“Hey there, cherry pie.”
Steve looked up from his phone and smiled at the waitress standing next to him. She had a plate of pie in her one hand and a shiny glass carafe of coffee in the other.
“Right here. Thank you, ma’am.”
She frowned, recoiling slightly. “Ma’am? I’m twenty-seven. How old are you?”
Steve eyes widened a little in alarm and he laughed uncomfortably. Darn. Time was he would have been ashamed of himself not to add the honorific, but he still kept forgetting that a lot of women now didn’t like it. Made them feel old, they said.
“Sorry, miss,” he said carefully.
“Oh no, I’m married.” She eyed him up and down with a sly grin. “Unfortunately.”
Steve laughed again and shifted awkwardly in the squeaky vinyl booth. He could feel a flush start in his ears and creep down his neck. He wasn’t supposed to be drawing any attention to himself and this kind of attention still always made him a little nervous.
The waitress placed the pie down in front of him, pulled a set of cutlery rolled up into a napkin from the pocket of her apron and then set it down beside the plate. “Can I get you anything else …?” she trailed off, clearly waiting for a name.
Steve didn’t hesitate. “Jack. And just a top-up is fine, thank you,” he said, nodding at his half-empty coffee cup.
“No problem, Jack. I’m Michelle, by the way. You need anything else, you just holler.” She poured the coffee, thick and dark and fragrant, all the way to the top. With a wink, she turned and made her way back to the counter.
Steve carefully rolled up the sleeves of his flannel shirt halfway up his forearms, spread his napkin on his lap and began to eat his pie. It was delicious, as he knew it would be; he very rarely met a pie he didn’t like. His philosophy, even now, was that if there was time for pie, then pie there should be. He hadn’t known what to expect from this meeting, but he knew that if he showed up on-time he would be early. Hence: time for pie.
He had tried to ask Nat for more information when she’d set this whole thing up, but the attempt had been ... less than successful.
“He wants to talk,” she’d said simply.
“But what does he want to say?” he’d asked.
Steve had practically heard the shrug in her voice. “Whatever he tells me is going to be nonsense anyway. You know him. You’re going to have to hear him out yourself.” She’d paused then and said, a little more gently, “You can trust him, you know. You can still do that.”
Once Steve had finished the pie and the waitress, Michelle, had taken the plate away, he reassessed his surroundings. It was, he thought, your quintessential, middle-of-nowhere American roadside diner, from the black-and-white tiled floors to the bright neon signs — one outside and one above the turquoise Formica counter — to the occasional framed photos of sports cars and movie stars on the wall. It was so perfect, so exactly what it was meant to be, that it came all the way around to being surreal, wrong. Maybe it was just that it was strange for him to be sitting in a place built to evoke a nostalgia that by all rights should have been his but that was really just another void, another hole in a life that was starting to feel more pitted than not.
Steve sipped his coffee and tried to clear his head. Like alcohol, caffeine didn’t do much for him, but it was what people did, what they expected in a place like this. Besides, the act of drinking something warm was soothing. He curled his hand gingerly around the cup and felt the warmth of it flood through his palm and fingers, the muscles slowly relaxing. He took a deep breath. In and out. In and out.
He wasn’t worried, not exactly. He was still on the run, of course, and with that came with it a fair amount of worry. But it wasn’t that, not today. Today it was the tumult of not knowing. Not just not knowing what he expected but not knowing what he wanted — what he wanted to say, what he wanted to hear, and what he wanted left unsaid. What you want to ask, a voice in his head supplied.
In and out. In and out.
Steve’s shoulders had just started to relax when he heard it: a high-pitched buzzing sound, like static or the hum of a mosquito. He froze and scanned the room. He was seated in a booth near the window, facing the door, with the parking lot was to his right, the rest of the (empty) diner to his left and the counter in front of him. No suspicious movement anywhere he could see. He had been the only one who heard the noise, he was sure. Michelle was busy refilling napkin dispensers and the line cook was out of sight. But the noise was getting higher, louder, by the second. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. Steve’s mind ran through possible scenarios: had he been found after all? Had they sent a team for him — a helicopter, maybe? He considered the terrain of the diner. If he left now, took off flat-out running, he might be able to make it … where?
He stopped to listen again. The sound had morphed, shifted slightly. Joining the buzz was what sounded like a wail, a high-pitched keening. His knuckles whitened slightly around the cup. A missile? He frowned. That didn’t make sense. His government might have wanted him brought in, but they still wanted him alive. Unless it wasn’t his government? His brain shifted gears automatically, escape to rescue. How quickly could he evacuate them? Was there anyone else? The twinned noises grew louder, buzz and wail, like a chainsaw, like a —
Then he realized. It was music.
“Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really want to know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)”
The volume of the song — human voices mingled with the scream of an electric guitar — accompanied by what Steve could now tell was the growl of an engine, began to build until even Michelle could hear it. She cocked her head in the direction of the window and frowned. Steve angled slightly to see a sleek black convertible swerve into view, music blaring from its speakers. It squealed into place in front of the diner with a flourish, parking diagonally across three spots. Steve chanced another glance at the waitress; she scoffed and rolled her eyes.
The car door opened and a man stepped out, slamming the door behind him. He was wearing sunglasses, even in the chilly midwinter gloom, perfectly distressed jeans, gold shoes that looked like some unholy cross between a boot and a sneaker, and a knee-length burgundy wool coat that even Steve, with his still-fuzzy understanding of what things cost these days, guessed ran more than most people’s monthly rent.
Seconds later, Tony Stark burst into the diner.
“Hello there,” Michelle said in a tone both wry and wary. “Can I get you anything?”
Tony cocked his head, considering for a millisecond before answering. “Hmm, maybe like a green juice? Ooh, yes. A green juice. Perfect, thank you. You can just bring it over here,” he said, pointing to Steve’s table, “and make sure to put it on his tab.”
“Well, actually — “
With an exaggerated wave that forestalled any further comment, Tony cut in, “No, no, please, don’t move. I’ll seat myself.”
And with that he slid into the booth opposite Steve and began wordlessly shrugging off his coat. Steve took one look at what he had on underneath and nearly choked on his coffee. It was a black hoodie with three sets of letters spray-painted in thick, bright red block capitals across the chest:
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“What?” Tony asked, wide-eyed. “You don’t like? I was told very clearly to be discrete. She specifically said be discrete. Keep a low profile. This is what that looks like. For me.”
“You drove here in a convertible,” Steve pointed out.
“It’s black,” he retorted, as if it was supposed to mean something.
“Yes, but: invisible top. Keeps me toasty, preserves the hair, and still gives you that open road feel. Pretty neat huh?” Tony sat back a little in his seat with that way he always had of looking like he was waiting a beat to accept an audience’s applause.
Steve shook his head. “Same old Tony.”
Tony whipped off his sunglasses and tossed them casually on the counter, narrowing his eyes and gesturing vaguely in the direction of Steve’s head. “Brand new Cap, though. What’s with the Paul Bunyan? Part of your whole incognito deal?”
Steve felt a stab of panic at Tony’s casual use of the nickname. He willed himself not to whip his head around to check to see if anyone had heard. There's no one around, he reminded himself.
“You can relax, you know. I’ve got drones circling this place in a twenty-mile radius. Nobody’s getting in here who hasn’t been identified and okayed by me and their communications will be monitored for a few days afterward.”
Steve thought that sounded pretty invasive, but he knew it wasn’t a battle worth picking. Besides, it was a gesture, he knew, for Tony to take precautions to ensure his safety and to put him at ease. In fact, he suspected this whole entrance — the car, the outfit, the trademark Stark glibness — was a gesture, a performance, although he was less sure who for.
“Seriously though, I can’t get over this whole Grizzly Adams vibe you’ve got going, it’s freaking me out. What happened to truth, justice and the clean-cut all-American way?” He lowered his voice and looked dramatically over each shoulder. “Have you gone Canadian on us? Are you Captain Lumberjack now?”
Steve’s breath caught, just for a second.
“I’m not the Captain of anything anymore, remember?” he asked in a tone that was meant to approximate levity but sounded hollow even to his own ears. “Besides,” he said, forcing a smile, “it isn’t really a 'look.' I just haven’t shaved in the last two days is all.”
“You grew that beard in two days?” Tony practically screeched. “You know what, of course you did. I don’t know what I expect — wait,” he stopped dead, catching the expression on Steve’s face. “Oh wow, was that a joke? Guess it really is a new Cap. No, that’s great, I mean, it only took you, what? Eighty years? To become funny? So yeah, congratulations.”
“Hey, I was always funny!”
“No, you weren’t. I was the funny one. I’m always the funny one.”
Steve grinned, just a little. “We just let you think that. You know, the old humour-the-moneybags routine. A time-honoured tradition.”
And Steve didn’t know it was Tony who was funny or it was him or maybe it as both of them, but suddenly he was laughing, genuinely laughing for the first time since he didn’t know when, and Tony’s smirk had dissolved into a snicker. Somewhere in the back of his mind he registered a strange sense of vertigo; a disorientation at how right this all felt. Falling back into the rhythm of their banter was like slipping into an old sweater: easy, familiar, and well-worn.
Whatever Steve had expected, it hadn’t been this.
“Seriously, though,” he said, after their laughter subsided, “we should keep it down, we don’t want to be overheard by —” he nodded toward the counter.
