Bob Dylan had once said: take care of all your memories for you cannot relive them.
In Steve’s experience, memories are the only things that had served - and still does - as his anchor. It had kept him warm on the coldest nights, it had cheered him up on mournful moments and sometimes, it is his memories that makes him get up on his feet when all he wants to do is to just stay down and never get back up again. Lately though, it is his memories of the past ongoing four years that robs him of his sleep because Bob Dylan clearly had no fucking clue what he had been talking about; not when Steve relives the past four years every goddamn night. He isn't sure if the fact that he hadn’t been dreaming of Bucky falling into the icy crevice down beyond is a good thing or not. Hell, he isn’t even sure if not dreaming about saying goodbye to Peggy and her funeral, or dropping the plane into the arctic and the feeling of that painfully cold impact pretty much smashing into him like an unstoppable force is a good thing.
(You can still remember it, how the ice had gone into your skin, how the cold had embraced you like the lover you’ve never had and held onto you like a vice, as if that’s where you had belonged the entire time: a cold tomb.)
And maybe it would have been a good thing, if it meant that Steve had been moving past his grief, past his losses, accepting reality and finally just adjusting to the present.
Except it really isn’t a damn good thing, is it?
Not one fucking bit.
Because now, all Steve dreams about is the scream that that had torn itself past the throat of a man who had done everything he could to be fine, to look fine, always fucking fine and never better on that day Tony had woken up after being rescued fro. The mess in Nevada, the mess where Toy had cared little for his own safety, but had made sure that Bucky had been safe.
(Admit it, Steve. You had been hilariously surprised by that gesture at first; but as quickly as it had
formed, it had winked out too because this is Tony. A part of you had known all along that despite his ego, he would have been the one to lay down the line for the others to cross.)
Now, all Steve jolts awake to at night is the lingering memory of how Tony had looked at him that one Christmas morning almost a year ago (ten months and twenty two days, to be precise), how Tony had stood there as his face lost all its color until he had looked like one of the quarantined TB patients back in the day, ashy and white, eyes almost unseeing, a mere ghost of his former and usually vibrant self. The beginning would always vary between either the fight in Siberia or – and this bothered him the most – Peggy’s funeral.
The dream that starts with Siberia almost always – ninety-eight percent of the time – goes like this:
Bucky falls to the ground, arm gone from the blast of the unibeam and Steve feels the impact of his shield hitting armour and his arm moving to throw Tony off Bucky. As the nights would go by, the fight would grow shorter, and what should have been a couple of traded blows now ends up with Steve simply shoving Tony back and pushing him to the ground, until he is on top of him and raining blow after blow with his shield, and when the light in Tony's chest go out, the shield is held back and Steve reaches forward to yank the faceplate off, only to be greeted by eyes as black as the night sky and face as white as hospital sheets.
Steve would wake up then with a gasp, sweat on his brow and regret thick on his tongue, an apology wedged somewhere in the prison of his throat, escaping only when he exhales and syllables lost to the walls of his room and the memory of a dream that never quite fades completely.
Those dreams, though, are dreams Steve can deal with.
What he cannot deal with is walking down the church isle with the weight of a casket on his back that is far too heavy for a woman of Peggy’s built. The memory of her funeral had always fresh up until that Christmas morning. Now, Steve isn’t sure if there had been yellow roses or if they had been white, or if they had been roses to begin with. In this dream, when he goes to pay his respects at the open casket, it isn't Peggy lying in there in her uniform and beautifully done hair and painted rouge. It Is Tony staring up at him with eyes wide open and unseeing, as black as an abyss and looking alien, lips pressed into a thin line and expression as blank as his gaze. And that is when Steve would start to panic and turn around to stop the procedures of the funeral, to tell the priest to halt his prayers, to stop the speeches from Pepper, from Rhodey and even Natasha because Tony is alive, Extremis would never let him die and it still operational because that is what Extremis is programmed to do, can't you all see that! But the funeral would always continue on and no one would fucking listen to him even after his throat has gone raw from screaming at them that Tony is alive, are you blind, he’s alive, we cannot bury him!
But then they bury him, and once the ground is covered and the flowers are laid upon hole and casket on the ground and the fresh and damp earth starts to fill the chasm, that is when Tony’s scream starts, loud and long with a panicked pitch that never seems to end and one that falls on deaf ears except for Steve's. And here’s the fucked up part because when Steve gets on his hands and knees to stop them from burying Tony, it is Bucky and Rhodey who would grab him and hold him back, amidst the painful and desperate screams echoing from the prison of the coffin, against the strain and pull of Steve's suit, until it is buried deep in the ground and flowers covers the dirt. Only then would Bucky and Rhodey let him go and Steve would dig, and dig and dig and oh my god, Tony, Tony, hold on, Tony, I’m coming for you, just hold on, but Steve is never fast enough, because six feet feels like a hundred and by the time he gets to the coffin and he is tearing the lid of, the screams had long ago stopped and Tony is truly dead with his brown eyes staring at nothing, and his chest wide open with a destroyed and smashed arc reactor.
