The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.
Tony’s had the words on his wrist for as long as he can remember. They’re written in blue ink, the handwriting neat and steady, and for most of his young life he neither knows nor cares what they mean.
Eventually, though, he gets curious, and so he asks around. Father doesn’t tell him anything, ordering him to get back to his studies. Mother, though—Mother is helpful, and she patiently explains the concept of soulmates, explaining that those words will lead him right to his own someday. Then she shows him her own wrist, displaying the words Ford Thunderbird convertible in what Tony recognizes as Father’s handwriting. It’s the car he was driving the day they met, she says, and that was when she knew.
Tony frowns, looking back at his own wrist, and tries to fathom how a Thomas Paine quote could possibly lead him anywhere.
Tony comes to learn that everyone’s words are—or should be, anyway—a private matter, not to be flaunted around. He finds that his own words in particular are of interest to both his peers and the media, tabloid articles supposedly exposing them popping up with increasing frequency as he gets older and, if he’s being quite honest with himself, handsomer. At some point, he gets into the habit of covering his wrist with concealer, even though he fervently rubs it off every night so he can touch the words with his fingers, wondering where his soulmate is right now. Maybe, he sometimes muses, it would be easier if everyone knew what his words looked like. Maybe his soulmate would recognize their own handwriting and just come to him on their own.
But these words were written for him, he thinks, and he doesn’t want to share them with anyone.
He casts a wide net. Once he’s in college, he starts sleeping around with anyone who might be associated with Thomas Paine in any way. History students, because Paine was a historical figure. Military personnel, because Paine was a patriot. Political activists, because Paine was one himself.
Most of it ends up just being sex. Some relationships last for a couple of days until Tony catches a glimpse of their wrists and realizes that he’s not the one for them, and by the time he reaches his last year in MIT, he wonders if he’s going about this the right way.
Then he lays eyes on one Sunset Bain, and everything changes.
“I’m very much a self-made woman,” Sunset tells him the day they first meet, and Tony finds himself hopelessly smitten. And it’s strange, he thinks, because he’s not entirely sure if he should be falling so hard for someone who doesn’t seem to be immediately connected to his words, but here he is anyway, head over heels. He’d try and sneak notes off her if he could to compare the handwriting, but she never writes anything in front of him, only types away on her portable computer.
Nonetheless, as they spend more time together, Tony finds ways in which she surely is the one. After all, like Thomas Paine, she’s ambitious, revolutionary. Like the quote, she enjoys challenges, knowing that glorious, certain victory will come with enough effort. And the more he thinks about these things, the more he’s convinced. His words are for Sunset, and Tony thinks there’s nothing he wants more than to spend the rest of his life with her.
His reasoning is pathetically flimsy, but he won’t know this until it’s too late.
One month into their relationship, as they lie tangled in bed together, Tony, on impulse, wipes the concealer off and shows her his wrist. “I think this is talking about you,” he confesses to her, and it won’t be until years later that he realizes how naïve of him it was to do such a thing.
In the present moment, though, he thinks nothing of it as Sunset takes his arm and smiles down at it, looking pleased. “Is that so?” she asks, and he grins wide and nods at her, his heart beating a mile a minute.
A week after that, after Sunset returns his notes for one of their mechanical engineering classes, she pulls him aside and rolls her bracelet off her left arm, showing him her own words—Tony Stark, they say in deep red ink, the handwriting identical to his own.
Tony inhales, exhales, and then rubs his eyes to make sure he’s seeing right. “It’s you,” he says after a long moment, and she just quirks her lips, slipping her bracelet back on.
“Me,” she agrees, taking his hand and holding it.
Everything seems to fall into place after that. They spend their free time designing various pieces of equipment together, filing joint prototypes and coauthoring papers. When they’re not building things, they make love everywhere they can think of—in the classroom, on the beach, in his car. “I love you,” he says to her often, and she smiles and tells him “I know”. Tony’s never been happier, and all he wants to do is make Sunset happy too. She’s his soulmate, after all. They were made for each other.
When she expresses interest in cryptography, he’s quick to teach her what he knows. When she asks for examples, he shows her the security systems guarding proprietary Stark Industries files. When she wants to understand how such systems could possibly be bypassed, he doesn’t think twice about breaking into the servers, explaining the process as he goes along.
“You’re so clever,” she gushes, and Tony eats it up.
Not too long afterward, masked men break into a Stark Industries facility and steal half-a-dozen prototypes in a precision strike, somehow knowing exactly what to do and where to go. Weeks after that, Sunset says she’s breaking up with him.
“You can’t do that,” Tony tells her, dumbstruck. “We’re soulmates.”
Sunset just laughs, spreading her hands wide. “And yet here I am doing it anyway. It’s time for me to move on, Tony. You’re holding me back.”
“I’m holding you back—?” Tony begins, but Sunset’s already getting into her convertible, starting the engine. One part of him wants to jump in with her and demand answers, but the other part is frozen in place, and before he can decide which part to indulge, she’s driving off. Finally, he finds it in himself to step forward, shouting after her—“What did I do wrong?”
“Au revoir!” she calls, and then she vanishes into the proverbial sunset.
For several nights after that, Tony curls up in his room alone, staring down at the words on his arm and wondering how things had gone downhill so fast. So maybe the quote hadn’t quite evoked her image as much as it maybe should have, he admits to himself. Still, though—his name had been on her wrist. How is it even possible that she felt the need to move on from him?
Less than a year later, Baintronics becomes established as a weapons designer and supplier. Some of its first models are based directly off the prototypes stolen from Stark Industries months earlier, and that’s when Tony realizes the truth at last.
First, his words were never about Sunset.
Second, Sunset’s words were written by her own hand with a red pen.
Third, all she ever wanted were his designs.
And that’s when Tony decides right then and there that this soulmate business is complete bullshit. Being fooled by his words once is bad enough, he thinks, so he’s not going to give them a chance to fool him a second time. With that, he covers them up for good, and then he tells himself he’s never going to look at them again.
“I don’t care about your words,” Tony informs everyone he brings to bed. His partners will always glance at him, surprised, but in the end they’re happy to sleep with him anyway. Inevitably, these relationships last little more than a night, but it doesn’t bother him. Soulmates mean nothing. His words mean nothing. The tabloids treat his lack of interest as something scandalous, but Tony doesn’t care anymore. He’ll sleep around and have some fun, and that’s all that really matters.
Tony’s parents are later killed in the same Ford Thunderbird convertible his mother met his father in, and when that happens, he’s forced to stop sleeping around. He takes charge, founds the Maria Stark Foundation, and is forced to wear a metal chest plate to keep his heart from failing after one of his own bombs blows up in his face.
He becomes Iron Man.
He becomes an Avenger.
They have their highs and their lows, but when they find Captain America frozen in a block of ice in the Atlantic Ocean, Tony knows right then and there that this is, and will always be, the greatest day of his life.
Steve Rogers, Tony learns, is every bit the hero the stories said he was: proud and brave and smart. Not in the way Tony is, of course—few are—but he sees things in the field the others can’t, and his orders never lead them wrong. Tony spends a lot of time with him, both in battle as Iron Man and in their downtime as himself, utterly enchanted. When Steve approaches him to ask where he might be able to buy art supplies, Tony sets up an art studio for him, complete with everything he’ll ever need. When Steve marvels at how much smaller computers have gotten since the war, Tony gives him his own desktop and teaches him how to type. Not only does Steve pick it up in a day, but he teaches himself Dvorak the day after that.
(Steve isn’t perfect all the time, though. He sits down next to Tony one evening, looking glum: “I tried to look up the American dream,” he tells Tony, “but all I found were results about real estate.” Tony laughs, but he feels bad about it afterward, so they sit down and listen to CDs of the Midnight Racer.)
Then Molecule Man happens. Steve is irritated—“Why didn’t you just tell me you and Iron Man were the same,” he huffs once they’re back at the mansion. Tony throws up his hands, listens to a few lectures about trust, and eventually things return back to normal between them, but it’s funny. Once his closely-guarded secret is out to Steve, he feels better, not worse, and somehow their relationship gets even better once Steve knows the truth.
One night, as the two of them sit on the couch together watching the end credits to Yankee Doodle Dandy roll—Steve’s choice, not Tony’s—Tony can’t help but glance pointedly at Steve’s wrist, which is currently covered with a wristwatch. He’s never seen it bare, but maybe they’re close enough that he can… inquire. After all, just because he no longer cares about his own words doesn’t mean he’s not curious about other people’s. “So,” he drawls, “Jan was showing me her words the other day. You know what words are?”
“Of course I know what words are,” Steve says, and he reaches out to grip at the wrist with the watch, looking almost—pained for a second. Tony wonders if he imagined it. “She showed them to me, too. I didn’t understand it, but I think she wanted me to talk to Hank about them.”
Tony’s lips quirk upward. “It’s the Schrödinger equation,” he informs him, and when Steve continues to look confused, Tony adds, “Her words, I mean. It has to do with particles. You know, like Pym particles. Jan’s convinced this means Hank’s her soulmate, but you can guess what happened when she tried telling him that.”
“He brushed it off,” Steve supplies, and Tony nods. “So that’s why she wants me to bring it up to him.”
“You’re Cap. Everyone listens to you.”
