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i have found the one (whom my soul loves)

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 “It can be very dangerous to see things from somebody else's point of view without the proper training.” 
― Douglas AdamsMostly Harmless

-

 “The Avengers have successfully contained the flow of lava. The city of Akurana has been evacuated with only four casualties to speak of, despite the shocking speed of an explosive volcanic event that no seismologist had seen coming. The following videos were taken by residents after being evacuated in SHIELD Helicarriers…”

The grainy footage has no audio, but it’s impossible for Steve to miss the bright red of Natasha’s hair. She sits on the floor of the Helicarrier with soot-covered children braiding her hair. Then it’s the scarlet of Wanda’s telekinesis that distracts him as she hands out bottled water. Iron Man flies into view, an elderly man and his goat in hand, and gently sets them down near Natasha. At her waving, he comes closer to her and the videographer, the suit flying away to reveal Tony Stark in an undersuit.

Steve sits on the couch and ignores the rest of the newscast.

When the Avengers had been called to mobilise, Steve had already been on the tail of the Friends of Humanity plotting a terrorist attack at a school for mutants. An impromptu team-up with Logan and half a dozen explosions later, the children were shaken but safe, Logan was likely drunk in a bar somewhere, and Steve was ready for extraction. 

There’s a single text on his phone from Tony Stark. They’re professional and impersonal, as they’ve been for months now. It reads, “Have exfil take you home, we’re done here.”

Steve replies, “Affirmative.” He doesn’t know why he does it, doesn’t even realise what’s happened until he hits send on a second message. “I miss you.”

He regrets it the moment he sends it. Iron Man might need Captain America for missions, but if the last year has taught him anything, it’s that Tony Stark doesn’t need anything from Steve Rogers.

-

The fragrant scent of paprikash permeates the air in the Avengers Compound in Wakanda even three months after Wanda’s departure. Steve opens the door, pulls off his helmet and breathes it in. He shuts the door, drops his things in the hallway, and makes his way to the laundry room. Passing through the common room, there’s no way to miss the purple stain on the carpet that won’t go no matter how hard he scrubs. He can still see Clint’s sheepish face, holding one broken putty arrow in one hand while scratching the back of his head with the other.

But Clint is also gone.   

One by one, the Avengers have returned home. Once they’d all been pardoned, it was inevitable. So now it’s just Steve in this grand old building that T’Challa had given them. He pulls off his uniform, throws it into the washing machine, and grabs the load of fresh laundry from the tumble dryer, exactly where he’d left it three days ago. He doesn’t have too many clothes, this is everything he owns besides his uniform. There is no point in collecting things if he’ll just be leaving everything behind sooner or later.

A shower-fresh Steve is combing his beard with a brush covered in stickers from The Penguins of Madagascar – a birthday gift from Lila Barton – when his daily text from Bucky arrives with a buzz. As it tends to be, it’s in simple, short sentences. “Treatment going well. Teaching Tasha to cook going less well. Also, how the fuck do I make sure Stark eats at least two meals a day?”

Steve replies right away. “Glad to hear that. Attempting to teach Tasha already makes you a braver man than I. Leave food in/near his lab, fingers foods work best. He likes ham and mustard. Use the gluten-free bread.”

While Steve waits for a reply, he checks his other messages. He shoots off quick replies to Natasha and Sam, and then looks at the pathetic text he’d sent Tony last night.  

There’s no reply from Tony, but his phone buzzes with Bucky’s answer: “She’s terrifying. I’m going to be Mr. Romanoff one day. Thanks, punk.”

It doesn’t say, “Come home soon” or, “You’re being a stubborn mule” or “Why did you even sign the damn Accords if you were just going to stay in Wakanda anyway”. Bucky isn’t Sam or Natasha or Clint.  Bucky knows when someone wants to be left alone, a lesson Steve learned too little too late.  

There’s a knock on the front door and Steve stands up to answer it. He doesn’t have too many visitors anymore, but Shuri enjoys showing up at odd hours and challenging Steve to sparring sessions. He’s far too exhausted for a late night training session but—

Tony Stark — clad in the same black and blue undersuit he’d worn in Sri Lanka yesterday and sporting grease on his nose — strides in with more grey on his temple and make-up on his face than Steve remembers. “I was sciencing with T’Challa but he’s monarching now. I need coffee. Preferably with hazelnut syrup, even more preferably made in a French press.”

And Steve, Steve who always has replies and witty retorts when it comes to Tony Stark, can do nothing but gape in silence.

The last time they’d seen each other face to face, they’d nearly killed each other. There have been opportunities to meet since then, of course. When Steve had finally signed the revised Accords, he’d been asked to come in, but instead of New York, he’d been sent to Berlin. He’d been relieved when he saw Sharon instead of Tony, didn’t need to see Tony gloating. He hadn’t needed it thrown in his face that in the end, Tony’d been right. Tony, who’d worked tirelessly for a bill that was fair to both sides, who was instrumental in removing Bucky’s HYDRA programming, still had a way of riling up Steve no matter how much he prayed for temperance. If they’d met, instead of thanking him, Steve would probably have started another shouting match. And Tony deserved better.

“Did you lose your manners on the last mission? I should have known sending you to Madripoor was a terrible idea. Just look at Logan.”  

Steve looks back at Tony, who stares back at him expectantly. As if this is normal. As if Steve’s the weird one for being surprised to see him, to be close enough to smell the grease and smoke coming off of him.

He moves out of the way and Tony walks in. He drops the suitcase suit in the hallway, next to Steve’s own bag.  “Kitchen. Where.”

“This way,” Steve says, voice rough, leading him in. Steve reaches for the kettle as Tony helps himself to the French press on the kitchen island.

“Thank you, sweet baby Jesus.” Tony breathes in the scent of coffee as he dumps in twice the amount of coffee needed.  As they wait for the water to boil, Tony begins to strip out of his undersuit, leaving the kitchen.” Steve looks away. “I’m borrowing this,” Tony calls out from the living room. “I still smell like volcano and fish. Everybody else gets to fly away in my Quinjet so they can tuck in their offspring into bed and what not, while I’m the one stuck in the same shirt for two whole days. If Wanda crashes my plane, I’m sending the bill to his royal assness, who’s apparently too important to come to New York.”

When Tony returns, it’s in Steve’s t-shirt and sweatpants that barely cling to his waist. “Do you want coffee? Wait, why am I asking, of course you want coffee — you’re not Bruce, that heathen. Sit down.”

Steve obeys, letting Tony rummage around the kitchen, making their coffees exactly how they’re liked— Tony’s with a hint of fig syrup for want of hazelnut, and Steve’s own with milk and a generous heaping of sugar.

Is he okay? — I missed him — he looks so tired —still beautiful — takes my breath away – Steve bites on the inside of his cheek, trying to stop his thoughts in their tracks.

 

“Here’s your coffee.” Tony’s voice drags Steve out of his head. Tony holds out the coffee and Steve reaches for it. Their fingers touch for a few seconds, sending tingles up Steve’s arm.   “Well, I say coffee, but it’s more accurately milk with essence of coffee, but I don’t judge. Well, only a little bit.” Tony chugs his coffee between two breaths and pours himself some more before Steve has taken a single sip from his own mug. Tony inhales that too, and slams the mug down. “So, Sam says hi. His mom’s chemo is going well, and he’s coming by next week. Wanda says sorry she hasn’t texted in a while but she’s short on time between college and training. She seems to like it though. Rhodey’s new legs are awesome and he’s doing physiotherapy with Bucky, so it’s a battle of one-upmanship of the Jameses, and nobody except Nat even bothers entering the gym when they’re in there. Clint’s been adopted by a dog, and Hank Pym’s errand boy went back home. Was that everybody? I think that was everybody.”

Why are you here? Steve wants to ask, why now? But the words grab hold within him like stubborn chicks refusing to leave the nest.

“Stop looking at me like that,” Tony tells him. “You’re the one who said you missed me, you big lug. What did you expect?”

Steve had maybe expected a scathing reply, though they’d managed to be civil to each other for the last year. In truth, he’d thought his message would have gone ignored. That Tony would fly halfway across the planet for a man who’d betrayed his trust was definitely not on the short list.

“Good job in Transia last week,” Tony continues. “We wouldn’t have made it on time after Doom pulled that stunt, stupid fucking Reed Richards — can build a problem but can’t dig his way out without the Avengers. Sue’s the only reasonable one but she’s not exactly putting a stop of Reed’s crazy lab stunts when she’s pregnant with what I’m assuming is an entire planet.” There’s a pause. “We could have used some help, you know. And the others won’t stop whining about you not being there like a bunch of babies. Actually, worse than a bunch of babies. The only reasonable person in my compound right now is baby Nathan and his vocabulary consists of two words.”

