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That letter was actually the first out of many, not that Tony would ever know about it.

As the days piled on top of one another since his one and only attempt to reach out to him, branding the whole enterprise as an abject failure, Steve figured that it didn't make sense to send the rest. Perhaps it was better this way. A flood of unmarked letters might have drawn the kind of attention they didn't need, but late at night, with the weight of his own phone resting heavy on the palm of his hand, he thought he could have gotten away with it.

He could have addressed a letter to Stark Industries disguised as a business proposal of some sort, and to put Ross off their trail, he could have made a few others pass as fan mail. At his most desperate, he thought of bottles washing on the harbor and coded messages tucked inside that Tony would decipher at once because he was brilliant, and the thought made Steve's chest flare with nostalgia that was palpable, a scrap of metal lodged in his heart.

 

 

The day after he sent the package, he got up in the middle of the night. He took a writing pad between his fingers and sat on the floor, pressing the pen against the empty white of the paper.

Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry—

It went on and on, etched so deeply that he could trace the outline of each word even after he tore the sheets and set them aside.

It would have made no difference even if he had sent this one message along with the first. Nothing he said could turn back time or undo the damage he had done, and nothing Tony said in response would make Steve forget the way Tony had looked at him, the betrayal, the fear, the shock. The sound of glass shattering echoed loud against the walls of that base, it followed him even as he set out with Bucky at his side, it never really left him.

In dreams, Steve touched his face, picking up the warm, sticky feel of Tony's blood while the curve of his hand kept Tony safe from the jagged lines of his suit pointing at his neck. Each detail was vivid. He felt the cold numbing his fingers well after he woke up.

Set against the stark backdrop of Siberia, everything else seemed to fade little by little—the way Tony used to smile at him, so rarely a full-blown smile; how surprisingly patient he could be when Steve was curious about something, how easy it was to capture, in a crisscross of quick pencil strokes, the exact moment when Tony lost himself in his work.

Their past was graying and slipping through his fingers like everything else in his life had.

 

 

Tony,

Feeling like he didn't have the right to write to him whenever he pleased, Steve crossed his name with a single line.

A gaping slit across the arc reactor.

The pen clattered against the desk, rolling all the way to the floor. He couldn't have forgotten that day not even if he had wanted to, but it still found a way to sneak up on him whenever he less expected it. The memory came in bursts, almost with the same kind of violence he had been capable of, defining in ways that he would never be able to give up and leave behind as he had done with the shield.

The knowledge was there, always there, as clear as the sound of Zemo's voice had been as he taunted him. Steve had paid no attention to that particular comment of his, thinking it irrelevant; he had forgotten all about it in light of what had happened. But he thought about it now, about the serum and going green, his safety catch off.

He could have told himself that it had been necessary. He could have tried to live with this lie too, but that would have meant losing himself completely. Instead, he started again, each letter small, each word pressed close to the one before.

My hands aren't the safest, Tony. I was wrong about that too.

 

 

"You sure about this?" he told Bucky, trying to sound casual. With the way he phrased it, he could have been talking about the wisdom of going on one more ride after stuffing themselves with hot dogs or about how smart it was, really, to blow their whole train money on some hard-to-get stuffed toy.

Maybe that was the idea, pretending that this was nothing but temporal, that he would see Bucky again the next morning as if their world had never changed, as if they still lived close enough to see each other daily.

"I can't trust my own mind," Bucky said, and he tried to smile as though the weight of everything hadn't been gnawing at him in the slightest.

Steve, in turn, tried to pretend he believed him.

 

 

Tony,

I'm writing to you because I can't keep going you'll never read these lines, and knowing this, I feel free to tell you everything. Almost. I suspect that everyone has things they can't bring themselves to admit, not even to themselves.

Let me start with a confession: I'm a selfish bastard. Did I ever tell you that? Bucky has gone back to the ice and all I can think about is that if I had been in his place, I wouldn't have made that call. Easy for me to say without the burden of the Winter Soldier's past on my conscience.

If you were here, you would tell me that I'm a complete idiot this is me thinking I know better like always. I think you would call me an idiot anyway. I would deserve it. At the end of the day, I feel like you would have understood Bucky better than I can.

I would never say any of this to you, to the real you. Believe it or not, I'm not that thoughtless. I don't know how I could possibly tell you any of this without hurting you all over again. But I wish I could talk to you. And I wish I had told you the truth, always.

After Sokovia, you asked me if I was all right. Do you remember that? Sometimes I wish I had said no. I wonder what you would have done then. I wonder whether you would have left all the same, whether you would have stayed. And I wish we were on speaking terms now so that I could tell you this: I feel like I have nothing left failed. In the end, I couldn't protect neither of you.

I miss the times when we

I miss you.

How convenient of me to miss you now, to wish that we were friends again so that I could unload all my problems on you. I don't think you would be wrong if you thought that. I told you I was selfish.

Regardless, I really do miss you.

I should have said that the first time around.

 

 

"The Raft," Steve repeated. "And all of them are—"

T'Challa nodded.

We all need family. The Avengers are yours, he had written.

That letter was going to be his downfall.

 

 

Tony,

I'm an idiot. When I first wrote to you, I didn't know about Rhodes, about Natasha, about the rest of the team.

I want to knock the living daylights out of myself for not

 

 

"Maybe it's on you to give the second step too," Sam said, leaning against the doorway with a glass of orange juice in one hand. It reminded him of the time Natasha and him had gone to his house looking for refuge, a moment's rest after hours and hours of being on the run. Steve had looked calm then, but his mind was still on overdrive, trying to piece it all together. He had just told Natasha that he was always honest.

"And if you won't, I'll do it for you," Wanda said, taking the phone out of his hands without even moving from her seat.

Steve snatched it back from midair. "Don't do that again."

"Suit yourself, but this is silly," she said, exchanging looks with Sam before she took her coffee, ducked under his arm, and left.

"She's got a point, you know."

Steve sighed. "If Tony doesn't want to talk to me, then he doesn't want to talk to me. I won't press the matter."

