In the end, the FedEx package lands on Tony’s doorstep.
The box will eventually rattle with 149 voicemail messages delivered but never heard: too late, too late, always too late. The clamshell rings, shellshocked. Abandoned as the New Avengers compound. Something pure and still screaming, caked with dust before it learned stand on its own feet.
The world wavers. Sizzling hot air reminds Steve of underwater, of drowning-
The streams cool like lava, crusted while details shift molten. Steve looks down, still gasping wet; the sight before him recalls choking all over again. His uniform’s on but it’s all wrong, the colors too bright and flat. Where his body meets the rest of the world inky and crisp.
“If we call Tony-”
“No, he won’t believe us.” Sam says what he says, every time. For some reason Steve knows this as fact, and it makes him sick to his stomach.
“Even if he did-”
“Who knows if the Accords would let him help.”
Frustration itches under Steve’s skin. He knows he sounds petulant, like a spoilt child who didn’t get his way. That doesn’t keep the hurt out of his voice. “You don’t know that.”
“And you do? Don’t be irrational, he signed it and handed over his free will to Satan- I mean, Secretary Ross.”
“This is…” Steve shakes his head, suddenly dizzy. He can’t see the whites of Sam’s eyes. “This is wrong. Sam, we can’t dismiss reasoning with Tony as out of hand. If the call goes south, fine. But something tells me it won’t.” He knows Tony. Just because they don’t always get along doesn’t mean he’s ever stopped learning the man.
And if he’s spent any amount of time with Tony in the last four years, he knows they’re made of the same stuff. Wrought iron blood. Scrappy at heart. Something to prove.
If I see a situation pointed south, I can’t ignore it. Sometimes I wish I could.
No, you don’t
No. I don’t.
He blinks. They’re on the tarmac and Steve clutches the shield, petrified. A pillar of salt. He’s already bracing for the onslaught, he’s been a complete idiot-
Tony’s shucking the armor entirely, vulnerable in the undersuit. Steve reels because no, what, this is the part where they halfheartedly fight-
“I have 48 hours to apprehend you and quite frankly, I don’t see why I should anymore. Tell me everything you know about these Winter Soldiers.”
Steve’s pupils blow open; he’s blooming a thousand times inside, has no idea where this came from or what he did right this time. His lips are moving of their own free will, they’re shaking hands, off in the quinjet together. It’s like running a movie reel forward, sepia-filtered images morphing into one another. The next thing he knows, the Accords are amended and the Avengers are whole and Bucky’s by his side again, awake, laughing at something Sam did.
He blinks. It’s some kind of ceremony, the blurred details rushing into focus. Rows and rows of his friends loved ones. His own funeral? No, they’re unmistakably joyful.
It’s the first day of a lifetime of cease-fires.
There’s a shatter-jolt, and Tony’s in front of him. He knows its Tony, despite the soft lines of his face and the absent goatee and the weirdly saturated, pressed way this world feels. Tony’s eyes glint with challenges made familiar.
There’s bliss in the way he scans Steve’s flushed visage. As though he’s made a choice and is proud of himself for it. There’s an unburdened, uncontrollable, childlike giddiness he’s never seen on Tony before. He beams at Steve and his heart catches in his throat.
It feels impossibly natural, to move like this, to devour Tony with his eyes like this. And then the wedding’s over, and the crowd roars like his blood in his ears and they’re kissing and Tony’s wearing the suit with the faceplate up and the only thing Steve can think is, how ridiculous is he, how right, how lucky am I for this to be real-
Steve wakes up drenched in cold sweat, his eyes burning and damp. A significant part of him wishes he hadn’t.
The bed is otherwise barren.
The neon clock reads 3:17AM.
How had the choices he’d made felt so right, so inevitable at the time, if they led to this living hell? He refuses to use the word ‘devastated.’ He’ll only tire it out.
Devastation was losing the entire world in a single frozen crash.
Having one hand around his family’s neck, the other around Tony’s, squeezing until both had no choice but to die is something else entirely.
He stays up until daybreak, wondering if he will feel Tony’s infinite hatred for the rest of his life. Maybe that’s why he keeps dreaming about loving him.
When the sun rises, Steve cracks. He weeps until the sobs stop wracking his body like tight-fisted demons, until his face is feverish with anger and the tears simply run dry.
He knows the truth before the Watcher lectures him on parallel dimensions and alternate realities. He sits stone-faced through his revelations. He will not give the universe the satisfaction, because even Steve Rogers can only lie to himself for so long.
He remembers the nights he tried so hard to forget.
