Strangely, or not so strangely, Steve is the one to call first.
“Tony,” is all he says, low and throaty and oh so raspy.
Tony says nothing. Not because he has nothing to say, but because he has too much. And maybe, for once, Steve should be the one talking.
Steve doesn’t say anything for a while. Dead air hangs between them, miles and miles that Tony doesn’t exactly know, but he seems to feel every single one of them.
A swallow comes from the other end of the line. “You there?”
“I’m here.” He doesn’t say anything else.
After a few more moments, Steve tells him an address. He somehow has a pen in his hand and is scribbling it down without even making the decision to.
“I’ll be here. For a little while at least. If you’ll see me.”
Tony nods, hangs up, and remembers that Steve can’t actually see him.
He takes his time to mull it over. There’s no reason to rush. If Steve really wants to see him, he’ll wait.
“Somethin’s eatin’ you, man,” Rhodey huffs from where he’s lying on his back, doing his leg lift exercises. Tony is sitting near his head, acting as his spotter. There’s a physiotherapy specialist that comes to the compound every morning for two hours, the best Tony could find in the country, but Rhodey is insistent that he keeps working at it even after Carmen leaves. So Tony helps Rhodey totter around the gym area that has only just been fixed after Clint and Vision were squabbling over Wanda. The dull hum of a cement mixer comes through the air from beyond several layers of plastic sheeting. Low-impact water exercises could help re-gain mobility without putting unnecessary pressure on the lower body, so Tony ordered a series of pools to be put in. He’s been watching videos about water aerobics.
His labs and offices are dark. Covered in dust. Outside of working on Rhodey’s braces, and investigating how to accommodate partial paralysis into the War Machine, he can’t bear to pick up a screwdriver.
“Isn’t there always?” Tony mutters, shifting on the yoga mat.
“That’s one hell of an understatement,” Rhodey puffs, the tendons in his neck pulling taunt.
There’s only three of them here. Vision drifts around rather listlessly, his childlike obsession with learning about the world gone. Rhodey has thrown himself into his recovery regimen with gusto, and Tony follows him around, helping where he can, which is a lot. He has a newfound respect for all that Rhodey did to take care of him in college. He never thought he’d be helping Rhodey with bathing. It was always the other way around.
Ross had shown up weeks ago, blowing steam from both nostrils, demanding to know what had happened on the Raft. Tony had simply given him access to the security nodes for the past several days, showing that the three of them had not left the compound once. He had then demanded to know the whereabouts of Natasha and Peter, to which Tony responded “You try tracking a Russian spy” and “Blow it out your ass.” Ross had stormed out, and Tony went back to helping Rhodey totter around. The order to ground the Avengers until further notice was tacked onto the fridge with the butterfly magnets that Vision had accidentally ordered five hundred of.
The Raft had been breached. Which was disappointing apparently. No pet superheroes for Ross to play with anymore.
A large-scale electrical failure had occurred. Oddly. It left only the most necessary of the life support systems on. Someone had waltzed in, knocked all the guards unconscious, and had simply smashed the cell doors open. The only remnant that anyone had even been there was the shredded remains of a straightjacket and a mangled collar.
He didn’t know where they were. Some part of him said Natasha had joined them, but another disagreed. But it wouldn’t be like he would be trusted with that information.
Rhodey finishes his hundredth rep and relaxes into his mat. He gulps down mouthfuls of water as Tony fetches a cool towel and ice packs. Rhodey dabs at the perspiration beaded on his forehead while Tony straps the bags filled with blue gel in place.
“Tones.” He looks up, and Rhodey is giving him that fathomless X-ray stare. “You don’t have to do this.”
The harsh crack of Velcro rips through the air. “Yes, I do.”
Rhodey rolls his eyes. “Man, you’re supposed to be assembling a new team, not following me around like a duckling.”
He frowns. “I’m not a duckling,” he mutters.
“Have you seen a sad duckling? ‘Cause I have, and the first thing I thought was ‘Oh my God, this pathetic thing, look at it, all it needs is affection – ‘”
“I get it.”
“‘And they imprint on the first person to show them any affection, mm-hm, okay, not at all like Tony Stark – ‘”
“What I’m saying is, Duckling, is that I got this. I’m not the first guy I’ve known that’s gotten hit in battle. It sucks, but it happens.” He shrugs, then winces at the suddenness of the movement. “Does no use moping about. The attitude in military hospitals is almost always ‘well, bye legs, nice knowing you, now let’s get back to work’. Yeah, these things are traumatic. Yeah, it scars beyond the physical. But Tones,” Rhodey reaches out and taps him on the bicep with a closed fist. “I’m a damn sight better than you are.”