"If he doesn't want to see you ever again," Sam said, and Steve tensed up at the thought, "then sure, he probably went ahead and dropped the phone from the top of his tower and had a laugh about it. But what if he's waiting for you to do something else instead?"

"He couldn't possibly be— He, if Tony wanted to say something, he would have done that already. He would have called me a bastard, an asshole, he would have told me in no uncertain terms that I was no longer welcome."

Sam looked at him and said, "So what does it tell you that he hasn't?"

 

 

Steve stared at his phone for a long time. He typed a few words, then deleted everything and let the cursor blink until the screen went black. Rinse and repeat.

I just wanted to make sure that

I want to know whether you, whether Rhodes

I still want to punch myself every time I

I want I want I want

God, this wasn't about him.

Tony, are you all right?

In the end, he didn't send any of those messages either.

 

 

He saw him on TV flying the suit again, along with the kid from Queens.

He saw him.

 

 

Tony,

I saw you and I want to find a way to say I'm glad your life hasn't stalled without any of it coming across as condescending, as if I were surprised that you have a life outside of

You were always strong, resilient. It's really no surprise that

If anything, the fact that I'm out of your life must have made things easier for

Do you, sometimes, miss

I never told you this, but you're good with kids, whether it was about reassuring one of them when we were on a mission, or being friendly whenever a little boy or girl asked you to sign something of theirs, or simply doing your share to encourage young people and open their minds to a world full of possibilities. I can't think of anyone better than you to protect the future.

Spider-Man is lucky to be able to count on you. You were always dependable, Tony, and I don't think any of us ever truly acknowledged all the things you did for us.

I came across this thing the other day, have you heard about it? About how it isn't that you don't know what you have until it's gone. Rather, you knew what you had all along, you just never thought you would lose it and I—

I never thought I would lose you.

 

 

"Any progress!" Sam asked, raising his voice over the sound of the waterfall.

He splayed one hand on top of a rock the size of his head, felt for movement, then climbed higher. The water was soaking his clothes. It slipped through the space between his fingers and down his arm, cooling his skin. Inside, he was burning.

He shook his head.

 

 

—and sometimes, when I look out the window, I expect to see the hedge of trees surrounding the compound. Everything is green here too, but it's different. Early in the morning there's a thick fog that shrouds it all like a mantle, concealing it from view. I should find it peaceful, being kept from the world like this.

There was this one time I gave you a call, I don't know if you remember. I had just gotten back from a mission and I was bone-tired. I must have looked funny, clumps of something gooey in my hair, dirt everywhere. I almost went into your lab for a moment, forgetting you weren’t there anymore. You would have probably told me to take a shower first, anyway.

I wanted to see you, Tony.

I wanted

I guess I wanted to hear you say something that took my mind off from everything. Instead, you sounded a little worried over the phone. I joked that maybe I should have taken a page from your book and retired, but you didn't find it all that funny. I guess it was the way I said it.

I guess I sounded miserable.

The thing is that being idle doesn't suit me. At least not here, away from everything, away from But you already knew that.

You would love Wakanda. Unlike me, you would find something to entertain yourself with very quickly. I doubt you would ever get tired. Their technology is impressive, for one. I would like to say exactly how much, but I'm afraid that the finer points are lost on me.

Everybody misses home, their families.

Home, after waking up in this era, has always been a hazy concept for me. It used to be going back to my mother, back when I was young. Then she died and Bucky was all I had left. While I was in Europe, home was Brooklyn. That grew to include the Howling Commandos and Peggy. As I crashed that ship, all I could think about was that I wanted to come home to her.

All this while, I've been lost. Home became the past and I have fought tooth and nail to get it back. I have felt so homesick that I didn't realize what I was losing along the way, and while a part of me doesn't think it's fair for me to lose the place I call home again and again, I can't exactly complain this time, can I? I did this to myself.

And if I'm telling you this it's because I lost you, Tony, and you are

Would you hate my guts even more if I told you that I

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm

I just think I'm in love with you, Tony, and I'm sorry. For this. For what I did. For what I'll do.

 

 

"You sure about this?" Sam asked. Funny to be on the end of that.

"I'm not backing down now," Steve said, taking one step inside the quinjet.

"You know I'm with you. I'm just making sure you know what you're getting into."

Steve smiled. "I'm sure, Sam."

 

 

The media has given me a new name, it seems. I guess it's fitting. I have no home and I do move from place to place, wherever I'm needed.

Being needed feels

It's good being needed. I guess I never saw it that way until now. I always wanted to do the right thing. Deep down I must have thought that made me special, one of the good guys, a decent fellow. I must have thought that set me apart. I figured that was something I could offer to the world even if there was nothing else I could do at the time. I wanted to help others. I do. I just had never stopped to think that all those times I tried to enlist were more about what I needed to prove than I had first let on.

You don't need me, Tony, and that's all right. It's something I can live

Of course that you don't need me, why would you even

I wish you still had some need for me, even if it was just as a foot soldier, even if you never need me in the way I need

I hope Nomad is a headache for Ross, not for you.

I hope I'm helping.

 

 

"And you think this is right, Cap? Doing all of this on your own?" Clint asked him. It sounded more like a recrimination than a question, but Steve didn't care. He was determined to keep them safe this time, as far away from the Raft as possible.

"He's not Captain America anymore," Wanda said, looking at Steve in the eye, almost as if she were searching for something.

"And he's also into gothic fashion now, it would seem, which actually suits you, Cap. I mean, Steve. Nomad?" Scott said.

"Steve's fine."

 

 

Tony,

You could have rendered the quinjet useless by now.

You haven't.

I keep telling myself that doesn't mean anything.

I don't always succeed.

 

 

There were many things to do all over the world, and even if the Avengers had been working together like before, he doubted they would have been able to keep up with everything. The last string of missions, in fact, had kept him busy and without a fixed abode for quite some time, long enough for them to almost meet.

It was a small world when you thought about it.

Steve saw a flash of color, heard a wave of sound cutting the air, and he—he was careless. He pushed past the crowd, heart thumping wildly, and ran behind Tony as if he could catch up with him by foot, losing his cap in the process. It was a wonder that the CCTV network wired all around the city didn't get a good shot of him.

