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almeno tu nell'universo

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Tony steps out of his plane in Milan and is immediately hit by the smell. A smell that is distinctively, unapologetically, not America. It takes the shade of a greenish yellow in his mind. A dull light gray.

He doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here, so he had the Stark Industries logo on the plane painted over. He let his stubble blur the edges of his goatee, his hair grow longer. He’s wearing a gray t-shirt, blue linen pants, canvas shoes. He has a duffle bag slumped over his shoulder.

He squints in the sun, the light too bright even through his sunglasses.

The harsh smell of the airport leaves a foul taste in his mouth. It makes him want to spit.

He walks to the car. Pepper arranged it for him, as a personal favor he shouldn’t have asked for in the first place.

He smiles at the young woman greeting him. Chiara is her name. She tells him that the car keys are in the glove compartment of the car, as per his instructions. She gives him a card with a number to call in case of trouble and Tony can think of seven scenarios in which that could be useful.

She is professional, polite. Her cat has left scratches over the back of her right hand. Her red lipstick is perfect even in this sweltering heat, even in this concrete desert. She is at least five inches taller than Tony and she’s wearing flats.

He tosses his bag onto the backseat, closes the door with more force than is necessary. He thanks the woman, says goodbye. He looks at her walk away without really seeing her. He gets in the car and closes the door.

Tony puts his hands on the steering wheel. A normal people car. More or less. Not what he’s used to, anyway. But it’s okay; he doesn’t need fancy right now. The X1 is more than adequate. It’s anonymous and normal and tons of people have it, so he doesn’t stand out.

It smells new.

In the few minutes he’s been outside, sweat has gathered between the thin metal bracelets and the skin of his wrists.

He checks his phone, texts Pepper to let her know he’s arrived. He texts Rhodey, i’ll send you your precious prosciutto di cinta asap. He adjusts the seat and puts the safety-belt on. He drives off.

Well, he wants to.

But he can’t.

Because.

Steve Rogers is in front of his car.

Steve fucking Rogers. Is in front of Tony’s fucking car.

I’m gonna run him over, is the first thing Tony thinks.

I won’t let him hurt me again, is the second.

There’s a third one, but Tony catches himself before all the words can form in his mind. What he can’t stop, though, is feeling the way he feels, and the bout of self-hate that follows immediately after.

He feels like he can’t breathe and no, it’s not the heat.

He looks at his wrists. A thought. A single thought is enough.

Tony’s phone buzzes. If you forget the pecorino I’ll never speak to you again.

Yeah, sure.

love you too.

Okay, no need to panic. Tony releases the clutch, puts the shifting gear in neutral, presses on the brake with his foot. He looks at Steve.

He looks tired, like he hasn’t slept well in a while.

Good, Tony thinks, but feels bad about it.

He has a beard. His hair is longer, like when he first got out of the ice, but now it’s combed towards the back. He’s wearing a black t-shirt and a black hoodie, black jeans, black boots. He has a black duffle bag to match Tony’s.

Always so fucking dramatic.

Steve is staring at the hood of the car. A frown forms on his forehead.

Before Tony realizes someone is even approaching the car, T'Challa is sitting in the passenger seat.

The scent of orchids. Dark purple. The taste of oranges.

“I brought him back to you,” T'Challa says, with a calm voice that Tony would probably never get tired of listening to. It exudes nobility, as cliché as that sounds.

“You know he can hear us,” Tony says, meaning Steve.

“No, he can’t,” T’Challa replies, and shows Tony a bracelet on his wrist, which is all the explanation Tony is going to get.

“I didn’t ask you to bring him back. I don’t want him.”

If he repeats it enough times Tony’s confident it will eventually become true.

“You must know the political situation has changed. You must know they’re allowed to go back to the United States,” T'Challa says, uselessly, because Tony knows. Of course he knows.

“You did this?”

“Wakanda was involved, but not me personally,” he says simply, like it’s obvious.

Does he consider this beneath him, Tony wonders, and he finds himself thinking that yes, T'Challa probably does. It makes Tony smile. Tony considered it beneath himself too, so he spent the last few months holed up in his workshop, letting the world go on on its own.

Well, there were a few other reasons. Minor ones.

“Why is he here? Why’d you bring him here?”

“We knew you were coming here—no one else knows, don’t worry—and he asked to see you. He asked if I could arrange this.”

Steve asked.

“I don’t know what to do with him. I’m here for a very personal matter, I... I don’t want him here. I don’t want him.”

“That’s something you must discuss with him. I can’t keep him and his friends in Wakanda any longer. I don’t want them there. My people don’t want them there.”

