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The road not taken

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There was something… well, unnatural, for lack of a better word, about Tony Stark standing still.

Steve was used to Tony fidgeting, gesticulating widely, or simply talking animatedly. He was motion, and speed, and life. Steve knew this about him since the moment he’d first laid eyes on the gleaming metal of the Iron Man suit, swooping down from the sky in Stuttgart, speakers blaring loudly in the chill of the night.

Steve didn’t necessarily like that about Tony all the time, especially in the beginning when that behavior translated into recklessness, self-indulgence and showboating. It probably didn’t help that Steve was still reeling from waking in a new world; still desperately trying to find balance, a place for himself. And do so knowing that all that was familiar and dear to him was gone well beyond his reach.

So yeah. Theirs was not friendship at first sight. Or second, or third, for that matter. And getting there had not been an easy road. They bickered and disagreed and butted heads, and Tony still frustrated him most of the time, but they were moving forward, steadily creating something that had a potential to become one of the cornerstones in the life Steve was slowly reclaiming for himself.

Then came the Winter Soldier. Followed by Ultron. Siberia.

Dozen upon dozen lies and omissions piling up on top of each other, just waiting for the right moment to blow up in their faces. When it finally happened in a Siberian bunker, it had been one hell of an explosion. Sometimes – late at night mostly, when sleep refused to come and his mind would not shut up, and the damned phone on his nightstand seemed like it was mocking him with its silence – Steve could still feel the aftershocks.

When the call finally came three days ago – and Steve could recall with perfect clarity the way his heart started pounding against his sternum when his brain finally processed the fact that the phone was actually ringing, his fingers clumsy and fumbling with the casing, almost cracking the damned thing in his haste to answer the call – it was not what he’d been hoping for.

Apparently, the world – or the Universe, Steve was still somewhat unclear on the details – was in danger.

And now they were once again back at the compound, the Accords set aside for the time being. Bruce, too, was back, looking older and wearier than ever, his gaze shadowed by memories he refused to disclose and something that seemed very much like sorrow.

Coming back to the States, to the compound – coming home – had been a stubborn, insistent, and downright painful hope in the back of Steve’s thoughts at all times. It had been there when T’Challa offered them sanctuary in Wakanda. It had been there when Bucky went into cryo. It had been there when Steve went through the motions of waking up and going through each day aimlessly. It had been there when he traversed the world, offering help to those who needed it.

It was no longer a hope but reality. Steve should be happy. Or at least relived. He felt like he was drowning instead.

Their return had gone smoother than expected. It had been accompanied by a minimum of insults and raised voices. What followed their first – and only, so far – joint meeting was somehow much, much worse.

They have been friends once; family, even. Now they couldn’t maintain eye contact for longer than a couple of seconds; their conversations stayed clipped, tense, and void of anything resembling familiarity and warmth.

It felt wrong, wrong, wrong.

Steve refused – like always but especially when it mattered this much – to give up without a fight. Refused to accept that the first semblance of belonging he’d managed to establish since he’d been thawed from the ice was irrevocably gone.

And he knew precisely where – with whom – he needed to start repairing what was damaged.

Tony Stark, Steve Rogers’ personal ground zero.

Who was currently a still, silent figure, hunched over a railing in an empty gym – one of the many in the compound – his forehead almost touching the glass wall. The fading light from the outside outlined Tony’s silhouette in a warm, yellow glow. There was something almost ephemeral in that sight. Ephemeral, and lonely.

Steve stood awkwardly in the open doorway, feeling like a stranger in his own skin, one with sweaty palms and stuttering heartbeat, half-wishing he could turn around, and simply flee. Instead, he did what he’s always done when facing down a challenge. He took a deep breath and stepped forward.

Tony’s shoulders stiffened immediately. Otherwise, he remained completely still.

Steve waited a moment, allowing Tony the chance to make the first move, not entirely certain of the wisdom of that particular decision. When Tony remained silent, refusing to acknowledge Steve’s presence, Steve pressed his lips together and moved forward until three was only a couple of steps separating the two of them.