Tony turned, not even attempting to hide it. “The waitress?” he asked loudly, to Steve’s (muffled) dismay. “Don’t worry, I’ll handle it, she’s on her way.”
Steve was saved from replying by the appearance of Michelle.
“Here you are,” she said cheerily, setting down a tall glass of amber-coloured liquid in front of Tony.
He blinked rapidly. “I’m sorry, what is this?”
“Apple juice,” she said carefully and patiently, as if speaking to a child.
“I said I wanted green juice.”
You said you wanted like a green juice,’” she retorted, effortlessly mimicking Tony’s rapid-fire, California-tinged prattle. “This is like green juice only apple.”
“Wow, you know, that’s the kind of inside-the-box thinking the world just doesn’t see enough of. I really appreciate that. So” — he checked her name tag — “Michelle. Can I call you Michelle? Great.” He pulled a several crumpled bills out of his coat pocket. “How about I give you this two hundred bucks and you go take your break, right now, somewhere else. Outside, in a storeroom, I’m not picky, just … elsewhere.” He nodded toward Steve as if by way of explanation. “You’re making my friend nervous here.”
Michelle turned to him and grinned. “That true, Jack?”
Steve made a sound somewhere between a bark and a gasp and nodded his head, trying hard not to look at Tony exaggeratedly mouthing JACK? at him.
Apparently convinced, Michelle turned back to Tony. “What happens if I get another customer?”
“You won’t, but if you do, I’ll give them two hundred dollars to go away and eat somewhere else. And here,” Tony said, unfolding another set of bills, “is two hundred for the cook I assume is back there somewhere. Tell him to take his break too.”
She thought for a moment and then shrugged and pocketed the bills. “Don’t forget to tip,” she called behind her as she untied her apron and left it on the counter, disappearing into the kitchen. Seconds later, Steve heard two sets of footsteps and the click of a back door closing.
Tony turned back to Steve. “There. You feel better now?”
“No! Are you crazy? I’m supposed to be actually keeping a low profile. If your big entrance didn’t impress itself on her, she’s definitely going to remember the fact that you basically paid her to leave because I had a crush on her!”
Tony rolled his eyes. “I told you not to worry about her. She doesn’t know it yet, but she actually works for me.”
“She what?” Less than five minutes with Tony and his head was already spinning.
“I own this place. When our mutual Russian superspy set this whole thing up, I figured it was safer to buy the diner and with it the loyalty of the people who work here. Now you’re safe and I own a diner, so that’s new.”
“Oh,” Steve said softly, more of an exhalation than actual word. “Oh.”
He knew it was a drop in the bucket for Tony — and he had always had his suspicions about the origins of the money Nat transferred to him every month — but still. No one had ever bought him a diner before.
“Thank you. That means a lot.”
Tony’s eyes met his and a complicated expression seemed to flit across his face, equal parts happiness, surprise, and hurt, but it was gone as quickly as it had come and Steve wondered if he had really seen it all.
“Okay, well, great. All distractions are out of the way so let’s just get on with it: are you done with all this yet? You’ve made your principled stance, are you ready to see reason?”
Steve blinked, reeling a little from the conversational whiplash. “Right. Down to business, then.”
Tony exhaled impatiently, a slight edge in his voice that wasn’t there a moment ago. “I’m sorry, did you think this was a social call? Did you think I was going to ask you about your day?”
“No. I don’t know, maybe?” Steve flushed. “I didn’t know what to think, honestly. But just a minute ago you …” He stopped and considered the man across from him. Tony had always been erratic and unpredictable, with whims that shifted like a weathervane, but this seemed strange even for him. “Are you really trying to bring me in? Now?”
Tony shrugged. “Hey, if at first you don’t succeed ...”
“C’mon Tony. You wait all this time, you go through all this trouble, you buy a diner, just so you can ask me the same questions I already answered? No way.”
“I was giving you, you know, space. Isn’t that what people do? Give each other space and time to admit that they were wrong and to come around. I’ve read that’s what they do. I’ve done a lot of reading lately. On healthy interpersonal relationships. I hated it. Truth be told, I prefer robots. More interesting, less complicated. And don’t say Ultron, I know you’re thinking it but don’t. Look, it’s very simple,” he said, speaking over Steve’s attempted interjection, “I’m here to find out if you’ve changed your mind.”
Steve sighed. “You know I haven’t,” he said sadly. “You know I won’t.”
This Steve knew he did not want. To re-litigate old arguments, reopen old wounds and for what? All his life people had complained that he was too stubborn; he’d never had an ounce of sympathy for them until the day he met Tony Stark. He felt his frustration mounting and the tension rising in his body accordingly, until he had to release the delicate handle of the coffee cup to keep from shattering it into a hundred pieces.
Tony was still talking, rattling on a mile a minute about oversight and responsibility until Steve couldn’t stand it another second.