Tony picks at the frayed hem of his sweatpants. “What are you suggesting?”
“That you take some time to work on you. We’re all grounded until they tell us otherwise – “
“That’s why I need to work on assembling a new team. They won’t let us back in the air until they approve – “
“Then why are you bumming with me?”
Tony snorts at Rhodey’s raised eyebrows. “It’s not bumming. C’mon. I need you, buddy. I need a left hand that I can rely on. And you’re the only person I can trust to be that hand.”
Rhodey thunks the empty water bottle on the floor. “That’s the thing. I can’t be the left hand if there’s no team for you to head. And you can’t head a team if you don’t have your head straight.” He reaches us and fluffs Tony’s hair.
“Okay,” he concedes. He’ll drop it, for now. Rhodey will bring it up again. He always does. “Hungry?”
“Not if you’re gonna try and feed me that fuckin’ chlorophyll.”
They get the leg braces on, and take the stairs slowly.
The main living space is dark, and no matter the temperature, always feels cold. Vision is sitting, posed like the Thinker, flicking through YouTube videos. He remembers seeing him do it on many of his visits, asking Wanda what they should watch next. There was some sort of happiness in him. Now it’s just brooding. Tony catches a few lines of the song he’s playing: “ – got a place to stay? Why should I care when I’m just tryin’ to get along? We were friends, but now it’s the end of our love song.”
“Vision? Little help here?”
The quiet purr of the engine dies as Tony cuts the power. He sits for a moment, hands clenched at either side of the steering wheel. At three and nine. He’d always been taught ten and two, but it never stuck.
With a sigh, he pops open the door, pausing only to snatch up the small black overnight bag in the passenger seat next to him. He shuts the door quietly, and takes in his surroundings. It’s the site of a small rustic cabin, located high on a ledge above him. There’s one other vehicle in the driveway, a nondescript navy SUV. He doesn’t run the plates, but knows they’d either come up false or stolen.
Not even remotely wheelchair accessible, he notes as he mounts the steep stairs cut into the ground, with warped wooden treads.
“Nice digs,” Tony calls out.
Steve looks up from where he’s hunched over on the picnic table. The wood was painted red at one point, but sun exposure has bleached it to make it oranger and clay-colored. There’s some sort of book in Steve’s hands – looks to be history. Not unusual. Steve’s hair is different, longer and softer, curling a tad at the ends. He needs a haircut. He’s never known Steve to need a haircut.
Steve looks a little off put that Tony was able to sneak up on him, but he shrugs his shoulders cautiously. “Wanted to see the Adirondacks. Heard a lot about them.”
“You never said.” The compound is less than a hundred miles southeast. “You renting the cabin?”
“The season just ended, and I make sure to clean up after myself. No one will ever know,” Steve offers.
“Mm-hm,” Tony intones, looking around. It’s one of the older cabins, tucked up high in the mountains. No views of water, but brown trunks are everywhere. The leaves are tipped in gold. They’re very high up. “Just you?”
Wordless, Steve nods, marking his place as he sets his book aside. Tony spies the title. Moscow, December 25, 1991. “Reading up on the fall of the Soviet?” Steve doesn’t say anything. “Worst Christmas of my life. Had a lot of shitty ones, but that year? Took the fuckin’ cake. Even if I don’t remember much of it.”
Steve just stares at him. He doesn’t stand. He just sits, enormously broad shoulders angled slightly inward, slight pout to his mouth. Steve almost always has a slight pout to his mouth.
“So, how’s Wakanda?”
Steve straightens up. “How did you – “
“You’re not as good at keeping secrets as you might think.”
Steve visibly deflates, stares up at the sky for a moment, before looking down and examining a knot in the wood. “Who else knows?”
“No one. Ross tried to squeeze my balls for it, but I’m not that easy to crack. Everyone doing well, settling in?” There’s venom dripping from his words, but he really, really does not care at this point. Steve hasn’t done anything which warrants sparing his feelings. “Clint enjoying abandoning his family? Wanda happy to be out of her straightjacket? Bucky getting his time in the sun?”
A muscle in Steve’s jaw jumps with every sentence, until the last, to which he whispers “Enough.”