Steve misses the team with the same ache the arises whenever he thinks of the Howling Commandoes. He misses Scott’s boyish smiles and Clint’s antics, even misses the months spent fighting with a Wanda who was desperate for someone, anyone, to treat her like the goddamn adult that Steve finally had to admit she is. He misses Tony like Bucky did his phantom limb those first few months in Wakanda, with a pain he despises and craves in equal measure. But he’d spent months in a compound in Wakanda while Tony and T’Challa and countless others worked day and night to fix the Accords from within the system. He’d watched Ross being put on trial for crimes against humanity and seen Tony’s very public collapse from the stress. He’d watched, unable to do anything while others worked hard to fix his mistakes, until even those mistakes were pardoned and they were allowed to go home. Steve knows the Avengers are where they belong now, but Steve no longer has a place with them.  

Tony’s phone beeps and he stands up. “Speaking off, I have to go deal with baby-kissers up in Washington tomorrow, better get going if I want to arrive on time.”

Steve nods. Tony comes close, wipes away the tears Steve hadn’t even known he’d shed, and leaves. He commits the feel Tony’s fingers on his face to memory.

-

In his phone, there’s a single new message. It reads: “Come home, you asshole.”

-

“I don’t understand why he came,” Steve tells Bucky the next Sunday, when they have their weekly Skype sessions.

“Because he misses you and feels shitty about how it all went down?” Bucky replies. “Also ‘cause the two of you are about at good at hiding your crushes on each other as I am at passing through a metal detector without setting off any alarms.”

“I — what — that’s —” Steve stutters. “Tony does not have a crush on me.”

Bucky grins. “What about you?”

Steve feels the heat creeping up his neck, and looks away. “What does it matter now?”

Bucky gives him a soft smile. “Stevie, when are you going to stop flailing yourself for what happened? He forgave you, you know. Think he’d have removed you from a list of wanted war criminals otherwise?”

Steve knows that neither of them was particularly good at a turn of phrase, but…

“He forgave me, you know.”

“You never needed it!”

“Oh, fuck off, Stevie,” Bucky tells him off in the voice he used to use when he was annoyed at Steve for picking another fight, or for refusing to stay in bed the day after an asthma attack. “You don’t decide that for me. And saying that doesn’t help how I feel about what happened. He forgave me, and I forgave him, and that’s that.”

 “I’m sorry.”

“I know,” Bucky says, and then takes a gulp of his orange juice. “Anyway, we’re fine. He makes things and I set out the fires he sets on himself—“

“He what?”

“Don’t freak out, Stevie, God.” Bucky takes another drink and runs his fingers – part of the new metal arm— through his hair. “It was months ago and he’s fine. Well I got him an ice pack and coffee and it’s all okay now.”

“That still doesn’t—”

“—You should have seen his face when he got your text. Woke me up at two in the morning with a million texts to ask me what the hell it meant. Like it wasn’t clear as day. So I told him to do something about it. Well. at least someone listens to me,” Bucky says. “I gotta go. Vision’s cooking today and if I offer to help, I might be able to make sure he doesn’t burn the kitchen down with Wanda.”

Steve accepts the change in topic and nods his good bye. “Good luck with that.”

“Yeah, yeah. They’re easier to herd when you’re around,” Bucky replies.

“Take care of yourself, Bucky.”

“You too, Stevie, talk soon.”

-

A few weeks later, Tony knocks on his bedroom door at three in the morning. Steve jolts awake when the door opens - hand reaching for the gun under his pillow - but relaxes minutely when Tony floods the room with light.

“I locked the front door.”

“I convinced her otherwise,” Tony dismisses. “Did you see the news about the moron who fought my-the spider kid? The Vulture. I know Falcon is taken but there are so many other birds of prey that sound cooler than a fucking vulture. But noooo, he’s a baddie so he’d rather be a carrion eater. Fucking weirdo. Anyways, he needs new Black Panther-esque armour because he’s fifteen and tends to get shot at on a regular basis. And I need vibranium. I need a shower can I borrow yours? And get the coffee going.”

-

Steve gets a steady stream of missions from the U.N. He knows that the Sokovia Accords were meant to limit their control, but he also knows now that it basically just means that Tony and Natasha do what they always did, and the U.N. accepts that by pretending T’Challa’s dictating what they do. Tony and Natasha, in turn, sends them so much paperwork they think they’re involved in major decision making. So he goes on the missions, comes home, works out and sleeps. Sometimes he has dinner with T’Challa and Shuri. Sometimes he has visitors. Sam comes often, frequently bearing letters from Bucky, who’s willingly confined to the Avengers Compound.

On Sunday mornings, he Skypes with Bucky. Once or twice a week, he gets beaten up by the Dora Milaje. He knows that they’re taking it easy on him; nevertheless he uses the opportunity to learn.

Steve doesn’t draw anymore. He’s been given sketchbooks and pencils for Christmas and his birthday but he finds it to be something that no longer brings him joy. When he was younger, he’d draw everywhere, dining room tables and kitchen walls to the back of mission reports. He’d even had an entire bookshelf of sketchbooks filled with everything from still lifes to his favourite: portraits. Now the pencils feel odd in his fingers and the very thought of it tires him.

Instead, Steve reads. The Wakandan Imperial Library is larger than the Library of Congress and British Library combined. It had been through a list by T’Challa of nearly a hundred books on modern history and politics that had resulted in him understanding why the world wanted the Accords in the first place, and finally, signing them.

Steve also reads the news. He reads the Washington Post, and the New York Times, but also The Times, Reuters, and BBC. Steve reads The Wakandan Daily, and he learns. This new world is teetering on the end of civil and global war and he begins to understand why the flag that was his uniform incites so much fear and hatred in countries like Sokovia. 

He calls himself Nomad. He can’t really call himself Captain America when America has moved on without him, when America is a place he can’t bear to return to.

-

Tony comes by at least once a week, sometimes bringing handwritten letters and other times bearing chocolate or still-hot pizza from New York. Steve’s collection of art from the Barton children and Cassie Lang grows until there’s no room left on the fridge. He may not draw much anymore, but he finds joy in the happy water colour paintings and carefully coloured in pictures on his otherwise empty walls. It makes the compound feel more like home.

Tony doesn’t push him to talk, doesn’t mind his mostly one word answers. One day, they eat lunch together and spend the entire afternoon quietly working together. Other days, he sits at the kitchen table, talks and drinks coffee, and smiles at Steve.

Before he leaves, he touches Steve. He’s careful about it otherwise, so obviously trying to keep Steve from running in the opposite direction. But it’s as if Tony needs this, a simple touch. Sometimes, it’s a pat on the shoulder. Other times, he takes Steve’s hand in his, thumb rubbing against his knuckles carefully. Once, he even touches Steve’s beard in amusement.

Steve considers telling him to stop, but he can’t deny Tony something that makes him smile, whatever the reason may be. Besides, he wants it too badly., even if it’s too much and too little all at once. Too much from a man he’d nearly killed, and too little when he wants so badly that his knees buckle from it.

-

In July, Steve and Sam work together on a take-down of a gruesome facility experimenting on mutants in Saudi Arabia. Afterwards, they get a room in a hotel with air conditioning and sleep for twelve straight hours. Steve wakes up first, and finds Sam still snoring on the double bed beside his. It’s four in the afternoon so he plays Downton Abbey on Netflix and waits for Sam to wake up.

Once he does, they sit on the couch together with iced coffee in their hands and fans on full force. Sam tells him about his parents. His father had been thinking of coming out of retirement to pay for his mother’s medication. It reminds him of much of his mother, working three jobs to pay for his asthma cigarettes, that his eyes sting. Nearly a century has passed, but in some regards, nothing has changed.  

But Sam doesn’t look worried, he looks happy. When Steve asks him why, Sam hesitates.  “What is it, Sam?”

“Well, you make this face whenever I mention Tony, but I know he’s been coming by. Can we talk about him without you clamming up now?” Steve nods. “Good. The Maria Stark Foundation decided to pay all the bills for cancer patients at her hospital. I asked Tony and he said he knew nothing about it.’’

“Of course not.”

They continue to sit in comfortable silence, still too tired to move. Then Sam blurts out: “I’m dating James.”

He’d known Bucky wasn’t straight but to learn of a relationship from someone else, even when that someone else was Sam, hurt. “Bucky never said—”

Sam chokes. “I mean Rhodes, not that weirdo Barnes. Should’ve phrased that better.”

“Ya think?”

“Look I didn’t want you to hear from someone else. I haven’t been in the closet for a long time… but being in the army during DADT does something to a man.” Sam looks apprehensive. Then there’s the pressure behind coming out to someone who grew up in the thirties.

“Are you two happy?” Steve asks carefully.  

