Tony sat in his lab, eyes glossily staring ahead. His fingers rested on the arc reactor in his chest, thumping out a heartbeat on it. With his other hand, he flipped a piece of metal around and around, twirling it through his fingers. In his mind, he could hear her. His eyes, staring at his wall of suits, saw her face instead.
“Mista Stark, Mista Stark!” She was running towards him, the head of a pack of village children, laughing and stumbling. The Afghani sky was perfectly blue, so bright it was fading out to white around the edges. Behind him, Rhodey and a handful of other soldiers were gathered around a humvee, trying to figure out why it had puttered out 20 miles from base.
Tony was staring out into the desert when she finally reached him. The other children were gathering around the soldiers and the vehicle, hoping for some candy or maybe just a look into the engine of the car. But this girl – Tony later thought of her, guessing that she’d seen his face on television at some point. She didn’t know why he was famous, she just knew he was famous. And that made him interesting to her.
He looked down at her dirty face and was startled to see two gray-blue eyes staring at him. She was smiling, teeth gleaming in the sunlight, and with the trust of a child she grabbed onto his hand and held it. He smiled back down at her and didn’t let go of her hand. It was nice, a quiet moment he would relive over and over. She didn’t say anything, just held his hand and leaned against him, happy to be there. Soon they heard an engine roaring and the cheers of the soldiers, and Tony looked down at her, already beginning to pull away. She looked serious for a moment, then smiled again. She held out her other hand, full of hearty desert flowers.
“For you,” she said shyly, handed them over, and ran back into the village with the other children. He watched the back of her head for just a moment, then returned to the humvee. Twenty minutes later he was unconscious in the arms of a terrorist, shrapnel working its way towards his heart.
He blinked, returning to the present. She was dead. They all were. Bombed for no reason other than to test some new Stark Industries rockets, newly acquired by the sect which went through so much trouble for one Jericho missile. He thought about her often, his brain providing him images that he couldn’t turn away from. Gray-blue eyes open in the sun, seeing nothing. Hands that had held his baking on the ground, no longer attached to their owner. Tony swallowed, then gently turned his reactor clockwise 20 degrees, then counterclockwise 50 degrees, then clockwise 10 degrees again. With a hiss it raised slightly out of his chest, and he wrapped his fingers around the edges, pulling it out. He placed it on the desk in front of him, staring at it.
She was just one girl. One of thousands, probably millions he had killed. He didn’t put his finger on the trigger, but he may as well have. The toll of death weighed heavily on his shoulders, and on nights like this it was too heavy, too much to bear. He could feel his body weakening, he could feel pain. Psychosomatic or not, he felt the tiny cuts on his heart, his arteries being sliced open. He was reaching forward with a sigh when a loud crash sounded from behind him.
“Tony!” an anguished voice called, and before he could turn his weary head Steve Rogers was standing in front of him, looking frantically between the reactor lying on the desk and the gaping silver hole in his chest. Tony blinked at him and opened his mouth, but couldn’t think of anything to say. He closed it again. Steve picked up the reactor and looked at the long wire hanging down the back of it.
“Tony, please, how do I help? How can I put it back in?”
Tony raised his hand with some effort and put it on Steve’s wrist.
“Not hard,” he rasped out. “Connect that wire,” he paused for breath. “Connect it to base.” He pointed into the hole, breath coming harder now. Steve nodded and held the end of the wire, guiding it into Tony’s chest. He fit it into the slot within the base, and pulled his hand back out, organic goo covering his fingers going unnoticed. He set the reactor back into place with a gently, steady hand, and finally they heard the click which meant it was locked in.
Steve gave a sigh of relief while Tony gasped in more air, hands automatically moving up to touch the reactor. After a moment of silence, he looked up at Steve. The other man’s eyes were still a little wild looking and his skin was several shades too pale.
“You can leave my lab now,” Tony muttered.
Steve shook his head in wonderment before narrowing his eyes. “Get out of your lab? Tony, what the hell is going on here? I saw you take that out,” He poked Tony’s reactor, “and just sit there! Sit and stare at it, like…” He breathed out, eyes locked on Tony’s. His voice softened. “Like you were never going to put it back in.”
“I was going to put it back in,” Tony said, eyes looking at the floor. “Not like this is the first time.”
He stood up, pushing past Steve and walking towards a work table. He picked up two pieces to weld together, but his hands were shaking so badly that the metal just clanged against each other and fell back to the table. Tony felt gentle but firm hands on his shoulders.
“You’re going to bed,” Steve said quietly, and if Tony didn’t know better he’d think it was heartbreak in that voice.
“More like heartburn,” he murmured as Steve forcibly marched him to the elevator and hit the button for Tony’s room. Steve stayed resolutely quiet as he pushed Tony out of the elevator, into his room, and onto the bed. As the blonde began taking off his shoes, Tony snapped.