If Tony had seen him, he would have called Steve an idiot all over again for making himself an easy target. It would have been a matter of principle, he imagined, Tony being upset with him not so much because he cared about his fate but because he hated it when others were willfully stupid.

He had a few letters on him at the moment. It was something he did on purpose now, keeping this one-sided conversation going. He didn't plan to show them to Tony, so he should have probably disposed of every single message instead of folding them carefully and putting them in envelopes as if he intended to send them, any moment now, to their rightful owner.

Alas, he was given to nostalgia.

"Just send them, Steve," Sam had told him. It was difficult to keep them a secret when all he did in his free time was to write and write and write.

He also drew, sometimes, mostly details, parts of a whole. Things like the outline of the city as seen from Stark Tower, tools lined up haphazardly on a workbench, the straight angles of Dum-E's pliers, the beginning of a human silhouette, faceless features. He thought about what would happen if they caught him and found everything, or rather, whether any of this could be linked to Tony somehow, another liability in the making.

He swore not to get caught.

 

 

I wonder sometimes if I'm too slow to change. Understatement of the century, you might say. Some could say I have adapted to the future just fine, all things considered, enough to make sense of this world, at least, enough to survive. But this reluctance to back off once I've decided on a course of action, this impulse to butt heads with anyone who disagrees, well, I don't think any of it has to do with the fact that I come from another time.

I think it's just me, Tony.

Bucky thought I was a punk back in the day, so that should tell you something. I've always been stubborn, and this might be me making excuses, but I don't think I really had an option, coming from where I did. You know I was born sickly and far from well-off. I wouldn't say that my old neighborhood was bad, but it was lively. There was always something going on. I could point with my eyes closed all the places where I took a beating.

When you live like that, when that's your reality, it comes to a point when you have to make a choice. You can decide that you'll keep to yourself and stay out of trouble for as long as you can. I don't blame those who do. Not everybody can afford to fight back. As for me, I decided I would go down kicking up a fuss if I had to, but that I wouldn't run away. I might have been in more trouble than I was able to handle at the time. Maybe I'm lucky I even made it this far and didn't drop dead somewhere.

I'm not used to budging, and while that's good for survival, it's not so good in other areas. I wish I had been more open to consider other options. I wish that everything hadn't gotten out of my hands like it did.

Maybe I'm deciding for you all over again by not sending you these letters. I'm deciding that you have no need for these words, that your right to be left alone outweighs my need to be forgiven.

I wonder if I got it right this time around.

 

 

Steve made it back to Wakanda during the summer. The seasons blurred into each other there, but he still felt the wave of warm air as soon as he left the aircraft, hotter than usual. It slowed down his pace, made everything else seem heavier. In the distance, the horizon seemed to sizzle.

He was allowed into the palace and crossed the large corridors until he found them dining. Bucky was there too, and while that wasn't a surprise—He's up and about, Sam had said, meaning Bucky, not the Winter Soldier, and Steve figured that the how and the why could wait—in a way, it was. There he was, mingling with the others, chuckling at something Sam said, passing the salad, acting like he was part of something instead of standing in the sidelines.

We all needed family.

 

 

"We've been taking this prototype for a test drive," Bucky explained later, tapped his forehead at the word test, then eyed Sam. Sam returned the look, and Steve raised his eyebrows, feeling like he had missed out on something while he was away.

"What is it?" Steve asked, crossing his arms.

Bucky looked at him, a touch softer. He used to look at him like this after he picked up Steve from the ground with an ease that was embarrassing, after he made a comment that stopped short from being a lecture because he was, in his words, your friend, not your ma.

"What," Steve prompted again.

"Stark made it, that's the how."

 

 

He composed a quick message and sent it before he lost the courage, before he thought of all the ways in which he was breaking a promise he had made to himself. He typed Thank you but meant to say I love you, and if only he hadn't thought—hadn't known—that the feeling would be unwelcome, he would have said it much before he learned what Tony had done by giving Bucky a chance.

This message, like the first, would go unanswered, of course. Still, he kept writing.

 

 

Tony,

Bucky says you aren't doing this for him, for me, and for that matter, not even for yourself. Sam says those were your exact words, and I want to believe that I would know, if I saw you, what's the actual truth.

I think I would know, arrogant as that may sound, because for all that you have cultivated a certain image throughout the years, for all that you have perfected the art of putting up a front and looking like nothing can ever get to you, reading you has become easier with time, and time, I have plenty.

You would think I'm too busy these days, but between each mission, between all this hopping here and there that I do, each day spent doing my best not to leave traces behind me, I think of you. I think of you all the time. I was afraid that I would begin to forget you if I didn't try to remember you at least daily, but that was stupid of me, Tony. There's no forgetting you.

Sam says I should send you all the damn letters, have someone drop them in a heap at your door as soon as possible or else he'll be tempted to do it himself.

I don't know, Tony. I think that no matter what I want, that ship has already sailed.

 

 

The days became months, the letters a collection, the missions a proof of a truce they hadn't signed but that seemed to be in effect nonetheless. The wide berth they gave each other looked like a deliberate effort to ignore the fact that they lived in the same world and were in the same line of business, that one day they had been part of a team, that they had been friends.

It might have continued that way for a long time if only the sky over New York hadn't turned pitch black in the middle of the day, defying all rational explanation.

It always had to be New York.

And in the end, it always had to be Tony's life hanging by a thread.

 

 

Just like the first time they took on the Chitauri, they weren't exactly prepared. Whatever strength they had as a unit had vanished like smoke, but at least they weren't on their own this time. There were others ready to save the Earth from being obliterated, and if someone had told Steve all those years ago as he stood with a trashcan lid for a shield, that he would have to do exactly this, he would have rejected it as baloney.

Yet here he was.

 

 

Steve noticed at once how Tony tensed up the moment they crossed paths, saw him set his jaw and stand straighter. "This is not about you and me, Rogers. This is bigger than all of us, than the Accords and Ross's fucking little tantrums. If it wasn't, none of you would even be here, starting with Barnes." There was no anger behind his words when he mentioned Bucky, just an account of what both of them knew to be true.

