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Lift It From The Ashes

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“You’re not the last person I’d expected to see here,” Tony says without preamble when the doors swish closed behind him, sealing the lab. He doesn’t look up from whatever he’s... welding, apparently, given the sparks.

Steve doesn’t move.

“I mean, not while there’s like, Putin, and Kylie Minogue.” Tony pauses, bites at his lower lip as he considers the mess of gears and tubes and wiring in front of him. “But you’re not that much higher on the list, Cap, I’ll tell you that.”

Steve knows that whatever his lips do, it’s more of a grimace than anything else. Oh well.

“The bots are cleaning your floor,” Tony’s on the other side of his project, leaning at a strange and awkward angle to focus just so. “S’dusty.”

Right, Steve thinks above the hiss of the laser. Right, because it’s been...

It’s been a while.

“Coffee.” Tony doesn’t ask, it’s not a question: the robot who wears the dunce-cap all the time—not now, but all the other times— thrusts a mug into Steve’s hands, and when Steve brings it to his lips, the bag still slung on his shoulder shifts, threatens to slosh hot liquid on his hands; but the robot—Dum-E, he remembers, and wow, that’s rude—is at his side, steadying the weight, leaving Steve to drink in peace.

It’s just how he takes it: half cream, no sugar.

He didn’t think Tony ever knew that.

_______________________________________________________

It’s not that Steve doesn’t like it upstate. He does.

It’s not that his work with the new team isn’t fulfilling. It is.

It’s not that those people aren’t important to him; aren’t family. They are.

It’s just. He...it’s…

He doesn’t know, really.

The first time, it’s just an hour or so. Takes much longer to drive down than it takes to walk the old neighborhood, grab a bite to eat that reminds him beyond all delusion, beyond all attempts to convince himself otherwise in his own head that this is now, and not then.

Even so, he still feels lighter on the way back; it lasts, too. For a while.

Not long enough.

He finds himself “convincing” Natasha that it’d be better if they both took a lead role with the new team, two captains, so to speak, so that there’s always someone ready to step up if one of them’s compromised; he weaves the convenient truth and knows Nat sees straight through him, though he doesn’t think she gets why.

She thinks it’s about Bucky, and in a roundabout way, it is. He’s lost, he’s lonely, he’s never recognized himself less in a mirror: and knowing that Bucky is alive—was alive, at least, but it’s been months, and the tightness in Steve’s chest when he considers what all those months could hold, thinks about a chamber and rays and light and pain and moments way back when that made him something altogether changed; knowing that Bucky is alive—because he needs to believe he is—made it all clearer, stronger: made him a stranger to himself and hollow in a way that wasn’t new, really, but that screamed so that the depths could be sounded by the echo’s return.

He feels like he’s always screaming, but he only hears the echoes in the dark.

The void is fucking deep.

It’s not just about Bucky. Bucky’s not the only reason for it.

Nat doesn’t flinch at the suggestion, rolls with the shift in command, disappears herself: perhaps for good reason, perhaps to make it seem natural when Steve’s gone for days at a time. She watches him, though: close.

He thinks maybe he needs to escape that gaze as much as he has to escape everything else.

He spends too much time—not enough time—wandering. He mourns for what’s gone, what is lost, because without seeing it, and he’d been too broken, in the beginning, to take it all in, to venture further into Brooklyn than the goddamned bridge: he mourns because he sees it. He breathes next to it. He can touch the years that have passed and that makes them real. There are barely even ghosts of what once was, of who he’d been. Of what he’d known and loved.

He mourns, for a very long time. He can only take so much at a go, can only retrace so many steps to find there’s nothing there to follow before his chest hurts and he can’t breathe and the only thing to remind him of the past is that feeling: that breathlessness. That choking in his throat.

He mourns every time. He mourns all the time.

He doesn’t want to go back, to see more, to feel any more ruined than he already feels. He doesn’t want to.

He has to.

_______________________________________________________

He doesn’t know what changes, what sparks the choice to do more than linger at the entrance because it’s the only part of Manhattan that he feels he knows at all. He doesn’t know what moves his feet through the doors, what makes him nod to security before JARVIS welcomes him in the elevator at the far end, the biometric scan swift and painless before the lift begins to move.

In the wrong damned direction.

“JARVIS?” Steve asks, looking upward as he starts a swift descent.

“Your quarters are not yet prepared, Captain,” the AI answers. “Your arrival was unexpected.”

Steve’s stomach churns; this was a bad idea.

“They don’t need to be prepared, I’m not—”

The elevator stops, and Steve recognizes his destination immediately.

There’s no justification for it, but he thinks he might throw up.

“Captain, please place your palm on the platform to the left of the door,” JARVIS instructs.

Steve follows the instructions: he’s never had a reason to enter the lab on his own, but he's familiar with the technology, obviously. Seems a bit more sophisticated than what S.H.I.E.L.D. was running, but of course, that’s not surprising.

Steve’s long since figured out that Tony doesn’t share the best of his work.

He gets a glimpse, as his prints are scanned and change color to grant entry, of a series of numbers: a date, he figures, when his access was granted.

The date’s from 2012.

He wonders, idly—the thought coming from nowhere, and retreating, undwelled upon, just as fast—if maybe Tony Stark doesn’t share the best of himself, either.

_______________________________________________________

Contrary to what some of their colleagues, their teammates, their friends seem to think?

Steve Rogers does not hate Tony Stark.

Because the grandpa cracks are tedious, and annoying, but if Steve Rogers knows how to do anything? It’s weather mockery. He’s lived that life far longer than he’s lived any other. If anything, on his bad days, it reminds him of what he lost: how he’s a paradox, how time’s beyond him, means very little just as it means everything.

On his good days, it’s actually an interesting shift to be poked fun at for something other than his gangly limbs, his crooked spine, his tiny frame, his smart mouth, his weak left hook, his best friend picking up his slack, his mother dying for the way his sickness taxed her, people only tolerating him out of pity.

So on his good days, it’s actually nice to be made fun of for reasons that don’t add up, that don’t matter, that aren’t true.

And the whole “everything special about you came out of a bottle” swipe, well: same thing, really. Steve’s been levied with worse, and hell—maybe he’s got a point. Steve’s got his talents, Steve’s got some degree of worth in the world; more now, obviously, because of the serum, but Steven Grant Rogers, at the soul of him? He was always pretty mediocre: had good intentions, and the kind of bravery that was really just rage—and shit, what’d he do when the words came out of Stark’s mouth but challenge him to fisticuffs on the spot?—but Steve Rogers? Steve Rogers was a skinny, sickly, but determined little fuck, desperate to prove himself even when he could, and that ain’t special, that’s just how people are sometimes.

And Steve isn’t sure anymore where he ends and where the Captain begins, in the now: mostly, it’s just big versus little, choking versus breathing, before a train versus after the ice. He’s not sure, but he thinks that what makes him special now is the Captain. And maybe it’s just the Captain that’s special, and that’s okay, because Steve can help people, Steve can do good, and Steve Rogers doesn’t have to special on his own, if he can do that.

So, fine. Stark cut deep, maybe. But Steve would have died before Dr. Erskine ever saw him if he’d had that thin of skin.

And playing god makes him anxious in general, because he’s seen where that road ends; but truth is, once the moment’s passed, Steve recognizes Tony for what he is.

And what he is? Is a hell of a lot like Steve.

Because Steve hadn’t known Tony before—though he’s heard more than enough about who he was before Afghanistan to imagine—but the Tony he does know (little as he does, properly, know the man), is driven by a sense of inadequacy. The burden of guilt. The want to be better. To do good.

And Steve?

Steve knows what that means. What that is. What that does.

So no: Steve does not hate Tony Stark.

At least, not anymore than Steve hates himself.
_______________________________________________________

“JARVIS,” Steve asks as he heads up to his rooms—coffee still on his tongue from the lack of conversation; if Tony was speaking, it was to his robotic friends. “If a guy was looking for a bite to eat?”

“Your floor is well-stocked, Captain Rogers. Miss Potts was made aware of your arrival and made arrangements.”

“Is she here?” God, Steve hopes she’s here.

“She is not, Captain,” JARVIS informs him. “Miss Potts is currently in Malibu, sorting the coastal property.”

Or what’s left of it, Steve figures. He’d heard it all second-hand, of course: had been on a deep-cover mission with Rumlow—and the thought of that bastard sends fire through his veins—but yes. Malibu.

Right.

“Can you let her know I said thank you?” Steve sorts through mail he must have left here months ago. “When she’s got a free moment, I mean, don’t interrupt her.”

“Certainly, Captain.”

He opens the fridge, and finds it, unsurprisingly, packed to bursting. Fresh produce and dairy, prime cuts of meat, artisanal cheeses: the works.

Steve wants to just grab the brie and eat it from the tip, all hands and teeth, but there’s so much food, and he always feels guilty wasting any of it.

Habit.

“I assume Tony eats in the lab?” Steve asks idly as he sorts through the leafy greens. Salad could work. Easy, quick. Could have brie in it.

He’s not sure how, exactly, but he’s pretty sure he could figure it out if he tried hard enough.

Eats is a relative term when applied to Mr. Stark.”

Steve frowns and peeks his head out of the refrigerator, because he’s still not entirely sold on the idea that JARVIS doesn’t live in the ceiling somehow, and therefore merits his eye contact at least some of the time.

“Relative,” Steve says without much inflection, rolling his eyes. He’s not sure what makes him say anything more, really. Any number of things. No reason at all.

He doesn’t know.

“When’s the last time he ate anything that’d, say, be officially recommended by a nutritionist for human consumption?”

“While that constitutes a broad and subjective criterion, given my own personal extrapolations of your meaning?” JARVIS pauses, and Steve can damn well hear the disapproval dripping from the answer when it comes: “Approximately five days and thirteen hours ago.”

“Jesus,” Steve breathes out, shaking his head. “What was it?”

“Cottage cheese,” JARVIS deadpans before adding. “Given the additives in the small cup of said sustenance, it may not have been the first choice of any board certified nutritionist, but I do believe that Mr. Stark presents as an extenuating circumstance in this case.”

More than in this case, Steve thinks.

“He a picky eater?” Steve asks, a little exasperated, a little wry.

“Sir tends to eat what is placed in front of him,” JARVIS laments. “He is much less inclined to procure things to place in front of himself, is all.”

“Right.”

Not surprising.

Steve sighs, and looks at the contents of the fridge with a new objective in mind, and with a different eye to servings.

He takes a bite out of the the brie that’s fit for the Hulk before he sets it aside for another time.

_______________________________________________________

“Peace offering.”

Tony looks up at Steve with a blank expression. His eyes drop to the extended plate of chicken with some kind of creamy-looking sauce that the internet told Steve would be easy to make.