“Where are the others?” Tony wishes he could have stopped himself from asking.

“Where they want to be,” T'Challa says, which, okay, fair enough.

“And Barnes?” Tony’s voice doesn’t shake. It doesn’t.

“In Wakanda. I’ll keep him safe. I owe him that.” T'Challa doesn’t look at Tony while he says this, but Tony understands. He figures Wakandans do, too.

It wasn’t Barnes’ fault.

“I know he hurt you.” T'Challa’s words are scrupulously chosen, and this kindness makes Tony feel respected. “But I hope you can find in yourself the strength to allow him to make amends. To try, at least. I won’t say what he did to you was right, because I don’t believe it was. But he regrets it. Listen to him. Spend some time together. It might be worth it. For the Avengers, at least, if not for yourself.”

Tony nods. He doesn’t want to nod, but he nods.

“You can take him back to the States with you once you’re done here.”

“I really, really, wanted to do this alone, though.”

“We don’t always get what we want, Tony Stark.”

“This may sound unlikely to you, but I do know that, Damisa-Sarki.”

A brief, minuscule intake of breath from T'Challa. He’s surprised Tony knows the words, or maybe he’s just appalled at Tony’s pronunciation.

“Said the billionaire to the king.” T'Challa gets out of the car. “Good luck, my friend,” he says while holding the door open, and Tony looks at him. He doesn’t know if they’re friends, but the word makes the corner of his mouth tug upwards.

“You’re gonna pay for this. I’ll have my revenge,” Tony says, careful to keep his tone light, joking.

T'Challa smirks. “Make sure you’re ready for another diplomatic incident, then.”

T'Challa shuts the door. He walks back to Steve, they shake hands. Tony looks at Steve’s lips while he says, “Thank you for everything you’ve done for us.”

Us.

Steve walks to the car, places his bag on the backseat next to Tony’s. Then, he sits in the same place T’Challa was occupying just a minute ago.

Roses. It’s always been roses with Steve. They’re blue in Tony’s mind. Something that doesn’t exist in nature, something that had to be manipulated by man and science to be made. Something that wasn’t any less beautiful in its original form.  

He had three blue roses delivered to the compound once. He just wanted to stare at them for a while, because Tony’s never been good at not hurting himself when he could. Pepper saw them.

“You know,” she said, kind and a little sad, “blue roses represent the desire for the unattainable.”

“Then they’re perfect,” replied Tony, and Pepper, who was about to leave, came back and sat next to him, took off her heels, and stole Tony’s curly fries.

Like most things that pass through Tony’s sensitive nose, Steve’s scent becomes a color, and the color becomes a taste. Sweet, like cherries.

“Hello, Tony,” he says.

Tony starts the car.

***

Steve knows it’s hot, he can smell it in the air, but he doesn’t feel it. His hoodie isn’t enough. He doesn’t know why he feels like this.

He never feels warm anymore.

There’s symbology there, something psychosomatic, as Sam would say. He doesn’t want to acknowledge it.

He looks at Tony while he talks to T'Challa.

He’s different, but he looks good. He’s lost a few pounds, maybe, but he seems healthy. His facial hair is unkempt, his hair longer and styled differently—curls falling over his forehead instead of neatly combed to the side like it used to be. There’s a lot of gray in his beard and at his temples, too. Steve didn’t know Tony dyed his hair. He seems to have stopped, anyway. He’s sure Tony did it on purpose.

He inhales deeply when he enters the car. It already smells like Tony. Soap, metal. Coconut. Sweat, too, but faint.

He’s missed it. So much. As though he wasn’t really breathing unless it was Tony’s scent.

The muscles in Steve’s shoulders relax. Tony hasn’t attacked him, isn’t screaming at him. His jaw is set, he’s obviously angry and displeased, but he’s in control.

Maybe they can talk.

Twenty minutes pass in absolute silence. Tony drives; Steve breathes.

It’s fine. It’ll take time. He can’t give Tony anything but time.

He’s taken so much from him already.

Steve is holding his phone and charger in his hand. The phone is running out of battery. He wanted to plug it into the USB slot in the dash, but he hasn’t been able to do it so far.

He looks at the glossy-black Stark logo on the back of the phone, brushes his thumb over it, watches it change color with the natural grease on his fingertip. He upgraded recently, but it’s not one of the latest models. He doesn’t like the see-through screen in his office at the compound, and he doesn’t want one as a phone.

His old office. Right.

Tony sighs. Steve moves, finally, the charger in his fingers.

Tony’s whole body jerks to the left, away from Steve. The steering wheel follows his hands, the car sways to the wrong side of the road.

Someone honks at them.