Steve just laughs at that, leaning back into the couch comfortably, though his hand is worrying at his wrist again. Does he even realize he’s doing that?
Tony’s too curious for his own good. Before he can stop himself, he blurts out the most subtle thing he can think of on short notice: “Jan wants to know what your words are.” Smooth.
“That was the gossip of the day, back during the war,” Steve says as he turns to raise an eyebrow at Tony, who holds his breath and prays he hasn’t been busted. But Steve just turns away again, looking contemplative. “But I’ve never shown my words to anyone.”
“No one?” Tony thinks of himself, so foolishly baring his wrist to Sunset, who used it to her own advantage all those years ago. He thinks of Rhodey, sharing Tony’s own frustration as he baffled over a line from an obscure poem as they studied together in the library at MIT, wondering what the two of them did wrong to get such vague words. He thinks of Jan, showing her wrist to all her teammates in order to make one of them see what’s right in front of him.
“No one,” Steve replies, looking down at his lap. “I… don’t like my words very much.”
At this, Tony frowns. That’s a weird thing to say about the words that might lead you to your soulmate. Okay, maybe he has his own issues with them, but this is Steve, who likes old motorcycles and plain circle shields without any cool tech attached to them. Ergo, he pretty much likes everything as long as they don’t threaten the American dream. “What, you had a bad experience or something?”
Steve just gives him a small smile, turning to pick up the remote. “Sorry, Shellhead,” he says. “But some things I’m taking with me to the grave.”
With that, Steve stops the movie and switches to a television show, and Tony doesn’t bring it up again.
Tony saves Steve’s life once, twice, a hundred times in the years that pass. He lets Steve sit in his garage and draw while Tony works and spars with him in his free time. He gives Steve relationship advice on Bernie, on Diamondback, on Sharon as they sit in the kitchen drinking coffee together at the crack of dawn on the days Steve spends the night at the mansion—Steve having risen early and Tony not yet ready to sleep. Sometimes, when he has Stark Industries business to attend to at his other branches, he drags Steve onto his jet and goes sightseeing with him in between meetings: to Normandy, to Beijing, to Easter Island. (Steve is reluctant at first, afraid of missing any crises that might happen in New York, but after they fight off some supervillains at the Great Wall, he concedes that crises happen everywhere so it probably doesn’t matter where he is.)
Steve’s favorite spot, Tony learns, is a California poppy reserve relatively close to the Los Angeles branch. The first time they visit, they go hiking, walking for miles and miles before Tony tells him that listen, he’s not a super-soldier and can only drag himself around for so long. The second time they visit, Steve brings a sketchbook and spends hours drawing golden flowers as Tony works on his own things, occasionally throwing him affectionate glances every now and then.
And it’s good, Tony thinks. What they have is good. He has other friends, of course—good friends, great friends. But they all know different parts of him, and right now Steve knows best the part that’s most important to him.
Still, though, sometimes he feels like something’s missing.
Tony doesn’t mention it to Steve because Steve hates talking about his—or anyone else’s—words, but sometimes he feels like there’s a hole in his heart where he feels like his soulmate should be. It’s pathetic, honestly. He’s a grown man by now, dammit, and he’d told himself that he didn’t care about words or soulmates or any of that stuff anymore. Usually, he doesn’t. Usually, he has more important things to think of, like saving the world or helping Steve retrieve his shield when it gets lost in the Atlantic Ocean. But Hank and Jan get married. Pepper and Happy get married. Fellow Avengers Justice and Firestar get engaged and leave the team.
And no matter what Tony tells himself, that’s exactly what he wants. He wants to find his missing soulmate and just spend the rest of his life with them after hanging up the armor. He wants an amazing pal like Rhodey or Steve, but minus the part where Rhodey’s off doing military things all the time and Steve is dating other women and plus additional romance and sex.
Then he meets Rumiko Fujikawa. “If you try to romance me with nonsense words, I’ll probably have to hurt you,” she says with a bright grin, and Tony thinks that maybe he’s found the answer to his aching heart.
It’s hard for Tony at first. Sunset runs in some of the same circles as him these days, and every time he catches a glimpse of her at a party or sees her name in the news, he can’t help but remember the wounds she’d left in him, wounds that are still embarrassingly raw.
But Rumiko is different, he knows. She wears a mask, but she’s honest about it, telling him about how she doesn’t want to be confined the way her parents want her to be. She shows him her wrists, but not to convince him they’re meant to be: they’re as blank as his own, having been covered with makeup. “I don’t listen to my parents or my elders or anyone,” she tells him fiercely as they sit together on a mountainside, picnicking. “So why should I pay attention to some random words on my arm? If I go and hang around a super smart ladies’ man, it’s because that’s what I choose to do.”
He doesn’t realize it at the time, but what she tells him that day changes his life.
They’re on and off, on and off. Between helping out Steve and the Avengers, battling his own personal enemies as Iron Man, and carrying out his duties as Secretary of Defense, Tony doesn’t always have the time for her, and she doesn’t like it one bit. Eventually, though, after he gets past the nightmare that is his living armor and the crap that Sunset and Ty Stone throw his way, he thinks he’s got this whole long-term relationship thing figured out. He introduces Rumiko to Steve and some of the other Avengers. He calls Happy to ask him for help on how to pick out a wedding ring. He gets ready to propose, because—because while he doesn’t know if Rumiko is the one, she certainly is a one. And does it really matter whether or not they’re soulmates if they’re happy together? She doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think so.
Except then she breaks up with him, and as if on cue, the rest of his life falls apart. His armor is used to kill innocent people. The mansion is burned down. The Avengers are forced to disband.
And Rumiko—his beautiful, passionate, temperamental Rumiko who was, if not with him, at least across the Pacific and out of harm’s way—comes back.
One of his enemies attacks her. She dies in his arms.
“I should never have let you know how much I needed you,” Tony whispers at her wake, and he feels that hole in his heart he thought he’d filled opening up all over again.
Later, he and Steve sit together in the ruins of the mansion kitchen where they’d shared so many coffees in the past, long after the other Avengers have left. “I’m sorry, Tony,” Steve says. He reaches out to take his hand, and Tony lets him. “You never really get over the loss of someone important to you. All you can do is wait for it to stop hurting so much.”
“I hate waiting,” Tony tells him.
But Steve just gives him a smile, that same dazzling, determined smile that’s sent Tony charging into battle a million times in years past. “You’re going to get through this,” he says. “You’re an Avenger, whether or not we’ve disbanded. And I know—I know—you’re going to pick yourself up and put everything back together, because that’s you. You’re Iron Man. That’s what you do.”
When Tony goes home that night, he still feels like shit, but some way, somehow, his heart is just a little bit lighter.
The next six months pass in something of a haze. Tony still goes on solo missions as Iron Man. He keeps in touch with the usual—Steve, Rhodey, Happy, Pepper. He gets some of his credibility and funds back. He considers, for a while, sleeping around in an attempt to soothe some of the pain, but it feels wrong, so he doesn’t.
Then a breakout at the Raft happens. Steve’s the one who calls Tony in, so he heads over just in time to pound into a bunch of escaped crooks and lock—well, not all of them, and not most of them, but half of them back up. In the aftermath, he, Steve, Peter, Jessica Drew, Daredevil, and Luke Cage stand around in a circle, marveling just a little at what happened. “So we were pretty cool together,” Peter says.
“We kicked ass,” Luke adds.
They nod and murmur their assent, then take off one by one. Eventually, it’s just Tony and Steve left, but just before Tony launches into the air, he waves at Steve. “Need a lift?”
“Sure,” Steve says. He steps toward him, and that’s when Tony sees the blood on his suit.
“You’re hurt,” Tony says.
Steve glances down at himself and shrugs, giving him a little smile. “No big deal. It’s only a flesh wound.”
Tony shakes his head, promptly scooping Steve up into his arms bridal-style and ignoring his protests. “Showing you that movie was such a bad idea,” he says before flying them back to Stark Tower. Once they’re there, Tony gets out of his suit and steers Steve to the bed in one of the guest rooms, making him lie down. “Jarvis would do this, but he’s sleeping and I don’t want to wake him, so you’re stuck with me. So strip,” Tony commands, and, looking amused, Steve does.
The cut really isn’t that bad, Steve’s suit having taken the brunt of it, although Steve’s kind enough to not say I told you so. Nonetheless, Tony goes about the very important business of fetching the first-aid kit, opening it up and getting the materials needed to clean up and patch the wound. He doesn’t know why he’s so insistent on taking care of Steve tonight. Maybe it’s just that he’s been a little lonely. Maybe it’s just been too long since he’s seen Steve face-to-face. Either way, if he can convince Steve to maybe spend the night and share a cup of coffee with him the next morning, that would be pretty great. “I kind of missed you,” he says as he’s wiping the blood off Steve’s stomach.
Steve glances up at him, surprised. “We’ve been in contact with each other,” he replies.
Tony shrugs, tossing the used wipe into the trash can before getting out the antiseptic. “True. But it’s not the same. And I know I’m the last person who should say that, since I’ve kind of revolutionized long-distance communications, but let’s face it, even talking to each other using the best StarkTech isn’t as good as grabbing lunch together. But don’t tell the media I said that.”
