It’s the first thing Tony says to him after Siberia, his expression impassive as Iron Man’s faceplate.
Steve thinks back on another first time, can almost hear the speakers blaring in the back of his mind. But when he opens his mouth, it’s not ‘Mr. Stark’ that comes out of it.
“Tony,” he says, his voice little more than a soft exhale. “It’s… it’s good to see you.”
“Welcome back,” Tony says after a moment of silence, his voice void of any inflection. But there’s the familiar round shape in Tony’s outstretched hand, the sight of it tugging at Steve’s heartstrings. “We’ve got work to do.”
Steve hesitates a moment before taking the shield, a part of him wishing it had been Tony’s hand instead.
“I’m with Captain on this one.”
Steve’s head whips toward Tony in surprise, but Tony is not looking at him. He’s too busy having a staring contest with Barton.
“And since when are you against a full blown attack strategy, Stark?”
“Call it character growth, Barton,” Tony sneers, something cold and hard glinting in his eyes. “Or common fucking sense, suit yourself.”
Barton snorts, but remains silent.
In the end, they go with Steve’s plan.
Later, when Steve corners Tony to thank him, Tony stops him mid-sentence with a raised hand, annoyance etched onto his features.
“Yours was a better call than Thor’s,” he says in a clipped voice. “It’s nothing personal, Captain.”
Steve watches him go, something cold and heavy settling in the pit of his belly.
Steve looks down on the uniform in his hands, then back at Tony’s face, frowning at the dark circles under his eyes and the glazed look in his eyes.
“This wasn’t a priority,” Steve indicates at his new and improved uniform. “Or a necessity.”
Tony snorts in amusement. “Your gratitude is overwhelming, Captain.”
Steve’s jaw goes tight. “You look like you’re barely standing. I don’t see how you crashing in the middle of a fight is going to help anything.”
“Neither will you getting blasted to pieces,” Tony snaps back. Blinking, Tony frowns, his voice a lot more restrained when he adds, “You’re an astonishingly successful science experiment, Captain. But I’m certain that serum of yours can’t fix sizable holes in your flesh.”
Steve takes a deep breath, the muscle in his jaw twitching. He’s torn between annoyance, gratitude and helpless frustration, a dozen very different remarks struggling to leave his mouth.
In the end, he leaves without saying a word. He thinks he hears Tony say ‘asshole’ in a low, weary voice.
Steve almost prefers it to ‘Captain’.
Steve blinks away the shadows from his vision, trying to concentrate on something other than the ringing in his ears and the dull, throbbing pain in his left side.
Steve groans, tries to clear his mind enough to attach a name to the familiar voice. Familiar worried voice. For some reason, it makes Steve’s chest feel lighter.
“I’m… I’m fine,” he manages in a weak voice, squinting at the face hovering above him. Tony looks grim, and pale, his eyes wide and dark with… anger? Concern? Fear? All of the above?
Steve clenches his teeth, tries to sit up, but is stopped by a hand encased in metal on his sternum. “Stay down, Captain.”
“No, I… I need to get back to the fight,” Steve protests weakly. The hand doesn’t move, though, and Steve finds out he’s too weak to fight against its restraining hold. Glancing down at his injured side, Steve grimaces. It looks… well, really bad. It would have probably been worse if not for his new uniform. A surge of pain blazes through Steve, and he has to clench his teeth to stop a pained groan, his vision darkening again.
When his vision clears again, Tony is glaring at him. “You’re an idiot.”
A huff of weak laughter leaves Steve’s lips. Tony’s glare deepens.
“Thank you,” Steve manages in a voice tight with pain, and promptly passes out.
Steve storms into Tony’s improvised workshop, his vision flickering red.
“What were you thinking?” Steve demands, his hands clenched into fists by his sides. He stops on the other side of Tony’s worktable, afraid what he could do if he comes closer, his entire body shaking with fury.
Tony doesn’t look away from the flickering gem on the table in front of him. He’s leaning heavily on the table, his shoulders slumped, his head bowed.
“I needed to make a choice,” Tony replies, his tone empty, listless. Dead. As are his eyes, Steve notes when Tony looks up. “And so I did.”
“An entire town, Tony,” Steve grits out, his throat feeling raw and open. “You risked an entire town. Who gave you the right?”
A short bark of laughter leaves Tony’s lips. The sound of it… it’s like despair given shape and voice. “Look outside, Captain,” Tony says, his mouth curling over his teeth. “The world’s falling apart around us. And you’re still clinging to your precious morals.” Straightening, he fixes Steve with a hard look. “Well, good for you. Keep your soul clean. And I?” The smile that stretches Tony’s lips is paper thin and sharp as a knife. His eyes, though. It hurts to look at them. It’s like looking at bottomless void in which there’s nothing but darkness. “I did what I had to, and I’d do it again.”