Tony regains control of the car. He’s breathing hard. He swallows, keeping his eyes fixed in front of him.

Steve wants to cry, or scream, or throw himself off a tall building and see if that, at least, will hurt more than this.

Tony pulls over and gets out of the car. He rubs at his chest with the palm of his hand. He takes off his sunglasses, pinches the bridge of his nose.

Steve finally lets himself acknowledge the two identical circles of gray metal around Tony’s wrists. The sun catches onto their surface, makes them shine.

Tony must have his armor in one of his satellites, and the suit can latch onto the bracelets’ location to reach him. But it’s hard to think Tony will need to be Iron Man here. Would Steve have brought his shield, if he still had it? He doesn’t know. The idea of being Captain America ever again has felt unreal since Siberia. It feels impossible here, now.

Steve takes a deep breath, steps out of the car as slowly as possible. Tony looks at him for the first time.

His eyes have always been so beautiful, Steve can’t help but think. Bright, clever, traveling at the speed of light to places Steve could never hope to reach. But sometimes—now—also colorless, incredulous, the pain too sharp to keep hidden.

Steve’s not strong enough to sustain that gaze, so he looks away, around himself.

They’re in the middle of nowhere. There’s the road, a few cars passing by. There’s the endless countryside, the Po valley all around them for miles and miles. The Alps are barely visible behind them; the heat in the air smudges their shape in the horizon.

They must be still close to Milan, since the airport is north-west of the city. But there’s almost no traffic here. Tony is taking side roads, avoiding the highway.

The afternoon sun is merciless, yet Steve shivers. He closes his eyes, letting the ache spread through him. He can’t do anything for Tony. He wishes he could.

He hears the car door shut. Tony is in the driver’s seat again.

He hasn’t said a single word this whole time.

Okay. That’s okay. Tony has every right to be angry with Steve, has every right not to want to speak to him.

He needs time.

Steve follows Tony back into the car. Very carefully, he attaches his phone to the USB slot. The vibration is as loud as a scream, but Tony doesn’t move.

Steve looks at him.

His hands are tight on the steering wheel, knuckles whitening with the force of his grip. Sweat darkens the armpits of his t-shirt and drips down his temple. There’s a very thin metal chain at his neck, elegant, clearly a piece of jewelry. There’s something attached to it, Steve can see it beneath Tony’s t-shirt, but he can’t make out what it is. Something round, with an uneven surface.

He has never seen it before. Tony didn’t have it in Berlin, when his silk shirt was unbuttoned, his red tie loosened, and his vest hugged his hips in the most enticing way. The arch of his shoulders. His hands in his pockets, stretching the fabric of his pants over his... while he walked away...

Warmer than jail.

Steve shakes his head.

Tony is here for something personal. The necklace is probably connected to that. This whole thing, Steve is quite sure, is about Maria. Because she was Italian, he knows that much. It was in the files.

God. Steve is an insensitive, arrogant asshole. Imposing on Tony like this, forcing his own presence on Tony while he’s trying to process his grief. After what he kept from him, Steve is here, robbing him again of peace and quiet. Preventing him from doing his healing on his own terms.

He should leave Tony alone, but he just can’t. He’s completely incapable of it, and it makes him so mad. At himself.

It’s like a wound you can’t stop scratching; you pick at the scab until you get the satisfaction of it starting to bleed all over again. And then you feel stupid because you knew, you fucking knew this was going to happen.

You just keep digging your own grave.

Tony presses his lips together, takes his phone out of his pocket, taps at it with his fingers. Quick, like kids do.

They drive off.

***

Maria Carbonelli was born on August 10th, 1937, in a big farmhouse in the Chianti hills. After the war, her father Antonio, the only one of the five Carbonelli brothers who didn’t work in the fields, had moved with his wife and daughter to the nearest city, Siena, where he made some money as a high-end tailor for ladies. Soon, he had shops in Florence, Milan, and Rome.

When Maria was sixteen years old, her father decided to expand his successful business to New York, one of the most influential cities in the world with regard to fashion. His family would move there with him.

Two years later, in 1955, Antonio opened his atelier in Manhattan. Before putting up the sign on the entrance door, though, he changed the family name to Carbonell, which proved to be a wise marketing move.

In 1958 Maria Carbonell was twenty-one years old. She was smart, she loved science and music, she was beautiful.

At a party, she met Howard Stark, who was twenty years older than her, but had a brilliant mind and a clever mouth, and Maria liked both. Her father wanted them to get married.

Maria asked if she could think about it for one day, and Antonio allowed it with a calm nod of his head.

She spent that day in her room, in the big house the Carbonells owned in Southampton, and no one disturbed her at all.