Up this close, Steve could see clear signs of weariness and lack of sleep in the deep circles underneath Tony’s eyes. He wondered, briefly, how his own face would appear to the outside world were it not for the serum doing its work to keep his body functioning at its peak.

Body, yes. Soul, on the other hand. Well… there were limits to Erskine’s genius.

“Tony,” Steve said when it became obvious Tony would simply keep on ignoring him. “May I have a word?”

“Not a good idea, Rogers,” Tony replied without turning his gaze from the window. It was the same flat, empty tone Tony used when they exchanged greetings upon their arrival. And then, later, when he agreed to leaving past in the past and working together once again. It had the effect of nails scraping against a blackboard on Steve’s already fraying composure. “And this is coming from someone who’s had one hell of a track record with those.”

“Tony, I really think we-” Steve started, cut himself off, took a deep breath. There were far too many words swirling inside his mind but not one seemed willing to pass the threshold of his lips. They swirled inside his mind, colliding and tangling with one another, reducing Steve’s thoughts to white noise.

“God,” Tony huffed, irritated, pushing himself off the railing and finally turning to look at Steve. Steve suddenly realized it was the first time since their arrival that Tony looked him directly in the eyes. Tony’s eyes were gleaming with irritation and a hint of something darker lurking underneath. It was not a kind look. Not that Steve expected kindness. It has never really been their thing. “Are you physically incapable of backing down? Is it the serum? Or just you?”

Frustration blossomed in the pit of Steve’s stomach. With himself. With Tony. With this entire situation. With feeling bone deep regret despite knowing he would do the same thing all over again.

“I found the shield,” Steve blurted out, finally. It wasn’t what he’d intended to say. Not when he wasn’t sure how he felt about the gesture. Was it another olive branch? But how could it be since Tony hadn’t actually bothered to return it himself. Not even to throw it at Steve’s face. Maybe it was just a concession on Tony’s part. Tony knew all about those; he was a businessman at heart after all.

Only it doesn’t make sense if you have no idea exactly what you are supposed to concede, does it, Rogers?

Steve had found the shield leaning against his old work desk – no claw marks on it, though – as if it had been there all this time, waiting for Steve to pick it up again. And Steve almost had. When the initial moment of shock had passed, Steve found himself reaching after the shield, unthinkingly. Reflexively. He’d stopped himself in the last moment, remembered exactly why the sight of it made him ache and pulled his hand away from the polished metal surface as if scalded.

The shield wasn’t his anymore. He had relinquished it that day in Siberia. And as much as he’d missed the shield, he had not missed the strings that were attached to it. Of all the things he’d lost, this - this was an acceptable loss.

Tony’s expression closed off immediately. For one long moment, he merely stared at Steve’s face. Steve held Tony’s gaze unflinchingly. He could feel his heart rate speed up and his muscles coil tight. It was instinct, not a conscious decision. Fight or flight. And for Steve, it has never been the latter.

“It’s yours,” Tony said finally, his voice flat, monotonous. Grimacing, he looked away. “It’s always been yours.”

Steve frowned, taken aback; wariness quickly followed suit. Some habits, apparently, were very hard to break. “I seem to remember you expressing a different sentiment two years ago,” Steve stated, aiming for neutral but failing miserably.

Tony’s gaze snapped back to Steve’s face, his eyes flashing with anger. “Had my sentiment had any say in the matter, Rogers, that thing would have been melted down and used to reinforce the toilettes in a random public restroom.”

“Then why is it still intact?” Steve challenged, jutting out his chin, because this, apparently, he could do. He couldn’t say the words he’d longed to say for more than two years, but he could pick a fight with Tony. Even if it was the last thing he wanted to do. “Why haven’t you destroyed it?”

The momentary spark of anger drained from Tony’s eyes, leaving them once again dull and listless. “Because I was wrong,” he said, each word carefully pronounced, almost as if Tony was reciting a previously memorized speech. And not for the first time. “My father might have made it, but he gave it to you. That makes it yours.”

The anger in Steve’s chest deflated, leaving only weariness behind. He shut his eyes briefly, breathing deeply, gathering composure. When he opened his eyes again, Tony was regarding him with a look that all but screamed annoyance, the fingers of his right hand tapping a nervous rhythm against his side. “I didn’t come here to fight, Tony,” Steve said quietly, his shoulders hunching fractionally.