“I won’t,” Steve says with a startled laugh. He reaches out to gently take hold of Tony’s wrist, and as he does, Tony feels a strange surge of warmth spread through him. “I didn’t know that, Tony. I thought you wanted to be alone.”
“I did. And now I don’t,” Tony says.
They look at each other for a long time.
It happens so fast that later on, Tony’s never really sure which of them moved first. Before he knows it, they’re leaning toward each other, lips meeting, hands sliding against each other’s skin. Steve tastes like—well, honestly, he tastes a bit like blood from the fight, but that’s okay. The kiss is gentle but insistent, and when they break apart, Tony is panting a little. “That—” Steve begins.
“—Was not a mistake at all,” Tony completes for him, because it’s true. He’s spent a lot of time grieving, and now he’s ready to move on. He loves Rumiko. He probably always will. But the thing about their relationship—the thing that was completely his fault and not hers in the slightest—was that so long as he wore the armor, he could never, never share his life with her the way she needed him to, and in the end, that was what caused her to leave.
But this—this is different. Steve is inextricably wound up in the part of his life that Tony found so hard to share with Rumiko. Steve’s seen him at his best and also at his worst. Steve is Steve, and Tony can’t believe he didn’t consider this earlier.
Steve gazes at him, his eyes big and blue and honest. “We should date,” he says at last.
For some reason, Tony finds himself laughing, his first real laugh since everything went to hell half a year ago. He has no idea why. It just—it seems like such a Steve thing to say, somehow. Or maybe it’s funny because if all those lunches and dinners and impromptu excursions around the world in the past count as dates, then they’ve already gone out a few hundred times. Hell, maybe he’s just giddy. “Fine,” Tony manages once he reins himself in. “This Friday. We’ll go somewhere with fancy apple pie. You’ll love it.”
“I think we should have our first date in the poppy reserve,” Steve says, surprising Tony. He reaches out and takes Tony’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I don’t know. It’s… it’s a nice place, and we haven’t been there for ages. And it makes me think of you.”
Steve’s the one with hair as golden as California poppies, Tony feels, but he smiles and squeezes his hand back. “Yeah, we can do that,” he says, and then they kiss again as Tony thinks that maybe, maybe this time he can fill that hole in his heart for good.
Steve still doesn’t show him what his words say. He keeps his watch on at all times, even during lovemaking and in the shower—Tony’s own fault, really, for giving him a waterproof watch. Then again, Tony can’t blame him. It’s not like Tony ever feels inclined to show Steve his own words, mostly because that would require looking at them and being reminded of Sunset.
Nonetheless, they’re happy, and it shows even when they try to keep things under wraps. Luke gives them suspicious glances during their team meetings. Tony overhears Jessica gossiping to Carol over the phone about the two of them. By the time they decide to finally admit they’re seeing each other in front of the New Avengers, Peter just rolls his eyes and tells them Logan told them this like, ten years ago.
“How’d you know?” Steve asks, genuinely baffled.
Logan jabs his claws at them. “You two stink,” he says, and everyone else laughs uproariously.
“Let’s not forget that I’m the one providing you with an awesome clubhouse,” Tony replies sourly, taking hold of Steve’s hand to more giggles, mostly from Jessica and goddamn Luke, of all people.
But it’s okay, Tony thinks as he pulls Steve back up to their room. Because at the end of the day, he’s the one who gets to be with Steve, and that’s all that really matters.
They have their first fight as a couple when Steve comes back from Bucky-hunting in London and finds that Tony’s shot himself up with Extremis.
Tony is excited to share the news at first. “Made some upgrades while you were away,” he says, and the undersheath flows out of his bones to envelop his body as the pieces of his armor attach themselves to him. The best thing about this, he thinks, is how covering his words takes nothing more than a thought now, but this particular benefit to Extremis isn’t one he plans on sharing with anyone.
The helmet gets put on last, and once it’s secured Tony immediately accesses the news outlets, unable to help but grin as he scrolls past the latest headlines. “You fought another Master Man, huh? Nice.”
But instead of looking awed or curious or even just neutral, Steve’s face goes pale, and he ends up dropping the duffel bag he’s holding, eyes wide. “What,” he asks in measured tones, “is this?”
Tony winces just a little, though it’s impossible to tell given that he’s in the suit. “It’s the future,” he says, because he doesn’t think Steve will take it very well if Tony refers to it as a virus. “I got upgraded, Steve. I’m faster. Stronger. We’re better-equipped than ever.” When Steve doesn’t say anything, continuing to glare at him instead, Tony adds, “Please. Your heart rate’s risen by twenty beats per minute since we’ve started this conversation. Calm down.”
“Calm down?” Steve repeats, and he’s really not sounding nearly as awed as Tony had hoped, his heart rate jumping still higher. “Twenty beats per minute? How can you even tell? What did you do to yourself?”
“I saved the world while you were vacationing in London!” Tony snaps back, stepping toward him in turn. “And for your information, the virus has a 97.5% fatality rate and I could have died—”
“—And you didn’t even think to tell me about this beforehand?”
“Should I be apologizing for being too busy taking down a terrorist?”
Steve groans, punching the doorframe in frustration, although he holds himself back just enough to not do any damage. Tony doesn’t say anything, watching as his display shows Steve’s heart rate slowly, slowly lowering. “Take off your mask,” Steve says at last.
The faceplate slides off, and they spend the next few minutes just staring at each other as Tony feels his own anger start to drain away. He badly wants to say something—to apologize after all—but he feels like maybe Steve should talk first.
Finally, Steve does. “I shouldn’t have shouted at you,” he says.
“I shouldn’t have either,” Tony admits.
Steve gives him a small smile, though it fades away as he speaks again. “I hate that you did something so dangerous to yourself—”
“How is it any different from what any of us do every single day of our lives?” Tony interjects, unable to help himself.
“Do we ever get into situations that are fatal 97.5% of the time?”
“We get into situations that are a hundred percent fatal sometimes, and here we are anyway!”
Steve opens his mouth to speak before quickly shutting it, rubbing his forehead. “I’m shouting again,” he mutters, taking a deep breath. “Okay. It happened and there’s no going back now. I just…” He sighs, and when he looks back at Tony, his eyes are sad. “I don’t understand what you did to yourself. And I’m not really sure I like it. I’m scared that this is going to hurt you somehow, and… I think that maybe we need a break.”
Tony blinks at him. “A break?” he repeats after a few moments.
“I’m sorry,” Steve says. He picks his duffel bag up and turns away. “I’ll be in my apartment if you need me. We’ll talk later.”
But I need you now, Tony thinks, but by the time he thinks to say the words out loud, Steve is already gone.
Steve gets upset with Tony a lot in the next couple of weeks. He reams him out when Tony technically kills the Crimson Dynamo (even though Tony started his heart up again just fine), complains when he seems to blow off a code red fight (which is probably completely in Steve’s head because it’s far more likely the logs are wrong than Tony somehow missing twenty-two minutes of his life), and yells at him for joking around when Steve is trying to ask him for help (ignoring the fact that the past couple of weeks have involved someone screwing with Tony’s brain and making him kill people, so if anyone has the right to joke around in an attempt to cope, it’s him).
It’s easy to be upset right back. Easy to try and ignore Steve, to try and justify himself—Steve’s the one who suggested the “break”, after all, so it’s not like Steve would care if Tony goes to do his own thing.
And it’s so easy to forget all of that when he flies into Times Square to see one of his own suits takes Steve down.
Tony and the suit fight. He’ll learn, eventually, how Yinsen’s kid managed to program the suit to turn against everybody, but not today. Not now. Right now the only thing that matters is bringing this hulking lump of metal down.
The problem is, he can’t seem to quite do that. The armor anticipates his every move, knowing Tony’s attacks before he even makes them. The only good thing is that he can anticipate the armor’s moves in turn, so it’ll be a draw—
Except for the part where the armor apparently knows Tony better than Tony knows himself, because mid-fight, it abruptly pulls away to pick Steve up by his head, crushing him. Repulsor beams are useless. Brute force will be easily countered. Tony has a split second to decide—me or Steve?
The choice is remarkably simple.
When Tony stops his heart, the other suit goes down as well, and he thinks to himself as the world blacks out around him that if he somehow makes it out of this alive, he can tell Steve see, I got into a hundred percent fatal situation and I made it out okay, and maybe also let Steve know that Tony—
When Tony comes to in a washed-out hospital room, Maya and Sal are there, telling him what happened in the aftermath and assuring him that none of this was his fault as Steve hovers anxiously outside. Tony accepts their reassurances as best he can—that is, not particularly well at all—and goes back to sleep, not because his body needs it, but because his mind does. He might not have been the one who decided to kill a bunch of people with his suits, but their blood is on his hands anyway.
The second time he comes around, it’s just Steve in the room, dozing quietly as one of his hands holds onto Tony’s own. But Steve must have been sleeping lightly and listening for the sounds of Tony’s breathing to change, because in the next second, he’s up too—and Tony almost never has a reason to think this, but right now, Steve really does look awful, face pale and eyes rimmed with red.
“Hi,” Tony finds himself saying.
“Hi,” Steve says back, breaking into a tired, but nonetheless dazzling smile, and Tony finds himself taking back whatever he’d been previously thinking about Steve looking awful. “You’re up.”
