to the quick with the memory of that all encompassing loss, Bucky had gone and resurfaced in the worst possible way.
Except any way was a miracle, a gift, because where there was life there was hope. He would never give up on Bucky. He would be found, and Steve would be there, would help him find his way back into the world. He had no expectations that the man he had faced would be the same man he had lost. Some experiences left wounds so deep that they either ended you, or changed you forever.
But that was Bucky, and while everything that makes Steve Steve is in some way tied to Bucky Barnes, this—what he’s now attempting to survive—is all about Tony Stark.
Bucky had been lost to him. Taken, really. Tony Stark had simply walked away from him. Tony had equipped himself with a smile, wielding it much as Steve might have done with his shield, had pretended everything was fine, offered some pretty words, and had walked away.
That Tony would do this to him hurts, but what is really tearing Steve apart at the seams is the fact that he let him do it.
If he wanted, Steve could write up an entire report on all the reasons why it was the right thing to do. He didn’t own The Avengers, they weren’t his soldiers, they had lives, and choices, and it was foolish to think otherwise. All that aside, certain parties were relieved Iron Man was out of the picture. There are those who would happily lay all the blame for Ultron at Tony’s feet, but Steve isn’t one of them.
The problem is, Steve knows Tony now.
The problem is, Steve knows that Tony didn’t want to leave.
The problem is, Tony also knows this. And Steve let him leave anyway.
But there is another problem, and maybe Tony isn’t aware of this one, because it involves Steve Rogers and his foolish heart.
He’s willing to bet that Tony had a whole slew of reasons for doing what he did. Just like with Steve’s imaginary report, Tony would have come to the conclusion that it was the right thing to do. For everyone on the team. Specifically for Steve. Hell, for all Steve knows, Tony might be right. That doesn’t change anything, though. It doesn’t change the reality that is letting someone walk away from you just to prove a stubborn point, just because you’re heartbroken that they’d even consider doing it.
He hadn’t been lying about missing Tony, either. Steve wasn’t sure how long he could go on feeling torn down the middle. Feeling that eerie dropping out sensation every time he turned to say something to Tony, only to remember that—by choice—he wasn’t there to hear it.
There was an old saying about letting something go if you love it, and then when it comes back, you know it was meant to be. And if it doesn’t, then letting go was probably for the best, right? Well, whatever idiot said that never met Tony Stark. He isn’t like normal people. No matter how much he wanted to, Tony wouldn’t come back. Steve learned the hard way that there is a secret, twisted language that Tony speaks with himself. To himself. He would have translated Steve’s acquiescence about his departure as, “I don’t want you here. You are not important.”
He couldn’t let himself recognize this right away, though. Despite everything he’s only human. His heart aches just like any other heart. He loves like any other man. He has wants, and hopes, and dreams, and doesn’t like the idea of chasing after someone, or begging. What was the point if he was the kind of person Tony could just walk away from at the end of the day? That was putting your eggs in the wrong basket.
Steve knows Tony now.
This is why, once he finishes allowing himself to indulge in the anger and disappointment, he is left with the understanding that Tony wasn’t walking away from him, he was walking away from himself. Once he had this little epiphany the truth of it was unshakable, and Steve found himself returning to the thought again, and again, each time with a growing sense of urgency.
What if you loved something, and you let it go, but it was too wounded to make it back to you?
Steve toweled off, staring at himself in the mirror, asking himself this question. Asking himself how long was too long to wait. Terrified that if he waited too long, Tony would be unreachable, as unreachable as his own past was. As unreachable as Bucky was.
He made it all of twenty-nine hours.
When Tony Stark is still and quiet, the world holds its breath in anticipation, or dread. Or perhaps that is only Steve Rogers. The state is an unnatural one, and he is immediately uneasy.
Steve almost says hello to JARVIS upon entering, catching himself at the last moment. He'd expected some sort of activity to be taking place. Rebuilding. Cleaning up, even. Tony bleary eyed and working on a new iteration of his AI.
It's none of that. Tony is still wearing the clothes Steve had last seen him in, and he's willing to bet Tony has spent the entire time here. Alone. In silence.
He turns his head ever so slightly, and Steve expects to see tears, but Tony's face is dry, his expression blank.
Steve walks through the quiet of the room until he's standing close enough to touch.
"What's the matter? Fury blow through his allowance already?"
Steve desperately wants to touch him. This is nothing new. He feels this way whenever he sees Tony, has done so from the beginning. He'd pushed it aside, tried to deny it existed, only to eventually settle upon acceptance without action. But that was then, and this is now.
"I'm not here on business," Steve answers, cautiously placing a hand on Tony's shoulder. His fingers curl around the construct of bone and muscle, squeeze possessively.