Sam smiles a gentle smile, looking away. “Yes.”

Steve nudges Sam’s shin with his right foot. “I’m really happy for you, Sam.”

Sam smiles again, this time with relief. Steve wonders how little of himself he must have shared with the people he loves the most, that Sam thought he might react negatively to this. He decides it’s high time he try harder.

“Now, enough about me. What’s new with you? Did you summon some of that famous Rogers courage and call Carter? You worked a mission with her last week didn’t you?”

“I did.” They haven’t discussed the kiss they’d shared, now over a year ago. Things had changed too much. The first time they’d seen each other, Sharon had been furious with him. She’d seen to Tony after Siberia. They’d made up since then, but their relationship was doomed to fail. Even if Steve could get past her uncanny likeness to her aunt, the shadow Tony cast covered even her. 

“And?”

He considers how hiding things from Tony had ruined their relationship; how it had taken them such a horrible fall to realize they had to learn to treat each other differently. He looks at Sam, his heart on his sleeve and his earnest eyes, braver than Steve has ever been, and tells him something he’s never said out loud to anyone, ever.

“I think I’m in love with Tony."

Sam sucks in a breath. “That’s some pickle you’ve gotten yourself into, Steve.”

“Yeah.”

“Buy me dinner and I’ll listen to you whine.”

Twenty minutes later, Sam’s got a mouthful of fig roll and Steve’s opening up his take-out container of okra soup, as Steve tries to put his thoughts into words that make some semblance of sense. “So, how long? Before or after the Accords?”

“Both, I think. Before. I don’t know. I always thought he was…”

“A hot piece of ass?” Sam’s lips curl before they’re hidden by the mug.

“Sam!”

“Well, he is. For a white boy, that is.”

Steve laughs.

“Well, go on, then.”

“I didn’t know until after Siberia.” Steve swallows his shame and looks Sam in the eye. “I think I was just denying myself the truth because he was with Pepper then, you know?” Sam nods. He’d busted them all out of prison, but had made sure to be honest with them – not willing to risk another crack from within. He’d shown them the video, told them what had happened. Maybe that had been why they’d all slowly left him. Nevertheless, it had been necessary. He’s done with people working with him under false pretences.  

“How have the two of you been coming along since he started visiting?”

“He’s different.”

“Not really,” Sam replies. “I think we all just learned to stop automatically assuming the worst of him, you know? We put these huge responsibilities on him, expectations that come from being soldiers and working with soldiers, but Tony is a civilian. He’s just a man hiding behind a suit of armour. And Rhodey’s one of the only people who knows how to see past it all.”

“And I don’t.”

“Neither did I. But Rhodey, he shows me how. And he met Tony before his face was on the news 24/7. Tony’s good at hiding who he is. But now that he’s sold the Tower and lives on the compound, we’re actually getting to know him. Trust him.”

Steve swallows. He’d lived in that Tower with Tony for two years. But the weight of his secrets had kept him from getting too close to Tony. It hadn’t stopped him from wanting Tony — that had begun the moment Tony had pulled his helmet off in Stuttgart all those years ago. But it had only added to his distancing himself from Tony.

“I think I was afraid to let him in.” If only he’d told Tony abut Howard and Maria right away. They could have found Bucky together, prevented so much hurt. “I don’t want to talk about it anymore, tell me more about you and Rhodey. When did that even happen?”

“I know you’re distracting me, but I’m really happy with my life right now, so I’m happy to gloat.”

-

Steve doesn’t remember much of his own parents’ relationship, but he’d learned what love was from watching the Barnes family. Uncle George had once cleaned cranky old Phillip Mulligan’s apartment top to bottom just for a couple of roses to bring Aunt Winnie on Valentine’s Day. No one could afford food, let alone fresh cut flowers in the thirties, but Uncle George had found a way. Steve remembers his mother coming home limping after staying on her feet all day, and then making dinner while he did his homework. He remembers one Christmas Day, waking up so early his mother hadn’t come home from her night shift yet. He remembers setting up the breakfast table and dragging his blanket to the living room, dropping to the floor and waiting for her to come home. When he’d woken up next, he’d been in his mother’s thin, but strong arms, feeling warm and safe and beloved. And love was that ache the first Christmas after he’d lost her — waking up on the floor with all the Barnes children and feeling the tears prickling his eyes because the sprawling weight of an arm thrown over his chest were too big to be hers. Love was the peace that came with knowing at least Peggy was safe.

He’d gone into the ice saying goodbye to a chance at a family, stability. Waking up in the new world, he hadn’t found a place for Steve Rogers, just one for Captain America.

Now there wasn’t even place for Captain America.

And maybe that was just as well.

-

On the flight back to Wakanda, his thoughts turn to Sam’s last words about Tony. He can’t stop thinking about the years they’d spent living together. They’d seemed like good times. But after everything that has happened, his recollections are covered in a layer of melancholy.  He remembers how frustration and confusion and desire had bled into one thing in his gut, an emotion that he’d long since associated with Tony. How many times had he come home after a HYDRA raid and fought the urge to either yell at Tony or kiss him senseless? He always chose to yell, to never foster an honest relationship with Tony the way he had with the others. It would have been too difficult, so he’d considered it the impossible and never bothered to try.

He’d turned into someone unforgiving in his selfishness; he’d become acid-tongued and judgmental in an attempt to deny the truth.

The truth was that he’d wanted Tony, mind, body and soul.

“Did you know?” Tony’s face had been heartbreak personified. Once again, someone who he’d thought would have his back had decided instead to stab him in it.

It was just Steve’s luck, that he’d have to break it before he realised that Tony’s heart had already belonged to him.

-

The next Sunday’s Skype call features Bucky in Tony’s lab for a new arm fitting. Tony’s in the background, fiddling with metal fingers, and Steve loses the second part of his sentence when he recognizes his own shirt on Tony’s back, yearning stirring heavily in his gut.

“Earth to Steve?”

“What?”

“The shrinks said I don’t have to be confined to the compound anymore,” Bucky repeats.

Steve’s face splits into a wide smile. Even if he’d understood why Bucky wasn’t allowed to the leave the compound until the brainwashing had been dealt with, it had never sat well with him. “Bucky, that’s fantastic news.”

“And perfect timing too, he was getting stir-crazy,” Tony adds.

“I was not!”

“Then explain why my tool box has been rearranged three times in the last – oh – two days and why you’ve made a month’s worth of frozen dinners for Wanda to take to her apartment in Brooklyn. You know she’s on semester break, right?”

“Fuck off.”

You fuck off, this is my lab.”

Steve leans back on his couch and watches them fondly as they forget he’s even present and bicker like siblings.

-

The next time Tony visits, the first words out of his mouth are, “I think we should ask Bucky to take up the role of Captain America.”

It has never occurred to him, but now that Tony brings it up, it seems perfect. But it’s not his decision. “You don’t need to ask me about that.”

“It’s your title and shield,” Tony says, and Steve turns to look at him incredulously. “Shut up. It is. That’s the only apology you’re getting from me. I’m not petty. I’m not.”

Warmth floods Steve. “I think it’s a great idea, Tony.”

“Obviously. I have the best ideas,” Tony says, throwing his coat in the umbrella basket. Steve picks it up and hangs it, then follows Tony into the kitchen. “Of course, he prefers guns and knives to shields but I’m sure we can convince him otherwise. Or, I could make him guns and you can take up your shield again.”

“I’m not Captain America anymore.”

“Yes, I’m aware of that. But the energy shield T’Challa made, which is pretty cool, I’ll admit, isn’t better than the original, am I right?”

Steve bites his lip, because it’s true. The energy shield is remarkable, but it’s nothing like the feel of his vibranium shield, or the sound it makes as it flies through the air. The silence is answer enough for Tony, who laughs out loud. “Knew it!

“Okay, I need to make him a suit —”

“Maybe first ask him what he thinks of the idea? Let me know how it goes.”

“Aye, aye, not-Captain. Anyway, I would kill for a hot dog right about now, are there hot dogs in Wakanda?”

“Not unless you want to make them from scratch.”

“Do you know how?”

“No such luck, sorry.”

And that’s how they end up Googling how to make hot dogs from scratch on the couch. They read the recipe and head to the kitchen. Steve pulls open the take-out menu drawer with one hand and with the other catches the phone Tony throws at him.

-

College lets out and Wanda comes to stay for a few weeks in the summer.

“I wish you would come home,” she tells him.

“You don’t need me, I’ve seen the team,” Steve replies, painting her toenails as she reads. He’s been doing this for over a year now; his skill with a brush had become a way to connect better with Wanda. “You guys are great.”

“Clint says the Avengers used to be like a family, though.” There’s longing in her voice, something far away and fragile. It makes Steve think of Bucky and Pietro.

