The first time Steve fell in love it was with Heather Michaels who lived down the street. He took her to see Spider-Man 2 but barely paid attention to the movie, wondering what she’d do if he put his arm around her shoulders and jumping every time his fingers got tangled with hers in the popcorn. On their third date, she gave him his first kiss, and he didn’t think life could get any better.
When her dad accepted a new job and she moved two months after they started dating, he was quiet for weeks and a long, red scar appeared down his side. It hurt a lot at first, pulsing red and angry, but eventually, it only bothered him when he touched it, memories of her smile and the way her lips had felt pressed against his flaring for brief seconds before fading away.
“Love leaves marks on all of us,” his mom said and explained how every time people’s hearts were broken, scars would form on their bodies. The more scars, the more you loved them. They’d gradually get smaller until they were only thin, white lines, and falling in love again would help speed the healing process along, but they’d never disappear completely.
That was how he realized how he felt about Lisa, when Heather’s scar became so tiny, it was almost invisible. Lisa had the sweetest smile he’d ever seen. With her, he learned just how soft a woman’s body could be, and they stayed together until freshman year of college when distance finally tore them apart and left three vicious wounds on his torso.
He always knew his relationship with Bucky was going to be temporary. Bucky was a year older and had already accepted a job in Spain with the company he’d interned with over the summer. He had dark brown eyes and tried to teach Steve Spanish when they weren’t studying or messing around. Even with the end in sight, Steve didn’t freak out when Lisa’s scars got smaller overnight it seemed. He wasn’t looking forward to the damage Bucky would leave when they broke up, but he wasn’t going to waste the time either, not when Bucky was right there, and Steve could see Bucky’s scars fading, too.
On the day Peggy moved out, Steve stood naked in front of the mirror and looked at all the ragged lines running over his body. He felt like someone had taken a knife to him, slicing every inch open, and he didn’t understand how there wasn’t any blood. He traced one particularly thick scar on his stomach, gritting his teeth against the pain, the memory of the first time he’d brought Peggy over to meet his family and all the teasing that had accompanied it burning through his mind. He couldn’t imagine her marks ever disappearing, and in that moment, he didn’t want them to, didn’t want to ever expose himself to that much hurt again. Once in a lifetime was enough.
When Tony invited all of them to his mansion for a pool party and asked Steve if he swam, Steve rubbed his hand over his shoulder, feeling the changes in texture under his shirt. He didn’t remember the excuse he gave before walking away. He’d used to enjoy swimming before his body came to resemble a battlefield, but he was doing everyone a favor by keeping his clothes on.
Enough time had passed that the scars weren’t so stark anymore, but they still ached, sometimes more than others, and he hated the shocked sounds he heard whenever he got naked in front of someone. It made people uncomfortable to see the evidence of so much pain, and he couldn’t blame them. He didn’t like looking at it either.
He envied Tony his lack of self-consciousness, his unblemished skin that suggested he’d never given his heart away and had it trampled on. It was the main reason he started sleeping with him. Tony knew how to protect his heart. He wouldn’t be stupid enough to fall in love with Steve, and Steve, well, he’d already learned his lesson.
He liked Tony though. Liked his biting humor, his confidence, the way he smiled and moved. Liked him maybe a little bit too much to be honest, but definitely not enough to get him in trouble. He checked. Every morning he woke up and forced himself to stare in the mirror, would eye Peggy’s marks and made sure they were just as dark and long as they’d been the day before.
Tony had caught him at it one time when he’d come over and woken Steve up at the crack of dawn. He’d apologized by tumbling Steve into bed and giving him the most intense blow job Steve had ever had. Steve had never let him spend the night or been willing to stay at his place, and Tony had been putting up a fight. He suspected the blow job had been a sneaky way of trying to further his case, but Tony had seen him at the mirror afterwards, touching his scars as he got ready for the day, and Tony had never brought up the subject again, something that Steve could only be grateful for.
The thing was that Tony was crazy and fun and threw himself into life like every day was a gift, and Steve needed that. He needed someone to take his mind off of how far he’d let himself fall, and Tony needed a keeper, so it all worked out in the end. And it didn’t hurt that the sex was good. Frequent orgasms went a long way in improving his overall disposition and in giving him the patience to put up with Tony’s brand of superhero-ing. They helped each other along, and even if it wasn’t perfect, well, nothing ever was, but it was safe, and that was more important anyway.