It wasn’t.

“Why?” Tony asks, gaze skeptical.

Steve shrugs. “You need to eat.”

“Okaaaay,” Tony drags out, taking the proffered dish with the kind of wariness that should be reserved for handling explosives. “Doesn’t explain the choice of words, but smells good.”

He tugs his work-gloves off with his teeth, uses his fork as a knife as he spins in his chair.

“Not even boiled, Jesus,” Tony inspects his the chunk of food speared on the progs. “Font of revelation you are, gramps.”

“Funny,” Steve deadpans, taking a seat for himself. “As usual.”

“It’s a gift.” Tony shrugs as he lifts the fork to his mouth. Steve watches closely.

To see his reaction, of course. That’s all.

“Not bad,” Tony speaks between chews, seemingly not-displeased with the quality of Steve’s cooking.

“Really?”

“Oh yeah,” Tony takes another bite, and continues talking with his mouth full, which is disgusting, and yet Steve doesn’t really mind. “I’ve totally eaten worse.”

Not exactly an endorsement, sure, but Steve’ll take it. Bucky’d always done the cooking, after all. It’s not like Steve’s skilled at this kind of thing—

“In captivity.”

Steve’s train of thought halts abruptly, because Tony’s an asshole.

“And off Rhodey’s floor in college.”

Tony is such an asshole.

“Though some of the shit you’d find on Rhodey’s floor was pretty great,” Tony reasons, sawing more meat with his fork. Which is pure laziness, because Steve gave him a real, honest-to-god knife to use, jeezus. “I licked up about a fifth of tequila from that floor one time,” Tony sighs, eyes faraway and glazed with nostalgia. “The good ol’ days.”

“Why was there a fifth of tequila on the Colonel’s floor?” Steve knows he shouldn’t ask, but he can’t help it.

Tony pauses with his fork halfway to his mouth and stares open-jawed at Steve before he starts to cackle.

“Oh my god, you still call him ‘Colonel’? That is adorable, I bet he squeals into his pillow before bed over that shit,” Tony snorts.

“But more to the point, the tequila. There was this girl, right? With, you know,” he gestures openly and amply toward his chest with cupped palms, and while the intention is clear, it’s hard to take seriously with Tony still holding a chicken-topped fork in one hand.

“Know what?” Steve cuts him off, prays that it’ll work. “Forget I asked.”

“Not even blushing,” Tony tuts, shaking his head and finally biting the chicken off that goddamned fork. “I’m disappointed, Rogers.”

“You do know that people weren’t celibate in the thirties, right?” Steve counters, eyes narrowed. “Your dad certainly wasn’t.”

Tony’s face sours a little, and his throat bobs as he swallows his food down, hard.

Which Steve only caught on accident. He wasn’t paying attention to Tony’s throat or anything.

“Much as I relish discussing Howard’s sexual escapades,” Tony’s lips start to curl, and it’s a dangerous expression on that face. Real goddamn dangerous.

“I see your statement of the obvious generality, and raise a more case-specific point,” and dangerous turns deadly as Tony’s grin grows feral around the word: “Fondue.”

And Steve can’t even stop it, can’t even think to stop it before he feels the flush rise to his cheeks.

And Tony goes back to cackling, pointing at Steve with his now-empty fork as he roars.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!”
_______________________________________________________

Steve is just about to question the paradox of finding himself totally immersed in reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and feeling really fucking guilty for sitting there, being totally immersed in reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, in New York City, in Avengers Tower, when he has responsibilities and commitments and a team up north that he’s still expertly avoiding for reasons he still can’t pin a finger on, when avoidance suddenly ceases to be an option.

“Captain Rogers,” JARVIS’ voice rings through the room. “Your assistance is required in the field.”

Muscle memory serves Steve well, and he’s on his feet between breaths; his shield is in his room, twenty-seven stories up, and the elevators in the Tower are quick but maybe the stairs—

“Your equipment, Captain,” JARVIS cuts off his train of thought as a wall shifts and reveals Steve’s complete uniform, and while it’s a perfect match, flawless, that’s what gives it away.

The shield’s untouched. Brand new.

There’s no time to waste, really, but Steve can’t help himself but to gape.

“Called in some favors,” Tony’s voice replaces JARVIS’s, resonating through the room from god-knows-where.

“Is this,” Steve rotates the shield, stares at the reflection of the light, marvels at the perfect balance, perfect weight.

“Vibranium?” Steve can hear the shrug in Tony’s voice. “Maybe.”

Part of Steve wants to argue the logistics, the impossibilities, the horrible contexts and underhanded means by which such material was likely acquired. But really?

“I don’t think I want to know.”

“Probably not.”

The shrug, again, is audible.

Steve suits up and takes it for what it is.

The shield holds up just fine.

_______________________________________________________

The mission’s middle-of-the-road: it’s not cut-and-dry, home for supper, but it’s definitely not the end of the world.

As a result, Steve can’t tell if they called him in because they needed him, or because they wanted to check and see if he was still alive.

“Long time no see, Rogers.”

Natasha approaches him after the action’s passed, watching him with mixed emotions coloring her expression; part concern, part evaluation, part leering cat-got-the-cream.

“Nat.”

And it hits Steve like a hammer, like a freight train, like the gasp of faulty lungs and the double-thump of a shoddy heart: the bone-deep guilt, the knowledge that in his own disarray, his own unwillingness to own fear and loss and pain and weakness for what it is inside himself he’s let down his team, he’s abandoned his people, he’s failed in the one thing he was good at, the one thing he was made for if he was made for anything, if he was to be worthy of the life he’d been given past the body he’d been born into, the life he’s been foolish enough, selfish enough to scorn in this new century, alone and confused when he needed to be solid and steady and whole—

“Breathe, Steve.”

Natasha’s hand is an anchor on his shoulder. Grounding, but so heavy.

Steve makes himself breathe.

“I’m so—”

“Don’t.” And Nat’s face is all sympathy and understanding, her hand on his arm gripping tight.

“We’re your team,” Natasha says meaningfully. “We’ve got your back.”

Steve’s throat feels tight. He means to say something, but the words won’t fit through what space is left. Natasha smiles small, and tight, but real as she pats his shoulder twice before taking her leave:

“Take the time you need.”

Steve’s not sure what to make of her, the words or the actions. It’s in trying to figure both out that it takes him so long to notice the eyes focused on him, dark and unblinking.

“Something on my face?” Steve asks, casual as he can, as he looks up and meet Wanda’s gaze.

She doesn’t reply for a stream of seconds, considering Steve long and hard before she smiles.

“You are settling into your skin, Captain,” she says with a satisfied nod. “Finding calm.”

And Steve likes Wanda, because she’s a good person, she’s a strong person, she is a living and breathing reminder that loss and betrayal, death and desperation, manipulation and the worst of what humankind can make: it can come together in the end for good, and Steve needed that when he met her, and he needs it now, and he sees blue-gray eyes in her, on his worst days, and the new wave of self-loathing for the book in his hands only hours before, for the idle existence he’s been leading, hiding in the Tower when he should have been looking, been searching—if he can’t even lead his team, then at least he could—

“One must find their own peace,” Wanda tells him, suddenly close; “before they can show anyone else the way to peace.”

Steve doesn’t feel the brush of her mind against his own, doesn’t find a trace of crimson in her eyes, and she is wise, too, he realizes. Strong and good and wise.

“And you are on your way.” She reaches, and takes his hands in hers, gripping tight. Foresight and an omen and neither, really, all at once. “I am happy for you.”

“Thank,” Steve’s voice is thin, and his eyes sting sharp, and he thinks his hands might tremble if not for Wanda’s there to hold them still. “Thank you?”

He doesn’t mean for it to be a question. He doesn’t really get a choice.

Wanda’s smile is soft, though; he thinks she understands.

“We will see you, then,” she drops her hold on him and goes to join the team, their team; her team, going left where Steve goes right; “when we see you.”

Steve doesn’t even get a chance to send them off before the quinjet takes off.

_______________________________________________________

 

“Cap?”

Steve hears the word, but it’s not distinct; not clear—pieces of a twisted kind of symphony, a rage from within and without as his breath hisses magnified and his heart races wild. Steve hears the word. Steve isn’t sure he understands it; can only guess who makes it.

Steve doesn’t even know where the hell he is.

“C’mon, look at me,” there’s a hand on his shoulder; there’s motion, there’s touch. “Eyes open, come on.”

He remembers Natasha, and Wanda. Remembers saluting Rhodey as he went airborne, and protesting Sam’s knock to Steve’s shoulder as the Falcon followed suit.

He remembers a feeling, overwhelming: all the things his colleagues, his friends, his family, his team—but were they, still? Could he call them his, could he still belong to them?—everything they’d derailed in his mind and his chest and his soul returned with a roar as soon as they were gone, as soon as they went back to where they belonged and Steve retreated in the other direction, coward that he was, and always had been.

He remembers something bigger, something hot and cold and tight and boundless all at once, everywhere at once, crushing him and telling him he was useless, he was weak, he was stronger when his bones were brittle and he stood a foot-and-change closer to the ground, and then he was on the ground and still falling, the world still spinning, he couldn’t see, he couldn’t think, he couldn’t breathe, he was breaking, he was broken

“JARVIS, scan him.”

But that’s all he remembers.

“Readings indicate the Broken Crayon Protocol, sir.”

Steve doesn’t even know where he is.

“Right,” a voice mutters; there are hands on his shoulders and they pull the dead weight of him upward. “Right.”

Steve’s vision is shit when he’s finally maneuvered into a sitting position; finally only swaying enough to feel sick, but not black out entirely.

“Steve?” The voice implores, but is insistent. “Look at me.”

Steve blinks. Steve looks. He thinks he knows the blur as a face.

He thinks he knows the face.

“And breathe.”

The chest that rises in front of him, close enough to tease his own chest, is clad in black. The black that clads the chest clings tight. Steve can see the lift of lungs stretch the fabric; can make out the press of nipples as the voice instructs him:

“In.”

And Steve can’t fight. He breathes in.

It burns.

The world shakes.

“Hold.”

And the voice is persuasive, and the blur is starting to clear, but there is too much light at the edges of Steve’s vision and there’s too much pressure that builds with the breath caught in his lungs and he doesn’t know if he can stand it, doesn’t know if he’ll ever come out the other side—

“Now out,” and the voice comes with hands, now, with touch again: strong hands. Deft hands that don’t want to take, and just want to hold together and keep from falling apart and Steve sighs heavy into the command as well as he does into the touch and his eyes slip closed, and his lungs empty and he is weightless while he’s weighted, and he gives over to those hands and the calluses on each fingertip that reach up and grab his face and lift him up and he sees, now: dark hair. Strong jaw. The line of sideburn, the angles of goatee.