Dragging his teeth down the column of Tony’s throat in Clint’s guest bed, before yet after it all went to hell. Digging his pale fingers into the tanned scars, fingernails bleeding down corded ropes of muscle. The wicked slash of his mouth, the harsh scratch of goatee, a murmur striking the hot rush of blood and white noise.
“You don’t know how long I’ve thought about this, Cap. Watching you come undone.” A dark chuckle; Steve’s embarrassing, involuntary, toe-curling gasp once Tony started moving just this side of too fast. “Didn’t know if I wanted to hurt you or fuck you. But turns out, we can, ah, we can multitask. Good to know.”
Tony would say stuff like that and proceed to stay the night. Or brazenly invite himself into Steve’s room, once they were back at the compound. Pull his hair, hard, and make a shabby apology omelet the next morning. Disassemble Steve’s perfect body with cold precision, the same way he would a poorly-functioning machine, and easily take the Captain’s orders on the field the very next day.
The rest was all real. His memory - splintered with trauma, still - wouldn’t betray him. Steve can’t stop his face from crumpling, the churning in his gut, stupid, stupid, always so endlessly stupid. And so that must mean, as much as he told himself otherwise…
The rest was never a dream.
In the end, Steve hobbles away intact. Surrenders the shield.
No, that’s not right. Surrender implies defeat.
He’s not sure if he’s supporting Bucky’s anchor weight or if it’s the other way around, or somehow both at the same time. His blood sings soprano like the first day of spring; he can’t remember ever feeling so pierced with relief. It screams through every cell in his sternum, prickling with the slow crunch of snow.
We’re done, it’s done, I made my choice.
No, that’s not right either. Steve wonders why relief feels so much like dying. Burning in the slow frost - the first time - had hurt much less than this.
Their eyes are baked with blood. It hurts to look up, so they don’t. Steve nor Bucky hears Zemo scrape himself up the rock, or the long-gone sonic boom of T’Challa’s jet. They don’t see him reload the pistol and stalk back into the chamber, flesh wound eyes feasting on the sight.
Tony’s unconscious, splayed against concrete with his face exposed and armor still on. A slab of light catches the scorched red paint, bleaching his cheek in a wide stripe. The Siberian wind howls, a high-pitched, desperate sound. He must be cold.
Curled fetal, more like, a child rotting in misplaced rage. What a perfect symbol: encased in all his strength and brilliance, a Stark can never keep all his defenses up at once. The faceplate was never the face of Iron Man. Not even the Arc Reactor, made obsolete by a metal frisbee from seventy years ago.
Zemo thinks to himself, pity doesn’t capture this feeling. All men die for their pride, it seems. How predictable that the futurist is swallowed by the ever-vengeful past.
His finger shudders on the trigger.
In the end, Tony sucks in a fast breath and chokes on it. Eyes flying open, darting everywhere but not seeing. The armor whirs to life. A gauntlet reaches out without any telltale whine, only grasping, grabbing at air. There’s terror in his marrow. Even after everything that’s happened he can’t keep the pleading pitch out of his voice. Not like he ever could when it came to who mattered most.
Steve has nightmares, too.
In all of them, Zemo is far too close to miss.
As someone who doesn’t trust a guy without a dark side, Tony sure must trust him now, huh.
That thought warms him the way alcohol burns: pleasantly, until poison becomes the only thing you consume. You wake up an alcoholic.
In the end, there is a funeral.
Steve has his best three-piece suit on.
They invite him to speak. God knows why. No witnesses besides Bucky, but the dents riddling the armor are unmistakable.
Rhodes’ gaze burns holes into the side of Steve’s face as he walks up to the podium. The front-row reporters visibly flinch at the sight of Steve’s gauntness. In the past two weeks he’s become a poster boy for neglect.
He clears his throat, stalling. His eyes keep catching on something in the distance, a flash of sun on someone’s hat, even though the day is overcast. The crowd sways and shuffles, a rippling sea of black. Clearly disappointed with the silence but unable to do anything about it. Perhaps they expected the Captain America that rallied the country back in the day and rallied SHIELD against itself.
He didn’t bother preparing a speech. Rhodes already took the ‘you all knew public Tony, but I knew the real Tony, and that is the man we should be mourning today’ angle with calm, righteous fury.
“When I first met Tony I,” and God, his voice sounds absolutely wrecked, like he hasn’t used it in weeks. “I accused him of a lot of things. He never, uh, he never deserved any of it. Flew a nuke in a wormhole. To prove bastards like me wrong. Not that it was ever about me, but… He proved the whole world wrong. The Tony I knew took huge risks that saved the world every day, without ever thinking twice.”
