Steve has a fantasy.
In his fantasy, Steve reaches out his hand. He closes his eyes and imagines the future, pines for the past. The Time Gem appears, as if summoned, as if it’s wired to him. Tony would call that arrogance. It’s not like Steve even succeeded. Tony would have, Tony should have worn it, Tony would have –
Steve remembers watching that, Tony, raising that golden fist to the sky like a god.
In Steve’s fantasy, Steve is god and he doesn’t squander his power. He lets himself lapse for one brief moment, and for once, it’s not for anything earth-shattering, not for the greater good. For once he is allowed to be ordinary and selfish. In his fantasy, Steve closes his hand around the Time Gem and he goes back, beyond their failures and betrayals and petty quarrels. He never travels to the future because Tony never violates him. Tony never violates him because there are no incursions. There are no incursions because there are no Avengers. There are no Avengers because Tony died in Afghanistan and Namor never stumbled upon Steve in the ice and so there can be no love and no pain and no heartbreak.
You can’t miss what you’ve never had.
Steve hears through the grapevine that Tony is downsizing.
The grapevine is a priority mail envelope, because all the kids left in the fucking divorce so there’s no one except Deadpool to actually bring him gossip anymore. The envelope contains the deed to Avengers Mansion and a form letter that Tony didn’t even sign himself. Steve stands there with the paper in his hand, shaking, reading and re-reading the last line: it’s yours if you want it.
It is so very generous of Tony to give him his very own mausoleum.
They’re going to have words. Steve doesn’t want Tony’s pity or his useless gestures.
He drives the nine blocks and parks up on the sidewalk in front of the tower complex. The doorman holds the doors open and people stare at him as he takes an eternity crossing the giant Resilient branding on the floor to get to the elevator. He supposes that soon it, too, will be gone. He tries to imagine the tower filled with strangers. With civilians. He doesn’t recognize anyone behind the desk, these days. They don’t know him, either – he leans on the counter while they call security and get him a retina scan.
Once upon a time Tony would have met him at the door.
Steve rides the elevator with a beautiful woman who smells like Tony’s cologne. She gets off the elevator on the 83rd floor, where Tony’s executive offices are, and Steve lets the doors slide shut and rides right back down to the lobby.
He rips up the letter and slams it on the counter. Someone from the desk calls after him, calls him back, but Steve shoves himself through the doors and trusts that the paperwork will make it back to Mr. Stark.
He slams the car door as hard as he can, but he’s just human now, it’s just him and his liver spots and his broken rotator cuff. The car is fine. Nothing is damaged. He can’t even fall back on his anger, not like he used to. He sits there and looks in the mirror and thinks about that beautiful woman Tony is fucking and wonders why he can’t just move on, too.
Their last conversation goes something like this:
Steve wears crisp slacks and a jacket and a dress shirt buttoned all the way up. He limps to their booth like an old man and gets some cruel measure of satisfaction out of the way that Tony hovers like he doesn’t know what to say, what to do, how to help.
Tony’s always had solutions to everything except time and circumstance.
“Do you want to say something,” Steve says. I dare you.
“I could make you something ergonomic,” Tony says quietly. “You don’t need to use the store-bought shit–”
“You’re broke, Tony,” Steve tells him, because he can't bear Tony's shame, too. He knows what he looks like; he knows how people see him. He leans his cane on the lip of the table. “Make it quick.”
Last year at this time, they were sleeping together. Steve was young and stupid and he let Tony love him and the future was as of yet unwritten. He still believed that the thing between them was love.
Tony is dressed well, but not well enough to tantalize. He looks like he’s going to a business meeting. He’s wearing a suit, but it’s from two seasons ago. He sits up straight and keeps his eyes on his burger and taps his foot like he does when he wants to be somewhere else. Steve is no longer his paramour, Steve is some withering old man that Tony keeps around because Tony is transparently sentimental.
Tony’s smile is threadbare. “Okay,” he says. “Right to business. I got your delivery. You don’t want the mansion?”
A waitress appears out of nowhere with a burger, just like Steve always orders it. A pile of hand-cut fries. Bacon, cheese. The finer things. Tony waits, gets this look in his eyes, like everything might be okay if Steve just doesn’t leave. If they can just get through a meal together.
“I’m not living there,” Steve tells him, and doesn’t touch the burger.
Tony looks genuinely hurt, and the petty part of Steve that’s been growing these past few months shudders with delight.
“Okay,” Tony says. “I thought.” He pushes his fries around his plate and balls his hands into fists. “I thought it would be better to keep it in the family,” he says carefully.