Tony.

“Now just follow me, yeah?” Tony breathes in, and holds: models the motion, the life-sustaining goal. “Probably hard for you, but just,” the words ride the exhale, and Steve is breathless again for so many reasons, for so much he cannot point to or name.

“Again,” Tony wills it. Steve obliges.

Those hands are still there when Steve starts to breathe even, if not easy, without insistence, or instruction.

“Any better?” Tony’s voice is low, gentle, featherlight where it crosses the distance and impacts Steve’s skin.

“Yeah,” Steve rasps; breathes again, and if it matches Tony’s breaths, then it’s a coincidence, and nothing more. “Yeah.”

If it makes Steve feel unbalanced, and yet more solid and rooted in the now than he can fit into words, well.

That’s probably just coincidence, too.

“Drink.” Steve’s being offered a glass, and his eyes are still fuzzy; he hears more than sees the bot that must have brought the drink, and Steve doesn’t waste time figuring anything further than that—trusts, instead, for better or worse.

“Milk?” Steve licks his lips after a gulp.

“Tryptophan,” Tony shrugs, and takes the glass back once Steve’s drained it. “Some people say it helps.”

There’s a gravity in those words, though, that’s built from experience, and not from hearsay, and Steve only knows the barest outline of what happened with Tony in the stretch between aliens and AI, but he can imagine.

That voice helps him to imagine.

“You’re gonna be okay,” Tony tells him, still soft in that way that doesn’t quite compute, but that does make sense underneath all the trappings.

Steve believes it, somehow, and lets himself relax in that surety; lets the edges of his vision go black instead of white, and the touch to his skin might come back, at the brink of exhaustion, or it might be in his head, but either way.

It is a comfort.

_______________________________________________________

Steve wakes, not in a hallway and not in his bed but on a couch, on a floor of the Tower he’s never seen before. There are blankets stuffed beneath his head and neck: makeshift pillows. There are beach towels draped across his body: makeshift blankets.

Steve smiles, before the flush of humiliation robs him of any such expression as memory kicks in and he recalls the battle, the sparse words, and the breaking, breaking, breaking

“If your vitals are any indication, Captain,” JARVIS cuts through Steve’s rising shame; “your overall wellbeing has improved with rest.”

Steve huffs, and can feel the tight fist in his chest start to give: loosening, but not lightening.

“You might say that.”

“All collated data would suggest as much,” JARVIS informs him, before asking with what Steve’s come to understand as real concern, or close enough for keeps: “Is this not the case in your present experience?”

And Steve tries, for a second, to formulate an answer, a real answer, an answer he can make himself put into words that are voiced from his mouth: but then his mind catches on something else, snags just so.

“Collated data?”

“All instances of anxiety-related maladies as recorded via my observations,” JARVIS clarifies, tone still edged with care.

Steve’s throat feels tight, suddenly, where his heart was before; he could put a finger on why, he thinks, if he tried real hard; he doesn’t.

“This happens often?” is what he asks instead.

“At one time, quite frequently.” JARVIS seems to pause, though out of consideration or processing, Steve isn’t sure. “Less so, of late. But it would not be considered uncommon.”

Except Steve is sure, because JARVIS is intelligent beyond Steve’s wildest imaginings. He doesn’t have to process much of anything.

“The…” Steve clears his throat, but it doesn’t do a lick of good; “the colored pencil protocol?”

“Broken Crayon,” JARVIS corrects him gently. “But an impressive recall of tangentially related information under duress, Captain.”

Steve huffs, and thinks of colored wax, and how it all looks grey when it melts, when it breaks.

“Thanks.”

Steve is saved from thinking too hard on any of it by the slip of a door and the creak of hurried footsteps; by the man in his head taking up space before his eyes.

Steve doesn’t know if ‘saved’ is really the right word.

“Tony,” Steve starts, because Tony mostly just stands, a good hundred feet from him: staring solid and unwavering and present and penetrating and Steve can feel it in his veins and in the clench of his now-pounding heart for no goddamn reason and he didn’t cover himself with beach towels.

He didn’t. He—

“Gotta run, Cap.”

And Tony’s gone, and it doesn’t take long for Steve to realize, once he leaves the unfamiliar room, that there’s no possible reason Tony had to pass through it. He made a special trip. He wanted to.

But Steve’s proud enough to let it lie, though; to leave it all unsaid.

_______________________________________________________

“My dad loved the fuck out of you.”

They're in the lounge when it happens; Steve nearly chokes on his Corona.

“I’m not saying like that, I mean,” Tony gestures obtusely, but Steve’s pretty sure he gets the memo.

“Except,” Tony tilts his head, considering. “You know what? I don’t think Howard’s gaze passed anyone by,” he shrugs. “So who’s to say, really?”

Steve doesn’t allow himself to start running interactions with the elder Stark through his head with this new hypothetical lens coloring the past. It’s not as if it matters either way.

Though he’s fairly certain Howard and Peggy took a tumble in the sheets at least once—bread and cheese on fancy dipping sticks aside.

So at least Steve knows the man had damn good taste.

“But he adored you,” Tony’s voice snaps him back to the present; to this Stark in the here and now.

“You were his Platonic Ideal,” Tony takes a long pull from his lager. “You were the measuring stick for everything, his great white buffalo.” Tony lets his lips play around the mouth of the bottle, tonguing the rings; shakes his head.

Steve's stomach clenches.

“You were his greatest achievement,” Tony’s voice is a little bit low, a little bit rough: resigned, maybe. But honest.

“And his greatest failure, ironically.” He tips his drink toward Steve in the kind of salute that’s not quite a mockery, but lands just as sour. “Losing you was his greatest defeat.”

Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. Steve doesn’t know if you’re supposed to say words, in the face of that.

He tips his bottle back and finds it empty. Frowns. He needs some liquid courage, goddamnit.

Erskine overestimated him, to think he’d be able to survive without a little help, without the easing effect of alcohol now and again.

And yeah, specifically: right now.

Tony’s in front of him out of nowhere—Steve startles at it, at him, close enough that he doesn’t have to reach to hand Steve another bottle. Not that it’ll help, of course.

But Steve appreciates the gesture.

“And, I mean,” Tony’s opening his own piece of round two. “I do think he loved my mom, I mean,” he swallows hard, and Steve feels his own throat tighten; in sympathy, maybe.

“I wanna believe he loved my mom, and I think that he did,” Tony nods, and Steve thinks it looks like real conviction after much debate, rather than self-delusion. And Steve thinks he’s qualified to make that call; he has enough experience with both, after all.

“They had that storybook kind of romance, y’know?” Tony’s grin is tight; cynical as he shakes his head slow, chargined. “Head over heels. Birds singing and rainbows appearing and all that bullshit.”

Tony’s eyes flicker upward, and Steve doesn’t mean to catch them; didn’t realize he’d been staring, even, didn’t realize his eyes were fixed at the top of Tony’s bowed head

“They looked at each other in that way. And yeah, they fought, and Dad was always gone, but when they were together, at the end of the day? It was there in their eyes.” There’s a grimace that maybe doesn’t even want to be a grin when he murmurs low: ““I remember that.”

The look on Tony’s face is one that Steve’s not equipped to decipher; is one that Steve thinks he’s seen in the mirror more days than he hasn’t. Nostalgia’s in it. Hate. Betrayal, maybe.

But beyond that, Steve doesn't know.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been in love.”

The words come out unbidden; more a reflex to fend off the quiet, because Steve doesn’t do so well with quiet. Not unless he’s alone.

Not unless there’s no one watching.

Tony stares for a second, jaw loose before he sets down his beer and leans forward, eyes calculating.

“Carter?” he asks, disbelieving, because everyone knows the story. Everyone was quizzed on it by seventh grade.

Steve swallows something sour, acidic as that thought rises to the fore once again; as the reality of his life on display and yet untrue makes itself know beyond burying, beyond pushing down, if only just for now.

“Peggy was,” Steve starts, but his throat gets tight real fast: not just for the way Peggy’s health is declining in the now, for the way she remembers him less and less often, and so he sees her less often in kind—no, Steve’s throat gets tight because Peggy is red lips and sharp eyes and smiles that hold secrets, and Steve cared deeply for her, still does: loves her as true as he knew how and yet

“Peggy was a friend, Peggy was what I needed in a time when the world didn’t make sense anymore, and then made too much sense all of a sudden for it to be real, for it to ever hold,” Steve tongue’s looser than he means, particularly here, like this, and yet Tony had sat with him. Had offered him milk.

Maybe his tongue’s as loose as the moment deserves.

“Maybe we could have,” Steve trails off with a shrug. “Maybe. But Peggy was possibility. And I’m not sure I believe that that’s the same thing.”

Tony watches him, lips thin as he considers the answer. Steve isn’t sure if he accepts it, but Steve doesn’t particularly care either way.

He knows what he knows.

“What about Sergeant Eyeliner?” Tony tries again. “Or were people still too repressed back in your day?”

Steve snorts, but it’s without any humor. The idea of Bucky is still ice in his veins. The guilt he wrestles with at leaving the trail to grow cold, at failing Bucky again and again and again sends the drink he’s finishing roiling in his stomach.

Steve sighs; nearly chokes. That sob is always there—the one that’s tied with this—and he doesn’t know if it’ll ever escape him, really. Doesn't know if it’ll ever go away.

“Bucky was family,” Steve finally says. “Bucky was my best friend. Bucky was…” he trails off, shakes his head, because how do you express that kind of intermingling? How do you fit into words what it means to have someone like that live in your soul?

“You know how you grow up, and the people around you shape you, become a part of you?” Steve doesn’t wait for an answer; doesn’t know if Tony really does know or not; figures Tony’s smart enough, used to hypotheticals enough that it doesn’t really matter either way.

“The people who mold you into who you are and leave pieces of themselves behind when they’re gone, even for a moment, because in some small way, or some big way, they are you, they sculpted some,” Steve’s breath catches, and his voice shakes as he tries to finish; “god, some stretch of your veins or a little part of your heart?”

Tony says nothing; doesn’t move. Steve doesn’t know what that means, and doesn’t think he even possesses the energy to dwell.

“Bucky was that,” Steve nods, and says that truth: holds on to it tighter than is normal, than is healthy, because for all that it might not be accurate in the now, the fact that it used to be, and that Steve remembers, and Steve still holds on? That’s enough.

Maybe.

“Even when I had nothing, I had Bucky,” Steve says softly before meeting Tony’s eyes.

“But that’s not the same,” he smiles sadly, suddenly overcome by the difference between losing and never having in the first place.

