It's four months, give or take, when they meet each other again. A warm Sunday in Wakanda. Steve has bought his regular bagel and is going to his favorite bench in the main park. He sits, starts on the bagel when a man in a hoodie sits on his right.
"Nice weather in Central Wakanda, a little humid but -" Steve recognizes the voice immediately
"In very flesh. So, are the others somewhere close by? Please if you'd be so kind, tell them I come in peace." Tony gesticulates with his hands at the last part. Steve almost laughs, until he remembers.
"You're sorry, you never wanted any of it to happen, I know. I'm not here to guilt trip you," he says, turning and looking at Steve seriously.
"Why are you here?" Steve says, hoping nothing bad has happened back in the States.
"I needed a vacay," Tony says simply. "How's the rest of the team? Everyone still hate me? Do you all live here now, is Clint back in the States with his family?" Tony Stark, ever masterful at changing the subject.
"They're alright, Tony. Bucky is here too. He's -
Tony looks at him then, something feral flashes in his eyes momentarily but then he's back to his composed Stark self. "I... I still have problems accepting... What I want to say is, I know it wasn't his fault, he was brainwashed, turned into something terrible, inhuman. But I loved her, Steve. I... loved my mom. And when I saw that video, heard her cries in those final moments, her final moments... Something in me just broke." He shakes his head, as if Steve can't understand.
"He decided to go into a cryonic chamber. Bucky, I mean." Steve says softly. "He couldn't trust his own mind. T'Challa made the arrangements and now he's on ice, sleeping."
Tony is looking at him, mouth slightly opened. Steve knows what he's thinking, You let him do that?
"It was his choice," Steve shrugs. "I am going to find a way to have his mind restored to him. Maybe for now this is for the best." He is not looking at Tony, and he knows Tony knows why.
"Maybe," Tony says mercifully, sighing softly.
They sit there, quiet for a moment, Tony waiting for him to speak, Steve not wanting to break the silence. Until he remembers that Tony asked about Clint, and the others.
"Clint is with his family. They had to arrange another safe house, he's been annoying me with stories of home improvement. You know, because he-"
"-had to start all over again," Tony says chuckling. "It's good for him to have his hands busy."
"He doesn't hate you, Tony."
"Yeah?" Tony asks, disbelief written on his face, mixed with hope.
"You should have seen his first couple of letters, Laura was really angry. He was in the dog house for two weeks, in his words, it was worse than prison. But they patched it up. Or they will, once he finishes making it up to her." Steve smiles to himself, remembering. He continues: "He was just really scared of Laura's reaction when he said you were a backstabber. I'm sure in time..."
"Yeah, maybe," Tony says, it doesn't seem like he doesn't believe it, so Steve decides to drop that subject.
"And Rhodey?" he says, honestly curious. He has heard about his attempts to learn to walk again from Wanda, who shares some kind of a weird telepathic bond with Vision, but not in much detail.
"He's... brave. And working hard at getting fully back to his annoying self. He'll get there. If anyone will, it's going to be Rhodey." A small smile of pride appears on Tony's face, lighting it up for a second. Steve feels a painful tightness in his chest for that same second.
"Sam never wanted that to happen," Steve says, looking into Tony's eyes, searching them for traces of forgiveness.
"I know," Tony says, nodding slightly. "Nobody wanted any of it to happen. But it did happen. Now we have to live with it."
He turns away, some bird or a tree in the distance catches his attention.
There it is, another uncomfortable silence, broken by a rustle of nearby shrubbery leaves and an occasional bird screech. Black-headed Oriole, Steve recognizes the now very familiar annoyance. In spite of himself, he sighs. Tony, hearing it, turns to him again but doesn't say anything. He is looking at Steve's face and then at his hands, at fingers steepled on Steve's lap. He opens his mouth as if to say something then closes it, choosing instead to turn his head away slightly. Another minute passes.
"So, would you ever have told me?" Tony asks, not looking at him. Steve knows a rhetorical question when he hears one. He says nothing.
"No, of course not, why am I even asking. And you knew I'd never notice anything. When do I really?" Tony laughs depreciatingly, Steve's forearms feel numb. Damn it Tony, he thinks. He wants to shake him.
"And I didn't notice. Not when you dug your heels extra deep into the ground to defend your stance, because I thought that was your stubbornness at work. Not before, or after..." Tony pauses, slightly inclining his head toward Steve but still not looking at him. "For how long, Steve?" he asks in a small voice, like he's asking how long until they all die. "No, scratch that, I don't want to know."
"It wasn't your problem," Steve says, his barely audible voice surprisingly rough. An effect of Wakandan humidity probably.
"You know," Tony pretends he didn't hear him, continues talking, " - when I did notice?" Another question without an answer, because Steve doesn't. He was hoping Tony never would catch on. With time, Steve thought, he would forget all about it, isn't that what they say? Time fixes things? And something about fish? Steve remains silent.
"When you were about to kill me. That's when." Steve turns his head sharply, anger welling up within him, how could Tony ever...
"Oh no," Tony continues, not noticing Steve's look, or pretending not to. "I don't think that now, but I did then. I thought you were about to decapitate me. Not that I would've held it against you, it was that kind of a moment. I was angry, you were trying to stop me, only natural." Tony shrugs.
"I'd never have..." Steve starts.
"No, I know, I didn't then but I do now." Tony is sighing again. "It was the look in your eyes in that split second. It looked as if... as if you were taking care of me, and you always would. Only, just then, it involved jamming your shield into my arc reactor. It hit me in that moment. In some ways, it never stopped hitting me. I was so blind..."