"I know," Steve said softly, regarding all the details that made Tony him, watching and listening closely, perhaps a touch too much. "And I hate it that it's under these circumstances, but it's still so good to see you."

Even if Tony didn't say anything in response, he didn't need to. Something in him wavered, the scowl he had in place began to ease off and gave way to disbelief, and Steve, a sigh away from telling Tony all kinds of things he had no use for, almost reached out and touched his face.

He, of course, had every reason to be surprised. The only thing he had received from Steve ever since they parted ways was that measly letter and a single text saying Thank you.

Tony didn't have the slightest clue.

The time to tell him was well behind them.

 

 

He told Sam and Bucky that if he didn't make it, he wanted all those letters turned into coal.

"I'm serious," Steve said, which almost convinced them of the opposite. "It would do him no good if he found out about it."

"Alright, man, but at this rate—" Sam turned towards the sky and let the sentence linger, becoming more and more weighty with each second they spent in silence.

"At this rate it'll be a wonder if we don't kick the bucket en masse," Bucky said.

"Thanks, Buck," Steve said, but it was the kind of thing to do when the end times were upon them.

Gallows humor.

 

 

"Captain Rogers," FRIDAY said. "Long time no see."

"Yes, FRIDAY," he said, running his fingers over his desk. His room looked just as he had left it, the bed made, his old sketches framed by the windowsill, a group of books stacked in the exact same order. "I have a small favor to ask. Can you record something?"

"Certainly."

"Tony," Steve started in the same way that he had begun each one of those letters, then took his dog tags in his palm. Here was something meaningful yet simple, he hoped, something that would be less of a burden than all those words could ever be. "If I die, I want you to have these. You can do whatever you want with them. You don't even need to keep them. I just want you to have them."

 

 

It wasn't just Steve being dramatic. They had never faced something like this before, and although he didn't plan to quit fighting, he was prepared to lay down his life if that's what it took.

"Call it, Rogers," Tony said, because when it came down to it, all of their differences lost meaning. Together, Steve thought, remembering.

But it wasn't Steve whom they needed, not when they needed to outwit a being that seemed to be undefeatable. They needed Tony's genius and all of his heart, they needed that dogged attachment to life that had been there with him since he made it out of Afghanistan. If someone could lead them to victory, that was him.

And so Steve looked at him, at the circles of light that rose from his armor, all of him bright against the background of this endless dusk.

"Not this time, Tony. You lead," he said, "I'll follow."

 

 

By the time the war came to a standstill, half the world still stood in one piece, but Steve's world was ending. He hurried, he ran as fast as he could, but this time the ever-elusive past was chasing him. It was happening all over again, everything was in ruins and Tony had fallen, and he was holding Rhodes' hand, entrusting him with what would have been his duty if only he had been able to do something about it.

When he got there—late, always late—the light had gone out from Tony's eyes. This is it, Steve thought. This was the thing that would kill him. This was the moment when his body would give up the fight, all that serum be damned. He felt as if his heart had been torn out of his ribcage, and although he wasn't the only one who had lost someone, he had no room for anything else that wasn't his own grief.

"Am I supposed to—" Rhodes started, his voice growing thin.

All around them, the others encouraged him.

"Please," Steve said, cradling Tony in his arms. "Please."

And Rhodes stood up, rose tall among the rubble in the suit that Tony had designed for him to walk again. This is his story, Steve thought, wishing Tony could see it, because one day, not so long ago, this is what Tony had intended, for Rhodes to carry his legacy. He's a better fit, Tony said some time after he retired, eyes bright and looking proud. Me, I was never the hero type.

"Don't worry," Rhodes told Steve. "He's died on me before, but it's never stuck. So hang tight."

Rhodes wielded the Gauntlet and wished, letting the light dispel the darkness, and Steve, holding Tony closer, wished along with him.

 

 

After that, life began to return to normal little by little. There were new additions to the team, young superheroes that had proven themselves in battle. The rest of them got reinstated after sorting out a perfunctory legal muddle. In many ways, it felt like a new beginning, except when it came to Tony and him.

Fed up from seeing him brooding around the compound, Bucky said, "I don't get it, Stevie. The man died once, half of us did. What the hell are you waiting for?"

Steve worked his jaw. "It's not easy, Buck."

"Then make it easy."

In his defense, he did try talking to him, but since Tony didn't seem ready to hold a conversation about what happened, and much less with him, Steve kept his distance. If it was Tony, he could wait for as long as it was needed.

And it was true, it wasn't a piece of cake. He tried not to look at Tony in a way that made him uncomfortable, surviving through nothing but stolen glances and scraps of interaction; he tried to make himself smaller and not to hog the places where Tony would otherwise be; he stayed away from Tony's lab and gave every mission his all to keep his mind busy.

Steve never ran into Tony in the field. He had given up on flying the suit, focusing on designing everything and making everyone look cooler, as always.

And then, one day, Tony knocked on his door in the middle of the night, let himself in, and sat at the border of the bed. Steve sat up and waited for him to speak.

"The thing with Barnes, I let that go, and if I let that go, then the thing with you— What I mean to say is that I forgive you," he said, and then, with a little smile, "Can you forgive someone and still be mad at them?"

Seeing the look on Steve's face, he said, "Nah, I forgive you. But don't be all giddy. I'm doing this more for me than for you. This isn't something that I want to carry with me wherever I go, you see. After all this time, I've finally learned to put myself first. A little, at least. And before you say, You always put yourself first, Tony, it wasn't—"

Steve sighed. "You never put yourself first, Tony. Who told you that lie?"

"I guess. I guess that if it had been like that, I would have simply walked away much earlier and gone to live comfortably in a picturesque Italian villa while I left you all hanging out to dry."

Tony was so close that it was driving him crazy, close enough that Steve could have reached out and held him in his arms if he had wanted. But he didn't dare.

"Maybe if things had been different. If you hadn't been you, impossibly stubborn, and I hadn't been me, quite the match. It isn't so ridiculous, right? To think that maybe we could have struck up some sort of friendship if we had met under other circumstances, that all those times when it seemed like you liked me weren't just you putting up with—"

"Does it really seem like I was just putting up with you? Tony, does it genuinely seem like that was the case," Steve said, and even Tony had to pause at that.