“That was a long time ago,” Steve tells himself he doesn’t miss those days. Even then, he’d been lying to Tony.

“You could try again. We could be a real family. Without the lies.” Wanda tells him. “What? You’re the one who’s thinking so loudly.”

Silence.

When her toes are done and Steve reaches for her hand, she holds his instead. “I forgave him, you know. He tried to lock me up; he let them lock me up. But we moved on. There’s no law saying you can’t do the same.”

-

It’s Bucky who tips him off to Tony’s next visit to Wakanda. Steve waits with anticipation outside the King’s court, where Tony’s in yet another meeting with T’Challa. By the time the doors open, Steve’s palms are sweating in his pockets and his heart is pounding in his ears. Then Tony steps out, clad in his undersuit and sunglasses, and Steve’s entire being stills. 

“Hey there, soldier.”

“Hey,” Steve says his voice hoarse. He tries to muster up courage but has none. Still he tries despite of the fear, that has to mean something. “Can I take you out to lunch?”

Does Tony know what he’d doing when he’s looking up at Steve through those dark eyelashes of his? “Yes, I’m starving.” He gives his suitcase to his PA and nods his head in the direction of the door. “What kind of street food does Wakanda have?”

-

Steve takes Tony to a small shop in the bazaar, buys them rice and fish, and pickled vegetables wrapped in banana leaves. He leads them to a small, deserted corner of the Royal Botanical Gardens. They sit on the grass and eat with their hands, dripping curry far as their elbows.

Steve wants this. He wants this for always, the gentle turn of Tony’s lips when he smiles, the wrinkles on his forehead.

They stand up, brush the daddy longlegs off their trousers and make their way to the river to wet their hands. “If I get sick, it’s on you,” Tony tells him, wiping his wet hands on Steve’s shirt. Steve flinches away in surprise and Tony rolls his eyes, patting his palms against Steve’s chest. “What? My shirt’s worth a couple hundred bucks; I’d bet you the price of my shirt that what you’re wearing is a direction product of Target.”

-

They walk back to the compound, and Tony pulls off his sunglasses, slipping them into his sleeve. Wanda opens the front door before Steve can even reach for it. “Hi! I have dinner plans, do not wait for me. Hello, Tony!” She kisses Steve on both cheeks. She turns to look at Tony in the eye to pass on a telepathic message. “Okay?”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Tony rolls his eyes, but smiles when she kisses his cheeks as well. Then she flies away.

“Everything okay?” Steve asks, settling beside him on the couch.

“Yes, Natasha has too much free time and Wanda’s helping,” Tony tells him, stepping inside and kicking his shoes off.

“That sounds dangerous.”

“You don’t even know the half of it.”

-

Tony pulls out his tablet, and drops down on the couch. “Great, I didn’t check my phone for 4 hours and now I have 133 e-mails. Does the world not know how to function without me?”

Steve stands, not sure if he’s wanted, until Tony looks up and pats the seat beside him. “Don’t you have Downton Abbey to catch up on? If you’re not careful, Happy will start sending you spoilers.”

Steve obeys, and grabs the remote.

-

He’s nodding off when Tony speaks. “So, Bucky and I, we’ve probably spend a few working weeks’ worth of hours in therapy together. I’m sure I’m single-handedly paying for Dr. Ramachandran’s daughter’s law school fees, but we’re okay. It’s like being in college all over again. You pay a shit ton of money so you get homework, and this week’s homework is talking serious business with you.”

Steve pulls away from Tony’s shoulder and sits up. Tony’s still looking at his tablet. “I was angry at you for a really long time. I felt like the whole reason you were throwing us into war against each other was for the man who killed my par—”

“It wasn’t his fau—”

“I know that now, stop interrupting me,” he says and oh, he sounds so weary. Steve feels like an admonished child. “I wanted to hurt you because you hurt me. Because you didn’t trust me. Never mind that I didn’t trust you with the Accords or anything else for that matter.”

 “Well, we never gave each other good reason to trust each other, did we?”

“No, “Tony admits. “No we didn’t. But that’s why I’m here. I’m choosing to trust you, which is a new thing for me, so I’m hoping I don’t fuck it up like I do everything else. But I don’t want the Avengers torn apart from the inside again.”

That, Steve understands. It’s why he’s better off here. If he’s not there, he can’t tear them apart.

Steve thinks, lets the silence build like a tower until he can pick out the right words from within. “But I know now that you did the best you could out of a situation that was far out of your control. Otherwise Ross would have had you locked up too. But I wish you’d come to us right in the beginning. We could have fought it together.”

“It’s not enough to be against something, you have to be for something better. The Accords were inevitable; you know that now, don’t you?”

“I do.” The Accords, as they are now, put the responsibility back in the safest of hands: their own. But it had taken them a year to get there. And had they all fought against it, they would never have gotten to where they are now.

“That’s why I stayed in. I needed to push Ross out. I wanted to create a better solution before showing it off to the world. Then Lagos happened and it just spiralled. But you’re right; I should have come to you the moment the discussions began.”

“And I should have told you about Bucky the moment I suspected. I just didn’t want to risk you reacting badly. Then the way things turned out…”

“I reacted in the worst way possible,” Tony finishes the sentence, and Steve nods in acknowledgement. “And I can say it was because of PTSD and sleep deprivation and whatever other excuse I can come up with, that if I’d had the time to think it through, I wouldn’t have attacked you. But it’s not like the two of you were doing any better.”

“Still should have told you.”

“Well it isn’t like you actively hid it from Nat’s data dump or anything. If I’d dug deep enough I’d have found out for myself. You didn’t want to be the one to tell me. And I wasn’t ready to process that shit.”

Tony had hid things from them, classified things that determined the future of the world. But Steve had hid things about his family. He’d turned it into a personal betrayal. Whatever Tony said about the information being available, he should still have talked to Tony about it.

Tony puts his hand over Steve’s. “We can’t change the past, Steve. All we can do is move on.” Steve’s hands shake and shake, no matter how hard he tries to remain stoic, he fails. Tony cradles them in his hands. They are smaller and nimbler than Steve’s own, but steadier still.

“I trust you.” Tony looks up and catches his eyes – twin sunsets taking him in. After all that Tony had shared, it was only right that Steve try to share with him as well. “I wouldn’t have signed the Accords otherwise.”

Steve swallows. He wants the words to come out – to confess of the years he’d spent suppressing want and jealousy until it turned him bitter and mistrustful of Tony. He wants to be a better man before he comes home, but the words stick in his mouth.

“Can I crash on your couch tonight?” Tony asks, giving him a way out the rapidly painful conversation.

“You’re staying the night?”

“I have a bed in the Quinjet otherwise.”

“Don’t be ridiculous. There are five empty rooms you can borrow. Come on, let’s find you a room.”

-

The next morning, Tony’s in the kitchen when Steve comes back from his run. The kitchen is a mess, and Tony sits at the table, eating dry cereal and talking on the phone. “Pep, I’ll call you back.”

Steve opens his mouth but Tony points to a second bowl on the table, also filled with cereal. “I made you breakfast.”

“I can see that. Out of curiosity. Was this from science or cooking?”

“I refuse to answer that question on the grounds that I don’t want to,” Tony shoots back, and takes another bite of his corn flakes.

“I thought we were working on trust here,” Steve asks, then instantly regrets it. Is it too soon?

Tony barks out a laugh, to Steve’s relief. “Make me blueberry pancakes and I’ll tell you.”

“Wakanda doesn’t have blueberries. I have amathungulu berries though. Help me clean up.”

“So many demands,” Tony sighs and pulls himself up.

“Get started on the pots and pans and I’ll figure out what to do about this — is that batter on the wall?”

“Don’t be stupid, it’s scrambled egg.”

-

The only sound in the room is that of chewing. Yet Steve feels a lack of tension and worry when he looks at Tony. Things feel more settled.

Tony’s day is busy, he spends it at the table, alternating between his phone and tablet. Steve lets him be, periodically bringing coffee and sandwiches.

“I gotta get going. Something is happening, and I need to go find out, so I won’t be around for a while,” Tony says after the third cup of coffee, putting down his tablet to catch Steve’s eyes. He must have seen the worry in them, because he continues quickly. “I’m fine, promise, I’ll be right back before you can type B.R.B. Nat’ll be in charge. You’ll be hearing from her mission-wise from now on, okay.”

“I understand. Where are you going?”

“Space.”

“Space?”

“Yep, the final frontier, minus the prime directive. With Thor. He came back with Bruce last week.”

“Did he find out what’s going on with the infinity stones?”

