Steve and Tony were fighting all the time; everything was going to hell.
The team was back together after the insanity that was Zemo – precariously, provisionally together, forced to deal with a crisis after crisis while the Accords got sorted out, disassembled, reassembled, pushed, pulled, hammered into a semblance of a shape that would be acceptable to both – no, to all three sides (the UN, the Avengers and the Avengers, because, yes, they could hardly be considered a one side in this, with a huge crack down the middle, Tony mused).
How is everything going, Tony? Pepper had asked in her email. That was the only way they could successfully communicate these days. In one of their better conversations a few months back, they had agreed they were absolutely unable to talk to each other normally. They had also agreed they didn't want to cut contact. Tony needed to know she was okay, if nothing else. Pepper needed to know he was, at least, on his feet. So, the agreement was an email, once a month, and a reply. At least five sentences each (and no more than seven or eight, Pepper had insisted, although, as Tony had found, you could make a sentence go on forever if you really wanted to; these days his were mostly short and clipped, though).
It was working okay, as breakups went. He didn't miss her, not really. Knowing she was there was quite enough. How they had got there, well, you could write a whole saga about that, but basically, when you brought yourself to that point in a relationship, he thought, you knew you should have ended it a long time ago.
How are you? How is everything going, Tony?
It's fine (Tony had written back). I'm fighting with Steve all the time Everything is going to hell. I'm okay (you know I'm always okay).
Without really thinking about it, he feinted with his right and brought his left elbow up, slamming it into Steve's already split lip. The mildly betrayed look in the guy's eyes never failed to catch Tony unprepared, no matter how many times this happened. When was he going to learn that fighting dirty was Tony's second nature? As soon as Tony let his guard down, let his thoughts wonder, as soon as he let his anger out, he immediately turned into a vortex of elbows and knees and teeth and headbutts to the nose. That was how he fought. That was how Rhodey had taught him to fight, back in the day, when Tony had no armor, just the tendency to provoke everyone and anyone until he got his ass kicked.
And anyway, what was the point of therapy sparring if he couldn't let himself go and actually channel a part of this rage, get rid of it, take it out on someone?
And, a fair fight, really, Rogers? he thought at those slightly widened, blue, surprised eyes that were turning hard and steely on him, as if on cue. How can any fight ever be fair when you are fighting an asshole that can bench press a car and barely break a sweat, really? There's no fair there, nothing about it could be fair. Tony saw what was coming, and saw he was too late, too distracted, too slow to dodge. He braced himself and rolled with Steve's punch. He let his body go limp, absorb the hit, but his mind was wandering and his footing was sloppy and he lost his balance and ended up on his ass; but the momentum of the blow wasn't done with him, it seemed, so he actually found himself down on his back, his head rebounding off the gym floor with a painful crack.
Undignified as all hell.
And this was Rogers pulling his punches, too. Rot in hell, asshole, Tony thought, scowling as he sat up, reaching up with his hand and feeling the back of his head for wetness that – thankfully – wasn't there. He was indignantly refusing to wear the head protection Happy had insisted on while he was still Tony's bodyguard and sparring partner. No way. If they were going to do this thing, it was going to be gritty and dirty and real. No buffers.
"You okay?" Rogers asked curtly, with a veiled mixture of contained anger and concern on his face (Tony knew that expression well by now). He made as if to go to Tony's side, but checked himself; he knew better. "Tony?"
I'm always okay.
Tony just shrugged and struggled back to his feet. He reached for his watch. He was wearing the gauntlet watch mostly in order to irritate Rogers – or hurt his feelings, if he was lucky, but probably just irritate; just to show him he didn't trust him. Just to show him he, Tony, needed additional security measures when he was around him.
Not that it was far from the truth; but still, had Tony actually been afraid, he would have probably refused to wear it, out of sheer stubbornness.
He grazed Steve's face with a glance; Cap was looking on with a fine blend of surprise and hurt – yay! – and there was something outraged there, too, and... Does he think I'm going to attack him with the gauntlet, hit him with the repulsors? And: Good, let 'im think that, then! And: Shit, what kind of asshole does he think I am?
"Friday, gimme a quick scan."
"Okay, boss. I detect a number of contusions..."
"Screw contusions," Tony interrupted her gruffly. "If it's not a concussion, I don't fucking care." He was a tad nauseous, but that could have been from the nice, polite punch in the shoulder he'd received. No, really, if Steve had really hit him, he would probably have punched right through Tony, he concluded grimly. Also, his vision getting blurry and one hell of a headache coming on – well that, that was probably just his usual migraine coming to hang out with him for a few hours.
"No concussions, boss, but I have to inform you that you have..."
"Oh, fuck off," Tony snapped, and immediately felt painfully guilty as the AI fell decidedly, coldly silent. Oh shit, Tony thought, and: Just add her to the list of people who hate me now.
Well, screw it all anyway. He rolled his neck and shoulders. "You up for another round?" he asked with all the bluster he could muster.
Arms crossed, Steve trailed his eyes down Tony's body, coolly, as if scanning for something, than all the way up, to Tony's face. The blonde did seem somewhat worse for wear too: the split lip with a trickle of blood, that was becoming Tony's signature mark, a bruise around the right eye (Tony's left hook had always been quicker than his right); thanks to Steve's enhanced metabolism, it had gone from red to black in the matter of half an hour, and it was going to disappear quickly enough. Tony still found himself fighting a stab of sickening guilt at the sight. Because, Jesus Christ, we're supposed to just be sparring to relieve the tension, not this, not... well, not this.
Steve's words seemed to echo Tony's thoughts. "When we agreed to do this," he said slowly, "the idea wasn't to start a Fight Club."
Suddenly, Tony was so weary. As soon as the adrenaline gave way to clearer thought, he would become aware he was hurting all over. That was another thing that pissed him off: age.
"Look at you with all the pop culture references," Tony said, a bit brusquely but not at all unkindly. He even felt a corner of his mouth twitch up, practically against his will.
Still, Steve seemed to go on the defensive even though Tony wasn't on the offensive this time around. "I do watch movies, you know."
"Oh yeah? Since when?" Tony scratched at his sweaty hair, massaging his right temple as discretely as he could.
"Since..." Steve deflated a bit. "Since Sam told me I should see this one?" he replied and tried on a wintry little smile.
So, since they had started sparring, then, two-three times a week; since they started coming back from practice with a bruised face and a bleeding nose (Steve) or with weird limps and sprains (Tony). Because, see, Steve was supposedly a nice guy that wouldn't hit you above the neck or below the belt, so the middle part of you took the brunt of his kindness, as well as your arms and legs. Unless he had his shield on him, that is, and he decided to almost behead you with it. Obviously. No. Stop it, Tony ordered himself. He needed to let go of that already.
He couldn't let go of that.
"Look, I..." Tony wasn't going to apologize for his loss of control and ungentlemanly punches. Out of question. He had one better, though, or so he thought. "I'll try to... you know."
Steve just kept looking at him.
"To spar like a normal person," Tony finished with some gruffness. He didn't think there was much point to the exercise, not really. What was it that Steve had called this 'method' when they agreed to try it out? 'An outlet for a friendly rivalry'. (How did the guy come up with that stuff, anyway?) Only, it wasn't rivalry, really; it was just them, constantly trying to claw each other's eyes out about everything, from writing mission reports to daily menus. Not to mention the Accords (like, ever; just the notion of them was enough to set them both off). More black rage than rivalry, truly. As for 'friendly'? The word had become dated for them ages ago. All Tony could do was laugh bitterly at the vocabulary choice.
And then there were the missions. The missions that... worked. Surprisingly well. As soon as they were out in the field, they would fall into this familiar old rhythm – the whole team would, really, but especially the two of them – and the flow of the mission would sweep them like a river, and they would do what needed doing, and they would be there for each other, and they would try really, really hard, probably because, Tony thought, they were aware that this was the last thread keeping them together. And for whatever weird and unfathomable reason, they clung to it.
"That's what you said the last time," Steve shot, jolting Tony from his reverie.
Tony looked aside. "I actually do try, you know. But, Steve, I..." I don't see a fucking point, was what he meant. Because really, what was the big idea, if Rogers was going to pull his punches? Not that Tony wanted him not to, obviously, that would probably count as a death-wish. Still, he didn't relish the idea of having the guy be his personal punching bag either (not without Rogers reciprocating, at least, which was evidently impossible).
So, no one was getting any kind of release out of it. No point to all this, and yet, and yet. He had a sickening feeling that this – right here, right now, with Rogers – was all he had left. Like, in life. Which didn't make any sense, but there you go.
"I don't think you are trying," Steve said in a clipped, curt voice. "This is not working. It's not working Tony. I can't keep doing this."
"Gee, Stevie, you breaking up with me?" Tony quipped in a piping, mocking voice before he could stop himself.
A storm on Steve's face; his Adam's apple bobbing furiously up and down. These days there was always anger bubbling under; the big guy could go from calm to enraged in a matter of seconds. "How can you be so...?" he started in that deep, irate voice of his, the voice straight from the gut. (Tony knew that voice so well. He had only ever heard it directed at himself. It was his private little thing with Steve. He was perfectly aware how unhealthy this line of thought was, but he couldn't stop the small flicker of pleasure in the pit of his stomach.)
"What?" he cut off, with a jerky upward motion of his chin, a pure essence of challenge. "How can I be so what?"
"Infuriating!" Steve growled. He took a step towards Tony, towering over him. Tony realized the guy was standing far closer to him than Tony was comfortable with. All shoulders and muscles and palpable rage.
"Yeah, go ahead and hit me," he spit back. "But make it real this time, Rogers."
As if Tony wanted to make him finally do it, so that he, Tony, could then simply hate him in peace and be done with all this shit.
"No!" Rogers bit out.
The larger man tried to get a grip on himself, but he was still glaring at Tony's face as if, at any moment, he was going to start shaking him (and how undignified that would be! Tony would never live it down in his own head.) "Why do you keep trying to make me hit you? What do you want from me, Stark? What?"
An honest reaction.
What are Steve's hands doing on his shoulders? When did they get there? They were like clamps.
"You're invading my space," Tony snapped. "Either fuck me or back off,"
And as if by magic, Steve's hands were off his shoulders in a matter of seconds, and Steve was out of his personal space. (So why feel disappointed, then? he asked himself. Because that was what was mixed in with relief.)
Tony could see Steve trying to find his calm, just standing there for a moment, eyes unfocused. A perfect vulnerable moment, to strike, to say something vicious, something... Tony clamped his mouth shut. He bit his lip. He clenched his teeth. This was not helping. (Nothing was helping, these days.)
"You need to stop saying things like that. To me," Rogers choked out. "Just. Stop."
"You need to stop coming close and looming over me, acting all threatening," Tony retorted, far calmer than what he would have expected himself to be.
His voice was cold (but he'd heard colder).
"That's not what I..."
"Because, if you want to fight, Rogers, fine, let's. But don't you fucking loom over me."
"Fine. But that's not the point, and you're just deflecting. I don't even know why or what any more." Steve's breaths were shuddery, Tony noticed (then kicked himself mentally for noticing). "Does this – the fisticuffs – all of this – does it actually make any sense to you?"
Tony was silent. He didn't want to say yes, because... well, half the time it seemed like they wouldn't stop until someone's brains were spilled on the floor, and the rest of the time they were all caution and pulling punches after the last ugly fight, and it went on like that until they got carried away one more time, swept in the flood of mutual anger and hurt. And it went on and on, in circles, and if it even served any purpose, Tony wasn't sure that purpose was a good purpose. And most of the time he just ended up feeling like shit about everything anyway.
And it was still better than saying no.
And he wanted to say something clever, he wanted to say something needling, because he didn't have anything else, really, but even that wasn't coming, so he just stood there.
Steve spread his arms, palms up, in a jerky, questioning gesture, as if saying: What? What?
"I thought..." Tony began, swallowing. Shook his head. "I thought sparring was supposed to help us vent our anger at each other, no? Well, it's kind of not working, but maybe it's still a little better than before? A little easier. Don't you think?"
Steve compressed his lips in silent irritation. It took him a moment to be able to speak again. "No. It was supposed to teach us to compete in a healthy way. Not to beat each other up and take it out on each other. Because, in that case, fine, you want that, fine, go put on the suit. Let's have a go at each other for real, because that's what you want, isn't it?"
"No", Tony said fiercely. "No suits." Because that would make it seem like Siberia all over again, and he could practically feel his breath grow short and clipped at the memory, and there were pins and needles in his left arm and he couldn't do this. "I can't do this," he echoed his own thoughts, in a complete wonder – barely even aware he was speaking aloud. It came out almost like a question.
Steve didn't seem to register his tone.
"Ah, right, no suits", was what he was saying, glaring straight at Tony and seemingly not seeing him there at all. "Because this way you can let go, you can give me your worst, right? And I have to stand there and take it. Doing anything about it would make me a villain, hitting you would make me a..."
"For a millionth time, Rogers, go ahead and hit me!" Tony snarled, and this time it was him that was getting in Steve's face. "I've told you. Go ahead! Just do it, it's all you want anyway. Come on, Rogers, give me your worst, indulge yourself for once, c'mon!" He was practically seething with anger, bouncing on the balls of his feet. "You think that would, what, teach me manners? You think it would make me see reason? You think it would make me behave?"
His own angry words were like an echo, a ghost from long ago.
And Steve stood there, unmoving, unmovable, like a rock, like a glacier. And: "We're done, Tony." With such a finality, such disappointment. He turned on his heel and just strode off.
If Tony hadn't heard – and said – that very sentence on a hundred occasions, he might have stopped in his tracks. He might have paid attention to something sore and cold contracting in his chest. But this – this was their mantra, almost. Fine, so there might have been some twisting in the pit of his stomach, but hey, he could do with twisting, he did with twisting 24/7 anyway.
"That's my line!", he spat out. "You can't take my lines."
"Fuck you!" Steve yelled, not even turning to look at him over his shoulder.
"Deal! I'll pencil you in!", Tony yelled right back, at his retreating back. "Just email me your schedule!"
Once back in his room, he threw himself on his bed face down, without even having showered. Which was a bad idea. He could already feel his muscles stiffen and grow wooden, and in a few hours, when he tried to get up, he was going to regret not running some warm water over them.
He started getting chilled and shivery, his body cooling down, but couldn't be bothered to reach for a comforter. Friday was usually the one to regulate the room temperature without him having to worry about that. Now, though, she had probably even lowered it by a few degrees, he surmised. No, no, she wouldn't do that. Still, he should apologize. He will. An uninvited thought snaked into his mind: Is this just another way I'm torturing myself? Because, yes, he did have a tendency to create bots and AI's that were a bit sensitive and easily hurt. Perhaps so that he could fake having a human interaction with someone, he reflected. It seemed the only type of interaction he was capable of was fucking up and then trying to fix it, anyway.
Or maybe he just modeled them after himself. He almost laughed out, but it would have taken too much effort.
I can't do this any longer, he mused idly. That was something that he kept telling himself a million times a day. It had lost all meaning long ago. The rhythm of the thought was, however, weirdly soothing.
This... can't-do-with-can't-do-without thing...that I have with people. With Steve. I can't.
He swallowed a migraine pill and let his mind wonder as he contemplated having a sad wank that wouldn't make anything better and that would probably just leave him feeling as shitty as he did now. After a time, his mind got sort of glazed over, but he didn't fall asleep.