“Enough! Look, I get it: you think that I’m dangerous, a weapon, a thing that needs to be controlled. But what you don’t get is that the minute I sign myself over, the minute I agree to be something that can be used, deployed, on someone else’s say-so? I become dangerous. The minute I do what you ask, I become the thing you fear. I can’t have that. I won’t.”
“What about all the people you could help? Have you thought about that? I know that means something to you. Are you saving many lives these days? ”
Steve exhaled softly. A clean punch, right to the gut. Of course he thought about that. He thought about that every day.
“No,” he said, his throat thick with frustration. “I’m not helping as many people as I’d like. But I know I’m not hurting anybody, either. No one’s getting hurt because of me. And right now, that has to be enough.”
“Okay,” Tony said gently. After a moment he sighed and sagged back against the vinyl booth. “Well, at least I can say tried!”
“Wait, that’s it? You’re giving up?”
Tony gave an elaborate shrug. “You seem pretty set in your ways, as per usual, and I know I need to, what is it? Have the wisdom to accept the things I cannot change. So, yeah, that’s it. One correction, though: they, not you.”
“They think you’re a weapon, they think you need to be controlled. Not me.”
“Oh,” Steve said, still a little confused. “Okay. Thank you.” He paused. “So, are you sticking around then or …?”
“What, are you rushing me out the door of my own hideous diner? Let me finish my apple juice at least.”
Tony looked skeptically at the glass, raising it to eye level and examining the from every angle as if it were a dangerous and unstable chemical elixir. He took a sip and immediately pulled a face.
“This is terrible and yet … surprisingly good. I haven’t had apple juice since I was a kid.”
They sat in quietly for several seconds, Steve’s brain working wildly to process exactly what was going on here and Tony seemingly absorbed in his terrible, surprisingly good juice.
Steve nodded towards the glass. “That reminds me,” he said, partly to break the silence and partly because he had been wanting to ask, “how is the kid?”
Tony furrowed his brow. “Who? Oh, Peter. He’s not a child, you know. I mean, I know you’re like five hundred years old or whatever, but he is a teenager. He’s not sitting at home at night drinking apple juice. Wait, you know, he probably is. God, I’ve got to set that kid straight. Or, in this case, crooked.” Tony shook his head with a mix of exasperation and affection that sounded downright paternal. “Anyway, he’s fine. Still webby, still pubescent, still kind of a smart-ass do-gooder.”
Steve’s shoulders relaxed slightly. “Good. I’m glad. I felt bad about … you know. I mean, he was just a kid.”
Tony scoffed and knocked back another gulp of juice. “You should feel bad. He nearly kicked your ass.”
“He sure tried,” Steve laughed. “I’d keep my eye on that one if I were you. He’ll be more trouble than you think. Believe me, I know the type.”
“I bet,” Tony retorted and Steve could swear he was practically twinkling.
As Tony drank his juice with equal parts bemusement and gusto, Steve took the opportunity to really look at Tony, really study him for the first time since he had arrived. All the trimmings and Starkian mannerisms were the same, but something about him seemed different: lighter, maybe. Younger. Vulnerable, Steve thought and though the idea seemed impossible, he couldn’t quite dismiss it. Tony had never exactly kept his feelings a secret, but there was an openness to his expressions that Steve hadn’t seen before. He smiled wider too, not just than when Steve had seen him last but than he had ever seen him before. He looked, Steve thought, like he had swallowed a lightbulb.
Then it clicked.
“It’s Pepper, isn’t it?” he asked, after a minute. “You and Pepper are back together.”
Tony looked for a moment like he was going to deny it, but instead he beamed all the way to his eyes, like he was so lucky he could barely stand it, like he was bursting out of his skin with it.
“Yeah. Yeah, we are.”
For just a split-second, it was all Steve could do to keep from punching Tony’s arm in celebration.
“Congratulations. How’d you manage it?”
Tony gave an elaborate shrug. “Oh, you know, the usual: diamonds, property, floor seats to every Beyoncé show from now until the end of time.”
“You expect me to believe that?” Steve knew Pepper. Even Tony didn’t have enough money to buy her forgiveness.
“No really, I hang with Jay-Z now. And you ... still don’t even know who that is, do you?” Tony huffed. “See, that’s another thing I always hated — my bragging is utterly wasted on you.”
Steve just arched eyebrow. It had always been his experience with Tony that you had to go through the quipping to get to the truth. It was just best to wait him out.
“Okay, fine. The accords helped. And I promised not to keep any more Iron-Man-related secrets. And we made a,” Tony stopped and cleared his throat, looking uncharacteristically uncomfortable, “a … like a flowchart.”
Tony Stark had made a lot of things in his life; he had forged miracles out of code and circuits and Steve wouldn’t have put a single thing out of his grasp, but the last thing he ever expected him to make was a flowchart.