She came downstairs for dinner a few minutes late, sat down at the table, looked her father in the eye and said, “Va bene, babbo, lo sposo.”[1] Then, she began to eat the food in her plate.

She became Maria Stark in 1959.

On May 29th, 1970, after many years of failed attempts, Maria gave birth to a child, Anthony Edward Stark.

She died with her husband, killed in a car accident on December 16th, 1991.

This is what Tony knows, what he has always known. Except that last part wasn’t entirely true. Maria didn’t die in a car accident. She was killed.

Someone wanted to steal Howard’s super soldier serum, and Maria, if left alive, would have been an inconvenient witness. So that someone decided to take Tony’s mom away from him. She wasn’t allowed to keep existing.

Tony hears Steve sigh next to him. He hasn’t said anything else after Hello, Tony. Tony hasn’t said anything at all.

And, well. Tony can hardly be blamed for not feeling safe around Steve.

Rage and shame flood his chest, scalding hot.

I almost killed his best friend, though, Tony thinks. It was the blind fury of the moment, but it was wrong.

At some point, Tony will need to say it.

They’re close to Parma now, and Tony feels like tortellini in brodo for dinner, screw the summer heat. They just need to drive past Reggio Emilia, and then head for Scandiano. He knows just the place.

They’ll have to find somewhere to sleep before that, though. Tony feels exhausted, jetlagged. He wants a drink—

No, no, he doesn’t. Right.

Steve looks sad and defeated. Tired, even though Wakanda has only one hour on Italy.

Tony stops at a gas station, fills up the tank. Steve stays in the car, still as his own statue in Brooklyn.

Tony walks a few feet away, and presses a button on his sunglasses to summon the little energy shield that muffles his voice. It comes in handy when you’re the kind of person who really needs to keep his calls private, and not only because you hang around people with enhanced senses.

He calls Rhodey.

God, he misses him already. It’s never been such an issue, staying apart, but in the past few months they’ve spent some time together almost every day. It feels weird that Rhodey isn’t here with him. That he’s not going to see him for a few weeks.

Rhodey answers, and Tony can feel his smile through the line.

“So.”

“So.”

They talk about Tony’s new idea for a while, the one Tony texted him about earlier. He has questions, and Tony answers them all.

“Everything alright with… You-Know-Who?”

“I dunno. So far, he’s just… kinda there. And you can say his name, I won’t flip. Promise.”

“And T’Challa just dumped him in your car?”

“Yeah, but he was nice about it.”

“He said anything? Steve.”

“Not really. I haven’t talked to him at all, which might’ve been discouraging.”

“Sounds healthy.”

“It isn’t.”

“Tones, I know you’re angry. With reason. I’m just saying: be careful.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means that I know you, Tony. I don’t want this thing to hurt you more than it hurts him.”

“It’s hurting him plenty, believe me.”

“But you? I care about you. Don’t make me worry.”

You don’t make me worry. Get better. I need you to get better.”

“I will.”

“I’ll need you by my—fuck. I won’t ask you to fight, but…”

“I’ll always fight if it’s by your side.”

What the fuck did Tony do to deserve Rhodey?  

“Have I ever told you that I love you, like, a lot?”

“Jesus, it’s always like this with you—”

“Just say it, just one time—”

“I say it all the time—”

“You don’t, I’m telling you—”

“I’ll call you when everything’s ready, okay?”

“Changing the subject, typical—”

“Goodbye, Tony.”

“Bye, Honey Bear.”

“Oh, and another thing: I love you too.”

“I don’t anymore. That’s it, I’m done with you.”

Rhodey laughs and hangs up.

God. And to think that he almost lost him.

Fuck. Alright. Tony can’t think about that right now. His eyes burn.

He texts him, by the way, did you just basically admit you’re my sidekick? to which Rhodey replies, You wish.

When Tony turns, Steve is looking at him. His jaw is set tight.

Tony gets back into the car. Steve must have moved in the meantime, since he’s clutching a sketchbook with a brown leather cover and a ballpoint pen in his hand. He’s holding them like they’re the only things keeping him anchored here, keeping him from shattering into pieces.

Steve closes his eyes and breathes, slow and deep, trying to calm himself.

He opens the sketchbook and takes a loose piece of paper from it. He holds it out for Tony to take it.

But Tony doesn’t take it.

It’s not that he couldn’t. Actually, he’s pretty sure he could. He just doesn’t want to.

He knows it’s cruel, and by the time he starts to reconsider, Steve places the scrap of paper on Tony’s thigh, careful not to touch him.

He turns to look out of the window, shudders.