Tony was wicked smart, much more than he was deliberately dense, so he had to know. He had seen the look on Steve's face after he came back to life, gasping in his arms, so much like yesterday. He had to know. You didn't cry over people you didn't give a hoot about.

"You have no idea how much I've missed you," Steve said, but Tony didn't seem to be listening. He didn't even offer him a Yeah? like last time, and it was brief but gripping, the idea that he no longer believed him.

"Well, bottom line is, I forgive you. I thought you should know. It seemed like it weighed on you and everything, and I thought, I might as well tell him before—"

"Before?" Steve repeated.

"Go back to sleep, Steve. There's a mission tomorrow, right? Well, later today."

"Yes, there is."

"Break a leg. Be safe. Everything will go according to plan because it's you," Tony said, standing up.

"I— Tony? I know you don't consider me a friend anymore, but we were friends, and if you let me—"

And Tony smiled as if he barely remembered what that even was, as if he lacked the practice. "Yeah, I guess we were."

 

 

"Gone," Steve repeated, and he had to sit down because it was too much, because if he had known that Tony was saying goodbye when he went to his room, he would have chased after him. "Who does he think he is? Where did he even go?"

"He didn't tell me where," Rhodes said, placing a hand on his shoulder.

"Is he gone for— Is this a permanent thing?" Steve asked, and he didn't even want to imagine how he looked, considering the pity look that Rhodes was giving him.

"You never know with Tony, but he intended to make it permanent, yes. He meant to start over."

 

 

Tony,

Damn you. Damn you to

Please don't go where I can't follow.

 

 

Steve lasted around a year, subsisting on whatever information Rhodes got from Tony. Apparently, all the while Steve was dying inside, Tony was fine—terrific, even—he was eating better, sleeping more, thriving overall. Who the hell knew if that was true. He hoped that it was.

Everything proceeded as usual, except for that time when Steve almost got himself killed. Broken ribs, a concussion, the whole nine yards. In theory, it shouldn't have been that different from all those other times, except that he had dropped the shield on purpose. He had done that twice before—the first time because he had, well, not exactly given up on life, but still hadn't felt like there was really a point in carrying on. The second time was because he didn't want to be—nor deserved being—Captain America any longer, and now it was maybe a mix of both.

Natasha sat him down. Sam and Bucky were there too, looking serious. The three of them acted like they were joined at the hip as of late. Briefly, he thought, Maybe, because it wasn't that wild of an idea. He didn't even mind; he just wanted all of them to be happy.

"Have you thought about maybe letting go?" she asked.

Steve flinched as if she had slapped him, and he honestly shouldn't have, because he was still on the mend. Every inch of him ached. He didn't know how Tony had lived with the arc reactor for years—unlike the pressure he felt around his chest all the time, that had been real, not something imagined.

"I don't mean Tony."

Oh. "I've been doing that bad of a job lately, huh?"

"Your heart's not in it, Steve, we can tell," Bucky said. "If anyone deserves a break, that's you."

"What would make you happy, Steve? Think about that," Sam said, reprising the conversation they had all those years ago, and well, that was a thought. The world didn't really need him anymore and the shield had gotten heavy, anyway, very much so.

He didn't know what it said about him that he needed so little encouragement to drop it again, but frankly, he was past caring.

 

 

He said his goodbyes and left the shield in Sam's care.

He also took with him all the letters he never got to send. There was precious little else he needed. He had grown up with few things, and during all the time he spent in the 21st century, the trend had remained the same. It wasn't all that different this time around, so he packed light and hit the road.

 

 

Being on the move did him good. He stopped feeling like his soul had been sucked out of his body. He got to sleep under the stars and woke up to dew on the tips of leaves and the feel of the earth dipping under his fingers. He got odd jobs to make ends meet, mostly manual labor that left him with little time for thinking, for which he was thankful. He helped people.

From time to time he got texts saying Are you still alive? as well as pictures, especially from the younger Avengers. While they gave him his space, someone would always check up on him if he didn't get in touch for a long stretch of time. He commiserated with Rhodes about what little they knew about Tony.

He didn't stop writing.

He also started drawing more often, more than he had drawn during the years he was Captain America. Small rural scenes, the set of irregular lines that made up a barn, the intricacy of a spider web hanging from a pair of thin little branches, the sky after a storm had passed, bales of hay that had been freshly piled, and in the small towns, people eating in diners, kids playing in the streets, the stonework details from old churches. And he drew Tony in the middle of everything, as if he had been there with him.

He had been staying in a farm after helping the owners with some errands when he got a call. It was Rhodes. "Hey," he said, "do you have pen and paper at hand?"

"Yeah," Steve said, because he had been sketching at the light of a lamp. Rhodes started given him directions, and as he wrote down each word, his heart started beating faster. "Is Tony—?"

"He's in the States, yes. And he wasn't overly specific, but that's an approximation of where he should be."

"But he, does he even want people to visit him?" Does he even want to see me? Steve didn't ask, although it was a valid question. As much as he was dying to see Tony, he didn't want to drop by and ruin his day.

Rhodes chuckled. "Well, yes, he knows you're taking a break too."

 

 

Everything started to go wrong by the time he left one of the towns he had marked as Possible Places Where Tony Might Be. He hadn't had any luck there, and despite the fact that the weather was starting to take a turn for the worse, he decided it to risk it and leave for the next one. Embarrassingly, not only did he get lost along the way, his bike also gave up the ghost with all too perfect timing.

If it hadn't been for small town hospitality, he would have probably ended up frozen for the second time in his life. "Terrible day to get stranded," the woman said, pointing at the bike. "I'm Sarah, by the way."

"Thank you, ma'am. I'm Steve," he said and shook her hand. Sarah was perhaps in her sixties, but she looked youthful with her piercings and her leather jacket, and while she didn't remind him of his mother at all, he couldn't help feeling warmer upon hearing her name.

"Just Sarah, please. You're making me feel old."