Steve pushes his plate away.
“I’m not in the market for real estate,” he says. “And we’re not family.”
Tony looks, for just a moment, like he might cry, and then it passes. He does that thing to his face, sublimates, compresses, compartmentalizes. Steve has always envied it. He's never mastered it like Tony has.
“Okay, well,” Tony says, with something faux-bright and ugly laced into his voice. “It's a gift. It’s like when I sold it to Luke for a dollar and you guys fought over teams.”
It’s exactly the right thing to say to push every one of Steve’s buttons at once, and Steve despises him for it.
“All the nostalgia in the world won’t persuade me to take your charity, Tony.”
Tony flashes him a quick, faltering smile. He blinks his eyes. He folds and unfolds his hands. "Take the house, Steve," Tony says, finally. "Please–"
“How’s your girlfriend,” Steve asks, and shoves a single fry in his mouth. “Amara? Pretty,” he says. “She looks smarter than you.”
Tony stiffens and sucks in a breath and taps his fork against his plate. “She is smarter than me,” he says. “I don’t – she’s a scientist. She. It’s new,” he says finally, like it absolves him somehow.
“Did you tell her you erased your last partner’s memories, or are you not there yet,” Steve says.
Tony puts his hands in his lap and blinks at him with his stupid blue eyes.
“I care about you,” he says. “That feels like a lifetime ago, Steve, I thought. I’m trying to do better.”
“I must be having a senior moment, because it sure as shit feels like yesterday to me,” Steve says.
Tony tries to reach across the table to hold his hand. Steve sees it happening in slow-motion, sees Tony’s skin resting on his own, snatches it back. Something is happening in his chest, in his throat. He needs to leave. He shouldn’t have come here. He gets that wash of Tony’s cologne again when he moves his arm and it’s too much –
“I care about you,” Tony says to his plate. “I want you in my life, we’ve – we’ve moved past worse, Steve. We’ve moved past death. We could try,” he says, with that stupid hysterical optimism. “We did it before, I need you, Steve, I can’t just walk away–”
“You know something,” Steve says, and pops another fry into his mouth. “You’ve never apologized to me. I'm honestly not sure it's ever occurred to you.”
“What do you think I’m trying to do,” Tony says, because he’s cruel, or dense, or tired. Maybe he really believes, in his heart of hearts, that it’s going to be okay.
"I think you ruined something," Steve tells him. "And I think your ego hates things that aren't in your power to fix."
Tony's face falls right before his eyes, but he catches himself, pulls himself together. Tony gets grace for his failures and Steve gets nothing.
"I honestly thought we were past it," he says quietly, and he turns those infuriatingly blue eyes on Steve's completely unremarkable face. "Clearly I was wrong."
“I’m never going to be past it, Tony,” Steve says. “And I don’t want to see you again.”
Steve has another fantasy.
In this should-have, he apologizes. He doesn’t storm into Tony’s workshop and beat his face until one of his teeth rolls out onto the floor. There is no Time Gem.
Tony confesses. He tells Steve he was wrong. He says: I’m afraid. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I don't want to die. He has finally stopped trying to see the future. He asks Steve what to do. He says that he wants to do better. They are gentle with each other. Tony’s armor is just armor. Steve’s anger never makes it to lethal; it evaporates. They stop raking their nails over each other's weak spots and they spare each other. Something of their love survives.
In this fucking pipe dream, Tony apologizes, begs for forgiveness.
Steve offers it, and he means it.
Steve tries very hard to go about his life, but the knowledge of how they have wounded each other and his impotent, useless anger follow him. His nightmares persist: sometimes Tony is erasing him, sometimes Tony is laughing. Sometimes Tony tells him he’s a fucking idiot and it was all a game. He was never needed.
Sometimes, in these nightmares, he is killing Tony. On the street. In his workshop. Under a red sky as a burning aircraft carrier falls out of the sky to bury their quarrel once and for all.
But there is waking life to contend with. Tony has moved on, and so must he.
He tries to re-assemble his team because after all of this time building his own family, he is alone again, and Steve has enough experience to know that he must keep himself occupied so he can keep himself from doing something irreversible. He looks at the roster and he looks at his navy leather uniform and he practices smiling in the mirror. He tries to be kind. He tries not to take it personally when Wanda and Vision and Peter don’t come back to the team. He tries to hold on to what he has.
He folds his ancient body into bed at night and sometimes he wakes up and smiles and murmurs good morning to someone who is not sleeping next to him, and then he remembers.