“That’s a different kind of love entirely.”

Tony watches him a little longer, and Steve lets him, for reasons unknown.

“You don’t think you’ve ever been in love,” Tony muses, finally, speculative.

“Can’t all be a power-couple with the Pepper Potts, Tony,” Steve takes another drink, and tries not to sound bitter, because he isn’t. Not really.

Or else; not precisely.

The laugh that comes out of nowhere, though: it definitely isn’t bitter.

But Steve doesn’t know what the hell it is, instead.

Tony’s smile isn’t exactly a smile, either, as the chuckle dies, falls flat as he reaches for the proffered third—fourth?—beer from Dum-E’s claw...thing.

“Pepper and I aren’t a couple, Cap,” Tony finally says, almost flippant. “At least, not now.”

It takes a few seconds for that one to settle in.

“What?”

 

“I mean, I can see where you’d get the idea,” Tony concedes with a tip of his own bottle. “And in the traditional sense, sure, yes, couple-y.”

Tony’s lips work around the mouth of his bottle, pursed in thought. Steve blames the rush of heat down his neck, across his spine, inside his chest: he attributes it to the alcohol as he sucks it down. Quick.

“After,” Tony starts, shakes his head; takes another long drink. “After I came back,” he tries, and fails, to find his words. Steve watches—too intently, he knows it—but he watches as Tony keeps the lip of the bottle in his mouth without drinking for a good long moment; breathes into the bottle like a paper bag for calm.

Steve has the inexplicable, almost indefensible, so-close to inescapable urge to reach. To touch.

“I’d made a mess of my life, before they took me,” Tony finally says. “And I’m not sure I even realized it.” The words come out flat, without feeling: not because there isn’t any, but more because it’s all spilled out already, somehow; someplace else. Soaked into sand.

“She was all I had,” Tony says, matter of fact; doesn’t hide it in the bottle like he’s hidden so much else, and Steve is pretty sure that means something. He’s pretty sure.

“I mean, Pep and Rhodey. And Rhodey? He’s family. Hell, I think my dad liked him more than me. Which isn’t saying much,” Tony smirks, and Steve thinks it might be more sad that it’s a genuine thing, rather than a sad sort of thing, on that face. “But mom definitely liked him more than me.”

Steve recognizes the tone that seeps into Tony’s voice when he says ‘mom’—Steve knows that tone very well.

“But I never,” Tony slips back to the point at hand. “Appreciated her,” he decides on after some consideration, some hemming and hawing that follows the twirl of his wrist, the slosh of what’s left of his beer. “I never realized that, for loving the hell out of the woman, I never showed it. Showed the opposite, really.”

Tony looks up, and those eyes: Steve’s never seen them like this before. Fire and ice; pure poetry.

Steve wonders if maybe he’s just never really looked.

“She’s family too, see,” Tony tells him, and that’s an obvious thing, but it feels, in the moment, like a secret. “And I think we both needed something, and fuck if I didn’t get more than I gave, yet again, but,” Tony sighs, and shrugs, and scrunches his face like the taste of it all is just short of bitter.

“I want to say that we helped each other, but it’d be a lie,” he finally settles with, tannins on the tongue. “It’d be a lie because that woman saves my ass over and over again. But in terms of like, the long haul? Death do we part?” Tony shakes his head once, and twice, and then just keeps at it.

“Pepper deserves a fuckton better than me, Cap. I got a lot of growing left to do.” Tony raises his near-empty drink to the point, to the cause. “She’s family as much as Rhodey is, and that’s never going to change, but,” and Tony pauses before he can down what’s left at the bottom of the bottle.

“She taught me enough to work from, was patient, is patient,” Tony considers, staring at the colored glass in his hand. “And when I forget what it means to show how much a person means, she reminds me just by being nearby.”

It’s a sweet sentiment. It’s a sad reality. Steve doesn’t know which wins out. Maybe neither. Maybe they’re both too old for winning. Or else, just too tired. Too worn.

Maybe.

“She says it got difficult to balance what it meant to be equals in...us,” Tony gestures blindly with his empty beer, but doesn’t accept another when his robot offers it readily. “With trying to figure how we worked professionally. She’s still the CEO of my company, which is her company, with my name on it, which—”

Tony cuts off. Pauses. Chuckles darkly; dry and quick and a little bit breathless and Steve finds he couldn’t breathe either, now, if he tired.

“Okay, now I can see what she meant, I guess,” Tony confesses, conceding but somehow not defeated; not entirely. “But she said we started this for comfort, for joy, and to make it hard would have meant...poisoning it? Something like that. Probably. Close, ish. And I trust her more than I trust myself most days, and frankly? It’s not that different. Bed’s colder at night, but hell.”

Tony tips the bottle all the way over and Steve watches a drop spill onto his lower lip; watches a lazy tongue grasp for it before he stands, and drops the bottle to the floor as he makes his way elsewhere, away, not here: it doesn’t shatter.

“I don’t sleep much, anyway.”
_______________________________________________________

Before Steve can even start to really work through the idea of heading back upstate, the sky opens up again and rains holy hell, this time on Boston.

They’re outnumbered, they’re outgunned, and they won’t survive this, Steve can feel it in his bones, in the pump of his blood where it starts to wear down: they won’t see this one through.

But they’ll fall together. They’ll lose together. They’ll die side by side like he said before and always believed and he spares just a second—just a single one—to wish the wish of the selfish man that one more body, one more soul would fall beside him, just so he could see it before his eyes finally closed for good.

One last time.

The burn of thrusters, of propulsion mechanisms is so familiar on the air, and they’re so close to the end that Steve thinks maybe it’s all in his head.

But hell if Steve could imagine the lyrics to those grating rocks songs; those are enough to prove the impossible true to his eyes in red and gold and sheen: stark against the rising smoke.

Tony, as he glides across the field of destruction and flies like an angel avenging mortal wrongs: Tony would appreciate the pun, Steve thinks.

No. No, Steve knows.

He’d appreciate the pun.

The aliens are misshapen, they bleed from open wounds as a matter of course and Steve can barely stand the sight of them, for how much they make him ache. He doesn’t want to know their hell, can’t let himself ponder it: he can only keep them from bringing it here.

He takes up the shield again and thinks: okay.

Together.

_______________________________________________________

The skyline’s destroyed entirely—all that history. All that life. The rubble smells of must and mold beneath the flames that smoulder. The shards of the Hancock paint a Pollock, reflect a sky, still somehow serene, and make it all look ornate. Steve doesn’t understand it.

They won.

“Can anyone confirm Iron Man’s location?”

The voice through his comm turns his blood to ice, and the blue on the broken glass, pointing up to the heavens is the ocean swallowing him whole, forsaken to its depths, and Steve can’t breathe, can’t think—where had he seen that flash of fire before the blaze itself? Where had they crossed paths, where had Tony made some smart ass comment that Steve can’t remember now, because Steve can’t breathe, Steve can’t think

He runs; he lets himself run. Sometimes his body knows before he does, and he can’t risk the fact that this time it does, can’t risk that it’ll lead him where his heart is racing, absolutely raging, fucking desperate to go.

“Stark,” Steve cries out, running down the half-visible street: Boylston, a sign nearly crushes him in falling down, in trying to stop him but he’s too quick, too single-minded as he sprints, as he calls that name and he prays.

There are letters visible in the melee, off from the building that used to stand: RU, and it’s slate on sand and it’s charred and it’s metallic, but it’s not the only thing that’s metallic: a flash of gold. Then the color of blood.

“Stark?” Steve gasps, coughs; his lungs aren’t impervious, even now. The smoke’s getting to him.

He sees the glove; a repulsor busted at the palm.

“Tony?” Steve asks, and knows he won’t get a response; he knows, but still it cuts him when there’s nothing, when he runs and trips and leaps over pieces of what was to find what he prays still is, still breathes and beats beneath the wreckage even if it can't answer, can’t speak—

“Tony.” Steve falls to his knees, not wholly of his own volition, not fully from intent: Steve falls, and he can feel the ground cut through his uniform and slash through his skin as he reaches, as he unhinges Tony’s mask and takes in the ashen face, as he absolutely refuses to look at the arc reactor as it flickers, less on than off, less bright than dim—Steve feels it, but it’s far away. His own pain in the flesh is very, very far away.

“Shit,” Steve breathes, if barely, when his fingers steady enough to confirm there’s no pulse at Tony’s throat. “Tony!”

And if only Steve’s heart could be enough for two—and hell if he hasn’t wished that, asked that, begged that more times in his life than he’s worth; but if only it was enough, because it’s beating double, triple time just now; it could keep them.

It could save them.

If only.

“Come on, Stark,” Steve murmurs, hands grasping at straws, and the pieces of the armor that unhook and disassemble, because maybe Steve can get to the reactor itself, maybe there’s something like, like tech-assisted CPR, it’d brought him back before, it’d shocked him back with the roar of a Hulk and maybe it’s crushed, somehow, maybe Steve just has to release the pressure, remove the chestplate, maybe—

“Come on,” Steve growls, yells, the half-wish that it’s enough to startle life back into the motionless body beside him dying quick; hardly formed, if he’s honest, but there enough to be crushed nonetheless. He wrenches the armor off with a violence bred from the rush of his blood, that even his veins might not take much longer, and drops it to his side, ready to find the right button, the right switch, the right touch—

The scarring takes him aback, but not for long. The image before him doesn’t compute: the skin is shiny, is mottled, is mangled and still red: but it’s skin.

It’s skin.

“Captain.”

The voice is familiar, and faint, and it takes Steve too many seconds before he realizes that it comes from the faceplating, the mask.

Steve scrambles for it, lifts it close and over his own.

“JARVIS?” Steve asks, breathless. Praying to the god of the new world, the man upstairs, in the ceiling, in a screen.

“Replace the chestplate, Captain, and I may be able to administer emergency medical care from here.”

“May be able,” Steve repeats, stumbles, staggers for crucial seconds lost before he grabs for the armor and reattaches it, fumbling horrifically, unsure if it’s even on right.

“It is attached,” JARVIS relieves him, but it doesn’t do any good. He watches the reactor blink, surge, watches Tony’s body lift with a charge through his cells but there’s nothing, nothing, oh god—

“Replace the mask, Captain,” the voice is telling him. “I will attempt to provide life support measures through the systems at my disposal.”

Steve rips the mask off and places it on Tony’s face, and breathes, and wills it not to feel like the lifting, the placing of a shroud.

He doesn’t really process much of what happens, from there, because he can will things all he wants, in the face of that still chest, that still heart, that bloodless face and god, oh god

It doesn’t change a goddamn thing.

_______________________________________________________

Steve’s felt what it means for his heart to start beating again, after tripping; after stopping.