Tony blinks at either the words or the physical contact, his lashes long and dark. Steve wants to feel them against his skin. He settles for brushing his thumb back and forth, feeling the tremor this sets off in Tony's body.
His voice echoes oddly in the room as his brows draw together, a little furrow appearing that Steve wishes he had permission to kiss away. "I missed you."
Tony jerks in response to this answer, and Steve sighs. "I told you I would," he says affectionately, attempting to head off Tony's sarcastic, dismissive reply.
This doesn't make Tony relax. "You shouldn't."
"Don't really think should or shouldn't comes into play here," Steve answers. Slowly, he slides his hand up along Tony's shoulder, settling eventually at the nape of his neck, and his fingertips tingle appreciatively as they come into contact with skin.
Tony inhales sharply, tensing, and Steve waits to have his touch shaken aside. Tony remains still, though, which gives him hope. His skin is warm, and compelling, and Steve steps closer, wanting more.
"I don’t know if I can do this," Tony says so softly that Steve would not have heard it at all if he wasn't who he was.
He knows Tony isn’t talking about this moment, right here, right now. He’s talking about everything, about all of it. Steve’s stomach drops as if he’s just jumped into a firefight. Tony sounds so unlike himself that he has no choice but to use his hold on Tony against him. Pulls and tugs until Tony is turned around and in his arms, stiff and shaking as Steve attempts to hug him.
"Why did you lie about Pepper?" Steve asks, and that was the wrong thing to say, because Tony is pushing free of the embrace, leaving Steve reaching for him, heart aching.
"You talked to Pepper?" His mouth is pressed into a thin line, twitching at one corner, his eyes flashing.
"No. I didn't need to," Steve sighs. "How long?"
Tony looks down at his shoes, arms folded across his chest, a muscle in his jaw jumping. Steve fights the impulse to slide a hand into his hair.
"Since coming back to New York," he admits, and Steve mourns the time he has wasted. Thinks of the bed they shared at Clint’s farm. Thinks of that long, sleepless night, Peggy’s words echoing in his mind as Tony breathed softly beside him, close enough to touch. Completely beyond his reach. They could have comforted each other, eased each other through that long night. Instead, he’d alternated staring at the ceiling and Tony’s back, thinking of the word home as if it were a curse.
The search for Bucky, the fallout from Project Insight, having the team together; he let it distract him. No, truthfully, he let himself be blinded, because he'd still been lying to himself then. There wasn't a point to lying any longer, though. He knew who he was now. Had accepted the man he had become.
"Come on," he says, and is somewhat surprised when Tony allows himself to be led away from this cold, empty room.
Somewhere along the way, Tony's hand tentatively finds his own, and Steve's heart lurches and skips in his chest. He links their fingers and tightens his hold, and wonders if Tony has any idea what effect his touch has on this boy from Brooklyn.
It's not any better when they leave his workshop, and so Steve drags Tony along through the Tower, heading for the private elevator. Once upon a time, the Avengers had been here, all of them together, celebrating. He doesn't want to have this conversation in that room. It's all wrong, like picnicking in a graveyard.
Tony's floor is better. He's only been there twice, and never made it past the living room. There aren't ghosts here, at least not for him. Steve studies Tony's profile, taking in the dark circles under his eyes, the light stubble on his cheeks. He is beautiful in the way that paintings of martyrs are beautiful.
"I shouldn't have let you go," Steve says even as he thinks it, surprised at the effect these words have.
"Why not?" Tony asks, laughing quietly to himself. "I ruin... everything."
Somehow, they’re still holding hands as they sit beside each other on Tony’s couch, and he can feel the way Tony is shaking, can see how much maintaining his composure is costing him.
“It’s like Cassandra, only worse,” Tony laughs again, his hand sliding free of Steve’s grip as he bends at the waist, elbows on his knees, head in his hands. “I can see what’s coming, and try to warn people, only to realize too late that I’m the one to blame for it all in the first place.”
His shoulders are tense, and he is vibrating. Steve watches Tony’s hands slide into his hair, hears the way his breath catches. “How many people died because of me?” he whispers.
“How many are alive?” Steve counters, and reaches again. Takes hold of Tony, and pulls him up so that he can see his face. It is strange to think of Bucky in this moment, but he does. He sees Bucky again, wild and confused, his eyes wide and filled with horror, fist poised to strike.
End of the line.
Tony is trying to cast himself as the villain, but truthfully, despite his faults, he is one of the kindest souls Steve has ever met. More than any of them—himself included—Tony will hold himself responsible for every life lost, every home destroyed, every child frightened and traumatized by the war they'd been dragged into. It isn't fair, or logical, it's just who Tony is.