He feels as though he’s sleepwalking to the end of his life, and he doesn’t care.
There was a time he would have blamed this on Tony, but his anger has seeped out of him and he dwells in a haze of grief and gives orders and runs his team and wishes he could just walk away. His bitterness gets the better of him, sometimes. He snaps at people. He is becoming everything the Illuminati told him he was: intractable, archaic, willfully ignorant. Useless.
Steve thinks that it isn’t that people are doomed to repeat the past, it’s just that they don’t know what else to do.
He should go see Tony in person, but he knows if he does, he’s going to have to look at Tony. He'll have to behold Tony's grief and Tony's shame and he'll get upset again. He'll lose what little nerve he has.
He settles for a phone call.
Tony’s new secretary answers. Steve is almost certain she’s an AI because she’s flippant and because she treats him just like everyone else. She asks if he wants to leave a message, if he wants to arrange for an appointment with Mr. Stark.
Steve hangs up the phone because he is no longer strong enough to break it in his hand and digs out his wallet. Tony gave it to him, years ago. It’s just a wallet, plain, brown, faded and scratched, but it’s made it through the end of the world and back. He rifles through it until his fingers find the hard edge of the last Avengers identicard Tony ever made him.
He cuts himself on it, smears blood all over Tony’s signature. It’s just damaged enough that the light blinks on and off at random. A loose connection. If he had Tony, he’d take it to Tony’s workshop and lean on the door and smirk and say something clever and Tony would take it from him, Tony would say you’re my number one priority –
He doesn’t press it. No one uses these anymore, anyway. There’s no way Tony’s kept one, he's better than that. You don't carry around broken tech for nostalgia’s sake. These cards are relics. Fossils. If Tony had any sense he's already auctioned the rest of them off.
It’s fine. He doesn’t need to call. He doesn’t owe Tony anything. They’re over.
In Steve’s deepest, darkest fantasy, he apologizes to Tony.
He still dreams about it, sometimes, of kneeling over him in the street with his shield held ready to fall, or of shaking hands and pressing that electron-scrambler onto Tony’s glove and watching his face crumble with a new kind of betrayal. He remembers feeling smug. He remembers thinking: now you know how it feels.
Time isn’t elastic. Tony would argue, he would have some equation up his sleeve to prove it, but Steve felt it then, and he knows it now: their window has passed. The hurts have scabbed over. They’ve scarred. You don’t open old wounds, they’re just there. They persist. You have to look at them every day and maybe if you’re lucky you forget how they happened.
If you’re really unlucky, you get new ones. Worse ones.
“What makes you think it will take this time,” Stephen Strange asks him.
Steve sits in his chair and tries to remember what it felt like to be confident. To bend people to your will without really trying.
“You’re going to make it take," he says.
“I try not to make a habit of assisted suicide,” Stephen Strange tells him.
Steve remembers the way they crowded around Tony’s bedside after Norman Osborn did everything but cave Tony’s skull in, how he had that tube in his mouth, how Steve thought anything is better than this.
Steve thinks if it’s good enough for Tony, it’s good enough for him.
“I try not to make a habit of assault – psychic or otherwise – but here we are,” Steve answers.
“I regret doing what we did to you,” Strange says.
Steve waits for the rest, but it doesn’t come. It’s fine, he’s not here for an apology. The person he wants it from clearly doesn’t think he deserves it.
No, he’s here for restitution.
“Then you owe me,” Steve says.
Strange is silent for a long moment. “I’m not sure I can do it,” he confesses. “You undid it the first time all on your own, it’s complicated magic–”
“You made me forget six people and also genocide the first time. How hard is it to erase one person–”
“You love him,” Strange tells him, and won’t look him in the eye. “That’s what makes it hard.”
“Yeah, Stephen,” Steve says. “I loved him the first time, too.”
Something crosses Strange’s face. Like the enormity of what he’s done is only now occurring to him.
"It will be slower, this time,” Strange says, finally. “It won't be instantaneous; it could take hours for everything to go. Steve, do you fully understand what you’re asking me to do?”
“Have you met me,” Steve snarls.
“I know you’ve made up your mind,” Strange tells him. How unfair, that it’s only now, under cover of darkness, behind Stephen’s heavy oak doors – that he is understood. That he is seen. That they can let this ugly secret thing between them out in the open for a little while. “But people always want them back,” Strange continues quietly. “You know, Tony came to me, after Norman Osborn–”
“I don’t wanna hear about Tony,” Steve says, and he is so fucking transparent, he’s on the edge of tears, he’s furious and ashamed and heartbroken all at once and he wants to stop. “I don’t want to hear about how sorry he was, I don’t want any of it,” he says. “It’s not the same thing. Fucking fix me.”