“He’s not sure. There was a case of some Kree vigilantes – blue aliens; apparently they came to earth a while ago — trying to use the power stone. But he’s not sure they weren’t working for someone else. And it’s connected to that event in Missouri with the weird blue mass. Anyways Thor heard about the team that stopped the vigilantes and wants to go after them. I’ll try to keep you updated okay? We’re launching tomorrow. Walk me to the Quinjet?”

-

The walk to the Quinjet is quiet again. There’s a fear in Steve that he can barely contain in himself. It makes him wonder why Tony chose now, right before leaving the damn planet, to have had this conversation with Steve. Suddenly it feels as if Tony is setting his affairs in order.

When they stop at the top of the mobile stairs, Tony turns around to stay good bye, a head higher than Steve while standing on the higher step. And Steve is overcome with the need to wrap his arms around Tony, kiss him until his affections are made obvious through his actions when words fail. Then Tony places his palms on his shoulders, running them over his collar bone, and brushing against his beard. Steve can’t breathe. They’re in a strange universe, where nothing else exists but the two of them. Tony smiles with an open mouth, licking his lower lip and with stars in his eyes as they drift to Steve’s lips. “You’re giving Thor’s whiskers a run for their Asgardian money.”

“Damn. You’ve discovered my plan all along,” Steve breathes as Tony presses his fingers against his jaw. His lips are shiny and Steve wants to taste them desperately.

Then Tony pulls away, and Steve both misses and regrets wasting the moment. It’s almost too much.

“Tony,” Steve croaks out.

“Yeah?” Tony sounds just as breathless.

“Be safe.”

-          

Tony sends him messages and pictures here and there. He meets the team of “superheroes in space, steven wtf cant even!” There’s one of Groot and Rocket, a living tree and “not-a-racoon-whatever-ever-that-is”. There are paragraph length rants about how far behind they are to the rest of the galaxy.

It’s easier to keep in contact with Tony this way. Like that first text message that had begun all this. Steve replies with selfies from Wakanda, and one memorable time, on a mission with Natasha. She smiles knowingly but doesn’t push. He does receive a fifty-five gallon barrel of lube in the mail which is the most mortifying thing he has had to sign for in his life. Bucky’s visiting him at the time and laughs and laughs until Steve dunks his head in the barrel. In the following fight they spill the barrel and slip and slide on the porch. They stop only when they hear an amused cough and look up to find T’Challa and Shuri with their hands crossed and their mouths in an obvious attempt at holding in laughter.

“It’s Romanoff’s fault,” Bucky tells them and stands up, only to slip on more lube and fall right back down.

Steve feels free.

-

Other days, he misses Tony so deeply it disorients him and he crashes into a tree mid-morning-run.

-

Bruce comes for a visit at T’Challa’s invitation. They haven’t seen each other since Sokovia. They have tea and Bruce tells him he was in space, not that he remembers it. Steve takes him to the market and they buy tea and herbs. They’re walking by the stalls when they catch sight of one selling water colour painting of superheroes. Some of them, like the position Natasha is in, is physically impossible, even for her. But there’s one of Iron Man, no helmet, but with stars in his eyes and dusky lips.

“You gave me some good advice once, do you remember?” Bruce asks.

“Yes,” Steve replies. He thinks of the looks he’d caught Natasha and Bucky sharing their last mission together.

“You should take your own advice. Before you miss your chance like I did.”

Steve thinks about Tony, off in space with alien trees and half-humans who kiss him on the mouth for a StarkPhone that holds twenty thousand songs. He should have kissed him when he had the chance. Then again, maybe he never did.

-

Two, torturously slow months later, Steve is reading in the library when he gets the text message. “I ordered take-out, where are you?

Steve stands up so quickly it topples the chair. He apologises to the librarian and walks slowly out of the library, then takes off at a sprint towards the Compound. He slams open his front door, runs into the kitchen, and finds Tony there, French press ready and waiting for the water to boil.

His feet screech to a halt and Tony looks up. “Miss me?” Tony asks. But the mirth turns to understanding as he looks Steve up and down and says, “Oh.”

Shame blooms on Steve’s face. Of course, Tony didn’t want this. He was only coming towards him to say hello and hopefully ignore the feelings displayed on Steve’s face. He’d grown up being taught to conceal his feelings, be a man. He’s never succeeded at that. He doesn’t realise what’s happening, not until Tony throws his arms over Steve’s shoulders, surges upwards, and claims his mouth.

“God, yes,” Steve whispers, wrapping his arms around Tony. This is where they’re meant to be. Tony is star-kissed and well-rested and space may have been good for him but he’s finally where he’s meant to be now. 

They trade kisses, Steve lets Tony press him up against the wall and pull his legs apart to find the home Tony’s made for him there. “Good.”

Thinking is too much effort, Steve just feels. He closes his eyes and wraps his arms around Tony, gasps as Tony’s grazes his teeth up his neck. It’s not enough. Steve pulls at Tony’s shirt until it comes lose from his trousers and then splays his fingers against the bare skin of Tony’s lower back. The barest of pressure and Tony shows that he approves by plastering himself to Steve’s chest. His fingers pull Steve’s shirt up.

For once, no words are needed between them. Tony leads him to the sofa, straddles him and grabs at his shirt and Steve takes a hint and pulls them off. For a moment, Tony looks, and Steve wonders what he’s thinking, whether he’s a fraction as beautiful as Tony is. He’s big and brawny and he doesn’t know how to make himself look like someone worth Tony’s second look. Tony runs his fingers over Steve’s lower belly carefully.

Steve feels beloved. It makes him ache.  

“Your turn,” Steve murmurs, trying to distract him by searching for the side zipper, and Tony holds him down by the shoulders instead.

“Just kiss me again, darling.”

The pet name makes Steve’s eyes sting. Steve kisses Tony, kisses his mouth and jaw and neck and the black fabric covering his chest. He brings them close, close as they can be, but it isn’t enough, he wants to kiss skin, wants every ounce of his affections to soak into Tony’s skin. He sucks a hickey high on Tony’s neck, as he reaches for the opening again and pulls the flap away to the side, revealing his chest.

Steve sobs at the sight in front of Tony.

The scar of where the arc reactor used to be is familiar to him, but the curved line that cuts through the round scar is new. Steve had done that.

He’s back in Siberia again. Steve can smell the cold, the burn of the arc reactor pulse on his chest, can taste the blood in his mouth and feel the desperation in Bucky’s face. He can see the heartbreak and anger in Tony’s eyes.

“Steve,” Tony’s shaking him. “Steve, come on, Steve, stay with me.”

“Tony.”

“That’s me, hey. I’m Tony. You’re in Wakanda, it’s September the fourth, six pm. You’re safe.”

Steve can’t look away from the scar. “I was… I was just trying to stop you, I never, Tony—“

He sobs and Tony’s wrapping his arms around him, his body a comforting weight in his lap. But Steve can’t. He pushes him away, hating himself for the last second when he wants to pull him right back, wobbles to his feet and backs away. He feels unsteady, but if he can’t fake his strength, he’ll never make it.  “Steve, it’s alright. I know. It’s okay.”

“It is not okay, I did that to you!” Tony, who kisses him like it’s more than just a kiss. Tony, who’s looking at him like he’s a frightened deer. He gets up slowly, takes tentative steps towards Steve and suddenly he’s just too close.

“Steve,” Tony’s too close — Steve flinches away. “It was a long time ago, come on.”

“No. Stop,” Steve chokes out, before he inevitably hurts him more. Because that’s the cycle. Tony says something, Steve thinks the worst of him, never learning to navigate the maze that is Tony’s true intentions, and they come to blows. Steve heals. Tony, more often than not, doesn’t.

“Steve, for fuck’s sake. You’re not Atlas; you don’t need to carry the world on your back. In case it wasn’t clear, I forgive you. Now can you please forgive yourself and come home?

Steve can’t stop staring at the scar, the pink, raised edge. Tony’s better off without him. Steve should have never sent that text message. They’d been fine before. But now Steve knew what Tony tasted like, knew what he looked like when hickeys were blooming on his neck and his lips were kiss-swollen. How could he have been so reckless? He was always going to be led by fickle feelings. Someone as bull-headed and careless as Steve should not be anywhere near something as delicate as Tony’s precious heart. He’s already proven he’s not worthy it. But Steve does it one last time; he breaks Tony’s heart like it’s nothing when each and every broken, jagged shard is more valuable to him than anything else in the world. “You should go.”

“I missed you,” Tony says, his voice cracking by the end.

“Please, Tony, please,” Steve begs. If it kept Tony safe from Steve, he’d beg and plead, all pride be damned.

Tony comes closer, and oh, he’s set himself up because he’s in a corner and the only way is through Tony, and that’s not an option.

“Please, please, I—“

“Okay, okay, breathe. Fine. Even I know when I’m not wanted. I’m leaving,” Tony says with an air of resignation surrounding him. He zips up his undersuit. “You breathe, everything’s going to be okay.”