The very same arc reactor Steve had smashed down on repeatedly in Siberia.
And the entire time, Steve would realize that the scream isn’t coming from the coffin anymore, or that it isn't an echoing memory, because Tony is really dead, he had no beating heart anymore. Steve had been the one who had taken that away, he had been the one who broke it, he had been the one who had made sure that he had left Tony behind, smashed into several metallic pieces to freeze in the solitude of the cold with no one to protect him or help him stand up again.
The scream had never been Tony’s.
The scream had always been his own.
That is when Steve would jolt awake, that is when the scream attempts to come out choking past his throat, where fear, guilt and loss wars against years of military training, because when you are out on the field and in enemy territory, when you are in the middle of a stake out, whatever ghoulish nightmare that comes during the small rounds of sleep you manage to get, you learn how to silence that, you learn to sew your mouth shut and choke at the sound of your scream that never quite make it past your lungs because you can't get caught, you can't endanger your comrades, you have to stay quiet.
Even as your eyes fly open and you are staring at the ceiling and the scream is so goddamn loud in your ears, your mouth remains sealed, hushed, like your fears, your guilt and your grief that is a secret known only to you.
And when it's all over, when you finally remember that you're not really in the field, you are in the privacy of your room, the inhale of air you finally take then is painful, like there are holes in your lungs and you can hear it wheeze and gasp past the forced strain you subconsciously inflict upon yourself because no one can hear you scream, no one can ever know that you are terrified. Because you are the bravest amongst all, people take strength from you, you have no room for fear, don’t you dare show it.
That dream is always painful.
That dream would take hours to fade away.
So when Steve dreams that particular dream, he doesn't lie in bed and wait for it to ebb away and fade to a memory; he gets up, grabs his shoes and shirt and runs. Steve runs until the sun appears on the horizon, he runs until it is the feeling of fatigue in his lungs that dominates his senses and not the heavy weight of the nightmare that seems to have become a frequent nightly visitor.
The funny thing about his personal hell is that Steve can pinpoint the exact moment his sleep had taken a sharp turn for the worst.
It had been exactly four months ago, when Tony had been reinstated on active duty both as Iron Man and as a consultant by the Taskforce. After almost four years of silence, Iron Man once again, had flown in the skies during assignments that had required aerial support; most of the time, it had meant Iron Man worked alongside War Machine, Vision and Captain Marvel. The formality of the announcement had only come after the evacuation and rescue mission in Aleppo and the faces of the four man team had been all over the news. Upon return to the base and after being cleared by the med-bay, when Steve had gone running down the halls when he had heard, he had come face to face with Everett handing Tony a file with what Steve assumes, is Tony’s next briefing.
It is the first time Steve meets Tony face to face since that Christmas morning last year.
And Tony had looked up from the folder, as he had stood there in the middle of the hallway, dressed down in denims, sneakers and a white t-shirt, the smell of betadine radiating from the three butterfly clips on is temple, and a jacket folded over his arm. Tony had blinked, looking surprised like he had not been expecting Steve to be there at all. Now, Steve knows when Tony is faking recognition, he knows when the press-release mask slips on and when it slips off, he knows the difference between a forced smile and something that looks genuine, because a genuine smile is something Steve had gotten a glimpse of years ago, and once upon a time, it may have been directed at him, albeit briefly, because Tony had always looked away. The real smile would always look between cheeky, sheepish peppered with a bit of dorky boyish charm. It would reach Tony’s eyes, make him look infinitely younger, and the laugh lines would be soft as opposed to harsh when Tony is pretending to give a shit about you, when in all fairness, he honestly couldn't care less.
But this smile, the one that tugs at Tony’s face, is not familiar.
Steve cannot say it is fake, nor can he say it is real.
It had felt more like a function because behind it, are eyes that look blank, dark depths of burnt amber that belies not much, save for the words that leaves Tony’s mouth, words that sounds fairly surprised and just a touch curious.
“Captain.” Tony had greeted, with a dip of his chin and had looked back at his folder, and it had rooted Steve on the ground, like a deer caught in headlights because Tony isn’t looking away because he is purposely ignoring Steve. Steve had learned to read those kinds of moments too, and in those moments, Tony carries the strain on his shoulders and the joint between his upper and lower jaw would look tighter, like he’s grinding his teeth when he’s not because it is purely a subconscious physical gesture.
There had been none of that whatsoever, not even the slightest bit of strain and god, had Steve prayed for it.
Tony had looked away because he had assumed that Captain Steve Rogers is there, in the middle of the hallway for none other than Everett. And when Everett excuses himself, Tony had looked up and blinked, looking quite puzzled.