So he knows what it is, when those eyes open. When the hand he won’t hold clenches into a fist; when the chest he can’t stop watching rises deeper, falls uneven.

Steve damn well knows what it is.

“You got rid of the arc reactor.”

The words are out before Steve can stop them: hoarse. Violent things that tear, that rip at seams and threaten to expose him, to let him loose without relent.

“Good morning to you, too, Cap,” Tony rasps, and god, it’s a vicious sound. God, but it’s the heavenly hosts singing salvation to the weary. “Gorgeous day. Sun’s… y’know. Shining and shit, or whatever.”

Steve wants to bask in it. Wants to take in this man who can see, and can breathe, and can be and can make light and Steve wants it to be light. Steve wants that.

He can’t, though. He's never been able to get what he wants.

“I found you,” Steve grinds out, low and hard and coals over the lodged-heart at the back of his mouth, fluttering: feeble. So fucking drained.

“I found you,” Steve looks Tony straight in the eye; “and your heart had stopped, and I took the armor off because I thought maybe the reactor was damaged or something.”

“What exactly do you know about fixing the reactor, if that had, in fact, been the problem?” Tony asks, and the sharp quirk of his brow isn’t dampened by the pallor of his skin; the judgement isn’t weakened, the amusement isn’t any less.

“Jack shit, as it happens,” Steve laughs without humor. “But I was, you weren’t...”

Steve stumbles. He kind of feels like that’s all he has available to him, before he’ll crawl. Before he’ll pass out and burn beneath the sun.

“It came off with the chest plate,” Steve says, and stares now at the stiff white sheets that cover Tony’s body, that outline his frame as Steve struggles just to swallow: “obviously.”

“Obviously,” Tony nods.

“I couldn’t move, for a second.” Steve’s eyes flicker to Tony’s face, but don’t linger long enough to read his expression. Can’t bear to.

“When I did, I thought, I thought you were, that I’d,” and he’d seen that face slack before, in another ruined city. He’d watched that heart stop before; but this time.

This time

“JARVIS told me to put the suit back on, that he could defibrillate remotely or something, and I was,” Steve shakes his head, and the air in the room gets thin, very quickly. The air in his lungs seeps out through a puncture wound he can’t find or fill or stop.

“Couple of tries, and it didn’t work, you didn’t, you weren’t, and I thought that I’d, that if I hadn’t taken it off in the first place, that—”

“Steve?”

Steve blinks, and his eyes roam toward Tony’s face: watching him. Aware. Alive.

Jesus.

“Shut up,” Steve manages to speak without thinking, again; lets his heart jump out and form its own words with his voice. “Just, fucking, shut up Tony, I was, you, it—”

“Rogers.”

And Tony’s voice is stern, now; is a hell of a lot more steady than Steve’s which is bordering on hysterical.

Steve doesn’t have it in him to fight it; to disobey the command in that tone. Steve doesn’t have it in him to think it through, to question.

Steve doesn’t have anything in him, except the pounding of his heart and the hollow feeling of a loss that was felt, but didn’t stay.

“You just told me to shut up, right?” Tony says, slow and deliberate, eyes willing Steve to focus. “Dwell on that one for a second.”

And maybe Tony moves his hand just a little, just enough to touch Steve’s own where it rests, where it threatens to rend the sheets beneath it in the struggle not to reach out, not to touch where Tony does it so naturally, where Tony brushes skin on skin with the certainty of practice, but no, it’s not that. It’s not that now, and here, like this, and Tony’s breathing, and Tony is warm where he was cold beneath Steve’s touch on Boylston, beneath rubble and glass and what comes of a selfish man’s dying wish when he lives, because Steve wanted, and Tony came, and he’s not powerful enough to have made it happen, he knows that.

He’s got enough guilt, though, to blame himself.

“You good?”

Steve doesn’t realize it, doesn’t feel it the very moment that it must have happened, but Tony’s hand isn’t just in contact with his own, now: it envelopes his, it holds and offers pressure, offers promise of truth and proof of life and Steve can’t handle it. Steve can’t deal with it, because it’s pressure everywhere, and the promise is something he’s finally starting to see how what it is and what it isn’t, for what he feels and what he wants against what is, what could ever be, and he doesn’t think he can stand it, doesn’t think he can bear it, and Tony Stark needs to shut up, he needs to shut up because he talks and he lives and he breathes and he’s there and his hand’s in Steve’s hand.

His hand is in Steve’s hand.

“Tony.”

“Gotta admit, Gramps,” Tony says, looking now at where their hands rest together, considering. “Can’t say I was expecting such an outpouring of feeling from you at the idea that I’d bit the bullet.”

Steve swallows, and tries to gather his voice together: he knows it’ll be broken, but maybe it can be something.

Tony.”

“Deep breaths, Cap,” Tony says softly, squeezing Steve’s hand as he lets his eyes drift shut; thumb stroking idly, the meaning unclear as Steve tenses, as the abandonment of those eyes takes him to dark places but Tony’s touch tries to balance, to weigh it out and keep him steady.

And Steve thinks maybe the serum didn’t do shit, for some parts of him. Didn’t make him any less blind, because there’s a man in front of him, just this side of the grave, and it’s him who’s offering comfort, who’s reaching out and giving—there’s Anthony Fucking Stark breathing in, and breathing out, and Steve can feel his pulse at the wrist above of the jut of his own knuckles and he thinks, yeah.

He really has been blind.

_______________________________________________________

Steve spends a lot of the days that follow staring out at New York: a skyline he still doesn’t know, not really, save for the imprint in his mind of everything he sees that burns and stays, but he doesn’t know it, yet it brings him comfort. He’s told himself all this time, all these months, that that’s what’s kept him here—kept him away from his team, kept him preoccupied. He’s told himself that.

He’s realizing that he tells himself a lot of things, and most of them are bullshit.

But Steve spends a lot of the following days staring at the skyline, and wrestling with how often is too often to ask JARVIS how Tony is doing, whether he’s comfortable, whether he’s recovering okay, what his vitals are—not that Steve knows shit about that far beyond dead or not-dead, but he always asks JARVIS if what’s there is good, and JARVIS always tells him—Steve spends a lot of time staring, and wondering, and then mulling over the answers he gets when the wondering takes a break to make way for doing, for asking and getting the information he wants, that both sends his blood pumping harder even as it soothes his soul, because Tony is there. Somewhere, in the Tower, Tony is alive. Resting. Recuperating.

It’ll be okay, Steve tells himself.

He falls asleep against the glass overlooking the city more than once, more than one day in a row. He’s known harder places, though. Colder places.

It’s fine.

That’s another bullshit thing he tells himself, but it has absolutely nothing on the bullshit he’s been feeding his own heart and soul for the past weeks: been using to excuse and brush away the hitch in his breathing and the flush to his skin and the way his eyes lingered in places they shouldn’t be but wanted; wanted so damn bad to be.

There’s a shuffle behind him. His instincts are too well-honed to ignore it.

“Tony,” Steve breathes out, because the man’s a vision, really, for all that he still looks kind of wrecked, and Steve will say it to himself, now: Tony’s beautiful. Tony is fragile and strong and precious and fierce and broken and breakable and makes his life out of mending, creating from the fray. Steve thought it was frustration, maybe even hate.

Steve’s never been good with nuance, unless it was in a portrait, in a landscape. Steve’s never known how to draw the line of value, of affect in between intensities.

He can’t be blamed for the ease of calling awe something darker; something worn and sour where it always should be sweet.

Tony is beautiful. Steve admits it.

His blood pumps a little bit harder. But then he comes back down, out from his own head.

Tony is beautiful, and he sure as hell should be in bed.

“Goddamnit, you’re supposed to be resting,” Steve gets up from his seat, his perch above the skyscrapers where they graze the sky all the closer, here: he makes to approach Tony, to usher him sternly back to safety, and softness, and calm, but Tony’s standing on his own feet, bearing his own weight, and the look in his eyes is something like understanding mixed with fear. Steve doesn’t know what it means.

Steve’s about three paces from Tony when Tony’s voice stills him: low. More serious than Steve’s heard in longer than he’d thought, because he hadn’t thought.

He hadn’t thought.

“The Witch,” Tony starts, and it’s automatic; it’s a thing Steve kicks himself for as soon as he says it when it comes:

“Her name is—”

“I know,” Tony nods; not offended, not a snap in reply: just admission. “I know what her name is.” Steve follows the swallow down Tony’s throat, the widening of his eyes.

“The Witch was,” Tony breathes in, deep as his wounds allow, and it takes everything in Steve not to take those three steps and touch. Ease. Something.

“The Witch was different.”

Steve nods; not just because it’s true. Tony accepts it as apology and invitation: continue. Please.

Please, never stop talking. Never shut up. Never stop being because I don’t know what I’ll do if you’re not here to talk and to breathe and to—

“When she, you know,” Tony gestures, as often he does, and Steve thinks idly that maybe Tony could encompass all things with those arms, with those hands. “With the,” and Tony’s hands focus now on his head, drawing pictures around in the air, but Steve knows exactly what he means.

“Greatest fear,” Steve mouths, as Tony speaks; because yeah.

Steve knows exactly.

“It was failing you,” Tony breathes out, like it’s a burden bigger than standing, than speaking after dying in the streets and coming back to tell the tale.

“All of you,” he adds, but it doesn’t feel like it matters. It’s an afterthought. Steve’s heart feels heavy and sore for no reason at all.

“The shield was broken,” Tony whispers, his eyes far away. “Cracked straight in half.”

And Steve himself has had a version of that dream: a nightmare. His shield in his own hands, in others’ hands, in no hands at all: but all that it means, all that it represents torn asunder and unmade. All of himself that he’s put into it, that he’s taken into his own being: all of what he is, all of what he has and does that matters in those blinding metal rings.

“And you were,” Tony starts, takes Steve away from his own worries, insecurities he’s never shaken off. “I,” Tony shakes his head, looks up. Meets Steve’s eyes like maybe Steve can give him answers. Like maybe the answers are there, and Steve can see them.

Steve isn’t here for the skyline; but the reasons he thinks he stayed are still the same.

“My greatest fear,” Tony breathes, and it’s labored, and Steve tenses, knows in theory but not in his chest that JARVIS would say if Tony was in danger, if he was taxed in a way that would cause real harm but he can’t apply it, can’t put it into practice and when Tony gasps out the rest of the words, Steve’s beside him between syllables:

“It was losing...”

When Tony speaks, and it’s a huff of air, Steve doesn’t know what prompts him, or more true to the heart in him: Steve doesn’t know what stops keeping him, what stops holding him back, in that moment, from leaning in.

From breathing breaths for them both.