"All right, then," he said with a smile. "Sarah."

They loaded his bike on the back of Sarah's truck and made for the closest town. "You could almost say you got lucky, though. In a way, at least? Riding on this weather would've been suicide," Sarah said.

"Half-full glass," Steve said with a nod. Having to make a stop in his search felt like admitting failure, but it was true that he could continue looking for Tony once the weather had improved. "I guess you're right. That's one way to see it."

"There's this mechanic I know. He can take a look at your bike," she said.

"Well, that's good. I appreciate it."

She took him to a workshop a little outside town. The path was lined with trees, and he thought of New York in late September, with the leaves preparing to fall far more gently than the snow did now.

"It seems closed," he said. "Won't it be a bother? Maybe, he isn't—"

"Nah," Sarah said and knocked on the door again, "Hey, are you there? Are you home, Tony?"

Steve's heart skipped a beat at the sound, and then the steel door rolled up and some lanky guy in his early twenties appeared. He looked like a punk, although it was also possible that Steve wasn't being objective, because whoever this Tony was, it wasn't his Tony.

"Oh, do come in," said the punk, surprisingly polite, and Steve felt a little bad for always being so quick to judge others. "He's in the back. See ya, Tony! I'll come back for the car later."

"Hey, Tony, you've got a customer!" Sarah hollered. "It's kind of an emergency thing!"

"Yeah?" Tony said, emerging from behind a car, and his hair had streaks of gray and it was longer, long enough for there to be curls; he had also lost his goatee and sported stubble instead, and Steve ended up tripping on a toolbox from looking at him.

"Whoa, careful there," Sarah said. "Well, then, my job here's done. You can tell him where to stay in town, right, Tony?"

"That's okay, he can stay here," Tony said, pursing his lips as if he wanted to hold back a laugh.

"Thanks, Sarah," Steve said, still on the ground.

"No problem!"

Once she left, Tony burst up laughing. "God, Rogers. Do I make that good of an impression?"

Steve took the hand he offered him, looked at him in the eyes and said, "You always do, Tony."

"Buttering up already? I take it you don't have cash on you for the bike," Tony said with a smirk. "I've heard you've been riding across the country."

"Yeah, I have," he said, and God, he felt so warm all of a sudden. He could very well be standing outside in the cold instead of inside the workshop, and he would be none the wiser.

Tony raised his eyebrows. "Nice beard. Easier on the whole let's go incognito thing, I take."

"Hair too," Steve said, removing his snow cap.

"Wow, where did it all go," Tony said, amused rather than shocked.

Steve shrugged. "A buzz cut's easy to maintain on the road."

"And military-inspired, too. It doesn't look bad on you, to be honest," he said and did a thing with his lips, halfway between puckering and smiling, which Steve noticed in all detail because he was staring openly at him. "Just radically different. So hey, come in."

The workshop was attached to the house through a smaller room, where he found Dum-E sorting some bolts and nuts. "Hey, buddy," Steve said with a smile, watching how Dum-E did a bit of a twirl. "So you got him here too?"

"And sometimes I regret it," Tony said, sounding fond.

It was cozy inside. The bones of the house were those of a cabin, but the style was far more minimal, clean lines, whitewashed planks instead of the usual honey-colored tint. There was something modern about it, which made Steve smile. It all had Tony's touch.

"So, you didn't look surprised to see me," Steve said.

"I didn't know it would be this soon, though."

"But you expected to see me?"

"I did tell Rhodey where you could find me, didn't I? I figured that, I don't know, one day you might need a place to crash if you were in a pinch or something, somewhere between the compound and wherever you end up being."

Somewhere to return to. A home. "I'm so glad to see you."

Tony smiled. "You've said that before."

"Because it's true," Steve said, and after taking a deep breath, "You—you left without saying anything."

"To you. I told you that I was putting myself first, Steve. Remember?"

"You did," Steve said, looking down. "Did something change between then and now?"

Tony turned towards the kitchen, ignoring the question. "Hungry?"

"Kinda. What, can you cook now?"

"I had to learn some day. And you know, I'm a genius. Of course that I would figure out something as simple at this, given time. I've gotten pretty good. And you're lucky," he said, pointing at Steve with a spoon, and indeed, he was. Tony had no idea how lucky he felt. "I usually whip up some crock-pot recipe to last me days, but this is fresh."

Tony warmed up what he had cooked and Steve watched his hands, the slight movement of tendons, the shape of his fingers. He disguised it as staring at the food.

"Doubting my culinary skills?"

"No, no." Steve shook his head. "It looks delicious."

"It tastes delicious. Here, a preview," Tony said and held the spoon so that Steve could see for himself. "And?"

Steve looked at him and smiled. "It's really good."

 

 

"So you're a mechanic," Steve said as he did the dishes.

"At the end of the day, that's what I've always been," Tony said. "You know there's a dishwasher, right?"

"I'm fine like this," Steve said. It made him feel like he was actually doing something to repay him for the food. "And you being a mechanic, I think it was a little more complicated than that."

Tony grabbed a dishtowel from the rack and made a motion so that Steve handed him what was already clean.

"Is it good? Life here."

"You planning to settle somewhere?"

Oh God, Tony, if only you knew. Steve shrugged.

"Yeah, the simple life's good. Good for business, too, with all that machinery lying around needing some tinkering. I didn't think I'd get used to this, when I started. I thought I would get tired and end up—"

"In Italy?"

Tony chuckled. "Something like it."

"And it doesn't get lonely?"

Tony looked at him and said, "Did it get lonely while you were on the road?"

"I, not exactly. It did me good being on my own. It's something I enjoy. It's just that sometimes—" he said without ever completing the sentence.

"I get along with the people here," Tony said, getting him off the hook.

"They seem like good folks."

"Yeah, they are. So, are you tired yet? You look like you want to take a nap on the countertop."

Steve chuckled. "I'm not sleepy, but yeah, maybe I'm a bit tired."

"Well, go upstairs. I'll catch up with you in a sec."