Tony doesn’t say anything after that, returns to staring at the gem.
And Steve keeps his eyes on Tony, silent and still, feeling helpless and angry and lost; like there are miles and miles of space between the two of them: an impossible distance to cross.
But he stays where he is.
“You should go to sleep, Captain.”
Steve’s mouth twitches faintly. He turns his head slightly, glances at Tony. “Do what I say, not what I do, huh?”
Tony grimaces, comes to stand next to Steve, leans his hip against the railing. “Touché,” he concedes. “Although, I’m used to a few hours of sleep.”
Steve makes a noncommittal noise, returns his gaze to the city in the distance. In the dark, it’s almost easy to pretend there are no ruins where buildings used to be.
“It’s going to be okay, you know that?” Tony says after a moment of silence. “We’re going to win tomorrow.”
Steve looks at Tony, his eyebrows risen in surprise. “That’s optimistic,” Steve says, his voice soft. He doesn’t exactly share the sentiment. He’ll fight and lay down his life if needed, but there is hollow space in the middle of his chest that nothing seems to fill lately.
Tony shrugs, his mouth curving into a half-smile. It looks far too sad for a smile. “Yeah, well, it’s the end of the world. It’s not like it can hurt.”
Steve chuckles softly. “That’s possibly the wisest or the craziest thing I’ve ever heard you say.”
“It can’t be both?”
“You’re Tony Stark,” Steve concedes with a smile. “So yeah, there’s a distinct possibility it can.”
Tony blinks, frowns. “Not sure whether that was a compliment or an insult.”
Steve shrugs, tilts his head to the side, his eyes mapping the lines of Tony’s face. “I’ll tell you day after tomorrow.”
Tony’s eyes widen, something vulnerable flashing in their depths. “Okay, then,” Tony says, clears his throat. “I’m going to sleep, and so should you. I’m pretty sure even super soldiers need their beauty rest.”
Tony turns to go, but Steve stops him with a hand around his wrist. There’s dozen upon dozen things he longs to say to Tony – has been for a while now – but there’s one that matters more than the others. “Don’t do anything foolish tomorrow,” Steve says, his voice brittle around the edges, and heavy with a myriad of emotions.
Tony just stares at him for one endless moment. Steve wishes he could read his gaze. “You too, Captain,” he says in a voice that is barely more than a whisper. Then, after another moment, he glances pointedly at his wrist, still trapped in the cage of Steve’s fingers.
Steve reluctantly withdraws his hand, a sharp ache flaring beneath his breastbone. He’s starting to loathe the word ‘Captain’.
Steve’s gaze follows Tony’s retreating back, his fingers tingling from the residual warmth of Tony’s skin.
Steve watches Tony’s expression flicker from denial to anger to grim acceptance.
“It cannot be triggered from a distance,” Tony says, the tone of his voice sending shivers of dread down Steve’s spine. “One of us has to stay.”
Something in Steve’s chest howls like a wounded animal – it’s not fair, not now – but Steve forcibly silences it. It doesn’t matter. It cannot matter. What are foolish matters of heart compared to entire world?
Steve takes a deep breath, feeling calm determination fill him. “Okay then, you’ll have to show me how-“
Steve frowns at the incredulity on Tony’s face, in his voice. “I don’t know how the machine works, Tony,” Steve says slowly, the look of wonder on Tony’s face making his chest ache with years’ worth of longing.
Tony blinks, looking at Steve as if he’s seeing him for the first time. “You didn’t even stop to think,” he says in small, lost voice. “Why?”
Steve wants to look away from Tony’s searching eyes, but he cannot. It’s not like his secret will matter soon, anyway. His fingers move, seemingly of their own volition, brushing against Tony’s cheek. “Because there is nothing to think about, Tony.”
Tony looks wrecked. He stumbles back a step, shaking his head in violent denial. “I didn’t… you never… you fucking fool.”
Steve wants to reach out, touch him again, say something comforting, but there is no time. No time for what either of them wants.
“Tony, it doesn’t matter now. Just… just don’t make this any more difficult.”
Tony freezes, his entire body growing rigid, his face turning into a blank mask. “It doesn’t matter,” he repeats in a hollow voice. A sound of utter misery leaves his throat a second before he turns his back to Steve.
Steve grits his teeth, clamps down on the feelings wreaking havoc inside his chest. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way, Tony.”
“Yeah, so do I,” Tony says in a low, resigned voice. Then, softer, and so very, very sad, “I’m sorry, Steve.”
Steve never sees the punch coming.