Tony snorted, rolled his eyes. “I’m not above telling you I told you so, Rogers,” Tony said. His grin, Steve noted, was all teeth. “Because, not five minutes ago, I quite literally told you so.”

Steve came here to apologize, to acknowledge his part in the mess they’ve made of their relationship, and, by proxy, the Avengers. He didn’t expect it would be easy – he knew it wouldn’t be easy – but less than ten minutes spent alone with Tony, and Steve’s mood kept on oscillating between frustration and helplessness with an alarming speed. Three words. That was the start. How difficult could it be to say three damn words?

Steve squared his shoulders, fixing Tony with an unblinking stare; a part of him was fully aware the irony of wading into this as if it were a battle. He stopped himself from invading Tony’s personal space by sheer force of will. “Look, Tony, I-”

Tony stopped him with a raised hand. “If what is about to come out of your mouth is another half-assed apology, Rogers, I would suggest keeping your mouth shut,” he warned in a low voice. He looked deadly serious. “Considering how well you follow suggestions, I think it’s only fair to warn you that should any damage occur to the structural integrity of this room in the next five minutes, you’ll be the one paying for the repairs.”

Steve shook his head, a mirthless chuckle leaving his lips. There was a hollow ache in the middle of his chest that went well beyond disappointment. “So all those things you said yesterday about leaving past in the past and working together,” Steve forced the words out, his voice gaining a bitter edge. “That was what? A lie?”

Tony let out a disgusted noise, casting his gaze upwards for a second. “Oh come off your high horse, Rogers. It really doesn’t suit you anymore,” Tony bit out, glaring at Steve heatedly. “Also, good job with assuming you know shit about me.”

Steve’s fingers twitched at his sides, his jaw locked tight. This was not working. It was like being caught in an endless loop of repeating the same thing over and over again, and still being surprised when the end result remained the same. Wasn’t that the definition of insanity?

And still Steve could not make himself leave; the words spilling out his mouth, frustrated and desperate in equal measure. “What am I supposed to think when you can’t even bring yourself to spend five minutes alone in my company?”

A strange expression flickered across Tony’s face. It was gone before Steve could attempt to give it a name, lost in the derisive curl of Tony’s mouth, in the flatness of his stare.

“You’re supposed to think I’m not petty enough to put my personal feelings in front of the entire goddamned world, Rogers,” Tony offered, baring his teeth. “Though that would require the removal of that self-righteous stick you got permanently stuck up your ass.”

Steve opened his mouth, snapped it shut. He took a deep breath. Then he did it again. And again.

“I wasn’t trying to insult you,” Steve said when he felt certain he had his temper under control, carefully choosing each word. “I was there, in New York, when you were willing to lay down your life for the safety of others. I know you are a hero.” Steve paused, waiting for some scathing remark from Tony. When none came, he pressed on. “If Bruce is right, we will end in a situation where we’re going to be directly responsible for each other’s safety. And not just each other’s. We have a potential end of the world coming our way, Tony. How are we going to work together to prevent it, if holding a civil conversation is beyond our reach?”

Tony regarded him silently a few moments, the hostility on his face lessening marginally. Steve was not entirely certain the hint of bitterness in the corner of Tony’s mouth was an improvement.

“Do you remember when I begged you not to tear the Avengers apart?” Tony asked, tilting his head to the side. Steve decided not to jump on that particular verbal landmine, keeping his mouth shut. “Which you went and did anyway, but that’s beside the point now.” Waving a dismissive hand, Tony leaned back against the railing, his lips stretching into a strained smile. It went nowhere near his eyes. “Alien invasions, right? Kinda our thing now. Banding together despite our differences, kicking E.T.’s ass.”

Steve frowned, uncertain how to take the sudden change in Tony’s demeanor. This… verbal overflow was reminiscent of the Tony of old. When they were not at each other’s throats at the worst of times. When they were friends at the best. Steve had wanted Tony to talk, and now Tony was talking. It had to be an improvement, right?