Tony looks down. Uh. It looks like part of a paper placemat, the ones they use in cafés and diners. It’s a drawing of Stark tower.

“I drew this before I met you,” Steve says, quietly, without looking at Tony. “I told you I didn’t like the tower, but—”

But? But?

Tony stares at the drawing.

“You can keep it. I’d like you to keep it.”

Steve is... he’s trying. Every word is an effort.

Tony lowers the visor attached to the roof of the car and slides Steve’s drawing into the pocket there.

***

A couple of hours later they arrive in a little town called Scandiano, in front of a place that looks like a regular house, but it’s actually a bed and breakfast. There’s an old man at the door; he greets them in English.

“Salve, avremmo bisogno di due stanze per stanotte.”[2]

It takes Steve a few seconds to realize that is Tony speaking.

Steve had no idea Tony could speak Italian. No, wait. It was in Tony’s file. Right. His mother must have taught him. He knows it quite well, if the fluent conversation he’s having with the owner of the bed and breakfast is anything to go by.

It sucks, though.

Those are the first words he’s heard Tony say the whole day, and they aren’t for Steve, and Steve can’t even understand them.

He probably deserves that, actually.

But he gets a word here and there. He hasn’t forgotten everything from his time in Italy, during the war.

But there’s no time to think about that, because Tony turns to look at him, and says, “There’s only one room.”

Steve tries to catch up with the events. “Oh. We, we can, we could... we could look around for another place, I guess, but it’s already... If you want to eat something somewhere, I don’t know, if... We could... If it’s alright with you... I can sleep on the fl—”

“Prendiamo la camera,”[3] Tony says to the man.

They take their bags and go inside. The man shows them their room—it’s not big, but it’s clean and looks cared for. There are two twin beds, so Steve won’t need to sleep on the floor, after all. Tony speaks with the man for a couple of minutes, asks him to please leave the key in the lock, takes it from there when the man leaves, and closes the door.

Tony takes the first shower. He’s quick, and comes out of the bathroom already dressed in fresh clothes, his dirty ones wrapped up in a bundle he puts in a plastic bag.

He stares at Steve, expectant, and lifts his hands as if to ask him what the hell is he waiting for.

Steve showers and dresses in barely three minutes.

Dinner is at a restaurant—an osteria—too close to the bed and breakfast to justify the use of the car to get there. They walk side by side. Tony orders for them both, something called cappelletti in brodo di cappone, and water.

Steve wonders why Tony doesn’t order wine. It’d go well with this food and it looks like this place has all the best ones.

They eat in silence. The broth is warm down Steve’s throat, a small comfort. It’s delicious, too.

“These are handmade, you know,” Tony says, suddenly. He’s clutching his unused fork in his hand, looking down at it like nothing in the world could possibly be more interesting.

Steve doesn’t understand for a moment—he needs to pay more attention, he’s starting to look stupid—then realizes Tony is talking about their food.

“Oh. Oh, that’s impressive. They’re... they’re very good.”

“There’s... there’s meat inside... inside the pasta. The, uh, the pasta is made with eggs, it’s not... it’s not regular pasta.”

It’s strange, Tony talking like this. So unsure of himself.

“Oh.” Steve wishes he knew what to say. This is a disaster.

He takes a deep breath. Time. They need time.

“Thank you for ordering this for me. I really like it,” Steve says, because it’s true and because he needs to say something nice. Tony nods.

Later, while Tony is brushing his teeth and changing into sleep clothes, Steve searches for a blanket in the closet. The one he finds is thick and smells clean, so he spreads it on his bed and sits on it, facing Tony’s bed. He props his elbows on his knees, holds his head between his hands. He feels cold.

When Tony comes out of the bathroom he stops abruptly, takes Steve in: his sweatpants, his henley, his socks, the blanket. Tony looks like he’s about to say something, but he hesitates and looks away.

He lifts the sheet from his bed and lies down without covering himself. He’s wearing only a t-shirt and shorts. Summer pajamas. High-quality cotton. Dark blue.

Tony turns off the light.

Steve looks at Tony’s lean feet in the darkness, at the elegant architecture of his ankles, the soft hairs covering his skin.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and feels like a coward, waiting for the night to swallow his words, make them less real.

Tony doesn’t answer.

“I’m sorry. What I did... I’m so sorry, Tony.”

Tony doesn’t answer, and Steve wants to cry.

He crawls into bed, under the blanket. He hopes it will keep him warm, as much as possible.

“Thank you for giving me your drawing,” Tony whispers after a while, then falls asleep.

 


 

[1] Alright, Father, I’ll marry him.

[2] Hello, we need two rooms for tonight.

[3] We'll take the room.