At one point, he heard the door, yet it didn't really register. Rhodey, was what he half-thought, before a realization reached his migraine-addled mind: Rhodey was supposed to be in the DC, so who would...?
Rhodey was pretty much the only one Friday let slip in unannounced these days.
"You asleep?" That voice, of course – the one that did painful things to Tony's insides.
Tony frowned, rolling over and making an effort to sit up. "Cap?" he said stupidly, looking up at the guy, than glancing at the time. "What...?" It'd been two hours since he came back from the gym, apparently, and how come he wasn't aware he had been lying facedown on his bed for two hours? He must have dozed off, after all. That, or the effects of the migraine medicine, but whatever it was...
Whatever it was, Friday wasn't supposed to just let people in without his okay, no matter how pissed she was, and how come I always program them like this?
"Aren't you cold?" Rogers asked, frowning down at him with some puzzlement, then inclined his head doubtfully when Tony shook his own once, curtly. "You were sleeping, then. Er, sorry, I didn't know. Friday let me in..."
"Yeah, I figured." Tony got up to his feet. Looked around, located a half-full cup of stale coffee on his dresser, gulped it down (when it's coffee, at least, the glass was always half-full, wasn't it?). He turned to face Steve.
Here in the semidarkness, Steve looked softer around the edges than he did back in the gym, the corners of his lips turned slightly downwards, his eyes uneasy. Tony closed his eyes for a moment, took a deep breath. He couldn't think of anything normal to say.
He watched Steve literally collect himself, straighten his shoulders, reinstate the image of perfect confidence. Tony hated that. He nearly threw him out just for that.
"Could we talk?" Steve asked calmly.
Tony twisted his lips and nodded towards a small table with two chairs and a settee. Steve walked over and turned the light on. His eyes widened slightly as he turned to stare at Tony. Who was still in his tracksuit bottom, but the only thing that – shit – the only other thing he had on was a white tank top – a relic of his unsuccessful attempt to change clothes, before collapsing onto the bed (the t-shirt he had pulled off was still lying somewhere on the floor). And, in the glaring light, perfectly visible on his shoulders, was his mosaic of bruises, old and new, black and green, and yellow around the edges. Some with tiny stripes. Tony just glared dangerously, daring him to say anything.
"Jesus, Tony...", breathed Steve. Tony grabbed his sweaty t-shirt and threw it on.
"What did you want?" he asked, now angrier than he'd planned on.
"It's... I meant what I said. We can't go on battering each other. It's... I hate it." Steve's voice had gone hoarse. He couldn't rip his gaze off Tony's shoulder, although it was now covered.
Tony didn't know what to say, because, yeah, it wasn't healthy and it wasn't good, but somehow, somehow... This way, at least they got to see each other a few times a week, got to do something besides yelling at each other on the rare occasions that they absolutely had to talk.
"I know," he said in the end and looked away. "So, what now?"
"Maybe..." Steve stood halfway up from his chair, reconsidered, sat back down. Then changed his mind again and got up. Tony tried for another sip from his empty cup he was turning and turning around in his hands. "There's a... I think we should try hugging," Steve managed valiantly, his voice smaller than usual.
Tony choked on nonexistent coffee. "Excuse me?"
"We should hug," Steve said again, now with a desperate aplomb of sorts.
Tony just stared at him. "Have you gone crazy?"
Steve took a deep breath. "It's a... it's a method..."
"A method," Tony repeated (he wasn't capable of much else at the moment).
"It's supposed to remind us that... It's. Look, the way it's supposed to work is..."
"Of conflict resolution, yes."
"Fuck's sake, Rogers, where are you getting this stuff from?" Tony watched Steve's face grow dark, watched his eyebrows draw down. So he went on: "You read Shel Silverstein again? Joined a cult?"
Steve glared at him for a moment, turned to storm out. Turned back again. "You know what, Tony..."
"Because I'd love to know."
"It's from a book", Steve snapped, as if that explained everything.
And somehow, somehow, at a weird spot in Tony's chest, anger and outrage stubbornly kept turning into something else, because: Is he really reading books about how to find a way to reconcile with me? Because Steve was trying. So obviously trying to do at least something, no matter how idiotic or irrelevant. Tony squeezed his eyes shut and just shook his head. Of course, it must have looked like he was shaking it at Steve's words.
"I haven't seen you try to do anything constructive," the guy threw at him.
Tony just nodded, his heart growing heavier. "I'm not a very constructive guy, Steve," he said. He sounded sad. That was their dynamics now. Angry and sad, sad and angry. This really wasn't going anywhere, was it. "What book?"
Steve shrugged. "Just a book."
"Yeah, but what book? What's it called?"
"Why?" Steve was glaring at him guardedly.
"Because I'm curious. Popular psychology, self-help, what?"
Good God, he could almost imagine hugging Steve, all big and warm and nice, could almost feel how it would be, being encircled in those solid arms... No. The image filled him with both longing and nausea. And, in turn, that made anger course through him in rivulets, because longing, really, Stark, after everything that happened? Really? And it wasn't going to happen anyway. He cut himself off from his own imagination. He had to. He had to protect himself, had to protect his heart, he couldn't do this. He got burnt before, with these feelings, and...
Oh god, burnt. He had aimed his unibeam at Steve's heart that one time; Steve's kevlar suit had gotten all singed; and the look on Steve's face at that moment, oh god... Deliberately, he called forth a different image: Steve, fury in his eyes, shield held high as Tony raised his gauntlets to protect himself...
"Fine," Steve barked and dug something out of his back pocket. Made out as if to give it to Tony, then thought better of it, tossed it onto the table. Even now, Tony thought. Even now he always takes pains never to hand me anything directly. Every time something like this happened, Tony felt it like a painful stab deep inside his chest. For a second he couldn't breathe. Then he reached out and took the book from the table. It was old, obviously second hand, a pocket edition. The copyright page said 1971. A no-name publisher. And the title...
"Rivals to brothers: conflict resolution strategies that work in every office", Tony read aloud. He felt a smile play around his lips. "Shit, Steve, where'd you even get this?" It was such a relic.
"A yard sale," Steve said, all impassive, all guarded.
"It's a regular gem," Tony said, scanning through the table of contents. "Sparring and sports: a road to a healthy working relationship", he read a chapter title. "And then: Don't shrug it off, hug it out." He couldn't help but laugh out. "Are you actually checking these off as we go?"
When he looked up at Steve's stormy face, he felt a shiver of sickly regret. Yeah, mocking probably hadn't been the best idea. The worst part was, he wasn't even trying to hurt Steve right now. As he toyed with the ridiculous little book, he was further from wanting to hurt him than he'd been in a long time. Of course he had to fuck it up.
"Do you have to be a jackass about absolutely everything?" Steve asked tiredly. Tony started to say something... something apologetic, he supposed (if not now, when?), but for once Steve was faster: "I shouldn't have come. I'm sorry I came. It was stupid." The genuine, simple, matter-of-fact tone made Tony's stomach flip.
"No." He said jerkily. Shaken. "Look..."
Steve just drew his eyebrows down, cold, withdrawn. Missed your window for a heart-to-heart, Tones, Tony thought at himself with fierce mockery. "I forgot how to talk to you," Tony admitted. Steve wasn't leaving, so that was something, he supposed. He still had no idea what to say to the man. "I don't think it would... I don't want to."
"Talk to me, you mean?"
"Hug," Tony said. And it was pretty much the truth, all things considered. He didn't want it. Not like this. He gently pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. What a mistake. Something red, pulsating in his left temple, and nausea. He couldn't remember when he'd last eaten anything (it didn't really matter).
"It's all right." Steve was saying words that barely registered with Tony. "I didn't really think you would." It was just pure, distilled resignation, and something in the tone set Tony off.
"Tell me," he said quietly "how is it that I always get the impression you expect the worst from me, in advance, and then, afterwards, you still manage to be disappointed in me somehow, every fucking time?" As per usual with his tirades, Tony had no idea where this one was coming from. Steve said nothing. He just shook his head, did that infuriating thing with his eyebrows. As if to say there's nothing I can do about your shit and I'm tired of trying. That was the expression Tony mostly got from him these days.
He was never going to figure this one out. Just move on. Tony took a deep breath. Tried. "I don't think it would work, okay? That's all." In his head, he was pleading for understanding. He had no idea what it looked like from the outside.
Steve deflated a little. "Probably not." He sighed.
"I don't know if anything is going to work," Tony said then, and it was out before he could stop it. And, since it was already too late, he decided to tell the whole truth, as he felt it. "Steve. I don't really think anything can."
For a moment there, it seemed like Steve's face was going to crumble. His eyes had gone just a sliver wider, just a tad duller (I shouldn't read anything into this, shit, I've misread him before, a million times, Tony thought). Then Steve went and got a grip on himself (Tony hated it when he did that). "So. What do you want to do then?" the blonde asked with forced calm.
Because, everything was fucked up, and something needed to be done, yeah. Tony agreed.
"I don't know if we can be on the team together," he blurted. Stopped. Looked at Steve's face, searching. Steve was very still, very silent. Nodded, just once.
"So, I guess I'll..." Tony began. Then a sudden, unexpected jolt of panic shook him from head to toe. It was momentous, it was powerful. He shook his head. "Shit, I can't quit the team," he spilled. "Jesus. I can't. That's all I got left." He stared at Steve, as if this was a sudden realization, although it wasn't, not really. Still, it hit him with a renewed strength. "Do you know how old I am?"
Steve nodded. "Forty three, yeah."
"I've...", Tony said, "I've only got a few good years left. You – you're younger. And I don't think you're aging at a normal rate, anyway. Me, I have maybe five or six years to go, for this. That's all. Maybe less."
"You have many more years to..." Steve began automatically, then thought about it. "Okay, I understand."
"I'm already feeling it."
Tony nodded. What a perfect moment to spill all your panicky thoughts to the guy who routinely barely stops himself from killing you with his bare hands, he thought. "Sorry," he said. It slid off his tongue easier than it usually did. "I didn't mean to spill over like this. Badly done. My bad. Sorry."
"No, I... You can talk to me."
Tony just shook his head. "Sorry." And this time it meant something else, and it had a final ring to it. Steve compressed his lips.
"So you want me to quit the team, is that what you're saying?" he asked.
"What? No!" Tony focused. "What the actual fuck, Steve?"
"Because, I only came back because you said come, and I..." Steve began, talking over him. And then: "You don't?"
"No. Christ, Rogers. What do you think I'm doing here, throwing you out?" Tony sounded disgusted.
"No, we're having a discussion. And you just said we can't be on the team together, and it's true, it's not working. And you said you weren't going to step back. So..."
"You can't quit," Tony interrupted angrily. "Fuck's sake."
"Well, you can't either," Steve said stubbornly.
"What if I went solo? I could be of some use. Maybe we could still coordinate..."
Tony flinched back. "No."
"Because, I could do that. Because, look, Tony, maybe it's not such a bad idea, it has..."
"You're. Not. Quitting. The team." Tony's voice was low and dangerous. "Let me tell you something, Rogers. You quit the team, I quit the team, okay?" He crossed his arms. "I promise you that. Consider that a promise. No, consider that a blood promise."
"You quit, I quit," Tony just repeated.
Because without you it makes no sense. Because without you it doesn't matter.
Tony couldn't say that. Didn't know how to. Knew it wouldn't be welcome if he did. He just shrugged.
Steve looked at him for a time, then shook his head. "I don't understand you one bit," he said wearily. "I'm going to bed now. I'm tired of everything, Tony. I'm tired of talking to you. I can't do this. I can't yell, I can't fight. I just can't any more."
Tony let him leave.
Later on, sprawled on his bed, all he could think of was the hug he'd refused so irrevocably. And just thinking about it, just picturing himself wrapped in that warm, strong, kindly embrace (it was kindly in his head), his dick got halfway hard. And he tried to jerk of, thinking about the hug, picturing Steve, almost feeling his touch, imagining leaning his forehead against Steve's chest, tucking his face into the nook of Steve's neck. And he almost got there, almost came, but it was taking too long, and there was too much sadness there, too many shitty undertones, so he couldn't. And in order to finish, he had to go back to the gym in his mind, and to picture a completely fictitious, very rough fuck. And yeah, that worked, as it usually did, but the orgasm left him pretty much ready to cry. That was how he fell asleep.
At three in the morning, when he woke up (he'd fallen asleep around 8 pm, incongruously), he went banging on the door to Steve's rooms.
Steve opened up, less bleary than Tony had expected him to be.
"Yeah," he said, and it wasn't even a question. He didn't look particularly surprised.
"You're not sleeping?" Tony asked. Steve shook his head.
He just kept looking at Tony, waiting. Past any expectation or irritation, Tony thought. Then, finally: "What is it, Tony?"
"Emails," Tony blurted.
"Emails. We evidently can't talk. Well. We don't have to. We have something important to discuss, we write each other emails."
Steve shook his head. "We live in the same building. I'm not having a... a correspondence with you. That's idiotic."
"Yeah, but in emails you can erase what you don't want to say. You can concentrate on the facts. And we do need to discuss the Accords. And Steve, look, I can't do this any longer either. I don't want to yell. I just want to get this done. So, emails. Emails?"
Steve sighed and nodded slowly. "Okay. Emails."
It was another concession, another surrender, another failure. Still, it was something. At least they could have that. The renewed trace of hope that stirred in Tony's gut as he got back to his room was probably unfounded, he felt. And still, and still. "Friday?"
His voice was soft. He already missed his good girl. He'd been such an asshole to take it out on her. Sometimes Tony really, really hated himself.
"Yes, boss." The voice did sound a little less cold than it did a few hours ago.
"I'm so sorry, Friday."
"I know, boss."
The revisionist phase of the Accords was drawing to a finale. The deadline was near. What was also drawing to a close was The Outlaw Avengers' (as the press had idiotically dubbed them) stay on the team unless they signed. Their stay on the job, their stay out of prison (presumably), their stay in the U. S., with Tony, whichever way you decided to view it.
For now, only Clint had signed (thank you, Nat).
But there was still time. They still had a few short weeks to suggest the amendments, to canvass it with their legal team (thank you, Rhodey and Vision), to convince other signatory countries to offer support (thank you, T'Challa). Then, the ratification, but the next battle will be fought when the time came.
Tony was tired. He was so weary that his eyes hurt and he got nauseated just thinking of letters on the screen. Friday had been reading to him aloud, but he found it hard to concentrate unless he did stare at the letters on the screen.
But, in a weird way it was working. It was productive. He and Steve emailed suggestions back and forth between them, and these were mostly helpful suggestions. Steve was a hard nut to crack, of course. Tony pretty much felt like a filter or a dam. If a legal team saw what Steve wanted, they would have laughed, slapping thighs and pointing fingers too. If the UN got any wind of this, they may have just revoked the offered chance of the remedial action. So Tony took it upon himself to stand between him and them, to talk him down, to convince him to be reasonable (well, more reasonable).
And yet, and yet, Steve really tried.
They traded emails. They didn't fight. They didn't yell. They were productive.
It was beyond horrible.
Missing Steve was stone, was scissors, was a purely physical presence where his arc reactor used to be. Tony would wake up and it would crash down on him; he would fall asleep thinking of him (not very kindly thoughts, mostly, but still, thinking of him). It was almost worse – no, it was worse – than the time when Steve and the gang were away in Wakanda. Because he was here, he was right here, in the same building, two floors down. Tony would sneak around the kitchens, not quite sure if he was stalking or avoiding him.