“Yeah,” Tony replies, not sure what else to say to that. He’s not even sure what Steve is doing here in the first place. Tony’s fine, after all, so Steve should be sleeping in a bed.
Steve lets out a soft laugh, sounding somewhat pained, and looks down as he squeezes Tony’s hand. “You killed yourself for me,” he says after a long moment.
“Yeah,” Tony repeats, because that’s pretty much what happened. He cracks a smile, squeezing Steve’s hand in return. “See? That was a completely fatal situation, but here I am. It’s fine.”
“It’s not fine,” Steve insists, but his words don’t have nearly the same amount of bite as they did when they were arguing weeks ago. “It’s just—God.” Anxiously, Steve runs his free hand through his hair, glancing away. Tony thinks he can see Steve’s eyes getting wet; Extremis tells him Steve’s pulse is rising. “It took thirty-seven minutes for the medics to jump-start your heart again. And in those thirty-seven minutes, I thought—what if you actually died, and the last thing I did was snipe at you over something stupid? How could I live with myself, when you’re the most important person in my life?”
“I am?” Tony blurts out.
Steve looks back at him. “We were on a break,” he says. “I didn’t break up with you. And… I don’t want to be on a break anymore, Tony. After what happened, and after thinking about what we do… you’re right. We get into dangerous situations all the time, and life’s too short to get upset over that. I’d rather spend my time being happy. With you, if you’ll have me back.”
A laugh bubbles out of Tony like he’s some sort of teenaged schoolgirl, and for a moment, he forgets about all the shit that went down in the past couple of weeks. “Idiot,” he says. “Get into my bed.”
“It’ll collapse,” Steve protests.
“It won’t,” Tony assures him, having looked up the specs to the hospital bed’s make and model before Steve had even finished saying collapse. “So don’t dawdle. You’re wasting valuable spooning time.”
So Steve gets in and spoons him as Tony curls back against him, basking in his warmth. For a while, Tony considers saying the three words he’s had on the tip of his tongue for—years now, maybe. But then he hears a soft snore from behind him, and the moment passes.
But it’s okay, he thinks. Steve’s happy. Tony’s happy. This is the way things should be, matching words or not. This is the way things should always be, and, God willing, will be the way things always are.
“I don’t think this registration thing is a good idea,” Steve tells him one evening as he sketches poppies in the fading sunlight, and Tony should have known then that this was too good to last.
When Steve goes underground, Tony doesn’t even hear about it until minutes after the fact—which, given that he has Extremis, is completely unacceptable. By the time he’s able to head out and look for him, Steve is long gone.
Damn it, Steve, he can’t help but think.
Fine, so maybe from what he’s heard, Hill acted too rashly, forced Steve’s hand. But that’s still no excuse for Steve vanishing and starting up a resistance movement. They’re a couple, for God’s sake. Steve should have just talked to him. Not only that, but Tony can’t for the life of him even understand why Steve is so against this in the first place. Steve likes responsibility and training young heroes. They should have been united on this.
And doesn’t Steve understand? Doesn’t anyone in the resistance understand? There are worse things than registration, things that would have happened if he hadn’t pushed this act through.
But alright. Whatever. If Steve doesn’t want to talk, Tony will make him talk, one way or another.
Tony traps him. Tony reboots when Steve tries to bring him down, and Tony beats him until Steve’s suit is torn and his skin is bloodied. When Steve still refuses to surrender, Tony has his guys activate their audio-blocks, bringing all the rebels down to their knees in agony.
“Look at you, you’re still getting up,” he tells Steve in the most condescending voice he can come up with, because while he misses Steve in his bed dearly, there’s no getting around the fact that Steve is the whole reason Tony is missing him in the first place. He’s so goddamn stubborn, and right now Tony hates that part of Steve more than anything in the world.
It didn’t have to be like this, Tony thinks, and he gets ready to take Steve down.
But then Hercules attacks and Sam flies Steve away as the Thor clone kills Goliath, and Tony loses his chance to make things right.
The next time Tony and Steve face off against each other, Steve has the upper hand, and now it’s Steve who’s beating into him relentlessly, chipping away at Tony’s armor with his shield.
Tony’s suit’s been compromised. He can’t fight back, and as he takes each blow, he wonders if Steve is thinking about everything they’ve shared. Who, he wonders, would have ever thought things would end this way?
Steve raises his shield for the killshot.
Strangely, Tony’s not afraid. Disappointed, maybe. Definitely sad. If only they’d talked earlier. If only Steve had joined him. If only Steve had just understood.
And then—the impossible happens. Steve Rogers, Captain America, surrenders.
“Tell me, ‘Director Stark’, tell me, was it worth it? Was it worth it?! Tell me!”
“Well… you’re a sore loser, Captain America.”
I thought—what if you actually died, and the last thing I did was snipe at you over something stupid? How could I live with myself, when you’re the most important person in my life?
How could I live with myself, when you’re the most important person in my life?
They cheated death so often and for so long, but it’s finally over. In the end, it wasn’t a cosmic entity or a murderous time-traveler who was responsible. It was three bullets: one through the back, two through the stomach, and just like that, the dream is dead.
“It wasn’t worth it,” Tony whispers, but the one person who needed to hear it most is lost to him forever.
Sharon finds Tony later, furious at him for sneaking Steve’s body out of the hospital without telling her—and like most of the world, she, too, blames Tony for his death, and perhaps rightly so. Somewhat more composed now—on the outside, at least—he manages to calm her down enough to show her what’s happened to Steve’s body, which is now suddenly, unexpectedly back to its pre-serum self. Her fury, however, starts up again almost seconds later as she rounds on him, looking murderous. “What did you do to him?”
Tony tries to explain. Tries to tell her that he didn’t do this, that he doesn’t know what happened, that he was trying to save them. “You think seeing him this way isn’t killing me?” he snaps when he’s done.
Sharon slaps him.
“Do you know,” she hisses, “what an honor it was to be a part of Steve’s life? He gave me that honor even though we both knew my words weren’t for him. And then we broke up and he gave you that honor, and I was happy for him because he was happy. But you wasted it. You wasted it! You killed him!”
She steps back then, chest heaving, eyes shining. “You don’t get to say that, Stark.”
With that, she turns and leaves, and Tony’s left alone in the examination room with Steve’s body.
“God,” he whispers to himself.
He tries to rationalize. Tries to tell himself that he’s not responsible. After all, he wasn’t the one who shot Steve. That was Crossbones and someone else. Besides which, there had been so many chances for Steve to do things differently. Steve shouldn’t have gone underground. He shouldn’t have tried to disable Tony’s armor the day Tony’s guys had led the rebels into a trap. He shouldn’t have been so damned stubborn about everything.
Maybe Tony should have never led them into a trap in the first place. Maybe he shouldn’t have threatened Steve. Maybe he should have just opened up earlier, instead of accommodating Namor and his paranoia and telling no one about his plans.
He puts his head in his hands, wishing he could get just a few moments of peace, but no matter how hard he tries to block everything out, he can still see Steve’s lifeless body whenever he closes his eyes. Finally, he gives up, going to the operating table to look at the real thing instead.
Steve looks so frail, so small. It’s hard to believe a man like this could have ever led the nation as Captain America, but that had always been part of the magic that was Steve Rogers. It wasn’t his height or his strength or even his shield that had made him so extraordinary—it was his fierce loyalty, his unwavering trust, his devotion to justice.
And now all of that is gone.
Though Tony can feel his eyes getting wet, he reaches out to touch Steve’s arm, trying to remember the last time he’d done this. It feels like a lifetime ago that the two of them had been so happy and content, ready to take whatever the world was going to throw at them. And the truth remains that no matter how agonizingly stubborn Steve was, no matter how often he’d refused to reconsider his position… Tony never wanted this. He’d wanted anything, anything but this.
He reaches Steve’s wrist, now missing the watch Tony had gotten so used to seeing there. Idly, he wonders where it went before he’s suddenly struck by a thought—the watch is gone. Tony can look at Steve’s words now, if he just flips his wrist over.
He shouldn’t. He really, really shouldn’t. Steve had never shown his words to anyone. But Steve is gone now, and Tony… Tony needs to know.
So he looks.
And there, in blood-red ink and in Tony’s own handwriting, are the words it wasn’t worth it.
“Oh, my God,” he breathes.
It was Tony. It had always been Tony. Did Steve ever know this? Had he ever had a chance to see Tony’s handwriting? After Sunset, Tony had become more careful about leaving things with his handwriting lying around. And he and Steve talked about their words so sparingly, it was hard to know what Steve’s thoughts were. All Tony’s ever known is that Steve didn’t like his words.
He thinks about his mother, killed in the car with the same make as the one on her wrist, and then he thinks of Steve, dead now because he’d gone to war with the man who had uttered the words on his own wrist mere hours ago, and Tony feels like he knows why Steve didn’t like them.
The words aren’t some sort of sweeping romantic sentiment. They’re warnings, omens, harbingers. They claimed his mother, and now they’ve claimed Steve as well.
And the worst part is, if Steve’s words are for Tony, then surely Tony’s own words are—
No. It’s too awful to think about.
