Steve is no stranger to loss or to grief. He has long since learned how it can eat at you from the inside, sharp painful bites behind your eyes, at the back of your skull, in the pit of your stomach. He knows how to swallow it down long enough to get through the day, and he knows when to let it out, how to let it out so it doesn’t completely consume you.
He doesn’t let himself linger in bed in the mornings – it’s too easy to roll over, close his eyes and sleep his days away, but he can’t let that behavior become common. Instead he sets an alarm for the time he normally gets up anyway and puts the alarm on the far side of the room, so he has to get up to turn it off. And once he’s up he can usually stop himself from crawling back under the covers. (If sometimes he can’t even make himself lift his head off the pillow long enough to turn off the alarm and just waits for it to time out, well, those days are getting fewer and father between.)
He goes for a jog – five miles if he has somewhere to be, which he usually doesn’t. If his schedule is clear he’ll go till his legs get rubbery and his shirt is soaked through with sweat. He knows his friends think he’s trying to outrun the pain, but the truth of it is he knows exactly how good endorphins feel and this is as close to happy as he can foresee himself being for a long time.
Today, like every day since he took leave from the Avengers, he has nowhere to be and no one to answer to so he runs. He lets the rhythm of his feet against the pavement flood through his ears until all he can hear is the beat of his own heart and the rush of his blood pounding in his head. It works more than it doesn’t. Jogging is usually a solitary pastime for him, he’s used to being alone out there. He doesn’t have to force himself to ignore the absence of another pair of footsteps, to act like he isn’t listening for another voice that will never speak again.
Sometimes he stops for lunch, cutting through the park for a half dozen hot dogs and a few bottles of water. There’s a vendor by the turtle pond who always gives him a big frozen lemonade and never accepts payment. They recognize him, but mostly they just talk about the weather and ask him if he wants some chips with his burgers. No one presses him to talk, no one asks him how he’s doing today and after the first couple of weeks even the reporters lose interest.
He usually gives up around dinner. He could go longer, but there hits a point where it stops being an escape and starts being… a crutch. So he’ll make his way back to the mansion with his legs aching and his throat burning and his shirt sticking to his chest.
And then he’ll stand outside for a few minutes, dragging in deep breaths and trying to work up the energy to face the team.
Sometimes he gets lucky and doesn’t run into anyone. Or they’re all out for whatever reasons, and he feels guilty for being glad they’re gone.
Today Natasha is there, but she only smiles at him over the top of her tablet. “Jarvis made raspberry iced tea,” she says, holding up a mostly-empty glass and rattling the ice cubes at him. “Five pitchers worth. There should be some left after the hordes got through with it.”
The hordes are probably Tigra and Jan, possibly Peter. Steve isn’t entirely sure who’s at the mansion at the moment. He should know the team roster, know where his teammates are, but he’s not team leader at the moment and he is willing to let Wasp and Falcon be the responsible ones for a while.
“Who’s in charge of dinner?” he asks.
“Thor said something about barbecue,” she says, already turning back to her book. “He and Clint and Logan are out back completely failing to get the grill fired up.” She wrinkles her nose at him over her tablet. “You’re disgusting. I forbid you from helping them until you’ve showered. You shouldn’t be allowed near food like this.”
Steve laughs and detours to the kitchen to help himself to a huge glass of Jarvis’ ice tea. He downs it in one long drink, something viscerally satisfying in the way he can feel his throat working as he gulps it down. The cold makes his head ache for a moment, then it’s gone.
He feels a little better, after. He’s probably dehydrated after a run like that. He pours himself a second glass because he’s burned a lot of calories and the sugar will do him almost as much good as the water. Luke, Danny and Peter wander in just as he’s putting the pitcher back in the fridge, and he only hesitates a second before he holds it up in wordless offer.
“Nah, I’m good,” Luke says and Danny waves him off. Peter looks briefly stricken then shakes his head.
Steve is almost certain the younger man had meant to ask for some, then panicked at the idea of asking Steve for a glass of ice tea, as if he’d crumple into a heap at having to do something. The urge to roll his eyes is strong, but he settles for putting the pitcher away and then standing beside it while he drinks his second glass much more slowly, savoring the sweetness and absolutely not smirking at the wistful glance Peter aims at the closed refrigerator door.
“You staying for dinner?” he asks Danny.
The martial artist is lounging against the breakfast bar while Luke digs an impressive amount of hamburger buns and condiments out of the pantry. “Assuming anyone manages to get the grill going without setting themselves on fire first,” Danny says with wry amusement and Luke snorts.
“Are you coming?” Peter asks. “Everyone would be happy to see you.”
He pretends he doesn’t see the way Danny digs his elbow into Peter’s ribs, or the exasperated glance Luke aims at both of them. “Yeah, probably. Tell Thor to throw on a couple of burgers for me.” He knocks back the rest of the tea the same way he used to knock back whiskey shots with the Howling Commandos. “I’m gonna grab a shower.”