Good god, the gym had been good, the sparring had been good. It was horrible and angry and full of hurt, but it was real, it was palpable and it grounded him.
They saw as little of each other as was humanly possible. The Accords needed to be finished on time. That was the priority.
Tony hated everything.
If there is to be a database of superhuman individuals, we (you and I) need to be the only ones to have access to it. We need to be in charge of it. I personally don't trust anyone else to... (and so on)
Are you really starting your emails with 'dear Tony'? What am I, your great aunt Amabelle?
Also, have you gone off your rocker, Rogers? Who is going to give you an exclusive access to such a DB? Who do you think you are, Nick Fury? You are two steps away from being a criminal yourself, and may I say you have me to thank for those two steps [deleted]
You are not Nick Fury, this is not a cuddly version of SHIELD. Steve, you cannot expect to be entrusted with such information. The Accords are not being rewritten for your convenience and your approval. We are trying to forcibly shape them into something that isn't complete shit for us, Rogers. Whatever gives you the standing for a moral high ground here, hm? What exactly do you imagine...[deleted]
Arguing with you has never been more tiresome. I will trade you a good, extensive blowjob for some concession on this particular point, deal? [deleted deleted deleted]
Also, we need to be realistic here. The powers that be trust neither you nor me. If we manage to convince them to let me design a security system for the database, I'd consider it a win in these circumstances. Perhaps we can work on from there.
In the next email, he had gone from 'Dear Tony' to 'Tony'. Well, it was Tony's own fault. He wanted to go get inarticulately drunk over that particular loss, but there wasn't time. Also, he didn't trust himself with alcohol right now. Who knew what he would do.
Tony, (just like that. No acknowledgement of his stupid joke or anything, god forbid. Just business. Okay, so he knew he wasn't being fair, since this was his idea, and it actually seemed to be working – god, what a sour victory that was).
While I acknowledge your point on us not being trusted right now, I still cannot accept the registration act as it is at the moment. Keep in mind how it can be used against us – and by us I mean anyone with superpowers that may or may not want to be known to the public. Think anti-Semitic legislation in pre-war Germany. It turns my stomach. Also, being pressed into service or required to retire... (and so on)
Tony wanted to bang his head against the table. Tony wanted to yell Yes, I know, you stupid idiot, but they won't listen! What do you think, that I actually like this??
Where's my 'dear' in front of 'Tony'. Gone after just one email? Whatever happened to impeccable manners? Whatever happened to your proverbial stubbornness? How are you letting your letter-writing style get compromised like this? Am I actually pushing your buttons here? Where are your buttons? Please tell me, I want to push some more.
[deleted crass joke]
[deleted crass not-joke]
Look, no one said this was going to be perfect. No one said you were not going to hate this (or I! Because I hate it too, you know. You are not the only one that is nauseated by this!!). (Also, don't bring up Holocaust, you asshole, go get some sensitivity training, Christ, this is inappropriate.)
I know exactly what you think of compromise and where exactly you'd tell me to shove it (if it weren't bad manners, that is). But we need to do it, we need to compromise. It's the only way we can...
While I understand your reserve re. this particular issue, I have to ask you to look at it from a different angle... (and so on)
Short. Impersonal. Logical. To the point.
Kill every joke (they were prone to misunderstandings). Kill any trace of anything personal. Kill anything you wouldn't be comfortable writing to your middle-aged partner from Japan.
They were working. They were productive.
Tony hated every word.
After Clint and the Wasp, Scott was the first to give way and sign (thank you, Hope), pretty much as soon as he was promised a pardon for past transgressions and a paying job on the force. That was all the guy had wanted. Literally all.
The next was Wanda.
Talked to Wanda. She's signing as we speak.
(The ratification of a final document was going to take time, but they were now signing a provisional version.)
That's great. So when are you going to sign yourself?
That was the problem with short emails. You didn't get the time to mull them over in your head. You clicked send, and then it was too late.
Tony's migraine was a ticking, dirty bomb when Steve walked into his office perhaps an hour later.
"Whoa", Tony said. "Brave." It was as if his stomach had dropped three floors down. It weren't Steve's eyes that affected Tony the most, he analyzed, trying to distance himself and look at his own feelings with a cool head. Nor lips. He wouldn't even let himself go there. It was the stupid, endearing way his hair almost fell into his eyes, and the stupid little wrinkles that appeared on his forehead when he raised his eyebrows.
Why can't I let this go? Every time I think I'm over it, it only gets worse.
He had missed him so damned much these past weeks.
Tony got up, hesitated a moment, then went around the desk to meet him. Steve stopped at a safe distance, so Tony changed his mind too, casually leaned against the front side of his desk. He shot Steve a knowing glance, looked away.
"You're not signing, are you?"
Steve put his hands on his hips, made as if to stuff them into his jeans pockets, then let them fall. He looked uncomfortable.
"You don't know," Tony deduced.
"I don't know," the other man echoed. For the first time since he'd come in, he looked Tony straight in the eye. He shrugged a little. He looked pained.
"So all of this, all we've been working on," Tony heard himself say, but his own voice seemed distant – distant and distinctly pissed – "all the weeks, all the emails. For nothing?" It was almost as if he head no control over his own words. Or, well, the words were right, or, in any case, they were true. But his voice seemed to go more and more bitter with every syllable. He clutched at the edge of the desk behind him with both hands and tried a deep breath.
"It's not for nothing! How can you say that?"
"How can I...?"
"You got all the others!" Steve's tone had turned accusatory, as if, good god, Tony thought as if it's my fault now. As per usual. "I worked so hard for this. I did all you wanted, Tony. I even did my honest best to convince everyone else..."
I don't care about everyone else! was on the tip of Tony's tongue, but he bit on it, bit on his lip. Just stay silent, stay silent, stay silent. Or you'll say something that you won't be able to get out of, and then he'll know.
"And now you're telling me I have no right to hesitate?", Steve finished. During his speech, he had taken two steps forward, and now he was standing in front of Tony, his palms spread in a not too friendly questioning gesture.
Tony was leaning against his desk, half-sitting on it. Had he wanted to stand up, get away from the desk, he would have to get into Steve's face. He leaned back onto the desk instead, than actually sat on it, his feet dangling. Sat back, to gain some distance. It made him feel even more ridiculous and vulnerable instead.
He didn't need this. He didn't need Rogers this close, glaring into his eyes. Not with those eyelashes and everything. Tony's anger was shot through with wisps of feelings he could never, ever disclose – or maybe it was the other way around, he could never be quite sure. But those feelings tasted bitter too, tasted of unrequited, tasted of indifferent.
Maybe he should have accepted that half-assed hug Steve had offered, he thought incongruously. Maybe that way he would have felt the other man's impassivity as something physical; gotten his proof and been done with it. Maybe it was my last chance to end this torturous shit.
"This is that point, isn't it?" He said. He was trying hard to swallow his emotions. His words came out colder than he'd expected.
"The point when you are on the verge of signing, but you don't want to, and you feel trapped, so you just wait for me to say one wrong fucking thing, so that you can get angry and lash out and storm out. All righteous and sanctimonious. Again."
"You know what, Tony..."
"You don't get to do this! You don't get to throw that in my face like that!"
"Oh, give me a break!" Tony was glaring at him so hard he thought his eyes might fall out. A gray, steely stroke of pain shot through his left temple. Still not strong, not intense, just there, a reminder of what was to come.
"I didn't come here to fight with you!" Steve burst out, scowling down at him, his tone belying his words, and Tony regretted backing away, regretted not getting up while he could. He hated being stuck like this, sitting on the desk, practically unable to stand up without barreling into Steve and pushing him away. And the man was actually leaning forward, he was leaning forward. He needed to stop getting into Tony's face like now.
Another shot of pain in his temple. This one gone from gray to almost black. "I swear to god", Tony growled. Tried to tone it down, because, shit, a small voice in the back of his mind was saying, are we really going to throw away everything we've worked for, all for another fight, another shouting match. Only, this could end up being worse than ever. The pent up frustration of the previous weeks of being civil was bubbling in Tony, he could just see it turning into a geyser at a wrong word. He shook his head. "You drive me up the wall," he said, staring straight into Steve's eyes.
There was a weird twitch of an eyebrow there. A momentary strange glint in Steve's eye. Something Tony had definitely never seen there before. Something dangerous and reckless in him responded.
In an instant, he was on his feet, practically standing between Steve's legs, almost chest to chest with him. Glaring up into his face with every ounce of bluster and challenge he had in him. "That how you want to play this?" He nodded his chin upwards, jerkily, once. "Huh?"
His eyes were pure molten heat, and so was his groin. Dangerous excitement was coursing through him, an elevated, heady feeling, a mixture of anger and lust and recklessness. Like a rash, frenzied cloud behind his eyeballs. "So what are you gonna do about it?" his voice was low and menacing, but it was still a purr.
Lips slightly parted, Steve was glowering right back. He was there, big and unmovable, like an iceberg. But breath caught in his throat for a moment, with a tiny audible gasp, and Tony noticed, Tony felt it like an iron rod right through his own chest.
It lasted a second or an hour, Tony couldn't be sure. Heat blazing in the tiny space between their bodies. Somehow, they weren't touching, as if through a mutual effort, as if they both new that once there was one point of contact, it would all go to scorching, fuming hell.
"And what do you want me to do about it?" Steve growled through gritted teeth.
"I think you know."
"I think you know."
Tony was vaguely aware of Steve's hands hovering on both sides of him, not touching but ready to, ready to encircle him, to grab him by the shoulders, whatever. His own breathing was ragged, erratic.
Which was exactly the moment Steve chose to close his eyes, to let his hands fall back down, to take a deep breath and step back shakily.
"What," he said, not opening his eyes, "was that, Tony?"
Tony was tempted to give him another I think you know and an insolent grin. But he knew it wouldn't be fair, it wouldn't be okay, it... It scared him, the possibility that maybe it would. He didn't know what to think any more. He masked it all by sitting back on the desk again, because hey, it worked so well the last time, didn't it.
"Seemed an awful lot like pent up, unresolved sexual tension to me, Cap," he said as casually as he could, aware his voice was nevertheless a bit shaky.
Suddenly he jumped down from the table and started forward; as if on cue, Steve took another step back.
"You need to stop saying those things," Steve choked out, his throat obviously constricting like a clamp. "To me. Stop it. I'm serious."
Tony finally forced himself to look him in the face again. The open vulnerability he saw there, if just for a moment, startled him. He wondered if he'd really seen it at all.
He lowered his eyelids, just for a second, tapped a short drum sequence on his thigh.
"Jesus, Rogers," he sighed. "I know, okay. If it were anyone else, I'd say let's just fuck it out of our systems and be done with it."
"But not me, though." It wasn't even a question.
"I know you are... Look, I have no idea what just happened, but I know, I know you consider yourself this shining paragon of heterosexuality, and if that's your thing, fine. And I need to stop pressuring you. I know that, okay. I'll stop. It was my bad." A beat. "Maybe we should have stuck to emails."
"What if I don't?" Steve's voice was deceptively soft. "Consider myself a shining paragon of heterosexuality."
"You don't?" Tony was going for quiet here, because he didn't trust his own words not to sound squeaky.
Steve shook his head, slowly. Just once. Gave Tony a long look. "Right now I really don't."
So Tony did the only thing he knew he was good at. He stared at him rudely and said: "Okay, so what do you say we fuck it out of our systems, then?"
Steve started towards him; checked himself jerkily, bit his lip. "Not a good idea."
"No, probably not, but honestly, Rogers, what have you got to lose at this point? We've tried everything else."
A tendril of insecurity stirred in Tony's mind, an uninvited thought of What if he doesn't want me at all? But what happened minutes earlier, and what seemed to be smoldering in the air right now, proved that to be untrue, that much was plain.
He wanted to grab Steve by the front of his shirt and slam him against the wall, and bite... No, he wanted to do that, and then he wanted Steve to turn tables on him and slam him against the wall instead, and loom over him like he does, so close, and... Well, honestly, as long as there were walls and slamming involved, Tony would take whatever.
Steve seemed to agree with the wiser parts of Tony's mind. "We can't do that."
Tony hated the finality in the other man's voice. "Why the fuck not?" He didn't mean to sound so angry. No, wait, maybe he did.
"Because," Steve said slowly, painfully, as if trying to convince himself more than Tony. "Because. It would just be furious, it would just turn into some kind of abuse. And that's not..." He finally looked Tony straight in the eyes. "Tony. I can't do that with you like that. That's not what I want between us." He looked away, shrugged dismally. "And that's that."
Tony felt his knees buckle, felt his breath shorten, for a second he couldn't breathe. "Maybe it doesn't have to be like that," he said quietly.
"Oh, please. Have you met you and me?"
An angry fuck with Steve might have seemed hot as hell, in a way, and he felt his cock stir at the very thought, but the idea also made him feel wretched and forlorn, somehow. And while they were still here, standing right here, in this room, together – maybe there was still some hope for other things.
"So what is it you want between us?" Tony asked very softly.
At which point Steve swallowed the distance between them in two strides, stopped. Looked Tony right in the face. His hand rose towards him, fell. His head inclined to the side slightly, moved forward, downward, towards Tony, his eyes half closed, his eyelashes brushing his cheeks. In the half-light streaming in through the big windows, the play of light and shade on his face, he looked almost like a renaissance painting.
And all Tony could do was just stand there, completely frozen, just like when Pepper had first tried to kiss him, just like when anyone tried to show him any kind of genuine affection. Because he thought that was what he'd detected in Steve's eyes, and it got him stuck in a loop. Cyclic redundancy error. He just stood there and for the life of him he couldn't move.
"So." Resignation and resentment mixing in Steve's voice, as he pulled back, turned away. "Okay."
A shock of loss, of deprivation shook Tony like an electric bolt. "No!" he blurted. "No, do that again."
"So that you can, what, mock me again?"
"Steve!" And there must have been something desperate in his tone, in his eyes, because Steve did stop and look at him, and hesitantly he started back. And Tony leaned forward, forcing himself to lean forward, as if breaking a spell.
It was the softest, most tender of kisses. Their lips met, rested against one another for a moment, just feeling, touching. Then with a bit more pressure, but still tentatively, still in awe of every speck of contact, of warmth of the other's breath. Something harsh and unyielding deep inside of Tony melted a little, gave way a little. Like a long lasting spasm he had forgotten about, suddenly giving way. He whimpered softly into Steve's mouth, parted his lips a bit.
They weren't embracing, they weren't even touching much. It was as if the lips were just the right amount of touch they could bear, anything more would be too much for that tentative, delicate moment. Tony knew he must have leaned forward, hungry for more, because Steve's gentle palm against his cheek stayed him. And Tony let him.
Their tongues met, felt each other, almost sore with wanting, but still gentle, still somehow fragile. And then Steve was pulling back, opening his eyes, and Tony gazed at the unguarded, soft expression on the other man's face. His stupid, dear eyes were looking at Tony as if Steve wanted to hold him in his cupped palms like something precious.
Tony didn't think anyone had ever looked at him quite like that. Especially not Steve. What the hell was going on?
"You up for another round?" he quipped huskily, because the warmth and the swelling in his chest were too much for him and he didn't know what to do with them. Had he still had the arc reactor, he would have thought it was malfunctioning.