“A flowchart,” he repeated dumbly.
“She calls it that, it’s more of an algorithm really, I mean I didn’t put it on paper or anything. It’s just you know, a way of determining,” Tony continued, abashed but defiant, practically daring Steve to laugh, “situations in which I can spring into action, no questions asked, situations in which I should say ‘can someone else handle this?’ and situations in which I have to talk to her about it first.”
Steve didn’t laugh. He understood. He had always liked Pepper: brilliant, brave, and no-nonsense, but catch her at the right moment and she had warmth to rival the sun. That woman could have done anything and have had anyone, but it was Tony her eyes found in a crowded room. Steve knew if you were lucky enough to have a woman like that in your corner, you moved heaven and earth to keep her there. Peggy, he had often thought, would have gotten along just swimmingly with Pepper. Born in the same generation and the two of them would have had the world on a string.
“Tony Stark living his life according to a flowchart,” he said, amusement but no mockery in his voice. “Not the same old Tony after all.”
“Yeah, well. Ain’t love grand.”
He tried to say it lightly, tried to pass it off as a joke, but Steve could tell that it was true. The man rubbed shoulders with presidents and kings and touched the face of the clouds, but this, this was the grandest thing of all. Steve wondered if there was something else he wasn’t saying, something more. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask, but then —
“And on that note: how’s Barnes?”
Steve started a little at the segue, the implication, but Tony’s face told him not to kid a kidder. Instead, Steve took a shaky breath and fixed his gaze on the small metal creamer that was sweating slightly despite the cold outside.
“He’s good. Well, he’s better. He’s getting better. A little more every day, I hear.”
“You hear? You mean he’s not with you?”
Steve chanced a look at Tony, wary. “Not at the moment, no.”
Wide-eyed, Tony shook his head. “Have to say, I never would have seen that one coming. I didn’t think you’d let him out of your sight.”
A memory, bright and sharp-edged, darted in to the surface of Steve’s mind: Bucky, eyes glassy and shadowed from lack of sleep, rocking back and forth, his voice a jagged, broken thing. “They're in there, I know they’re in there, I can still hear them … I tried but I can’t … I can’t do this, I can’t keep … I need to ...”
Steve had held him close then, both their bodies slick with his sweat. “I know, I know,” Steve had murmured, gently tucking Bucky’s head under his chin. “Hush now, I know.”
Steve squeezed his eyes shut and his stomach gave the sick lurch it always did when this flooded back to him: the simultaneous, contradictory yearnings to will the memory away and hold it fast.
“Yeah, well. The right choice isn’t always easy. I couldn’t be” — he swallowed and struggled to regain control of his voice —“I couldn’t give him what he needed.”
He had wanted to; god , how much he had wanted to. He had wanted to be enough, to conquer all, but that wasn’t the end they got. Not yet, a voice inside him said. Not yet.
“He’s not with me, but we talk when we can. He’s being looked after. Actually,” Steve said, a whisper of a smile starting at his lips, “he’s being looked after by the smartest person I know. Smartest person in the world, probably.”
Tony frowned. “Impossible. I have no idea where he is.”
Steve grinned, savouring the feeling of knowing something Tony Stark didn’t. “Just you wait. Anyway, the most important thing is he’s safe.”
Steve could see on Tony’s face the question he wanted to ask — are the rest of us? — but he just inclined his head slightly. Steve knew what that silence meant and what it must cost. He answered the question anyway.
“They’re out of his head now. In the dangerous ways. Well, in the ways dangerous to everyone else. After everything they did … they’ll never really be gone for him.”
It was Tony’s turn to look away then; he stared out the window to his left. They sat in silence for a long time, Steve studying Tony’s face and Tony staring out into the horizon.
“In Siberia,” Tony began, so quietly even Steve had to strain to listen, “he said … he said he still remembers. My parents. He said he remembers them all.”
Steve took in a deep, shuddering breath. Another memory he didn’t and did want to revisit: more pain, more proof that Bucky Barnes — that Bucky, the Bucky that came back — was one of the bravest men he knew.
“Yeah. I asked him, once, before he left, if he wished he didn’t. He said no. He said he’d die before he’d let someone take those memories from him. He said he needed to remember. Said he owed it to the dead.”
Tony cleared his throat, his eyes still fixed on a point in the distance. “I did some reading. About him. I read his file. What they did to him, how he became that. I didn’t get it, before. I thought you were making excuses and boy, I really hated you for that. “ His jaw tightened and he swallowed hard. “But I’ve been … taken. Hurt. Tortured. I know what it is to be a thing of pure fear, pure pain, and then … nothingness. I know what that is and I know that is only a fraction of what he knows. So I get it. His body killed my parents, not him. God, the fact that there even was a him for you to find afterwards is …” He whistled. “He must be something. You guys, whatever it is, you must have something special.”