Tony’s mouth is slack against Steve’s, and so Steve pulls back, afraid for the first time in his life in a way he’s never known, but Tony’s hand is on his neck, on the base of his skull, holding him close enough to taste his own mouth on Tony’s exhale.

“What the hell was that?” Tony asks, and it’s breathless, and Steve wants more than anything to fix that fact, to fill Tony with so much breath that he’ll never run out, he’ll never leave, he’ll never fade and Steve will never press against cold lips, not ever.

Steve wants.

“Losing,” is the answer Steve has, because it’s all he knows, just then. It’s the only fear that fits in words; the only desire he can distill and express for the knowing. “What I,” he swallows, and he’s close enough to Tony that his lashes, when he looks up, graze against Tony’s cheek.

“What I don’t, what I can’t,” and Steve’s saved, once again, by the broken man who only makes, when Tony crushes their lips together, and damn well kisses back.

_______________________________________________________

For the first time in his entire life, the plush cushion of the too-soft mattress they fall upon doesn’t feel like a penance, a noose—it feels beautiful. It feels beautiful, because of what it does to Tony’s face, to Tony’s body; because of how it accompanies Tony’s hand outstretched to draw Steve close, to capture his lips again.

They don’t speak. Tony tugs at Steve’s shirt, and Steve obeys the wordless command, shucking his clothes down to his briefs before he gently undresses Tony in kind, before he reveals dark bruising and new scarring and the threat of death over life and Steve pauses to look, too long, it seems, because Tony’s hands are on his face, against his cheeks: and his cheeks are damp, suddenly, beneath those hands, and Steve is breathing shakily as he pulls away and leans down to kiss gentle, featherlight against the broken blood pooled beneath the skin, every prayer he knows in gratitude, in safekeeping unto the dark.

Tony’s hands slip to hold around the back of Steve’s head, ease him down to the bundle of scar tissue at the center of Tony’s chest where the skin’s knotted but thin with wear, where the heart’s closer to the surface now than it probably ought to be, and Steve can hear it, but he can’t feel it too, and it helps. It helps.

It helps to break him all over again.

Tony holds him, though, holds him there and breathes until Steve remembers how to breathe for the cadence Tony sets, the pace he makes. Tony holds him there, and when he lifts his hips, rocks into Steve’s weight hovering atop him, Steve’s stored enough air in his lungs not to suffer for the way he goes breathless.

Tony looks at him, studies him, and he doesn’t ask any questions, doesn’t hesitate to grind up into the hard line of Steve’s arousal until Steve gasps, until Steve shakes: his eyes don’t flinch, don’t flicker, don’t blink—just watch, wide and dark and bright as Steve starts to crumble, as Steve pants for just the pressure of Tony’s dick against his own through the fabric, the brush of weight that presses the wet tip into the material and creates the kind of friction that makes Steve want to sob, want to come apart and maybe he will, maybe he can, maybe this is the worst idea and the only option and maybe Steve can’t think straight, maybe Steve can’t think because of Tony’s touch, Tony’s heat; maybe Steve bears down and shifts against every rhythm that’s soaring between them, breaths and shivers and the beat of the heart where Steve rests his forehead on Tony’s chest still, reluctant to pull away, to let go, to not be able to confirm reality in the presence of that pulse.

And Steve doesn’t know what he was expecting—save that he knows he was expecting something, knows that his mind and his body were primed for something other than this, than Tony’s arms reaching, stronger than they should be, his touch firmer, steadier than he should be capable of after coming so close, after almost, after—

Steve doesn’t know what he was expecting. But it’s not the way that Tony wraps strong arms around Steve’s shoulders, reaches broad palms around Steve’s head and holds him close to Tony’s chest, cradles him there and lets him move with the pace of Tony’s breath as Tony starts to weave all the discordant rhythms, all the beats and breaks that clash: he coaxes them slowly into something solid, something they both feel, Steve knows that they both have to feel it because Steve’s lungs are burning and his heart is thrumming and Steve is rising and falling with Tony’s lungs and swimming in the bass of his heartbeat and Tony is rocking against him, heavier as their blood bounds, the touch of his cock against Steve’s like a shock of electricity, bringing life to the dead and Steve’s shaking for all of the almost, for all of the lies he’d accepted as truths, for all of the depths he ignored for too long and he should have known better, he should have known—

Tony’s hands on him are protection, are safety. Steve hadn’t expected that. Hadn’t thought he could feel that again.

It might be the contact, it might be the friction, but it might damn well be that comfort that leaves him coming hard with everything in him, with everything he has and is and holds back, shaking through it with a wrenching moan that dies on a trembling sigh.

And it’s funny; it means more than Steve can shove into the words he knows that it’s Tony’s heart that’s stronger, between them, as they come down slow; unsteady.

“A shield around the entire world,” Steve mouths, soundless, against Tony’s sweat-slick chest, with Tony’s hands still laced behind Steve’s head, holding him still and close and dear, somehow, though maybe that’s Steve’s imagination, maybe that’s all projected want, and Steve thinks maybe that he gets it. What it was for. What it was that was meant.

Absolution, maybe.

He wishes Tony could understand how ill-equipped a man like Steve is to give it; he wishes—

He wishes Tony knew that the tables are fucking turned, and Tony, despite everything, is the one who makes him feel light.

_______________________________________________________

Steve doesn’t expect to wake up with anyone beside him, so he’s not disappointed to find the other side of the bed empty. He’s pretty sure this room is a spare among many in the Tower—there’s no personality in it.

Steve stands, stretches, and takes the elevator down to the workshop; he hears the familiar screech of Tony’s preferred work-music, and—satisfied that the man’s alright enough to be going on with—takes the elevator straight back up.

He finishes One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, and doesn’t feel guilt about it. He lets JARVIS talk him into watching the film, which isn’t half bad. He takes a nap that lasts nearly two hours. He watches New York bustle, ants down below, until the scent of something savory, something pretty damn delicious wafts toward him and he realizes he hasn’t eaten in more than a day.

His stomach makes it really clear, just then, that more than a day’s not something it’ll abide anymore.

“And you point at me and call neglect,” Tony tuts, holding two plates on approach.

Steve’s not really cultured in the realm of edibles, but he can tell what’s on the plates is fancy as all hell. Something with beef. And wine, but like… a wine...reduction? Is that what it’s called? Maybe? And vegetables, god, like, really well grilled and bright and colorful and Tony Stark is holding them and Steve knows that’s not delivery, even on Stark’s budget, because he can smell them in that way that means it was made warm and real and nearby, and Tony Stark, Tony Stark knows what vegetables even look like—

“You can cook?” Steve doesn’t splutter, but it’s a close damned thing.

Tony rolls his eyes, and while that part Steve’s seen before; what Steve’s never seen before is the warmth in it, the way that Tony’s eyes crinkle a little in the corners, and his lips quirk up at the sides and his face kinda glows, and Steve’s chest’s tight for it, and he knows the feel of this man’s touch; he knows the sound of this man’s blood in his veins and what it feels like when Steve’s spent against his flesh and they fall together.

Steve knows that, and Tony can cook.

“It’s not like it’s fucking hard, Rogers,” Tony finally says, staring at Steve like maybe he knows the thoughts in Steve’s head, but like, even if he didn’t, it wouldn’t change a thing, and Steve doesn’t know what to make of it as Tony settles across from him, hands a plate to Steve and sticks his own fork into the meat, chews considering; Steve doesn’t know what to make of it.

The food’s delicious though.

Of course it is.
_______________________________________________________

Steve can explain the second time even less clearly, can rationalize it even less convincingly than the first time.

No, the second time, if Steve’s honest, doesn’t have a logical explanation. The second time is all about the fact that Tony sits with him long after dinner, and shit, shit.

But Steve just wants.

Tony sees it, of course; Tony knows it.

And Tony, being Tony: Tony opens up and gives, just as much as he takes, and Steve thinks he should have anticipated that; the scientist, the mathematician: the equations need balanced. Steve thinks he gets it, now.

Tony climbs on top of Steve with a singular purpose in his eyes, in his hard muscles and there’s something about those muscles that makes Steve’s own go weak, his mouth go dry: muscles earned and not granted, a different kind of science and precision—Tony’s thighs are god’s work on Earth, and the feel of them at Steve’s hips is a death Steve never thought he’d be granted, be gifted—he moans even before Tony’s straining length teases Steve’s skin, before Tony’s taut balls graze the underside of Steve’s cock where it stands straight, keening: and when Tony’s hands cup Steve’s hips, when Tony’s hips cant just so to align, to press forth, to take in: Steve knows a heaven he’d never earned, he’s never been built to endure or to meet.

And Tony’s not shy, not ever; Tony doesn’t hold back, doesn’t walk when he can run and the lines of his body as he rises, falls; as he guides their motion and sets their pace and pants wild, gasps almost joyous on top of Steve and Steve is mesmerized by the ripple, the undulation of Tony’s abs, of the way his chest gleams with ecstatic sweat and violent scar tissue, silver and gold and right somehow, and Steve is entranced by it, Steve is absolutely consumed by it, and it’s only as Tony’s lifting up and coming down, clenching fast around Steve’s dick that Steve realizes that he’s coming, that he’s cresting and spilling and shaking through the rise and fall of breath and bone and feeling, tension built just to release and leave him bereft and gorgeously pliant, save that he’s not: he’s not because he barely notices, because the high is still there; he barely parses it as a climax because he’s been high since Tony straddled him and stripped him bare of more than his clothing and the high isn’t gone, the high hasn’t ceased.

The beautiful fucking weight of Tony’s lust-heavy cock on Steve’s belly hasn’t ceased, either, and suddenly, Steve is hungry. Needy. Ravenous.

His hands cup Tony’s ass, and pull him into Steve’s torso close; doesn’t let his own softening cock slip from Tony’s body just yet as he puts pressure on Tony’s erection, makes eye contact that he doesn’t, will not break, and asks without words.

Tony whimpers for the pressure, the friction, but he nods, and lifts off of Steve in one fluid motion: practiced. He’s done this before.

But more than that, Steve wants to believe: more than that, they fit. Them.

Together.

Steve’s on his knees, spine curved opposite the way it used to, bent in worship and prostrate to lick a stripe up Tony’s cock, to suck greedy at the wet tip and lavish, revel in the tang, in the cut of sweetness that feels oddly like the stars at night, the endless dark: that very same awe on Steve’s lips, on Steve’s tongue.

And Steve loves it, too: loves the weight at the roof of his mouth, the swell of Tony’s need against the hollowed concaves of his cheeks—Steve loves the twitch of that desperate cock in Steve’s mouth, at Steve’s throat as he swallows for the pleasure it’ll bring, as he exhales for the shudder around the shaft, for the chill against the balls as Steve reaches to tease those, too, and Tony’s holding back, and Steve won’t have it. Tony’s waiting, and Steve doesn’t understand why.