To the current day, Steve doesn’t know where the words had come from, or what had possessed him to even say what he had at the time, but it comes out like word vomit:
“It’s good to see Iron Man flying the sky again. Judging from the news, you got the whole world hyped up. Any trouble?” Steve had said, feeling nervous all of a sudden, like he’s unsure, it had almost felt like he was twelve again and he had been trying to talk to a girl during recess.
Tony shrugs in response and closes the folder to tuck it under an arm. “Apparently, well known terrorist groups are now recruiting Supers. But all toes and fingers have been accounted for. Everyone is okay except – well, those that got in the way I suppose.”
They lock gazes then, and Steve looks for an inkling of sarcasm, but all he can hear is jaded nonchalance and for a moment, Steve’s gaze flicks towards the now healing freshly patched up wound on Tony’s temple.
“Are you okay?” Steve asks, and finds himself holding his breath for the answer, finds himself watching as lines appear between Tony’s brows, like he’s unsure what to say, like he’s disconnected and present at the same time.
“Always.” He answers, like it is an answer he is settling for, and Steve watches as confusion start to dominate the majority of Tony’s face. “Something up, Cap?”
And Steve knows he should say something, Steve knows that he should say the truth, that if he wants answers, he will only get them if he asks. But the words never form and Steve feels the taste of bitterness well like bile at the back of his throat.
“No.” Steve says, and looks away. And for the sake of small talk, because Steve can’t beat the politeness out of himself, he asks, “Is that a new mission?”
The smile that pulls up at Tony’s face is something that doesn’t quite sit well with Steve. It looks harmless, almost media appropriate, but it is the way Tony looks at him, that not even the smirk that is punctuated with a dramatic eye roll and an equally almost dramatic sigh had masked the empty reflection within. Steve feels a touch creeped out because this isn’t his friend, he doesn’t know this guy at all – it’s like meeting Tony Stark for the first time because everything Steve knows of Tony Stark, everything he had come to know be it consciously or subconsciously no longer adds up.
“Contract.” Tony answers and then gives Steve a mock salute. “Good night, Cap.”
That had been it.
Steve had hoped that an assignment would put them together at some point. But that hope had remained unfulfilled. They are always assigned different assignments and while their teams rotated on occasion, Steve does not get an opportunity to even see Tony in person, except for maybe, that one time just a little before Valentine's Day when Tony had left the building. Steve had caught a brief glance of his back by the parking lot.
It is almost like a dance, how they completely just miss each other, with nothing but mere moments or seconds in between them.
And if the reality of his current “friendship” isn’t enough to push Steve over the edge, the political game surrounding him almost does.
(You do not understand how or when the world had changed to see good and justice as gambling chip. When did doing the right thing turn to, okay, what can I get out of it in return? Since when did people with power, with a duty and a responsibility, start questioning their stance in protecting the innocent? Courage has turned to white noise, as you have come to notice in countries that had over thrown their presidents and prime ministers simply by protesting and wreaking chaos and havoc – it isn’t just the people around you. It’s world. It has turned to something you no longer recognize, it is no longer black and white, it is just a stretch of hazy gray, peppered with static of internet keyboard warriors that you know – oh you know – are about as influential as those sitting on a countries’ throne or presidential suite.
The world, you’ve come to notice, is full of tyrants.
The world, you’ve also come to notice, does not know what they want to do.
And sometimes, you find yourself wondering if what Loki had said was correct. Sometimes you wonder, if as a species, we really do crave subjugation.
Sometimes, you wonder, if fighting for what’s right is even right anymore. Because clearly, your stance, your beliefs, your courage, bravery and sacrifice is only being used as propaganda and ways to gain advantage – be it in the favor of the people, or political leverage.
Your existence seems to mean, well, nothing. You’re a pawn. Maybe you always have been.
But you’ve known this for years; you’ve lived that life even as the days when you were known in the streets as The Nomad. It feels different to finally not just sweep the feeling under the rug, doesn’t it, Rogers?)
The last straw had been SHIELD’s public relations finally hitting a huge shit-storm that the Taskforce had to get involved. Steve knows that it had been a disaster waiting to happen because that’s what happens with people with agendas is in control of an organization that packs a mean punch. Power will always, time and time again, be abused. Power had the strangest ability of turning good men bitter and cold; it breaks people. And while he doesn’t understand the full story behind the overhaul, he does know this: SHIELD needs a new face.
In a way, Steve thinks he should not be surprised when Tony releases a statement in the press conference confirming that he has stepping up as the new Director of SHIELD.
He really, really shouldn’t be.
And yet he sits there, grime on his uniform, his hair matted from having fought in the Sahara, staring at the television screen of the common room of Taskforce’s housing facility at a loss of words, with nothing but the sound of Tony’s voice coming out of the television promising to deliver, to serve, to protect – Tony who sounds so far away and a man that Steve doesn’t even recognize anymore. Watching the news, watching Tony suddenly feels like waking up from the ice again.