Steve gave a minuscule nod. They reached for each other, and this time their tongues explored deeper, with more confidence, but their touches were still shy, still tentative. A detached, ever observing part of Tony's mind noticed how he had gone from fantasizing of walls and slamming to a place where he barely dared lay his palms chastely on Steve's waist, from fear of spoiling something soft and fragile that was taking shape between them. Steve was cupping Tony's face with both of his palms now, warm and pliable.
How come we're doing this? How come this is happening? How come it's so tender, how come it's so right, good god, we're still so angry at each other, where is this coming from? His thoughts were panicked, but Tony fought them, pushed them away. Because, he wasn't sure if this felt like a dream or like actually waking up, but this was Steve, and Tony felt all the little pieces weirdly, illogically fall into place.
"You okay?" Steve whispered, practically into his mouth, and Tony just hummed his assent. Still, Steve must have felt something was going on, because suddenly his eyes weren't happily glazed over any longer. He shot Tony a look with an undercurrent of desperation, as if saying don't back out on me now. So Tony hummed at him some more and leaned into him.
"What now?" he whispered. "Do you want to..."
Steve broke away, then hesitated, leaned back towards Tony. Uncertainly carded his fingers in Tony's hair. Tony decided to forget everything for the moment and melted into the touch.
"I think..." Steve began again. "Look, I think we... Would you maybe be willing to..."
"You sound like one of your emails. Just say what you want."
"I think we should get out of here," Steve said, finally finding a spot of shaky decisiveness. "Do you want to? Maybe we could go somewhere to eat or..." He faltered.
"What, like a date?"
"Well, so what?" Steve crossed his arms, shot him a defiant look, then backed down, smiled a shocky little smile.
"Cool," said Tony. "No, not cool. Great. Sounds great. When?"
"It's practically tonight already."
"Tomorrow, then?" Steve asked, unhappily, and no no no, don't look at me like that, Tony thought, and besides, this wasn't something that should wait; this seemed so ephemeral, as if it might evaporate until tomorrow, or might somehow dissolve into nothingness if he tried to hold onto it too forcibly. The possibility scared him to his core, and in that instant he realized to what extent this – whatever this was – mattered to him.
"I like tonight, though," he said, probably too quickly and eagerly, and a slow smile spread over Steve's face, and in that precise moment in time Tony loved him so much that he thought he would come apart.
"In an hour and a half, then. Okay?"
"Meet you in the garage."
Showering and the like had only taken minutes. Tony was at a total loss how to kill the next hour. He didn't like admitting it, but he felt nervous, as if, well, as if he was going on a first date, actually.
Steve's letter had been, well, Steve's, and it spoke of trying too hard and of a glaring lack of insight. It didn't even anger Tony, it just left him feeling very small and worthless. But the phone had been a nice touch, he had to admit that. Despite everything, Steve knew him well. He knew Tony would be unable to ignore the phone, unable to not use it.
"Hey. I've figured a way to swing a temporary amnesty for you guys if you'd be at all interested in coming back and trying to work things out. If you've watched the TV at all, you know there's still plenty of work for the Avengers. In other news, I've been given a green light to assemble a new team. Also, plenty of amendments to the Accords are in order. So, pls check with the others, and if anyone would like to take a swing at this again, give me a ring."
It had taken Tony almost two days to assemble this incredibly casual, and decidedly, completely forced text message. Well, evidently his own missive spoke of trying too hard too. 'Give me a ring' was probably the final straw that took the whole thing over the edge into the abyss, he figured.
He wasn't sure how he wanted him – them – to respond. He wasn't sure he wanted them back. Or, more precisely, a part of him balked at the very idea of seeing any of them ever again, but that was the same part of him that didn't exactly want to get out of the bed in the morning. Or ever. It was not a part of himself he'd readily listen to, or he'd be lost.
There was this other part of him that took a cocksure stance and sported a shit-eating grin, and said things like 'The world may need the Avengers yet, and what the world needs, the Stark provides.'
And once they were finally here, after some pushing and pulling, Steve had hunted him down to have the obligatory talk Tony had tried so hard to avoid. Because he knew how it was going to go, he just knew it, and didn't have the stomach for it.
"Tony, I need you to know I'm really sorry." Again with that stoic expression that hid god knew what underneath.
"I know, Cap, you said so."
"I should have told you about your parents. I made a mistake. I'm so sorry. It was never my intention to hurt you."
It wasn't okay.
"Look, Steve, we both fucked up. We're both sorry. Things got out of control. The only way is to try and leave it all behind us."
Like you left me in Siberia.
"Do you really mean that, Tony?"
That was Tony, lying directly into Steve's face, and your typical, clueless Steve, who had looked so relieved that it made Tony feel like crap at once. He promised himself to try and make his lies into the truth.
The truth was, he did want him here – did want all of them here, that was what he'd decided in the end. The truth was, he was trying. The truth was, he wanted to fix this, he wanted to move on, to make right for his part and forget about the rest, and just get the job done. Just get on with the missions. Rectify the Accords. Train the newcomers. Stand ready for when Earth was attacked again, because it was going to happen, and he couldn't let his petty hurts endanger anything. The truth was, he needed to keep things under control.
It's just, this wasn't the whole truth.
When the others were concerned, it was kind of working; he was letting go, but he'll probably remain stuck on the bitter side forever, remain more distrustful than before, more wary of mistaking teammates for friends ever again and letting his feelings for people around him go wild.
But then there was Steve, who had always been his patch of pure sunlight, his shining star, the spot it all revolved around for Tony. All turned to shit now.
It had taken the so-called Civil War, it had taken losing him, for Tony to realize how he had felt. He had to do his damnedest to stop Steve from ever realizing the same thing, ever.
There was Steve, who had come back, and was obviously trying as hard as Tony to keep everything from falling apart, because he too knew how important it was to stand ready. There was Steve, stoic, unshakeable, ready to atone. And all Tony wanted was to make a chip in his armor, peer inside, see for himself if he really, truly didn't care about Tony at all, beyond what 'doing the right thing' and 'doing right by everyone' demanded.
The only thing he could access there, Tony discovered, was a pool of anger that bubbled right under the cool surface.
Anger wasn't so bad, all things considered.
Anger was a response.
And then there was today, and Tony couldn't help but rewind his memories a million times, recall the look in those blue eyes as they gazed at Tony, finally unguarded, finally honest and true. And he basked in the warmth of the memory, and he felt guilty for goading Steve, pushing him, poking him for months to cause him to spill his real feelings, because Tony had known, had felt there was something there, something Steve tried so hard to keep hidden. And Tony had expected hot hatred, he had expected cold animosity, but not this, not... this.
He was elated, he was weirded out, he couldn't believe what was happening. Couldn't believe how hard he had tried to push Steve away, as harshly as he could, to push his own feelings away as inadequate, as unwarranted and uncalled for, in the light of what had happened between them.
And what happened couldn't unhappen, but right now it seemed distant, like a numbed limb. All he could feel was the warmth in Steve's eyes, the defenseless tenderness like he'd never seen before. And he remembered how hard Steve had been trying too, in these past months, and figured it hadn't been just duty on his part, not just a desperate attempt to make the team work and get the job done.
So, now that they were about to actually, oh god, go on a date, of all things, as the world around them melted and crumbled, the most forefront thought in Tony's mind was: What the hell am I going to wear? Obviously.
"Sam Wilson at the door, boss," Friday warned him. What did Sam want now, he wondered.
And: Oh. Oh.
Oh, boy. This was going to be fun.
"So let him in already. Let's get this over with."
When he stepped in, Sam stopped, raised an eyebrow at Tony's sitting area. Tony gave him his best smirk, nodded his head towards the discarded clothing Sam was apparently laughing at.
"Came to help me pick an outfit for tonight, eh, Wilson? How thoughtful of you."
He hated to admit it to himself, but he had kind of come to like Sam. It was nothing like the elation and warmth he had felt towards his new team after the battle of New York or the intense connection he thought he had with them while they were all living together, back in the Avengers Tower, raiding Hydra bases, ordering takeout and pretty much behaving like a bunch of high school nerds gone wild.
Nope, he was done with such. But as far as he was concerned, Sam had come out of the whole travesty cleaner than many of the others. He actually tried to save Rhodey. He actually asked about him. He told Tony where Steve had gone when everyone else seemed set on flinging insults. He ended on the same side he had started on, which counted for something these days.
"I actually need to talk to you." Sam crossed his arms, expression now deadpan. Tony wasn't going to make it any easier for him, so he just stood there expectantly. "It's about Steve," Sam went on.
Okay, here it comes. In his head, Tony was placing bets. If he starts with what the fuck do you think you are doing, he'd donate to SDRF. If Sam opens with something along the lines of hurt him and I will end you, Tony would buy a hospital and instate the open doors policy.
"Couldn't we sit down?" Underneath his cool exterior, Sam even seemed a little nervous. Well, good.
Tony waved a hand towards the settee, that was practically invisible under Tony's mess. "If you find a spot, sure, go ahead."
"Nah, I'm good, actually."
"Look, Tony... Steve is... he is kind of fucked up. So what I was going to say is, try to cut him some slack."
Tony frowned for a moment. "How is this a good opening for a shovel talk?"
Sam smirked a little. "See, I knew you'd think that." Then his face straightened again. "Look, I know the two of you had your ups and downs..."
"You could say that, yeah," Tony muttered.
Sam took a deep breath. "I don't usually beat around the bush, but I'm kinda feeling like an idiot here, and you're not helping. What I want to say is, I can see why you two don't see eye to eye, and I know what he can be like, but he's good people. You know that."
Tony opened his hands, turning his palms halfway up, as if to say yeah, I know, so?
Sam just talked on: "But if you look underneath that too, he's just..."
"Sam, if you say 'he's just a boy from Brooklyn', I'm throwing you out."
"I was going to go with 'sad', but I guess yours works too." Sam shrugged, smirked. "On the other hand, obviously, there's no one here who isn't fucked up one way or another, so."
Tony pursed his lips for a moment. 'When you say sad, do you mean that 'man out of time' thing? Or something else?"
Sam gave him a noncommittal glance. "He keeps throwing that line around. And the boy from Brooklyn bullshit too. But what I mean is... all together. He's sad. He's a sad guy. He sucks at showing it, but he is. So just..."
"Don't make him sadder?"
"Just keep it in mind, is all. And that's pretty much what I came here to say. Oh, and one more thing." Suddenly Sam threw Tony's closet open and, faster than an eye can follow (or at least before Tony could really do anything to stop him), he dug up a kilt Tony had worn on a Halloween, oh, a good 20+ years before and kept as a keepsake. And a red glitter vest he didn't know he had, didn't know why he had it, but it seemed to be his size and he wouldn't be particularly surprised if he'd actually worn it at some point. Sam held up both items of clothing atop each other, as if inspecting if they matched (they terribly, horribly didn't), hefted them critically, then threw both on top of a pile of Tony's clothes. "There, wear that," he said, arching an eyebrow. "It should set off your eyes."
He turned to go. Tony suppressed a laugh, but then, just as quickly, he went back to serious.
"Did you mean that he's depressed?"
Sam shrugged. "How the hell should I know?" At Tony's sharp look, he just shook his head. "Look, I'm not qualified. Probably. What I do know is, he's a sappy doofus. Try being a little softer with him."
Loving Tony was, for Steve, like throwing yourself under a bus, over and over again. Pain and the excruciating rush, years of suffering and maybe a moment of exhilaration now and again. It was loving someone whom you never could have, first because he was with someone else, and happy, and could never ever want Steve anyway (he'd made it so clear over the years, with his distance and his jabs). And then because Steve had hurt him and lied to him, because Steve had fucked up, because the best Tony could do right now was tolerate his presence (on good days).
Loving Tony was self-destructive and hopeless, but pretty much all Steve wanted now was to be there and try, try without any real hope anything could go back to something resembling normalcy between them.
In his darker moments, Steve thought Tony liked keeping him close just to torment him, but that was self-pity talking, because he knew, he knew Tony wasn't like that, knew Tony was doing his best to make things right too. So, maybe he was too hurt to ever forgive Steve, but Steve wasn't a one for giving up, and he had had too many sections of his heart crushed already, and even if the rational part of his mind told him he should probably try to move on, all he really wanted was to stay and try, again and again. Like he always did, with everything. Get there or perish. No third option available.
Loving Tony, these days, apparently equaled getting into fisticuffs with Tony, or into screaming matches with Tony, in an endless loop of anger and hurt. And he wished it could be different, wished he himself could be different, but he was only human, and he was like a raw, exposed nerve that twitched painfully at every wisp of an air current, and Tony was a scientist with a pair of tweezers, pinching, poking, jabbing, finding out where exactly it hurt, how exactly it hurt, repeating experiments for better accuracy. (Saying things like 'fuck me or back off', all the time, all the goddamn time, and how was Steve supposed to think that wasn't a deliberate, cruel provocation? But Tony wouldn't do that. Would he? Would he? He probably just saw it was making Steve uncomfortable and assumed...) And the more Steve tried to grit his teeth and endure, the more of jabbing, poking and prodding Tony did. And all Steve could do was react.
Loving Tony was easiest when Tony wasn't around and Steve could bury his head in his pillow and dream. Loving Tony was at it's most painful when Tony wasn't around too, and Steve couldn't see him all the time, at least in passing. And seeing him was even more painful still.
And Tony had kissed him back. Tony had kissed him tenderly and dazedly and smiled and melted into him and he had let Steve touch his hair.
A dream. A dream was the only explanation. He was going to wake up any minute now.
Loving Tony was... wanting to keep Tony safe and protected forever and ever (never hurt him again, never leave him). Loving Tony was wanting to curl up in Tony's lap, like a kitten, and just stay there. Loving him was wanting to grab him by the shoulders and force him to sit down and listen to reason for once, make him keep still. Loving Tony was wanting to rest your chin on your own palm and stare at Tony for hours and just listen to him talk.
Contradicted? Nah. Steve was okay.
Steve was so far from okay that he had gone full circle and he was back at okay again.
Steve jerked back from his reverie at the sound of his phone ringing. Seeing who it was, he took a deep breath and prepared himself.
"Hello, Colonel." He sounded deliberately mild.
This was the very first time since Germany Rhodey had called him on the phone. He'd barely said three words to Steve altogether. Yet another aspect of the team, yet another relationship, that had ended up unfixable. Steve didn't know how to deal with what he felt.
"Hey, Cap." Rhodes sounded cool, but not hostile. "Can I talk to you for a minute?"
"Of course." Steve paused. "I guess you talked to..."
"Just listen for a minute if you can. I don't know what the two of you are up to now and I'm not going to pretend I like it very much. But Tony wants what he wants, and when he wants something, there's no stopping him. As you probably know. Well, I just talked to him. I don't know how rightly to put this, but..." Rhodey hesitated.
The words Tony wants what he wants were like a song. Steve could feel the soft thrum of it in his blood.
"If I hurt Tony, you'll kick my butt?" Steve guessed with a small smile.
Again, a pause.
"First of all," Rhodey said, "we are not in high school and Tones is not my little sister. So, no. That would be embarrassing for everyone. Second of all, I would never say butt. No, what I wanted to tell you is... Tony's not very good at giving second chances. Although he tries, he really does. But this with you... In all honesty, I've never seen him this... this..."
Steve waited, breathless. "This bad?" he ventured.
"This bad? Really? Is that what you think? I was going to say this good." Rhodey paused. "Don't you actually see how hard he tries?"
"No, I do see that," Steve said quickly. He sighed, running a hand through his hair. "I just thought you probably didn't like any of it."