The words flake off his tongue like rust. They’re a residue and must sound even more hollow to the crowd’s deaf ears. What can he possibly say about Tony Stark that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? What piece of the enigma did he hold more tightly than the rest?
Steve scrubs a hand over his face. It must be heartbreakingly clear to the whole world that he never did and never would, even if Tony had lived. There’s no version of this where his fantasies don’t deserve a funeral of their own.
“We all knew Tony by his armor. The end result of all the technology he’s mastered. In his hands, it became the ultimate weapon for good.” He can’t believe he’s saying this until the words come out, and their truth stuns him silent. “A good that I can never hope to equal.
“In the Avengers, in this business, Tony was an inspiration to me. To all of us. We may not think like him or act like him, but we still respect and appreciate what he does and how he does it…” The eyes bore into his face, the rain pouring in thick sheets over them. It’s a good thing, because Steve would hate for them to see him cry.
“I’m sometimes too quick to judge, too slow to forgive. I… I will always… I will always regret how our, um, ideological differences bent our friendship out of shape.”
Doesn’t mean, if given the chance, he’d do a single thing differently. Except walking away, that last time. If he’d known about Zemo, if he knew about the gun-
What would he have done, then. Dropped Bucky in the snow and laid his body over Tony’s? Steve doesn’t know. He- he doesn’t want to know. The truth is, he’d assume Iron Man was more than capable of defending himself against a pistol, and nothing would change.
Everything he did so self-assuredly in the name of freedom, was really to feed the greedy beast in his belly. Protecting Tony from the truth of his family. Protecting Bucky from the whole Goddamned world...
Was it worth it?
He swallows thickly and strides off stage before he can humiliate himself further. He doesn’t belong behind this podium. He’s done nothing to deserve it.
The next day, headlines around the world read “Tony Stark’s Funeral: Crashed by Captain America?”
In the end, there is a private ceremony. The fractured team gathers to witness it. Words are spoken, but not by Steve. He doesn’t hear them.
There are no flowers, no cameras, no portraits. Only them and the armor-encased body in Maria Stark’s backyard. The sun licks a hot stripe down Steve’s neck.
With all of them reunited, Thor flown in from Asgard and the Hulk crouched in the far corner, there is a palpable non-hyperverbal void.
The Avengers grieve as much as they can, leaning into one another. No one touches Steve. No one shoots a glance in his direction, except Natasha and Sam, whose calls he hasn’t been returning.
He is the lowest form of life, he thinks.
The body is lowered into the ground. The arc reactor’s glass casing is still coming apart, plinking against the coffin, and Steve wants to scream, and to never be heard again.
On the way out, Rhodes shoves Steve against the wall. All of the breath leaves his body; he can’t see beyond the whites of Rhodes’ bloodshot eyes.
“If you come anywhere near me, God help me, I will fucking dismember you. If the Accords aren’t signed by Steven Grant Rogers tomorrow morning, I will kill you slowly,” he spits, voice steeled. “Not that I give a damn about the Accords anymore but, you know.”
Tony sure as hell did.
“I hope you rot in this. You didn’t put the bullets in his head, but you sure as shit killed him in every other way, didn’t you. Get the fuck out of my sight.”
I know, James.
In the end, there is a letter.
You stubborn, righteous, unholy, impolite, good for nothing, prick, why the hell did anyone ever put you in charge of anything, you’re almost worse than my old man.
God that feels good.
I have a bad feeling about this. The reactor’s out but I have more chest pain than ever. Must be all those years of hard partying and getting cars dropped on me. Kickin’ ass.
Let me clear the air, something tells me I might never have the chance to do it again: I know you’re doing this for Barnes, Steve. I’ve seen the way you look at him. The way you two fight together, it’s like the stories say. Rogers and Barnes, unstoppable together.
Kinda like you and me, except to each other.
I’m not going to apologize. That’s not what this is for. Yes, I just found out about the Winter Soldiers. No idea why the evidence took this goddamn long to surface, but it is what it is. I’m en route to the Raft as I write.
I’m not going to give you the satisfaction of knowing you were right, dammit, Steve, you could have just told me. Haven’t you noticed shit only goes south when communication doesn’t go both ways? I like to think I’ve been pretty frank since Ultron. In all aspects, towards you. You don’t have to let me down easy, honey, I already took care of that.
The Avengers don’t work without you, Steve. You’re the leader of our family. I’m on my way, but you need to meet me there.
I’m not asking you to choose between Barnes and us. You already made your choice. You can have both, you know. Documents can be rewritten but some people can’t be replaced. Takes one to know one.
What I’m trying to say is, we need you.