“Tony, I love you,” Steve blurts out, unable to let Tony leave while thinking that he’s not wanted. But Tony’s not safe here, not with Steve. “But please, please leave me be.”

Tony’s face cycles through emotions Steve still doesn’t know how to read. He sees for one moment that same face that had asked him, “Did you know?” what seems like a lifetime ago. And then Tony schools them into a public glamour that Steve knows all too well. He takes the few steps down to the door before he speaks again.

“I love you too, you know.” Tony whispers, and then he leaves.

-

The next time Steve sees Tony, they’re fighting for their lives and those of everyone in the galaxy. Thanos, with his infinity gauntlet, is almost too powerful, even for the Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the X-Men and the Fantastic Four combined. But they’re superheroes, and more importantly, they’re the galaxy’s only hope. They have to win.

But Tony’s wide open, and in the perfect angle for a direct hit from the gauntlet and all six stones.  In a split second, Steve imagines a world without Tony, a future without the man who didn’t just dream of the future, but built it. And it isn’t just because he loves Tony, loves him so much he can’t breathe from the thought most days. It’s because this world has movers and shakers, and Tony’s one of them. They’ll need him in the aftermath. A lot more than they will Steve, that’s for sure.

Please, let me make it, Steve prays, and throws himself between Thanos and Tony with every ounce of speed, strength and willpower that he has left.

-

The Avengers Compound’s medical centre is a bustling hive. The nurses run from room to room with IV bags, medical carts and at times, even crash carts. Helen Cho commands the place with an iron fist, her assistant following a step behind and her son Amadeus three steps, always hiding. If there wasn’t so much to do, she’d have noticed days ago.

Steve stands outside the glass and watches extremis at work. There is no one entering Tony’s hospital room, no need for it, and it’d been banned once Helen had actually gotten the opportunity to read through the multiple pages of code. There is nothing left to do but wait and hope that Tony and the late Dr. Maya Hanson’s act of creation would lead to his salvation. Steve stays in medical when he can.  

Heavy footsteps come to a stop beside him. “Any progress?”

“Nothing so far, Rhodey. Heartbeat’s steady though.”

“How’s Vision?”

“Pushy. Being an AI without a body is cramping his style and giving Bruce and me massive headaches. But if a purple alien blew up my body, I guess I’d be pretty bitchy too,” Rhodey says. “But Rocket shot out a screen so I figured a break wouldn’t hurt everyone.”

Rhodey reads Tony’s vitals over the glass/tablet. “Rogers.”

“Yeah?”

“When was the last time you got a shower? Or hell, slept in a real bed?”

Steve doesn’t look at the chair beside the door to Tony’s room, where he’s spent the last two nights, sleeping in fits and waking in starts even as Tony stayed within the cocoon, unchanging. He’s of use to no one right now, not that he wants to be. This is where he should be.

“I don’t want him to be alone,” Steve confesses.

“I’ve been by his side since 1987; I’m not going to stop now.” I’m not you, goes unsaid, but louder than the bustle of the medical wing. Rhodey looks at him, and Steve catches his eyes defiantly. He’s done wrong by Tony, but he’s not leaving now, no matter what Rhodey says.

“Rhodey,

“They haven’t really talked. There hadn’t been any time during the fight, and even now, everyone was in recovery mode, every day was about healing and dealing with the fall out. At least this fight, being in the middle of the Mojave desert, hadn’t resulted in any civilian casualties. “It wasn’t your fault, Steve.”

Of course it had been. If he’d been here, if he’d answered the call to assemble from here with the others and not all the way from the other side of the planet, he’d have been earlier, he’d have gotten to Tony faster. “If I’d only been faster—”

“—You’d be dead, Steve. Tony’s only alive because of the suit.”

“I should never have left in the first place.”

Rhodey sighs. “I won’t argue with that. But it’s been a year and a half, Cap. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”

Steve swallows. “I’m not Cap.”

“And I’m not calling Sergeant Barnes a Captain until someone actually promotes him.” Rhodey shoots back.

“I thought you were staying neutral in the Barnes-Wilson pettiness war,” Steve says, catching sight of Sam coming up behind Rhodey.

“I saw reason and realised how much better life is when I stays on Sam’s good side,” Rhodey says as Sam surprises Rhodey with a kiss to the back of his neck, then moves within eyesight.

“Good answer, Colonel.”

“Hey there, fly boy,” Rhodey says, and the tension in his shoulders melt at the sight of Sam.

“We got this, Steve, please get some sleep, or at the very least, go take a shower so Tony doesn’t pass out from the stink the moment he wakes up,” Sam says.

“I can’t—”

“Sir, um, actually, he’s totally right, with all due respect, sir.”

The three of them look upwards in the direction of the voice and find Peter Parker on the ceiling. Peter Parker, little sixteen year old Peter Parker who Steve kicked in the stomach, is the only one who can challenge Steve when it comes to most time spent in this part of the hallway while waiting for Tony to wake up.

“Kid, how long have you been up there?” Sam asks.

“Uh – seven? No, eight episodes of Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

“Have you eaten anything?”

“Yeah, Sergeant Barnes made me the best waffles I’ve ever had, like wow the man can cook; I need Aunt May to adopt him. Do you think he’d be up for that?”

“Yes, please take him with you,” Sam says decisively. “Steve, shower please. And maybe a meal. Bucky’s stress cooking so there’ll be food in the kitchen. Grab a plate at least, and then you can continue standing vigil.”

Steve sighs, gives up at the combined onslaught, and heads for the shower. He sneaks into his old bedroom, untouched except for a fine layer of dust over everything, scrubs himself clean as quickly as humanly possible and heads out of the living spaces directly to the medical wing. A hand around his wrist stops him from opening the front door.

“Lunch, Rogers,” Natasha tells him, smiling despite the fact of her other arm in a sling. “Bucky’s on his thirteenth round of pancakes and I can’t eat anymore.”

“But—“

“Just grab something and talk some sense into that idiot best friend of yours before he passes out from exertion.”

Bucky.

Steve hasn’t seen Bucky since after the fight, when they’re brought Tony to medical. Bucky had been fine, so unlike Steve and Peter, he’d actually listened when Helen kicked him out of the medical wing. Steve hasn’t seen him since then.

“Okay.” Natasha looks up at him and he carefully pulls her close and presses his lips to her forehead. “You okay?”

“I will be.”

“Natasha!”

They pull apart at Mantis’ voice. “Peter tells me the peeling purple of Wanda’s nails is not a health concern for humans, but degraded polish of the nail! Shall we cheer up Wanda by reapplying it? I would not be impartial to a nice green shade, myself.”

 “Yes. Find Gamora and meet me in the living room. I’ll get Wanda. You can be my hands.”

“Might I suggest we invite Nebula as well?”

“Yeah, might as well,” Natasha says with a huff.

“Steve, would you like to join us? Blue would suit you.”

“Thank you, Mantis,” Steve pulls his gloves off to show off sparkly red fingernails. “But Lila did my nails before the Bartons left, so I’m alright for now.”

“Next time, then!” Mantis says, and runs off, apparently in Gamora’s direction.

“Guess we both have our work cut out for us then,” Natasha tells him as she walks towards Wanda’s room.

Steve walks through the hallways and common rooms that have barely changed. The only noticeable difference is the increased presence of “post-it” notes made of webbing and increased wheelchair accessibility.

“Come home, you asshole.”

Steve can’t stop thinking about the text message from all those months ago. He’s home now, with the people who he puts his faith in, his love in, but there is no relief or joy at this homecoming. Again, it’s too little, too late.

-

“Hey, jerk.”

Bucky takes one look at Steve and turns around to fill two plates with mountains of food. He turns the oven off and heads outside via garden doors. Steve follows him.

They sit on a bench in the garden with the planted wildflower meadows that team with bees. They eat in peace and once they’re done, Bucky grabs the plate from Steve’s hands and sets it down on the ground on top of his own. They sit together for another minute, thighs pressed against each other’s and Steve’s shaking hands covered by Bucky’s. “You should go back to medical,” Bucky tells him, and Steve, who’s so sick and tired of people telling him to leave Tony, who’s never learned to hide his emotions from Bucky anyway, bursts into tears.

“Oh Stevie.” Bucky gathers him into his smaller frame and Steve allows it this once, presses his nose into Bucky’s collarbones and takes short, ragged breaths.

 “He’ll make it.” Bucky says the three words leaving no room for argument.

“Bucky—“

“Shut up. I’m not like you, I’m no optimist. People don’t live just because you have faith in them. But if past experiences have anything to show us, it’s that Tony Stark has a rather annoying ability to do the impossible. He made a lame man walk again, and he wiped away my brainwashing like it was chalk on a blackboard. Tony didn’t make Extremis, but he fixed it for Pepper. It worked once. That means it’ll work again. ”

Bucky waits until Steve pulls away from him, and only then stands up.