Tony fights him at first, and another Steve might have let go, but this Steve Rogers knows Tony Stark, isn’t surprised at all when the body struggling against him begins holding onto him for dear life instead. He understands what is happening when Tony hides his face against his shoulder, and his fingers dig into the muscles of Steve’s back, and a choked off sob escapes.
For quite some time this is all either of them are capable of. Tony, trying and failing to stop crying, while Steve strokes his back, and holds him tight, and rocks him. "This isn't your fault."
This time when Tony struggles, Steve let's go of him, watches in despair as he jumps to his feet, scrubbing at his face as if tears are something to be ashamed of.
"Of course it's my fault," he snarls, hands shaking. "It wasn't your name on the side of the bomb that killed Pietro and Wanda's parents. I should have known, and… done something! Everything comes back to me, somehow, at the end of the day."
And Steve realizes then that he's underestimated the extent to which Tony has accepted responsibility for everything that had transpired. He opens his mouth, eyes flashing darkly, ready to take ownership of it all, and Steve can't stomach it.
Tony just shakes his head, the anger washed away again by sorrow, by guilt, by a heaving chest, and wide panicked eyes. “You should go. Thanks for the pity party.” And he makes to leave, although Steve is uncertain where to, just that, out of habit, Tony opens his mouth, and says, “JARVIS?” only to realize what he’s done a moment later.
Steve watches as Tony exhales as if he’s been struck, shock apparent before he just shakes his head, resigned and heartbroken.
“That’s right,” he says softly, scratching his temple. “I got him killed, too, didn’t I?”
When Steve takes hold of him again, Tony doesn’t fight him, simply allows himself to be led back to the couch. He sits heavily, as if his strength has left him, and Steve is suddenly furious with himself.
“There’s no way to recover him?” he asks, feeling foolish and ashamed.
He’d liked JARVIS—all of them had, really—but he’d allowed himself to think of the AI along the same lines as he thought of Tony’s armor. If it was smashed, Tony repaired it, rolled another off the assembly line. For reasons he couldn’t explain, he’d assumed there would be a day or two of downtime, but then JARVIS would be back better than ever.
But Tony was shaking his head, looking for all the world like a lost little boy. “No.” Tony bit into his lower lip. “Vision has his voice, and whatever else was left of him, but JARVIS is gone.”
Steve wonders if Tony even realizes he’s begun crying again. Sits beside him, wraps an arm around Tony’s shoulders, pulls him in close, a hand curled protectively around the back of his head. JARVIS might be software to some of them, but he’d been Tony’s friend. His caretaker. He was Tony’s creation, in some ways not unlike his child.
And none of them had so much as properly acknowledged his passing. Except. Well, Bruce, but Bruce had left as well. Steve thought of him and Tony, thick as thieves, and how they’d reminded him of himself and Bucky. He’d told Tony as much, once, and it had been very strange, seeing the soft, vulnerable smile Tony wore at this. Another friend, another person Tony had loved, gone.
Steve holds him tight. “I’m so sorry.”
Tony relaxes against him, allows himself to be held. He is warm to the point of leaving Steve feeling overheated, and despite the pain he knows Tony is in, Steve is unable to ignore how wonderful it feels to hold another body against his own.
“Why are you here?” Tony asks after quite some time has passed. One of his hands is plucking at the fabric of Steve’s shirt almost nervously, and Steve is quite grateful to hear the curiosity in his voice. He’ll take curiosity over resignation any day.
“It’s where you are,” he answers honestly, adjusting his grip on Tony in order to tip his face up, look into his eyes. “It’s where I belong.”
“You can do it without me,” Tony says, the furrow returning between his brows.
“Maybe. Don’t want to though,” Steve insists, brushing his thumb over Tony’s cheek. His eyes are darting back and forth, and Steve figures he ought to clarify, just in case his friend is jumping to the wrong conclusion. “Just to be painfully clear, I’m talking about you and me, right now. Not the Avengers. Not anything else.”
Tony blinks at this, the grief washed away in confusion and what Steve very much suspects is hope. “There’s a you and me?”
Despite himself, Steve laughs at this. “Tony,” he admonishes affectionately, surprised when Tony’s lips curl up at the corners, “there’s always been a you and me.”
He moves slowly, so there is all the time in the world for Tony to react, to turn his face aside, to open his mouth and say something to make this stop. The hand pressed against his chest twitches, the fingers grasping until Tony has a handful of fabric, and he holds his breath until Steve’s mouth is against his own. Exhales shakily, breath warm against Steve’s face, his lips softer than Steve had expected.