 

 

Upstairs was more of the same, a minimal, if pleasant design he had come to associate with Tony. He tried a door, which seemed to lead to the master bedroom. The room felt warmer, dark paneling as a headboard, a fluffy rug around the bed, sheets and cover a creamy white.

"Ah, that's not—" Tony said behind him.

"The bed is wide enough, though," Steve said, smiling. It was only a joke, yet his heart started to beat fast, so fast.

Tony gave him a look, squinting his eyes and nodding slowly. "Challenge accepted. Okay, pick a side."

"The right one?" Steve said with a little smirk.

"God, it always has to be about that with you. Anyway, tough luck, because that one's mine. You get what's left."

 

 

He had left the washing machine running while he took a shower. Earlier, after he unloaded all the things he carried from his bike, Tony had said half-disapprovingly, half-mockingly, Jesus, Steve, your life, and that was exactly what was on Steve's mind now.

He felt dazed when he thought about how only a couple of hours ago he had been stranded in the middle of a road, freezing to the bone, and now he was here, in Tony's house. Downstairs, Tony was waiting for the cycle to finish, and wasn't that unreal? Steve pressed his forehead against the tile, let the warm water run down his body, and hugged his arms.

 

 

He was already in bed when Tony got there, settled comfortably on his side of the mattress, and started reading a book on his tablet.

Steve stopped sketching and said, "Do you go to bed early now?"

Tony hummed. "Still can't sleep sometimes, but it's not as often as before. Can I see?" He was pointing at his sketchbook.

"Oh. Sure, of course," Steve said and handed him the little book. There were no drawings of Tony there. As it was his custom, Steve had cut them out carefully and tucked them inside the same saddlebag where all the letters were, and if Tony noticed the stumps from the pages that were missing, he didn't comment on it.

Tony flicked through the pages first, then studied them more carefully, brushing his fingers against the seasonal window displays drawn in pencil; the old, rickety houses and the ornate buildings; the sunsets and the forest clearings with a dash a color now; the sketches of kids flying kites and old people—only a little younger than Steve—sitting on parks. "So you've been everywhere. I don't think I ever saw you draw this much back then."

"I didn't have the time."

Tony gave him a little smile. "Well, it's good you have the time now," he said, and Steve tried very, very hard not to imagine that this could be his life.

 

 

Later during the night, well after Steve had turned off his lamp and Tony had done the same, he half woke to the slightly exasperated whisper of I can't believe you're a sheet hogger.

Steve mumbled something that he didn't remember immediately afterwards and then felt Tony edge closer, his weight making the mattress dip slightly. Perhaps it should have felt odd to feel the warmth of Tony's body against his back, but it didn't, not really, so he slept on.

 

 

Tony wasn't there the next morning. He waited for a little while, but nothing changed, and it occurred to him that it had been nothing but a dream.

He went downstairs and found him in the kitchen, making breakfast. The weather had cleared.

"So I got your bike going," Tony said, handing him a mug of freshly made coffee.

"Oh," Steve said, considering what Tony had just said. It meant two things, that he had really been dreaming because Tony hadn't even been there during the night, and that he was being handed a polite invitation to take his leave. "I, I see. Thank you, Tony. I guess I should hit the road, then. After breakfast."

Tony's jaw set and he turned his attention to the pan on the stove, and for a moment Steve wondered if he had gotten it all wrong. But if he didn't want him out, why else would have Tony gone out of his way to fix the bike as soon as possible?

They didn't say anything during breakfast.

 

 

Steve thanked him again and packed everything. The letters, which were probably yellowing by now, were becoming more and more irrelevant.

"So where to now?" Tony asked.

Steve sighed and said, "Not sure."

"So that's how you end up in all those places? You just go where the wind takes you," Tony said, and he sounded a little miffed, which made no sense at all. Shouldn't he be happy that Steve was leaving?

"I guess. I don't know," Steve said, feeling a little listless until an idea occurred to him. "So, hey, can I—can I write to you? Send you texts, postcards, letters."

Tony made a face. Coming from him, letters was a loaded word. "I don't know why would you want to, but it's not like I can stop you, short of moving somewhere else. Address them to Anthony Carbonell, if you must."

"Oh."

"Because of—"

"Your mother," Steve said softly.

"Yes," Tony said, and his eyes seemed so bright just now.

"I will, then. I'll write to you. Okay. I'll text you too. Expect me to do it often. You can block me if it gets to be too much."

Tony smirked. "Doesn't all of this strike you as weird? I don't know how we ended up here. I don't even know what we're doing."

"Well, we're back in the world, Tony. That's what we're doing. And we're also proud card-carrying members of an exclusive retired superheroes club, I guess. We meet on the first Friday of every month," Steve said, a little coy.

That got him chuckling. "Okay, so we are. See you around, then?"

"Yeah."

Steve thought that riding away at that exact moment made him look a bit cool, except that he had to go back. "I actually don't have your number, Tony."

Now Tony was straight up laughing. It felt so good to make him laugh. Steve gave him his sketchbook and a pencil, and Tony scribbled his number, teared out the piece of paper, and tucked it inside Steve's pocket before he gave his chest a little pat. "There," he said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.

Steve beamed at him before he went away.

It was only later, when he was back on the road, that it occurred to him that they had been flirting. And if they had, God, Tony was really good at this.

 

 

It more or less amounted to a month's worth of texting, sending postcards, and a couple of letters. Currently, Steve was waiting for his phone to charge when he decided he didn't want to wait any longer and went outside.

"What's that?" Tony asked upon hearing the sound.

"My phone is charging back at my room, so I just put coins into—" Steve said.

"A payphone?" Tony snickered.

"Yes, Tony, a relic like me," Steve said, deadpan.

"I swear I hadn't thought about that," he said, but he was laughing all the same.

"Do you need, perhaps, anything that I can pick on my way and leave with you as I pass by?"

"Well, no, not really."

Steve deflated. "Oh. Okay, then."

"Just come—" Tony said, and Steve didn't know whether the line got cut for a moment there or whether it was Tony who caught himself before he said it. Home. It was that kind of feeling. "Just come over, Steve. You can say so. Tony, I miss those times when you funded me and I need to spend the night someplace nicer once in a while."