He can’t bear to be in this room anymore. He turns Steve’s wrist back over and straightens before heading back out to the real world, hating himself for looking. He shouldn’t have, because now he knows—no matter how much he tries to dance around it, to rationalize it in his head, the truth remains that he killed Steve Rogers.
Tony attends—and fails to give a speech at—Steve’s funeral, which draws a crowd of thousands. He’s brought to his knees when the Watcher appears and shows him the perfect future that he’d let slip through his fingers. Then, finally, he and what’s left of the original Avengers—only Jan and Hank now—take Steve’s body to the Arctic. It’s here, after all, where Steve once found solitude in an ever-changing world, and so it’s here he should find it again.
He brings out the paper with the speech he failed to give earlier, managing to deliver it now without breaking down. When he gets to the part about Steve’s battle cry, though, he’s struck by a powerful memory of Steve rallying the Avengers back in their glory days, and the realization that he’ll never hear it again is so awful it brings him to his knees. Jan is by his side in an instant, placing one hand against his shoulder. “Do you need some time alone?” she asks softly.
“Please,” Tony whispers.
And so Jan and Hank retreat back into the quinjet as Tony leans forward, resting his head against the glass surface of Steve’s coffin and ignoring how cold it is. It’s almost ridiculous, he thinks, how much time he’s spent alone with Steve since his death, and yet he keeps on requesting more. But it’s not enough. It’ll never be enough. Tony had wanted forever, and in the end, all he’d gotten was a fraction of eternity. And now—now this is it. After this, he’ll never be able to spend another moment with Steve Rogers.
“There are things I couldn’t say even in front of just Jan and Hank,” Tony admits softly as he lets his eyes shut, pretending for a little while that Steve is sitting in front of him listening, alive and well. “Things I couldn’t say even in front of just myself earlier. But this is my last chance, and if I don’t say these things now, I know I’ll always regret it.”
He exhales sharply, trying to find the right words. “This—this is going to be so cliché. But I love you, Steve. I think maybe I fell in love that first time I took you to the poppy reserve and just—saw the way your face lit up. And I wish I had told you this when I had a chance, because you deserved to know you were loved. You deserved—you deserved better words, too. I’m sorry it was me. I’m sorry I hurt you. I screwed up.
“But that was—it was what made you so extraordinary, I think. You saw me, you knew all my strengths and all my flaws, you knew that sometimes I messed up and messed up bad, and still you thought I was a person worth knowing. Sometimes you saw things in me that I didn’t even see myself, and to this day I still don’t know how you did that. You made all our lives better just by being a part of it. Sharon said—she said that it was an honor, being with you. And she was right. It was an honor. And it kills me to know that no one will ever have that honor again. But even though that’s the case, I can promise you that I’ll always remember what you did for the world and the Avengers. What you did for me. You were, and will always be, the best of all of us.”
Tony opens his eyes then, and even though he expects it, it’s still a punch to the gut when he sees the coffin and not Steve. “I’ll never forget you,” he whispers, and then he pushes himself onto his feet.
As if on cue, Jan and Hank emerge from the quinjet and are joined shortly by Namor, who pulls Steve’s coffin into the water. If any of them notice the redness of Tony’s eyes or the wetness on his cheeks, they don’t say anything about it. “As long as I rule these oceans, Steve Rogers’ rest will go undisturbed,” Namor promises, and both he and the coffin vanish from the surface.
There is silence for a long moment before Jan steps up to stand beside Tony, looking down into the rippling ocean. “One era ends. And a new one begins. We’re going to have to accept that now, right, Tony?” she asks.
Tony watches the coffin sink deeper into the water and doesn’t say a word.
Tony realizes the thing he most feared is true days after Steve is laid to rest.
It’s just another day at S.H.I.E.L.D.—so far as S.H.I.E.L.D. days can ever be “just” another day—in which he delegates work, hands out assignments, and tells yet another agent that the shield and uniform are retired.
The agent leaves. A lawyer arrives.
“What’s this about?” Tony asks, and when the lawyer delivers a handwritten note containing the final wishes of Captain America, Tony’s heart nearly stops beating.
For Tony Stark only, reads the envelope in what seems like an almost intimate, comforting script, and Tony finds himself almost afraid to find out just why the handwriting looks so familiar.
He reads the note. Then he takes a deep breath, thanks the lawyer for delivering it to him, and reads it again after the lawyer leaves. It’s not terribly long, and for the most part, it’s exactly what he expected from Steve: a request to save Bucky and to keep Captain America alive.
But that isn’t all.
There are three words I’ve wanted to tell you for some time, Steve writes. But I was too cowardly, and if you’re reading this now, too late. I wish I’d told you earlier. Maybe things wouldn’t have gotten so bad if I’d been more open with you. Either way, no matter how wrong and stubborn I think you are right now, those words remain true, and I trust you to do what needs to be done.
Don’t let the dream die, Tony.
Yours, finishes the note, Steve Rogers.
Tony’s hands are shaking as he puts the paper down, feeling sick to his stomach. Yours, Steve had wrote, even during the heat of the war. In something of a trance, he has Extremis remove the covering he’d put over his wrist, watching the metal slide back under his skin until his words—fainter than he can remember them being—come back into view. Once they’re visible, they confirm the one thing he’d feared since seeing his own handwriting on Steve’s wrist all those days ago: this handwriting is Steve’s. The Thomas Paine quote is about Steve. According to whatever cosmic forces that be, Tony was Steve’s soulmate, Steve was Tony’s own, and Tony was too much of a goddamn idiot to realize this until it was far too late.
And Steve—Steve had loved him, even if he hadn’t explicitly spelled the words out. Him! A hot mess of neuroses and personal issues from his youth—
And Tony had returned his love by killing him.
He’d finally found the soulmate he’d convinced himself was just a myth for so many years, and he might as well have been the one to pull the trigger on him.
“Oh, God,” Tony breathes into his hands, and no matter how many times he weeps over Steve Rogers and thinks it’ll be the last time, he’s wrong, he’s always, always wrong.
And life slowly, agonizingly goes on. Tony has nightmares every time he falls asleep. He hallucinates Steve’s presence when he’s awake. The words on his wrist burn and itch even though Extremis tells him that part of his body is no different from any other.
“I’m worried about you,” Rhodey tells him over the phone one day, and the tone of his voice makes it sound like he’s plotting to fly in from Camp Hammond to ambush Tony and make sure he’s doing alright any second now.
“I’m fine,” Tony tells him, even though he’s not and hasn’t been since the day Steve died on those courthouse steps. But Rhodey has duties, important duties that Tony fought for, and Tony can’t have him abandoning them to babysit him. “So anyway, how’s your sex life?”
Rhodey groans loudly. “You’re not okay if you’re quoting The Room at me,” he says, and despite everything, Tony manages a snicker. “Come on. Dish it.”
“There’s nothing to dish,” Tony insists. He could, of course, tell Rhodey that he’s finally found who his words belong to—but it’s such a source of shame and sorrow that he doesn’t think he can ever tell anyone about it, and so he doesn’t. “Get back to work. I’m looking at the security feeds and it seems like Hank’s looking for you.” Technically a lie, but a thought is all that’s needed to make Hank think there’s something going on in the room Rhodey’s in, and that’s enough.
“This isn’t over, Tony,” Rhodey says, but he reluctantly hangs up.
And this is the way things are, for a while. Tony rotates between running S.H.I.E.L.D., performing superheroics, monitoring Bucky—who, for Steve’s sake, he’s appointed to be the new Captain America—and waking up in the middle of the night screaming. His friends and teammates will occasionally—frequently—express worry, and Tony will brush them off.
He wonders, sometimes, after fighting off yet another deranged son of a man from his past, when things are going to get better.
The simple answer: not anytime soon, because things get worse instead.
The Skrulls invade. Extremis is shut down. Tony loses his position as head of both the Avengers and S.H.I.E.L.D, and Norman Osborn, of all people, is appointed to take his place instead. Everything goes to hell, and Hank blames Tony. And even if Thor, Clint, and Hulk are miraculously, wonderfully back—they all blame him too.
When Tony comes to the realization that he has to delete his mind in order to protect the superhuman database from falling into Osborn’s hands, somehow the knowledge that he’ll be forgetting all of this doesn’t disappoint him as much as he might think.
“I need you to get a hard drive I left in Texas and give it to the new Captain America,” he tells Maria Hill.
No one knows this yet, but the drive is a backup he created shortly after being injected with Extremis. When he loses everything, he’ll be able to reboot with this. The good news? It has nothing about the superhuman civil war or registration, and therefore nothing Osborn can use. The bad news? It has nothing about the superhuman civil war or registration.
He won’t remember Steve’s death.
The awful, self-centered part of him tells himself that this is actually good news. The weight of Steve’s death has been crushing him for days, weeks, months now, and it would be such a relief for it to disappear, if only until his rebooted self reads the news again. But the weight should be there. He killed Steve, and it’s—it’s sick and wrong to run away from that. He should remember. He has to remember.
It doesn’t matter, he supposes. The hard drive is what it is and he can’t change anything either way.
“Trigger the protocols,” he says to Pepper and Maria once everything is ready, and then he starts the long, slow process of brain death.