All good things had to come to an end eventually, however.
“You want to what?”
Steve rubbed his jaw, looking away from Tony. He didn’t have much experience at being the breakup-er versus the breakup-ee, had a tendency to hold on to people long after he should’ve let them go, and the blank expression on Tony’s face wasn’t helping. Like he didn’t know Tony’s tells by that point. Like he couldn’t figure out he was hurting him.
But Steve was doing him a favor, was doing the both of them one. Their … whatever it was they wanted to call it … wasn’t so far along that cutting things off would wreck the team. Yes, it’d be awkward for a while, but it was salvageable, and it wasn’t like Tony would have a hard time finding someone to take his place.
He swallowed, pushing that thought away forcibly. It was fine. He was fine, and the sooner they got this over with, the better.
“I just think that we should—”
“I don’t understand.”
“There’s nothing to understand. It’s just, it’s time is all.”
“Time,” Tony said, and that tone of voice did not bode well for anybody.
“Yeah, time,” Steve said, continuing doggedly on. He knew it wasn’t the explanation that Tony deserved, but he couldn’t give Tony more than the truth, even if it wasn’t all of it. He didn’t think he’d ever be ready to share his past with Peggy, and what was there to say after all? His story wasn’t special. He wasn’t the only person who’d ever had his heart broken. Even if Tony didn’t know all the details, Steve’s past was written on his skin for anyone to see.
Tony was silent for a moment, and it was selfish of Steve to hope that was going to be the end of it, but he did, hoped that Tony would let him get away without saying anything else—
Except then Tony let out a long, deep breath, his shoulder slumping, and he said in a low voice, “Look, Steve, if it’s something I said, or, or did—I know I’m not the best about—”
And that, that made Steve’s chest tighten painfully, because in all the months they’d been together, Tony had been nothing but good to him. “No, Tony,” his hand raising without his permission, as if he still had the right to touch Tony, as if he hadn’t abandoned it the second they started talking. “It’s not—you didn’t do anything—”
He fell silent when Tony closed his eyes, because somehow, he seemed to be making it even worse without meaning to.
“Okay,” Tony said. “Okay.”
Things were uncomfortable between them afterwards. Steve had expected that, but what he hadn’t expected was for it to hurt quite so much to have Tony avoid his eyes, to know it was his fault Tony’s smiles were so tight-lipped and strained.
He had to remind himself over and over again that it was for the best, that the tension between the two of them couldn’t last forever. Tony was still friends with Pepper after all, and they’d been together for much longer than he and Tony had been. He just had to be patient, and then things would go back to the way they’d been before.
They had to, he thought, rolling onto his side, as if the change in position would make sleep come any faster. Tony had rarely come over to his place—it’d always made more sense for Steve to go to him—so Steve didn’t understand how the silence could be so damn loud in his apartment, expectant almost, like it was waiting for something to fill in the void.
It was going to have to wait a long damn time, because Tony wasn’t coming back.
Tony deserved someone who could be as free with his heart as Tony himself was, someone who wasn’t bitter and worn down. And while there were times that Steve wished he could be that person for him, he knew it was just a fantasy.
He’d never been enough to make someone stay, and it was better for the both of them that Tony realize that now instead of later.
“How you holding up, Steve?” Sam asked him, and Steve guiltily tore his gaze away from Tony and the woman he was talking to—the incredibly gorgeous woman, who was smiling archly up at Tony and standing close enough that there was no way of mistaking her interest.
“Fine. Good,” he said, turning his back to them resolutely. He wanted that for Tony. He wanted him to move on. “How about you?”
“As good as I can be, I suppose, in one of these monkey suits,” Sam said, making a face as he fingered his collar, although he actually looked comfortable in his formal wear. Steve supposed a tuxedo had nothing on metal and leather.
They spent the next hour mingling with each other instead of any of the guests, and while Steve knew why he wasn’t using the party to meet anyone, he wondered what Sam’s reason was. Not enough to ask him, though, because he was grateful for the company. It wasn’t easy knowing there was a good chance he’d see Tony slipping out the door with someone else, even if he knew it was for the best.