“It physically pains me to refer to your shitty letter, Rogers, but the Avengers were never mine,” Tony went on, his voice almost light, conversational. If he’d noticed Steve wincing at the mention of his letter of apology, he made no show of it. “I was part of the team, sure, but you were the leader. A better leader than I could ever be. Something we all now know for a fact since I got saddled with leading the Avengers when you fucked off into the sunset, taking the majority of the team with you.” Pushing himself off the railing, Tony made a deliberate step forward. Then another, the fake smile from moments ago slipping from his lips. Stopping just shy of invading Steve’s personal space, Tony fixed him with an unblinking stare. Steve kept himself very, very still. “I will follow your orders in battle, Rogers, like I promised. Just like I did that day in New York. So if you want to talk Avengers’ business, fine, let’s talk. If you’re still feeling constipated about the Accords, go to Romanoff. Anything else, go to someone who gives a fuck.”

Without waiting for a reply, Tony sidestepped past Steve. Despite the current chaos of his thoughts and emotions, alternating violently between anger and resignation, Steve could not help but notice the careful way Tony had done so; as if even an accidental brush of clothes was too much for him to allow Steve to have.

And that – small, unimportant, petty detail – severed the last threads of Steve’s restraint.

“So that’s it, huh?” Steve forced through clenched teeth, turning around, his fingers clenching into fists. His glare burrowed into Tony’s retreating back. “You’re running away now? That’s real mature of you, Stark. I wonder why I ever thought we would have problems working together.”

Tony stopped dead in his tracks, his shoulders tensing visibly. This was not how this conversation was supposed to go. Not how Steve wanted it to go. But right now it was almost impossible to listen to anything but the rush of blood in his ears.

“First off, fuck you Rogers,” Tony sneered, turning around and stalking towards Steve until they were almost close to breathe each other’s air; all heat, and bluster, and fury. “And second, running? Seriously? You want to talk about running? How’s jungle been treating you these past two years?”

“I’m here now!” Steve exclaimed hotly, loudly, his fisted knuckles going white from the effort of keeping his hands by his sides. One wrong move, Steve knew this, and the promise of violence Tony mentioned earlier was going to turn into reality. And yet, his feet were as good as rooted to the spot, refusing to take a step back. “At least I’m willing to put in effort in making amends for the mistakes I’ve made. Which cannot be said about you.” Exhaling loudly, Steve swallowed past the lump in his throat. It felt like swallowing ash. “Your hands are not spotless in all this, Tony. Don’t pretend otherwise.”

Tony’s eyes were gleaming with barely restrained fury; dark and wide. “Glass houses, Rogers. I’d be real careful where I’m throwing those stones if I were you,” Tony spat. A surge of helpless frustration hit Steve like a physical blow. They were trapped in a vicious, never-ending circle of accusations and insults. It was like they weren’t even speaking the same language. “Your halo is a little tarnished these days, Captain.”

Was it due to the contempt in the way Tony had said his former title, or something else entirely, but, somewhere in the space between two breaths, the fight bled out of Steve, leaving behind a bone-deep weariness. Tony was still there, close enough to touch, still furious, a clear and present danger according to all Steve’s instincts, and Steve… squeezed his eyes shut. Once, he’d stopped a helicopter from taking off with his bare hands because letting go had not been an option. And now he found himself without enough strength to keep looking at Tony Stark’s face.

Giving up, it seemed, didn’t hurt much. In fact, it didn’t hurt at all. Steve would have preferred pain compared to the emptiness that was now occupying the space beneath his rib cage.

When Steve finally opened his eyes, Tony was still standing on the same spot, his head tilted to the side, studying Steve’s face intently. Questioningly. Steve could not even begin to guess what he was searching for. He didn’t particularly care to try. The only thing he wanted was to leave. To put space between himself and Tony.

“What the hell is wrong with you, Rogers?” Tony asked, frowning. Most of the anger was gone from his gaze, replaced by wariness. Curiosity, too. “Are you sick? I didn’t think you could get sick.”

Steve huffed out a mirthless laugh. Tony’s frown deepened in response. “No, Tony, I’m not sick,” he said quietly. “I’m done. You win. I give up.”