One day, Steve wakes up without anger.
He comes out of sleep slowly, and runs his hand across his eyes to find that his face is wet with tears. He lays in bed and tries to shake himself from the half-awareness.
It’s evening. It’s starting to snow and he hasn’t closed his curtains. He doesn’t remember falling asleep; he doesn’t remember taking his clothes off. He doesn’t sleep naked anymore. He doesn’t like to look at his body. He doesn’t have anyone to impress.
He’s been dreaming. He can still see the shape of it, almost. He thinks someone was with him. He thinks someone was making love to him. He wants to keep it, but he pats around for his sketchbook a moment too long and all he can remember are bright blue eyes.
That feels wrong. He usually remembers everything. His memory is better than most, even for his age. The nightmares leave him with perfect clarity.
Something runs through his brain, a zap, a jolt. There’s no pain, just the deep, nagging sensation that something is wrong.
He staggers out of bed. His clothes are neatly folded in the armchair, his sketchbook carefully placed on top of them. He flips through it. He’s ripped out most of the pages in this one. Did he do that, was he drunk last night, did he get into one of his moods and destroy things? He’s not supposed to have alcohol with his blood pressure meds but sometimes he does. He finds his wallet, his keys, his phone. He has two missed calls but the number just slides away from him. He rubs at his temples and the joints in his fingers pop with the effort of it.
Under his phone is a plastic card, cracked down the middle. A tiny green light blinks in the corner.
There is an itch. He doesn’t recognize it; its presence is baffling. Once upon a time he might have suspected someone was leaving him a dead drop, but now he’s a feeble irrelevant thing. People don’t bring him missions anymore. He flips it over - nothing on the back, just a stamped logo that says Stark Enterprises.
Stark. Tony Stark, he thinks. He hasn’t heard that name in years.
He’s not sure what compels him to press the tiny recessed button on the side of the card, but he does it.
“You could just call,” a voice says, after a few seconds. “I thought you didn’t want to talk.”
It’s a man’s voice. Gentle, hesitant. Sad. It inspires something reckless in him. I don’t want to talk , he thinks, and then the thought is gone and a wave of senseless grief washes over him.
Steve looks at the thing in his hand and fumbles it; tries to look at the face of the card, he could swear that there’s something there, faded writing - if he looks at it the right way there’s a shadow that looks like it could be –
“Steve,” the voice says, and that’s when Steve loses control of his body.
The dizziness hits him all at once and he falls, hard. He lands on his back, the wind punched out of him. He’s making a noise, a wheezing moaning noise, the pain crawls up his spine and radiates down his leg and he reminds himself that he is an old man and old men break hips and the voice on the other end of the card is tinny and distorted and every word sends a spike of pain through his head –
The man says: “Steve, fucking say something, what’s wrong.”
He knows the voice. He knows it. It’s just out of reach and Steve lies on his back and tries to ignore the pain and looks for the name, he knows he has it, damn it, he knows it, he knows it –
“Tony,” he says, like he’s trying it out for the very first time. “That’s your name,” he says.
There is something like a sob on the other end of the line.
“Don’t move, okay,” the voice says. “I’ll be right there.”
He forgets what he’s waiting for, but he knows instinctively that he’s done something wrong. He’s neglected to follow instructions. You’ve never followed rules a day in your life , he thinks, and he can hear it clear as a bell in some stranger’s voice and his mouth smiles and then it’s gone again like a dream he can’t quite call back and –
He curls up on his side and clutches his head. It’s so bad, the last time it was this bad, he was coming out of a block of ice and Janet was telling him that he was in the future, oh god, what if he’s having a stroke, what if he’s dying, he can’t remember what he did yesterday or the day before, what if he’s losing something important –
Someone is turning a key in his apartment door and he briefly wonders if he should be worried. His shield is in the closet. He wouldn’t be able to defend himself; he doesn’t think he could move. He thinks he’s waiting for something to happen.
“Oh my god,” someone is saying. “Oh my god.”
The voice is bad. The voice makes Rebirth feel like a pleasant memory. He is acutely aware that someone is kneeling at his side and checking his pulse and all he can do is whimper and keen on the floor. Not fair , his brain supplies, too soon –
“What’s my name,” the man says, and when Steve can blink his eyes open he gets to look up into a handsome face and bright blue eyes. He would have been gone for this guy, once upon a time, he thinks. He has the sort of face that starts wars.