It feels like there is no ground beneath his feet. It feels harder to swallow. It feels like the words around him are a foreign language and just when Steve thinks he is starting to get some ground again, that he has come to accept this new reality where he serves a gray-colored goal and perspective, this happens.
And it feels like he’s starting all over again.
“Did you know?” Steve asks, without turning his head.
Behind him, soft footsteps continue as Clint steps into the connected open kitchen to pull a beer out of the fridge.
“Corridor whispers. Apparently only the top of the tops knew.” Clint said, as the sound of the faint hiss fills the room and sound of the ring being pulled of the can punctuates his answer.
“I suppose he has the people’s favor. People call him the messiah these days.” Steve sighs, unsure why he doesn’t feel quite happy with that. It doesn’t feel like a good thing; it feels like a curse.
“You can’t deny that Stark has done some pretty ground breaking shit. The Maria and September foundations have been – well, you’ve seen. First hand. He’s like the dude version of Mother fucking Theresa. Except he’s loaded. When you’re doing good for the people and ending hunger and poverty and providing self-sustaining power to the needy, then…”
Steve doesn’t need to turn to see the shrug. He wants to say he’s not sure, he wants to say that something really does feel off and Steve knows exactly what feels off.
Everything that Tony has come to achieve in the short four years stems from three simple things: hurt, betrayal and fear.
And while Steve thinks that whatever Tony has done for the good of the people is an absolute undeniably amazing thing, he has seen the house Tony returns to at night. He has seen what Tony has done to himself in order to continue to serve. He has seen the lengths Tony had gone through to ensure that everything he has done to sustain earth’s survival in case of an apocalyptic disaster remains in place and running. He has seen Tony start a generation of intelligent people, has seen him work with countries, with organizations and other international firms to cough out all these mind blowing ideas – ideas that even Steve cannot wrap his head around.
Tony had surpassed Howard by a long shot.
But Steve knows that these achievements didn’t exactly come easy. Not entirely.
“I’m ordering pizza.” Sam says and Steve realizes that he didn’t even hear him come in because he’s been staring at the television at watching multiple news coverage of Tony’s press release. “You want some, Steve?”
Steve gets up then, tearing his gaze away from the screen and giving Sam, Clint and Bucky a tired smile. “Nah. I’ll skip. I’m gonna call it a night.”
“You sure?” Bucky asks, and Steve finds himself unable to meet the pointed gaze Bucky is giving him.
“I’m sure. Good night, guys.” Steve doesn’t look back as he leaves the common room to head to the privacy of his own.
There, like many nights, he mulls things over and over again. He thinks of the colder and empty gaze that seems to have been accepted as the norm for a businessman like Tony Stark, as if everything prior that had been nothing had meant nothing. Steve thinks, under the spray of the scalding hot water that does nothing to wash the bone deep guilt and regret, He thinks of how Tony had looked at him like Steve’s existence then and there had been the biggest lie ever told. He thinks of what must have gone through his mind when he had been trying to manage his illness. He thinks of how Tony had managed to pick himself up after Siberia.
And the sad thing about all this is Steve knows that for him to even have an opportunity to try to make it work with Tony is never going to present itself. Whatever opportunity he’s had in the past will not come knocking on his front door so quickly, assuming it even does at this point. Tony had made it clear in the past four years that he had no interest in being an Avenger anymore and while the recent diplomatic peace is mostly a message to the masses, Steve knows that the walls Tony had built and reinforced around himself will not come down easy, if at all. While Steve wants to respect those wishes, and he has tried his best to keep out of the way, to play his role in this new world of grays, to give Tony what he wants, something deep down is telling him that this is wrong.
It’s not right.
Steve knows that the world had moved on and had long accepted this new version of Tony Stark. He is probably the only one who can’t.
But he knows better than to try to force things, to be that stubborn tree like what Peggy had once said one should be, to tell Tony, no, you move. Because Tony didn’t just take a step to the side. Oh no, Tony had moved and removed himself from the playing field completely.
And for a long time now, Steve had been questioning his ability and his judgment.
Because here’s the question that he can’t seem to find an answer to, after everything that has happened, after all the decisions he had made and how some of those had backfired against him so bad, after everything he had learned, had seen, had fought for, had healed from, the question still stands:
Am I a necessary existence?
The next time Steve meets Tony, it had pissed Steve off so much that just the memory of it is enough to trigger his apparently existing and very suppressed temper.
(You learn something new, everyday.)
Steve and his three man team had recently returned from a month long assignment in Khartoum when things had gone a little awry. They had been present to coordinate with the Sudanese Taskforce Division and because their intel had miscalculated the rebel’s numbers, as a result, a fight had been inevitable and Steve, Bucky and Sam had returned to American soil with a little more than few bruises. It had been quite challenging to minimize casualties to zero. So perhaps the exhaustion, the heat, the mess of it all had been a massive contributing factor to his already very thinly spread patience.