He appreciates Peter’s concern but he’s so damn tired of it. So tired of people asking him how he is, or being happy that he’s doing all right. He’s so tired of being made to feel responsible for other people’s feelings.
He’s not okay, he’s not fine, but he’s here and he’s going to still be here tomorrow. Steve Rogers is very, very good at surviving, whether he likes it or not.
He can’t tell them that though, because it would just make them worry more than they already do and that’s the last thing he needs. He doesn’t have the energy to be okay anymore and he’s running out of energy to fake it.
Natasha doesn’t look up as he walks back through the living room toward the stairs. “Cap. If you’re not up for burgers after a long run like that I’ll make sure we save a couple in the fridge for you.”
The rush of gratitude the washes over him is almost overwhelming and for a moment he pauses at the foot of the stairs, his face warm and his eyes burning. Sometimes he thinks Natasha understands what he needs more than the teammates he’s known for ten years. Maybe she does – there’s still so much of her past he doesn’t know. Natasha very well may understand what it’s like to carry grief around for so long that you don’t even notice when it starts to drown you. Or maybe she just doesn’t give a shit as long as he gets the job done on the battlefield.
“I’ll be down in a little while,” he says finally. “Save me a beer?”
She smiles and wiggles her fingers at him. “Go, you’re stinking up the entire mansion.”
He closes the bedroom door firmly behind him and strips out of his workout clothes. They’ve started drying to him like a second skin and he grimaces slightly as he peels them loose. He takes longer in the shower than he probably needs to, but the hot water feels good on his skin and he just lets himself breathe for a long time until the nascent headache he can feel lurking behind his eyes slowly recedes.
He uses Tony’s electric razor and runs his fingers through his hair. He checks his phones while he dresses – the brand-new StarkPhone that he uses for SHIELD and Avengers business, and the slightly older StarkPhone that he uses for civilian purposes. The first phone has nothing for him – he’s on a temporary leave, after all, so that’s not surprising. The second phone has a single voicemail from Tony and Steve stares at the alert for a long moment, running his thumb over Tony’s name on the screen before setting the phone down on his bedside table. He’ll save it for after dinner. Just in case.
And then he finishes dressing and goes downstairs.
He makes himself attend dinner with the team as much as possible, contrary to what Peter had seemed to imply in the kitchen. And if he’s quieter than he used to be, well. He doesn’t know what they want him to say. He can’t work up an opinion on sports or reality television and he doesn’t want to talk about politics or combat strategy over dinner. It’s enough for him to be there with the people who have become his family. And even as he occasionally resents their concern, he knows he’s blessed for it. So he goes to team dinners and pastes on a smile and lies every time someone asks him if he’s okay.
They probably know he’s lying, but so far no one seems to feel the need to call him on it.
Peter and Mary Jane are there, MJ cooing over little Dani Cage while Peter looks enchanted and nervous in turn. Luke and Danny are tossing around a football with Carol and Sam. Jan is lounging by the pool with Jess and Tigra. Thor is barbecuing with great enthusiasm and Clint is sulking, the front of his apron singed black. Everyone is happy to see him and they smile and wave him over and everyone is very, very careful not to ask him how he’s doing.
It’s almost as bad as the constant inquiries into his well being.
He eats his dinner. New burgers appear on his plate almost as fast as he can eat them; Thor saluting him with a spatula and offering him a smile that’s less to do with the impromptu party and more to do with ten long years of friendship. Steve lingers by the poolside and listens to Jan and Jess try to bully Greer into getting a new costume, watching Dani Jones splash around in the shallow end of the pool, wearing so many floaties that there’s a very real possibility she may just float away with the next heavy gust of wind.
He suddenly remembers the time he went down to the workshop to find Tony wearing nothing but a bright orange inner-tube and a smile, and has to look away for a moment.
There’s a touch on his arm, gentle enough not to startle him and suddenly Pepper Potts is there.
She smiles up at him and her eyes are as bright as they ever were, but there are dark shadows there and the lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes aren’t from laughter. She’s dressed for work in a suit so black it could be obsidian and a bright green blouse. There are emeralds at her ears and throat. The hand on his arm is her left, and he can see that she’s still wearing her wedding ring.
He covers her hand with his and she smiles at him. “Hey.”
“Dinner?” he offers. They both glance toward the grill, where Clint and Logan have taken over from Thor and the flames are starting to get out of control.
“I just came by to see Jarvis,” she says. “I’ll grab something when I get home. I was wondering if you had a moment?”
And he’s been ready to leave for a while now, forcing himself to linger with the team and be there even if he can’t work up the energy for a conversation. He doesn’t want to talk to Pepper, or anyone else, but he promised himself he’d be there for her if she needed him so he dumps his plate on the table by the grill and follows her.