And suddenly it is as if Tony has come alive in his arms. His eyes widen, and then there is a hand in Steve’s hair, but he isn’t being pulled away. Tony has surged into the contact, and Steve hardly recognizes the soft, desperate noise he makes at this. Knows only that he should have been doing this all along.
“I should have kissed you ages ago,” he says into Tony’s mouth, needing him to know as well.
There is nothing fair about this kiss. It is far too hungry, too vulnerable for its own good, and Steve can only whimper. Tony’s lips brush against his again and again, each of them taking turns being brave, conquering and relinquishing with equal enthusiasm. Tony’s hands are in his hair, are stroking down along his neck, across his shoulders, are pulling him closer, then sliding up to cup his face possessively as Tony tugs hungrily at his lower lip with teeth.
“Now is good too,” Tony gasps, and Steve yanks Tony into his lap so that it will be easier to get his arms around him. “As long as you’re sure.”
Steve drags his mouth along Tony’s jaw, smiling at the rasp of beard, hands splayed against Tony’s back, reveling in the weight of him. His skin is salty, and divine, and Steve licks a wet trail along his neck, up to his ear, then drags his teeth along the same expanse of skin.
“Because I… I need you to be sure,” he hears.
Looking into Tony’s eyes again, Steve sees the desire warring with the fear. Tony wants to be brave, but he has lost so much already. Steve wants to give it all back to him and then some, wants to prove Tony wrong, show him what a beautiful man he truly is. Maybe he sees some of that, because his expression softens ever so slightly.
“End of the line,” Steve whispers, swallowing past the lump in his throat. Tony knows the significance of these words, and Steve sees the shock and awe in his eyes. There is probably a part of Tony that wishes to argue, to try to pick this apart, break it down to its component parts in order to properly understand, but another wants only to believe and accept. “Are you sure?”
“Yeah,” Tony answers, sounding almost surprised.
“Alright.” Reverently, Steve strokes Tony’s cheek, and smiles at him. “Together, then?”
“Together.” He nods, and Steve finds himself kissed again, only to have Tony pull away a moment later. He sighs, his forehead resting against Steve’s, and the doubt is already returning. “I can’t… I can’t be an Avenger, not right now.”
“You only have to be you right now,” Steve assures him.
“Bucky,” he begins, and this time Steve kisses him quiet.
“I’m not trying to replace him,” he says, watching Tony’s eyes to make certain he is believed. “Sam’ll find him, and we’ll figure out how to help him. But that doesn’t change this.” He tugs at Tony’s lower lip, sucking on it gently before deepening the kiss, chasing Tony’s tongue with his own. “Doesn’t change us.”
“Okay,” Tony sighs, huffing quietly, his eyes closing for a moment.
Grief and exhaustion are evident, but some of the despondency has been chased away. Steve feels a different sort of tension in Tony’s body, one mirroring his own, but there is no rush. Steve suspects Tony will struggle with this for a time, testing boundaries, pushing buttons, needing to know Steve was true to his word.
Once upon a time, he might have been insulted, or disheartened by the idea of doubt, but he knows Tony Stark. Understands how many times this man’s heart has been broken. Knows how vulnerable he is. Steve could be patient, despite what others might say on that subject, and so he will keep showing Tony, proving himself worthy of trust.
Steve surges to his feet, laughing at Tony’s little yelp of surprise. “Uh, are we going somewhere?”
“Yup. You need to sleep. So do I, actually. Thought we could do that together, too.”
Tony manages a smile. “Seems to be the theme of the evening.”
“It’s a good theme,” Steve chides, marching off to the bedroom with one hand under Tony’s bottom to support his weight. “Don’t knock the theme.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it, boss.”
As he toes off his shoes, and strips down to his shorts and undershirt, Steve thinks of Clint’s farm, and of a much narrower bed. This time around, he has no fear of the word home, because it is only another word for Tony. This time around, he reaches across the divide, and pulls Tony into his arms, one of Tony’s legs thrown over his own, buries his nose in Tony’s hair. It’s almost too warm, and his arm will fall asleep at some point, but that’s okay.
They’ll wake up, and Tony will still be grieving, will likely fight him out of habit, try to push him away, but that’s okay, too. He knows Tony, and Tony is a fighter. He’s a dreamer, and he cares too much to ever give up, not if he believes he can make a difference. Steve will just have to show him he isn’t going anywhere, that he’ll be right at Tony’s side. It won’t always be easy, but they’ll be together, and Steve knows they’ll find a way to rebuild.
Steve lets his eyes close slowly, surprised to hear Tony’s breathing has already shifted, evened out in a way indicative of sleep. These worries can wait for tomorrow and the days after that.
For right now, it is perfect.