Tony goes on the run, moving from New York to Los Angeles to France to Russia to Kazakhstan as his memories trickle away from him. Pepper finds and joins him at one point, but Tony has to leave her behind when they’re attacked, and the guilt of his actions weighs heavily down upon him. Dimly, he remembers that there’s something else that had been weighing down on him too, but he can no longer recall the specifics.
He should confess to Steve about what he did, he thinks.
Dear Steve, he writes in an email.
I do not think I told you but I had to deleet my memorys because bad men wanted what is in my head. There are some left still but those are going away too. Anyway I had to tell you that Madam Mask found me and Pepper while we were hiding and I had to run away because it would be bad if I got cot but I still feel reel bad because I know you would never leave a man behind. Plees forgive me Steve.
Also I will forget about you soon and I am reel sorry for that. Plees forgive me for that too. I know we fot a little while ago and I thot I should tell you that it was not worth it. But I miss you and I love you a lot and even when I forget renember for me ok? I am counting on you Cap. You make me the most happy.
Love you forever. Tony.
He hits send, and then he goes back on the run.
Tony gets rebooted.
Once he’s up and running again, he’s taken to the hospital as Pepper, Maria, and Rhodey all fill him in on what’s happened—Skrulls invading, the fight with Osborn, transporting Tony to Oklahoma, rebooting him with a combination of Pepper’s electromagnetic generator, Steve’s shield, and Thor’s hammer—but he finds himself more interested in what they aren’t saying than what they are.
“Where’s Steve?” he demands, because if the shield was here, then so was Steve, and if Steve’s around, then he’ll want to see Tony, won’t he?
The three of them glance at each other and change the subject, acting so thoroughly obvious about it that he’d go and shake each of them if he were feeling stronger.
But he’s not, so he doesn’t, and eventually he pretends to fall asleep so that they’ll go off and do other things. Once the room is empty, Tony gets up and finds a computer and looks for everything that happened since the backup was made.
Captain America Assassinated, reads the headline.
“Oh, my God,” Tony breathes.
And so he learns the awful, terrible truth. He learns about the registration act, learns about how he believed in it so much he went to war with Steve over it. He learns about clone Thor and Bill Foster and the anti-registration side’s surrender, and then he learns about the day Steve Rogers was murdered with tomato on his face and power-dampening shackles around his wrists.
Then he goes and reads the full text of the act, and when he’s done, he reads it again, and—
He doesn’t get it.
He doesn’t understand how on earth a damned piece of legislation was worth more to him than Steve’s life.
Even the more recent news of Steve suddenly, miraculously being back doesn’t manage to lessen how awful he feels. Steve had died. He’s alive now, but for over a year, he’d been gone. And it’s Tony’s fault.
No wonder Steve isn’t here anymore. No wonder he just went and left after helping Tony reboot. Steve must hate him, and it’s not hard to understand why.
After Tony’s done reading everything, after he’s done heaving into the trash can and scratching at words that have turned red and inflamed against his wrist, he thinks about one of the most recent memories his backup contains—of the two of them lying in a field of golden poppies and staring up at a sea of stars, a memory in which he’d had everything he’d ever needed or wanted—and then he puts his head in his hands and cries.
Tony doesn’t see Steve again until he finds himself in Asgard, battling Osborn and his goons. It’s hard, he thinks, pretending everything’s okay when everything isn’t, but he has to try. Despite everything that’s happened, though, he and Cap still work remarkably well together in battle, and when the fight is finally won, Steve pulls him aside, eyes shining. “You were amazing up there,” Steve says, and for a second, Tony can’t remember how to breathe with Steve looking at him like that.
Things are different now, he reminds himself. “Yeah. Well. You too,” he tells Steve.
For a long while, they look at each other in silence, and Tony can only imagine what Steve is thinking. Then someone calls for Captain America, so Steve reaches out briefly, touching Tony’s shoulder. “Let’s talk later.”
“Okay,” Tony says, and as he watches Steve go, he thinks he knows what he has to do.
Steve becomes the new top cop, and his first order of business is to throw out the Superhuman Registration Act. His second is to reform the Avengers and give Luke Cage his own team. “You can’t have Thor or Iron Man,” Steve says to Luke with a smile, and Tony feels a little twist of guilt in his stomach.
As everyone socializes, Tony slips back inside the tower, gathering some of the personal belongings he’d left behind earlier. Not that any of these things are even particularly important, but somehow, the act of doing this gives things an air of… finality. And right now, that’s just what he’s looking for.
“Tony?” comes a voice from behind him, and Tony tries not to appear too guilty as he turns around to see Steve looking at him with concern. “What are you doing?”
Tony glances down at the vase in his hand. “Admiring art?” he tries.
Steve frowns, and Tony can see the other man putting the pieces together in his head. “You’re getting your things and leaving,” he accuses after a moment. “I thought we were going to talk.”
“We were,” Tony replies. “I was going to tell you during the talk, so I guess that means this is the talk now.”
His weak attempt at levity or whatever the hell it was isn’t appreciated by Steve, whose frown deepens. “You agreed to join the Avengers,” he says. “You talked Luke into it. Why are you suddenly out?”
Isn’t it obvious? Tony can’t help but think, though he doesn’t voice the thought out loud. Not yet, anyway. “I was never in in the first place,” he says. “Remember how the Avengers first formed after the breakout? I technically didn’t agree to that, either.”
Steve sighs, running a hand through his hair. “But you went along with it anyway back then. What’s different this time?”
Tony really doesn’t want to say it, but it doesn’t seem like he has much of a choice. “Look at us, Steve,” he says, jabbing a finger at him. “Look at us standing here and trying to pretend everything is normal by talking about the Avengers. But everything’s not normal, and you know it. I hurt you. I can’t even remember it, but I hurt you and you died because of it, and meanwhile my last memory of you is us being happy together. I look at you and all I see are the mistakes—”
“We’ve all made mistakes,” Steve says. “Tony, it’s all over now. It happened. And I still want you on the team.”
Tony exhales sharply, glancing off to the side. “…I killed you, Steve,” he says. He might not remember the specifics, but the videos of the assassination he’d seen nonetheless haunt him every night.
Steve doesn’t reply for a while, but then he leans forward and pinches Tony along the jaw. “Hey!” Tony yelps, jerking away. “What was that for?”
“I was seeing if you had a big red skull under your face,” Steve says seriously. “Since you’re going on about killing me and all. But you don’t, so you don’t get to say these things.” He pulls back, gazing at him. “You’re right, Tony. Things aren’t normal. A lot—a lot happened between us, and some of it is hard to put away. But we’re Avengers, and the world needs us to stand together.”
Tony looks away again. “Well, maybe actual talking would be better than aggressive normalcy,” he says after a long moment, and before he knows it, he’s turning back to Steve, words tumbling out of his mouth. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry I hurt you and I’m sorry I can’t even remember exactly what I did to hurt you. I was—I was supposed to trust you, but I didn’t, and that was wrong. And I know that these are just words and they’re not even close to ever being enough, but… someday I hope I’ll be able to make things right with you.”
Steve stares at him for a moment, and in the silence Tony can’t help but fear that he said something wrong. “I know,” he says at last, and for some reason, his hand strays down to rub at the wrist with the watch on it. “Tony… that was what I wanted to talk about, actually. Making things right. Between us.”
“Us?” Tony repeats faintly. “There’s no ‘us’.” He’d destroyed that during the war.
“Right now, no, there isn’t.” Steve gives a small shrug, looking thoughtful. “But… you sent me an email earlier. While you were deleting your brain, I think. And it made me realize something.”
Tony can’t imagine what he might have written while in the process of losing his mind. It probably wasn’t good, whatever it was. “You forgive me?” he asks, half teasing.
“No,” Steve says, and Tony can’t help but deflate a little. That would have been too easy, and Tony doesn’t deserve it, anyway. Nonetheless, Steve stops rubbing at his wrist, taking Tony’s hand instead. “But I miss you, Tony. I miss what we had before… everything happened. And I think with time and effort, we can get it back. And you’re worth that effort.”
“Steve…” Everything in Tony wants to say yes, especially the part of his mind that can’t even remember the relationship going to hell between the two of them, the part of his mind that loves Steve more than anything. But just because he can’t remember doesn’t mean he doesn’t know what happened, and… he just can’t. If he stays, he’ll find some way to hurt Steve even worse. “I’m sorry,” he says again, and he forces himself to keep his gaze on Steve even as the other man’s face falls. “It’s like you said. There’s a lot between us, and between that and half the people here still pissed at me and everything going on with the company, I can’t stay here. I have to go.”
“Go where?” Steve asks, voice soft like he’s afraid to hear the answer.
“Los Angeles,” Tony replies, and he tries not to flinch when Steve’s shoulders slump. “We still have phones and emails. And anyway, it’s just a quinjet ride away.” They had, after all, spent several quinjet rides going to and from the poppy reserve once. It feels like a lifetime ago, and maybe that’s because it is.
He gets the feeling Steve is thinking about the poppy reserve too, but the other man continues to look glum anyway. “It’s not the same.”
“That’s the point,” Tony says as gently as he can. “Steve, if Thanos or Galactus or whoever comes here, I’ve got your back. And you’ll have access to all my resources. Once an Avenger, always an Avenger. That’s what you always say, right? I just… need to be on my own for now.”
Steve still isn’t happy about this, Tony can tell, but he eventually nods. “Okay,” he says. “When are you leaving?”