She takes his arm as they walk across the lawn and up the stairs. “I just wanted to see how you were doing,” she says finally as the noise of the party fades behind them.
The mansion is mostly lit up, despite nearly everyone being outside. It looks bright and welcoming and like home, and Steve loves it here. This is the home he never thought he’d have after waking up from the ice, the family he’d never imagined he’d have after losing his mother and Bucky and outliving Peggy and the Commandos. He’s never been as happy anywhere else as he had been in this place. That makes it even worse when he walks through the door and has to stop himself from calling out for Tony.
He takes a deep breath and reminds himself of the voicemail waiting for him upstairs. “I’ve been better,” he says finally, because he can be honest with her in a way he doesn’t think he can with the others. “But I’m managing.”
She pats his arm and smiles, but it’s a tired sort of smile. “I think managing is all anyone can ask of you right now.”
“How have you been?” he asks, because he’s not so caught up in his own problems that he can’t care about hers.
She shrugs. “The days aren’t as long as they were in the beginning.”
“Some days are longer than others. Everyone – they mean well. But I can tell they’re wondering when I’m going to get better and-”
“Sometimes you don’t get better,” Pepper finishes the sentence for him. She takes a deep breath and her eyes are wet. She leans her head against Steve’s shoulder as they stand in the kitchen.
Steve understands that. Pain can be like a tree – if you cut it, the tree can heal around the gash, grow strong and tall and often the mark will eventually disappear, or else grow so high on the tree that it can no longer be seen.
Steve isn’t a tree. Steve is a rock – he always has been. If you chip a rock, it stays that way. The edges may dull, but they never heal, the broken part never grows back and the wound stays to be seen. Steve feels like he’s nothing but broken edges in various degree of dullness. His ma is mostly worn away, a quiet ache, more sadness than grief. The Commandos are the same. Peggy is a little deeper, and Bucky’s has barely begun to wear down. And now – He feels like this particular blow may have been the last one he can take before the rock shatters entirely, too scarred and chipped away to stand up to one more heavy blow.
Pepper stirs eventually, leans in to press a kiss to his cheek. “You call me if the days get too long,” she says sternly. Talking to him hurts her, he can tell by the tightness in her voice, but her words are sincere. He understands. It hurts to see her, too, but it’s a sweet pain.
He stands in the kitchen for a long time after the sound of her heels clicking against the floors has faded away and the front door has shut behind her. He looks out at the yard, at his team, his family, and debates going back to join them.
He goes upstairs.
It’s nearly nine o'clock, which is not unreasonably early when Steve can’t quite break the habit of getting up at six in the morning. He kicks off his shoes and sheds his jeans, tossing them over the chair by the dresser. He brushes his teeth without looking in the mirror – he knows his eyes have just as many circles as Pepper’s, that laughter has nothing to do with the lines around his own mouth.
He turns down the lights and grabs his phone – the personal one – as he makes his way to the bed. The sheets are a dark crimson red, the bedspread a shimmery silver. Steve had rolled his eyes the first time he saw it, teased Tony shamelessly, but Steve is grateful for the way the sheets slide against his skin, the way the comforter is a weight on top of him without smothering him. He can’t bring himself to use something less extravagant, even when he sleeps alone.
Not when he can still remember how Tony looked, curled up beneath that comforter and smiling at Steve first thing in the morning.
He dials his voicemail and turns on the speakerphone, lays the phone on the pillow next to his head. He closes his eyes and images the light from the phone is the same blue-white light of the arc reactor.
Hey babe, Tony says. Guess I missed you. There’s a crisis at one of the factories in Japan, so I’m heading for the airport. I’ll be back tomorrow unless this actually is a crisis, which I sincerely doubt. I’ll call you from the plane, okay? Be safe, Steve. I love you. I’ll see you soon.
It occurs to Steve, the idle sort of thought that floats through your mind and fades almost instantly, that he has no idea if it had been a crisis or not. In all the panic and confusion, he hadn’t even heard Tony’s voicemail until hours after the car accident that had killed him and Happy Hogan just a few blocks from Avengers Mansion.
He closes his eyes. Feels the silk sheets and smells Tony’s aftershave still on the pillows. Tries to pretend that Tony’s in Japan even though he knows it isn’t smart or healthy, that it’ll just hurt even more when he has to wake up tomorrow to a world where Tony is never coming back.
The phone goes dark. Without opening his eyes, Steve dials into his voicemail and plays the message again, listens to Tony tell him he was loved and the sobs come deep and painful.
In the morning his alarm goes off and he rolls out of bed to turn it off. He takes his phone and dials into voicemail. He doesn’t listen to the message, but he marks it as new and watches the alert pop up on his screen.
New voicemail (1)
He puts the phone away carefully where it can’t get dropped or knocked over, where he can check it later and listen to Tony’s voice one more time.
Then he gets ready for his run.