-

Steve walks back to medical with a plate of food for Peter and a cup of coffee for Helen. He finds Peter with Happy and a brown-haired woman who must be his Aunt May. He leaves the plate on the chair, walking away from the woman berating her nephew. “Peter Benjamin Parker, I don’t care if you helped save the galaxy, you said you were going on patrol! You are grounded until the end of time! I can’t believe…”

Steve brings coffee to Helen, who grabs it from him and drink the whole thing in one go. “Thank you, Captain Rogers.”

“You alright?”

“One of my nurses collapsed from exhaustion.” She sighs and leans against the wall. SHIELD’s medical facility is overrun so they’re sending their people here.”

“What can I do?”

“Yeah, I have four beds that need fresh sheets and — here’s a pulse oximeter, I need data from rooms 112 to 145. Follow Nurse Brianna.”

It’s easier to be of use than sit by the room for hours on end. Steve’s brain doesn’t automatically think of the worst case scenario like this, too taken up by measuring pulses and moving injured SHIELD agents. More importantly, he walks by Tony’s room every five minutes so he’s never missing anything.

He passes Peter a couple of times as he sits on a web-made hammock, textbooks spread in a halo around him. Peter finds him after a few hours. “I need to go home with Aunt May. She’s missed a lot of work already but she won’t go back without me.”

“I understand. Do you have a ride home?”

“Happy said he’d take us, he’s with Tony now.” Peter hesitates, opening and closing his mouth multiple times.

“Peter, I know we don’t know each other very well and I haven’t given you much reason to trust me—”

“You nearly killed yourself to save Mr. Stark. That’s good enough for me, Cap.”

“Okay, what is it then?”

“Mr. Stark, Tony. He looks really lonely sometimes.” Peter says quietly. “But he isn’t alone. We’re all here for him. I just wish he knew that. I don’t want him to wake up alone.”

Steve reaches for Peter’s shoulder. “I’ll make sure that he won’t, son. I’ll call you as soon as there’s any change okay?”

Peter nods, then rushes in for a hug. He’s small but strong, and after a moment, Steve squeezes him right back.

-

Steve makes his way to Tony, shares a curt nod with Happy who’s clearly not forgiven him yet, and settles down on the sofa outside the door. He takes his shoes off, pulls his knees up to his chest, and closes his eyes. Tony’s going to be fine. He’s going to wake up and Steve’s going to make sure Tony is never lonely again.

Movement to his right wakes him a few hours later. He finds Bucky beside him with a bowl of pasta he shoves in his hands. “Eat. Everyone else had dinner already.”

He eats methodically and puts the bowl under the sofa. Then he gets up to check Tony’s vitals. He flops back down on the sofa.

“No change.”

“You know that rude fucker, Stevie. He does everything on his timescale, not ours.”

“Tony is famous for being notoriously late to everything,” Pepper Potts’ voice sounds half-amused and half-exasperated. When Steve looks up though, the casual voice does nothing to hide the worry in her face.

“Hey Pep.”

“Hello Bucky.” She nods at Bucky and looks back at Steve with red-rimmed eyes. “Steve.”

“Hi there, Pepper.”

“You okay?” Bucky asks.

Pepper waves his concerns away while dropping her briefcase to the ground. “Just busy. It’s hard trying to keep the stocks from dropping when the world thinks Tony Stark’s dead. You think they’d know by now that he doesn’t die. I know for a fact that the man isn’t going to die until he’s annoyed me to death first.”

“Your boss sounds like a dick.” Bucky says.

Pepper cracks a smile at that, pressing her hand against the window to Tony’s room. “I knew what I was signing up for. How is he?”

“No change,” Steve says. But it’s easier to believe there will be, and for the better, when he sees Pepper here, alive and well and beautiful beyond measure. Confidence and strength run through her like fire. Her copper hair is falling out of her bun and her once-pressed clothes are wrinkled, but she still makes Steve take a double take.

“Did you have dinner?” Bucky asks, standing up.

“No, but I’m—“

“Don’t be silly, I’ll get you something. Stevie, come along.”

“Thank you,” Pepper says, eyes still focused on Tony. Steve grabs his bowl and follows Bucky.

“You know you ain’t got nothing to worry about, she’s dating Happy,” Bucky tells him, piling pasta and vegetables and sauce into a bowl.

“Shut up, jerk.”

“I’m just tryna be helpful, ya punk.”

It isn’t that. He knows, just looking at Tony, that he loves Steve. But he’s not smart or sophisticated like Pepper. Tony spends half his time with Steve having to dumb things down for him. How can he ever compare? How can he ever make Tony happy when the woman who knew him best couldn’t? What makes him more capable?

-

When they return, she’s arguing with someone on the phone. Bucky silently hands her the pasta as she moves on the sofa and makes space for them. They fall asleep again, this time to Pepper’s stern voice as she tells some poor idiot who thought it wise to think they knew better than the CEO of Stark Industries.

When Steve wakes up, Bucky’s drooling into his armpit and Pepper’s still on the phone. “I’ll have my people call your people, Charles.” She hangs up the phone and stands up. “Oh, sorry Steve, I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“No, you didn’t. This did,” Steve says, pointing to Bucky’s mouth. “Urgh, get off of me, Bucky.”

“Whu? Urgh.” Bucky pulls himself up and wipes his mouth with his sleeve. “Oh. Hi Pepper. Sorry.”

Pepper bites her lip as laughter tries to escape. “Morning. Bucky, keep Tony company? I’ve got to head up to D.C.”

“Yeah, sure. Have a safe flight.”

“Thank you, Bucky. Steve, will you please walk me to the jet?”

Steve nods and gets up, running his fingers through his hair at an attempt at looking civilised. He takes one look at Tony, presses his fingers against the glass of his hospital room, and follows Pepper out of medical.

“Are you planning to stay?” Pepper asks him bluntly as they walk towards the airstrip.

Steve opens his mouth, and then closes it. Then opens it again.

“I don’t know.”

“Tony and I may be broken up, but we’ll always be friends,” Pepper tells him, as they walk in step towards the airstrip. “So please understand that I’m not saying this as his ex, but as his friend who worries about him. He’s rather hung up on you, so if you’re planning on leaving him hanging again, it’s best you leave now, and cut any contact that isn’t professional in nature. Or you’re just going to break his heart again.”

The idea of never speaking to Tony again, not seeing him again, fills Steve with such dread it threatens to freeze him from the inside out. Clearly, staying away did nothing for either of them. If Tony still wants him after Steve pushed him away, he’ll be here to stay. “I can’t do that.”

“Why not? I thought you’d at least consider what’s good for him.”

“With all due respect, Tony’s a grown man. He can decide for himself what’s good for him,” Steve shoots back without thinking.

Pepper raises a single elegant eyebrow, and her face breaks into a smile. “Good answer.”

They don’t speak again until they reach the stairs to the jet. Pepper turns to him “Rhodey’s birthday is in October. I’ll add you as Tony’s plus one for the party then.”

“I’ll see you there.”

“We’ll see,” Pepper says, but her eyes are warm. “Call me when he wakes up, there are at least twenty things from R & D he needs to look over.”

-

The plane is barely in the air when a panting Bucky shouts for him from the door.

“What is it?!”

“Tony! He’s—“

Steve doesn’t hear the rest. He sprints towards medical, narrowly avoiding crashing into Rocket and shouting apology after the shouts of “I’m walking here!” that trail after him. He trips twice, walks into one automatic door as it opens for him, and nearly tramples Groot before he finally arrives back in medical.

Rhodey and Helen are inside, one talking to Tony, the other taking blood.

Steve hesitates. What if Tony’s angry? He’d been too late; he was forever a disappointment to Tony— Tony whose voice drifted out of his room.

“Is he okay? Did Thanos hit him? Tell me, where is he? Did he leave? Rhodey, did Steve leave?”

“What’re you doing, punk?” Bucky asks him from behind, Groot hoisted on his waist.

Steve licks his lips, nods to himself, and steps into the bedroom. “I’m right here.”

Tony is sitting on the side of the bed, reaching towards Steve. He’s not going to make it, he’ll fall again. It happens like a tree falling in the woods, inevitably. Steve takes one look at Tony, healthy, safe, alive Tony, and rushes to him, knees dropping in front of him.

“I thought he got you,” Tony says, clutching Steve’s hands.

“No, I wasn’t fast enough.”

