Love is the Funeral Pyre
Love is the funeral pyre
Where the heart must lay
- Hafez, The Gift
For Tony, hatred is a familiar thing.
Killian. Vanko. Wanda. It was all in the eyes; the flintiness, the sharp burn, as if by focusing on him long enough, he would simply just disintegrate and take with him all of their anger; as if by ripping him apart, they could purge themselves and be born anew.
Tony knows hatred. He knows it intimately, has seen it too many times staring back at him from his own face, the faces of others, to be taken off-balance by it.
He just never expected to see it from Steve.
The edge of the shield comes down again, crumpling the faceplate further. F.R.I.D.A.Y is saying something about compromised integrity and concussions, but Tony doesn’t understand. This close, he can see every line of Steve’s face. He can read every inch of blazing hatred—clean, in a way, of any attachment or feelings that ever came before. Tony gets the message around the third time the shield comes battering down on his face, merciless and cruel.
Steve wants to kill him.
No, Steve is trying to kill him. There is a world of difference between intent and action. Something in Tony breaks and washes away at the knowledge. Childhood fondness and memories of Jarvis telling him after one too many punches from Howard, Captain America doesn’t like bullies. Think about what Captain America would say if he knew. And Tony had thought, he had dreamt with all the imagination his five-year-old self could conjure—that red, white, and blue shield raised in his defense; a kind smile. He had nursed within himself a child’s love, born out of neglect and pain, but no less fierce for it.
The faceplate gives at some point, and Tony startles alert at the chill. He wants to tell Steve to stop. He means to. He thinks, somewhere deep inside, that Steve will see his face and remember, remember, remember that they were once friends, that he once lay on the wire so that others could live. But Steve doesn’t give him time, doesn’t seem to care; the shield’s edge gleams and Tony blocks with his gauntlets on instinct, sending the shield into his chest plate, where it lodges itself at least an inch deep.
Dimly, Tony thinks that would have killed me. Later, he’ll wake up screaming to the feeling of that shield cutting bone deep, slicing layers of skin to reach his fragile core. Later, he’ll wake up and dry heave into the toilet from the sensation of having his throat cut, the sound of his esophagus being crushed and his pathetic gurgling as the blood drains from his head. This was something my father made. And how fitting, that everything his father touched and made would hurt him. Obie. SI. The shield. Captain America. And the winner for most traumatized goes to—
The fight drains out of him. Only one of them is fighting to kill, and Tony has always known that he’d give his life for Steve. He just never thought it’d be like this, burnt on the alter of hatred and so release me of my sins. He stays on the ground, bruised and aching, concussed with his eyesight failing, and he watches Steve support Bucky as they walk away.
“You don’t deserve that,” he shouts, voice wavering in the great chasm that has formed between them. “My father made that shield.”
What he doesn’t say: you were supposed to protect me with it; you were supposed to be by my side, always, like how I had imagined when I was young and crying in Jarvis’s arms; you were you were you were we were we were we were
Tony doesn’t know what the feeling is in his chest when Steve drops the shield like it means nothing. Disappointment is too cheap. Grief, maybe, for the Steve Rogers he thought existed but maybe never was. His eyes burn. Loss is like good scotch; it grows in intensity with age and burns just as strongly. And this loss has been forty years in the making.
T’Challa finds him in the same spot, later. He doesn’t ask, and Tony doesn’t say.
Tony breaks every piece of his armor, later. Slowly and methodically, he sets to flame the broken repulsor jets, the cracked chest plate. He saves the faceplate for last, but that, too, eventually becomes smoke. He watches it with tired eyes, his fingers running over his Adam’s apple, his throat dry.
He builds Rhodey prosthetics instead of a new suit. It’s the closest he’s come to building an apology. But Rhodey, who has always known better, who has been by him for years and years, sees right through it and tells him that there is nothing to regret. Tony wants to say the same, but he can’t find the words. He hasn’t told anyone what happened in the old Hydra base. Steve left, is the best he can manage. That he came home with the shield continues to be an open question, and one he intends to leave that way. The memories keep him up at night, the hatred preserved in crystal clarity. Tony doesn’t know if he regrets—pinned by countless deaths on one side and Steve’s unyielding, methodic blows on the other. He is tired. His body aches, long after the doctors say the wounds have healed.
He doesn’t tell Rhodey about the letter either. He folds it up and stores it in his workshop with the flip phone and the shield.
I know I hurt you, Tony. I guess I thought—by not telling you about your parents, I was sparing you, but I can see now I was really sparing myself. I’m sorry. Hopefully one day you can understand.
Tony wonders if Steve even knows, that as he was writing the letter, he was doing it again—sparing himself at Tony’s cost. Apologizing to assuage his own guilt, extending an offer to help to regain his own bearings. Tony wonders if Steve knows about the depth of his own hatred, about how close he came to killing Howard Stark’s son, or if maybe Steve’s mind turned off and simply forgot. Asking for understanding without understanding himself.
It doesn’t matter. Tony knows he will make that call one day, because Steve needs him to. Just like he’ll fix the shield and give that back one day, too. Just like he’ll forgive Bucky eventually, because Steve needs that from him, too.
Years later, Steve still won’t know, won’t be able to see beyond what he’s taken. Tony, screaming himself awake, always deflecting when asked—Afghanistan, Obie, the Portal, Chitauri, Ultron, and back again.
Some things, once done, can never be undone.