Steve had just filed his report in and was about to call it a night when he hears Natasha call his name from the down the hallway. He had not seen her in weeks and so his surprise shows on his face when he meets her half-way. “Natasha.”
Natasha smiles in greeting and gives him a once over. Steve knows he looks like shit and while he had gotten most of the grime off his hands and face, he knows that his hair is darker than it should be. His gear is also not its usual blue, and the white stripes around his middle are almost as dark as the rest of his uniform. But he doesn’t complain, not when the fatigue makes way for genuine joy at seeing a friend. His line of work and Natasha’s very rarely coincide anymore, unlike the earlier months of Steve’s return to American soil and post-trial.
“I know you just got back.” Natasha says, and she sounds apologetic. “But we’ve got –“ And here’s where Steve notices the frustration, just a hint of it with how Natasha’s jaw tightens and how her gaze flicks briefly to the side like she’s measuring her words. “—we’ve got a situation.”
“Hey, come on.” Steve shakes his head, hoping that his willingness to assist calms her nerves down. “You knowI don’t mind. What can I do to help?”
Here’s where Natasha’s gaze softens and for a brief moment, a mere flicker, Steve swears that she looks horribly disappointed and sad. Something about the slight shift in expression, however brief, makes something stiffen like drying concrete in Steve’s spine. He straightens, eyebrows knitting together. Natasha starts walking towards the medical bay, three buildings away. Steve doesn’t question her and simply follows.
“A couple of weeks ago, Vision, Tony, Carol and Rhodes were sent to Asia to investigate disturbances that the locals have described as supernatural. It had been affecting the villages in the surrounding area for a while and they were being investigated by our Team in India and Nepal. They were minor things at first like things going missing; cars, bikes, public property, inanimate objects. Never people. But a week ago, the neighboring villages in the outskirts of Garud in Maherandragar reported that one of their said neighboring village is gone.”
“Gone.” Steve repeats.
“Yes. Not destroyed, not annihilated, but gone in the sense that people have vanished.”
“Like… an exodus?” Steve asks, as they start to cross the courtyard.
“An exodus would have left some sort of trail. According to our reports, there is just nothing. People just disappeared. No signs of struggled.” Natasha says. “Maherandragar was the trigger and then, within the course of a week, similar occurrences started to happen to other villages around the area too, going as far as Chandigarth, Amritsar, even as far as a few districts in Islamabad and Kabul. This was all six weeks ago by the way. Two weeks ago, our team was sent back because the Taskforce that had been investigating the disappearances had also vanished. Tony had volunteered to go because of a personal interest. One of the villages had been a recipient of the September Foundation, so they volunteered and took the case. And well.” Natasha by the entrance of medical facility, pulling the door open for Steve.
“Is Tony all right?” Steve asks, and when Natasha doesn’t meet his gaze and her steps quicken, Steve feels his heart start to race. “Natasha?”
Natasha simply shakes her head and they take the private elevator, the one that takes them several levels below. It is the place where they treat volatile patients and Steve isn’t sure what to make of what he sees when Natasha takes him to a waiting room with an observation glass between the white and sterile room beyond and Rhodey’s losing his shit with Reed, Hank and the medical staff on the other side. Steve hears Rhodey’s voice from the down the hall and had hurried to see what is going on and at first, he hadn’t been sure.
Beyond the glass, there are medics trying to speak with what clearly looks like a very distraught boy. Steve thinks the child can’t be older than six at most, skinny and all sharp elbows and knees, small for his frame with a mop of thick brown hair on his head. The child isn’t responding to the cajoling by the medical staff and is backing away as far as the he can manage in the small hospital bed. His entire face is red, and when he shakes his head vigorously at what the doctor says, when there is a brief pause and they grab him to hold him down, the screaming starts. And when the screaming starts – long, loud, raspy, completely breathless, that it reaches a point that the boy isn’t even inhaling when they stick a needle into the wiry arm - Rhodey’s temper hits the roof.
“You’ve had him for seven days! What other tests can you possibly even make at this point that you haven’t fucking done already?”
Steve doesn’t think he’s seen Rhodey this angry before.
“What’s going on – who’s the kid?” Steve asks and sees Reed open his mouth to respond, except Rhodey bellows the name at his face.
“Tony fucking Stark! Who else would it fucking be!”
And this is where confusion turns to something a little sour as Steve’s mind tries to piece this new reality to his current on, staring as the medical team extract tube after tube of blood samples and Tony – little, loud and struggling Tony – is held down in a vice as he screams and cries and begs for his mother. It isn’t until they start to strap him down that Steve thinks that this is wrong. There is no compassion in the treatment, there is care, no consideration that the boy is probably scared out of his fucking wits, it just isn’t right. It is almost inhumane. This isn’t the way patients should be treated, it should never be about getting the job the done at the expense of other people’s grief and fear – it cannot be. And something in Steve just snaps at the realization that this – all this, the secrecy, the prodding and studying of a child iike Tony is some sort of guinea pig – is part of a system that is about as cold as the rest of the current population inhabiting the planet.