“Maybe you should go talk to him,” Sam said, completely out of the blue, and Steve wrenched his head around to look at him. He hadn’t meant to stare at Tony. His gaze just seemed to drift over to him without conscious thought.
It was tempting to play dumb, but from the look on Sam’s face, it’d just be a waste of time, so he said, “I don’t think that’d be a good idea,” instead.
“You know, whatever fight you’re having—”
“We’re not fighting,” Steve said and wished, not for the first time, that none of their friends had known about them dating. They’d never made an announcement of any kind that they were together, but Tony had tended to be handsy in a way that went beyond even the closest of friends, and eventually, Clint had walked in on them once right after Tony had sat on his lap. “We … decided to end things.”
If Sam’s eyebrows had gone up any higher, he thought tiredly, they would’ve crawled into his hairline.
“When did that happen?”
“A little over two weeks ago,” Steve said and hoped that’d be enough for Sam, but he wasn’t surprised when it wasn’t.
“So when you say ‘we,’ do you actually mean ‘we,’ or do you mean Tony? Because we all know Tony has some commitment issues. And daddy issues. And—”
“I mean it was me,” he said, stung on Tony’s behalf. This was precisely why he’d wanted to keep the two of them a secret. People invariably took sides, whether they knew the truth or not, and he didn’t want anyone blaming Tony, not when he was the only bad guy in all of this.
“Ohhh,” Sam said, low and drawn out. “So what’d he do?”
“He didn’t do anything!” Steve said, temper flaring, and he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. “It was my fault that we—”
He broke off when he saw the knowing expression on Sam’s face. “Sam,” he sighed, slumping back into his chair and covering his face with his hand.
“What? Hey, man, I just asked a question.”
“You did, however, look like someone with a lot on his mind.”
“I’m fine,” he said, and he was. Or he would be. He just needed a little time.
“Yeah, sure,” Sam said, rolling his eyes. “If it makes you feel any better, though, Tony’s been looking back here just as much as you’ve been looking over there, and—”
“—I bet if you begged real nice, he’d take you back.”
“I don’t want him to take me back, Sam.”
“Really, Steve? You sure about that?”
“Yes,” he said, lifting his head so Sam could see the truth in the eyes, and maybe it wasn’t the whole truth, but it was the most important part of it.
There was a long moment where neither of them spoke, and then Sam sighed. “I’m going to get another drink. You want one?”
“Yeah. Please,” he said, and he didn’t so much as glance at Tony once the whole time Sam was gone.
He wasn’t there when it happened. He was on the other side of the city fighting a group of what he could only think of as blob men. He didn’t hear the news until they were loading them up to take to SHIELD, and Fury pulled him aside.
“Tony’s been hurt.”
It took a second for the words to register. They just didn’t make sense.
“The doctors are doing everything they can.”
Everything they can? The only time anyone ever said that was when someone’s “everything” wasn’t enough, which meant—
He couldn’t hear anything for a second over the roaring in his ears.
“—managed to take out their tank, but he got hit in the process. The doctors are doing their best to neutralize the effects of the energy blast, but—”
“Where is he?” Steve asked—only to realize a second later the obvious answer. He wasn’t thinking clearly. But then, how could he when Tony was injured enough that Fury had come to tell him the news himself?
“I’ll take you to him,” Fury said, and Steve nodded, looking down, unable to bear the compassion on his face.
On the way to SHIELD’s hospital, Steve tried to keep his thoughts focused on where the blob men had come from and how they’d prevent any more of them from attacking New York, tried to think of anything and everything except for what was waiting for him at the end of their car ride, but he failed time and time again.
Just how hurt was Tony? And what would Steve do if he—?
Tony was going to be fine. There was no other alternative.
They were the last to arrive at the hospital. Everyone was there, including Pepper and Happy, and Steve gave a short nod to the last two. He hadn’t spoken to either of them since before he and Tony had broken up, and he didn’t know what to say now.
It was four hours before a tired-looking Dr. Moray told them, “We were able to stabilize Mr. Stark’s condition,” and while Steve’s knees didn’t quite buckle in relief, it was a close thing.
“When can we see him?” Steve asked. It wasn’t enough that they said Tony was alright. Steve had to see; he had to know.
Dr. Moray glanced at Fury for a split second before looking at Steve. “Unfortunately, we can’t allow that quite yet.”