“Everyone’s fine. Scott – “
“Ant-Man misses his daughter. I don’t know what is up with Clint’s family. Sam’s fine. Wanda is still shaken, but she’s recovering.”
“She wouldn’t have needed to be recovering if you hadn’t sent Barton in like some sort of attack dog.”
“Bucky elected to be re-frozen until we can come up with a way to fix his head.”
Half of Tony wants to automatically apologize, while the other half wants to scream in frustration. He sees the desolation on Steve’s face, he can tell it affected him terribly . . . but Tony can’t find it in him to feel sorry for him. There’s a trace of pity, but Steve hasn’t done anything that warrants Tony’s sympathy. Steve doesn’t deserve anything Tony has to give anymore.
“Well, isn’t that nice. He gets a reprieve from the guilt. Where’s mine? Where’s yours? Or do you have any guilt, Rogers?”
Steve’s knuckles are white, and if anything were clenched in them, it would undoubtedly be dust by now. He knows what he’s doing, he knows what he’s saying. He knows he probably shouldn’t. But for once, he just wants to have the freedom to burn everything. It’s been his job to preserve, to clean up, to repair, to fix. The sour, stinging center of him just wants to be expulsive like he used to be, to blow everything up and leave it behind for everyone else. He wants to rip Steve to shreds, because Steve doesn’t care that he ripped Tony to shreds.
Maybe he can’t burn everything, but maybe he can burn the man who left him the smoldering shell of what they’d built.
“He asked to be put on ice until the time comes when we can cure his brainwashing.”
A part of him feels bad that Steve can be so deluded.
“You need to drop the history books and pick up a decent psychology text. There is no cure. Not for your head. A brain isn’t something you can fix. It’s not a machine. Trust me. Machines are so much easier. There are ways to break reinforced reactions and other things, but what do either of you expect? That he’ll forget everything? That he’ll miraculously revert back to be exactly the same as your old buddy? The most you can hope for is to find a way to override the override, and time to come to terms with everything that has happened. But if you think that ‘getting him back’ means getting the guy you knew back in the forties, you’re sorely mistaken.”
“There’s hope – “
“For what?” Tony cackles slightly as he plops down across from him. “Freezing him just prolongs it. When he wakes up? Everything will still be the same in his head. It takes years to recover from mindfuckery like that.”
“Going to a therapist isn’t going to cut it – “
“Never said it would. But it’s not a switch, don’t you get it? There will never be a way to go into someone’s head and scrub something out. And if there was, don’t you think it would end up being used more to make people more like your buddy, and not to help people like him?”
Steve looks almost pathetic. Hopeless. Despondent. But Tony isn’t required to be the bigger person. He’s tried it.
“I think I get it. This isn’t about Bucky. You think if you bring him back, you’ll be able to go back. You’re self-centered enough to think that – “
Steve slams his fists on the table, making the warped boards shutter and clang against the bolts holding them down. Tony stands firm.
“Why did you do it? Why? We spent so much time, energy . . . . We were building a new world. A new life. Together. And then you blew everything we built . . . everything we built together, you – you blew it all to hell. For one guy. Why?”
Tony can see the righteous indignation seep out, leaving only the empty mass of wounds that remain of the man who had died seventy-one years ago. He lowers himself back onto the bench, it creaking and settling like old bones.
Steve sighs heavily, then speaks like he’d rehearsed it for hours trying to convince himself. “The Avengers are your family – “
“Where are they then?” Tony roars. He breathes, once, twice, before continuing. “I don’t know what family you’re talking about. All I have is my partially paralyzed best buddy and a confused android. The Avengers? What, that group of freaks Fury pushed together in a desperate attempt to save the world? There were six of us at the start, if you remember. Where are they? Let’s see. One is traversing the galaxy, trying to get to the bottom of whatever it is that he’s trying to get to the bottom of. One decided to disappear into thin air, and we have no idea if he’s alive or dead. One skipped out voluntarily, without a trace. One retired, then came out of retirement just to disappear, leaving his wife to ask me where he went. Two new recruits also disappeared, but hey, I didn’t really know them that well. There’s some guy who talks to ants, apparently, but he disappeared too. And then there’s you – “ Tony pauses and sweeps his hand through the air, gesturing at the man sitting in front of him. “And we both know you’ll disappear again as soon as we’re done here. Family? Well, yes, actually. My only experience with family is it being snatched from me.”
Steve bites his lip. “I thought . . . you don’t have anyone in the pipeline?”