Steve tried to blink back the tears that surged to his eyes, overwhelmed after all those dry months alone by this flood of emotions: guilt, fear, relief, loss and more than anything, a strange, overwhelming sense of gratitude he couldn’t quite name. From somewhere deep in his memory a voice — his mother’s? — offered him a word he hadn’t heard in a long time: grace. Grace from the man he had fought alongside; grace from the man he had beaten with his fist.
“I should have told you about your parents, Tony. I was a coward. You deserved better.”
“Yeah, well. No one’s perfect, not even you.” Tony paused. “And yeah, you should have told me. You should have trusted me. But I should have trusted you. In Leipzig. I should have trusted your judgement instead of ... escalating conflict,” he said, pronouncing the last two words like they fit strangely in his mouth.
Steve’s thoughts must have been written on his face because Tony grinned ruefully and offered, “Therapy. Lots and lots of therapy. Therapy alone, couples’ therapy. Part of the whole getting-back-together deal.”
“Pepper is a smart woman. We could all probably use some of that. I guess that’s an occupational hazard of being … what we are. A lot of scars but all of them on the inside.”
Tony flinched. “Not all of them,” he said faintly.
Steve’s heart dropped to his stomach and he flushed with shame. Thoughtless.
“How is Rhodey?” he asked carefully.
“He’s better. He’s … not normal but he’s good. He’s walking. He walks now. Again,” he amended, the words beginning to tumble out of his mouth breathless and knife-edged. “I did that. I made him walk. I made him walk and I made him better and I made him bigger and I made it so that no one is going to hurt him again.”
“Good. Wait, you made him bigger?”
Tony rolled his eyes. “Not like you bigger. I made the suit bigger. I made it thicker and tougher and stronger.”
“You made a fortress,” Steve said gently. He understood that: the impulse to take what was precious to you and wrap it in a thousand layers of stone and steel and sheer will and to dare the world to touch it. He envied Tony the fact that he was actually able to accomplish it.
“A fortress ? Jesus, I made the Michelangelo . I made a state-of-the-art piece of technology to top even myself. I integrated AI, weaponry and prosthesis in a way that’s practically alchemy. What I made …” Tony trailed off and then cursed under his breath. “Is a fortress, yeah. I made him a fortress.” He cleared his throat. “But you know, mostly just so he’ll never be faster than me.”
“Tony, I am so sorry for what happened. I never wanted anyone to get hurt.”
“It wasn’t your fault. And I know you’re sorry. Sorry for all the things. I got your letters,” he said, with a wry twist to his mouth. “All of them.”
When Steve had written to Tony in the aftermath of Siberia, he had only meant for it to be the one time. He had meant to say what needed to be said and then disappear, as he had promised. But then he found the first letter lacking; then the second and the third after that. He discovered, only after each missive was sent, that it had been missing some essential piece of information, some idea it was absolutely necessary to convey. After the fourth letter he strained credibility to its breaking point, even to himself. The final envelope had only included sketches: him and Tony; Tony and Rhodey; the whole gang in Avengers tower and finally, one that he had taken a great deal of time over of Tony, bomb tucked under his arm, hurtling toward a hole in the universe with a look of determination on his face. Steve had left the Iron Man helmet off. That wasn’t the way it happened, but he chalked it up to artistic license. No One-Way Trips, he had scrawled at the bottom before he could chicken out. It had been the last thing he sent.
“I never heard back from you though,” he said softly. “Not that that was why I did it. Or maybe it was, a little. Mostly I just wanted you to know.”
Tony shrugged and traced the circle of condensation the juice glass had left on the table. “There was nothing for me to say.”
“What was I supposed to say? ‘Dear Grampsicle, I’m pissed. We had a thing going, we had a system, we had a team, and it worked and we could have done so much, but you had to go and —’” he bit off the end of the sentence, his lips pursed firmly.
“Ruin it?” Steve offered. “Is that why you never wrote? Because you thought I ruined everything?”
Tony sighed and rubbed his fingers across his face. “Yes. No. I don’t know. At first, maybe. I know wanted to think so. It was certainly easier than thinking I ruined it. So I didn’t say anything. And then it felt like … like I had missed my chance.”
Steve looked at Tony sitting across from him and thought, not for the first time, how alike they were in so many ways. They both liked knowing right from wrong, correct from incorrect; at the end of the day, they both wanted there to be an answer. But Steve had spent a lot of time alone in his own head these past few months and the more time he had to think, the less sure he was that everything had a right answer. Or at least, not a good one.
“Maybe no one ruined anything. Maybe things just got complicated. They got hard and — ”
“—and we quit?” Tony’s voice and his whole body a challenge. “Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“I don’t remember anyone tendering their resignation,” Steve said gently.