“When we’re done here,” Tony says.
“Oh,” Steve replies, and before Tony knows it, he’s being hugged tight. After a moment of consideration, Tony hugs Steve back, breathing in deep and holding on like his life depends on it. God, he’s missed this sort of closeness. “I’m sorry too,” Steve tells him, his voice muffled against Tony’s shoulder. “It’s easy not to take any blame when I’m the one who died. But I messed up. It didn’t have to be like this.” He sighs, going quiet for a second. “I hope you find what you’re looking for. And then you can come back, right?”
I’m not coming back, Tony thinks, but he nonetheless nods, his grip tightening for a moment. “Right,” he says quietly.
Eventually, they pull apart—Tony with great reluctance—and look at each other for a long moment. Tony resists the urge to kiss him. “Don’t tell anyone until I’m gone,” he says instead.
“Okay,” Steve says, and the word is barely a whisper. “I’ll miss you, Tony.”
“Yeah,” Tony replies, committing Steve’s image to memory as he stands here now, looking noble and beautiful and alive. He takes Steve’s hand and clasps it, and then he turns away and leaves without looking back.
The years pass. Stark Industries rebuilds and thrives in Los Angeles. The Avengers, Tony hears, similarly thrive in New York.
But it’s not like Tony never sees any of them again. The world is threatened by galactic enemies on a frighteningly normal basis, and whenever that happens he suits up, flies over, and helps out as best as he can before heading back to L.A.
“You want to grab lunch?” Steve asks as they stand in the rubble after defeating one such threat, chin smudged with dirt.
“Can I get a rain check on that?” Tony replies, and he flies off into the air before Steve has a chance to reply.
Of course, they never do grab lunch. It’s much easier, Tony finds, to ignore the way Steve makes his chest constrict when they’re separated by over two thousand miles of land.
And yet somehow, Steve manages to worm his way into Tony’s heart anyway. He’ll send Tony emails sometimes, usually about what the team’s been up to or about a great new diner he discovered that serves the perfect apple pie (and adding that next time Tony’s in town, they should really go eat there). Sometimes the emails will have links to search engines displaying the results for when he searches the Avengers and wants to show them off for whatever reason. (Why are you using Lycos? Use Google. Or at least Yahoo, Tony writes. I know those are better. But they don’t have a dog in the logo, Steve replies, and Tony doesn’t know if he should laugh or cry.)
In return, Tony writes Steve emails as well, sometimes about whatever supervillains he runs into here on the west coast and sometimes about whatever he and the company have been doing. He brings up the people he’s dating once or twice, writing about how maybe he’ll have better luck with his words on this side of the country, but drops it after Steve pointedly ignores the topic in his replies. Every now and then, one of them will mention the past. Every now and then, one of them will mention regret.
Forgiveness never does come in any of these emails, and Tony doesn’t expect it to. But despite this, eventually he starts to feel like—like they’re actually friends again. If he’s being honest with himself, their earliest emails were forced and awkward, as was bound to happen when one of them was indirectly responsible for the death of the other. Now, though, the banter is loose and easy between them, and Tony’s starting to feel like he can confide in Steve about anything.
Well. Almost anything.
There are, as there have always been, three words Tony has kept close to his heart. Three words he wants to say so badly, but he never will. He’s afraid, he thinks. After Rumiko, maybe it’s best if he saves them for the person his words are for. And he wonders, sometimes, if Steve is that person—but surely the universe wasn’t so cruel as to bind Tony to him. After all, how many people have killed their own soulmates?
And besides, even if Steve is, what does it matter? He thinks of Happy and Pepper, Hank and Jan, Firestar and Justice. Happy and Jan are dead. Firestar and Justice have broken up. Their fated words were no guarantee of happiness.
Forget saving them for the person his words are for. Ignoring them altogether—that’s the way to go. Isn’t that, after all, what he’d decided on so long ago when he’d been burned as a teenager?
For a long time, he’s able to do just that.
For a long time goes right out the window the day he hears Steve’s been shot again.
He’s sleeping when his Avengers card, which he keeps mostly out of habit, goes off, and when he turns it on, Carol’s voice, sounding calm but restrained, becomes audible. “Tony?” she asks. “Is that you?”
“Yeah,” Tony replies, bolting out of bed. If the Avengers are calling him now, something bad is going on and they need his help. “What’s happening?”
“Stay calm,” Carol replies, which confuses Tony until she continues, “but Steve’s been shot.”
“Oh, my God,” Tony breathes, and right now he’s feeling the exact opposite of calm, running to his lab so he can suit up. “Where is he now? How’d he get shot? Did you get whoever did it?”
He’s already in the air by the time Carol gives him the hospital name and room, soaring across the country as she tells him the details. Apparently Steve had been taking a late-night walk when he’d encountered a gang fight and broken them up, and from there one of the victims, still frightened, had shot him at close range. “Can you believe it?” Carol asks when she’s done. “The guy’s fought Kang. Ultron. The Red Skull. And in the end, it’s some civilian kid that gets the drop on him.”
And yet—Tony can believe it. It had happened once, Steve told him, the day he’d been found in the ice. He’d gotten out of their sub, left to save a girl, and then she’d shot him. He’d been okay back then, Tony remembers, and he tries to convince himself that Steve will be okay now.
“It’s too soon to tell,” Carol says.
She gives him updates as he flies, the low chatter of hospital staff audible in the background. Steve goes into surgery, she tells him. Ten minutes later, she adds that he’s still in surgery, but they’ve located all the bullet fragments in his body, some of which are embedded in major organs. She tells him when each and every piece is removed.
“Since when do surgeons give bystanders play-by-play updates?” Tony quips weakly at one point.
“Being Captain Marvel has its perks,” comes the answer.
When Tony finally lands in front of the hospital, he’s mentally exhausted, his mind fraught with worry for Steve’s well-being. According to Carol’s last update, Steve’s tentatively okay, but his accelerated healing abilities make surgery more difficult than it should be. Tony stomps up to Steve’s floor still in his suit, intent on pushing his way into the operating room and—and glaring at the bullet pieces until they pop out of Steve on their own accord, maybe.
Suddenly, though, Carol’s there, placing a hand against his shoulder. “Easy,” she says. “Don’t go barreling in now after you took your sweet time getting here.”
“I crossed the country in two hours,” Tony replies irritably, the faceplate sliding off. Some of the hospital staff glance at him as they walk by, but mostly they leave him alone, which is good because he doesn’t want to talk to anyone, but bad because he wants more updates. “How’s Steve?”
Carol taps her card. “He’s fine, which you’d know if you hadn’t been ignoring your transmissions for the last five minutes. He’ll be out of surgery soon. The others are in the waiting room, if you want to see them.”
“Thank God,” Tony murmurs when he hears the good news. As for seeing the others, though… he’s not so sure about that. It’s not—it’s not that he doesn’t like them, or anything like that. But he’s not connected to them the way he used to be; Carol and Steve are two of the few Avengers he’d kept in regular contact with since leaving. “I’ll stay here,” he says.
“Okay,” Carol says, and for a while, the two of them stand in the hall in silence, interrupted only by the occasional surgery updates.
Then, finally, a nurse comes out and tells them that the surgery’s over. Carol pulls Tony off to the side as Steve is pushed out and wheeled into his room, his eyes shut and face slack. It occurs to Tony that this is the first time he’s seen Steve’s face without the mask up close like this in… years, really, and despite age adding lines to his skin and drugs making his expression loose, Tony finds him as devastatingly handsome as ever.
He suddenly wonders if coming here was a good idea.
“He’ll be okay, then?” Tony asks the lead surgeon as she comes out, and she nods, somewhat pointedly telling him that Steve will recover quickly as long as he doesn’t immediately run off to battle. Behind him, he hears Carol snort, but the news is so good to hear that he feels his knees buckle, and he has to reach out to support himself against the wall. Thank God, he repeats to himself over and over. Steve’s okay. He’s out of the woods. A bullet didn’t take his life away again.
Now that he knows, though… “I should go,” he says, because right now he’s standing here and staring at Steve through the glass wall, and if he doesn’t make himself leave, he never will.
Carol frowns, taking hold of his arm again. “Already? You didn’t even get a chance to talk.”
Something about the way she says those words catches Tony’s attention, and he blinks, glancing back at her. “Why did you call me, Carol?”
Carol rolls her eyes. “Gee, I don’t know. Was it maybe because—oh, oh, I’ve got it—you’re friends? Am I right? Did I get that?”
“Spill it,” Tony demands, ignoring her sarcasm because he can tell she’s still hiding something. “You’re plotting something.”
“I don’t plot,” Carol protests. “That would require thinking first and acting later.”
They stare at each other. Finally, Carol huffs and crosses her arms. “You haven’t spent time in person with Steve in a decade. And no, joining us to fight off Galactus once a year doesn’t count. He misses you, Tony. It’s obvious to anyone with eyes. Even more obvious when he comes up to me at least once a week and mopes about how his best pal is ignoring him, which is really awkward when I know you still find the time to take me out to lunch.”
Tony blinks again. “What?” he manages at last. Steve’s surrounded by friends and has plenty of things to do. He doesn’t need to waste time moping. “I’m not ignoring him. We email. Besides, if he wants to see me so badly, he knows where I live.”