“Get away from me! I didn’t ask you to help, so fuck off! This is my house, and it’s my lab, and it’s my fucking HEART! Leave me alone!”
Steve stared at him, shocked, before standing up slowly. Tony closed his eyes and let out a shuddering breath, telling himself he didn’t see hurt in Steve’s expression. He heard footsteps, and his door opening and closing. The breath turned into a sob, and Tony turned his head into the pillow to muffle it. He was contemplating getting back up and making himself a drink when a hand on his shoulder made him jump nearly off the bed. Steve was sitting near him on a chair from his closet.
“I’m sorry if you don’t want me here,” he said softly, “But I’m not leaving. I’m not going to let you kill yourself.”
“I wasn’t,” Tony began, and when the voice came out with a waver, he turned so he was facing away from Steve. “I wasn’t going to kill myself.” There were a few moments of weighted silence as Tony blinked at the other side of the room. “And I do want you here.” It was so quiet that only Steve’s enhanced hearing allowed him to hear it. He let out a pained sigh. The desire to hold Tony was greater than his hesitancy to make the other man uncomfortable, and Steve moved onto the bed behind Tony, draping an arm around his chest and holding him tightly.
“I’m sorry,” Tony choked out. Steve stayed silent, simply rubbing his thumb up and down the arc reactor, as if to remind himself that it was still there. “I really wasn’t trying to...”
“Then why did you take it out?” Steve said softly, trying to keep accusation out of his voice. He could hear Tony swallow, and he pulled him back gently, so his back was pressed up against Steve’s front.
“I’ve done so many terrible things. I’ve contributed to the death of so, so many-“his voice choked off, and Steve tightened his grip.
“Tony, none of us are perfect. We’ve all made mistakes, but what we’re doing now, the good that you’ve done-“
“It doesn’t matter!” Tony cried suddenly, pulling away from Steve and sitting up. “They’re still dead! Nothing I do can bring them back, and nothing I do can ever erase that.”
Steve sat up as well and pulled Tony around until he was facing him. Steve looked worried, even a little scared.
“Tony, you’re a good man. Even when you made weapons, you meant them for good. You meant them to protect soldiers, men like me.” He pulled his dog tags out from under his t-shirt and tugged Tony’s hand over, wrapping the other man’s fingers around the tags. “You saved the lives of men like me. You’re not responsible for what evil men did with those weapons, just like I’m not responsible for the violence which has occurred in the search for the serum. And now you’re doing even more, you’re saving the whole world. You’re part of the team, Tony, and we need you.” His fingers came up to meet Tony’s, fisted around his dog tags. “I need you.”
Tony’s face was so open, so vulnerable, so full of hurt that it took no thought before Steve was leaning forward, gently kissing him. He pulled back and tugged Tony down again, so they were lying down facing each other.
Tony was just staring at him, wonderment and confusion battling for dominance on his face.
“What?” he said softly.
Steve stared back at him, unembarrassed. “You’re a good man, Tony Stark, and I respect you. And I…” he bit his lip but continued. “I think I might be in love with you.”
Tony just shook his head and looked bewildered. “You’re Captain America, and I’m the worst man on the planet,” he whispered. “Why would you ever love me?”
Steve rested his forehead against Tony’s. “You’re one of the best men on the planet, Tony. Sometimes you know that, don’t you?”
Tony met his eyes and nodded once. “I’m … better. Better than I was. Getting better.”
Steve smiled and raised a hand to touch Tony’s cheek.
“Yeah, you are. Don’t forget it.” He stayed silent for a moment, and his other hand covered the arc reactor. “Don’t ever… don’t ever…”
Tony covered Steve’s hand with his own. “I was going to put it back in,” he whispered. “I’ve done it before, and I’ve always put it back in. Maybe because I’m a coward, or maybe because I’m thinking of Pepper, and Rhodey, and Bruce, and… and you, Steve.”
Steve’s brows were drawn down, something like sorrow on his face. “You’re not a coward, Tony. You’re one of the bravest men I’ve ever known. Next time you feel this way, just come to me. Please, Tony. I couldn’t stand it if you were gone. Not if there was something I could’ve done. I’m sorry I didn’t come to you sooner.”
Tony shook his head and began to say something, but reconsidered. Instead he scooted closer to Steve and kissed him. When he pulled away again, a small smile was back on Steve’s face, and that made it worth it. Made everything worth it. Because if Captain America believed in him, then he had to be doing something right. Steve draped an arm over him and felt the subtle tremor still running through Tony. He reached beneath them and pulled the covers out and on top of them.
“Go to sleep, Tony. I’ll be here in the morning.” Tony smiled back at him, a look of slight disbelief on his face, but he finally let his eyes drift shut. Steve kept staring, long after Tony’s breaths became deeper and calmer. He let the soft blue glow of the arc reactor and the solid feeling of Tony in his arms sooth him, and eventually his eyes closed as well, and he drifted off.