(That’s what it is; people are just colder, don’t you see?)
So Steve doesn’t wait, doesn’t even look back when he twists the metallic handle of the door out of shape, breaking the lock and stepping into the observation room, completely ignoring how Hank’s voice cuts across the room, loud and sharp, asking him to stop, or how Reed tries to step forward but ends up being pushed back by Rhodey. None of the commotion behind him registers and Steve doesn’t know what he says in his fury that makes the medical team take several steps away from Tony, who in turn tries to curl around himself on the bed that is far too big for a boy his size. Steve’s hand almost rips the straps off as he kneels on the floor and carefully picks Tony off the bed to sit him up right.
“Hey, hey, buddy, it’s okay – they won’t hurt you anymore. Look at that, your arm is bleeding – I’ll get that fixed for you, okay?” Steve says softly, and gently, careful and patient despite the fire in his chest. He repeats the words, over and over until Tony’s eyes focuses on him and the cries dwindle down to hiccups, leaving Tony shaking and shuddering as his little chest heaves up and down under the thin fabric of his hospital gown.
The resemblance is almost daunting – this close, Steve sees the man this boy will grow to be. He sees how innocent wide brown eyes will turn empty and walled-in, he sees the messy mop of brown hair shorten to what Steve imagines might be worth a thousand dollar haircut. He sees the small mouth that will harden to a thin line, sometimes mean, sometimes callous, but never quite losing its boyish charm. He can see the round face sharpen around the jaw, how the goatee will further contribute to the jaded man that Tony Stark grows up to be. Everything that Steve knows about Tony now is the complete opposite of the child that is trying to stay very still and catch his breath amidst the hiccups. Steve watches as Tony’s gaze meets his and his lips tremble with the effort to not cry anymore; it fails though, as the tears continue to cascade down his reddened cheeks and little shudders wracks through his small frame.
“My name is Steve Rogers. I’m you dad’s friend.” Steve says, and watches, with a bit victory, as glimmer of hopeful familiarity starts to shine in Tony’s eyes.
And something very small and soft that is wedged somewhere in a little crevice of Steve’s heart breaks when Tony opens his mouth and tries to form words; what comes out instead is garbled stuttering. The boy tries again, once and twice, until he finally asks in words that are slightly mispronounced:
“I’m not sick, Captain. Can I go home, please?”
“I’m here to take you home.” Steve says, in a heartbeat and stands up to pick Tony off the bed. It’s almost too easy, how Tony’s thin arms wrap around his shoulder and his head wedges against his neck, hiding from the world. Steve picks up the blanket from the foot of the bed and throws it over Tony’s back as he makes his way to where Natasha stands smirking and Rhodey no longer seems to be arguing. “Colonel Rhodes, if it’s all the same to you, perhaps it’s a good idea if you be my escort to Stark Manor. Just to avoid stepping on any toes.”
“With pleasure.” Rhodey answers and makes his way down the hall.
Steve gives Hank, T’challa and Reed a nod. “Gentlemen.”
Through it all, Tony doesn’t move or make a noise, not even as they cross the courtyard to the parking lot. Steve had made brief call to Bucky during the walk to the parking lot and had asked him to bring some of his personal belongings over to Stark Manor. Within minutes, Steve finds himself sitting the backseat of a sedan while Rhodey drives them away from the facility, both of them in utter silence. It is in that silence that Steve watches Tony , who sits cross legged behind Rhodey, staring out the window with his fingers wrapped around the seat belt that cuts across his chest. Sitting there, it feels like Tony is drowning in the blanket that is wrapped around him, where everything around him, even the car seat is far too large, just like the world beyond the glass. He says nothing throughout, doesn’t ask for his parents, doesn’t ask where he is, or why, Tony just remains unmoving. Tony had been so compliant once he had seen the car and it had taken little to no cajoling to get him to sit tight and put a seat belt on.
And the silence continues even as they pull into Stark Manor’s driveway and the engine turns off. Tony doesn’t move from his seat, and looks at Steve with quiet regard, like he’s asking permission to get out of the car and enter his own home. Steve doesn’t even hesitate to get out of the car and come around, to take Tony out himself, lifting him with ease where Tony settles against his side and shoulder. Rhodey uses his access to the house to get him inside and once they step in and Friday turns the lights on, Steve feels Tony stiffen in his arms as he looks around at a house that he clearly does not recognize.
When Steve sets him down on the ground, and Tony looks around all over – the walls, the ceilings, the paintings – he knows that nothing about this situation is going to be easy. He doesn’t stop Tony from running off towards the stairs, going up the steps and throwing doors open. Steve doesn’t stop him entering a room to find a study instead, and doesn’t stop him when Tony races down the hallway and tries to open a door that won’t budge and when Tony knocks and waits for a response and gets nothing, that’s when Rhodey mutters a curse under his breath. The lack of a response sends Tony darting down the hallway and into the kitchen, looking for someone he cannot find and when he peers into the garden from the kitchen window, Steve and Rhodey watches as his shoulder slump further down and he turns to face them and asks:
“Where’s Jarvis?” He asks, and sounds afraid.