Tony considers the manila folders stacked high on his desk. “A few candidates. Maybe.”
“What about . . . Spider-Man?”
“He’s still in high school, and is intent on keeping his identity a secret. He’s on call, if and when we aren’t grounded, but I’m not going to make him drop his life to take up residence in the compound. Been debating on whether or not to move back to the Tower. We’d be closer then, at least.”
His tone is despondent, and he doesn’t care. Because he wants Steve to realize how difficult assembling Avengers is. The initial team proposal had been pretty much just Rhodey and Bruce, though Steve’s arrival on the scene had made the possibility viable. Tony had just been easier to get a hold of, Thor had shown up and Fury took advantage of the situation, and Clint and Natasha had gone along for the ride. Then there was the shake-up following Ultron, but Rhodey, Sam, Wanda, and Vision had all been wrapped up in superhuman affairs in one way or another. But now? Tony has himself and Vision full-time, Peter on the weekends, and Rhodey when he gets to the point where he can operate a suit again. But the four of them are not a team, far from it.
“T’Challa – “
“Has a country to run. And your little Secret Avengers are a lot closer.”
Mild panic crosses Steve’s face. “How did you – “
Tony snorts humorously. “What, is that actually what you’re calling yourselves? More uncreative than I thought.” Steve frowns, but Tony plows on. He reaches into the bag, pulling out a flat expanse of metal and plastic the size and shape of a standard notebook. “Do you trust me?”
“Tony – “
“‘Cause I have more of a reason not to trust you, if we’re being honest.”
Steve squeezes his eyes closed. “I trust you,” he says, very quietly.
Tony wants to ask him to say it louder, but he passes the device across the table. “Best GPS scrambling available. No one can trace this unless you let them. That includes me. I don’t want the key. But with this, I can forward you information. Stuff I maybe shouldn’t have, stuff I shouldn’t know. Stuff maybe I’m not allowed to interfere with. But stuff that might be . . . interesting to you. Got it?”
Steve nods his affirmative, then bites his lip. “Are you . . . going to keep the phone?”
“Let’s see . . . am I going to keep the cheap-ass burner phone from 2004 that is, frankly, an unencrypted security nightmare and is a gargantuan pain in the ass to charge? Yes, I’m going to keep the phone.”
A bit of the tension leaves Steve’s shoulders. “Good. I’ll put this to use.” He taps a finger on the edge of the device. He breathes deeply. “But that’s not what I called you here for.”
Steve is staring at his fingers, tracing the lines.
“I messed up.”
“Did you now.”
Steve lets Tony lash out. “I didn’t have any time to process the Accords. Ross brought them to us only three days before we were expected to sign them. And you had a part in helping them write them, and just expected us to take your decision as the best – “
“A) Yes, I helped write them, but you didn’t see the first draft. They could have been so much worse. And B) there was never any choice. It was sign them or stop hero work. The UN isn’t the League of Nations. The US can’t just do what it wants anymore. We’re a big, powerful country, but we’re not the only one. Every nation deserves to have its sovereignty recognized. I’ll admit, we all played a part in setting the precedence. But we could never operate solely on goodwill forever. Yes, we saved the world from disaster. Multiple times. But you can’t tell people that they should just be grateful for us saving their asses. The way the world is now . . . if a major crisis is averted, attention quickly shifts to the collateral. Our job is messy. But people nowadays . . . they take a lot for granted. If we didn’t do what we do, we’d be called out for not doing our duty. We can never win.”
“I’m beginning to recognize that. But not everything about the modern world’s way of handling things is right.”
“Never said it was. It is, in a sense, completely fucked up.” He pauses to let Steve have his little laugh. “But if we want to change it, we have to play along for a while. We gave to sit through boring meetings and wheel and deal with unsavory characters. It sucks. But we can’t just say ‘no’ anymore. It’s not yes or no, black or white, up or down. The world is grayscale. Everything happens in degrees. And everything is up for interpretation. Twisted, more like. Something sane and reasonable can snowball into the bane of humanity very quickly.”
“And the more people cling to an idea, the more extreme it gets. The more it is challenged, the lengths people will go to defend it will get longer. The less amenable they become to compromise. The less willing they are to explaining things. Yes, I am talking about myself here. A bit.”
“At least you’re owning up to that. And it doesn’t take much to spin the narrative either.”
“We can’t win. You’re right.”