“Well, thank God for small mercies. It’d have killed you,” Tony tells him. “That would be obviously, seriously, not so good.” Steve laughs, hiding his tears on Tony’s thighs. “Oh, darling. It’s alright. I’m alright. I’m on extremis, I guess? So actually better than alright, but find me some real clothes so we can bounce this Popsicle palace, no offense Helen.”

Steve shoots him what he hopes is a not at all amused look. “You’re not going anywhere until Helen gives you the A-okay.”

“I’m with the old man on this,” Bucky says from beside them.

“You’re older than me,” Steve grumbles but it’s good-natured. Nothing can ruin today.

Today is the day Tony came back to them.

-

Tony gets the all clear within a half hour. Rhodey and Bucky leave with orders to make carbonara for dinner. Tony limps over to the window-slash-tablet screen, and plays around with it. Steve watches silently, not sure what use he is.

After a moment, Tony speaks at the tablet. “Hello, Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and others. It lives! And by it I mean me! I live. You are welcome to seek an audience with me at dinner tonight, but if you bug me in the next two to four hours, neither I nor FRIDAY will be responsible for who gets hit with the automated paintball guns. Good day. And Rocket, I know you’re in my lab.”

He taps something on the screen and it goes opaque.

“I thought Rocket had permission.”

“No way. He makes me look like a lobbyist for workplace safety. But Friday has a crush and likely used my sarcastic comments as true gospel,” Tony says, walking towards Steve. “Give me your jacket.”

Steve passes it, and then asks, “Are you cold?”

“No, but I’d rather my butt not be hanging out of the robe when I walk to my room.”

“I’ll see you at dinner?” Steve asks. He’s not sure if Tony wants him following him everywhere, but he’s not ready to stop looking at Tony, eyes open and dancing, cheeks pink.

“Where are you going?”

Steve shrugs. He’s rather hung up on you, so if you’re planning on leaving him hanging again, it’s best you leave now, Pepper’s words hang heavily over his heart. Steve doesn’t know if Tony’s safer with or without him. He’d told Pepper that it was Tony’s choice. Steve swallows, wondering if he’ll find the right words. Then it occurs to him that he already has. “I’ve got no plans for tomorrow night.”

Tony laughs out loud. “Asshole. Well, come along then.”

-

Tony’s private rooms aren’t much bigger than his previous ones in the Avengers Compound, though the rooms seem much less used. Steve closes the door behind them. “You need to call Peter Parker and Pepper, let them know you’re okay.”

Tony nods. “What’s the damage?”

“Vision’s being repaired. Nebula’s lost an arm, but that might have been Rocket. Apparently Johnny Storm broke both his legs when he fell after going nova, and Nat broke her arm. A bunch of SHIELD agents got hurt in the fall out, but no civilians. There were a couple of minor earthquakes in Nevada from the fighting, but no damage.” Tony sighs in relief. “You did good, shellhead.”

“I brought him to earth.”

“He was headed this way either way; you gave us sound warning and time to prep. We’d all be dead without you, futurist.”

Tony looks away. “I’ll make the calls then. Could you get me some coffee?”

“Sure.”

-

The kitchen is filled with every superhero that isn’t in medical, even Bruce, excepting Vision. They’ve all been assigned work by Bucky and Sam, who run the kitchen well even as they shoot insults at each other. “Here’s his coffee, get out, Stevie.” Bucky shoves the mug in his hand and out of the kitchen.

“Don’t take it personally, he kicked me out too.” Natasha says from the living room, pointing to her shoulder. “Tell Tony if he misses his dinner I’m eating his portion of belated birthday cake.”

“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.”

-

Steve enters the room and comes face to face with a slightly damp, shirtless Tony. His beard is finely trimmed, the grey hair a harsh contrast to the rest of him. He’s holding his phone.

“T’Challa called. He wants to know if you need a pick up to Wakanda.” Tony reaches for the coffee and Steve walks towards him to pass it onwards. “What should I tell him?”

Steve passes him the coffee and takes the phone from Tony. “T’Challa, it’s Steve. Thank you so much for the offer, but that won’t be necessary.”

Tony’s face is carefully blank.

“I figured as much,” T’Challa says, clearly amused by the whole situation. “I’ll have your things sent to you.”

“It’s no hurry,” Steve says, his eyes following Tony. “I have all I need here.”

He cuts the call and throws the phone on the bed.

“I used to have this cigar burn here, since I was eight,” Tony says suddenly, pointing to his hip. He doesn’t elaborate but Steve can more than fill in the blanks. There’s nothing there anymore — no scarring from the arc reactor, or indent from the shield, no burns on his fingers from the countless lab-related injuries — just droplets of water trickling over smooth skin. Steve moves, entranced and rabbit hearted, he splays his palm over Tony’s heart.

“Doesn’t change what happened.”

“No, it doesn’t.” Tony agrees. “But it’s a new slate. We can start again.”

Steve doesn’t know who moves first, but suddenly they’re kissing, and Tony’s fingers are pressing hard against his jaw. Tony’s beard scratches against his own and Steve’s kissed people before, hell, he’s kissed Tony before, but it was never like this before. They trade a dozen kisses. Steve’s hands land on Tony’s neck while his mouth trails kisses on his cheek, the side of nose, the corner of his eye. “I miss your crow’s feet,” Steve mouths against Tony’s skin.

“Stick around and you’ll get to see them again,” Tony grins and kisses him again.  

-

The impromptu birthday party turns into a proper summer grill party before they even arrive. Sam and Bucky fight across the grill as Natasha watches in thinly-veiled amusement. The Bartons are visiting and Clint’s failing at hitting bottles with coins as his children and Groot watch. Groot’s made Nate a handful of flowers, it’s stuffed in his shirt. All the fliers except for Sam are in the air, and Thor and Drax have challenged each other to an eating contest. Despite the noise, Bruce sleeps on a lawn chair. Peter and Gamora are dancing. Tony makes a beeline for Bruce, and pokes him hard enough he hulks out.

Steve watches fondly as Hulk wraps an arm around Tony’s torso and lifts him up.

“Really? That guy?” Natasha asks him as he grabs two beers.

Steve looks at Natasha. Then he slowly turns to stare at Bucky and Sam, who’ve given up on petty insults and begun stabbing each other with plastic spoons. When he looks back, Natasha is unrepentant. “Have you met my best friend? I have a universally acknowledged weakness for idiotic snipers. Clint’s just too gross for me.”

“Bucky just stuck the back of the spoon up Sam’s nose.”

Natasha rolls her eyes and points in Tony’s direction. “Go save your boyfriend, Rogers.”

“He’s fine — Hulk, no.” Steve stomps his way to Tony who Hulk is shaking like a shake weight. “Put him down. Now.”

Hulk grunts, but drops Tony the six feet and plops down again.

“I don’t think he liked being woken up from his nap,” Tony notes, grabbing Steve’s outstretched arm to pull himself up off the ground. “Well, I guess sciencing can wait for one day.”

Tony doesn’t pull his hand away from Steve’s, and Steve’s heart promptly lets him know that it might jumps out of his ribcage. The late summer rays of the sun catch Tony’s eyes and they burn bright. They walk back together.

-

The sun sets, and the fireflies come out. The patio table is scattered with pencil crayons, scrap paper, empty plates and beer bottles.  Blankets are brought out and laid out on the grass. Steve observes the team from the patio sofa. He looks at Tony, immersed in conversation with Rhodey, his fingers tapping against Steve’s knee.

Isn’t why we fight so we can end the fight and go home?

Steve remembers Tony’s question all those years ago, and thinking no, there will always be another fight. He remembers wondering how Tony could ever be so naïve. Steve still doesn’t think the fight will ever end, but he’s a soldier through and through. But for now, he can rest. The infinity gems have been safely separated once again. The fight that began with the Red Skull in 1945 has finally come to an end. 

The children are all piled on top of the Hulk and fast asleep. Hulk, however, is wide awake and looking perfectly nonplussed. Avengers and Guardians are talking and smiling and laughing quietly. Gamora sleeps with her head resting on her sister’s lap as Nebula braids her hair. Wanda and Vision dance in the air, their laughter the only music they need.

Steve pulls away, and Tony stops mid-sentence to look at Steve quizzically.

“Can I have your pencil?” Steve asks. Tony takes out his drafting pencil from his front pocket and passes it to Steve.

Steve reaches for one of the sketchbooks the children had been using. Tony’s still watching him as he sits back. Steve nudges his thigh against Tony’s, who visibly relaxes, and resumes tapping on his knee. Steve looks at his family, and draws.

-

My beloved speaks and says to me:
“Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
    and come away,
11 for behold, the winter is past;
    the rain is over and gone.
12 The flowers appear on the earth,
    the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtledove
    is heard in our land.
13 The fig tree ripens its figs,
    and the vines are in blossom;
    they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my beautiful one,
    and come away.”

-Song of Solomon 2: 10-13