“He’s not here right now.” Rhodey says, stepping forward and kneeling before the boy. “I didn’t get to introduce myself properly, before, Tony, and I apologize for that. My name is James Rhodes. I work for the American military and I’m kind of a friend of your dad. You can call me Rhodey. Steve and I are on the same team.”
Steve watches as Tony’s gaze flickers over to him then back at Rhodey. “But dad said the commandos are gone.”
“Well, we have a new team now.” Rhodey says, outright lying to Tony’s face; Steve does nothing to stop him. Tony does not look too convinced and Rhodey takes that opportunity to speak. “We’re in a bit of a mess right now, Tony. So until we figure it out, I need you to be a big boy and be the man I know you are, okay? Steve here, is going to be with you throughout. I really need you to be okay with this.”
Steve watches as Rhodey suddenly looks far too old when he reaches up to push the hair off Tony’s face, urging him to be brave, to step up, because there is nothing about the entire situation. There is nothing natural about having one of the world’s most intelligent man turned into his toddler self. There is nothing in this reality that can even explain that phenomenon and if Hank and Reed isn’t able to piece together some form of explanation and come up with a theory to reverse engineer the process, then Steve isn’t even sure who can. And there, in the middle of it, is a boy who cannot understand why the house looks different, or why his parents or his caretaker aren’t anywhere in sight. Here is a boy who had spent two weeks being prodded, examined, scanned and whatever else Steve thinks they do these days to understand mysteries and still doesn’t understand what is happening to him. Here is a boy being asked to be an adult and isn’t that the most unnatural thing to ask of a toddler?
Isn’t Tony already being an adult?
“Okay.” Tony says, and the words sounds like a mix of determination and stubbornness, of promise to deliver and yet unsure.
Steve cannot wrap his head around it.
He cannot understand how a child like this isn’t even freaking out at this very moment. He cannot even understand why Tony isn’t asking questions the way children do when they cannot find parents.
It isn’t right.
“Okay, that’s good. That’s good, Tones.” Rhodey says and Steve watches, with something tight in his chest as Rhodey wraps his arms around the little boy. “You be brave and when we have the right answers, we’ll explain everything to you. I gotta go right now, but Steve is here, okay? He’ll take care of you. Won’t you, Captain?”
Steve meets the piercing and hardened gaze that Rhodey directs at him because Steve knows that Rhodey had assignments to complete and people to answer to as to why Tony is what he is right now. Steve knows that Rhodey is going to be filling in two shoes and will be answering for two people; the Taskforce wants answers because when villages, teams and Iron Man himself are incapacitated, it is quite an alarming situation, isn’t it?
‘Yes, I will.” Steve says and watches as Tony peers up at him with knitted eyebrows.
“Well, I’ll leave you two to it. If there’s anything you need, Steve, you know how to reach me. Tony, I’ll be back as soon as I can.” Rhodey gives Tony’s head one last gentle pat before he gets up on his feet and exits the mansion.
Rhodey leaves man and child, standing in the middle of kitchen, staring at each other. It is Tony’s curious gaze that starts to flicker left and right, often looking up at Steve, like Tony is suddenly feeling unsure, whatever grown-up-confidence he had tried to muster earlier gone in blink. Steve watches as Tony’s hands start to fiddle with the hem of the flimsy hospital gown, lower lip moving left and right, like Tony is trying to decide if he should speak, or if he should stay quiet. The flickering glances up and away from Steve’s face continue until Steve decide to break the ice.
“So uh, look at us!” Steve says, reaching up and rubbing the back of his head, suddenly feeling ridiculously awkward. It crosses his mind that Tony must be feeling that too, seeing as Tony doesn’t seem to know what to do with himself. “We’re gonna be stuck together for a while it seems. So uh, you hungry? I can make something… I…”
Tony’s cheeks start to redden very, very slowly. Something about that makes Steve smile and close the distance between them and coming to kneel down before Tony. “It’s okay, Captain. I’m not hungry.” Tony answers and starts to chew on the insides of his lower lip.
“Are you sure? I kinda’ am.” Steve gives a bit of an amused and self-depreciating chuckle. “I dunno if you noticed, but I’m not exactly in the best of states right now. I just got back from an assignment.”
Tony’s gaze flicks left and right, like he’s hesitating. “Like a mission?”
“Yeah.” Steve nods. “A mission. That’s right.”
“Was it hard?” Tony asks, and his eyes widen before he clamps his lips tightly shut; it is as if he’s not supposed to be asking questions.
“Hey, hey, it’s okay. I don’t mind you asking.” Steve says. “And no, it wasn’t very hard. But it was very, very long.”