"I don't," Rhodey admitted. And then. "I don't. I won't lie to you. I'm not a big fan of this idea. But Tones deserves a shot at happiness. And if this is what he really wants... Look, I know I can't do anything about the way you two treat each other, so I'm not going to get into that. You're both adults. Let's hope you know what you're doing. But what I'm going to do is, I'm going to give you a piece of advice you'll thank me for later."
"Keep him well fed."
"Keep him well...?"
"I think you heard me."
"Okay," Steve said slowly. "Yeah. I know he tends to skip meals, but..."
"Yeah, and when he skips, he gets pissy. And the more pissy he is, the more he skips. It's a vicious circle. It escalates quickly. I always wonder how come you people don't know that."
"He never told me."
"He never... Well, of course he never told you. You couldn't beat the admission out of him with a stick. I don't think he even realizes it's true."
"But it is," Steve concluded. It wasn't a question.
"Oh, yeah. So, you want to keep him happy, you push snacks on him. I sometimes even lie I need to go eat and then I browbeat him into coming with. Anything that will work."
"He likes fruit," Steve said, finger-counting. "Berries. Also junk food." He knew that much.
"Fruit's generally a hit and miss, but junk food's almost always a go. Burgers, onion rings, you name it. He can't resist that."
"But, is that all right? For his heart, I mean..." Steve had to resist an urge to take notes (an illustrated guide to Tony Stark, he would call them). But this was useful. This was actually making it more real, more palpable for him, what was happening. Because, if Rhodes was giving him the time of day, discussing all this with him, maybe there was a chance in hell it wasn't a dream.
"His cholesterol is actually pretty okay," Rhodey was saying. "Unbelievably okay, considering the shit he consumes. It's his blood pressure that tends to skyrocket when he's pissed. And he gets pissed real easily if he..."
"...doesn't eat regularly," Steve finished. "Okay, got that." Steve's phone beeped into his ear – a message – who is it, now? Not... He didn't want to interrupt the Colonel (this was good stuff, this was important). "So, what else?"
"What do you mean, what else? I'm not giving you a crash course on Tony. If you don't know him by now, it's high time you got your ass to work."
"So this was just one piece of free advice?" Steve smiled a little bit. But – the damn beeping again. "Please excuse me for a second."
He looked at the messages. Both from Tony. He's probably canceling, was Steve's first thought, glum and unsurprised; because he'd been waiting for something like this to happen. Everything was too good; this was Steve's life, after all – it had to go to hell in a handwagon somehow. (It seemed like the perfect moment for it, now that his heart had finally started fluttering in anticipation, now that he was starting to believe something positive might come out of all this).
He closed his eyes briefly; then he looked at the texts.
Tony: So, formal or cazh?
Tony: Cazh being casual, in case you get confused.
Before this, Steve didn't know you could be speechless with relief. He cleared his throat into the phone, to let Rhodes know he was still there. Then he found his voice. "Help me out with one more thing?" Steve knew he sounded nervous, but he couldn't do anything about it. His cheeks were getting warmer by the minute. (Go stick your head in a microwave, get done with it.)
He heard Rhodey sigh. "Shoot."
"Where do I take him? I mean, I don't really know any fancy restaurants, I don't know what's good, and I've tried googling it, but the reservations everywhere need to be made weeks in advance and..." Steve knew he was babbling. Oh yes, he did. He so did.
He could hear exasperation over the line before Rhodes even spoke. It was there, in the air, in the breathing.
"Have you even met Tony? No, don't answer that." There was a pause, and then Rhodey's voice became kinder by several degrees (probably through a conscious effort, Steve thought). "You don't need to take him anywhere, Cap. You can ask him what he wants to do, for example. You two can think of something together. Christ, Steve, you've known each other for years. I know it's been bad of late, but..."
"But I want this to be..." (What? Right? Perfect? Not fatal for anyone involved?)
"Okay," Rhodey said. "Okay, I really have to go soon. But here goes. Take him somewhere you like. Wherever, whatever it is, he'll love it. Even if it's a fast food stand. He doesn't care. Just let it be real. Let it be you. Don't try to guess what he wants, don't try making any grand gestures."
"Nah, that's his turf," Steve said contemplatively, only half aware he was speaking aloud. Rhodey actually laughed out.
"Yeah, that's his turf."
"So simply something..."
"Real. Yeah. That's all. Good luck, Steve."
Definitely casual, Steve texted back. Think layers.
He smiled for himself. He had an idea.
When Tony got down to the garage (a pair of black jeans; a short sleeved tee over a long sleeved tee; cute but warm leather moto jacket, also in black – he was pretty proud of it all), Steve was already there, astride his motorbike, waiting for him. So, Tony thought with a small smile, I read you right. The awkward moment (do we kiss now? what do we do?) was defused by Steve tossing him a pair of goggles and casually saying: "Hop on. Let's go."
Tony raised an amused eyebrow. "What, on there, with you?"
"Uh-huh." Playfulness and nonchalance. Maybe a bit overplayed, Tony mused, but Steve was doing pretty well, all in all.
"Any excuse to get me to hold you, eh?" Tony said, grinned, and successfully made Steve blush which was, yeah, good, perfect.
But Tony just shook his head at him in amusement. "Give me a sec."
He was indeed back in a sec, on his own sweet bike, and Steve opened his mouth to say something in protest probably, but he couldn't quite hold back the appreciative gaze at this picture. Tony was perfectly aware of the way he looked on a bike. Tony liked playing it for effect. He smirked.
Tony knew he was so, so hiding behind all this in order not to think holy hell, I'm going on a date with Steve, this is not happening, it's just not happening, it can't be.
And as they left the compound, Tony was thinking how it was definitely more dignified this way, and besides, it was smarter to have his own ride with him in case things went south, which they might. The territory here was, after all, heavily uncharted.
But he was also thinking how he apparently couldn't stop picturing himself with his arms tightly around Steve's waist, his cheek pressed against Steve's back, wind hurling around them. And he kicked and kicked himself mentally, because was this really the moment for right and smart and wise decisions, really, now, really?
"Oh yeah," he said into his comm (because of course their goggles had comms). "One rule for tonight."
"No talking shop."
Steve laughed out. "What made you think I wanted to talk shop?"
"We always talk shop."
"Please stop saying shop, it's starting to sound like a dirty German word."
"Now you're making it worse!"
"Yeah, I know."
God, Tony had missed this. It was like traveling back through the years, to that time before Ultron, when it had seemed that together they could swing absolutely anything. Just the two of them, and the dark highway, and the chill air whipping around him, and the easy, silly banter. It was like the wind beating at his face was stripping away pieces of his anger and misery, like a dried cocoon, and what was left, what emerged was soft and new, and it was so good to just feel light again, if only for a little while.
A few minutes later, Steve's amused, pseudo-irritated voice (just like the old times, again): "Tony, stop playing your music over my comm."
"It's not my music, it's biker music. It's for bike rides."
"It's Judas Priest."
"It sounds horrible."
"It's a classic."
"That's not a classic."
And just because everything felt so light and unencumbered, Tony sped up, marginally, and Steve followed, and raised the stakes, and Tony laughed out and stepped onto the accelerator pedal. And before long they were racing down the thankfully empty road, screaming with liberating laughter like two idiots. And his bike was overclocked, obviously, but in all honesty, so was Steve's, because Tony had worked on Steve's too. Long time ago, admittedly; it'd been ages since he'd added any new touch-ups. But Steve's was probably still better (and safer) because he'd worked on it with more care, because, yeah, because it was for Steve.
They were evenly matched, and Tony wanted to go just a little, just a teeny bit faster, just to gain advantage once more. Just for a sec.
And before long they were going at a breakneck speed, and they were looking at tickets in their future (but who cared), and the wind was heady, and the speed was music, and if they went any faster they'd soar up and leave the ground behind.
Tony just laughed and stepped on.
"No! Tony, now! It's not safe. Please."
Tony relented marginally. "What's with you all of a sudden? You normally love this type of shit."
Steve was slowing down too. Not by much, but he was.
"Please, Tony." It was almost as if there was a slant of fear in his voice.
"Okay, okay, gee."
But Steve was slowing down even more, and soon he was behind, and Tony frowned a little, because they'd been having such fun after so long, and why go and spoil it now? Besides, the speed he was at now seemed perfectly reasonable.
"Steve?" He conveyed his thoughts via this one word. Like, okay, but aren't you being overly dramatic now? Like, okay, so I've slowed down, but let's not overdo this. Like, okay, why the hell are you all the way back there if we are already getting the tickets anyway?
"I just realized one thing," Steve said, sounding a little shaky, but maybe it was just the comm acting crappy again. "If we were to crash, I would survive. But see, maybe you wouldn't. And it just..." He trailed of.
Tony's stomach turned a little at the distraught note in Steve's voice, so he knew he needed to play it down a bit (it wasn't so dramatic after all, no one had died, no one would die, they were just having some fun). "Aw, come on. I've lived through worse. Besides, I'd have to be crazy to crush this baby, do you know how hard I've worked on it." (Okay, risky, perhaps, and he could see... oh, never mind.) He slowed down some more, but Steve's breathing was still ragged and irritated and he was still lagging behind (with no apparent reason, since Tony had now slowed down all the way to 100 mph which was, he thought, perfectly manageable).
"If you don't slow down," Steve snapped, "I'm going to stop by the roadside and have this picnic all by myself, and you can go get killed or whatever you'd planned to do tonight."
So Tony kicked back into the 6th. And drew parallel with Steve (after the exhilaration they'd just been through, going 70 mph felt like a stroll, but maybe strolls aren't all that bad either). Tony stole a look at Steve and was rewarded with a tiny, suppressed, relieved smile, which he answered with an identical one of his own.
"So I hear we were having a picnic?"
"Where? Somewhere in New York?"
"You'll see. "
They'd left their bikes in a garage and now they were walking down the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. From his mysterious backpack, Steve had produced two baseball caps (that made them look utterly ridiculous) – a Steve idea of cammo, as per usual. At a languid tempo, they walked, not holding hands, no, but still side by side, bumping shoulders, rubbing elbows, as close to each other as they could possibly be without actually doing the whole hand-around-the waste routine.
"Brooklyn Bridge Park," Tony ventured. "That's where we are picnicking, right?"
Steve just smiled. "Wait and see."
It was fully dark now, and just mildly foggy by the river, and the streetlights looked yellow and buttery and strangely smeared.
"No, I wanna know. Cadman Plaza Park? Squibb Park?"
"No. How could you picnic there anyway? Tony, are you sneak-checking your phone to see what parks there are nearby?"
Steve laughed out. "We're not going to a park. Stop it."
"We'll, I'm impatient."
"Can't we just walk around for a while. Just..." Steve shrugged, a bit uneasily. "You know. Walk."
And so they did. And among the passers-by and couples leaning against the rail, blurred in the mist, Tony almost felt like they were just a normal couple, out on a normal date, not the guy who owned the big, lovely tower just over there, just over the river, silhouetted against the skyline, and his friend-cum-enemy-cum-teammate-cum-whatever-they-were-now (his lover? Tony didn't think you got to call a lover someone you shared two kisses with. Sweetheart? Jesus Christ. Date? Date was okay.) His mind was racing, railing, reorganizing. Because how do you reconcile a walk along the river with Leipzig, with Siberia, with all the months of snarling at each other and lashing out at each other? He didn't know, but he knew that, due to thinking about it, he was losing the feeling of absolute, complete rightness that was born out of just being by Steve's side in this place, on this night. And he stole a look at him, and Steve looked apprehensive too, and it seemed so easy to just step back and analyze, and decide this couldn't work out anyway.
Tony wasn't a fan of easy solutions.
Steve had stuffed his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket, so instead of breaking the silence with something inane, which was his specialty, Tony snaked his hand into Steve's warm, tight pocket, and found Steve's warm, firmly clutched fist, and he wrapped his palm around it lightly. The look of surprise in Steve's eyes, and a wide smile that emerged on Steve's face with no forewarning whatsoever – they swept all the thoughts from Tony's mind quite neatly, and almost swept his legs from under him too.
"You know, when I was... when I was little," Steve began hesitantly and intertwined his fingers with Tony's in his pocket. He guided Tony to the side, to the railing, and stood there, gazing at the Brooklyn Bridge. "I wasn't allowed to cross the bridge. By myself." He smiled a small, wistful smile. "I mean, without my mom. Other kids didn't count."
Tony held his breath; then, when Steve didn't go on, he hummed encouragingly, leaning into his side a little, giving him a teeniest squeeze of the hand.
Steve sneaked a look at him, as if to reassure himself. He seemed weirdly insecure all of a sudden.
"I was... er... I was allowed to go anywhere in Brooklyn Heights, though, as long as I was with... not alone, I mean. But not over the bridge, never over the bridge. That was strictly forbidden."
"So, that became the only thing you ever wanted to do, of course?"
Steve chuckled. "Yeah, of course. I became obsessed."
"How old were you?"
"Oh. Seven. No, eight." He frowned for a moment. "No, wait, that was the year of the big strike. Seven, then."
"Strike?" Tony prompted.
"Yeah, the textile workers. My mom, she worked in the garment district. So there was this big strike in 1926."
"Wasn't she a nurse? Your mom? I thought she was a nurse."
"No, she was, she was a nurse. But sometimes she couldn't find work – or enough work, and she could also sew. So, yeah. Sometimes she worked in the garment district. She used to bring home all these textile leftovers sometimes, and she'd sew them together for us and – she made us sails, for a sailing wagon, once. Er..." Steve fell silent suddenly, sneaked a self-conscious look at Tony.
And Tony was studying his face under the brim of the baseball cap, and how his eyes lit up when he talked about his mom, and he just wanted him to go on.
"Aw, come on. At least tell me how you crossed the bridge and broke the rules!" Tony grinned, and Steve gave him a warm look.
"Kay." He sighed, shook his head. "Well, yeah, I was seven, and there were these trolleys going over the bridge, from one end to the other, that was the whole route. And kids would sometimes cling to the back rail, and they'd mostly let us, you know. That was what we... what I did that time. I'd been there before, on the Manhattan side, with my mom, so I kind of knew the way, or I thought I did..."
"Wait, the Garment District?" Tony said. "That's a long way to walk."
"Yeah, well, especially when you get lost, and then you get ambushed by local kids. We kind of ended up... I ended up..."
"You keep switching pronouns."
Steve's face twisted miserably. "Yeah." The switch from Steve's wistful but still sunny smiles to this – Tony could feel it like physical wrongness in his gut.
"So, you weren't alone," Tony said.
"So I wasn't alone," Steve echoed. He took his hands from his pockets (and away from Tony's hand), clutched the rail in front of him, leaned against it and sighed. "Look, Tony, I..."
"No. Time-out, while I tell you a story from when I was a kid, okay?"
Steve's frown looked a little puzzled. "Okay?" he said.
"So, when I was little, pretty much all the kids I knew – hahah, including Hope, actually, but that's another story – in any case, all the kids I knew, children of my dad's colleagues and such, they all wanted to be you, pretty much. I didn't. I actually wanted to be Erskine in that story."
Steve laughed out. "Of course you did."