Steve hasn't got a clue where all of this is going, he's feeling between relieved it's out in the open and angry that he had let his mask slip, even in that extremely difficult moment.
"I really did think you didn't deserve the shield, don't get me wrong. I was really angry at you, monumentally angry, Steve. But when I asked you to leave it I was also buying time. Because I knew you wouldn't come back for me, or any other reason I could think of at that moment, but your shield... It occurred to me it was the only way to ensure we'd see each other again. You would come back for it sooner or later."
"Maybe," Steve says, lost for words.
"Some time later," Tony continues, "when the dust settled, I'd imagine you attempting to steal it back. I had it in my safe, the one for which you don't know the code. I'd think up scenarios, you managing to steal it without even coming to see me, or leaving a note. I'd check that safe every day, hoping, in a way. Then I imagined taking it out and putting it somewhere you can't possibly avoid confronting me. In my lab, somewhere visible, the farthest from the exits. I thought about setting up some traps even, like in Pink Panther... He was a cat burglar?"
"Tony, I'm not sure..." Steve starts, wondering where all this is going, a fear that maybe that's why Tony is here, to set up a trap, rising up inside him. That would be catastrophic.
"Please, let me finish," Tony, for the first time since he told Steve he knows, looks straight at him, into his eyes. Steve detects no hatred, if he were a sap he'd say it's quite the opposite, because something in Tony's dark-eyed gaze instantaneously turns his insides heavy. But just as he tries to read the look in his eyes, Tony turns away again.
"Later still," he continues, "I'd imagine putting your shield above my bed. You checking every other room for it until it finally clicked. Me, sleeping possibly, or pretending to when I hear you enter. I see you at my door and I get up, grabbing my robe to cover myself -somehow I'd always be half naked in those thoughts of mine, until I put on my best robe, one you'd like and maybe even be jealous of. I have a dozen of them so I'd just sort of rotate them in these fantasies..." Tony makes a small motion with his pointing fingers at that. Steve feels as if there's a string connected to his insides and those fingers are pulling at it. "Anyway, I would get up and you would look at me, your eyes blown wide, the definition of color blue. I'd lose myself in them for just a second, something I felt more than entitled to after everything, not more though. I would look at you... Imperiously? I guess that's the right word. And you, you wouldn't say anything, you'd slowly walk up to me, your eyes traveling between the shield and me, and then, holding onto my gaze only, like you've forgotten what you actually came there for, you would fall down to your knees..." Tony momentarily drifts away, seemingly lost in his thoughts.
"I'm not much of a Catholic nowadays," Steve mumbles, because really, what can he say to this? And he'd lie if he said he doesn't want to hear more.
Tony hears him and chuckles, says in a voice thick with something Steve doesn't recognize, but something tells him he'd love to: "Oh, I'd count on that."
Steve can hear his heart thumping, he can't stop himself from seeing the scenario in his head, as clear as day. Tony has gone quiet. Seems like he's just enjoying the view, but his hands are resting on each side of his body, when before they were in his lap. Steve feels stupid, he feels selfish, and that's why he lowers his right hand to where Tony's left is resting on the bench. He tells himself it won't mean anything if Tony takes his hand away, but he knows better. The outer edges of their palms are barely touching, but he can feel the warmth of Tony's hand, it travels through him, or he imagines it does. He draws a perfect breath. Tony doesn't remove his hand, instead, he brings it incrementally closer to Steve's. So warm, Steve thinks. But he doesn't do anything else. For a minute or two, or ten, they're both content sitting there, almost holding hands.
Until suddenly, Tony gets up, taking his hand away. Steve knows what that means, Tony is about to leave. Steve gets up too, steeling himself for that "Goodbye," coupled with a formal handshake.
"I must go now," Tony says with an entirely artificial cheer, "Things to see, people to do, you know." He smiles but it doesn't reach his eyes. Steve knows because he's looking straight into, no, he's drowning in them. Just as well if this is their real, final goodbye. "It was great doing business with you, Captain Rogers," he says, and there's that extended hand. Steve looks at it first then slowly takes it into his own. Takes his time to just feel the weight of it, learn the skin where it touches his own. His heart is about to give out, he wants... He can hear himself say "Likewise," or something. He looks into Tony's eyes again and there's a small smile there, but he can't think on it for too long because Tony pulls him in and in a moment their lips are touching, Tony's left hand is suddenly somewhere under his left shoulder blade, so so warm, Steve mirrors the movement, sneaking his own left hand up Tony's spine.
The kiss is just right, slow, Tony's lips opening his, Steve's tongue sweeping out a little, just a taste. The rightest, he thinks, laughing at himself. He's giddy, relieved, and a little scared all at once. Tony pulls back, red-lipped, but their right hands are still connected in something mocking a handshake. Tony raises them to his lips, kisses a knuckle on Steve's hand, his gaze trained on Steve, who hopes his eyes are conveying what he can never, doesn't feel he has a right to, say out loud, "Don't leave, Tony. Stay."
Tony releases his hand, turns on his heel. That's it, Steve thinks, and it serves him right. But then he can hear Tony's voice again. "You know where your old girl is, Rogers," he says. "You are fully entitled to try and rescue her." Steve can't see his face but he can hear something akin to a smile in his voice.
"Hey, Stark," Steve calls. Tony doesn't stop or turn around, but his steps are slow anyway. "Is the kneeling part non-negotiable?"
He can hear Tony's breathy laughter as he says: "We'll figure something out!"
Steve is not sure if he should take Tony's parting words as a promise or a threat of the best kind. He can't wait to find out.