It was Steve's turn to laugh. "You know it's not like that, don't you?"

Tony sighed.

The next thing Steve wanted to say was I miss you. Wasn't it obvious that he did? I miss you so much that sometimes it's hard to—

—and then the line went dead because he was an idiot and forgot to put another coin, so all that was left was to trot back to the motel. I'm on my way, Tony, he texted. Please wait for me.

 

 

He got there in time for lunch.

They had started to clear the dishes when Tony said, "FRIDAY said you meant to give me your dog tags. What was that about?"

Steve led him by the wrist to the workshop, where he had parked his bike, and handed him the letters. He then stepped back and watched Tony open and read the first one, then the second and the third. By the fourth, he gave Steve a little push and locked him out of the workshop.

"Tony? Tony. I— I'll be here, okay? I won't go anywhere until you're out of there," Steve said, but got no answer, so he slid down the door. They hadn't even done the dishes, and all of a sudden his eyes stung and his chest felt tight. He couldn't believe—refused to believe—that he had ruined his second chance with him. His last, most likely.

When the door finally opened, he felt as if days had gone by since he last saw Tony. He also fell backwards because he had been using the door for support. Tony waited until he sat up, then closed the door and sat on the floor next to him.

"You're a bit of an idiot," Tony said, which had to be an improvement. From complete idiot to just a bit of an idiot.

"I wanted to be your idiot," Steve whispered.

"Goddammit, Steve," Tony said, passing a hand through his hair. "Why didn't you send the fucking letters?"

"You know why. I didn't think they would do you any good."

"Maybe. Maybe that was true back then, I'll give you that, but still. Has anyone told you that your communication skills are worth shit? You, this, fuck. How exactly did you envision this evolving, hm? What if I hadn't asked? You wouldn't have told me anything? Again? "

"I was going to mention it. On our first anniversary, maybe. We would have a laugh about it, I thought."

"Our first— Oh God, the gall," Tony said, chuckling despite himself.

"What was I supposed to do? It was obvious that you didn't want anything to do with me, and it's not like I blame you."

They fell silent after that, and then Steve said, "You read them all?"

"Yeah. I saw the drawings, too."

"So what do we do now, Tony? Because I don't want to go, and if you don't want me to stay, you can say so. I'll comply, but you're going to have to tell me. I'm done losing my home and I don't—"

"—go down without kicking up a fuss?"

"No, so if you want me out, you'll have to tell me. I won't go on my own," Steve said, and his voice came out all wrong, but so be it.

"I don't want you to go," Tony said, more softly now. "I haven't wanted you to go since you first got here, you blockhead, and I really would have appreciated it if you had said something. God, you sure have a special talent to make me mad."

Steve turned to see him. "But?"

"Hm?"

"I'm just hoping there's a but, after all that."

"Well, yes. It doesn't sound like a good idea, somehow, kicking you out," Tony said, did that thing with his lips again, and placed his hand on top of Steve's.

"No?"

"No. It would be a very lousy idea, that's what it would be," Tony whispered, and just like that, with no further warning, he kissed Steve.

It was a little messy, a little desperate. They were crashing against each other, clinging from each other. Tony was all warmth, the comfort of finding himself somewhere familiar, a place where he belonged, and Steve couldn't get enough of him, not after coming close to losing him more times than someone should have to bear.

Steve remembered seeing him vanish after going through that wormhole, he remembered Siberia, he remembered holding him to him, his skin cold to touch. He tried to focus on the fact that this was finally happening, tried to feel his warmth and nothing else, but he couldn't. It was embarrassing that he had to stop because he had a lump in his throat, that he had to bury his face in the crook of Tony's neck, his hand pressed where Tony's heart beat steady, strong.

"Steve?" Tony asked, but Steve only shook his head and held him tighter.

"Hey, honey, it's okay," Tony said softly, rubbing his back and stroking his hair. "So, really? This makes you happy? Are all those motels by the side of the road so bad that you actually are that relieved to—"

"Shut up, Tony. You know that's not—that's not why I'm here. You know that now."

"Yeah, I do." He sniffled and pressed his cheek against the top of Steve's head. "So, you love me, huh? Who would have thought."

 

 

 

It was the weekend and he had gone to visit one of his students, a kid who had broken her leg skiing or snowboarding or whatever trendy winter sport kids played these days. This is what he did now, taught in the local school—art, not history—and as luck would have it, no one had ever batted an eye at him.

It wasn't a problem, really, considering that he had kept his change of look, even adding frames that Tony said made him look like a hot, hipster version of Clark Kent. He had also changed his surname, and whenever anyone asked him about his past life, he remembered what Natasha had once told him and made up something on the fly.

"Mr. Carbonell," his student's mom asked him, "what did you say your husband did?"

"He's a mechanic. Yes, he's very handy," Steve said, hiding his smile behind his cup of tea. "And I'm afraid he is also going to be more than a tad disappointed if I don't make it in time for dinner."

"Oh! Oh no, off you go, then," she said, shooing him away with homemade cookies for him to share.

 

 

Steve spotted him waiting closer to the road rather than by the workshop, impatient as always. Tony had just let out a puff of breath against his cupped hands and was rubbing them together when he heard the sound of his bike, and even from a distance, Steve could see that he lit up a little and quirked the corners of his mouth into something like a smile.

Steve parked before he had to and ran the rest of the way because why the hell not.

They hugged, which was always nice, and then not even five seconds went by before Tony snorted against his jacket and said, "Did you do that just so you could run dramatically into my arms?"

"Oh, hush."

"I'm just saying, it's not practical. We'll have to go fetch your bike, then go to the house, and you probably didn't notice, but it's freezing and—"

And Steve kissed him because he didn't want to hear any of that right now. He held Tony's nape and ran his fingers through his hair, and when they pulled away, he arched an eyebrow and breathed, "Warmer now?"

Tony laughed, a low sound that made Steve's toes curl. "The nerve of you. I'm aghast."

But that was exactly what they did anyway, because in their relationship Tony was the one with the plans at least three fifths of the time. They went for the bike first, and Steve removed one of his gloves, gave it to Tony, and held his hand.