"Everyone laughed at me for that (well, except for Hope, but again, another story)." Tony leaned against the rail by Steve's side and stared into the distance, towards the Stark Tower, now half-hidden in the thickening mist. "Seemed cool, inventing the serum and all. I was five, six maybe. Knew all of Howard's stories by heart by then. But at some point later on, I pestered Jarvis into taking me to the Smithsonian, over in the DC, for a completely different reason, it slips my mind now. But we dropped by your exhibit, and I realized that... Well, you pissed me off, because Howard liked you so much, but I thought your... your Bucky was pretty cool actually." Tony realized he was talking too fast and too animatedly, with too much intensity, so he stopped drumming his fingers on the railing, made them lie still, took a deep breath. He turned towards Steve, who was staring at him, lips slightly parted (which, Tony thought, looked immensely endearing). "Because, see, your Bucky, he wasn't enhanced in any way, just normal, and he kept pace with you anyway. He was just a guy. But he did everything you did. And I thought that was pretty cool." Tony shrugged one shoulder, defiant towards his own thoughts and feelings; steeled himself. "So what I was going to say is, I know he was a big part of your life. Steve... you can mention him in front of me, okay? You don't need to cut him out of your metaphorical photographs. "
"I can deal," Tony said, trying to reassure himself as much as Steve. "It sucks balls, the situation. But that's how it is. I'm not made of porcelain. And I want to hear all your stories. Please don't censor them."
"Okay. Okay." Steve let go of a breath he was apparently holding, turned towards Tony by a several degrees more, took a step closer to him. "Are you sure, though? Because I don't have to..."
"Yeah. I'm kinda processing the data now. You know? In my head. So maybe it will go easier if you tell me about you two growing up and all. I could gain a... a different perspective, yeah?"
Tony was hyper-aware of Steve's nearness, of a hand he raised and rested on Tony's arm. Then, suddenly, Steve closed the distance all the way and gave him an awkward one-armed hug that lasted all of two seconds; and then he pecked Tony on the cheek and opted for a hasty retreat. Still, he was smiling, so Tony smiled back with his eyes. He wasn't sure if he wanted to melt into him right there, right then, all the way, forehead to toe – or just turn and bolt.
"Okay," Steve said. They both kind of turned towards the bridge again, some awkwardness floating between them. Then: "Tony?"
"You really want to hear my stories?"
Tony detected such insecurity in that voice that absolutely the only course imaginable was to sidle closer to Steve and bump him with his hip and slide a hand around his waist. Steve didn't resist, but he was stiff as a log. Tony himself was shivering with nerves. "So," he managed somehow, "you two crossed the bridge and got lost, yeah?"
"Three," Steve said and leaned the side of his head against Tony's. "Bucky, his sister Lucy, and me."
"Didn't know he had a sister."
"Oh. Oh yeah. Lucy." Steve gave a sweet, melancholy chuckle. "She was such a tomboy, did everything with us. Climbed trees, swam better than both me and Bucky. Had the worst temper in the world, always got into fights with boys. All the ladies in our street would shake their heads and say she had to grow out of it real soon or who knew what would become of her."
"Did she? Grow out of it?"
"Er. Not really." Steve fell weirdly silent.
"She died?" Tony asked quietly, picking up on his mood. He was aware of Steve nodding his head against Tony's temple.
"Two years after that. She was a year older than Bucky, two years older than me. Got influenza. She was eleven. That was that."
"Yeah, shit times."
The silence stretched. Tony gave him a little squeeze around the waist. "So? Lucy got you in trouble with the local kids? Or was it you?"
"It's not such an interesting story anyway."
"Aw come on, Steve, you have to finish now."
So Steve did. He told Tony how they got lost in Manhattan, and how they tried asking the locals about the way, and how they were teased about being from Brooklyn, so Steve got angry, and they all got into a fight and ended up with bloody noses, sharing one piece of hard candy they scrounged up the money for. But in the end they found the factory where Steve's mom worked at the time. The floor manager was kind to them, and gave them raisins and apples, and when it was a time for a break they sought Sarah out. She had to take half a day off to take all three of them home (which was, financially speaking, a disaster). And that was one of the two times time Steve got a serious tanning from his mom (the other time was when he went skating on the frozen Hudson).
Tony loved everything. He loved how they walked, and how once they had gotten arms around each other, both of them seemed unwilling to ever let go, although it was kind of awkward. And he loved how Steve pointed out his own personal landmarks for him – the place where Brooklyn Bridge trolley terminal once stood and where he got drunk for the first time; and there was a house on Henry Street – a red brick building that looked completely unchanged – where his mother used to work as a nurse, taking care of an ill old lady, and little Steve would come with her, and sit at the window and draw for hours. And he pointed out the huge plane trees on Henry Street that used to fascinate him. The first reason for that was their bark, because he would always try to draw it, but he could never get the pattern right, and he tried and tried, and ended up filling whole sheets with the failed attempts. And the second reason was their size, the enormity (in the little Steve's eyes), the branches always out of reach; Steve had wanted to climb them (of course he did). Apparently, around the age of 8 or 9, Steve had gone through a phase of absolutely needing to climb every tree he saw; but the plane trees were big and thick and difficult, so he swore he would climb them when he got older. And then he was fourteen, and he got a really bad cough and a fever; his mom had to go work the night shift at the hospital, and had to leave him, and Bucky was supposed to come by an hour or so later, when he got home from work, to check up on him. During that time window, Steve had snuck out, into the cold, and went all the way to the plane trees on Henry Street and actually tried to climb one. Because – and this made Tony want to cry with rage and frustration – because he actually thought he was surely going to die that night, and he had to do what he had promised himself.
"You're a complete idiot, Rogers."
"Did you collapse on the way?"
"No. But it took me a long time to get there."
"So? Did you do it?"
"Not really. Bucky found me before I really got a chance to try very seriously. Made me go home."
"Well, thank god. How'd he find you?"
"Knew where to look."
"Of course he did."
"Said he would punch me silly as soon as I got better."
"I could punch you now. Glad to hear someone there wasn't a complete idiot. Did he? Clout you."
Tony rolled his eyes. "Of course not. You deserved it, though."
And Steve took him up the Pineapple street, and pointed out a small Indian place that used to be a thrift store where he and his mom would buy clothes (used, but very clean), and another place, where they would actually sell them again after they couldn't use them any longer. And further along the street, Steve showed him the spot where a hot dog stand used to be, and told a silly story about him and Bucky stealing a bag of buns on a dare, and how they ate just one, and felt incredibly guilty, and it took them a whole day to gather the courage to go and own up to the stand owner about what they did (by then it had already been too late because the buns had gone too stale to sell). The boys had offered the shopkeeper to work it off, and he said no, he wasn't letting them near his goods ever again, but he'd laughed his head off. And a year of two later, he'd come to own an ice-cream truck and now and again he would give them free ice-cream.
Steve was full of stories. It was like watching Once Upon a Time in America with a twist, a love child of Sergio Leone and Federico Fellini, shot and edited just for you. Tony could see a different Brooklyn, Steve's Brooklyn, take shape before his eyes, he could almost hear the basso blaring of the old foghorn (Steve missed it) and smell the fresh bread and river vapors and the industrial smog. And, what's more, an image of a different Bucky Barnes, Steve's Bucky Barnes, interposed itself over the blurry recordings from a winter night of 25 years ago, interposed itself over crystal-clear memories of a metal arm reaching, digging for the arc reactor of his suit. And, with a conscious effort, Tony put his anger on a back-burner, and let it happen, let himself imagine this sweet, irreverent boy, a multifaceted human being, who took care of Steve but accompanied him on his idiotic escapades too, at the same time a firm protector and a loyal follower. Of course Tony couldn't forgive – not yet, if ever – and of course he wouldn't forget, but at least he now had a foil for the fury that had previously run unopposed. At least he knew who and what Steve had been defending when he threw Tony on the ground and knelt astride him. At least he could glimpse the person that had been erased over and over again. At least, it provided some context.
Steve had been really nervous to start with, glancing at Tony furtively all the time, to check if he was bored (Tony supposed) – or whatever worse scenarios went through Steve's head. He had been hesitant; in the beginning, he was squeezing, almost forcing the words out, telling his stories in patchy fragments; fidgeting all the while, his arm around Tony's shoulders stiff as a rod, his fingers nearly pinching Tony's upper arm. But bit by bit, as Tony listened intently, and laughed in all the right places, and asked interested questions, Steve had relaxed. It was, Tony mused, like watching Steve's armor part slowly, and reveal the vulnerability underneath, as if the blonde had peeled back a layer of his own skin, and showed Tony something tender and raw, saying: Hey, look, this here is me. Do you like it? Do you still want it?
Tony did. More than he had ever wanted anything in his life. It hurt like hell.
Steve didn't like walking by the spot where their old building used to stand, over on Middagh, but sharing this feeling with Tony had somehow reduced the pain by half.
They were now on a roof of a nearby building – it was almost 11 pm, and they had sneaked up the fire escape, hopefully unnoticed, stifling giggles like two idiots. He knew this roof, though. This particular roof hadn't changed much in almost a century, although the view had.
'Bittersweet' wasn't exactly the right word for the way he felt, bringing Tony to this particular place. 'Bittersweet' was about mixed feelings, a fine blend, smeared nuances. For Steve, this was more a matter of contrast, of weaving bitter and sweet threads together, setting them against each other, seeing the colors clash. But the October night was thankfully windless, and up here the city's liveliness seemed muted, and the thin fog smelled familiar; and Tony was not three feet away from him, looking over the city, the outline of his back so perfect against the city lights that Steve wanted to cry.
On an impulse he stepped up to him, placed both his hands on Tony's shoulders, massaging lightly. Tony didn't flinch. Steve was always afraid Tony would flinch away.
"C'mon, let's eat," Steve told him softly.
"Oh! I forgot about eating."
" 'Course you did."
Tony took a look at the parapet where Steve had put his stuff. "You brought a picnic blanket?" He sounded somehow subdued to Steve's ears, even slightly crestfallen; but then again, throughout this whole evening Tony had been uncharacteristically quiet. It worried Steve. He didn't quite know what to do with it. "And you made us sandwiches? With..." Tony sat down, unwrapped one and sniffed. "Oh. Oh, this is...!"
It was the truth universally acknowledged that leftover sandwiches were among Tony Stark's favorite snacks in the whole world, especially if made with Natasha's lamb tagine. Steve had made a ton.
"Here, here's the pickle jar too."
"Oh!" Tony gasped happily. It wasn't as if he didn't have all those things at home, Steve reflected with some amusement. Steve had just raided the fridge, after all. And still, for a moment there, the older man had sounded so young.
"Steve?" Tony's voice had grown a tad more serious, a bit hesitant.
"You took me to all your important places. And you made me a picnic. A night picnic, in October."
Steve didn't know how to reply to that, and Tony didn't know what else to say, and the silence was uneasy all of a sudden. But then, abruptly, Tony got off the parapet and leaned towards Steve; and an awkward little kiss landed somewhere between Steve's temple and his ear.
For a long moment after Tony had backed away, Steve could feel the lingering touch of his lips. He raised his hand and tentatively felt the spot with his fingertips, as if checking for wounds. This softer, gentler Tony he had glimpsed tonight both scared him and melted all his defenses at the same time (melting his defenses in itself scared him, on principle).
"Tony. Sit down and eat." The warmth in Steve's voice was nothing in comparison to what was happening in his chest.
"You know," Tony said after they'd finished eating, and the spicy food and the beer had joined forces to create a warm, golden glow in his stomach, which was making him pleasantly hazy. They were now sitting on the blanket with their backs against the parapet. Shoulders touching. Legs touching. The ground was cold, but it was okay for now. He had lost his train of thought too.
Tony couldn't help but remember the two soft kisses they had shared in his office, and he wondered how exactly you got from where they were now (because nice was nice, but there were other things beyond nice that he wanted) to, well, kissing again. Because they had walked with their arms around each other, and they had hugged for a millisecond and they had kissed each other on the cheek in the most awkward way possible, and right now getting from step 1 to step 3 seemed completely unbridgeable. As if they were both, oh, 13, maybe, only at 13 you pretty much can't tell your head from your dick from your two left legs, and the complete lack of awareness makes things marginally easier. Or maybe that was just the passing of time that made it look that way.
He had wanted Steve – whether he admitted it to himself or not – for years; he was so used to wanting him that he was pretty much okay with that feeling now, he could handle it. It wasn't going to spur him into the desperate action of jumping Steve's bones on a roof in Brooklyn. Besides, the want wasn't just physical, not even primarily physical at all. He wanted this messed up, complicated, palpable something that existed between them to be acknowledged, so that he could say yeah, this is mine, I like it, I'm going to keep it forever and ever and...
He was getting way, way ahead of himself.
They were taking this slowly. Slow was good. It left the time for things that needed addressing to be, well, addressed.
"Tony? Why are you so quiet tonight?"
Tony got up, walked a few steps to gather his thoughts, turned back. Smiled slightly.
"I liked listening to you talk. Isn't it kind of nice for a change?"
Their eyes were used to the darkness, and the street lights were bright enough, a few floors underneath. He could see the play of headlights on Steve's face quite clearly, as well as his shoulders shrugging.
"Yeah, but. I'd like to know..." Steve hesitated. "I have to ask you something. I know you probably wouldn't be here if you, you know, hated me. But...do you?"
Tony's chest constricted in acute sympathy. He felt his lips spread in a painful grimace. "After all this, really, Steve?" He waved his hand vaguely towards the city view, as if Steve had given him the whole neighborhood neatly wrapped in gift paper. He then knelt in front of Steve on the blanket, sat back on his heels. Looked the other man in the eyes very directly. "No. I really don't hate you." It came out a bit rougher than he'd intended.
"So, what are you thinking? Because I can see something's brewing, and I'm getting the feeling I should know."
"I..." Tony stopped, took Steve's hand that was lying on the blanked by his thigh, and firmly put it on his own lap. Started massaging Steve's fingers lightly. "How could you not tell me?" he asked quietly. And then: "No, scratch that. Why didn't you?"
Steve frowned. "About my feelings?"
"Oh..." Tony did want to hear that too! But. "About my parents."
Steve looked away, and just stayed that way, staring at a chimney that was still sporting a satellite dish, for whatever unfathomable reason. He wasn't saying anything. Somehow, his hand had disappeared from Tony's lap, and Tony missed it.
"Tony, I'm sincerely sorry." His voice was hoarse, he was very still, and still not looking at Tony. Tony wanted to punch himself in the throat. But Steve had asked what was on his mind, and this needed addressing. He ran a finger down the sleeve of Steve's jacket, so delicately that Steve probably couldn't even feel it through the tough leather.
"Tell me something I don't know," Tony said, too lightly for his own tastes, and regretted it as soon as it was too late to shut up. Then: "Steve. Look." He kind of collected his thoughts, adjusted his arsenal, reviewed his maps for a moment. "Look, I thought you didn't give a shit, okay? I kept telling myself that."
Steve looked at him sharply, almost accusingly, an eyebrow arched. Tony shrugged. "Now after this..." Again, he vaguely waved towards the cityscape. "I know you don't open up for people just like that. And I'm aware you made an effort. And all the rest too. So, yeah, I know you do care. Okay? So, I know that you are sorry."
"You can't imagine how much." Steve sounded very matter-of-fact about it.
We all get used to our personal hells at some point, Tony thought. We have to. "I have a pretty good imagination, big guy," he said instead, with as much gentleness he could muster. "But can't you tell me why?"
Steve nodded, gathered his knees to himself, rested his elbows on them. Stared at his own hands as if they were someone else's all of a sudden. "I..." He began, stopped. "I didn't know how to. I mean we were never that close, we never really talked about personal stuff. Even while we were... kind of okay with each other, you know. Before Ultron and everything."