Tony leans back, and decides he should give Steve a chance. To explain himself. “Maybe you should make me understand your position.”
Steve straightens his shoulders, shifting in position into something a bit more formal. Tony becomes aware of the expanse of table between him. Not like a desk, which sitting on one side gives one more power of the other. But instead a conference table of equal individuals, each with their own distinct passion and belief, facing each other.
“I can’t support something I don’t support one hundred percent. There’s all this talk of compromise, but you’re not allowed to make a stand anymore. But maybe someone should.”
“Maybe. But you can’t tell people that you know what’s best for them. You can’t decide that you know better. It’s a slippery slope from well-meaning into tyranny.”
Steve blinks, the he can’t comprehend that happening. “Not us. None of us would ever fall into that. We’re good people. I could never believe that any of us would even think that.”
“That’s the thing, Cap. You’re the idealist. You have to be. But someone has to be a realist.”
“I thought it was futurist?” Steve offers with a tiny smile.
“They’re not mutually exclusive. And idealism is not mutually exclusive with delusion.”
“I deserve that.” A strange expression crosses Steve’s face. It takes a moment for Tony to place it, because he’s never seen Steve so openly display the emotion before: guilt. Empathy wells within Tony. Not enough to give Steve a completely clean break, no, he deserves to be called out. But Tony knows a thing or two about being harder on yourself than you will ever let any other person see.
“You wrote, in that letter, that you hoped that someday I would understand. I still don’t understand. But you can make me understand.”
Steve’s fingers tap impatiently on the table. “There was no time. I didn’t have any time to make a well thought-out decision. It – the Accords were stuffed in our faces, I was against the idea from the start. But they gave us three days. Three days to read something which we would have to abide by immediately. But – and I’m not excusing myself – I got word that Peggy had . . . . And I just . . . couldn’t think. Wouldn’t think. I felt, at that time, that staying away from the UN, from the meeting . . . . Maybe I would take my time to study them, and draw up a list of concerns, before heading to a meeting with that. Take a break from the Avenging until the situation had been rectified. Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe I’m just telling myself that now. I can’t really remember thinking. Only acting.
“And when Bucky – well, not Bucky – but he was the last piece of the past I had. And they were going after him, and – I couldn’t think. It’s like my brain got deleted. And we were being chased, arrested, broken out, and – I was so focused on Bucky, any traces of judgement were gone. And then I was hovering over you, about to sever your neck. I don’t know how it happened. It just did. It’s no excuse, but – there it is.”
His voice is impossibly small when he asks the final question. The once that dug inside his own brain and has been gnawing away.
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Honestly? I don’t know. I didn’t do it to hurt you. I guess I wanted to protect you from it. And I didn’t want you to hate me.”
“I don’t hate you. I hate a lot of things you’ve done, but I can’t find it in myself to hate you. Trust me, I’ve tried. I wanted to hate you. So much. But I can’t.”
“I intended to sit you down, but . . . the time was just never right. And after a while, it wasn’t very excusable all the time I’d wasted. And to be fair, you would have demanded proof. Of which I had none. Just the heavy implication from Zola. Natasha had as much information as I did. Maybe more. She doesn’t give anything away. But he’s my friend. I should have told you. I know that. But by the time there was any proof . . . we were watching it together.”
His vocal cords seem to be tied in a knot. “I might have helped you more with your search for him.”
Steve’s mouth tightens and he nods shortly. “Hindsight. But the possibility of you helping me wasn’t the reason why I should have told you.”
And then they’ve said everything. Well, not everything, but as much as they can come up with at this time.
Tony wants to say so much. But his thoughts are jumbled, rolling around and jostling each other like bits of broken glass in a kaleidoscope. It’s hard to breathe.
“Well, thank you,” he says awkwardly. Painfully. But leaving in painful and staying is painful. He can’t breathe. “It was good to – “ he waves his hand as he fumbles for a word.
He stands, and Steve stands too. He takes a few steps, past the end of the table. Steve follows.
“Steve – “
Then Steve is standing in front of him, staring him down. A broad hand reaches up, cups his face. It burns, but he cannot flinch away.
“What is it that you need, Tony? Why did you come here?”
Breathing is difficult. His heartrate is up to what are unsafe levels, but no matter how many breathing exercises he tries it won’t help. There are a multitude of solutions, but all but one see impossible to reach without drastically changing the fabric of reality. “I - I need out. Out of my brain. Out of Tony Stark. It’s – it’s like I’m choking. On everything. I – I want out.”
