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(Don't Think Me Unkind) If Words Are Hard to Find

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"…production is nearly ready to begin on the Mark 12. Shall I— Sir. You have a phone call from – "

"Patch it through," he says without looking up. "Pepper!"

"New York," JARVIS finishes quietly.

It's like throwing a switch. His heart starts to race. The palms of his hands grow sweaty. He looks up and it's not Pepper's face floating there amid the readings and displays on the almost-finished Mark 12. This face has a chiseled jaw, tousled blond hair, and tired blue eyes.

It's not a face he ever wants to see again.

"Stark?"

He winces his eyes closed. The word echoes in his brain, repeated five, eleven, a hundred times. Voices he never wants to hear again. Stark, you seeing this? Stark, you copy? Stark, you hear me? You have a missile headed straight for the city. Stark, you know that's a one-way trip.

He's never hated the sound of his own name so much.

"Yeah," he says, and oh look at that, he's on the floor. How the hell did he get here? Sitting, leaning up against the desk. "Right here, Cap." He has no idea what visual image JARVIS is displaying for America's super soldier, but the audio feed will be loud and clear no matter where he is in the workshop.

"I—Did I wake you?"

"Um, nope." He's pleased with how bright-eyed and bushy-tailed his voice sounds. Even more pleased that he's able to speak at all through the tightness in his chest. He's having trouble breathing; getting words out right now is not at all easy.

"I'm sorry," Cap says. "I didn't know who else to call." He sounds miserable. "I'm sorry. I just…I couldn't sleep."

"Yeah?" Tony says. "Well. Join the club." He's got to get up. He knows that. He just can't make his body move yet.

"Do you—"

"Hey, can you do me a favor?" he says. He manages to haul himself to his feet, using the edge of the desk for support. "Can you just…not talk?" He sways a little, heart still racing dangerously fast, then he's in motion again, walking stilted and funny but walking at least, and in the right direction, even, which he takes as a good sign.

"O—okay," Cap says, and then mercifully he shuts up.

Tony takes a deep breath. It doesn't really work, so he tries again. This time he manages to actually pull air into his lungs, easing some of the tightness in his chest. He closes his eyes. Counts to three. Opens his eyes.

"Okay, JARVIS," he says. "I want to see the specs on the Mark 13. And let's go ahead on the fabrication process for the 12."

"Very good, sir."

It's all about the work then. The way it has been since he came here (fled here). The way it needs to be.

And it's not until about three hours later that he looks up and sees the display for the phone call still hanging in mid-air, shunted off to one side now but still there. Sees the great Captain America, arms folded on his desk, head down on them, sleeping soundly.

"Good for you," Tony mutters. He swipes the screen out of existence, then gets back to work.

****

"Sir, my calculations indicate the Mark 20 will exceed the velocity of—"

"The math is right," he says absently.

"But sir."

"The math is right," he repeats. "Do it."

"Very good, sir. Also, you have a phone call. It's from the person you have designated as Undesirable Number One."

Tony stops. For a moment he's not in the workshop but under glaring bright blue skies. Then he blinks and he's in the void, cold and dark and full of terrible wonder.

And then he's on one knee, on the floor, his head hanging, fighting for breath, clutching at Dummy's chassis with one white-knuckled hand to keep from falling over.

"Shall I put him through?" JARVIS asks, not without some concern.

"Sure," he gasps out. "Okay."

"Stark? Is this a bad time?"

"You know," he says, "if you're going to keep interrupting me this way, the least you can do is call me by my name."

"Oh. Um. I'm sorry. You're right. Tony."

That's better. A little. Hearing that voice is still bad, but he can deal now.

Maybe.

"I didn't—"

"You know what?" he says as he struggles to stand again. He's got one hand pressed to the arc reactor, as if he can slow the pounding of his heart through touch and sheer willpower alone. "It's better if you just don't talk at all, okay?"

There's a slight pause, then Cap – no, if Stark is Tony then Cap is Steve – then Steve says, "Okay."

Eighty-three minutes later and Steve is asleep again, and Tony is yelling at Dummy to bring him that screwdriver, no, not that one, that one.