“Then what would you call the last few months — god — years? A sabbatical?”
“Something like that.” Steve stopped and took a moment to collect his thoughts. “You know, I was thinking the other day about Ultron. How he kept talking about evolution. I mean, the guy was evil, but maybe he wasn’t wrong when he said that people have to keep evolving in order to survive. Just not in the way he meant. And maybe that’s what we’re doing. Maybe we’re all just waiting to take our next form.”
“So, what? Right now we’re just in the chrysalis phase before we all become a beautiful bunch of butterflies? How poetic. I mean, I always knew you were an idealist but jesus.”
Steve smiled. He never would have believed it, but it felt good to be needled by Tony again.
“I don’t know anything about butterflies. I’m just saying, nothing stays the same forever, but things aren’t over 'til they’re over. Sometimes you have to break something apart to make it stronger.”
One look at Tony’s face told Steve he had gotten close to something. Tony, he thought, would have made a terrible poker player. The Howling Commandos would have taken him for every time, every thread of his bespoke suits. Heck, even the girls from the Star-Spangled Man show could have done it. He had that in common with his father.
“Tony, why am I here?”
He shifted slightly in his seat. “I told you, to find out if reason had finally managed to drill its way into that thick, Abercrombie-plated superskull of yours.”
“No. I don’t know what kind of box you were ticking with that, but that has nothing to do with why I’m sitting here.”
“To persuade you, then.”
“But you didn’t. And you barely even tried. So what am I doing here?”
Tony took a deep breath and when he spoke, it was slowly and a little more gravely than before.
“Since you’ve been gone, things have been … quiet. I mean, don’t get me wrong, we’ve had our dustups here and there, we’ve kept ourselves busy, but overall it’s been quiet. And I don’t like quiet. I don’t trust it.”
“You think someone is planning something. Do you have any intel? Is it HYDRA?” Steve’s heart began to beat faster, his pulse pounding a single name through every vein, every limb.
“No, no intel, nothing concrete. Just … call it a bad feeling. A hunch, just a hunch. And my hunches are usually trustworthy.” Tony paused for a moment and conceded, “my decisions are sometimes poor, but my hunches are good.”
“Okay. So you’ve got a bad feeling.”
“And I just wanted to know if you would —”
“Yes,” Steve said, heart in his mouth, before Tony could even finish.
“— come back.”
“I’ll be there. I told you that when I left.”
Tony nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Steve was relieved to note that there was no surprise on his face. “I just wanted to make sure that offer was still good.”
“Always. Whatever it is, whatever you need — I’ll be there. I’m not signing anything and no one’s being taken. But I’ll be there.”
“Understood. And the others?”
Steve weighed his words carefully. “I told you, I’m not the Captain anymore. I don’t speak for them.”
Steve smiled. In instant Steve was transported backwards in time: another cold day, the smell of pine and fuel, and the voice of a what felt like a much younger man echoing in his head.
“Language!” he admonished softly.
Tony caught the allusion, as Steve knew he would. He never missed his cue. “Did you just say ‘language’?!”
They shared a smile, but for once Tony wouldn’t be distracted. “Seriously, though. They would follow you anywhere, you know they would,” he insisted.
“It’s been a long time. Things change.”
“Not that much. We’re all waiting to become who we’re going to be, isn’t that what you just said? I know you weren’t talking only about yourself.”
Steve thoughts flashed to each of them in turn: first Sam, then Nat, Wanda, even Clint, if he wasn’t already off on some business of Fury’s. They wouldn’t hesitate. They would do it in a heartbeat. Not, like Tony thought, because of him but because of them. Because it was in their blood. For different reasons and rooted in different pasts but still. It was who they were, pure and simple. If the call came, Steve knew they would answer it.
He nodded. “I don’t speak for them, but I will speak to them. Should I start putting out feelers now or …?”
“No, not yet. Like I said, there’s nothing concrete yet. Just a feeling.”
The two of them sat for a moment in companionable silence. They were drawing to the close now, Steve could feel it, but there was one more thing he had to ask. He didn’t want to do it, didn’t want to douse this flame they’d managed to coax from the embers of a lost friendship, but he knew what he had to do. He had to face the thing that came for him in the black despair of his nightmares and in the poisonous thoughts that haunted him late at night in some cheap motel or on side of the road. He had to take the dark thing that had been living in the back of his head since the last time he had seen Tony’s face and drag it into the light.
“While we’re … doing this, I have something I need to ask you.” He forced himself to meet Tony’s gaze. “You flinched.”
Tony furrowed his brow. “What?”
“You flinched. When we fought, in Siberia. At the end you flinched. I lost it and I was hitting you and I wouldn’t stop and I swung my shield and you put your hands up. You flinched. And I could see on your face ...”