Despite his inabilities at vocalizing what he wants, Steve knows. This is something Steve is familiar with.
He wants to weep at how right it feels to have those arms encircling his ribcage again.
“Tony, I wish – I wish I could go back – take it back – “
“Don’t Steve, I know.”
“No, no,” Steve grabs Tony’s hands, holding his wrists loosely in a fist. “I didn’t come here – I came here to – “
Tony silences him with his lips. For a moment, it’s furious, and Tony can almost breathe –
Steve breaks away. “I’m sorry, Tony. I’m sorry, truly, and in spite of it I want you to know how much I do lo-“
“Don’t. Don’t tell me that you love me,” he bites through gritted teeth. “Just tell me that you want me.”
“Alright,” Steve breathes back, air hissing along grinding molars.
It’s rough, much rougher than Steve usually is. Not brutal or anything, but like Steve is trying to say something with his body because his mouth can’t remember how.
Maybe it’s because Tony just won’t let him say it.
He’s always been impressed, because goddamn, that serum has the serious side effect of making Captain America into an actual sex machine, but it’s different, now. They never put a name on it. It just . . . happened. They fell into bed, had mind-blowing sex, and aside from Steve making sure that Tony and Pepper were indeed on one of their frequent “breaks”, they never talked about it. It’s wasn’t supposed to be . . . serious, or anything, just a means to an end. The need to be close to someone, but someone who was just as much of a mess, someone who was too emotionally compromised to make something permanent with the other. Relieving stress with someone who understood, someone who was too messed up for anything serious at the moment, someone who could keep a secret.
And Steve was far better at keeping secrets than Tony would have ever believed for a man who made it such a point to advocate for transparency.
And despite their attempts to keep emotions out of it, they . . . well, failed spectacularly.
There was something. Something bigger than the two of them, bigger than the Avengers, bigger than Earth, the Solar system, the galaxy, the Local Group, the Universe. Something that if Tony believed in a divine being would make him think that it was pre-meditated, that in every version of the world, Steve Rogers and Tony Stark would find each other. Carbon fiber strings of fate criss-crossing the layers of the Multiverse, anchoring them to one another through time and space and conflict, and declaring that Captain America and Iron Man were predestined to either save each other or destroy one another in tandem.
But before, it was easier to pretend that there wasn’t anything. It is so much easier to sleep when you’re deluded. But now . . . now they have concrete proof of the power they wield over one another. How the feeling of that vibranium shield cracking the arc reactor casing seemed to permeate his being, shattering every bone and severing every tendon in his body. The sliver of horror in Steve’s eyes and he realized how close he had been to slicing Tony’s heart in two.
Now it’s overwhelming and slightly unbearable, pushing and pulling against one another in sheer desperation, and every thrust reminds Tony of how deeply Steve is already lodged inside of him.
Tony can’t breathe still, but now it’s different, just physical, so he breaks away from Steve’s mouth to gasp. Teeth, tongue, and lips remain in contact with his skin, suckling and biting along the sweaty lines of his throat. There is sweat in his eyes, and it stings as he blinks, but he just groans “Right there” as Steve attaches himself to the rise behind his ear.
And afterward, it’s satisfying, physically, but emotionally? It wreaks him.
They lay in the dark of the small cabin, on musty sheets, an inch of space between them, but it feels like a mile, an ocean. A void of everything that they have done that can’t be crossed. It’s like a bucket of Legos spilled on the floor, and they must pick up every piece individually to avoid cutting tender tissue.
“What do you think – honestly – about why I did what I did? I don’t know myself, I can’t – why do you think –“ Steve cuts himself off, waiting.
And it’s downright cruel. It’s cruel to ask something like that. Because Tony is perceptive. People never made sense the way machines always did. With a machine, there is always a logical reason as to why this or that happens. With enough diagnostic work, the answer can always be found. But people – they’re so much more nuanced and complicated. And he’s had to work at reading people. He’s had to work out how people think and react. And it’s made him better at it than most.
With a piece of machinery, you can try something one hundred times and you will get one result. With a person, you can try something one hundred times and will get one hundred results.
But he’s beyond sparing Steve’s feelings right now.