Steve’s vision whites out and the attendant pain is enough to make him scream no matter how much he grits his jaw and bites down on his own lip.
“–what fucking possessed you,” the man is whispering. "I hate magic." He’s stroking Steve’s forehead, he’s smoothing his hair back. The guy’s hands are shaking, but it’s nice. Gentle. Steve’s hands shake sometimes, too, and it feels kind so Steve takes it. He feels like he’s going to be sick and he thinks about how nice the man’s voice is and he gets that feeling again. The sensation that someone is stabbing him with an icepick and it’s his fault. He tastes iron. He feels blood trickling out of his nose.
He wonders out loud if he’s having an aneurysm.
“I wish you were having an aneurysm,” the man says, and his voice is raw and unsteady. “You’re having something worse, you’re having magic, fuck you for making me watch this again, Steve.” He’s crying. He’s pulling Steve into his arms, into his lap. Steve can’t say he minds. That god-awful pain seizes him again and it’s all he can do to cling to the knowledge that he’s not alone, that someone is here with him, that he’s not going to die alone on the ground while the world spins on. His vision spots out. “God, why, all you had to do was talk to me, you can’t fucking undo this –”
“Make it stop,” Steve moans. He’s bleeding on this nice man’s shirt. Something is lost on him. He thinks he’s having a stroke. He feels like he’s done something bad. Something wrong.
“You’re fighting,” the man hisses in this awful wretched whisper. “Stop fighting and it will be easier.”
“I’m not fighting,” Steve moans, and another wave of pain seizes him. The feelings spike, too: the sensation that he’s forgotten to do something, that he is on the precipice of disaster. He retches over the nice man’s lap and gets some vomit on his pant leg.
“You’re always fighting,” the man tells him.
Steve can feel the man’s tears dripping onto his face.
He is beginning to think he’s missing something.
“Am I dying,” Steve says. It’s pathetic, it comes out as a hoarse little whisper. He’s trying to remember if he has affairs to put in order. He’s dimly aware of his heartbeat. He thinks he had ideas about his own death. He thinks he’s been meaning to die for a while.
The man sucks in a shuddering breath somewhere above him. Steve can feel his body shaking from where he lies.
“No,” the man says, and he sounds different. Distant. Bitter. “No, you’re not dying.” His laugh sounds hollow and wet. “If I’d known you despised me this much, I’d have left you alone. I wouldn't have pushed,” the man says hoarsely. “You know, you called me a coward once for doing this.”
Why are you doing this for me, he wants to ask. Steve is fairly certain he doesn’t deserve this kind of care. It doesn’t feel right. He thinks he probably intended to be alone.
“I sound like a real asshole,” Steve gasps. “Have we met?”
The man laughs. “Once or twice,” he says. His voice wavers a little. He hesitates. “I’m Tony,” he says.
Steve hears himself scream.
The pain lasts longer, this time. Steve’s crying. He doesn’t understand what’s going on; he doesn’t live this life anymore. He wants peace.
“It’s okay, you’re okay, it’s okay,” someone is saying. Steve looks up. A man, bright blue eyes, black hair. It's the face of a man who’s been condemned to a slow death. He’s crying but his face is set in something like grim acceptance.
Steve doesn’t know what makes him do it: he reaches up a shaking hand to touch the man’s beard. He traces a cheekbone with his fingers. He wipes at a tear inching down his nose.
“Do I know you?” Steve asks, and the man bends to kiss Steve’s forehead.
Steve rides the edge of unconsciousness. The man cradles his head, touches his wrinkled skin like it’s precious, coaxes him through the unrelenting agony that's happening in his frontal lobe. "What am I supposed to do," he cries. He rocks them together and Steve is dimly aware of the feeling of sobs racking the body adjacent to his own. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” the man is chanting under his breath. “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
The pain comes.
It feels like it’s never going to end. Steve feels like he’s going to die. His head is a nothing but agony. He’s vaguely aware of someone wedging something under his head, of the sensation of swallowing his own blood, of the blood rushing in his ears.
When he comes back to himself, he’s being loaded onto a stretcher. Someone is fitting a blanket around him. Red light strobes over the sidewalk and he’s borne into the back of an ambulance. He’s lucid enough to feel the needle going into his arm. They tell him it’s for clots. They tell him he’s confused.
“Do you want your friend to come with us,” a pretty young medic is asking him.
It takes his eyes some time to focus, but eventually he finds what he’s supposed to be looking at: a blue-eyed sobbing man standing just beyond the bay doors.
"I'm sorry," he tells the medic. “I don’t know him."