“I can never love you,” Steve says after a few weeks. He's sitting on the edge of Tony's bed, dressed only in navy boxers.
“I know,” Tony says nonchalantly, going over a memo from yesterdays meeting, “and I don't expect you to,” he adds a couple beats later. He isn't looking at Steve but can feel it in the shift of the mattress when Steve looks up, no doubt surprised.
“You don't?” he asks quietly. Tony almost misses it completely, it's spoken so low.
“Of course I don't, I'm not going to love you either, so it would be unfair for you to love me,” he says jokingly, voice light and airy like it hasn't been in a long while. Steve smiles hesitantly and seems to relax, if only a little.
He leaves shortly after that, back to his (not) busy life in D.C. Tony likes to think he doesn't miss him being around but even Tony isn't that delusional, and deep down he knows he's lying to himself.
“I can never love you.”
“Of course,” Tony answers behind a fake smile, fake tears. Of course.
Tony visits him a few times but mostly it's Steve coming to him, checking in first and asking permission second. They like to hang out with the odd number of team members vacating the Tower each time, visit galas and restaurants but mostly they spend time together in the penthouse, watching silly B-list movies and a staggering amount of dumb - but highly entertaining - reality television. Steve prefers Storage Hunters - Tony hasn't stopped teasing him about that, cracking joke after joke at a rapid fire speed until Steve kisses him quiet - while Tony likes Keeping up with the Kardashians most. Steve likes to tease him about that, too. Says they remind him of Tony, suggesting that maybe he's just a long lost cousin and he should start appearing in the show, for PR purpores of course. Tony hits him with a pillow for that.
Everything is light and easy: Steve gets to hang the weight of the world at the door and Tony puts down the tumbler of whiskey in favour of water. Whenever Steve's over Tony doesn't work that much and gets more than the occasional two hours of sleep every night. JARVIS seems very pleased about that.
Steve fucks him hard and dirty, fucks him raw and thorough, Tony always begging for more, harder, faster, deeper. Steve loves him quietly, in private between the shadows. Tony loves him loud and for everyone to see.
He knows he's fucked up the second he's muttering those cursed three words from between his kiss bruised lips while Steve fucks him hard and fast. He knows he's fucked up when Steves movements still just for the smallest fraction of a second and continue after much more frantic. He knows he's fucked up when Steve pulls up his jeans when they're finished, hastily buttoning his shirt and offering a rushed apology, walking away with quick long strides and out the door in just the span of a minute. The hard bang of the door swinging closed sounds a lot louder than Tony remembered.
He doesn't see Steve for almost six months after that.
Fall turns to Winter, and Winter turns to Spring.
Tony sees the news coverage from his flat screen, lighting the dark room with tingy blue and white with the occasional splash of red. He's in Malibu working over this big deal with some clean energy company Pepper is adamant about. He considers suiting up but he knows he wouldn't get to D.C. in time, and creating unnecessary havoc is just dumb and even Tony Stark isn't that stupid. Most of the time.
Tony sees a man with silver wings flying in the sky. He sees a small figure with vivid red hair tackling a man twice her size. He sees a man with a metal arm glinting in the sun, fast and brutal with a handgun he fires frantically, never missing target. But most of all Tony sees Steve.
Steve fighting with an adamantium shield, the bright colors of it branding themselves in Tony's brain. He sees Steve fighting for his life and the lives of his ratpack team of misfits on a hard underpass on a nameless street all the way in D.C., miles away from Tony and his suit. Steve struggling to block blows from a masked man dressed in way too much leather to be comfortable in the blistering heat. He sees Steve rip off the muzzle and stop right there, standing unmoving with his shield dropping to the ground. He's saying something, Tony can tell, but the news cameras aren't picking up the audio, he's uttering a single word that goes undocumented while millions are watching just at the other side of the screen.
There's a pregnant pause and then everything turns into a living nightmare.
The now unmasked man runs away and suddenly there's dozens of people storming the underpass, pointing guns at Steves face, shouting orders and barking insults from every direction. He's completely surrounded and unarmed, and even the good Captain himself isn't able to take down a dozen men aiming loaded guns point blank at his face without his trusty shield.
The whole country watches as they bring Captain America to his knees.
It's a blur after that. Captain America, the golden child of the whole nation becomes a wanted fugitive and a terrorist in the eye of the people. There's low whispers about corruption within SHIELD, murmur about the resurgence of HYDRA - cut one off one head and two more shall take its place. There's three helicarriers over the D.C. skies and Captain America falling into the Potomac, presumed dead. Tony watches blurry cellphone footage of the fight between Steve and the masked man with the metal arm, over and over until his eyes bleed red and his hands shake around his fifth glass of whiskey. Watching Steve stop dead in his tracks after the mask falls to the ground puzzles Tony more than anything has in a long time, because Steve is the last person to bend in the face of battle. What is so different about this man, this man that seems to block almost every blow and attack that Steve throws at him, this man that is ruthless in the way he fights, seeming almost careless with the way he doesn't care about his own personal safety.