“Is that why you stink?” Tony asks.
And it takes every effort on Steve’s end to not just throw his head back in surprised laughter lest he startles the poor already anxious boy. He does laugh though, amused and warm as he gives himself a bit of a sniff. “I suppose so, yes.”
“I can’t find my stuff, Captain. I can’t give you a shirt.” Tony says, and his little face drops in disappointment.
“The house is very different, isn’t it?” Steve says, careful, measuring his words.
“Yup. It’s okay. Mama does that sometimes. She reno-revo-revonates the house and changes stuff. She does it when she’s upset because Dad has been gone a long time.” He says, with a bit of a shrug. “Mama will tell me where my new room is when she gets back. She always does. So I just have to wait. Maybe the box-people will bring me some of my things and toys later. They always do. Jarvis would know when he gets back.”
Steve isn’t sure what to say. In fact, he isn’t sure what bothers him more. The fact that Tony is seemingly used to coming home to a different looking house all the time, or the fact that he can rat off an explanation and a justification and not see how wrong that is. Or the fact that this is the first glimpse Steve is getting into Tony’s childhood, the arrangements that had been made for him growing up, how it sounds like Tony had been left mostly to Jarvis’ care while Howard had been off god knows where for long periods of time while Maria had been left to deal with the business and her own can of worms. Steve isn’t sure about the nonchalance behind Tony’s words or what to make of it. He isn't even sure how to start comprehending it.
But that explains everything, doesn’t it?
“Yeah. I guess.” Steve says, going with it. “Well, we’re stuck with just my stinky uniform and that gown of yours, I suppose - ”
“I didn’t mean to call you stinky. M’sorry.” Tony says all of a sudden, very alarmed.
Steve chuckles and reaches out then to ruffle Tony’s hair. The gesture comes to him so easily that he doesn’t realize he’s doing until he notices how Tony’s lips are pressing down thinly to a repressed smile, like he’s trying to be a serious adult but clearly enjoying the attention.
“It’s the truth. And you know, if it’s okay with you, Tony, I’d like for the both of us to be very honest with each other, okay? Just until we figure this out. How does that sound?”
“Okay.” Tony hesitates and peers up at Steve. “What if I want to say something that’s not very nice?”
“If it’s the truth, you should say it anyway.” Steve counters.
“But mama said that if I can’t say something nice, I should not say it all!” Tony says and he sounds alarmed, like going against something his mother had taught him might get him into trouble.
“I’ll make you a deal.” Steve says and take both of Tony’s hands in his. “If you feel at any point that what you’re about to say to anyone is not nice, you can tell me first and then we can both tell them together. That way, if you get into trouble, I’ll be with you.” Steve smiles and somehow, the words forces a wedge into his throat, because, well isn’t that something, Rogers. Isn’t that just fucking peachy. “I’ll be with you no matter what.”
Tony looks at his feet. “Adults say that all the time. But I don’t think they mean it.”
“I do.” Steve says, “Tony, I do. I’ll prove it to you.”
There is desperation in the words, in how Steve holds Tony by the shoulders like he’s an anchor. Shoulders with curves that barely fit into Steve’s palms because god, Tony is so small. He’s so helpless and maybe, just maybe, Tony has always been small even after he’s grown tall, and his fortunes and empire had risen along with him, even when he had donned the suit of iron, had saved countless of lives – Tony is just that isn’t he? He’s just a little boy under all layers of shit that life had thrown at him and had forced him to bury somewhere deep down for no one to ever take advantage off because oh look at you Steve, telling him to be honest with you when you, oh you hadn’t been. Not entirely. Remember?
Tony’s eyes, though, are bright and large, wide and open and there, Steve can see the hope glimmering like the galaxy in the amber depths. He watches the small smile tug shyly out of the boy’s lips, the smile that resembles Tony’s genuine ones, the ones that had made him look so young. There is something so jarring about it that for a moment, just a brief moment, Steve feels some sort of chasm start to rip wide open somewhere in his chest, and something jagged catch in his breath because, gosh, gosh Tony is looking at him like he’s someone good.
This is Tony agreeing to trust him unconditionally.
“Okay.” Tony says, and cheeks rosy and dimples dotting his right cheek.
And Steve will be damned if he didn’t do things right this time.
So that took forever but I think I have the pace set on this chapter. I am aiming for something lighter compared to Rebirth; aiming here is the keyword. Not sure if I’m achieving that given the set up chapter, but well, hopefully next chapter will be better. Had to go through so many re-writes but, the first chapter of any fic for me is always the toughest due to the tone setting. In that regard, I have chosen this particular trope in hopes that I can explore key points of Tony's past that have been hinted in Rebirth and expand on it here.
That and well, this trope is almost always fun. I admit to being just a touch nervous.
Hoping for better/faster updates from now. And hopefully longer chapters too!
Thanks for reading this far and like with Rebirth, I hope you'd give this a chance.