Tony comes, and Steve milks him, drinks him deep and long, absolutely wasteless. Steve feels the dribble of come down his lips, but doesn’t care.

Tony does, though. Tony cares enough to dive straight in and lick himself from Steve’s mouth, and if that’s not the hottest thing Steve’s ever known, well.

It is, so that’s really what matters, in the end. Hottest goddamn thing in the universe.

Steve wonders when it started, when this feeling, this all-pervasive want took its roots. He thinks back to a helicarrier. To banter turned cruel. To pathetic attempts at teamwork, grasping at straws. He tries to think back.

He can’t find the starting point; only knows that it took hold and make a home without Steve knowing, too strong now for Steve to uproot and be rid of.

He looks at Tony, mouth bruised with force and affection—slick with the basest essence of what they are, and what they’ve done; the offers made, if they can be called as much. The sacrifices, if that’s the proper term.

Steve’s watched the sunset from the trenches, and seen butterflies on battlefields. Steve’s watched ice consume him, and then release him, and the light play of the crystals in the cold. Steve’s seen fire consume, and spring come again, and yet he’s never seen something like Tony, before. For all that he’s looked at the man for years, now, he’s never, ever, seen Tony.

He laments the way Tony eventually falls flat, face-first into Steve’s chest without warning, for the way he can’t see that face. He makes up for it, though, in the study of the muscles, the bones that press out from Tony’s back; the rise and fall. The puff of breath against Steve’s skin, above his own heart.

And he’s messy, slick, but sated—at ease. And there’s a tidal wave that consumes him, at that thought, that reality now upon him from nowhere where he’d searched and searched but never found; and it’s that tidal wave that sweeps him off to sleep.

_______________________________________________________

Steve wakes to eyes on him. He can feel it. There’s an instinct in him, he knows, to play such scenarios out, to feign and then strike.

It’s an instinct he has, but not one that’s present in this moment. Not one bit.

Steve lets his lashes unstick slowly, leisurely, and his heart flutters at the still of it, the softness of the moment he knows he’s waking to even before his vision clears. Tony’s watching him, studying him with keen eyes: a puzzle maybe, but complete or still waiting to be solved, Steve can’t tell.

Steve breathes, and watches as Tony does the same; shallow and infrequent, wholly consumed by his exploration, his inspection of the thing in front of him, of Steve, and Steve understands, because Steve is entranced by the stretch of skin with every tiny inhale, the lift of life beneath the flesh and close to bone.

It smells like them; every breath in. It smells like that, and Steve thinks it smells like now. Smells like home.

“It’s been a long time,” Tony finally says, “since I’ve woken up with someone, in this bed.”

He reaches a hand out, and strokes Steve’s side up, then down: touch firm, unhesitant. Steve doesn’t expect it to hit him, right in the center of his chest like it does; it’s just that no one does that anymore. Maybe no one ever did: touched him like he was less fragile than glass, more human than an icon. Like it was allowed. Like it was natural.

Steve shivers, in the best of all ways, and Tony doesn’t stop with the caress.

“It’s,” Tony starts, hums through whatever might have meant to follow before he finishes, his smile tight, though just shy of a grimace in that way; his words sincere nonetheless as he breathes out:

“It’s nice.”

_______________________________________________________

And it is. Nice.

It’s nice, and now that Steve can admit to what tether had kept him here beyond nostalgia and regret, he can admit that it's more than nice, really: it’s the slow slip of warmth and heat and weight into the places in himself that have been empty for so fucking long, the hollow spaces that he never acknowledged and didn’t realize made up so very much of him: the body of him stretched too big, too quickly; the soul of him riddled with all the acid of loss and the small voice always telling him never to want too hard, or need too much, or tether too tight: not ever.

They share a bed every night, so many nights. Tony’s always watching when he wakes; studying, appreciating, and then staring like he really, actually, maybe doesn’t want to look away—as if there’s something new to find in Steve. As if Steve is a masterpiece when all he is, really, is an amalgam of bits and pieces that were half-worth a damn, that made a whole that passed for fine.

Steve’s going to get addicted to that look. He might already be wholly sold on it, absolutely gone.

Steve video chats with the base, with his Team: he contributes what he can, and Tony’s hand brushes his shoulder in passing while Tony’s working on god knows what in the meantime, and whether Tony means to, the touch grounds Steve and reminds him of his own needs. Reminds him that he’s human, and this is what he can give right now.

And that’s not ideal, or okay, not in Steve’s eyes: but maybe it can be bearable. Maybe he can weather through.

Tony makes him dinner. Steve tries, and Tony makes fun of him, but eats everything put in front of him.

He doesn’t want to say it’s happiness, but that’s what it is.

He won’t call it anything more than that, because he can’t. He’s not capable.

He won’t survive losing anything more. He won’t.

So it’s happiness. It’s happiness, and maybe more, but happiness is enough.

_______________________________________________________

It happens a few weeks later. There’s no warning. It’s a fluke, if anything; a game of chance.

Steve’s reviewing files on the in-house mainframe—the leaks and the fragments and JARVIS’s highlights and some files names that caught his eye, because Steve’s still an Avenger, and Steve may have made excuses before he owned his own selfishness, but Steve’s still an Avenger and he’s shirking his duties in person: he’ll be damned if he does it in theory, in the possibility of helping at a distance, too.

And Steve’s a little boneless, maybe, because he’s woken with a mouth on his cock, and he’s given Tony a massage after that’d left them both more relaxed than they’d expected, the firm, rhythmic undulation of hands on joints, playing the fibers of muscles like strings into chords—Steve’s a little preoccupied, a little dazed as the files fly across the screen under his superhuman gaze, his unparalleled ability to process and recall.

And maybe if he’d been just a little more distracted, a little more relaxed, he’d have missed it. Maybe it never would have happened, if he’d let Tony go for thirds, instead of just seconds courtesy of his impossible refractory period, or if he’d massaged Tony’s scalp again before they’d both rose for the day—maybe he’d have missed it.

But there was no scalp massage, or third blow-job. And he doesn’t miss it.

When Steve sees the text, the words in black-and-white, his ribs feel too small, his chest catches fire. He feels as if he’s known these sensations in pieces, before—rage, disbelief, betrayal, heartache—but never all together. Never all at once.

He loads the file in whole, sees its parent directory: Threat Analysis: Alpha, and tastes bile in the back of his throat that’s churned up by the pounding of a heart that feels wrong, that feels wrung from the core and then out until its bloodless, until it’s a pulp unworthy of any goddamn thing. He doesn't know how his legs are steady as he stands, as he moves, as he makes his way to face this, head-on. He doesn’t know how his legs move. He doesn’t know how he fucking breathes.

And even for all the lies, and half truths; all the excuses he’s made to himself, he’d never guess that this could hurt so bad.

In truth, despite everything, Steve hadn’t realized that he was in so deep.
_______________________________________________________

“What the hell is this?”

Steve storms in, and maybe he runs into one of the robots in the process. Maybe he feels bad about it.

He’ll deal with that later.

“Be specific.”

Tony doesn’t even turn to look at him.

Steve tosses the StarkPad hard enough to shatter it; he’s disappointed, almost, that it doesn’t manage the job.

“Hulk-proof,” Tony reads his mind, lackadaisical as he swivels idly in his chair to glance at the screen.

“Oh, Sergeant Skynet!” Tony acknowledges flippantly, tipping back to meet Steve’s eyes, albeit upside-down. “Did I get his birthdate wrong or some shit? Files in the 40s, Cap, you have to understand—”

And Steve’s about had it with this, with the pressure building under his sternum, with the way the world turns enough to make him dizzy, make him nauseous, make him faint: Steve’s damn well had enough.

He slams his palms down on the table, cages Tony between his arms, and the force is enough, this time, to crack the surface he touches; to mimic the fractures he’s feeling all over, all through him, everywhere.

“What the hell?”

Tony’s eyes meet his own again, right-side-up, brown quirked before he reaches gingerly to grab for the tablet and review the information on the unmarred screen: a threat analysis. Clear biometrics. Breakdowns of likely vulnerabilities. Purported locations of the Asset, tracked globally to the nearest coordinates. And. And.

Bids on the information. Who and where the Winter Soldier’s fully collated, expanded, and Stark-optimized profile will go to, based on who’ll fork over more millions.

There’s a fucking chart. With price comparisons.

Steve wants to scream. Steve wants to crumble. Steve wants to vomit.

Steve wants his heart to stop pounding so goddamned hard.

“Look at me.”

Tony says it, and Steve doesn’t think before he agrees, meets those eyes, and Steve can’t track what flashes across that gaze, swift as lightning and just as changeable, just as charged.

Tony steps forward, sets the tablet down, and reaches up to trace the lines of his lips, to cup a hand around his jaw as he sighs, as he laughs: humorless.

“Fuck.”

Tony slides to sit atop the table between them, mouth parted in disbelief, Steve thinks, or in anger, or in pain, or in—

Shit. Hell if he knows.

“Do you,” Tony starts, the edge of his voice taking Steve back to the first time, to laying down on the wire and specialness in a bottle and the hardness in those eyes that’d melted over time, that he hadn’t seen in so long back in full force, and Steve hadn’t realized what it looked like, and how it made him feel—he hadn’t realized.

He realizes now.

“You think I’d,” and Tony shakes his head, gestures between the two of them; “after, with,” and he’s flabbergasted, he’s blindsided, Steve can read that much. Steve can see that clearly.

He’s just not entirely sure what it means.

“You think I do this with just anyone?” Tony asks, and Steve knows exactly what he means, what he’s talking about. And Steve’s hurt enough, Steve’s bleeding out enough because Tony is willing to sell Steve’s best friend’s head on a silver platter to the highest fucking bidder

Steve is wrecked enough to lash back, in kind.

“Playboy was your description, not mine.”

Tony’s laugh, at that, isn’t even a laugh; not really. It’s too hollow. It’ll crumble in on itself before it can echo outward, before it can think to last.

“Goddamnit, Rogers,” Tony spits out, but not in the way that Steve’s expecting, not in the way that spews venom, no: more like Tony knows the words are poison, and just wants to get it out of his own system, wants to try to save himself.

“You think this is like that?” Tony asks, voices hard but porous, still; words ready to crumble just like his laughter. “Really?”

Steve doesn’t know what to say, what to do. His chest hurts, and he thinks the way his pulse pounds, the way the muscle pulls and shakes is enough to make friction, is enough to spark flame because he feels it, and he can’t look Tony in the eyes, he can’t, because whatever is there that Steve can’t name makes the burning all the worse.