“You’re lost. You’re floundering. You give off the appearance that you’re solid, but you’re anything but. There’s a saying of being a duck in water – or is it a goose – anyway, you look serene and calm, but beneath the water’s surface, there is a flurry of kicking and paddling. I know you, Steve. Keep on pretending you’re fine by all means, but you’re not here. Not in this time. You seemed like you were getting better. Not settled yet, but you were settling. You were figuring out how to handle the world moving on without you. Then Bucky showed back up on the scene, and you knew he was just as stalled in the past, more so, and you – you regressed. You latched on to the idea of Bucky. You thought that if you brought him back, you could bring yourself back. But you can’t go back. And you can’t expect him to do that for you. You want him to ground you here. But he can’t do that.
“And I can’t do it either. I can’t ground you when I’m not grounded myself. Pepper – “ and he chokes a little bit. “Pepper – on the surface, and what we’ve ‘allowed’ to be our reason for incompatibility is that my superheroing breaks the threshold of the shit she can handle, and we both know that I will never be able to stop in the long term. But that’s just the surface. I – I put everything on her. I told her that she was my world, the one thing I can’t live without, and I meant it. But see, that wasn’t fair. One person can’t be your everything. One person can’t fix everything that’s gone wrong. One person can’t complete you. I need her in my life, and I want her to be a big part of it. But she can’t be everything I need, and it’s unfair to try and make her into that. She can’t be my reason. We all need a reason, for why we do what we do, why we live, why we fight. But a person can’t be a reason. Because they’re a person too. And they have to find their own reasons.
“We have to find ourselves first. There’s a psychological map for development that has different stages for development. Basically, if you can’t pass one stage, you can’t move on in the map successfully. Gaining a sense of self-identity and how we figure into the world comes before we can fully appreciate the complexities of our relationships with others. It has ideal age brackets, but plenty of people are stalled somewhere, or try to skip over a stage. But it’s not healthy. I’ve – I’ve had to do a lot of soul-searching in the past few years. And ever since – ever since I became Iron Man, I got blown back, and I have to figure out who I am again. I still don’t know fully, but . . . I thought I might be getting somewhere, but then the Accords, and . . . .
“I’m still better off than you. I know what’s wrong with me at least. When you know the problem, then – then you can start to figure out what to do. Then you can work on developing yourself.”
“I need to find my reason.”
They are quiet after that. Until Tony just can’t lie there anymore, because Steve’s presence is just unbearable. Steve’s arm automatically snakes out of the sheets to wrap around him and pull him back, but Tony quickly shakes it off. They stare each other down.
“No. You don’t get to have this. If you want something like this . . . .” He doesn’t finish it. He doesn’t know how.
The water in the shower is lukewarm and gritty with sand. It reminds him of the public showers on Cape Cod, and they both make him wonder if he will ever be clean.
He never was to begin with.
The high beams of the floodlights illuminating the grounds reflect off the grass, illuminating the room with a softened glow. He’d had all the bedrooms outfitted with blackout glass, but never engaged it in his own quarters. He’s not scared of the dark, but knowing that if he opens his eyes he’ll be able to see helps him get his fitful sleep.
That eludes him tonight.
There are plenty of nights where he can’t sleep because of how his chest is clenched in a table-mounted vice grip.
There is no way any of the doors in the compound squeak, but something in the air that shifts, he guesses, and his door opens. The footsteps are deliberately loud as they enter the room. Tony’s back is to the doorway, but he can hear every shift, every step, every rustle.
The bed shifts as he sits, removes his shoes, then he stands, shucks his clothing off. The clang of his belt buckle is inhumanly loud. The shift of sheets, and the gust of cold air his Tony’s legs. But he’s already frozen.
Firmly muscled arms loop loosely around Tony’s neck, and a face presses into the base of his skull. It’s like pressing a button. Fat tears spill from his eyes, and can’t stop them. They fit together like a dream, like everything he had always wanted, but no. No. He messed up, he can’t . . . .
“I’m sorry, Tony,” he whispers, voice raw yet light as silk.
A keening sob escapes Tony’s lungs. A hand drifts down, presses over the mass of scar tissue and the plastic of replaced bone. The pressure helps.
After so many years of restless nights, it’s disorienting to wake up well-rested.
The clock says 5:39. A voice breathes in his ear.
“I have to go.”
There’s a pause. A timidness that Tony doesn’t recognize.
“I was going to ask – if I could have my shield back. But I don’t think – I don’t deserve it right now. I need to earn it back.”
Tony nods. Lips press softly against the nape of his neck. Then the bed shifts as he gets out.
Tony presses his face back into the pillow. He has a lot of sleep to make up.