“What? Why not?”
“Due to the nature of Mr. Stark’s arc reactor, we'd feel more comfortable keeping him heavily monitored to make sure there are no complications from the energy blast. It’s nothing to be concerned about, but I’d feel it’d be best that he not have any visitors for the time being.”
They tried to convince her to change her mind, to at least let them go in separately for a few minutes each, but she wouldn't budge. A few more days, she said, and then it’d be alright.
A few days was too long, though. Steve could barely bring himself to wait until almost three in the morning to make his move. The hard part was finding out which room was Tony’s; sneaking in was easy.
Apparently, he hadn’t been the only one who needed to see Tony with his own eyes, though.
“I should call security,” Pepper said, sounding tired but not surprised, and if she were saying that, then they already knew she was there. He wondered for a second why she’d be allowed in but no one else, but then his attention was caught by the man on the bed.
Even by the dim light afforded by the small lamp in the room, he could see Tony was out, but he wasn’t still. He was twitching and moving restlessly in short, abbreviated jerks, and to Steve’s shock, there were padded restraints on Tony’s wrists and ankles.
What hit him the most, however, were the long, livid scars on Tony’s torso that hadn’t been there weeks ago.
Before Steve could even begin to wonder if they were a result of the blob men or something else, they started to fade, getting smaller and duller, as if months were going by instead of mere seconds, and eventually they were gone altogether.
“What?” he whispered, trembling fingers reaching out to touch unblemished skin.
He nearly jumped back when Tony let out a pained gasp and another angry-looking scar appeared suddenly on his chest, just below his clavicle.
“What’s wrong with him?” he asked, turning towards Pepper, desperate for some kind of explanation.
He could see the tension thrumming through her body, the way her hands were clenched over the ends of the armrests, and he had to wonder how long she’d been sitting there.
“He’ll be fine,” she said, looking away from them.
“That's not fine,” Steve said, flinging his arm out toward Tony.
“He just needs some time to recover.”
“Recover from what—?”
They both flinched as Tony let out a harsh groan.
The new scar was on his thigh this time, just beneath the loose pair of shorts that were his only clothing. It was so red and swollen that Steve worried that it’d split open and start bleeding if Tony moved too much, and he had to clench his fists by his side to keep from reaching out, wanting to give whatever comfort he could but suspecting he’d just make it worse.
“Please, Pepper," he said, his voice breaking. "What's going on?”
She let out a shuddering breath. “Tony … the arc reactor interferes with Tony’s healing process. He doesn’t permanently scar. Ever. Not from cuts or scrapes, and not from … personal matters. The doctors don’t understand why, but Tony got tired of them trying to figure it out since it wasn’t a bad thing all in all. At least, it wasn’t until the first time Tony got seriously injured.”
Two more scars appeared on his arm, side by side, but they looked older, and Tony didn’t seem to react to them at all.
“All his scars come back,” she said, and though she no doubt tried to hide it, he could hear the note of horror in her voice.
He would’ve offered her some kind of reassurance then, but he was frozen in place, mouth welded shut as he watched what felt like a hundred of tiny scars gradually began to appear on Tony’s skin, only to disappear seconds later. The large one under Tony’s clavicle finally began to fade as well, but the one on his thigh remained untouched.
“They don’t stay for long, but that just makes it worse, because they come right back again, and they hurt him, they—”
She didn’t finish, but Steve didn’t need her to. He could see what they were doing to Tony.
“Why aren’t some of them healed?”
The one on Tony's thigh seemed more like a wound than a scar, so painful-looking that he found himself praying it'd disappear.
She didn’t answer, and he finally managed to tear his eyes away from Tony to look at her.
She glanced at him and then away.
“Whose scars are those, Pepper?”
“You should ask Tony when he wakes up.”
No. It couldn’t be.
She looked back at him grimly.
“Are they yours?” he asked, but too much time had passed for her scars to be so vivid, and Tony hadn’t acted like a man still in love with someone else.
“Ask Tony,” she said again. But it was answer enough.