Tony’s expression froze, his eyes widening with something Steve did not recognize. With a curt nod, Steve walked past Tony, using all his willpower to keep his steps measured. He’d already made a colossal fool of himself in front of Tony, there was no gain in sacrificing what was left of his dignity by running away.

Steve was almost at the door when he was stopped by Tony’s mocking drawl.

“So much for your vaunted stubbornness, Rogers. Or perhaps it only applies to certain people.”

Steve felt like howling in rage. Or crying. Or breaking things. Instead, he tipped his face toward the ceiling, and took a deep breath. Then, he turned around.

“What the hell do you want from me, Tony?” Steve demanded, each word punctuated by rising desperation. “I come to you to talk, you tell me to fuck off. I give you what you asked for, you accuse me of not giving a damn.” Breaking off, Steve threw up his hands in a helpless gesture. His lungs were burning as if he was still that kid with asthma, weak and sickly. “What will appease you, Tony? My blood? My life? My sanity? What?!

“How about you telling me who killed my parents four years ago, you son of a bitch!” Tony cried out, his voice raw with pain.

In the ensuing silence, Steve grew deathly still, his entire world narrowing down to the sight of abject misery on Tony’s face.

“Can you give me that, Steve?” Tony asked quietly, almost gently, his mouth curving into a bitter, little smile.

Steve felt bile rise in his throat, choking him. He shook his head helplessly. He didn’t know was it in answer to Tony’s question, or to stave off the anguish that was rising in the hollow of his chest. Maybe it was a silent plea for Tony to stop.

Which was ridiculous. This conversation – four long years overdue – was the exact reason Steve came searching for Tony in the first place. To an outsider, they might seem the only two people in the room, but it was an illusion. Steve could not see their faces, but he could feel their ghostly presence at all times: three shadows, crowding the space between Tony and himself. During the past two years, Steve had tried to envision how this conversation would play out. Not often, no, only sometimes; when his heart grew too heavy with longing, and his thoughts too unruly to master. Now, that it was finally happening… it has always seemed easier in Steve’s head. For one, he could always breathe there.

“Of course you can’t,” Tony said in that deceptively soft voice. His eyes, though, were anything but. And he was coming closer. Slowly, deliberately, not for a second taking his gaze off Steve’s face. “Considering time travel is still firmly in the realm of science fiction, why don’t we try the next best thing.” Two steps away from Steve, Tony stopped. His hands were shaking, Steve noted faintly, a mere moment before Tony slid them into his pockets. But his gaze remained unwavering as it locked on Steve’s own. “Tell me why you lied to me.”

“Tony, please…

“So you don’t want to talk about it. Very well,” Tony said flatly, his gaze hardening further. But there was hurt there still. Not as raw and open as it was moments ago, but no less real for that. “Then this is how we’ll play it, Rogers. I make a guess, and you nod when I get it right, okay?”

Steve clenched his jaw tight. “I’m not going to play games with you, Tony. Especially about this.”

“No, I didn’t really think you would,” Tony said, shrugged. There was a hint of a smile in the corners of his mouth. It looked brittle. “Doesn’t really matter. It’s not like I don’t already know the answer.”

“I couldn’t let you kill him, Tony,” Steve said, voice soft, but steady, his eyes pleading with Tony to try and understand. It wasn’t an admission of guilt. Not to him. He doubted Tony felt the same. “It wasn’t him. He had no choice.”

Tony let out a low, mirthless chuckle. “Even if he didn’t, you did. Has it never occurred to you that things would have been different if you’d come clean the moment you found out the truth?”

It has. Many, many times. Steve woke gasping and drenched in cold sweat because of it; the look of utter betrayal on Tony’s face burned onto Steve’s mind for the rest of his days.

Would they have been different?” Steve asked after a moment of silent contemplation. A part of him dreaded the answer, but he needed to know. He needed to know just how big mistake he’d made.

“Now we’ll never know, will we?” Tony snapped, glaring at Steve. Steve said nothing. He could do nothing to coax an answer out of Tony. And it didn’t seem as if Tony was in a charitable mood. Then, a heartbeat later, something shifted in Tony’s eyes, an almost pained grimace twisting his features. “No,” Tony admitted finally, a tiny, self-deprecating smile turning the corners of his mouth up. “Knowing myself… probably not.”

