He was still shaken, when Maria approached him. The armor hummed loudly and he had a hard time concentrating on anything. In many ways it was a blessing that none of his friends were around to see, none of the people who knew him better than to buy his perfectly studied calm.
In the background, all the news programs were buzzing past him, Extremis sorting through them at the blinding speed they were popping up with. He still felt like a truck had hit him in mid flight while the footage of Steve crashing his shield down on the armor’s throat over and over again while Tony had stopped moving altogether repeated over and over again. He didn’t want to see it anymore, but he needed to know what the media was saying. He let Extremis run analysis and tried to get his mind on the problem at hand.
Steve would go on trial. People were rallying for and against him. The country seemed as shaken by the footage as Tony was feeling after all that had happened.
Another repeat popped up right in front of his eyes and he tuned out the commentary, saw that last moment when Steve came back to himself and the anger vanished suddenly, made room for the Steve he knew, stubbornly doing the right thing. He watched as he stood down and turned himself in, while people were trying to help him up.
The only thing going through his own mind at seeing it from the outside was: I made him do that. I wanted him not to have to give up who he was and that’s what I did to him.
He still couldn’t quite believe that Steve had hated him enough in that moment to let it go that far, although he knew there were things that he had done and caused that were unforgivable. People had died, because of him.
Well, Tony thought and tried to shake himself, you finally made him see the true self. You always knew it was too good to be true, Tony. Now Captain America wants to kill you.
And he had held back, because he was Captain America. He had not given into his hate.
Half an hour later Tony changed the armor against a black business suit, looked himself over in the mirror to make sure there were no bruises on his face, and walked past a line of SHIELD agents, his head held high to meet the friend he had wanted to talk so desperately and now didn’t know how to talk to anymore.
* * *
Nothing really mattered anymore, but he knew he would have to get up and go out and go on eventually.
He owed it to Steve.
* * *
If he would ever have to take drastic measures, surely he would get what he deserved and wouldn’t that be fitting? What he deserved was to have the lines of Steve’s dead body, his blood on the pavement, the hate in his eyes, the last few times he looked at Tony, forever edged into his memory.
* * *
But he was alive and breathing.
And Steve was back too.
He dragged himself up from the bed to take his own first steps into a messed up world and piece together where that left him.
* * *
Not that Tony was complaining about that part… or wearing much more. He could be sure that Steve was at least wearing boxers underneath his jeans, which was something Tony just hadn’t even bothered with. He had slipped on the first comfortable pair of trackpants he had found, because he had a feeling he would be losing them again soon anyway.
Trying not to jump ahead, he took another sip.
“So?” Steve asked. “Are we living together?”
Tony, still a bit sore, but much too comfortable after sex, contemplated the question and all the strange conflicted feelings it brought up. “I don’t know? Half the time I’m not even sure where I live exactly. I just know where I feel at home.” It had not meant to sound like a confession.
Steve smiled; not that secret happy smile he had recently come to reserve for Tony, but something that was more wistful. Sometimes it made Tony’s heart constrict with worry. The good things never lasted, did they? Finally Steve said: “That sounds like me.”
Steve had been displaced and dead and gone even and he was complaining about moving between all his houses and apartments like a rich vagabond. Because he did not know what to say he focused on the streets so far beneath them, where people were living their less crazy lives. From the corner of his eyes he could still see the bruise on Steve’s torso, the last memory of the recent fight that Steve had fought as Captain America, side by side with Iron Man and not against him.
It was still hard to believe that it took the death of another, a different Captain America, to get them here.
“You are still quiet,” Steve pointed out. “You’re not still worried about me?”
“Thinking,” he said, not lying, but consciously evading the issue.
“When I lay there… You said… You said something like ‘not again’, Tony.”
“Want to elaborate?”
“It’s not like I haven’t seen the pictures. The news…. I know what happened.” He did not want to go there. Never wanted to go there. He bit his tongue. He did not want to lie.
Steve studied him intently and Tony could feel his intent stare bore into his head, like it wanted to see the truth there. “That’s not all is it? You said something about sharing bagels at that place in Illinois. A week ago. You know that? That was after Extremis. After...”
Of course, he knew. Even at the time he had known he shouldn’t have said it. He sighed. “It’s complicated. It comes and goes. When I woke up last night… Well, that was a memory.”
“So you do remember?” Steve sounded worried and not angry.
Impulsively, and because he’d been feeling anxious about the dreams and memories and the pretending, he hugged Steve. They were both still barechested and that made this more intimate and frail somehow. He hid his face against Steve’s shoulder, because he had always been a coward. “Some things. There is no such thing as a complete mindwipe,” Tony admitted. “I suppose magic could do it, but…” He dramatically threw his hands in the air, nearly catching Steve in the chin. “Magic. Who wants to let magic into their mind to find out.”
Steve’s arms came around his waist and he rocked them a bit, as if he thought Tony was a child that needed consoling. When Tony peeked up he looked sad, but completely contradicting his expression, he said: “I’m glad, I’m not the only one stuck with the nightmares. Let’s never do that again.”
“Never,” Tony agreed. “It wasn’t worth it.”
Steve nodded and hugged him closer.
There. He had said it. Admitted it to Steve while he was breathing. He would never be ready to admit it to Thor or the rest of them who had so many varied reasons to hate him, but at least Steve knew why his nightmares were still real and had not walked away yet.
“We’re here,” Steve whispered. “We’ll do better.”
Tony couldn’t trust in good things, couldn’t trust himself to not make the same mistakes, but he wanted to believe in Steve and his pretty words.
“Okay,” he said softly. “I love you.” He said it often, because he remembered what it felt like to have missed the chance. Like countless times before he tried to bury the memories and look to the future.
One day he might succeed.