Yeah, after Ultron it had never been the same. But before that... "I would have thought we were more than 'kind of okay'."
"Don't get all prickly on me, it's not easy to talk about this."
"Well, I had thought we were friends. But yeah, I won't interrupt. You are right. Sorry."
"We were friends, Jesus, Tony. I just... It wasn't like with the others. You always kept your distance. I mean, we joked and all, but... Hey, when the whole hoopla with the Mandarin happened, who did you call for help? Not me."
"I didn't exactly get the chance to... Hey, you know what, you didn't call either! When all shit hit the fan with SHIELD. I could have actually been of help. And it concerned all of us."
"I'm not very good at asking for help, I guess."
"Well, neither am I."
"Are we really doing the who-failed-to-call-whom thing right now?"
Tony smiled lopsidedly. "No? Yes? Apparently?"
"My point was, I'm not very good with... with talking to people, I guess, unless they talk first. And you, well... You're good at talking. I thought you were going to do it first. If you wanted to."
So, I was supposed to give you an opening so that you wouldn't be uncomfortable telling me how my parents were murdered? The talk with Sam flashed through his mind and... In all honesty, he mostly didn't want this to turn into another fight. "Hey," he said instead, pointing at himself. "Not so good at talking either, where it counts."
Steve actually rolled his eyes at him. "Yeah, right."
Tony bristled. "Know what..." But: Easy, he told himself, you can say whatever you need to, just don't turn it into a knife, don't twist it. So, probably quite visibly, he changed where he was going with that. Because Steve had been offering him, for the want of a better word, pieces of his guts on a platter the whole evening, and, Tony felt, if Steve could do something, sure Tony could too, and better! "Know when I threw that party after we retrieved the scepter?" His tone seemed dangerously conversational. He snatched one of Steve's hands again and held it as a hostage.
Steve snorted. "Who could forget."
"Well, all of it, the whole party, everything... I just wanted you to stay. For a little while. Hence the big party. If I invited everyone and their parrot and peg leg, it wouldn't seem like it was all for, you know, you." Tony's smile was all askew.
Steve's eyes seemed a little wider, but it may have been Tony's imagination. "You mean all of us," he stated, quite firmly.
Tony chuckled with utter discomfort. "Yeah, of course. No. I mean you."
Steve was silent. A little freaked out, it seemed to Tony. Oh, good job there, Stark.
"But you were with Pepper back then."
"I didn't mean stay and fuck," Tony snapped, "I meant stay and hang out."
"God, Tony, do you really have to..." Steve's voice steadied at a point half an octave higher than normal.
"Apparently, yeah." Tony hoped Steve realized this exasperation was, right now, directed fully at himself.
"If you'd just invited me," Steve said pointedly, "I would have stayed."
"Well, if I'd known that back then, I'd have invited you. Obviously. My point was, you don't have the monopoly on insecurities." A beat. "And, by the way, I wasn't exactly with Pepper at the time."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "No?"
Tony shook his head. "Broken up, or on a break or whatever the kids call it these days. For the second time, by the way. After that I tried to go and make amends, as you know."
"I didn't know you were having problems, I thought..."
"Well, as you pointed out yourself, you and I didn't really talk all that much."
"But you two loved each other. So much! Anyone could see that."
"Yep," Tony said, lacking any other words. "We did."
"And now I've made you sad."
Tony shivered. The night had gotten chilly, as it tends to happen after midnight, and sitting outside, even on a blanket, it was maybe a bit too much. Maybe all of it was a bit too much. It all seemed so complicated.
"You know that hug you offered about three weeks ago, when I pretty much told you to go fuck yourself?", he said, still holding Steve's hand firmly between both of his own. His tone was a bit curt, but the gentle touch belied it. "Could I utilize that now or has the offer been revoked?"
"Tony, I..." Steve seemed caught completely off guard by this apparently complex concept . "I... Of course it hasn't been revoked. God! Get up, come here!" And then he muttered: "Utilize. Really."
And it was awkward at first, like all their touches had been awkward this night – wanted, needed, yes, but awkward. But when he ended up finally all wrapped up in those solid arms, Tony found himself disarmed and dissolved and defused, and his hands sneaked under Steve's jacket to stroke his back over his shirt, up and down, up and down, and it was only then Tony realized how cold his hands had been before that. And when Steve laid his palm against the back of Tony's neck, Tony felt his headache dissipating, defragmenting, and he hadn't even noticed that it had started at all. He took a deep breath and let it out and let his forehead fall against Steve's shoulder. This was good. This was – finally – somehow okay.
And Steve first rested his cheek against Tony's hair, and then he turned a little and kissed him on the side of the head, only you couldn't really call that a kiss, Tony mused, a kiss was supposed to end at some point, a peck and that was that. But Steve's slightly parted lips just stayed there, against Tony's skin, and Tony could feel the tickling of Steve's warm breath on his scalp.
"Mmm, you're so warm," Tony's voice murmured, all of its own volition, while Tony's mind took a back seat for the moment.
"Are you cold?" Steve asked into Tony's hair, all concern, and it was partly endearing and partly irritating, just as it was supposed to be.
"I just told you, I'm warm," Tony muttered, snuggling even closer into him. "I'm fine." If at that point he could have melded his body with Steve's somehow, he probably would have, readily.
They just stayed like that for some time.
"Tony, I..." Steve began, still clutching him to his chest. Tony hadn't been aware of the moment when the hug had turned into an act of desperation. He recalled Sam's words again, though, about how sad Steve really was, and all of a sudden, somehow, it was now Tony holding Steve, murmuring: "Hush, you. I got you. I got you. You're okay."
He felt Steve relax marginally in his arms. "I fucked up," the blonde whispered. "That's it. I fucked up. Other things that happened, well, we should probably discuss them, but this one, this one's on me – I fucked up. Should have told you. But I thought that maybe you knew already, and you just didn't want to talk about it, and I didn't know how you'd react if I mentioned it in that case. And if you didn't know, I... you seemed so happy back then, there was this period when we all hung out in the Tower, and I wanted it to last a bit longer, so somehow I kept saying nothing. Just... selfish reasons. And then Ultron. And then... everything changed, and I should have told you then, but again I thought you were happy, you seemed happy, with Pepper and all, and I hated to spoil it, so I kept postponing again. And I thought maybe, if I could find Bucky first, and figure that part out, maybe I could somehow tell you then, which is, yeah, completely unrelated from this perspective. And I fucked up."
"And then the shit hit the fan."
"And then it hit the fan," Steve echoed.
Tony wriggled away from him, gaining just a little distance. Looked him in the face. "You know", he began, "I think you and I have this tendency to actually build upon each other's fuckups."
Steve smirked. "Expand on them."
"Use them as foundation for even better and bigger fuckups."
"You could almost call it a constructive approach," Steve said.
Tony snorted, shook his head. "Oh, god. In all these months of shittiness I forgot the snarky you. I miss the snarky you."
Steve raised his eyebrows. "You never even liked the snarky me."
"Whatever gave you that stupid idea?"
"The fact that you would roll your eyes whenever I made a joke?"
Tony rolled his eyes.
Steve snorted. "Now you're just doing it on purpose!"
Which was when Tony finally kissed him. As everything else that night, it took some mental nudging and a whole lot of conscious effort. But – he reflected later – when for years you try to stomp out every speck of desire you feel for someone, of course that conditioning isn't going to disappear overnight. Of course you can't just push it all away and pull a fresh start out of nowhere.
Tony kissed Steve. For a moment it was all teeth and noses and weirdness, but then, then he looked into Steve's eyes and – Christ, Stark, do you have to be such a cliché? - just felt the, the steveness of Steve all the way down to his heart and his gut and his groin, and their lips were joined seamlessly as if they had never been apart, and his hands were roaming under Steve's jacket, and then, somehow, under Steve's shirt, and he could feel the wonderfully warm skin under his fingertips, and he could touch the soft spots where the backs of Steve's arms met his shoulder-blades, and when Tony ran his fingers down his ribs, Steve shivered. All of a sudden Tony had him against a brick chimney – yay, wall-slamming – and pressed himself against him, and Steve's breath hitched in his throat so deliciously; it was some time before they both decided to come up for air.
"Oh, boy," Steve gasped. He looked kind of ruffled, and maybe a bit spaced out, but Tony couldn't detect even a speck of sadness there at the moment. Good.
And then: "Because we never talked," Steve said, seemingly inconsequentially, but Tony got what he was referring to.
"The fuck-ups," he said. "Yeah. I know. We should have talked. We keep coming back to that."
"Could have avoided a lot of things."
"Sometimes," Tony said. "There's things you can't avoid. Even if you do talk. Even if you do try. So."
"A lot of these particular fuck-ups seem pretty avoidable to me, though." Then Steve inclined his head, gave him an up and down. "But you're thinking of Pepper here."
Tony shot him a sharp look. Of course I'm thinking of Pepper, seeing how the two of you are the only people I've wanted to kiss (and love, and fuck) in the last, oh, seven or eight years. "That was," he said, "annoyingly insightful. I was, yeah. But it's really over this time, if that's what you're worried about," he added quickly.
Steve shrugged noncommittally. "I didn't ask."
And there it was again, between them. The same old big, annoying, unmovable beast of a thing. "That's the problem. You don't ask and I don't talk, eh?"
"I don't want to be intrusive."
"And I," Tony said, "don't want to bore you with my personal shit, because that's how this usually ends when I try to talk to people." It came out harsher than he'd intended, but Steve gave him an unflinching, unrelenting look.
It's not fair, Tony thought. It's not fair, because he had made an effort to share so much, and I'm standing here, and I'm spewing bullshit and I can't say one single thing that means anything.
I'm a mean kisser, though.
And now I'm even throwing one-liners at myself.
"It's..." he began, then took a deep breath, swallowed, tried again. "Pepper and I go a long way back. And we did love each other. And I tried to make her happy, but managed to make myself so unhappy in the process that it's almost a miracle, it's practically anthological, all the ways I manage to fuck up relationships with people. And then she was unhappy by extension, of course, because the moping and miserable me is hell on wheels. As you know."
"She wanted you to quit the Avengers?"
"She wanted me to want to."
"She wanted to change you."
Tony grimaced. "Not in the stereotypical way you are thinking."
"What other ways are there? She wanted you to stop loving something you loved." Steve suddenly fell silent, blushed. "I meant your work," he said quickly.
"I know what you meant, buddy," Tony said gently. "Look, it wasn't that simple."
"It seems simple to me."
"Because you are firmly determined to be on my side, which is sweet, but you don't need to. There are no sides here. It's..."
"I know, you said. No one's fault. I wasn't looking to place guilt."
Tony went over to the parapet, folded the blanket and sat on it. "If you wanted to hear the whole story..." he said – Second attempt, second attempt to tell this simply and honestly, because if I don't try now, I get the feeling I never will, and we'll end up falling into my same old patterns, no matter how much I like kissing him.
"I do want to hear the story!"
"I know that." Well, now I do. "She was my PA for years. I really... I couldn't stand people on general principle, but her I liked, and we grew close. She knew me at my worst – with the drugs and the booze and all the things that are making you look at me with disapproval right at this moment, please stop, Steve, I'm not doing any of that any longer, am I? In any case, she knew me back then, and somehow – it's inexplicable, but there you go – I think she fell in love with me and decided to wait me out. I don't know." More out of need to do something with his hands than anything else, Tony started sorting through the remainders of their picnic, but there were no snacks left, so he settled for sorting the garbage. "Even back then, she didn't want to come and change me, not as such. I mean, Pepper is scary smart, she knows it doesn't work that way."
"She wanted you to get more mature."
"Yeah, I guess. To realize my mistakes, and get out of the weapons business, and dedicate myself to charity and to green energy and things. All on my own."
"Which you did."
"Uh-huh. But I think she wanted that to be accompanied by a nice house and maybe kids and a stable relationship. Not me in a suit of armor, suddenly shooting at baddies in my mid-thirties, flying bombs into space." Tony shrugged with some defiance. "She loved me. She probably still does, on some level. She didn't love Iron Man, though. Which is an irony of sorts, coming to think of it, because I always felt that you liked Iron Man a whole lot, but not me." Kicking, kicking himself in the head. With you, Stark, it's either closing up completely or spilling every thought that goes through your damn head. Filter brain to mouth: requires complete overhaul.
Steve frowned at him; cloudy with a trace of pissed-of. "That's just not true, Tony" he snapped. Tony decided to ignore him for now.
"In any case, yeah, I could understand her side of things. All the stress. Sitting at home, always shit-scared the other person would die? Who would want that."
"So you tried to leave it behind."
"Well, yeah. After I fucked up with Ultron, I decided to try the other thing, the normal people thing. And then I kind of fucked that up too."
Steve had started pacing back and forth, hands clasped behind his back. "But you can't," he stated. "You can't do that. I can't do that. Because, that's what gives you the purpose, isn't it?" He stopped, looked at Tony. "When everything seems pointless, in life, and then you find, you get that one thing – saving people – where you are certain you are doing the right thing, and it gives you meaning, it gives you purpose. You're not you without it any more. You can't remember who you were before it. It's like the last piece falling into place, and you're finally you, the way you're supposed to be. Right?"
"Yeah..." Tony found himself slightly agape at Steve's tirade. Because it was so good, so reassuring to have someone – Steve – voice your thoughts, to know that someone understood, to know that you weren't... Well, no, scratch that, to know that even if you were fucked up in the head, there was someone else that was fucked up in a similar way. Like hitting a nerve, he thought. Like sticking a needle straight into a nerve centre.
Purpose. Purpose was the gist, Tony reflected.
Steve shrugged. "If you tried to cut off a piece of yourself, of course you ended up unhappy. Whoever loves you, has to love the whole of you." Then he blushed again. "Sorry, I interrupted you."
"It wasn't so black and white as all that," Tony said a bit defensively. "As I said, Pepper is... It was all me, Steve, I convinced her to try once again, that I could actually change this time."
"Yeah, she wanted you to want that, and you somehow convinced her you did."
"I did want it."
"Bullshit!" Steve spat out, much to Tony's dismay and amusement. "You just felt guilty about Ultron, is all!"
"Whoa," Tony said. "You're oversimplifying there, buddy."
"I call it as I see it, Tony!"
"Please remind me," Tony said slowly. "Why are you yelling at me, again?"
Steve stopped, and for a moment he looked bewildered. Then he closed his eyes, sank down onto the concrete, let the back of his head lean back against the railing at the edge of the roof. "Jesus, Tony," he breathed. "I get so angry."
"Yeah, I noticed."
"Come here, please, just come here."
And once he had Steve's arms wrapped around him once more, Tony's irritation dissipated, and Steve let one hand roam over Tony's back, and he fisted the other one in his hair, gently. "I hated fighting with you. All those months" He kissed him slowly, looking into his eyes all the while, and Tony found out he couldn't even close his eyes even thought his knees sort off buckled (stupid knees). "I just want this," Steve added fervently.
"That what you wanted all along?" Tony teased.
Steve had to answer in all earnestness, of course. "At first, yeah. But since I came back, I just..." And his eyes absolutely had to go all haunted, Tony reflected; was that really necessary? Tony kissed him on the chin, to distract him. No, no sadness now, screw sadness.
"We'll make things okay," Tony whispered.