Steve released a breath he wasn’t aware he’d been holding; relief sparking bright inside his chest. “I – thank you, Tony.”

Tony’s face hardened instantly, his mouth flattening into a tight line. “This doesn’t change anything between us, Rogers,” Tony remarked bluntly. “The Accords, Siberia, us beating each other bloody… all that shit still happened.”

“I never wanted to hurt you, Tony,” Steve said, his voice heavy with misery. For an apology, this one seemed weak and pitiful, even to Steve’s own ears, but he had no other to offer. “Can you at least believe that to be true?”

Tony sighed heavily, rubbing his temples with his right hand, weariness etched onto every line of his face. He looked like he wanted to be anywhere else at the moment. “Rogers-”

“I wanted to tell you,” Steve exclaimed hoarsely, despair and helplessness tangling like a barbed wire around his chest, squeezing tightly. He felt frantic all of a sudden, as if something precious and fragile was slipping from his grasp forever. “From the moment I found out the truth.” Steve paused, raking his fingers through his hair. The rush of blood in his ears was almost deafening. “I wanted to protect, Bucky, yes, but you were my friend too, and I– I was afraid- I didn’t want to-” Steve cut himself off abruptly, the unspoken word heavy and bitter on his tongue.

Choose?” Tony offered softly, his eyes glinting with an emotion that made Steve’s insides twist painfully. “That was the word you were looking for, wasn’t it, Rogers?"

Steve opened his mouth, but no sound came out. The realization – but you’ve always known this haven’t you, Rogers? – cut through him like a knife. By making a decision not to choose between Bucky and Tony, he’d made his choice. The bitter curve of Tony’s mouth left no doubt that he, too, knew this.

“Tony, I-” Steve began, unsure what he wanted to say, but needing to fill the silence with something. Anything. Ridiculous, really. Silence has never bothered him before, but there was something final about this one; like the sound of a door being slammed closed.

“Okay, Rogers, stop,” Tony demanded, lifting his hand in a gesture that was both a command and a plea. “This, what we have right now? It’s truce, we’ve made an actual progress. Don’t ruin it.”

Steve frowned, bewildered. “Progress?” he echoed feebly. Steve didn’t feel like any progress has been made. He felt like he was standing on a sinking ship, chained to the anchor.

Tony shrugged, squaring Steve with a level gaze. “I don’t feel a pressing need to feed you your own shield anymore.”

That is progress?” Steve exclaimed, his voice edging from incredulity into hysteria. “How is that progress?”

“I think you’ve seriously underestimated how pissed I was at you. Trust me when I tell you we’re practically bosom buddies now.”

Steve stared at Tony. There was something in his throat, trying to force its way out; a laugh or a sob, Steve couldn’t be certain. He swallowed it down. “Being near me without wanting to resort to violence is what you call progress,” Steve said, his voice sounding foreign to his own ears: hollow and weak. “Is that how you see me now?”

Tony sighed, looking torn between annoyance and resignation. “You don’t get it, do you? There is no going back, Rogers. Friends or whatever the fuck we were, it’s gone,” Tony said, spreading his hands wide. And the awful thing? He didn’t sound unkind. He didn’t look it, either. Merely tired. “But I do think we’ll make it through this saving the world thing without tearing each other’s throats out. I really do. Now, that is. An hour ago, not so much. Though, we should keep this heart-to-heart sessions to a minimum. It’s safer that way.”

Tony might have said something else, but Steve could not hear the words over the strange buzzing sound that was echoing shrilly inside his head. And, still as a statue, he watched as Tony stepped past him on his way out of the room. Steve did nothing to stop him this time.

Without remembering the exact moment he’d made the decision to move, Steve suddenly found himself with his fingers wrapped around a metal railing, and his forehead pressed against a cool glass. He stared at the familiar sight of the compound, now lit aglow by night lights, waiting for the tightness in his chest to abate, and the elation of coming home to finally fill his lungs with enough air.

He waited in vain.