It couldn’t be true, though. It couldn’t. Steve had been so careful. He’d done everything he could to make sure Tony didn’t get too involved, had checked his scars every day and night, had rarely stayed over and never let himself do half the things he’d wanted with him. He’d kept Tony at arm’s length to prevent anything like this from ever happening, and Tony couldn’t have been in love with him. He couldn’t, he couldn’t. Steve had never been lucky in love, had warned Tony from day one, and if that hadn’t been enough, Tony had seen his scars. Who’d fall for someone with scars like his? Tony had no right to give his heart to Steve, because he’d never been able to keep anyone’s heart safe, least of all—
“—eve? Are you okay?” he heard, and he turned toward Pepper and realized dimly that she was halfway to her feet.
“I’m fine,” he said, although even to himself, he sounded anything but.
“Why don’t you sit down?” she said, slowly settling back into her chair and gesturing to the one next to her, and he blinked at her and then nodded but stayed where he was.
Another red gash appeared, going diagonally across Tony’s chest, nearly bisecting the arc reactor, and Steve shuddered at the sound Tony made.
Later, when he’d managed to talk her into at least grabbing some breakfast after sitting in Tony’s room all night, he pulled the chair she’d finally convinced him to use next to Tony’s bed and broke down.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered, his hand fluttering over Tony’s head for a second before he dropped it into his lap, his fingers aching with how much he wanted to touch him. “I’m sorry.”
It’d been alright as long as Tony hadn’t loved him. No matter how much Steve had hurt him, he’d known it wouldn’t be anything compared to how much they’d both be hurt if they stayed together.
Except Tony had already foolishly given his heart away, and Steve hadn’t even known. He hadn’t even—
He’d been cruel and dismissive, had said and done things that made him want to curl up in shame, and it’d all been for nothing.
Tony loved him. And he’d broken Tony’s heart.
“I’m sorry,” he said, the words empty and not enough, and he gasped, bowing his head at the first line of fire on his side. “I’m so damn sorry,” he said, another on his stomach, his arm, his calf, coming faster and faster now. “Tony,” he said, and he closed his eyes and let the pain flow over him.
It took three days for Dr. Moray to decide Tony could be taken off the coma-inducing drugs, and the whole team was there when he finally woke up.
Tony’s eyes hesitated on Steve for a second but then moved on as he said that just because they’d come to visit him didn’t mean he was putting any of them in his will.
Even though Tony was in the hospital for another two days, Steve never got another chance to be alone with him. Pepper was there or Happy, and even Rhodes had come to sit by his bedside. So he waited for an opportunity to talk to Tony and was just grateful that Tony didn’t kick him out when he came to visit.
After Tony checked out, Steve knocked every day, several times a day, at his penthouse, and he waited some more. If Tony wanted him to leave him alone, then he could tell him. Until then, Steve would keep checking to see if he were home.
“What do you want, Steve?” Tony asked him on the fourth day, opening the door before Steve had a chance to even lift his hand.
Steve inhaled sharply. It’d gotten to the point where he’d fallen into a rhythm. Knock on door, wait, knock louder, wait, knock one more time, wait, leave. He hadn’t expected to actually see Tony, and he felt caught off-guard.
“I—I’d like a chance to explain—”
“You don’t need to explain. You think I don’t know already?”
That stopped him. “You … do?”
“You stared at your damn scars every day, Steve, and I am not an idiot.” Tony looked tired, battered. He’d seemed more energetic in the hospital, and Steve couldn’t help but think it was because he was there that Tony seemed so worn down.
“Look, let’s just cut to the chase, okay? Pepper told me you saw. But I don’t need your guilt or your pity—”
“No!” he said, although of course Tony would believe that was what had motivated Steve to see him. What other reason had he ever given him for why show up now? “That’s not why I’m here.”
Tony huffed and shook his head. “Look, I’ve had a really shitty,” he said, his voice breaking, “few weeks, and the last thing I need right now to be a part of whatever game it is you’re playing—”
“It’s not a game,” Steve said, aching, and he’d known he had a lot to apologize for, but he was starting to think he still didn’t understand just how much.
“It’s always a game with you!” Tony snapped, and it was obvious now that he knew what he was looking for that Tony loved him: the white-knuckled grip on the door jamb, the way he kept looking away and then back at him, the look in his eyes. How hadn’t he recognized it before?
Or had he known and just ignored it?
“Just go, Steve.”