****

"New file. Mark 33."

"Yes, sir. What shall we call this one?"

"Um, Mark 33?"

"Of course," JARVIS says dryly. "You have a call—"

"I figured," Tony says shortly. It's about that time of night. "Go ahead."

The face swims into view. He can still hardly bring himself to look at it. Just a quick glance. Enough to see the lines of fatigue, the signs of stress. All the things he sees on those infrequent occasions when he looks in the mirror.

But Steve doesn't say anything. He knows better by now. He just nods. And he watches.

Tony nods back, then he's off and away, fingers flying over the keyboard, standing amid an array of images and screens, cherry-picking the options he wants for this new suit. He really likes the 33. This one's got potential.

****

"…not sure if the neural overlay is strong enough."

"Yeah, yeah, I know. It needs work. I'll get it. But let's just give this a try."

"Very well. Beginning— Sir, you have a phone call. It's from Undes—"

"Yeah, yeah. Fine."

The new screen pops into life. The same face, looking even more worn than usual. It's all too easy to lose track of time down here, but he's pretty sure it's not late at night. It's actually the middle of the day.

"Tony—"

And he's wincing, turning away, pain stabbing at his chest and making it hard to breathe.

"I'm sorry, I just wanted to say that…something's come up. I've got to go. Um. I can't say where. But I just… I'll be gone a while. Maybe. Anyway."

"Uh-huh," he says. He looks around wildly, seeking an escape. Above his head, the portal gapes open, wanting to swallow him up. He drops to the floor, trying desperately to avoid it, to stay away from it. He doesn't want to go through it this time, he doesn't, he doesn't.

"I just wanted to say thank you. For letting me watch you. For letting me call you. I really appreciate it."

"Okay, yeah, have fun." The words sound strangled and just plain wrong even to his ear, and he knows Steve must hear it, too.

But maybe not. Maybe whatever's bugging Steve is the only thing Steve is thinking about right now. "Yeah, I doubt that. Anyway. Thanks, Tony."

He barely hears Steve's response over the roaring in his ears. It's the sound of the portal as it reaches for him, trying to pull him in. "Sure, okay," and he's huddled now, on his knees on the floor, doubled over, head almost on the floor itself. Trying to make himself small so he won't have to go through that rip in the sky.

"Maybe when I get back we could meet up sometime? I'd like to actually see your lab for a change," Steve continues.

"Yeah," Tony chokes out. "Okay." He squeezes his eyes shut, realizes what Steve just said. Some other kind of response is required here. "It's a date." The tears burn hot in the back of his throat.

"Okay. Well, I'll see you later then. Bye."

"Bye," Tony whispers. The screen flashes out of existence above his head, a brilliant blip of blue light.

And the portal swallows him whole.

He falls and falls, screaming endlessly into the sky.

****

Even halfway around the world, the story makes the front page of the newspaper. Steve stares down at it in horror and disbelief.

"There's nothing you could have done," Natasha says. "You can't blame yourself."

"I don't," he says. The words sound very far away. The photograph of the destroyed house looks like something straight out of the war. He's not sure if he's grieving for Tony's death, or if he's just shocked, or what he's feeling. "I just… We were just talking. Not two days ago."

Natasha's silence speaks volumes. Then, "I didn't know you two talked."

Steve looks up. "Well. Not so much talking as… I don't know what you'd call it."

He'll never know now if he and Tony might have been able to put the past behind them and become friends.

All those nights he watched and listened as Tony worked on one new suit after another, letting himself pretend that he was there, desperate for a way to escape New York. All those nights when he couldn't sleep, the memories crowding in on him, feeling like there was no one else he could call, no one else he could trust. All those nights when he fell asleep to the soothing sound of Tony's voice, reminding him just before he surrendered to sleep that he was not alone.

He always knew the work was Tony's escape, too. They might have talked about it, had they been given the chance to meet up like they had planned.

He's starting to think he's never going to be able to keep a date with anyone.

Natasha gives him a look. "You ready?"

He's not. Not now, and probably not ever. But there's only one way he can answer right now. The only thing he can say.

"Let's go."

**********