“You really think he hasn’t flown in to see you even once since you left?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Tony says, but inside, he’s painfully aware of what she’s saying. Of course he knows. He’s known of every single time Steve has approached his office and his home. He has to, in order to hide himself away so that he doesn’t have to look at him.
But Carol wouldn’t understand. She’d sided with Tony all those years ago, when things had gone so horribly wrong, but she’d never shouldered the regret and pain of what had happened, nor did she ever have any reason to. After all, it wasn’t she who had given the order to lock Steve up in power-dampening cuffs the day he’d died. It wasn’t she who woke up in the middle of the night, dreaming of Steve’s blood dripping off her hands.
It’s almost ridiculous, how much events in the distant past that he can’t even remember still haunt him.
Carol levels her gaze at him, eyes hard. “I think you do,” she says after sizing him up. “And I think you two need to talk.”
Tony looks away, back through the glass wall to where Steve is, then abruptly realizes that Steve’s awake and is looking right at him.
Their eyes meet.
“I have to go,” he says, bringing the faceplate down, and before anyone can stop him, he’s out a window and flying west, feeling grateful when he doesn’t hear the sound of Carol pursuing him.
Two hours later, he’s back in California, but he doesn’t land on the roof of his office or his home. Instead, he finds himself in the poppy reserve he and Steve had spent so much time in back when things had been so perfect, and that’s where he ultimately lands.
He shouldn’t be here, he knows. This place holds some of his best memories, and, in a way, his worst. But he’d been so damn close to Steve earlier, separated only by a sheet of glass, and he can’t help himself. Before he knows it, he’s removing his helmet and tossing it carelessly aside, closing his eyes and breathing in deep. Mostly he smells California poppies, but if he just imagines hard enough, he can smell the soap Steve uses and feel his warmth beside him.
Tony doesn’t know how long he ends up standing there, eyes shut as dawn approaches, but it’s long enough that when he opens his eyes and doesn’t see Steve in front of him, it feels like a punch to the gut.
He shouldn’t be here, he reminds himself.
Nonetheless, he bends down, plucking a couple of flowers off the ground, and he tries to remember the way Steve would look at them so intently, brow furrowed before he put his pencil to paper and began to sketch them.
“Steve,” he whispers, and God, it hurts, how much Tony misses him.
He doesn’t realize anyone’s nearby until a crutch comes out of nowhere and prods him in the back. “What—” he manages, and while he doesn’t jump, he does drop the flowers, whirring around and taking a step back, and that’s when his heart leaps to his throat and doesn’t budge an inch.
“I thought you’d be here,” Steve says as he hobbles closer on his crutches, and for a moment, Tony considers running away again. But he can’t. Not here. “Though I’ve thought this in the past, too. But this is the first time I got here in time to prove myself right.”
“You should be in the hospital,” Tony blurts out, because it’s true. Steve had been shot mere hours ago. He’d been in intensive surgery. “Did you fly here alone?”
“Yes,” Steve says, and he nods in the direction of the quinjet, which Tony can see is parked some distance away. Before Tony can ask what on earth he’s doing, though, Steve carefully sits down and brings out a sketchbook.
After a moment of consideration, Tony sits down as well and looks over at Steve, who has picked up one of the fallen poppies to examine it, and he wonders if he should laugh. Probably not. Still, to know that Steve has sought him out here of all places, bringing a sketchbook so he can draw flowers, is absurd. But Steve doesn’t comment on it, and so Tony remains silent as well, trying not to think of the fact that if the wind blows just right, he can smell Steve’s soap all over again.
It’s been ten years, he thinks. Ten years since he sat this close to Steve, neither of them wearing a mask or having to worry about an oncoming battle.
Twelve years since he and Steve had sat here in this poppy field, the flowers a brilliant orange in the fading sunlight as Tony held his hand and bit back the words on his tongue.
Eighteen years since he had first brought Steve here in the first place, watching his eyes light up in surprise and delight and finding himself inevitably, irrevocably, falling in love.
Well over twenty years since he had found Steve Rogers frozen in the ice.
Tony finds it a little worrisome at how he still easily pegs that day as the greatest in his life.
“Why are you here?” he finally asks after a long moment.
The pencil doesn’t slow, though Steve’s eyes flicker toward Tony briefly. “Is there somewhere else I should be?”
Tony has several answers for that. The east coast. New York. The hospital. Eventually, though, he tries, “Home?”
“I am home.”
It’s so cliché, so overly sappy, that a part of Tony almost wants to burst out in laughter, but somehow, he doesn’t—maybe because the other part of him can’t understand why Steve is saying these things. They’d been together once upon a time, but they’re just friends now. Good friends, true. Maybe best friends, even—and he’s all too aware of just how damned lucky he is to have had this chance to become so close to Steve again. But friendship is where it ends, and he doesn’t get how Steve seems to think differently.
Tony doesn’t reply. Steve seems content to let the conversation drop, going back to his drawing as Tony stares up at the pre-dawn sky. He gets the feeling that Steve is stealing glances at him every now and then, but strangely, he doesn’t find it awkward. He’s used to people looking at him, after all, but with others, there’d always been an undercurrent of tension, of fearing that the only reason they were looking was so they could be there when he screwed up—and he’s screwed up a lot. But with Steve, it’s different. Things have always been different where Steve is concerned, he thinks.
Eventually, Steve speaks again, voice low. “Remember when you found me in the ice?”
“Perfectly,” Tony replies without a second of hesitation. He attempts a smile, looking back at him. “I remember that you called Radiohead ‘Head Radio’ and almost took Hank’s head off with your shield.”
“Yeah,” Steve says, smiling slightly in return. “But I was thinking about what happened after that.”
“No,” murmurs Steve, and he reaches forward, taking Tony’s hand in his own. “I was remembering the part where you gave me a home.”
Tony’s breath catches as he senses the weight of Steve’s hand against his armor. He can’t actually feel it, but nonetheless, his skin seems to burn where Steve is touching him. “There’s a lot of other things that’s happened since then that you should be remembering,” he can’t help but say.
“Should there?” Steve asks quietly. When Tony opens his mouth to reply, Steve reaches up with his other hand, placing a finger over Tony’s lips, and Tony goes silent. “Ten years,” he says, “is a long time to punish yourself.”
“I’m not punishing myself,” Tony whispers against Steve’s finger.
“That’s a lie.”
It is, but Tony doesn’t want to admit it. He turns away.
Steve removes his finger, but instead of pulling back, he places both his hands against Tony’s cheeks, cupping his face and making their eyes meet again. “You’re punishing yourself because you still blame yourself for things that happened a decade ago and you want my forgiveness,” he says bluntly, and Tony tries not to wince at how much his words ring true. “Well, you have it.”
Tony blinks at him, his heart skipping a beat or two or three. “What?” he manages at last. He can’t have heard right. This is what he’s been wanting to hear for ten years, but he’s always, always known that he never will be able to, because—because he doesn’t deserve it. He did a terrible thing, and it’s only right for it to go unforgiven for the rest of his life.
“I forgive you,” Steve says, and then he lets go of him and goes back to sketching.
Tony looks at Steve half in bewilderment and half in wonder, feeling like a weight’s been lifted off his chest. Steve forgives him, he thinks. Steve knows about the awful things he’s done and he’s still granted him absolution. “Thank you,” he whispers, not knowing what else he could possibly say, and Steve gives him a quirk of the lips in response.
And so they fall silent again, but Tony breathes easier now as he finds himself laying back on the ground, barely noticing when Steve lays down beside him, and then he remembers what Steve had told him earlier. He’s home, Steve had said, even though he’s sitting on the opposite side of the country in a poppy reserve owned by the government.
Over twenty years of history, Tony thinks.
He turns to look at Steve, who’s just gazing at him in silence, and once more he’s struck by how comfortable all of this is. Steve’s seen him at his worst and at his best, and still he’s here, one of the few people Tony never did manage to drive away. There are still the same three words on the tip of his tongue as they’ve always been, but somehow, as Tony gazes back at Steve, he suddenly realizes that there’s no need to say them out loud.
“You were worth it,” Steve says.
He seems to be referencing something, but Tony doesn’t know what. It doesn’t matter. None of that matters because now they’re kissing, and just like that, Tony knows with exquisite clarity that the words he’s carried on his wrist for his entire life are for no one else but Steve Rogers, and he knows with equal certainty that if he were to look at Steve’s wrist at this very moment, he’d see his own handwriting looking back at him.
And yet—it’s not the earth-shattering revelation he had thought it would be. He’s spent so long obsessing over not obsessing over his words that they hardly matter to him—and that’s the way it should be. The words have never mattered. It’s like what Rumiko had told him once, years and years ago: if this is who he wants to spend his life with, it’s because this is what he chooses, and the words are nothing more than a reflection of reality.
“Come back to New York with me?” Steve asks when they’re done, and as the light of dawn makes his eyes shine a brilliant blue and throws into relief nearly fifty years’ worth of frown lines and smile wrinkles, Tony thinks he’s never been more beautiful.
“Anything for you,” Tony replies, and he leans forward to capture his lips again.
Steve is his hardest conflict and his most glorious triumph, and this is who Tony chooses.
It’ll always be Steve.