Steve’s stomach lurched, but he forced the words out.
“You thought I was going to kill you.”
“No,” Tony whispered, horrified comprehension dawning on his face. “No. I didn’t think — that was instinct, that wasn’t thought. I didn’t stop to think.”
“But you didn’t know I wouldn’t. Instinctively, you didn’t know. And what if ...?"
"Rogers, no." Tony stopped then and did something Steve had very rarely seen him do: he considered his next words carefully.
“I might’ve killed him if I had the chance. Barnes, I mean. I hope now that I wouldn’t have, but I might have. And what I didn’t know then was if there was anything you wouldn’t do to stop me. If I really thought about it though ... I think that you would have died first. Before you let me hurt him. Before you really hurt me.” He took in the expression on Steve’s face and inhaled shakily. “And if I didn’t know that then, I do now."
Steve let out a sound somewhere between a gasp and a sob. “Okay,” he said. “Okay.”
"You wouldn't have done it. Not ever. So let it go."
Steve did sob then and he was grateful to Tony for ignoring it. He felt as if an anvil had slid off his chest and thudded to the ground between them. Eventually, he slowed his breath and scrubbed the back of his hand across his eyes.
“My god,” Tony said softly, “have you been carrying that all this time?”
Another first: Steve had never seen Tony pity him before.
“I’m so sorry. You gotta believe me, if I had known that you had thought that, if I had even the slightest inkling, I would have written, I would have found you, I would have … ”
Tony sucked in a breath and pursed his lips. “Just do me a favour, okay? Take it easy on yourself." After a moment he added gingerly, “You know, therapy isn’t so bad. I mean I know Pepper basically strong armed me into doing it, but it actually kind of helps. You ever find your way back on the grid, you should give it a try.”
Steve laughed sadly. “What, therapy for the strange and unusual?”
“Seriously! You said yourself we could all use it. And I know a guy. A woman, actually. She’s good.”
“I’ll think about it.”
After a moment, Tony clapped his hands together and sighed. “Good. Okay. Well, it’s probably time to hit the road. I have,” he winced, “a bathroom to remodel. I know what you’re thinking: Tony, isn’t that a little below your pay grade? Why, yes! But I have learned that it is important for couples to have projects together - normal projects. So I am off to go look at fixtures.”
He stood, picked his sunglasses up off the table and began to button up his coat. Steve stayed sitting, squinting as he looked up at the other man.
“You know,” Steve said slowly, “If you wanted to know if I was still in, you could have just sent a message. Or asked Nat. Or Fury, probably. I assume he still knows everything somehow. I would have told them the same thing I just told you.”
“Oh?” Tony said, his eyes anywhere but Steve’s. He suddenly seemed fascinated with his glasses, folding and unfolding the stems.
“Yeah. We didn’t have to meet here like this, face-to-face. And I think you knew that.”
“Yeah. Well. I just thought —” he inhaled sharply and set his jaw. “I’ve — I’ve missed you.”
Steve felt his heart twist in his chest at the look of frank incredulity on Tony’s face.
“Tony, of course I have. You're my friend?" He hadn't meant for it to come out that way, like a question, but when Tony nodded in answer he was glad it did.
After a moment, Tony swallowed and replaced his sunglasses on his face. “Right. Well. Okay. This was heartwarming. So I’m going to go.” He turned to leave then paused and turned back. He held out his hand.
Steve rose and, on an impulse, he took the outstretched arm and pulled Tony toward him into a hug. Not the chest-bumping, back-slapping routine he had seen men do these days: a real hug. Tony fit comfortably in the embrace. It was funny, Steve thought fleetingly, but between the suit and the amount of air he took up in a room just being Tony, Steve had never realized how much smaller he was. He was strong, sure, but not as broad as Steve and shorter. Just a man, really. Like any other and like no one else he’d ever met.
It was over in an instant. When he pulled back, Steve was amused to see Tony actually splutter.
“I-I didn’t realize we were hugging now. I mean, ever but especially now.”
Steve shrugged. “Like you said, brand-new Cap.”
“Yeah, I think I might have been wrong about that. Turns out appearances can be deceiving.” Tony pointed a finger-gun at him. “You should keep the beard, though. It’s a good look.”
Steve smiled and clasped him on the shoulder one last time. “See you on the other side, Tony.”
“Goodbye, Steve. And hey: there are no one-way trips."
With that, Tony turned and walked away. Moments later, Steve heard the sound of the car engine, the scream of Tony’s awful stereo, and then, in the same storm of song and gravel and gear he had arrived in, he was gone.
Once the car was out of sight, Steve took out his wallet and left enough for the bill and a tip. Before he left, he took one last sip of his coffee. It had gone cold by now, but he felt comforted all the same.