Steve straightens his shoulders, crosses his arms, and keeps his mouth in a very straight line. He can feel the boil of his blood at the neck and he wonders if Tony sees it. Wonders what Tony reads in him.

“You’re a military man,” Tony says, finally. “You’re the soldier, here.” And there’s a sneer as much as there’s a plea in those words. See what I’m saying, it’s asking, just as much as it’s reminding him that Tony’s not a soldier, never was, and maybe he’s the better man for it. Maybe he sees more than Steve ever could, but Steve doesn’t care.

His chest is tight, and there are fragments in it he won’t acknowledge or name; his friend is lost, and broken, and hunted, and goddamnit, but Steve had trusted Tony Stark.

He knows what Tony Stark’s hands feel like on his skin.

“Sometimes you’ve gotta play ball for the greater good,” Tony finally says, reaching for a stress-ball at the corner of the desk and tossing it in the air, the smug asshole.

“The greater good?” Steve asks, blank, because what is the greater good, in this twisted future, this world of theirs?

“Shit’s coming down,” Tony watches the ball, flung up, then down into his hand, then up again: nonchalant in the way Steve knows to mean he’s hiding something deep within himself that could destroy him; that could destroy them both.

“There are certain people we cannot afford to let get out of the storm, ones we can’t allow to start raining the shit down themselves.”

“Allies,” Steve surmises, and is almost caught off guard by Tony’s snort.

“I don’t have allies,” Tony huffs. “I have connections.”

“That you can’t piss off?” Steve ventures, and he wants to believe there’s a plan, wants to believe in the man before him, wants to believe in what he feels and what they’ve shared and the smooth press of their skin beneath sheets and the way Tony’s breath feels against the sweat on Steve’s chest in the dark: more than anything in his entire life, Steve wants to believe.

But Steve may have fooled his mother, God rest her perfect soul, and Steve may have fooled the priest: but he’s a Doubting Thomas. He always has been.

Regardless of anything he’s ever wanted.

“Think who you’re talking to,” Tony deadpans; sneers, just a little. “I piss them off by virtue of my existence,” and the roll of those eyes is something Steve doesn’t think he could manage if he tried.

“I can’t let them start thinking that my pissing them off outweighs what I can do for them,” Tony’s tone levels out, at that. “Which in turn, might let them start second-guessing what they can do for me.”

Tony sighs deep, then, and Steve can’t help the phantom feeling of that chest when it rises against Steve’s own—it’s been just weeks, now, like this, with them: but these weeks, Steve can’t put them into words, and he can barely fathom the loss of them, or else the threat of loss, maybe he can be hopeful, maybe he can be wrong, he knows that he can be wrong

“Look,” Tony says, and he looks haggard, suddenly; exhausted as he reaches for the StarkPad, lets his fingers trail across the screen, and the pang in Steve’s chest is a visceral, unbearable thing. “You don’t believe me? Here.”

Tony slides the tablet across the table within Steve’s reach before he slides off the table.

“See for yourself.”

He brushes past Steve close enough for Steve to catch the scent of him—all spice and musk and too much—but not close enough to touch, and Steve already knows he’s fucked up.

How badly, however, is yet to be seen.

_______________________________________________________

Steve finds Tony some hours later, alone in the lounge with the lights out, swigging from a bottle of scotch Steve’s never seen before. Steve might not know his liquor, but he can tell that scotch is probably worth more than the GDPs of some countries.

A lot of countries.

And Tony is drinking it from the goddamn bottle.

“Tony.”

Tony doesn’t turn, doesn’t face him, doesn’t stop drinking. Steve’s got the StarkPad in hand, having read through everything, everything, and having fought every instinct in him to hesitate, to lick his self-inflicted wounds—to his pride, to his heart—but he fought every instinct in him to wait and regroup and let the steady, heady thump of his pulse tell him to run, to own his own stupidity, his own doubt, his own horrible rashness and the fact that he couldn’t trust; he runs, and hopes whatever he’s broken can be pieced back together.

He hopes like he thought he’d forgotten how to hope.

“They’re gunning for him, Cap,” Tony finally speaks into the dark

“You,” Steve starts, throat tight; words caught up and strained, because Tony.

Tony.

“We can’t help him if we can’t assess the threat,” Tony says, intonation flat; dead somehow, and for all the blood on Steve’s hands, this feels like the worst of it, the most hateful. “And we can’t assess the threat to the best of our ability without knowing the enemy, so.”

“I read,” Steve starts, because fuck, fuck, what he read; what Tony’s been doing, putting together the history of the Winter Soldier—his hits, but more than that, what was done to him, the tech used, the tech failed on him at Bucky’s expense, the tolls taken, the horrors in between each freeze and thaw, the Hydra files piece together into the most coherent narrative, the times they’d nearly lost Bucky for their own need to push, to take him apart and ruin him further; and then the way that Tony’s been tracking him further than the files Steve had seen up for bidding: always keeping the rest of the world five steps behind, and Bucky himself staying three steps ahead of even Tony’s capacities; the cash drops Tony’s left that Bucky’s not yet needed, not yet touched but that are there, even though Steve had read the hits, had seen that no one was lying when they called him the best, a ghost: a president, a preacher, and two names, family, familiar, parents

Steve breathes in deep.

“I saw what he—”

“Look,” Tony cuts him off, a wave of the hand; said hand holding the scotch and sloshing none: practices. “Let me lay this down real simple. Am I thrilled that my parents are dead? No, I am not. But…” Tony shakes his head, closes his eyes and breathes in, out, and Steve still can’t call it what it is. But the feeling is undeniable.

Goddamnit.

“My life was mostly butlers and nannies,” Tony picks back up, eyes far away. “I knew my father through his disapproval. I knew my mother by her…” and Tony smiles, so sad, and Steve can barely contain the urge to walk toward him, to lean in and press his own lips to that mourning, that ache: “by her smile. And I loved them like a kid loves his parents. And I was sad when they were gone, because losing hurts.”

And it’s a mess, they’re a mess, Steve’s made a mess of two people who were already wrecked but were trying to find themselves again and god, good god, what he wants is to gather all the pieces of Tony together and fit them into his own and just make something, hell.

Just something that feels right. And Tony feels right.

“But I also know what it means to do something and not understand what it means,” Tony says, and there’s more resolve, more of himself in his eyes, now: regret. A whole different color of melancholy. “Who it hurts. And to have your hands tied like that? To not have any semblance of a choice?”

Tony shakes his head, and Steve doesn’t know the details—there is so much Steve doesn’t know, but he wants to, and more than that: it doesn’t matter; it cannot possibly matter more than the feeling of Tony next to him, more than the way his chest expands to hold him close; Steve doesn’t know the details, but Steve can see the sand in his eyes.

“I know what he means to you,” Tony shrugs, sums up like it’s nothing. Like it’s not a gesture that means more than the world.

“You started this after D.C.,” Steve counters, amazed and appalled at himself and just overcome, really, fucking overcome: “Tony, the dates—”

“I’m not a good man, Steve,” Tony says, clear and clean and true in his own head where Steve doesn’t believe for one second; should never have believed,because who was he to judge? Who was he, of all people, to take in a person based on hearsay, on first impression, on just what met the eye?

Damned hypocrite, is what he’s become. Fucking hell.

“But I don’t think I’m a bad one, either,” Tony sums up, swallows more scotch; doesn’t even shiver for the burn. “Not anymore.”

Steve wants to walk toward him, wants to hold him close; he can’t somehow, though. Not just then.

He turns, and he walks, and maybe he stops in the room that they share, just to inhale the scent of the pillows.

And maybe he doesn’t mean to, but that’s where he falls asleep.

_______________________________________________________

 

The feeling of Tony’s body wrapping around his body eases Steve from sleep with a spark; with a sob, and the words on his lips are the ones he drifted off with:

“I’m sorry.”

Tony’s face is unreadable, mostly obscured in the dark, but his lips are warm where they press against Steve’s temple.

“Don’t be.”

“Tony,” Steve reaches, cups Tony’s face so that Steve can make out at least the contours, can guess at the expression when he gives everything he is to just those two words: “I’m sorry.”

Tony lowers himself to the bed, lined parallel to Steve: mostly tangled in him, but still not as close as they could be, as they can be, as they have been—Steve knows.

“It’s fine.”

“Tony, please…”

“It’s fine.” And it may have been a snap, a vile thing from anyone else but Tony’s hand is brushing Steve’s cheek, Steve’s chin; Tony’s touch is lilting down the line of Steve’s neck to play at his collarbones.

Tony’s hand is broad, and warm, and there, and Tony’s watching it on Steve’s skin like a brand, or the birth of a cosmos somewhere far away and new.

“Look, I, ” Tony starts, and Steve can feel the echo of his heartbeat beneath that palm like a mallet, like percussion in a symphony.

“I’m still learning, right? I’m still figuring this,” and Tony splays his fingers wider, indicative; “sort of thing out. It’s not easy, like, numbers and metal and stuff, it’s,” he shakes his head, then bows it low.

“For me,” Tony confesses, a whisper. “It’s not easy for me.”

And Steve wants to move, wants to comfort, wants to reassure but he is still. He is mesmerized by this singular openness, peeling-back of layers: this baring of a soul.

“I don’t know how to say a lot of things, haven’t ever known how to express something, rather than just telling it,” Tony chuckles, only half-hearted in the sound. “Pontificating, or so I’ve been informed.”

Steve smiles in reply, but it’s small.

“But with this, with this.” And the pressure he puts on Steve’s chest just then might be painful, even for Steve, but it’s welcome. It’s a promise, somehow. It’s the absolution Tony’d been searching for, that he’d had in him all along.

“I don’t know how to say this kind of shit,” Tony breathes. “It takes me a, a while.” He leans, and he kisses the space between his knuckles on Steve’s chest: not Steve’s skin, but the air just above it, buffered by a touch that doesn’t shift.

“What I do know, is how to make, or think, or do. So I,” Tony exhales long. “I compensate, where I can. I guess.”

“Tony?” Steve whispers, and cups Tony’s cheek once more.

“Please tell me you’re smart enough to put the pieces together, Rogers,” Tony begs him, and what little light persists glints off those eyes, just so. “I just told you I can’t make it clear any other way.”

Tony.” And Steve leans closer, just so their lips barely touch, because he needs Tony to know what it means to be in something together. It’s hard enough for Steve to believe in anything, anymore, but for Tony—for Tony, it’s harder, somehow, and Steve can’t stand it.

He can’t stand it.

So he leans in, and kisses Tony featherlight, and Tony melts into it; Tony gives into it, and Steve breathes against that mouth all that matters, really, all that counts:

“I’m still learning, too.”