The door started sliding closed, and Steve panicked. He knew Tony wouldn’t give him another chance at this, that Tony would avoid him until he didn’t need to avoid him anymore, and Steve couldn’t deal with the thought that the next time he saw Tony, Tony wouldn’t love him anymore. So he blurted out, “You scared me!” and then winced at the way he sounded.
The door froze, just inches from closing completely, and then slowly opened back up.
“It was so … easy to see myself falling in love with you,” Steve said, and he knew it didn’t excuse him, knew it damned him more than anything else, but he had to be honest this one time when he’d been so dishonest with his emotions their whole relationship. “I didn’t want to be in love, Tony.”
“I know,” Tony said, his voice tight.
“You know, but I’m trying to make you understand. You’re just … larger than life,” he said spreading his arms. “Everything about you is so much—”
“No.” He wished he could get closer to Tony, hold his hand if nothing else, but he knew he’d given up that privilege already. “I mean people gravitate towards you. You pull them in, and I knew that if I didn’t break things off when I did, I wouldn’t be able to.” He blinked rapidly, looking down. “Once I hit a certain point, I can’t give just half my heart. It’s all or nothing for me.”
“So you chose nothing.”
He tried to swallow past the lump in his throat. “So I chose nothing,” he agreed hoarsely, “and then regretted it every day since.”
He could see Tony’s jaw clench. “Why are you here, Steve?”
“To explain,” Steve said and took a deep breath. “And to ask for another chance. Not because of guilt, though. It’s just … seeing you in the hospital made me really think about what my life would be like without you in it.”
Tony folded his arms, his expression unreadable. “You say that, but would you have come back here if you hadn’t seen my scars?”
He hesitated. “I want to say ‘yes,’ but I don’t know. I’d like to think so, but while you might not be an idiot,” he said, going for a light tone but failing miserably, “we both know we can’t say the same thing about me. I thought about you, though … all the time. All the time, Tony.”
Tony frowned, looking away. “Nothing’s changed, Steve. You still don’t want—”
“I don’t want to be hurt, it’s true. But I want to be with you, more than anything, so I’ll just … have to hope you won’t break my heart,” Steve said, feeling like he was jumping off a building without his shield and without knowing what was on the other side, and he tried to smile.
Tony studied him for a long time, not saying a word. It was long enough that Steve had to shove his hands into his pockets so he wouldn’t reach out and hold onto Tony for dear life. It was Tony’s decision where they went from there, and Steve would respect that, come hell or high water. His choices had been what got them where they were, so if Tony didn’t want him anymore …
He barely controlled the flinch, turning it into an awkward shuffle.
If Tony didn’t want him anymore, than Steve would accept it and go nurse his wounds in private. And maybe next time ….
His chest ached like it’d been hollowed out at the idea of there being another time after Tony, but he forced himself to finish the thought. Maybe next time he wouldn’t make the same mistakes.
Finally, Tony sighed, long and drawn out. “Shit, Steve, you don’t make things easy, do you?” he said, ruffling his hand through his hair. But there was a look in his eyes that made Steve hope.
“I’m sorry,” he said again, and it wasn’t enough, but he meant it with everything in him.
Tony’s eyes searched his face and then he nodded once before clearing his throat. “C’mon,” he said briskly. “You’re letting all the warm air out. Get in here,” he said and moved over to let Steve inside.
Two days later, Steve finished toweling off his hair and then looked at his reflection in the mirror. Tony had been upset by Steve’s new scars. He winced, remembering how Tony had cursed and shouted when he'd noticed how the landscape of Steve’s body had changed since the last time he’d seen him naked. Very upset.
Steve knew he should’ve warned him, but he’d been carried away, drunk on the feel of Tony’s fingers and lips after weeks without, and he hadn’t thought about it until it was too late.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Tony asked, his hands hovering over Steve’s skin as if worried they still hurt.
“I didn’t want you to forgive me just because of these,” Steve said, an echo of Tony’s sentiment from days before, and he wondered if Tony was going to yell some more. “It wouldn’t have been right.”
“It wouldn’t have been—fuck, you really are an idiot,” Tony breathed, and then he’d kissed Steve until the room swam.
He smiled at the memory.
Scars never disappeared completely, so Steve would have Tony’s scars for the rest of his life. But that was okay, Steve thought, tracing one white line absently.
He turned off the bathroom light, heading back to the bed where Tony was waiting.
Some scars were worth carrying.