Tony is the first person to boast about his intelligence but this seems to be the one mystery he can't solve.
That's when the files come out.
The Black Widow releases a few hundred days worth of continuous reading on encrypted files across multiple sites. It's later named SHIELD-gate officially by the press but Twitter renames it The Dump, which Tony enjoys a lot more.
It takes him two days to decrypt the majority of the encryption used on the files, and two more to comb through them with the help of JARVIS until he strikes gold. There's a hidden file embedded inside a tax write-off, code broken up and scrubbed until Tony patches it together enough to open it. The file is much bigger than most of the files included in the dump - most of them containing private information about the high ranking hidden members of SHIELD and HYDRA, alongside some email conversation back and forth between SHIELD and the government - so it intrigues him instantly.
The file is named Project: Winter Soldier.
Tony visits Steve few weeks after the files come out. He's back in New York, but not officially. Keeping a low profile has never suited Steve, who'd much rather be on the frontlines fighting the good fight, but Tony assumes that Steve didn't have much of a say in the matter.
He pulls up in front of an old brownstone located in an affluent neighborhood in the heart of Brooklyn and he's stepping up the steps leading to the door when it suddenly swings open. It reveals Steve Rogers, the mighty Captain himself, dressed in jeans and a white tee, looking like the best thing Tony's ever seen. The low evening sun casts a halo around his sunflower hair, and suddenly Tony feels out of breath.
“What are you doing here, Tony?” He's surprised, with an underlying sense of annoyance.
“You know why,” Tony says quietly, “I know about Bucky.” Steve seems shocked for a split second but then, just as quickly, schools his features back to a neutral expression.
Steve leads him through a sparsely decorated entryway to an equally sparsely decorated living room, and sits down on the couch taking up most of the space in the room. He motions for Tony to sit.
“I knew you'd figure it out sooner than later. I never doubted that.” Steve is sitting at the other end of the plush couch and Tony wants nothing more than to touch.
“I never doubted myself, either, so it's good to know that we still have that in common,” he says instead. Steve smiles tightly, his eyes creasing just a bit. There's a beat of awkward silence until Tony blurts out:
“Do you still love him?” He's never been courteous, so why start now.
Steve seems taken aback, and he splutters for a second. There seems to be some kind of battle going on inside his head, debating back and forth whether to answer the prodding question or not. He seems to come to a conclusion a while later.
“Yes. I always have,” Steve says curtly and Tony can feel his heart break in two. It must show on his face because Steve continues: “I- I, that's why,” he clears his throat, “that's why I never could have loved you, Tony. And I'm sorry for that.”
“I know you are, Steve. I'm sorry too.”
“You're going after him, aren't you?“ Tony asks as Steve shows him to the door. He already knows the answer but he has to hear it from him.
“Yes, I am. We're leaving in three days,” Steve answers while he opens the door. He doesn't want to ask who they are, but he suspects he knows. The man with silver wings, the woman with red hair - his own ragtag group ready to assemble at the command of their Captain.
Cold evening air fills the space between them and Tony feels cold to his bones. He hasn't felt warm in a long time.
That's the last time he sees Steve Rogers.
It takes nearly a year but Steve finds him, finds the Winter Soldier huddled in an abandoned Soviet factory deep in the Latvian countryside. The metal arm hangs limply from his fucked up shoulder and isn't able to move. The flesh hand is aiming a Glock 18 directly between the eyes of the stranger walking through the door.
No one is watching as Captain America willingly drops his shield to the ground and falls to his knees in front of the Winter Soldier.
The hand holding the gun quivers.
… … …
Sam talks about them, sometimes. Just a remark here and there between conversations, says they're keeping in touch. He goes to visit them sometimes, too. Never tells anyone where but Tony suspects Natasha knows, because they sometimes disappear together and come back all tanned and happy. Tony thinks they're somewhere warm, maybe in Brazil or Spain. He never asks.
He hopes they're happy.
A few years later Tony gets a postcard, one of those sunny picturesque ones where the scenery is perfect and without a single cloud. It's blank save for the address of Tony's penthouse in Manhattan but it's stamped in Australia and Tony knows. He smiles to himself and sticks the card on the fridge with some funny giraffe magnets Natasha brought from her last mission.
He looks at the card and laughs, long and bright, from the bottom of this stomach.
He likes to look at the card every now and then, drawing up stories in his mind everytime he does.
He feels a bit warmer after and he hasn't been warm in a long time.
Tony knows they're together and for the first time in a long time he feels like smiling.