"I do like Pepper, actually, you know," Steve told him somewhat later. "I just hate that you were unhappy. And that I didn't know about it. I thought... And also, how come you never mention how you felt in all that?"
Cuddling and talking, talking and cuddling all night, Tony reflected. This was how all dates should go. It was nearing dawn, and...
"Is it weird that we spent all night pretty much talking about our exes?" Tony asked.
They were sitting side by side near the edge of the roof and moments ago they had been wondering when exactly the sun was going to come up, and could you see it at all, with all the mist.
"Well, we need to catch up on the talking, I guess," was Steve's first, spontaneous reaction. And then he flinched, gave him a sharp look. "That's not..."
"Steve," Tony said flatly. If you can't talk to me about it after all this, I really don't...
"Yeah, okay. But it was a long time ago."
Tony shrugged, feigning nonchalance. "For me, maybe. For you, not so much."
"For me, over ten years. Before the war." Steve sighed. "And we stayed friends, obviously, you know."
"So who dumped whom?"
"Okay, yeah, one of those things one is not supposed to ask, apparently. I can never keep 'em straight."
"We just... We were kids, we were seventeen, eighteen, we grew out of it."
"So he dumped you, then?"
Steve snorted. "Yeah. But we stayed close."
"That I gathered. This was your spot, though, right?"
"Is it weird that I brought you here? It's probably weird."
Tony gave this a proper consideration, so much so that, in the gray half-light, he could see Steve's face grow longer and longer. "I don't really know," he said finally. "But I know I like it when you share your things with me," he added. "So."
"And during the war?" Tony asked then, because it was there, nipping at his heels, yapping at him, and he knew the only way was to accept it (adopt it? embrace it?).
"During the war, it was Peggy."
"And after you found him again?"
"No." Steve paused. "Are you being like... jealous?"
"No. Maybe. It's okay. Just me being me."
"You shouldn't be jealous," Steve said seriously. He seemed to consider something. "There are some people a person will always love. Like you and Pepper, I think."
Tony sighed. "Steve...?"
"I wanted to get you something. And I tried to think of something cool, but ever since the giant bunny Christmas fiasco of 2013, I'm kind of wary of my gift giving capabilities and..."
"Giant bunny Christmas...?"
"I'll tell you some time."
"Tony, wait." Tony turned to look at him. "First of all," Steve began, "you didn't have to get me anything. Second, I, er... I have something for you too. So, could I go first? Please?" Steve took out his phone. "It'll take just a second. Transferring it to yours. There."
Tony opened his mouth to protest, because... Because, by all the rights, he had started this, and he should be allowed to go first. But what he had for Steve was weighing on his heart like a gunmetal ingot, filling him with apprehension and a clammy feeling of loss already, and he maybe wanted to prolong this for a little while yet.
Also, the curiosity was the ace that trumped all. He took a look at his phone.
He let his hand fall.
His face was frozen. His muscles refused to move.
"What the fuck have you done?" he gritted out.
Steve's face was a canvas of innocent hurt and surprise. Tony leapt to his feet, started pacing, his hands flying in the air completely of their own volition. "Who else knows about this? Answer me. Steve?"
"Will you calm down?" Steve was also up, all the softness and sleepiness gone from the lines of his body. He was on full alert now, and quickly getting to an angry place. He got Tony by the shoulder, not too gently, but Tony shook his hand off. Made himself calm down, though, stand still. Just glared at Steve.
"Isn't this what you wanted?" Steve asked. Every syllable was now a pure definition of pissed.
"Not like this."
"Like what, Tony?"
"Not like you signing for all the wrong reasons!" Tony let out a breath. "We can fix this," he said quickly. "We can..."
"I don't want to fix anything," Steve burst out. "I fixed it. It's fixed."
"Why? Why?" And: "Let go, Steve," when Steve put his arms around him again and held him close. But Tony didn't really struggle, just sort of stood there and then he slumped against him.
"I'm so tired," he whispered.
"Tony, I... Look, I want to stay with you. And be on the team with you. This was the only way. That's all."
"Okay. I know," Tony murmured into his neck. "I just... What if it doesn't work out, Steve? What if you hate me afterwards. You can't do something you have a major moral problem with just to appease me. It's just wrong."
"That's not why I'm doing it. And I don't have a major moral problem with it."
"We fixed the things I had major moral problems with."
"Okay, yeah, that's true, but..."
"I just wasn't sure. Now I am."
The photo Steve had sent him was his copy of the Accords, signed.
"Did you put it in the mail already?"
"No, not yet. First thing tomorrow."
"I want two weeks."
Tony wriggled out of the embrace, turned to look him in the face. "Two weeks," he repeated. "Promise me. Two weeks before you send it to anyone else. You have to promise."
"In case you change your mind, you dufus."
"Two weeks. Promise me, Rogers."
"And now," Tony sighed, "I'm going to transfer something to your phone. Gimme a sec."
Steve was thumbing through endless pages of research and lab logs. "What's all this?"
"C'mon, big guy. I know you're smart. You can put two and two together."
Steve's heart was expanding with hope so painful he unconsciously put his left hand to his heart and clutched at his jacket. "This is... your science log for your BARF research for..." The entries went back for months. The first ones were from even before Steve had come back from Wakanda. The newest one was from two days before.
"For neuromorphic synaptic rewiring, yes," Tony supplemented. "It's not all done yet, but it's getting there."
"Tony, this looks like... It's for Bucky. Isn't it?" A silent pause. "Tony?"
Tony crossed his arms, rolled his eyes. "Technically, yes. But right now it was intended for you. It's not done yet."
"You keep repeating that."
"Because it's not done yet," Tony snapped. To Steve he looked defensive and feisty all of a sudden, and...
"Tony, is this... Is this to restore his memories?"
"No. We can tinker with that later. For now I thought the most important part would be to wipe away the Hydra conditioning so that you can get him out of cryo."
Steve didn't know what to say, didn't know where to look. This was more than he could have ever hoped for, this was... "It's safe, isn't it?" he blurted; regretted it.
Tony's face stayed unchanged; not a muscle twitched. Oh, no, now I've managed to insult him too, Steve thought. "I didn't mean..."
"I'm not in the habit of experimenting on people, Rogers," he said coolly, and each word was like a tiny dart made of ice. "We won't do anything until I'm sure it's safe. That's why I said that it wasn't done yet."
"Oh, come on, Tony, I didn't mean it like that!" Steve whined. "This is... this is amazing, this is unbelievable, I can't believe you're doing this! It's so..." He then looked at Tony, who, in the dawning light looked grayish and tired, and the bags under his eyes were slightly swollen, and he was furtively massaging his left temple. When he noticed Steve studying him, he stopped abruptly.
"You're giving me Bucky back." Steve could barely recognize the squeaky, tight voice as his own, but Tony just shrugged as if it was no big deal.
"I'm giving you Bucky back," he echoed with what Steve had come to recognize as a feigned nonchalance.
Steve's heart twisted in his chest. It was like a thousand needles, a thousand thorns under your skin. It was like the time that you split a log in two with your bare hands, partly out of anger and partly out of desire to impress someone, and then you suddenly realize that you got like three dozen wood splinters stuck in your palms (and then the person you were trying to impress in the first place finds you while you are trying to fish them out, and rolls their eyes, and takes up the tweezers, and tells you to keep still, can't you keep still for two seconds, Jesus, Cap). "Tony..." he began. He made as if to go to him, but Tony stopped him with a dangerous look that belied his casual words.
"I'm not going to go anywhere," Steve said firmly, because suddenly he knew what was going on. He poured as much reassurance, as much calmness into his voice as he could. Because he knew, he knew what Tony was thinking, knew what Tony was doing right now, and the sympathy pain that grabbed at Steve was so intense that he almost choked on it.
"Nonsense," Tony snapped, squared his shoulders, stuck his chin out. His eyes were pools of molten hurt. "Of course you are going to go. You have to go."
"So I'm going to go, maybe, for a little while. To be there when this gets done. And then I'm going to come back." Again, an attempt at firmness, at reassurance. A significant look.
It was as if Tony wasn't really seeing him or hearing him.
"Steve, let's not play games. Look, I know how much you love him. That's okay. I knew what I was doing." Steve knew too. Tony was giving him freedom, as a gift. Tony was giving him happiness. Tony was letting him go.
Steve didn't want any of it. Not like that.
"It's not like that," he said, searching, desperately looking for words, and drawing a blank, now of all times, and I should go to him, I should hold him, I should tell him how much this means, I should tell him how much I love him, I should tell him I'm never going to leave him again, fuck's sake, Tony, what are you even thinking? "Tony..." he tried again, resolute to somehow say words this time, the real words that could convey meaning, not just stare at Tony, lips parted, eyes wide, and stay frozen forever (better if I'd stayed frozen forever. I can't deal with this.)
God, Tony must be in so much pain. How can he even do this? How can he stand this?
"Listen, Cap, I can't do this right now," Tony was saying, and it was as if he were wearing seven-league boots on his feet, and every word he said was a step back, away, further and further from Steve. Rebuilding all the walls on the go. Digging ditches. Raising ramparts. "Let's just go home. We'll talk tomorrow. You need some time to digest this." Tony turned his back to him, and for a moment Steve, frozen in place, thought Tony was just going to leave, just like that. But instead Tony stopped and addressed the chimney. His voice was softer now, and considerably hoarser. "Steve. Look. I know you care about me. I do know. I realize that. Don't think I don't. Tonight was lovely. But I also know how much you love Barnes. You were willing to let the world die in the fire for him. So go, be with him. We're still... we're still friends. We'll figure something out, you and I."
Steve's heart broke for Tony. Just like that, right down the middle, broke and turned to ash. (Ash is white and gray and black, like a pencil drawing; totally devoid of color; it's a fine blend; it's smeared nuances; you can't draw ash.) "Tony, wait..."
Abruptly, Tony turned on his heel, face twisted in a painful grimace. "Have a heart, for fuck's sake!" he yelled.
And Steve was getting in his face, yelling right back, because yelling back was apparently the only thing he knew how to do right. "I love you, dammit!" he shouted, and somehow he was then holding Tony by the shoulders, and he pulled Tony in, holding, holding. "I love you, Tony! I love you! You!" Tony was just blinking at him. "Onion rings!" Steve burst out, inconsequentially, because his mind was racing a thousand miles a second, and his mouth simply couldn't follow.
Tony blinked again. "What?"
Steve grabbed him by the elbow, started dragging him towards the fire escape. "Come on. We're going to get something to eat. We can talk afterwards."
"You want to..." A beat. "Eat?" Tony's words sounded small and lost with an attempt at sardonic.
"Yeah," murmured Steve as they climbed down. "I need to. I can't think on an empty stomach. Just bear with me. It won't take more than 20 minutes..." And he kept talking, saying whatever crossed his mind, tiny, meaningless sentences (because the meaningful sentences have already been said). And Tony just went along, as if in shock. He shook it off a little bit as they entered an all-night diner just round the corner.
"Are you really ordering all that? That's enough for three people."
"What's with you military types? Rhodey's exactly the same. What is it, eat whenever you have a chance, because you never know when you'll find the next meal? What?"
"Something like that."
Tony ordered just coffee for himself, but Steve kept pushing his own food at him. Here, taste an onion ring, they are so good. Here, have another one, this dip is different. Want a taste of my burger? They are good, aren't they? Kinda sloppy, but that's the way they're supposed to be. Here, take a whole one, they are smallish anyway, I'll probably have to order yet another in any case. Mmmm, the fries are not bad, here, have some. And so it went on until Tony was eating without prompting.
"Jeez, Steve, if I didn't know better, I'd really think you're in cahoots with Rhodey to make me eat regularly."
Steve muttered something into his burger, decidedly staring at a spot on the wall a little to the right of Tony's head. His cheeks were heating up.
"Good god," Tony gasped. "You are in cahoots with Rhodey! Somehow, somewhere along the line, you became co-conspirators." And he almost sounded like a normal Tony, Steve reflected, only he was talking too loudly, grinning too widely, gesticulating too much. And then he just stopped. "You bastard," Tony hissed. "It's that old theory of Rhodey's, isn't it. You're trying to mollify me with food! This is bullshit."
Steve was saying nothing. Had no idea what to say. He was tired, he was emotionally depleted; after all those ups and downs he was so happy to just be sitting here across from Tony, even if Tony was pissed. That was all he wanted for the moment, even if nothing turned out okay in the end (I have no idea how anything will turn out). So, instead of saying anything, he just extended his hand, rested his arm on the table, his palm laid out like an offering.
And surely, in two seconds flat, Tony was still glaring at him, but he was also playing with Steve's greasy fingers, massaging and stroking and petting
"You never hand me things either," Tony added, seemingly disjointedly.
Steve closed his eyes, losing himself in the caresses for a moment.
"When all the hoopla with SHIELD and Hydra went down," he said then still not opening his eyes, "and I was choosing between, well, the world dying in the fire, pretty much, and... other options... I told Maria Hill to shoot the helicarrier down. With me and Buck on it."
"So, not the whole world, then."
"No, not the whole world." Steve sighed. "What happened in April... I just wanted to protect him, Tony. Just... he didn't deserve any of it, what's been done to him. I just wanted it to stop." He sighed. "But it's not the way you imagine it is in that head of yours." He finally looked Tony in the face, braved touching his cheek, and Tony covered Steve's hand with his own. "He's..." Steve went on, "he's not the same guy I was in love with when I was seventeen, Jesus Christ, even if he hadn't been mind-wiped, he wouldn't be. And, frankly, neither am I. And it's not like that. I just think he deserves a chance to live his life. And for me – for me it's been you for years. Who I wanted. And I love you. And I'm tired. And I just want to go home."
Tony sighed. "So, let's go home," he said, and kissed Steve's wrist lightly before letting go of his hand.
They took a cab to the Tower that stood like a warning finger pointed at the sky, vacant for the moment while Tony figured out what he wanted to do with it. When they were inside, Tony kissed Steve softly and slowly and sorrowfully, like one does when one has been heartbroken and heart-mended multiple times in one night. And Steve held him close, so close, as if he was never going to let go. And when Tony asked him if he wanted to come to bed, and said they didn't have to do anything if Steve didn't want to, Steve told him he wanted everything, everything, right now and forever. And then Tony's cock was in his mouth, and later he was buried in Tony's ass, his head cast back, his eyes closed, and he rocked sweetly back and forth, back and forth, and Tony was saying yes yes yes oh good just like that Steve Steve just there yes, over and over again, and catharsis and relief washed over them, and for a moment the world around them didn't exist any longer.
Steve was lying half atop Tony, breathing hard, his head resting on Tony's shoulder, when the words started pouring out. And Steve said how they always fought, but people fight, it happens. And he told Tony how pissed he had been at him about Ultron, but then he realized that it had to be like that, because Tony was the force for the future, the initiator of change, and he himself was the defender of the status quo, because that was what he did, he defended what he had; and they were always going to butt heads about everything, forever. But Tony wasn't a fuckup, why did he keep calling himself that. He always strove to go forward, always tried, just kept trying to fix everything, so of course something was going to misfire sometimes. But no one else Steve knew tried so hard, no one else worked so much, invested himself so completely, so of course no one else had so many fuck-ups under his belt. No one had so many triumphs either.
And Tony said: Shut up and go to sleep, for fuck's sake. And Tony said: We'll be okay somehow, Sunshine. And Tony said: Steve, I love you so much I think I'm going to fall apart.